Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Happiness is a Kilimanjaro Snow Cone

I seldom turn on music radio these days except when driving, and I don’t commute more than a few miles. I do make a deliberate effort on those short trips to tune to stations with contemporary formats in order to keep minimally conscious of current sounds. So, I’m not totally clueless about this aspect of popular culture, just nearly so. I certainly cannot recite lyrics to any of 2011’s Top Ten hits, or tell you what they are, though at least I might have heard a couple of them. The tracks played on the oldies station that provides the background music at my local supermarket are another matter; I could karaoke nine out of ten of those – if I ever were to karaoke, that is, which, fortunately for potential listeners, I won’t.

On this morning’s drive, however, after a particularly cacophonous three minutes of squawking from my speakers, a caller to the station requested the Janis Joplin version of Me and Bobby McGee. I know that one. Yes, I admit it, I sang it, but there was no one else in the car, so nobody suffered for it. It seemed an odd request, though. Then I remembered: Janis died around this time of year. Most likely, the caller was aware of it. Once at my computer, I checked Wiki: Janis died on October 4, 1970. Close enough. I posted about Joplin around this time last year ( http://richardbellush.blogspot.com/2010/11/kozmic.html ) so I won’t repeat those remarks. I do notice, however, in the comments to last year’s blog, Ken mentions that Amy Winehouse is like Janis in some ways. How prescient is that?

Both Amy and Janis had problems with depression as well as drugs and alcohol. Depression is a common problem that doesn’t exempt successful people. It is often associated with substance abuse, though not always. Jim Carrey and Woody Allen, as examples, have been open about depression but have avoided substance problems. Winston Churchill certainly drank to excess, but not so much as to impair his effectiveness. Others self-medicate prodigiously and self-destructively in an effort to feel better.

As I whistled the Bobby McGee tune one more time while walking from my car to my door, I wondered what was missing in Janis’ life that she needed to fill the hole with Southern Comfort and heroin. Why are some folks who seem to have it all still miserable? You got me. “Chemical imbalance” some say, though that is more of a description than an explanation. For people facing immediate threats to their lives, limbs, or (for that matter) finances, it can be a little hard to sympathize with the wealthy and healthy. Yet, it is plain that depressed folks (whatever their circumstances) are not just being self-indulgent. They would turn the mood off if they could. Some opt to turn it off by an extreme solution. Ernest Hemingway, for one, had wealth, fame, fortune, family, and a critically acclaimed body of work. He also had alcoholism. At age 61 he decided enough was enough and ended his life in gruesome fashion.

Why? Again, I don’t know. Nothing about Hemingway’s early life jumps out from his biographies as a source of future pain. There is no big Rosebud moment. If anything, he seems to have been pampered by his upper crust Oak Park family. He was dumped by his first love, but isn’t everybody? Ray Bradbury once contemplated the matter and concluded that Hemingway lived too long – he outlasted his ability to do the things that were important to him. In a 1965 short story The Kilimanjaro Device Ray arranges for Hemingway to die in 1954 on an adventure while at the top of his game. A character in the story explains, “Most of us don’t have brains enough to leave a party when the gin runs out.” Ray Bradbury, it is worth noting, is now a cheerful and productive 91-year-old, still very much alive. I guess he keeps his gin well-stocked.

By the way, I am not the biggest of Hemingway fans. (Reading the collected short stories frankly became a bit of a chore, though I do like several of them and also the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.) Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t much of a fan either. In his play Happy Birthday Wanda June the lead character Harold Ryan is a parody of Hemingway – not Hemingway the writer but Hemingway the man. Harold Ryan’s blustery macho ideas of manliness are portrayed as ultimately a form of cowardice. The characterization is funny, harsh, and a bit cruel, but perhaps not altogether unwarranted. (Vonnegut didn’t like the movie version, but, despite what it says on youtube, he did like the play.)

In the end, what is there to say except that some folks have trouble being happy? If you're not one of them, be happy you’re not. If you are, well, hang in there, and do as Ray does, not as he says.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Go Ask ALA

Tomorrow begins Banned Books Week, which was started in 1982 by the American Library Association (ALA). It is always the last week of September. The week is intended to call attention to ongoing efforts to defend against censorship in libraries.

With all the electronic media about which to fuss these days, you might think concerned parents would have lost sight of libraries. You’d be wrong. School and public libraries remain under constant pressure to ban books, or at least to age-segregate them more rigorously. Organizations such as Family Friendly Libraries object to Banned Books Week itself for belittling "requests made by citizens in local libraries for books to be relocated to a section aimed at older readers or removed due to objectionable content."

I trust the “or removed” did not go unnoticed. The ALA keeps count of objections from parents and parents’ groups, and publishes lists of the books that receive the most complaints. The Top Ten list varies from year to year, but the reasons for the objections remain pretty constant: sexual content, homosexuality, insensitivity in matters of race or gender, religious viewpoint, and offensive language. For 2010 (the most recent available year) the Top Ten targets were these (Source: ALA website):

1. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
4. Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
6. Lush, by Natasha Friend
7. What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
8. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
9. Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie
10. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

The Top Fifty most targeted classics were the following:

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
10. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
11. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
13. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
14. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
15. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
21. Heart of Darkness by Josphe Conrad
22. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son, by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
31. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
32. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
34. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
35. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
37. The World According to Garp by John Irving
38. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
39. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
40. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
41. Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally
42. The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton
43. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
44. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
45. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
46. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
47. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum
48. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
50. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Forty-two of these were on my required reading list in high school.

I’ll concede that there is a place for children’s sections of libraries and that librarians need a modicum of common sense when stocking them. But the major issue is really “reading level.” The lists make it clear that the broader stacks are being targeted, too.

Of the Top Ten for 2010, I’ve read only Brave New World (a high school freshman assignment, as I recall). The other nine were published well after my tween-time, but is even one of them actually inappropriate? Judging from Huxley, I doubt it. Should it be banned if it were? The banning itself surely is more inappropriate (as an act and as a lesson) than anything in the book could be.

As for Hemingway, Faulkner, and Orwell, I’d high-five any 10-year-old who sought them out and read them. I’d recommend him or her for a scholarship.

So, be a rebel this week: read a library book.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Save the Semicolon!

The semicolon gets no respect; it gets no respect at all.

Imported into English from Italy in the Elizabethan era, the semicolon reached its high-water mark in the mid-18th century when sentences were wont to meander lengthily and majestically to the sea of understanding. The revolt against it began about the time of the American and French Revolutions (coincidence?) and has gathered force ever since. In 1848, Edgar Allen Poe said he was “mortified” that printers used so many semicolons. In 1865, grammarian Justin Brenan gleefully announced, “The semicolon has been gradually disappearing, not only from newspapers, but from books—insomuch that I believe instances could now be produced, of entire pages without a single semicolon." More recently Kurt Vonnegut harrumphed that the only reason to use a semicolon is "to show you've been to college."

I believe all three esteemed gentlemen would be happy to learn that, in the 21st century, not just entire pages but entire books are published without the offensive dot and squiggle. I take minor issue with Mr. Vonnegut’s analysis, however. I think the semicolon’s use should show you've been to grammar school – and there is the rub. Schools gloss over so many of the basics these days in pursuit of grander theories of education that many students graduate grammar school, high school, and then college without ever learning to use semicolons. Consequently, they don’t, even when the graduates start to write for a living.

Yet, the mark is a handy one. A classic example from the 1885 edition of The American Printer notes the difference between “Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off” and “Charles the First walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off.”

It is true that a period can serve in that example, too. In modern text, a period probably would be used, but it really doesn’t serve as well. Knowing when to stop is important in writing as in life, and most punctuation is intended to tell us just that, much like road signs. However, “slow,” “yield,” and “stop” signs on roads are not all one and the same; commas, semicolons, and periods are not interchangeable either. In principle, it is true, all yield signs could be replaced by stop signs, but this would impede the smooth flow of traffic. In principle, all semicolons between independent clauses could be replaced by periods, but this would impede the smooth flow of prose.

The humble punctuation mark always has had its defenders, which is why it still clings perilously to life. In 1943, an article in The Times bemoaned “the war that is being waged in some quarters on the semicolon." The author blamed pulp fiction, in which the action favors simple, short, rat-tat-tat sentences on pages rife with periods. “The semicolon is the enemy of action; it is the agent of reflection and meditation." So it is.

So, for anyone who has forgotten, the rules for its use are as follows:
1. Use between closely related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction (i.e. don’t use “and” or “but” to begin the second independent clause). Example: “I ate the burger; the dog ate the bun.”
2. Use between independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase or adverb. Example: “Maureen is gorgeous; moreover, she is rich.”
3. Use in a series containing internal commas. Example: “He owned three cats: one was long, black, and thin; another was short, white, and fat; and the last was calico and trim.”

Be aware, however, that obeying these rules might single you out when you are trying to be anonymous. In 1977 police were taunted by notes from the perpetrator of the Son of Sam crimes; one of the clues to his identity was his proper use of a semicolon.

Marilyn’s Punctuation

A Pill for Bill

You may have read about the male contraceptive pills currently in testing phases. If not, visit http://www.livescience.com/14440-male-birth-control-pill-sperm-vitamin.html .

When asked, many women, understandably, express caution about ever trusting men to be conscientious enough to take the pills. Dr. Frances Praver, the self described “Love Doc,” is not alone when she wonders in a Psychology Today blog if they will take it at all (see http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/love-doc/201109/equal-powers-between-the-sheets ). She hopes they will, because, she argues, leaving the primary responsibility for contraception to women undercuts women’s power in the bedroom. The latter point is debatable, actually, but it’s not the one I wish to address. Let’s just consider the primary question: Will men take it?

I don’t think this is complicated, because in these matters men aren’t complicated. Men are like swimming pools: even the deep ones are shallow on one end. Of course men want to avoid the responsibilities of unplanned fatherhood. At the same time they fear negative side effects from any medication, particularly sexual side affects. If there are such side effects, they won’t take it. If there are none, they’ll take it when needed. If there are positive side effects, they'll actively seek it out for that reason alone. That simple.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Adlai Was Too Early or Too Late

This upcoming week, September 19-25, is National Unmarried and Single Americans Week. Yes, there is such a thing. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with dating. It is simply to acknowledge the 82 million adult unmarried Americans. A majority of adults under 35 are unmarried, and, by current trends, a majority of all adults will be unmarried within a decade.

Curiously, despite these numbers, there are very few unmarried men and women elected to high office. Only four of the fifty currently serving state governors are unmarried (New York, Illinois, Minnesota, and Oregon), and all of those are divorced – none is a lifelong single. All of the major contestants for the 2012 Presidential primaries are, as usual, married.

I’m not sure why this is so. Marital status was less important in the 19th century. Jefferson, Jackson, Van Buren, and Arthur were widowers. Grover Cleveland was a bachelor when elected President, but soon afterward the 49-year-old married 21-year-old Frances Folsom in the Blue Room. (Creepily, he had known her since she was born; her father, Grover’s friend, died when she was 11, and Grover then administered the estate, maintaining an avuncular interest in her. I’ve heard of uncles like that.) By now, the historians out there are shouting “James Buchanan was a lifelong bachelor!” Well, yes, sort of. Buchanan lived for fifteen years with Senator William Rufus King until the latter’s death. Andrew Jackson nastily referred to them as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy,” while Aaron Brown (Postmaster General) called them “Buchanan and his wife.” He was nonetheless unmarried. Buchanan’s orientation, by the way, is not entirely certain, nor was it much of an issue at the time. Once (and only once) in his youth, while he was still quite broke, he did court a young lady, an heiress to an exceptionally large fortune. It was a courtship notable for his vast inattention to it, however, which may or may not have had something to do with Miss Coleman’s death from an overdose of laudanum (alcohol and opium) before anything came of it.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, however, all the Presidents have strolled down the aisle. I can’t see that it has helped.

Perhaps in another election cycle or two, when adult singles are an absolute majority, voters will be as open-minded about unmarried candidates as they were 150 years ago. I suspect, though, we’ll have a First Gentleman before the spousal post again goes vacant.

Grover & Francis in 1886

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Maine Event

December 7 was so memorable to my parents’ generation that my father used 12-07-41 as the combination to the brief case where he kept important papers. (I still have the case, but I don’t keep anything in it.) June 6 was a close second. My grandparents’ generation felt the same about November 11. A couple generations prior, the 9th of April 1865 was unforgettable. I think you see where I’m going with this. In recent years, December 7 has gotten little more than an “on this day in 1941” mention at the end of the nightly news and a showing of the movie Pearl Harbor on the AMC Channel. It’s the rare young person who can identify the date of D-Day without Googling it. The origin of Veterans Day in the end of the Great War is widely forgotten. What’s an Appomattox?

This is to be expected. It is human nature to consider anything before we were born to be ancient history, and therefore not very memorable. There is no finer presentation of this than 1066 and All That, the marvelous history of England published in 1930 and still in print. The authors argued that anything they couldn’t remember about English history without consulting sources must not be very memorable, and therefore not worth including. There are only two dates in the whole book.

Events that occur in our own lifetimes are always different. Americans my age and older remember November 22, 1963 – also, for more positive reasons, July 20, 1969. September 11, 2001 is and always will be unforgettable for anyone who was more than a toddler at the time. For generations born afterward (already including 10-year-olds), though, it will be ancient history. For them, the monument in lower Manhattan, at present so emotional for so many, will be one more historical curiosity like the USS Arizona or the Alamo (when was that exactly?).

Yet, there really is value to remembering such things, even if we personally weren’t around to experience the loss. We might have saved ourselves much additional grief after 2001, for example, had we stopped to “Remember the Maine.”

In 1898 the Spanish were conducting a very nasty counterinsurgency in their colony of Cuba. Sympathies in the U.S. were entirely with the rebels. When rioting threatened American lives in Cuba (according to American newspapers), President McKinley dispatched the battleship USS Maine to Havana as “a calming influence.” 10-inch guns can be calming, I suppose, but sometimes they aren’t. Spanish authorities could have refused the ship entry, but surprisingly they allowed it. On February 15 at 9:40 PM a massive explosion lifted up the Maine and tore the bow to pieces. The ship went to the bottom. 274 sailors were killed, 89 survived.

From the beginning it was clear that the major force of the explosion came from the ship’s own ammunition. The question was what had set it off. There were two obvious candidates: a coal fire or a mine. Left to itself, a coal pile can heat up enough from oxidation to combust spontaneously. The Maine’s coal bin was adjacent to the ammunition bay, separated by a bulkhead. The navy, however, was aware of the hazard and didn’t leave coal piles to themselves. The temperature of the ship’s coal was checked only a few hours before the explosion: it was 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 C). Once they start, coal fires typically spread very slowly. The speed of the event and the way the bow lifted up out of the water made American naval officers suspect a mine. Divers reinforced their view by reporting that the hull was bent inward, indicating an outside explosion. But who would have a motive to mine the Maine? The hawkish Hearst newspapers had a theory: the Spanish, without openly declaring war, had sent a message that any U.S. intervention in Cuba would be costly.

A joint U.S. and Spanish investigation quickly produced two contradictory reports. The Americans on the commission concluded that a mine sank the ship. The Spanish said the cause was a coal fire. The Senate, choosing to believe in the mine, retaliated by passing an ultimatum demanding that Spain withdraw from Cuba. The Spanish ignored the ultimatum, so President McKinley announced a blockade of Cuba on April 22. Spain responded with a declaration of war on April 25, 1898. In a sharp but short campaign, US troops prevailed in Cuba and Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines.

Formally, the Spanish-American War lasted four months. John Hay (ambassador to the UK) called it “a splendid little war.” Cuba got its independence, and the U.S. got Guam and Puerto Rico, but it proved far too early to declare “mission accomplished.” Rebels in the Spanish colony of the Philippines were no more receptive to the Americans than they had been to the Spanish. At the outset, the U.S. had no plans for the Philippines beyond attacking the Spanish fleet. (The Kaiser, looking to expand his Pacific holdings, had clearer ideas: the German Asiatic Squadron paid a courtesy visit to Manila immediately after the naval battle, and it stayed there while the Americans dithered about what to do next.) The McKinley Administration at length decided to occupy the islands, irking Wilhelm and infuriating the rebels. The rebels fought against the Americans as they had against the Spanish. For a decade the insurgency beleaguered the 70,000-strong American force, which often resorted to brutal countermeasures. The U.S. intent was to build local institutions that would make the Philippines “capable of self-government.” Mark Twain objected that the argument erroneously presupposed that there ever was a people somewhere, some time or other, that wasn’t capable of it, but his was a minority view. The occupation (interrupted by a four-year Japanese occupation) lasted until 1946.

The loss of life on the Maine was real and tragic, but as a cause for war with Spain it was dubious, and it had no connection at all to the Philippines. It’s unfortunate that by 2001, the cost of an overreaching response was largely forgotten.

What really happened to the Maine, by the way? In 1911 the Navy conducted a Court of Inquiry while the wreck of the Maine was still available for study. The investigation concluded a mine had sunk the Maine; the engineers were convinced by hull plates bent inwards around a hole into the ammunition compartment. In 1976 Admiral Hyman Rickover re-opened the investigation. His report, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed, concluded that a coal fire had caused the explosion; his experience with wrecks from World War Two convinced him that water pressure could have bent the hull inward after an internal explosion. In 1999 National Geographic said the hull plates were still the smoking gun, and that Rickover’s analysis was wrong; NG decided a mine sank the Maine. In 2007 the documentary series Unsolved History looked again. Computer analyses showed water could have bent the hull plates inward without a mine. Conclusion: coal fire.

I think it’s fair to say that the physical evidence really is, and always was, inconclusive. Investigators find in it what they want to find. In the end, we have to consider motive. Is a Spanish plot credible? Is an even more devious rebel plot credible, since the rebels actually benefitted? My own inclination is to answer that either plot is credible but neither is likely. Given the human tendency to boast, I suspect that someone involved in the plot, if only in a diary or journal, would have claimed credit. In the absence of that, an accident seems to me more probable, but I could be wrong.

Cuban perspectives on the incident have varied over time. In 1926 a memorial to the casualties of the Maine was raised in Havana. They were regarded as heroes who had died for Cuban independence. In 1961 an inscription was added to the monument, identifying them as victims of American “imperialist voracity in its eagerness to seize the island of Cuba.”

Every war has its music, and the hit of the Spanish-American War was A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

They Came in Second

Women’s roller derby returned to Morristown last night, the first home bout since June. The Major Pains are Morristown’s newest derby team, joining the veteran Corporal Punishers in the Jerzey Derby Brigade. Last night was the second professional bout for the fledgling team. As the first was against the Corporal Punishers, last night was the first time against unfamiliar opponents. The visiting team was the Long Island Rock-a-Betty Bruisers of the Roller Rebels.

The initial two jams were promising enough. (For basic info on derby play and terms, see an earlier blog Wheel Appeal http://richardbellush.blogspot.com/2011/04/wheel-appeal.html .) In the first, the Bruisers' formidable jammer #84 Veloce Villian slipped easily through the pack and then swung around and through twice more, picking up 10 points in two Grand Slams. The second jam was virtually a mirror-image of the first, as #187 Maggie Kyllanfall broke through and, on two passes, scored 9 points for the Pains. So far, so good.

From that point on, however, the power and experience of the Long Island team prevailed. The Bruisers quickly built a commanding lead and then expanded it relentlessly throughout the bout. It must be said that the Bruisers are an all-around impressive team. Their blockers worked very well together to create holes in the Pains defense, which their jammers (notably Veloce Villian and #6 Little Loca) readily exploited. They successfully resisted most attempts by the Pains’ defense to do the same. Long Island also incurred fewer penalties than did Morristown. All aggressive players (“aggressive” is a good word in this context) spend time in the penalty box, but the Pains had key skaters in there so often that their performance suffered. It’s really mostly a matter of experience, and the Bruisers have a lot more of it.

The final score was Bruisers, 351-16.

The Pains have good and spirited skaters including recent recruits (“fresh meat” is the preferred term) and a few veterans formerly of the Punishers – Texas Bulldoz-her, Maggie Kyllanfall, and Ginger-Ail stood out, but weren’t alone. The blocking actually got better as the bout progressed, with very effective (legal) hits delivered to jammers and opposing blockers. The raw material is there. They just need more bouts to hone working together as a new team. I’ll be there to root.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Like Skipping a Rock on a Pond

With the retirement of the shuttle fleet, the US depends entirely on the Russians for access to the ISS (International Space Station). Since the Russians have had some trouble with their rockets lately, the future of the space station is… well…up in the air. Perhaps it is just as well. The current plan is to decommission the $100,000,000,000 boondoggle in 2016. This may be extended to 2020 if enough participating countries are willing to cough up more cash. So far, though, the best idea anyone has for the thing is to dump it in the Pacific. This is not as easy as it sounds for such a big non-aerodynamic contraption, but I’m guessing there is a pretty good chance of hitting the world’s biggest ocean.

We should have known better than to participate in building it at all. We’d already been through it before with Skylab, the 1970s space station for which no one could think of a good use. It fell out of orbit by accident in the period between the last Apollo flight and the first space shuttle. The space shuttle was supposed to lift it to a safer orbit, but the first shuttle mission was delayed until it was too late. There were lotteries at the time over where Skylab would hit, and novelty items such as hardhats labeled “Skylab protection” sold well. In the event, a few pieces landed in Australia, and the rest went in the Pacific. The ISS is much larger and no one really knows how much of it will make it to the surface.

NASA’s policy is to keep the risk of injuring anyone on the ground from an object falling from space to 1 in 10,000 – yes, someone actually thought it over and came up with that specific number. The Hubble Telescope, if allowed to come down on its own has a 1 in 1,000 risk of injuring someone, so it will require intervention no later than 2019. So far, groundlings have been lucky. To date, only one person is documented to have been hit by space debris. Lottie Williams was jogging for her health in Tulsa when she was struck by a piece of a Delta II rocket. Air resistance had slowed the chunk of mesh down, so she wasn’t seriously injured.

The ISS weighs 334 tons (303,663 kg) so it probably would be best to aim carefully.

Soviet Satellite Captures Skylab’s Fall

Friday, September 2, 2011

When Classy Tomatoes Had Gams

Nostalgia fads usually start to build at 20 years, peak at 25, and sputter out around 30, give or take. They don’t consist merely of middle-aged folks reminiscing about their youths, since middle-aged folks by themselves are in no position to start fads. For that you need the participation of the currently young. The young, of course, dig all that old material as laughable “camp.”

This has been the case as long as I remember. In 1972 Bette Midler went to #8 on the charts with her cover of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. As the 1970s progressed, 50s nostalgia took hold and went completely over-the-top, exemplified by Happy Days, Grease, and “50s nights” at bars and clubs (the drinking age was still widely 18 then, so music clubs had a younger crowd than today). Austin Powers aside, the 60s revival that followed was more muted, perhaps because the young were irked that the Boomers were spending all their money on themselves. The 70s revival consisted mostly of That 70s Show and platform shoes – no one was much interested in bringing disco back. The current 80s revival is much broader, helped by all those Brat Pack and teen horror movies. The 90s should reappear shortly. It can’t be long before a Nirvana-mania tribute band opens on Broadway.

I can’t help noticing, though, that the 40s never quite go away completely. Nostalgia may no longer be an appropriate word, since 85% of the population was born after the 1940s. Yet, aspects of the decade remain forever fashionable in a retro way: the movies, the music, the clothing styles, the cars, the sports figures, and “Golden Age” science fiction. References to them crop up again and again in odd places in decade after decade: Paul Simon, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?”; the first season of the Wonder Woman TV series; the movies Swing Shift, A League of Their Own, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forever Young, and so on. In Blast from the Past, the dance sequence is in Club 40s. In 2011, Captain America (see my July blog Limited) did a big box office. Even an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess was set in the 40s.

Why do the 40s linger so, especially in the US? I think it’s because 1940s America is how we still would like to see ourselves – because in fact we don’t anymore. It is worth remembering that the real 1940s, as opposed to the pop-culture image of them, were a deeply flawed time in the US. Yet, in the characters of the time there seems to be a moral compass that is notably absent today, and which is attractive. Very evident in 40s movies is a conviction that, for all our faults, when push comes to shove, we are the good guys, as when the far from perfect Rick Blaine does the right thing in Casablanca. The conviction is long gone now, and we miss it. The world war and its aftermath were the dominant reason for the Zeitgeist, of course, even though the war wasn’t the cliffhanger on this continent that it was for a time in the UK and Russia. There are plenty of 40s villains, to be sure, both fictional and all-too-real. Film noir is full of them, but they know they are villains. They don’t make excuses, and thereby they also show a form of moral clarity commonly lacking today.

Then there is simply the matter of style, whether low-life or high-life. Who wouldn’t want to be more like Philip Marlowe or Vivian Rutledge (The Big Sleep)? Well, if you wouldn’t, there are more wholesome (and rather noble) alternatives available in films such as Since You Went Away (1944). The 40s had another element that wasn’t blatant, but which permeates the era’s style. 1940s veteran (and army veteran) Gore Vidal asserts that the Sexual Revolution usually attributed to the 60s really took place in the 40s – the 50s were a temporary backlash. It shows, even though the Hays Code kept it subtle. Vidal himself did his bit in this regard, publishing The City and the Pillar in 1946.

There is no denying that in innumerable ways our society is vastly better today than is was 70 years ago. Yet, we feel something missing – a spirit perhaps – that at least appears to have been present then. As long as that something stays missing, the 1940s will continue to draw us. They certainly are present in my DVD collection, and if a Club 40s opens near me, I’ll go to it for a drink, even though I never did learn to jitterbug properly – or improperly for that matter.

Before Jessica Rabbit Was Peggy Lee