Sunday, April 27, 2014

Home Work

The spring cleanup on my property looks daunting: a lawn that looks as though it was ravaged by storms (it was), a garage roof in need of repair, a retaining wall with crumbling stucco, etc., etc. I figure I should have it done by the time the leaves fall off the trees again. Having a home is worth the trouble of doing the chores, of course, but that doesn’t make them fun. I remember a time, however, when they were.

I always was lucky enough to have my own bedroom while growing up, but I really didn’t have a “this is mine” sense of territory with regard to it. It was in the house of my parents, and I was well aware (without thinking about it) that whatever exclusivity I had to the space was at their sufferance. I picked up after myself to the degree my mom insisted, and no more.

The first living space that felt truly my own was my dorm room at GWU: Room #517 in Mitchell Hall, located three blocks from the White House in downtown DC. It was the size of a walk-in closet (picture below) and the bathrooms for the floor were down the hall, but it was a single (no roommate) and no one cared what went on in it, so long as it wasn’t so loud as to annoy the other residents on the floor. It was the early 1970s. These were the waning days of hippiedom, which paradoxically also were the days of its fullest (so to speak) flower. Cultures are often at their most ornate when they are in decline – literally decadent. Just about the time I graduated, folks – suddenly, it seemed – traded in their headbands for disco shoes, but, for the four years prior, the music was psychedelic, the lighting was black (illuminating Peter Max posters), and the comics on students’ end tables were by Robert Crumb. It was a fine time to be 17-21 among like-age people in one’s own space in the downtown of a major city. There aren’t many chores that can be done in one small room, but I did them: I painted the walls a burnt orange, hung era-appropriate artwork (not visible in this shot), and kept the space in reasonable order – for a college student anyway – without considering any of that to be work.

I had similar diligence regarding the first real estate which I actually owned. My home was a 4-room cottage (5 if you count the bathroom as a room) but it was mine. (Picture below.) I repainted walls, replaced trim, dug post holes for two-rail fencing on the boundary, repaired the back deck, reroofed the cottage and garden shed, retiled the bathroom, planted spruce for additional privacy in the front, hacked a walking path through the overgrown wooded part of the parcel in the back, and much much else with no sense of chore. I’ve owned three other properties since then; while I’ve appreciated all of them (even the one on which I lost money), I never again had the same enthusiasm for maintenance or improvement. Thereafter, it was work—worth it, perhaps, but still a cost of ownership. For those who pay other people to do the labor (I don’t for anything I have the skills to do), it is literally a cost of ownership.

Not so very long ago in history, fewer people were footloose. Their first property (if any) was apt to be the last – improved and expanded as years passed, but not sold. I’m sure this engendered a greater sense of “home” and made the attendant labor more satisfying. I sometimes wonder if my zest for such tasks would have faded had I kept the cottage. Maybe, but I don’t think so. Like one’s first romance, one’s first home is special. Later ones may be nicer or more suitable, but…well…they’re not the first.

Homeward Bound 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

2014 Shades of Grey

In this centennial year of the Great War, we are bound to hear much about the lessons of that gruesome accident. Hear, but not necessarily take to heart. Take the matter of clarity.

In the days leading up to World War I, the Germans sought clarification from the British over whether they would enter a war if Belgian neutrality were violated or if they would stay out if it wasn’t. Berlin failed to get any response more definite than “maybe.” Austrian academic Rudolf Steiner might have been wrong when he lectured in 1916, “A single sentence and the war in the West would not have taken place.” It is entirely possible that everything would have blown up anyway. The UK wasn’t responsible for WWI: the fundamental issues were all on the mainland, and it was, after all, Germany seeking a green light to invade a neighbor. One can’t help wondering, however, if a less fuzzy response might have halted the slide toward war – folks wondered then and we still do today. The Germans chose to interpret “maybe” as “maybe we won’t,” which, if not a green light, was at least a yellow one.

Foreign Secretary Edward Grey’s own description of his exchange with Prince Lichnowsky (German ambassador in London) in a letter to the British ambassador in Berlin:  “He asked me whether, if Germany gave a promise not to violate Belgian neutrality we would engage to remain neutral. I replied that I could not say that: our hands were still free, and we were considering what our attitude should be....I did not think that we could give a promise on that condition alone. The ambassador pressed me as to whether I could formulate conditions on which we would remain neutral. He even suggested that the integrity of France and her colonies might be guaranteed. I said that I felt obliged to refuse definitely any promise to remain neutral on similar terms, and I could only say that we must keep our hands free.”

Instead of “we must keep our hands free,” would a simple yes or no have made a difference? Maybe not, but we’ll never know. It was not the last time such a question would be asked.

A few decades later in January 1950 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson defined the “defense perimeter” of the US in Asia to the National Press Club. Within the perimeter were the offshore islands including Japan and the Philippines but excluding Formosa (Taiwan); he didn’t mention the Republic of Korea at all. After June 25, 1950, Acheson took much heat for effectively having put an “Invade Me” sign on South Korea, but he merely had stated what was in fact the policy of the Truman Administration at that time. (I’m not a fan of the Truman Administration in general, but I have a good deal of respect for Dean Acheson.)  He didn’t say specifically that the US wouldn’t intervene in Korea were the South invaded, but Kim Il-Sung (and Stalin) interpreted the remarks as “maybe we won’t.” Until faced with the reality, it seems Truman Administration officials themselves weren’t sure. Not only did the US and numerous allies intervene, but Truman sent the 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait, as though this had something to do with Korea, thereby creating a confusing commitment that persists to this day to a territorial entity (define as one will) that the US does not recognize as independent from China.

The point? Fuzziness can be hazardous. To be sure, clarity cannot by itself solve every diplomatic dilemma. Some are simply insoluble. Sometimes the very problem is that the parties understand each other all too clearly. Sometimes, useful treaties deliberately fudge over areas of disagreement, though this works only when both sides are fully aware of the fudge. We have seen plenty of instances in recent history of policies that were both clear and foolish. But failure to convey one’s meaning properly – assuming we ourselves know what we mean – rarely helps matters.

Fuzziness tempts the ambitious to overstep and the mistrustful to overreact; it can create de facto “commitments” to which no legislature (or electorate) ever agreed – or would have agreed if asked. Is there a present day insufficiency of clarity in US diplomacy?  Is there a lack of realism about the actual balance of forces on the ground? Are there too many useless gestures intended to “send a message”? Are those messages fuzzy?  Decide for yourself, but I always liked the advice of Sam Goldwyn in another context: “If you have a message, use Western Union.”

Bill admits he overreacted. Clarity comes a bit late.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The ‘Possum Peepers

Alongside my front door is a glass panel the same height as the door. My cat frequently sits outside the panel since it is a good place to see and be seen – particularly in the morning since I have to walk past the front door when I exit my bedroom to go anyplace else in the house. Part of my morning routine is to open the front door to let him in. Sometimes he’ll peer inside there at night, too, though more commonly he shows up at the back door by the kitchen at night. So, last night when I walked past the front door and saw two little eyes looking in the panel, I assumed it was my cat. It wasn’t. It was an opossum. He was looking inside the house, apparently just out of curiosity. When I opened the front door, each of us looked at the other’s face silently. When I re-shut the door he turned his head back to the pane and continued to stare inside for several minutes before moseying off.

It was once thought that opossums were stupid. The critter does have a small brain for its body mass, and it is a primitive marsupial that hasn’t changed much since it co-existed with the dinosaurs: 70 million year-old fossils of its nearly identical ancestors have been dug up. Yet their brains must be organized differently from those of more modern mammals, because tests show surprising mental agility. Opossums navigate mazes much better than rats and can remember where they left things (food particularly) better than dogs.

I like opossums – and I don’t mean for dinner, though I’ve been told they are tasty. I mean as part of the wildlife on my (woodsy) property, which is fortunate since I see one there almost every night. I doubt it’s always the same one. Opossums have two litters per year of at least a half dozen each, so if you have one you probably have a passel – which, by the way, is the correct term for a plurality of them: a passel of ‘possums. Since the animals are solitary by nature, you rarely see a passel, however, unless it’s a jill and her joeys (little’uns) – male ‘possums are called jacks.  Almost always you just see just one, typically nosing around the garbage can. Their solitary ways, along with natural resistance (not complete immunity but resistance) to disease, keep rabies a very low level threat for them; they are less than one-eighth as likely to contract rabies as unvaccinated dogs. They also are resistant to snake venom, surviving bites by rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. They put the “omni” in the word omnivorous: they eat almost anything, plant or animal, carrion or live, including rats and other small rodents, so they are great for keeping other pests under control. Better yet, opossums are non-aggressive to creatures close to their own size or larger. They don’t run away (they may saunter away) but they don’t come after you. They usually ignore you completely even if you walk past them only a few feet distant; they ignore cats and dogs, too, if the cats and dogs ignore them. (I’ve seen my cat walk right by one without either looking at the other.) If threatened, they’ll hiss and show off their 50 teeth, but that’s about it. If severely threatened, they play ‘possum, which is a charming strategy and a remarkably effective one, albeit not with cars. (An aunt once commented to me, “If I had a face like that I wouldn’t walk in traffic.”) If you don’t actually touch one, the risk of getting bitten by an opossum is negligible.

Christopher Columbus brought one back as a present for King Ferdinand (I don’t know how Ferd felt about that), but Captain John Smith fixed the name in English by adopting the Algonquian name. He wrote in 1608: "An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young." True enough, and it hints at their one drawback for many people: opossums are ugly. I won’t argue this common assessment, but there are far worse faults a creature could have than that.

An Animal Control vid from north of the border

Judith Holofernes - Opossum

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Internal Strife: JDB Intraleague Bout

The Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) opened its 2014 season last night with an intraleague bout. The JDB has a history of playing against itself as a way of honing skills for use against other leagues. Recently having lost some key skaters to other leagues, the JDB is wise to continue the practice, Last night it divided itself into the ad hoc teams of Black and Red.

On paper the teams looked fairly matched, with veteran jammers (e.g. Maggy Kyllanfall and Lil MO Peep for Black; ASSault Shaker and Brass Muscles for Red) and blockers (Doom Hilda; Raven Rage, et al.) with relative newbies. B. Ver Cleaver and InCindyous proved effective for Black, while Bow Chicka Pow Pow and Apocelyse added power to Red. It didn’t take long for a difference to emerge, and most of it had to do with stronger Red blocking slowing down Black jammers. Apocelyse in particular had and especially good evening jamming for Red. By half-time, Red led 80-25.

The bout became more rough-and-tumble (literally) in the second half, with the versatile CaliforniKate repeatedly taking down or knocking out of bounds Red jammers. In an exciting final jam, Chick a Pow Pow repeatedly changed places with CaliforniKate in the penalty box as each tried to rack up points in a power jam. The clock ran out with a final score of Red 140, Black 70.

On May 17 we’ll see their combined skills put to the test when the JDB faces off against the Strong Island Derby Revolution.

OK, maybe I’m beginning to stretch for “roll” and “skate” references. Neil Young with Booker T & the MGs - Let's Roll 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

This Ain’t No Disco

Cabaret is back on Broadway in its third revival, now in previews inside Studio 54 tricked out as the Kit Kat Club. Given the expense of tickets these days (which has well outpaced general inflation), there are few shows that I will see twice, either in an initial run or in a revival. There are a handful of exceptions, and this is one of them. I didn’t see the original production in 1966, but I’ve seen the others including, as of this past Tuesday, the current one.

Most people are familiar with Cabaret from the 1972 movie with Joel Grey and Liza Minelli, and this is not a bad way to know it. (Personally, I’m not big on movie musicals – the screen strikes me as the wrong medium for what is properly a live performance – but this one directed by Bob Fosse is about as good as they come.) It is worth catching on stage even so. Not only is it the right setting, but the play benefits from a tighter, more compact book than the movie. The revival at Studio 54 has a fine cast in a solid production. Set in a Berlin cabaret in the waning days of the Weimar Republic, it subtly makes the point (along with broader unsubtle ones) that the rise of Nazism, with all of its S&M aspects, was less a reaction to the decadence of the period than an expression of it.

I did notice one difference between this production and earlier ones: the difference was in the audience. I saw the play in the company of a Millennial, who was polite enough to keep the smart phone inside her purse where the light was invisible to anyone but herself. Nonetheless her fingers continued to do the walking inside the purse. She was far from alone. Others used coats in laps as phone shields. The couple in front of us used only cupped hands as they read and sent texts. I have no idea how telephonic multitasking affects one’s perception of performances like this – my companion for the evening professed to love it. Well, the Kit Kat Club had a phone on each table which allowed a patron to call interesting people at other tables. The whole world is now a Kit Kat Club. Whether or not that is a sign of decadence I'll let the reader judge.

Trailer for the 1972 film

Sunday, April 13, 2014

All Stars Shine on Scranton

Roller derby returned to Morristown last night in a bruising bout between the NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby) All Stars and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Roller Radicals. Though the first home game for the All Stars, it was their second bout of the season, having lost in a one-point squeaker last week to Lehigh Valley in an away game. WB-Scranton is a strong team that defeated the Corporal Punishers (flagship team of Morristown’s other league, the JDB [Jerzey Derby Brigade]) on its home rink 223-190 last November. The All Stars aimed for an upset.

From the opening jams, it looked as though one was possible. #81 VeroniKa Gettsburger, #357 Babcocked & Loaded, #1219 Gorev Maim,and #2 Elysium showed their usual power while jamming for Scranton, but time and again were held up by solid Morristown blocking which has been getting consistently better coordinated since the league was founded. Pixie-Bust, Rosa Ruckus, and Bitty Boom also blocked markedly well individually. Meantime, Morristown jammers, notably #10 Miss USA-Hole, #44 Maulin Rouge, and #12 Shannani-Gunz, repeatedly were able to exploit openings in Scranton’s defenses or power through them. Not that this was easy, with Jackie Kenne-Die and Liberty Violence in co-ordination with other Scranton blockers often making the way impassable. Nonetheless, the All Stars took an early lead and built on it. At half-time the score favored the All Stars 116-62, a strong but not insurmountable lead.

A rule change has affected scores noticeably. Prior to this year, time in the penalty box lasted a minute. A full minute is a long time on the track on which an individual jam is a maximum of two minutes. If an opposing jammer was in the penalty box there was an opportunity for one’s own jammer (in a so-called power jam) to rack up points unopposed. This could cause the score to shift 25 points or more in a single jam. The new rule is 30 seconds in the penalty box. This reduces total point scores and also reduces the opportunity to overtake an opponent thanks to a single fortuitous penalty.

Regardless, the Roller Radicals returned to the track in the second half determined to close the gap. With aggressive skating on both sides, and more than a few pile-ups, the Radicals edged closer. The best chance still lay with power jams, but they favored Morristown as often as WB-Scranton. At one point jammers Miss USA-Hole and VeroniKa Gettsburger traded places back and forth in the penalty box in a single jam. Morristown held onto its lead and Shannani-Gunz expanded it in the final jams.

Final score was NJRD All Stars 170, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Roller Radicals 134. MVPs for the All Stars were Rosa Ruckus as block and Shannani-Gunz as jammer. MVPs for the Radicals were Liberty Violence as blocker and VeroniKa Gettsburger as jammer.

Arctic Monkeys: “Bite the lightning and tell me how it tastes/Kung fu fighting on your roller skates”

Friday, April 11, 2014

13 Flicks

The upside to occasional nights of insomnia is the guilt-free time to catch up with movies on obscure cable channels or from the dusty corners of my DVD closet. After all, at 2 a.m. few productive activities are possible and the alternative forms of entertainment at that hour (aside from reading) are more likely than not to get one in trouble. The following 13 movies were among the more agreeable nocturnal diversions.

Violet and Daisy (2011) – The title characters are two very unlikely assassins. Their unthreatening appearance helps them to get close to their targets and to get away afterward. They are two teens played by Alexis Bledel and Saoirse (pronounced, I’m told, Ser-sha) Ronan, best known for her role in Hannah. They want to take a break from work, but they also want dresses from a line by their favorite pop star. They don’t have the money for the dresses, so they agree to a well-paying assignment. Things take an odd turn when their hit proves to be a kindly fatherly fellow. Off-beat in a good way.

How I Live Now (2013) – Saoirse Ronan also stars in this film based on the Meg Rosoff novel, and coincidentally again plays a character named Daisy. Daisy is an American girl visiting her cousins in the English countryside when terrorists detonate a nuclear device in London. A ground war ensues. (Whether the war is civil or involves a foreign invasion isn’t clear). Daisy and her extended family face martial law, evacuations, enemy and friendly fire, militias, and common criminals. Fortunately, the English haven’t experienced a ground war on their own soil in the past few centuries, but many other peoples have, very recently in the Balkans and Caucasus as well as currently in Syria and elsewhere. It says something about postmodern ways of thinking that the least credible part of the plot is the love story. Worth a look.

According to Greta (2009) – Hilary Duff is a suicidal teen sent to live with her grandparents for the summer in Ocean Grove, NJ, a notoriously restrictive and upscale Jersey Shore community next to shaggier Asbury Park. She tests the patience of those around her, including her new boyfriend whom she very nearly (accidentally but carelessly) causes to be arrested, something he can’t afford because of his juvenile record. Her plans to kill herself before the end of the summer are really a hostile act toward her family – especially her mother. It is uncertain to the end (not least to herself) whether she will follow through or rethink the matter. As troubled teen movies go, this one isn’t bad – not great, but not bad.

Psychomania (1973) – This is pure exploitative fun involving the occult and an English biker gang called The Living Dead. The gangmembers find a way to become, in fact, living dead, and proceed to terrorize the neighborhood. Made in the fading days of hippiedom, this movie is hard not to enjoy.

Val Lewton Collection: Nine horror movies produced by Lewton for RKO in the 1940s. I’d seen all of these before over the years, but wanted to see them again. All are atmospheric in way rarely seen in movies today.

Cat People (1942) – Simone Simon stars as Irena Dubrovna, a mysterious Serbian artist living in New York City. She marries a fellow named Oliver but is reluctant to consummate the marriage because she believes she is cursed—that she will turn into a panther and kill him. Oliver, understandably, sends her to a psychiatrist, but there is reason to believe her fears are well-founded. Her shrink, Dr. Judd, finds this out when he unprofessionally makes a play for his patient.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) – These are not the newfangled zombies who ravenously chase and eat people; these are the old-fashioned zombies who have had their wills taken from them by their voodoo masters. Betsy is a Canadian nurse hired to care for Jessica, a plantation owner’s mentally ill wife, in the West Indies. Betsy is told Jessica has had her will burned out of her by a fever, but she begins to suspect voodoo. So do the islanders, and they don’t like it. Creepy and moody.

The Leopard Man (1943) – A leopard with no history of being anything but tame escapes and terrorizes a small New Mexico town. Or is the leopard responsible for the deaths? Is someone or something else behind the attacks? Although this is a shoestring budget B picture, few movies better illustrate the difference between old school and new school horror. Today, horror films are graphic in the extreme. This one (clip posted below) manages to be terrifying with nothing more graphic than a door.

The Seventh Victim (1943) – A woman searches for her sister who went missing in Greenwich Village. Her investigation uncovers the existence of an urban satanic cult– a plot very much ahead of its time.

The Ghost Ship (1943) – Tom signs onto a ship as Captain Stone’s 3rd officer. Crew members begin to die. Tom suspects the captain is a psychopath responsible for the deaths. He has trouble getting anyone to believe him.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) – Oliver is back, this time with his second wife. Though this was made only two years after Cat People, more time must have passed in movie-land because their daughter Amy is in elementary school. Amy has an imaginary friend. Oh wait, she’s not imaginary. She is the ghost of Oliver’s first wife, again played by Simone Simon. (When we were kids, my sister loved this movie.)

The Body Snatcher (1945) –In Edinburgh in 1831, Dr. MacFarlane pays for bodies for medical research and isn’t picky about their provenance. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff camp it up.

Isle of the Dead (1945) – In the First Balkan War in 1912, a number of people are trapped by a quarantine on a Greek island due to a plague outbreak. It seems the island might be plagued by something else, too: a female vampire here called a vorvolaka.

Bedlam (1946) – In 1761 London, Master George Sims (Boris Karloff) runs a mental asylum with authoritarian and sadistic zeal. Nell is committed to the asylum as a patient, but is really working undercover for reformists. It is not the safest of assignments.

Lewton’s movies will not appeal to everyone, but modern horror screenwriters would do well to watch them. The greater license allowed in present day filmmaking is all very well and good, but graphic images are no substitute for eerie atmospherics. They can supplement sometimes, but not replace.

Scene from The Leopard Man (1943)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Crashing the Millennium

A passing reference to English author JG Ballard in last week’s blog prompted me to look up his books on Amazon. I hadn’t bought anything by Ballard in the past decade or so. Though he died in 2009, I thought there might have been a late novel I’d missed. To my joy, there were two: Millennium People and Kingdom Come. I’m deep into the former and pleased to have the latter waiting.

Ballard is best known for his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, based on his experiences as a boy in WW2 Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Spielberg directed the movie adaptation in 1987. Although this is an atypical book for Ballard, in many ways it informs the others. Acquired in his boyhood, his sense of human nature, of the limits of individual sovereignty, and of the desire to escape those limits in extreme situations bleed into the characters of his novels. 

I first encountered Ballard’s writings in the 1960s. At the time he was producing some of the best-written science fiction to be found anywhere, much of it post-apocalyptic: The Drowned World, Terminal Beach, The Crystal World, and more. The stories typically center on the way characters intellectually and emotionally cope with (and often surrender to) circumstances beyond their control.

In the ‘70s his fiction took a new direction that he would pursue for the rest of his life. He came to believe that we already are living in a science fiction-like world – one so far removed from the natural state of our ancestors that, from the perspective of a hunter-gatherer, it is post-apocalyptic. He explains, “I thought: here is a fiction for the present day. I wasn't interested in the far future, spaceships and all that. Forget it. I was interested in the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television - that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.”

In William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, the boys slide into savagery when they are removed from the trappings of civilization. In Ballard, civilization itself evokes savagery. When animals in zoos are placed in enclosures too much at variance with their natural habitats they develop behavioral disorders. As post-modern humans, we have enclosed ourselves in far less natural environments than most zoos, experiencing angst rather than pleasure while trying to maintain them. Ballard’s characters develop behavioral disorders – they go postal as individuals and as groups. In High-Rise, the residents let their ids cut loose in every imaginable way. In Crash they find psychic release and erotic satisfaction in auto wrecks. In Running Wild, the children in an upper-crust gated community kill their parents and vanish. In Super-Cannes, respectable professionals become roving violent thugs at night, egged on by their employer’s resident psychiatrist and amateur philosopher: “Psychopathy is its own most potent cure, and always has been. At times, it grasps entire nations in its grip and sends them through vast therapeutic spasms.” In Millennium People, middle class folks rebel violently against their own lifestyles, taking up terrorism and burning their own neighborhoods.

That the requirements of civilization are at odds with our basic instincts is not a new idea: see Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud. The trade-off has been for security. But, once achieved, is security enough? Will post-industrial civilization totter as our darker instincts refuse to be suppressed permanently? Is a rebellion of the middle class truly in the works? Probably not, though arguably the rise of neo-fascist parties in much of the world contains a hint of one. But the very fact that we understand Ballard’s men and women – and we do understand them, even if we wouldn’t join them – suggests that he is onto something. In the First World we have built a culture and a physical environment based on a misunderstanding – perhaps a self-delusion – about what sort of creatures we are. The rest of the world is rushing to join us. Ballard describes the concomitant abuse to our own psyches as well as anyone can.

Crash (1996), based on JG Ballard’s novel. High-Rise is in pre-production.