Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Alternatives for the Morning-After Couch

Not really into football? Then you might need some other diversions on New Year’s Day while recovering from the festivities of the night before. Two possibilities are below, both from my read/view list last week.

**** ****

The Hike by Drew Magary (copyright 2016)

Surrealistic novels seldom work for me. When they do – Angela Carter’s scifi novels, for instance – it’s because they are anchored by having something real to say, even it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is. It’s not surrealism for its own sake. Drew Magary’s very readable The Hike works. Not all the metaphors in it are easy to articulate. Don’t try. It’s enough to feel them there.

Ben is a 38-year-old businessman with a wife and three kids in suburban Maryland. He travels a lot to conferences and to meet with vendors. We meet him on one of these trips. He checks into a rather rundown hotel in the woodsy Poconos. He decides to hike for a little ways on a wood trail in back of the hotel. He witnesses a brutal crime. The killers also see him, and in his efforts to escape them finds himself on a path that even Alice would find bizarre. She, after all, didn’t turn into a crab, which Ben does at one point. Along the path are a monstrous cricket, a giant woman, and a winged creature with smoky minions. The only reward offered to Ben for surviving years on the path – if he does – is to return to his wife and kids.

A lot of us feel like giving up, as Ben often does, on life’s road, but most of us persist anyway. For all the weirdness, the character and story are relatable.

Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Len and Company (2015)

This is the sort of indie film that is quietly satisfying in a way that no blockbuster ever can be.

Rhys Ifans is perfectly cast as Len Black, an aging former punk rocker who found financial success as a music producer even though his personality seems unsuited for the business side of music. Much of his success came from shepherding the career of pop singer Zoe from age 16 onward, despite her sound being miles distant from his own tastes. Zoe is played by Juno Temple, who nails the part and has as much insight to the characters as anyone could have; Juno’s father, Julien Temple, did his early directorial work with the Sex Pistols.

Len is having a late middle-age “does any of this mean anything at all?” crisis. He wants nothing more than to be left to his own cranky self-absorbed self on his decaying estate in Upstate New York while he watches DVDs and ruminates. He doesn’t get his wish. He gets a surprise visit from his son Max, who wants Len to hear a demo tape by his own band but is unsure how to approach Len in his currently massively indifferent mood. The hesitation is not unwarranted; when Max does finally broach the subject Len derides him for a privileged upbringing that Len himself (unasked) provided, which, he claims, is sure to make his son’s music shallow. Zoe also shows up at the house partly out of concern for Len and partly for answers about why he embarrassed her by walking off an awards show. He is not any more responsive to her than to Max. Len knows he is a being jerk, but at the moment he doesn’t feel like being anything else.

The movie is not about the action but about the characters and how they choose to play the cards life dealt them. It also reflects the often mutually uncomprehending interaction of Boomers and Millennials. The characters do evolve a little by the end but don’t become entirely new people – few of us do in the course of only a few days. A little, though, is sometimes enough.

This is simply a well-written and well-acted little drama, though not for anyone looking for car chases and fight scenes. Thumbs Up.

Monday, December 26, 2016

As 2016 Wheezes Its Last Breaths

Putting aside the larger issues and allowing myself a moment of solipsism (to accompany all those other moments), the biggest lesson to me of 2016 was to take nothing for granted. I’ve learned that before but have a habit of forgetting it. Perhaps it will last a little longer this time than will my New Year’s Resolutions, whatever those might be (I haven’t decided yet).

My prognostications this year were as faulty as those of most folks. An old college buddy (Hi, Don) and lifelong bachelor is originally from Chicago so naturally he is a Cubs fan. Just before the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years I sent him an e-mail:

“My 6 impossible things to believe before breakfast:

The Cubs win the World Series
Trump wins the election
Amanda Seyfried falls in love with my Facebook profile
My property taxes go down
ISIS surrenders
You get married”

With only a few days left in the year I have yet to hear from Amanda, but at this point I’m reluctant to rule it out. I also should start planning Donald’s Bachelor Party.

I won’t dread or anticipate anything in 2017 because you never know. Well, sometimes you do, but we’ll leave six inevitable things for another blog.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Party Like It’s 1959

I was reading a collection of Dave Barry essays earlier today: Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer Is Much Faster). Dave rarely says anything I find inherently surprising, but he says what he says far better and amusingly than I ever could. On this occasion, however, he truly caught me off guard. A fellow Boomer, he comments that our parents – those hardworking Greatest Generation folks – were happier and more fun-loving than we are. He was prompted to say this by an episode of Mad Men (Season 1 takes place in 1960 during our mutual childhood) in which the characters, for all their carousing, don’t seem to have fun: “Unlike the Mad Men characters, the grown-ups back then had fun. A lot of fun.”

I hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but he is right. The kid’s perspective with which I’m still inclined to think of my parents had blinded me to it, but he is very right. True, they didn’t have the blow-out wild teens and 20s that Boomers had as (mostly) singles in the prosperous freewheeling era that the Greatest Generation had created. They didn’t have the time, money, or opportunity for that. (I’m generalizing, of course, but for the bulk of the generation the generalization is accurate.) They were too occupied by the Depression, World War 2, career-building, and early marriage with kids. They were nose-to-the-grindstone during working hours, yet they still managed to play hard as adults on top of all that. Nor did they scale back in their 30s and 40s as Boomers did. I recall an endless parade of babysitters as a young kid because every weekend one of my parents’ friends (and they had many) was throwing a house party. They dressed up for them, too, in sports jackets and cocktail dresses. Of course, the party-giving cycled around to our house every so often, and I tried to spy surreptitiously when I could. People chain-smoked, loudly cracked off-color jokes, and drank astonishing amounts of alcohol while playing records, dancing, and playing actual games such as charades. I remember limbo parties in the early ‘60s. When there wasn’t a party to attend it was probably because we were off camping or at the beach or some such place.

I’m nowhere near as ambitious with my playtime any more than with my worktime. I do host some houseparties, but never more than a half dozen per year (usually fewer) of any size including summer BBQs, while I attend perhaps one or two by other people. They are far tamer than those of my parents, and a clean shirt counts as “dressed up.” (I do see friends more often than that, but two or three people do not constitute a party; I go out to random clubs and concerts more often than did my parents, but if you count social organization get-togethers such as the Rotary, they went out more.) I don’t think we’ve ever played charades at any of my parties and it’s been five years since anyone danced at one – and that involved a video game. I’m also much less quick to just hop in the car for a vacation trip than were my parents even though I’m single with no kids, so the logistics are far simpler. Nearly all my friends are the same way: not hermits but decades past being party animals. Millennials are actually more restrained in their behavior than Boomers (or Xers) were at their age; we’ll have to wait and see whether they make up for it later in life or if they still prove to be even lamer than we are.

Our parents knew what the Big Stuff was and why it mattered. They spent their lives facing it. So, they didn’t sweat the Small Stuff, which included such trifles as second hand smoke and seat belts. They knew life is hard, but they had fun while they could without letting that fun interfere with the Big Stuff. They were a flawed generation, as every generation is in its own way. Social attitudes were commonplace then that are cringeworthy today. Yet, there were many many ways in which they simply did it better, and now that I think about it they played better too. It’s probably too late to try to emulate them in that way, but maybe I should break out the limbo pole for the next party. Or maybe not. If I go under it I might never unbend again.

Party scene from The Apartment (1960)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Empathy with a Razor

Two quick reviews of two of last week’s reads:

Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

Yale professor Paul Bloom begins by defining his terms. Many people use the word “empathy” broadly to mean being kind and generous. He uses it in the narrower sense used by psychologists to mean (to quote Bill Clinton) “I feel your pain.” This is not the same as sympathy, for we can feel for someone without feeling with them. Psychologists also distinguish between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. The latter is an intellectual understanding of what another person is feeling without feeling it oneself. Bloom doesn’t have a problem with cognitive empathy per se, though he notes that it is morally neutral. It is not true, for example that psychopaths lack empathy. On the contrary, they often have exceptional cognitive empathy. They know what you are feeling: that’s how they manipulate you and exercise their cruelty. They just don’t care. They lack emotional empathy. Yet even if they had this, it’s not clear they would have sympathy and compassion, which are more important. After all, folks with Asperger’s also have limitations on emotional empathy, yet they are not any more likely than anyone else to be cruel intentionally.

So what is Bloom’s beef with emotional empathy? He thinks it is just fine for enjoying literature or a movie, but that it is a terrible basis for morality: “It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.” We tend to empathize with whomever is in front of us, whether, as examples, it is a victim of a crime or a youthful perpetrator with a troubled past. Bloom suggests what the world needs is not more empathy but more rational compassion: step back and look at the big picture.

Bloom’s book is not just an extended opinion-piece. He brings in neuroscience and various social studies. Some of what he says might seem obvious, but I’ll give him credit for a contrarian title.

Thumbs very mildly Up.

**** ****

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

Despite the everglades, the abundance of beaches, and the artificial landscapes of Disney World, Florida does not rank high on the list of visually interesting US states. Socially, however, it is in the top tier for weirdness, colorfulness, and diversity. This weirdness has attracted the attention of numerous authors both homegrown (e.g. Jeff Lindsay of the Dexter novels) and visiting (e.g. Tom Wolfe: Back to Blood). One of the most prolific native writers is Carl Hiaasen. Carl probably is still best known for Strip Tease, thanks to the Demi Moore movie based on the book in the 90s, but he has published a new book every two or three years since the early 80s. His latest novel, released earlier this year, is Razor Girl.

In an odd way Hiaasen reminds me of Jim Thompson, whose gritty noir-ish novels so perfectly captured the flavor of low-life America in the 1950s. Hiaasen is just as on-point although, his setting being contemporary Florida, his lowlifes sometimes have money. His imagery is at one and the same time gaudier and tawdrier than anything in Thompson.

This one is set primarily in the Florida Keys. The complex plot defies brief summary, but it involves con artists, a redneck star of a TV reality show, the star’s agent, murder, an unscrupulous sand replenishment contractor, organized crime goons, and a cantankerous ex-cop turned health inspector named Yancy. The eponymous Razor Girl arranges car accidents, usually as an insurance scam but in this case to facilitate a kidnapping. All the different characters and subplots emerge and interlace easily, and Hiaasen presents it all with dry humor.

Razor Girl is not high-lit, nor does it try to be. It is literary snack food. But it’s tasty snack food. As a recreational read, Thumbs Up.

Muddy Waters - Deep Down in Florida

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Little Knowledge…

We all have incomplete educations. Moreover, what we have often dissipates over time as is amply demonstrated on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, an enjoyable TV game show on which successful adult professionals (some of them academics) repeatedly reveal they are not. All questions on the show come from 5th grade textbooks. Yet, since 2007 only two contestants, including Nobel winning physicist George Smoot, have won the million dollar prize. Our failings run the gamut from Accounting to Zoology. Earlier this autumn Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson badly damaged his campaign by flubbing a question on Aleppo, but he has plenty of geographically-challenged company. In a country in which a majority of people receive at least some higher education beyond high school, most Americans nonetheless cannot even find Syria on a map. (They can’t find Afghanistan either, even though American troops have been fighting and dying there for 15 years.) Back in 2013 Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein argued in all seriousness that this doesn’t matter so long as they can Google the answer: “In this era of labeled maps, Google Earth, and, well, Google, the question isn't whether you can find Syria on a map. It's whether you can find useful information about Syria in your browser.”

I can’t state emphatically enough how much I disagree – not just about Syria in particular but about the whole notion that an internet connection is a substitute for knowledge. It is not. Nor is it a substitute for skill. It is not unimportant to be able to add or spell just because one’s laptop has a calculator and autocorrect. Knowing how and when to look up additional information is all very fine, but creativity and thoughtful analysis depend on the ability to make connections among disparate bits of knowledge in one’s own head. That doesn’t work if the bits aren’t there. If we let a machine think for us, any kudos for the result belong entirely to the machine.

That said, I’m acutely aware of the huge gaps that exist in my own education. One way to fill in enough gaps at least to fake it at a dinner party with truly well-informed people is to read cover to cover An Incomplete Education: 3684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn’t (Third Edition) by Judy Jones and William Wilson. This certainly is a goal of mine, so last week I read the book. What’s your weakness? Art history? Anthropology? Poetry? Psychology? Philosophy? How about the names of the various types of carriages or the details of pre-decimal British currency? An amazing amount of information (yes, including about Syria) is in this 700 page compendium. It’s no substitute for in-depth studies, of course, but it will get one through that dinner party without sounding like a dullard. It also gives the reader a framework for more self-education if he or she is so inclined. Besides, who knows what new thoughts will come from all those new bits of info inside one’s own head? We’ll have to see if any pop into my own.

Thumbs up.

Sam Cooke. (I considered Know Nothing by Travis, but video embedding for the song is disabled by request of the rights-holders.)