Friday, April 28, 2017

Long in the Tooth

Anniversaries are nostalgic at 10, worrisome at 20 and bonechilling at 50. I remember my dad’s response to the various anniversaries of D-Day (he was there in ’44) as the number crept upward. The 50th made him just shake his head in disbelief. I find myself shaking my own head these days, though none of my anniversaries are as noteworthy as that one. I was reminded of one today when a bit of clumsiness dislodged my one and only blue ribbon from a horse show. I see that it has been 50 (!) years. It was won in a hackney category on a 15 hand (1 hand = 4 inches) white and tan paint gelding named Goblin. I don’t have any pics of that show, but I do have one of me on Goblin a year earlier; he is the fourth horse from the left. I suppose my philosophy (though it wasn’t conscious) was “quit while you’re ahead.” That was the last formal show I ever entered, though I’ve continued to ride informally ever since, some years more than others.
On Goblin (4th horse) 1966

Horses never have been central to my life. I don’t live for them the way so many equestrians do – not just professionals but a great many pleasure horse owners also. I do not own any.  There have been entire years when I have not gotten on a horse at all. Yet, they often were in the background and more than once tipped the balance in key life decisions. Late in the summer of 1964 (again: !) when I was 11 years old my mom gave me the options of prep school or public school for the upcoming September. I picked prep (St. Bernard’s, nowadays called Gill/St. Bernard’s) for no other reason than that horseback riding was offered as part of the sports program. (My sister picked public school for no other reason than boys – most private schools weren’t coed back then.) That decision had lasting consequences in ways large and small. [See Horse Sense for the tale of my most dramatic spill off a horse in ’66.] They have been a factor in romance as well. At least half the dates in my life involved horses – including the one that led to my brief ill-fated marriage, which in turn had major financial consequences. Right up through the 2000s, “Let’s go horseback riding” was a surprisingly effective pick-up line.
On the trails with friends 1997

I know NJ does not have a reputation as horse country, but much of it is. The US Equestrian Team is HQ’d here and there are lots of stables, facilities, and trails. There are also lots of horse shows, but since ’67 I’ve never been of a mind to compete in any of them – nor am I really well schooled enough to do so if I were. For me, the appeal is mental relaxation. There is something about a horse on a wooded trail that eases the mind better than Xanax ever can. Deserts too. My most pleasant ride, for which I needed a compass to get back, was in the desert near Fallon NV out of sight of anything but scrub, hills, and sand. (I’m sure the horse had a name, but I didn’t know what it was.) I decided it was time to turn back toward the direction of Fallon when I came upon a sign seemingly in the middle of nowhere that said, “US Naval Bombing Range.”

America – A Horse with No Name

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Before I Forget

Last Friday afternoon I found myself in sight of a movie theater with a couple of hours to pass. The solution was obvious.

Quick review:

Unforgettable (2017) – in theaters

Some movies are intended to be trash. In cinema (and several other arts) that is not the same as garbage. When indie cult film director John Waters says that American culture is trash culture, he takes pains to add that he doesn’t mean it as an insult. Something doesn’t have to be high art still to have its own integrity, just as a good hamburger can be as satisfying in its own way as a fine steak. John didn’t direct Unforgettable. Denise Di Nobi did. Nonetheless, and somewhat surprisingly given her previous work as a producer for films such as Edward Scissorhands and Crazy, Stupid, Love, her feature film directorial debut is trash. I don’t mean that as an insult, for it is satisfying in its own way. The title begs us to comment that the film is entirely forgettable, and so it is, but it nonetheless has the elements for a guilty pleasure.

Julia (Rosario Dawson) is a writer whose former boyfriend was horrifically abusive, but now she has a fabulous fiancé David (Geoff Stults): handsome, kind, and affectionate with his own craft beer business. Well, there is his perfectly groomed ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) with whom he shares custody of their young daughter Lily, but everyone has baggage, right? Julia decides to move in with David in his upscale small town and to work from home. She soon discovers, however, that Tessa is “psycho Barbie.” Tessa wants Julia gone. Julia has no social media pages due to earlier stalking issues, but Tessa opens a Facebook page in Julia’s name and initiates contact with her old obsessive and abusive boyfriend. Troubles multiply. David, as is typical of husbands/beaus in this type of movie, is well-meaning but clueless: utterly unable to see when he is being manipulated.

Dawson works her part well, but Heigl proves to be perfectly cast. Apparently Heigl has been miscast in her good girl roles all these years – a possibility of which we caught a glimpse in Home Sweet Hell (2015). She makes a perfect ruthless villain.

This movie will win no Oscars, but Thumbs mildly Up as entertainment.

Unforgettable trailer

Trackside Once More: Local Derby Recap

Another exciting derby bout took place in Morristown last night as the home Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) met the visiting Hudson Valley Horrors.

The teams appeared closely matched throughout the first half with a very slight advantage to the Horrors. Blocking was energetic and well organized on both sides forcing jammers to work hard for their points. JDB’s #8 Lil Mo Peep in particular received repeated rough handling by Horrors blockers but still managed to work her way through the pack. At 15 minutes into the bout the score stood 37-39 in favor of the Horrors. The Horrors slowly added to their lead with #4 Black Cherry having especial success. At the end of the first half JDB trailed by a substantial 63 – 88.

The second half couldn’t have been more different from the first. JDB skaters took to the track with determination. 30 point jam by JDB skater #3684 Californikate put the JDB in the lead 97 – 90. Despite spirited jams by Horrors skaters and strong blocking by #1134 Surly Trample and #666 Rxy Ramalotte among others, the JDB increasingly dominated the scoreboard. Lil Mo Peep, 00 Mental Block, and #64 Madeleine Alfight jammed with repeated success. In the final jam #4 Black Cherry did what she could for the Horrors in a power jam against stiff blocking, notably by #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes, but the JDB lead by that point was secure.

Final score: 228-135 in favor of JDB.

MVPs: #4 Black Cherry (jammer) & #666 Rxy Ramalotte (blocker) for Hudson Valley Horrors; 00 Mental Block (jammer) & #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes (blocker) for JDB.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Breakfast Pizza

From hard experience I learned that I am single at heart, a phrase borrowed from Bella DePaulo, professor at UCSB, author of several books on singlehood, and author of the column Living Single at Psychology Today. I would have spared myself much grief (and perhaps one or two others some grief) had I learned it sooner, but better late than never. Much as I enjoy company, I also enjoy that, unlike a cohabiter, company leaves. It’s important to my peace of mind to be able to get drunk and crank up the stereo at 3 a.m. (I have no close neighbors either) without having to negotiate it ahead of time or explain it afterward to someone else. I don’t actually do that very often (the day after isn’t worth it) but the freedom to be able to do so without consequences (other than a hangover) matters. That example is, of course, a stand-in for every other aspect of normal daily life: no negotiation or accommodation required. Very relaxing. Once again, I’m not a hermit or misanthrope (well, maybe a little of the latter); company is great, just so long as it is less frequent than solitude.

There are nonstandard practices that tend to creep into a single person’s life, and some of them involve food. Meals tend to be haphazard and at any time of the day or night. The first meal of the day (whenever that might be) could be a Stromboli and the last pancakes. You never know. It depends on what is in the fridge, which is not stocked to accommodate anyone else. Once or twice a week, though, I actually go out to breakfast: typically with a friend (again, not a hermit) and most often at The Minuteman, a reasonably priced local spot with good food including a variety of baked-in-house pies. (Someone there must be a fan of the 2007 movie Waitress.) Because of my nonstandard breakfasts on the other 5 or 6 days of the week, the menu always raises the question of why these particular foods are regarded as breakfast foods. Yes, many diners offer “all day breakfasts” but “breakfast” is still right there in the description with the implication that ordering one off-hours is somehow bending the rules. The question arose this morning when I ordered the “Breakfast Brigade” which has several of the usual items: pancake, French toast, hash browns, eggs, and bacon.

The answer to the question, of course, is habit. We grow up with certain foods for breakfast and it just seems natural to have them in the morning. Yet, their initial arrival on the menu is not so very far rooted in the past. Many have written of the bizarre origins of corn flakes as a health food in Kellogg’s sanatorium. Sylvester Graham (as in Graham cracker) was also a fan of cereals and strict vegetarianism, which he thought would prevent masturbation. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Waffles and pancakes, previously as likely a dessert as breakfast food, fit into the whole grain prescription for breakfast. A counterattack on grains didn’t take long. Eggs and bacon along with other meats long had been common on the farm, but they became an urban breakfast staple as part a deliberate campaign in the 1920s.

Faced with a surplus of bacon, the Beech-Nut Packing Company hired Edward Bernays. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Bernays is regarded as the founder of modern public relations and advertising techniques. His 1928 book Propaganda is still worth a read; he was in favor of propaganda because he thought common folk were unable to think for themselves and needed to persuaded by those who knew better. He managed to find 5000 doctors to say the high protein farmer’s diet was right all along and included this “study” in advertisements. Bacon and sausage sales took off. (He also helped tobacco companies sell to women by associating cigarettes with suffragists, but that is another story.) Fruit companies similarly promoted the health benefits of vitamin C in orange juice. By the end of the 1920s breakfast menus were what they still are today.

However they got on the menu, I like standard breakfast fare in the morning. So, I’m sure I’ll continue to order it once or twice per week. If the mood should strike for a pepperoni and onion breakfast pizza though, I can order one the night before and heat it up in the morning. There is no one to whom to explain it.

Supertramp - Breakfast In America

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What’s Opera, Buck

(Yes, I’m consciously stealing from a classic WB cartoon title.) 

The whole universe?
Space opera is back. On the screen it never entirely left. When I was a youngster the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials from the 1930s still played on Saturday morning TV. My friends and I knew they were ridiculous and we laughed at the special effects including the model rockets with sparklers. (Side note: My mom later in the decade commented that 1960s women’s fashions – notably miniskirts and boots – were exactly what appeared in 1930s/40s scifi comics and serials; she was sure one had inspired the other.) We didn’t mind the cheese though. Hey, the serials still were high adventure in outer space with alien civilizations, evil emperors, daring princesses, dogfighting rocket ships, and hand-to-hand derring-do. They satisfied my 10-year-old soul, but the times they were a-changing. With Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey scifi became consciously higher concept. While this was a very good thing overall, Star Wars showed there was still a place for rousing old-fashioned space opera, too, this time with stunning fx.

The printed word was another matter. By the 1960s the big name authors had more than just adventure on their minds. Asimov, Herbert, Heinlein and others had messages. Their protagonists still zipped around the galaxy on occasion, but they tended to leave space battles and evil emperors on alien planets to lesser lights. Scifi definitely benefited from this and the authors’ messages often were thoughtful, e.g as a random example Frank Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment, which painlessly encapsulates much of Machiavelli and Nietzsche. In recent years, however, a number of topflight scifi authors have returned to space opera with an entirely good conscience. It’s not all they do, but they don’t outright avoid it. It is hard to argue that the results are often deep, but they are generally entertaining and the quality of the writing certainly helps. Two examples worth a scifi fan’s time are Revenger and The Collapsing Empire.

**** ****

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
As an author, Reynolds somehow manages to be imaginative, literate, and prolific all at once. Published in 2016, Revenger is a solid addition to his impressive bibliography.

The setting is unspecified thousands of years hence. The solar system has been abandoned and reoccupied many times. Presumably it is this solar system; this is not definitively stated, but there are references to the original sun, which would seem to indicate the Sun. Civilizations have come and gone. The current one exists mostly on terraformed asteroids (there are answers to the reader’s technical objections to that) but the ruins of the earlier civilizations are scattered everywhere. The central characters are the sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, who despite their father’s objections joined the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, a salvage space ship designed to exploit those ruins.

It’s a tough universe out there, however. The ship is attacked by a raider captained by the legendarily ruthless Bosa Sennen. Bosa orders a massacre of the Monetta’s Mourn crew except for Adrana whose talents she can use. Arafura escapes by hiding in the bulkhead and surviving until rescued by another salvager. The rest of the novel is Arafura’s quest to recover her sister and take revenge on Bosa. In the process she develops from innocence to harshness. Her chances of success depend on tapping into darkness within herself.

It’s not a typical heroine’s journey: though Arafura develops the character and skills she needs to do what she has to do, she clearly loses much in the process. Her pre-revenge self was less impressive but much more likable.

**** ****

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Scalzi is one of my favorite contemporary scifi writers, and he doesn’t disappoint in The Collapsing Empire, which was released earlier this year. Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series should be on the shelf of any serious scifi fan, but his new novel has an entirely new setting and milieu.

Once again we are in a distant future. This time civilization spans the galaxy in a particularly hodge-podge way. This has to do with the Flow, which is a natural phenomenon that exists outside of normal space and effectively permits faster than light travel. The Flow, a kind of web shaped by the (gravitational?) features of the galaxy, doesn’t extend everywhere, so most of the galaxy remains inaccessible. Ships cannot travel FTL without the Flow. Even the most far flung star systems are reachable, however, if the Flow happens to pass near them.

The youthful Cardenia Wu-Patrick becomes the new Emperox when her brother is killed in an accident that might not have been an accident. It is not an elevation she expected or wanted. She has to deal with a council of oligopolistic Merchant Houses who form a nobility. (Future interstellar empires nearly always have medieval politics.) Cardenia learns a frightening secret: the Flow’s shape is not permanent. The galaxy changes and the Flow changes, too, and soon will strand populated star systems and fracture the empire. Meantime one of the Merchant Houses has caught wind that something is up with the Flow and is betting that a currently unimportant distant mudball of a planet will be the center of a reshaped web. Throw in ruthless traders, space pirates, and ambitious suitors of the new emperox and we have elements for intrigue and action. Scalzi’s prose is both literary and effortless to read, which is a rare combination.

**** ****

We all like to escape now and then, and both books are fine escapist fare: fun without being simplistic. And, hey, they are high adventure in outer space. They satisfy the soul of the 10-year-old boy inside this…um…somewhat older fellow.

t.A.T.u. – Космос (Outer Space)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Four Quarts and Two Cups

I’m sittin’ by the dock of the bay – a garage bay at the local lube center. My Chevy Cruze is inside getting an oil change. The car’s dashboard display started nagging me about it a few days ago. (Fortunately, no home AI yet tells me when to clean the carpets or mow the lawn, but that must be arriving soon.) I don’t carry around laptops or tablets for waiting times such as these – or even a phone with an internet connection – so I’m jotting in a pocket notebook (the paper kind) with a mechanical pencil. Later I’ll type this up on a home computer and add whatever info from online seems appropriate.

One time-passer I do have besides the notebook is coffee in a carry cup. I’ll almost certainly have a second cup in a mug when I get back home. I’ve written about the history of coffee before so I won’t repeat it. Here I merely mention the drink as one of the simple pleasures in life and as one of the few mind-altering drugs that carries little or no social disapprobation.

I didn’t take to coffee readily. Like most kids (I think), I didn’t understand the attraction. My early experimental sips of the stuff made me wonder if it was just warmed up muddy water scooped up from a dirt driveway pothole after a rain. In fairness, the coffee I sampled at home probably did taste like that. During World War 2, instant coffee, originally developed as an easy to carry and prepare beverage for troops, was extraordinarily popular with civilians as well. My parents were WW2 generation and they continued to make instant coffee at home well into the 1990s. Let’s just say gourmet it wasn’t. Nonetheless, whether at home or in diners, by my senior year of high school I was willing to tolerate coffee provided it contained enough cream and sugar – both of which mask the underlying flavor. Irish coffee wasn’t bad either. It wasn’t until my final year of college that I not only found myself liking coffee but started taking it black, which is still the way I prefer it. Tastes evolve – or perhaps I just started buying better coffee. Besides, leaving out the cream and sugar allows more calories for something else, like a donut. (Anyone who calls that “empty calories” has no proper appreciation for donuts.)

By no means am I a coffee connoisseur. I don’t buy expensive blends or grind beans myself, though I understand those who do. I can taste the difference: just not enough to make me willing to pay $6 for a cup of coffee. I usually buy Colombian blend, though I’m not wedded to a brand. The Folgers in the pic was on sale. There have been claims of correlation between personality and coffee preferences, but I wouldn’t take them too seriously. The only thing the list of “black coffee drinker” attributes got right in my case was (sort of) the coffee mug.

Anyway, I see a fellow waving a bill at me, so my car is ready. With luck I can go a few thousand miles before the vehicle scolds me again. I’m ready to head back home for a second cup of coffee.

Maria Muldaur – Black Coffee

Friday, March 31, 2017


Academics have a reputation for cluelessness about the “real” world. This is not always deserved, but few things better contribute to the stereotype than expressions of surprise by social scientists when their research reveals something utterly self-evident to the rest of us. Case in point: In the abstract of their article A Cleansing Fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity
published in Motivation and Emotion Zachary K. Rothschild Lucas A. Keefer write “we test the counter-intuitive possibility that moral outrage at third-party transgressions is sometimes a means of reducing guilt over one’s own moral failings and restoring a moral identity.” Counter-intuitive? Their research, as anyone outside academia could have told them, demonstrated that expressions of moral outrage commonly are self-serving. So people engage in social posturing? The hell you say!

Let us not overlook research about whether alcohol – still the world’s favorite mood-altering drug – really drowns sorrows. As reported in Livescience, “Harder and her colleagues guessed that people would report less anger or sadness after drinking, and more happiness a day after drinking. But the data showed the opposite.” A day after drinking? A day after? Of course they weren’t happy a day after. It’s called a hangover. Did these research people never drink? “Tomorrow” is the last thing on the minds of drunks. Alcohol is all about the now. Drinkers, sorrowful or otherwise, want to get high now, tomorrow be damned. And yes, drinking does make them feel better – not always, but more often than not. That is why people do it. It works while the buzz lasts, that is. Not the next day.

I’ve experienced both effects. I don’t very often (anymore) because I really don’t handle the day-afters as well as some people. This is something that was evident from my very first hangover, which was in my college dorm. 18 was legal drinking age back then, but by the standards of the day (or this day for that matter) that was a late start. As I unsteadily rushed down the hallway toward the bathroom while trying to hold back my stomach contents for the necessary distance, still playing on the stereo in back of me in my room was (no kidding) Melanie’s Leftover Wine, a song I cannot hear to this day without queasiness. Up until that moment, however, C2H6O had been quite enjoyable. I wish I could say one such lesson was enough. It wasn’t. “Enough” eventually did arrive in my life, but even now I see sense in Raymond Chandler’s opinion, “I think a man ought to get drunk at least twice a year just on principle, so he won't let himself get snotty about it.”

equinox party
Besides, not everyone’s cost/benefit ledger is the same as mine. Winston Churchill: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” Even if you’re not trying to win a war but just trying to distract oneself for an evening, the substance can have value. At an equinox party at the house last week, a majority of the 15 guests found value in it, and surely would have left early without it – or not arrived in the first place. (Yes, driving arrangements were appropriate.) Were they happy the next day? Well, that really wasn’t the point.

There are plenty of other surprises in the journals. Many social scientists are taken aback by evidence that in speed dating trials people (in the words of the Telegraph) “behave like stereotypical Neanderthals.” Regardless of what participants claim they want in a mate when filling out questionnaires (most give very PC answers, which is to say they engage in social posturing), in practice typically women still prefer men to be rich and men still prefer women to be pretty. (See What? Can this truly be? No, of course that’s not all they want in their mates, but as said Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “my goodness, doesn't it help?”

There is entertainment to be found in witnessing all this scholarly bafflement, of course. I’m eager to read reports by astonished researchers that most kids prefer pizza to kale.

The Speakeasy Three - When I Get Low, I Get High

Sunday, March 26, 2017


A comic and a flick for a quiet evening:

**** ****

Snotgirl by Bryan Lee O'Malley & Leslie Hung

Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley has created some of the most interesting comics of the 21st century, most notably the Scott Pilgrim series with a theme best summed up as “all the world’s a video game and all the men and women merely avatars.” (Side note: The surreal and charming 2010 movie adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, though a critical success, was seriously under-noticed by audiences.) His 2014 graphic novel Seconds (theme: be careful what you wish for) is also worth a read.

In Snotgirl Volume 1 (2017), O’Malley retains the tone of his earlier works but without the surreal or scifi elements – except to the extent modern life resembles scifi. Lottie Person is a 25-y.o. fashion blogger who has enough followers to make a living at it. Her always-fabulous always-chic online persona is very different from her actual allergy-ridden often-unkempt self. To promote her image Lottie impersonates her online self in public knowing full well that in our world of cell phone cameras any faux pas will end up online, too. She and her circle of friends all adapt styles tailored for social media presentation. Lottie’s real-world behavior in response to normal life stresses is often terrible, yet she retains enough human likability not to lose the reader. The nickname “Snotgirl” is given to her (affectionately? passive aggressively?) by Caroline, a genuinely cool girl. Lottie can’t quite remember if she physically attacked Caroline for that in a bar bathroom. There are O’Malley-like questions of what is real and what is fake – and if what is real counts as real if not captured by cell phone.

A comic book about a fashion blogger has some obvious pictorial creative challenges that illustrator Leslie Hung handles exceptionally well in her first major collaboration.

Thumbs firmly Up for this thoughtful and engaging comic.

**** ****

Coherence (2014)

There is remarkably little correlation between the size of a budget and the quality of a movie, particularly in the case of scifi movies. True, flashy fx can enhance a good script but they are wasted otherwise, as in, for example, the 1998 Godzilla. (Washington Post on another high budget scifi flick: “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth.”) On the other hand a good script is enough to carry a movie even with a minimal budget, e.g. Safety Not Guaranteed. You just never know from the scale of the production. Coherence is a microbudget indie, but it works pretty well. The actors deserve much of the credit for this since a lot of the dialogue was impromptu.

We’ve seen the set-up before: a dinner party of long-time friends and frenemies. Hosted by Mike (Nicolas Brendan) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria) at their suburban home, the guests have histories with each other, not all of them good. Mike is a TV actor whose career has expired. He says he was on Roswell, which is both an in-house joke and a portent: Nicolas Brendan in fact was in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Xander), but there are actors who appeared on both of the contemporaneous shows, e.g. Julie Benz (Darla/Tupolski) and Jason Behr (Ford/Max). A chance casting decision easily could have landed someone on one instead of the other.

Coherence relies on the notion that there are parallel realities and that new ones are created whenever random chance produces two or more outcomes, so Schrödinger's famous cat is alive in one reality but dead in another. This is a seriously proposed idea in some circles, and it is one of which scifi authors are particularly fond.

A large comet is making an extraordinarily close pass of the earth the night of the dinner party. The power goes out at the house. Mike has a home generator, but there are no communications. The guests spot a nearby house with lights. (*Partial Spoiler* but the reader likely has guessed the plot twist already from the last paragraph.) Yes, as you may be suspecting, it is another version of their own house, and there is more than one. The comet somehow has broken down the boundaries among realities when directly overhead during its near approach. Can the party attendees trust all the other versions of themselves? Should they? For that matter, when they reconnoiter another house, do they return to the house they left? A dinner party that without the comet simply would have been strained and unpleasant instead turns nightmarish.

Thumbs up – not way up, but up.

Coherence Trailer

Monday, March 20, 2017

Here Comes the Sun

The equinox is back in in town, and this is the one that points to brighter days: the literal kind. The metaphorical sort remains to be seen.  In some ways brightness can be a modest virtue. At least until nature’s green camouflage returns in force, the scenery in the ever more abundant light is not altogether pretty.

As the residue of the final (I hope) snowstorm of March melts away in this part of the world, what lies beneath emerges. Much of the grounds on my property is a mess. The broken branches that litter the lawn can be tidied up without too much trouble, of course, while verdant regrowth soon will soften the appearance of shattered trees and brown patches. The human artifacts, however, do not regenerate themselves with exposure to a little water and sunlight; on the contrary they’ll just accelerate the decay. Retaining walls crumble, siding rots, shingles curl, and asphalt cracks. Inside my home appliances fail, carpets fray, and furniture sags. Entropy chuckles.

First Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t win.
Second Law: You can’t break even.

Entropy always wins in the end, but we do what we can to delay the inevitable. Fresh shingles, cedar siding, and Type S mortar await my hammer and trowel outside. The inside deterioration I’ll address to the extent my wallet allows.

The Second Law applies not just to human artifacts but to humans. Telomeres will tell. My mirror isn’t giving me the best of news these days, and spring won’t help much with that. Maybe a little. More fresh air and sunshine won’t hurt, but they won’t reverse the general trend. I still can see the 17-year-old in the face looking back at me from the mirror, but I doubt anyone else can see him.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” said not my generation’s Dylan but that other guy. I think not. I’d rather just take it in my totter instead. Entropy’s assault on my house and grounds, however, will feel my wrath. Well, my hammer and trowel anyway.

Kelly Osbourne – Entropy

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Double Header Derby Recap

The sport of roller derby was invented by Leo Seltzer in 1935, though the rules by which it is still played (with tweaks around the edges) weren’t settled until 1939. Originally it was a mixed gender sport with men and women alternating on the track. Despite winning loyal fans, the sport by the end of the 1970s had trouble staying commercial and the major professional teams folded. Though it never entirely disappeared, derby didn’t really regain traction until 2001 when it acquired new life in Texas with all-women’s teams – typically skated on flat tracks simply because they were more readily available. The revised format spread quickly to the rest of the country and internationally. Nowadays roller derby teams can be found almost everywhere. The fact that overwhelmingly they are smallish and local only adds to the enjoyment for local spectators. I’ve been following the nearby Morristown, NJ, teams for seven years, and still find it one of the most pleasant ways to spend a Saturday evening.

The 2017 season opened in Morristown last night for the New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) with a double header. The evening started with a junior division (ages 8 – 17) bout: NJRD Small Stars vs. Gotham Girls Tiny Terrors. It was followed by an intraleague adult bout of the NJRD, which divided itself into two teams for the evening (Blue Bombers vs Betty Whites), largely for the purpose of introducing and putting to the test its expanded roster of skaters. (NJRD’s first interleague bout of the season will be with the Jersey Shore Roller Girls next month.)

In the juniors bout the NJRD girls took an early lead with jammers Alice in Horrorland and Mia Slam aided by well-coached well-coordinated blocking. Energetic defense by Gotham and effective jams, notably by Bea Sting and Juggernaut Jataun, kept the bout from turning into a rout. The second half began with NJRD ahead by more than 100 points, but the Gotham girls redoubled their efforts and steadily chipped away at the lead, Scary Poppins also doing her bit. They closed to within 50 points, but impressive NJRD defense made every point hard. In the final few minutes successful jams by the NJRD left Gotham no time to overtake them. The final score was 153-220 in favor of NJRD Small Stars.

The NJRD divided itself well for the adult match of Blue vs. White. The result was nailbiter of a bout that was undecided until the final minute. Defense for both teams was extraordinarily aggressive, but especially for White, with Shorty Ounce frequently in the path of the Blue jammer. This was counterbalanced, though, by a slight edge in jammers by Blue, notably Marie Furie, Tiger Munition, and veteran skater Tuff Crust Pizza – plus a strategic use of star passes. The score, accordingly, seldom was more than a few points apart, and the first half ended with the board reading 104-109 in favor of White. White’s aggressive blocking and solid jams by skaters including Ferocia Rose, Malicen Wonderland, and Fizzing Whizbee built up a sizable lead through most of the second half, but it disappeared in single 24 point jam by Tuff Crust Pizza. With 5 minutes remaining the game tilted toward Blue. Pizza puy the last points on the board as the clock ran out, with a final score of 188-174 in favor of Blue.

I’m looking forward to what they can do as a united team against Jersey Shore. They seem ready.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On the Move

I move a couple times per year – not myself but other people. Not counting college dorm rooms, I move my own place of residence only about once per decade, and even then only if you include a move from one house to another on the same property: in the 80s I bought a property with two cottages on it and in the 90s moved from the smaller to the larger. This is pretty static by modern standards. Moreover, most of the moves have been local. I live 10 miles from where I was born, 4 from where I went to high school, and 3 from the family cemetery section where there’s a vacancy. (I wasn’t involved in that purchase, but there it is.) Nonetheless, my friends always remember who has a truck and an as yet uninjured back, so rarely does a year go by without putting my GMC and my latissimi dorsi to use in a move: most recently a week ago.

I usually get tagged for the large heavy pieces. I actually prefer these, for even though they are…well…large and heavy they are therefore few in number so the endeavor is over soon. (Friends who have lots of large heavy objects hire professional movers; no one yet has made an utterly unreasonable request for my help.) I invent excuses to avoid the tedious packing and moving of the usual small sundries from water glasses to sweat shirts. The one occasion when I regretted handling only the big items was when a friend (you know who you are) moved into a fourth floor walk-up. We carried up the steps a foldout couch that to account for the weight must have been made of uranium.

The few times I have moved on my own behalf have convinced me not to do it again without necessity. I’ll stay where I am for as many years as I can, but the cost – particularly NJ’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes – of retaining the family home as I presently do is unsustainable in the long run. So, necessity eventually will arrive, assuming John Maynard Keynes’ remark about the long run isn’t applicable first. I’m not looking forward to it – either possibility actually, though one of them is less work. The most daunting task will be disposing in some way of all the stuff that won’t make the move with me. The barn alone, despite my ongoing multiyear effort to diminish its contents, still abounds (my dad was a builder) with such sundries as mismatched trim, shingles, random hardware, window screens that fit no windows, mismatched cabinets, and (yes, really) a kitchen sink.

I had a foretaste of this kind of effort when I closed my business office a couple years ago: the removal of desks, copiers, steel file cabinets, and so on. I MacGyvered a makeshift block and tackle to get the heaviest cabinets down from the second floor. It’s not something I wish to repeat or that I’d recommend for the joy of it.

A track from a George Thorogood cd that was playing on my stereo earlier today not only inspired this blog but might contain good advice for my next home. (The song originally was Hank Williams I believe.) So long as it has wifi, a doghouse might not be so bad. It’s cozy and the move after that would be simple indeed.

Monday, March 6, 2017

All I Really Need to Know I Re-learned from Buffy

Ok, not really. But it is a less silly statement than one might think. I’m choosing this moment for it because a few days from now (March 10) marks the 20th anniversary of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Writer/director Joss Whedon grew up with outer-office Hollywood connections a couple of generations deep. His grandfather, for example, wrote for The Donna Reed Show. This background helped to get a hearing and a green light for Whedon’s youthful screenplay Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), but wasn’t enough to give him the director’s chair or creative control over the production. The result, much to his distress, was a far goofier movie than he intended – the line between campy and goofy may be fuzzy but it is real. Nonetheless, it was popular enough that the WB network offered to let Joss try his hand at a TV series based on it in which he would be in full control. Joss had his chance to mix horror, comedy, romance, dry wit, and melodrama (plus, yes, a little goofiness) as he liked, which is to say in a less broad manner than in the film. The combination worked. It worked for seven seasons and generated a spinoff series (Angel) that lasted for five.

I won’t go into lengthy detail about why this is a show adults can enjoy. The vlogger whose video is posted below does this most effectively. I cannot find anything in his argument with which to take issue. In brief, however, the primary point is that the monsters, demons, and vampires in the show are not just what they seem to be. They are metaphors for the troubles and demons we all face in life, particularly while growing up. Facing them, in fact, is how we grow up. Nor does Whedon lapse into a simpleminded morality. All his characters are more complex than that. There isn’t a single major character in the series who at some point doesn’t respond to some temptation or provocation by acting against type, as all of us do sometimes. After all, fundamentally good people can be destructive – even murderous – if triggered in the right way while villains can be kind. Moreover, villains can be truthful. Nearly always Whedon puts the most important (and therefore uncomfortable) truths into the mouths of his villainstruths politely avoided by the “good guys.” Yet, he tells us there are such things as moral choices. Lest all that begins to sound too heavy, did I mention the show also is both fun and funny?

I didn’t watch Buffy during its original 1997-2003 run. Those particular years were filled with my own troubles (a failed marriage, financial woes, loss of my parents, and much else) sucking the life out of me as effectually as any vampire. I didn’t need to seek out any more horror on TV and film. Besides, the movie had struck me as so-so, and I wasn’t inclined to give any of my then sparse downtime to a so-so show apparently aimed at teenagers. Only several years after the series ended did a smattering of re-runs convince me that I had prejudged the series wrongly. I have all seven seasons on DVD and recommend them. There is also a comic book series that continues to this day, though the first volume (the so-called Season 8) written by Joss Whedon is the one that ties up loose ends of the TV series. 

While he does enjoy dry wit, Whedon doesn’t ever rely on this alone. In Buffy and in his later scripts and movies he is never afraid to be sentimental, darkly humorous, grief-stricken, joyful, and passionate. His work is better for it. In a time of cynicism about everything except (regrettably) politics, in which true believers abound, it is well to be reminded that those adjectives are not properly just reserved for adolescents. They are human. Thanks for the reminder, Buff.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Double Occupancy

I always find it entertaining to watch a movie at home with a Millennial or GenZ. (What’s not to like about the term “Generation Z” and its variants for the latest wave of HS students and younger, by the way? It sounds like the zombie apocalypse.) There are at least three electronic devices competing for their attention: the TV, an open laptop with a game in progress, and a smart phone open to the net and continually buzzing as new texts arrive. There might even be music-emitting earphones around the neck that slide up onto the ears for any dull spots in film, game, or text.

I don’t multitask as well as that. I like to think I “focus better than that,” but in truth it’s a mix of both. Some of this is generational, but a lot of it is surely a personal trait: I just am distracted easily. I don’t even like the car radio to play when I’m coping with heavy traffic, though the radio is enjoyable on an open road. In high school and college I sometimes read and studied with the stereo playing, but not loudly and not any old record. I could deal with the Grateful Dead as background music, for example, but not Jimi Hendrix. Jimi would pull my attention away from the books. Nowadays I generally prefer full quiet when reading, but there are rare exceptions. The exceptions usually are an accident.

A recent exception involved thumbing through David Hume’s Essays while Garbage played on the stereo. I meant no commentary by that particular combination. The Garbage CD just happened to be playing when I picked up the book, got caught up in it, and then was too lazy to walk across the room to turn off the music. (Laziness has had a profound impact on my life in ways both large and small.) On this occasion the effect was pleasant.

After the bromidic Seneca (See earlier blog Polonius on the Tiber), the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was a refreshing breath of breezy 18th century air. Hume is fashionable in philosophic circles at the moment, probably because of his religious skepticism. Yet his more important message was religious toleration – and political toleration. Hume lived in fractious times, as we do today, and his assessment of political factions sounds all too modern:

“Those who either attack or defend a minister in such a government as ours, where the utmost liberty is allowed, always carry matters to an extreme, and exaggerate his merit or demerit with regard to the public. His enemies are sure to charge him with the greatest enormities, both in domestic and foreign management; and there is no meanness or crime, of which, in their account, he is not capable… On the other hand, the partizans of the minister make his panegyric run as high as the accusation against him, and celebrate his wise, steady, and moderate conduct in every part of his administration.”

So too.

The source of his tolerance (other than his personal disposition) was his belief in the limits of reason. Unlike Descartes and most of the ancient philosophers who insisted on the primacy of reason, Hume regarded reason as more of a tool than an answer. He saw all too clearly that people – especially in political, religious, and moral matters – believe something first and then employ reason to justify their belief. When negative proofs are impossible – as they usually are – most people are impervious to reasoned arguments. They can rationalize right back at you. They must be persuaded, if at all, by appealing to their sympathies – to their emotions. They will see logic in a new belief only afterwards. Recognition of this human foible made Hume a skeptic with regard to all beliefs including his own. It’s hard to be both a self-skeptic and a zealot.

As for popular music, the sounds from one’s youth are notoriously dear to the heart, which in my case primarily means basic blues-based rock-and-roll and its variants. Rarely do the five receptacles in my CD tray not contain at least one disc that meets the description, whether a classic band such as the Animals or a contemporary one such as Dorothy. But I do play other artists and genres originating both before and after my teen years. Bands from the ‘90s (high tide for GenXers) in particular occupy an outsized quantity of space on my CD shelf: Offspring, Radiohead, Guns’n’Roses, Soundgarden, etc. One experimental band I liked at the time was Garbage, which deliberately mixed genres so thoroughly that it really couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Lead singer (and Hume’s fellow Scot) Shirley Manson once called it sci-fi pop, but she didn’t stick with the description. Whatever it is, it combines ‘50s Beat coffee house-style lyrics with synthetic sounds and traditional instruments to interesting effect.

Garbage has disbanded and reformed several times over the years, but is currently together and performing. Their most recent album, the 2016 Strange Little Birds, is worth a listen (one track posted below) and served as the background music mentioned above.

Thumbs up to book and band. Though the two worked well together for me on this occasion, I think that is because neither was new to me. If encountering either for the first time, I recommend them in sequence, not in concert.

Garbage – Magnetized

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Light Side of the Farce

After my encounter with Seneca last week I was in need of some comic relief. Fortunately some was at hand in print and on stage.

**** ****
Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong

David Wong is the pen name of Jason Pargin, editor at Cracked. Several years ago Wong had unexpected success with his self-published cult paranormal/scifi novel John Dies at the End, which was made into a less successful cult movie in 2012. The novel had a sequel in much the same vein: This Book is Full of Spiders – Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It. Wong goes in a new direction with Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits. The newer book employs much more straightforward storytelling and abandons the paranormal, but Wong’s signature sense of humor remains.

In a not-too-distant future, Zoey Ashe lives in a trailer with an aromatic cat and a stripper mother. Zoey learns she is the sole heir to her absentee father, a billionaire entrepreneur in Tabula Ra$a. Tabula Ra$a is a new “anything goes” city in the Utah desert, built because Las Vegas is way too tame. Suddenly she is the target of live-streaming assassins with biological and mechanical enhancements who revel in their viewership count on social media. Her father’s former associates are allies of sorts, though she has no reason to trust them and their agendas. Zoey just wants to survive, which requires preventing an enhanced villain named Molech from making full acquisition and use of her father’s technical legacy. The live-streams of these events are immensely popular, which prompts new actors to enter the fray with their own webcams.

All the quirks and ills of modern society have blossomed into vastly more exaggerated versions in Wong’s future, with marvelous and darkly comedic effect.

Thumbs Up.

**** ****

A Comedy of Tenors

A friend of mine has season tickets to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, and was kind enough to give me a call (thanks again, Carol) when one of the four seats on Saturday was vacant. The Paper Mill, with its good facilities and proximity to NYC, is known for high production values and for attracting good talent.

Old-fashioned farce has made a comeback in recent years. This is not just an American phenomenon. A recent Guardian article opines, “This atmosphere of absurdity in public life may be one reason why British theatre is currently so fascinated by farce.” Perhaps that is a reason on this side of the Atlantic, too. Perhaps also it is a way of escaping from the atmosphere of hostility in public life. Mistaken identities and slapstick on stage don’t require us to take sides, and so offer some relief from an all too argumentative world. While farce may not be high art, many of the highest artists have tried a hand at it, such as you-know-who, the author of The Comedy of Errors. It takes some chops for actors to pull it off. Credit is due when they succeed.

Written by Ken Ludwig, A Comedy of Tenors takes place in a 1930s Paris hotel on the evening of a major concert of tenors – initially three, but the number of performers rises and falls (sometimes to zero) in the hours before the concert much to the horror of the producer. There are vast misunderstandings with overheard conversations, professional jealousies, misinterpreted visuals, and (as you might expect from the title) mistaken identity. The identity mix-up is between the world famous tenor Tito and his near twin, an aspiring tenor named Beppo who is a bellhop at the hotel. Doors slam and faces are slapped as the misunderstandings multiply.

The cast includes John Treacy Egan as Tito, Judy Blazer as Tito's wife Maria, Jill Paice as Tito’s daughter Mimi, Ryan Silverman as Carlo (a young tenor and Mimi's lover), Michael Kostroff as the producer Saunders, Donna English as Russian opera star Racon, and David Josefsberg as Max. All of them handle their parts and notes well, and no one trips over the furniture who isn't supposed to.

OK, there’s nothing remotely deep about any of this, and were the seat not free it’s unlikely I would have sat in it. Nonetheless, I'm glad I went. As the knockabout fun the play is intended to be, Thumbs Up.

Trailer – A Comedy of Tenors

Monday, February 20, 2017

Polonius on the Tiber

My essay on essays a couple weeks ago prompted me to revisit a few essayists who have languished on my shelves. First up was the playwright, Roman statesman, Stoic philosopher, and pedagogue Seneca (1 BCE – 65 CE), who should not be judged too harshly for having had Nero as a student.

I occasionally (meaning every few years) revisit one or more of Seneca’s plays. The critical consensus regarding his tragedies has varied considerably over the centuries along with changing fashions. They are dark, gory, and melodramatic, which suits some eras better than others. I rather like them including Octavia, which he might or might not have written. Modern scholars tend to doubt his authorship of Octavia because its subject matter (Nero’s ill-treatment of his wife) would have been politically indiscreet to put it mildly; I consider this argument against his authorship persuasive but not definitive as he could have squirreled the play away to be published posthumously. As that may be, enough decades went by since I read any of his other writings for me to have forgotten any earlier opinion of them. Having revisited his essays at last, I now recall why I left them on my shelf untouched for so long. (Hume has proved a merrier re-read, amazingly enough, but perhaps more on that another time.)

As a rule, Stoic philosophers aren’t much fun. Their “do your duty” and “straighten up and fly right” admonitions tend to come off as trite and preachy. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it makes them unpleasant. Seneca is no exception. Shakespeare, who was familiar with the works of Seneca, surely had him in mind when he crafted the pompous platitudinous Polonius in Hamlet. As an example, in Consolation to Marcia Seneca “consoles” Marcia, whose son died at 14, by opining that the quality of life matters more than the quantity. He then reminds her that adults can be tempted to disgrace themselves, and now her son won’t have the chance to do that. He asks, “For how do you know it was in his interest to have a longer life, or if this death came as a benefit to him?” It’s hard not to want to bark back at him, “Oh, shut up!” In On the Tranquility of the Mind he tells us of the value of moderation. In On Mercy he tells us he’s for it. He’s against anger though (On Anger). Oh, (re: On Earthquakes) he tells us we can’t prevent earthquakes.

I’m not saying Nero was right to order Seneca to commit suicide. I’m just saying I understand.

Bill Murray as Polonius

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Playing with Embers

For the past decade if a person in a first world country cannot be found within an hour through internet search engines and social media it’s pretty certain he or she doesn’t want to be found. A handful of my friends and acquaintances endeavor to “stay under the radar” (almost always the phrase they use) by eschewing Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and their cousins on principle. I’m not entirely sure what the principle is, but they do. Yet every one of those few still can be found entirely online in a single sitting by any determined person checking phone records, property tax records, credit scores, and so on. It is still possible to hide in today’s digitally connected and surveilled world, but it takes more effort than most folks are willing to put into it. There has to be a very good reason, such as dodging the FBI, creditors, or stalkers.

An extraordinarily common Google search – widely acknowledged yet not much discussed – is for old flames. Especially one of them. You know the one. We all have that one: the proverbial “one who got away.” Well, almost all of us do: a very tiny percentage actually lifetime partnered with that special someone for well or ill (there’s no safe bet about which). But for most of us that early inamorata is (if still alive) out there somewhere. “Early” is the key, for our youthful romances are always the most intense. We are not yet jaded when they happen. If anything jades us, these youthful romances do. It’s not that we can’t be “fools for love” later. We often are, sometimes in spectacular fashion. But it’s still not the same. This is the primary reason young people are most often those depicted in romance fiction in literature and on screen. It is not just that youths are pretty – and let us acknowledge the obvious that youth is pretty – but that they are intense and so make for better drama.

Now that reconnecting with an old flame is easier than ever, so is encountering later-term drama. An expert in the field of rekindled romances – yes, there is such a thing – is Dr. Nancy Kalish. (See her website Kalish argues that these early connections really are special, and not just something to which we impart specialness later through nostalgia: “We used to marry when we were 17, 18, but nowadays there’s education, there’s other things we do first, and so we’re marrying later and we wind up with these lost loves—somebody who 100 years ago you would’ve married at 17.”

Back between 1993 and 1996 before the internet got a firm footing, Kalish surveyed 1001 people who had rekindled a romance with an old flame at least 5 years after it was broken off the first time. Many of those interviewed rekindled 20 years afterwards and one did so 75 years later. 71% called their reunions the most intense romantic experiences of their lives. Nearly all were happy about having done it. Today, the odds of rekindled romances being a success (i.e. both parties are happy about it) have dropped to scarcely more than 50%. Yet a solid majority of rekindlers still call the experience intense, even those who ultimately regarded it as a bad idea. “Rekindlers” in this context means those who reconnect romantically in person – not those who merely say “Hi” on Facebook. Many of the modern-day rekindlers undertook their searches casually, which likely accounts for the decline in successful outcomes since 1993. They didn’t initially search in earnest but found that one thing could lead to another. Many of the contemporary searchers, in fact, are married, with the obvious complications inherent in that circumstance.
Four decades later I'll
post no clearer pic

The large majority of people have no desire to be rekindlers. Most online searches for old flames do not involve any intent to rekindle anything – they are motivated simply by idle curiosity. Rekindlers are a large enough minority to be noteworthy, but they are still a minority. Most of us would rather keep “the one that got away” firmly in our past as no more than a special (and not always good) memory. As part of her ongoing research, Kalish in 2015 asked a broad group of non-rekindlers if they would want to reunite with their first loves if given a chance. Two-thirds checked the “no” box. More than a few wrote “Hell no!” in the margin. But, 30% said they would like to reunite if they could, including 30% of married responders. You probably know into which category you fall.

I’m solidly in “No” category as it happens. I know it would have been a disaster had we not broken up when we did. (Maybe not a worse disaster than what followed in life anyway, but we’re talking about the difference between metaphorical car crashes here.) But that it was best to end it permanently doesn’t make what went before the end less intense. Sometimes tis better to have loved and lost than to have loved and found.

Devil Doll – The One Who Got Away

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Essay Assay

In my senior year of high school my English teacher created an extraordinary amount of work for himself. On top of our other assignments every student in the class every single school day was required to turn in an essay of at least 500 words: “On my desk by 5 PM. That does NOT mean 5:01.” (500 words fill about two pages in double-space 12-point Courier – then the most common typewriter font and size.) He returned the corrected papers to us the next day, which was a bigger and drearier task for him than I credited at the time. There was value to the exercise. A year later, college essays were much easier to churn out than they otherwise would have been. Also, the need to come up with a topic five days per week taught that essays could be written about absolutely anything from the air one breathes to the chair upon which one sits. Writing short essays actually became a hard habit to break. All these decades later I’m still doing it and posting the results on this site – albeit weekly (more or less) rather than daily.

The essay is an odd literary mutt. It is nonfiction of a sort, yet not strictly factual. It is defined “by individual expression – by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt.” The quote is from a preface to The Lost Origins of the Essay, a 700 page anthology edited by John D’Agata. An essay also is relatively short, though book-length collections of essays (e.g. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) are commonplace. An essay can be read and digested at a single sitting. Anthologies always inspire the reader to second-guess the editor: i.e. “there should have been more of this and less of that and at least some of the other thing.” D’Agata’s book is no exception, but its strength is historical spread. The first entry is by Ziusudra of Sumer from 2700 BCE. The last by John Berger brings us to the dawn of the 21st century. In between we have many of the basics from Western literature (Seneca, Montaigne, Jonathan Swift, Virginia Woolf, et al.) and also a smattering from around the world (e.g. T’ao Ch’ien and Yoshida Kenko). The Lost Origins of the Essay is not a book to be finished in an evening. It is something on which to snack time and again, no more than a few nuggets at a sitting. At the end you still will be hungry. That’s a compliment.

All essays are of their time but the best of them transcend their time as well. Gore Vidal’s Matters of Fact and Fiction (a mix of reviews and general commentary), for example, speaks volumes about the 1970s but remains a relevant read in 2017 as well. Those of us who write essays rarely have the skill to achieve both timeliness and timelessness, but I recommend the exercise anyway. There are few better methods of organizing one’s own thoughts in a coherent and compendious way than to put them in an essay. So, while I never would have said it at the time, thanks Mr. Drew for all the homework.

Al Perkins & Betty Bibbs – Homework (1965)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Over ‘dale

Back in my childhood days when the amazingly restrictive CMA code of 1954 was in force, comic books were for kids. Adults sometimes read them, but they were ashamed of it and for good reason: they were for kids. By the time I had grown up, comics had too. Nowadays comics – and Young Adult novels for that matter – are sold overwhelmingly to adults and are written for them. Far from being ashamed or embarrassed, those adults flock to comic book conventions, often in full costume. Many of the old characters from the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s remain, but have been reinvented for a new age and an older readership. One of the oddest reinventions has been of the perennial teenager Archie Andrews, who started attending Riverdale High School in 1939.

The latest incarnation of Archie was timed to inform the new and strangely dark CW network television series Riverdale. The show is aimed at teens but might win older viewers, too. I will not be among them. I’m not averse to high school dramas in general despite my dotage, but the first (and for me likely the last) episode of this one didn’t appeal despite the unexpected storyline of Archie’s affair with a teacher and their possible witness to a murder. Nonetheless, I was curious to peek at the source material to see how the redhead and his friends had transformed in the decades since I last read of their adventures. Road to Riverdale (2017) looked like the best option: it contains the first issues of the rebooted titles Archie, Jughead, Betty & Veronica, Josie and the Pussycats, and Reggie and Me.

The classic Archie with whom I grew up already was an anachronism: his small town of Riverdale harkened to Andy Hardy’s Carvel Idaho of two decades earlier, which itself was social and demographic make-believe. Yet, to this 10-year-old reader the comic offered an idyllic vision of upcoming teen years when an unremarkable humdrum fellow such as Archie somehow could have two stunningly gorgeous young women vying for his affection while he faced no greater threat than an occasional prank by Reggie. Even as a kid, I “got” that the competition itself was the motivating factor for Betty and Veronica. Winning had to be more important than the prize itself: the uninspiring Archie. Nonetheless, this competition worked out for him. I was team Veronica, btw, even though I intuited that if Archie ended the competition by choosing he might lose both. This presumption wasn’t precocious worldly wisdom; it was just that obvious even to a 10-year-old.

In 2017 the characters are very much more layered, but there is continuity at the core. Archie is full of teen angst but he still isn’t interesting enough to deserve either Betty or Veronica. Jughead is far brighter and more insightful than in the past but is still lazy on principle unless motivated by comfort food: burgers, lasagna, milkshakes, etc. Betty is still a good girl though now she displays it through social activism, a temper, and an effective right hook. Veronica is still the classy self-centered rich girl whose unabashed “me first” instincts more often come off as refreshing than annoying. Reggie is still the troublemaker, though “psychopathic” is now an appropriate adjective. The Riverdale prom still counts as a big gig for Josie and the Pussycats though Val is now lead singer. For all of the characters, their troubles are far more troubling than in earlier incarnations – enough so that I don’t think modern-day 10-year-olds will aspire to have teen years like theirs. In fact, I doubt many will read the titles at all, though apparently sales are good to “young adults” and older.

The artwork in Road to Riverdale is suitable for a new century and new readership. The storytelling is likably weird with abundant violations of the “fourth wall.” Archie narrates his own story to the reader. Jughead and Reggie have their stories narrated by their respective pet dogs. All in all, it’s not a bad reboot – though really not for me anymore. I won’t be buying rebooted Archie #2. And yes, I’m still team Veronica.

Upshot: Not currently my genre, but Thumbs Up for what it is.

Trailer: Riverdale