Sunday, December 31, 2017

Seven Eves

We are told that the onset of the new year is the time for fresh starts and looking forward. Given the nature of time (or at least the human experience of it), looking forward is not really an option. We are driving in reverse gear in a car with a stuck accelerator, no shift, and no brakes; further, all the glass is painted black except the windshield in front of our eyes, so we can see only where we’ve been. We do have some steering control, but we merely try to surmise what’s ahead based on what’s behind. Most of the road hazards we encounter are complete surprises. We often miss the ones about which we’re most worried only to slam into something we never seriously considered.

We all know this, which is why nostalgia outweighs expectations on New Year’s Eve. The song, after all, is Auld Lang Syne, not New Times A-Comin’. True, there are some years that we are happy to see come to an end – more than a few people felt that way about 2016 – but that, too, is a retrospective way of evaluating things. At this stage in my life, I’ve had far too many retrospective New Year’s Eves to recall each of them individually; even if I could, I’m far too lazy to write about them all – and am kind enough not to try to inflict such a tome on a reader. I’ll be unkind enough to recall ones at decade intervals, however.

1957: I still sometimes wear suspenders
but I've given up on bowties
1957: I truthfully can’t say I recall this New Year’s Eve, and I would have been in bed as 1958 arrived at midnight anyway. However, I do recall specific events (and presents) from that holiday season which includes the Eve. I can’t say I yet had acquired a reflective nature either. At age 5, upon how much is there on which to reflect? If I had thought about it, I probably would have recalled my first day of school, which was a major life event of 1957. In those benighted days (though somehow we still tested better 12 years later on SATs than today’s students) they didn’t really teach us anything academic in Kindergarten. It was just about getting socialized to the school experience and to other kids. At the end of the first day I got on the wrong bus. I’ve been searching for the right one ever since.

1967: I was a sophomore and suitably sophomoric. To the extent I had a Holden Caufield year, this was it. There was much teen angst and awkwardness on which to reflect. I did win my one and only blue ribbon earlier that year in a horse show event. Mostly, though, it was a year of re-evaluation – which is to say one of finally accepting that I wasn’t as exceptional as I would have liked. I actually remember watching on TV at home the ball drop at midnight in Times Square as 1968 arrived. I don’t know why: I remember few of the others specifically, but that one sticks.

Eyes across the table
1977: This was the high point of my youth. At 25 I was as fit as I’ve ever been and my adult life was coming together in a hedonistic decade that only those who experienced it would believe. Moreover, there was that one. You know the one. We all have the one, even if we didn’t end up with her or him and are glad we didn’t… yet still the one. I don’t remember New Year’s Eve specifically, but a few days earlier I was at PJ Clarke’s with those eyes across the table. 1977 was a good year.

F150 parked by my cabin in the
1987:  For me, 1987 was a mixed bag, congruent with broader events that included a booming economy terminated by an epic stock market crash that was worse than 1929 or 2008, albeit with far milder aftereffects than either. I didn’t own stocks then, so the market movements didn’t affect me directly, but they did indirectly. I had a pleasant but fragile relationship (not live-in) that already had lasted more than a year and wouldn’t end until ’89. I owed a substantial (for me) mortgage sum, but I owned my home and it was a good investment. I still had my favorite vehicle to date: a simple 1979 Ford F150. The truck did have a quirk though. The shift on automatic transmissions in that model year sometimes would hang up between P and R so that you could think you were in Park when you weren’t. One time I slid the shift into what felt like P and left the truck to open a garage door. Suddenly the F150 was off backwards. I ran after it yelling, “Stop!” For some reason the truck didn’t listen. It arced off the driveway, slipped between two big black birches, and smacked into a flexible young cedar. The cedar bent enough to stop the Ford without significant damage. I scolded the truck for running away but praised it for its choice of trees. I don’t remember what I did for New Years Eve that year so it must not have been very memorable. 1987 was OK.

1997: Storm clouds brewed in 1997. I really can’t explain that further without being more boorish than I want to be even 20 years later. The year wasn’t without excitement, true enough: stormy weather rarely is. But 1997 is a New Year’s Eve I remember, and the year closed with a deep sense of foreboding that proved well-founded.

2007: The almost decade-long rough weather (including deaths of friends and family) subsided in 2007. The year ended with a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in years. I looked forward to more of the same as the clock ticked toward 2008. I don’t remember exactly what I actually was doing that particular Eve, but I’m sure of the feeling because it had lasted a month. Favorite memory: just sitting in a chair doing nothing but enjoying not being swamped by immediate worries. In the event, 2008 proved to be tumultuous financially, as it was for so many other people, but not in other ways, so my prognostication was mostly right.

Imposing on poor Samantha Fish after
a 2017 NYC concert
2017: Well, (as anyone who has done the math so far knows – though I can’t imagine who would have troubled to do the math), there is Social Security, isn’t there? There are also senior discounts at movie theaters, but, since the ticket sellers sometimes give me the discount without my asking for it, the discount comes with a bit of a sting. That happened to me for the first time last spring and a couple times since then. 2017 was a good year for me: not as good as ’77, but nonetheless a good year. I’m very aware that my life clock is no longer in the wee numbers, of course, but that’s OK, too.

What of 2018? Well, as mentioned up top, all we sense of that is guesswork based on the road behind. With any luck, next New Year’s Eve 2018 will have counted as another good year. I hope it is for you, too. Happy New Year.

The Offspring – Days Go By

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Raiment under the Tree

I am not a clothes horse and never have been. This is unlike my dad who enjoyed being a natty dresser. As a builder he wore plaid flannel and work jeans on most days, but he enjoyed the opportunity to spiff up in tie and jacket at Rotary meetings and Builders Association meetings and other occasions when more casual attire would have been perfectly acceptable. He left behind a walk-in closetful of jackets and dress shirts – even a tuxedo.  Even in my trim days they didn’t fit me, so I don’t still have them. Nor did I inherit the natty gene. Once out of prep school (where tie and jacket were required by the dress code) I tied a half-Windsor so seldom that whenever my mom spotted me with one she took my picture.

Autumn 1970. If the items
still fit I'd probably still wear
them, bell bottoms and all. 
I was not (and am not) actually averse to the notion of donning semi-formal or formal attire. I just don’t bother much. Moreover, like many long-single men, I keep and wear clothes not just for years but for decades, and so look typically a bit rumpled. When the garments eventually are tossed out or donated, it is not because they are out of fashion. It is because they truly have frayed away or no longer fit. Save for one overcoat, I don’t believe I have anything in my closet remaining from the 1960s but there is more than one item from the 1970s. These items remain because they still fit, meaning they were considerably too big at the time they were bought.

The reader might remember being disappointed as a small child when a gift under the tree turned out to be clothes instead of toys. Those days are long gone, for in 2017 I’m gifting myself with more clothes than in any year in the past decade – maybe more all other nine years of the decade combined. I’m happy to get them, even if I begrudge the cost. Not that the budget for them was high: just high for me. This splurge was because I’ve finally accepted that I will not fit into 1997 clothes ever again. 1997 was the last year I could wear something from 1972 without straining buttons or fabric (though perhaps straining taste). I think 20 years is long enough to sustain the fantasy that my corporeal dimensions of 1997 are recoverable. So, I emptied out much of the closet and acquired apparel that fits. I still won’t look natty, but at least the buttons will button.

People have been donning fashions for a very long time. Prehistoric and ancient clothes don’t survive well in the archeological record, so we don’t know what the earliest ones were like. Though ancient garb is depicted in early historical art, we don’t have many samples of the actual articles; those few come only from sites extraordinarily well suited to conservation such as Egyptian tombs. We can’t know for sure why people started wearing clothes in the first place, but we can make a pretty fair estimate of when thanks to lice. Lice are persnickety creatures. Each species of louse prefers a specific species of host. Though uncommon, it is possible for a louse to jump host species, but when this happens it quickly adapts over surprisingly few generations to become a new species itself. Nearly every mammal species has only one cohabiting louse species. Humans are rare in having three species of louse that are ours alone: head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. DNA studies can show how long ago species diverge, and body lice diverged from head lice some 107,000 years ago. (DNA shows pubic lice diverged from gorilla lice; the less said about that the better.) “Body lice” is a misnomer, for they do not cling to the body. They instead have claws specially adapted to cling to the interior of clothing, which means clothes have been around for at least 107,000 years. That is some 40,000 years before modern humans spread beyond Africa, so warmth probably wasn’t the prime motivation for dressing up.

Sumerian catwalk
What fashions looked like for the first 100,000 years or so is anyone’s guess. We have 5300-year-old remains of cold weather attire from Ötzi, a middle-aged fellow whose body was found in the Alps where it had been frozen in ice for all those millennia. He had a sheep hide coat, goatskin leggings, bear fur hat, intricately made deerskin and string shoes stuffed with hay, and a woven grass cape. A man after my own heart, he repeatedly had repaired his well-worn coat. He’d probably owned it for decades. Had Ötzi not died a violent death in his mid-40s – a flint arrowhead is lodged in the body – he might have kept it for a decade or two more. Middle-age spread was less of an issue with residents of Europe’s cool climes back then, so he wouldn’t have needed tailoring or a replacement.

Not being Ötzi – and on the whole I’m pleased with that – I do need replacements, but now I should be good for another 20 years. 

ZZ Top – Sharp Dressed Man

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Cold Facts

It is not yet officially winter but winter weather has arrived as it usually does by the onset of December in these parts. Due to the vagaries of scheduling, it seems that musicians and shows I want to see live are at nearby venues during December, January, and February more often than the 25% of the time one expects by chance. Last night I was in NYC to catch Samantha Fish at The Cutting Room. (She was there last July, too, so winter has no monopoly on my preferred performances: just an outsized share.) The show was good, of course, yet, strangely enough, standing in line in the cold for doors to open (late) is not as much fun as it was when I was 18.

Frankie waited in line too long
Fortunately, the temperature last night was just borderline freezing, which is positively balmy compared to those of some of my line waits in the past. Two stand out in particular. One was in 2004 outside The Bottom Line in the Village where Richie Havens and Janis Ian were on a double bill. It was a windy January night with temperatures in the negative single digits (Fahrenheit). By the time the door opened I had ceased to feel my feet; my fingers – despite being deep inside pockets of a fleece-lined coat – felt as though they were pierced by needles. The true winner, though, has to be the night of a Motörhead concert some 30 years ago at Roseland – a venue, incidentally, where my parents once jitterbugged to Benny Goodman. The penetrating wind on that subfreezing eve maintained a high-pitched whistle. Again my feet went numb and this time so did my fingers, which no longer functioned as fingers. I couldn’t complain, though, for I had lost my power of speech. The combination of a numb face and chattering teeth meant I literally (not figuratively but literally) could not articulate words.

Only one person of my own acquaintance ever died of hypothermia (though one is enough) and it was not in line for a rock concert. I was a few steps along the path however. Whenever someone insists on standing out in the freezing cold, the body’s first response is to protect core temperature by constricting capillaries and blood flow to extremities: hence the numbness. As your body continues to shed heat you reach the boundary of hypothermia at a core temperature of 95 (35 C). As core temperature continues to drop, mental functions become unreliable: assume any decisions you make at this point will be bad ones. At least you probably won’t be scared: at a core temperature of 91 you won’t give a damn about much of anything. At 90 you might not be unconscious technically, but you might as well be. At this point, if you don’t get someplace warm you are on your way to joining Ötzi the Iceman.

The good news is that all this generally takes longer than the wait in line to a concert. Even if hypothermia does overtake you, if help comes along there’s a chance of being revived even from a core temperature in the 60s. All the same, I wouldn’t recommend the experience. I’m glad I caught Motörhead in its heyday. (Founding member Lemmy Kilmister died in 2015.) Nonetheless, faced with a similar wait today, regardless of the artist I’d abandon that line and find the nearest coffee shop.

Motörhead – No Class

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Lounging by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Just outside the front door
You never know in NJ what winter will bring. Sometimes (though not often) the snowfalls start in October and keep piling on top of us for the next five months. Other years we get a dusting or two in February, and that’s the end of it. This year, the first snow since last March fell yesterday. It wasn’t much – just enough to stick – but it counted. It provided a bare excuse to spend the weekend at my home in the woods with a book and DVD. Both are worth a look.

**** ****

One Touch of Venus (1948)
The 1980s romantic comedy Mannequin frequently appears on “Guilty Pleasures” lists, but the 1948 inspiration for that movie is largely forgotten. One Touch of Venus turned up frequently on late night TV when I was a child. It was a favorite of my sister and I enjoyed watching it with her. Since then it all but has vanished from the airwaves. Not even TCM has it on regular rotation. Prior to this past weekend I hadn’t seen it in more than 50 years. I had forgotten completely that it was a musical. So how does it hold up decades later?

One Touch of Venus was a successful Broadway musical starring Mary Martin in the early 1940s. The music was changed and curtailed significantly for the ’48 screen adaptation but the script was scarcely altered. Stage and screen are two very different media and scripts are rarely interchangeable. That is the biggest weakness of the movie production, particularly with regard to the overly-broad-for-screen character Eddie Hatch. Nonetheless, the overall result is still modestly pleasant fare.

Plot: Department store magnate Whitfield Savory (Tom Conway) buys the relic statue Anatolian Venus as an attraction for his store. In an inebriated moment, window dresser Eddie Hatch kisses the statue. Venus (a stunning Ava Gardner) comes to life and causes any number of comic complications before being recalled to Olympus by Jupiter. In the meantime she also resolves a number of romantic issues for the people in the store. Much of the comedy is provided by the unrequited affections of the female characters, which is a reversal of the usual state of affairs then as now (as current news all too relentlessly demonstrates). Eve Arden as Whitfield’s competent right hand operative is especially splendid.

This movie is no classic in any sense other than age. However, if you are looking for light mindless entertainment and are thinking “maybe Mannequin,” try One Touch of Venus instead. It is better, which isn’t saying much but is saying something.

Thumbs ever so mildly Up.

**** ****

Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914-1921 by Laura Engelstein
The global history of the 20th century is very much a history of the varying fortunes of Russia. In world wars, proxy wars, cold wars, ideological contests, and the post-Soviet restructuring, when Russia wasn’t the central player it still was a weight that tipped balance scales. The key moment that defined Russia’s 20th century was the 1917 October Revolution. Yale historian Laura Engelstein released her book on its 100th anniversary.

The events covered by Engelstein are covered by many other books on my shelves. (My degree is in history, which isn’t one that’s likely to fill a graduate’s pockets but is one likely to fill his or her bookcases.) However, they tend to suffer from being either too general (e.g. histories of WW1) or too specific (e.g. individual biographies or particular accounts of the February and October Revolutions). By covering the whole period of World War, Revolution, foreign intervention, Civil War, and consolidation with the New Economic Policy in a single volume, Engelstein is able to put events in proper context with sufficient detail but without overwhelming the reader.

The astonishing evaporation of imperial authority in early 1917 by no means ensured that the Bolsheviks would prevail in the end even with Lenin’s single-minded dedication to that outcome. Engelstein details how it happened that they did, through a mix of random events, politics of division, and calculated violence.

Thumbs solidly Up.

Clip from One Touch of Venus (1948)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Final Pet

When I wrote the blog Cat Wars last month I would have given odds that my 19-y.o. cat Maxi would snap back from his injuries and ailments one more time. He didn’t. Today he went to Cat-halla.

Maxi 2016
I’ve had seven cats in the past 32 years: generally two at a time, for several years three, and continuously since 1985 at least one. Whenever one has died I’ve been immediately importuned to adopt another in its place. The pleaders come in three varieties and the first two mean well: 1) there are those who actually seem to think I want a replacement, and who thereby think that they are being kind; 2) there are those who mean well at least for the cats by trying to place them in my home whether I want them or not; and 3) there are scheming guys who hope to win the favor of some habitually cat-rescuing woman by placing a cat for her at someone else’s (my) expense rather than their own. If only the last type restricted their schemes to cats… I never want a replacement. Don’t get me wrong. I am fond of my pets when I have them. I just don’t seek to adopt any in the first place; they are a responsibility that, given a prior choice, I opt to do without. Except for the first two kittens (adopted to help out my sister) in 1985, they’ve come into my possession only by the accidents of life – in a sense, so even did those first two. Maxi and Mini (d. 2015) were inherited from my parents in 2001.

There always were dogs and cats and other sundry animals around the house when I was growing up. Pets are commonly regarded as good for kids, and so they are. One of their benefits seems anything but a benefit at the time. They frequently are a child’s first real encounter with death. About a decade ago Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) commented that the biggest social change since he was a child is the insulation of modern life from death. He said there was much more consciousness of mortality in daily life, and that, when his family went to visit relatives on the weekend, they went to the graveyard; in those pre-antibiotic days young people were as likely to be in there as old folks. Nowadays we tend to banish Thanatos from our environment to the extent possible. Of course we are aware of it intellectually, but we keep the awareness as superficial as possible. Losing a pet is likely to be the first real mortal loss with strong emotional content that a child experiences. Nothing truly prepares a person for the far bigger losses that inevitably are to come, but even that bit of training helps a little.

Maxi had a long and good life by the standards of felines. That’s all one really can ask. He is my final pet, and in many ways he was the best. Anyway, so long Maxi, and thanks for all the mice, birds, rabbits, moles, and snakes.

The Doors – The End

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Multimedia: 4 Reviews

Influx by Daniel Suarez
We all know some of those conspiracy-minded folks who carry on about how the government or corporations are suppressing knowledge of cancer cures or free energy or what-have-you in order to protect profits on pharmaceuticals and petroleum or whatever. The hole in those arguments always has been that the U.S. and the West in general are not the world. All this marvelous tech should be in use wherever their dominance doesn’t extend.

In his science fiction novel Influx, Daniel Suarez asks, “What if they’re right anyway?” Might that explain why, nearly half a century after the Moon landings, instead of Martian colonies we just have better phones? The Bureau of Technology Control (BTC) in his novel is a secret government organization that identifies emerging disruptive technologies and prevents their general introduction, though the BTC members make full use of the tech themselves. The inventions include anti-aging drugs, cold fusion, cancer cures, genetic engineering, hypersonic transport, true artificial intelligence, and much more. Supposedly the tech is being held back while "assessing their social, political, environmental, and economic impacts with the goal of preserving social order," but, predictably, the social order the gatekeepers are most interested in preserving is their own primacy and power. What about the “U.S. and the West in general are not the world” thing? There are other BTCs.

Jon Grady is an eccentric researcher who invents a gravity-mirror with profound implications for industry, defense, and space travel. He is abducted by BTC agents who try to recruit him with specious arguments about the greater good. Authoritarians are always adept at justifying their authority. He doesn’t buy it and consequently finds himself in a prison with other scientists and inventors. With help from fellow prisoners and disaffected BTC members including the genetically enhanced Alexa, can he escape, help expose and bring down the BTC, and let the long-delayed future finally arrive?

In many ways this is an old-fashioned scifi novel with the protagonist battling the odds against an arch-nemesis. But that’s OK. This is recreational reading material and succeeds as being good… well… recreation.

Thumbs Up for what it is: Not high-lit – not even high-scifi-lit – but entertaining.

**** ****

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell was an inventive instant-classic cyber-punk anime in 1995 that inspired numerous animated and live-action films to follow, notably The Matrix. Surprisingly, it took more than 20 years to be adapted directly to the live-action screen. This heavily Americanized (though still set in Japan) version, now out on DVD, starring Scarlett Johansson has suffered from the time lapse. What may have been innovative in 1995 looks derivative today even though ultimately it derives from the ’95 original.

Whether they saw the anime or not, viewers will see little new here. Cityscapes are swappable with those in Blade Runner 2049 right down to the giant hologram advertisements. That said, the movie still looks good. Director Rupert Sanders has handled the material well with the dialogue and action scenes covering all the ground they need to cover coherently and competently. The movie flows well and there are no glaring holes in the final product.

Premise: In the future, humans enhance themselves with cybernetic add-ons. This is taken to the extreme when a young woman’s disembodied brain is implanted in an otherwise fully robotic body. Except for flashes, her memories are missing of her time as a normal human but she is told she is a survivor of a cyberterrorist attack that killed her parents, and that, as a brain in a full cyber body, she is something new. She joins an antiterrorist organization called Section 9 and attains the rank of Major. However, events cause her to question her actual identity, her human status, her real history, and the motives and morals of the defense contractor responsible for her existence.

In 1999, the year that The Matrix was released, this movie would have made more of a splash. In 2017 it is an also-ran, and no amount of Scarlett in skintight attire can change that. If you have a couple free hours some evening, this is entertaining enough, but not much more. Thumbs ever so slightly Up.

**** ****

Black Widow: Deadly Origin by writer Paul Cornell and artists Tom Raney and John Paul Leon
The Black Widow (Natalia Romanova) has been a part of the Marvel Comics universe since 1964, sometimes as villain and sometimes as hero. The appearance of the character played by Scarlett Johansson in recent Marvel movies along with plans for future movies prompted Marvel to reboot the character in its comic books. Black Widow: Deadly Origin successfully does this with a coherent updated origin story that doesn’t totally lose sight of her earlier Marvel history. The story is told in flashbacks grafted onto a contemporary tale.

Born in 1928, Natalia was subject to a Soviet super-soldier program similar (though not identical) to the one in the US that produced Captain America: hence her lack of physical aging. Her loyalties flipped a few times over the years, and still aren’t to be taken for granted as was shown in Captain America: Civil War when she opposed the Cap despite their personal relationship. The comic reveals that much of her evolution as a person has to do with the father figure Ivan who is not what he seems to be.

Marvel has produced many fine comics and graphic novels. This isn’t one of them. It doesn’t have an engrossing standalone story-arc and so it fails as a graphic novel. However, it succeeds at doing what it was intended to do, which is to flesh out the history and character profile of one of the more interesting Marvel universe characters. This is the publication for you if you watched the The Avengers movie and asked yourself, “Who is this woman anyway?” Black Widow: Deadly Origin tells you what you need to know and more. The comic is well-drawn and is aimed at an adult (or at least young adult) readership, not kids.

Dual Score: Thumbs Down as a standalone comic. Thumbs Up as a movie character bio.

**** ****

Samantha Fish – Belle of the West (2017)
Regular readers (there are a few out there) may recall that Samantha Fish is one of the current crop of musicians whose gigs I try to catch when she is in the area. She is an exceptional blues guitarist with an appealing voice and a good stage presence. In March of this year she released Chills and Fever in which she enriched her earlier basic three-piece sound with horns, keyboard, and a wider range of song styles. This is still the album I’d recommend for anyone unfamiliar with her work.

Belle of the West, her second album of 2017, is a worthwhile addition for those who already are fans even though (or because) it is not more of the same. “You should always get outside of the box,” she said, and in this album she did. The tracks, including originals and covers, with a few exceptions are much more country than blues. That’s not normally my first (or second or third) choice of genres, but this album works, and it’s hard not to give credit for trying something different. Once again, if you’re new to Samantha, this atypical (and possibly one-off) album might not be the place to start; pick up Chills and Fever or, better yet, see her live ( But if you already have other tunes of hers on your cd shelf or in whatever digital format you prefer, Belle of the West should join them.

A qualified Thumbs Up.

Samantha Fish – Blood in the Water 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


By pure happenstance of the calendar I always remembered my parents’ anniversary; it is November 29th, the day after my birthday. In some years Thanksgiving, my birthday, and their anniversary fall three days in a row. That tends to impress itself on a child’s memory. I remember it still. So, my birthday yesterday immediately made me think of their anniversary today, and I realized that this one would be their 70th. Somehow that seems improbable, though doubtless not as improbable as it would seem to them were they here to contemplate it. My dad died in 2000 and my mom in 2001.

The note on back says
"age 15 and 17"
Needless to say, it was a different world in 1947. My mom Robina was 19 and my dad Richard (almost always Dick) was 21. Today we actively and loudly discourage people that young from getting married, but back then nearly half of all marriages were among women and men those ages or younger. They were on the tail end of the GI Generation, but still a part of it. As a matter of definition, the GI Generation comprises those old enough to have served in WW2 (even if in fact they didn’t) but too young also to have served in WW1 or for it to have been their formative experience: i.e. the birth years 1905 to 1928. (The GIs were preceded by the so-called Lost Generation [roughly 1884 to 1904] and followed by the so-called Silent Generation [1929-1945].) My father was born in 1926 and my mother in 1928. They met in Morristown High School. During the war my dad served in the USMS, aka Merchant Marine; he and my mom continued to date whenever his ship was in a nearby port. He was discharged in ’46 and they married a year later. My sister was born the day before North Korea invaded the South in 1950, which fortuitously gave my dad an exemption from being recalled to military service.

There are always exceptions to broad generalizations, of course, but the GI Gens tended to be flawed in characteristic ways that their kids (Boomers) were all too eager to point out to them. Whatever their flaws, however, they also commonly had virtues that are sadly uncommon today, such as the blending of stern values with a ready willingness to give second chances. An example: my dad was a builder, and one time in the ‘60s some neighborhood teens slashed tires on construction vehicles on his job site. The damage was $800, which was a substantial sum at the time. A neighbor had seen the boys and reported their names to my dad. Today, teens vandalizing a job site this way almost certainly would be reported to the police in “by-the-book” fashion. Instead, my dad called their fathers. He didn’t want the kids’ parents to pay for the tires; he wanted the boys to pay for them from summer jobs. They did, too, and their parents backed my dad up. No police ever heard a word about it. My dad shook hands with each of the boys when the debt was paid off, and he truly regarded the matter as closed. It is so hard to imagine this happening today; almost certainly there would be cops called, there would be lawyers hired, and there would be parents vociferously defending their teens regardless of what they thought the truth might be.

My mom, like my dad, was hardworking, versatile, and competent without intending any social statement by it. She worked as an executive secretary (the term was not yet verboten) on Wall Street in the ‘40s, was a stay-at-home mom in the 50s, and opened her own real estate brokerage in the ‘60s. A bubbly persona often led people to underestimate her, which always was a mistake. Despite his tough façade, my dad was a soft touch, while my mom was anything but.

The combination worked well throughout their marriage as a small incident illustrates. In 1998 it was their habit to have breakfast at the nearby Chester Diner. One morning they were chatting away in their usual fashion when a couple in a neighboring booth got their attention. “Excuse me,” said the woman in the booth, “but are you two married?” “51 years,” my mom answered. “Really? We ran out of things to say to each other 30 years ago,” was the reply. They never did run out of things to say.

The stone chapel off of Bernardsville-Mendham Road where the wedding took place in 1947 still exists. However, back then it was an unassuming little structure in the middle of the woods in a municipality not known for being upscale. Today it is a secondary building on a private 9-acre estate with a mansion built in 2002. The property happens to be on the market at this time, but at a price of $4,495,000 and with annual property taxes of over $83,000 I’m afraid I’ll have to pass. It’s a tad out of my range. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Doing the League Justice

The first wave of comic book superheroes and their screen adaptations (often as serials) was in the 1930s and 40s when economic upheaval and the spread of tyranny left ordinary individuals feeling anything but empowered. It’s hard not to think something similar is behind the surge in the genre’s popularity in the 21st century; even though the obstacles and imminent threats (most of them anyway) are less existential now than 80 years ago, they seem even less tractable. The heroes and antiheroes of our fantasies tell more about us than perhaps we really want to know. The latest big budget production in theaters is Justice League.

The majority of critics have not been kind to Justice League. The film undoubtedly has shortcomings, and I’ll address a big one before briefly explaining why I like it anyway.

In ancient Western culture the longest-running philosophical war (fought with true rancor) was between the Epicureans and the Stoics, the former identifying pleasure as the core value and the latter duty. In reality, the practical life prescriptions of both were nearly identical. The Epicureans advised moderation and doing the right thing, for in the long run those are the most pleasurable; overindulgence and bad behavior lead to pain rather than pleasure. The Stoics advised the same thing but because it’s your duty, damn it, whether it’s pleasurable or not. The Epicureans regarded Stoics as joyless and hypocritical. The Stoics regarded the Epicureans as decadent; they feared that enshrining pleasure as the highest goal posed a threat to civilization. Neither ever did quite get the hang of the other, for they had fundamentally different ways of thinking even though they arrived in the same place.

What on earth has any of this to do with a comic book superhero movie? The ancient feud links oddly to two ways to arrive at being a committed hero or villain (or bystander for that matter) whether in life or the movies. The choice can be made and pursued earnestly, taking oneself seriously (stoically) along the way. Characters in Zack Snyder’s films (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, Man of Steel, et al.) take themselves very very seriously even when they joke, which they do only sparingly. Alternatively, one can pick a side for fundamentally aesthetic reasons (in epicurean fashion) without taking oneself seriously or losing a sense of the absurd. Characters in Joss Whedon movies (The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods, Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, et al.) are very much of this type. The two types tend to regard each other respectively as coldly uptight and dangerously frivolous – unfairly in both cases. Director Zack Snyder developed Justice League but left for personal reasons before finishing; the movie then was handed to Joss Whedon to carry over the goal line. The whole movie in consequence has a split personality. True, the Flash is very much a Joss character and Superman very much a Zack, but the others waver back and forth discordantly.

That caveat notwithstanding (and we even can allow that real personalities are not always consistent), the movie gives as much backstory and motivation as one reasonably can expect in two hours for a sizable ensemble of characters. The film even manages to make Aquaman cool, which is no small feat in itself.

Plot in a nutshell: an ancient enemy named Steppenwolf in the distant past was defeated by an alliance of Atlanteans, Amazons, and mankind (with some help from the old gods). He is back and still holds a grudge. He plans to recover three hidden artifacts that he can use to turn earth into his kind of place, which isn’t a place healthy for ordinary folks. If this sounds similar to General Zod’s plan in Man of Steel, you’re right. To stop them, Batman, who is on a guilt trip over his actions in Batman v Superman that led to the death of Superman, teams with Wonder Woman and they recruit the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. They get a notion about using one of the artifacts to try to restore life to Superman.

Have we seen all the CGI wiz-bang before? Yes. In broad outlines, is the plot original? No. But the elements are handled competently and the characters are better motivated (and better conflicted) than in the Marvel ensemble movies – though for reasons not relevant to this review I still give the edge to the Marvel movies. No one expects a comic book movie to be Shakespeare, but the dialogue has wit, the action paces well, the plot follows a comprehensible arc, and the imperfect heroes do what they have to do. Further, in an era when the news is dominated by the transgressions of dirty old men and naughty teachers, the script isn’t afraid to acknowledge adult sensuality as not being inherently offensive and perverse. (When did that become brave?) In short, while not a great film, it is good for its type. In the DC movie-verse since Nolan’s Batman trilogy, only Wonder Woman is better.

It remains to be seen if audiences take to it. Ticket sales for the opening weekend are disappointing. My own experience wasn’t encouraging. While I caught a far-from-prime-time 10 PM showing on Sunday night, it was nonetheless spooky that I was – no kidding – the only one in the theater. There were quite a few cars in the lot when I left so presumably other screens in the multiplex had viewers.

Thumbs up – with reservations, but up.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Fest Finale: Recap NJRD vs GSR

Yesterday the New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) went the extra mile – or perhaps 26.2 – and hosted an all-day derby event at their home track in Morristown including various mixers, a Junior Division exhibition bout, a men’s match, and their own regularly scheduled bout. Even a dedicated derby fan doesn’t always have a full day to commit to spectating derby, so I arrived in the evening in time for the last minutes of the men’s match in which the New York Shock Exchange (in this context the “home” team) handily defeated the Quadfathers 280-67, and then remained for the final regular bout of the day.

Recap – New Jersey Roller Derby All Stars (NJRD) vs. Garden State Rollergirls Jersey City Bridge and Pummel (GSR):

The two teams have very similar styles and defensive tactics, which showed in a point spread that was never safe at any point. (Two of the GSR skaters, Voldeloxx and Bitty Boom Boom, formerly skated for Morristown teams.) In the first jam #44 Maulin Rouge overcame stiff resistance with her usual élan and put the first 9 points on the board for NJRD. #394 Voldeloxx scored first for GSR. Both teams were very good at maintaining blocking walls and breaking up the opponent’s formations. Rarely did jammers find any holes simply to slip through, though fancy footwork by #11 Tuff Crust Pizza for NJRD and #1865 Ivy Lethal for GSR more than once got them past on the outside or inside line. More often jammers had to slog through firm blocking and pick themselves up from knockdowns. In the first half hour NJRD built and continuously maintained a lead that wavered around 20 points, with the half-time score at 72-56.

In the second half, GSR chipped at the NJRD lead with “hit it and quit it” jams until a game-changer power jam by #12 Tess T Rossa tightened up the score to 89-84. #14 Ragna Rok took NJRD over the 100 mark and Tess T Rossa did the same for GSR with NJRD keeping a few point lead. The reversal came when a 14 point jam by Ivy Lethal put GSR in the lead 122-116 for the first time with 9 minutes left in the game. GSR added points in hit-and-quit jams. A 20 point by Tess T Rossa seemed to seal the match, but then was countered by a 22 point jam by Tuff Crust Pizza. It wasn’t enough to catch up as the clock ran down. GSR took the win 139-153.

MVPs –
Tess T Rossa (jammer)
Ozzie Clobberpot (blocker)

Tuff Crust Pizza (jammer)
Slam Hathaway (blocker)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Cat Wars

There always were pets in and around the house when I was growing up: dogs, cats, even a skunk. During the few years of my ill-fated marriage the pet population reached a peak of two dogs, two cats, one parrot, and six horses, though strictly speaking the horses weren’t in and around the house. However, none of the animals in my childhood was mine per se: they were family pets. Of the marital pets, only one cat was mine: all the other animals were quite thoroughly hers. Nor did I seek a pet at any time during the long single stretches of adulthood. While I like domestic animals well enough, they struck me from the beginning as an unnecessary restraint on spontaneity; the needs of a pet must be taken into account before making any other plans and I figured I had responsibilities enough. Yet, despite this predisposition, I have owned one or more cats (to the extent one ever owns cats) continuously since 1985. One thing just led to another, as so many things in life do, and there they were.

My cabin in the woods 1985: rather less
scary than The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Once again, it wasn’t my plan to be a cat person. Back in the spring of ’85 I was living in my cabin in the woods. It wasn’t much, but it was mine; it was the first real estate that was in my own name. Meanwhile, my sister Sharon recently had moved back from California and had rented a little place on a side street in Randolph. A stray cat showed up at her door in midwinter and she took it in. Sharon’s hippie days were gone but not forgotten, so she named the cat Dandelion. Two months later when the cat had four kittens she struggled to find homes for them. She kept one (Tiger Lily) but found a taker only for one more; so, I pitched in and took two. (I wasn’t the best of brothers, but I was occasionally not terrible.) So, I became a cat person. One of those two, a Sylvester-lookalike named Succotash, was with me for 20 years.

In 1998 my parents were gifted two kittens, also from a rescued stray. They named the kittens Maxi and Mini. My dad died in 2000 and my mom in 2001 so the cats became mine. I flirted with renaming them Charm and Strange just so I could say “We all have our little quarks,” but in the end I stuck with Maxi and Mini since the names had become pleasantly ironic: Mini had grown huge while Maxi remained small and lanky. A miniature table with feeding bowls still says “the three cats” on it, though Succotash died in 2005 and Mini in 2015. Maxi endures. If he recovers from his current troubles, he has a good chance of reaching his 20th birthday next spring.

Return of the hunter
For most of his life Maxi was the least affectionate cat I’ve ever owned. He would tolerate without fuss being picked up or petted, but he never sought it out and would strut off as soon as you let him go; he wouldn’t run away, but he would go away. He was just barely tame and would disappear into the woods for up to three days at a time. (Mini, by contrast, never in her life wandered out of sight of the house.) More than once I gave him up for lost only to see him trotting back toward the house carrying a chipmunk or dragging a rabbit. He had a special fondness for rabbits, some of them almost as big as himself. (Yes, he gets his regular shots.) As he grew older his disappearances grew shorter. Only once in the past year did he vanish for a full day, and it has been four years since he brought back anything bigger than a mouse. It has been two since he brought back anything at all. He liked to nap next to Mini (who was an expert napper), and when she died he became much more personable to humans: particularly to me. Since 2015 he daily has sought out attention.

The troublemaker I've nicknamed Ragamuffin
At 19 he is an old cat – the average lifespan for a housecat is 16 years – but he doesn’t know it, which causes him trouble when he encounters other cats. Trouble happened a few days ago when I left the door open behind me while carrying a bag of trash to the bin next to the garage. Nothing seemed amiss when I came back in, so I grabbed my keys and went out to lunch. When I came back, bowls of cat food and water were spilled on the kitchen floor; I looked for Maxi and found him in a bedroom. When I returned to the kitchen a (seemingly well-fed) calico cat was standing there; she apparently had come in during the garbage run. I opened the back door and let her out, but some drama had occurred around the bowls. I didn’t think much about it until yesterday when Maxi plainly had an infection from a fight wound above his left eye. I received a few minor fight wounds in turn while getting him into the carrying case for the trip to the veterinarian, who drained the infection. I’m still hot-packing it regularly and Maxi still is lethargic, but he has been through worse in the past.
Maxi after the vet

I’m hoping Maxi recovers and shares my company for a good while longer. However, while the felines in my life have given me more pleasure than pain, I won’t be getting another. After all, were there a “next one” he might outlive me. Of course, so might Maxi. One never knows for sure about such things.

Opening sequence: Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

November 12, 2017 Recap: Jerzey Derby Brigade vs. Suburbia Roller Derby Backyard Bullies

Last night the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) hosted long-time adversaries the Backyard Bullies, hailing from Westchester County NY, at JDB’s home track in Morristown NJ.

JDB scored the first points with jams by #235 A-Bomb and #3684 Californikate. #1952 Queen Elizadeath II, skating with exceptional speed, put the first points on the board for the Bullies. From the beginning blocking was strong on both teams with a noticeable difference in styles: JDB somewhat more often held its formations and the Bullies were somewhat more often flexible – but only somewhat in each case. JDB gained a substantial, but still vulnerable, lead thanks to a 15 point power jam by Californikate followed by a 13 point jam by #8 Lil Mo Peep bringing the score to 50-4. The points were gained against stiff opposition with #1234 Revengela taking down Lil Mo Peep and solid double-teaming by #5 Aldanamite and #555 Aya Yai. The Bullies added points of their own with #84 Moonie Sweets scoring against hard blocking. The first half ended with JDB leading 101-32.

The second half began with A-bomb adding 20 points for JDB in a power jam. Effective blocking on both sides led to take-downs, pile-ups, and at least one injury. #92 Partygirl Accelerator repeatedly had successful jams for the Bullies as did #1952, which finally began to chip at the nearly 100 point lead built up by JDB. Queen Elizadeath II put the Bullies over the century mark to 190-105. Californikate, despite a hard takedown, then took JDB over 200 at 206-110. Neither team let up as the clock ran down. In the final jam of the game #1952 Queen Elizadeath II broke out to be lead jammer but #8 Lil Mo Peep was close behind; both scored points against stiff blocking with Lil Mo Peep putting the last points on the board. Final Score: 254-161 in favor of JDB.

MVPs –
Backyard Bullies:
#1952 Queen Elizadeath II (jammer)
#555 Aya Yai (blocker)

#8 Lil Mo Peep (jammer)
#93 Freudian Slap (blocker)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Romans, Levelers, and Wicked Thoughts

Nonfiction occupied my bedside table the past couple of weeks. Brief reviews are below of four that are worth a read:

**** ****

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper

What is there to say about the fate of Rome that hasn’t been said before? Didn’t Gibbon say it all more than 200 years ago? He surely said a lot, but not quite all. (The six-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is still a superb read though.) Gibbon and two centuries of historians after him focused on internal social, political, and economic factors in combination with a rising barbarian threat. Those were indeed crucial ingredients in the slow-motion collapse, but in 1976 William H. McNeil in Plagues and Peoples argued that microbes gave a final push over the edge. In the pre-vaccine/pre-antibiotic ancient world, diseases were demographically devastating.

Kyle Harper reports on recent DNA sequencing from Roman graves that confirms most of McNeil’s suspicions about the identity of various ancient epidemics. The Antonine Plague was indeed smallpox and it ravaged the Empire (Marcus Aurelius himself died of it) at a time when the barbarians on the Rhine and Danube were on the offensive. Even more devastating was the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century, which has been identified as bubonic plague and which killed half the population. Bubonic plague was particularly deadly because the primary vector was not person to person but from flea-bearing rats to people. Rats were as prevalent in the countryside where most of the population lived as in the cities, so the plague was not, as most plagues were, mostly an urban event. (The lethality was demonstrated again and for the same reason when it returned as the Black Death 800 years later.) The demographic and economic destruction wreaked by it put a permanent end to hopes of recovering the Western provinces.

As his own contribution to the literature, Harper then tells us that one more pressure on the Empire has been much overlooked: climate change. The Roman Empire’s great centuries (1st century BCE through 2nd century CE) were during the Roman Climatic Optimum, an unusually warm and wet period ideal for expansive agriculture. Climate then swung erratically due to natural causes (volcanoes, solar variability, ocean currents, etc.) before settling into the Antique Little Ice Age after 450 CE. This curtailed agriculture and interacted unexpectedly with diseases: fleas that died in hot summers, for example, survived when summers were cooler. Harper explains the various methods including soil, plant, and ice samples by which ancient climate can be reconstructed. Harper doesn’t make the mistake of attributing Rome’s decline specifically to climate just because it is his own special interest, but he tells us it was one more nail in the coffin.

**** ****

Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day by Philip Matyszak

The Roman Empire ended as all things do but it had a good run. What was it like actually to live there? Books purporting to explain everyday life in ancient Rome have been around for centuries, but they typically are such dry reading that it’s easy for one’s eyes to glaze over. Matyszak gets around this with his travel guide aimed at a 21st century reader who presumably has access to a time machine. He starts us off not in Rome but in Alexandria in order to experience the trip to the city. We get all-important practical advice, such as to use traveler’s checks instead of cash. Yes, really. Shipping companies doubled as banks: their reps in Alexandria would give you scrip in exchange for your coins and this could be exchanged for gold at the company’s office in Ostia (Rome’s port city), thereby making you less of a target for thieves on the trip.

By internal evidence, the guide puts us in the time of Severus when the city is at its height. Matyszak tells us how to get a room in Rome, how to buy fast foods, where to find public toilets, how to use the public baths, where the best brothels are, what neighborhoods are dangerous after dark, and so on. And, of course, he tells about the must-see sites, many of them still in existence today in various degrees of repair, such as the baths, aqueducts, and temples. There are a lot of them. We are told what is polite and what is rude in Roman society, how the sexes interact, and how the classes interact. There also is the list of handy phrases.

All-in-all it is a pleasant romp and a painless way to get at least some inkling of what it was like to visit the ancient city. If you do happen to be a time traveler, it will save you many denarii, too.

**** ****

The Great Leveler by Walter Sheidel

Walter Sheidel, professor at Stanford, studies economic inequality from Neolithic times to the present. His book is neither a polemic against inequality nor a defense of it (though his predisposition to “against” is evident), but rather a well-researched examination of it over time. It is full of charts and Gini coefficients. In general, he finds inequality tends to increase over time in any and all types of societies with any and all types of governments provided economic trends are stable or trending upward. This, he contends, has to do with the relative scarcity of capital to labor and with the intertwinement of wealth and the governing elites. The exceptions to the general rule – the times of great leveling – involve “the four horsemen”: total war, Revolution, systems collapse, and plague.

Smallish wars won’t do it. Wars with full mobilization do, for they involve intense labor demand in the military and in industry and intensive taxation to pay for it. Also mass destruction of property in war naturally costs the people who own the property. They have more to lose, so massive destruction has a leveling effect. Revolution on a grand scale as in Russia and China in the last century certainly lowered inequality but at a staggering human cost. Collapses, such as those of the Roman Empire and the Tang Dynasty, wiped out the old aristocracies and thereby increased equality until the new aristocracies built their wealth up. The economic collapse of the Great Depression also was a leveler by destroying the asset values of those who had assets. Plagues, which formerly carried off large percentages of the population (upward of a third of population of Europe in the Black Death) actually lead to increases in median living standards (rather than just killing or bankrupting the rich with no benefit to anyone else) by spreading around the assets of the deceased and increasing the demand for labor. The greatest leveling in history took place in the time spanning the two world wars, the Depression, the accompanying Revolutions, the creation of social welfare states that the crises made possible, and the rebuilding after the wars. Yet, after the rebuilding was done (the 1970s) inequality again ticked upward including in social democracies.

Whether one views inequality as a problem in itself or no problem at all if other incomes are rising or stable, the book provides a treasure trove of data. Sheidel doesn’t anticipate change anytime soon and worries what it might look like if it does arrive: “For thousands of years, history has alternated between long stretches of rising or high and stable inequality interspersed with violent compressions… All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.”

**** ****

A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

Anyone who ever has, say, looked up “2018 Silverado” online only to find Chevy ads on the next five websites he visits knows that Web searches are not secret. In general, only AIs designed for commercial purposes bother to read them, but they are vast data sources for anyone who wants to use them for other purposes.

Neuroscientists Ogas and Gaddam analyzed 55 million sexually oriented search terms compiled by Dogpile, broke them down into categories, and tried to see what these searches tell us about human sexuality. The answers are creepy but intriguing. Some of them are totally unsurprising, such as the conclusions that men overwhelmingly search for visual porn while online romance novels, albeit raunchier than the softcovers sold in stores are almost exclusively accessed by women (though there are female targeted porn sites). The plots of those romances are most commonly fiercely un-PC, and then there are the female-targeted EroRoms about romances of gay men. Porn searches – whether straight or gay oriented – are often counterintuitive to put it gently: Yes, teen cheerleaders are popular searches, but the fifth most popular male search term is “grannies” and the third is “mom?” Beyond the (almost mundane) BDSM searches there are amazingly specific fetishes: the authors only slightly exaggerate when they remark, “Type in ‘Find people who have sex with goats that are on fire’ and the computer will say ‘Specify the kind of goat.’” The findings show a divergence in male and female interests greater than whatever you think it is, and the nuances of straight and gay searches offer material on which to ponder.

Though the reader may have the urge to wash his or her hands after putting down the book, it offers a perspective on and information about our fellow human beings (and perhaps ourselves) that might never be shared in a public forum. Online, in presumed privacy, we reveal our wicked ways and thoughts.

Dorothy – Wicked Ones

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sanguinary Cinema

Anti-heroes long have been a staple of literature. Shakespeare is full of them. So, for that matter is Homer: it’s hard to put Paris in a good light. So, too, in cinema, e.g. the pre-code Night Nurse (1931) at the end of which (*spoiler*) Barbara Stanwyck’s likable gangster boyfriend bumps off the scheming and unlikable Nick (Clark Gable) and gets away with it; in the context of the film, this is a happy ending. Hitmen and hitwomen have held a particular fascination for screenwriters. Why? I surely have no definitive answer, but one may note that even the most committed defenders of the law and the state chafe under their restrictions. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud explicitly argues that thwarting the death instinct’s destructiveness is inescapably a cause of individual unhappiness but is a price worth paying for civilization. Identifying with lawless screen characters for a couple hours is a harmless way vicariously to take one’s death instinct out for a walk.

The occasion for the above prelude is a DVD spin yesterday of a commercially successful 2008 flick about an organization of assassins. I missed it back when it was in the theater. Before visiting it, however, I decided first to revisit a film noir classic of the genre.

**** ****

This Gun for Hire (1942)

Though gangsters who count murder among their crimes long had been stock figures in movies, this is one of the earliest films to make a specialized hitman the central character. Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) delivers his lines and his bullets deadpan. Unlike what the trailer for the movie indicates, he doesn’t kill for the love of it or for no reason, but when he has a reason (usually it’s just a job) he is utterly ruthless and has no hesitation at all about eliminating witnesses who just happen to be in the wrong place; in one scene he reaches for his gun when a little girl speaks to him as he leaves a job, but then puts it away when he notices she is blind. Yet, real human beings – even psychopaths – are not robots and we quickly see that there are some emotions behind the expressionless face. He likes cats, for one thing.

Willard Gates, a corpulent personal representative of a corrupt and treasonous wheelchair-bound industrialist, hires Raven for a job but pays him in marked bills so he’ll be arrested. Raven evades arrest but then seeks out Gates for revenge. Gates is a curiously drawn character who behaves outwardly as a womanizer, though his relationship with his chauffeur/aide is plainly the closer one. Raven’s path intersects that of nightclub performer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) who is working for the feds undercover, a job she must keep secret even from her policeman boyfriend. She, too, is after Gates. The feds suspect that Gates’ boss is selling secrets to the Japanese – this is 1942.

The modestly budgeted movie in so many ways is incredibly hokey and timebound, and yet it has flashes of deeper sophistication than most recent films of its type. It’s a very 1940s combination of opposites, and it’s an appealing one. Some critics dislike the way Raven opens up to Ellen in one scene, giving us a Freudian partial explanation for his nature: he was severely abused growing up. I think it’s a very useful scene that helps put his odd relationship with Ellen in context; despite her youth he relates to her (again, the trailer misleads) as someone maternal, not romantic, which is why he seeks her approval at the end.

Still a Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Wanted (2008)

The movie adaptation balks at the full nihilism of the source. In Mark Millar’s extremely violent comic book series “Wanted” (2003-2005) Millar confirms every nightmare you ever had that the world at the very top is run by a sociopathic criminal elite. The members are unabashedly self-serving. They assassinate for their own selfish motives. The narrating character enjoys his psychopathy, his criminality, and his membership in that elite. He scoffs at the reader for being a sucker.

In the movie “Wanted” the assassins are an ancient order working on behalf of Fate, whose designs can be deciphered from the weave of fabric. (This presumably is from classical mythology’s tapestry of the Fates.) They might not understand why certain targets are chosen for them to kill, but they assume they are serving some higher purpose. Nonetheless, they have no qualms about criminal activity or collateral damage while doing it. The movie is almost as brutal as the comics, but the change in motivation changes everything. I still liked it despite its philosophical timidity, but it requires a high tolerance for movie violence.   

Wesley (James McAvoy) is a meek nobody in a nothing job with an abusive boss. His girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend, and he pretends not to know it rather than face the reality. He encounters Fox (Angelina Jolie) who tells him he is the son of an elite assassin and that he has inherited many of his father’s innate abilities. She introduces him to the order of assassins presided by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) and takes over his training. Wesley no longer is a nobody. Bullets fly, cars crash, trains wreck, fists swing, and blood flows.

Despite the alterations from Millar’s comic, I’ll give it a cautious Thumbs Up. While the movie got mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics, Peter Bradshaw (“You could gargle bitumen and bin-juice for half an hour, and it couldn't leave a nastier taste in your mouth…”) at The Guardian was not alone in his reaction.

**** ****

After watching both movies I still don’t have a definitive answer about their appeal to audiences, but they are cathartic in their own way. For the next few days I have no wish to see anything more savage than, perhaps, Disney’s Tangled.

Trailer: This Gun for Hire (1942)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Forever Sumer

The most recent book to ease my nighttime passage to drowsiness provided some new insights about the megalithic complex at Gobekli Tepe in Asia Minor (see my September 26 blog Mabon) even though it didn’t specifically mention the site. Gobekli Tepe is remarkable for having been built by hunter-gatherers 12,000 years ago. Animal bones found at the site are from wild prey animals, not farm animals, and there is no hint of cultivated crops or permanent settlements. It is presumably a temple complex of some kind. The time that passed between its construction and the construction of the first cities was thousands of years greater than the time that has passed between the first cities and today. So, our prehistoric ancestors had the skills to build massive masonry structures even before the last ice age ended, but they didn’t bother to use them to build cities until (in the scheme of things) quite recently. If you count from the first appearance of modern humans some 200,000 years ago, it was very very recently.

Why not? The answer, while tautological, seems simply to be they didn’t want to. According to Yale professor James C. Scott in his book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States they had good reason. It long has been known that hunter-gatherers were healthier, fitter, and had a far better and more varied diet than the farmers who supplanted them. Even today, remaining hunter-gatherers work far less than farmers despite living in truly marginal landscapes such as the Kalahari. In the rich lands of well-watered Paleolithic middle latitudes, game and edible vegetation were abundant. Skeletons from after the switch to farming show a severe decline in average human size and health including dental health: grains are bad for the teeth. The question to ask is why with all its advantages did most people give up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Once again, the answer is they didn’t want to. Scott tells us the reason is intimately connected with the rise of states and the use of force.

Scott reminds us that the technologies of farming and pastoralism (the Neolithic Revolution) did not immediately or inevitably lead to states. There were clans, bands, and tribes to be sure, but their chiefs and councils had little authority: it was too easy for individuals and their families just to walk away if self-styled leaders got too overbearing. The new food-gathering methods simply supplemented a stateless hunter-gatherer economy. A good example are the Lenni Lenape who several hundred years ago inhabited the inland northern NJ area where I presently live. In the spring they hunted and gathered but also planted maize crops; in the summer they left for the Jersey Shore where they took in some rays and seafood; they returned in the fall to harvest the maize. Yet, their settlements were no more than semi-permanent, it was no disaster if the crops failed, and it always was possible for disgruntled individuals to walk away.

All the elements necessary for a city-state to survive pre-existed urbanism by thousands of years: farmed crops, domestic animals, and artisans such as masons and toolmakers. Yet, states didn’t arise spontaneously even in those regions where sedentism was the rule – sedentism is not at conflict with foraging economies in biologically rich environments. Scott points out that all of the regions where early states arose – Upper Egypt, the Maya, the Yellow River, and southern Mesopotamia – shared some things in common: rising populations that were constrained by geography (such as deserts on each side) in such a way that made it difficult for residents just to walk away when some brigand called himself “king” and enforced his rule with a gang of thugs. The new rulers were able to force the bulk of local populations to labor to produce calorie surpluses that could be expropriated for urban dwellers. Outright slavery formed a large part of the labor force but even more important was taxation. Demanding taxes in the form of food forced farmers, under severe penalties in the case of non-payment, to work their land harder than they would if left to themselves. The very first city-states were Sumerian, and a Sumerian proverb (found on a clay tablet c.2400 BCE) says, “You can have a landlord, you can have a king, but the man to fear is the tax-collector.”

This is why grain became a staple crop. Unlike some other crops, fields of barley or wheat are impossible to hide and easy to quantify. Furthermore, one bushel of grain is pretty much like another making it ideal currency for taxation. Grain farming prevailed because governments demanded tax payments in grain. Taxation in turn required accountants and records, which promoted writing and the other trappings of civilization. Yet, except for the urban elites, civilization was so unattractive an existence that most of the world resisted it for a very long time. In 2000 BCE, notes Scott, states were “a mere smudge on the map of the ancient world and not much more than a rounding error in a total global population estimated at roughly 25 million…” Even at the height of the Roman Empire and its Chinese counterpart the vast majority of the world’s land surface was occupied by stateless peoples.

There is no denying the demographic and military advantages that accrued over time to civilized states, which eventually let them spread over the habitable land area of the earth so that now there is no escaping them – but this did take time. Personally, I’m mostly OK with civilization in its current form and would like to see more of it. I like my permanent home and the farmed foods in my refrigerator, though come tax-time I still agree with that grumbling Sumerian. But it is worth remembering the brutal origins of civilization in the first urban states, and what a price was paid for it by our ancestors. The Sumerians have a lot for which to answer.

Sirenia – In Sumerian Haze