31 May 2021

Lots of Cool Things in One Post Like, What's a Start-up? And Asking People What They Do For a Living and Sunglasses and Walt Whitman

Yours truly wearing new shades, mentioned below.

“He’s working for a start-up.”

“What is it starting up?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said it was a start-up, but not what it's starting up.”

“I don’t know, for sure. I think it’s a non-profit.”

“So he’s got a new job at a new place that isn’t making money.”


“Cool beans.”

I’ve heard this one before. Someone you know of got a new job at a start-up. You’re not told what the person does nor what kind of enterprise is. I find this weird. Supposedly it’s enough to know that it’s a new business.

When I was working at a newspaper in the seventies I was at a gathering at which someone I barely knew and hadn’t seen in awhile asked what I was doing. I said working at a newspaper. He asked, “what outfit?”  That’s the last time I heard the word “outfit” used to describe a place of work. It was odd even then because the person who said it was about my age. The only people still saying “outfit” back then were older people.

Before my time people used to ask, “what line are you in?” This referred to your line of work. Don’t hear it anymore. In movies from the thirties people use the word “racket” which presumably means that people in “real life” used the term back then as well. Usually — at least in films — racket referenced something illegal or shady. But not always.

Of course asking people what they “do for a living” is a common question upon meeting them for the first time. It’s a natural conversation starter. But not in all societies. Some cultures consider it rude to ask a veritable stranger what kind of work they do.

When you do find out what someone does it’s only natural to use that information to start coloring some things in about the individual. A lot of people have lower opinions of those in certain professions. Some people don’t like lawyers, or cops or United States senators. Also, some jobs are more intriguing than others. Meeting an accountant and meeting an actor are two very different things. You generally don’t have a lot of follow-up questions for an accountant. (Maybe if it’s near April, you’ll say, “busy time for you, I guess.”) But you’re bound to ask an actor if they’re in movies, TV or theater. Based on what they say you could have a million more questions. Or not. Depends on what they’ve been in and your level of interest in acting.

As a teacher I always get: “what do you teach?”  When I was teaching middle school I occasionally got questions as to my sanity or was offered sympathy or lauded for my bravery. Inasmuch as I’ve got two novels out I’m going to henceforth say that I’m a writer. I’ll be asked, “what do you write?” Or in some cases, not. I’ll watch as eyes glaze over when I go into great detail about my novels. Fun.

It’s always interesting to note that some people don’t ask follow-up questions. You could say that you’re an astronaut and in reply get, “nice.” Or you could tell someone you lead expeditions in search of rare flora and fauna in New Guinea and receive in response, “interesting.” 

When I was a newspaper reporter a few people — younger ones — actually asked if I got paid for writing. I could never figure that out. No one asks a carpenter if they get paid for building houses or shelves. 

Not to change the subject (which is precisely what I’m doing) but yesterday the missus and I went in search of a new pair sunglasses (for me) at a place called the Sunglass Hut. The store was small so calling it a hut is appropriate. Plus they carry sunglasses so that’s two-for-two. Upon entering we were introduced to the person who would be helping us “today.” I both find it strange and nice that we were immediately on a first name basis with Robert. (Something can be both strange and nice, I looked it up.) He laid down the ground rules for us and then let us free range around the store. He hovered, but not obtrusively. Robert was fastidious, friendly, polite and, like of sales people in your better clothing and accessories stores, gay. (How do I know? Come on!) I’m not going to get into a thing here about how gay men tend to make the best salespeople, they just do. And if someone wants to accuse me of homophobia or stereotyping…well, they say it’s a free country, so have at it. But I’m not going to waver on this one. Facts is facts. I can also say that a higher percentage of lesbians play sports than straight women and know I’m speaking the truth and in no way belittling my gay brothers and sisters. 

I found a suitable pair of aviator-style which the wife said make me look like Joe Biden. I guess I could have done worse. 

The better half then went into a clothing shop and I slipped into a bookstore and accidentally bought a book (happens to me all the time). Then we stopped to get a bite to eat. In truth there were a helluva lot of bites involved. We  ate inside an establishment. Last week we dined out, but had our meal under the sun. It’s nice to start gradually getting out more and doing what are called “normal” or “pre-pandemic” activities. It’s also nice to walk outside without a mask on. I like it when things are nice. I prefer when things are fantastic or stupendous or absolutely super, but I’ll settle for things being nice. 

Upon returning home I watched a film. Gotta be true to you.

I will now conclude this blog post by wishing one and all a terrific Walt Whitman’s birthday. That is why today’s a holiday — isn’t it? Or is it because today is Aida Valli’s birthday? Both? Either way suits me.

P.S. If during the last paragraph you said, "who's Aida Valli?" see me after class. If you also asked "who's Walt Whitman?" we're sending you back to the third grade.

P.P.S. It's also Rainer Werner Fassbinder's birthday. Like the previous two, he's "no longer with us" (i.e. dead).

27 May 2021

The Unfunny Business of Describing Funny Movies, Plus the Difficulty of Creating Great Comedies, Plus Ten Greats From Ten Different Decades

Andy left Jorma right with Jimmy Fallon doing the Donkey Roll

"We'd like to get to the point where Connor is everywhere, like oxygen or gravity or clinical depression." -- From Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping

Yesterday I watched Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) Taccone/Schaffer for the third time and immediately wanted to write about it. But then the conundrum: How the hell do you write about comedy? It is — pun intended — seriously difficult. 

For the sake of argument let’s say you consider Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) to be absolutely hilarious. What do you say? 

"I laughed a lot."

"It was really funny."

"I laughed so hard I cried."

"There were endless sight gags, screamingly funny prat falls, jokes aplenty, unparalleled satire."


It equates to a "you had to be there" situation.

(By the way, Cries and Whispers, a film I revere, is certainly the least funny movie ever made.)

To convey how funny a movie is, you have to give examples. But there are many problems associated with this approach. First of all, how do you describe slapstick so that the humor comes across? You sound like a ten-year old. “There was this really funny part where they threw pies at each other.” 

You can repeat some of the one-liners but can you deliver them like Groucho Marx? Because if you can't (and you can’t, trust me) then they lose some of their zing — I mean, most of their zing. How do you describe the antics of Chaplin’s Little Tramp? For example the boxing scene in City Lights (1931) Chaplin. You can’t do it justice. Also a lot of humor is surprise. It’s funny because you weren’t expecting it. Which leads to another issue, if you discuss the funny bits in a movie you’re giving away a lot of humor that people should discover for themselves. To really describe a comedy you have to give a lot away. Nobody wants that.

Describing what makes you laugh is like describing an orgasm. Try that. Here, I’ll give it a go:

“Upon ejaculation I felt really good.” 

Doesn't capture the moment, does it?

How about “it was ecstasy.” 

Yeah, it probably was, but what’s that like? 

From Pop Star
You might as well try to explain to someone who has never had a strawberry what strawberries taste like. “They’re fruity!” Or: “they’re kind of like raspberries but different.” Do tell.

How do you describe the manner in which  Gold Rush, makes you laugh? “There’s a scene where Chaplin makes potatoes dance.” Yeah? And? 

See what I'm saying?

Again this was inspired by my third viewing of Pop Star. I laughed more than the previous two times I saw it, the mark of a great comedy. (I now feel obligated to tell you that the three stars and writers of the film, Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaeffer, were all students of mine when I taught middle school. See this post from last Summer about hanging with Jorma in a park.) Great comedies aren't just funny the first time, they stay funny and can even get funnier. Not sure how that works -- but it does.

When I set out to write about Pop Star I was struck by how clever it is. It’s a brilliant satire on…well, a lot of things. The modern music industry, celebrity culture, consumerism and friendship. It is also at times very silly. Silly, when done right, can be hilarious. Silly, when not done right, can be an absolute bore.

You've got to be smart to get silly just right. Indeed if you pay attention you'll notice that virtually all great comedians and comedy writers are intelligent people. 

Something just occurred to me that I’m going to insert here. Humor is subjective. I suppose there are some people who don’t find Groucho Marx funny (I hope never to meet such an individual). I may shock some of you by stating that I’ve never found Laurel and Hardy particularly funny and to me W.C Fields is tedious. Most comedy films made in the last forty years leave me cold. (Does Adam Sandler appeal to anyone over fourteen?) So you can recommend a comedy film to someone and they may not dig it at all. Different strokes. Comedy that appeals to a broad audience is rare. That's what made Chaplin a genius.

(Here I diverge to the topic of how difficult comedy is to do, never mind write about.)

Comedy is hard to do in films. In a sit com you’re trying fill about twenty-two minutes with laughs, in a movie you’re looking for ninety minutes worth of chuckles. Plus with a sitcom you’ve already established characters, setting and common scenarios. Making a succession of comedy films that are all funny is nigh on impossible. Look at some of the masters. Chaplin did it for a long time with one and two reelers that lasted from a quarter to a half an hour. When he did features he was taking several years to make them. He had a nearly perfect record but wasn't cranking out one a year. The Marx Brothers made six great comedies right out of the gate but after that the laughs were fewer and farther between. Woody Allen has probably made as many or more great comedies as anyone over fifty years but he’s mixed in some serious films as well. 

Chaplin and potatoes in Gold Rush
The Monty Python troupe had an impressive run on their television series and with a few movies, but they burned out. Comedy is hard work. When writing humor pieces I usually find that the first few funny bits pop right out, then I have to give the next few a good think. Later it's like pulling teeth. I've scrapped a lot because it wasn't worth the investment of time. (It's not like anyone is paying me.)

Comedies rely almost totally on good writing. A bad script for any film is impossible to overcome. In comedy especially. Of course you’ve got to have a good director. It doesn’t even need to be a director whose done a lot of comedy. Alfred Hitchcock directed one screwball comedy and it was one of the best of all time, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). 

Howard Hawks directed some of our greatest comedies (His Girl Friday (1940), Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938)) but also directed westerns, gangster films, war pictures and anything else you can name. 

Billy Wilder directed a passel of good comedies but he was working with scripts that he co-wrote. 

Many directors exclusively do comedies and only a few of them are really good at it. Mel Brooks comes to mind. Sam Wood was pretty consistent as was Leo McCarey. Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis had a lot of success too. But many of the worst comedies are cranked out by hacks who can’t seem to get it right. Many of these make money but they don’t add to the culture as they're rife with predicable bits, toilet humor and the over done man-getting-hit-in-the-groin. They're quickly forgotten.

Mike Mysers produced what I consider a masterpiece of comedy with the first Austin Powers film. His second Powers movie was not quite as good and the third was a dog. That's a reflection on how difficult it is.

Preston Sturges wrote and directed seven of our great comedies (highlighted by The Lady Eve and Sullivan's Travels both in 1941) in a five-year span from 1940-1944 and that, folks, was that. Nothing after.

Comedies also rely on the right actors and they don’t have to be people who deal exclusively or mostly in comedy. "Serious actors" have appeared in very funny films and been part of what made them good. Jack Lemmon, Robert DeNiro, Henry Fonda, Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Katherine Hepburn all graced hilarious films. If you can act, you can act funny.

Of course there are actors who have regularly graced comedies. Cary Grant, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gene Wilder, John Belushi, Seth Rogen, Bill Murray and Catherine O’Hara, to name but a few.

Catherine O'Hara reminds me of the Christopher Guest troupe which had a great run of comedies such as Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003). But there's been nothing new for years.

Groucho Marx in Duck Soup
(It appears that in some respects I’ve disproven my point. I’ve been able to write about funny films. Of course this hasn’t been terribly funny and I’ve mentioned films, directors and actors without giving any examples of how they tickle the ribs.)

Comedy is hit or miss for everyone involved. The writer, director and certainly the audience. There's little worse than watching a movie for laughs and getting nary a chuckle out of it. It takes a brave person to even try it.  Thankfully there are  talented souls who love getting a laugh and are willing to work at it. When it works they've made us laugh and laughter is one of the greatest gifts you can provide.The next most difficult thing to making a good comedy is writing about it. But I tried.

My Ten Favorite Comedies From Each of the Ten Preceding Decades

Twenties: The Gold Rush (1925) Chaplin

Thirties: Duck Soup (1933) McCarey

Forties: His Girl Friday (1940) Hawks

Fifties: Some Like it Hot (1959) Wilder

Sixties: The Producers (1967) Brooks

Seventies: Manhattan (1979) Allen

Eighties: Arthur (1981) Gordon

Nineties: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) Roach

Oughts: Mean Girls (2004) Waters

Tens: Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) Taccone/Schaffer

22 May 2021

From the Horrible to the Wonderful: The Various Lives of Intimate Objects

Tea kettles have to get used to a burning sensation.

It can’t be easy to be an inanimate object. You have no voice to express yourself, no way of hearing or seeing. No agency in what happens to you. I feel sorry for them. One imagines, however, that the experiences of varying objects must range from awful to nice. (I don’t know that any can truly be said to experience bliss.) I thought it would be an interesting exercise to explore the lives of some of the more common objects that people interact with on a daily basis in attempt to imagine what their "lives" are like. Here then are some examples.

Tea kettle. Not a great life, I should think. Absolute searing pain from the heat every morning and sometimes in the afternoon and evening as well. Having water poured in you might not be so bad, but the flame beneath makes it whistle in terror and then it is poured out. Or most of it, anyway. Sometimes you’re left with water that gradually cools. Perhaps an unpleasant visitor as it has only recently suffered a the trauma of being steamed.

Toilet. Unimaginable horror. Best cast scenario someone urinates in you and then you are quickly flushed. Worst case you are defecated upon. You may also suffer the indignity of being vomited into. If you’re lucky someone cleans you regularly. The less said here the better.

Cell phone. This would have to be among the best positions the inanimate object can hope to attain. Of course if you’re shy you have to accustom yourself to being looked at constantly. On the other hand you are held a great deal and not roughly. That's nice. You’re also quite intelligent, possessing as you do, a computer. You are privy to all manner of otherwise private communications which might be interesting. You also get to take photographs and videos. You may even have games on you. You could also be full of music and you're up on the latest doings in the world. Not a bad life.

Toothbrush. You have to go into people’s mouths and clean their teeth. If you’re Margot Robbie’s toothbrush, not a bad gig. If you’re Donald Trump’s toothbrush (assuming he uses one) I pity you. You are fortified with toothpaste which has to make your job a lot easier and maybe even pleasant. The worst part of your existence might be after your bristles wear down a bit and you’re using to clean other objects — sans toothpaste. That’s dirty work and also indicates you’re one step away from the trash bin.

Pencil. This could be anything from tedious to fascinating. If you’re used to take notes in a classroom it could be educational. If you’re making marks for a carpenter, it might not be so much fun. If you are a pencil of color you get to draw. Sometimes you are born with an eraser attached at your end, giving you a companion. Sometimes one is added. You risk being chewed which has got to be awful. There’s also the possibility that you’ll be put in a desk drawer and forgotten or sit in a cup on a desk and be lightly used.

Floor lamps shed light on matters
Floor lamp. That’s a lot of standing, usually in one place. Hopefully you’re being dusted regularly. Generally speaking you have your days free and are again off duty when everyone goes to bed. I don’t know how it would feel to be left on when everyone has left the house or retired for the evening. You have a bulb in that will eventually burn out. Then you receive a new bulb which is stuck into you. That has got to be awkward. But you bring do bring light. Pretty cool.

Spoon. Like a toothbrush you’re going into someone’s mouth so this job definitely has it’s drawbacks. On the other hand you may be dipping into ice cream (brrr) which can be delish or hot soup which can also be tasty but hot. So you’re dealing with temperature extremes. You’re probably dropped on the floor every so often which would suck, but you get washed regularly, perhaps in a dishwasher which seems like fun. You get to hang out in a drawer with other spoons not to mention other types of eating utensils.

Socks. I hope you like feet because you spend a lot of time wrapped around them. You’re also usually inside of a shoe so hopefully you don’t suffer from claustrophobia. Of course the lives of work socks, dress socks, and gym socks are very different. Gym socks in particular have to absorb a lot of sweat, but even the most refined of socks worn during an evening out have soak up a certain amount of perspiration. But you get a good cleaning in a washing machine and then get nice and warm after spending time in a dryer. Hopefully you’re not one of the socks that gets lost in the cleaning process. That happens all too frequently and destroys one of the benefits of being a sock — having a partner. That’s got to be the best part of a sock’s life, you’re born with a twin. No loneliness! You also get to hang out in a sock drawer and if you’re owned by a teenager, there may be a stash of pot in there with you.

Coffee table. Congratulations! You’re the center of attention. You’re smack dab in the middle of everything. You probably have a good view of the TV. You’re considered important enough to have beverages of all variety placed on you, not to mention snacks and even occasionally meals. You likely have books and magazines sitting on you. Maybe a computer. Phones, keys, mail and other sundry objects may take their turns resting on you. Occasionally you have to forebear someone spilling something on you, but usually that’s wiped up in short order. Having such a prominent place in the home, you are constantly being cleaned off, dusted and wiped. Not a bad job.

Bed. Hard to know where to begin here. Obviously your main function is to serve as a place where people sleep for five to nine hours a night. But. Do you have one person or two people laying on you? If two then it is likely that you are also home to some bouts of sexual intercourse. How’s that? It might be that as a bed you accept whatever comes, but could it be that you are particular? Maybe a bed is happy with a handsome young couple copulating on it and has decidedly mixed feelings about older, less attractive or heavier occupants doing the deed on its premises. Of course even an individual might choose to pleasure her or himself while laying atop you. Is that any more or less embarrassing? You could, of course, be a child’s bed in which case you risk being urinated on. That would be awful, you’re not meant for that. In any case most of the time your occupants are sleeping, although I imagine snoring can be annoying for you. Maybe you do your own sleeping when everyone is gone. Fortunately you generally boast comfy blankets, sheets, comforters and pillows. That must be nice.

What I've learned from my imaginings about intimate objects is that their biggest challenge is generally boredom. Many of them spend most of the day doing absolutely nothing. A commemorative mug may sit forgotten on a shelf for years. A Christmas mug comes out for probably no more than a month a year. Then again for many the worst part of their day is when they are put in use as can clearly be seen in the case of a toilet or tea kettle. The cell phone is one of the privileged objects that gets frequent use, only suffers pain by accident and has access to a computer, music and more. Of course there were many things I didn't discuss such as the least fortunate of all objects, toilet paper. One shudders at the thought. I only mentioned a few pieces of furniture. Perhaps in a later post I'll consider the life of a chair, sofa, end table or desk. There are many more objects that live in the kitchen that deserve a look such as the ladle, spatula, frying pan and dishwasher. And what of the washing machine and dryer? Bookcases? Hangers? Dressers? Liquor cabinets certainly must have a different kind of existence. Lots to think about. I hope this tides you over until next time.

18 May 2021

Complaining is Easy, Especially When You Don't Know What You're Talking About

The VP. Is she being Asian enough?

I received the following news alert from Politico on my phone this afternoon: “After four months in office, Kamala Harris faces a criticism that she is more focused on being the first black VP than the first Asian American one.”

And so we have my early nominee for the stupidest sentence of the year.

Here’s a thought, maybe Ms. Harris’ primary focus is on being the VP. Period. Full stop. And maybe, by being VP while Black AND Asian American she is being a Black and Asian American VP. 

I did not click on the story but I have to wonder if there was any criticism for her not focusing enough on being the first female VP. 

What mind would level such a criticism? Who looks at her and says, “yeah she’s being a Black VP, but I’m not getting much of an Asian-American VP vibe from her.”

This makes me wonder if Pete Buttigieg is being a gay enough Secretary of Transportation.

I am here reminded of a film I called Making Love (1982) Hiller. It was noteworthy for it’s story line: a married man comes to term with his homosexuality and leaves his wife for another man. For it’s time it was groundbreaking. Today it would seem rather tame and probably dismissed for not fully exploring its themes. However at the time I found one criticism of it to be baffling. A gay critic complained that the two gay men were both successful professionals and that’s what made them palatable to straight audiences. He said that was a cop out and he’d have preferred if at least one of the man was not so respectable. Does anyone else recognize the fact that if one or both of the men had been poor, unsuccessful or troubled, there would have been complaints about the way gay men were depicted?

I similarly remember complaints about the film Fatal Attraction (1987) Lyne in which Glenn Close played a spurned lover of a married character portrayed by Michael Douglass. Not to put to fine a point on it, but she went nuts. The movie was a critical and financial success. But. Some feminists objected to the depiction of a strong career woman as being a psychopath. Note to filmmakers: all strong, career women in movies must be morally upright people. I know that imposes certain limitations on you but we can’t have people thinking that strong career woman are by nature nutcases.

I recently read a criticism of Dances With Wolves (1990) Costner, the Oscar winner for best picture in 1990. It was a well-reviewed and popular film that, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on (other than it beat out Goodfellas (1990) Scorsese for best picture) has faced a backlash in the past twenty years. Anyway, someone on Twitter recently complained (and this contention drew support) that the movie is another example of a white hero (Kevin Costner) coming to the rescue of Native Americans. Good god. Do people ever bother to watch a movie before complaining about it? There are no heroics by Costner’s character that benefit the Sioux tribe he joins. He merely becomes a de facto member of the tribe as he comes to learn about, appreciate and adopt their way of life. They are the heroes. Not him. Indeed he makes life worse for them because the U.S. army is determined to capture and punish him for desertion. Dances has a depressed ending in which Costner and his wife leave the tribe to live in the Canadian wilderness, while the tribe itself must escape the oncoming white soldiers and settlers. But yeah, have it your way, he's another "white savior."

Criticizing politicians and movies is a perfectly respectable pastime and profession. But knowing what the hell you’re talking about should be a prerequisite. 

I liken this to the attacks on the song Baby It’s Cold Outside which, though there’s not a word about Yuletide in it, has been a Christmas season staple for years. It has become très chic in recent years to lambaste the song for being about being about date rape. A couple of years ago I debunked that claim by taking the radical step of looking at the lyrics. There's no rape in the song. 

I’m now reminded of an acquaintance who, like me, was not a tall man, complaining about Randy Newman’s song Short People for, supposedly, making fun of those of us who are vertically challenged. Here are some of the lyrics from that song: “Short people are just the same?As you and I/(A fool such as I)/All men are brothers/Until the day they die/(It’s a wonderful world).” The idiot hadn’t bothered listening to the song before bitching about it. The song is about prejudice, not an attack on short people.

But complaining is fun and easy and who has time to know what the hell they’re talking about?

14 May 2021

Another Round, When the Cure is Worse Than the Disease But the Film is Simply Excellent

Those first three drinks are the best. Especially the second. The edge is off, you’ve got a warm glow and all seems right in the world. You're convivial and amenable.If you could only stop there everything would be fine. You would be relaxed, happy and sociable. There’d be nothing odd about your behavior and the next day you’d retain memories of the day’s events. Your wallet would be unharmed, there’d be no blinding headache, no roiling stomach. If you could only just stop.

Many people can.

I couldn’t. People with the disease of alcoholism have to keep adding fuel to the fire. They risk creating an inferno. Too much is merely a start. There is no end game, save perhaps unconsciousness. 

Alcohol helped me survive my late teens and early twenties when I could otherwise have been wracked with anxiety, plagued by panic, overly shy and frequently depressed. I was an abuse survivor whose mother was a paranoid schizophrenic. Through college and early adulthood, liquor was the cure, it kept me sane and it made me an amiable, popular person. A hit at parties. A success in my chosen career of journalism. Popular with the opposite sex.

Then the cure became worse than the pain — a pain I was only masking. Booze became the be all and end all. I worshipped at its alter. It possessed me. And my possessor was driving me downhill at breakneck speed.

But I was lucky. 

I got into recovery. 

Not drinking was difficult at first but doable. Living sober, however, was a challenge that, thirty-three years later, I’m still trying to navigate. 

Yesterday I watched Another Round, the Danish film that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film at the most recent Oscars. I’ve not seen the other nominees but it’s hard to imagine there’s a better film among them.

Four male teachers working at the same school decide to conduct an experiment in which they maintain an 0.05 blood alcohol level. According to the psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, that level of alcohol in the bloodstream makes individuals more creative and relaxed. All four teachers are in career doldrums, the main character, Martin (Mads Mikklesen), is also experiencing a malaise in his marriage. Teaching can be a grind especially as one gets older and especially with the rest of life going on outside of it that can seem more pressing or compelling. Re-charging one's batteries is essential. So why not try your drug of choice?

My initial reaction to the proposed experiment contained two parts: 1) it’ll work, 2) it probably won’t end well.

I was correct on both counts.

As the film progressed I thought of my own teaching career (began just as I was getting sober) and how it could have benefitted from such a practice. I’ve no doubt that my job performance, my attitude and my happiness would have been improved by having a little bit of liquor in my system at the start of every teaching day. 

But at what cost? At what risk? And for how long?

I know from experience that sneaking sips of booze is fraught with peril. I was damn good at it but it still caused stress and one relies on luck and the naïveté of those around you. Of course in my case, as one with a disease, such an experiment would have ended quite badly, most likely with a sudden termination and perhaps divorce. 

So this experiment would not have been for me. I was nonetheless intrigued to see how it worked with others.

For our characters it starts well enough. Martin, transforms from the drabbest, least interesting teacher one can imagine, to a dynamic, inspiring professor employing innovative lessons. The others all enjoy initial success as well.

But liquor bottles are found on campus, there are rumors among students that teachers are drinking, a marriage is suffering and the foursome engage in a booze-filled evening in which blood alcohol levels soar. The results of that bacchanalia are predictably bad. One of the foursome has begun a steep downward trajectory that culminates in an embarrassing public spectacle. 

How the film resolves its issues are best left for viewers to discover (Another Round is available on Hulu). Suffice to say that the film is an honest examination of the culture of drinking, coping mechanisms, the vagaries of teaching and managing middle age. The mere business of maintaining a professional and personal life that are in harmony is often not as easy as it sounds. Perhaps especially for the thinking person. People often look for an edge, as in business. A way to cheat or game "the system." Maintaining a certain blood alcohol level is one such example. Facing life on life's term is not as easy and it something twelve-step groups emphasize learning how to do.

Another Round became even more poignant to me after I read a little of the film’s back story. The director, Thomas Vinterberg had originally cast his daughter, Ida, in the film and indeed she had helped inspire the movie through stories she told her father of the drinking culture among Danish youth. Four days into production she was killed in a car accident. Somehow Vinterberg managed to complete the film after a mourning period. However, because of the tragedy, he changed the script to make it “more life-affirming.” It was an understandable choice and may have made it a better film — albeit at an unimaginable price.

Another Round boasts a strong cast and as its lead, Mikkelsen is superb, especially in the films highly appropriate, yet somewhat stylized, closing scene. 

Playing drunk is not easy in a drama. It is too easy to go broad and present a cartoonish version of an intoxicated person. Drunks often don’t realize how drunk they are, deceive themselves into thinking others can’t tell they are drunk and try to “act sober.” Thus a certain amount of subtlety on the part of the actor is requisite in being a convincing drunk. The four leads in Another Round get this.

(For the best drunks in films see: Thomas Mitchell in Stagecoach (1939) Ford; Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945) Wilder; Paul Newman in The Verdict (1982) Lumet: Lew Ayers in Holiday (1948) Cukor; and Dudley Moore in Arthur (1981) Gordon.)

I close with a shout-out to my oldest daughter who directed me to this film. I'm eternally grateful that I got sober before she was born. Indeed I was blessed with the gift of sobriety only a few weeks before my wife found out she was pregnant. 

Lucky for all of us.

11 May 2021

I See An Interesting Looking Person, Also More About Words and Then Some Other Nonsense (Worth a Read, Though)

I had a massive celebrity crush on Angela Cartwright when I was a lad.

I was out for a walk this morning when I came to a corner. I was about to proceed down the street when I a noted a figure walking towards me. In such a circumstance one can usually ascertain rather quickly whether the approaching biped is male or female, tall or small, perhaps even whether they are old or young. I couldn’t. It baffled me. I thus held my ground perplexed by this fellow pedestrian and wondering about her/him/them. As the figure neared I still could make no determination about gender, height or age. Not wanting to be standing still on a corner as the person walked right up to me, but still perplexed, I crossed the street to watch from that vantage point. 

It was not until the person was almost directly across from me that I was able to sort out what I’d been looking at. It was a short person with facial hair wearing a man’s polo shirt, a woman’s skirt and platform heels most likely designed for women. Atop the person’s head was a large turban made of indeterminate material though I don’t believe it was what usually comprises said headwear.

To each his or her or their own, I say. I offer no other judgment on whether a person should be allowed to wear this, that or the other. But I daresay it was an odd combination and no wonder I couldn’t make out what exactly I was seeing. The individual in question was wearing clothes generally ascribed to both men and women. The combination of the platform shoes and the turban made determining height difficult. Also the shoes contributed to his/her/their awkward gait. It did not appear the person had been walking in such shoes for very long. 

Again, vive la différence, say I. But I also feel entitled to render an opinion purely on stylistic merits. He/she/they looked ridiculous. I don’t mean to suggest that a person should not combine men’s and women’s clothes, do as you will. But this chap (chapatte?) did not pull said look off.  Similarly I once saw a young father lifting a child into a carseat at a supermarket parking lot. Dad was wearing a dress. He also had a long beard. Do what you want buddy but a beard and dress work no better together than polka dots and stripes. My opinion, of course. 

(What? You approve of stripes and polka dots? Me, I lean perhaps to the matchy-matchy).

Before I further offend anyone I will move on to another topic….

In my last post (thanks for all your cards, letters and telegrams in praise of it) I picked apart a few words that are over-used. Here’s another: tirelessly.

“Bob Politician has worked tirelessly for the people of this city and deserves our vote in November.”  Hunh?  How hard can you work if you never get tired? What the hell does that mean, anyway? You don’t get tired? What, you’re a machine? Whenever I’ve worked hard I’ve gotten tired. That’s the way it works. If Bob is working “tirelessly” then he’s a slacker. Come on, Bob, pick up the pace.

Here’s a word I don’t get: shibboleth. Oh I know what it means. It’s a custom or practice, usually of a particular group, that has become outmoded. But look at that word. Here’s how it looks like it should be used: “the ancient Visigoths fashioned shibboleths or fighting clubs out of oak with which to smite their opponents in battle.” 

Come on you're telling me that s-h-i-b-b-o-l-e-t-h is a word for a custom or principle? No way. That’s a weapon. Somebody’s got to get around to fixing that.

Speaking of fixing things. We need to switch the cities of Strasbourg and Cologne. What the hell is Strasbourg doing in France and Cologne in Germany? A classic case of switched at birth.

I’ve been listening to a greatest hits album while writing this and recalled that someone I knew once said he hated the group. I always find it odd when someone tells you that they dislike or hate something you enjoy. Do they imagine that you’ll thus feel shame and renounce the musician or group for good and all? But the best example of this was in college when a fellow student who was a friend of one of my roomies was at our house and he looked through my record collection (you kids will have to Google "records"). After doing so he pronounced, “you have lousy taste in music.” I always thought the guy was an idiot and so was totally unfazed. But it was even odder than saying you don’t like a particular performer. A whole collection of performers? That’s pretty damning and again I wonder at the end game. 

For the record (pun not initially intended but gladly accepted) those albums included ones by The Beatles, The Who, Rod Stewart, David Bowie and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Not too shabby to most people of my generation. 

Opinions…am I right?

08 May 2021

The Writer Expounds On A Number of Topics Related to Complaining, Grammar and Language and Briefly Mentions His Day

This is a photo of a moose in the snow. It's not related to anything I wrote, I simply like it.

People who complain all the time give me a royal pain. Royal pain is of kingly ancestry. Someone who is a real pain, or a real jerk or a real asshole is genuinely so. They are not a fake pain or pretend jerk or a pseudo asshole.

Anyway, complainers simply complain too much. People have often complained about me complaining too much bit they’re complainers. 

Here’s something I saw — not for the first time — a high school athlete who’d received a scholarship offer, tweeted it: “I am beyond blessed….”

You can be “beyond” blessed? Wow.

The best definition I found for being blessed is “divinely or supremely favored; fortunate.”

You can go beyond that? If you’re divinely favored that means God herself has done you a solid. There’s something “beyond” that? Do tell.

It reminds of something else I’ve mentioned previously on this blog. When someone says that they would be “more than happy” to help or do something. Elated? Ecstatic? Overjoyed? Frankly, I never believe anyone who says that they’d be more than happy to help. I don’t always believe it when a person says that they’d be “happy” to help. I’ll accept that they wouldn’t mind helping. But really, does make you “happy?” Maybe. But if it makes you "more than happy" maybe you need to re-evaluate your life.

Not to change the subject but here’s something I came across today: A male praying mantis often continues mating after its partner has bitten its head off. I can totally see that. If my head were bitten off during sexual congress I’d keep plugging away. After all you’re not going to live much longer so why not go out doing what you love?

Okay, back to language. Just. Another overused word. I should know, I overuse it constantly and am thus constantly going back over my writing searching for the word just and usually removing it wherever it lurks. Sometimes you need to say “I just had breakfast,” because you finished moments ago. But usually, “I had breakfast” will suffice. You most certainly don’t need the just in, “we just watched a movie last night.” Also unnecessary in, “I’ll just have coffee.” Or more common example, “I just want to talk to you about it.” 

Here’s another one: really. What’s the difference between “I like that song” and “I really like that song.” Not enough to justify the really. You can use really to modify something if you’ve been challenged. If someone says that you must be kidding about like a TV show you are well within your grammatical rights to say, “I really like it.” But really doesn’t work as a modifier. It really doesn’t.

People from the UK often modify things with quite. (Truth be told some Americans do as well but not to as great a degree.) “I quite enjoyed our dinner.” “He’s quite an amusing chap.” It’s essentially no different than really, except it sounds much classier. But a word sounding classy is no excuse for overusing it. 

Another word our British friends use more often than Yanks is “indeed.” It too is often superfluous but again classy sounding. I have no problem with “thank you very much indeed.” It’s an emphasis. It means you’re not giving a perfunctory thank you or being polite, it means you are genuinely grateful. That’s okay in my book. Still, indeed can be done to death. Indeed it can.

At the beginning of one of the sentences in the last paragraph (guess which one) I originally had the word, “actually.” It was not needed and actually rarely is. At least relative to how often you see it. To wit: “Actually, we’re going to meet in room four today.” What the hell is the “actually” doing in this sentence? I actually don’t know.  

It’s akin to “some” as in, “I’m going out to get some lunch.” Why is the “some” there? Of course getting lunch is better than “grabbing” it, which people do with increasingly frequency these days. But I’m not going to go on my eighty-seventh tirade about the word grab, at least not today. I was talking about some. “I’m going to meet some friends tonight.” By saying “some” are you assuring us that you are not seeing all of your friends? It’s perfectly okay to say, “I’m going to meet friends tonight.” Maybe when you meet them you’ll have “some dinner.” Dinner is sufficient.

People use extra words in the same way that they say, “uh” “um” “ya know” and other types of verbal extras. The worst is people who append statements with, “ya know what I mean?” Listen, pal, if I don’t know what you mean I’ll be sure to say, “I don’t know what you mean.” Otherwise you can assume I’m good.

This is Lily James. Because she's cute.
As I write this it is a few minutes after four on a Saturday afternoon. It’s been an interesting day. A trip to see my oldest nephew and youngest niece to give them copies of my novel started things off. My niece did the cover art for the book and my nephew was my fishing consultant, so they got freebies. They live in different units of the same duplex with their spouses and children. I thus — with the wife — was afforded the opportunity to see five children and two spouses as well. The young ‘uns range in age from two to seven-and-a-half. Fun ages. Except for the drives there and back it was a nice trip. (I could have written really nice — but I didn’t.)

After coming home for a bit, the missus dropped me at the University of California, Berkeley Optometry Clinic where I picked out a pair of reading glasses. That was easy. For reasons I can’t fathom they love to tell you how much money your insurance saved you. 

Our next trip (yup, three) was to mail back a couple of DVDs to Netflix and pick a book being held for me at the library. The book will be used for research purposes as I continue work on my next novel (it’s years away, so check back).

The day accomplished a lot but it’s been in fits and starts and I was a bit out of sorts and not altogether happy because it is too hot for my liking. What was I to do? Write, of course.

And you’ve now read the fruits of that writing. Congrats!