Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Jonah Goldberg bashes undecideds:

Being undecided, in and of itself, is not a mark of seriousness or intelligence... the rush to show one's independence of mind in contests between Republican and Democratic candidates usually stems from intellectual vanity and insecurity, not intellectual discernment or rigor.
But it gets you interviewed on TV!
Chris Suellentrop is mystified by John Kerry's success.

And William Saletan says the Dean campaign failed because his supporters got caught in an echo chamber: "the more they affirmed each other, the more they lost touch with the rest of us."
Arby's Ham and Melted Ham Sandwich. From The Onion's Atkins-Friendly Fast Food Menu.
Quote of the Day:
"Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory."
~ William Barclay

Song of the Day:
James, "Seven"

Happy Birthday:
Alan Alda
Sarah McLachlan
Jackson Pollack
Susan Sontag
Elija Wood

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

There was an interesting piece in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine about working as a telemarketer. On one level, you have to feel sorry for these people, who spend their days getting hung up on.

But on the other hand, sympathy evaporates when a telemarketer quoted in the article accuses America of "occupationalism" for its sour attitude toward the people whose job it is to interrupt us in the privacy of our own homes during the dinner hour.

What, are we supposed to be grateful to them? This guy's problem is that he thinks he's providing a service to the people he calls, when what he's really doing is providing a service to the companies he works for by intruding on other people's privacy. Which is fine, if it's legal (the do-not-call lists are starting to complicate that question). But be realistic. You're being paid to bother people. They're not going to love you.

It's sort of like the owner of a towing company in Arlington who wants the county to raise the rate for involuntary tows from $85 to $140. "We're just trying to make a living," he says. "It costs a lot of money to operate."

Fine, but when you "operate" by driving around town searching for cars to tow from half-empty parking lots and then holding those cars for ransom, don't expect your "customers" to weep for you when you say you're not getting enough ransom money. (The article notes that Arlington may in fact lower its towing rates.)

By the way, check out this parody website of the towing company described above.
Andrew Sullivan goes on a rant in the middle of a piece on Judith Steinberg Dean:

I'm so tired of the entire political world having to worry about the way they appear to Southerners. It's gotten ridiculous. The minute anyone asks whether a drawling Southerner like John Edwards can catch on in the North, he's dismissed as an anti-Southern bigot. So why should the Deans have to apologize for being Yankees? It's a diverse country. Let the regional differences hang out.
Preach on! The Democrats don't even need the South anymore, in presidential elections at least. They have California! (Of course, it gets more complicated if they want to win back the Senate.)

(Sullivan also hilariously confuses rhododendrons with hydrangeas.)

And on the Steinberg Dean issue, this Salon piece by Rebecca Traister is the best thing I've read so far:

As eager as we all may be to turn Judy Steinberg Dean into a symbol of something -- to tattoo "cold careerist bitch," "feminist role model" or "passive-aggressive wife" onto her body -- it turns out that she may just be a boring, sweet, smart Jewish girl who loves her family and her work. Journalists like me and Jodi Wilgoren and Maureen Dowd -- people who obviously like attention and are fascinated by power -- cannot fathom why a woman wouldn't be thrilled to be in the center of a political lightning storm. We try to cast her and re-cast her, chew on this mystery meat until we can name her. But that exercise apparently reveals more about us than it does about our subject.
Fair enough. No more criticism from me.
The Martha Stewart trial began today with the prosecutor calling Stewart a liar.

Don't forget to check out www.marthatalks.com for the defense's side. There's a new piece posted there by someone from the Ayn Rand Institute who says Martha Stewart is a victim of "the morality of altruism."

Come to think of it, this trial does have the feeling of something from The Fountainhead. When it's all over, is Martha going to go stand naked on a cliff in a defiantly triumphant celebration of the indomitable will of man?

Or will she merely bake something triumphant, like this proud six-layer coconut cake with coconut cream filling and seven-minute frosting?
Peggy Noonan calls Wesley Clark "another first class strange-o."

Monday, January 26, 2004

Kate pointed me toward this Pepsi ad, which will air during the Super Bowl this Sunday.

Some 20 teens sued by the Recording Industry Association of America, which accuses them of unauthorized downloads, will appear in a Pepsi-Cola ad that kicks off a two-month offer of up to 100 million free -- and legal -- downloads from Apple's iTunes, the leading online music seller. The sassy ad, to be seen by Super Bowl's 88 million viewers on Feb 1, is a wink at the download hot button.
The ad plays "I Fought The Law" as the teens proclaim, "We are still going to download music for free off the Internet."

It's a great idea. Everybody wins: Pepsi, Apple -- and apparently the RIAA. They say they're in favor of the ad.
Meryl Streep, accepting an award at last night's Golden Globes:

"I just want to say that I don't think the two biggest problems in America are that too many people want to commit their lives to one another until death do us part, and steroids in sports. I don't think those are our two biggest problems."
Well, nobody said that they were our two biggest problems. Nonetheless, I get her drift and don't disagree. And she hardly "ruined the Golden Globes," as National Review would have us believe. If anything ruined the Golden Globes, it was Renee Zellweger's dress.
The most damning criticism I've seen of John Kerry is that he looks French. The GOP was saying this all the way back in April 2003.
Here's another classic SNL skit, where Ronald Reagan (Phil Hartman) plays the genial old fool for the press but later, in the Oval Office with his advisers, he's a scheming mastermind, plotting the Iran-Contra coverup and negotiating deals on the phone in Arabic:

President Reagan: B'aska lim! [hangs up] Well, gentlemen, I just concluded a very lucrative deal with the Iraqis.

Staffer: Mr. President, it just occurred to me. What if something happens to you? You're the only one who knows what's going on.

President Reagan: [angry] And that's the way it's going to stay! To quote Montesquieu: "Power without knowledge is power lost!"
Hilarious.
The Note asks,

What is it going to take to get John Kerry to stop saying "literally" when he literally means "figuratively" ("This President has literally thrown the baby out with the bath water.")?
As usual, get your Kerry-bashing fix at Kausfiles.
Technology woes

The Lilymobile survived a snowy trip to the airport last night. The Capital Beltway was a totally white, slushy free-for-all by the time I got back. Fortunately there were very few cars out, so all the sliding didn't send me slamming into anyone, or off the the road.

Sadly, the Lily(Think)Pad seems to be on the verge of expiring. It's been a good machine, getting me through three years of law school with few problems. I'm going to get another IBM, but I have to decide which one to order, wait for it to arrive, and set it up. If this machine gives out before then, my posting capability will be nil for a while.

Kate currently has no internet access at home (and what's worse, only limited television!) thanks to an unknown problem with her cable provider.
Movie Quote of the Day:
"Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple."
~ Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Song of the Day:
Genesis, "Silver Rainbow"

Happy Birthday:
Bridget Bardot
Angela Davis
Wayne Gretzky
Douglas MacArthur
Paul Newman
Gene Siskel
Eddie Van Halen

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Movie Review

In the entire Metacritic list of major reviews of Charlize Theron's performance as executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster not one mentions how funny she is. They write about the actress soberly as if they're reviewing the murderess's sentence and need to come down on the right side of the death penalty debate. They stress that Theron brings out Wuornos's humanity, meaning, apparently, that she shows the pathological highway hooker's hurting side. The movie is not as boring as their praise makes it sound: it more complexly acknowledges fecklessness and grotesqueness and obstreperous, ungovernable rage as components of humanity, too. Monster doesn't bring Wuornos to us, it brings us to her.

Which is not to say there's any moral equivocating. At trial the actual Wuornos claimed that all seven of her 1989-90 killings were acts of self-defense against brutal rape attempts. Writer-director Patty Jenkins, however, plays only the first one that way. In the subsequent encounters she shows Wuornos provoking the men, who pick her up thumbing along Florida highways, in order to get the release of killing them. (This is perhaps clearest in the scene in which an overweight, stuttering first-timer doesn't respond to the provocation and we see Wuornos shudder off the anticipated catharsis before giving him a handjob.) The men also serve a more practical purpose as robbery victims (they're like ill-fated, mortal ATMs) who fund Wuornos's motel life with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a runaway teenaged girl she picks up in a lesbian bar in the opening scene.

Theron's performance is an astounding piece of work, but make no mistake, the actress makes as bizarre an apparition as if she were in a Saturday Night Live sketch. That, I think, is the key to the greatness of her performance. Theron packed on some unsightly lbs. and wears prosthetics to resemble Wuornos superficially, but this isn't like Robert De Niro's transformation into Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), which is grimly and monotonously locked into a preconception of the character. Theron is much less rigid, much more intuitive.

You can't say what part of her this performance is coming out of--the truckstop-beauty vanity over her diminishing physical assets, the self-protective swagger of her square shoulders and jutting belly, the headbanger diction and the voice that rises from a drawl to a bellow in anger, which also makes her eyes pop perfectly round. Theron's Wuornos charges straight at trouble like a bull when something sets her off but even when Wuornos is happy Theron splays her body out in an ungainly-mannish way as if she were relaxing on a sofa in the big converted basement den of the world. The fact that nothing Theron has done before makes her seem like the kind of actress to give this performance is part of what gives it its impact--we're watching alchemy not chemistry.

Even better, it's unexpected precisely because we can't perceive her implementing some already well-known technique. We don't come into the theater expecting a showcase for a reliably clever performer. In other words, it's not a Nicolas Cage performance, though it takes a similarly morbid-giddy route to the end of the line that Cage traveled as the self-destructively alcoholic writer in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), donning a lampshade in anticipation of his own wake. Theron is fearless, going as far with the stylization as Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) but using what's ludicrous about her own mannerisms to get at the character, like Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937). It's a performance to compare to some of the peak work of our most daring stars.

I was surprised to find myself laughing with the movie, but it started to make sense in the sequence in which the totally unskilled Wuornos tries to stop hooking and get a real job. We first see her in a series of interviews attempting to talk her way into office work, and it's a humorous exaggeration of what many of us have had to do, bullshit for a chance at a menial job. (Not entirely different from the similar sequence in Erin Brockovich (2000), except that that movie emphasized the pathos rather than the comedy.) Next we see Wuornos interviewing with an attorney who unpleasantly tells her the hard truth. When she blows up at him he actually turns her into the straight man by cracking, "Now I'm really sorry I didn't give you the job." Finally we see her trying to appeal to a placement agency worker by admitting the truth, that she's a hooker trying to go straight, which understandably doesn't work, either. And then, out of options, she's walking down the sidewalk, in her demented idea of appropriate business wear, when she's pulled over by a cop, who had arrested her previously for prostitution, and forced to give him a blowjob.

Wuornos starts out as the butt of the slapstick joke in a pretty harmless way but then her anger in the attorney's office cracks the sequence open by making us self-conscious about laughing because we know that being shut out won't end in something harmless in her case. (We do see her later in a bar bragging about how she'd told the lawyer off, but we know this won't be an adequate vent. Big talk is actually part of her problem.) Then when admitting to being a hooker doesn't help, you feel the laughter rasping in your throat. Finally, the bitter irony of the cop's treating her like an eternal hooker just when she's trying to go straight is close enough to the injustice in events we've all experienced to function as heavily ironic slapstick, but when you laugh it feels like you're coughing up some alternate existence you were spared. The laughter stains your teeth black.

Theron stylizes the double-take unsightliness of the character and without killing the joke she makes you feel what it's like to be the joke. (This is different from Cage who always makes us feel in on the joke.) There are unbelievably wild moments in Monster: what Wuornos says to a john who asks her to call him "Daddy" brought down the house in the Times Square theater where I saw the movie, and it wasn't just us, because Jenkins superbly times the scene to account for the laugh. But laughing at Wuornos, when we know what it's going to lead to, feels like a form of free-falling.

Theron shows a lack of narcissism reminiscent of Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth (1996), Alexander Payne's brilliantly cagey satire of the abortion controversy. The difference between Theron in Monster and Dern in Citizen Ruth marks the border between tragic and comic forms of irony. Because Citizen Ruth is entirely comic, nothing is lost by Payne's not asking us to empathize with Dern. In Monster, Theron's fierceness encompasses comedy as a tell-me-no-lies means of empathizing.

Monster follows in the footsteps of such movies as Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express (1974), Sidney Lumet and Frank Pierson's Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry (1999), works which took the next step after Eugene O'Neill in updating the status of the tragic protagonist. With Long Day's Journey Into Night O'Neill figured out that irony was an inevitable component in modern tragedy because the nature of tragedy is too stately for our condition as we represent it, mundane detail by mundane detail, in naturalistic drama. So he made James Tyrone merely theatrical royalty and his wife Mary a preening lace-curtain Irish-American parochial schoolgirl, and grounded their tragedy in the everyday middle-class friction of family life lived in close quarters.

The movies listed above go farther in making the protagonists completely ironic figures--not Everyman but Noman, outcasts, losers, jokes. O'Neill knew that the irony of middle-class figures, even a matinee idol like Tyrone, being treated as majestic sufferers in a tragedy, "naturally" produced comedy. (It channels our awareness of the potential banality in the realistic details and what could be considered whining in the down-trending stories.) Long Day's Journey is as painfully funny as any tragedy I know of.

It's light-years ahead of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman because Miller accords Willy Loman tragic dignity only by reference to Miller's own assessment of Willy's false consciousness. Willy's tragedy is that he doesn't understand the social forces that determine his fate as Miller, that Marxist Sunday school teacher, understands them. His tragedy is not being Arthur Miller, who is too unself-conscious to use irony as a means of gaining insight, and, since he won't get down on the ground with his "low man" but fatuously insists on "elevating" him to his own height, is incapable of tragedy.

The Sugarland Express, Dog Day Afternoon, and Boys Don't Cry, on the other hand, like their characters, aren't hemmed in by bourgeois propriety. All four of them are based on bizarre newspaper stories involving marginal people in illegal, or at least untenable, courses of action. They give us the lower-depths naturalism of Zola and Norris and Dreiser without the sociologist's interest in cases and causes which preserves the authors' distance from their subjects. These movies show their protagonists as ludicrous, and by embracing irony, by shaping it for comedy, they bridge that distance, collapse the telescopes through which we're peering, so as to permit us a wider identification with what humans are capable of in extremis.

Jenkins pieced the script together from a correspondence she initiated with Wuornos, court documents, news stories, documentary interview footage, and Wuornos's letters to the Christian woman who adopted her in prison (click here for a CNN interview with Jenkins), along with her own astute conjecture. She has a very detailed imagination for Wuornos's life but not really a literary sense of how to structure her story. Boys Don't Cry, for instance, is better structured because it begins with the protagonist's cousin telling her that what she's doing is crazy. The sense of the protagonist's responsibility, which is necessary for tragedy, is thus right in the foreground.

Monster begins and ends with Wuornos in voice-over telling us of her naïve dreams of being a movie star and her belief in all the optimistic platitudes we're all raised on. It creates a framework of pathos more than tragedy. This is connected to the movie's central failure, which is not coming up with a coherent character for Ricci's Selby. The woman she's based on was about a decade older at the time of the murders (28 to Wuornos's 34 at the time of her arrest), and making her younger by itself unbalances the movie because it doesn't account for her premature corruption, why, for instance, it doesn't bother her that her girlfriend is hooking to feed her.

The movie further goes into overly familiar territory by telling us that Selby has been sent to Florida from Ohio by her fundamentalist father to cure her of her lesbianism. In other words, it makes her a victim of something the audience for this picture will readily sympathize with. And even though the Christian woman she's staying with in Florida makes some sensible derogatory comments about Wuornos, the woman also makes some racist comments that are irrelevant to the story but that tilt the scales against her without complicating our reaction. (As it would, for instance, by noting that there are some forms of disorder that moral provincialism does, in fact, protect you against.)

This may explain why Ricci gives a thin, amateurish performance. Her strongest scene should be the one in which she mimics Wuornos's bravura retelling of the law office interview to a group of lesbians she's started hanging out with in order to get away from Wuornos, but Ricci can't match Theron's version. How could she?-- the parts of her character never come together, and the movie's special pleading on her behalf is so soft, it isn't surprising that she can't get a style going in any individual scene.

Nonetheless, the way Jenkins and Theron have handled the central character is so strong that even a key-to-all-mythologies structuralist like me has to admit that although I can't say textually how they've done what they've done, they have done it. I do believe, however, that laughing at Wuornos is key to the tragic effect, because it tells us not just what life has made of her, but what she's made of herself--someone who thinks that a week of partying in a motel room on stolen, blood-stained money sounds like a good way to spend her time and energy. (Which is to say that uptight lawyer wasn't entirely wrong about her.) Listening to her boast of what she's gonna do for Selby, like an overaged guy in a loser band, smacks of the amoral adolescent improvidence that past a certain point in your life you have to take responsibility for, regardless of what's been done to you. (You're going to reap the consequences in the end no matter who you think is ultimately to blame.)

Still, like Boys Don't Cry, Monster does a great job of showing how Aileen and Selby's roller-rink romanticism feels to them--both in its pop lushness and its venting of rebellion--without expecting us to be swept away, too. And we do hear enough about Wuornos's miserable childhood to see that she's afflicted: driven to get experience regardless of its quality with no way to metabolize it when it's bad. But the movie understands that it's the monsters we make of ourselves (or that we let life make of us) that's tragic.

What we see in Wuornos's outburst against the judge and jury after she's sentenced to death is like a replay of her outburst in the attorney's office. In the final voice-over she lists the bromides she's heard all her life--"Love conquers all. Every cloud has a silver lining. Faith can move mountains. Love will always find a way. Everything happens for a reason. Where there's life, there's hope."--and comments, "Well, they gotta tell you something." The movie's Wuornos hasn't moderated between her naïve optimism and her hard experience to produce a manageable outlook, as we all have to do. Anger is her only emotional resource in conflict and it leaves her totally unprotected against other people and herself most of all. Her agony is so extreme she's incapable of learning from it, and it's harrowing to watch her go down in flames, acting out to the very end like some championship wrestler who takes the game too seriously in all the wrong ways.

A footnote to the denseness of the critics: some have gone so far as to recommend Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill's inexcusably bad documentary Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, now in a limited run in theaters. (See David Edelstein's double review in Slate, for instance.) Broomfield both narrates and appears in the work and his whole point is that Wuornos is clearly mad and should not be executed. I'm in favor of the death penalty, and if any of Wuornos's killings were not committed in self-defense as she claimed at trial then I could possibly vote to execute her. However, if the first murder were as Jenkins depicts it, and she had stopped after that, I would vote to let her walk. In any case, I think she should have had a new trial since, as Broomfield and Churchill show, her attorney was high on pot when he represented her.

But Broomfield as narrator is so set on his viewpoint that he doesn't convincingly analyze what he shows us. He doesn't smoke pot (that we see) but he doesn't make a more effective case for Wuornos than her attorney did. At one point in the documentary Wuornos admits to Broomfield that she was lying on the stand when she said the murders were in self-defense, that in reality she went out to rob the men and eliminate the witnesses. It is, in fact, the only time in the film when she sounds like she's neither confused nor lying. (She has the tone of a recovering alcoholic copping to past bad behavior.) Broomfield says to her on camera that he thought her trial testimony about the first killing was believable and she replies, "That's sad."

Very sad, involving as it did her claim that her attacker squirted rubbing alcohol from a Visine bottle into her rectum, then her vagina, then her nose, and threatened to squirt it in her eyes next. A portion of this testimony is quoted here by Phyllis Chesler who also finds it "credible." Chesler is an advocate so we can perhaps excuse her gullibility, but Broomfield is a documentarian--did it never occur to him to investigate or even think about this testimony.

How big was this Visine bottle? Ever since it was first sold over-the-counter in 1964 the bottles have never held more than 1 fluid ounce (currently it's sold in 1 and 0.5 fluid ounce sizes), and the little bottles of original Visine are not refillable. (This makes sense because you're not supposed to use it on a regular basis. This information comes from the Pfizer Consumer Products service at 1-800-223-0182, available Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. EST.) The cap comes off to expose the squirting hole but the bottle is otherwise a sealed unit, with the exception of one variety that comes in the same size bottle but with a dropper cap. Thus, the man would have to have refilled the bottle beforehand either by squeezing and suctioning the alcohol into the empty bottle or by using a syringe or a tiny funnel, and then to have sparingly squirted or splashed on the orifices of his writhing victim what was left after he'd used it to clean his own penis (according to Wuornos v. Florida, 644 So. 2d 1000, 1004 (22 September 1994)). Interestingly, Jenkins includes the rubbing alcohol in the first murder scene, but with her journalistic sense of detail she has him pour it from a normal-sized rubbing alcohol bottle.

Broomfield and Churchill's work suffers from disorganization but more so from a lack of imagination for its subject. We see the footage of Wuornos's attorney smoking dope on the way to the courthouse and Broomfield intones that he thinks the guy wasn't corrupt, just an old hippie in over his head. It's as if, in Broomfield's mind, the fact the guy is a vegetarian means he can't suffer from the usual form of viciousness--putting yourself before others no matter what the cost will be to them. (From one perspective, that makes him the counsel Wuornos deserves.)

The documentary also shows footage of Wuornos shortly before her execution in which she claims the prison authorities are destroying her brain with sonic pressure. No question, she makes a hair-rising sight. But Broomfield calls her paranoid (amusingly, since he shares some of her beliefs) so as to cast doubt on her recantation, and doesn't even entertain other possibilities--that she's cracking under the stress of the looming execution (which could still mean she was legally sane at the time of the murders), or that she's faking, or, most likely of all, her uncontrollable anger has gotten the better of her sense now that there's no way for her to take it out on anyone or evade the consequences. Unlike Jenkins, Broomfield and Churchill show no grasp of the complexity of the human psyche. Because of its feel for the down-market surreality of its subject, Monster feels infinitely more real than this lame, ineffectually well-meaning documentary.

Two final notes: To be fair to the documentarians, you can read what Broomfield thought they were doing in this interview with IndieWire.

If you want a really delicious piece of irrelevance, read David Denby's 26 January 2004 New Yorker review of Monster for his disquisition about the state of Florida. He summarizes its image in recent movies and books here:

Florida has appeared as a kind of bedraggled kingdom of chaos. The swamps, the threadbare woods, the sagging, loose-hinged bungalows, the roadhouses with their grizzled and beer-bellied bikers, the long, droning freeways, cars tooling along to somewhere or other.... Florida is the place where life doesn't shape up. As the movies tell it, there's no structure, nothing hard or dense enough to mold people into coherent human beings. In both the fictional and the documentary versions, Wuornos the foulmouthed slattern [who grew up in Michigan, but don't let that derail your pen] has been produced by a foul, slatternly society.
Although Denby doesn't endorse this view of Florida, he does give voice to a familiar attitude. Ever since the contested 2000 Presidential election Florida has taken its place alongside Texas (site of the JFK assassination) for a new generation of feverish liberals who see in these states metaphors for what's wrong with America. Only they don't think of them as metaphors, but as literal sources of evil. They don't believe in Satan and hell, but they do believe in the Bush brothers and Texas and Florida.

I know Ivy League academics who would take this witless whitehouse.org parody, purporting to be a letter from George W. to Jeb Bush cheering Wuornos's execution, as a plausible transcript.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Voter Turnout, Part II

Here's an idea for increasing turnout -- create an option on the ballot for "abstain." With such an option, you can cull from the ranks of stay-at-home registered voters those who would vote were they given a choice with which they agreed. This assumes, of course, that we care about voter turnout in its own right -- that there is a value to getting people to show up at the voting booth and to cast some sort of vote, independent of the value of having people show up and cast a vote for an actual candidate. I argue there is such a value.

There's a second benefit from the abstention option, which I like to call affirmative or active abstention. It becomes a message for politicians generally and, depending upon the amount of support, a mandate for change. Whoever wins the election has to grapple with the media constantly throwing at them the fact that X number of voters chose nobody over somebody.
Voter Turnout, Part I

So, you know how television networks tend to have a translucent mini version of their symbol in the corner of the screen? Well, have you noticed ABC has changed its symbol from the usual "ABC" in a circle to "ABC 2004," or "ABC Vote 2004" (I can't remember now which it is)?

Why is this? Is this a subliminal message from ABC that they are the channel to watch for 2004 election news? Or is it a subliminal public service message intended to increase turnout? As to the later, I am referring to a study published by one of my advisors at Yale that demonstrated, in effect, that simply reminding people to vote increased voter turnout. (For those interested in this topic, Alan Gerber has developed somewhat of a cottage industry on the question of mobilizing voters simply by telling them to vote.) I suppose there is a third answer to my question of why this is -- who cares.
"That guy was fat."

--New York Mayor Bloomberg, referring to the late Dr. Atkins, founder of the Atkins diet.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer."
~ Henry Kissinger

Song of the Day:
Paul Simon, "Something So Right"

Happy Birthday:
Buzz Aldrin
George Burns
Federico Fellini
David Lynch

Monday, January 19, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"A woman unsatisfied must have luxuries. But a woman who loves a man would sleep on a board."
~ D.H. Lawrence

Song of the Day:
Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler"

Happy Birthday:
Paul Cezanne
Janis Joplin
Robert E. Lee
Dolly Parton
Edgar Allen Poe
The Volokh Conspiracy has a neat feature that allows you to exclude a conspirator from your reading experience. Just go to http://volokh.com/index.htm?exclude=[first name of blogger you want to exclude, or first name + last initial in the case of davidp or davidb].

We have no such feature. You're stuck with all of us.
Newsweek's cover story is about choosing the sex of your baby with modern technology.

A sidebar notes some folksier methods: try during a full moon for a girl; tie string around the man's left testicle for a boy.
Jonah Goldberg's early take on the Iowa caucus results:

For all of the talk of the "Old Democratic Party" versus the "New Democratic Party" the real lesson here is that neither Democratic Party did well. The Gephardt wing of manufacturing union types and, to a lesser extent, farmers crashed and burned. Gephardt's getting out of the race. The "new" Democratic Party of latte-drinking, internet savvy, Bush-hating, war-opposing, young people turned out to the polls but it didn't vote for their annointed representative either.
Goldberg says this indicates that "the traditional levers of the Democratic Party don't pull the machinery anymore." But Bill Clinton wasn't heavily identified with either unions or latte drinkers either. Those two groups will have to get on board eventually with whoever the Democratic nominee is, just like they did with Clinton.

Karl Rove will sleep fitfully tonight.
A Muslim clergyman was recently sentenced to prison in Spain for writing a book advocating a three-stage process of husbandly discipline: first warn your wife; then withhold sex; then, if she's still defiant, beat her.

Tongue-in-cheek, Tom Utley writes that this advice is terrible: "verbal warnings are completely useless."
Check out Kausfiles for last-minute Iowa expectations game shifts, plus Mickey's personal preferences: "Edwards / Dean / Gephardt / Lieberman / a Bush-Clark tossup / the complete telephone books of all major American cities / Kerry."

He also posts at length about what a fraud the caucus process is. No doubt this will make me feel slightly dirty as I watch Fox News tonight.
Andrew Sullivan quotes an author who says it's an honorable thing to be an "Uncle Tom."

(And check out this classic SNL Hardball spoof: "Osama bin Laden is an Uncle Tom!" "Good God! I can't even figure out who that's offensive to!")
NYT ombudsman Daniel Okrent critiques the paper's coverage of Dean and finds some nits to pick.

The paper has made mistakes. [Jodi] Wilgoren's description of Dean listening to Al Gore announce his endorsement (Dec. 10) was inappropriate in a news article: ''Dr. Dean smirked his trademark smirk"; that's columnist language. The visual used to illustrate an article on Dean's temper (Jan. 3) was more problematic; it was the cover of a recent issue of National Review, with the face of an inflamed Dean above the headline, ''Please Nominate This Man." The caption noted that National Review is a ''conservative journal," but there's no escaping the fact that this wasn't an example of Dean's temper, but of what an avowedly partisan publication thinks of Dean's temper.
Okrent doesn't address whether this is all a conservative conspiracy, a centrist Democrat conspiracy, or just bad journalism.
So Judith Steinberg Dean has joined her Howie in Iowa. Howard Kurtz says it was bound to happen soon, given all the buzz about her absence that was sparked by that NYT piece.

The reaction, according to Kurtz, has taken two forms: "Judith Steinberg Dean's refusal to join her husband is weird," and "Judith Steinberg Dean should be able to do whatever she wants -- but still, it makes me wonder." (My reaction was both.)

Kurtz has exerpts from lots of takes on Steinberg Dean by the punditry. The Orlando Sentinel's Kathleen Parker compares her favorably to Republican political wives, some of whom "look like transvestites on a Mary Kay binge."

I agree with Newsday's Ellis Henican: "Independence, I admire. Wifely ambition is great. But isn't there something between Nancy Reagan's slavish devotion -- and this?"

Sunday, January 18, 2004

I love Law & Order reruns. In fact, I'm a bit like Michael Kinsley's wife ("Other than reruns of Law & Order, she has almost no interest in television at all").

I also like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But I have no use whatsoever for Law & Order: Criminal Intent (or, as Kate calls it, "Law & Order: Mens Rea").

Vincent D'Onofrio gives me the creeps with his stuttery, condescending overacting. And the poor female detective (whoever she is) barely has a role beyond shadowing him. But apparently the show has its fans. I can't explain it.
Frank Rich accuses promoters of Mel Gibson's The Passion of "spiritual McCarthyism" and intimates that the conservative and Catholic intellectuals promoting it are just tools of people who are going to make big money from the movie:

This game of hard-knuckle religious politics is all too recognizable in the new millennium, when there are products to be sold and votes to be won by pandering to church-going Americans. The us-vs.-them religious one-upmanship is more about political partisanship than liturgical debate.
I agree with that, and I further agree that "it demeans the Pope to be brought into this scheme." Which is why I thought this Peggy Noonan column was awful. She reported "some happy news this Christmas season":

The film has a new admirer, and he is a person of some influence. He is in fact the head of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.
"It is as it was," was the Pope's comment after seeing the movie, and Noonan says "I don't know if those words will settle the matter.

Well, they won't, nor should they. It's a movie. Some people will love it and be moved by it, and some will not like it, or will be indifferent. That's what makes it art. Noonan seems oddly anguished that the movie has any detractors at all:

If [the Pope's endorsement] ends the controversy, or quells it, and I believe it should, that would be a beautiful gift to everyone this holiday season.
Since controversy sells tickets, I doubt the movie's promoters share the sentiment.
Google as a Barometer for Creeping Culture

A few days ago (a week maybe?) Lily posted Google's top searches of 2003. What I noticed about this compilation is the possibility of using it as a barometer for the degree to which American culture has spread around the world. Setting aside the fact that Google did not list the same categories for all the countries, a quick glance seemed to reveal that Italy had the least number of American references in their top google searches. On the other end of the spectrum, the top search in the Netherlands? Spongebob!
Hot Pants = More Viewers

So says the president of the international soccer organization, FIFA. Well, he didn't actually say "hot pants."
Blatter said women's soccer needs different sponsors from the men's game and should try to attract fashion and cosmetics companies by featuring "more feminine uniforms.''

"Tighter shorts, for example,'' Blatter told the Swiss newspaper SonntagsBlick. "In volleyball the women also wear other uniforms than the men. Pretty women are playing football today. Excuse me for saying that.''

....

FIFA spokesman Andreas Herren said Friday that Blatter never mentioned the word "hot pants.''
Yeah. Tight shorts, not hot pants. I see the difference now.
Looking on the bright side: Carolina, Connecticut, Maryland, and Kentucky have all lost in the past week.
Quote of the Day:
"'It's snowing still,' said Eeyore gloomily.
'So it is.'
'And freezing.'
'Is it?'
'Yes,' said Eeyore. 'However,' he said, brightening up a little, 'we haven't had an earthquake lately.'"
~ A.A. Milne

Song of the Day:
John Michael Montgomery, "Till Nothing Comes Between Us"

Happy Birthday:
Kevin Costner
Cary Grant
A.A. Milne
Montesquieu
Daniel Webster
"I do believe in the sanctity of marriage, I totally do," says Britney Spears on MTV.

She, like, totally does.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Wake who?

Number-three-ranked Wake Forest just lost its seventh straight game in Cameron.

I remember the last time they beat us there, with Tim Duncan in 1997. I was in China on a school trip, and we called for score updates.

Also in the ACC today, #1 Connecticut visits Chapel Hill. I hate Connecticut. Also, if they lose, Duke will be ranked #1. And yet the immutable laws of Duke fan-dom dictate that, for the next couple of hours at least, I am a UConn fan. (Really, it's unfortunate that one team has to win this game.)

Friday, January 16, 2004

Movie Review

Tim Burton's Big Fish is one of the few movies that is about the choice of genre, in this case, romance versus realism. (Sidenote: The greatest movie to tackle the subject head on is Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).) Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) is a small-town Alabama salesman who has raised his son on a personal collection of tall tales, featuring a witch with a doom-revealing eye, a giant, a circus, a wolfman, a lawn of daffodils, a poet-bank robber-tycoon, Siamese twins, a mysterious town where no one wears shoes, and a big fish. His son Will (Billy Crudup) is a serious-minded reporter (i.e., a professional truth teller) who has moved to Paris to get away from his father because his storytelling always seemed to divert any attention that he himself might have got. When Will hears that Edward is dying he returns home and wants to hear from his father the truth about the old man's life, the reality that Will thinks the stories cover up.

The movie, adapted from Daniel Wallace's book, and originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg, has almost nothing but problems--inconsistencies, gaps, failures of taste--and yet I imagine it will be a big crowd-pleaser, in part because of its failure to develop the central theme of the salesman's spiel versus the reporter's facts. For the theme to have any tension, realism should have some advantages. If, for instance, the father were a financial failure, a charmer but unsuccessful, then we might be in a position to understand Will's resistance to his romantic adventure tales. But the movie is clearly on the father's side, because its main selling point, after all, is Tim Burton's recreation of those stories. By comparison to Edward, Will seems like a prig who becomes human only when he in his turn tells his father a whopper to ease the dying man over the border.

Similarly, the movie is not at all a work of realism, but rather a double romance: how the young Edward (Ewan McGregor), seen in the flashback stories, wins his wife, and how the grown Will gets in sync with his patrimony. (It shares the latter trope, one of the fundamental forms of romance, with the ancient Aeneid, the medieval Parzival, Shakespeare's Henry IV and Hamlet, and The Godfather movies. This form of romance contrasts fascinatingly with the New Comedy of Terence, one of the main sources of romantic comedy, in which fathers inevitably give way to their sons. Comedy, thus, stands in opposition not only to tragedy but to patriarchal romance as well.)

The general problem with Big Fish is that we're meant to adore Edward's stories and so the movie fawns over them, and since they make up the majority of the movie's two-hour-plus running time, this means the movie fawns over itself. Without a greater tension between the romantic and realistic approaches, it's almost unavoidable: Burton ends up making a tribute to his own storytelling style. Which I have loved, especially in Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988), but also in the Catwoman parts of Batman Returns (1992), the spidery incongruities in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and some of the more wacky-tacky moments in Mars Attacks! (1996; the alien's insincerity alarmingly cuts through all the liberal optimism about outer space, glorified by Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).) Burton's comic range is a lot wider and more individual than his emotional range, which has been limited to childhood hurts, the boy who's different, who's left out. Big Fish has some of Burton's signature weirdness but it foregrounds the emotional material that he doesn't have an equivalent talent for. (The Spielberg of E.T.--The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is, in fact, better at bringing out these emotions in fantasy stories.)

Big Fish does have some neat stuff (I laughed hardest at the Communist ventriloquist act), and superb special effects (the heart-shaped Siamese twins with a single pair of legs are a marvel, and the movie manages to keep its giant in consistent proportion to the normal-sized people far better than Lord of the Rings did), but everything is slower than Burton at his best, and softer. And though the cinematography is by the great Philippe Rousselot (Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva (1981), John Boorman's Hope and Glory (1987), Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Philip Kaufman's Henry & June (1990)), the movie doesn't have the saturated-but-diffuse glimmer you'd expect from him. The lighting is washed out which makes the sets look like they were built in the backyards of suburban tract homes for a neighborhood picnic. And yet they don't have a homey look (like the friendly-fake design of David Byrne's sole directing effort True Stories (1986))--they're synthetic-festive but drab. Burton trained as a Disney animator (click here for career information) and visually his movies are all about bringing buggy ideas to life, not about the almost tactile beauty of celluloid, and so Rousselot was probably wasted on him anyway.

And when you start thinking about the elements at the soft center of the story, they don't add up. I never could pin down the period it was supposed to be taking place in. In one flashback to the Alabama of the 1950s? 1960s? we see Edward as a boy with a group of friends including a middle-class black kid and you want to know whether someone's rewriting history--either Edward or the moviemakers--or what might explain this oddity. The obstetrician who delivers Will in the 1960s? 1970s? is also African-American. (Just a few of the many places where contrasting realism would add dimensions to the movie.) There's much more feel for the fantasy world than for the American South--again, romance chosen pre-emptively over realism. (One sign of this is the fact that Burton has not cast a single Southern actor in a major role. Can he really not hear how inadequate Danny DeVito's vocal technique is for the character of a blowhard Southern ringmaster?)

In addition, Albert Finney as the dying father doesn't come across as an older version of the enchanted young Edward we see in the stories. He's (too believably) an old bore who can always find a way around people's insistence that they've already heard a story, while his wife looks on with amused tolerance. Finney has had the misfortune to become one of those English actors who are cast for their names regardless of their fitness for a role. He hasn't furthered his technique but seems to have sunk into his gouty bulk. At times he can barely get the words out past his teeth. He carries a heavy-spirited atmosphere with him that's entirely wrong for a man who has made a parallel life for himself out of charmingly quirky yarns.

Finney does have a good, gape-mouthed look here when his son objects to his going on and on--it's the emblematic expression of the pest who can't even conceive that people aren't entranced by what he says. (Which is to say he's not as miscast here as he was as Dr. Sloper in Agnieszka Holland's faithful-isn't-everything adaptation of Washington Square (1997; I can't think of a role in Henry James that Finney would be right for).) And it's not his fault to the extent the movie doesn't really ask him to do something difficult, for instance, to get at the unsettling pathos of the father whose exertions to entertain his son are perceived by the son as a form of neglect.

This feeling lurks, but finally we're asked simply to love the old Edward not the young one, which McGregor, with his Claymation smile, makes so easy. For that matter, we're not really asked. Instead, the movie applies the same kind of emotional pressure on the audience that families put on you, not just to make peace with the most demanding personalities while holding your own, but to give in to them. Maybe this is why audiences are swallowing this half-baked sugar pie. Just don't let anyone tell you it's a sign Tim Burton's talent has matured.

A final note: in this interview with FilmForce Burton expresses how I feel about computer graphic images in movies:

Of course, actor Matthew McGrory was only a mere 7'6", not the towering behemoth seen in the film. Burton explained how they enhanced McGrory's height. "A lot was in camera. It was just angles and lenses. It was important to me to not overdo CG stuff because since you can do anything, it just felt like it needed to remain on a more sort of handmade human funky level just because of the nature of the stories and what the movie is."
You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
Quote of the Day:
"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."
~ Audre Lorde

Song of the Day:
Bon Jovi, "Always"

Happy Birthday:
Dian Fossey
Ethel Merman
Susan Sontag
Pahking the Cah

I saw a funny book in the bookstore the other day -- I think it was called The Boston Dictionary, but I can't seem to find a link to it. I did manage to find a website that has what appears to be a selection from the book (although the source is not attributed). Here is a snippet:
ahdery Runs through the middle of the city. Ahftah foah o’clock, it’s clogged with cahs .

ahnt Sistah of your fathah or muthah. Also: are not

bah Serves beah and hahd likkah: The train to Noo Yok has a bah cah.

bayah Ferocious brown or black animal.

beah Malt beverage; e.g., Gansett.

bon As in: Where were you bon? I was bon in J.P.

Bawstin cream pie A frosted layah cake.

Broons Professional hockey team, named after bayahs.

Buljah President of the state Senate. Likes the guvnah; does not like Howie Cah.

bzah Strange, odd: The Stuart case was bzah.
Go check it out. There's plenty more hilarity where that all came from.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Men versus chocolate

I've been planning a homemade Valentine's Day dinner for my Valentine. Last night we were talking about an unrelated topic, and he mentioned that chocolate isn't his favorite kind of cake.

"...what?!" Is there any other kind?

"Well," he said apologetically, "I like... plain white cake. With white icing."

Do men have a chocolate-appreciation deficit? How many women have been in this situation: you're eating at a restaurant with your boyfriend/husband/brother, and the dessert menu arrives. Not wishing to seem piggy, you urge him to order something and say you'll "just have a bite." You wait eagerly to hear his choice, and it's... apple cobbler. Or key lime pie, or banana pudding, or something else notable mainly for its tragic lack of chocolate.

Apple cobbler for dessert? You might as well order a caesar salad. My best explanation is that they're onto us. They don't like sharing, so they use fruit to drive us away from their dessert plates.

Anyway, we'll be having white cake with stawberries for Valentine's Day. But I've been promised chocolate ice cream later in the weekend. All is well.
An easy question?

My post on Tuesday questioned Judith Resnick and Emily Bazelon's goal of "a world in which parents of both sexes mix work and family responsibilities." It goes without saying that I'm in favor of equal opportunities for men and women, but that's beside the point of my post.

Read their piece carefully and you'll see that equal opportunity isn't exactly what they're advocating. Their goal is for "both sexes" to "mix work and family responsibilities," i.e., for both parents to work outside the home. If that's the goal, one spouse leaving the labor market just isn't acceptable. Their aim isn't really to give women lots of options; it's to steer them in the direction of one: permanent employment outside the home.

It's revealing to examine what Resnick and Bazelon identify as the evil of housewifery. When women leave the workforce, it "reinforces the status quo." There's no pressure on employers to change. Husbands' lives get easier. As a result, they say, it's "even harder for professional women with children to keep up."

So when you make a very personal choice to stay home full-time with a newborn baby, you're betraying the sisterhood and hurting... professional women like Resnick and Bazelon.

I'm not buying a ticket for that guilt trip. If feminism is about giving women choices, sign me up. If it's about condemning personal decisions when they reflect priorities different from those held by career-focused law professors, many of us will pass.
People magazine interviews the Deans about their first date, his romantic gestures (a rhododendron for her 50th birthday), and why Yale is better than Princeton.
The search for sad childhood songs takes an even darker turn with "The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb" ("Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher"), a German song submitted by reader DS:

Konrad, speaks Mrs. Mamma,
"I go out and you stay here.
Be nice and well behaved.
Until I come back home again
And especially, Konrad, listen!
Don't suck on your thumb anymore;
Otherwise the tailor with his scissors
Comes very quickly along,
And cuts off your thumbs
Just as easily as paper."

Just as soon as mother left-
Wupp, the thumb is in the mouth.

Snap! The door opens,
And at lightning speed
Jumps the tailor into the room
to the thumb-sucking boy.

Wow, now it goes snip, snip
With the scissors the thumbs come off,
With the big sharp scissors!
"Oh boy" Konrad hollers loud.
Just as mother comes home,
Konrad looks very sad.
Without thumbs he is standing there,
Both of them are gone forever.
And somehow I doubt it's lost much in translation.
Quote of the Day:
"I am comforted by life's stability, by earth's unchangeableness. What has seemed new and frightening assumes its place in the unfolding of knowledge. It is good to know our universe. What is new is only new to us."
~ Pearl S. Buck

Song of the Day:
Berlin, "Take My Breath Away"

Happy Birthday:
Joan of Arc
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gamal Abdul Nasser
Aristotle Onassis
Edward Teller
Lee Teng-Hui
Mother Knows Best

Here's a snippet from a list of things mothers have taught us:
My mother taught me IRONY:
"Keep crying and I'll give you something to cry about."


My mother taught me about the science of OSMOSIS:
"Shut your mouth and eat your supper!"


My mother taught me about CONTORTIONISM:
"Will you "look" at the dirt on the back of your neck!"
Go check it out.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

A Modest Proposal

A loyal reader writes in in response to my complaint about the new palmolive dish wipes. My complaint -- in short -- was that we have perfectly good reusable dish washing utensils, and that making something disposable rather than reusable seems to be quite ass backwards. The reader says:
Don't you know that sponges carry the most bacteria of anything in your kitchen? The newly recommended way to remedy this is to run them in the microwave for a few seconds. So just wait for Palmolive to let us know this in one of their ads-if they haven't already.
Ah yes. This is true, and (for the record) I did know this. I haven't heard this point in their ads yet.

But, I would wager that children are some of the biggest conveyers and cesspools of bacteria -- should we also work to make them disposable? Oh, how Swift of me! But seriously, all I am trying to say is that it seems odd to take something that is already reusable and make it disposable, especially when a sign of a first world nation nowadays is movement away from being an ignorantly disposable society. I agree that bacteria breeding in sponges may be a serious problem, but the solution is not to make sponges disposable, but to make bacteria-resistant sponges. This sort of move would also be more in line with American values today.

By the way, what does all this say about this guy? Will he be replaced by a character who gets thrown out at the end of every episode? Palmolo-Squarepants?
America, Land of Extremes

I ran track and cross-country in high school. Our coach used to tell us that our daily physical activity placed us in the top percent of Americans. Well, I don't think we were beating out these folks.

Apparently, fitness in America is going the way of wealth in America -- the fit get fitter.
While health experts everywhere sound urgent alarms about how obese and sedentary this nation has become, certain zealots -- a small group, but growing -- are intent on what might be called hyperfitness. The hyperfit flock to classes and programs that promise to work them until they're exhausted, and that help prepare them for competitions never envisioned in ancient Greece. When the hyperfit talk sports, they don't mean Sunday afternoons with the NFL and a bag of Cheetos.

A marathon? Running 26 miles and 385 yards was once an athletic pinnacle, an ordeal attempted only by a highly trained elite. Now almost half a million people finish a marathon each year: people on crutches, people in their nineties, people who weigh 250 pounds, people who stroll the entire distance, people named P. Diddy. Where's the cachet in that?

The hyperfit are shifting to the triathlon, a combination of swimming (.93 miles, or 1,500 meters), road biking (24.8 miles / 40 kilometers) and road running (6.2 miles / 10 kilometers). When it became an Olympic event at the 2000 Games in Sydney, "that showed the sport had arrived," says an official at USA Triathlon. Now that organization, which sanctioned 686 races that year, counts about 1,100 sanctioned events annually, and its membership has more than doubled in three years, to nearly 50,000.

Your true fitness fanatic, though, might prefer an Ironman triathlon: a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike race plus a marathon, all to be completed within 17 hours. Born in Hawaii 25 years ago and highlighted on network television, the sport got a major boost in 1982. That was the year the world watched a 23-year-old graduate student named Julie Moss, the leader among the women, stagger and then crawl toward the finish line. She was dehydrated, vomiting; her shorts were stained with urine and feces. And as she waved away the people trying to help her, a competitor passed and beat her by 29 seconds.

Yet thousands of viewers apparently thought, "Cool!"
-- because the number of contestants jumped from 580 to 850 for the next race at Kona, on the Big Island, and now tops 1,600.
Hey, I'm into being fit -- but there's got to be a limit somewhere.

On the one hand, you can probably point to some anecdotal evidence that the average human body has advanced considerably. Take any professional sport and compare today's athletes to yesteryear's. Athletes are more athletic. The announcers for the Pats game this past weekend were commenting on how 10 years ago in those zero degree conditions the teams would have run run run the ball. Today, the athletes are expected to do more, to play their regular game despite the poor conditions. So, on the one hand, you could argue that though there should be questions about the limits of the human body, our limits have evolved further and that the hyperfit do not place themselves in as much danger as conventional wisdom might suggest.

On the other hand, the limits still exist, no matter how far the boundaries have been pushed.
Mark and Jim and Glen talk about how much they value staying healthy and agile -- but nobody needs to sweat this much just to be fit. The American Council on Exercise says 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week will do it. Even optimal fitness -- what's required to achieve cardiovascular health, stellar blood glucose levels, normal body weight -- requires no more than an hour a day of brisk walking or yard work, and not all at one time. Ironmans, along with protracted frog jumping, are unnecessary. In fact, some experts -- Cedric Bryant, the ACE's chief exercise physiologist, for one -- have serious misgivings about the hyperfitness trend. "People don't need to have that heavy a dose of exercise to get the many benefits of physical activity," he says.

If they overtrain, they may encounter sore joints and "nagging little musculoskeletal injuries," disrupted sleep, more colds and viruses, reduced athletic performance, even depression or anxiety. "It appears that about 10 percent of the people we might call fitness extremists hit this point," Bryant says, citing anecdotal reports. Several studies even point to depressed immune function after very vigorous exertion. While overexercise doesn't present nearly the health threat of obesity and sedentary living, concerns about it, and about actual addiction to exercise, are starting to crop up in the sports medicine literature. Nobody really knows the long-term effects of competing in one triathlon after another.
The more interesting question for me, though, is why, especially because I could actually see myself getting into something like this -- with the right spark. The article goes on to offer a hypothesis:
One could blame American culture itself, with its irresistible tendency to supersize everything -- malls, lattes, races. This is a nation fascinated by farther/faster/harder, delighted to turn anything from courtship to meditation -- the First World Yoga Championships were staged in Los Angeles in September -- into competitions, preferably televised.
Maybe. But now I'm tired, just from thinking about all this exercise.

The Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal have released this year's Index of Economic Freedom.

Tops on the list are Hong Kong and Singapore. The U.S. is tenth. Dead last? North Korea.
Top Google searches of 2003.

"Britney Spears" and "Ferrari" top the list, indicating continuing dominance of the net by 15-year-old males.
An update on Mrs. Dr. Dean: the NYT prints letters reacting to yesterday's piece.

And in Reason, Nick Gillespie hopes she's a trend-setter:

The less we see of Dr. Dean, Medicine Woman, whoever is squiring Carol Moseley-Braun these days, and whatever Friendster floozy Dennis Kucinich has tricked into paying for his dinner on a given night, the better.
He thinks the whole First Lady institution is un-American.
Another aunt writes in with an addition to the list of gloomy childhood classics -- "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," wherein the demise of a goose is discovered:

The goslings are mourning,
Because their mother's dead.

The old gander's weeping,
Because his wife is dead.
Keep 'em coming.
Remember that story about how parents prefer boy babies to girls? Now Slate has another piece that says when it comes to adoption, the opposite is true. Of the adopted children under 6 years old in America, there are 85 boys for every 100 girls.

Is this because biological parents are more likely to give girls up for adoption? No, according to the article.

Numbers vary, but it's pretty safe to say that somewhere between 70 percent and 90 percent of parents looking to adopt register some preference for a girl with an agency. It doesn't matter if they're adopting from China, where girls far outnumber boys; from Russia, where the numbers are about even; or from Cambodia, where there is typically a glut of orphan boys and a paucity of girls. Everywhere, demand tends to favor the feminine.
According to the article, the most likely explanation is that when a couple adopts, the woman is most often the driving force behind the process, and women tend to prefer girls. Since the man isn't getting a biological heir anyway, he's essentially indifferent:

If men are indeed largely silent partners in most adoptions, it could indicate that men's preferences with regard to their children's gender are simply not as strong when patrimony is not an issue. A man might hanker pretty strongly after a biological son to pass down both his name and his genes; but if that grand prize, so to speak, is not on the table, he may not care as much either way.
So a biological son is "the grand prize" after all. Looks like we're right back to where we started.
Alan Wolfe debunks the image of a fire-and-brimstone religious revival in America, saying that Evangelical Christians focus more on temporal self-improvement and community-building than eternal damnation:

Few forms of making yourself attractive to God gain as much attention in conservative Protestantism as dieting. ...Conservative Christian women try so hard to lose weight, not only to make themselves attractive, but to please the Lord. ... [T]he past few years have seen the appearance of What Would Jesus Eat? The Ultimate Program For Eating Well, Feeling Great, And Living Longer by Don Colbert; Daily Word for Weight Loss: Spiritual Guidance to Give You Courage on Your Journey, by Colleen Zuck and Elaine Meyer; and More of Him Less of Me: My Personal Thoughts, Inspirations, and Meditations on the Weigh Down Diet, by Jan Christiansen.
Equally startling is the lack of fretting over doctrinal and liturgical purity: "Some people like a high Episcopal type thing," one Pentecostal pastor says nonchalantly about his flock, "and other people like to swing from chandeliers and leap out of windows."
Quote of the Day:
"Endurance is nobler than strength, and patience than beauty."
~ John Ruskin

Song of the Day:
Alabama, "How Do You Fall In Love"

Happy Birthday:
John Dos Passos
Faye Dunaway
Andy Rooney
Albert Schweitzer

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Update to the Timberland Boot Saga: I received a new pair of boots in the mail last week. So, other than the four-week lag between purchase of boots and full enjoyment of boots, things turned out well. Brooks Brothers has even stopped sending the little white insanity cards.

In other customer service news, my lost luggage has been returned. But the improvised system for contact care I devised in the interim caused me to put the wrong contacts in the wrong eyes this morning, inducing a feeling of lightheadedness on the Metro.

Oh well. You do what you can about these things, and try to maintain a sense of humor when all systems fail.
Dahlia Lithwick calls today's oral argument in the Tennessee v. Lane disability case a "Morning of Meanness."

It's truly surreal to witness a court that has cheerfully accommodated its own collective disabilities—the chief justice's bad back (he ambles around throughout oral argument) and Justice Souter's seemingly pathological fear of strangers (no cameras while he sits on the court)—sit utterly unmoved by the plight of Americans who can't even fight a traffic ticket or a custody battle for want of a ramp.
Howard Bashman has updates on the case starting hereabouts.
An op-ed by Judith Resnick and Emily Bazelon says it's still a man's world, and our decisions about who quits work to stay home with the kids keep it so:

When women exit from paid jobs and take on nearly all the work of the household, they reinforce the status quo. In one-worker, two-parent families, the worker is usually the man. Because of the support his wife gives him at home, he's more likely to succeed. And because he doesn't have to race from meetings to carpools, he is less likely to demand that the workplace bend to his family's needs.

Without pressure to change, workplaces don't. Which in turn makes it even harder for professional women with children to keep up.
They conclude that

The goal within reach is a world in which parents of both sexes mix work and family responsibilities; the reality is a world that's often split between a well-educated male wage earner and an equally well-educated female caregiver.
Whose goal? Resnick and Bazelon imply that workplace discrimination and unsupportive husbands are the only obstacles in the way of perfect breadwinner/homemaker androgyny. Their argument would be stronger if they at least acknowledged the different preferences real men and women express about parenting roles in the choices they make.

Whether those preferences are biologically or culturally induced, they exist, and they mean that decisions about who stays home with the kids aren't just a function of whose employer offers day care.

To the vast majority of families, "Mommy" and "Daddy" are not just titles signifying "Parent A" and "Parent B" -- they confer subtly different joys and burdens. Moreover, there are probably lots of wage earners and caregivers who wouldn't want it any other way.

(On the other hand, this article in the NYT yesterday about gay stay-at-home dads turns the traditional notion of "Mommy" upside down.)
Quote of the Day:
"As a camel beareth labor, and heat, and hunger, and thirst, through deserts of sand, and fainteth not; so the fortitude of a man shall sustain him through all perils."
~ Akhenaton

Song of the Day:
Tracy Byrd, "Keeper Of The Stars"

Happy Birthday:
Horatio Alger
Robert Stack
Sophie Tucker
An NYT piece notes the absence of Howard Dean's wife from his campaign.

She has -- get this -- never been to Iowa.

When Dr. Dean became governor, Dr. Steinberg reluctantly danced through the first two inaugural balls, in 1993 and 1995, but that event was soon cut from the state capital calendar and replaced with an open house, which she skipped. Dr. Dean, for his part, rarely uttered her name, even to say thanks, in public speeches. ... He calls home nightly unless he is on the West Coast and fears waking her, but rarely shares tales from the trail. "I don't talk politics," he said, "with people who aren't interested in politics."

Dr. Steinberg said: "I couldn't be more supportive, but I don't show my support by traveling with him. I'd rather be seeing patients."
What to make of this? My bottom line is that if it works for them, that's great. (The tone of the NYT piece is pretty respectful of their private reasons for this arrangement, but don't assume the rest of the press will be as restrained now that the topic has been broached.) At the very least, this sounds like a genuine attempt by two people to accomodate each other's goals and desires. I'm not nearly as creeped out by it as I am by the Clintons' calculated political alliance.

That said, it's hard not to agree with the historian in the article who says "This is the most important office in the world and you ought to have an interest that your husband is doing it."

Of course it's fine and normal not to care much about politics (we junkies should remember that). But what about cultivating an interest in what your spouse does all day, because you love him and what's important to him is important to you?

Furthermore, it's not like he's an accountant or something deadly boring and meaningless. Being the spouse of the frontrunner in a presidential primary has, to say the least, the potential to be incredibly interesting. You hate politics, but have a health care background? Here's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have an impact on the way medicine is practiced in this country -- not because you have a Hillary-like lust for power, but because you've committed your life to helping sick people and an amazing opportunity's been placed in your lap.

A very private nature, or discomfort with the hectic campaign lifestyle, would be more understandable as a reason to stay on the sidelines. Total lack of interest is an odd response -- and a strange way to show your support.
An accountant and former IRS special agent has been disbarred from practice before the agency for advising clients that they were not required to file income taxes because the Sixteenth Amendment was never properly ratified.

Noted the court: "The very significant problem with Banister's advice to his clients is that it is absolutely wrong."

Here's the guy's website.
Both my mother and my aunt have written to remind me of another sad childhood song.

"Poor Babes In The Woods" may be the most depressing one ever:

When came the night
So sad was their plight
The sun went down
And the moon gave no light
They sobbed and they sighed
And they bitterly cried
And the poor little babes
They lay down and died
That's right. They lay down and died.
Movie Review

Unlike those big, barking critical winners of 2003, The Return of the King, Mystic River (Which Greek tragedy is it like, may I ask?), and Lost in Translation, Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, adapted from two of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series of novels, lives up to almost everything critics have said of it. It is a handsome period recreation, full of action that is both exciting and plausible, and gives you a thing or two to think about.

My structuralist bent makes me think that the fundamental reason it's so good has to do with the handling of genre: it's a romance with almost no element of melodrama. During the Napoleonic Wars, the English Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) is given the task of taking the French warship Acheron. Because the American audience for this movie can't be expected to identify with the defense of the British Empire per se (the action has been backdated from 1812 when the British were in a war against us), and the habit among moviemakers of locking audiences into rooting for the good guys is so endemic, you can imagine how tempting it must have been to characterize the French captain as a villain, to make him a sadist to his own men or captured English sailors, a snob, or someone with a personal grudge against Aubrey. Instead, he's scarcely characterized at all, which means we're simply expected to identify with Aubrey's goal of winning for England because she's England.

Life and battles at sea on screen seem overstated enough, due to a long prehistory of swashbuckling moviemaking from the 1920s through the 1960s (The Sea Hawk (1924) through the second version of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)). The rejection of melodrama in an already played-out genre salvages it. We can look at the standard props and characters, think about the story, in a straightforward way. It doesn't even matter whether the details of life at sea in the early 19th century are accurate or not (which I am not equipped to judge in any case). It's the movie's alertness to the details, the way it feels built up from them, that keeps you attentive. Which is not to say that structurally the narrative is a work of realism. It's a military quest romance handled in a realistic fashion. The romance keeps things moving and provides rhythmic peaks, while the realistic specificity keeps it from being too familiar. There's just enough familiarity for you to be in a receptive mood for a lot of storytelling, but it doesn't breed contempt.

The romance has a surprising amount of dimension, but it doesn't get it from the political conflict. Not that the moviemakers have updated the English outlook for contemporary audiences, by making Aubrey and his men more sensitive to the indigenous peoples they encounter, or more democratic, or something. If the moviemakers had updated it, the movie would not feel as close to us as it does. It's precisely because the attitudes toward king and empire feel right for 1805 that we feel transported to another reality, admitted to a drama that plays out as if we moderns weren't there.

The sense of dimension comes, instead, from the movie's notions about manhood. Every man--the ship's doctor, a one-armed boy, everybody--has a sword and is expected to wield it effectively against the king's enemies. But it isn't just about muscle power, it's about courage and confidence, too. The central episode in this regard features Hollum (Lee Ingleby), a young midshipman who can't muster the self-possession necessary to make the crew respect him. Aside from the last shot in which we see the spooked kid disappear, the episode isn't especially well done (whether because it all comes together in a chunk rather than being salted throughout, or because it's put so squarely to the fore rather than being glimpsed, or because the actor is as unprepossessing as the character, I can't say). But it registers, and unlike the martial defense of the English empire it doesn't seem like a remote issue.

The whole assurance-assertion-aggression dynamic is a hard lot for some of us boys, and maybe it's a bad thing--and maybe it isn't, considering the need for self-defense will always be there--but I like the movie for treating it frankly as a fact of life among men. Even the subplot in which the men identify the diffident Hollum as the "Jonah" responsible for the lack of wind isn't structured as melodrama. That is, the instigators aren't treated as underhanded villains whom we're happy to see punished. (Though one of them is flogged; another aspect the movie treats frankly is the hierarchical structure necessary to maintain discipline at sea. Aubrey is reasonably sensitive to his men but his ship is not a floating co-op.)

The more positive aspect of the movie's notions about manhood is that you must do what you do diligently and well. This is true whether you're a military-seaman like Aubrey and his crew, or a physician, like Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), the ship's doctor, an amateur naturalist, and Aubrey's confidante. Aubrey and Maturin relax by playing string duets together in the captain's quarters but then rile each other in debates over Aubrey's decisions. While their personalities tend to separate toward the poles of brawn and brain, they also converge, not just because Maturin is expected to fight alongside the sailors but also, for example, because Aubrey is quick-witted enough to get the tactical idea he needs to defeat the bigger, better-equipped Acheron from a specimen Maturin has collected.

One major thing Master and Commander did not pull off was to make me a Russell Crowe fan. Physically Crowe seems like an instinctive manimal but his acting is much more focused and self-conscious than that. His beauty-and-the-beast character in L.A. Confidential (1997) was inarticulate and so he needed to let his muscles speak for him, the way Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte could as young men, but Crowe doesn't have that kind of freedom. Everything has to be run by the head office, so to speak. And then when he played a pointy-headed type in The Insider (1999), his impersonation didn't quite bring the hairpiece, glasses, and rumpled clothes together as attributes of a human being, but neither was it the kind of showy costume acting that was enjoyable for its own sake.

For an actor who's always obviously acting Crowe is not nearly as much fun to watch as Tim Roth, in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Rob Roy (1995), for instance, or Guy Pearce, in L.A. Confidential and Memento (2001), and now Ewan McGregor is becoming. (This is most apparent in Master and Commander in his telling of the weevils joke, with its awkward stage laughter.)

In Gladiator (2000) Crowe's slightly withheld quality preserved him in a ridiculously antiquated melodrama and actually made the whole show seem less moth-eaten. Compared to him, earlier ancient-spectacle stars like Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas seem like boulder eaters. But Crowe is as self-serious as Douglas without the earnestness and push that made Douglas bring conviction to Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), which you may as well do if you're going to cash the producer's checks. Douglas, incapable of restraint, threw himself into the part, and made the slave-warrior believable both as barbarian and savior.

Crowe has too much taste and self-control to do that. His skill saves him from overinvesting in his characters. He would never do what Sean Penn has done at the far ends of his spectrum--turn a dressed-down realistic character into a cartoon in The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) or relentlessly pound the air out of a straight dramatic role in Mystic River (2003). Crowe is as fine as stolid gets--way ahead of a perennial favorite like Spencer Tracy--and his stolidness may be why he's now a general-purpose star. But the risks he doesn't take keep him from being spectacular, though this may also save him from the early burnout of Robert DeNiro, that charred hulk of a great actor. Crowe has the physical and intellectual qualities to bring Aubrey to life, but he doesn't. He represents him perfectly without becoming him.

Equally skilled and restrained, Paul Bettany has a refined quality that acts as a foil to Crowe's rough-and-readiness. The contrast is turned into a running theme when they sail to the Galápagos and the demands of warfare keep interfering with Maturin's desire to check out the unique species on the islands (and thereby get a jump of a quarter century on Charles Darwin, who wrote about his epoch-making visit to the Galápagos in chapter 17 of The Voyage of the Beagle). It's one of the rare times when dramatic irony--in this case, our knowledge of the importance of Darwin's later discoveries--is used for comic effect.

But it also points out the other clear failure of the movie, which is that it doesn't make enough of that comedy. There's a great opportunity, when Maturin shows up in an almost deliriously sumptuous butterfly-hunting outfit for the day of gathering fauna that Aubrey has promised him and Aubrey has to tell him that they have to set sail. The movie almost brings out a wonderful, sharp-sweet irony--poor Maturin, so close to all those lizards and bugs and birds and yet so far--and you feel you could kiss them if they'd just go with it. (It was Bettany's chance to rival Ralph Richardson in truly grand foolishness.) But I sense that the moviemakers felt that would undermine the seriousness of the subject, and so they have Maturin engage in what seems like a patently self-interested reproach to Aubrey about his failure to keep his promise. The movie takes Maturin's reproach at face value, though I can't imagine any sensible member of the audience siding with him, what with a hostile warship lurking.

Or maybe they didn't even notice how close they were to a truly distinguished layering of tone. Sometimes they let threads take their own course with superb tact. For instance, we watch Maturin putting a metal plate in a man's skull after a battle and then slowly wait to see if the man will regain his faculties; when he finally does find his voice he speaks evil. This isn't done in sequence as a discrete unit but is allowed to simmer gradually. On the other hand, when Maturin has to operate on himself, the moviemakers apparently don't realize the scene could be an outtake from Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (1974). By pulling back from high comedy the movie at times verges on camp.

But even with a tone less varied than it might have been, and considering the ways in which the movie stops short of being even better, it's impressive work. The action sequences are like a model of what Peter Jackson failed to do in The Lord of the Rings. In the battles there are hurried shots, full of special effects, in head-swirlingly fast succession, but the first battle is frighteningly, devastatingly confusing on purpose and the later ones gain clarity from context. Before the final battle we are given some notion of the specific maneuvers Aubrey's men are attempting, which helps the storming of the enemy ship retain some shape in our minds even when everybody seems to be running in all directions.

It takes me a long time to drag my weary, working tail to all these two-hour-plus movies in the awards season, but Master and Commander is the only one that relieved me of my consciousness of the passage of time. There are disappointments, but the glass is more than three-quarters full.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
Eye tests, Driving tests ... Walking tests

On my walk to work today, I saw an example of the kind of person you don't want behind the wheel of an automated vehicle. The sidewalk was narrow-- no wider than to accomodate two people across. There was a steady flow of foot traffic that mirrored traffic on the road; people were walking one on the right side of the sidewalk and the other way on the other side of the sidewalk. In front of me, a woman was essentially tailgating the guy in front of her. She then suddenly moved over into the "oncoming traffic" to pass the slowpoke in front of her.

She plowed right into a person coming toward her.

HELLO! I mean, if you can't even pass while walking, I don't think you should be allowed on the roads. I propose that we have walking tests at the DMV. If you're unable to maneuver your way through commuter traffic in a major city, you shouldn't be anywhere near an automobile.

Monday, January 12, 2004

When I was little I thought "You Are My Sunshine" was the saddest song in the world. I suppose it is rather sad -- tinged with foreboding, at least. (It also seem to be one of the two state songs of Louisiana.)

Come to think of it, my mother sang me an awful lot of gloomy songs.

The absolute worst is "Red Wing":

Now, the moon shines tonight on pretty Red Wing,
The breeze is sighing, the night bird's crying,
For afar beneath the stars her brave is sleeping,
While Red Wing's weeping her heart away.
Other hits in my mother's repertoire involved people dying of food poisoning and jumping from bridges.

And people wondered why I was such a serious child.

Maybe I'm just made that way. I heard a very sad song on the radio last night, and I was trying to describe it to Kate, who fortunately never gets all female and emotional about stuff like this. She made me stop talking about it because I hadn't even gotten to the good/sad part and I was already getting choked up.
Congratulations to Duke's J.J. Reddick for breaking the ACC record for consecutive free throws in last night's win at Virginia. The streak now stands at 50.