Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A Little God Talk

A couple of blog posts I’ve read (one by Irb and the other by John) has got me thinking about religion and God. I’ll really try to keep this brief and not very deep, as, after all, only strong swimmers should attempt to cross the English Channel and my modest dog paddle isn’t quite up to scratch. But over the course of my life I have given the subject some thought and find myself presently in the mood to share my views.

Let me make very clear that I respect serious, religious followers, those who truly believe in and feel enriched by their chosen faith. I envy them, in fact, because they are benefiting from a source of peace — a “balm” if you will — that I feel is forever closed to me due to a personal system of ideas that won’t permit it. To those for whom the explanations and forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and all the other -isms give satisfaction and security, I think it’s wonderful. I remember I once stopped at a McDonald's in Connecticut on my way back from New Jersey and saw a man organize his Big Mac, fries and Coke on the table in front of him and then clasp his hands and bow his head in prayer. That’s religion for me. That’s what it’s all about. Not the riches of the Vatican, no liturgical mumbo-jumbo, no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, just a simple man giving God thanks for his simple meal. Some might be struck by the tackiness of it — a McDonald's after all — but I felt the poignancy. I couldn’t help thinking Jesus would eat at a McDonald's while the Pharisees dined at the Ritz.

Having come from good Scandinavian stock, I was naturally raised a Lutheran. I went to Sunday School and sang the Bible songs and knew that Jesus was a handsome white man with long hair and a beard and who had a special liking for children. He walked with me and He talked with me. Every year my Sunday School pin grew longer and longer and I loved to hear the Bible stories. My family had a Bible storybook and one day I pretended I was sick so I could stay home from school and read it. I particularly liked the Old Testament stories, because God back then was more into signs and wonders. And there was a lot of smiting going on. I wondered at the personality shift God underwent from the Old Testament to the New. The Old Testament God was a proactive God, while the New Testament God seemed a bit too laissez faire for my tastes. The Old Testament God nearly wiped everybody out with a flood because of the wickedness. I wondered, Were they any more wicked back then than we are now? for even as I child I knew we could still be pretty wicked. Would there be another flood? Or maybe that was what the hydrogen bomb was for.

I seriously considered becoming a minister when I was in my teens. My nickname in high school was “Rev,” which was short for “Reverend.” I attended Pentecostal services and heard people speak in tongues (which I believe, to this day, to be no sham — whatever it was those people were doing, they were sincere and it sounded just like language). But somewhere along the way my intellect kicked in. My big, stupid, brain couldn’t just let me enjoy and be satisfied with the system of beliefs I was being fed. And I fell away. It turned out my seed was sown on rocky soil.

So here’s my present take on God and religion, and it goes a little something like this:

Man is, by nature, curious. That’s what makes man great, the “paragon of animals” as Shakespeare put it. Curiosity has spurred man on to discover and build and conquer, to cure diseases, control mighty rivers, connect up the farthest reaches of the planet and swing a golf iron on the moon. Man always wants to find out. Man has questions and he craves answers. And when he doesn’t get answers, it frustrates him because he can’t stop trying no matter how blocked he gets. So finally, to quell the inner turmoil, to give him some peace of mind, I think man eventually invents the answers.

Why are we here? How did we get here? What is the meaning of life? How can the infinite, like space and time, exist? Men of genius have driven themselves mad by these questions, while lesser lights like myself go running to the pharmacy for a bottle of Excedrin. And, for a lot of people — often very intelligent people who could whip me in an I.Q. contest with half their brain tied behind their back — that’s where the Bible comes in, because there in that one-and-a-half-inch thick book are all the answers in black and white and the gray areas in between. The creation of the world. An all-powerful, benevolent being who watches over us. The parables. Wisdom and poetry, signs and wonders. It’s all there.

Here’s my big problem with the Bible: it’s written by men. Wait a minute, that’s not quite right: it was told and retold and retold and re-retold and then it was written by men, sort of like that game of telephone we played as kids. Men who lived thousands of years ago, whose belief systems, education and frames of references were vastly different from ours, telling stories we would surely brand as tall tales if they didn't have the stamp of authenticity the Bible gives them. Greek mythology? Ha, ha, ha! People used to think that stuff was true! The world created in seven days? You better believe it. The Shinto deities? Puh-leeze! The Father, Son and Holy Ghost? What’s so strange about that? Krishna Consciousness? That wacky cult, with their saffron robes, weird hairdos and all that chanting? Catholic monastic orders? God bless those robed, tonsured holy men and their Gregorian chant.

To sum up: I just don’t buy the Bible. I regard it more as mythology than anything else. And as the Bible is the foundation of the Christian Church, I don’t consider myself a Christian either.

I had a discussion with a friend of mine about God once, and I mentioned that Spinoza considered God and Nature to be the same thing. She liked that notion, and said she often thought of God as a force, like electricity. As we pursued this course, we agreed that all of this, the universe, our planet, and the life our planet sustains can’t be an accident, and that those philosophical arguments of First Cause and the Prime Mover must be true, so there really was a God, as it was impossible for us to conceive there wasn’t. When you entertain notions like these, you automatically start asking yourself, what is God like? And then: what possible inkling of the nature of the Infinite can be imparted to our mean, finite minds? Just who is it we pray to anyway? Can we ever know?

The excellent novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, takes place in a small Georgia town during the Depression and tells how several of the tortured souls who live there gravitate toward a deaf mute by the name of John Singer. Singer was an intelligent man who could read lips and was, after a fashion, considered a good “listener” — certainly one who couldn’t talk back anyway. A young girl, an old, black doctor, a disenchanted social activist and a lonely widower visited him often and unburdened themselves, each feeling certain that Singer understood them perfectly, was simpatico with them in fact. The truth was, John Singer was a sad man who accepted their company out of loneliness and felt bewildered by their talk. The John Singer they knew wasn’t the John Singer who was. Two completely separate people.

I think during those infrequent times when I pray, I kind of make my own John Singer. I assume the Being I’m speaking to knows my history, my virtues and my foibles, my desires and my intentions. He knows I try to be good and He gives me a little pat on the head when I’m done. But can it really be that way? Is this God the God of the universe, the God of all sentient life? The God of the billions here on Earth and infinite numbers that people the other planets? How much attention can He seriously devote to me, for in His eyes I can only be the size of a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-atomic particle. I am really only one billionth the size of a neutrino. How can He possibly be the God I was raised to believe in?

God, for all we know, might be a colossal, impassive clock that exactly ticks out the tune the universe inexorably turns to. Benjamin Franklin, mindful of the vastness of the universe and the certainty of intelligent life other than our own, imagined that God delegated responsibility for our welfare among legions of lesser gods who reported back to him. Boss God. God Central. Why not? Makes as much sense as anything else.

I believe there is a God, but I don’t know what He’s like. I occasionally pray, but I don’t know who I’m talking to. I enjoy the feeling of being in churches and synagogues, but I am careful not to analyze why that’s so. I wonder what will happen to me after I die, but I have only vague ideas. I have this notion that my soul or consciousness or essence is like matter, in that it can neither be created nor destroyed, and will continue after the corporeal part of my being has passed on. Reincarnation doesn’t seem entirely out of line to me, as it’s really hard for me to believe that at some point I will simply stop. It’s all a great mystery. Unexplainable, inconceivable, but not unacceptable.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Editorial Notes

The MGI editorial staff from time to time issues corrections, explanations and items of interest to you, the MGI reading public.

Erratum. In his last post, Technology Then, Technology Now, mr. schprock incorrectly stated that the film Fantastic Voyage was a documentary covering a groundbreaking 1966 surgical technique. MGI has recently found out the Fox Movie Channel had instead aired a very realistically-done science fiction movie of an operation that never took place. Furthermore, we have learned that Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasance are actors, not medical doctors. Also, several people who know a lot of scientific-sounding words assure us that shrinking a group of human beings and a submarine down to microscopic size is impossible. We are sorry for any confusion this may have caused. The editors wish to point out that the Fox Movie Channel never showed a disclaimer warning the viewer that Fantastic Voyage was a work of fiction. MGI has sent a strongly-worded email to Sandy Grushow, Chairman of the Fox Entertainment Group, asking him to show more regard to this sort of thing in the future.

Amendment. In The Dangers of Reading Fiction, mr. schprock left out a very important point: reading fiction inevitably makes one more curious. He recalls buying a set of used World Book encyclopedias in the late eighties just to help him learn more about whatever book he was reading, whether the subject was space travel, the China trade wars, the California Gold Rush, whaling, and so on. Those encyclopedias have since been supplanted by the Internet, but the curiosity still burns bright. Ha! So there, Tommy! Right back atcha!

Update. In The Pi of Why, mr. schprock wrote the following: “Is the question why? infinite like pi, an irrational number, or is there really a bottom to the well? Is there an ultimate answer, like ‘yes,’ or ‘asparagus,’ or ‘Charles Nelson Reilly’? Or does it just go on ad infinitum?”

We asked Professor Bernard Eghed, head of the Very Important Research Department at MIT, to run the question “Why?” through its super computer. After two full days of calculations, Professor Eghed discovered the question is indeed finite. The answer? “Charles Nelson Reilly,” the professor disbelievingly told us. “How the hell did schprock know that?” We at MGI know it was just a lucky guess, but kudos to mr. schprock all the same.

Update. Representatives of MGI report that preliminary negotiations with the Pixar people on a full length animated feature film of Finding Susie Beans are back on track after MGI dropped its demand of casting Sebastian Cabot for the voice of Oliver Grendall. The reason? The noted English actor died in 1977. But a little birdie tells us that a certain Tom Cruise is very interested in the role, but Mr. Mel Gibson is having none of it. Stay tuned!

A Special Message. In case we don’t get a chance to say it later, the entire staff, families, clone units and hangers-on of Musings of Great Import Inc. and its parent company, Galactico Extruded Plastics, want to wish everyone a happy and safe Fourth of July weekend!

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And now, it’s…

PICTURE TIME!

Here’s older daughter Lindsay. She’s 18 and just graduated high school, so she’s an “adult.” Riiiiight.

Younger daughter Ianna. Very excitable.

Myrna, Ianna and mr. schprock at Ianna’s “graduation.” (She’s going from the eighth grade to the ninth. They’re calling that a “graduation” these days.)

mr. schprock and the missus.

mr. schprock at the ferry landing at Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, MA, last Saturday.

mr. schprock and Olie (who will be the subject of a future post).

Scenic view from Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard (take a short pause here to supply your own punchline.)

mr. schprock and his biking buddy, James T.

Striking a pose.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Technology Then, Technology Now

Man certainly is a clever beast. Of all the organisms that evolved out from the primordial slime, man alone has developed the most resourceful and ingenious means of saving labor and advancing progress, thus assuring his rightful place of supremacy on this planet. I think it’s fitting to marvel at what we’ve done, to view the steps leading up to this technological achievement or that, and congratulate ourselves. Everybody who has lived for more than two decades can immediately think of instances in their own lives where they were affected by technological breakthroughs. In my field of graphic design, I’ve seen the computer change everything. We went from T-square and triangle to the keyboard and mouse, from copy casting, ruling pen and airbrush to QuarkXPress, FreeHand and Photoshop. Things constantly evolve, old notions are continually challenged, accustomed ways become antiquated overnight.

As fascinating as it is to contemplate where we are, I think it’s equally interesting to consider what we used to do when we didn’t have the conveniences of today. For example, before there were calculators, there were slide rules. My father, who was a civil engineer, used a slide rule, and watching him solve math problems with it made you think of a conjurer performing some sleight of hand. Modern aircraft come equipped with a battery of onboard computers, global positioning instruments and so on, but doesn’t knowing what we have now make you gape at Lindbergh’s incredible feat of crossing the Atlantic in what was essentially a flying gas tank steered by a stick? As we peer down through the ages, it’s so easy to romanticize how things were done, the art involved, like navigating wind-powered ships by the stars or building pyramids without modern cranes or earth-moving equipment. Taken to an extreme, it’s easy to imagine a conversation two cavemen might have had after the invention of the wheel, where one turns to the other and says, “Sure, now anyone can move massive boulders from one place to another, but remember what a great dragger Og used to be?”

I bring this up because last night the Fox Movie Channel aired a vintage science documentary that showed how microsurgery was done way back in 1966. Now remember, this occurred long before arthroscopy, CAT scans or MRIs, and any of the minimally-invasive surgical techniques that are available today. The film, aptly entitled Fantastic Voyage, revealed an incredibly inventive way one medical team found to perform brain surgery on a cellular level. That’s right, on a cellular level, and we’re talking nearly forty years ago!

Apparently in 1966, medical science lacked the technology to make such operations possible with the team working from outside of the patient’s body, so they cleverly got around that problem by putting the staff into a submarine, miniaturizing them all to microscopic size and injecting them into the patient’s bloodstream. The only hitch to this technique and the reason why it’s not still used today is that you only have an hour to get the operation done before the patient’s natural defenses attack the sub and its tiny crew. But what an adventure that must have been! During that hour, many things went wrong, but the plucky crew found ways to get around them and successfully complete the operation. Among this pioneering staff, the member who I thought really distinguished herself was Dr. Raquel Welch. For some reason, the filmmakers seemed to concentrate more on Dr. Donald Pleasance as the bright light of this talented company of medical professionals, which I think is a strong comment on how women were viewed back then, because clearly Dr. Welch and not Dr. Pleasance was the one to watch. He constantly overruled her well-considered scientific comments with his own pompous remarks, but, even more irritating, he had a way of blocking my view of her at every possible moment, especially when she leaned over to work the finely calibrated instruments aboard the sub. Midway through the documentary, nearly all the team had to work outside the submarine to make repairs. Seeing Dr. Welch remove her white coveralls to expose the skin-tight wetsuit underneath really made me sit up and take notice. What a physician! When I get a chance today, I plan to scan the online medical journals to see what contributions this fine woman has made since 1966. I’ll also check to see if there are any lifesize cardboard cutouts of her as well, as I find her mere presence so inspirational. Especially in that wetsuit.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Mis-read, Mis-heard, Mis-interpreted, Mis-tified

I’ve never had myself diagnosed, but all my life I’ve taken the most circuitous routes in processing information. There’s got to be a name for this condition. I’m happy to report that, as I’ve gotten older, my perceptions have perhaps gotten a bit keener and I can cut to the core of things maybe a bit quicker, but I’ve never been the type to grasp something instantly and run with it. At the most critical times, a thick fog seems to form around my head. Following simple directions, for instance, has always been a challenge, especially when, say, I ask store clerks where an item is or inquire of someone how to get to the Interstate from Maple Street. “Down the end of Aisle A on the left” feels like an expedition requiring a map and compass, and “take a left at the third light, shoot through the rotary and watch the signs for 95 South” could easily put me on the road to Nome instead of the next town. I have, as I say, improved, but I think I take in information a bit differently from everyone else.

What brings this up is the following: the noted humorist and blogger, trinamick, mentioned in a comment recently that one of her father’s favorite pick-ups lines is “you don’t sweat much for a fat girl.” Everybody gets that, right? I don’t need to explain it, of course. And it’s funny. But when I read it, I instantly interpreted it this way: “I don’t have to work hard to score with you because you’re fat, so don’t flatter yourself.” Something along those lines and not nearly so funny. Let me break it down: “you” — sort of an editorial “you” — “don’t sweat much” — don’t need to work hard — “for a fat girl” — to score with a fat girl. (And, by the way, I don’t think that’s true — there are many worthy plus-size women out there . . . and I didn't need to watch Shallow Hal to know that either.)

So how did I come up with that? I don’t know. But rather than see the obvious, my brain prefers to do end-arounds like this all the time. It’s like Abbot and Costello are doing the Who’s on First? routine in my head.

When I was in the fourth grade, the movie Mary Poppins came out. All the third and fourth grade classes from the Robert A. Cole Elementary School went on a field trip to see it. In one scene, Mary Poppins, Bert the Chimney Sweep, Jane and Michael go to visit Uncle Albert, the funny old man who laughs so much he becomes lighter than air and floats up to the ceiling. One of the jokes Bert told Uncle Albert was, “I used to know a pegleg named Smith.” “Oh, really?” returned Uncle Albert. “What was the name of his other leg?”

Everybody gets that, right? Naturally everybody does! It took me a year to. My friends tried everything to explain it to me. They told it to me it to me slowly, they told it to me loudly, they used hand puppets, they diagrammed the joke on a blackboard with color-coded chalk. All the while I repeated it to myself over and over like it was the riddle of the universe: a peg leg named Smith. A . . . peg . . . leg . . . named . . . Smith. What was the name of his other leg? What . . . was the name . . . of his other leg? (The key, of course, was that there is a pegleg, the prosthesis, and a pegleg, the person. They could have told me that.)

A little while ago on a sports talk show, a local wit remarked that “an NFL coach needs to be smart enough to draw up a game plan and stupid enough to think it matters.” That’s kind of funny and maybe even a little true. Tolstoy in War and Peace made exactly the same comment about Napoleon and battle plans. But do you know how I took it? Check this out: “an NFL coach needs to be smart enough to draw up a game plan, but, in the grand scheme of things, when we really determine on a universal scale what is important and what is not, something so trivial as a mere football game plan matters not a whit. Indeed, two hundred years from now no one will care in the slightest what defensive approach the Patriots will take against the Jets this Sunday.” What in the name of Vince Lombardi makes me do this? Can someone explain it to me?

Every now and again I catch a break. I’ll hear something and no matter how I might screw it up, it comes out the same. Here’s a perfect example: years ago there was a band in Boston whose name I only heard on the radio, but never saw written out. So I couldn’t tell if the band was called “An Emotional Fish” or “Unemotional Fish.” But I got lucky on that one, see, because you can approach it from those two different angles and it still ends up right. Why can’t it always be that way?

Anyway, I’m thinking of having T-shirts printed up with the following: “Hello. My name is John. I have above-average intelligence but I don’t always hear things correctly. Please speak slowly and clearly in simple sentences using words with no more than two syllables. If I seem confused, please wait 30 seconds and try again.” Hmm, might work, but then again I think my wife and daughters might not like that very much. You know, that public humiliation thing they always worry about.

Oh, well. That was my best idea. Suggestions are appreciated

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I just got a digital camera for Father's Day, so now I'm truly dangerous!

Here's the office staff:

John M.



John H. (or g_s)



Joe "E" Bear



and mr. schprock




Monday, June 20, 2005

The Dangers of Reading Fiction

Thomas Jefferson wrote this to a friend:

“A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life. The mass of trash, however, is not without some distinction; some few modeling their narratives, although fictitious, on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality . . . For like reason, too, much poetry should not be indulged. Some is useful for forming style and taste. Pope, Dryden, Thompson, Shakespeare, and of the French, Molière, Racine, the Corneilles, may be read with pleasure and improvement.”

Whoa, Tom! And what’s your opinion on crack?

Actually, I can see what he means. I am nearly 50 years and, at my advanced time of life, it’s shocking how I conduct myself with regard to what I read. Nowadays, I really should peruse the newspaper each day like I was cramming for a final exam. And I’m not talking about the funnies or my horoscope either. Should I stray into the sports section, I know I need keep it to only checking the scores and then get out of there as fast as I can. My father, when he was 50, faithfully read the newspaper and The Consulting Engineer, a trade journal that I skimmed over once or twice and decided it made my head hurt too much. There’s plenty of “serious” reading out there for me, things to do with world politics, mutual funds, ethics, and all the other subjects the Harvard Book Store puts in its front window. At the very least, I could read the trade journals that apply to my field.

William Manchester in his book, The Glory and the Dream, made fun of the people who scanned the front page of the paper and then went directly to the comics and sports. Was he spying on me? Because that’s exactly what I do. I know just enough about what’s going on to be conversant with someone during a 30 second elevator trip, but please don’t probe too far into my depth of knowledge. I have general opinions about everything, but I doubt I could ever defend any of them against a contrary-minded person who is better informed. Every now and again I get lucky and am able to bring up a snatch of information I heard on the radio that morning while eating my breakfast, and my listener thereby is fooled into thinking I subscribe to Time or Newsweek. But no. It’s not that way at all.

Do I read? Yes, I read a lot. I don’t have enough free time to become a voracious reader, but I do pretty well with the time allotted me. But it’s all fiction. Ordinarily I keep two books going on at once, the one that I read and the other that I listen to. For instance, I just finished listening to The DaVinci Code and I’m working my way through all the novels of Carson McCullers. I read plenty of the highbrow stuff, like Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope, Austen, the Brontes, etc., and I go in for purely escapist novels by authors like Ken Follett and Michael Crichton. A secret delight of mine are the Tarzan stories, and I adore Sherlock Holmes and anything written by W. Somerset Maugham. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what crap is and keep away from it. But it’s all, as I say, fiction. The closest I get to serous reading are the historical novels, and who knows what the authors had done to the facts in those.

Fiction reading, for me, is a drug. I seek the oblivion that works of fantasy give me like the junkie gropes for his needle and the opium smoker his pipe. I don’t go anywhere without a book. When I go to the movies (another fiction source Tom would clearly disapprove of), I always arrive a half hour early to ensure a good seat and am careful to bring my Itty Bitty Book Light in case the theatre is too dark for reading. I’ve taken the family to Disneyworld three times and I distinguish the visits in my memory not by the dates but by which book I was reading as I stood in the lines. My wife and I went to Hawaii once. Gone with the Wind. Puerto Rico lots of times. The Odyssey, Shogun, Vanity Fair, and the aforementioned The Glory and the Dream among others (that last one is technically non-fiction but, as a friend of mine once put, it’s not so much history as it is William Manchester’s opinion of history). Paris. The Mosquito Coast. Rome. Rebecca. I’ve left a trail of books like a cigarette smoker leaves cigarette butts on the ground or the wino his discarded bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.

My only defense is that I’ve chosen a socially acceptable vice. Many people think what I’m doing is worthwhile, even laudable, as if my reading a book outranks an illiterate in Cambodia working the fields from dawn to dusk to feed his family. My wife is on to me though. She would rather see me take a nap than read, probably because napping might mean I’m reenergizing myself for productive work around the house. True, I don’t idle my time away in a barroom or play the ponies, but is this much better? When will the day come when I look myself in the mirror and say to myself, “Brother, I got it bad”? When will I stand among my fellow recovering fiction readers and say, “My name is John T. and I haven’t read a paperback in three months”?

Maybe after I finish the book I’m reading.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Three Golden All-purpose Comebacks

I was a young man working as a spy for the War Department during World War I when I received my assignment to travel to Moscow from northern China. I decoded the encrypted cable message twice to make sure I had it right, because it meant an extremely uncomfortable, perilous journey which would eventually join me up with the Trans-Siberia Railway. But orders were orders, so I set off under the guise of a Chicago insurance executive representing a manufacturer of ball bearings. I needn’t bore the reader with my travails as I made my way to the station in Vladivostok. Feeling tired and famished, I found my compartment, threw my luggage up on the overhead storage rack and immediately sank into a deep slumber without removing my coat. That was late in the afternoon on a Monday. I awoke to a blinding glare as the sun slanted in through the window the following Tuesday morning. When I arrived, the compartment was empty. Upon waking, I saw I had a companion.

“You need a shave,” the man said to me.

“I suppose I do,” I replied.

“American, eh?”

“Chicago.”

“Uh huh,” he said, and then he returned to his book. He was past middle age, wore a high, stiff, very white collar and his clothes looked freshly cleaned and pressed. His face was ruddy, well-scrubbed and clean-shaven, and he spoke his few words with a light Scottish accent. I excused myself as I stumbled toward the lavatory to do what I could to neaten myself up. I hadn’t changed my clothes for two days and I sorely felt the contrast between us.

As the train made its halting progress through Khabarovsk and Irkutsk, my traveling companion proved to be a taciturn sort. I could learn that his name was Rainsford and he was a writer of some kind, but that was about it. I contented myself by reading back numbers of The Scandinavian-American Review and left him in peace after several aborted tries at conversation.

I had fallen asleep again when, just before dawn, I was roused by having my shoulders soundly shaken. It was Rainsford, only instead of the prim, dapper man I had become accustomed to, here he was wild-eyed, hair disheveled, collar all askew.

“What is it?” I asked, instantly awake and horrified by the sight he made.

“It’s all up!” he exclaimed. “I haven’t much time left. I’ve got to tell someone!”

“What are you talking about?” I said, but he sank to his knees and fell gently over on his side. There he lay on the floor, beads of sweat standing on his mottled face, breathing through his mouth in ragged gasps.

I crouched beside him and turned him fully onto his back. “What’s the matter? Tell me what, Rainsford?” He made the slightest sign indicating for me to come closer. I put my ear close to his mouth, and then he told me in a dying whisper the last words he would ever say in this life, the words he feared would die with him. The words which I will now share with the world before I, too, go on to another place.

The Three Golden All-purpose Comebacks

Number One: “Your momma!”

Number Two: Roll your eyes and make the “pfffff” sound.

Number Three: “Yeah? Well, look at you!”

Use them wisely, as I have all these years.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Real Attention-holder

Lately I’ve been working like the dog that I am, but, true to the vow I made to throw up at least one post a week, here it is:

The other night I found myself watching The Violent Men on Turner Classic Movies. It came on immediately after The Big Sleep and I found myself unable to extricate my rear end from the armchair. The film, a Western, started out fairly interesting and the cast of Glen Ford, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith intrigued me. It was shot in 1955 so I was prepared for a reasonably high corniness quotient — you have to expect that in old movies like you would cacti in the desert. But after a promising beginning it flattened out after a while, relieved only sporadically by some choice overacting and the preposterous appearance of a pretty white woman all Coppertoned up to play a Mexican señorita. But I watched the whole thing. I neither got up from my chair nor changed the channel once the entire time. For some reason, it held my attention.

What do you call a movie like that, the one the critics typically award two stars to after three paragraphs of scorn and one admitting some redeeming qualities? There are all kinds of movies you hear of: cliffhangers, tear-jerkers, thrillers, romances, whodunits, blockbusters, laughfests, creature-features, spell-binders, pot-boilers, spine-tinglers, seat-squirmers, melodramas, etc. What about movies like The Violent Men, the ones that just barely pass the clicker test by keeping you there watching for no compelling reason? What do you call them?

I would like to earn my spot in film criticism history by coining the term “attention-holder.” (Others contenders might be “remote-rester,” “DVDecent,” “clicker-sticker” and “doorstop for eyelids.”) It simply means this: not a particularly good movie, but not a really bad one either, just a competently put together film lasting at least an hour and a half that, while not destined for Oscar greatness, isn’t quite celluloid Sominex either. We all know what they are. They’re the ones you watch all the way through and then ask yourself in wonder, “How did I just watch the whole thing?”

Hollywood, using the truth-in-advertising angle, could play this up — after all, a movie that won’t put you to sleep isn’t all that bad, is it? In fact, it’s better than half of what’s out there right now. “See the movie that has all the critics murmuring!” “Two thumbs sideways!” “I didn’t nod off!” “I watched the whole thing and could still get all my work done!” When they come out on DVD they can be packaged as a movie and a coaster.

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Speaking of old movies, can we all agree that Lauren Bacall was the most beautiful film actress that ever lived? And Marlene Dietrich was the scariest looking? Can we unite as a nation and support these two simple truths?

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I don’t want to make Michael Jackson out as a martyr or anything, but was all that really necessary? Couldn’t Santa Barbara District Attorney Thomas Sneddon have picked his battles a little better than this? How much do the taxpayers pay this guy to waste government money?

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Method Actors Among Us

Well, here I am stuck at work on a Sunday morning. I’m working myself to the bone, folks. I was handed a big project with no time to do it in, so I came into the office yesterday (Saturday) and I’m here again today. On top of all this I’ve managed to squeeze in yard work for two properties. Yeesh! I knocked off last night at about 8:00pm, showered, ate a couple of tuna fish sandwiches and watched half of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (a horrible movie, but I love Bette Davis in all her many shapes). Finally I conked out around 10:30, but seeing Bette Davis dressed up like a six-year-old reminded me of something.

Last Tuesday I had jury duty. A very dull business that. I brought reading material with me in preparation for hours of sitting on my rear end, but other than that, the only amusement left me was people-watching. The civic obligation of jury duty provides one of the few instances I can think of where all the strata of society collide in a single location. It is egalitarianism at its purest. Or should I say its rawest. You have the upscale mixing with the downtrodden, the middle-class with the no-class, the posh with the great unwashed. Black, white, brown, yellow, red and every shade that falls in-between. I believe there used to be a dress code for jury duty back in the day, but now anything goes. Older men in well-tailored suits rub elbows with young men in grungy T-shirts, sandals and shorts. Sneakers typically outnumber the wingtips by about 10 to 1. Pleated skirts are hopelessly overwhelmed by calculatedly ripped jeans. They didn’t look like this in 12 Angry Men, I can tell you that. You wouldn’t have caught Lee J. Cobb with a nose ring. No sir.

Among the people who filled the big jury pool room was a woman, roughly 30 years old, who clearly stood out among all the rest. True, she was of average height, had a non-descript face and her black hair was kept short and plain. Equally true, she was quiet and did nothing through her actions to draw attention to herself. But what made her a spectacle was the way she costumed herself, for she wore in her hair a pink ribbon, on her white sweater a pink carnation, wore a pink frock underneath her white sweater, carried a large, glossy, pink vinyl tote bag, and, to complete the whole effect, wore shiny black shoes with white ankle socks.

My grandmother might have dressed my mother like that when she was five. Shirley Temple was big back then after all. But what in the name of the Good Ship Lollipop was this? What made her do this to herself?

I have a theory I’d like to share with all of you and maybe from among those four or five who tune in here, one might be able to confirm that which I have long suspected. You see, everyday we witness eccentric behavior. Like the time I saw a guy, in business clothes, ride his unicycle to work while reading a book. Or when I saw a man riding a bicycle holding a long fishing rod with a cat perched on his shoulder — on Mass Ave. in Boston. And all the countless instances we city dwellers have become inured to: pedestrians wearing Discmen singing well above the blare of car horns; the guy next to you on the bus muttering to himself; the bearded fellow on the street corner pontificating like the Prophet Elijah. I think there’s a simple explanation for all of this: they’re all performers studying for a part.

Think of Robert DeNiro spending days in the New York’s Little Italy for Godfather II, driving a cab preparing for Taxi Driver and gaining all that weight for Raging Bull. Or how about Dustin Hoffman keeping himself awake over 24 hours to look convincing for a scene in Marathon Man. And consider Rod Steiger, who stayed in character as Police Chief Bill Gillespie the entire time during the filming of In the Heat of the Night. I’m talking even when they broke for lunch or at the end of the day, he was still the Chief. There was no “cut” and “that’s a wrap” for him. He was a 24/7 kind of guy.

Doesn’t it make sense? Doesn’t it make you feel better? That guy mumbling to himself off in the corner isn’t crazy, he’s prepping for Scared Convict #3. And the woman with the stumbling, fast walk while looking over her shoulder isn’t flighty or paranoid, she’s up for Stalker Victim #5. They’re all method actors.

Um, still, it’s best you steer clear of Gang Member with Switchblade or Man with Spittle Running Down Side of Chin. Let’s not take our guard down altogether.