At almost exactly the same time I gave up thinking I was going to be a great novelist---a thought I let take too long to sink in---I gave up caring who among my contemporaries were great novelists or on their way to becoming great novelists. Even more emphatically, I gave up caring who wasn’t.
Isn’t that an interesting coincidence?
Obviously, both those letting-gos were the same thing. I was giving up my vanity about my talents as a writer of fiction. Since I was no longer going anywhere as a novelist and short story writer, there really wasn’t anyone standing in my way I needed to knock over to get past. It wasn’t the case anymore that I wasn’t getting published because blockheaded editors who wouldn’t know a good story from a Wonder Bread label insisted on publishing phonies and hacks and clever mimics of the faddishly popular. I wasn’t getting published because I wasn’t trying to get published, so it stopped being necessary for me to prove that young writers who were getting published because they were still trying were phonies, hacks, and clever mimics. Once upon a time, I was convinced that the world needed to be protected from flashes in the pan like Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney in order for there to be room on bookstore shelves and in magazines for the likes of real writers like Lance Mannion. And I meant writers like Lance Mannion, since, naturally, I was too modest to argue I was just what the doctor ordered to save American literature from itself.
You know who’s really good? I would say. So and so who just happens to write the kind of stuff I write but that’s not why I’m saying she’s really good.
When I stopped believing I was the cure for what ailed the fiction reading public, I stopped getting mad when writers I had only lately thought of as viruses succeeded in spreading their germs. Even more salubrious for my mental health and moral good, I stopped using metaphors like that. I just started saying, Oh, look who has a new book out! Good for him! Hooray for her!
Sometimes I even read the book.
And enjoyed it.
By the way, I was right about Ellis and McInerney, although that doesn’t give me the satisfaction I would have expected it to back in the day. I even feel a little bad for them. A little more for McInerney than for Ellis since Ellis has sometimes tried to counter the neglect he and his fiction have been suffered by being an occasional dick on the internet. But he’s still plugging away at the writer’s trade and I respect that and wish him well.
I wish them all well. I want them all to continue to write and to publish and to meet with critical and popular acclaim. And by all I mean the contemporaries I used to think of as my rivals and the now established middle-aged writers but then up and coming punk kids I worried would make me irrelevant before I got a chance to be at all relevant and the present crop of punk kids struggling to establish themselves.
I root for all of them.
Except for one.
Mainly it’s because he’s a dick and not just occasionally on the internet. Everywhere every chance he gets.
You’re shaking your head.
May I ask why?
Because since when is dickishness grounds for disliking an author? All your favorite writers were dicks.
Name one who wasn’t.
The exception that proves the rule. They’re all dicks. Dickens, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Greene.You just finished Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, right?
I did. And your point?
Not the word I’d use.
What word would you use?
Dick. It’s the right word. Look at how he treated his first wife. Look at how he wrote about the women he cheated on her with. Look at how he treated his kids. He was affable, genial, even apologetic about it, but he was a dick.
He isn’t exactly one of my favorites.
Don’t weasel. The point is you don’t let his dickishness affect your appreciation of his writing. And then there’s Mailer, whom I see you’re planning to quote approvingly as soon as you can figure out how to write your way out of this all too precious internal dialog with yourself.
What about Mailer?
He’d have gotten a kick out of your double-entendre.
He wouldn’t have seen it as a double-entendre. He’d have seen it as synonymous with being a great writer and public intellectual. And by the way, are you teaching your apprentice public intellectual students to model themselves on Norman Mailer?
I think I’d have to teach them who Norman Mailer was first.
Start by mentioning he was a colossal dick.
All right, so some great writers were dicks---
They were all dicks.
Maybe. But probably he was. Probably you just don’t want to admit he was a dick.
Ok, let’s say they were all dicks. What about it?
Why despise Franzen for his dickishness while giving the rest of them a pass?
Because he’s different.
In what way?
Few of them were self-righteous about it. They didn’t make a virtue out of their dickishness. Franzen is positively pious about it. And he proselytizes for it. He’s out to spread the word, and alas and alack for us hypocrites who refuse to heed and repent of the sin of enjoying all the stupid things Franzen knows better then to enjoy himself. Twitter, bird-watching…
He’s a birder himself.
Beside the point. The point is it’s not about enjoyment. He doesn’t enjoy it himself. Not really. You wouldn’t either, at least not in the right way. Literary fame…
He doesn’t like being famous?
Again, beside the point. The point is that we’re not to think it’s enjoyable. Believe him, if we were as famous and successful as he is, we wouldn’t like it. Ebooks…
You don’t like ebooks.
Edith Wharton. He’s the prophet of anhedonia. Freedom, which Slate’s Science and Health editor Laura Helmuth summed up as “full of David Brooks-style clichés about anyone who ever had a charitable thought or ate a slice of multigrain bread”, is his Book of Lamentations.
Even when writing about things he likes---the Talking Heads, Bob Dylan---he manages to take the fun out of it.
His day job when he’s not writing dull but high-minded novels is as a professional killjoy. He appears to be incapable of taking pleasure in anything and to have made it his mission to make sure the rest of us go through life as loftily bored and mildly but chronically annoyed---as if subject to frequent psychic headaches and spiritual dyspepsia---as he does. This goes back to his telling Oprah to go away and mind her own damn business when she wanted to make The Corrections a choice for her book club. He gave the impression that his objection was that the wrong sort of people would have the wrong sort of fun reading his book.
You don’t look convinced.
What’s your problem?
Ok, you’re kidding yourself.
I am, am I?
Yes, you am, am you. Franzen’s dickishness isn’t what bugs you.
Mind telling me what is?
He’s more famouser than you.
You know what I’m mean.
Honestly, I don’t.
Honestly, you do. He’s famous in the way you wanted to be famous. You’re jealous.
I’m not jealous.
Ok. Maybe a little.
It’s not like I go around all the time thinking, That damn Franzen. In fact, I rarely think about him at all.
What’s with this post then?
I was inspired by something I just read.
A colossal dick. I know. So what? At least he had fun being one. And he wanted to share the fun. He wanted readers to enjoy the things he enjoyed. And he knew what he was talking about when he wrote about other writers.
There are more than a few women who’d disagree with you on that.
Touché. But Mailer isn’t the point. The point is I’m not jealous of Franzen. I mean, I don’t root against Franzen just because I’m jealous. I don’t even root against him. Not really. I root against his continuing to be thought of as a great American novelist because he’s not. He’s just invented a Write A Great American Novel By the Numbers kit. He’s an intellectual poseur and a clever stylist who’s mastered a second language, Literary Novelese. And a bunch of influential people who really wouldn’t know a good story from a Wonder Bread label have bought into this because they think that all it takes to make a Great American Novel is that it present the United States as a fallen Eden, corrupted and corrupting, populated almost entirely by joyless, self-deluded, hypocritical middle class white people who fill their empty days with acts of emotional self-destruction and that it tackle “issues” and contain a set number of passages of sneering social commentary.
You finally ready?
Ready for what?
To quote Mailer. That’s supposedly the reason you’re writing this post, isn’t it?
Then get on with it.
Ok. Here it is. It’s from his review of The Corrections which I just read in Mind of an Outlaw.
It is very good as a novel, very good indeed, and yet most unpleasant now as it sits in the memory, as if one has been wearing the same clothes for too many days. Franzen writes superbly well sentence for sentence, and yet one is not happy with the achievement. It is too full of language, even as the nouveaux riches are too full of money. He is exceptionally intelligent, but like a polymath, he lives much of the time in Wonkville Hollow, for Franzen is an intellectual dredging machine. Everything of novelistic use to him that came up on the Internet seems to have bypassed the higher reaches of his imagination---it is as if he offers us more human experience than he has literally mastered, and this is obvious when we come upon his set pieces on gourmet restaurants or giant cruise ships or modern Lithuania in disarray. Such sections read like first-rate magazine pieces, but no better---they stick to the surface. When he deals with what he does know directly and intimately, which is the family at the core of his book---an old father, a late-middle-aged mother, two grown sons, and a daughter---he is an exceptionally gifted observer. What waste, however! Nothing much is at stake for us with his people. They have almost no changing relation to each other (considering they have something like six hundred pages to work up a few new mutual stances). Three, maybe four of the five can legitimately be characterized as one-note characters---only the daughter, who becomes a passionate lesbian, has much to tell us. It is not only that—dare I use dare use the old book reviewer’s clichés?---they offer us very little rooting interest and are, for the most part, dank. Worse!---nothing but petty, repetitious conflicts arise from them. They wriggle forever in the higher reaches of human mediocrity and incarcerated habit. The greatest joy to lift from the spine of the book is the author’s vanity at how talented he is. He may well have the highest IQ of any American novelist writing today, but unhappily, he rewards us with more work than exhilaration…
Mailer agrees with you up and down the line.
I’d say it’s more the case I agree with him.
Either way, GMTA.
Well, Mailer was a smart guy.
But a colossal dick.
But a colossal dick.
So…you feel better now, having that off your chest?
Because I really meant what I wrote up at the top of the post or I want to mean it. I don’t care anymore. It doesn’t matter. There doesn’t need to be a great American novelist. There doesn’t need to be a Great American Novel. There just needs to be good novels that tell good stories.
Read any lately?
But not great?
Like I said, they don’t need to be.
They just need to tell good stories.
So that’s it now, you’re done?
Then nothing. I’m going to go read a book.
Got one in mind?
Got one already started. In the Light of What We Know.
Who’s that by?
Zia Haider Rahman.
But not great.
You know what? Maybe.
Nope. I’m rooting for him. I’m rooting for all of them.
Post’s over. Goodbye.
Marvel Studios is out to sign Benedict Cumberbatch to play Doctor Strange.
They’ve already got Chadwick Boseman for Black Panther, which is also pretty cool.
Hat tip to Mrs M.
I hope I didn’t turn anyone off from reading Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge with my gloom and doom-ridden post Nixon’s Ghosts last week. I thought it was clear that I wasn’t reviewing the book but describing how my reading of it was colored---gray and grayer---by my insomniac’s middle of the night existential dread.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—
That’s from Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” and nothing is comforting or even mildly reassuring to read when you’re thinking like Philip Larkin. And even if you’re thinking like a Hallmark card, reading about the 1970s tests your faith in human beings as Nature’s last word. Doesn’t matter when I read about it, though, while anxiously awake in the soundless dark or in mid-afternoon during a bright, sunny day at the beach. I can’t read about the 70s and not see all that was coming coming.
Everything about that time is infected with sourness, meanness, cynicism, and nihilistic angers. Everybody seen living through it appears shrunken in spirit and degraded as a person. Camus’ nausea seems to be the dominant shared emotion and that nausea is what reading about the 70s induces. Even the best and the brightest are affected and afflicted, and that this happened to Barbara Jordan or, I should say, that this is what I saw happening to Barbara Jordan is one of the points of my post.
In the end, she didn’t matter. At least, she didn’t matter nearly as much as for that brief, shining moment when she delivered her stirring statement before the House Judiciary Committee and eloquently and irrefutably laid out the case for impeaching Richard Nixon it looked as though she would. As though she did.
Life’s unfairness and the rush of circumstances and events pushed her to the margins of history.
Something else happened.
She became yesterday’s news.
The media wasn’t interested in her or the stories she was part of anymore.
Watergate was already beginning to look like a Pyrrhic victory, thanks partly to the pardon, but thanks also to there appearing nothing especially good to have come of it. The economy was crashing. Vietnam was finally lost. And the man who replaced Nixon as President, instead of restoring dignity and honor to the office, was turning out to be inept. Worse than inept. A clown. Popular culture seemed only interested in the African-American experience as an outlaw experience. And an almost exclusively male experience. Feminism was a major story of the day but a sensible, low-key, obviously competent black politician, a mere Congresswoman, at that, and from Texas, of all the ridiculous places, didn’t fit the narrative the media was constructing about “Women’s Lib.”
The liberal Democratic Congresswoman who captured the media’s attention was Bella Abzug, mainly because she was from New York and was a major character a story the media wanted to tell, because, like most of the stories the media really want to tell, it was about themselves, the Decline and Fall of the City of New York, but also because she made for better copy and more arresting television.
Abzug was rude, pugnacious. provocative, deliberately obnoxious, obviously self-serving and self-aggrandizing but in an amusing and even seductive way that, if you were also self-serving and self-aggrandizing or tempted in that direction---and the 70s provided lots of that temptation---you could internalize as self-liberating and “self-actualizing”. And she was politically irrelevant or could be made to seem so by focusing on her eccentricities, which is why the media ate her up with a spoon. They could cover her and claim to be covering politics while actually ignoring real politics and focusing on personality.
Politics was a drag and a downer.
And it didn’t sell.
Abzug represented, even summed up in herself, the let it all hang out-be true to yourself-do your own thing spirit of the times or, at least, that sub-spirit that could be used to sell narcissistic self-indulgence to self-indulgent narcissists.
I’m not saying Abzug was complicit in that or wanted any part of it. Like any politician, including Barbara Jordan, she had a knack for self-promotion, but I believe she was serious about her politics and a sincere advocate for her causes. But she had an image that was useful to the salespeople.
And she was just one player in a large cast of characters who were far more eccentric, flamboyant, and easily quotable than was Jordan, one voice in a chorus of raised voices drowning Jordan out.
Jordan was a grown-up asking the country to behave like a nation of grown-ups at a time when being a grown-up was suspect on both the right and the left.
We didn’t listen.
So, reading about her great speech, I can’t help feeling disappointed. I remember how thrilling and inspiring it felt at the time, but that adds to the disappointment. It’s impossible for me to think back on those days and not think about what happened since and what didn’t happen. And the most critical thing that didn’t happen is that our long national nightmare didn’t end with Nixon’s resignation. He went home to California but he didn’t go away. We’re still living with him in the America he created, That’s the story Perlstein’s telling in The Invisible Bridge, the story he began in The Gathering Storm and continued in Nixonland, how we got here and got to be what we are: fractious, rigidly divided along old fault lines, seething with mutual resentments, hyper-partisan, more conscious of enemies than appreciative of friends, self-doubting, self-loathing, self-destructive, and self-pitying (like the man himself), in constant danger of giving in to our worst impulses (again, like the man), (one more time, like the man) seemingly incapable of happiness or finding the joy in life in the company of our fellow Americans, and for forty years now always on the verge of being taken over by the radical, reactionary Right.
And in that story Barbara Jordan is a supporting player, and a tragic figure, a minor hero doomed to fail by the capriciousness of life and the overwhelming strength of the political and cultural forces against whom she enters so confidently and cheerfully into battle.
I said all this in Nixon’s Ghosts. But the reason I’m bringing it all up again is that Rick Perlstein dropped by and left on comment on the post to tell me I was wrong about Barbara Jordan.
He didn’t mean my assessment of Jordan’s place in history was wrong or that my depiction of his depiction of the 1970s and her role as a character in that story was wrong. He didn’t say either of that, at any rate. Maybe he thinks it, but he didn’t put it in his comment. What he said I’d gotten wrong was Jordan’s argument in her statement during the impeachment hearings, which I’d interpreted as an argument that the House of Representatives can impeach a President for whatever reason the majority chooses, including “Just because we don’t like you and we’ve got the votes.”
Rick said, no:
You're misreading Jordan. She wasn't saying impeachment was whatever the House said it was, not at all.
He’d know better than me. And this is a case where I’m glad to be wrong. Despite what I’ve been writing about her, I loved Jordan at the time and I still revere her memory. So it isn’t simply that I’m willing to accept that I got it wrong. I’m relieved to know it.
But as it happens, it’s not quite right to say I misread Jordan.
I misread Perlstein.
Until he came along to correct me, I only knew what Jordan said about impeachment from what I read in The Invisible Bridge. Or, it’s more accurate to say, since I watched her deliver her statement live on TV, whatever I did know I’d totally forgotten. And reading about it didn’t jog my memory.
I remembered Jordan’s charming and inspiring opening and I remembered that she went on to lay out in what was believed at the time to be damning and irrefutable detail the crimes and “gross abuses of power” Nixon had committed that warranted his impeachment. But I didn’t remember her constitutional argument that impeachment was the prerogative of the House of Representatives and discretionary power to be used when a majority of its members saw fit as a check on the executive without their having to prove the President was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors; they only had to make the case that he’d committed acts that in the House’s judgment met the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors given by the Founders in various writings outside the Constitution about the intentions and meaning what was put into the Constitution.
When I read about this part in The Invisible Bridge, it seemed to me that Jordan was arguing or at least that it was implicit in her argument that the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors and what the founders meant by it and how they intended impeachment to work were decisions left entirely to the House majority and who could therefore impeach the President for whatever reasons they chose.
But after Rick left his comment I went back and re-read that scene in The Invisible Bridge and then read the transcript of Jordan’s entire statement and now it seems to me that I was wrong. Way wrong.
Jordan’s statement is all of a piece, her inspiring opening and her laying out of what amounted to a bill of indictment and her constitutional argument were meant to be taken together. She was not only saying that the founders had given a very strict definition of high crimes and misdemeanors and that what Nixon had done met that definition but that what he had done was that definition in action.
Essentially, if there was a dictionary entry for high crimes and misdemeanors, Watergate would be the illustrating photo and excerpts from the tapes would provide all the example usages.
I have to emphasize I’m still describing how it seems to me, I’m not a historian or a constitutional scholar, and Rick may drop by again to tell me I got it wrong again.
But as it is, it now seems to me that instead of inadvertently providing Newt Gingrich and his would be legislative junta with a legalistic cover for impeaching Bill Clinton and John Boehner’s gang of Right Wing nuts theirs for impeaching President Obama, if they gin up the nerve---and it won’t take much ginning, in the minds of Republicans a gross abuse of power by a Democratic President is simply his having any power---she did the opposite.
Jordan made the case that a President warranted impeachment when he (or someday she) abused his (or her) office in very specific and egregious ways and the Republicans who controlled the House in 1998 just ignored her and the Republicans who will control it in 2015 will do the same.
But even knowing that now, I’m not the least bit cheered or relieved, because it doesn’t change what followed.
Continuing on in The Invisible Bridge is becoming more and more depressing. Nixon has left the scene (although as I’ve been saying he hasn’t really gone away) but now Ronald Reagan is taking center stage and Rick Perlstein has gotten deeper into his story, which, again as I’ve said, is the story of how we got to where we are today and that’s the story of the rise of the Radical Reactionary Right and its takeover of the Republican Party and its near takeover of the whole government, from the federal level down through the state down through town councils and local school boards.
At this point in The Invisible Bridge, the movement is growing all across and involving all sorts and conditions for all sorts of reasons, Roe v. Wade not being the least of them, in reaction to the arrogance, insensitivity, stupidity, and craziness of the declining and fracturing Left---ironically, but not surprisingly, pundits of the time were missing the story in order to tell the story they wanted to tell and heralding the end of the Goldwater Right---but the part I was reading last night (although not late at night) is about the rise of the Religious Right. The yahoos are coming out of the woodwork. Actually and literally out of the woods. There’s a battle over textbooks being fought in West Virginia. And it’s dismaying to realize that they were making up the exact same arguments, using the exact same words, and conjuring up the exact same demons and invoking the exact same devils forty years ago as they do now. Nothing has stopped them. There’s been no check on their ignorance or their arrogance. (Humility is supposed to be a Christian virtue. But how humble is it to think you are one of the chosen few going to heaven while almost all your neighbors are headed the other way?) They are just as superstitious, just as atavistic in their thinking, just as determined to force their religion on the rest of us.
On June 27 in Charleston, West Virginia…the five members of the Kanawha County School Board heard arguments about whether to adopt a set of new language arts textbooks. The meeting room was packed to the rafters. More than a thousand protesters waited outside in a heavy rain. They were convinced the textbooks that education bureaucrats were forcing down their children’s throats were satanic.
Inside, a preacher singled out a book on the curriculum’s supplementary list for college-bound seniors, Soul on Ice. He made it sound as if the notorious memoir, in which the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver called raping a white woman an “insurrectionary act” (then later in the book, no one mentioned, repented in shame), would have to be memorized by every kid in Kanawha County. “This is a people’s battle!” he concluded, and the audience applauded ecstatically.
A [conservative] school board member named Alice Moore…questioned her ally insistently. What did the minister think, she asked, about the textbook that featured the story of Androcles and the Lion? The one that, in the teacher’s edition, suggested asking the children: “Do you think a real lion, if he hadn’t eaten for three days, would remember Androcles and not eat him?” And which suggested, as an activity, discussing the similarities between “Androcles and the Lion” and the biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den?
The preacher responded that the equation of a fable by Aesop and the facts in Holy Scripture was the foulest sacrilege. The book of Daniel he said, is a true story…I don’t think many people would want to tear down tose things and consider them as myths!”
“Yes,” Moore responded. “In the Bible, the lions didn’t kill Daniel because he was under the protection of the Lord.”
Good God! you want to cry. How could any grown-ups living in the last third of the 20th Century think like that? What are they, children?
But then you’ve got to ask yourself.
Is it any more childish than middle-aged men and women in gold chains and paisley polyester shirts open to their navels dancing in front of mirrors to the Bee Gees and then rushing into the bathrooms of Studio 54 to snort and toke up? And there’s a depressing scene to look forward to while thinking about the 70s. That’s coming.
The good news is that The Invisible Bridge ends with the Presidential election of 1976, so I won’t have to read about Disco during another dark night of the soul.
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein, published by Simon & Shuster, is available from Amazon in hardcoverand for kindle but fortunately not on tape so there are no eighteen and half minute gaps.
If you’d like to hear Jordan’s statement, you can listen to it as well as read it at American RadioWorks’ site Say It Plain: A Century of Great African American Speeches.
And if you really want to feel sad about what we lost when we lost her, here, via A&E’s bio.com, is an excerpt from Jordan’s keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.
Tuesday. October 21, 2014.
My students are blogging maniacs. Tonight after class one of the maniacs came up to me to talk. He’s the maniac’s maniac. I usually assign three blog posts to write each week, due by noon on the following Monday, the day before our next class meeting. Give normal students that sort of deadline and you’d expect forty-eight blog posts popping up in your feed reader at 11:59 Monday morning. Most of these maniacs get their assignments done by Friday. This maniac is almost always the first to get his posted. And he’s not just the first with the first. He’s the first with all three. And usually by the next day, if not that night.
Like I said. A maniac.
I love it.
Anyway, tonight he wanted to talk about how he could improve his blogging overall.
Slow down, I said.
You’ve got time, take it.
You’re not a political blogger. Fast reactions and quick turnarounds are imperatives for political bloggers. For political bloggers, getting out in front of an issue of the moment is necessary or you risk irrelevance. And blogs aren’t the best platforms for that anymore, anyway.
I’m not trying to turn students into political bloggers. I’m not trying to turn them into any particular sort of bloggers at all, except smart ones. The stated goal of the course is to get them using a variety of social media platforms to join the professional conversations taking place in their chosen fields of study that have moved out from the classroom, the lab, the office, the studio, the conference room, and the dig site into the ether and onto the web. Their blogs are one platform. My job is to guide them in their wanderings across the internet.
I hope along the way I’m teaching them some things about how to write well, in general and for the web in particular, and how to think, period. Sherlock Holmes is our spirit guide on that second point.
So the only students I’d expect to be blogging about politics and therefore posting at a fast and furious clip in order to keep up with the issue du jour would be political science majors who intend to run for office someday or work for politicians or particular causes and journalism majors who plan to cover politics as their jobs and as it happens there are no political science majors in this class and only three journalism majors and one is interested in international finance, one is a photojournalist, and the other is already at work editing a student-run magazine mostly devoted to pop culture. There are two scientists, a sociologist, a future lawyer, a couple of marketing and advertising majors, a language arts and literature major, someone who is on her way to becoming a writer although I’m not sure she knows it yet, and three film majors, one of whom is the maniac’s maniac.
Still, the ability to write fast and post immediately is useful for any sort of blogger. No matter what your field, there will be issues and events that you’ll need to respond to in real time or in fairly short order, at least. The maniac’s maniac has this ability and I don’t want to advise him to make changes that will cause him to get in his own way. But, even so, it’s not enough to be able to write fast. You have to write well and that means more than turning a clever phrase. You have to show you’ve thought through what you’re writing about. Your thinking has to be coherent in order for your writing to be coherent.
This student’s posts show the virtues of being able to get it all down in one go. They’re charged with the energy of his conviction, his excitement and enthusiasm, and his determination to make his point. And he can turn a clever phrase.
But they also often feel rushed because they were. Sentences break down, go vague, repeat themselves, fill space without moving his points forward. Grammar and usage sometimes go by the wayside. Words aren’t chosen as carefully as they should be. Sometimes he uses the not quite right word and sometimes he uses the wrong word entirely. His first few sentences, sometimes his first couple of paragraphs are warm-ups. You can see how he’s writing just to get himself going. His engine’s running hot but he’s not in gear and his wheels are just spinning. Then something pops and he’s off to races. But he takes turns too fast, fails to keep his eye on the traffic, loses control, fishtailing and three-sixtying for whole laps.
(I don’t remember if I warned him to avoid driving metaphors into the ground.)
But when I told him he needs to slow down, I didn’t mean he should stop writing fast. I meant he should not post fast. Write the way you’re doing, bang out your posts, but hold off on posting at least one of them for a few days. Let it sit, don’t think about it, and then go back and read it over to see how it reads.
Chances are, I said, you’ll find things that need fixing.
After you’ve done this for a while (a few hundred posts down the line, I didn’t say), it’ll become reflexive, a kind of writing muscle memory. You’ll revise as you write without having to interrupt yourself and stop writing to think about it.
He seemed to get this, and promised to try it out. One thing worried him though.
One of the reasons he likes to pound out his posts one after another at one sitting is he has a habit of letting time get away from him. And he’s obsessive and a bit of a perfectionist. He has a lot of work to do this semester (Of course he does, He’s an honors student. They’ve all piled the work on top of themselves.) and he knows himself well enough to know that if he lets himself get wrapped up in one project, he won’t leave himself time to do three others. He wanted to know how much time I thought he should allot to the writing of a single post.
How long does it take you to write a post, he asked.
Too long, I said.
At least, far longer than I wish it did.
Far longer than it used to, that’s for sure.
I used to be like him, a blogging maniac, able to bang out post after post in a single sitting. Two, three, even four posts, bang, bang, bang. And these would be Mannion-length posts.
How much time would I sit there then?
Couple of hours, I said. I wouldn’t let myself spend much more than that amount of time at the keyboard.
He was impressed, but wanted to know what happened.
I got old, I said. And nodded at my cane which was propped up in a corner.
I can’t sit still the way I used to be able to, I said.
Hurts too much.
And this is the fact, which you probably know from my whining about it. I used to be able to write from any position. Sitting at a desk, at the kitchen table, in a comfortable chair in the living room, with my feet up on the railing out on the porch; standing up; walking around---wrote large chunks of some good posts while making my way between exhibits at the Museum of Natural History or moving from room to room at the Clinton Global Initiative---stretched out on the floor. Nowdays I have to sit and can only manage to write in fifteen minute bursts before pain forces me out of the chair and I have to take a long break until things stop hurting enough that I can return to the keyboard.
I didn’t go into the details with him. He understood right away. His father has the same problem. I steered the conversation away from me and toward Ernest Hemingway, who---I asked him if he knew---had to write standing up because of his many aches and pains. Towards the end, and possibly bringing about the end, he couldn’t write at all. He hurt too much in too many places to sit or stand.
He should have learned to dictate, but he was having a hard time concentrating and probably felt he couldn’t focus enough.
And that’s how we left it, with the maniac setting off to bang out his posts but planning to post only two right away, saving the third for later revising, and the implicit and vain comparison between Hemingway and me left hanging in the air.
Here’s the thing.
I didn’t tell him the whole truth.
Yes, it hurts to sit at the computer. But I actually began to slow down and even cut back on the blogging a couple of years before my back began troubling me.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened. It probably began at some point early in President Obama’s first term but I date it to the fall of 2011 when it truly sank in that I am not anywhere near as smart as he is.
When I wrote about this last month, many people thought I was saying that people shouldn’t criticize the President because he’s such a smart guy.
Smart guys can be wrong.
There’s a whole book about this.
What I was saying was that I felt I needed to be a smarter guy in order for my criticisms to carry the weight I think they should.
Dumb criticism is more useless than no criticism.
And suddenly I felt dumb.
And once I’d faced up to that about myself, I began to see all the ways I was being dumb.
What I despised and condemned in Right Wing pundits and bloggers I was guilty of myself: Orc logic, opinion-mongering, confirmation bias, attraction bias, parroting of received liberal conventional wisdoms, seeming to root for bad things to happen in order to be able to say I told you so, a habit of thinking I knew stuff I hadn’t actually looked into for myself, demanding that other people’s political views somehow validate my own and in so doing validate me and confirm that I was smarter, wiser, and more moral than thou. I did a lot of casting of stones and praying at the front of the temple.
I relied too much on my memory. I trusted too much in my ability to turn a phrase. And I was vain. I prided myself on being a smart guy who knew lots of stuff.
When I realized I was guilty of all those blogging and writing sins and that I couldn’t resist the temptations, I decided the next best thing would be to reduce the opportunities for temptation by not blogging so much about politics, by not blogging so much at all.
So there it is.
Once upon a time I was a blogging maniac.
A blogging maniac’s blogging maniac.
Then it hit me.
I could write that fast because I thought I was smart.
Sunday. October 26. Scroll down for new posts.
Got some good news the other day that's going to make next year somewhat easier than this year has been. So things are looking a bit brighter. But we've still got to get through the rest of this year and the next two weeks are going to be tricky. There are some immediate expenses we could use some help with So...
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The afternoon he arrived at the convention from the airport, there was of course a large crowd on the street outside the Biltmore, and the best way to get a view was to get up on an outdoor balcony of the Biltmore, two flights above the street, and look down on the event. One waited thirty minutes, and then a honking of horns as wild as the getaway after an Italian wedding sounded around the corner, and the Kennedy cortege came into sight, circled Pershing Square, the men in the open and leading convertibles sitting backwards to look at their leader, and finally came to a halt in a space cleared for them by the police in the crowd. The television cameras were out, and a Kennedy band was playing some circus music. One saw him immediately. He had the deep orange-brown suntan of a ski instructor, and when he smiled at the crowd his teeth were amazingly white and clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards. For one moment he saluted Pershing Square, and Pershing Square saluted him back, the prince and the beggars of glamour staring at one another across a city street, one of those very special moments in the underground history of the world, and then with a quick move he was out of his car and by choice headed into the crowd instead of the lane cleared for him into the hotel by the police, so that he made his way inside surrounded by a mob, and one expected at any moment to see him lifted to its shoulders like a matador being carried back to the city after a triumph in the plaza. All the while the band kept playing the campaign tunes, sashaying circus music, and one had a moment of clarity, intense as déjà vu, for the scene which had taken place had been glimpsed before in a dozen musical comedies; it was the scene where the hero, the matinee idol, the movie star comes to the palace to claim the princess, or what is the same, and more to our soil, the football hero, the campus king, arrives at the dean’s home surrounded by a court of open-singing students to plead with the dean for his daughter’s kiss and permission to put on the big musical that night. And suddenly I saw the convention, it came into focus for me, and I understood the mood of depression which had lain over the convention, because finally it was simple: the Democrats were going to nominate a man who, no matter how serious his political dedication might be, was indisputably and willy-nilly going to be seen as a great box-office actor, and the consequences of that were staggering and not at all easy to calculate.
When Norman Mailer was working on his essay about the 1960 Democratic National Convention for Esquire, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket”, he naturally interviewed John Kennedy. Mailer got spun:
In their conversation, what struck Mailer was something Kennedy said at the outset, which he found to be “altogether meaningful” to him, but otherwise irrelevant. Kennedy said that he had read his books, paused and continued, “I’ve read The Deer Park and…the others,” a remark that startled Mailer. In countless similar situations, the book invariably mentioned was The Naked and the Dead. “If one is to take the worst and assume that Kennedy was briefed for this interview (which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisors.” As it turns out, Kennedy was briefed by [Pierre] Salinger, who, in turn had been prompted by [Peter] Maas. According to Maas, there had been some reluctance to grant the interview in the first place, because “a that time in his life Norman was not viewed as Mr. Stability.” So Maas told Salinger that ‘if you really want him eating out of your hand,” tell Kennedy to refer to The Deer Park. “But string it out a little. The timing has to be just right.” Salinger, who was present for the interview saw his boss deliver the line perfectly, and “Norman just melted” They got along well enough for Kennedy to invite him to come back the next day with his wife, which he did. Mailer wrote later, “After I saw the Kennedys I added a few paragraphs to my piece about the convention, secretly relieved to have liked them, for my piece was most favorable to the Senator.”
Mailer heard later from Jackie Kennedy that JFK really had read The Deer Park. She’d read it too. Jackie knew how to spin journalists herself.
Mailer only learned of Kennedy’s reaction much later, but shortly after the piece appeared, he received a four-age handwritten note letter from Jacqueline Kennedy expressing gratitude for his essay. “I never dreamed that American Politics could be written about that way---why don’t more people have the imagination to do so,” she asks, and then answers by saying, “I know why---the poor things don’t have the talent.”
I don’t know if Mailer thought he was doing his own spinning when, after the Kennedys were in the White House, he wrote a profile of Jackie Kennedy for Esquire. If he did, it didn’t work. Reportedly, Jackie didn’t like the piece. Probably it was unsettling to find yourself turned into a quasi-fictional character in the neverending romantic epic of a novel Mailer was making of his life. But as a bit of fictionalizing, this passage is pretty good.
[At the conversation’s center], if it had one, was obviously Jackie Kennedy. There was a natural tendency to look at her and see if she was amused. She did not sit there like a movie star with a ripe olive in each eye for the brain, but in fact gave some of the conversation back, made some of it, laughed often. We had one short conversation about Provincetown, which was pleasant. She remarked that she had been staying no more than fifty miles away for all these summers but had never seen it. She must, I assured her. It was one of the few fishing villages in America which still had beauty. Besides it was the Wild West of the East. The local police were the Indians and the beatniks were the poor hard-working settlers. Her eyes turned merry. “Oh, I’d love to see it,” she said. But how did one go? In three black limousines and fifty police for an escort, or in a sports car at four A.M. with dark glasses. “I suppose now I’ll never get to see it,” she said wistfully.
That’s from “An Evening With Jackie Kennedy: Being an Essay in Three Acts.” The passage quoted at the top of the post is from “Superman Comes to the Supermaket” which you can read online at Esquire or, along with “An Evening With Jackie Kennedy”, in Mind of an Outlaw: Selected Essays by Norman Mailer available in paperback and for kindle from Amazon.
The two middle quotes are from J. Michael Lennon’s biography of Mailer, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, which comes out in paperback next week, but if you’re in a hurry to read it, it’s available in hardcover and a for kindle from Amazon.
NBC’s Chuck Todd has been on a road trip in an RV just like regular folks use on their road trips to Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, which makes him a true man of the people in touch with the heart of real America, taking the pulse of the nation as only a celebrity journalist based out of Washington D.C. can do.
I imagine his jaunt through what I’m sure he calls the Heartland when he’s not calling it that god awful place where you can’t get a decent brioche is making him feel like Charles Kuralt.
Isn’t it amazing? Most of us spend our whole lives trying to figure out what makes people tick and die still scratching our heads over the question but celebrity journalists like Todd just need one quick swing through a handful of towns in a handful of states where, relatively, very few Americans live to get themselves on camera nodding sagaciously as a handful of people their producers have designated “regular folks” parrot what TV has taught them celebrity journalists like Todd want to hear and they can tell us everything we need to know about the human condition.
I guess that’s why they get the big bucks.
Of course it helps if all you think matters about the human condition is how people vote in national elections and you’re only interested in what makes regular folks tick because their votes will decide who your neighbors back in D.C. are going to be and what parties you’re going to be invited to and who’ll be picking up the tab at lunch and how much you’ll be able to charge as your speakers’ fees and what unpaid internships your kids will be able to get that will launch them on their own Washington Insider or Wall Street careers while regular folks’ kids spend their summers working at fast food restaurants and big box stores just to pay next semester’s tuition at state colleges where they’re pursuing degrees they hope will land them jobs that will pay them enough they can cover their monthly student loan payments.
If you’re a fan of the Sunday bobblehead shows and think something like actual news is actually discussed on those shows, you’ll be happy to know that some good will come out of this trip. The next time Todd has someone like Paul Ryan or Lindsey Graham on Meet the Press, he’ll be able to say with authority, “I was just talking to some regular Americans and they told me pretty much that what needs to be done to save America is what you just said needs to be done.”
One of my dreams since I’ve been blogging has been to make a road trip around the United States visiting friends I’ve made online along the way. Some of these friends I’d be meeting in person for the first time. At the top of my itinerary was Texas where I’d get to meet one of my very favorite online friends Phil Barron and his wife M and their famous cats. I really wanted to meet those cats, even though as you probably know I don’t like cats. But they were Phil’s cats.
I was also looking forward to eating some of his cooking which he routinely teased his virtual friends with on Twitter, always making it sound and look like what I’m sure it was, delicious.
And we’d trade medical tips. Phil and I routinely monitored each other’s health and reminded each other to listen to our doctors and take better care of ourselves. With Phil around---and it always felt as if he was around, even though he was a thousand miles away and only reachable through the ether---I felt I had somebody looking out for me.
A lot of people felt that way with Phil.
Here’s the thing. When you plan to do something like this, do it right away.
From Wev McEwan. RIP Phil Barron.
My heart goes to M and to the gang at Shakesville where Phil used to guest blog regularly and to Wev and all Phil’s friends and family, virtual and analog.
The process of handing over the economy to a generation of not very bright but very, very greedy sociopaths began longer ago than 1984, but by Mid-Morning in America it was going ahead full tilt.
The first time John Bassett visited an Asian factory was in 1984, and it was only after dinner and way too many drinks that an elderly factory owner in Taiwan revealed his real opinion of American business leaders. The man was so candid that at first, his own interpreter clammed up, refusing to translate his words.
The Taiwanese businessman had negotiated plenty of deals with Europeans and South Americans, but he’d never met people quite like the Americans.
What do you mean? [Bassett] pressed.
I have figured you guys out, the translator finally relayed.
If the price is right, you will do anything. We have never seen people before who are this greedy---or this naive.
The Americans were not only knocking one another over in a stampede to import the cheapest furniture they could but they were also ignoring the fact that they were jeopardizing their own factories back home by teaching their Asian competitors every nuance of the American furniture-making trade.
When we get on top, the man said, don’t expect us to be dumb enough to do for you what you’ve been dumb enough to do for us.
These are the people who flatter themselves they are makers, as opposed to the rest of us takers. They are the people who marched up to the microphone at the Republican National Convention in 2012 and boasted that they did build that! But they don’t make anything except killings. They take. And take. And take. From the government. From their customers. From their employees. And they didn’t build that. They tore it down. The party they were acting as willing and eager props and stooges, fronts and shills for was about to nominate one of the pre-eminent tear down-take apart-and make off with a bundle artists. Mitt Romney didn’t even build his deconstruction company. Bain Capital was handed to him to run by his boss.
That Taiwanese factory owner seems baffled by American factory owners’ willingness to tear apart their own businesses and tear down their own factories. The only explanation he can come up with for such self-destructiveness is that his American counterparts don’t know what they’re doing because they’re “naive” or they don’t see what they’re doing because all they can see is the money they stand to make.
What doesn’t occur to him is that the Americans don’t care.
They tear their own companies into pieces. They tear down their own factories. They tear apart whole towns, entire counties that depend on those industries for their economic survival. They tear apart families. They tear apart lives.
And they just don’t care.
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Thursday. October 23. New posts below and more on the way but please read this first:
As you know, things have been rough here. We’re doing our best but you know how it goes. It's going to be a scramble to get through the next few weeks. So if you like what goes on around here and you can swing it please consider making a donation. It would be a big help and much appreciated.
Thanks to everybody who helped out with the gas the other day. And thanks to all of you for your patience and understanding. And thank you for reading the blog.
The great Wev McEwan:
…any job where there is a real possibility of injury (and dealing with hot cooking equipment and oil contains a real possibility of injury) actually takes some skill.
And any job that necessitates dealing with the public, and successfully navigating the abuse that unhappy people heap upon people in service positions, actually takes a lot of skill.
This isn't low-skill work. Not really. It's low-valued skill work.
These aren’t McJobs. The people working them are not McPeople living McLives. They are being paid McMoney while the chains and corporations that employ them abuse them, degrade them, steal from them, and rake in McBillions and we customers treat them like McServants.
Read Wev’s whole post, Real Jobs.
Also, on a related note, me, a month back: Life is sorrow, struggle, and pain, and all of us fail at it somewhere along the line.
Updated below. Monday evening. October 20, 2014.
I’m enjoying Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge but I don’t recommend it as middle of the night reading for insomniacs awakened by nightmares and kept awake by personal demons and family ghosts.
It’s not that the ghost of Richard Nixon is terrible company during a dark night of the soul. Not just that, at any rate.
It’s that he’s not doomed to walk the night alone. He travels with lots of company, including his gang of attendant minor devils, Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell, and the rest, of course, but also hundreds, thousands of other tormented souls. Just about everyone who knew him or in some way arranged their lives in alliance with him or in opposition was corrupted by him or his influence. He had a knack for bringing out the worst in people. You can see this happening again and again throughout the portions of Perlstein’s book that focus on Nixon and Watergate. Even decent, well-intentioned, honorable people turned mean and spiteful in reaction to him. They grew small-minded and petty, shrank in spirit and withered at heart. They lost their senses of proportion. They lost their senses, period. This happens to whoever enters the stage Perlstein’s set. All the players are diminished morally and emotionally and intellectually.
Some of this is just due to the nature of storytelling. Perlstein has chosen to tell the story of a great villain on the loose in a time when all the great heroes were dead. There are other ways to approach the story of Watergate and Nixon’s downfall that are more uplifting and more reassuring and more conducive to continuing to think well of one’s fellow human beings. But in Perlstein’s telling all the lesser characters are lesser and lessened because they are there to reflect, highlight, reveal, and react to aspects of his main character and the themes he’s using Nixon to illustrate.
But most of it is due to the nature of the man.
Like I said, he just brought out the worst in people or, with those of stronger minds and stouter hearts, frustrated their determination to be at their best.
Dismaying to watch. Especially so when you’re watching it happen to someone like Barbara Jordan.
Perlstein takes care to portray Jordan as a hero of the moment and to give a sense of the effect of her famously eloquent and moving speech to her fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee who were vacillating and weaseling on the question of impeachment. He wants his readers to hear it in their heads as the profound, powerful, and heart-lifting thirteen minutes of political oratory it was felt to be at the time.
But much of what was inspiring in that moment was its promise. The promise was general. Impeachment would be justice, justice would be served. Richard Nixon would be punished and not just driven from office but driven back into the past. The future of the nation would not include him. He would not do any more harm to the United States or its people. He would go away and we would be free to be the country we could have and should have been if not for him. And the promise was particular and focused on Jordan. Here was not just a heroine for the moment, but possibly one for the future. Many people saw then what many others saw thirty years later when Barack Obama stood up to speak at the 2004 Democratic convention, a future President. Our first African-American President. Our first woman President.
People were getting carried away, of course. But that of course is hindsight in action. It’s very possible that Jordan would have gone on to be become the important political leader whose potential was revealed in the speech. It was unlikely that she’d have gone on to be President. But the unlikely is also hindsight in action. It was unlikely to happen because of what did happen.
Illness robbed Jordan of her---our---future greatness. But in addition to that, Nixon did not go away. He wouldn’t go away. He still hasn’t gone away. His influence and the effects of what he did were too broad, too deep, too infectious. Vietnam has had better luck getting over what he did to it than the United States has had getting over what he did to us, which was to bring out the worst in us and make it a permanent, near irresistible force in our body politic. He’s our chronic disease. The symptoms are mutual distrust, mutual resentment, paranoia, constant anger, recurring bouts of self-pity and spite, and diffuse and pervasive hatreds for enemies real and imagined. And don’t try to tell me I’m describing only them, the Republican Right. They have the disease more virulently, but the very them-ness of our argument is a sign we’re infected. It’s forced on us. But it’s still what it is. We’re still reacting to Richard Nixon and it diminishes us.
So, robbed of their promise, general and individual, Jordan can be seen for what she really was at and in that moment, another minor player in the drama of Richard Nixon, one who’d written herself some great lines and performed her part brilliantly, but still a supporting character defined by her effect on the fate of the play’s lead, and that effect was minimal, and the speech for what it was, not all it was, but still what it was along with what else it was: partisan, opportunistic, and show-offy---Jordan was many good things but she was still a politician with a microphone in front of her and a camera trained on her. And Richard Nixon did that for her and to her.
Jordan wasn’t making the case that the President was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. She was effectively arguing that it didn’t matter whether or not he was. Impeachment was the constitutional prerogative of the House of Representatives and the Constitution left it up to its members to decide what was an impeachable offense. The question of guilt was for the Senate to decide. In other words, a President could be impeached for whatever reasons the House felt like impeaching him for. She was responding to Nixon’s defenders who were attempting to stave off impeachment by pettifogging on the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors. Her argument was opportunistic and legalistic and therefore unavoidably cynical. It was also, as it turned out, destructive because it provided the justification for the impeachment of another President twenty-four years later and will provide the justification for the impeachment of the current President if Republicans in the next House go through with their plans to impeach him. “Just because we don’t like him and we’ve got the votes” is grounds for impeachment if you follow the logic of Jordan’s argument.
She didn’t intend for that but that’s what it was or how it comes across now that we know would come of it. The thing was it was forced upon her by Nixon himself.
And not just the argument but the moment.
It shouldn’t have happened.
Jordan shouldn’t have been in the position of having to make that speech. The Judiciary committee shouldn’t have been meeting to decide on sending articles of impeachment to the full House. Impeaching the President shouldn’t have been under discussion because the President should not have done the things he did to warrant it. Watergate shouldn’t have happened! None of it would have happened if Nixon hadn’t been President. Nixon shouldn’t have been the President. He was President because the times were what they were. And they shouldn’t have been what they were. And that’s primarily what makes The Invisible Bridge depressing reading. It’s the story of those times and how events and tides of culture and economics contributed to bringing about what shouldn’t have happened and prevented what should have and could have.
Reading it is total re-immersion in the 1970s or, depending on your age, an initial and I imagine shocking immersion. (Just an interesting and to me amusing sidenote: Rick Perlstein was five years old in 1974. Punk kid.) It’s one of Perlstein’s themes that the 70s were strange times. All times are strange. But in The Invisible Bridge the strangeness of the 1970s is the story.
Perlstein is as assiduous, meticulous, detail-obsessed, and relentless---ruthless---in chronicling particulars of the 70s peculiar strangeness, not as background but as integral to the characters, actions, and fates of all the people he brings onto the page, as a pathologist charting the course of a disease. In fact, in Perlstein’s recounting, the 70s begin to seem like a disease, like Nixon himself, infecting anyone who comes in contact with any aspect of the zeitgeist, which is to say just about everyone in the country, and reducing them to their worst. The only character who seems resistant---so far---to both the times and Nixon is Gerald Ford, but with him it’s just a delayed reaction. We know what’s coming for him. Everyone else, from the wives of returning POWs to Patty Hearst comes down with a severe case of the 70s or the Nixons or both---and the illnesses begin to look like one and the same.
When the 70s don’t feel like an infection, they appear like a nation-wide defect of character.
People stink and they are stupid at all times but when you dress them in polyester, give them bad haircuts, fill their heads with adolescent nonsense about the liberating effects of what’s essentially narcissistic self-indulgence, and let them run loose on the paths of self-actualization and self-fulfillment at a time when the times require a collective, grown-up response to society’s problems (which is all times, of course), they look stupider and smell worse.
In the 70s, everything good about the equal rights and liberation movements of the 1950s and 60s was perverted to justify individual irresponsibility and selfish desire. Pop culture---movies, the music, the many bestselling books published to cash in on the rising self-help and New Age movements, the nightly news and the morning and evening papers (There were still evening papers then. There were still newspapers that everybody in town subscribed to.), the news magazines---pushed alienation, disaffection, self-infatuation disguised as self-reflection and self-improvement. The idea grew that individuals owed more to themselves than to society, which was portrayed as corrupt and corrupting, oppressive, repressive, reactionary, and worst of all, uncool (much of this was true), and that a person served the world best by serving himself first. Emerson and Thoreau preached this but they had something different in mind with regard to self-reliance and individual responsibility and pointed the way to different ends, Walden Pond and principled nights spent in jail. The 70s version led to Studio 54 and then to…the 1980s.
All that Perlstein does comes together to make for great storytelling and essential daytime reading. But there’s another reason I don’t recommend The Invisible Bridge to anyone unhappily and anxiously awake and afflicted by doubts, blues, and existential dreads in the dead of night.
The book’s haunted by another ghost.
A twinkling, chuckling, superficially genial ghost dragging along his own army of the damned, many of them still living and making mischief among us today.
The most depressing thing about The Invisible Bridge is that its story doesn’t really stop with the 1970s or the 1980s. It’s ongoing. It’s the story of today.
Our long national nightmare didn’t end with Nixon’s resignation. We’re still living in it.
Updated to promise another update because I need to make one thing perfectly clear: Rick Perlstein dropped by and left a comment telling me I’m “misreading” Barbara Jordan’s argument. Rick says, “She wasn't saying impeachment was whatever the House said it was, not at all.” He would know, and this a case where I’m glad to be wrong. I loved Jordan for that speech and I still revere her memory. But I have to figure out how to correct things. I suppose I could just leave it at this. I could do that. I could leave it alone. But that would be wrong. I’ll think on it. I may need to write another whole post.
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein, published by Simon & Shuster, is available from Amazon in hardcover and for kindle but fortunately not on tape so there are no eighteen and half minute gaps.
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Disease was an inseparable part of the New England story from the beginning. It arrived with the Great Migration of the 1630s, aboard the very ships that brought so many families to New England. It returned in 1666, and again in 1678, when an epidemic killed 340 Bostonians. A young Cotton Mather wrote, “Boston burying-places never filled so fast.” With time, local leaders began to develop crude public health policies—burying the dead quickly, flying red flags over houses affected, and requiring ships with sick sailors to stop at Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor. But as Bostonians knew, the next epidemic was always just over the horizon. In 1721, on April 22, the HMS Seahorse arrived from the West Indies with smallpox on board, and despite precautions, a full-blown epidemic started.
This time, however, the city was better prepared, thanks to several unlikely heroes. Cotton Mather is not always the easiest figure to admire. The scion of a dynasty of ministers, he fought a lengthy rear-guard action against time, trying to stanch the ebbing of power among the city’s religious authorities. But he was surprisingly modern in some ways, and paid attention to the new forms of knowledge coming in on those ships. Another contradiction lay in his racial attitudes—his writings suggest that, more than most of his contemporaries, he admired Africans, but he also accepted slavery, and had raised no objections when his congregation presented him with a young slave in 1706. He named him Onesimus, after a slave belonging to St. Paul.
Mather had come close to choosing a career in medicine, and devoured the scientific publications of the Royal Society in London. As the society began to turn its attention to inoculation practices around the world, Mather realized that he had an extraordinary expert living in his household. Onesimus was a “pretty Intelligent Fellow,” it had become clear to him. When asked if he’d ever had smallpox, Onesimus answered “Yes and No,” explaining that he had been inoculated with a small amount of smallpox, which had left him immune to the disease. Fascinated, Mather asked for details, which Onesimus provided, and showed him his scar. We can almost hear Onesimus speaking in Mather’s accounts, for Mather took the unusual step of writing out his words with the African accent included—the key phrase was, “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop.”
Excited, he investigated among other Africans in Boston and realized that it was a widespread practice; indeed, a slave could be expected to fetch a higher price with a scar on his arm, indicating that he was immune. Mather sent the Royal Society his own reports from the wilds of America, eager to prove the relevance of Boston (and by extension, Cotton Mather) to the global crusade against infectious disease. His interviews with Onesimus were crucial. In 1716, writing to an English friend, he promised that he would be ready to promote inoculation if smallpox ever visited the city again.
Sounds good so far, but, sadly, people haven’t changed much in three-hundred years. It’s as if they’d rather be afraid than listen to the experts and learn what they can so they don’t have to be afraid:
As word spread of the new medicine, the people of Boston were terrified and angry. According to Mather, they “raised an horrid Clamour.” Their rage came from many sources; fear that inoculation might spread smallpox further; knowledge that the bubonic plague was on the rise in France; and a righteous fury that it was immoral to tamper with God’s judgment in this way. There was a racial tone to their response as well, as they rebelled against an idea that was not only foreign, but African (one critic, an eminent doctor, attacked Mather for his “Negroish” thinking). Some of Mather’s opponents compared inoculation to what we would now call terrorism—as if “a man should willfully throw a Bomb into a Town.” Indeed, one local terrorist did exactly that, throwing a bomb through Mather’s window, with a note that read, “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam You; I’l inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.”
Read the Ted Widmer’s whole story, How an African slave helped Boston fight smallpox, at the Boston Globe
Tuesday, October 21. New posts below but please read this first:
I’m sorry to do this again but I need to do some urgent fundraising. As you know, things have been rough here. We’re doing our best to muddle through but you know how it goes. Money we were counting on isn’t going to come through and things are a little dire. We;ll have to scramble to get through the next four weeks. A big expense is the trips up and back to Syracuse and getting the guys to and from school everyday.. So I’m asking for your help with the gas and tolls. If you like what goes on around here and you can swing it please consider making a donation of $5 or so. It would be a big help and much appreciated.
Thanks. And thanks for your patience and understanding. And thank you for reading the blog.
October 5, 2014.
She’s a beaut, ain’t she?
1915 Ford Model T.
I took this and the photos below one year ago today, October 5, 2013, intending to post them here back then. I don’t know why I didn’t. Yes, I do. The car and its crew were on their way to Detroit on their way back from Detroit which they’d reached the first time by way of Winnepeg by way of Edmonton by way of Yellowstone by way of Vegas by way California by way of the Grand Canyon by way of Texas by way of…Africa by way of Europe, having started in the Netherlands. I called ahead to friends in the newspaper business out there to alert them there were people coming to town with a great story to tell. I held off on the post, thinking I’d include the link to the articles my friends would write that I was sure would include lots of information I hadn’t been able to get in the short time I was able to talk to the drivers.
My friends never came through.
Anyway, after I realized my friends had let me down, I decided I could do the reporting myself by email, but I let it slide. Then I let it slide again. Then again. Then…life happened and while I was busy with that my meeting with the Model T and its owners just slipped my mind. But this morning I happened to be going to the supermarket and something about the weather or the view from where I parked in the lot jogged my memory.
I thought, Wasn’t it right around this time a year ago that Model T was here?
When I got home I went through the photos in my albums, found the pictures I took that day, and checked the date.
I still don’t have the information I was hoping my newspaper pals would gather for me but I figure I better post the photos and the story as I know it so far now or another year might get away from me.
So, after doing some more Googling for updates and re-visiting the owner’s website, here’s what I’ve got.
Late in the afternoon year ago today, which was a Saturday, I pulled into the lot at the supermarket and there was this jaunty jalopy parked in a back row, acting like it was minding its own business but really hard at work demanding intense scrutiny from the nosey likes of me and just begging to have its picture taken.
I believe in being kind to old cars.
Somebody sure had been kind to this one.
I’m hardly a car buff, antique or new, but I can appreciate a work of mechanical art and I took time to do some appreciating of the brass fittings, wooden steering wheel, red leather upholstery, pink velvet slip covers on the seats…
…forest green paint job. That amused me. Made me remember the old joke about the Model T, that you could get it in any color you want as long as that’s black.
I knew that wasn’t strictly true. I didn’t need to read it in Bill Bryson’s One Summer, America 1927, but since I’ve read it since, I’ll quote it, because Bryson puts these things better than I can:
Early versions of the car [the first rolled off the assembly line in 1908] came in a small range of colors but the colors depended on which model one bought. Runabouts were gray, touring cars red, and town cars green. Black, notably, was not available at all. It became the exclusive color in 1914 simply because black enamel was the only color that would dry fast enough to suit Henry Ford’s assembly line-methods and that lasted only until 1924, when blue, green, and red were made available.
Like I said, I knew that.
One thing to note is that the Model T came in several models. Ford intended the Model T to be affordable for everyone, but affordable is in the bank account of the buyer, and Ford recognized that every car wasn’t going to be used to meet the same needs. If I couldn’t have guessed by its size and roominess, the green paint job would have told me this particular Model T was a town car, built to take families to church on Sundays and for the owner to show off in a little bit when he drove to work or she drove downtown to shop.
I’m emphasizing the she up there because Ford had women in mind when he designed the Model T, although more as passengers than as drivers, something I didn’t know until I learned it from Bryson:
One central characteristic of the Model T now generally forgotten is that it was the first car of consequence to put the driver’s seat on the left-hand side. Previously, nearly all manufacturers placed the driver on the outer, curb-side of the car so that an alighting driver could step out onto a grassy verge or dry sidewalk rather than into the mud of an unpaved road. Ford reasoned that the convenience might be better appreciated by the lady of the house, and so arranged seating for her benefit. The arrangement also gave the driver a better view down the road and made it easier for passing drivers to stop and have a conversation out facing windows. Ford was not great thinker, but he did understand human nature.
Couple other things to note.
The first is that while early on in the history of automobiles in America there were few paved roads and virtually none outside of larger cities and towns and stepping out of the car into mud was routine, it’s amazing how fast that changed, a story told in another good book, this one by Earl Swift, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.
The other thing is that right from the first, when the first cars hit the roads, women were getting behind the wheel (or steering sticks. Steering wheels were a later innovation). Women had been driving wagons, buggies, carts, and carriages for centuries, so why wouldn’t they drive horseless carriages? Car manufacturers were quick to recognize this and began designing and marketing accordingly but while keeping something else in mind. Expanding prosperity was allowing more and more married middle-class to actually be or at least think of themselves as ladies of the house with the interesting contradiction as a result: cars were advertised as simultaneously advancing women’s independence and reinforcing stereotypical gender roles. You can really see this contradiction in overdrive in car advertisements from the 1950s when women behind the wheels of their cars were depicted at the same time as good and responsible wives and mothers, independent spirits with lives and careers and needs of their own that they could take care of themselves thanks to their cars, and objects of sexual allure---Where was she going? Where had she been, all on her own?
Have to shift into reverse and back up here.
Either Bryson got it wrong about when black became the standard color for Model T’s, 1914, or some 1915 modes were built in 1915 and this particular car was one of the last available in green, or whoever restored it wasn’t a stickler for historical detail. But car collectors usually are sticklers. They’re also fussy. They like their cars looking as though they just rolled off the showroom floor, and what struck me was that the paint job didn’t look new. What I mean is that it didn’t shine. Obviously, it wasn’t likely the original paint and I had no way of telling how long ago it had been applied so there it could have been years old. But it didn’t just look time-worn. It looked road-worn. I didn’t spot any conspicuous scrapes, scratches, nicks, or dings, but the weather had definitely done a job on it. This wasn’t a museum piece or rich guy’s toy that spent most of its time garaged or wrapped in a tarp only to be taken out for car shows and weekend jaunts. This car had been driven.
This turned out to be an understatement.
This map was on the side panel.
The car was on a trip around the world!
The black lines on the map mark where it had been, the red chart where it was going. It had already traveled south through Europe, down the length of Africa, and most of the way around the United States and was on its way back to Detroit by way of New England and Maine and then along the Canadian border.
Like I said. It had been driven.
While I was standing there taking pictures and admiring this fact, three people in late middle age, a man and two women, came out of the supermarket pushing a couple of carts loaded with groceries up to the car. I saw them coming and guessed who they were well before they reached the car. The man and one of the women were thin and wiry in a way most Americans their age aren’t anymore. Sixty-ish Americans who aren’t overweight tend to be fit and trim or frail-looking and scrawny. These two had the spare builds of people who had gone easy on the beef and potatoes and soda all their lives without obsessing about it and kept themselves in shape not by going to the gym but by walking to the store and puttering around the house instead of parking themselves in front of their televisions for hours on end. The other woman was stout and hale, again in a way Americans her age usually aren’t, like someone who had always eaten well but not too well and hadn’t had the time or the vanity to watch her weight. You might say she’d grown heavy but it wouldn’t occur to you to say she’d gotten fat. In short, they looked like what I already knew them to be from the names and home address painted on the front fender, Europeans.
On the Mr and Mrs Sprat principle, the man and the second woman were a couple. Dirk and Trudy Retger of Edam in the Netherlands. (On the car it said Holland. And on a couple of places on their website and on one of their YouTube videos they identify their home as Holland, as well. Did I miss a memo?) It was their car and they were its usual drivers. The other woman, whose name I didn’t file away, was a friend who was only along for this part of the trip, one of what I learned later were several friends and relatives who came and went as their personal schedules allowed to act as co-pilots and assistant mechanics and, simply, to provide company.
Dirk and Trudy, accompanied on and off by these volunteers, were driving their Model T around the world. Not in one go. They were taking it in stages, returning home to the Netherlands between jaunts around, across, and up and down continents to rest, regroup, make needed repairs, and prepare for the next leg, the car crisscrossing the ocean by boat. After they were done with North America, their plan was to loop South America and swing up into Central America in 2014, spend the next year crossing Australia and Asia and finish by coming home west through Europe in 2015 when the car will be 100 years old.
They were all three friendly and open and willing to talk about the car and the trip---although Dirk did most of the talking---and, naturally, their English was good, but they were in a bit of a hurry to get back to the campgrounds where they were spending the night. They had guests coming for dinner and wanted to turn in early in order to get back on the road first thing in the morning. And here’s where I made my reporting mistake. Instead of asking what I really wanted to know, which was how did a car built in the United States a hundred years ago end up tooling its way around the world out of Holland and what had Dirk and Trudy had to do to make it road-worthy and where had they gotten the parts and why a Model T anyway, I asked them about this:
They have a cause. I don’t think it’s their whole reason for making the trip---they’re doing it for the fun and adventure and challenge---but they decided to do some good while making it. That is on their website along with a how to make a donation if you’re interested.
What isn’t on the website are answers to my unasked questions. I was hoping my friends in Detroit would get those questions asked and answered. Like I said, my friends let me down. You might think the Retgers and their Model T would be news wherever they went and in some towns they were. I did the Googling. But the reporters for newspapers in those towns apparently didn’t ask those questions. Amazingly, neither did anyone from antique car clubs they visited who met them and wrote about it on the club website. Instead of wanting to know about the car, it seems most people want to know about the drive itself and not as a driving adventure for human and car alike but as a sight-seeing tour. Among the sights the Retgers have seen are elephants in one of their campsites in Africa and Jay Leno.
I did learn that Dirk is a third-generation Model T buff. His father and his grandfather both loved the Model T. It’s not clear if either Retger seniors owned or restored their own cars. If Retger senior senior did there’s the possibility that it was around for World War II and so I’ve got more questions: Did it survive the war and how did it make it through if it did? What happened to it if it didn’t?
I’m planning to email Dirk and Trudy and ask them all my questions. I’m not expecting an immediate reply. Right now Dirk and a team of friends---Trudy’s back home but planning to rejoin them soon---are on their way into Argentina from the south, having come down the length of South America from Columbia through mountain regions of Ecuador, Peru, and Boliva and then along the Pacific coast of Chile to Tierra del Fuego. They’re headed for Brazil where they’ll finish this year’s leg of the journey. There’s a problem at the moment. A broken axle. But Dirk doesn’t seem too worried about it. They’re getting a tow from a Land Rover to a shop he knows of where he can get it fixed.
I wonder if he scouted out repair shops around the world ahead of time. He probably did. Something else to ask him, though.
Meantime, while waiting for him to get back to me---that’s assuming I don’t drop the ball on this again---I’ll hand things back over to Bill Bryson and give him the last word on Model T’s for today:
The Model T, like Ford himself, was an unlikely candidate for greatness. It was almost willfully rudimentary. For years the car had no speedometer and no gas gauge. Drivers who wanted to know how much gas they had in the tank had to stop the car, get out, and tip back the driver’s seat to check a dipstick located on the chassis floor. Determining the oil level was even trickier. The owner, or some other complaint soul, had to slide under the chassis, open two petcocks with pliers, and judge from how fast the oil ran out how much and how urgently more was needed. [That had changed by 1915. You can see in the third photo up that the Retgers’ Model T has four gauges, with the one on the left of the steering wheel appearing to be the speedometer.] For shifting, the car employed something called a planetary transmission, which was famously idiosyncratic. It took much practice to master the two forward gears and one reverse one. The headlights, run off a magento, were uselessly dim at low speeds and burned so hot at high speeds that they were inclined to explode. The front and rear tires were of different sizes, a needless quirk that required every owner to carry two sets of spares. [Scroll up four photos and there they are.] Electric starters didn’t become standard until 1926, years after nearly all other manufacturers included them as a matter of routine. [Another question for Dirk: Did his Model T come with one or did he install one during the rebuild? I’m assuming he and Trudy haven’t been handcranking the engine into action.]
Yet the Model T inspired great affection…For all its faults, the Model T was practically indestructible, easily repaired, strong enough to pull itself through mud and snow, and built high enough to clear ruts at a time when most rural roads were unpaved. It was also admirably adaptable. Many farmers modified their Model T’s to plow fields, saw lumber, pump water, bore holes, or otherwise perform useful tasks.
Again, that’s from One Summer, America 1927, in which Ford appears as a character not on account of his cars but because of his being the defendant in a lawsuit arising from his virulent anti-Semitism and his ill-conceived, ill-fated attempt to establish what he intended to be a model American community around a rubber plantation in Brazil supplying his factories in the United States with rubber for tires.
[Ford] hated…being dependent on suppliers who might raise prices or otherwise take advantage of him, so he always did all in his power to control all the elements of his supply chains. To that end, he owned iron ore and coal mines, forests and lumber mills, the Detroit, Toledo & Irontown Railroad, and a fleet of ships. When he decided to make his own windshields he became at a stroke the second-largest manufacturer of glass in the world. For owned four thousand acres of forests in upper Michigan. The Ford lumber mills proudly boasted that they used every bit of the tree but the shade. Bark, sawdust, sap---all were put to commercial use. (One Ford product still with us from this process is the Kingsford charcoal briquette.) Ford could not bear the thought of having to stop production because some foreign despot or business cabal was denying him access to some needed product---and by the 1920s he was the single biggest user of rubber on earth. Thus it was in the summer of 1927 that Henry Ford embarked on the most ambitious, and ultimately most foolish, venture of his long life: Fordlandia.
There’s another good book to look into, Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Jungle City.
Lots to explore on the Retgers’ website, even without the answers to my particular questions. News, photos, maps, and a few videos, like this one:
Tonight's delicious feature for Mannion Family Movie Night. It's going to be hard to be content with pizza and wings.
House special: Click on the photos above and below for video side dishes.
I expected Chef to examine the sometimes competing values of art and work, how to balance the urge to create and the need to make a living, the idiosyncratic natures of families and friendships, and, of course, the joy of cooking and eating good food.
I didn’t expect a satirical disquisition on the problematic benefits of social media, how to and how not to Twitter, and how, used intelligently and with real heart, as opposed to sentimentality, Vine can be a major force for good.
YouTube turns out to be another matter.
Written and directed by Jon Favreau and starring Favreau as the chef of the title, Carl Casper, Chef chronicles one crucial summer in Carl’s life as he tries, fumblingly and not quite determinedly, to get his once stellar career back on track by giving up haute cuisine to make and sell sandwiches off a food truck.
Up to some point shortly before the movie picks up, Carl seems to have had a wonderful life with a gorgeous and loving wife (Sofia Vergara), a son who idolizes him (Emjay Anthony), a still climbing reputation as one of the best chef’s in Los Angeles, a secure job at a renowned restaurant where he oversees a talented staff and loyal staff (led by John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale) who are more than devoted to him, they love him.
We’re meeting him, though, at a time when he’s become hard to love.
He’s querulous, defensive, short-fused, emotionally evasive and easily distracted---by his own thoughts. His mind seems always elsewhere. He’s a good boss to his staff but not much of a leader these days. He’s asking too much and too little and is incapable or, more likely, unwilling to explain things in a way that lets them know just what he wants, and this appears to be because he doesn’t know what he wants, out of them or for himself.
And he’s in the process of letting all the good things in his life slip away. He and his wife have divorced. When he can’t find an excuse not to be with his son, he hands him off to friends to watch while he busies himself with work, work, by the way, his son longs to take part in. This is a kid whose major demand is that his father teach him to be like him. And, at the moment, for the moment, he has a sexy and very low-maintenance girlfriend, Molly, the maitre d’ at the restaurant (Scarlett Johansson), but the basis of their affair is Molly’s understanding that he doesn’t really want a girlfriend and not taking it personally.
The only thing Carl seems committed to holding onto is his job at the restaurant but, we soon figure out, sticking with this job is a passive-aggressive way of letting his reputation slide.
It’s a good restaurant, and Riva, the owner (Dustin Hoffman), admires and respects Carl and his talents, but Riva knows his clientele and they’re not epicureans. They aren’t out for an adventure in fine dining. They want the gourmet equivalent of comfort food. Although he’s willing to let Carl experiment with a special now and then, what he wants---demands---is the same tried and true menu every night.
Carl needs something more. He just doesn’t seem to know that he needs it
Inez, his still loving and understanding ex-wife, knows. And she’s pretty sure of what it is he needs.
He needs to be his own boss and run his own restaurant, goals he’d been working toward and, truthfully, probably should have achieved well before now. In Inez’s non-judgmental opinion, he’s allowed himself to be to become too comfortable working at the restaurant. (Her opinion turns out to be shared by someone else, although he’s all too happy to wax judgmental when expressing it.) She’s decided his life needs shaking up and she’s hit on a plan.
A food truck.
Her idea is that a food truck will solve several of Carl’s problems at once. It will break him out of his stifling routine. It will allow him to be his own boss. And it will get him back to basics, making and serving food for people to enjoy for its own delicious sake and not out of an awed appreciation for the genius who made it.
Carl has consistently rejected the idea, for reasons of ego and professional pride---as you might expect of a master chef whose next step up ought to be a five-star restaurant of his own, Carl sees slinging sandwiches out of a truck parked at a beach as something of a step down---but there’s more to it.
He’s afraid to make any move, up or down, forward or backward, or sideways.
He’s as scared of success as he is of failure.
Carl’s reached a stage in his career where the next step requires a jump across a chasm and he’s frozen on the ledge. The leap required is a leap of faith in himself and he can’t manage it. Somewhere along the line he lost confidence in himself if not in his ability and now all his mental energy and focus are aimed at his keeping himself safely and securely teetering on the ledge. He doesn’t want to go backwards but he’s terrified of falling if he moves even an inch forward. And he’s convinced any demand on his attention will distract him and cause him to lose his balance.
Unfortunately, one demand is coming from his ten year old son Percy.
Carl wants to be a good and attentive father. He goes through the motions of being one. But everything he says to Percy, no matter how well meant and how tactfully or apologetically phrased, is a craven excuse for his neglect that he expects Percy to understand and accept without question, judgment, or complaint.
This can’t last.
Fortuitously, Carl bumbles his way into a Twitter war with a famous and famously caustic food critic (Oliver Platt) that leads to a face to face confrontation in the restaurant captured, of course, by fifty cell phones. A video goes viral---“I’m a cat playing the piano,” Carl laments of his sudden online celebrity. “I’m a meme!”---and Carl, humiliated, ashamed, and utterly baffled by what’s happening to him---he’s becoming famous but it doesn’t feel like a good thing---goes into hiding and then on the run. It’s a very low-velocity escape. He takes a trip to Miami with Inez and Percy to visit Inez’s father, a musician and singer at a nightclub in Little Havana (played by the salsero Jose C. “Perico” Hernandez. This is a good point to mention that Chef has a marvelous, eclectic soundtrack.) and at the club he’s served a Cuban sandwich that comes with a side of epiphany.
Two things dawn on him. These are really good sandwiches, the best he’s ever tasted, and he knows how to make them better.
Next thing we know, practically the next thing Carl knows himself, he’s cleaning, restoring, and outfitting a battered, grease-caked, rattletrap of a food truck, readying it for a drive back to California with stops along the way at Miami Beach, New Orleans, and Austin, Texas to sell sandwiches to pay for the trip.
He’s gotten the push he’s needed. But it’s not clear where it came from.
He might have stopped resisting Inez’s gentle prodding. He might have taken the less than subtle hint form the critic who, it turns out, is a disappointed early fan rooting for Carl to return to form. He might just be reflexively responding to circumstances that he might have unconsciously brought about himself. He might have finally made the decision he’d known he was going to have to make all along but had been putting off.
He might have activated his self-destruct button.
We can’t be sure what happened, because we’re never told.
One of the many beauties of Favreau’s screenplay is that his characters don’t waste time in conversation with each other on exposition. They are full of mixed and mixed-up emotions but don’t often pause to analyze or explain themselves. Carl, the most mixed up of the bunch, won’t sit still to listen to anyone who tries to analyze or explain him to himself.
They all have complicated backstories, too, or, actually, a backstory.
Chef is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged cook but Carl, like a real human being, doesn’t exist as a self apart from the people he works with and loves, so a full portrait of the man is a portrait of the group. These people know each other well and they’ve been through a lot together. They know how they’ve got here together (here being not just inside this story but inside any particular scene) so they don’t need to stop and remind each other about what’s going on. This leaves them free to talk about what’s immediately in front of them, which makes for more dynamic, thing-specific, and sparer dialog than we hear in most “realistic” comedies and dramas, but leaves it up to us to work out what they’re thinking and feeling from allusions and references, as well as evasions, in what they’re saying and not saying. It’s like wandering in on conversations in real life where we can’t interrupt to ask, Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?
A lot of the fun is in the guessing game posed by the script but also in not guessing---in taking things at face value and just enjoying listening to these characters being themselves instead of explaining themselves.
Favreau takes a similarly oblique approach with his directing. Very often the point of an action, the beauty of it, the fun of it, is in watching the action for its own sake and not to see what it means or where it’s leading. This is especially true of scenes in which food is being prepared.
In most movies, scenes are shaped from the outside. That is, a scene is defined by what it takes to move the plot from one point to the next. When that point’s reached, the scene ends and a new scene begins. In Chef, Favreau shapes his scenes from the inside around what is being said and done. For the sake of what’s being said and done. A scene will begin when characters are still thinking and talking about something else before they haphazardly and randomly work their way to discussing what’s really the matter at hand and it will end unpredictably, without resolution, when they run out of words and are too baffled or angry or confused or chagrined to know what to say next or when they remember there’s something else they need to be doing and rush off to do it. Sometimes a new scene begins within a scene that hasn’t clearly ended when conversations get sidetracked by a new character bursting in with something else on his or her mind. Often it takes a moment to realize that’s happening, that the first scene’s over, the story’s been redirected, and a new scene’s begun without the camera moving or the time and place changing. More often, though, while the background changes, the actors change costumes, and it’s clear time (although not always how much time) has passed, the resulting effect is that Chef feels like one continuous scene. Kind of like life.
Carl is joined on his road-trip of self-rediscovery by his friend Martin, thesaucier at Riva’s, who’s quit his job to follow Carl, and Percy who convinces his doubtful dad that working on a food truck is an ideal way for a ten year old to spend his summer vacation. And in watching these three cook their way across country that we see Chef’s major themes about work, art, and family and friendship put into direct action. Martin (Leguizamo) is a man of perfect faith, supremely confident that this enterprise is going to pay off in (enough) money and (a reasonable degree of) happiness because he has placed that faith in Carl’s talent. He’s not just a friend, he’s a true brother to Carl and uncle to Percy. Emjay Anthony as Percy is one of the least annoying child actors you’re ever likely to see, natural, intelligent without any off-putting precocity, good at conveying emotion without being cloying, precious, or bratty. This is a kid you wouldn’t mind having along for a three-thousand plus mile drive. He works hard, is quick on the uptake, and is eager to learn. As it happens, he also has a knack for using social media for marketing. Chef makes a good case that the best thing a father and son can do together to “bond” is share work and and practical knowledge. Forget spots, forget opening-up. Give the kid a tool and tool and show him how to use it.
As for the rest of the cast, Vergara is a curvaceous, broadly smiling island of placidity and heart. Oliver Platt deadpans his way marvelously through his scenes as the food critic, Ramsey Michel. His slow boil as he’s served one disappointing course after another is a masterpiece of not completely repressed anger. Robert Downey Jr is a one-scene wonder as Sofia’s other ex-husband, a charismatic but paranoid neurotic who manages to mix generosity with extreme selfishness. Bobby Cannavale, who should be in every movie, is happily in this one as Tony, Carl’s sous chef at Riva’s, an amiable alcoholic and screw-up outside the kitchen---he manages to arrive at work close to on time when he’s passed out in his car in the parking lot the night before---but who snaps to as soon as he has a knife or a sauce pan in hand. It’s implied that Tony’s life is saved when Carl’s seems to fall apart and he gets to take over as Riva’s chef de cuisine. Tony is an illustration of Chef’s theme that we’re all at our best when we’re working at something we love to do and are good at, but here again we’re not told. Or shown. Tony’s story continues off screen without updates, and Favreau leaves it up to us to figure it out.
Dustin Hoffman plays the type of character he was designed and built to play but which he’s played very few of since The Graduate, an ordinary human being with realistic problems, in this case a small business owner trying to keep afloat while balancing multiple and conflicting responsibilities. Riva, Carl’s soon-to-be former boss, admires and appreciates and likes Carl, but Carl isn’t his only employee. Riva feels a responsibility to keep his whole staff employed. He feels a responsibility to keep his loyal clientele happy. He feels a responsibility to himself to make a living. He feels a responsibility to Carl but Carl is making it difficult for him all around. We have a rooting interest in Riva’s standing up for Carl but, thanks to Hoffman’s earnest reasonableness and his convincing mix of affection, worry, disappointment, and repressed anger, when he lets him down we can’t help but think Riva might be doing the right thing.
Scarlett Johansson is another one getting to do what she hasn’t been doing much of lately, play an ordinary human being, although one who happens to be extraordinarily beautiful. Johansson is a member in high standing of the best crop of young leading actresses to come along in my lifetime, but next to the likes of Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, and Emily Blunt (with Emma Stone coming up behind them), she is the least natural and versatile, the most unsure of how to present herself to the camera and the one most lacking in confidence in her own voice. You can see the wheels turning as she calculates how to turn her head or phrase a line. And she never seems to know how to shape those incredibly luscious lips. But all that works for her in Chef, just as it does in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and for a similar reason.
In both she plays characters uncertain how to deal with men who, for different reasons in different ways, are difficult to deal with. Black Widow is trying to figure out how to get Cap to like and trust her. Molly knows Carl likes and trusts her but she’s aware that neither will count for much if she says the wrong thing or makes a wrong thing and sets him off on tempter tantrum or sinks him into a sulk, or chases him out the door. It makes sense that she would be cautiously thinking her way through every conversation.
Looking back to Lost in Translation, though, I’m wondering if this is deliberate career choice, that Johansson has been making a sub-specialty of playing characters who are baffled by their temperamental male leads.
Speaking of male leads.
I wouldn’t say Favreau gives the best performance by an actor directing himself since Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane. But it’s the best performance by an actor directing himself I can think of at the moment since Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane.
Directing yourself is a challenge it’s probably wisest not to take on. The divide in attention required causes problems in front of and behind the camera. Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and Woody Allen have usually handled it by playing their standard movie personas. George Clooney likes to cast himself in secondary roles when he directs. All four lower the demands on themselves as actors. But Favreau gives a fully developed, totally honest character performance. He’s made it harder on himself by making Carl difficult to sympathize with, at least for the first third of the film. As I said, we’re meeting Carl at a time in his life when he’s hard to love. He’s irritable, contentious, mercurial, and often cruel to his family and friends. On top of all that he’s wrong. I don’t mean his opinions and judgments are incorrect or mistaken. I mean that he’s routinely in the wrong because he’s operating from premises that are wrong, emotionally, psychologically, professionally, and even morally. Favreau makes us see all that about Carl and excepts us to disapprove of him or at least be disappointed in him and yet still keeps us interested in him and rooting for him. He does this in a number of ways that should be taught in every acting class. But one of the best ways is his showing us that Carl is really, really, really good at what he does by having trained himself to be really, really, really good at doing what Carl is supposed to be doing himself.
I don’t know how good a cook Favreau learned to be, but if you’re ever in a bar bet over who can slice a carrot fastest and thinnest, put your money on Favreau.
Now. About the food.
I can’t even begin…
Chef really is about the joy of cooking. Not so much of eating. Cinematographer gives his camera’s loving attention to the preparation. The digging is left to the imagination.
Watching Chef will make you hungry, but it might also make you want to rush out as soon as it’s over to buy a cookbook and a set of high-quality chef’s knives.
There’s a scene in which Carl and Molly go back to his apartment after work and he sets about preparing them a late night snack. Pasta Aglio e Olio. With most couples, this would be something to do after. For these two, we suspect, it’s their favorite form of foreplay. The camera cuts back and forth between shots of Carl cooking, ingredients going into and out of pans, and Molly, reclining on her side on the couch, her tight black sweater falling off one shoulder, her short, tight skirt riding up her thigh, a look of lubricious expectation on in her eyes, her lips parted in anticipatory delight, and when I saw Johansson like that I leaned over to Mrs M and whispered, “I want that.”
“I do too,” Mrs M replied.
We both meant the meal.
Here’s the recipe.
Fun article from Yahoo Movies about how Favreau trained for Chef by taking over Gwyneth Paltrow’s kitchen.
At GrubStreet, food critic Adam Platt interviews his brother Oliver Platt about the role of critics in art and to what degree Oliver modeled his character on Adam.
If you are inspired to buy a cookbook by Chef, the cookbook you’d want is one by Roy Choi, the chef who trained Favreau and provided many of the recipes for the dishes prepared in the film. Unfortunately, Choi hasn’t published a true cookbook that I have found. He has, however, written a memoir that includes many of his favorite recipes. It’s called L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food and it’s available at Amazon in hardcover and for kindle.
And Judy Walker of the Times-Picayune has posted the recipe for Carl’s Cubano sandwichesthe recipe for Carl’s Cubano sandwiches and included a link to a free e-cookbook with more recipes featured in the movie.
Chef,Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr. Rated R. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.
October 13, 2014.
Happy Columbus Day!
Or as I’ve fondly grown to think of it: “Happy Sanctimonious Liberals on the Internet Congratulate Themselves on Their Moral Superiority to a Delusional, Incompetent, and Possibly Mad 15th Century Genocidist and Imperial Freebooter Day!”
You know I love you, fellow sanctimonious liberals!
Seriously, though, in making the case that Columbus Day should be a national day of atonement instead of a national who do I get to watch the kids while they have the day off from school and I still have to work day, a lot of us do seem to be more intent on showing off how much we know about the real Christopher Columbus that makes him not a hero deserving of his own holiday and how by knowing all that we are smarter, wiser, more pluralistically and diversity-minded and less Euro-centric than the rabble rushing to the malls to take advantage of the sales and are on our way to liberal heaven.
It’s one of those times a year when we come together as a congregation and stand up to pray at the front of the temple.
“Dear. liberal God who probably doesn’t exist, thank you for not making me like them, those ignorant yahoos who don’t know that Columbus didn’t discover America, that he didn’t ‘prove’ the world was round, and that he was really a very bad man and that his ‘discoveries’ began the genocide of the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere---and don’t know to call the indigenous people indigenous people---and introduced the slave trade and all kinds of other evils into the so-called New World.”
Now, as it happens, most of them know what we know about Columbus. They learned it in fifth grade history class and then again in eleventh grade. They just don’t care because what they’re celebrating on Columbus Day isn’t Columbus the Admiral of the Ocean Seas but Columbia the Gem of the Ocean.
We’re not celebrating him as much as we are us.
We’re here because he came here!
And when we lecture them on what they already know, what most of them hear is whiny, self-righteous liberals trying to take away a holiday and calling them bad people for wanting to celebrate the fact that America got discovered and the United States came to be.
Which, of course, is what some of us are up to. Some of us are real pills.
But many of us just think it’s long past time for America to grow up and for Americans to face and accept certain truths about our history so that we can mature further as a nation and correct out faults and change our ways and modify our arrogance so that we become a country even more worth celebrating.
Many of us, knowing the truth about Columbus, are simply disgusted that such a vile human being is honored every year in the way only Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are also honored and we would like that stopped for the sake of truth, justice, and the American way. We don’t want to take away a holiday, but we’d like to make it a holiday celebrating something or somebody worthy of the honor. We’ like it renamed and repurposed everywhere the way it’s been in Seattle, Minneapolis, and Berkeley, and North Dakota and Hawaii.
Some of us, though, are just know-it-alls who like showing off what know-it-alls we are and take advantage of Columbus Day to do that. (See: this post. No, I didn’t forget to put in the link. I mean this post. The one open in your browser window right now.)
Columbus is someone worth learning more about. He’s a fascinating character and had a truly revolutionary influence on the course of human history. He was heroic---adventurous, brave, literally a steady hand on the wheel, able to keep his head when faced with danger and adversity---and he was ingenious, inventive, innovative, a good sailor and explorer, and a pretty good navigator---although not as good as the three brothers who captained and piloted the Nina and Pinta and whose skills saved Columbus and his crews from his own stubbornness and miscalculations several times. And he was a visionary.
He was also tyrannical, arbitrary, murderous, opportunistic, greedy, craven, cruel, and about as ambitious and realistic in his ambitions as a Bond villain. His vision included a vision of himself as a king of all he surveyed and through terror and threat and mis- and malfeasance he managed to realize that vision for a short time. He was religious to the point of delusion and much of what he knew and intuited about geography he didn’t learn from studying maps and the accounts of other explorers or from his own considerable (for the time) travels and explorations but from taking inspiration from the Bible, which is strange in a number of ways but mainly in that the Bible presents the world as flat.
Columbus didn’t believe that, of course, but he didn’t set out to prove the world was round. He didn’t have to. Most educated people already knew it. But many knew something else too, that it was bigger around than he thought. The reason he had to face down several threats of mutiny and force his crews to press on, press on at swordpoint was he’d planned to make landfall long before he finally did and when his ships were still out at seas with no land in sight long past when Columbus had assured the captains of the Nina and Pinta they’d be dropping anchor, they became convinced he was incompetent and had gotten them lost.
It’s become a truism to the point of its being almost clichéd to note that he didn’t discover America, a whole lot of people got here ahead of him. He wasn’t even out to discover America or any new lands. He thought of himself as a discoverer but what he intended to discover was gold and other treasures for himself and a a quick route to China and India so the incipient imperial power that employed him could cash in on the spice trade. He didn’t know they were any new lands to be discovered, at least not along the route he’d mapped out. He didn’t know America or any sizeable landmasses lay between Europe and East Asia. He didn’t know there was a Pacific Ocean.
I can’t recall if he ever figured out he’d fallen short and learned what had gotten in his way. If he did he never went out to take a look at it.
Probably he was too busy robbing, killing, enslaving, and otherwise inflicting his vision of himself as king of all he surveyed on the people he called los indios.
After he’d set up shop as tyrant in the islands he thought were parts of India, he spent a lot of time over the next few years sailing around the Caribbean, continuing to explore and discover---mostly what he discovered was more treasure in the form of native peoples he could rob and exploit---certain that one of the new islands he bumped into would turn out to be Japan.
On top of all this, though, is another question. If what we’re actually celebrating on Columbus Day is the fact that America got discovered and we’re here to enjoy it, just exactly what do we mean by here.
The America whose discovery we’re celebrating is that part of North America that became the United States., and like I said, Columbus himself either didn’t know or didn’t care that this continent or the other one were here. As for his employer, the nation he claimed his islands for, for a while Spain was content with those islands, which it saw as not as literal gold mines but as potentially bountiful agricultural colonies. When it did get interested in lands beyond, it licensed mercenaries, freebooters, and other adventurers who were basically pirates to go take a look on its behalf and send back as much loot as could be discovered or stolen without worrying too much about the business of colonization, and those men and their little armies of heavily armed and armored thugs, the conquistadors, used the Caribbean islands as staging areas from which to head due west and southwest.
A few went north for a quick look around or brief, disastrous encounters with the natives. Others stumbled their way up from what is now Mexico into Texas and New Mexico and a relatively short way up along the California coast.
What it comes down to is that more than opening the way for the settlement of North America, Columbus initiated the conquest of South America. His spiritual descendents aren’t the Pilgrims and George Washington, they’re Pizarro and Cortez. For a variety of reasons, then, Columbus Day really shouldn’t be a holiday.
If we must celebrate the fact of the United States---and I really think we must---then we should create a new holiday celebrating an event or person or persons that better represent what’s truly worth celebrating about the nation as a whole.
Or we should be content with the Fourth of July.
That may happen. Like I said, it has happened in a few cities and a couple of states. In the meantime, Columbus Day should be a time when we do come together to think like grownups and remind ourselves that the fact of the United States is due to as much to evils and wrongs as to the right and good and in acknowledging that we grow and become a better nation and a better people.
But in working this out we shouldn’t forget that something else is being celebrated on Columbus Day.
The reason Columbus Day became a holiday was as a counter to anti-Italian, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant bigotry.
Kind of ironic, isn’t it?
This is from Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927.
For Italian immigrants of the early twentieth century, America often came as a shock. As historians Leonard Dinnerstein and David M. Reimer have noted, most “were unprepared for the coolness with which so many Americans received them.” Often they found themselves excluded from employment and educational opportunities because of their nationality. Restrictive covenants kept them from moving into certain neighborhoods. Italians who settled in the Deep South were sometimes made to attend black schools. At first, it was by no means clear that they would be allowed to use white drinking fountains and lavatories.
Other immigrant groups---Greeks, Turks, Poles, Slavs, Jews of every nation---encountered similar prejudice, of course, and for Asians and America’s own blacks prejudice and restrictions were even more imaginatively cruel, but the Italians were widely regarded as something of a special case---more voluble and temperamental and troublesome than other ethnic groups. Wherever problems arose, Italians seemed to be at the heart of things. The widespread perception that Italians was that if they weren’t Fascists or Bolsheviks, they were anarchists or Communists, and if they weren’t those, they were involved in organized crime.
Even the New York Times declared in an editorial that it was “perhaps hopeless to think of civilizing [Italians] or keeping them in order, except by the arm of the law.” University of Wisconsin sociologist E.A. Ross insisted that crime in Italy had fallen only “because all the criminals are here.”
Bryson wrote that as background to his account of the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, who, it can be reasonably argued were tried and condemned to death for being Italian. That they might actually have been guilty was almost beside the point. Their real crime was not being sufficiently American.
By the time Columbus Day was established as a national holiday in 1937, the image of Italian immigrants had shifted farther away from bomb-throwers and anarchists and more towards gangsters, in large part thanks to Hollywood, but the effect was still the same: They are not us. The point of Columbus Day was to do for Italian-Americans what St Patrick’s Day did for the Irish, bring the community together in strength and pride and draw other ethnic groups, including white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, into joining the parades to celebrate Italian-ness.
Just as how on St Patrick’s Day everyone’s Irish, on Columbus Day everyone could be Italian, and, by logical inference and emotional sway, everyone’s an American, and for that we have Christopher Columbus to thank.
Not only are Italian-Americans as American as everyone else, was the message, there wouldn’t be an America if it weren’t for an Italian.
So, as long as we’re going to continue to have a Columbus Day, here’s another grownup history lesson for the day: The holiday was created in large part to celebrate the American experience as the immigrant experience and that experience was often a confrontation with ignorance, bigotry,fear, hatred, discrimination, and violence.
A relevant lesson, and kind of an ironic one, considering the anti-immigrant hysteria being whipped up and exploited by Fox News and Republican demagogues like Ted Cruz and Steve King inciting the bigotry, fear, and so far barely contained violence of people with Irish, German, Greek, Polish, and Italian last names.
There’s full-sized version of Shahn’s “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” on the campus of Syracuse University, where the library has an online exhibition devoted to the trial and the events leading up to and following it, The Never-Ending Wrong: The Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
At Vox, Max Fisher, doing a point by point comparison between Columbus Day and Canadian Thanksgiving, makes the case that if we’re casting around for a new holiday to celebrate on the second Monday of October, we could do worse than by adopting Canadian Thanksgiving, for several excellent reasons, starting with the food.
Columbus Day: There is no special food in the mainline American version of Columbus Day, although I guess if you wanted you could recreate the squalid meals on Columbus's ship by eating hardtack bread and brine-preserved sardines.
Canadian Thanksgiving: It's basically the same as American Thanksgiving: a delicious bounty of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, pie, and cake.
Winner: Canadian Thanksgiving.
There’s more good stuff and stuffing. Read the whole post, Why you should celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving instead of Columbus Day.