Sunday, August 31, 2014

How Obedient They All Are

The digital hive mind issues its orders for you.

Mr. Blandings Deconstructs His Dream World

“How was an advertising man ever to suggest to a man of medicine the particular, minute insanities that were his daily tasks? Mr. Blandings thought of the accounts that made up his professional life. Old Supine, A Blend. Mr. Blandings’ task on this account was to find 10,000 different ways of evading the true issue.
“Old Supine, unlike some other products, had a true, definite function, which it would unfailingly perform. This function was to get the consumer into a hyper-normal state: buzzed, crocked, looping, fried, boiled, plastered or stinko, according to the amount ingested and the psycho-physiology of the consumer.
“Could this delightful truth be as much as hinted? Even if there were no Federal Trade Commission, the American mores would revolt at the slightest suggestion.
“In ‘building’ ads for Old Supine, it was Mr. Blandings’ task to take such notions as aroma, flavor, body, color, bouquet, mildness, more mildness, more body, less body and play with them like an 18-month infant in a playpen until some combination satisfying to the client emerged. Good fellowship, gracious living, liberty, equality, fraternity, snobbery, professional success, breadth of experience might also be used in advocacy. But the joys of getting more or less drunk? No.”
In another moment of rueful honesty, Mr. Blandings observed that Old Supine  (“A Blend of the Superfine”) was actually composed of “…75 percent grain alcohol, plus some caramel solution for color, plus a dollop of somebody’s else’s whisky to make it taste like whisky.”
— From “Blanding’s Way” by Eric Hodgins (1950)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Behold, the SoCEOpath

I did not originate the term "ammosexual," sadly. And it was Philip Martin who came up with the ultimate 21st century mass entertainment term "assassitute." But I nearby lay claim to the term "soCEOpath" (tm).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Consider the Tree

Consider the tree outside the door. Although it serves as a resting place for birds, it doesn't make an effort to call those that come. Nor does it care whether those that leave return. When a person's mind is like the tree's, they no longer oppose the Tao [the Way].
— Lung-ya

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Those Strange Doctors: Droom and Doom

Before Dr. Doom, there was Dr. Droom, a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation from 1961 who was really kind of a trial run for Marvel Comics’ Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Strange.
Dr. Strange was a selfish bastard doctor who travels to Tibet seeking a cure. Dr. Droom was a selfless doctor who travels to Tibet to administer a cure. Both gain mystical powers there — Dr. Droom through the weird and no longer politically correct avenue of magically becoming Asian.
Dr. Droom was arguably the first Marvel superhero of the 1960s, preceding the ground-breaking “Fantastic Four” title (Droom debuted in June 1961 in “Amazing Adventures,” four months ahead of the FF).
Droom was revived in the 1970s in “The Incredible Hulk,” but renamed “Dr. Druid” to avoid confusion with the Fantastic Four’s infamous archenemy Dr. Doom.
A weird character that attracted weird coincidences, Dr. Droom's unlikely name nearly made it into the comics 20 years before attached to yet another super-sorcerer. DC's Gardner Fox had originally intended to call his 1940s magician Dr. Fate by that name. It seems we were fated to find a Droom (a Dutch word meaning "dream," by the way).
Dr. Droom strives to save a man's life, unaware that he's being tested for his worthiness to be a super-hero.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ferguson, Not Tinanamen

Public servants have become rulers precisely to the degree that what used to be called “citizens” have become mere “consumers.”
We have conflicting goals in Ferguson, Mo. One side wants to determine, publicly and with certainty, how and why an unarmed man was shot six times by a police officer. The other side just wants the protests to stop.

Crows in a Strong Wind

Painting by Sophy White

By Cornelius Eady

Off go the crows from the roof.
The crows can’t hold on.
They might as well
Be perched on an oil slick.

Such an awkward dance,
These gentlemen
In their spottled-black coats.
Such a tipsy dance,

As if they didn’t know where they were.
Such a humorous dance,
As they try to set things right,
As the wind reduces them.

Such a sorrowful dance.
How embarrassing is love
When it goes wrong

In front of everyone.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fairly Unbalanced

My friend Michael Varela nailed the Ferguson reaction: "For conservatives who still don't understand why people are upset about Mike Brown, imagine he was a homophobe who lost his reality show."

My Kind of Kitten

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ayn Rand: After the Fox

I finished with Ayn Rand for good and all the day I learned that she actually admired and defended the 1920s killer William E. Hickman, who kidnapped and murdered a 12-year-old girl and then tossed out her dismembered body after he got his ransom money.
She admired Hickman's superior individualism, you see. She loved the fact that Hickman was a handsome mystery man who called himself “The Fox” and pitted his wits alone against the whole world, like her subsequent literary protagonists Howard Roark and John Galt. The fact that he had to terrorize and murder children to do so was, apparently, neither here nor there to Rand.
In fact, she once planned a novel “…to be titled ‘The Little Street,’ the projected hero of which was named Danny Renahan,” wrote author Michael Prescott. “According to Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra, she deliberately modeled Renahan — intended to be her first sketch of her ideal man — after this same William Edward Hickman. Renahan, she enthuses in another journal entry, ‘is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness -- [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning or importance of other people ... Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should.’”
Another term for someone who feels that “other people do not exist” is, of course, a sociopath. This suggests that Rand's genius crossed the line at some point into the fairly sick fantasies of a sociopath.
Hickman, Rand's idea of a Nietzschean superman
“It seems to me that Ayn Rand’s uncritical admiration of a personality this twisted does not speak particularly well for her ability to judge and evaluate the heroic qualities in people,” Prescott noted. “One might go so far as to say that anyone who sees William Edward Hickman as the epitome of a ‘real man’ has some serious issues to work on, and perhaps should be less concerned with trying to convert the world to her point of view than in trying to repair her own damaged psyche.”
Rand's idealization of a vicious child murderer demonstrated that her alleged, much-advertised concern for the rights of others was a smoke screen. What she was really about was riding roughshod over anyone who stood between her and what she desired, a fact that both her novels and her biography bear out. Rand's ethics were mere rationalization, not reason.
Rand’s primary concern was to describe a world that would be ideal for the kind of ruthless, brilliant, fictional supermen she had worshipped from childhood. Sadly, that world does not intersect at any point with the real one.
By the way, her real name was Alice Rosenbaum. This socialism-scorning thinker took out Medicare and Social Security under her husband’s name to disguise her hypocrisy. She needed the Medicare because her heroic, romantic, supermanish "taming of fire at her fingertips" had given her lung cancer.
Those are the hard facts that are left after all the self-deluding romantic fantasies have died.

A Fun New Game! But Don't Forget to Duck!

Sinclair Lewis was right. It can happen here.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fascism in Ferguson

The Ferguson, MO, stormtroopers gun down an unarmed teenager, gas protesters, aim sniper's rifles at unarmed citizens, censor news coverage, dismantle TV news equipment and arrest reporters. Can you smell Fascist USA yet, people? Can you hear the detonations and see the tear-gas clouds?
Sinclair Lewis was right. It can happen here. And it has.
And naturally, Fox News is right in there — cheerleading for fascism.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

James Garner: Stardust Bowl

Garner as Philip Marlowe: Actually, he had contempt for violence
Fueling the late James Garner’s flinty sparkle was a matter-of-fact integrity that informed all his roles. I was interested in tracing the sources of his character in his autobiography, “The Garner Files.”
Garner’s empathy for the common man had roots in his “Grapes of Wrath” childhood in Oklahoma. His mother died from a back-alley abortion when he was 4. He and his two brothers were abandoned more than once by his father, whom he nevertheless never blamed. He was routinely beaten by the same stepmother who sexually abused his older brother. And he was forever grateful to those more distant relatives who periodically showed him kindness, and tried to emulate them.
“Uncle John (Bumgarner) was a county commissioner, and he had a little dairy farm outside town. I loved to help him make butter and cream,” Garner wrote. “And he was smart. In the wintertime, we used to sit in front of the fire with a dictionary to try to find a word he didn’t know. I could never stump him. He knew the meaning of every word and the spelling and the derivation. He’d had some Latin because he’d studied to be a doctor, and worked as a Linotype operator and proofreader at the Norman Transcript.
“Uncle John wasn’t much to look at. His shirttail was always half-out and his hat was never blocked quite right, but I thought he was the most successful man in the world because he was content with what he had. And he had something many men never get: self-respect, and the respect of everyone who knew him.”
For the most part, the young Garner found issues of character to be as clear-cut as the harsh conditions of the Oklahoma landscape. “Sure, we had hustlers, but they were so few and far between that you could spot them a mile away,” Garner said. “Most people were honest, and they took care of each other. Not like L.A. People here — at least those in the entertainment business — will look you right in the eye and lie to you. They lie even when there’s no reason to. I’ve never understood that, and never will. Out here, I’m a lead sinker in deep water.”
Actress Julie Andrews said of her friend Garner, “(B)eneath the talent, charm and a healthy dose of bravado, one senses that he’s been hurt — more than once. So he’s stubborn, a bit reclusive … defiant, too. Don’t mess with Jim when he’s fighting for a cause he believes in.”
While as a child he dreamed of being rescued by rich relatives, Garner knew that wasn’t in the cards, and he was happy to light out on his own at age 14. He earned his own living from then on.
“While other kids my age had chores and allowances and curfews, I was holding down grown-up jobs because I had to feed myself and put clothes on my back and a roof over my head. It was simply a matter of survival. People have said it’s right out of Dickens, but I didn’t think I had it tough, because it was all I knew.
“Looking back, I think I was better off to do it earlier than later. Tell you what: You want to put pressure on somebody, live through the Depression. In Oklahoma. In the dust. After that, studio executives don’t bother you at all.”
Source: “The Garner Files” by James Garner and Jon Winokur

Monday, August 11, 2014

What Alan Alda Learned from a Midwestern Cockroach

Alan Alda

One of Alan Alda’s most personally important early stage roles was at the Little Theatre in Sullivan, Il.
The son of actor Robert Alda, Alan was a young father himself in 1959, and struggling in New York.
“I was taking jobs that would make normal people wonder if they were perhaps not going anywhere,” he wrote. “But actors don’t think that way. We were getting by; in fact, we were happy.
“When money got low, I would stop drinking the single can of beer I had every night at dinner, that would save us $1.05 a six-pack, enough to get us out of a rent crisis that month. One of us could always find a way to make a few dollars.”
One of those ways arrived out of the proverbial Midwestern blue — an offer to star as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls” at the Little Theatre.
“Their leading man had fallen sick and had to drop out,” Alda wrote. “They had seen me listed in an actors’ directory called Players Guide and wondered if I happened to know the part of Sky Masterson — since my father had played it on Broadway.”
“’Yes,’ I said, lying. ‘I do know the part.’
“’Wonderful,’ they said. ‘Can you fly right out here and do it?’
“Sure. Glad I can help out.’”
Seven years before, Alda had watched from the wings as his father performed the part, but he’d never learned it, didn’t know the songs and couldn’t sing in tune. And the show was going to open within days.
“I got on a plane, and as soon as the door closed, I started shaking. I shook all the way to Illinois.”
When he arrived, a rehearsal was underway. “I stepped in as Sky Masterson, stopping to ask for my line whenever I couldn’t remember it, which meant stopping to ask whenever I had a line. After rehearsal, I went out with the other actors, who were mostly from there and knew the town. Apparently, this was a town in which nothing happened. Except for the summer theater, the closest thing to entertainment was driving in circles around the main square.”
But opening night was exciting enough for Alda. In fact, he was in terror.
“I came out on stage as Sky Masterson, and I got through the first scene even though one of my legs had an involuntary twitch that made my knee bang against the leg of my pants. In the second scene, I was supposed to be cocky and confident as I bantered with the ingénue, but my hands were shaking so much that I had to keep them in my pockets.
“Usually the first line of dialogue relaxed me, but I had a song coming up and I had to sing harmony. I was terrified, because usually, if I was lucky, harmony was what came out when I tried to sing the melody.
“I was too poor to own my own suit, so they had given me a suit that had been hanging in a warehouse for six months. To calm myself, I started playing with a piece of lint in my pocket. It felt like a thick nub of lint, or maybe a wad of thread. In an attempt to appear relaxed, I casually took it out of my pocket and glanced down at it. And then I saw it.
“It wasn’t lint. It wasn’t a wad of thread. It was a cockroach.
“The sight of the cockroach and the crackling sensation of its squirming between my fingers had a distinct effect on me. I was onstage in front of hundreds of people, in the middle of a play. I couldn’t jump back and scream like a 6-year-old girl, which was my first choice. Instead, I was focused like a laser. I looked at the actress I was playing with, and for the first time I really saw her. The cockroach had given me a reality more compelling than my fear. And the doorway to my imagination swung open. I wasn’t in a little theater in a cornfield in front of an audience that might find out I didn’t know the words or the melody. I was in the Save-a-Soul Mission, and I was talking to Sarah, the mission doll. I opened my mouth, and to my amazement, a song came out. And almost in tune.”
Alda returned to New York having learned concentration from a cockroach in Sullivan, IL, perhaps the most influential insect educator since Jiminy Cricket.
Source: “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I’ve Learned” by Alan Alda.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Marvel's Champions of the Box Office

Marvel sends another one sailing out of the ballpark into space. I just saw Guardians of the Galaxy for the second time — a superhero team film with wit and heart, illustrating that good writers and directors can take not first-string Marvel characters, nor second-string Marvel characters but 12th-string Marvel characters and turn them into something classy and classic. 
The film’s use of classic pop music is a perfect touchstone, providing universal familiarity for the audience, ironic comment and a poignant reminder that it’s protagonist Peter Quill's only connection to his lost mother.
It’s a continual small-m marvel for me to see garish characters from an ephemeral medium, familiar to me from childhood, loom on the screen in box office blockbusters. Seeing Glenn Close as the head of Marvel’s Nova Corps gives me the sense that the Earth has somehow shifted its axis.
The movie has, among other things, a "Wizard of Oz" vibe, with an orphaned child whirled away to unearthly surroundings and then befriended by a talking animal, a sentient tree and other strange beings who join him a quest to destroy an overwhelming evil.
And I now say with confidence that I have a favorite raccoon.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Still on London Time

Under the London Eye on the South Bank. (Photos by Cam Simpson).
Before I took off for London a week ago, I made a mental checklist of the things I’d like to experience in the metropolis that I’ve dreamed of visiting for several decades:
• Enjoying perfect weather, maybe with soothing rain on the roof one night. Check.
• Enjoying delicious world-city food — meat pies, mash and custard in Greenwich, a full English breakfast at a corner café, brunch with a Buck’s Fizz at Soho’s elegantly appointed Dean Street Townhouse, dim sum off Electric Avenue in Brixton. Yes, THE Electric Avenue. FYI, a Buck's Fizz is two parts orange juice to one part champagne, grenadine optional. Yes, an English mimosa. Check.
• Seeing Big Ben. Check. We did on my last night, when I gloriously tired, standing beneath the London Eye.
Samantha Bond with Nigel Havers in "Downton Abbey"
• Attending a play with talented British actors on the West End. Check. We saw Nigel Havers and Siân Phillips at the Harold Pinter Theatre, which began as the Royal Comedy Theatre in 1881.
• Chatting about life and love with young Brits in a pub. Check. My old friend Greg Harris, a bloke who looks like a young Terrence Stamp, treated me to his favorite Plateau pale ales at the Harp in Covent Garden, and I lingered on and had a lovely time.
• Seeing the seven sassy, confident ravens at the Tower of London, the most famous ravens on the planet Earth. Check. A legend allegedly dating from the Great Fire of London in 1666 has it that if the ravens are ever lost, England will be too.
With Yeoman Warder Crawford Butler at the Tower of London
During World War II, only one raven survived the Blitz. Prime Minister Winston Churchill replenished the group of England’s dark, winged warriors (and they are, officially, soldiers).
• Spotting a celebrity accidentally in public. Check. We saw the film actor Jesse Eisenberg chatting with friends at an outdoor café in Brixton Village. He played Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” and will play Lex Luthor in “Batman vs. Superman.”
And although this wasn’t on the list, my bald spot apparently appeared on the CBS Evening News as I regarded the poppies at the Tower of London set out for the centenary observation of World War I. My bald spot — created, according to theory, not by male pattern baldness but by the very follicle-burning radioactive intensity of my intelligence  — is now officially more famous than I am.
Through it all, I had the best of boon companions, the celebrated, intrepid investigative journalist and international man of mystery Cam Simpson. On the summer of my 60th birthday, my old friend flew me to London and put me up at his townhouse, and that is about the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me in my life.