Sunday blog: Stevie Smith’s cats


It suddenly struck me that today is Halloween, and it might be nice to do something seasonal.  So, instead of the lovely mini-anthology of Snooki quotations I’d planned, here’s one of my favorite Stevie Smith poems.  

Stevie loved reading her poetry aloud; she would sing it and act it out.  It would have been great fun to see her recite this one.

MY CATS


I like to toss him up and down

A heavy cat weighs half a Crown

With a hey do diddle my cat Brown.


I like to pinch him on the sly

When nobody is passing by

With a hey do diddle my cat Fry.


I like to ruffle up his pride

And watch him skip and turn aside

With a hey do diddle my cat Hyde.


Hey Brown and Fry and Hyde my cats

That sit on tombstones for your mats.



 

Advertisements

Charlie being Charlie

 

 

I saw a big advertisement on a bus stop today for “Two And A Half Men.”  Charlie Sheen, literally big as life, wearing one of those ugly bowling shirts, was leaning out of the frame and leering at me.  Oh, I thought: this is the guy who just trashed his hotel room at the Plaza with some escort. And then I suddenly realized (literally for the first time!) that Charlie actually plays a character named “Charlie” on the show: a womanizing boozehound who pretty much does whatever he wants.  I then realized that his sometime wife Denise Richards had also been on the show for a while.

Now that’s reality TV.

There seems to be a whole mini-industry for celebrities whose private indiscretions match their public personae.  The famously loony Tracy Morgan plays a nutjob named Tracy Jordan on “30 Rock.”  Lindsay Lohan is making a whole new career of playing dissolute bad girls (check out “Machete,” if you haven’t already seen it).   I saw Randy Quaid’s arrest photo the other evening on TV, and he looked just like the derelict character he played in “Independence Day.”   And Andy Dick – well, it’s a day’s work just figuring out how much trouble he’s in on any given day.

If you’re a New Englander, you will remember Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox.  Manny acted like a jerk much of the time, and he acted crazy most of the time.  But he was a decent baseball player, so the crowd forgave him his peculiarities.  “It’s just Manny being Manny,” we said, and the phrase became a byword, meaning: Whaddya gonna do?  Sometimes you take the bitter with the sweet.

Entertainers are different.  Their careers are tangled up in their roles.  If you are a handsome leading-man action-hero type, probably you should not act too K-R-A-Z-Y in public á la Tom Cruise.  Ditto Russell Crowe.  Ditto Mel Gibson.

But if your persona is goofy, or boozy, or generally a hot mess, you can be in character twenty-four hours a day.  You may even enhance your reputation!

Athletes are judged more harshly, for some reason.  I don’t care about Brett Favre one way or the other, but I think the whole text-plus-pantsless-pic thing is overhyped.  He’s not a saint, that’s for sure.  Ditto Tiger Woods.  But who cares, really? Stupid and careless, both of them, but not violent.

There’s still a limit, however, even for Hollywood celebrities.  How much bad behavior is too much bad behavior?  At what point do people actually stop watching someone’s movies or TV shows just because the star is a felon or a mental case?

Murder, I suppose.  Rape, probably.  Significant brutality (although we seem to have forgiven Russell Crowe and Chris Brown, not to mention Michael Vick on the sports side of the aisle).

I’m not Mister Morality.  Violations of public propriety don’t bother me at all, nor sexual misadventures, nor drug use.  Hey, we’re all malefactors once in a while, right?  Look at Keith Richards.  Not long ago he was a walking joke.  Now Maureen Dowd has called him (without irony) “the voice of chivalry.” Ozzy Osbourne may be the Prince of Darkness, but now I think of him shambling around his kitchen making himself a burrito. He does not alarm me.

It’s only when they tear themselves apart that it becomes sad.  Anna Nicole Smith.  Andy Kaufman.  Janis Joplin.

Remember what your mama said? “It’s funny until someone gets hurt. You’ll see. It’ll end in tears.”

Are you listening, Charlie?


 

 

 

Flocking hilarious

 

 


 

 

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, is a sort of middle-of-the road conservative social critic / political analyst.  He has a way of dealing with issues that I think of as the Brooks Method:

  • Define a social issue or trend (either significant or insignificant). For example: “People are certainly eating a lot of salad these days.”
  • Throw a lot of tsk-tsk analysis at this trend, like this: “People didn’t eat much salad when I was young.  And the Founding Fathers didn’t eat salad at all.  Where is this trend leading us?”
  • Come up with a spoofy / belittling neologism or catchphrase to encapsulate the trend, e.g.: “This new Salad Socialism is taking us down a new road.  Is it a better road?  I don’t know.”

It’s really pretty formulaic after a while; I think a machine could do it.  Come to think of it, he’s kind of shiny-looking in his Times photo; maybe he is a machine.

He recently wrote a column about the “new” television comedies like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Cougar Town.”  For Brooks, and for Neal Gabler of the LA Times, these are – wait for it – “flock comedies.”

Do you know how, when someone comes at you with a squirt gun, you scrunch up your face in anticipation?   That’s how I read a Brooks column.  I prepare myself for the inevitable squirt in the face when he hits me with his catchphrase.

So.  “Flock comedies.”  Let me grit my teeth and get through this.

“Flock comedies” are comedies that revolve around a group of friends.  They are depicted as spending a lot of time together – eating, socializing, watching TV, generally interacting.  I’m thinking “Friends,” “Seinfeld” –

Whoops.  Recent?  How about “Mary Tyler Moore”?  “Dobie Gillis”?  “Gilligan’s Island,” for God’s sake?

Anyway, this “trend” reflects our changing attitude toward friendship.  Virtual friendship a la Facebook has made us long for the real thing.  So we like watching people sit around dorm-room style and chat and argue and fight.  What a shame! Brooks and Gabler say.  It doesn’t reflect our real lives at all!

(Any show that reflected my real life would have to depict a fiftyish man lying on the couch reading a magazine, and getting up to go to the bathroom every ten minutes or so.  It would not do well in the ratings.)

The Brooks/Gabler argument is old-fogyism disguised as social commentary.  A television program has to be propelled by something – dramatic situations, funny dialogue, something.  You can do it around a dinner table, or a bar, or on a couch.  You can do it in a family setting, or a workplace setting, or a casual setting like a bar or living room.  You can’t really do it without depicting people interacting with people.

But! Brooks and Gabler say.  The quality of friendship has changed!  Living in our hurry-scurry World of Tomorrow (see blog title, above), we have sacrificed Real Traditional Friendship! Statistics show that we have less friends than we used to, and that we are less likely to form dyadic one-on-one friendships.

Gabler (whom Brooks calls “apocalyptic”) says that the intimacy portrayed on TV is “phony.”  Hmm.  Now why would situations presented in a half-hour comedy program be “phony”?

Brooks and Gabler both say that this ersatz TV “friendship” is wish fulfillment: it depicts the way we wish our lives really were, full of “deeply intimate” friends.  (I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I don’t have either Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” or Kramer from “Seinfeld” living across the hall.)

Neither Brooks nor Gabler seems very comfortable with talking about family relationships in this context.  Gabler says “Modern Family” is “incomparable,” but then tut-tuts about the unreality of its depiction of family togetherness.  Brooks says that “young people” live in “diverse friendship tribes” (squinch!  I didn’t see that one coming!), but he really doesn’t talk about the family aspect at all.

Gabler isn’t just apocalyptic; he’s post-apocalyptic.  According to him, we are already completely deracinated by our television viewing.  It has gotten into our heads, made us unhappy, made us depressed, taken all of our friends away, etc., etc.  We wander the streets desolately, looking for another video injection to soothe our existential heartache.  (Evidently he subscribes to my “television makes your head explode” theory, which you can read about here.)

Brooks is more tragic than apocalyptic.  He acknowledges, somberly, that friendship – one-on-one, buddy-buddy stuff – still exists, but is being replaced by the Facebook model: cool virtual friendships that don’t really amount to anything.  Brooks thinks that TV is presently showing us our true selves: lonely, emotionally inept, willing to replace real friendships with friendships of convenience.

Oh, my.

It makes me want to run right down to the coffee shop and tell Ross and Rachel all about it.

 


 

 

Age, I do defy thee

 

 


 

Partner and I were in a fragrance boutique the other day (some stereotypes are true, once in a while).  The manager gave us some free samples, in molecule-sized packets.  This was one of those places that slaps a French name on everything, so I got a little giggle out of the following label: CONCENTRE JEUNESSE / YOUTH CONCENTRATE.  Like Wednesday Addams, who thought that Girl Scout cookies were made from Girl Scouts, I wondered idly how many youths had given their lives for this little dab of concentrate.

I tried the stuff, by the way, and it was very nice.  But it did not make me young again.

Getting old is a tricky business.  I was a jerky awkward young man, and I wanted desperately to be older, so that people would respect me.  Now – well, ahem, I’m still waiting for the respect.  I have rapidly degenerated into a stick figure with a big bulbous head and wispy gray hair.  If I wore overalls with suspenders, I would look exactly like one of my paternal uncles.

Adding insult to injury, I work on a college campus.  The students never age; they leave when they hit 21 or so, and a new supply arrives every year.  This means that I find myself getting older and older, right in the middle of a group of people who never get older at all.  About a month ago, I was walking across campus and ran into a former coworker, a woman about my own age.  We were having a lively little chat about the old days, but then I noticed the students on the sidewalk looking at us funny, and suddenly I had a vision of the way the students saw us: a skinny old man with a high shrill voice, talking to a fat old woman with a deep scratchy voice.

Eek!

I have also become acquainted with the aches and pains of age.  I am reminded constantly that I’m Not As Young As I Used To Be.  I was talking to a coworker about a vacant position in our department and found myself saying “This would be ideal for someone young and energetic,” and as soon as I said it, the words turned to ashes in my mouth.  That young energetic person ain’t me.

And not to be morbid, but I probably don’t have more than another fifty or sixty years in me before my batteries run out entirely.

A friend of mine theorized a long time ago that we stop aging emotionally at a certain age, and stay that way for life.  I think it’s absolutely true.  Partner, for example, is about eight years old inside: beginning to feel grown up, but still vulnerable.  I, on the other hand, stopped aging emotionally at five: easily distracted, easily amused, easily hurt.

Now, all you young nymphs and shepherds, think of how it feels for that five-year-old to look into the mirror and see Abe Vigoda looking back.

And do you know why it hurts?  Because life is so much fun.  There are still so many things I want to do.  The idea that I’m running out of carnival tickets is a bad nasty thing.

I started in French, so I’ll end in French.  This is Erik Satie:

Quand j’etais jeune, on me disait: Vous verrez quand vous aurez cinquante ans.  J’ai cinquante ans.  Je n’ai rien vu!”

“When I was young, people told me: Just wait until you’re fifty years old, and you’ll see.  Well, I’m fifty years old, and I haven’t seen a thing!”


 

 

Waiting for the Grand Unification

 

 

 


 

 

When we were in Manhattan recently, Partner and I saw a demo of Google TV. It’s very neat: it makes your TV screen do everything your computer screen does, in addition to showing broadcast TV. There are still two small problems, however:

 

 

It’s a step in the right direction, though. Ultimately, everything – your phone, your netbook / laptop, your desktop computer, your MP3 player, your TV – will access the same content and have the same capabilities. You’ll be able to make a phone call with your TV, and access the Net with your phone, and watch TV programming on your laptop. (Actually you can do most of this now; they’re still filling in some of the gaps). The main difference will be the size of the screen and keyboard in each case.

 

Now that’s a grand unification.

 

The borders are already blurring. “The Social Network” was a movie about a website, written by a TV mogul. “Prince of Persia” – urk – was a movie based on a video game and marketed virally. (I mention it because Partner and I saw it on Cape Cod in June, during a moment of weakness. It was stinkeroo. But I digress.)

 

I would love to live to see the Grand Unification happen, but I also have my doubts. Anything heavily tech-oriented is also fragile. One good catastrophe – war, natural disaster – could knock out so much: delivery, content, availability.  Even a really good solar flare can bring the Net to its knees.

Time will tell.  The world is supposed to end in 2012.  There’s that damn asteroid out there with our name on it that’s due in 2029.  Barring any of that, there are the actuarial odds.  I’m fifty-three now; depending on which side of my genome wins out, my father’s or my mother’s, I have anywhere from ten to forty years left on earth.

Unless I get hit on the head by a falling safe tomorrow.

(But listen.  Seriously.  If you haven’t seen the movie version of “Prince of Persia,” save yourself the grief. No one needs that.)


Tact

 

 

 


 

 

Imagine my shock when I came back from lunch yesterday and read the following headline on the Internet:

 

 

My goodness!

 

For those of you not fortunate enough to live in southern New England, here’s a primer on Rhode Island politics:

 

This is a small crowded state, and you get to know all kinds of people here. You even get used to seeing your elected officials on the street. (A former state attorney general used to wink at me every morning in the street as we passed on our way to work. What do you suppose that was all about?)

 

Given the friends-neighbors-and-relations atmosphere, political mini-dynasties are everywhere. Everybody is somebody’s son, or sister, or mother, or uncle.

 

The two main contenders for governor at the moment are Frank Caprio (Democrat) and Lincoln Chafee (Independent). There’s a Republican too, John Robitaille, but he’s way behind in the polls, so we will disregard him for the moment. (Some other time I will explain how the governor of a heavily Democratic state can time and again be a Republican. But I digress.)

 

Caprio is the son of the chief judge of the Providence Municipal Court. His brother is a state representative. Caprio himself has been a state rep, a state senator, and (most recently) state treasurer. He’s earnest and very sure of himself.

 

Chafee is the son of former US Senator John Chafee. He was mayor of the city of Warwick, and served one term as US Senator. He’s intelligent and rather passive. He was a Rhode Island Republican – relatively liberal, especially compared to the hoot ‘n holler Republicans out in the rest of the country. Chafee is now running for governor as an independent. His campaign signs (which are the size of bedsheets) say TRUST CHAFEE. When I saw the signs, my first reaction was: “Trust Chafee to do what?”

 

We’re a week away from the election, and – whoo-ee! The mud is fairly flying!

 

Chafee has suggested an additional 1% sales tax on certain goods, to make up part of the state’s budget shortfall. Caprio has fastened on this as The Sin Against The Holy Ghost. (There’s another long story about Chafee’s father and the state income tax bound up in here, but I’m trying to keep this short.)

 

Then we learned a few weeks ago that Chafee’s campaign manager may have received some unemployment benefits unfairly, around the time he began working for Chafee’s campaign. This looked not so good for Chafee. Then it was pointed out the only way this information could have been leaked was by the man’s former employer, who was – surprise! – Judge Frank Caprio, the other candidate’s father. Oops!

 

Then the Caprio campaign started showing (and showing, and showing) a campaign commercial in which Bill Clinton gives Frank his full-throated endorsement during a public appearance. Unfortunately, Clinton lays it on so thick in his speech that it becomes uncomfortably apparent that he’s never heard of Caprio before, and is just endorsing him because he’s the Democratic candidate.

 

Now Obama’s in town for a political fundraiser. And Obama does not endorse Caprio.

 

So Caprio tells a local journalist that Obama can “take his endorsement and shove it.”

 

Caprio appears to be furious that he’s being painted as an insider, and seems to think that this will give him some credibility as a “maverick.” (My god, that word sticks in my throat.) He’s also very evidently furious that he’s being snubbed by Obama.

 

The election could go either way; it’s neck and neck, last I heard. But really: all this acrimony!

 

And such language!

 

Ladies and gentlemen, you mustn’t think that all Rhode Islanders are like that. We are a peaceful people, drinking coffee and eating donuts. We are known for giving incomprehensible directions, using landmarks that no longer exist. We are the birthplace of George M. Cohan and Nelson Eddy.

 

Above all, we are tactful.

 

Or at least we normally don’t tell the President of the United States to take his endorsement and shove it.

 


 

Three futures

 

 


 

It is deadly to write about the future.  It’s just so easy to be wrong about it.

 

Most of the Biblical “prophets” didn’t write about the future at all; they just commented on their own times, with lots of moralizing. When they did go out on a limb and talk about the future, they dressed it up with multiheaded monsters and glowing cities and horses’ bells with HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD on them. They threw in an occasional invasion or overthrow, but those are pretty safe; sooner or later, someone’s bound to invade and/overthrow someone else. Voila! Prediction fulfilled.

 

The best futurologist I know, Alexis de Tocqueville, didn’t set out write about the future; he looked at the present, unflinchingly, with great precision and insight, and wrote about it. Reading “Democracy in America,” written over 150 years ago, is like reading today’s newspaper.

 

I can think of three main ways in which the future can unfold:

 

The Happy Future. This is the idea that things will get better and better as time passes. People will get smarter, and also wiser. Bad things will happen less often.

 

Variations:

 

  • The neverending road upward. Things just get better and better and better without end. Think of the end of the Narnia books. Also Teilhard de Chardin, though (speaking as a backslidden Catholic) I have a hard time with him.

  • The apocalyptic eucatastrophe. The ultimate happy ending, usually preceded by an Armageddon-type disaster. Also usually preceded and accompanied by lots of religious foofaraw. Usually also accompanied with the final destruction of your enemies and the salvation of your friends / co-religionists.

  • The mellow nirvana. Everything just sort of fades into a groovy fog. (I like this one myself.)

 

The Sad Future. Things get worse and worse. Stuff blows up. Stars go out. Things die.

 

Variations:

 

 

The Steady State Future. Nothing really changes. There are ups and downs, but no real progress, either upward or downward. There’s no end. The universe just keeps going on and on and on.

 

Variations:

 

  • The non-recurrent steady state. Best defined as “stuff happens.” A little of this, and a little of that, but none of it makes any real difference. Yawn.

  • The recurrent steady state. A sort of variation of the Steady State Future, except that everything just happens over and over again. Think “Groundhog Day.” This one seems okay, until you really think about it. Then it gets screamingly awful. You know how the Buddhists talk about getting off the Wheel of Life? This is what they’re talking about. You really don’t want to get caught in this future. It’s pretty dreadful.

 

I think I know which future I’d prefer.

 

But I’m just afraid that’s not how it works.

 

 


 

 

%d bloggers like this: