The Mighty Thor


Partner and I recently saw “Thor.” Frankly, after having seen the preview, you could not have kept me away from this movie with a pack of dogs and a taser. I mean, have you seen this Chris Hemsworth?



Actually, he’s not that handsome. He’s blandly handsome. He has one of those little-boy faces that looks out of place on top of a big muscular body. (Taylor Lautner has the same, um, problem.)



But, surprise surprise, Chris Hemsworth can act. He is expressive, and funny. And – well, you must know that the movie was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who knows from Shakespeare. The movie is staged in a split-level way: the gods up in Asgard with their riotous banquets and dramatic feuds, and the poor human beings down here in Midgard (Earth to you). Shakespeare often alternates scenes of the royals with scenes of common soldiers / mechanicals / townspeople drinking and arguing. And once in a while they come together, with great dramatic/comic effect. Just as they do here.



Hemsworth plays Thor as a natural nobleman. Thor is funny and kind and honest, because he doesn’t know any other way to be. He’s in a diner, eating a gigantic breakfast, and Kat Dennings (Natalie Portman’s comic-relief friend) asks him to smile for a photo, and without pausing he looks into the camera and gives her the biggest cheesiest smile you’ve ever seen.



He is the ultimate Happy Warrior. He’s not mean or bullyish; he goes into a fight with a cheerful heart, because he always knows he’s fighting for the right thing. Even when he goes out to die for his friends’ sake, he’s smiling. (Yes, he dies for his friends. And then he comes back to life. Hmm. This story reminds me of something, but I can’t think what.)



There is a brief scene in which Thor helps Natalie Portman serve breakfast to her friends. Sacrilege! all the fanboys screamed. The Mighty Thor would never serve anybody pancakes! But you know what? Of course he would. He is that perfect kind of nobleman who never reminds you that he’s superior to you.



And this is my very favorite scene:



Thor’s finally returned to his full Asgardian stature as God of Thunder. He towers over Natalie Portman gigantically, gripping his hammer. And she murmurs: “So this is how you normally look?” And he pauses slightly, and grins, and says, “More or less.”



And she pauses too, and grins, and says, “I like it.”



I like it too.



Little gorgeous things


In an episode of “Absolutely Fabulous,” Edina and Patsy go to New York. “Shopping, Eddie!” Patsy growls. “I’m going to do some real shopping!”



“Shopping for what?” Edina asks.



“Just – things!” Patsy replies. “Little gorgeous things!”



I recently bought an e-reader. You cannot read an e-reader in the dark, so you need a booklight. I bought a purple one, with a big garish psychedelic peace sign on it.



It is a little gorgeous thing.



Last summer, my friend Sylvia presented me with a birthday gift, which she’d bought at a RISD yard sale: a little flipbook of Chuck Close’s face. “I knew when I saw this,” she said, “that you’d get a kick out of it.”



She knows I like little gorgeous things.



Apollonia, my office nemesis, has the Gorgeous Things virus too. She is the only person I know who owns a miniature vase pinned to her lapel, in which she keeps fresh flowers! I ask you! (This is not, by the way, a tussy-mussy. A tussy-mussy is something quite different.  Please do not confuse this with a tussy-mussy.)



Partner gave me, several years ago, two matching rings: one with a ruby (my birthstone) set in white diamonds and yellow gold; the other with a beautiful black diamond identically set with white diamonds and white gold. The carbonado diamond was getting dangerously loose, so I took it to my favorite jeweler in Providence last, a tall handsome jovial man in a tiny downtown shop. He prodded the diamond with interest. “What stone is this?”



“Diamond,” I said. “Black diamond.”



I saw a little quiver go through him. And I knew what it meant: he wanted my black diamond.



I left it with him for repair.



I’d better get it back.



Sunday blog: Spring in Xinjiang


From time to time we need a change of pace.




Here’s an Uighur ensemble playing “Spring in Xinjiang.”




I like the tune, and the instruments that look like intergalactic bottle openers, and (most especially) those cunning little hats they’re all wearing.









In case you haven’t heard, today is the end of the world. Or at least the beginning of the end of the world.



You see, people love playing with Biblical prophecy and calendars and such, to predict the End of Days.  (Back when I was in high school, a Jehovah’s Witness friend very solemnly informed me that “something big” would happen in 1978. I guess, in hindsight, he must have meant my college graduation.)



So this guy, Harold Egbert Camping, has determined that today – Saturday, May 21, 2011 – is The Day. The faithful – the truly faithful, not me and not you, obviously – will be caught up into heaven today.



I’ve scheduled this blog to post at 6:00 am Eastern Daylight Time, so it may already have happened.



I know three things that are probably true:


  • If it does happen, it probably won’t happen to me. I don’t think Jesus likes me very much.

  • It probably won’t happen, because people can’t predict it, according to the Bible!: “No man knows that hour, not even the angels in heaven – not even the Son! – but only the Father.” (And a big nyeah-nyeah! to H. E. Camping on this one.)

  • It probably won’t happen at all, because it’s highly unlikely to begin with.



And if you’re reading this, one of two things is true:



  • It happened, and you weren’t taken up into heaven;

  • It didn’t happen.



Last week, walking back to the office from lunch, I saw some big trucks parked in front of a big Providence nightclub, all covered with illustrations of the Earth exploding, etc., and legends like: THE RAPTURE IS COMING! MAY 21 2011! ARE YOU READY?






Hm, hm, hm.



See you tomorrow.



(Although: wouldn’t it be a hoot if this were all true? . . . )







Remembering the dead


I had lunch with my friend Moira the other day. Her mother, who suffered from severe Alzheimer’s over the past couple of years, passed away about a month ago. Over a turkey wrap, Moira told me the story of her mother’s last few months: they’d finally found an assisted-living place for her, and then she fell, and broke both her hip and shoulder. The choices at that point were all bad. Operation: dangerous. Put her in traction for six weeks: she’d never walk again. Do nothing but medicate her: she’d die of infection.


They operated, and Mother made it through. But then she went to rehab, and she grew tired, and she stopped eating. And a few weeks later, she passed away.





Moira and her mother had always been close. But the Alzheimer’s had made Mother petty and mean and insulting and confused.  A few years ago, over yogurt at Ben & Jerry’s, Moira told me somberly: “She’s dead. I lost her. She’s another person now.”


We talked about the conflicting emotions that come after a parent’s death. Grief, naturally. Then guilt: you could have been a better son/daughter! You should have visited more! You shouldn’t have put them in assisted living! Then relief: someone you love isn’t suffering anymore, and you aren’t suffering anymore. Then (worst and most penetrating of all): guilt about feeling relieved!


“I’m not guilty at all,” Moira said as we left the restaurant. “I know what I did, and why. I think my brother feels guilty. I don’t.”


“I still feel guilty about my mother, even after sixteen years,” I said. “I know it’s silly, but I still do.”


Moira looked at me. “I’m gonna tell you what I told my brother,” she said. “Snap out of it.  You know better than that.”



And that made me feel better.


My sister Darlene passed away a few years ago, of the ferocious ovarian cancer that runs in my family. Darlene and I didn’t get along. She thought I was a spoiled smartass; I thought she was a stupid stick-in-the-mud.


When the news came that she’d passed away, I sighed and put it aside. I didn’t go to the funeral. We weren’t friends, I told myself, just siblings.


But the morning after I received the news, I had a sudden recollection: I was – what? Maybe five years old. And I was running out of the house, and my two sisters were walking home from the bus after school. And I was so glad to see them.


I was so glad my unconscious had unearthed that memory: one simple quiet happy image, for me to file away.


Now everybody can (maybe) rest in peace.



The collected works of practically everybody


I’ve been cleaning out my CD collection lately.


And my question is: Why oh why do I have all these CDs?


I went through a buying spree in the early 2000s. I am especially susceptible to complete sets of – well, anything. And everything. The complete Scarlatti keyboard sonatas. The complete Brahms chamber music. (I don’t even like Brahms!)



And then this company – which calls itself Brilliant! – starts coming out with complete sets of everything a composer has written.


Evil geniuses!


Their business scheme is clever. Somebody in Slovakia records all of Beethoven’s bagatelles, somebody in a church in Wales records all of his Welsh folksongs (did you know Beethoven wrote Welsh folksongs?). All you have to do is locate them, and get the rights to them, for a buck and a half. And you remarket them, and all the other stuff, as the COMPLETE BEETHOVEN.


How can a human bean resist?


I own the COMPLETE BEETHOVEN. And the COMPLETE MOZART, which is vast. And the COMPLETE J. S. BACH, which is entirely daunting.


They have smaller sort of semi-complete sets, like the COMPLETE HAYDN SYMPHONIES, which I also own. It is a box of rainbows. I am also partial to some of their oddball sets, like a five-CD compilation of the piano sonatas of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Scriabin; this is more like a box of fireworks drenched in Chanel No. 5, with a few angry cobras mixed in.


I’m currently spelunking the COMPLETE BEETHOVEN. I’m working my way through the piano sonatas right now. Then, I think, the quartets. Then the other chamber music, most of which I barely know.


I should make it to the Welsh folk songs by Christmastime.


Now: back to cleaning.


Would anyone like a whole bunch of French operettas sung in German?


Ladies and gentlemen.  Please.  I implore you.  Stop me before I go on another buying spree.




Greg Mortenson


I have never read any of Greg Mortenson’s books. I know his backstory, generally: lay person in Central Asia, gets to know people – and hey! they’re normal people, just like you and me! – and he comes home and spreads the word, and magically everyone starts helping everyone else, and now there are schools, and everyone is singing and dancing and drinking Coca-Cola.



I am generally mistrustful of stories like this. There are really very few selfless people in the world. I learned in the Peace Corps that the business of international aid is just that – a business – and there are surprising numbers of people who are in it for selfish reasons: self-aggrandizement, opportunism, laziness, and even personal gain, if you can believe it. There’s also the Great White Savior thing: the American who goes to a foreign country and makes everything better.


Now it turns out that Greg Mortenson was maybe too good to be true.


All of the facts are not in yet. It does appear beyond question, however, that a large percentage of his foundation’s money – money that was ostensibly being raised to build schools in Central Asia – was used for his own travel expenses, and publicity for his own books Investigators have found that some at least of the schools he “built” are not actually schools.


Mortenson is holding fast. He is blinkingly cheerful about the whole thing, and is assuring everyone that everything will be fine, and that he will be proven to be a Great Guy.


The thing that saddens me, though (even beyond the abuse of trust Mortenson and his foundation demonstrated – using money contributed by schoolchildren to pay his own expenses!), is how people react after they realize they’ve been taken in.


In a recent bulletin from my alma mater Gonzaga, for example, there’s a ravingly idolatrous write-up of an appearance that Mortenson made there in March – what a wonderful guy, how charismatic, blah blah blah. With an afterword from Gonzaga’s president: “We have seen the allegations made by ’60 Minutes’ and other sources. We still believe that Mr. Mortenson is an inspirational figure.” Or words to that effect.


And Nick Kristof of the New York Times wrote something almost exactly like it. He notes with foolish fondness Mortenson’s chronic lateness, his carelessness, but makes it all sound like Mortenson was a big ungainly dog, full of love. And, after all, isn’t it worth it if Mortenson did some good? Not all the money was wasted. Some of it was sent to Central Asia. Some schools were built. A few people were inspired.


No, my dears, no. He fooled you. This is nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing for the skeptics like me to gloat over. Con men are good at their game. Do you remember, right after 9/11, how every corner store had a FOR THE VICTIMS jar on the counter? People poured money in by the handful. Did you ever wonder what happened to that money? I sometimes wonder how much of it actually made its way to the victims, or to any reputable aid agency.


Kids, keep believing in your causes.


Just don’t send your money by way of Greg Mortenson, or (for that matter) anyone you don’t know really well.






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