The stars last weekend


I don’t know if you were out after dark last weekend, or looked out a west-facing window.  If not, you missed quite a show.  The very young crescent moon, Venus, and Jupiter were all together in the western sky shortly after sunset.  On Friday it was (top to bottom) Jupiter-Venus-moon, in a long curving line; then, on Saturday night, the moon and Venus were making out, right next to each other, with Jupiter looking on from above; Sunday evening, it was moon and Jupiter, with Venus glaring down below; on Monday, another long curve, top to bottom Moon-Jupiter-Venus.  (Mercury was supposedly down there somewhere, but, as I’ve noted before, I am evidently destined never to see Mercury.)



It was beautiful, and scary, and brilliant.  I actually took pictures of it, and if you’ve ever tried to take pictures of the moon or stars, you’ll know that the photos usually don’t turn out.  You can see in the photo above how bright the conjunction was, and how remarkably beautiful.



It’s a cosmic optical illusion.  The moon is only a quarter of a million miles away. Venus is – what? – maybe thirty million miles away.  Jupiter is hundreds of millions of miles away.  But they all happened to be in the same line of sight at the same time .



We were watching a game of cosmic Skee-Ball.  All these planets and moons whizzing around in our line of sight!  Beautiful, eerie, mysterious.



From Diane Ackerman’s book “The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral,” the last few lines of “Asteroids”:



But now

                        They lumber

So wide apart

From each

To its neighbor’s


                                                                        Slant millions

                        And millions

                        Of watertight miles.

                                                            Only in the longest view

Do they graze

            Like one herd

                                                On a breathless tundra.


Expiration dates


I tend to mock expiration dates.  As Peg Bundy memorably said on the old “Married . . . With Children”: “It doesn’t say ‘Use before this date.’  It says: ‘Best if used before this date.’”



Amen to that.  I am dubious of expiration dates, because I recall things sitting in the cupboard and the fridge for literally decades back when I was a kid.  And we still used them.  And I’m still here, aren’t I?  (Maybe not in the best shape, but still.)



I am invariably amused by my work friends Apollonia and Cathleen, and their religious dread of expiration dates.  I can’t even give them aspirin without their checking the expiration date. What happens to aspirin after the expiration date?  Maybe it gets a little less effective.  I don’t think it turns into something poisonous.



Now just look at this BBC story: an 87-year old man in Germany kept a can of lard sent from America in 1948, “just in case.”  He opened it recently, and had it tested for safety, and – guess what?  It was fine.  (A little gritty and tasteless, he said, but my god it’s lard, of course it’s gritty and tasteless.  Did I ever tell you my grandma Boitano used to eat lard on toast?  But I digress.)



I never really felt bad about keeping things after their expiration dates.  Now, I really don’t feel bad about it.  (Well, maybe dairy products.  I don’t want to be racked up by a container of sour cream.)  But: cereal.  Canned goods.  That’s why they’re canned, right?  To keep for a long time.  Preserves.  Baking ingredients.  (I have chocolate chips that have been in the house for a very long time.  You know what?  Throw them in some oatmeal cookie dough, and they’ll be just fine.)



Fat goes rancid over time, naturally.  But evidently, if it’s packaged correctly, it doesn’t.



Here’s to living forever, with lard.

The Academy Awards telecast, February 26, 2012


Last year I did a little running commentary on the Oscar telecast with James Franco and Anne Hathaway.  This year I will attempt it again. 

8:30pm, Eastern Standard Time.  It’s Billy Crystal!  He leaps from movie to movie in a crazy montage (James and Anne did the same thing last year), kisses George Clooney, gets to muss up Tom Cruise, does one of his own lines from “Princess Bride.”  Billy looks strange; his face is pale and stretched, as if he’s wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask.  He still has a lot of flair, however; he does his little song about all the nominated films, and I suddenly realize that Billy is a tummler in the old Borscht Belt tradition, working the crowd, making them laugh.  (He also does the first of many jokes about the Kodak Theater being renamed after the company’s bankruptcy.)

“Hugo” wins two awards.  (Note to self: see “Hugo,” it actually looks sort of lovely.)

(Commercial for JC Penney, featuring Ellen DeGeneres in the Old West.  Cleverest thing on the show so far.)

J-Lo and Cameron Diaz present makeup/costume Oscars.  Seriously?  I guess these have been identified as “girly awards,” which can only be presented by girly girls.  Jim Rash, the crazy actor who plays the cross-dressing dean on “Community,” would have been ideal for these categories.

The foreign-movie Oscar goes to the Iranian movie “A Separation.”  Partner comments that the Republican Presidential candidates will no doubt be incensed by this.  I’m sure he’s right.  (And did you know that Sandra Bullock speaks German?  It’s like finding out that Jayne Mansfield played the violin.  Seriously, she did.)

Octavia Spencer wins Best Supporting Actress for “The Help.”  Good for her: it was well-deserved.  “The Help” was one of the few nominated films Partner and I saw this year.  Olivia is overcome during her acceptance speech; “I’m freaking out!” she says toward the end.  And the audience loves it. 

(Seriously: what’s with that hypercool bongo-and-electric-violin combo playing up in the balconies?  It reminds me of the cantina scene in “Star Wars.”)

We are treated to a mildly amusing sketch about a 1939 focus group tearing apart “The Wizard of Oz”: not enough monkeys, get rid of Dorothy, etc.  (Tip to Oscar directors/writers: please stop doing these sketches.  We really just want to see who wins the awards.)

(“Hugo” is quietly piling up a whole bunch of technical awards.  Hollywood loves Scorsese.)

Oh Jesus now it’s Cirque de Soleil.  It’s lovely, but – come on.

Gwyneth Paltrow (ew!) and Robert Downey Jr. come out together to present the award for best documentary.  I love him so much; he’s naturally funny, over-the-top goofy, and I don’t care that he’s wasting time, he’s a big-time actor and I’m not completely sure that he’s not off-script right now.

Chris Rock presents the award for best Animated Feature.  He is so damned funny.  I was one of the people who thought he was terrific as an Oscar host; I was watching the audience roar at his jokes, and thinking: Maybe they’ll give him another chance one of these days.  (I still remember a bit he did: he went to a regular neighborhood theater and asked people what movies they were seeing.  No one was seeing the Oscar Nominated Movies.  Everyone was seeing “Saw IV” and “Fright Night.”  I thought his bit was funny and smart.  I think the Hollywood audience thought it was rude.)

Melissa Leo, who dropped the F-bomb last year when she won for Best Supporting Actress, presents Best Supporting Actor.  She is very dignified this year, naturally.  Christopher Plummer wins, for portraying a gay man in “Beginners”!  (He says, to his Oscar: “You’re only two years older than me, darling.  Where have you been all my life?”)

(Billy throws big Jumbocam pictures up on the screen of audience members and speaks for them.  When it’s Nick Nolte, he just groans.  When it’s Uggie, the cute little dog from “The Artist,” he yells, “If I had ‘em, I’d lick ‘em!”)

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifikinakis come out, inexplicably, both with a pair of cymbals which they crash on and off, to present the award for Best Song.  “Am I A Man Or Am I A Muppet?” wins.  One of the guys from “Flight of the Conchords” wrote it, and accepts the award, charmingly.  Delightful all around.

Angelina Jolie presents.  She is all over the place, lots of flesh.  Her lips are gigantic.   They terrify me.  (The first award is for Best Adapted Screenplay.  OMG! Jim Rash (see above comment re J-Lo and Cameron Diaz) wins an award! He poses like Angelina, with his hand on his hip! The second is for Original Screenplay, and Woody Allen wins. Naturally he’s not there.)

Milla Jovovich does the summary of the technical awards. She is a very special person, and they did some nice clips. I always feel bad at this point: these guys, the technical guys, have to receive their awards off-camera, from a B-list celebrity.  But – you know what? – Milla Jovovich is kind of okay for this.

The actresses from “Bridesmaids” present the award for Short Film.  They are very funny, talking about Long and Short, and which feels better to them.  “Short’s okay, if it’s got some heft to it.” (One of the awards goes to a Pakistani film, “Saving Face,” about women in Pakistan who have acid thrown in their faces.  Once again Partner predicts that the Republicans will be pissed off, and again, I’m sure he’s right.)

Best Director: Michael Douglas presents the award.  He doesn’t look good at all; he looks hollow and ancient. And the winner is . . . Michel Hazanavicius, for “The Artist”!  Surprise, because I thought it was going to be Scorsese!  Hazanavicius makes a gracious speech.  Good for him.  (Looks good for “Artist” as Best Picture, right?)

Meryl Streep announces special awards: James Earl Jones, Dick Smith, and Oprah Winfrey.  Wha’?  (Dick Smith has done makeup since forever.  The other two recipients you probably already know.)

Now we do the Necrology.  Esperanza Spalding sings “Wonderful World,” beautifully.  Farley Granger, Whitney Houston, Michael Cacoyannis, Peter Falk, Cliff Robertson, Sidney Lumet, Sue Mengers, Steve Jobs (?), Hal Kanter, Jackie Cooper, Ben Gazzara, Elizabeth Taylor.  (Such a lot of talent we lose in any given year.  This always makes me sad.)

Natalie Portman presents the award for Best Actor.  She’s very cute!  She does long introductions for all of the nominees.  Jean Dujardin wins for “The Artist”! He’s adorable, big nose and all, and he has a great smile.  He’s cute and charming and gives a nice thank-you speech in broken English.

(The third Ellen DeGeneres commercial just aired; she’s in ancient Rome now, trying to return something.  These commercials are wonderful.)

Colin Firth is presenting the award for Best Actress.  He reminds us that he was in “Mamma Mia” with Meryl Streep.  And Meryl Streep wins!  (This is her seventeenth nomination, and only her third win!)  She’s wearing a golden sheath!  She’s charming and lovely.

Oscar for Best Picture. Tom Cruise presents.  We have to sit through nine! previews.  Mercifully, they’re very short.  Also, they’re very mixed up.  Winner: “The Artist.”  (I started typing that before it was announced.)  Uggie the dog is on the stage, and he’s adorable.  Producer is making speech, and – who cares?  Director M. Hazanavicius takes over.  He thanks Billy Wilder three times over, and I think that’s very nice.

11:38 pm, and Billy Crystal yells, “Good night, everyone!”

So I suppose that’s it for another year.

Not quite as exciting as last year’s Oscars, but . . . .

Music video: the Bangles sing “Walk Like an Egyptian”


There are video slot machines (you can find them in just about any casino) called “Pharaoh’s Fortune,” with a big King Tut wearing sunglasses on top.  This song plays every time you spin the reels.  You get longer selections during bonus rounds.



So now I associate it with gambling.



All together now:



All the old paintings on the tomb
They do the sand dance, don’cha know? 
If they move too quick (oh-way-oh) 
They’re falling down like a domino 


And the bazaar man by the Nile 
He got the money on a bet 
Gold crocodiles (oh-way-oh) 
They snap their teeth on a cigarette 


Foreign types with their hookah pipes sing
Way-oh-way-oh-way-ooo-aaa-ooo –
Walk like an Egyptian.






Why Ron Paul should not ever ever be President of the United States of America


I wrote the first draft of this blog just after the Iowa caucus, and I am revising it after the Florida primary.  The Iowa caucus is something between a state fair and a freakshow; it mostly demonstrates the voting preferences of white evangelical Christians with nothing better to do on a cold Tuesday night in January in Iowa.  The other primaries thus far have also been freakshows, as far as I’m concerned: Gingrich posturing in Florida about a moon colony, Gingrich in South Carolina making a particular point of disrespecting poor people and black people.



Ron Paul and Rick Santorum both made strong showings back in Iowa.   Santorum I’ll deal with another time.  Right now I just want to say a word about Ron Paul.



I used to think that, as a libertarian, he was (in the words of Douglas Adams) “mostly harmless.”  He was for the legalization of drugs, for example.  He seemed friendly to women’s rights and gay rights (at least in the abstract.)



Then, recently, some of the newsletter stuff from the 1990s has been coming to light. 


Here is a link to it.  Please read at your leisure.  It is abominable.  It basically rescinds all of the civil rights legislation of the last fifty years. 



In brief: Ron Paul says that the government has no right to dictate guidelines on hiring.  If you, as an individual, do not see your way clear to hire black people, or women, or Hispanics, or gay people, that is your right.  Those people whom you’ve disadvantaged (blacks, women, Hispanics, gays, et cetera) can just go out and find other employers.



Do you see where this leads?



Uh huh. 



If Citizen X doesn’t like black people and doesn’t want to hire them, for whom would he vote: Ron Paul or Barack Obama?






And would Ron Paul welcome his vote?  Naturally he would.  He welcomes all those who share his world-view, for whatever reason.



If, in some odd alternate universe, Ron Paul actually captures the Republican nomination (which he probably won’t, but I’ve been wrong about things before), how many black people, how many Hispanics, how many women, how many gay people would vote for him?  Not many.



Ron: we, the American people, do not choose to employ you.  Go find another employer.



(And if I should be wrong about all this, and he somehow through some reverse miracle climbs into the Presidency: Jesus Buddha Allah Krishna save us, it’s the Mayan calendar 2012 apocalypse after all.)


Atheists and why you should avoid talking to them


I found the most delightful piece of Sunday-school instructional material on Tumblr recently (see illustration above).  It’s a sketch of an atheist – “Mr. Gruff” – drawn as a goat, wearing a bathrobe, holding a cup of coffee.  “Bah!” he says.  “I don’t believe in anything!  I’m staying home on Sunday!”

Most thrilling of all are the instructions given below the illustration.  TELL YOUR PARENTS OR PASTOR IMMEDIATELY, we are told.  This is an advanced case, well beyond a child’s powers of conversion.  Atheists try to turn you away from God’s Word, so stay away from them!

My favorite bit: “Atheists such as crochety old MR. GRUFF think they’ve got it all figured out . . . But then why are they always so sad?”

Well, sometimes (as in my case) they have kidney stones, and sciatica.

Other times (such as right at the moment), we are moderately cheerful. 

I don’t know.  Am I an atheist?  I’m certainly not a Christian. It’s too complicated, and I just don’t believe all that stuff.  I’m not quite a Buddhist, because I haven’t given up all my attachments to the material world.  None of the other world religions hold any interest for me.  (Well, maybe Baha’i or Vedanta.  We’ll see.)  I am partial toward the polytheistic world of Hinduism, with a god for everything and everyone, cheerful and somber and serious as the occasion warrants.  But I wasn’t born to Hinduism, so I can’t really commit to it with any real feeling.

So I guess I’m Mr. Gruff after all.  

C’mon: he’s kind of cute, with his bathrobe and coffee cup.

Even if he is going to hell.­­

Why I should probably stop trying to talk about sports


I was never much of a sports fan, so I have a hard time picking up the lingo.  Partner is a diehard sports fan (football, hockey, baseball), and I have picked up some odds and ends from him.  It was also helpful to have a college football player working for me last summer; he had obviously explained the sport to his elderly female relatives, so he knew all the right terms to use to help me understand it. (When I asked him what position he played, he told me he was a linebacker.  When I looked blank, he added helpfully, “I just push people around.”)  Also, as I grow older and more wizened-looking, people – especially men my own age – assume that I know all about sports.  And who am I to disappoint them?



A few weeks ago, a couple of weeks before the Super Bowl, one of the university shuttle drivers hailed me at lunchtime and pulled over and asked: “Who do you like this weekend?


I laughed in what I hoped was the correctly rueful tone.  “Well,” I said, “they’d better win.” (By “them,” of course, I meant the New England Patriots, the local favorites.)



He chuckled and waved.  “It’s gonna be a tough one,” he said.  “I don’t know.”



He drove off.  I was very pleased with my performance on that one; he’d been a semi-pro player and a football coach, so if I could fool him, I figured I could fool anyone.



But then this happened:



The Patriots had just won the AFC championship by three points.  (Partner was ecstatic, naturally.)  After the game, I went down to the health club.  I was checked in by a skinny kid who was staring at the after-game show on the TV over the desk.  “Is everyone happy?” I said.



He looked at me blankly.  “Why?”



I gestured up at the TV set.  “The game.”



He looked up again, still blank.  “The – oh, the game.” 



I tried one more time.  “Everybody was happy at the end? Everybody cheered?”



He gave me that simpering grin that you give a gibbering child or a person with an impenetrable accent, and looked away from me. 



I will never try this again.  I’m obviously still not doing it right.




My goodness, how Madonna has evolved over the years!  “Material Girl.”  “Papa Don’t Preach.”  “Celebration.”  Warren Beatty.  “Sex.” Sean Penn.  “Vogue.”  “Truth or Dare.”  Pointy bra. “Like a Virgin.”



A true original.



And a true pain in the ass.



Then she married Guy Ritchie and moved to England, and became, apparently, the Duchess of Absolutely Everything.  Even her accent changed.  (She’s from Michigan, for god’s sake!)



Now she’s a sophisticate.  She is a director, and a tastemaker.  She is unbearably pompous. She made a fuss last year because someone gave her hydrangeas.  Everyone! knows she hates! hydrangeas.  Then there were some of her comments at the Golden Globes this year: “Foreign films,” she intoned in a Dame Edith Evans voice, “are not foreign to me.”



Oh, honey, yes they are.



The Financial Times just reviewed her new directorial attempt, “W. / E.”, about Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII.  They praised the actress who plays Wallis, but described the movie as a “jewelled dustpan.”  (“What?!” my old friend LaRue shrieked at me the other night over drinks.  “You read the Financial Times for the movie reviews?”  Yes I do.  So sue me.)



Anyway: Madonna depicts Wallis Simpson as a brilliant wonderful intelligent woman, who takes a stupid easily-led man – the Prince of Wales, soon to become King – and enthralls him. 



Hm.  Is Madonna doing autobiography here?  Not sure.  Probably.



Haven’t seen the movie.   Prepared to hate it, though.



Funny: I used to like her so much.



Downton Abbey


I have strenuously avoided writing about “Downton Abbey” before now.  Like many others, I learned about the show after it had begun, and Partner and I started late, but we directly fell under its spell.  We finished watching the second season the other night, and – whew!  Affairs, murder, sudden death, imprisonment, scandal, the Great War, Spanish influenza, amnesia!  I need to lie on my chaise longue for a few moments so that I can catch my breath!



Seriously, the show’s terrific.  It has everything: a beautiful setting (Downton Abbey is actually Highclere Castle in Hampshire, one of those unbelievably beautiful English country homes that seem only to exist in dreams), a brilliant cast combining fresh faces like Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens with familiar ones like Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern, and brilliant writing by Julian Fellowes (who also wrote “Gosford Park”).   It’s a pleasure to hear a witty line of dialogue delivered by someone like Maggie Smith, wearing perfect 1920s couture, in a beautiful room full of beautiful furniture.



I was alive way back in 1971, when “Upstairs Downstairs” debuted on American TV.  It covered much of the same ground as “Downton,” and we were mesmerized by it as well: the serene Bellamy family upstairs, the turbulent servants’ quarters downstairs.  It even used a lot of the same plotlines (or is it the other way around?): relationships between the gentry and the servants, the Titanic, the Great War . . .



Oh, who cares?  (Well, maybe Jean Marsh cares.  She worked for a long time to bring about a new version of “Upstairs Downstairs,” which came out at almost exactly the same time as “Downton Abbey.”  “Downton” blew her show away.  She was publicly bitter about this, and I don’t blame her; it must have been a great blow.)  But, you see, “Downton” has such spectacular production values: the scenery, the sets, the cast.  And no one except dinosaurs like me remembers “Upstairs, Downstairs.”



This is not to say that “Downton” is perfect.  There was, in the second season, a perfectly ridiculous plot concerning amnesia, which reminded me of something out of “Guiding Light” or “Days of our Lives.”  It only lasted a single episode, thank god, but it was pretty ridiculous.  Also there have been some less-than-satisfactory character shifts; the precise and efficient Cousin Isabel (Penelope Wilton), who was such a perfect antagonist for the stuffy Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) in the first season, became insufferable in the second season.   (And, speaking personally, I could have lived perfectly happily without seeing Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) in bed together after their wedding; they’re perfectly nice people, and I’m all for them, but they’re a little on the pale and pudgy side when they’re unclothed.)



New York magazine did the most beautiful set of paper dolls of some of the characters recently.  Their readers howled for more: they want the whole cast, the house, the car, the dog!



I think that would be just fine.



(I hear, in season three, we’re going to meet the American grandmother of the family, Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, played by Shirley Maclaine.)



(Levinson? Jewish? Lady Cora’s Jewish? Oh my.  It will be difficult to wait this one out. Lady Violet will have a fit.)



In the meantime: if you haven’t seen the show, seek it out.  You are in for a treat.



Tell them Mr. Pamuk sent you.



For Presidents’ Day: “Mark Twain as a Presidential Candidate”


This little gem from the Library of America came along in my email yesterday morning, just in time for the Presidents’ Day holiday.  I have to admit that Mark Twain is not my favorite writer, but this piece is pretty funny; it is brief, and savage, and it has not aged a bit since it was written in 1879.




I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate, to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.




In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is char­acteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his night-shirt at the point of a shotgun, and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Wash­ington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.



My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great funda­mental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.



The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?



I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recom­mend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”



These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.



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