Disneyland Paris: the happiest place in northern Europe

While in France, we spent an afternoon in Disneyland Paris.

In a word: it’s lovely. The castle in the middle of the park is a sweet delicate French castle with slender turrets, Sleeping Beauty’s castle, “le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant”:


We were there in early October, and the park was decorated for Halloween. Europeans don’t quite understand the American concept of Halloween yet; they understand ghosts and pumpkins and such, but aren’t quite what they have to do with anything. Disneyland Paris was calling it “Helloween,” which would be a little spicy for an American Disneyland. But there were pumpkins everywhere!

Disneyland Paris has the Haunted Mansion, and the Tower of Terror, and the Thunder Mountain Railroad. The lines (in October, anyway) were very short; we never had more than a five-minute wait for any ride. We were surrounded with mostly Spanish and German tourists, and a few Brits; not many French, really. (A colleague of mine, who actually studied the business model of EuroDisney, told me that the Disney folk at first expected the local French population to flock there, and were sorely disappointed to find out that this wasn’t the case. Now they market to the rest of Europe, and they’re doing just fine.)

Disneyland Paris is small, compared to Orlando. One advantage to being smaller, by the way, is that kids don’t get as tired, and parents don’t get as worn out. Is there a lesson here for American theme parks? Too late. They’re already too big.

There are Disneylands everywhere now. Japan and China have their own versions. And Orlando keeps evolving: there’s a New Fantasyland now, with a Beast’s Castle / restaurant, and a Little Mermaid ride, and (forthcoming) a Seven Dwarves ride.

And there’s that little old park in Anaheim too, I suppose.

Whatever it’s called.

I forget.


The Confederate States of America: an update

The other day I wrote about Steven Spielberg’s new movie about Abraham Lincoln. The movie ends, not with Lincoln’s assassination, but with the Second Inaugural, a beautiful speech in which Lincoln declared that the rebellious South was not an enemy, but a friend. Lincoln faced the prospect of “reconstructing” a bitter, defeated, impoverished South; it would have been difficult in any case, but Lincoln was a good man for working out difficult issues. It’s commonly thought that, if Lincoln had lived, Reconstruction would have been different: it would have been calmer and less acrimonious.

But we know what happened, and we know the aftermath. Lincoln was killed, and Reconstruction was led by Radical Republicans, who were further angered by Lincoln’s death. They wanted to punish the South, and they did.

And the South simmered in its bitterness and anger for decades.

Here’s the South that defied Lincoln (Union in blue, Dixie in Red):


And here’s the 2012 electoral map:


And here, just for the sake of comparison, is a map of poverty in the USA:


Here’s a map showing English literacy (remember that the western states and New York have large immigrant populations):


And finally, for shits and giggles, here’s a map showing how people feel about religion:


The Confederacy never died. It’s still with us.




I adore food. I like looking at it, and making it, and thinking about it, and reading about it. Sometimes I even like to eat it.


I’m not alone in this. Do a Google search for restaurants in your immediate vicinity. Go to your nearest bookstore (which is probably Amazon.com, I know, brick-and-mortar bookstores are a thing of the past) and check out the variety of cookbooks. My local newspaper has a food section on Wednesdays; does yours? I’ll bet it does.

We’re animals. We need to eat. We have romanticized this primal desire into something aesthetic, I suppose. If you starved me for a couple of days, I would gladly eat raw frogs and shoe leather and tell you that they were delicious. As it is, in our modern affluent world, I am choosy, and prefer fried scallops and whole-wheat pasta.

This bothers me sometimes. I was first brought up short against this by our pal, Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing, in her science-fiction novel “Re Colonized Planet 9: Shikasta.” In a footnote, she has her narrator – an enlightened alien from the Canopean Empire – say this: “Earth people are obsessed with food. They even write books about it.”

I’d never thought about this before. We don’t write books about how we breathe, or how much we enjoy sunlight. But we write books about food.

Food is a subtle pleasure. It can be sustenance, or it can be ecstasy. It can be a heavy blast of fat and carbs and flavors, like a Big Mac, or a blast of heat from a Mexican entrée, or a savory mix of flavors like paella. It can be sweet and bitter like chocolate. It can be hauntingly flavorful, like parmesan cheese or Portobello mushrooms (both of which belong to the umami flavor family).

We spend a good deal of our time eating. Some of us (including yours truly) spend a good deal of time cooking, or reading about cooking, or thinking about cooking.

A couple of questions: Are we doing the right thing? Are we spending our time wisely?

Another question: What’s for dinner?

Movie review: “Lincoln”

This past weekend Partner and I saw Spielberg’s new movie, “Lincoln.” It’s very good – but then it’s bound to be: not only is it directed by Spielberg, it’s based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the Lincoln administration, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, writer of “Angels in America.”  The action covers the first few months of 1865: the Civil War, while still horribly bloody, is winding down, and the North is on the verge of winning. Lincoln is faced with a choice: accept the South’s peace overtures and allow them back into the Union as if nothing has happened, or ensure that the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery is passed first. If he doesn’t do the latter, the old South will insist on its slave-holding ways. If he refuses to talk peace with the South’s representatives, Congress will accuse him of holding the country hostage on behalf of the Abolitionist movement.

If this sounds dull, it’s not. Like all of Spielberg’s best movies, it seesaws between tension and calm. Its best scenes capture both: Lincoln’s ride through the battlefield after the battle of Petersburg, as he surveys the mounds of dead bodies, is captured in ominous silence.

The cast is terrific, led by Daniel Day-Lewis as a gritty folksy Lincoln, half Andy Griffith, half John the Baptist, pacing inexorably (and knowingly) toward his own death, and Sally Field as a plump frantic Mary Todd Lincoln, smarter and more subtle than any other portrayal of Mary I’ve ever seen. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives us a young haunted Robert Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones is Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican eager to eviscerate the rebellious South; David Strathairn is a lean acute William Seward; James Cusack is a plump mustached “lobbyist” hired by Seward (and indirectly by Lincoln) to bring the House of Representatives around to Lincoln’s point of view.

The movie depicts the reelection of a popular president who is, nonetheless, abhorred by a significant chunk of the populace. This president is trying to put through a significant piece of legislation – not because it’s popular, but because it’s the right thing to do, and because if he doesn’t, he will have accomplished nothing to solve the country’s real problems. This president also faces an angry and contentious congress.

Sound familiar?

Go see this movie. It will give you something to think about.

Travel tips from yours truly


Don’t you hate people who try to give you travel advice? I know I do.

Here’s some travel advice:

–          Make sure your electricals are in good order before you leave. I was startled to discover that my iPad was perfectly happy with French-style 220-volt current. I still, however, needed a plug adapter, since every country in the friggin’ world uses a differently-shaped plug. A company called Walkabout provides a very nice transformer / plug kit for a reasonable price.

–          Use the Internet. We did everything online: hotels, dinner reservations, the works. Once there, I discovered that everyone has either a website or – better yet – an app. (The Paris Metro system, for example, sells an adorable app on iTunes for ninety-nine cents; it shows you the whole system, finds you on GPS, and helps you get to the station of your choice.)

–          Look for bargains. Partner found a five-day Paris Visite card, which saved us lots of money; there’s also a Paris Museum Pass (the museums aren’t terribly expensive, but if you go to more than two or three, those admission prices start to mount up).

–          Take the train as much as you can. I always marvel at the European train system; it’s easy, it’s inexpensive, and it’s comfortable.

–          Make sure you set aside some time to relax. We didn’t relax enough, and ended up exhausted much of the time. Plan a down day here and there.

–          Don’t get trapped into eating tourist food. If (like us) you stay in a touristy neighborhood, you can be sure you’re paying a premium for your steak and frites. Explore the side streets instead. Bakeries sell nice sandwiches and pastry; little groceries are everywhere, once you know where to look. We were paying an average of $2 for a small bottle of water at first; then I discovered that I could buy a two-liter bottle in a grocery for $1 or less.

–          Use Skype. Before leaving, I purchased a real phone number from Skype (three months for thirty bucks); it even had a Rhode Island area code. We were able to call back and forth from France to the USA for approximately two cents a minute, using my iPad. And it even had voice mail! (No camera necessary, by the way; Skype works just fine with audio only.)

And now you know everything you need to know.

All together now:

For Sunday: Pink wants you to “Try”

Partner brought my attention to Pink’s performance of her song “Try” on the American Music Awards last week. I wish I could show you a video of that performance, done live in front of an audience, but none was available for embedding.

This, however, is Pink’s music video of the same song, which reproduces the onstage dance almost move by move.

Tough girls: represent!


Not long ago I received an email entitled “The ABC Insider,” with news and views about ABC’s programming season. I glanced through their schedule, and their ads, and their promos, and I found myself thinking: Yeah, it looks like ABC.

And then I stopped and wondered: what did I mean by that?

When I was a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s, we pretty much subsisted on programming from the Big Three: ABC, CBS, and NBC.  Somehow, each network managed to have a personality (we call it “branding” nowadays). I never really thought about it at the time, but I think about it now, and it was real then, and it’s real now.

I managed to put myself into a kind of memory trance to dredge up recollections of programs I watched in those days, and I tried also to remember what network they were on. It was surprisingly easy. (I went through later, using that new invention “The Internet,” to verify my recollections, and I was right in every instance.)  I then looked for a thread that ran through the programming in each network’s case, and in each case I didn’t have to look very hard.

NBC was in those days the sophisticated network: “Laugh-In.” “The Tonight Show.” Later, “Julia” (“brought to you with pride . . . by Jello”). NBC was urban in a kind of wink-wink Playboy Club way, or in a dignified dinner-party way. It was For Grownups, or For Those Who Wanted To Believe They Were Grownups.

CBS churned out variety shows: Red Skelton, Gary Moore, Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason. They were the home of all those hick comedies like “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction.” And, of course, they were the home of Lucille Ball. CBS was almostvaudeville. I remember when I went to college in Spokane in 1974, the local CBS affiliate’s office still had the old mid-60s network slogan on its facade, “The Stars’ Address.” CBS was all about personalities: familiar names, proven talent. And not just Entertainment, but FamilyEntertainment. No grin-grin wink-wink here; everything was broad and obvious. This was the network that churned out “Hee Haw” a few years later.

ABC was all over the map. “Hollywood Palace.”  “Peyton Place.”  “Garrison’s Gorillas.”  “Alias Smith and Jones.”  “Batman.”  “Bewitched.”  “That Girl.”  With very few exceptions, they were half-hour shows, brittle and jokey, or broad and soapy. ABC was almost the 1960s equivalent of the Fox Network. Most of all, ABC skewed young: bright new faces, chirpy comedies.

All these decades later, it continues. I look at a show like “The Ghost Whisperer,” earnest and cute and mock-dramatic, and I think: yeah, CBS. And I look at something kooky and snapping-fingers hip like “Lost,” and I think: yeah, probably ABC.

But now there’s a channel for everything. (I have a fond memory of the episode of “Married with Children” when they first got cable: “What’s this?” “The Japanese Channel.” Click. “What’s this?” “The Stained Glass Network.”) But a network/channel like that isn’t really the same thing. It’s like a store that sells only Scotch Tape. The three big networks in the 1960s were like full-range department stores, each with a slightly different feel: upscale, midrange, family-friendly, bargain-basement.

(But the deepest mystery of all is this: what in the world is going on inside the brain of a fifty-five-year-old man who has to concentrate hard to remember today’s date, but who can still remember what network “Garrison’s Gorillas” was on, forty-five years later?)

Morning TV

On “30 Rock” a few seasons ago, Tracy Morgan came charging in and asked Tina Fey: “Liz Lemon, who’s crazier: me or Ann Curry?”

Well, Ann Curry is gone now, crazy or not. She giggled a little too much, and she was definitely a lightweight. But she was definitely a morning-show person, god bless her, no matter how crazy she might have been.

Morning-show people always seem to become part of the family.  While I’m in the bathroom on weekday mornings, getting ready for work, I can hear Partner laughing at George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts and Sam Champion on “Good Morning America” in the bedroom.

Before George, of course, there was big ugly/handsome Chris Cuomo (brother of the current Governor of New York), who mostly seemed to enjoy getting into ticklefights with Sam Champion.

Then there was the gorgeous CBS weekend host Chris Wragge, big and blond, like your handsome athletic cousin. He actually hosted the CBS weekday morning show for a while, but left this past January. He won’t be soon forgotten hereabouts.

Even the local hosts are interesting.  Partner and I used to enjoy the oddball pairing of Mark Zinniand Michelle Muscatello on Providence’s Channel 12: they were always making each other laugh, and often came within inches of saying inappropriate things, which was exhilarating.  Michelle is still with us in Providence, but Mark is back in Cleveland, his home town.  I miss him.

Then there was the monstrous Vince DeMentri, who used to be the local Fox morning host.  He was big and blocky and handsome, but he gave off a kind of DANGER signal, like the abusive husband in a Lifetime movie.  The show had a meek little co-host named Sean Tempesta, who seemed to make Vince furious; after a while, Vince wouldn’t even share the set with Tempesta.

Then, suddenly, DeMentri disappeared.  I did a little research – wonderful place for research, the Internet! – and found that Vince had been a very bad boy in Pennsylvania before coming to Providence; he’d had an affair with another anchor, started doing stupid things (he hid her blow-dryer!), etc.  After he left Providence he went to New York City, where a few years ago he slapped the Bahamian ambassador’s driver for getting in his way.  Vince was acquitted, but lost his job in NYC. God knows where he is now.

I love morning television.  It’s like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to get.

For Thanksgiving 2012: Adam Sandler sings “The Thanksgiving Song”


This is an old favorite. I think he sings it differently every time; I don’t remember the part about his brother and the baby oil. Also, the annotator here misspelled “Cheryl Tiegs.”

But who cares?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov: a cautionary tale

Once upon a time there was a Russian scientist named Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov.

He was a botanist and geneticist in the Mendelian days before the discovery of DNA, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Vavilov wanted desperately to be non-political, because he perceived – accurately – that to be political was to be vulnerable, in those early days of the United Soviet Socialist Republics.

He did remarkable work. He established beyond much doubt that the origin of the apple tree was in Kazakhstan, and he did much other excellent work.

But Stalin preferred the work of a man named Lysenko.

Lysenko wasn’t much of a scientist, but he knew how to use politicians to advance his own career. He came up with odd theories, but when challenged, he said his challengers were “armed with foreign ideas.” He claimed Mendelian theory was bunk. On what basis? Well, none, except that Uncle Joe Stalin was his buddy.

Vavilov ended up in prison. Under torture, he told his wardens what they wanted to hear: he was an enemy of the state. He ended up dying of dysentery in a prison camp in 1943.

If you are a Republican, you may hear this story as a defense of the brave scientists who have attacked climate change and shale oil and conservation. You probably see those defiant scientists who argue against the rest as Vavilov.

For me, and for Democrats in general I think, Vavilov is something else. He is Science personified. He is the method by which we try to discover what’s going on in nature. He is not political. He tells the truth, whatever it turns out to be, and whether or not it supports our political viewpoints.

What’s the end of the story?

Well, the whole Lysenko thing cost the USSR much time and trouble, since they were out of touch with the rest of the world’s scientific research.

Now, I ask you: is an American population, brought up on creationism and intelligent design, ready to do scientific work in the world community?

You tell me.


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