Tuesday, March 25, 2008

John Adams

WordPerfect just made a 1 millimeter top margin my default setting for no reason. I notice it does weird things like this from time to time. Oh, there we go, in print preview it gives the regular margin setting. Still, this is very distracting while I’m writing.

I’ve been watching HBO’s John Adams miniseries for the past two weeks. There are a couple of reasons for this. I would be blacklisted from my family for not claiming the first reason to be that my brother-in-law is an extra in a few of the scenes. Dan, I haven’t seen you yet but I’ve been looking. Dan spent weeks going back and forth between Nelson County and Richmond, Va. where much of the series was shot. He chatted with Laura Linney and stood around with Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. If these details are slightly incorrect Dan don’t correct me, I’m trying to live vicariously through you.

I’ve also tuned in because I read the set design has a remarkable authenticity—that the film gets very close to what life was like during the actual time-period. The series depicts numerous instances from 18th century existence; from gnarled old salts straining to make 10” thick rope to the novel horror of early inoculation practices. This is American history that you won’t find on the tour of Colonial Williamsburg. Because the miniseries is based on David McCullough’s biography of Adams, the filmmakers have designed the film to emphasize McCullough’s insistence that the hardship of colonial life showed in every aspect of the physical and intellectual character of the people.

For me, this is an alluring premise. (I can’t help it, I’ve always liked the gory details.) Paul Giamatti’s Adams is constantly sweating, spitting, and stomping around like a runt gelding pissed at his lot. Some people argued Giamatti/Adams as the miscasting blunder of the year, but I’m finding he plays the role with depth and believability. The contrast between a starched and powdered early 19th century presidential portrait of Adams and Giamatti’s cropped and un-wigged head may require a stretch of the imagination, but the power of such a real figure playing one of our most mythologized historical figures is extremely effective. I never fail to be charmed by Giamatti, who can play the underdog like no one since…help me here somebody, I can’t think of anyone else who had a series of underdog roles as diverse as American Splendor (one of my absolute all time favorites) Sideways, and Cinderella Man.

I have to say something about my brother-in-law’s buddy Laura Linney also. Her role as Abigail has finally brought me around to her talent. I always, somewhat snootily, rejected her acting in Mystic River as melodramatic and overplayed, and it was a while before I could open up to this current performance as well. But lately I’ve realized how important facial expression is to the art of acting, and Linney’s expressive mix of joy, relief, and love upon hearing of Cornwallis’s surrender at the end of Sunday night’s episode converted me for good.

The casting of Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin had me worried, but this was also unfounded. To my plebian eye he and Giammatti seem born to act together. I’m not going to pretend I know a great deal about this period of history (although I hope to), but the inter-play between Wilkinson’s popular Ben Franklin and Giamatti’s frank and stammering Adams in the court of Louis XVI is one of the most absorbing features of the series so far. While I have limited knowledge of the customs of late 18th century French aristocracy, I have a feeling the powdered opulence, off-set by yellow rotting teeth, are, at least, more close to the reality than Sophia Coppola’s version.

Word on the street is that there are huge liberties (NPI) taken with the actual historical events, partly due to Adams’ own self-mythologizing and partly due to the old Hollywood practice of turning history into entertainment. I have mixed feelings about this, I mean, Shakespeare anybody? I think it’s important to take these things for what they are intended, recognizing the flaws but appreciating the highpoints—as long as there are any highpoints. If at some point I want the real scoop on Adams I won’t consider watching a marathon session of this miniseries, I’ll turn to the scholars, but on Sunday night with a new week looming I’m alright indulging in this kind of historical escapism.

HBO seems ever to be on a roll. Ending what, to my mind, was the best police drama/city politics drama/drug culture drama and hell, all around drama drama of all time, The Wire, they have followed up with an engaging, if not a wee bit biased, (okay way biased), historical drama. As Sunday’s episode ends, we watched Adams writhing around in delirium as his beloved republic broke loose from the empire, too sick to reap any moral reward for his efforts. The authenticity of the scene goes far toward off-setting any historical inaccuracies, so this week I’ll be parked on the couch once again waiting to be lied to and enjoying every moment.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Bite the Bullet

Time for the cop-out of cop-outs. Bullet points on what’s been going on.

1)I didn’t get into the first three choices for graduate schools. This isn’t quite as disappointing as I imagined because a) I’ve spent months preparing for the news and b) there are all sorts of financial and logistical problems with relocating (which is what I would’ve had to do)this year. All three programs were in at least the top 25 in the country so very competitive. This doesn’t mean I have to stop trying, I’ve still got time in life, and if I’m persistent I’ll bet they might give me another shot. I was worried about being a little fish in a big pond also so all in all, not too bad.

2)I got a new job. I’m working for the county public library. It couldn’t have come any sooner—I actually broke down and bought five packs of Raman Noodles the night before I got the job. I haven’t eaten them and I hope I don’t have to.

3)To celebrate the new job and ease the blow of rejection letters I went on a spending spree at Borders. I bought the Bob Dylan Newport Folk Festival DVD and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 by Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve always wanted to read this but never had the chance. Just judging by the introduction I think I’m going to love it. I watched the Bob Dylan from beginning to end last night. It seems more like an archival historical document than a concert film. This is the first time I’ve fully appreciated Joan Baez. She is absolutely beautiful and a little tough. She and Dylan together, at that age, are fascinating to watch, combining a mix of earnestness, confidence, wit, and innocence. I’m watching it again tonight.

4)I also downloaded the Talk to Me soundtrack from iTunes. This is a masterful mix of the golden age of R&B featuring Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Clarence Carter, and James Brown. Put it on the car stereo and turn it up. Instant mood elevation.

5)I’m worried about Obama. Lately the issue of race has come up on the campaign trail and it occurred to me how vulnerable the Illinois senator is to the crazy racists in our country. If history teaches us anything it is that hate can take the best men away from us, although I hope the generation that fought so hard against civil rights is starting to die off. I also hope that if I write about this concern I will make it null and void and nothing bad will happen. This is an instance where I really want to be wrong.

6)I’m on Facebook. Someone convinced me that you can’t live in this world without it. In a moment of weakness I believed them. I was on it for three hours that first night. I was able to find a couple of long lost souls out there so it definitely has its merits. It is a great networking tool they tell me.

7)The patio project 2008 is back on. I worked on it most of the day on Monday when I started putting down flagstone. It’s still kind of a mess but you can get the idea of what it will look like when it’s finished.

8)There is a hint, a rumor, and a ghost of a chance that I will be going to Africa in June. It will be 21 years since I was last there. This actually is the best development to come my way in while, but it is still up in the air so I won’t go into details yet. But everyone cross their collective fingers for me.

So that’s it for now. I’ll write a post with more insight next time.

Oh yea, I forgot, I went to Hooters last night. How's that for insight?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Slow Day at Reference

One of my jobs on campus is to work at the reference desk at the college library. Today is painfully slow. After a mad dash across town during lunch to get yet even more transcripts, I returned to the desk with not much else on the agenda for today. The Spring offensive has begun and I started on the patio project again which means I'm as stiff as a board today. While I was at the desk this afternoon I resorted to an old pastime to relieve the boredom, doodling.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Like, Whatever

Okay, so I’ve only posted twice this month (which is almost half over) and my boss is out of the library so I’ve challenged myself to complete a post before she gets back. I can’t promise it will supply any great insight or even make sense, but I’m going out of town this weekend so there won’t be another chance to post until next week.

There is a gaggle of female faculty and faculty wives chattering over by the computers. One is expecting, and the conversation is about the cost of C-sections and private schools. Someone help me with the math here. If there are three people in a group and two are talking at the same time what will the person not talking hear? I’m a guy, and we’re pretty slow, but I can only listen and digest what one person is saying at a time. How do women seem to manage to hear what all three are saying even while they are talking as well? It seems supernatural.

They’ve broken up now and two are wooing over someone’s wedding photos on one of the monitors. It’s as if they’re collaborating on a dissertation about wedding planning. It’s interesting just to listen to the hum and try not to hear any words. There will be a prolonged silence and then both will start talking at the same time, probably provoked by a new image. Their conversation is overlapping so they start talking at the same time, but soon one concedes to the other who then finishes her thoughts. The process repeats itself several more times until silence falls over them again.

I realize that if I ever get married and have children this is what I might have to get used to. Happy endless chatter about women stuff. This isn’t criticism you understand, just respectful curiosity.

Warning: there is absolutely no transition here.

I’m amazed at how the word “like” has integrated itself into American speech. Did this really stem from the Valley Girl explosion of the 80s? I’ve been trying to count the times someone says, “and I was like,” “and it was like,” “and we were all like,” etc. I actually welcome the usage. It has to be post-modern. Absolutes reside in the realm of the past now, so the word “like,” in the form used more and more these days, is a great expression of the ambiguity of life. Instead of saying, “I told him ‘you’re a rude selfish driver who should be buried in a dungeon somewhere until you learn to drive properly,’” I can say “and I was all like, ‘you’re a rude selfish driver who should be buried in a dungeon somewhere until you learn to drive properly.’” This way I am absolved from complete accuracy, and if the subject happens to show up and say “no you didn’t, you said ‘you’re a rude #$%$@#$%$ !@#$$%%^ **&^%$$ who should ^%^$$#& and *&&^^%$#$ your (*&^%$%$ you ^%#%&^%--%^&%$ mother!!!’” I won’t be held to the actual "facts" of my first statement.

“Whatever” is another one I enjoy thinking about. Why are so many people prejudiced against this fantastic expression of passive-aggressive behavior? (reader, please know that I have gone strictly into tongue-and-cheek mode here, which is something I have to spell out occasionally to those who don’t know me.) “Whatever” is the absolving term of all absolving terms. It is also a word that is very hard to write about because it is difficult not to read it for its original meaning. I’ll try to use what I believe is its original meaning in a sentence. “Whatever I do, I can’t seem to open the cheese packet without swearing out loud at the people who made the cheese packet so hard to open.” Okay, so here is the new use of the word. “When I complained to the guy from the cheese company about how hard the cheese packet is to open he just shrugged and said ‘whatever.’”

People seem to have taken the use of this word to extremes. Like (see how I use the new form of "like") if you tell your roommate that the rental furniture will be repossessed if you don’t pay the bill, and by saying “whatever” the roommate automatically makes that statement untrue. (reminder: I’m still in T&C mode, I don’t have a roommate and my furniture has long been paid for). I’m just wondering, if “like” has become the term for unaccountability in speech, has “whatever” become the symbol for denial?

This post is definitely convoluted and confusing, and I didn’t finish before my boss got back.

I missed the chance to do this when I was doing my English degree, but it would have been fun to write a paper on the emergence of these expressions and what they mean in our way of communicating. All kidding aside, I think both of them will be around for at least a little while longer, and I can’t help thinking that they may become permanent because they convey a new type of behavior in our culture. We needed something to express the slack unaccountability of consumer culture and what better way than using words that already exist? This way you don’t have to all that trouble of creating a brand new expression, we can just borrow one—on credit of course.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Are you Kind?

Out of a lack of inspiration I’ve been tardy on blog posting lately. But thanks to Emily and Litlove I don’t need to come up with a subject—I’ve been tagged for a meme!

This is the Kindness Meme:

1. List five kind things you do for yourself.

1) Have my shows: Now that I’m off most nights I actually have a TV schedule. Here it is: Sunday: HBO—they just finished what just might be my favorite all time drama series, The Wire. I love Flight of the Conchords as well. Monday: Top Gear, Tuesday: nothing on except reruns of The Office, Wednesday: South Park—I’ve rediscovered its crude mockery of shlock culture. A new episode airs tonight. Thursday: Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (the British version. I’ve realized that the idiot Americans they sign on at FOX make Ramsay appear like a watered-down phony), The Office (at least until the writers strike caused it to be preempted by Trump’s latest embarrassing reality show) and 30 Rock. Friday: Usually I don’t have to resort to TV on Friday. Saturday: Same as Friday.

2) Chinese Buffets: I love the idea of endless supplies of egg rolls. I limit myself to three trips to the buffet per visit, and one of those is for sushi, so usually I can actually walk to the car after the meal. Another kind thing I do for myself in the area of food is Bojangles fried chicken with dirty rice and coleslaw. Don’t tell the American Chef’s Federation.

3) Give myself a pass. Actually I do this more than I should, but when I have some task looming over me I allow myself to just forget it temporarily. Just temporarily, you understand. I learned somewhere in my twenties if you do this permanently society pretty much ostracizes you, and then they shut your water off.

4) Read anything I want and ignore most recommendations. Does anyone feel like me when someone recommends a book, that no matter how good it is it still feels like an obligation? I like the idea of an organic reading map, where one avenue of interest sends you off in a new and unexpected direction. So much of life is about following certain overly-trodden paths; I like the freedom of following my own mental curiosity.

5) Lower my expectations and lower my perceived expectations from others. A great deal of my social anxiety comes from imagining what others expect of me. Lately it dawned on me that there is no real way to know all that is expected of you and much of what we do know is exaggerated. Of course, I have to take into consideration things that really are necessary like what’s expected at work and so forth. But imagining someone’s image of you and trying to be that person instead of yourself is crazy. I’ve also reduced my expectations of others and am surprised at how much I get from them anyway. I think I’ve reached a truce with the world-at-large, except when I’m driving of course.

2.List five kind things you do for your closest friend, partner or child.

I’m going to do this for closest friend, altering it to closest friends.

1) Listen. I am an awesome listener. I can make eye-contact, nod appreciatively, ask the right questions, sympathize, laugh, console and collaborate like nobody’s business. I’m curious by nature, and not exactly an overbearing personality, so long-winded-types sometimes gravitate towards me, but close friends can expect a strong listener. Just one thing I ask, don’t ask my ex-girlfriend to verify that statement.

2) Allow them to be who they are. I used to form resentments toward some of my close friends based on their behavior. This would often cause tension. I have a friend who wears his whole life out on his sleeve. That means a lot of what pops into his head comes out of his mouth. This can be innocuous enough if the subject isn’t me. If it is me I can learn a whole lot about what I could be doing better in life, like fixing my lawnmower or itemizing every receipt I receive from the gas-station. I’ve learned to agree wholeheartedly with all of his suggestions and then go on being my slack-about-yard-work-and-taxes-self. Passive aggressive? Maybe, but without the aggression.

3) Flattery. It gets you everywhere apparently. I make sure to try and identify what people are proud of. This is genuine by-the-way, because when you’re curious about people the best way to get to know what makes them happy is to see what causes them pride. I make a big deal about my friends’ pets, projects, life-works, children, accomplishments and general stuff-of-identity. This usually gets them talking, and then it’s time for the listening to kick in.

4) Make them laugh. I’m pretty good at this. This isn’t necessarily a cognitive decision on my part, plenty of my friends and relatives can go toe-to-toe with me on humor and initiate hilarity, but so many of my close relationships are based on laughter and a co-recognition of the absurd.

5) Cook for them. A couple of my friends are complete philistines, thank God, so they wouldn’t know a filet from a French fry. But I occasionally get to cook for those who appreciate it, and that’s a good feeling. Oops, I almost did that Martha Stewart thing didn’t I? I think she used to say, “It’s a good thing.”

3.List five kind things you have done for a stranger.

1) When I was in South Africa I was with a friend and we came across a dog who was crying out in pain and struggling to get on its feet. Everyone was walking by and ignoring it. The dog was letting out some agonizing yells and I just felt that we couldn’t walk by. I picked the dog up and carried it to the house where I was staying, quite a substantial distance. We gave the dog some water and food but it wasn’t interested. We stayed with it until it died about two hours later. Then we buried it in the brush beyond the garden. We managed to make it comfortable until then, so it wouldn’t die in the street. A dog is a kind of a stranger, isn’t it?

2) My brother-in-law Dan taught me this. We were walking through the old part of my town known as Old Salem. Dan waved at every dad-gum car that came by. Every single one. Sometimes they waved back. I walk through Old Salem about three or four times a week and now I wave, say hello and smile at the majority of the people I meet.

3) Listen respectfully, and sometimes engage in meaningful conversations, with the Christian groups who often canvas my neighborhood. These folks show up on Saturdays every now and then and usually start out with a question like “have you excepted the Lord Jesus Christ into your life?” I always say “yep” although I don’t really know if I have or I haven’t. Once they asked me the question “if you were to die today do you expect to go to heaven?” I said “yep” and then we got into an interesting discussion about their religion’s ground rules for getting into heaven. Turns out, buy their standards, I wouldn’t get in. Not even close. It’s certainly good to know that. They told me I could learn more if I were to join them at their community supper next Thursday, or was it Friday, I forget. I thanked them and told them good luck.

4) I bought a beer for a guy at a rock concert who had just somersaulted about three hundred yards down a steep embankment (don’t ask me why he did it, but the crowd loved it). Of course I had just knocked the first beer he was drinking out of his hand while exclaiming what an amazing stunt it was, so I guess it was just pay-back, plus his friends looked kind of surly and angry and something told me I had better replace the beer.

5) I saw a guy go into an abandoned house near me the other night and I wondered if I should call the police. I had the feeling that he was just getting in from out of the cold. I thought about it and decided to ignore it. I have no idea if this was the right choice, there have been some break-ins in my neighborhood recently and who knows what the guy was up to. There is also a single mother with a young child who lives right next door, so this was a tough one. I would hate to ruin a guy’s night, and tie up city resources, for a simple trespassing. But in not doing anything I may have been putting people at risk. I don’t know, if you comment, let me know what you think.

4. Have fun!


5. Tag five people.
Froshty if she hasn’t been tagged. Linser, you could email yours to me I could post them here. Anyone else, go for it!