Thursday, August 27, 2015

Things I Love - Important Artifacts

What happens inside a relationship between two people? How does it begin? How does it end? What happens in between? How do two strangers create their own intimate world of inside jokes, of objects that take on special meaning, of places and things that can create a "twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone" (thank you, Matt Weiner)? For centuries, writers have tried to answer these questions, to articulate the often inarticulable - how does love bloom and why does it wither and die. Stories are written as tragedy, as farce, and many other things, but for my money, creating a faux art catalogue of lots that, through their descriptions (and depictions), tell the story of how two people came together and what split them apart, is as ingenious a way as I can think of to explain this unique human experience.

Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts is a book I love.

Our couple, Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, meet cute, as we discover in the book's earliest pages, at a Halloween party where he, a photojournalist, dresses as Harry Houdini and she, a food critic for the New York Times, goes as Lizzie Borden (Lots 1003-1007, which include the party invitation and a photo of the couple, among other things). From the get-go, they are a hipster couple made in Brooklyn heaven who buy each other used books (Lots 1217, 1272), write love letters on stationary (Lot 1070), and revel in the bric-a-brac of vintage hand mixers (Lot 1192), martini glasses (Lot 1193) and framed postcards (Lots 1023, 1191). They also do very human things - fret over outfits (Lot 1012 is a set of six Polaroids Doolan took of possible Thanksgiving outfits), receive cautious optimism about their burgeoning romance from friends and family (Lot 1150, a note from Doolan's sister to her that includes the following "I really like him - I think he's a good guy for you."), and create their own leitmotif - the salt and pepper shaker collection that dots the book's pages (Lots 1119 (matching dachshunds), 1281 (various pairs the couple pilfered from restaurants)) and the elaborately drawn Valentine's Day menus that Doolan creates (Lots 1138, 1187, 1292).  

But more than just mix CDs (Lots 1022 (a Christmas theme from Butterbitty (Doolan) to Hittymitty (Morris), 1044 (a Valentine's Day mix including songs from George Harrison, John Lennon, and some non-Beatles), 1100 (a six CD set!)) and internal doubt (Lots 1047 (including a note Doolan makes to herself to apologize to Morris), 1103 (including a note Morris makes to himself about her bad temper), we see the small graces - the Tiffany key ring that held the apartment key Doolan gave to Morris when they moved in together (Lot 1189), a favorite cardigan sweater they both adored (Lot 1142), and Doolan's first expression of love (taking the title of the book "Kinds of Love" and adding the letter "I" at the beginning, striking the letter "s" and adding the word "you" at the end so the title reads "I Kind of Love You." (Lot 1049)). And littered throughout are photos of the pair embracing, hugging, and eyeing each other dreamily. Doolan and Morris carry on precisely the type of relationship many of us can relate to - by turns tender and romantic as each reveals themselves to the other, fusty and petty as small grudges turn into bigger issues, and with the familiar comfort that only results when two people truly know one another. 

Of course, because the book's conceit (not to mention the "note" from Morris to Doolan that serves as a prologue wherein he expresses regret about their relationship ending) is that the two are no longer together, the whimsy and headiness of falling in love and the cementing of that bond curdles as we learn of outbursts and raised voices (Lot 1247), lack of communication (Lot 1248), a semi-destroyed white noise machine (Lot 1306), a pregnancy test (Lot 1305), a months-long solo trip abroad (Lot 1311) a note from mother Doolan to her daughter about her and Morris "taking a break" (Lot 1321), and Morris's post-break-up attempt at friendship (Lot 1325). 

Important Artifacts is like peering into a couple's diary or snooping around their home with convenient explainers attached to their personal belongings so you have the backstory of how each item got there and its meaning in the context of the couple's relationship. But what makes the book so memorable and wonderful is Shapton's keen eye for how two people grapple with the most basic (and powerful) of human emotions - love, loss, jealousy, anger, hope, fear, desire, and lust - as they pinball around the challenges we all wrestle with - our insecurities, job frustrations, desire for more of this or less of that and doing so by creating two totally believable characters who you immediately invest in. 

Important Artifacts is a book for romantics as well as cynics, for those in, and who have lost, at love. It is my favorite book of the last 10 years and one I hope you too will enjoy. 


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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Things I Love - Richard Nixon

At the height of the Watergate scandal, aides close to President Richard Nixon feared he had become so unglued from reality that direction was given to ignore orders from the President in the event he sought the deployment of nuclear weapons. While the Middle East was burning from the ravages of the Yom Kippur War, the President could not take a call from the Prime Minister of Great Britain because he was drunk. White House logs dutifully recorded the many after-midnight calls Nixon made to aides and supporters, railing against the injustices being heaped upon him and musing about his own political future. A man who detested people was the most powerful person on the planet for more than six years.

No wonder I love President Nixon.

That might surprise those who follow me on Twitter or read this blog. After all, how could a Yellow Dog Democrat have such an affinity for a Republican President? Like many politicians, Nixon contained contradictions, they were just bigger and more sharply drawn than others. He was an anti-semite whose closest aide was Jewish, loathed the "Eastern Establishment" but worked at a white-shoe Wall Street law firm, pandered to blue collar America but signed into law the Clean Water Act, established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and installed price controls to tame inflation. Of course, he also invaded Laos and Cambodia (without telling anyone), dropped more tonnage on Vietnam than the Allies dumped on Germany in World War II, used the IRS to go after his political enemies, and directed burglaries to discredit his critics. We basically had Lord Voldemort running our country.

And it is in those contradictions that I find Nixon's story so compelling. The hard scrabble upbringing, the near cuckolding he experienced in courting his future wife Pat (he literally chauffeured her around on at least one date with another guy), the meteoric rise that led him to the Vice Presidency at the tender age of 40 and the political obituary people were ready to write about him after successively losing the White House to John Kennedy in 1960 and the California Governor's race to Pat Brown two years later. Nixon's pathological need for love and validation was balanced against an equally strong no-fucks-to-give attitude where race baiting, playing to people's fears, and score settling were second nature.

In the balance, he may or may not have extended the Vietnam War to help him win the Presidency and then jettisoned negotiations only to cut a deal years later when it was politically expedient to do so, was the first American President to visit China, signed an arms reduction agreement with the Soviet Union, and fostered a coup in Argentina. This was not a man unafraid to wield power, but his out-of-control behavior was ultimately his undoing. Paranoid and untrusting, the Watergate break-in was an unnecessary effort to malign a party (and a candidate) in the process of imploding. Nixon's 49-state romp that November underscored the superfluousness of his cronies' illegal behavior, but the man could not help himself. And when he got caught, instead of owning up to his actions (and possibly eliding impeachment), he dug in his heels, destroyed evidence, and brought the country to the brink of a Constitutional crisis before finally standing down. 

More than forty years after his resignation, Nixon's influence on national politics is greater than ever. While Reagan is credited with heralding in the modern conservative revolution, Nixon is now understood as a sort of John the Baptist, mobilizing disaffected Democrats who were not keen on the party's liberal drift into the Republican fold (these same people would later be deemed "Reagan Democrats"), cultivating the "Silent Majority" of, primarily, white, middle-class Americans to rail against the freedoms of the 1960s and turn patriotism into a wedge issue to be wielded against those who burned the flag and opposed the Vietnam War. Reagan would appropriate this strategy to great effect, arguing that Democrats had diminished our nation's power and then using that urge to wash away the stain of Vietnam by building up our military against the Soviets and "invading" Grenada. 

Nixon also seeded the federal bureaucracy with conservative lawyers like Robert Bork and William Rehnquist who would play an outsized role in molding our jurisprudence, gave voice to the "unitary executive" theory of foreign policy that would not come into full bloom until the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, and made groundbreaking decisions about how we interacted with the other major powers in the world. Like Bill Clinton, a man who would seek Nixon's counsel when he ascended to the Presidency, our 37th President was blessed with enormous political skills and enormous personal failings. And like Clinton, historians will ponder the "what if" of Nixon for decades to come.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Things I Love - The Warriors

Walter Hill's 1979 movie The Warriors is a snapshot of New York City when subway cars were covered in graffiti and people did not wander Central Park after dark. Thirty-six years after its release, this iconic work is a reminder that the modern-day NYC, of gentrifying neighborhoods from Hell's Kitchen to the Gowanus Canal and a Manhattan that is a tourist's wet dream, was not so long ago, the poster child for urban decay. As the blinkered lights of the Coney Island Wonder Wheel flicker to attention, a graffiti-riddled MTA train comes into view, and the credits roll over an eerie, synth-heavy instrumental, moviegoers are transported back to that gritty chapter in the Big Apple's illustrious history.

The Warriors is a movie I love.

The plot is very simple. While a truce is being honored, delegates from the city's top hundred gangs attend a summit in Pelham Park called by the largest gang, the Gramercy Riffs, and their charismatic leader, Cyrus. The one condition is that no one bring weapons. The Warriors, an outfit out of Coney Island, make the lengthy trip only to have one of their own fingered as Cyrus's killer when the man is shot during his speech preaching a vision of a single unified gang running all of New York City. In the ensuing mayhem, The Warriors' leader Cleon is beaten to death and the remaining members must "bop their way" back to Coney Island with every gang in the city gunning for their heads. 

The long trip from the Bronx back to Coney Island is naturally filled with peril, as various gangs come close to, but can never quite snuff out the scrappy Warriors, who, when they are not squabbling amongst themselves are dodging the bat-wielding Furies, the Orphans, an off-the-track crew that did not even get an invitation to the big get-together, and the Lizzies, a group of femme fatales, among others. Along the way, one Warrior is killed while scuffling with a police officer on a subway platform and another is arrested after he gets too physical with an undercover cop. By the time dawn breaks and the Warriors confront Cyrus's real killer, Luther, the head of the Rogues, on the sand of Coney Island, the Gramercy Riffs have sussed out what is what and proceed to destroy the perpetrators as the strains of Joe Walsh's In The City signal the movie's end. 

There are many things that make The Warriors so timeless. When Shaq bellowed "CAN YOU DIG IT" at post-NBA Championship parade rallies, he was repeating Cyrus's most famous line of dialogue. If one of your friends ever clinked empty bottles together and started shouting "COME OUT AND PLAAAAAY" he too was quoting from the movie. But more than that, The Warriors captured the energy and vibe of New York in that time and place. While the look and feel of the movie can feel a little stilted now (some of the exteriors were clearly shot on a soundstage and not the streets of the Big Apple) it neatly captured that punk rock/Studio 54 duality of New York in the late 1970s. The Orphans leader looks like a Ramones reject and more than one gang featured in the opening montage sports satin or sequin jackets. Meanwhile, a roller skating crew rumbles with the Warriors in a men's room and the Furies pinstriped costumes are a clear nod to the then-resurgent New York Yankees, just coming off back-to-back World Series victories. 

There are also subtle grace notes - the ability of a group to overcome adversity when they work together, a forward leaning view of multiculturalism (The Warriors gang has black members, white members, and Hispanic members), and the idea that justice eventually prevails - mixed in with moments of poignancy - Swan and the crew looking worse for the wear as a group of revelers look at them in revulsion, Fox getting hurled into the path of an oncoming train, and poor Rembrandt feeling all aw shucks awkward around the aggressive women of the Lizzies. There are few "adults" in The Warriors, the most prominent being the unseen DJ whose between song banter acts as a sort of rolling commentary on where the gang is and who just narrowly missed "wasting" them. 

This is a movie not just about alienated teens in an urban hellscape but also about the chaos in our country during that turbulent time. Just four years earlier, New York had teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and two years later had experienced a night of looting unseen before or since when the city experienced a total blackout. With our economy stalled and hostages under the Ayatollah's thumb, the idea that a gang could take over a city may have still been farfetched, but the idea that America was a nation in steep decline was not. 


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Monday, August 24, 2015

Things I Love - Fat Elvis

When Elvis Presley died at the age of 42, he was an obese, drug addicted lounge act who had not been relevant musically for almost a decade. Blessed with a rich baritone voice and a cocky swagger, Presley had captured the public's imagination way back in 1956 and for the next two decades generated a level of fame that earned him the sobriquet "King of Rock n Roll." But his ignominious death in 1977, slumped over the toilet, his colon so impacted from years of prescription drug abuse he could no longer properly move his bowels, was simply the exclamation point on a lengthy downward spiral. Presley's escapades included a spur-of-the-moment jaunt from Memphis to Washington, D.C. to jawbone President Nixon about the dangers of drugs (irony) and his weird fixations on karate, the occult, and racquetball were of a piece with his vampiric lifestyle, sleeping all day, up all night, shooting out television sets and stumbling around in a sedative-fueled haze until showtime.

No wonder I love Fat Elvis.

The Skinny Elvis/Fat Elvis comparison probably predates the U.S. Postal Service's decision to let people vote on which "version" of the late singer would adorn a 29 cent stamp back in 1993, but the singer's girth is a useful marker for his career. Presley's meteoric rise through songs like "Jailhouse Rock" and appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show lasted just a few years before a stint in the U.S. Army and years of successively treacly Hollywood movies made Elvis appear dated as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and others heralded the musical revolution of the 1960s. Elvis shimmied into a black leather suit for a 1968 comeback special, but the singer's music was no match for the ever evolving psychedelic sound and his waistline continued to expand as he ensconced himself in Las Vegas for weeks at a time, consuming ever greater quantities of uppers to perform and downers to rest. As the years went on, his sequined jumpsuits and meandering stage announcements turned this once shining light of entertainment into a laughingstock.

But like the Grateful Dead's dark 84 sound, I find Fat Elvis irresistible precisely because of the messiness of his final years. In a time before celebrities publicly acknowledged their addictions and sought treatment for them, Presley lived in a hermetically sealed bubble of sycophants and yes men who did his bidding when he wanted to ride roller coasters all night or comp his "Memphis Mafia" with a fleet of Mercedes Benz. He also had compliant doctors who wore out their prescription pads helping the King navigate his day-to-day life and a paid staff that funneled him boxes of popsicles and stacks of bacon without comment or criticism. That one human being could live a lifestyle this out of control, this hedonistic, and this reckless is truly amazing. 

But in all this sloth, there is a pathos to Elvis's music as he neared his demise. The mournful tone in "My Way," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "Pieces of My Life" shows off the rare interpretative skill Presley had with other people's lyrics. This is a man who may have been diminished physically, spent psychologically, and dead creatively, but was able to muster an emotional peak that feels more impressive knowing how little time he had left on this Earth. It is unsurprising that the last songs Elvis is known to have sung, just hours before his death, were gospel hymnals, a port in the storm for his tumultuous life (and the only recordings for which he ever won a Grammy award). For even as he was burdened with a level of celebrity few could comprehend, inside him was a quiet boy from Tupelo, Mississippi yearning for salvation. 


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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Duke Farms - Orchids

I made my third trip to Duke Farms today with a clear plan of action - get there early, head straight to the Orchid Range and hope to get some great pictures. I think I did. I hope you enjoy them too (especially the second to last orchid that looks like it has a white version of Darth Vader's helmet!)










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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Trump, McCain, & The Latest Media Pile-On

This weekend, the Beltway media is doing what it does best - grabbing its pitchforks in search of someone to burn at the stake. The unlucky victim is Donald Trump, who made some intemperate remarks about John McCain in Iowa on Saturday, seeming to question McCain's military heroism when that conduct is plain to all (though an earlier Trump zinger about McCain graduating at the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy was right on the mark). 

Trump's competitors for the Republican nomination for President quickly joined the pile on, denouncing him and coming to McCain's aid (as if the senior senator from Arizona, an object of reverence among the DC chattering class, needed it). Everyone seems to agree this is the moment the Trump bubble will burst as quiet calls to bar him from the upcoming debate grow louder and his foolishness is put on greater display. 

The other question which has been raised by people like Chuck Todd is whether the comment itself disqualifies Trump from being President (this is a favored Chuck Todd trope, he famously declared Alison Grimes disqualified from being a Senator because she would not disclose to a reporter who she voted for for President). It is a layup question that appeals to the facile nature of political analysis, but is what Trump said about McCain any more disqualifying than Rick Perry not remembering which three federal departments he wants to shutter, or Ted Cruz's climate denialism, or Scott Walker refusing to say whether he believes in evolution, or Jeb Bush's treatment of Terri Schiavo, or Rick Santorum darkly warning on "man-dog" love if gay marriage was legalized, or McCain, for that matter, when he selected Sarah Palin as his running mate when she was clearly unfit to hold national office?

The other hypocrisy in all of this is the reflexive protection of military service. Once upon a time, Republicans made it a part of their playbook to disparage Democrats who had served - think the "purple heart band-aid" brigade at the 2004 Republican National Convention mocking John Kerry or the disgusting attacks on triple-amputee Max Cleland in 2002. Where once the Republican National Committee led such attacks, now they suddenly care about what one of their own says about another? Puh-leaze. 

UPDATE: Oliver Willis  has unearthed a letter Jeb Bush wrote to the Swift Boat Veterans in 2005 thanking them for what they did to John Kerry. I'm sure the media will ask Jeb about this the next time he chats with them (sarcasm, mine).

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Trump Bump

When Donald Trump entered the Presidential race on June 16th, his entry was met with derision (the press), consternation (fellow Republicans), and bemusement (Democrats). The event itself was mercilessly mocked, from his egotistical escalator descent to the members of the audience who were paid to be there, few thought "Mr. Trump" was doing anything other than what he tends to do - pump up his own "brand" through bombast and braggadocio. 

Whatever lift Trump may have received from the announcement was quickly deflated when he tore into the issue of immigration, and specifically, describing how murderers, drug dealers, and rapists were crossing the border to wreak havoc here in the good old U.S. of A. Business partners like Macy's (where Trump-branded menswear is sold, much of it made in China (irony)), NBC (home of his reality TV show "The Apprentice"), and Serta (yes, Virginia, there is a Trump-branded mattress), quickly cut ties with the real estate mogul. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to Trump's expected obscurity - his poll numbers took off. The more attention the media gave Trump's incendiary comments, the more popular he became, quickly vaulting into second place in polls taken in Iowa and North Carolina and, amazingly, leaping into first place in a YouGov/Economist poll taken nationwide of Republican voters. Just yesterday, he spoke to more than 4,000 people in Arizona, a crowd that dwarfed the largest ones drawn by any of his challengers. Trump has tapped into a vein of Republican voters who are deeply distrustful of Washington and "the establishment," fear the demographic changes going on in our country, and want someone to stand up for them. That their standard bearer would be a New York City real estate developer with a ridiculous hairdo and no filter was missed entirely by the press corps. 

All this all happened while Jeb Bush, who the media is breaking its back to carry water for, announced he had raised more than $114 million, much of it through a Super PAC affiliated with his candidacy. The media is stuck in the narrative that name recognition + deep pocketed donors = front runner even though Jeb has done little to merit this title. He is a desultory public speaker, stumbled badly when asked a rudimentary question about Iraq, and has not had much in the way of negative press coverage of what one would think would be hot button topics like his handling of Terri Schiavo while Governor of Florida or the fact that almost all of his foreign policy advisors served his father, brother, or both and what that might say about the direction he would lead the country.

Indeed, it seems like the dirty little secret to Jeb's candidacy is that he may end up being an emperor with no clothes. I will admit, way back in 2011, I foresaw him being nominated for many of the same reasons pundits still cling to - his family name, his experience, and sobriety, but the Republican party of 2015 is a different place than it was even four short years ago. Trump's rhetoric may be overheated, but it is not substantively much different than what you hear on Fox News or by many other leading Republicans (just google "Steve King cantaloupes"). And that's just on immigration. Other wedge social issues, like same sex marriage and contraception put most of the leading contenders for the nomination well outside mainstream thought in our country, but little attention is being paid to those topics because Trump is taking up so much oxygen. 

For all the money Bush has raised, the polls do not bear out much enthusiasm for his candidacy. Scott Walker is in the lead in Iowa, and while Bush leads (barely) in New Hampshire, the Granite State has been notoriously unfriendly to his family - Poppy Bush was crushed by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and stumbled badly against Pat Buchanan in 1992, and in 2000, John McCain blew out George W. Bush by almost 20 points. After that, the primary calendar moves to South Carolina, which has a favorite son candidate in the race and whose politics are more conservative than Bush's, and Nevada, where the Rand Paul acolytes are ready to put their man over the top. A string of Southern primaries have moved up to garner greater attention and there again, Bush may struggle against more conservative and evangelical opponents like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum (who did very well in the Deep South in 2012), and Rick Perry. 

Contrary to what his brother was able to do in 2000 - chase off challengers and secure endorsements through the might of his fundraising acumen - the Republican field this year is larger than it has ever been and Jeb has not separated himself in either national or early primary polls. If anything, his enormous financial haul speaks solely to the allure of his family name, something he claims he would not need (and would not use) to get elected. Of course, you won't hear anything approaching negative coverage from the Beltway media - they are too focused on pumping up Jeb as the "adult in the room" and the recipient of a polling surge (from 12 to 15%!) but Trump's popularity and sudden rise also illustrate something that is becoming more obvious with each passing election - the disconnect between the Beltway bubble and the rest of America. Fifteen years ago, another Bush hoovered up tens of millions of dollars and was anointed the frontrunner. Today, that narrative no longer holds true. 


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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Why I Did Not Go To Chicago

More than 200,000 people trekked to Chicago this weekend to see the original, surviving members of The Grateful Dead perform what have been billed as the band's farewell concerts. I was not among the throng who made the pilgrimage to the site of the band's final shows with lead singer Jerry Garcia. It had less to do with the shameless cash grab (though anyone who mail ordered tickets in the 80s or 90s eye rolled at the face value for a ticket) and a lot more to do with the appropriation of the band's name for something that could have been done under a different guise. 

I have no problem with the surviving members commemorating the 50th anniversary of the band's formation or, for that matter, touring in celebration of that signal event. What I do mind is the idea that these are "Grateful Dead" shows. Let us be clear. They are not. That band was led by Jerry Garcia and ceased to exist when he passed away on August 9th, 1995. Don't believe me? The surviving members once understood it too. When Jerry died at the height of the band's popularity, when millions were pouring in from tour dates, they could have plucked someone else to play lead guitar, sing Jerry's songs, and carry the banner. But they did not. For the same reason the band could survive the death or departure of Pigpen, Keith and Donna, Brent, and even Mickey Hart for a short spell, they could not survive without Jerry because Jerry was The Grateful Dead. No Jerry. No Grateful Dead. 

In fact, just six short years ago, the now-dubbed "core four" toured together and, but for a few guffaws from the press about old geezers "still truckin'" after all these years, those shows, and that tour, passed without much notice. Why? One key word was omitted from that band's name. "The Dead" filled amphitheaters and smaller venues but none of the sturm und drang, including a shout out from the President of the United States, attended these otherwise unremarkable shows. The side men playing with the band this weekend are also familiar - Bruce Hornsby was a member of The Grateful Dead and Jeff Chimenti has toured for years as part of Bob Weir's band Ratdog. Trey Anastasio, the front man for Phish, has also played with Lesh and has his own jam band credentials. So why feel the need to resurrect a name that you properly retired when the man most associated with it died? 

And I get it. The band was always about a sense of adventure, of young people exploring the world and getting into shenanigans and maybe meeting some friends along the way.  Perhaps the three shows in Chicago and the two in California gave some who never got to see the band the opportunity to experience a Dead show, or at least a pale imitation of what that experience was like, but the truth is, the band has been touring under different names for almost as long as Jerry has been in the ground. The Other Ones. The Dead. Further. Phil Lesh & Friends. But the one thing the band members had the decency to do was not call themselves The Grateful Dead.

This is true for the same reason Nirvana survived half-a-dozen drummers before Dave Grohl but disbanded after Kurt Cobain's suicide, why The Beatles made it past Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe but The Police called it quits after Sting went solo, and why Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend can still pass themselves off as "The Who" even though Keith Moon has been dead since 1978 and John Entwistle since 2002 (they did a show just four days after their erstwhile bassist went to the great beyond!) Sometimes musicians are so associated with a band and a band is so associated with a particular member, that using that name once they are no longer in the band is just not right. 

Of course, it is the band's name, their music, and their legacy, they can do with it what they please, charge people what the market will bear, sell $700 box sets and crackdown on anyone attempting to share soundboard recordings of their old shows. But it is too bad they have chosen this route because the music they have produced has actually been pretty good, it is just not "The Grateful Dead." To some, this will seem silly or a matter of semantics, but those of us who had the good fortune of seeing the band, of knowing that electric current that passed through the crowd when the lights went down and band took the stage, do not need the band's name resurrected to cherish those memories.


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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The True Detective Backlash

On the roller-coaster ride that is the zeitgeist of modern popular culture, HBO's True Detective is at a nadir. The show, which spawned a thousand thought pieces during its bravura first season suddenly cannot do anything right. In the wake of the second season premiere, the reviews were damning, mocking everything from the overwrought dialogue to the forced imagery of eagle heads and artisanal dildos.
 
If there is anything we like more than an underdog, it is knocking someone off a very high pedestal. Having caught lightning in a bottle, True Detective was bound for a fall. Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of True Detective, is a particularly inviting target - he is self-absorbed and pretentious, has said some odd things in interviews, and has a very high opinion of himself. The first season landed in that perfect Venn of "serious television" and "internet sensation" that translates into something more sought after than ratings: buzz. From Twitter to the office water cooler, people could not get enough of Rust Cohle's aluminum Lone Star stick figures or his rhapsodizing like a 2 A.M. dorm room philosopher.
 
The web happily fell down the rabbit hole of obscure books and freeze frame images to discern the identity of the "Yellow King" and slapped show dialogue on fake greeting cards. But here is the thing – the half-life of cultural relevance in today’s day and age is incredibly short. The critical acclaim for True Detective was just another sugar high before the next big thing. By the time award season came around, the show garnered many nominations, but the once-thought acting award locks for Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson did not come to pass, while Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga were recognized at less prestigious ceremonies than either the Emmys or Golden Globes.
 
So when the casting and storyline for Season 2 were announced, the first hints of a backlash were primed to begin. Vince Vaughn? Four lead characters? A meditation on power and corruption through California land use policy? No Cary Joji Fukunaga? On first viewing, The Western Book of the Dead seemed to validate much of the criticism. The hour did feel cluttered at times trying to shoehorn in all the leads, there was a level of exposition that came off as heavy-handed, and having imbibed eight episodes worth of time-is-a-flat-circle-esque ramblings, lines like “Don’t do anything out of hunger, not even eating” came off as stale, not substantive. The cinematography, which was used to such great effect in turning rural Louisiana into an alien landscape, was now used in service of endless highways and industrial sites.
 
Of course, Pizzolatto was in a no-win situation. Had he simply made a second season with his first season stars (or in the same location) the outcry would have been that he was unwilling to take chances and the story would have been directly compared to the first season. Having chosen to start fresh with a new cast and location, critics are experiencing an addict’s woe – chasing the euphoria of the first high. When something so original and interesting is aired, the natural inclination is to want the next iteration of it to be equally good if not better. Second seasons are by their nature tricky in the same way movie sequels are, especially when the first go-round is so iconic. While shows like Seinfeld and Breaking Bad did not peak until several seasons in, other shows like Homeland and House of Cards have suffered similar sophomore slumps.
 
So allow me to offer a modest proposal. Stop extrapolating whether you will like an entire season of television based on a single hour of it. Go back and re-watch the premiere with an open mind, re-consider some of the warts you saw on first viewing. Take in Season 2 of True Detective without the baggage of comparison to what you already know. Wipe your own critical slate clean. Instead of hoping you will get that same chill up your spine when Rust Cohle said that the universe was one big ghetto, appreciate the genius of a coked-out, alcoholic Ray Velcoro calling his own son a pussy and looking a 12-year old in the eye and screaming FUCK YOU. Instead of envying the ample bosom that swelled in Marty Hart’s face, consider the empty shell that passes for Paul Woodaugh’s soul and the blank look on his face while receiving an enthusiastic blowjob with as much excitement as a trip to the dentist (and by the way, why did he wait until he was at his girlfriend’s apartment to pop his Viagra? Wouldn’t it have made sense to take care of that before he arrived so he would be at attention and ready to go?) Instead of the banter between Papania and Glbough, be open to Ani Bezzerides and Elvis Ilinca (I mean, come on, who doesn’t love a guy named Elvis?) And while you are at it, do not drill down too deeply into the weird iconography found in Ben Casper’s home or the riffs (or wig) of new age guru Eliot Bezzerides. We all know those blind alleys only lead to frustration and disappointment.
 
Meanwhile, the critics will continue picking apart the dialogue, marinating in absurdities like the saddest guitar playing woman in the world, and hate watching every flat line delivered by Vaughn. In doing so, they will, to paraphrase this season’s tag line, get the show they deserve.

 

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Getting Real About Gun Violence After Charleston

Just a few days after the massacre in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, 1 person was killed and 9 injured when a gunman opened fire on a house party in a low income area of Philadelphia. The only thing that stopped that shooting from being far worse was bad aim. Unsurprisingly, this incident did not rate any coverage outside the Philadelphia media market, probably because that type of violence is commonplace in our country and addressing it is far more complicated than a simple sound bite or segment on a cable news chat show. 

On the other hand, the coverage of the Charleston massacre has been wall-to-wall for days, but, predictably, continues to miss the mark when it comes to addressing gun violence in our nation.  Do not get me wrong. What happened in Charleston was an awful tragedy, a hate crime, and, arguably, an act of domestic terrorism, but focusing attention on whether or not the Confederate flag should be taken down (it should, clearly) or on the mental faculty of Dylann Roof misses the forest for the trees if you are interested in the topic of what to do to reduce gun violence in our country. Indeed, attempting to create policy off of "black swan" mass shooting events while ignoring the everyday gun violence that is taking places on the streets of so many of our cities is political and journalistic malpractice. 

Sadly, "gun violence" is actually quite predictable - it occurs disproportionately in cities, is associated with things like domestic violence, drugs, and gang activity, with weapons that are used by people who acquire them illegally. This is an important point because the idea that strict, state-level gun laws in and of themselves will reduce gun violence is a fallacy. In New Jersey, where I live, the Brady Campaign rates our gun control laws as the third strictest in the nation - we require people to obtain licenses to purchase guns, we do background checks, closed the "gun show" loophole, and have a waiting period between when you get your gun license and when you can purchase a gun, and on and on, but that has not stopped Camden, to take one example, from consistently being at or near the top of the list of the most dangerous cities in our country. Other cities, like Newark, Trenton, and Paterson also experience a per capita murder rate far greater than the national average and just six cities in New Jersey account for the more than 340 shooting murders that occur in our state each year. 

You see, strict gun laws in New Jersey do nothing about the lax gun laws in places like Virginia, North Carolina, or Georgia, three states where a large number of the "crime guns" recovered in New Jersey are originally purchased. In fact, roughly 80% of the guns used in the commission of crimes in New Jersey were bought somewhere outside of New Jersey and trafficked here to be used for illegal purposes. If it is easy to acquire guns in one place and traffic them into another place without much fear of apprehension or prosecution and is also very profitable for the people doing the trafficking, cutting off that pipeline will do a lot more to have a meaningful impact on gun violence than taking down a flag. 

Another talking point you hear a lot about is the the need for mental health screening, but that story is also mixed. First, there is no test or diagnosis that can accurately predict who may "go postal" and even if there was, research shows that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of crime, not the perpetrators. 

Moreover, there is already a way to determine whether a person is disqualified from buying a gun based on a mental defect, but the data is incomplete. In early 2008. some guy named George W. Bush signed an amendment to the Brady Act requiring states to submit mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This amendment was passed after a gunman killed more than 20 people at Virginia Tech University and was supposed to ensure that people who were prohibited from buying a gun due to a mental health disability were not allowed to do so, as the gunman at Virginia Tech was. Before the law was signed, only 22 states turned over such information voluntarily, and even since the passage of the 2008 Brady Act Amendment, many states are not in full compliance with its requirements. In fact, the law provided financial incentives to try to speed the process, with mixed results - as recently as last month, DOJ was still putting out grant funding to get all states up to date. 

Lastly, "straw" purchasers, people who are not legally prohibited from buying guns and do so and then sell (or give) those guns to others, need to be made a priority by the Department of Justice and laws need to be strengthened to stiffen the penalties for making straw purchases, up to and including allowing prosecutors to charge straw purchasers with the same crime as those charged for the crime in which the straw purchased gun was used. 

Of course, adding prosecutors to go after straw purchasers and traffickers or making sure that all states are current in transmitting mental health records to NICS costs money and lord knows how friendly this Congress is toward giving more money to the federal government to discharge its duties. And such efforts do not even scratch the surface of the deeper questions of how to bring economic opportunity, better educational outcomes, and greater safety to cities where most of the gun violence is taking place in our country. But in the meantime, it would not kill the people who report on these issues to do a little digging to better understand the nature and reality of gun violence in America so they can start pressing our leaders to do things that will actually make a difference. 


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy