Saturday, September 22, 2018

Things I Love - Jaws

The idea of a summer blockbuster did not exist until 1975, when a little-known director named Steven Spielberg put the fear of ever going in the ocean again on an unsuspecting populace. 

Jaws is a thing I love.

On the podcast The Rewatchables the hosts agreed Jaws is probably the most “rewatchable” movie of the past 50 years, and I could not agree more. I have watched some or all of Jaws dozens of times. It is a film that literally grabs you by the ankles in the first minute and does not let go until Chief Brody’s well-placed rifle shot blows Bruce the Great White Shark out of the water. 

On the surface, the story seems pretty simple. A man-eating shark menaces the small beach town of Amity (which means “friendship”), killing several people before the heroic Chief of Police (Martin Brody) dispatches the beast with the help of a cantankerous ship captain (Quint) and a snarky oceanographer (Matt Hooper). In fact, the book Jaws borrowed its basic plot from a real life series of shark attacks that occurred on the New Jersey shore in 1916, but it was that hard-to-define combination of storytelling, casting, and kismet that made the movie version of Jaws a sensation. 

Today, the movie’s brilliance is axiomatic, but at the time of shooting, there was no guarantee of success. The director (Spielberg) was an untested twenty-eight year old helming a film being shot on location with at least one of his lead actors constantly in the bag (Robert Shaw) and the movie’s main special effect (the shark) not even available for use until well into the shooting, which ran three times as long as scheduled. This type of horror movie was also unheard of at the time but became so iconic that its mimicry has stretched from the sublime (Alien was pitched as Jaws in outer space) to the ridiculous (Sharknado anyone?)

So what is it that makes Jaws so great? Of course, much has been written about how Jaws made a virtue out of necessity, that the delay in getting Bruce the Great White Shark operational accrued to the film’s benefit as the unseen menace lurking underneath the water was not revealed until the final third of the movie. Then there are the story beats, which condition you from the first scene to be prepared (thanks to the iconic John Williamson score) that things can go from peaceful to apocalyptic in the strain of a few violin notes. 

Spielberg taps this theme over and over again, carnage appears out of nowhere and swiftly recedes, from the brutal attacks on Chrissie and Alex Kintner to Charlie’s near-death experience when he and his fishing buddy go on a late-night jag trying to catch the shark. The remnants of these attacks, the blood-stained water, the shredded raft, the destroyed pier, impart a level of fear that makes the visual of the shark unnecessary. It all comes together impeccably, whether it is the now-famous “Spielberg shot”  - zooming Brody back and forth on the beach - to Ben Gardner’s head popping out of the destroyed hull of his boat. 

Jaws also serves as an allegory for what happens when we are exposed to something we cannot fully comprehend. This would be a theme Spielberg would go on to explore throughout his career, be it in regards to extra terrestrials or the horrors of Nazi Germany. But in Jaws the fault lines are quite clear - Mayor Vaughn and the town elders are far more concerned over lost tourist dollars that would result from closing the beaches than the well-being of the people who visit (or live) in their town. Chief Brody, on the other hand, is the Cassandra, identifying the risk at its earliest stage only to be shouted down by the mob until they are forced to reckon with their shortsightedness when an attack occurs in broad daylight.

The closing chapters with Brody, Hooper, and Quint on the Orca are a movie-within-a-movie, a master class in interpersonal dynamics, the toggling between anger, frustration, joy, and fear. It is male bonding of the most primal order, Quint’s hypnotic tale of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, Brody seeing the shark break the surface, his cigarette falling from his lips as he utters the now famous line “you’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Hooper so nervous before entering the shark cage he tells Brody “I got no spit.” It is pulse-pounding and exhilarating at the same time, a tour de force by all involved. 

Not all was perfect. In addition to heralding the summer blockbuster, Jaws also started the lamentable pattern of sequels, each, successively worse than the one before and none coming close to the original’s high standard (Jaws 3-D? Hard pass.) But for one summer at least, the beaches were full, but the ocean was empty.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 



Saturday, September 15, 2018

Things I Love - Oasis Unplugged

In the 1990s, there was no greater rite of passage, no greater marker of a band’s success, than an invitation to perform on MTV’s Unplugged. The show was an opportunity for musicians to reinterpret their own songs (and those of others) using a stripped down sound in an intimate performance space that gave off a coffee house vibe. Of course, MTV did not invent this genre, early 1960s folk was probably the first to appropriate it, but when Eric Clapton’s 1992 Unplugged set went on to sell 26 million copies while garnering the Grammy award for Album of the Year, the format became iconic. A few years later, the biggest band in the world at the time, Oasis, almost self-immolated because just before showtime, the band’s lead singer, Liam Gallagher, refused to perform, leaving his lead guitarist brother Noel to step in and perform a set of music so flawless, the former’s jealousy over the latter’s success has (allegedly) precluded its commercial release for more than twenty years. 

 Oasis Unplugged is a thing I love. 

In the mid-1990s, few bands achieved the worldwide success of Oasis. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the rapid end of the grunge era, Oasis’s modern Brit Pop sound quickly raised the band’s profile. Their first album, Definitely Maybe was released just months after Cobain’s death and immediately established the band in England, but it was the group’s 1995 follow-up What’s the Story Morning Glory? that shot them to superstardom. The album sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and the best known song, Wonderwall, is one of the defining ballads of the decade. 

And so it was that on August 23, 1996, the band was set to perform a set for MTV Unplugged at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Except they almost did not. An hour before showtime, Liam bailed out, claiming he had a sore throat. Power play? Possibly. He and his brother Noel were constantly feuding in that pissy, juvenile, oh-so-rock-n-roll way that has its roots with Jagger and Richards, Tyler and Perry, and, when it comes to siblings, the brothers Davies of Kinks fame. 

So what did the band do? Did they turtle in fear. No. Noel Gallagher, who was so small it looked like his Gibson guitar would swallow him whole on stage, confidently strode out of his younger, but more charismatic brother’s shadow and redefined what it is for one brother to dunk on the other, basically, for eternity. The sibling drama played out from beginning to end. As Noel strolled on stage leading the band, he casually mentioned that “Liam’s got a sore throat, so you’re stuck with the ugly four.” (a dig not only at his brother’s last minute drop out but his pretty boy looks). And then, without further ado, launched into a stunning performance of Morning Glory’s first track, Hello with confidence and brio. 

It was pretty much all over after that. Noel, his voice strong even as he carried both the lead and backup vocal duties, WHILE ALSO PLAYING LEAD GUITAR made quick work of the band’s still modest catalogue. Don’t Look Back in Anger is performed with wistfulness and longing while Some Might Say is invigorated by a zesty horn section and Live Forever is given a magisterial reading replete with violins and grand piano. 

Later, when Liam appears in a suite well above the stage, beer in hand and cigarette dangling from his fingers (you know, just the kind of things a man with a sore throat consumes), he starts heckling his own band. I mean, it does not get much better than that for debauched rock ’n’ roll behavior. Not to be dissuaded, Noel needles his younger brother, “oh there you are” he sniffs with a bemused tone in his voice before twisting the knife a bit further by introducing Cast No Shadow as “one that I wrote” (the joke being, Noel wrote ALL of the band’s songs). 

And when Noel brings the show to a close with a letter-perfect version of Wonderwall as the credits roll, you cannot help but be awed by the moment. Pushed into the limelight at the last minute, the second banana stood tall, nailing every last song in performances that are as compelling to listen to today as they were twenty-two years ago. But here’s the thing, for most people, this high water mark is lost to history. Because Liam did not perform, the show was never released commercially. In the early years of file sharing, you could find tracks on Napster and the like, and imports from Europe circulate if you look hard enough, but otherwise, all fans are left with is the occasional re-airing on cable TV and wonky You Tube clips to relive this brilliant night. 

Oasis Unplugged also stands as a cautionary tale about fame and success. At the time, there were few bands at Oasis’s level, but the very things that rocketed them to the top - the creative friction between the brothers Gallagher, led to the band’s demise. The band’s stay at the top would be short-lived, as internal tensions spilled out into the public and subsequent releases fared worse and worse. But that one night at the Royal Albert will live forever. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Other things I love …


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Book Review - Tailspin

When you put a bald eagle trailing blood on the front cover of your book, it is a fair assumption you are not writing about America in ascendence. Over 300-plus pages, Steven Brill’s Tailspin puts forth a thesis that well-intentioned efforts at societal reform have been perverted and turned our nation into one of crumbling infrastructure, decaying schools, and a society cleaved between a shrinking group of haves and an every increasing majority of have-nots. Expanding access to Ivy League schools? A great idea that has created a meritocracy (except those who benefitted have become greedy Wall Street types). Ralph Nader getting labels put on dangerous products? Also important until corporations transmogrified it into a legal rationale for unlimited campaign spending. Civil service protections? Important so workers were not fired at the change of an administration, but now making it far more difficult to remove underperforming employees. And on and on. 

The idea of no good deed going unpunished pervades Tailspin and will not uplift anyone hoping things will change anytime soon. Brill is not saying anything that was not already covered in John Edwards’s “Two Americas” message in 2004 or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes A Village” book of the mid-1990s but he puts a sharper point on things by rummaging into some of the darker corners of law and policy that someone of his background (a double Yalie, undergrad and law who transitioned to journalism) can do.

And so, Brill will drag you into the backwaters of regulatory agencies who have to sift through thousands of public comments submitted by lobbyists trying to kneecap any attempt at meaningful oversight of the workplace, the environment, or our financial institutions. You will see the procurement process (numbingly boring as it is) result in rubber stamping defense projects whose price tags soar without anyone complaining because the projects are sprinkled through hundreds of congressional districts and inject commerce into every one, and the decades-long process to get the permits and approvals necessary to replace critical transportation projects like a rail tunnel under the Hudson River, which was originally proposed in 1971 and is still years, if not a decade or more away from being constructed. 
In all of this, Brill makes the important point that if you are wealthy in America, not only is government dysfunction not a problem for you (you can, for example, sidestep mediocre public schools by paying for private education and shelter your wealth with the help of accountants) it actually benefits you - gridlock in DC means less chance that anything will be done to tinker with the carefully constructed matrix of benefits and protection granted to you by the tax code, access to higher education for your children, and the criminal justice system. It was not always this way, but as Brill illustrates, the rise of a new class of white collar professionals bent not on the common good, but personal enrichment, has hollowed out the middle class, concentrated ever more wealth at the top, and left most people behind. 

The villains are as familiar as they are unsurprising - lobbyists, lawyers, and venal corporate leaders whose raison d’ĂȘtre is to accumulate as much wealth as possible while sharing as little of it with the rest of society. While Michelle Obama observed that when you climb the ladder of success you should help lift others up, Brill is focused on those who have pulled up the ladder behind them, making it nearly impossible for the social mobility and success that is woven into the Alger Hiss version of America but bears little resemblance to the reality of our nation. 

His autopsy of the post-Great Recession years is emblematic. The after action, focused on squeezing financial penalties from banks as opposed to levying criminal liability on the individuals who made the decisions resulting in the housing market’s collapse may have resulted in some splashy headlines, but as Brill rightly points out, this path-of-least-resistance model did not curb the abuses in a meaningful way. If anything, financial institutions have consolidated their gains in market share while a now-favorable regulatory environment is already scaling back what modest reform was done to punish them. Not only was moral hazard not punished, but many innocent people, whose homes were lost, jobs destroyed, and lives turned upside down, struggle to get by while the real culprits got off scot free. 

I did part company when Brill turned to the political landscape that created these inequities. As a lawyer, Brill is surely familiar with the concept of contributory negligence, but his “both sides are to blame” conclusion is unfair. For whatever shortcomings Democrats may have, to place blame equally on them and Republicans for the current state of affairs minimizes the behavior of the latter while unfairly elevating the actions of the former. Democrats in Congress can point to any number of bipartisan efforts they engaged in with Republican Presidents from Reagan to both Bushes. Conversely, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were sworn in, they were met with lockstep resistance to anything and everything they proposed. When the stock market melted down in 2008, it was Nancy Pelosi who wrangled the votes to ensure passage of TARP; when Barack Obama proposed legislation to lift us out of that crisis, he got a grand total of three Republican votes - none in the House and three in the Senate. 

The idea that the gas tax has not been raised or the marginal income tax is not higher is not a bipartisan failure any more than it is fair to blame Bill Clinton for the Great Recession because Glass-Steagall was repealed. Politics requires nuance and context and so does journalism. While you can lambast Clinton for welfare reform, you also need to give him credit for raising taxes on the wealthy and balancing the budget. Republicans simply redistribute wealth through tax cuts while starving government of needed resources, a far greater sin without any of the upside of policy making that both Clinton and Obama engaged in. Lamenting the shortcomings in Obamacare without pointing to the efforts Obama made to get Republicans on board (he basically adopted a Heritage Foundation idea!) is a grave disservice to his work and hands Republicans a pass not just for refusing to help but not paying any political penalty for it. 

Of course, to see what a government values, you need only look at where it spends its money. As Brill discusses, the cost overruns on the F-35 fighter plane alone have been more than $100 billion, enough to fund universal pre-K and tuition-free community college for a decade. Yet, we barely bat an eyelash at this form of government waste while Republicans whine that there is simply no money for such important efforts. Similarly, tax cuts enacted last year that will reduce the burden even more on corporations, the wealthiest Americans, and heirs to multi-million dollar estates are being made up by borrowing money to fill the gap. 

In my view, Brill is imprecise in pinpointing our decline to the late 1960s. I would argue it is a more recent phenomenon dating to Reagan’s election in 1980. From then, the idea of progressive taxation has largely fallen by the wayside. Even Clinton and Obama felt the need to shield taxpayers well into the top 10 percent of all earners from any tax hikes while nosing the top rate just south of 40 percent for people at the very top. While doing so had the salutary effect of lowering deficits without any adverse effect to the economy, other changes, to capital gains taxation and the carried interest loophole, have provided accountants, lawyers, and lobbyists other opportunities to reduce their clients’ tax obligations. 

Brill does highlight some important initiatives - a job retraining program in New York City teaching people how to write computer code, good government watchdogs who monitor campaign spending and regulatory policy, and think tanks churning out sensible, middle-of-the-road white papers that surely circulate widely among the Georgetown cocktail crowd (one even became the foundation for a bipartisan immigration reform bill that Republicans snuffed out while Obama was in office), but they seem too few and far between to be of much consequence. And while Brill points fingers at the usual suspects, one group that escapes opprobrium are the voters themselves. The fact is, on many issues, from gun control to taxes, the majority of Americans support policies that are not being enacted into law, yet because voter participation is so low and so many congressional districts are gerrymandered (another bugaboo Brill discusses), politicians - and I am speaking specifically of Republicans - have no incentive to change. Instead of advocating for automatic voter registration, moving Election Day to Saturday, or making mail-in voting optional nationwide, Brill naively pins his hopes for “storming the moats” as he puts it, on the same type of black swan events that we’ve seen before, but led to little systemic change. 

It is, in its way, the same observation that Susan Sarandon made in 2016 that she did not fear a Trump presidency because it would accelerate the revolution. But here’s the thing - the closest we came to this situation was in 2008, and while it did result in Obama’s election and large Democratic majorities in Congress, within two years, some of the very same villains Brill laments - the Super PACs and their corporate funders - had mounted a counter-attack that handed the House of Representatives to Republicans and essentially snuffed out any further progress. After two two-term Democratic presidencies, it is clear that the better outcome is to elect a successor who will build on the hard-earned gains of others. 

Instead, I suspect what we have in store for us is a movie we have already seen twice. It will be left to some future Democratic President to clean up the fiscal, economic, and foreign policy mess of a Republican President, and, if history is any guide, have that gratitude repaid by electing a successor who will tear it all down again. 


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Book Review - Men & Manners

If you define manners as David Coggins does, as “try[ing] to make the lives of people around you easier,” it is no surprise that his recently-released book, Men and Manners is a necessary addition to the niche etiquette market. Americans, and men in particular, are notoriously self-centered and narcissistic. The idea of putting the needs of others ahead of our own may have some valance when it comes to childrearing, but in our day-to-day lives, less so. Indeed, if you have spent any time in a men’s locker room, you also know we tend to be slovenly, unkempt, and show only the faintest interest in aiming for the toilet. Honestly, I wonder sometimes how we, as a species, survive.

Coggins is not the first to ruminate on the finer points of email correspondence, what to do when you forget someone’s name, or the importance of owning more than one set of sheets, but he is well-suited to share his advice on how to be a better man. An author of a prior book on men’s style and a contributor to publications that one might see in the waiting areas of upper crust offices that are clearly his target audience, this is someone who has given some thought to donning a tuxedo and picking up the tab at dinner. 

In brisk chapters on topics like public behavior, travel, and dating, Coggins rat-a-tat-tats through the basics - don’t ghost women you’ve gone out with or wear tracksuits in public (he’s obviously not spent any time in New Jersey), or hog the overhead bin, or wear an open-toed shoe anywhere, basically, other than the beach (feet are a REAL issue for Coggins). On the other hand, do learn a little bit about wine, provide a thoughtful gift when invited to a friend’s home, make friends with the hotel concierge, tip generously, and, if in doubt, overdress rather than underdress. 

So far, so good. And added to these morsels of information are little Q & A’s and essays by what you might think of as subject matter experts. I particularly liked the tips from Ted Harrington, the owner of a stationery print shop, who discussed the increasingly lost art of writing notes on actual paper with your name on it and Jon Birger, who has written about the unintended adverse consequence of there being more women graduating from college than men, resulting in worse behavior by the latter as they understand their relative scarcity for the former as eligible dating partners. Yes ladies, Birger essentially argues you are being punished for the sin of educating yourselves - either you expand your dating pool to include non-college-degreed men or you tolerate shitty behavior. 

All of these tips are well and good, but as I cruised through Manners I kept asking myself who it was written for. Are we simply adding it to the pile of gift options for college graduates and men obtaining their MBAs, JDs, and MDs? The all-thumbs crew who would not know a dust ruffle from a decanter, the former frat bros aimlessly making their way through their 20s swiping on Tinder and zealously avoiding anything approaching responsibility and adulthood? In this way, it felt like Manners is narrowly drawn. The good news is if you live in New York City, Coggins can recommend everything from a good tailor to a liquor store with an extensive wine selection. I am just not sure how that plays in Peoria.

Do not get me wrong, I think there is value in understanding these sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious (but ignored) social rules. Not every part of Manners seems targeted at a Flatiron District rooftop party, but I could not help but wonder what chance there is we will suddenly see a surge of men wearing sport coats on airplanes or a typo-free texting future, much less a rage-less commute to work (though I do agree with Coggins, better to yield to the right when some asshole is riding your ass than lose your life because they are in a bigger hurry than you are). 

For Coggins’s claim that the aim of his book is not to transport you back to a Mad Men era of taking your hat off when you enter a room, the book does have a retrograde vibe to it. Absent is a female perspective and, as best I can tell, the perspective of anyone other than heterosexual men. Which is fine, the book is, after all, directed at male behavior, but in doing so, the worldview is necessarily colored in a certain way while also excluding the voices and opinions of people who might have some thoughts on the subject. These were missed opportunities that could have improved on what is an otherwise entertaining exploration of social graces that includes a lot of good tips for people who do try to make the lives of others easier.


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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review - The Secret Lives of Color

When we use the term “origin story” it is often in the context of a super hero - Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider or Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents as a young child, leading him down a path that would result in becoming a cowled avenger. But what of the more pedestrian elements of our world? It is one thing to fabricate a tale of a web-slinging teenager able to fly through the air on a lattice of literal spider’s webs, it is another to consider the shade of red Ferrari uses for its signature sports cars (Rosso corsa) or how it was that Saffron, that most vibrant of oranges, was first synthesized (not to mention why the color orange became so closely identified with the Netherlands). 

Leave it to Kassia St. Clair to act as your guide. In The Secret Lives of Color St. Clair takes us on a fascinating, well-researched, and beautifully written tour of the color wheel. Of course, color is something we often take for granted. There are some basic rules of complementary shades, the inevitable swatches married couples affix to the walls of their new homes, noodling over the subtle differences between eggshell and natural white, but St. Clair makes a compelling argument for color as a foundational aspect of human history, from the defining color of British warships during World War II (Mountbatten Pink) to the Bronze-era Uffington White Horse (Chalk). 

St. Clair is a quick wit who one imagines enjoys a bawdy joke. There is a tanginess to her writing that I found irresistible - whether it was describing the “egret-feathered top to glimmering cat suited toe” outfit worn by Bunny Roger, the inventor of capri pants, on the occasion of his 70th birthday as being “menopausal mauve” or digging up “piss brindle” as a pejorative for redheads, Secret is larded with bon mots that make the pages fly by. And St. Clair takes to her work with what feels like an encyclopedic knowledge of history that will have you pin balling across the centuries, from Mary, Queen of Scots adorned in a Scarlet undergown when she meets the headsman’s ax to the use of Baker-Miller Pink in prisons in the late 1970s because it was thought to make people less aggressive. 

At other points, you will marvel at how much St. Clair is able to squeeze into a single entry. To take one example, in three pages on Prussian Blue, you will learn of its discovery (a wonky chemical reaction in the 1700s caused by animal oil-laden potash), its scientific name (iron ferrocyanide), Picasso’s use of it during his famed Blue Period, and that it is used as a treatment for thallium and radioactive cesium poisoning (the only side effect being that it turns your poop blue - another little factoid St. Clair wedges into the discussion). It does not get much better than that. 

And lest you think colors-of-the-moment (looking at you Millenial Pink) are a new phenomenon, St. Clair is here to disabuse you of any such notion. Consider Puce, so named by the monarch Louis XVI because he thought it resembled the color of fleas, but loved by his wife Marie Antoinette, whose adoption of the color was met with widespread favor among the hoi polloi (that is, until the French Revolution). Or think of Violet, a color that became synonymous with then-radical painters in late-19th century France who are now recognized modern masters we call the Impressionists.  

It is unsurprising that art plays such a central role in St. Clair’s tale, for color - and specific colors within the broader spectrum - are associated with everything from Van Gogh’s famed sunflowers (Chrome Yellow) to the subtle nuance of nature “fading off into the distance.” (Payne’s Gray). But color is not limited to the artist’s palette. Shocking Pink was appropriated by Marilyn Monroe and Fluorescent Pink by the Sex Pistols to express two very different forms of libertine behavior. In the entry about Cerulean I was hoping for a nod to the famous monologue by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada as she explains how that particular shade of blue was used in haute couture before moving through the lower ranks of fashion and landing on the slumped shoulders of her dowdy assistant (played by Anne Hathaway), but alas, it was not meant to be. 

If there is one note of caution, it is this. For those of us who bombed out of the sciences right around the time we were asked to distinguish between protons and electrons, Secret can sometimes feel like a bad flashback to chemistry class. And this is not St. Clair’s fault, many of the colors she features stem from some form of chemical reaction or process that is beyond the understanding of people without a natural affinity for such things. But this is a minor quibble - Secret is a joy from Lead White to Pitch Black

The highest compliment an author can receive is that she has left the reader wanting more, and so it is with St. Clair. It is not the final entry that saddened me, but rather, the Glossary of Other Interesting Colors that followed as a sort of epilogue, for it was a list long enough to fill a book I suspect we will not see - The Secret Lives of Color, Volume II. 


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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book Review - Political Tribes

Each new President brings with him an undertow of books analyzing “the moment” we are living in. In Reagan’s America, businessmen were deified, the biggest book of the 80s was Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, and yes, Trump’s Art of the Deal, sold in the millions. As the hangover from the Reagan years lingered, writers mused on the death of American competitiveness in the face of Japanese economic supremacy. A cottage industry of conspiracy theorists made their bones (not to mention their riches) attacking the Clintons and George W. Bush’s years were defined by our response to the 9/11 attack and Iraq War. Much was written about a post-racial America under Obama, but now, authors are flocking to cement the new narrative brought on by Donald Trump’s election - the magic word? Tribalism. To this growing list of books is Amy Chua’s Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. It is a thin effort that rarely rises above a freshman-level survey course before falling apart all together in a predictable lament about “our divided nation.” 

Chua’s thesis is simple - America is exceptional, a “super group” as she calls us, largely because of our heterogenous roots, a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures that have blended into one. It distinguishes us from almost every other nation on the planet but also creates a massive blind spot in believing others want our way of life. Chua spends most of the first half of her book examining how our myopia played out in failed foreign adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela (the last appears to have been shoe horned in for no other reason than Chua had written on the topic years ago - nothing like shameless self-promotion). And here, her thesis is fleshed out to the extent an idea can be when generous margins are used and analysis does not go much deeper than a few inches below the surface. 

We backed all the wrong people in Afghanistan, failed to appreciate the Shia/Sunni enmity in Iraq, and books of far greater substance mused on our misadventure in Vietnam. It is not exactly atom-splitting writing, but to the uninformed, I suppose it is a useful primer; however, when the topic shifts from foreign to domestic, the “both sides are to blame” trope rears its head with the attendant anecdotal evidence and couched assertions with amorphous qualifiers like “many” and “some” to make limp points defensible. 

Consider the oft-fetishized demand (which Chua echoes) for seeking common ground among our national leaders. These laments are written as if attempts have not been made when in fact they have been - often - at least by one party, with null results. To take one example, after winning a landslide victory in 2008 and faced with an economy in free fall, President Obama could have pushed through a bill using only Democratic votes, but instead, he tried to get Republicans to work with him on a stimulus bill. On the one hand, he larded it up with tax cuts to entice Republicans, but on the other, kept the total under an artificial amount ($1 trillion) so as not to spook supposed conservatives. In the midst of a massive economic crisis, this effort was met with near total opposition from the GOP - no Republican House members and only three Republican Senators voted for it. To take another, when Obama tried to reform the health care system, he did not attempt to convert our system into a single payer system, no, instead, he took an idea hatched in the halls of the arch-conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. He tried to get Republicans to parlay, and in fact, more than 100 Republican amendments made it into the Affordable Care Act, but no votes were given. Indeed, Republicans have spent the eight years since the bill’s passage attempting to repeal it, undermine it, and delegitimate it in the eyes of the public. 

Of course, if you point this out, you simply prove Chua’s point about political division; however, the real sin, to me at least, is the failure of those with the platform to write about these issues to honestly engage in examining root causes and yes, pointing the finger of blame. When the economy collapsed under George W. Bush in 2008, it was Democrats who stood up and provided the needed votes to pass a massive bank bailout. Bush also got Democratic votes to authorize military action in Iraq, hell, he even got Democratic votes (at least more than a few) for his massive tax cut in 2001. Senate Republicans would not even let Obama fill the job of Public Printer of the United States (yes, that’s a thing) for months. Reason? Because they could. And of course, do not even get me started on Merrick Garland.

History continues to repeat itself. Donald Trump received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and yet he rammed through a massive tax cut without the pretense of bipartisanship. Media reaction? Shoulder shrug. Which is why I blanche at the idea that a Van Jones asking a white working class voter to help him “understand” (an example Chua cites for the kind of outreach we need) makes any difference. It does not. As astute commentators have observed, the Republican party has drifted rightward, moving the center to what was once considered “the right” a generation ago, while members of the media demand that Democrats continue chasing compromise. It is a fallacy that writers like Chua refuse to acknowledge.

Another “tribe” Chua fails to discuss is the largest one in America - that group of people who don’t even bother voting. Presidential elections tend to be high water marks for voting in our country, yet barely half of all eligible voters bother to do so. To be sure, some states do better than others, but turnout in mid-term elections is usually below 40 percent and many state and local elections struggle to attract even a quarter of the electorate. Examining this phenomenon and why it persists would have been a far more valuable use of Chua’s time, but instead, there is pollyannish coda to her book citing the musical Hamilton and the fact it starred a multi-cultural cast of actors as a sign of our country’s future. 

Regardless, the flaws extend further - on a myriad of topics, from raising taxes on the rich to enacting sensible gun reform, large majorities of the nation are in agreement, it is the politicians who are the stumbling blocks. In other words, the tribes are not nearly as at odds as books like this suggest, rather, it is elected officials - and largely Republican officials (and their donors) - who are a tribe apart. As the multibillionaire Warren Buffett has observed, the war that has been waged in America over the past 40 years, the tribe, if you will, that has routed the enemy is the wealthiest Americans, who have hoovered up more of our collective wealth than at any time in our nation’s history while simultaneously pitting everyone else against each other for the crumbs they have left behind. Had THAT book been written, and not some paint-by-numbers ramble about how red states and blue states talk past one another, it might have been worth reading.


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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Review - On Power

There is no shortage of self-help books on the market. Millions have discovered who moved their cheese and the color of their parachute. But while gurus try to extol the benefits of the four-hour work week or the liberating power of not giving a fuck, none of these authors has made a career (not to mention a large fortune) from spewing fake blood while clad in BDSM gear, six-inch platform shoes and a full face of kabuki make-up. Yes, Gene Simmons (from KISS) has joined the movement with his book, On Power.

For a guy who has adopted the nickname “Dr. Love,” Simmons (or maybe it’s his ghostwriter?) is a surprisingly fluid writer. Born Haim Witz in Haifa, Israel, Simmons emigrated to the U.S. with his mom as a young boy. Simmons’s telling of his own life has a bit of Horatio Alger about it, a mix of hard work (he picked up odd jobs from a young age and got his teaching degree even as he chased his dreams of being a rock star), clean living (he eschews the “drugs” part of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” though certainly implies he indulged heavily in the other two), and determination that resulted in his success and stardom. 

Simmons created his own image, changing his name and finding a passion that became his north star, pursuing music while doing what he had to make ends meet. If you get past the chesty bravado and, you know, the whole Gene Simmons oeuvre, On Power is a mainstream meditation on the way you can achieve success if you define that term by the amount of money you make and the power you exert. Simmons portrays himself as a clear-eyed realist, unafraid to tell it like it is, even if it means stepping on a few toes. This means (unsurprisingly) he has little patience for today’s everyone-gets-a-trophy attitude of child rearing and unapologetically encourages women to use their sexuality to get ahead. Simmons also has little patience for people who do not want to sully themselves with the tactics necessary to achieve power, explaining that wanting to do good is impossible if you are not in a position to do so (a fair point).

Other advice Simmons dispenses is basic but important - network to improve your career opportunities, have a back-up plan (and a back-up plan to the back-up plan), be frugal, focus your energy on what you are passionate about, understand the fine line between sucking up to your boss and being unafraid to tell uncomfortable truths (personally, I still have not mastered this one), associate yourself with the people who do the things you want to do, and on and on.

It all makes for light and fast reading and Simmons is heterodox in his examples, dropping references to everyone from Machiavelli (to whom Simmons offers a strong defense) to Warren Buffett (who shows that a shrewd businessman whose word is good can get very powerful people to do things they might not otherwise do) to further his points. Of course, Simmons’s success has also come from a relentless focus on his brand and that of KISS – they have licensed everything from coffins to comic books and, although the band has never had a number one album, retain a rabid following that has made Simmons a very wealthy man. In short, while you may not love the messenger, you cannot argue too strenuously with the message.  

That said, if it is possible for a small book of less than 160 pages to feel a bit padded, On Power certainly pushes the limit. The last third of the book is made up of what are essentially glorified Wikipedia entries for people Simmons looks up to or he points to as exhibits of the types of strategies he believes in – Churchill overcoming a speech impediment as a child and escaping from a prison camp during the Second Boer War illustrates tenacity, Oprah Winfrey rising from impoverishment and sexual abuse shows determination, Michael Jordan using the fuel of not making his varsity basketball team in ninth grade to feed his singular competitiveness, etc.

So, if you are looking for a pithy, sometimes potty-mouthed pep talk to tackle your life, DO NOT rock ’n’ roll all night and party every day - Gene Simmons’ orders.


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Saturday, June 2, 2018

Book Review - Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars

History is an imprecise thing. Events that, at the time, seem inconsequential, like a fledgling band happening upon a movie marquee and changing its name from Earth to Black Sabbath, or two teenagers meeting at a county fair in 1957, one being John Lennon, the other, Paul McCartney, turn out to be really important, while other events' importance is manifest as they are happening, like a young man witnessing Bob Marley perform at the Lyceum in 1975 or David Bowie announcing his "retirement" as Ziggy Stardust. 

In Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of Rock Stars, David Hepworth toggles between these two extremes, examining the arc of rock 'n' roll through one discrete event each year between 1955 and 1995. Instead of leaning on a collection of greatest hits, like a band that refuses to repeat a set list, Hepworth combs through the back catalogue. It is Springsteen way back in 1974 on the cusp of super stardom, but also at risk of becoming a never was, noodling through what would become Born to Run for six months before converting the promise expressed in his concert reviews into wide scale popularity. It is Hendrix, not at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival blowing every mind with his lights out performance and  incineration of his Strat-O-Caster or his iconic rearrangement of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969, but rather, his low key introduction to England in 1966, long before Are You Experienced? rocket launched him into the stratosphere and made him a god. 

While Hepworth finds some of our musical heroes in their embryonic states, his book is also happy to marinate in their debauched success. Uncommon People is as much about the cost of celebrity as it is the music that produces that adoration. In this way, it is easy to understand why Janis Joplin (the subject of Hepworth’s 1967 entry) is eager to rub her hometown’s nose in collective shit when she decides to return for her ten-year high school reunion, only to feel as empty and ostracized as when her wildest fantasies of revenge do not materialize. 

At the level of celebrity enjoyed by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, or Jim Morrison, it is all too easy to be sucked into a vortex of your own bullshit, to confuse the adoration you receive for the self-worth you may not feel. The list of rock casualties is long and Hepworth’s tidy summation of Elvis Presley’s demise in 1977 is Exhibit A for how the seductiveness of fame can blur easily with its isolating effects. Elvis was one of the most recognized human beings on the planet, yet he was surrounded by a cadre of sycophants lured by the whiff of easy money and access to his reflected glory but none of whom had his best interests at heart. 

Of course, as Hepworth notes, in death, the messy details that led to the early demise of artists like Presley, Morrison, Joplin, and Hendrix get swept away as fans mourn their artistry, not their very human flaws. And for those left behind, there is money to be made in remaking these stories. Presley’s survivors were monetizing him within days of his death, when his manager drily noted “the king is dead, long live the king,” to the present-day, when his ex-wife Priscilla executive produced a largely sympathetic four-hour documentary about him for HBO (naturally, with a soundtrack available in all the relevant physical and digital formats). 

Uncommon People is also deft in charting the trajectory of rock ’n’ roll. What starts out in tiny rooms and dingy bars moves inexorably with the times. As the baby boom exploded, so did rock ’n’ roll. As musicians went from being troubadours to voices of their generation, the stakes got higher but so did the temptations, after all, it’s not called sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll for nothing. In July 1974, Stevie Nicks was waiting tables after her and her boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham were dropped by their record label. Two years later, she was a millionaire co-headlining a bicentennial concert on the Fourth of July in Tampa, Florida before 50,000 screaming fans - how can that not mess with a person's head. 

As the book moves into the 80s, the predictable denouement for many rock stars who made their bones in prior decades comes to pass. As Hepworth charts rock’s domination of popular culture, it tracks closely with the lives of the people whose singular talents resulted in the form’s ubiquity. As musicians became bigger celebrities so too did their appetite for hedonism. The once-young deities like Clapton and Page, Starr and Crosby, were now middle-aged and doughy, struggling with addiction, bankruptcy, and divorce. Their challenges tracked closely with the industry. The self-indulgence and feeling of invulnerability resulted in spectacles that had tragic consequences. Michael Jackson was happy to take a check from Pepsi to shill its product, but a rogue pyrotechnic at a commercial shoot led him down a path to opioid addiction that, years later, resulted in his death. Meanwhile, the tour bubble that musicians travel in resulted in a gifted twenty-five-year-old guitarist named Randy Rhodes dying in an entirely avoidable plane crash. 

For me, the later chapters of Uncommon People are rightly bookended by the emergence of Guns ’N Roses out of the L.A. hair metal scene, applying a needed enema that flushed out the pop sensibilities of bands like Ratt, WASP, and Motley Crue and replacing it with precisely the type of hedonistic-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that makes rock great. Ironically, when the band gave in to the same excesses that befell those before them, it is left to Kurt Cobain, the man Hepworth accurately calls “the last rock star,” to apply his own corrective. Of course, Cobain was a flawed messiah and Hepworth’s argument that in Cobain’s suicide note lay a message of inadequacy, of someone who, having reached the pinnacle of his profession, feared he was not up to the challenge of being a prophet for the millions who worshipped him. 

Cobain's 1994 suicide is also a useful marker for the music business. If this tragedy was not the death knell for rock 'n' roll, it certainly put the patient on life support.  The book’s final chapter tracks the migration of music onto the Internet and with it, the game changing file sharing programs that crippled an industry that was simply unprepared for the sea change that occurred once fans stopped accepting the idea they had to pay a premium (or anything at all) for artists’ music. 

Meanwhile, the rise of boy bands, pop divas, and the mainstreaming of hip hop and rap has pushed rock ’n’ roll out of the cultural zeitgeist. What remains is nostalgia. Music companies continue churning out greatest hits collections and decades-old concerts of classic rock acts knowing a generation of 40-, 50- and 60- somethings are dependable consumers. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend can still be found marching under The Who! banner and you can now go on cruises and hear intimate performances by one-hit wonders still trying to squeeze a few more seconds out of their 15 minutes of fame. Turn on your TV and what were once anthems of youth and rebellion are now used to market Cadillacs and iPods. Of course, since the last phase of any successful artist's career is the lusty hiss of "sell out," this makes total sense.


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Monday, May 21, 2018

Podcast Review - Why Is This Happening?

To call Chris Hayes prolific is an understatement. At the tender age of 39, he has already written two books, began hosting a cable news show at 32, and has covered politics for nearly two decades. He is now branching out into podcasting, and his maiden voyage in that medium, Why Is This Happening? is a thoroughly engaging effort at explaining complex issues of the day. 

In many ways, the podcast format plays more to Hayes's strengthens than his eponymous hour-long TV show and harkens back to his original effort on MSNBC, Up With Chris. While the eight-o'clock hour requires devotion to a structured format with multiple guests covering the news of the day in staccato segments that often elide deeper understanding, Why Is This Happening? allows Hayes to stretch his legs and let his full nerd flag fly. 

The podcast is Hayes interviewing a subject matter expert for more than a half-hour in an effort to understand today's world. This allows Hayes's innate intellectual curiosity to shine. As an interviewer, this is critical - you get the sense that Hayes has not only read the books, articles, and essays written by his guests, but the books, articles, and essays his guests read in putting together their theses and the books, articles, and essays that contradict his guests' arguments. What results is a robust, deep discussion that informs the listener in ways that a five-minute TV segment is simply unable to do.

It is Hayes's fluency on so many different topics that makes Why so compelling. Compared to another wunderkind of his era - Ezra Klein - Hayes avoids the starry-eyed naivete of his wonkish colleague. Whereas Klein came into the public sphere through a college dorm room blog, Hayes was pounding the pavement in Chicago, experiencing, at a granular level, how policy, politics, and everyday life intersect.

This distinction is important. While both Hayes and Klein are well-read and thoughtful, Klein is too quick to offer benefit-of-the-doubt absolution for public policy that is abhorrent. Hayes, while unabashedly progressive, is clear-eyed in what has gone on in this country over the past several decades. For example, in his interview with Corey Rubin, Hayes concedes up front that the conservative movement has largely succeeded over the past 40 years in kneecapping regulation and redistributing income upward. But the genius of Why is in how Hayes is able to tie together these actions not just as a form of corporate domination by the elite class, but how it reflects what is now a centuries-long tradition of consolidating power by the white majority. 

Rubin’s observation that wealthy whites have successfully turned poorer whites against even poorer minority groups for more than a century is echoed in Hayes’s conversation with Brittney Cooper, as they discuss the different ways the struggles of whites and blacks are framed in the media and culture. Cooper’s interview also delves into the black experience in America and circles around everything from white male privilege to “Mean Girl” attacks on Beyonce for having too much. As Hayes point out (not ironically) it is a struggle to be human, but not everyone’s struggle is the same. When the conversation shifts to the competition among upper class parents to help their kids get ahead, Cooper rightly notes that is precisely the problem - the idea there are a limited number of opportunities in a zero-sum game where the air is rarefied - instead of making the effort to lift more people up.  

In speaking with Dexter Filkins, listeners will grasp not just the complexity of Middle East politics, but how easily small missteps might lead to the type of regional conflagration metastasizing into a global conflict that happened in 1914 and led to World War I. His fascinating discussion with Brittney Cooper is a master class on understanding identity politics not as a slur too often hurled to dismiss your political opponents, but a core tenet of how each of us views the world. These are not small ideas and the one-on-one conversation Hayes has with his guests gives them room to breathe, the conversation to meander into different directions, and has the salutary effect of giving the listener the feeling of sitting in on a friendly chat with really smart people. 

Of course, the question begged by Why Is This Happening? is Does Any Of This Matter? In delving into the theories of Edmund Burke or the millennia-long fight between Sunni and Shia, the podcast is certainly erudite, but can also come off as precisely the kind of "East Coast" elitist discussion that conservatives have inveighed against since George Wallace bemoaned pointy-headed intellectuals and Nixon fumed against the editorial board of the New York Times. Ultimately, forty minute deep dives into political theory, identity politics or military history is fine for the Georgetown cocktail party circuit, but how useful it is when the President can send out a tweet that consumes news cycles or makes stock markets gyrate wildly is less clear.

That is not to criticize Hayes's work - once upon a time, the public intellectual, not to mention good public policy informed by research, historical analysis, and its effect on people, was valued. No longer. But to Hayes's credit, he has never tried to sugar coat his bookishness or love of political theory. Now, unshackled from his anchor's desk at MSNBC, he has the opportunity to explore topics with the seriousness and attention to detail he clearly relishes. If Hayes's early podcasts are any indication of where this will lead, Why Is This Happening? will be a regular addition to your podcast rotation.

Ep 1 - Corey Rubin (B+)
Ep 2 - Dexter Filkins (A)
Ep 3 - Brittney Cooper (A)


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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Designated Survivor

As TV show premises go, the idea behind Designated Survivor was pretty good. Take an obscure, but interesting thing about our government – that one cabinet member is kept away from the President’s State of the Union address just in case a catastrophic event occurs that wipes out the rest of government – mix in a humble everyman as the accidental Commander-in-Chief when the black swan event happens, add a sinister plot that thrusts him into that job, and presto, TV ratings gold. You can almost hear the pitch meeting: “It will be The West Wing meets 24. We will even get Keifer Sutherland to play the lead role.”

So why is it, that after just two seasons, ABC canceled Designated Survivor? To me, this was an instance of the whole being far less than the sum of its parts. On paper, the idea made sense – what would happen if suddenly, our entire Congress, Supreme Court, not to mention the President, Vice President, and every other cabinet officer except the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was killed in a terrorist attack. Putting aside the fact that in real life, this would make Ben Carson President, Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman is a mild-mannered academic, a decent and caring husband and father, and the last person who could ever get elected President precisely because he is presented as the antithesis of a politician.

But Designated Survivor could never decide which it wanted to be – The West Wing or 24 and its failure to land on a consistent narrative arc is largely what doomed it. You could see in Season 1 a clear preference for the latter – an attempt at pulse-pounding (though my heart rate rarely accelerated past “mild jog”) drama involving shady bad guys who always seemed one step ahead. There was, for example, a Manchurian Candidate type, a Congressman at the speech who miraculously survived, but, it turns out, because he was tipped off and part of the plot, with the ultimate goal of getting him to the White House. He, and others, were chased by plucky FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who was hunting down clues while always in peril. Meanwhile, Sutherland’s President Kirkman spends the early episodes in a combination of impotent rage and in-over-his-head self-doubt. The problem was, having been identified as Jack Bauer in 24, you wanted Sutherland to take out the bad guys himself; instead, he got bogged down in bureaucracy.  

While the FBI searched for the ring leaders, the show ran aground on the other half of its premise – how do you stand up a new government after the current one has been torn down? But lack of exposition and an unwillingness to just rip the band-aid off to create story lines and characters made this half of the show weak. The President’s main antagonist was the opposing party’s designated survivor (which I do not think is a real thing), but by the end of the season, she was joining his cabinet, never to be seen or heard from again. You could almost see the writers trying to find their way out of narrative dead ends as the body count rose, story lines involving Kirkman’s family receded, and the attendant shock endings (there was, of course, an assassination attempt on Kirkman, the killing of the FBI’s Deputy Director, and the Manchurian candidate as well), tried to clear the way for a second season reboot.  

Season two course-corrected too far in the other direction. The 24 aspect became an ancillary story line that was confusing and esoteric (mostly involving a computer hacker that turned out to be one of Kirkman’s friends) while the show went full West Wing with rat-a-tat-tat Sorkian walk-talk dialogue that lacked the panache or brio of that beloved show’s wordsmith. Episodes featured the predictable legislative squabbles, foreign policy crises, and B- and C-plot romantic entanglements among the staffers, but none of it felt earned or authentic. Kirkman’s wife was killed off halfway through the second season, setting up a convoluted 25th amendment crisis (presided over by a random Vice President who came into the show out of nowhere as the Mayor of D.C. and by the end of that episode was a heartbeat away from the presidency) when recordings of Kirkman’s therapy sessions were leaked on the Internet, purporting to show him as unstable. 

And attempts at introducing new characters either felt forced (sure, let’s sign up Michael J. Fox to play a lawyer who, in the span of three episodes is a special prosecutor against the president, a private attorney representing a kidnapped American, and a special prosecutor for the President who ends up turning on him) or superfluous (hi there, Tom Kirkman’s younger brother, greetings, ambitious young assistant who gets three lines in each episode!)

Ultimately, it was all to the show’s detriment, resulting in its cancelation. While the show’s failures were many (the haphazard plotting and mediocre casting primary among them), Designated Survivor also suffered from being asked to do too much. Although it will go down as a two-season failure, the show produced a total of 44 episodes – four more than the acclaimed drama Better Call Saul will have aired after its pending fourth season. If dramas aired on cable TV, Netflix, and Amazon have proven anything, it is that less is often more. So too here. Had Designated Survivor been written around a ten-to-thirteen-episode season and not twenty-two, the writing and story development would have been more focused. Instead of trying to serve the dual needs of a conspiracy thriller and a political melodrama, it could have chosen one over the other. Ironically, the seeds of its own destruction were built right into the show’s conceit.


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