Monday, August 26, 2013

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 11 - Confessions

When you’re caught in a lie, you have two choices – confess or dig the hole deeper. If you choose the former, you suffer the indignity not just of having your poor decisions exposed, but being called to account for your sins. If you choose the latter, you may get away with it, but will either make yourself dizzy trying to keep track of the lies or manipulate anyone and everyone to keep from being exposed. And so it is that Walter White has distilled the discovery of *his* big lie down to the most basic human instinct – survival.

It is unsurprising that the descent from mild mannered chemistry teacher to Southwest regional meth lord would involve some fibbing, but the shell game Walt constantly played to stay one step ahead of his wife, his brother-in-law, his partner, Gus Fring, and everyone else in service of his secret life has evaporated. The cruel irony of these final episodes is that Walt is no longer a master criminal. Having earned a stack of money that could not be spent in ten lifetimes, he was one copy of Leaves of Grass away from a clean start. Instead, when Hank ignores his admonition to “tread lightly,” Walt throws a Hail Mary – a video “confession” fingering Hank as the criminal mastermind with just enough of a patina of believability (the $177,000 in medical bills, the shoot out with the Salamanca twins, etc.) that could torpedo any chance Hank would have at surviving the inevitable fallout that will result from admitting to the brass that Heisenberg was under his nose the entire time.

But if Hank is a bull that Walt is deftly sidestepping, Jesse is an emotional kamikaze about to detonate on Negra Arroyo Lane. That Jesse Pinkman would end up being the moral center of Breaking Bad is surprising to say the least, but his arc from small town hoodrat to psychologically tortured multi-millionaire has been fascinating to watch. The surrogate son who long ago stopped believing what “dad” told him finally explodes and acknowledges what was always implied but never admitted – it was Walt the whole time – poisoning Brock, trying to manipulate Jesse into killing Gus, getting rid of Mike (who, in his own odd way, tried to actually be a surrogate father to Jesse), rationalizing all the dead bodies left in their wake, and, as a final indignity, explaining to Jesse that going into the criminal version of “witness protection” was about a new start (even, perhaps, a family) and not about saving Walt’s skin. As a final indignity, that ricin cigarette Jesse has been faithfully transferring from pack to pack is spirited away, you know, just in case.

And like so much else that has occurred on this show, people simply can’t leave well enough alone. While Confessions centered on Walt’s gamesmanship with Hank and Jesse, looming ominously are Todd, his neo-Nazi band of brothers and a tank of methylamine they are spiriting back across the state border into New Mexico after expressing their dissatisfaction with the quality of “blue” being produced by their partners. The trains coming down the track from various directions draw closer and closer because the decisions everyone makes compound previous bad choices. If the first rule of holes is to stop digging, no one here got that message. It was not enough for Walt to prey on Jesse’s emotions and convince him to leave town, he had to strip away a small piece of his dignity as well. Hank, compelled to investigate his brother-in-law, spits nails in the White family’s direction and Marie attempts subterfuge in an effort to pry Flynn away from his parents, but the result is predictable and always the same – the confrontation escalates, the stakes get higher and the possibility that anyone survives the inevitable cataclysm grow smaller and smaller.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Book Review - This Town

Along the banks of the Potomac River has arisen a self-contained ecosystem immune to the vagaries of life outside its borders. Its leading lights rotate effortlessly between important jobs and high-paying ones, using the impressiveness of the former to remunerate themselves through the latter. The people who inhabit this place are rarely exiled and then, only for the most egregious of reasons; otherwise, minor infractions, slips ups and mistakes are simply the prologue to the ever popular arc of redemption that is a signature of its people. Even the fights are manufactured, with a scripted feel that owes far more to professional wrestling than Ivy League debating clubs. The fix is in and the joke is on us, as a carnival barker named Mark Leibovich pulls back the cover and exposes the ugly, cynical and morally bankrupt capital of our nation that fondly calls itself This Town

This Town is not a polemic. Leibovich is a member in good standing of, as he calls it, "The Club," and nowhere in the book's 368 pages will you hear him call for a higher minded level of journalism, a lifetime ban on politicians or their aides lobbying Capitol Hill or the break up of multi-national media conglomerates that control most of what we watch on TV, read in newspapers and consume on the Internet. Rather, This Town is the football team telling you what play they are going to run, the pitcher letting you know he's throwing heat over the plate, the basketball player squaring up behind the three point line, all knowing there is nothing you can do to stop them. 

If there was any question "Washington, D.C." is a scam, consider what happened in the wake of This Town's publication. Leibovich was not shunned by his peers or run out of town on a rail. Rather, he appeared on the very talk shows that he excoriated, had excerpts of his book recycled through media outlets he panned and made more than one appearance in Mike Allen's Playbook, the ubiquitous "tip sheet" Allen produces for Politico. Indeed, if there is a star of This Town it is Politico, the hyper-focused-on-the-news-cycle media outlet that burst onto the scene and within a few short years, was "driving the narrative" (as they put it) about what happens in Washington, D.C. every day. 

The grease that moves the wheels in This Town are the endless litany of cocktail parties, bar mitzvahs, weddings and other social engagements where purported adversaries happily mingle over appetizers and finger food that cost what some people make in a month. These vignettes share much with the focus on minutiae used by Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, but instead of paragraphs on business card weight (or font), Leibovich focuses on the things that matter in Washington - your title, whether someone with an earpiece follows you or if your star is on the rise or falling. Social planners are minor celebrities of their own (complete with personal websites that live cam events over the Internet) and as the cast of characters changes along with Administrations and new Congresses, parties are thrown to fete these new media darlings. 

The tableau Leibovich paints oozes with snark and cynicism, which would be well and good were the people he writes about not making policy making decisions about how more than $3 trillion in tax dollars are spent and what we as consumers of news read about. A solemn event, the funeral of Tim Russert, which Leibovich devotes most of the book's first 30 pages to, is illustrated as a case study in the "tribal" aspects of This Town, complete with such pettiness as jockeying over seating position, subtle snubs and all-about-me testimonials shared by Russert's "friends." Then again, Leibovich isn't particularly respectful of the dead either. Russert is held up as cultivating an every man persona larded with encomiums to his father, Big Russ, a blue collar guy from Buffalo, while enjoying all the power and prestige that D.C. had to offer, from a favored table at the iconic steakhouse The Palm to his "large home" (Leibovich's words) in Nantucket paid for, no doubt, with the money Russert and his wife earned as members in good standing of This Town

At the other end of the spectrum, the nuptials of two quintessential This Town characters, the journalist Jonathan Martin and Meet the Press producer Betsy Fischer, are treated in hushed tones that suggest the coupling of royalty. A toast given by Tom Brokaw nicely captures the unintentional irony of This Town self-importance, as Brokaw, donning a very special tie made in Nantucket by one of Russert's favorite stores (the tie itself being a symbol of being part of the "in" crowd), effuses that the wedding is "as if a member of the Gotti family married a member of the Gambino family …" Comparing a wedding of two media darlings to the union of two parts of a criminal syndicate would not strike "ordinary" Americans as inapt. Not to worry though, these two people, who Brokaw assures us, "care passionately about their country," celebrate their union at a tony estate in Virginia horse country attended by media and political elites with "deets" in the following day's edition of Allen's Playbook

While Leibovich makes passing reference to the members of This Town being in Washington to "engage in important work," the book's overriding theme suggests they are motivated by far less high minded ideals - the accumulation of wealth, status and power. Elected officials and their aides go through revolving doors and come out the other side with their pockets lined with money provided by industries they once regulated and oversaw, TV bookers scramble to suck up to twenty somethings who staff "principals" on the Hill and the White House, and corporations lubricate all of this with a seeming endless supply of cash all but the most disciplined avoid. Indeed, the trough overflows so much that some companies retain lobbyists solely to avoid having them do work for competitors. Yes, people get paid to not do work. 

"Ordinary" Americans are largely absent in the self-absorbed bubble that Washington elites live in, except of course when it is time for re-election, when politicians engage in the time honored tradition of everyman activity - beer drinking, hunting and other touchstones that they think will make them more relatable to the people they spend the rest of their time ignoring. And as a lemon- tart piece of reporting, I was fine with most of This Town's tone, but a passage deep in the book that revolved around an article written by Alex Burns of yup, you guessed it, Politico, exposed This Town at its venal core - utterly contemptuous of the people they are sent to D.C. to serve. 

In Burns's article, he lamented the attempts by candidates for the GOP nomination to "connect" with a "historically fickle and frustrated electorate …" or as Leibovich refers to them, "the stupid voters." Voters in the Deep South, according to Leibovich, are referred to by journalists as "Deliverance Country" and the Burns article led with a quote by a Democratic pollster telling him that the first lesson you learn in politics is that "people are stupid." And while Burns's article opened him up to one of the other great totems of life in This Town - the aggrieved counter-punch by competitors - Leibovich proclaims his love for the article because of its honest portrayal of what the media elite actually think of the American people. In other words, the people who are well compensated to report the news to the populace are mad at the same people for not being better informed! 

The only two people who come off as remotely authentic are Haley Barbour, the former Reagan aide, RNC Chairman, Governor of Mississippi and co-founder of one of the most successful lobbying firms in D.C. and an otherwise obscure Congressional aide named Kurt Bardella. Like a wrestling heel, Barbour embraces his role in This Town, playing his role as the backslapping, steak consuming (he even went so far as to open his own steak house, predictably called "The Caucus Room") political operator to the hilt. Leibovich quotes another member of "The Club," Michael Kinsley, who fawned that Barbour's appeal stems from his acknowledgment that "this is all a big game …" And it is just that wink at the sham that lands Barbour at a ribbon cutting ceremony in his native Mississippi with none other than Bill Clinton and Barbour's "met cute in a green room" bestie Terry McAuliffe, who, when he is not collecting $50,000 checks with Barbour for pretend fighting in front of conferences, secured favorable tax breaks for his electric car company from then-Governor Barbour. 

As for Bardella, he is a quintessential D.C. staffer - hard working, hard charging, utterly consumed by his job and tethered, in an almost symbiotic way, to his "principal" (in this case, Darrell Issa). Bardella's rise to prominence occurs when the GOP takes over the House and Issa takes over the House Oversight Committee, but like Icarus, he flies too close to the sun, blind copying Leibovich on emails he writes (or responds to) in an effort to aggrandize and elevate his importance. AN inevitable D.C. scandal erupts and results in Bardella's termination, but fret not, within six months, after the hubbub died down, he was right back at Issa's side.  

You see that's the other dirty little secret Leibovich exposes. Even as supposed enemies (and friends) shred one another publicly, they are sending back channel messages of support. When Hilary Rosen stepped in it by claiming Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life," the resulting pearl clutch by politicians and the media alike occurred even as the same people were giving Rosen private "heads up" that they would be attacking her publicly, but still supported her. Things didn't turn out poorly for Rosen regardless, she upgraded from low-rated cable gabfests on CNN to a panelist slot on Meet the Press

And so it goes in This Town. Friendships are collected, not cultivated and more effort is put into social climbing, name dropping and gaining access than to holding politicians accountable for their deeds or for the media to sweat the fact that they do a horrible job informing the public (i.e., THEIR JOB). In Washington, the gravy train keeps rolling, the revolving door keeps spinning, and we the people are the rubes letting it all happen.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Girls Season Two Review

Coming off a flurry of awards for its purportedly unvarnished look at the quarter life crises of upper class Brooklynites, the uneven second season of Girls largely trimmed its sails of the boundary pushing it was lauded for and fell back on a surprisingly conservative view of love and life. We pick up with Hannah and her friends just a few weeks after the end of Season 1, which, if you need a quick refresher, ended with Adam getting hit by a bus, Marnie wallowing in self-pity, Jessa heading off on a fancy honeymoon with a husband she hardly knew, and Shoshana taking up with Ray, the jaded thirty something manager of a local coffee shop. 

If the main characters are, as the advertising for season two claimed, "kinda, sorta getting it together," the road to that destination is awfully circuitous. Jessa's marriage predictably flames out, she exists stage left during a weekend visit she and Hannah take to see her absentee father and his latest wife and is never heard from again, her presence in the show something akin to a cameo plus. Meanwhile, Marnie's "worst year ever" that started with her ditching her eunuch of a boyfriend (Charile) spirals when she is fired from her job as an art gallery assistant, plummets further when Booth, the pretentious artist for whom she has carried a torch, treats her like the hired help instead of a serious girlfriend and she watches Charlie achieve professional success at an Internet-based start-up. Oh, she also has sex with Elijah, Hannah's gay roommate, so there's that.  

But these drama swirls pale to what Hannah goes through. First, Dunham slyly responds to her critics by having Hannah get involved with a black Republican law student. [1] When that ends, she has a weekend fling with a much older, soon-to-be divorced man that results in her having a meltdown over her own unhappiness and acknowledgment of her desire for love and intimacy. [2] Hovering in the background is Adam, who she cuts ties with when he shows up at her door, resulting in his being arrested and Elijah, who goes from gay husband to ex-roomie quicker than the two of them can have a cocaine-infused night of partying that results in the accidental reveal of his tryst with Marnie. 

Even as Hannah is navigating these wonky relationships, her career is finally looking up. She is contracted to write an e-book, giving her the opportunity to be a voice of her generation. [3] How you feel about Season 2 is probably animated in large part by how you reacted to Hannah's out-of-nowhere OCD affliction as the pressure from completing the book consumed her. I did not buy it, thought the acting was weak and was a convenient deus ex machina for how the season ended (about which more will be discussed below). To turn Hannah into an unstable obsessive who must do all things in eights, jams a Q-Tip into her ear canal until it bleeds and twitches involuntarily with little suggestion that she had this malady did not register with me. [4]  This is not to make light of people who suffer from severe OCD or are debilitated by its symptoms, but having aimlessly drifted for a season and a half because she was ready to be a writer of importance and not slum it in a law office or coffee shop (though she did retain her part-time job at Grumpy's), to have Hannah fail so miserably when an opportunity was afforded to her rang hollow.

Of the other Girls, only Marnie is given anything interesting to work with, but here, the toggling from upscale Hooters girl at a high end club to her ill-conceived dreams of being a singer felt like the writers were grasping for plot points instead of going for something organic. Ultimately, Marnie looks like nothing more than a young woman seeking to attach herself to a trophy male - first, Booth, the odious and self-centered artist who whines about how much he hates his friends because he has no way of knowing if they actually like him or his celebrity; and, when that fails, looping back to the now self-confident (and wealthy) Charlie. Shoshana, on the other hand, tires of Ray's constant negativity and, being a 21 (?) year old, realizes she has other options. You don't say. 

Indeed, the most salutary thing about the second season of Girls is the deepening of character development for Adam and Ray, who star in what was the strongest episode of the season, Boys, a sort of "cop-buddy" themed caper where they travel to the faraway and exotic Island of Staten to return a dog Adam stole. Along the way, they neatly capture issues of male insecurity, longing and romantic confusion. Adam may want to think of Hannah as a Tweety doll you win at a carnival and get stuck carrying around all night, but he is also honest enough to know that she and he are both difficult people and they worked, in part, because she accepted his brand of difficult. Ray, as the only character on the other side of 30, is given the weight of lost opportunities, roads not taken, and professional achievement denied. [5]

So it was surprising to say the least that the second season wrapped in such a conventional way. Girls made its name by taking chances, showing characters in messy (and often unflattering) ways and of course, all that raw sexuality, but the finale could have been cribbed from When Harry Met Sally with updated technology. First, Marnie storms out of a brunch with Charlie, only to have him come after her, resulting in a heartfelt conversation where she expresses her desire to do nothing more than wake up next to him every morning and make him a snack each night. [6] Hannah, threatened with a lawsuit if she doesn't complete her e-book, reaches out to Adam, who, being incapable of having a "normal" (i.e., without sexual degradation) relationship with Natalya, pulls a "Harry," sprinting through the streets of New York City (while FaceTiming), breaking in the door to Hannah's apartment, and scooping her in his arms. [7]

Huh? How is it that a show that started with STD scares, abortions, and bedroom fetishes came to embrace a conventional (read: Hollywood) worldview about love, complete with a cheesy montage and shameless rip offs of perhaps the most famous "rom com" in cinematic history? Perhaps we all missed the central conceit of the show - that below the surface of all those emotions being tossed around the room like a 4 year old having a temper tantrum, all these "girls" (and boys for that matter) want is the fairy tale ending. And that's fine so far as it goes, but makes all the sturm und drang that attends the show's publicity much ado about nothing. 


1.   One of the main critiques of Girls is its lack of diversity.
2.  Dunham cannot satisfy some of the "haters." The episode, One Man's Trash (S2E5), was criticized as unbelievable because of the disparity in appearance between the man cast as Dunham's love interest (Patrick Wilson) and her. See e.g.,
3.  Pilot, S1E1.
4.  Admittedly, my knowledge of Girls is not encyclopedic, there may have been reference to her OCD at some point, but it did not leave an imprint in my mind and was not a major plot point in Season 1. 
5.  Ray's arc is also wrapped neatly by the end of the season. While he loses Shoshana, the owner of Grumpy's offers him the opportunity to run a new branch of the coffee shop while taking doctoral classes on the weekend. Convenient. 
6.  This is a paraphrase of the famous line from When Harry Met Sally where Harry tells Sally that he loves the fact that she is the first person he wants to talk to in the morning and the last person he wants to talk to at night. Marnie also makes some odd comment about wanting to have Charlie's "brown" babies, but we won't go there. 
7.  In the movie, Harry's dash through New York City takes place on New Year's Eve. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Happy Twitterversary

"@siriusjay is great on the stern show.  J kaplan, master under the bus thrower, we speak ur name"  - @scarylawyerguy's 1st tweet, 8-19-10

And with those rather ignominious words, my life on Twitter was born. I joined Twitter on a lark, as a way to help pass time in the Cold War setting that was my marital home in that weird interregnum between separation and my wife moving out. My "social media" footprint until then was practically nonexistent. I had no Facebook account (I do now, but rarely use it and never post information) and understood what Twitter was in the most general of ways, but I quickly learned that the genius and difficulty of the interface is the blank screen that stares at you - what do YOU want to say, what do YOU want to put out into the world. 

"Fucking dinner w/my family is like some sort of bar scene from jedi" 10-9-10

"5 articles from todays NYT - both stories on Mercury cars, Dodge mansion in NYC, ballerinas in black swan, 62 year old female ref" 11-28-10

My early tweets were some combination of random pinging of celebrities and reporters, casual observations and clumsy attempts at humor, cheekiness and a grasping for how to get people to follow me. I quickly discovered that translating the experiential into the bloodstream of Twitter in real time was essential. I also remember searching for a signature, something that the few people that did follow me would associate with my feed. As a religious reader of the Sunday New York Times I started tweeting information about interesting articles from the various sections of the paper, but without posting links, I am guessing there was little point to the references. Live and learn.

"CNN - addressing the world- VP stepping down? AfPak? Has to be serious ... A little freaked out ..." 5-1-11

The night we "got Bin Laden" was when I truly came to appreciate the power of Twitter. Out-of-nowhere tweets from news organizations about a late Sunday night Presidential address from the White House left many in my timeline (and me) puzzled at what President Obama was going to tell us, but it was obviously REALLY important. As it turned out, the news of Bin Laden's killing broke on Twitter a good 15 minutes before any of the news networks went public with the information, affirming for me the value of Twitter as a real-time reporting mechanism.

"I'm secretly happy not to be spending thanksgiving w/my family .. oops, I thought this was @postsecret" 11-24-11

Even as I was languishing with 100 or so followers, I tweeted my little heart out. This bon mot got about 20 (?) retweets and was my first brush with the Twitterverse finding my little corner of it and reairing my thoughts out into the ether. 

"I don't get into too many Twitter-scrapes, but @amaeryllis blocked me b/c I had the temerity to suggest she do some pro bono work in Newark." 6-17-12

Nearly 2 years into my Twitter life, I had become more fluent with the interface, the language of the platform and my own voice. I had begun tweeting more about politics, something I am passionate about, but also started finding random people out in the world with whom I would communicate with from time to time. Lawyers being a verbose lot, it was unsurprising that many found their way into my timeline, and @amaeryllis (who I still encourage people to follow!), an attorney in New York City with a strong and witty voice, is someone I began to follow and, from time to time, respond to. I observed how she and others with larger followings than me tweeted, what they said, how they shared things and tried, in my way, to emulate them. Then I ran afoul of @amaeryllis and got blocked. While I thought the punishment unfit for the crime, it was an awakening for me that I began to see from the other side of the equation as I started blocking people for being inflammatory. My general rule? Disagreement is fine. Personal attacks are not. The latter gets you blocked. Sorry, @amaeryllis! 

"My prediction for @MittRomney running mate:","" 7/29/12

This was my "humblebrag" moment of accurately predicting who Mitt Romney would select as his running mate (a few months later, I would narrowly miss the electoral vote count in the Obama/Romney race by a whole 1 electoral vote.)  But more so, 2012 was also the time where I found my Twitter home, sitting around the collective interactive living room with other obsessive political junkies as hours of The Rachel Maddow Show, Up With Chris Hayes, and The Ed Show flowed across my television screen. When truly global events happened like the Olympics or the Presidential debates, it seemed like the whole world was on Twitter, riffing on everything from outfits in the Opening Ceremonies in London to whether or not Romney brought a tip sheet with him to Denver. 

“The President assured me on the phone that we’d get his immediate personal attention.” - Chris Christie #Sandy 10/29/12

Speaking of communal experiences, unlike the Bin Laden raid, which was a story that came out of nowhere and was over quickly, I had the good fortune to make it through Hurricane Sandy largely unscathed (never lost power) and monitored the storm making landfall in real time on Twitter and television as people in New York posted photographs of walls of water flooding tunnels, coming over piers and submerging streets. It was eerie and surreal. NYC had essentially been shut off from the rest of the world (all bridges and tunnels were closed) and the TV coverage focused on a swath of destruction that eradicated entire sections of the New Jersey shore. The days that followed were largely snark free in my TL, as people surveyed damage, gathered with loved ones and expressed their gratitude for the generosity of their neighbors. It was a reminder of how communities, be they in real life or virtual, come together in a time of need.

"She had me at 'I do my grocery shopping at 7 o'clock Sunday morning to avoid the crowd.' #goodfirstdate" - 4/22/13

After immersing myself deeply in politics throughout 2012, my Twitter focus started to shift. In large part it stemmed from disillusionment with my view that Democrats' hard fought victory in 2012 was squandered in end of the year compromises that looked embarrassingly favorable to a party that had its ass handed to them and in part from exhaustion over the he said/she said Kabuki dance that political chat shows typically engage in simply to draw viewers with a script every bit as planned out as WWE wrestling matches. And so I started tweeting more about my life. Doing so has allowed me to share parts of myself I don't ordinarily get to do in my "real life" but provides a cloak of anonymity that allows me to vent about things I can't during the course of my day. I also think it has humanized me in important ways as someone who does something other than go off on political harangues. 

So, after 3 years, what has Twitter taught me? The thing I love most about Twitter is its exposure of the full range of the human condition. Sure, people embellish, couch, and opt to minimize or highlight things for effect, but the struggles we all grapple with, the tough ones of wonky familial or romantic relationships, or the mundanities of Dilbert-esque office politics resonate because they are familiar and communal. People expose personal details, share intimate moments and express their hopes and fears in ways that can be uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time. Yes, Twitter can be ugly, bigoted and prejudiced but … 

Twitter is also entirely self-guided. You can tweet (or not), choose who you let into your world (or allow total access), block those who bother you and follow and unfollow with a click of the mouse. The lingua franca of Twitter is also infectious and evolving. Personally, I will slip #willywonkafont into a tweet anytime I can ("wait.stop.dont. #willywonkafont RT @legal_mistress I own 53 pairs of just 5 inch heels & i still can't stop buying more .. need intervention" - 4/13/13) but other conversational totems, the "cc" on a retweet to a favored follower or someone you follow, the hashtags associated with TV shows or ones that go viral, the oneupsmanship of overlaying a clever quip on top of someone else's tweet are great fun. And that is what any social media platform should be - fun. I *really* try not to mix it up with people who disagree with my politics (I won't lie and say it has never happened) and if people say things I find offensive, I block them. I also try not to take myself or my tweets too seriously (again, I won't lie and say I have never gotten a little chesty at something someone has said).

When people new to Twitter ask me for advice, I encourage them to do a couple of things: (1) follow a lot of people, if for no other reason than you are probably a person with a lot of interests - some Tweeters only tweet about one specific thing, or mainly about one thing that you really like or are passionate about, but there are a lot of other interesting people in the Twitterverse that are worth checking out; (2) don't base who you follow on how many others follow that person. Some of my favorite follows have < 500 followers, but are every bit as insightful, funny, and clever as people with thousands and thousands of followers; (3) many public figures use their Twitter accounts strictly to promote themselves - don't follow; and (4) do not be a slave to Twitter or your follower count. Whether 1 person or 1 million follows you, be your authentic self, tweet about what you want to and enjoy. 

And for those of us who do not have someone to share the observation that the lint trap in our dryer looks like Amy Winehouse's beehive (which I did, on 2/26/13 - "Lint trap in the dryer bears a striking resemblance to Amy Winehouse's beehive. #bachelorlife), Twitter is an invaluable outlet for our random thoughts every day. I'm looking forward to many tweets to come. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 9 - Blood Money

In its rise to basic cable dominance, AMC’s lodestars have been two shows, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, whose storytelling could not be more different. Each show’s most recent season premiere is illustrative. Whereas Mad Men spent two leisurely hours leading up to a major plot twist (Don’s affair with Sylvia), Breaking Bad opted to open its kimono right from the get go, flashing us forward to Walt’s below the radar return to the ABQ on his 52nd birthday and a graffiti-strewn, condemned, and turned-into-a-skate-park horror show that was once his marital home. The outside is framed in chain-link fence and the inside has been stripped bare, a bright yellow HEISENBERG tag suggesting homage to the meth king of New Mexico. But Walt is not there to admire the scenery or watch the teenage boys who have turned his now empty pool into a half pipe, no, he’s there to secret away that tiny vial of ricin hidden in the electrical socket fixture in his former bedroom. His mission complete, it is left to former neighbor Carol to express what we as the audience feel: drop-your-groceries shock at what’s to come.

To Vince Gilligan’s credit, Blood Money plunged right into deep storytelling that had me gripping the remote harder than Hank grabbing the steering wheel after discovering Walt’s true identity. Indeed, the close-up of Dean Norris’s face as he struggles to process the big reveal neatly captured much of the episode’s vibe – a troubled façade covering a roiling wave of emotions. Walt’s ability to compartmentalize his ever-increasing viciousness became eerie over time, his lies and manipulations more difficult to justify even as he kept fooling the people around him. Now, those closest to him, Skylar and Jesse, do not even pretend to believe much of what he says. Walt may want to focus on the placement of pine scent air fresheners and European vacations, but Skylar is jaded enough to pick up the weird energy from Lydia, who lingers just a beat too long in the car wash. And while Walt ruminates on expanding their car wash empire, all Skylar can think of is the lifetime of money laundering that will be done to that incomprehensible pile of money sitting in long-term storage.

Meanwhile, the psychological toll of nestling under Walt’s wing appears to have broken young Jesse Pinkman, whose ego was slowly rebuilt after Gale’s murder, from his successful “cook” in Mexico to his role in spiriting Gus out of Don Eladio’s ranch and continuing after Gus’s demise by directing the purchase of equipment needed to set up Vamanos Pest Control and playing a key planning role in the methylamine train heist. But all that came to a tragic end when Todd put a bullet in young Drew Sharp’s chest. Since then, Jesse’s despondence has grown and he also knows Walt well enough now to know that Mike was part of the closing of loose ends even as Walt tries, begs, Jesse to believe otherwise.

Jesse’s predicament may, as he would put it, be Kafka-esque (yo) but he has struggled with a very simple concept from all the way back in Season 4’s “Problem Dog,” when, during one of Aaron Paul’s standout scenes, he asked rhetorically, “the thing is, if you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point?” In the absence of a karmic (or prosecutorial) comeuppance, Jesse can’t accept that he “got away” with the things he cannot undo. Frustrated in his attempt to give his money to Mike’s granddaughter and Drew’s parents, he simply flings it, willy nilly, out his car window.

If Jesse is playing Santa Claus to the impoverished, Hank is still the gritty bulldog who just would not let go of “Heisenberg” even after Gale and Gus’s deaths. For his doggedness, he is rewarded with an awful truth that will tear his family asunder and devastate those closest to him. With the “W.W.” piece in place, Hank quickly fills in the rest of the puzzle, offering us a “where are they now” montage of the now deceased and clues along the way that inextricably show Walt’s alter ego.

Of course, Hank is not the only one who knows how to do investigations. Walt discovers that Leaves of Grass has been taken from his home, setting off enough alarm bells that he checks the wheelbase of his Chrysler, where, sure enough, he finds one of Hank’s GPS trackers. When Walt goes to the Schrader residence, Hank can no sooner hide his revulsion at Walt than Walt can hide his smarter-than-thou tendencies in the episode’s climactic scene. The two go through a Kabuki dance of pretending that each is unaware of what the other knows, and while Walt probes and Hank dodges, it appears things will end in a stalemate, but Walt forces the issue, dinging Hank for pulling the same GPS ploy on him that they did on Gus. From two combatants warily circling each other, Hank goes full UFC, sucker punching Walt, pushing him up against the garage door, excoriating him (you can literally see the spit from Hank’s mouth hitting Walt in the face) for Walt’s litany of sins and releasing all the anger and fury he feels towards his brother-in-law.

While Walt is initially cowed, he quickly gains his sea legs, reminding Hank of the consequences of pursuing an investigation against a dying man (another reveal) who would never see the inside of a jail cell. More ominously, when Hank says he does not even know who Walt is; Walt cleverly inverts the cliché, suggesting to Hank that if that is true, he probably should not threaten him. Having bared their fangs and landed some initial blows, the two men retire to their corners, but we know there are more battles ahead.



Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Decade (1969-79)

Decades are arbitrary mileposts, and rarely does one era begin and end in a neat and tidy 10 year period, particularly one that starts and ends with a zero; however, I just finished reading three books that neatly tie together the time between (among other things) man landing on the moon and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The 10 years between 1969 and 1979 began with the dying breaths of revolutionary fervor in one direction and ended with the elevation of an entirely different form of reactionary energy throughout the world. 

In 1969, The Year That Changed Everything, Rob Kirkpatrick surveys the American landscape in the wake of what most agree is one of the most consequential years in our history and finds a country continuing to push forward in protest, largely of Vietnam, but also of rights that would take additional decades (gay rights) or are still awaiting full vindication (Native Americans) to be vindicated. It is easy to forget in the wake of the King and Kennedy assassinations, the violence of the Chicago Democratic National Convention and the fury of anti-war protesters, that the revolutionary vibe that defined 1968 carried over into 1969. Nixon's claim of a secret plan to end our involvement in Vietnam turned out to be an escalation that included the bombing of Laos and Cambodia [1], and the nation came to learn about the instantly iconic (and tragic) stories of grisly murder (the My Lai Massacre) and futile battles for territory quickly ceded (Hamburger Hill). The toll in human life was massive, but Nixon's appeal to the "silent majority" [2] of Americans bought him breathing room to pursue even more extreme actions and tapped into a deeper vein of cultural conservatism that he would exploit throughout his presidency, belying the idea that the "1960s" were simply a blur of tie-dye and long hair. 

Indeed, it was these blue collar men and housewives who formed the backbone of Nixon's coalition, absorbed his law and order rhetoric and looked at the rapidly changing cultural landscape and blanched. The subversive humor of people like Woody Allen and the came-from-outer-space aura of Jimi Hendrix simply did not compute in the minds of many in the middle class who were not tuning in, turning on and dropping out. Meanwhile, the riots that cleaved cities across the nation between 1965 and 1968 exacerbated so-called "white flight" out of once heterogenous metropolises and deepened racial divides Nixon was more than happy to take advantage of. If this was not enough, the bizarre and bloody killings by the Manson family and the Zodiac killer (each of which took place in 1969) represented a depravity that reflected a society cracking at the seams. 

As Kirkpatrick notes, the left's reaction was to dig its heels in deeper and become more radical. The non-violence of people like Dr. King was usurped first by Malcolm X and then the Black Panthers, who unapologetically carried weapons in public until, ironically, a California Governor named Ronald Reagan signed legislation prohibiting such action. [3] Other groups, like the Weather Underground, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, became actively involved in what we today would call domestic terrorism that began with rioting and looting in October 1969 and quickly spread to arson and bombings that resulted in the deaths of innocent victims. 

Of course, the counter-culture did play an enormous role in defining this era in our history and Kirkpatrick checks off all the obvious boxes - Namath's finger wagging index finger as he jogged off the field in Super Bowl III, the "Miracle Mets," the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, the revolution in movies that largely began in 1967 [4] and continued with such cutting edge works like Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice that cemented the image of the counter culture - drug soaked, sexually liberated and unapologetic - and the dizzying flurry of music, from Bitches Brew to Let it Bleed, Led Zeppelin I to Tommy

As in most histories of this time period, Woodstock and Altamont are elevated into a sort of alpha and omega for the counter culture even though they took place only 4 months apart. And while the former stands as the sine qua non of peace, love and understanding and the latter as the dark underside of of the hippie movement, I have always found that explanation a bit too facile and, although he chose to adopt the paradigm, much of Kirkpatrick's book serves to show that the cracks in the counter culture were many well before the Rolling Stones took the stage at that now infamous California speedway. 

It is left to our next stop, 1973 Nervous Breakdown by Andreas Killen, to explore the aftermath of all this social upheaval. Whereas Kirkpatrick's book flirted with darker themes, there was within it an air of lingering optimism, in our mission to the moon, the peaceful celebration of music at Woodstock and the activism on college campuses. Killen's work is permeated with claustrophobia and paranoia, its central character the rapidly declining Richard Nixon, whose sanity is slowly being eroded by the Watergate scandal, the use of pharmaceuticals and alcohol and his own well-known penchant for seeing conspiracies against him at every turn. 

Indeed, Killen portrays 1973 as an almost post-traumatic stress reaction to Vietnam, Nixon's criminality and the erosion of the New Deal coalition that dominated our country since the 1930s. To wit, for all the encomiums written about the peace movement, the political reality of the anti-war movement was much ado about nothing. While LBJ was shamed out of office, he was replaced by someone more extreme in his war making strategy. The bombing of Cambodia and Laos that began in 1969 was followed by an invasion of both countries and the endless bombing of North Vietnam even as American troops began to be removed at a rapid rate. Indeed, the peace agreement finally signed in 1973 was little different than the terms being offered in 1968 and Nixon's electoral victory over McGovern in 1972 was the largest in modern history. [5] The "silent majority" first identified in 1969 was very much alive and well and the dismissive view of McGovern as the candidate of "amnesty, acid and abortion" merely underscored the separation between the ever eroding left wing movement and the rest of the country. 

But the truth is, Nixon's peace agreement with the North Vietnamese was merely the final straw in breaking the anti-war movement. As Killen discusses, by 1973, the FBI and law enforcement had decimated the ranks of groups like the Black Panthers, SDS and others, sowing internal conflict by placing moles in those organizations and taking advantage of superior resources and assets to bring leaders to justice or, in tragic instances, shooting them in cold blood. [6] Arguably, it was the left's inability to make even a modest dent in the Nixon juggernaut that led many to foreswear continued protest and turn inward. Here, Killen captures the nascent expression of what Tom Wolfe would coin the "Me Decade." Having failed to see societal change in the way they wished, many opted for new age religions like EST and music from prog rock legends like Yes and Pink Floyd who released music that was exploratory and touched on themes of alienation, anomie and isolation.  

Meanwhile, Watergate bestrode our country like a colossus, its reporting predicated on a shadowy character named "Deep Throat" and its narrative of secret slush funds, wiretapping, break ins and "enemies lists" adding to the pervasive dread in the country.  While the scandal's denouement would not come until the following August, the Congressional hearings that led to the revelation that Nixon had secretly recorded conversations in the White House, the resignation of Nixon's two top aides, H.R. Haldeman and Bob Ehrlichman, and the "Saturday Night Massacre" that resulted in the unprecedented resignations of the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States all took place in 1973. If 1968 represented a nation on the brink of civil war, the avalanche of criminality disclosed 5 years late suggested a government being run by felons. 

If this were not enough, the Israelis and their Arab neighbors fought their fourth war in 25 years in October of 1973. The Yom Kippur War would become a pivot point for the rest of the decade, as brief oil embargoes by OPEC nations in protest of the U.S.'s sending of emergency aid to the Israelis left deep psychological and economic scars on our nation's economy. While Nixon requited himself well during this period, approving the transfer of weapons that helped stem the Arab tide and give the Israelis the upper hand, his triumph would be short lived. Less than a year later he would resign from office and head into a long political wilderness. 

The remainder of the 70s were a time of drift, both in America and abroad. The OPEC embargo highlighted the dependence all western democracies had on middle eastern oil, but as Christian Caryl discusses in Strange Rebels, 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, the seismic shifts in critical parts of the world like Britain, Afghanistan, China and Italy (specifically, the Vatican) were themselves a reaction against tired political dogmas but collectively ushered in an era of reactionary politics that continue to shape our world. While the U.S. is largely offstage in Caryl's narrative, its experience between 1973 and 1979 fits neatly into his broader narrative. Nixon's (alleged) crimes were quickly pardoned, the country went into a deep economic spiral of stagflation, high interest rates and nagging unemployment and the reformer elected to wash away the stain of Watergate ended up being a limp chief executive whose Presidency was destroyed by a hostage situation he handled clumsily. 

The economic maladies we experienced here in the States were also felt in Britain, where the weight of its social safety system, muscularity of its unions and rudderless leadership conspired to cause a similar malaise and desire for fresh ideas. Indeed, had Caryl chosen to, Thatcher's rise could have easily been tied to Reagan's here in the U.S. The similarities, not just in temperament and leadership are obvious, but while each picked very public fights with unions (Thatcher with coal miners, Reagan with air traffic controllers) each had a deeper and far more long lasting legacy, entrenching conservative economic orthodoxy, cowing opponents for a generation who sought greater social equality and renewing national pride through military fights with weaker enemies (Thatcher, with the Argentinians, Reagan, a laughable "invasion" of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada). 

Even as two of the pillars of the West were burying generations of liberalism and embracing a free market orthodoxy that would destabilize the global economy in the decades to come, other parts of the world were embracing a different form of puritanical orthodoxy. Caryl's chapters on Iran are the best in his otherwise outstanding book and he persuasively shows how the rise of "political Islam" occurred even as the Shah did all he could to destroy all opposition to his reign. The fallout is obvious in retrospect, but was far from pre-ordained in the moment. Further, Caryl tantalizes the reader with his description of the unruliness of the post-Shah era, when, in theory at least, more moderate voices within the Ayatollah's sphere could have stepped to the fore and tempered some of the extremist tendencies that began to emerge. 

Next door in Afghanistan, a whole different set of seeds were being sown that would culminate in that country being invaded twice in just over 20 years. Afghanistan flirted with the Soviets and the West in the bipolar Cold War, but Kabul was a largely metropolitan city and public works projects funded by the U.S. in the 1960s had at least begun to modernize some areas of the countryside. Unfortunately, without a history of democratic institutions or leaders, the nation was susceptible to foreign influence and the Soviets invaded in 1979, placing a puppet in control of the government before slowly sinking into a quagmire not unlike our own in Vietnam. As in Iran, the power of "political" Islam became highly influential, as people like Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Gulbuddin Hekmatyer and ultimately, Osama Bin-Laden all cut their teeth as mujahideen fighting the Soviets. 

At the other end of the spectrum, what passes for liberalization is Caryl's examination of the Catholic Church and the People's Republic of China. In the former, a quirk of history (the sudden death of Pope John Paul I after a less than 2 month papacy) elevates Karol Wojtyla, who becomes Pope John Paul II. The new Pope becomes a beacon for the Polish people who, Caryl discusses, maintain a deep religiosity even though Communism eschews it. John Paul II's visit to his homeland becomes a galvanizing moment for his people, and within a year, the Solidarity movement forms, which, over time, becomes the main opposition to Communist rule in the country. 

Meanwhile, Caryl dissects the internecine politics in China with a deft hand. In the wake of Mao's death in 1976 and the failure of his various "leaps" forward, it is left to Deng Xiaoping, easily the most intriguing character in the book, to make an actual leap forward. In Caryl's telling, Deng is a survivor, returning from political exile on no less than three occasions to ascend to the top of the Communist leadership through a combination of highly developed organizational skills, a deep understanding of economic shifts, sharp political elbows and the ability to overturn Maoist orthodoxy without kicking dirt on the Chairman's grave. While Deng did not open the way for democracy, his influence is clear and profound. China's economy grew exponentially under his leadership, tens of millions were lifted out of poverty and he put in place the policies that have led to China's GDP being second only to the United States. 

Of course, none of this could have been foreseen in 1979, but to look backward from that perch to a time 10 years before is to see a world that looked radically different.  Each of these three books reads well as a stand alone snapshot of a year in our history, but taken together, they provide a fascinating look at how quickly things change. 





4. An outstanding book on this subject is Pictures From A Revolution by Mark Harris.

5. Nixon carried 49 of 50 states, McGovern carried 1 plus the District of Columbia. In 1936, FDR won 46 of the then-48 states, an arguably "smaller" victory. 

6. Perhaps the most egregious example being the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bezos Buys Washington Post; Media Chokes On Its Own Pearl Clutch

News that Jeff Bezos, the founder of, agreed to purchase The Washington Post for $250 million sent shockwaves through the national media. The combination of pearl clutching and teeth gnashing about "what this means" for journalism would have been amusing if it was not so hypocritical. For years all we've heard about is the idea that print journalism was dying, its relevance shunted aside in an age of blogs, news aggregation sites and cable television. The WaPo sale (and last week's fire sale of The Boston Globe for $70 million, less than 10% of what The New York Times purchased it for more than a decade ago) was seen as a defining moment cementing this narrative. The fear, vaguely alluded to, is that somehow the august reputation of The Washington Post may be sullied if owned by a single, über wealthy individual. 

Of course, this trope was being uttered on airwaves controlled by corporate overlords whose own empires are tentacled across every conceivable information delivery method. Consider one of the most egregious violators - MSNBC. Sitting in for Chris Hayes last night, Ezra Klein spent the first 40 minutes of All In With Chris discussing the sale of a media outlet from a family of rich people (the Grahams) to a single rich person (Bezos) on airwaves controlled by an obscenely wealthy company. MSNBC is a cable station owned by Comcast. Comcast not only delivers cable television into tens of millions of homes throughout the country, as part of its purchase of NBC Universal, it acquired more than a dozen TV channels, including NBC. So how it is that a news anchor on airwaves controlled by a enormous media conglomerate can express such concern over the sale of a newspaper to a billionaire? More importantly, how can a viewer take such a critique seriously?

And this is not to pick on Comcast-owned MSNBC. The same hyperbolic reaction could be found on ABC (a division of some company called "Disney"), CBS (controlled by multibillionaire Sumner Redstone) and FOX (owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns high profile newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post). Pretty remarkable considering The Washington Post has a daily circulation of less than 500,000 and has been on the decline for years. But in the insular world of national media and "This Town" mentality that does little but stare at itself in the mirror and consider its own unique role in the "decisions that matter," the sale of The Washington Post was a capital B, capital F, capital D, never mind that most Americans, if they do know of the paper, remember it from breaking the Watergate story 40 years ago, not, for example, its mindless cheerleading of the run-up to the Iraq War (along with most of the rest of its ilk) or decimation of its newsroom within the past few years. The Post sale, and the less reported sale of TV stations by Allbritton for nearly $1 billion that will be used to expand Politico, [1] speaks to the view of smart money that news is very much a growth industry, but only in the two places it seems to matter anymore - Washington, D.C. and New York City.

In fact, media at the national level is doing quite well. The New York Times introduced a "modified paywall" in the past year or so that has helped generate tens of million of dollars in ad revenue and has more than 738,000 subscribers. [2] Over at CBS, an all-time record in quarterly revenue of $3.7 billion was just reported. [3]  It is not "national" level media that is suffering, but the little fish in the journalistic pond, who no longer have the resources to cover run of the mill stories of corruption, governmental malfeasance or, god forbid, triumphs of the human spirit, that might matter to residents in their smaller communities.  In New Jersey, where I live, a daily copy of the The Times of Trenton, which covers the state capital and government, the local shenanigans of the city of Trenton's politicians, not to mention the high profile town of Princeton, is a two-section daily that charges 75 cents and commonly has at least half of its "A" section devoted to wire stories from the Associated Press. This is simply not a sustainable business model. [4]

The media freak out over Bezos's purchase also ignores history. A hundred years ago, major newspapers, whose primacy was unquestioned in an era before television (or radio for that matter), had known and obvious political biases and were often manipulated by politicians and businessmen alike to slant coverage either for or against. The media landscape of 2013 is similar in some ways (the aforementioned consolidation) but dissimilar in one key respect - the democratization of information through the Internet affords people the opportunity to be far more circumspect consumers of the news. And while the risk of "confirmation bias" when one can shop a la carte for how s/he obtains "facts" is apparent, [5] that burden is on the shoulders of the reader - objective facts are accessible if one chooses to find them. In the meantime, talking heads on television and in what's left of the ink-stained print media can stop breaking my irony machine and go back to acting as stenographers for their corporate masters.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy


4. Indeed, the Times of Trenton's parent company, which runs the larger circulating Newark Star-Ledger has recently threatened to shut down if unions did not offer concessions to help keep the company afloat.

Monday, August 5, 2013

"Respectful" Infidelity

The timing of this year's New York magazine "sex" issue was serendipitous, what with an admitted whore monger running for New York City Comptroller and a married Mayoral candidate who gets off from sending indecent photos of himself to female admirers. While this "special issue" was not without its charms (an article about the inability to fully distance oneself from ex-lovers was particularly well done [1]), a rancid piece entitled There Is Such A Thing As Respectful Infidelity left me shaking my head.

The article's nauseating tone is set in the first two paragraphs, where the subject of the story [2] reminisces about his first time cheating. The "lucky" gal was "not attractive at all" but "wanted [him] really bad." While our plucky hero was not enthralled with the idea of bedding this woman, his roommate convinced him to "just do it" and so he did, dialing up the romance with nothing so much as a greeting when he entered her room, but rather, the simple instruction that she "take off [her] clothes." Be still my heart. Very kind of our anonymous Lothario to make her dreams of what was, I am sure, highly mediocre sex, come true because, you know, ugly. 

For those who make it past this rather unsavory vignette of arrogance, cruelty, and borderline misogyny, you will be treated to a paint-by-numbers daisy chain of infidelity clichés that could have been lifted from any number of straight-to-DVD movies, dusty issues of Cosmo or the fevered imaginations of junior copy editors: oral sex? (too intimate.) always use a condom, and, if you don't, you're somehow more of an asshole. (you don't say.) his infidelity? (ok.) his fiancée's? (not ok.) and never, ever, spend the night, because some things must be "saved" for the person you care most about in the world. [3] 

The torrent of self-deceit that flows from this gentleman's mouth is truly a sight to behold. Perhaps it comes from his environment, where, he advises us, his buddies are all "on the same page" when it comes to casual infidelity and he assuages what purported guilt he has by noting that he rarely initiates any flirtation, but hey, if someone's gonna bat an eye his way, he's only a MAN after all. When it comes to his poor fiancée, his fear is of getting caught, not what emotional tsunami will be unleashed on his soon-to-be wife. Thankfully, our Prince Charming is smart enough to come home from his dalliances AFTER his partner is asleep, therefore avoiding the need to kiss her until the next morning, but when he goes too long between episodes of infidelity, he gets bitter toward her because he's not allowing himself to "do what [he] need[s] to do." What a guy.

But what of our irresistible fella's future as a married man? Sadly for all those women in the greater New York City area hoping to experience the unique pleasure that comes from checking into a midday, by-the-hour hotel for a quickie with this gentleman, he's sworn off cheating since he's become engaged and looks forward to a life as a faithful husband and (god help us) father. But do not fear, he's anguished over this decision - no, not the one to get married and have kids, but to swear off the pleasure of strange flesh. After all, "cheating is part of what makes me me." (italics in original). As repugnant as the idea of honoring his marital vows is, he "hopes" to take one for the team, because he does love his fiancée and expects them to have a beautiful life together.

As a piece of journalistic troll bait, There Is Such A Thing As Respectful Infidelity is not even successful. This type of male privilege article is usually teed up and knocked 300 yards down the fairway on websites like Jezebel and Gawker, not to mention myriad blogs written by women (and men) who find this type of cavalier attitude noxious; however, it did not even rate much of a response. If the article is to be taken at face value - that is, that a human being uttered the words (not to mention has the mentality) transcribed and shaped by Alex Morris - it is a sad commentary on one person's amorality and another person's (the unsuspecting fiancée) future hell. 

You see, there's nothing "respectful" about infidelity, no matter how many "rules" you put around it or how you attempt to justify it. Cheating removes you from your partner in every conceivable way while playing them for a fool. It violates that which bonds us to our spouses, significant others, girlfriends and boyfriends - trust - in ways that are utterly corrosive and horribly destructive. It is also an act of total and complete selfishness that, whether you see it as such in the moment or after the fact, speaks very poorly of a person's values, whether it is a one-off chance encounter or a serial condition like the one described in this magazine piece. The roads not taken - of examining why the subject of this article feels the need to cheat, of communicating his desires to his fiancée, [4] of being honest about his delusions and not diminishing his odious behavior simply because he has not had an affair once he got engaged, are absent. 

And I am neither puritan nor moralizer on this topic - I was this guy, without the outward arrogance or lack of governor in sharing my story with others, but with all the self-justification and rationales that come with deciding to live a secret life. It was not until I looked at what I had done, to my wife, to myself, to those who participated in my affairs with me and what it said about me (spoiler alert: nothing good) that I was able to start getting honest with myself about who I was (again, spoiler alert: not a good man). It was not only a primary cause of the dissolution of my marriage, but left me feeling so guilty about having done it that I was incapable of intimacy with another woman for more than two years, and even then, the guilt nagged at me even when I was with my "Special Lady Friend."  

This is not to pat myself on the back for becoming a more evolved human being who realizes that trust, communication and intimacy are critical ingredients in a relationship or that you simply do. not. cheat, but to say that the world portrayed in There Is Such A Thing As Respectful Infidelity is ugly, venal and self-absorbed.  Sadly, one need not wonder whether this particular gentleman has even the modicum of self-awareness to realize that he is subjecting himself, and more importantly, his fiancée, to an enormous amount of pain and heartache in the future; to have articulated his entitlement in such a public way tells us all we need to know.  

You can read the article here and judge for yourself:



2.  The article is an "as told to" piece, not a first person narrative. 

3.  Allegedly, this person is the subject's betrothed, but judging from the level of narcissism he displays, it is clear the answer is "himself." 

4.  The alpha and omega for open communication in relationships, be it how to address disagreements about how to roll the toilet paper or discuss having an "open" arrangement is of course, the brilliant Dan Savage. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

An Ode To Appetite

Twenty-six years and a few weeks ago, Appetite For Destruction detonated in the middle of the music industry and blew the whole fucking thing up. For those who did not live through the 1980s, but have only experienced it vicariously in the form of occasional waves of nostalgia for things like leg warmers, Atari, and Bananarama, the profound influence that Guns 'n' Roses's debut album had on popular culture is probably lost, but for those of us who were reared in an era whose pervasive messages were "say no to drugs" and that "sex can kill you" (HIV/AIDS was still a largely misunderstood disease and spoken of darkly because of its association with the gay community) Appetite not only represented a reassertion of capital ROCK. capital N. capital ROLL. but an unapologetic celebration of everything wrong and bad for you. 

For lovers of rock 'n' roll, the musical landscape in 1987 was particularly fallow. Van Halen's decision to incorporate synthesizers three years previously on what would turn out to be lead singer David Lee Roth's swan song with the band, 1984, was a bizarro version of Dylan going electric in 1965. The image of rock god Eddie Van Halen, he of the signature guitar solo ("Eruption") and dizzying fret work, goofily standing at a keyboard on the band's video for Jump was a true "what the fuck" moment. 1984 was followed by the even more mainstream 5150 with Sammy Hagar now at the helm, but by then, the floodgates had opened and a wave of "hair metal" acts who blended the glam rock aspect of bands like the New York Dolls and KISS with Van Halen's lighter metal sound flooded the charts with a parade of male musicians in teased hair and spandex, churning out vacuous anthems to sexual longing that equated women with cherry pie while guys desired nothing but a good time.

Mainstream popular music was even worse. The punk rock movement had expended itself, morphing into "new wave," with its artificial sound and empty lyrics. One time rock gods like Robert Plant, Don Henley and the Jefferson Airplane were producing limp material devoid of any of the power and potency of their seminal work. [1] Mainstream acts like Michael Jackson and Phil Collins ruled the airwaves with catchy hooks and slick production, a perfect reflection of America in the 1980s, where everything was superficial, anodyne, and safe. But the guts of what we know as rock 'n' roll was largely missing. Bands like Aerosmith were reduced to piggybacking onto the crossover success of Run-DMC and newer bands like the Beastie Boys were providing a proto-version of lowest common denominator "rap-rock" that would be perfected by bands like Limp Biskit a decade later. [2]

Against this backdrop, Appetite felt (and still feels) like an auditory enema, a middle finger thrust in the air from the first note of Welcome to the Jungle to the last bar of Rocket Queen. The album's sound is defiantly in your face, the lyrics on everything from Mr. Brownstone to Nighttrain tell unapologetic stories of drugs and debauchery, of daughters who sell their bodies and everywhere, a dystopian world of charlatans, crooks and cheats. That the album's original cover art was adjudged as too offensive (its image of a just completed rape soon to be avenged was too much for the brass at Geffen Records) was just the first tip off that this album represented a paradigmatic shift in music. The language is raw and the vibe driven by a band already at the height of its powers, from Axl Rose's jaw dropping vocal range, to the double headed guitar attack of Slash and Izzy Stradlin and the unremitting backbeat of Duff McKagan and Steven Adler. 

Appetite was unquestionably aided by the dominant medium of the time - the music video. Watching Welcome to the Jungle, it is impossible to take your eyes off Rose, lithe and coiled like a cobra, tattoos stretching up and down his arms and projecting a primal energy into the familiar tale of a small town kid who loses his way in the big city. The band's look was pure rock 'n' roll - leather pants, no shirts, cigarettes and booze - the antithesis of the glammed up gender bending of acts like Bon Jovi and Poison. Whereas those bands sprinkled their videos with frizzy haired ladies lifting their tops, Slash hid under a gaggle of curls and a signature top hat, Stradlin', McKagen and Adler all had their heads down, long, matted locks obscuring their faces while a sonic landscape bombarded your senses. 

As the tide crested, Appetite became a broader statement against popular music. It was not just that Guns 'n' Roses proved that there was a place for something other than the three minute pop single, their in your face attitude harkened back to the early days of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and other bands who unabashedly embraced the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Songs like Paradise City and Sweet Child 'o' Mine were instantly recognizable and iconic, the raw stuff of teen angst, rebellion and innocence lost. In short, everything that rock 'n' roll is supposed to be when you're 16, fucked up, hate your parents and want to rebel against something, anything. 

Like other eras in rock, this one ended almost as soon as it started. As Appetite churned out one hit after another, the band toured almost non-stop for the better part of two years. As their popularity grew, so too did Rose's ego. Shows would routinely start late (or not at all), there were fights with fans, the media, and anyone else in the band's way. Pure rock 'n' roll to be sure, with its trashed hotel rooms, litany of groupies and endless nights of boozing and drugs, but not sustainable. A slapped together follow-up, G'n'R Lies, stirred controversy because of Rose's use of the "n" word on the song One In A Million and even as Appetite sold north of 15 million albums in the U.S., the band was already on the downslope of its ride atop the charts. By the time the uneven Use Your Illusion I & II came out in 1991, Adler and Straddlin had both left the band and the music drifted into self-indulgence, with full choruses and orchestral maneuvers, over the top videos and yet more erratic behavior by Rose. 

For all intents and purposes, the end of the Use Your Illusion tour marked the band's end. Another album, The Spaghetti Incident, was released in 1993 to little acclaim and by 1996, all the original band members but Rose had quit. Rose himself would fiddle with various lineups and make sporadic public appearances over the next decade. The long awaited Chinese Democracy came out in 2008, but the band by that point was simply Rose and a group of skilled collaborators who could sound like the original line-up but in reality were not much more than a talented tribute band. 

While many argue that grunge snuffed out the rock revolution G 'n' R launched, I take a slightly different view. Where Appetite was a reaction against the conservatism of the Reagan era, the nihilism of Nevermind was in the same church, just a different pew from this rock masterpiece. Nirvana happened to break just as a slice of Gen Xers entered a job market and adulthood that offered little in the form of stability or potential. Instead of pushing back against the moralism of Ronald Reagan's America, Cobain was writing against an uncertain societal backdrop experiencing the first uncertain steps of a post-Cold War world. That grunge burned out so fast is in part a reflection of the fact that the economy boomed so quickly after bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden broke big. Without something to rebel against, the message being sent was suddenly devoid of any power. 

Like Hendrix before them and Nirvana after them, had Guns 'n' Roses only released this one single album, their place in the annals of rock 'n' roll history would be secure. Today, more than 26 years after its release, songs from Appetite are still in wide play on radio stations, in sports arenas and yes, strip clubs worldwide. It should be no other way. 


1.  Indeed, the rebranded "Jefferson Starship" produced what at least one survey deemed the worst song of all time - "We Built This City."

2. I'm well aware that the Beastie Boys went from "Fight For Your Right" and the other teen boy anthems of "License To Ill" to rap icons on "Paul's Boutique" and "Check Your Head" but please, don't try to convince me "Brass Monkey" is anything other than an embryonic version of "I Did It All For The Nookie."