Thursday, August 27, 2015

Things I Love - Important Artifacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Things I Love - Richard Nixon

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

No wonder I love President Nixon.

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

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

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

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

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

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Things I Love - The Warriors

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

The Warriors is a movie I love.

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

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

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

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

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

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Monday, August 24, 2015

Things I Love - Fat Elvis

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

No wonder I love Fat Elvis.

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

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

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

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