Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mapping Antarctica

Scientists have produced the most detailed map yet of Antarctica.

This was a vast project, and I have some idea of the issues involved in stitching together 2-dimensional images of curved, mountainous 3-D terrain -- especially when the photos are mostly white-on-white. (Imagine the glare and the reflections and the shadow problems.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

When Baptists Have Bombs

A trunkful of napalm isn't evidence of terrorism if you're a white male ROTC member/religion major at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Pastorblog says, "It appears that this passionate young man was trying to protect the reputation and honor of Jerry Falwell." Nice to hear that a Hitler-obsessed kid is so, umm, thoughtful. Oh, and he does plan to apply to be reinstated to ROTC when his sentence is over.

"Mark David Uhl, 19, asked the court for leniency at Tuesday's sentencing, but that was rejected by U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon." Two years is apparently a tough sentence. When Baptists have bombs, they are sentenced to less time in jail than that spent by the legally innocent people herded into Guantanamo as "enemy combatants" and "terrorists."

What did he plan to do with five bombs packed with nails? Possibly, as Max Blumenthal reports,
kill the family of itinerant Calvinist provocateur Fred Phelps (famous for their "Fag Troops" rallies outside soldiers' funerals). The Phelpses planned to protest Falwell's funeral, a bizarre stunt designed to highlight Falwell's somehow insufficiently draconian attitude towards homosexuals.

Falwell's "leniency" may be that he never, as far as I know, publicly advocated that we should be executed like rabid dogs. Otherwise he and Fred Phelps pretty much agreed on the idea that us queers are hell-bound sinners whose evil has attracted God's judgment on the USA.

However, Fred Phelps may not have been the only one at risk. In court Agent R. A. Anderson of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms testified that:
Uhl had told his relatives he would set off the bombs in the parking lot of a Mormon church, use them to kill cows, "or something to that effect." . . . Uhl had once participated in an attack on his former high school in Northern Virginia. He and several friends made a tear-gas-like bomb using Tabasco sauce and a heater from a military Meals Ready to Eat ration. They planned to throw it from the roof at prom-goers as a prank, Anderson said Uhl had told him, but got scared and instead tossed it into a ventilation shaft.

Uhl boasted "He'd saved a lot of people from losing their virginity that night."

Clearly a true American hero.

Whatever Uhl's purpose with his bombs of napalm and nails, this country is supposed to be ruled by laws that apply to all. The law is not supposed to discriminate between explosives wielded by atheists, Muslims, Baptists, and anybody else. The gender and skin color of the defendant are not supposed to matter, either, though you know and I know that they make a difference long before a lawbreaker ever becomes a defendant.

I know this kid doesn't think of himself as a terrorist but as a hero defending the helpless. That scares me; I have a bit of a Joan of Arc complex myself. He was bullied, according to his parents. I can sympathize with that, too. And he was reared in a country, culture, and religion that gave him, on the one hand, enormous privilege and an image of masculinity that has to cause horrible damage to anyone trapped in it. Likewise, very little help with dealing with emotional or psychological problems, because real men don't have those, and neither do good Christians.

I wish I could wrap this up with a neat platitude or aperçu. What I have instead is sorrow and frustration at a problem that defies solution, and enough wisdom to know that napalm is not going to make anything better.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Call in the Night

This story has a happy ending. I don't want to scare you, although I was scared. Just to tell the story and talk about the feelings.

Late Friday night I got the phone call every adult dreads: Chest pains. Emergency room. No point in my coming; I may as well stay home and get some sleep if I could. Debbie would keep in touch. As soon as she knew anything, she'd let me know.

That's right: the one who might be having a heart attack wasn't my father, my grandfather, someone in the older generation or generations. It was my lover, born the same year I was born. Someone of my generation who is vigorous, healthy, muscular—a man in his prime. And this struck me profoundly.

When I was born, I had four grandparents and four great-grandparents living, as well as innumerable aunts and uncles two or three generations back. Now my great-grandparents are all dead. My 90-year-old grandmother, who has Alzheimers, is the only grandparent left. Many of my great-aunts and great-uncles are gone. My father has been dead for nine years. I know about losing the older generations, the people who have always been here.

I even know about people dying too young: a college friend of mine murdered on the street at 23, Diane in a car accident at 22, Antony at 40 of congestive heart failure. I know about the tearing grief of losing someone whom you've known almost from the moment of conception, who had been breathing air a bare ten minutes when you first saw her, whom you've followed through every landmark from the first smiles and words to the engagement parties. I know about losing friends to chance or violence or lingering ill-health.

Somehow, to have my strong and healthy lover in the emergency room—that felt like a different kind of fear, potentially a different kind of loss. Oh God, do I have to learn all the different kinds?

He didn't die Friday night. He didn't even have a heart attack. But someday he will die; someday Michele will die; someday my sisters will die. That thought aches.

The thought of my own death is actually a comfort most of the time. I cherish that ultimate liberty of slipping away from the pain and misery of my life. My family has extraordinary tenacity, and most of us live long past the time when death would come as a relief. So the pneumonia, the asthma and bronchitis, even the tumor the size of a cantaloupe haven't frightened me about the future; they've made me miserable in the present. It's probably arrogance on my part.

But thinking about losing my generation is completely different for me than thinking about my own eventual death. My death represents my freedom. The deaths of my sisters, of my beloved Michele, of Alan, of my friends—those are deaths to dread, losses irretrievable.

Losing them is unthinkable, but someday, unless I die first, it will happen. One by one they'll all die, and I will. I clung to Michele this weekend, held fast to Alan Sunday night.

I'm not going to mope over the deaths that may happen today or in forty years. I'm going to live as well and love as hard as I can, because we don't get much time. I'm going to be kind, too, because a little brightness makes a difference.

This morning when I went to pick up my mail, the owner wasn't there. Neither was her elderly father, a kind Black man who was always sunny and thoughtful, who remembered to ask after my mother because she sent me packages sometimes. The substitute clerk had tears in her eyes. Friday night after he came home from work, the old man lay down and died in his sleep. An easy death; peaceful; the death he would have chosen, working hard until the last. But still so sad the clerk and I were both in tears.

Life is fragile. Love hard. Play hard. Be kind.

This story has a happy ending.

For now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bizarre Baby Accessories

Don't tell me we don't start gender socialization in the cradle.

Actually, this product speaks to both sides of the gender debate. Anyone who has changed enough diapers knows that little boys like to play Fountain. Not something little girls have the equipment to do. But would an equivalent product for girls feature cars, trucks, firemen, or -- God help us -- jungle camouflage? What kind of parent has a camo-themed nursery?

I don't know whether to applaud the cleverness, celebrate the brilliant marketing, or deplore the sexism and militarism.

In other words, this is the ultimate American product.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Jacques de Molay, Thou Art Busted!

Seven hundred years ago, on Friday, October 13, 1307, Philip the Fair of France took decisive steps toward ending his debt problem. Instead of burning his credit cards, he burnt his creditors: the Templars. He had them arrested, tortured, tried, and burnt at the stake for immorality and heresy. Interestingly, the heresy accusation wasn't the sin of usury, although they charged interest. No, he accused them of sodomy. Some things don't change.

So today, if you read Umberto Eco, write a check, or watch The Da Vinci Code, think of the Templars.

And in more Templar news:

The Vatican, confessing to an archiving error, has released documents showing that Pope Clement originally found the Templars not guilty of heresy. I am annoyed at the misusage of "absolved" here; the Pope acquitted them. "Absolve" has a special religious meaning, which makes the usage here unnecessarily ambiguous.

A conference will be held by the Ecclesia Gnostica in Los Angeles in observance of the 700th anniversary of the day the Templars were arrested.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Oh Please Oh Please

There comes a time when the urge to post overcomes the fear of jinxing the team.

We've won nine of the last ten games.

We're a game and a half back of the Mets for the division championship.

We're half a game behind the Padres for the wild-card slot.

In an insanely tight National League, we're showing toughness and tenacity, and we're winning, even if it takes extra innings to do it.

Oh God. It could happen. We could actually go all the way. And even if we don't, we've played a hell of a season.

But wouldn't it be perfect, wouldn't it be so totally Phillies, if we actually ended up with championship rings in the year that we also hit the landmark of ten thousand lost games?

Friday, September 14, 2007

REVIEWS: Sarah Caudwell and the Murder Mystery

Eleven days ago, a friend of mine posted this quotation:

"You will be interested to hear, Hilary, that it had a most remarkable effect—even on Selena after a very modest quantity. She cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment."

I asked for particulars of this uncharacteristic conduct.

"She took from her handbag a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation."

- Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades

Clearly an author after my own heart.

I've already tracked down and read two of Caudwell's four novels, and I've ordered the other two. They are classic British whodunits: gently witty, mannered little mysteries. The amateur sleuth is Professor Hilary Tamar, an Oxford don of enormous erudition and indeterminate gender, and the sleuth's sidekicks are a group of young barristers. (A brief dictionary of British legal terms may be useful to those unfamiliar with the British terminology of solicitors, barristers, chambers, and clerks.

The Shortest Way To Hades (1985) is a murder mystery written in a voice reminiscent of Miss Manners. Instead of realism, it offers a delightful escape and some wicked intellectual pleasures, including dramatic irony. Although the characters lack depth, they are far from stock characters; most of them are, in their own polite way, quite subversive of stereotypes.

The Sibyl In Her Grave (2000) was published posthumously, and it's a far more accomplished, complex, and subtle book. Beneath the prim voice, there lies a warm acceptance of the varieties of human sexual behavior and a deep understanding of both friendship and love, including a particular variety of exploitive and destructive love. The dramatis personae include an elderly vicar, several financiers, a fortune-teller and her wretched drudge of a niece, a lovesick carpenter, and a physiotherapist specializing in pains of the lower back. There is also Aunt Regina, a retired interior decorator with a warm heart who occasionally hints at having had an adventurous life.

Especially given the artistry of her final novel, Ms. Caudwell's early death from cancer was a real loss. A classically educated barrister specializing in finance, she might seem like a stock character from the Golden Age of detective fiction, except that during those halcyon years her father was a prominent Communist journalist/soldier fighting in the Spanish Civil War and her mother was a nightclub singer in decadent Weimar Berlin. Just like Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, for the very good reason that Jean Ross was the model for Sally Bowles—and thus for Liza Minnelli's character in Cabaret.

Jean Ross must have been a remarkable woman; she was also the inspiration for the classic song, "These Foolish Things.") But Jean Ross, the prototype for his fictional Sally Bowles, . . . turns out to be somewhat less vulnerable than portrayed by Julie Harris in I Am a Camera and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. Says Isherwood: "Sally wasn't a victim, wasn't proletarian, was a mere self-indulgent upper-middle-class foreign tourist who could escape from Berlin whenever she chose." Perhaps not the easiest mother for an intellectual daughter, but also possibly a pleasure to spend time with -- something like Aunt Regina, in fact.

Caudwell's father, Claud Cockburn, sired another daughter (by his first wife) and three sons (all radical journalists like Daddy). He may not have been present much during Sarah's upbringing, since his eldest son by his third wife is only two years younger than she is. But surely some of his talent was passed on to her; in addition to decades of radical left reporting, he wrote Beat the Devil, source of the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart movie, and several other novels.

(Note for Mitford-spotters: Esmond and Decca took shelter in his apartment when they eloped together.) [Note for everybody: I hope to hell there's a dropped line in that essay, because I do not want to think about "stuffy Lord Redesdale giving birth to all those sparky girls."]

Her half-siblings (and their descendants) apparently share the family wit and activism: Her half-sister Claudia Flanders, OBE, was an advocate for the disabled. Her half-brother Alexander Cockburn has written columns for the Nation and the Wall Street Journal. Andrew recently published a slender but scandal-packed biography of Donald Rumsfeld. And youngest half-brother Patrick has written a number of books, including what looks like a fascinating exploration of polio, which includes a class analysis of the disease.

Life in the shadow of such powerful parents and talented siblings can be difficult. I have no idea whether Sarah was the quiet child or the one all the rest admired (or both). What I do know is that she wrote at least one good light mystery novel and one superb mystery novel. Her complete bibliography also lists several short stories and two acrostic puzzles.

It's not enough.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Scam Alert!

I got a juicy email this morning, promising me a chance at a good job:

Your online resume recently caught my attention, and I’d like to ask you to apply to fill one of the Public Relations Manager positions we currently have open. World Voice News is experiencing tremendous growth on a local, national and international level, and we’re looking for qualified candidates to help us meet our needs.

For this particular position, we’re looking for someone who has extremely strong written and verbal communication skills and two years of work experience. The ability to tailor a pitch to a particular media outlet is important, as is a strong knowledge of traditional and online resources for media contacts. Familiarity with network marketing and a bachelor’s degree in public relations are both preferred. If you do join the WVN PR team, you’ll be responsible for capturing media attention for the company and its clients, gaining positive exposure and enhancing visibility and credibility.

We offer a competitive compensation package, including an annual salary starting at $45,000 and ranging up to $60,000. Rapid advancement is possible for superior candidates. Our PR Managers are also eligible for medical, dental and optical insurance, paid vacation, tuition reimbursement and an expense account.

If you are interested in joining World Voice News as a PR Manager, please click on the link below and fill out the online application. If the link doesn’t work, copy and paste the address into your browser to go to the webpage.


I’ll contact you within one or two business days of receiving your online application. I look forward to discussing this position with you in more detail.

James Elkin
World Voice News

But the salary seemed wrong, I'd never heard of the business, and I am not a publicist. So I Googled and discovered that World Voice News is a phishing scam. Some victims have been blizzarded with spam, while others may have suffered much more serious losses.

Privacy experts and security officials at the job sites agreed that the three Web sites in question are "particularly clever" and "very slick." Internet Solutions, for example, requires users to create a password. Dixon said this was probably a ploy to collect access codes for online bank and e-commerce accounts. Most people use the same password for everything, security experts said, and criminals know that. . . . . The Instant Human Resources' Web site . . . required him to enter his name, address, phone number, and Social Security number and create a password.

Nasty stuff, whether you become a victim of identity theft or develop carpal-tunnel syndrome from deleting Viagra ads.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Fire Season

September is often the hottest time of the year in Northern California. During the cool, foggy summer, every morning starts with a soft overcast known as the marine layer, which may take hours to burn off. Although the bright summer days are never spoiled by rain or drizzle, they tend to stay cool. But September has the same exuberant sunlight without the swaddling layer of cloud to limit its force. During day after day of brilliant blue skies, the temperature climbs into the 80s or 90s or higher, and playful winds may gust to 30 miles an hour. It's still not as bad as the East Coast, where such temperatures are often accompanied by dead calm, high humidity, and nights that never cool off.

But this idyllic weather carries an implicit threat. The woods and hillsides are parched after a hundred days without rain. The heat dries them still further. A campfire, a stray cigarette, a lightning strike in the mountains (where thunderstorms occur), or a hot engine parked on tall grass can make a forest or a hillside explode into flame.

"Explode" in the right word, too: the chaparral that covers so many hillsides is a dense thicket of chamise, toyon, manazanita, and scrub oak bushes, all waxy with combustible oils, and they burn like Molotov cocktails. Grass fires burn out quickly; chaparral fires at least offer space to fight the flames and only moderate amounts of fuel per square yard. Although forests catch fire relatively slowly, the enormous amounts of available fuel mean the fire can keep burning in the same space for a long time. Moreover, the fire itself changes the weather, creating patterns of airflow that feed and spread the flames. The result is a blaze that can consume tens of thousands of acres of forest—as well as the animals and people who live there.

The names are beautiful: Cherry. Grouse. Mariposa. Stevens. Fletcher. Bayne. Banner. Streets in an upscale development? The roster of a Montessori kindergarten? No, they're a few of this year's California wildfires.

Other fires sound like a series of bodice-rippers, a multigenerational saga of brooding men and passionate women: Moonlight Fire. Lazy Fire. Snow Fire. Italian Fire. White Fire. Honey Fire.

I don’t even want to think about what kind of books would be named after the Lick Fire, the Wallow Fire, the Tar Fire, the Seven Eleven Fire, or the Highway Fire.

Right now, the Bay Area is getting smoke from two great fires: the nearby Lick Fire south of San Jose and the Moonlight Fire, 200 miles away in the northeast Sierra.

The smoke rises and spreads. This week's sunsets have been ominously orange; the morning skies have been gray with smoke, the sun a brassy glow behind the haze. Asthmatics wheeze and clutch their aching chests, and people with allergies sneeze, cough, and wipe their burning, teary eyes.

The Lick Fire (named for the nearby Lick Observatory) is burning just a few miles from my old house in southernmost San Jose. Like the Uvas Canyon fire, which I blogged five years ago, it's a chaparral fire burning in low hills. These can generally be brought under control within a few weeks; the timber fires in the steep slopes and high valleys of the Sierra Nevada can rage for months.

The Moonlight Fire is a timber fire in the Sierra Nevada.

It started on Labor Day; during the week it has grown from 300 acres to more than 42,000 acres. A team of 2300 firefighters are bulldozing firelines, dropping fire retardants from planes (when the smoke clears enough to permit), and out on the steep slopes fighting the fire, which is chewing up forest and the logging debris--dried-out branches, bark, needles, and sawdust--known as slash.

At that, it's dwarfed by the Zaca fire, which burned from Independence Day until the day before Labor Day. It destroyed 240,207 acres—more than the size of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, DC, Scranton, and Manhattan combined. Oh, it also destroyed one outbuilding.

Many of these fires are wildland fires—and the acreage consumed is astonishing partly because California, home to one of every eight Americans, still has so much wildland left. But as California’s population grows and spreads, more people are moving into the red zone where wildland and cities meet. That puts more people and property in the way of fires.

The forest in the days after a fire looks devastated beyond hope of recovery. (Note the red fire extinguisher: that's a color photograph.) And if the fire burned too hot--if there was too much fuel accumulated, if it had been too many years since the previous fire--the soil can be sterilized completely. Then the result is hopeless devastation.

But fire plays an essential role in California’s ecosystems. (These days even Smoky Bear is in favor of "prescribed fires," which used to be called controlled burns.) A few years after a fire, a burned-over forest looks like a neglected graveyard. Acres of blackened stumps stand like rickety tombstones amid fountains of exuberant saplings. Without fire to clear the way and awaken seeds, no new growth could occur. Rebirth is the gift of fire.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Katrina versus Dunkirk

It's not difficult to tell the difference between "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie" and "This was their finest hour."

Nor between the chaos, hunger, and scandals in the aftermath of Katrina, and the brilliant coordination of Naval ships, civilian craft (often sailed by Navy officers), and volunteer fishermen and yachtsmen who rescued hundreds of thousands of French and British soldiers in the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940. Or even, to give recent and American examples, the rescue efforts at the Oklahoma City bombing and the Minnesota bridge collapse -- in both places, locals on the spot rushed in and helped with no thought of danger or reward.

But it's useful to know that we won't have to contend with the Dunkirk spirit any longer. Not satisfied with gutting programs that would mobilize the Federal government in disasters, or heading them up with people whose qualifications go beyond laughable and into absurd, FEMA has now proposed a plan that would keep volunteers away from disasters.

To be fair, I can imagine situations in which volunteers could be counterproductive. But I know that even untrained volunteers can be of great help in cleaning up after a disaster. Moreover, the FEMA response has been consistently useless -- which is not surprising, really. This administration has made it 100% clear that they loathe any central government (except the kind that legislates private sexual behavior), so performing government functions well has to be the lowest possible priority for them.

But I would have thought that they would encourage volunteerism if only to spare the pockets of the taxpayers. Then I spotted the kicker: "Construction and demolition companies want to see a disaster ID card program succeed."

And who gets the contracts for cleanup? Everybody's favorite corporation, of course.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Broken Bridges

I heard about the latest disaster on the radio. Scary. But it looks like it won't be a huge death toll, thank God. Bridge disasters don't usually kill a lot of people, but the sudden failure of infrastructure feels like betrayal. The concrete drops, exposing the abyss. The lies on which we skim over the terrors of daily life have failed along with the girders, and the slow rebuilding of trust and trusses may take months.

This brings back bad memories for a lot of people: the Bay Bridge collapse in 1989 (earthquake), the wind-driven Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse (newsreel footage, complete with blasting music and announcer), and the recent Bay Bridge fire and collapse. And the Mianus River Bridge, and Schoharie, and all the mining disasters from Siberia to Centralia.

Tread carefully, friends.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Above the Arctic Circle

Joe Decker is a nature photographer of extraordinary gifts. The range of his work is astonishing -- from precise yet delicate flower studies to almost abstract images of moving light on moving water, from dramatic high-contrast pictures to tone-on-tone images that could almost be silkscreen prints.

I love the grand, painterly vistas, but then I'm a sucker for mountainsides. Also for the light on the leaves.

His most recent work was shot in Greenland and Iceland, whose stark landscapes lend themselves well to his vision of abstract shapes in the natural world. An almost Mondrian panorama speckled with migrating birds. The rippled clouds and rippled hillside of a fjord. A glacier's ice ridges like pastel corduroy and the netted reflections of ocean on iceberg.

If you're in the area, come out and see these pictures. Wherever you live, buy some. I own a Joe Decker photograph, and the image is more beautiful every time I look at it.

Opening Reception for "Above the Arctic Circle", Friday, July 27, 6-8 pm

Opening reception. Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona, Palo Alto, California.

This is the reception for the first large-scale, major show I've done in well over a year, and will feature approximately 30 previously undisplayed works from my travels through Svalbard and East Greenland. If you can attend only one show of mine this year, make it this one.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

All the Way Home

I left work tonight after sunset and drove westward toward the Santa Cruz Mountains instead of east toward my apartment. It had been a long, rough day, but there was something I wanted even more than to get home and fall into bed.

As I crossed the San Andreas fault, I came into the country of lion-colored hills crowned with oaks. As twilight deepened, I drove north along 280, sometimes called the most beautiful freeway in the world. The mountains to the west were dark as slate, and the frothy dark clouds of the marine layer were surging over them. Above, in the clear sapphire sky, hung the crescent moon and the evening star.

I kept my windows open to the night air, fragrant with grass and leaves and earth, and I watched the long ridges, almost lightless, running between the highway and the sea.

If I drove up one of the steep, tortuous roads and into the mountains, I would find rolling meadows with clefts concealed by scrub. Then, as I went higher, higher, the Trappist dignity of the redwood groves. The towering sequoias always seem both aware of visitors and heedless of them. Their size and age give them a natural authority. Their presence is restful -- a day in the redwoods is a spiritual retreat.

But tonight I needed to get home, I couldn't drive the labyrinthine roads into the woods, or walk silently through the darkness. Just passing by, though, was enough, almost enough.

Sometimes my family back east asks how I can stand to live in the urban sprawl of the Silicon Valley megalopolis. But there's scarcely a spot here where you can't look up and see the wild hills.

Six years ago, I got on a plane with a suitcase, a laptop, and a yowling cat and flew 3000 miles to San Jose. Moving to the Bay Area made enormous changes to my life. Here I've found more new friends and love and natural beauty than I thought my heart could hold. And I found home.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

BASEBALL: Phillies Set a New Record

My boys have reached a landmark achievement in sports: A myriad lost games. Ten thousand failures.

A toast to the most futile professional sports franchise ever. Not just the most futile baseball team. No football team (US or European rules), no basketball team, no hockey team has set a record of such consistent failure. For more than a hundred years the Phillies have been losers.

Now, as the motivational speakers say, it doesn't matter how often you fail. What matters is how often you succeed!

Well, yeah, but baseball is a zero-sum game.

I'd like to point out that the boys are a game over .500, and although they lost the game today to the Cardinals, they creamed the Cardinals in the previous two games.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Disgruntled Thought of the Day

Occam's Razor: Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

Sometimes summarized as "the simplest explanation is the best."

Occam's Other Razor: Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to stupidity.

Note: "Stupidity" here has nothing to do with IQ, everything to do with haste, distraction, innocent mistakes, cluelessness, poor planning, incompetence, and the many other ways people and organizations screw up.

This is a wise guide to life most of the time. Very few people go through life deciding to wreak havoc for the thrill of it. Mostly they just want to get through the day undamaged.

Occam's Razor Strop: When stupidity stops being an occasional accident and becomes corporate policy, cover your ass.

Stupidity, when indulged, can be even more destructive than willed evil. Evil is at least usually organized. Who the hell needs malice when you have poor planning, bad management, and ridiculous decisions? When these have become the trademark of an individual, company, or presidency, stupidity has reached critical mass. Try not to be there when it blows up.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Animal Husbandry for Sociopaths

We've all heard about Mitt Romney's carefully planned strategy for taking his dog on a 12-hour highway drive in the punishing sun and heat of summertime.

Before beginning the drive, Mitt Romney put Seamus, the family's hulking Irish setter, in a dog carrier and attached it to the station wagon's roof rack. He'd built a windshield for the carrier, to make the ride more comfortable for the dog.[snip]

As the oldest son, Tagg Romney commandeered the way-back of the wagon, keeping his eyes fixed out the rear window, where he glimpsed the first sign of trouble. ''Dad!'' he yelled. ''Gross!'' A brown liquid was dripping down the back window, payback from an Irish setter who'd been riding on the roof in the wind for hours.

As the rest of the boys joined in the howls of disgust, Romney coolly pulled off the highway and into a service station. There, he borrowed a hose, washed down Seamus and the car, then hopped back onto the highway. It was a tiny preview of a trait he would grow famous for in business: emotion-free crisis management.

I think we should jam old Mitt naked into a carrier in the same conditions and take the same roadtrip. With a camera to broadcast his distress.

Deliberately abusing animals does not, I repeat NOT, make you a cool, unemotional decision-maker. It makes you a vicious jerk, and it's good evidence that you're a sociopath. Mitt Romney joins Dr. James Dobson in my gallery of dangerous religious-right power-seekers.

What did Dobson do that was so dreadful? Let's just say he over-reacted when his dog didn't go to bed on command:

I had seen this defiant mood before, and knew there was only one way to deal with it. The ONLY way to make Siggie obey is to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else works. I turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me "reason" with Mr. Freud.

What developed next is impossible to describe. That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling and swinging the belt. I am embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene. Inch by inch I moved him toward the family room and his bed. As a final desperate maneuver, Siggie backed into the corner for one last snarling stand. I eventually got him to bed, only because I outweighed him 200 to 12!

He takes that approach to child-rearing, too, except he thinks that kids need to be treated with even greater severity than small dogs.

One proof of intelligent design is that Dobson and Romney, similar as they are, are nevertheless not cooperating on this election. As Amy Sullivan explains, Christian Fundamentalists regard Romney's Mormon faith as a dangerous cult. Long may their intolerance last.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Dying Gaul, Explained

Thursday, June 07, 2007

I Confess

I have fallen prey to the cat macro fad.

I've forgotten where I got this picture; caption and Photoshop all mine.

Since I got back from WisCon, I've been trying to catch up with work, sleep, life . . . all of which has left me wiped out enough that I spent several hours this weekend looking at cat macros.

Alan Bostick provided the caption. Lavendertook provided the cat and photo.



Lolpoker and Lolcasinos are for sale. Just in time for the WSOP!




More philolsophers.


Lolhistory. Including a LolSuffragist.

Lolgays. Not actually funny.


And Laughing Squid with a few I missed.

The immorally funny self-macroing cats. Includes Craigslist personals!

And here's Jimmy Hoffa, Lolteamster.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Good Night, Reverend Falwell

Isaiah, chapter 40

1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD's hand double for all her sins.
3 ¶ The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
5 and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
6 ¶ The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
7 the grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.
9 ¶ O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!
10 Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.
11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

POLITICS: From Her Lips to God's Ear

Laura Bush made an announcement this morning on the Today Show: "No one suffers more than their President and I do."

No one? Not the kids whose parents have been killed, or the parents whose children have been killed or maimed? Not the double amputee vet shaking from nightmares in a rat-infested VA hospital room? Not the Iraqis whose homes, lives, and country have been crushed into bleeding fragments?

Remember, this is the draft-dodging frat boy who has taken more vacation days than Ronald Reagan -- who has, in fact, spent more than a year of his Presidency on vacation.

Has he even missed a meal?

Thanks to Alan Bostick of As I Please for the link.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

REVIEW: All the Songs of Heroes

Disclaimers: Unlike many of my readers, I did not know the late John Milo “Mike” Ford. I first encountered his work in Neil Gaiman’s blog and in his inimitable contributions to Making Light. If he ever posted to any of the Usenet groups I used to frequent, it’s so long ago that I don’t recall it.

When, several years ago, I picked up The Dragon Waiting, I didn’t even realize that the John M. Ford was the Mike Ford who was so often mentioned by my friends in fandom, nor that he was Elise’s “dear Mr. Ford.” The book looked interesting, and it was on the fiction shelves of Alan and Debbie—a sure guarantee of literary quality.

I devoured it—gulped it down, and read as much of his work as I could find in the succeeding weeks. It was subtle, brilliant, complex, and humane. I wished I could meet an author capable of writing such a dazzling novel in his mid-twenties. Our one chance was spoiled when he broke his foot just before he and Elise were to meet Alan and me in Las Vegas.

Literary criticism can be a touchy business, especially when the late author is widely known and loved. But criticism is the wrong word here; I’ll leave that to Derrida and nagging parents. Call it literary commentary. Worse, this commentary is not even a broad survey by an expert in the field or a definitive summing-up of a career. It’s a brief look at a single facet of a highly complex oeuvre. Death in the work of Mike Ford.

Mike Ford died young, and he spent four-fifths of his life dealing with chronic illness. From age 11 on, he had severe Type I diabetes. Eventually it wrecked his kidneys; a transplant gave him six extra years of life. Many of the people who knew and loved him say he lived a good ten years beyond what he expected, and they all credit his longterm partner Elise for saving his life. (alanbostick also says his writing was just the icing on the cake—that knowing him was even more rewarding than reading him.) Mike would have been fifty years old today.

I returned to Mike Ford’s work because I’ve been trying to whip up a certain rage at encroaching death. If I could feel it on his behalf, maybe I could learn to feel it for myself. Things did not work out that way. I found something infinitely more precious and joyful there.

WARNING: spoilers for The Dragon Waiting, How Much for Just the Planet?, Heat of Fusion and Other Stories

The Dragon Waiting, a subtle, brilliant alternate history, offers a plausible solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. The divergences from history start with the existence of vampires. Instead of dying young, the Emperor Julian the Apostate became a vampire and survived long enough to bring back paganism, which resulted in a cascade of changes: Christianity is a minority religion, and Byzantium still rules most of Europe.

All vampire stories play with death. Ford’s play is both explicit and implicit.Explicitly, his vampires are individuals confronting the ugly realities: some gladly surrender their humanity and revel in bloodlust; others build relationships where occasional blood feeding is a gift for the family vampire, who otherwise subsists on animal blood alone; others confine themselves to animals and perhaps dying soldiers on a battlefield. One spends much of the book close to suicide; he keeps facing the terror of living (almost) forever. Incidentally, the vampire subplots are blessedly free from morbid romanticism; Ford’s chief vampire is an engineer.

The implicit playing with death is more subtle and almost lost in the conventions of alternate history. But Mike Ford not only works through the changes of history that his hypothetical situation entails, he also grants Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, a life that does not end on the scaffold—and the kind of lover he deserved. Rivers, a scholar and parfit gentle knight, may have been the only sympathetic Woodville. He was certainly the most literate of them.

The textual complexities of The Dragon Waiting are not an adequate preparation for How Much for Just the Planet? Nothing short of a PhD in popular culture and a large canister of nitrous oxide could possibly prepare the reader for this book. Try to imagine a Star Trek novel that starts with an inflatable rubber spaceship. Or one that combines the French farce of Georges Feydeau and the hometown nostalgia of Ray Bradbury. Or one that simultaneously riffs off Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Maltese Falcon, and half a dozen other cultural icons. Or one that finishes, as Dr. Strangelove was supposed to, with a cream-pie fight and the end of the world as we know it.

Now try to think of them all at once.

That’s the magnificently silly gift Mike Ford gave us in How Much for Just the Planet? I can’t compare it to any other Star Trek novel, because I’ve never read any other Star Trek novels. If they’re all this good, I have to catch up on some reading. But I doubt it. Very few writers of any genre are as skilled, inventive, playful, and profoundly humane as the author of this romp.

Also smart. He must have had a mind crammed with trivia and a library full of obscure and fascinating books and movies. Even as I laughed over allusions to “Peppermint Soda” and “Animal House,” I knew I must be missing a dozen allusions to every one I got—an experience positively Silverlockian. Clearly he was having fun: several well-known SF authors appear as characters, and he plays endlessly with the conventions of the genre.

How Much for Just the Planet? is a relatively early book, but its splendid foolery contains a key to the rest of the novelist and poet’s work. The settlers of a small, beautiful planet have made the place home, despite being there only one generation. Unfortunately, their planet has enormous dilithium reserves, which the Klingons and the Federation both need. And so our hero plots his roaring farce, recruits almost everyone else on the planet to participate in Plan C, and plays ringmaster to the comedy that greets the inevitable invasion of dilithium seekers.

He knew the life he loved couldn’t last. So he greeted the end of that life with a pie in the face.

The stories and poems in Heat of Fusion and Other Stories deal variously with death. In the title story, a scientist in a post-apocalyptic world is dying of radiation poisoning. The government urges him to write down his notes on the fusion experiments to create a new bomb, but he has arranged that any successful fusion will destroy the lab and everyone near it—including himself. His last words are “light. triumph”—an extraordinary greeting for death.

“Shelter from the Storm” returns to themes and tropes familiar from How Much for Just the Planet? A small planet, caught at a moment of vulnerability, must defend itself against attack by overwhelming forces. It’s classic hard SF, but it’s also a nuanced, tender love song to a home, a long life, a marriage, and a family Ford knew he would never live to have. The protagonist, Marshall Kinbote, is married to a calm and beautiful woman. “I would have been dead without Elise thirty years ago. Even if my body continued to breathe, I would have been dead.”

Knowing they cannot win in straightforward battle, Kinbote discovers that his daughter’s fiancé has been trained in a kind of guerrilla warfare: carefully targeted sabotage that so disrupts the plans of the attacking enemy that they must give up the attempt. The fiancé explains that he has been shaped into something like a werewolf—and warns the daughter that only someone who loves the werewolf can ultimately slay him.

“Dateline: Colonus” brings Oedipus to small-town America, where he and his daughters stop at a roadside café run by the Kindly Ones, Theseus is sheriff, and the self-blinded old man is able to end his life in peace, leaving great blessings for the place where he dies.

“Dark Sea,” one of the long poems in Heat of Fusion, sends an ancient Greek poet into space with modern Stellar-Namers and Readers of Earth. And in that poem, Ford states his lifelong theme clearly—though with characteristic doubleness. “All the songs of heroes are songs of Death.” All the songs sung by heroes, all the songs sung about heroes. “We sing because we die; the song goes on.”

Mike Ford was a hero. All his life he saw the dragon waiting, and he teased it, played with it, danced with it, told it stories, and pulled rabbits out of hats to entertain it. When he finally mounted it and rode away, he was kind enough to leave us some poems and stories to amuse us while we wait our turn.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Women with PTSD: The New Sex Symbol?

Laurie and Debbie at Body Impolitic ask: Is PTSD Sexy? The context is the sexualized, Madonna/whore photographs accompanying a fine, thoughtful New York Times article on PTSD in women soldiers.

My answer to their question:

Of course women with PTSD are sexy.[1] They're damsels in distress. The classic damsel in distress is being held prisoner by a monster (usually male, but sometimes an older, sexually rapacious/repressive female), and the first thing the rescuer does is take the monster's place in her affections, then in her bed. Stockholm Syndrome in action.

Women with PTSD are scared, they're helpless, they're easy to comfort/victimize.And nobody will believe them if they say they didn't want sex, because they're already defined as crazy.

Yes, genuine nurturing and protective instincts can be expressed sexually -- by people of all genders and in all life situations. I've been known to grow rapidly attached to people in pain. I've sought and given comfort with my body. And I'm not even willing to say that all the times I did that were innocent and harmless.

I don't know what the right answer is. I do know that presenting people with PTSD as pin-ups is the wrong one.

[1] For the record: I have complex PTSD, which I have written about extensively.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

We Have a Winner!

Julie Phillips’s powerful biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr., has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography—a signal honor, and one thoroughly deserved.

I scrolled back through the winners, and it looks like this is the first SF-related book to win in any category. It’s possible some of the collections of criticism addressed SF, so I can’t be too dogmatic about that statement. Given the prestige of the National Book Critics Circle, I’m hoping this award is a portent of things to come.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Freedom of the Mind, The Cost of Alzheimers

"There is only one freedom of any importance: freedom of the mind." The late Iris Murdoch said that before she was attacked by Alzheimers disease.

I know another literate, liberal, original woman whose mind is slowly being destroyed by Alzheimers: Michele's mother Shelley. I was lucky enough to meet Shelley when she was fully herself, and she was extraordinarily kind to me in circumstances when kindness was the greatest possible gift. Now she is still kind, but confused and desperately confabulating to try to explain the inexplicable world she is lost in.

I mourn the loss of her brilliance and wit. I grieve for her husband and daughters, who are watching helplessly as she fades. And I will give what I can to help. For the sake of Shelley, who may well die before a cure. For the sake of the next generation, for those of us who may carry the genes that will take our minds long before our bodies surrender.

Five or ten or a hundred dollars--will I remember in a year what I did with that money? But it will make a difference to the Alzheimers Foundation. They'll use it to fund research, education, and support for Alzheimers victims and their families and caregivers.

You can help too.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

IN MEMORIAM: Jean Baudrillard (June 20, 1929 - March 6, 2007)

Quotes by the late Jean Baudrillard

It is always the same: once you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are.

Terror is as much a part of the concept of truth as runniness is of the concept of jam. We wouldn’t like jam if it didn’t, by its very nature, ooze. We wouldn’t like truth if it wasn’t sticky, if, from time to time, it didn’t ooze blood.

One of life’s primal situations; the game of hide and seek. Oh, the delicious thrill of hiding while the others come looking for you, the delicious terror of being discovered, but what panic when, after a long search, the others abandon you! You mustn’t hide too well. You mustn’t be too good at the game. The player must never be bigger than the game itself.

The skylines lit up at dead of night, the air-conditioning systems cooling empty hotels in the desert and artificial light in the middle of the day all have something both demented and admirable about them. The mindless luxury of a rich civilization, and yet of a civilization perhaps as scared to see the lights go out as was the hunter in his primitive night.

If we consider the superiority of the human species, the size of its brain, its powers of thinking, language and organization, we can say this: were there the slightest possibility that another rival or superior species might appear, on earth or elsewhere, man would use every means at his disposal to destroy it.

Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us.

Smile and others will smile back. Smile to show how transparent, how candid you are. Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others. Let this emptiness, this profound indifference shine out spontaneously in your smile.

Depressed moods lead, almost invariably, to accidents. But, when they occur, our mood changes again, since the accident shows we can draw the world in our wake, and that we still retain some degree of power even when our spirits are low. A series of accidents creates a positively light-hearted state, out of consideration for this strange power.

Cowardice and courage are never without a measure of affectation. Nor is love. Feelings are never true. They play with their mirrors.

Deep down, no one really believes they have a right to live. But this death sentence generally stays tucked away, hidden beneath the difficulty of living. If that difficulty is removed from time to time, death is suddenly there, unintelligibly.

Information...exhausts itself in the staging of meaning...[and leads] not at all to a surfeit of innovation but to the very contrary, to total entropy.

In the same way that we need statesmen to spare us the abjection of exercising power, we need scholars to spare us the abjection of learning.

Information can tell us everything. It has all the answers. But they are answers to questions we have not asked, and which doubtless don’t even arise.

Post-modern life
We are becoming like cats, slyly parasitic, enjoying an indifferent domesticity. Nice and snug in the social, our historic passions have withdrawn into the glow of an artificial coziness, and our half-closed eyes now seek little other than the peaceful parade of television pictures.

Television knows no night. It is perpetual day. TV embodies our fear of the dark, of night, of the other side of things.

If everything on television is, without exception, part of a low-calorie (or even no-calorie) diet, then what good is it complaining about the adverts? By their worthlessness, they at least help to make the programmes around them seem of a higher level.

It is not entrails that we try to interpret these days, nor even hearts or facial expressions; it is, quite simply, the brain. We want to expose to view its billions of connections and watch it operating like a video game...All that fascinates us is the spectacle of the brain and its workings. What we are wanting here is to see our thoughts unfolding before us – and this itself is a superstition.

Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.

I hesitate to deposit money in a bank. I am afraid I shall never dare to take it out again. When you go to confession and entrust your sins to the safe-keeping of the priest, do you ever come back for them?

Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the U.S. is a paradise. Paradise is just paradise. Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is paradise. There is no other.

The cities of the world are concentric, isomorphic, synchronic. Only one exists and you are always in the same one. It’s the effect of their permanent revolution, their intense circulation, their instantaneous magnetism.

If you say, I love you, then you have already fallen in love with language, which is already a form of break up and infidelity.

There exists, between people in love, a kind of capital held by each. This is not just a stock of affects or pleasure, but also the possibility of playing double or quits with the share you hold in the other’s heart.


The surprises of thought are like those of love: they wear out. But here too you can carry on for a long time doing your conjugal duty.

Boredom is like a pitiless zooming in on the epidermis of time. Every instant is dilated and magnified like the pores of the face.

Every woman is like a timezone. She is a nocturnal fragment of your journey. She brings you unflaggingly closer to the next night.

Executives are like joggers. If you stop a jogger, he goes on running on the spot. If you drag an executive away from his business, he goes on running on the spot, pawing the ground, talking business. He never stops hurtling onwards, making decisions and executing them.

Politics and the US
The era of the political was one of anomie: crisis, violence, madness and revolution. The era of the trans-political is that of anomaly: an aberration of no consequence, contemporaneous with the event of no consequence.

Deep down, the US, with its space, its technological refinement, its bluff good conscience, even in those spaces which it opens up for simulation, is the only remaining primitive society.

It only takes a politician believing in what he says for the others to stop believing him.

Paradox: all bombs are clean—their only pollution is the system of control and security they radiate when they are not detonated.

In order to function, capitalism needs to dominate nature, to domesticate sexuality, to rationalize language as a means of communication, to relegate ethnic groups, women, children and youth to genocide, ethnocide and racial discrimination.

Mistakes, scandals, and failures no longer signal catastrophe. The crucial thing is that they be made credible, and that the public be made aware of the efforts being expended in that direction. The “marketing” immunity of governments is similar to that of the major brands of washing powder.

What is a society without a heroic dimension?

What you have to do is enter the fiction of America, enter America as fiction. It is, indeed, on this fictive basis that it dominates the world.

Never resist a sentence you like, in which language takes its own pleasure and in which, after having abused it for so long, you are stupefied by its innocence.

Perhaps our eyes are merely a blank film which is taken from us after our deaths to be developed elsewhere and screened as our life story in some infernal cinema or dispatched as microfilm into the sidereal void.

There is nothing funny about Halloween. This sarcastic festival reflects, rather, an infernal demand for revenge by children on the adult world.

The sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it lacks artifice and therefore intelligence.

Perhaps the world’s second worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore.

The great person is ahead of their time, the smart make something out of it, and the blockhead, sets themselves against it.

The order of the world is always right - such is the judgment of God. For God has departed, but he has left his judgment behind, the way the Cheshire Cat left his grin.

The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction. The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced. The hyper real.

In days gone by, we were afraid of dying in dishonor or a state of sin. Nowadays, we are afraid of dying fools. Now the fact is that there is no Extreme Unction to absolve us of foolishness. We endure it here on earth as subjective eternity.

Pornography is the quadraphonics of sex. It adds a third and fourth track to the sexual act. It is the hallucination of detail that rules. Science has already habituated us to this microscopics, this excess of the real in its microscopic detail, this voyeurism of exactitude.

Something in all men profoundly rejoices in seeing a car burn.

Selections from “War Porn”
Selections from
War Porn

The New World Order will be both consensual and televisual. That is indeed why the targeted bombings carefully avoided the Iraqi television antennae...The crucial stake, the decisive stake in this whole affair is the consensual reduction of Islam to the global order.

[On the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib] These scenes are the illustration of a power which, reaching its extreme point, no longer knows what to do with itself – a power henceforth without aim, without purpose, without a plausible enemy, and in total impunity. It is only capable of inflicting gratuitous humiliation and, as one knows, violence inflicted on others is after all only an expression of the violence inflicted on oneself. It only manages to humiliate itself, degrade itself and go back on its own word in a sort of unremitting perversity. The ignominy, the vileness is the ultimate symptom of a power that no longer knows what to do with itself.

These images are as murderous for America as those of the World Trade Center in flames. Nevertheless, America in itself is not on trial, and it is useless to charge the Americans: the infernal machine exploded in literally suicidal acts. In fact, the Americans have been overtaken by their own power. They do not have the means to control it. And now we are part of this power. The bad conscience of the entire West is crystallized in these images. The whole West is contained in the burst of the sadistic laughter of the American soldiers, as it is behind the construction of the Israeli wall. This is where the truth of these images lies; this is what they are full of: the excessiveness of a power designating itself as abject and pornographic.

This masquerade crowns the ignominy of the war – until this travesty, it was present in this most ferocious image (the most ferocious for America), because it was most ghostly and most “reversible”: the prisoner threatened with electrocution and, completely hooded, like a member of the Ku Klux Klan, crucified by its ilk. It is really America that has electrocuted itself.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


A hundred years ago today, one of my favorite poets was born: a splendid fat bugger who, once he became famous, wore carpet slippers everywhere—even with a tuxedo. He loved words and landscape, gave generously in support of the Catholic Worker, and reconverted to Anglicanism as an adult. His friends ranged from Dorothy Day to Christopher Isherwood to Gypsy Rose Lee. His essays and poems were formative for me, and I still love them.

In his own words in honor of another dead poet,
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Events for the Auden centenary

Let us lift a glass in honor of W.H. Auden, Christian and queer and poet.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Alternate History

After almost ten years of marriage, three kids, and a couple of moves, Diane is coming into her own. She and her husband Chris (not to be confused with her sister Chris) have built a good life, and they’re finally buying a house. I still can’t understand how churches can exist without a parsonage, but I’m old-fashioned that way.

The wedding was beautiful, of course, and so was Diane when she announced her first pregnancy only a year later. We were all worried about the medical issues of pregnancy. The newer allergy and asthma meds helped a lot; Diane’s asthma is of the dangerous kind, but she has it pretty well under control most of the time now.

So is her depression. She is still in therapy, but with a decent antidepressant and good emotional support from her family and friends, she’s doing a lot better. She talks with honesty and passion about the importance of getting psychological help for Christians with mental illnesses—“none of this bullshit about how good Christians don’t get depressed.” She had one bad spell of post-partum depression, but Chris (her sister) talked her into getting help fast. That was right after 9/11, which hit Diane hard: she spent the last weeks of her second pregnancy glued to the TV watching the disaster. Several of her church members were in the Pentagon; one was badly injured. And Diane still worries about the effect of the stress hormones and her depression on Elizabeth, a dark, quiet girl who looks a lot like her father.

Once the kids were in school and her younger siblings fairly well launched, Diane started writing seriously. She always wrote—she has a trunkful of old romance manuscripts scribbled while she rode the bus to school or waited in doctors’ offices—but now she has more time to devote to her work. Until her mid-twenties she concentrated on historical romances, but now she is working on grand family sagas: not just brooding men and passionate women, but the ways that families influence each other over the generations. She’s good and getting better. The most recent project is one based on her own family history, since she’s gotten very interested in genealogy. She’s been putting a lot of her faith in her books, but she’s considerably closer to Susan Howatch than to Grace Livingston Hill.

Although she writes under a pseudonym, the people in her church know she’s an author. Luckily, her husband Chris’s congregation is well-educated and liberal. There have been some stresses there—being a minister’s wife is not easy—but Diane’s charm and her musical talent have helped in her ministry. (And I admit it, her dogmatism and stubbornness have sometimes been an issue there.)

Of course she’s still singing. There was some talk a few years ago about her church’s praise band cutting a record, but it would be only for local distribution. I haven’t heard anything about that in a while.

She bought season tickets to the Orioles when she got her first book published. We also gave her a huge party. Every year after the World Series, she and I get on the phone and review the whole baseball season. It takes a few hours, but it’s a great tradition. She and I are planning to meet up this year at Cooperstown for Cal Ripken’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. She bubbles with all the old enthusiasm when she talks about the Orioles.

At 32 she’s still as skinny as a teenager. During her pregnancies she looked like a straw that had swallowed an olive. She started teaching her kids baseball and basketball when they were tiny. Now they play with their cousin Jessica and with all the other cousins. Maybe next year they’ll come to visit me in California.

This is not about grief. This is about loss.

Diane Michelle Thompson
July 10, 1974 – February 8, 1997

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cahiers du Cinema, Eat Your Heart Out

Here's the list of Best Picture nominees from 1970 to 2005. Boldface indicates the the ones I've seen. Italics the ones I'm interested in seeing sometime.

Until the mid-1970s, I saw very few movies in a theatre. Too far (35 miles), too expensive. So most of the early ones I saw years after they were made, usually on TV or in a revival house.

Patton. What can you say about a 60-year-old general who died?

Airport What an you say about Helen Hayes stowing away on an airplane that partly blows up? That it's a remarkably suspenseful popcorn movie. That the parody is even better. And don't call me Shirley.

Five Easy Pieces. I don't ever remember seeing the whole thing, though I have seen the toast scene, I shy away from Jack Nicholson movies because (A) he looks a lot like my father, and (B) he keeps playing my father (particularly in one Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Shining)

Love Story When I was 11, I thought this was a great movie. I still like the color of Ryan O'Neal's blue shirt.

MASH Loved the TV show. The movie is superior in some ways -- Robert Duvall's Frank Burns, for example, is a far more complex and powerful figure than the silly Larry Linville ineffectual prick. However, the repeated sexual humiliations of Major Houlihan are genuinely nasty, nasty enough to make me lose sympathy for Hawkeye and Trapper John.

The French Connection The first time I was ever aware of a great chase scene was when I saw this one on TV.

A Clockwork Orange. Have not ever seen it. Having seen Brazil and Closetland, I don't know if I need to.

Fiddler on the Roof. I know all the songs, I've read the original stories, but never saw the movie.

The Last Picture Show. Waiting until after I read the book.

Nicholas and Alexandra. I've read the book -- in fact, a number of books, including Robert Massie's fascinating followup volume, which traces the DNA identification of the bodies. Have never seen the film, but I might put it on my Netflix queue.

The Godfather. I always refused to see this on grounds of violence. Sometime in t997 or 1998, I caught a glimpse of an early scene (Michael Corleone sitting at a desk) while flipping through cable channels. I did not move or breathe until the film was over. A work of genius.

Cabaret. Another work of genius, although I once saw a stage version that was even better at Villanova in the mid-1970s.

Deliverance. They always set these things in the south. But I wouldn't go canoeing with city boys through the Pennsylvania mountains where I grew up.

Sounder.Really lovely, and Cicely Tyson did a tremendous job.

The Emigrants. I never even heard of this one.

The Sting Fabulous: tightly plotted, brilliant ensemble acting, witty dialogue. I watched it again recently on DVD, and it holds up. I first saw it on TV in about 1980.

American Graffiti Nostalgia for a kind of life I never lived and never cared about. I found it unbearably dull. The MAD Magazine parody reveals that the mysterious blonde in the convertible is... Ringo Starr.

The Exorcist. Thanks, but no thanks. The book was just dreadful.

A Touch of Class. I do like Glenda Jackson, but I never saw this.

Cries and Whispers. Extraordinary, subtle, powerful. Watched this in my Bergman class, where we saw two Swedish films a week in the big college auditorium. By the end of the semester I could understand spoken Swedish fairly well, as long as the topic was blood, death, berries, or chess games.

The Godfather, Part II Naturally, I hunted this up as soon as I'd become entranced with the first one. Again, utterly brilliant. Do watch The Freshman when you're on a Godfather bender; Marlon Brando's performance was so good that the Godfather studio wanted to sue him for copyright infringement. It's sweet and funny and tender.

Chinatown Deeply disturbing, cynical, very fine film, I saw this in a late-night series of incredibly freaking depressing movies at a dollar theater when I was living in a rat-infested apartment in West Philly. (Between Mantua and Powelton Village, to be exact.)

The Conversation Gene Hackman could not be more different in this than he was in The French Connection. Exceedingly dark, paranoid film.

Lenny You know, every movie from this year is more depressing than the next. Nevertheless, Lenny is worth watching -- biting wit and the disintegration of a great performer. Dustin Hoffman is a genius.

The Towering Inferno Enjoyable tripe. Not too enjoyable when a real skyscraper went up in flames, and some newspapers showed pictures of people jumping to their deaths. After 9/11, I don't know if I could watch this.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Vicious, scary, anti-authoritarian, misogynistic, and not as good as the book. I freaked out completely when I saw it, and I doubt I will ever watch it again. Also, I do get tired of the Woman as Evil Enforcer stereotype. For a much more complex and interesting Kesey book, try Sometimes a Great Notion.

Barry Lyndon Just lovely. A slow, ravishingly pretty film that misses all the satiric humor of Thackeray's work.

Dog Day Afternoon. One of the few Pacino films I haven't seen.

Jaws. I saw this at Ocean City, NJ, when I was there for the annual YFC convention. (YFC is Youth for Christ; somewhere I have a trophy for being a champion Bible quizzer.) My companion took a water pistol and shot random people at the scariest moments. I'm surprised nobody died -- or killed him.

Nashville. Anoher great, complex Robert Altman movie. Lily Tomlin is particularly good.

Rocky. A classic boxing movie: sweet, blue-collar tough, a bit sentimental. I've been known to watch it just for the Philadelphia scenery. (Ditto Trading Places.)

All the President's Men One of the best political thrillers ever made, and it's all true. Again, a sterling ensemble cast, flawless detailing of the newsroom, and the good guys win. That's guilty, guilty, guilty! Going to see this in a movie theater was my high school graduation gift.

Bound for Glory Strong, sad, beautiful. Great double feature with Alice's Restaurant.

Network I recently saw this again on DVD, and my God, it's good. Great performances in one of the most intelligent scripts ever produced: terrifyingly prescient and a great series of rants. However, I suspect Paddy Chayefsky is writhing in Purgatory now, watching Fox use this movie as a fucking business plan.

Taxi Driver Another film I saw in the midnight dollar movie series. A great DeNiro performance. He seems to be channeling my psychotic father. I never want to see this again, thanks.

Annie Hall When I saw this with Walter, the summer it came out. I was under the impression that being into leather meant making purses and wallets. Still a favorite, and a film that speaks to me of a very specific time of my life. Don't miss Christopher Walken as Duane, Annie's brother. "I'm due back on Planet Earth."

The Goodbye Girl Moderately amusing.

Julia So we know now that this was plagiarized. Still a good movie.

Star Wars I went to see this to celebrate my 18th birthday. Fun at the time -- I loved Princess Leia, and I still cherish an affection for Carrie Fisher's acerbic tongue and spectacular breasts. Han Solo definitely did it for me, too. But the film, seen now, is too *directive*. Heavy-handed. But I cannot forget the freshness and delight of seeing it the first time.

The Turning Point Yeah, well, you can't have everything.

The Deer Hunter. Some movies I know are going to be too triggering.

Coming Home. Not bad, really.

Heaven Can Wait This is still a favorite. A sweet, funny movie with sparkling dialogue and a great cast, including James Mason as Mr. Jordan, Buck Henry as the bumbling escort who removes Warren Beatty from his body too early, and Julie Christie luminous despite a dreadful perm. Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin are perfect as the treacherous wife and secretary seeking to kill off her millionaire husband. I still quote lines from this one: "If he weren't going to be dead soon, he'd need years of psychiatric help."

Midnight Express Oh Christ. Certain scenes from this actually came up in therapy with me just yesterday. In 1978 I doubt that anyone used the word "triggering" to refer to the effects of PTSD. In fact, PTSD was still "shell shock." I was shell-shocked and thrown into very, very serious PTSD mode by this movie. Moreover, I hadn't seen enough movies at that point to know how devastating a violent film would be to me. (Many of the more violent films in this Oscar list I didn't see until later; even if I don't mention it, you can rest assured that movies like Taxi Driver had an overwhelming effect on me.)

An Unmarried Woman Asinine Michael Murphy dumps Jill Clayburgh, who promptly finds a great little apartment, a job at an art gallery, and love with Alan Bates. What's not fun about divorce?

Kramer vs. Kramer I love Dustin Hoffman. He's an unswerving craftsman, an actor's actor, and I also find him hot. But yeesh! I generally refer to this as Kramer versus Whiner.

Apocalypse Now. Yeah, well. Great movie, spectacular nervous breakdown.

All That Jazz Far, far better than Cabaret, IMO. Dark, wry, witty, unsparing. Someday I want to have a New Year's Eve Bob Fosse festival: Cabaret, All That Jazz, Chicago... now that's the way to start the New Year!

Breaking Away. A pleasant bildungsroman, or possibly bicycleroman.

Norma Rae Sally Field does a powerhouse job in his based-on-a-true-story union movie. Unfortunately, the scriptwriters had to make her fall in love (and bed) with the New York labor organizer who radicalizes her. Not everybody thinks with her crotch. Still a wonderful movie.

Ordinary People Brought the Pachelbel Canon back into favor. Based on the book from Doubleday -- the only book they published from the slushpile from 1945 until they said the hell with it and ceased accepting over-the-transom submissions. Oh, and there's a little family guilt and drama there.

Coal Miner's Daughter. I do want to see this one -- so far I've only seen fragments.

The Elephant Man I haven't even seen fragments of this.

Raging Bull So personally painful that I got up in the middle (during one of the arguments with his wife), went out, threw up, and then returned to watch the rest. Once was enough.

Tess Nastassia Kinski is compelling, although I'm not sure why Roman Polanski needed a 15-year-old to play the role. (Wanted? Well, that's different.) Gorgeous, mostly faithful to the book, including the terrifying scene toward the end.

Chariots of Fire Nice popcorn film. The religious young man who wouldn't run on Sunday became a missionary and died in an internment camp in China during WWII.

Atlantic City Louis Malle made gorgeous movies, and I am a sucker for a pretty picture. Atmospheric and astonishing.

On Golden Pond My feelings about it when I first saw it were dismissive, although the stars are always watchable. I'm 25 years older now, and I might see it differently.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Endlessly watchable. This is a great *movie movie* and a real favorite.

Reds This is another kind of great movie. I was annoyed that the witnesses weren't identified -- I wanted to know who they are! I bet this has been remedied on DVD.

Gandhi. Somehow I never managed to see this one.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial The beginning of the end for Steven Spielberg. Predictable, manipulative tripe.

Missing. I'd like to see it, although it would be difficult.

Tootsie One of the very best movies ever made. I can quote the whole thing.

The Verdict Good, tense, exciting newspaper movie.

Terms of Endearment. You know, i never saw this. I don't care how often Shirley Maclaine dies. She's just going to come back again.

The Big Chill Oh my. Very good movie, although most people think it's a comedy. I think it's a tragedy. Kevin Costner played the corpse.

The Dresser. Wow -- very powerful, tight little film about a stage actor and his dresser. Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in a tense, loving, painful professional marriage.

The Right Stuff Fun and exciting, but nowhere near as good as the book.

Tender Mercies This is what they call a "little" picture. No car chases, no naked love scenes, no flash-cut tenth-of-a-second scenes. Just a small story about a man trying to redeem himself. Robert Duvall subtly conveys a huge emotional range. Because of the ending, I may never be able to watch this again. But I loved this movie.

Amadeus I saw this as a play on Broadway with Ian McKellen as Salieri and Simon Callow as Mozart. I would not have thought the film could equal it -- but it does different things, and Tom Hulce (AKA Pinto from Animal House) carries Mozart quite well. Someday I have to write a long review about this film. It is very dear to my heart.

The Killing Fields. By this time, I knew what not to watch, thanks.

A Passage to India Lovely and scenic. Nice costumes. Evokes a world where the mores are quite different, so the plot makes more sense to people who don't understand the cultural shifts between then and now. But I still prefer Forster's prose.

Places in the Heart Billy and I went to see this movie twice when we were engaged. If the material weren't handled so deftly, and by such fine actors, it would be over-the-top sentimental. But somehow it isn't -- or maybe I was seduced by the luminous cinematography or the story of the plucky widow desperate to save her farm. Look for John Malkovitch in a rare sympathetic and non-psychotic role. This may have been Danny Glover's first film role.

A Soldier's Story Race relations in the military -- strong, well-acted.

Out of Africa A very pretty picture. It's more about Karen Blixen, however, than a film of her book. Sigh. The book Out of Africa is tremendously important to me, and it hasn't been filmed.

The Color Purple. I refuse to see this. Dammit, they were dykes, and the manipulative gutless bastard Spielberg censored that. I refuse to go see him turning complex, meaningful stories into Disneyfied puppet shows.

Kiss of the Spider Woman I'd like to see this. During my marriage, I never saw prison movies, as they were triggering to my husband.

Prizzi's Honor Damn, Anjelica Huston is good. Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson are suitably professional as hitpeople for the Mob. Now this is romance.

Witness When I saw this movie, I was living in Connecticut. Peter Weir (whom I'd loved since I first saw Picnic at Hanging Rock) saw my state so closely, so tenderly, that I could almost smell it. Great score. Great cast. Great moral lesson. This is a very, very fine movie.

Platoon. Really, war stories are a problem for me.

Children of a Lesser God Not too bad, as I recall.

Hannah and Her Sisters A wonderful Woody Allen movie, one of my favorites of his.

The Mission Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons, adventurer and priest, in 18th-century South America. A richly textured tragedy dealing with slavery, religion, murder, and redemption. Powerful film with every word, every shot, every note of music in place.

A Room with a View More exquisitely respectful costume drama.

The Last Emperor Exquisitely respectful costume drama set in China, for a change. It is a good movie, though.

Broadcast News Funny, tough-minded, sometimes painful. Holly Hunter is a news producer, Albert Brooks the acerbic reporter, and William Hurt the handsome, nice, but slow-witted anchorman. Watch for Joan Cusack delivering a tape at the last minute. There's a scene here that actually happened to me.

Fatal Attraction. No thanks. Anyone who fucks up Michael Douglass's life of whiny entitlement and white male het privilege is OK by me.

Hope and Glory "Thank you, Adolf!" London during the Blitz, as seen by schoolboys,

Moonstruck Another huge favorite. At the time, I thought Broadcast News would stick more in my mind, but the joys and woes of the Castorini family are still very close to my heart after all these years. Spectacular cast, with the 46-year-old Cher playing opposite 23-year-old Nicholas Cage. So many wonderful moments I can't tell them all -- from the elderly grandfather urging his dogs to howl at the moon to the miracle of the fiance's mother rising from her deathbed. ("She began to cook for everyone in the house. She ate a meal that could choke a pig.")

Rain Man Not too bad. Dustin Hoffman doing his usual fully inhabited performance. Tom Cruise is an attractive placeholder.

The Accidental Tourist I should put this in my Netflix queue.

Dangerous Liaisons Costume drama, but not precisely respectful. John Malkovitch playing elegant evil. Ditto Glenn Close.

Mississippi Burning Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as FBI agents investigating the deaths of civil rights workers. Alan Parker presents the usual buddy cop dynamic between hotheaded Hackman and by-the-book Dafoe. What makes this film great is the imagery of dusty, hopeless towns, churches flaring like torches, defeated women, venomous-eyed killers, and frightened, determined Black families.

Working Girl Melanie Griffith makes me itch. So does the setup here, in which upper-class stereotype Sigourney Weaver shafts her working-class assistant who is trying to climb out of her limited background to become a corporate arbitrageur. (Arbitrageuse?) However, this film passes the Bechdel test. It has Joan Cusack as Melanie's gutsy friend. It has Harrison Ford behaving tenderly and incidentally taking his shirt off. The opening credits present a stirring and beautiful theme song over a swoopy aerial trip from Staten Island to the Financial District (encompassing a heart-breaking view of the Statute of Liberty and the late World Trade Center). So yeah, despite everything I like this movie a lot.

Driving Miss Daisy Morgan Freeman as a magic Negro. The indomitable Jessica Tandy as an indomitable old lady trapped in Southern gentility. Dan Ackroyd as her son. Sentimental but powerful.

Born on the Fourth of July. No need to see it, thanks.

Dead Poets Society. My least favorite Peter Weir film until The Truman Show. I haven't watched it since I saw it in the theater. Gorgeously photographed in elegiac style.

Field of Dreams This is what Kevin Costner is good for. How can you not love this movie? It makes me cry. It has baseball. And last I heard, the cornfield where it was shot was still a shrine and tourist attraction.

My Left Foot I'd like to see this. Daniel Day-Lewis is quite an actor.

Dances With Wolves As they say at Wiscon, there's an entire genre of "what these people need is a honky." Beautifully photographed, at least.

Awakenings Why in the name of God did they have to add a romance to this film? Read the book. Then read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Ghost Gotta love the 1980s, when corporate raiders were the good guys. Contains possibly the most ridiculous love scene ever shown, assuming you've ever worked with clay. Nevertheless, it has some moving and some memorable moments, and Whoopie Goldberg rocks, as always. For a funnier, more insightful, far more heartrending view of grief, take a look at Anthony Minghella's Truly Madly Deeply, a British movie made the same year. The difference between Patrick Swayze and Alan Rickman is not just cosmetic, folks.

The Godfather, Part III I need a Godfather marathon. That's a DVD set I'd love to own.

Goodfellas Good, violent, honest mob picture.

The Silence of the Lambs Reading the book was enough, although watching Anthony Hopkins do that voice on Inside the Actors Studio really makes me want to see it.

Beauty and the Beast A heroine who reads! A Disneyfication that enhances instead of destroys the story!

Bugsy Need to add this to my list of Las Vegas movies.

JFK My favorite line: "Do you mind if I smoke?" "Why would I mind?" Captures the 1960s in uncanny detail.

The Prince of Tides. Read the book.

Unforgiven Powerful, disturbing, very well made western.

The Crying Game Haven't seen it, but I do know the secret.

A Few Good Men I've seen the trailers--isn't that enough?

Howards End Probably my favorite Merchant-Ivory film. As usual, the book is better, but here the rich visuals and elegiac pace suit the story. Vanessa Redgrave is extraordinary -- but my God, all the Redgraves are.

Scent of a Woman The other Al Pacino film I haven't seen.

Schindler's List. I don't watch Spielberg movies even when they're about the Holocaust. Please note that this is a feel-good story about the Holocaust. The book is powerful and moving. I don't need to see the movie -- not even for Liam Neeson.

The Fugitive Great fun, with two appealing male leads and a suspenseful story.

In the Name of the Father. No prison movies during the marriage.

The Piano Strange, beautiful, painful, beautifully filmed.

The Remains of the Day I've read the book. I'd like to see two of my favorite actors in those claustrophobic roles.

Forrest Gump I freaking hate this movie. When I first saw it, the tone seemed weirdly jumbled and inconsistent, and not because of the clever photoshopping. The events were telling a different story than the dialogue, the acting, and the reviews. Nobody seemed to notice the horror and tragedy and rage and satire. Then I read the book, which was much more consistent, disturbing, satirical, and gloomy. Ah, once again we make a feel-good tragedy.

Four Weddings and a Funeral This may be another feel-good tragedy. It's also a member of two other idiosyncratic groups: movies I like despite detesting one or both of the romantic leads, and movies I like despite the presence of Andie McDowell.

Let's face it, romantic leads are often dull or annoying. When Harry Met Sally has charming moments -- the old people talking about their marriages, for example, and the infamous deli scene -- and a superbly funny and subversive pair of second leads played by Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby. But Meg Ryan is one of the most consistently irritating big-screen presences, and Billy Crystal is somehow not at his best. The leads come off as shallow and boring, whereas the second leads are great fun.

Four Weddings and a Funeral has Hugh Grant fumbling through the male lead and Andie McDowell wooden and ladylike as a supposed sex-bomb American journalist. But it also has Simon Callow going over the top, Kristin Scott Thomas chic yet lonely, a secret gay couple, and a Deaf character actually played by a Deaf actor. I can put up with a lot for the sake of some of these attributes. Even Andie McDowell's wind-up doll line readings.

Andie McDowell was good in two movies that showcased her essential chill and weren't damaged by her inability to make her lines sound like natural dialogue. As the uptight gardener in Green Card, her defensive rigidity relaxed only when she was surrounded by plants. (That's a fabulous movie--why wasn't it nominated for Best Picture?) Moreover, her prissiness played beautifully opposite the Gerard Depardieu's sensual, earthy composer. She's pretty without being attractive; he's attractive without being pretty. Great combination.

She also did well in sex, lies, and videotape, where her character's defining characteristic is sexual frigidity. She's also surrounded by much better actors, including James Spader, whose sheer beauty is probably against the law, but who can also act and speak and move with naturalness.

Pulp Fiction Took me years to get around to this one; then I found that the violence was less triggering than I expected, because it was both impersonal and set in an appropriate moral universe. A redemption story of rare power.

Quiz Show I enjoyed this at the time, but I've felt no urge to see it again.

The Shawshank Redemption. Prison.

Braveheart. Nice scenery.

Apollo 13. We watched the nonfiction series, and of course both of us vividly remembered the actual events.

Babe. Dunno why I haven't seen this -- I'd like to.

Il Postino. Ditto.

Sense and Sensibility. Ravishing. Almost (dare I say it?) better than the novel, because the youngest sister Margaret is a fully fleshed-out character. It's also nice to see Alan Rickman, for whom I've had a thing for years, in a sympathetic role.

The English Patient. Need to get this on DVD. A magnificent motion picture. The book seemed unfilmable, but the movie translated it to the screen. Beautiful, painful, triumphant.

Fargo. The Coen Brothers take the archetype of the swag-bellied Southern sheriff and turn it upside down. So we get Marge Gundersen, a Minnesota sheriff in an advanced state of pregnancy, investigating a botched kidnapping. Bloody and bleak, it's still a very fine movie.

Jerry Maguire. I didn't get to see this at the time because I knew the financial themes would be distressing to my then-husband. (Yeah, I could have gone alone, but I didn't.)

Secrets & Lies Dunno why we didn't see this.

Shine. I didn't get to see this at the time because I knew the musical themes would be distressing to my then-husband. (He was a pianist accepted to Juillard; his parents refused to let him attend.) I think he was not in great shape that year, and I was avoiding anything that might be distressing. I spent a great deal of time protecting him.

Titanic. In addition to a nifty computer reconstruction of the sinking, this movie has some spectacular imagery (the old couple lying in their cabin together, waiting for death as the water rises; the dead woman floating through the dining room; the custom dishes sliding off their shelves) and the single most trite, boring, obnoxious love story ever. It's also practically a cigarette ad. Kathy Bates is a lot more believable as Molly Brown than Debbie Reynolds was in The Unsinkable, etc. i was amused to see one image that also occurs in another film: when Kate Winslet is losing her virginity in a parked car below decks, all we see is her hand plastered against the rear window -- an image integral to the very different film Ghost Story.

As Good as It Gets. Jack Nicholson again. Also, he plays a crazy writer. Not giving the ex any fuel to use against me.

The Full Monty A lovely little movie. Subtitles help a lot, since I don't speak fluent Sheffield dialect.

Good Will Hunting. Way the hell oversimplified, but a good movie.

L.A. Confidential. Wow. Fast-paced, twisted, fascinating, and remarkably close to James Ellroy's dense noir book. Great movie.

Shakespeare in Love. This is a favorite. I love William Shakespeare, I love Tom Stoppard, I loved the lively hen-cackling Elizabethan vigor of it, and I loved the gorgeous people and gorgeous costumes. Also, it's finally given Judi Dench her due as a powerful actress. And Shakespeare's hands were always ink-stained! I got all the lit-major jokes (I was the only person in the theater who cracked up when the vicious little kid said his name was John Webster). I would like someone to make a movie about John Donne with Joseph Fiennes playing the poet. There's actually a bit of resemblance, and my God he's good at playing writers. Incidentally, send some pennies to the National Portrait Gallery; they're trying to buy this treasure of a painting.

Elizabeth. Almost as historically inaccurate as Shakespeare in Love. They're both Tudor fanfic, but good movies. Cate Blanchett is amazing.

Life Is Beautiful. Not just prison, Nazi death camp. I think not.

Saving Private Ryan. I refuse to see this. Since it's Spielberg, I was readily able to predict the ending, and I really don't need the kind of extreme triggering I would endure if I watched the battle scenes.

The Thin Red Line. A war movie I might actually want to see, since it's by Terrence Mallick, who directed my favorite movie ever. (Days of Heaven, if you haven't been reading this journal for long.)

American Beauty. I saw the trailers and dismissed this. It looked well-made (love Kevin Spacey) but shallow and silly. But the wise film connoisseur gave me a copy, and I found it ravishing. The surface shallowness gives way to a great deal of meaning, and the film is profoundly moving and beautiful.

The Sixth Sense. I walked out after 20 minutes, but not because the movie was bad. No, it was (A) incredibly powerful, and (B) very clear to me what the issue was. And I could not stand it. Way the hell triggering. I'd like to see it sometime on DVD, where I can control the viewing experience myself.

The Cider House Rules. Never got around to it.

The Green Mile. No, thanks.

The Insider. Never got around to this, either.

Gladiator. Or this.

Chocolat. Lovely, although I prefer Alfred Molina when he's a touch more sympathetic.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not my kink. I don't do martial arts movies. Yes, I know I'm missing an enormous cultural experience, but there is only so much time in the world.

Erin Brockovich. First movie I went to see by myself after I left my husband. I'm not a big Julia Roberts fan, but I love Albert Finney, and I enjoyed this movie a lot.

Traffic. I understand it's good. But is it worth seeing?

A Beautiful Mind. Do you realize how much of my movie watching is affected by PTSD? There are some things it's just not wise for me to watch.

Gosford Park. Oh, lovely. Lovely. Even though I did work out whodunnit.

In the Bedroom. Somehow I missed this.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Magnificent. Heartbreaking. There are no words.

Moulin Rouge. An interesting experiment that didn't quite come off for me.

Chicago. Fabulous, fabulous movie, and a good musical, too.

Gangs of New York. Unbearably bloody. Well-made, but yeesh.

The Hours. I started to watch this but it seemed far too self-consciously Lit'ry. Maybe I'll try it again some day. And what is up with the fake nose? Virginia Woolf was a beautiful woman.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers I think Andy Serkis should have won Best Actor for Gollum in this.

The Pianist. I spent two years researching Poland during World War II. I don't think I need to torture myself with this.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. This epic -- not three movies but one nine- or ten- or twelve-hour extravaganza -- is unparalleled. Deserved everything it won, and more. I am totally pissed that Sean Astin wasn't nominated. He carried Frodo -- and the film.

Lost in Translation. Subtle and lovely and strange.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I think I want to read the book first.

Mystic River. Read the book -- Dennis Lehane can write. I don't think I could bear the movie.

Seabiscuit. I remember the old movie about this great-hearted horse.

Million Dollar Baby. You have to be kidding me.

The Aviator. Definitely want to see this one.

Finding Neverland. Oh my. Johnny Depp channels Michael Jackson in Edwardian costume. Good movie.

Ray. This was well-made, moving, an astounding performance by Jamie Foxx. But I am still sad and angry that Malcom X -- an even better movie -- wasn't even nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay. It's only OK to be a Black man if you're handicapped, guilt-ridden, and good at entertaining white people.

Sideways. Must see this.

Crash. Should I bother?

Brokeback Mountain I have this movie. I just need the strength to watch it. I read the story when it came out, and it broke my heart.

Capote. I have borrowed this movie and plan to see it this week.

Good Night, and Good Luck. Saw it at the Parkway; what a great film. David Strathairn (another longtime favorite) is finally getting his due.

Munich. Umm, no. I remember the kidnappings and the murders,

I have not seen a single movie that's nominated for *any* Oscar this year.