Monday, December 31, 2007

Year-End Awards

It's that time of year again, the time when everyone publishes their 'Best Of' lists - best books, movies, tv shows, broadway shows, etc. So here's mine, since I know you were waiting.

Since I've seen so few new releases this year I'm really not qualified to say anything about movies (actually, I'm not really qualified to say anything about anything, but hey, this is the Internet, and it hasn't stopped me yet.) While contemporary movies have not sunk so low as contemporary music or art, I still find most of what comes out of Hollywood these days to be unsatisfying. Yes, there is an occasional gem, but for the most part the storytelling art seems to have been lost.

Other than sports and CNBC's after hours financial shows, I also watch very little television. The Shield is the most consistently excellent drama on TV right now and has been for awhile, surpassing The Sopranos long ago. In fact, in retrospect, The Sopranos turned out to be a single first season of perhaps the finest television ever produced, followed by five seasons that included brilliant acting (especially Gandolfini and Edie Falco) and characterization, but disappointing story lines that sometimes came out of nowhere and went nowhere. The producers seemed to develop a contempt for the audience, or at least the norms of traditional storytelling, summed up nowhere so clearly as in the final episode with its in-your-face non-ending. It seemed to me that Chase's intent there was to expose those of us who expected some sort of resolution - even the mildest 'life goes on' type of resolution - as old fogies stuck in the past, unsophisticated rubes who lacked the capacity to understand his vision, his art. Perhaps he was right. Or perhaps he simply had long since run out of ideas and fell back on the post-modernist impulse to shock rather than entertain.

Of course, most successful television shows run out of ideas and continue on long past their primes; the list of those that went out on top is a short one. Unfortunately 24, for so long so marvellously entertaining, clearly jumped the shark last season. What had been incredulous but thrilling devolved into pure farce. I'll more than likely watch when the new season starts but I won't be expecting much, and I'll drop it quick if the ridiculous-meter maxes out again.

On a happier front, Curb Your Enthusiasm may have actually improved this season. Every show was hilarious. I absolutely love this guy. Watch some of the clips on the linked page. I guarantee you'll be laughing out loud.

Since we only made one trip to NYC this year, I only saw a single broadway play, Pygmalion, which I blogged about here.

That leaves books. I had a terrific year of reading - probably my best ever. By my count, I read twenty books in 2007 (the list is on the right hand pane of my blog, if you're interested) and almost all of them were exceptionally good - a few were simply brilliant. I don't have the time or inclination to check the publication date on them but by my count eight of them were published in either the past year or the year before that. Of the new books I read, I'd have to say that Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach was the best novel. McEwan is the finest writer of English we have today and Atonement is the best novel published in the past twenty years. On Chesil Beach is not the achievement Atonement was but it's not meant to be. More of a novella than a novel, it lacks Atonement's gravitas and consequence. But it has the brilliant McEwan prose and storytelling ability and that makes it my best novel of 2007.

The best non-fiction of the new books? Probably Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy. While the focus is always on Caesar, any biography of Caesar is necessarily in part a history of the major events that led to the civil war and the fall of the republic, and Goldsworthy tells it with verve and a fine writing style, offering many fresh insights. Highly recommended to those interested in Ancient Rome.

The best books I read this year, however, were not new ones so I'd like to mention a few previously published works I read that really deserve attention - books that have stood the test of time and will continue to. To start with, a history. The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s, by Piers Brendon, published in 2000, is a monumental history of the Depression and the march towards war, covering the period from the stock market crash in late 1929 until the German tanks rolled into Poland in September, 1939. It is astoundingly good. Brendon is a masterful storyteller with a gift for synthesis and exposition. His short, biographical descriptions of the major players of the period are themselves worth the price of admission. Indeed, his introduction of Churchill (pages 604-610) should be taught in the universities as an example of history writing at its best. I read this passage, reread it, then read it aloud to my wife, simply for its pure entertainment value. The rest of the book is no less interesting. Brendon, like a master film noir director, plunges us deep into the shadows of that 'dark, dishonest decade', detailing, chapter by chapter, the causes and consequences of the events in each of the nations that would soon be at war. He explores the fears, the motives, the blindness, and yes, the cowardice, of those who might have put a stop to Hitler, and exposes the moral rot (on both sides) and the incipient evil that finally made war inevitable. It's a tremendous book, a tremendous ride.

Finally, John Williams. How had I never heard his name before? Williams, who died in 1994, wrote only three novels in his life, Stoner, Augustus, and Butcher's Crossing. I read Stoner this summer and was immediately convinced that it's one of the great American novels of the twentieth century. Williams' quiet, spare prose about the life of an unremarkable man who teaches English at a university does not seem to be the stuff of great novels. I tried explaining the storyline to a friend of mine, who scoffed at my description - not for him, thanks. The problem is that a mere outline of the story is utterly insufficient as a description of the book. All I can say is, read it. The cumulative effect of Williams' storytelling is powerfully moving and, in the end, heartbreaking. It is a tragedy but one with ameliorative effects. One gets the sense that Williams' point is that we all live tragic lives, or at least lives that will be visited by tragedy. It's how we handle those tragedies, how we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, that matters. In the end, we'll find a way of understanding the disappointments, we'll throw bitterness and self-pity off, and we'll find a sense of, perhaps not peace, or even contentment, but acceptance.

I waited a month or so to read Augustus, though I could hardly wait. I read a few books in the interim, good ones too, but Augustus kept calling. When I finally picked it up I thought it couldn't possibly be as good as Stoner - but it is. I've read volumes on the history of classical Rome but it took this work of fiction to gain my greatest understanding and appreciation of it. And everything I read on the subject from here on will be improved by it. Using the raw material of Augustus' life as a backdrop - rich stuff indeed - Williams' recreates the period in all its intrigue and ruthlessness. All the usual suspects that we know so well from the pages of the history books are here - Augustus, of course, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cicero, Cleopatra, Agrippa, Livia, Julia. But they come to life in Williams' masterful telling, vividly and finally to life. We get a deep and clear understanding of them, their upper-class Roman way of life, the structure of their society, their way of thinking, and why they acted as they did. Told in epistolary format, it is not, as one would expect, a story of triumph. No, the story Williams tells of the man who created perhaps the greatest empire man has ever known is, like Stoner, ultimately a tragedy. In the book's final section, we at last hear from Augustus, who chronicles the major events of his life in a letter to his old friend Nicolaus of Damascus. It is August of the year 14 A.D. Augustus has only a few days to live and he knows it. He is on his yacht, determined to give himself a final holiday, floating down the coast of Italy on his way to Capri. The letter he pens over the course of these few days is in effect his last testament. He describes to Nicolaus the coldness that fell over him as a young man upon hearing of the death of his uncle Julius Caesar, and how he immediately turned away from his friends out of instinct and necessity. The distant, enigmatic Augustus we hear so much about in the history books takes root here within moments of Caesar's death. So does Augustus' realization of his destiny: to change the corrupt world which had been bequeathed to him. But he accepts his fate without joy or anticipation. There is a sense of regret running through the entire letter, his entire life. He's given up so much to gain, what appears to him in these final days, so little. From the time of Caesar's death he's been obligated to live a life he never really wanted; save for Nicolaus, he has outlived all his old friends and he acknowledges 'the triviality into which our lives have now descended'; the person he loves most, his daughter Julia, he has forced into exile, and he no longer speaks her name; the stories of his heroism and benevolence, the documents and statues, the histories of his life, all the deliberate works of propaganda that have built his reputation and allowed him to reform and consolidate the empire, are 'lies'. All those good and capable people who might have tended to the empire after he has gone have now departed. Instead, his beloved Rome will be relinquished to the cruelties of his despised step-son Tiberius. As death nears, he writes:
I have come to believe that in the life of every man, late or soon, there is a moment when he knows beyond whatever else he might understand, and whether he can articulate the knowledge or not, the terrifying fact that he is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself

'I have lived too long,' he concludes.

Thus, the greatest emperor in western history dies alone, with the conviction that he has outlived his usefulness and whatever he has accomplished will ultimately be for naught. As in Stoner, this knowledge is conveyed free of any bitterness or self-pity. Taking the two books together, we see that the Roman stoicism displayed by Augustus as he greets death is a philosophy shared by William Stoner upon his own death bed. It's the thread that links the mighty ancient emperor with the modern university professor. John Williams wrote two superb books - masterpieces, if you will - and you should read them both. If I were forced to choose among them I would choose, as the best book I read this year, Augustus.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

I forgot.... mention in my last post one other Christmas present I received this year, and I'm glad I did because it gives me the opportunity to direct you to The Teaching Company. My wife and I have been listening to and benefiting from Teaching Company courses since its inception. The idea its founder Tom Rollins had when he founded the company in 1990 was to find the best professors in the country on a variety of subjects and have them craft courses aimed at 'lifelong learners'. That describes me fairly well. Over the years I've listened to twenty-five or thirty of their courses and while I've had some minor quibbles with a few, for the most part I've been extremely pleased. There are dozens of good teachers but I'd like to point out two who are simply spectacular. The first is Thomas Childers, Professor of History from the University of Pennsylvania, who has created three courses at The Teaching Company, all of which I recommend. You can get details of the courses by clicking on them from the page I've linked to. History comes alive in the hands of Prof. Childers, who fashions each lecture as an unfolding drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat. His book, Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II is also wonderful - the man has a knack for telling a story.

The second Teaching Company professor I'd like to point out is Robert Greenberg. The Teaching Company used to dub its roster of professors "superstar teachers". If this is so, then Greenberg is their Babe Ruth. His courses on classical music are so lively and infectious, so entertaining, that you simply can't go wrong with any of the twenty-some courses he's crafted. The logical starting point, though, for anyone wanting to learn about classical music is his monumental How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. My wife and I listened to this course over a dozen years ago and it sparked my love for classical music. We'd listen to a lecture, both of us taking notes, rewinding here and there to make sure we understood a point. We'd then talk about the lecture, perhaps buy some of the music Greenberg used in his examples and listen to it, and then listen to the lecture all over again for reiteration purposes, to really nail down his points. To this day I get a thrill when I recognize a baroque-era ritornello form, or break down a classical-era symphony's first movement sonata into its exposition, development, and recapitulation sections. I've probably listened to about ten of his courses at this point and in each one Greenberg is funny and passionate and bursting with information. He's the very definition of a great teacher - the guy who sparks your enthusiasm and makes you want to learn more.

Anyhow, the Christmas present I forgot to tell you about was this course, The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution by Prof. Thomas L. Pangle of The University of Texas at Austin. I listened to the first lecture today and it was, as expected, excellent. The American founding is one of my favorite subjects so if this guy is any good, I'll enjoy the course immensely. I've also decided to drop what I'm currently reading and start one of the books I received for Christmas, Joseph Ellis' latest, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. Ellis' Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation is the finest book I've ever read on the American founding, and the other books of his I've read are excellent too so I expect this one to be a terrific read and a nice complement to my new Teaching Company course.

Too Marvelous For Words

For Christmas I received from my lovely wife some nice sweaters, some Godiva chocolate, a golf calendar, three books, and this, the highlight of my Christmas, a fourteen disk collection of Frank Sinatra's concept albums recorded between 1953 and 1962 for Capitol Records - some of the finest music ever recorded. I already had a few of the records but this package collects them all. After the festivities of the day we returned home last night and I lay down on the couch and listened to, in order:

Come Fly with Me

Songs for Young Lovers/Swing Easy

Songs for Swingin' Lovers

I'm fairly familiar with Sinatra at this point in my life so I knew I was going to enjoy these records. But I was surprised last night by how much. This music is simply superb - such perfectly chosen material, so tastefully conceived, so carefully arranged, so expertly delivered. To have it all in one box set is somewhat overwhelming. Normally when I have a large compilation of a single artist I'll listen through a few times over and then begin to make distinctions, picking and choosing what I like best and leaving the rest behind. I'm not sure that will be possible here. From what I heard last night I think the only distinctions I'll be able to make is between what is nearly perfect and what is simply perfect. I'll have to get to know it all. Any distinction I'll make will be which record best fits my mood, the whole idea behind Sinatra's 'concept albums' being that each of the records would have a different theme and feel. So I'll make my way through it slowly and attentively, and with great joy. Merry Christmas to me, and to you. Click on the link for an excellent overview of Sinatra's career by William Ruhlmann over at (Hat tip to Scott Johnson over at Powerline.)

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to Close to You.

Monday, December 24, 2007

'Twas The Night Before Christmas...and Ten Days 'Till Iowa

I don't intend to make this blog an all-political space, much less an all-Huckabee space, recent evidence not-withstanding. But the presidential election season is upon us in earnest and I am always fascinated by it, particularly this year when both party's nominations are up for grabs. I promise there will be times when politics are far-receded from my thoughts and the very idea of it will seem tedious and pathetic. For me, this usually occurs post-election, when the executive and legislative elites come together to decide over which of our freedoms they would like to limit next. The way it normally works is that the Democrats propose severe limitations, reasoning that it's for our own good and to protect us from ourselves, or, alternatively, that some of us are evil for making too much money and that the government must use its confiscatory powers to take some of it away in order to help the poor unfortunate. The Republicans then capitulate - oops! I mean compromise - on something a bit less draconian. Each congressman then slips a little something extra into the bill for his constituents back home, ensuring his re-election next time around. The eminent statesmen then slap each other on the back for a job well done, go stand in front of the cameras congratulating themselves on their bipartisanship, and issue press releases assuring the plebeian hoards that the republic is now safe. The president gives his nod, claims some benefit for himself, and the bill becomes law. The coddled masses barely take notice. A few intransigent folks observe that another slice is gone from the salami we call freedom, but their protests are met with yawns. This is the democratic process in America as we approach 2008.

But I digress. I meant to say that I am finding the nomination process highly entertaining, in a carnival-like, Menckian sort of way, and for now it is dominant in my thoughts. So I will leave you with three gifts this Christmas Eve morning, along with wishes that your Christmas is merry and bright.

The first is Ramesh Ponnuru's column this morning at NRO, in which he questions Huckabee basing his campaign on his evangelicalism. Read the whole thing but the bottom line is in Ramesh's final two sentences:
There are enough evangelicals in the Republican party to tempt a candidate to follow an evangelicals-first strategy. But there aren’t enough for such a candidate to win.

My second gift to you is the indispensable Andrew Ferguson's column in this month's Weekly Standard regarding the ban on the traditional incandescent light bulb that Congress slipped into the energy bill at the last minute and that the president signed last week. Ferguson is always highly entertaining but his humor does not mask the fact that he views this legislation as an outrage. Read the whole thing and tell me you don't too.

Finally, I have been eagerly looking forward to Jonah Goldberg's first book, Liberal Fascism, which will be released January 8, and this review by Todd Seavey makes me all the more so. By all means read the whole thing but here's a sampling:
Hillary’s not going to put anyone in internment camps (barring some strange new wrinkle in the war on terror), but as Goldberg explains, she comes from that same religious-left progressive tradition that saw itself as doing the Lord’s work whether it was expanding and ostensibly rationalizing the government bureaucracy or banning alcohol. Hillary has a mission, and it requires that we all think of ourselves as one “village,” committed not to selfish, individual ends but to letting government tax us more, regulate us more, and run our healthcare.

And she’s not unique this regard, of course. Goldberg also condemns “compassionate conservatism” and warns that “We are all fascists now,” as the subtitle of his penultimate chapter puts it. That is, after a century of collectivist zeal across the political spectrum (except among libertarians like Ron Paul, for whom I’ll vote in the Republican primary), almost all of us expect government to address every problem, speak to every heart, unite all citizens, forge a better world. We have largely forgotten that there was ever a time when government was a little-noticed last resort with few duties and few powers. As De Tocqueville and others warned over the past two centuries, it may be that mass democracy has inevitably led to demagoguery and a mild form of totalitarianism — government in every nook and cranny, but eager to “help.”

Again, I wish you Merry Christmas, while it's still allowed.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The End of Reaganism, Part II

Considering my The End of Reaganism post yesterday, Carl Cannon's excellent review of former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson's Heroic Conservatism in the Washington Post Book World section this morning could not have been more perfectly timed. Gerson's "Heroic Conservatism" is synonymous with Bush's "compassionate conservatism", and it fairly describes Huckabee's philosophy also, that, according to Gerson:

the bold use of government to serve human rights and dignity is not only a good thing, but a necessary thing. I believe the security of our country depends on idealism abroad -- the promotion of liberty and hope as the alternatives to hatred and bitterness. I believe the unity of our country depends on idealism at home -- a determination to care for the weak and vulnerable. . . ."

There in a nutshell is the language and philosophy that make traditional conservatives so uncomfortable: the idea of a messianist government; the advocacy of grand policies which have little hope of succeeding; the lack of any sense of proportion regarding what governments can and should do.

Cannon's review touches on many of the same themes I did in my post. Particularly interesting are these two paragraphs:

In fact, a subtle umbrage toward Reaganism seeps, perhaps unconsciously, from this book. Gerson never says why -- indeed, he never admits such heresy directly -- but eventually the reason reveals itself: Gerson doesn't have much truck with the government-is-the-problem wing of his party, a libertarian branch Reagan courted. Gerson cites only a handful of offenders by name. They include Hoover Institution economist Martin C. Anderson, who urged Bush to make the GOP plank more agnostic on abortion; Grover Norquist, who sought to stitch the Reagan coalition back together by defining conservatism as the "leave us alone" coalition; and former House majority leader Dick Armey, who thought "faith-based" initiatives sounded like a Democratic idea.

Being a Democratic idea is not, to Gerson, much of an insult. He finds today's party identifications artificial and the labels "conservative" and "liberal" insufficient. The world leader he lauds most (other than Bush) is Bono, and his admiration for Catholic social thought is so deep he feels the need to let readers know that doctrinal differences prevent his conversion from evangelical Protestantism. Translating such ecumenism into partisan politics is trickier; Gerson, who energetically uses the word "evil," believes the fundamental divide in America is between "moralists" and "relativists." The future coalition he has in mind consists of religious conservatives who take seriously the Christian's duty to the poor, plus the non-pacifist wing of the Democratic Party.

The two sets of italics italics above are mine. The first emphasizes that the evangelical break with traditional limited-government conservatives is calculated and deliberate - they have genuine disagreements with our point of view. The second reiterates the point I made yesterday, that the Huckabites are much more likely to make common cause with the left than with traditional conservatives.


A few notes. To begin with, I hope I haven't given the impression in these past few posts that I consider the evangelical community as a monolithic block, all walking in lock-step. While I actually do believe there is more cohesiveness of thought among evangelicals than among most political blocks, there are some splits. Peter Wehner, also a former Bush staffer, has a terrifically interesting article in the current issue of National Review, titled "Among Evangelicals, A Transformation." The article describes the changes going on within the evangelical community among people under 30, who, while still being as pro-life as their elders, are much more likely to be moderate to liberal on other social issues. These young people are also looking for a break in tone and approach from "the hard-edged politics of the Christian Right." I can't find the article on-line yet at NRO but keep checking, or go buy the magazine. It is among these young people that Huckabee will be finding most of his support among evangelicals. I imagine some of the older crowd feel as uncomfortable as I do with "Heroic Conservatism".

Demographics also help explain why conservatism has such a tough road to hoe among the general population. Michael Barone, who knows more about American political history than anyone alive, talks about it in his latest column. Read the whole thing here but I'll excerpt the section that is relevant to my point:
...the preference for smaller rather than larger government is not as ample as it used to be. The strongest case against big government has been its failures in the 1970s, typified by gas lines and stagflation. But the median-age voter in 2008 was born around 1964, so he or she never sat in those gas lines or struggled to pay rising bills with a paycheck eroded by inflation. That demographic factor helps explain why Democrats today are promising big-government programs, unlike Bill Clinton in 1992, when the median-age voter remembered the 1970s very well.

Taking it all into consideration - the demographic changes, the splits in the Reaganite coalition, the perceived policy failures of the current Republican administration - it's hard not to conclude that the conservative moment in America is over.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Although it's been said many time many ways...


The End of Reaganism

It's pretty clear now that the conservative coalition - that triumvirate of social, economic, and foreign policy conservatives responsible for the Republican party's fortune over the past thirty years - is coming apart at the seams. Prior to recent years there was much agreement and overlap between the conservative camps, and if disagreements existed at all they were suppressed in the interest of electoral success. For the most part, though, the tensions were slight and there was a general consensus among all conservatives regarding how we should live, and what the proper limits and duties of government were. Indeed, at its height, the modern conservative movement integrated the thinking of all three camps under a single tent and a coherent philosophy. We were Reaganites.

But the great man is dead, and, it appears, so too is the movement he spawned. The election of George W. Bush and the implementation of his "compassionate conservative" policies - a massive prescription drug entitlement, the "no child left behind" education bill, the "faith-based" initiatives that sought to support private religious endeavors with public money - probably caused the first large cracks in the coalition. The idea of using public funds to sponsor endeavors of these kinds, no matter how compassionate or benevolent, was anathema to many us. Conservatives knew that government has no aptitude in these areas, and more importantly, no business there.

The Iraq war, of course, and Bush's Wilsonian foreign policy, have been even more divisive among conservatives. Most conservatives initially supported the war as a punitive exercise against an intransigent country that supported terror and as a defensive exercise against a regime bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Nation-building, had it been part of the administration's initial justification for the war, would have caused many conservatives to pause and consider the wisdom of such an endeavor. Bush's second inaugural address, in which he stated that "[i]t is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world" and that "we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom", caused many of us to blanch, and reconsider both the war and this president. Thinking of this kind is Pollyannish, at best, and dangerous always. While support of free and democratic nations has always been a pillar of conservative thought, the over-heated rhetoric caused many of us to believe that George Bush had more in mind than the security of the United States. Peggy Noonan alerted us to her concerns the following morning and shortly thereafter Bill Buckley and George Will, the two people I consider the most important figures in the conservative pantheon other than Reagan himself, both expressed their opposition to the war.

Four years worth of futility in that war surely didn't help matters. A quick victory that put in place a pro-American regime in Iraq and we probably wouldn't be having this discussion. Victory is within reach now but the damage is done, and the cracks have widened.

Into the cracks steps Mike Huckabee with a hammer and chisel, ready to complete the job. George Will's comment the other day that Huckabee represents the wholesale repudiation of Reaganism has been called an exaggeration but I don't think so. At the very least, Huckabee understands little of Reaganism, and he cares less. If he's ready to make common cause with anyone, it's with the left. His Foreign Affairs article hearkens back to Jimmy Carter's naivete and America-blaming, and some of his rhetoric on the campaign trail comes straight from the netroots playbook. He's been on the left on crime, taxes, education, and immigration. Beyond that, he apparently has no concept of limited-government, stating that he would impose a federal ban on smoking and a cap on corporate executive pay.

For many of us, the simply will not do. If Mike Huckabee gets the Republican nomination for president, most, though not all, evangelical voters will follow him, simply because they share his faith and his position on abortion. But it will leave the rest of us convinced that we no longer have a home in the Republican Party. George Will's comment will no longer be seen as an exaggeration but a truism. Huckabee's nomination will be the final nail in the coffin of the Reagan coalition. And we will have a decision to make. Do we vote for Huckabee in November in the slim hope that we can return a Republican to office, simply because he is a Republican, and no matter how much we disagree with him? Or do we stay home, guaranteeing that Huckabee and the Republican party at large lose in a landslide? For myself, since I believe Huckabee has little chance of winning against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, the decision is easy. I'll watch from the sidelines as Huckabee is repudiated. The future will take care of itself.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Huckabee, again

Mike Huckabee's Foreign Affairs article has shown his foreign policy views to be as onerous as his views on most domestic and economic issues, and further exhibited his unfitness for the Presidency. The confusion and naivete the article reveals is pretty stunning and has been widely commented on by people much smarter than me, including here, here, and here, among thousands of other places in the blogosphere. Any thoughts I have on the style and content of the article would be redundant so I'll remain silent on the subject and urge you to read about it elsewhere if you're interested.

But I would like to make a point regarding the article that I don't think anyone has commented on yet. Actually, I'd like to ask a series of questions that will lead, finally, to my point. So here goes: who vetted this thing? And how did it get published in a journal like Foreign Affairs without someone from his campaign staff doing any editing or fact checking? And does the fact that it wasn't subjected to scrutiny by those closest to Huckabee reveal anything about the man? Here are the first two sentences of the article:

The United States, as the world's only superpower, is less vulnerable to military defeat. But it is more vulnerable to the animosity of other countries.

What does that mean? I think the first sentence means that as the sole superpower we are less vulnerable to military defeat than we would be if there were other superpowers around who could challenge us. I think the second sentence means that since we are the world's only superpower, it is inevitable that the jealousies and insecurities of smaller, weaker countries will be directed mainly at us. But I'm not sure. Both these sentences could be parsed to mean something entirely different. Didn't anyone on the Huckabee campaign find these opening lines as linguistically jarring as I and many others did? Was there no one around to say, "Gee, Huck, I'm not sure these are complete sentences. You haven't finished your thought here. Perhaps a qualifying clause should be added to each sentence to clarify their meaning"? It's lazy writing and lazy thinking, but apparently no one on the Huckabee team noticed.

Also, as to the Sun Tzu/Michael Corleone confusion: was no one on the Huckabee team familiar with The Godfather? Okay, Huckabee had been a Baptist minister, and then a governor for twelve years. He was a busy man who probably had little time to watch movies and, if he did, the saga of the Corleone family was probably not his cup of tea. But did no one on his staff know that "Keep your friends close but your enemies closer" was uttered by Michael Corleone? As soon as I read it I shook my head and conjured images of the scene in Part II where he said it. It's the scene in Frank Pentangeli's home, formerly the house Michael grew up in. Michael has visited Frankie Five Angels to tell him of the attempt on his life, "IN MY HOME! IN MY BEDROOM WHERE MY WIFE SLEEPS. WHERE MY CHILDREN COME TO PLAY WITH THEIR TOYS" and to demand that Frankie "settle these affairs with the Rosato brothers" because "it was Hyman Roth who tried to have me killed. I know it was him". When Pentangeli tells Michael we should kill them all now, while we still have the muscle, Michael rises from his chair and goes into his soliloquy. He tells Frankie that he was very happy that the house never went to strangers. "First Clemenza took it over, now you" and how when he was a child they had to be very quiet when we played near this room and how his father "taught me many things when I was growing up. He taught me in this room. He taught me 'keep your friends close, but your enemies closer'. Now if Hyman Roth sees that I intervened in this affair in the Rosato brothers favor, he'll think that my relationship with him is still good. Capite? That's what I want him to think. I want him completely relaxed and comfortable in our relationship. Then I can find out who the traitor in my family is." (Okay, so I've seen the movie a few times.) Anyhow, back to Huckabee. No one on the staff recognized the quote? Did no one go back to Sun Tzu to verify it? Did no one know how to use Google?

Finally, the nonsense comparing the United States to some braggart high school student - did no one around Huckabee realize that this would open him up to charges of naivete and simple-mindedness? Did anyone urge him not to use such analogies because they are specious and juvenile? Again, I'm not talking about the content of what Huckabee's saying but of the way he says it. As James Lileks, the funniest man on the Internet, says:

...the last time I heard such hackneyed metaphors deployed to describe international relations I was in a dorm room, and everyone was convinced the pizza should have been here because we ordered like six hours ago even though it was only 15 minutes. And then the pizza arrived 15 minutes later, and everyone was like, whoa: pizza!

So, what's my point? My point is that, given the evidence of the Foreign Affairs article, either:

1. Huckabee has surrounded himself with people as dim, naive, and insular as he himself is, or:

2. Huckabee has surrounded himself with yes-men and sycophants who will not risk upsetting the man lest they be subjected to his famous prickliness.

If either of these conclusions is true, it would be disastrous for a candidate for President in the general election. If by some miracle said candidate was actually elected, it would be even more disastrous in a President. Please do not nominate this man.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Let's be careful out there"

I received an early Christmas present courtesy of Terry Teachout over at About Last Night. A cable TV channel, American Life TV (ALT), is rerunning Hill Street Blues every Sunday night at 9:00. Like Terry, I'd never heard of ALT until now so I checked my local cable carrier, and sure enough, they carry it. My DVR is now set to record Hill Street each Sunday.

To state that Hill Street Blues is my favorite TV program of all time is an understatement of large proportions. I loved that show - never missed an episode. In fact, I have the last five seasons recorded, on Betamax video tape, packed away in a box in my basement, waiting patiently for the day when Beta makes its comeback. Hill Street was on Thursday nights at 10:00 for most of its run, and I'd race home from work (I was waiting tables at the time and usually got off around 9:00) in order to be settled in on my couch when Sgt. Esterhaus began the roll call. The Museum of Broadcast Communications article that Terry links to does a fine job of identifying what was so unique and compelling about the show, both in style and content. But let me add an observation. The MBC article talks about some of Hill Street's influences, such as M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Barney Miller, and I'll concede that - nothing comes from nowhere. But Hill Street didn't seem to the viewer like it had any influences at all. The show was such a profound break from the normal TV fare at the time that it was almost like the introduction of a new medium. It was something brand new, and it was thrilling. Audiences had never seen anything as remotely compelling as Hill Street on TV before, and that was the source of its fierce fan loyalty. Chaotic, complex, hilarious, and intense, Hill Street owed nothing to the controlled, formulaic hour-long TV dramas of the 1970's. It opened up TV to a whole new world of possibilities and its influence was enormous. Most of the best shows of the past twenty years - L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, Homocide, The Shield, had they existed at all, would have been vastly different if not for Hill Street Blues. And none of these shows, as good as they sometimes were, ever topped it. I am looking forward to catching up with my old friend again, each Sunday night at 9:00.

NOTE: Terry mentions that the first two seasons of Hill Street Blues are available on DVD, which I was aware of. My question is: where are the other five seasons?

NOTE: I visited ALT's website and found two other nice surprises - The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show are also rerunning there, both on Monday nights, the former at 9:00, the latter at 10:30. Two of the great TV comedies of all time. The other great comedies, you ask? The Dick Van Dyke Show, the first few seasons of M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Barney Miller, Cheers, Seinfeld, and Frasier.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


We were up in New York City on Friday, right in between the two storms. It turned out to be a lovely day, perfect walking around weather. We stayed at the Marriott Marquis, where they gave us a corner room overlooking Times Square, with complimentary room service breakfast in the morning. Nice.

We normally go to NYC many times each year, and almost always schedule a trip during the Christmas season. We hadn't planned to go this year until we heard the Roundabout Theatre Company was doing Pygmalion at the American Airlines Theatre. My wife called me with the news back in late October and within an hour I had booked our room and purchased our tickets - just in time too. Virtually the only seats left were for this weekend, the last weekend of the run.

We thought about going up to the Metropolitan Museum once we arrived on Friday but decided we probably didn't have enough time to do it justice. So we did a Christmas walk, heading down Broadway and then east on 42nd Street. 42nd Street is a bit ragged right now - lots of construction going on between Broadway and 6th Avenue, until you cross 6th and arrive at Bryant Park, a place I love,especially in the spring and summer. During the Christmas season they have Holiday Shops set up, and we strolled through those for awhile, Christmas being the one time during the year when I can actually enjoy shopping. Then we watched the ice skaters at The Pond for awhile before heading over to 5th Avenue to say hello to Patience and Fortitude, standing guard in front of the Library. Patience still has a look of quiet elegance about him, though both my wife and I agreed that Fortitude is looking a bit weary. We understood though, and forgave him. We all get that way sometimes, after all.

From there we headed up 5th Avenue, stopping in at this store and that. We were disappointed to find that the Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas window display was very limited this year. They only have four or five windows decorated for Christmas, the rest being dedicated to normal apparel displays. Sigh. Civilization continues its slow retreat.

From there we stopped into St. Patrick's Cathedral and rested our feet for awhile. We stopped for awhile in front of the creche, then hit the street again, crossing over to Rockefeller Center to see the Tree - a Christmas in New York must, even if you've done it dozens of times, as we have. I rarely feel that old warm Christmas glow anymore, but I sometimes do when I'm standing in front of the tree at the Rock. It didn't come this year though, probably because there were no carolers around. Either that or because the cynic in me has taken over for good. Anyhow, I started singing carols myself at about this point as we continued up 5th Avenue, loud enough for my wife to hear and maybe some passersby, but not so loud as to cause any public disturbance. I like to stroll and sing.

We ended up in Central Park, no surprise as we both love it, and cut through from East Side to West Side, stopping at Wollman Rink to watch the ice skaters, ending up at Columbus Circle, where they had more Christmas shops set up (they have these shops set up at Grand Central Terminal and Lincoln Center also and, I'm sure, several other places in the city.) From there we pretty much made a beeline down Broadway back to the hotel, as we'd been walking for over three hours at this point and it was getting late.

We freshened up and went to dinner at Trattoria Trecolori on 47th street, one of our favorite Italian restaurants in the city. The food is delicious, the martinis bracing, and the atmosphere is fine. Actually, I liked the atmosphere a little better at their old location - it was more old world - but it's fine at the new place, and the quality of the food has lost nothing due to the move. Highly recommended.

Finally, the play, which was brilliant. Other than the fame of the play itself, the main attraction of this production was Claire Danes playing the part of Eliza Doolittle. She was fine indeed, but, for me, the two outstanding performances were Jefferson Mays' in the role of Henry Higgins and Jay Sanders as Mr. Doolittle. Mays' Higgins is jarring at first, for those of us used to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, which, of course, was based on Pygmalion. Apparently, Mays has reached back to Shaw's original intent of the Higgins character. Rather than suave and debonair, this Higgins is vain, childish, and pig-headed, a mama's boy with an overblown sense of his own importance, completely unaware of his own cruelty or the damage he may be doing to Eliza with his experiment. But while there is virtually nothing admirable about this Higgins, you're drawn to him, due both to the brilliance of Shaw's dialogue and Mays' bravura performance. Once you've left the sugar-coating of "My Fair Lady" behind, you're left with something deeper and more profound, and while the jokes are just as funny, there's an edge to them - they cut to the quick. Indeed, when Higgins is at his cruelest, you're almost unsure whether laughter is the appropriate response. In the closing scene, Mays' Higgins stands alone on stage, everyone else having departed for Mr. Doolittle's wedding. Eliza has broken free of him finally, and has said her final goodbye, but Higgins assures his mother that she will be back. As the door closes, Mays faces the audience, defiant. The air of confidence about him slowly dissolves as he realizes, finally, that Eliza will not return - she is gone. That Mays could convey this silent transformation is a tribute to his talent. It is not merely the look on his face; it couldn't be, in a theatre this size. His whole body is involved. He very nearly shakes, and suddenly, he appears smaller, almost fearful. The lights go down. It is a breathless, startling moment.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Christmas Song(s)

There is an abundance of Christmas music to choose from, most of it bad, but when it's good, it's irresistible. My preference is for the old standards, sung by the old standards - Frank, Bing, Johnny, Nat, etc. I suppose one reason is because it's the Christmas music I grew up on; these songs are the soundtrack to my Christmas childhood. Another reason is because the music is really good - if it weren't I would have left it behind long ago, now matter the nostalgia value. But nostalgia adds to any great song, and when the memories invoked recall a childhood Christmas and all that it encompasses - family, warmth, safety, gifts, glee - well, is there anything better?

This album brings back a very specific memory, the only Christmas morning I remember with my father around. I was probably four or five years old. My brother and I woke up and hurried into the parlor (that's what we called it in New England in the 1960s; I guess you'd call it a living room now) and my dad was still putting things under the tree. He gave us a kiss and then walked over to the record player and put Mathis' Christmas record on. Christmas day had begun. I don't remember much beyond that, but I remember that part pretty clearly. To this day, the record begins my Christmas mornings. The opening chords to "Winter Wonderland" sound like a beginning, an invitation to settle in and enjoy what's to come.

I have one other clear memory of Christmas from this period; arriving at my grandfather's house one Christmas Eve. The house was jammed full of people, mostly family, and I remember someone immediately asked my dad if he wanted a
highball. That's what those men drank back then - highballs. Is the term still used? I still remember the glasses they drank them from; those at my grandfather's house were slimmer than these. Canadian Club has an ad campaign going right now that plays to people of my age who remember those times. You want nostalgia? Well, these ads drip with it. My dad actually drank Canadian Club, with water. "CC and water" was one of his staples. I spent a lot of time emulating my father when I was in my late teens and early twenties and tried hard to convince myself that I liked whiskey. But, alas, it was not to be - I finally admitted one day that I couldn't stand the stuff. I felt like I was betraying my dad but it was part of growing up, I guess. The one drink I did learn to love from dad was a dry martini - Beefeater Gin, on the rocks, with olives. I rarely drink these days but when we go to dinner, I do like to start it off with a martini - the greatest drink of them all, though apparently it, along with the rest of civilization, is in decline.

Wasn't this post about Christmas Songs? Oh, right. I was arriving at my grandfather's house. Anyhow, I can't be sure it was playing at the time, but
this is the song that always brings back that memory, and this is the guy who sings it best.

I like other types of Christmas music besides the old standards. When I was a young man I was convinced
this was the greatest Christmas album of all time. I'm not sure I'd put it on top anymore but I still love it - sort of. As a conservative, I learned long ago to separate the artist from the art; otherwise there would be very little art to choose from. Still, Phil Spector makes it rather hard. I've known since I was a teenager that he is a complete nutjob, but his recent problems cast a pall over the music. It's a shame too - he was one of the true innovators of early rock and roll. He created a sound that had never been heard before and it was fresh and exhilarating - he was The Beatles before The Beatles arrived, and The Beatles' sound would have been impossible if Spector had not preceded them. "Be My Baby", by the Ronettes, is my favorite, the epitome of the Wall of Sound, not to mention the song my wife and I dubbed 'our song' many moons ago. Maybe the contempt that I now hold for him will fade over time and the music won't seem tarnished anymore, but right now, it does.

Oh boy, I keep losing the thread. Attention span has never been one of my strong points ('you can say that again!' she says). Christmas music, right. If you also love the hymns, which I do, the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers'
Songs of Angels - Christmas Hymns and Carols is outstanding - in fact, it's playing now as I write this. I also love the simple plain chants at Christmas - they seem to fit best at this time of year.

I should mention that I became aware of the Robert Shaw recording via Terry Teachout at
About Last Night. Thanks Terry, for that, among many other things. If you're interested in the arts at all, Terry's site is a daily must read. He is, in my view, the best critic going.

Anyhow, to all of you out there, Merry Christmas. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

More on Huckabee

In my continuing effort to derail the Huckabee candidacy, I urge you to please read Paul Mirengoff and John Hinderaker at Powerline today.

Why the Allies Won: Part I

As I've mentioned, I'm currently reading Richard Overy's Why the Allies Won. I'm going to blog about a few aspects of the book over the next few days but I should mention right off the bat that choosing which aspects is a difficult task. Virtually every paragraph in the book could be expanded into an essay of its own, or indeed a whole other book. Overy's synthesis of the voluminous archive material is simply masterful, and he cuts through the fog of war, and the conflicting analysis' of the war, with lucid prose and convincing arguments. While I'm no expert, I've read a lot about WWII, and I find much of his argument persuasive. If you're looking for a book explaining why the Allies won - not how, but why - you can't go wrong here. Overy sets up his analysis in the book's first paragraph with this statement:

There was nothing preordained about Allied success.

He then walks us through the German onslaught during 1940-41, stating:

Everyone who visited Hitler's headquarters that autumn [1941] could sense the euphoria. In just two years the political map of the world was torn up.

And a little later:

No rational man in early 1942 would have guessed at the eventual outcome of the war.

Overy's overall concern in this first chapter is to make clear how close the Allies actually came to losing and what events over the ensuing years turned the tide in the Allies favor. He spends the rest of the book explaining those events, which include:

1. The Allied victory on the seas, most specifically the battle of Midway in the Pacific, and the defeat of the U-boat threat in the Atlantic, which allowed the massive build up of American arms, supplies, and troops to the European theatre. Without a victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Normandy invasion would not have been possible.

The victory of the Allied navies was the foundation for final victory in the west and in the Pacific. It permitted Britain and the United States to prepare seriously for the largest amphibious assault yet attempted, the re-entry to Hitler's Europe. It allowed the Allies to impose crippling sea blockades on Italy and Japan....[f]inally, victory gave a growing immunity to Allied shipping so that the disparity in naval strengths and merchant tonnage between the two sides became unbridgeable.

2. The Soviet victories at Stalingrad and Kursk. Stalingrad is often cited as the most obvious turning point in the war. But Overy points out that the victory at Stalingrad did not mean the defeat of the German army was then foreordained. After Kursk, it was. What interested me here was his explanation of why:

The conventional view is to blame Hitler for gross strategic mismanagement, or to ascribe Soviet success to crude weight of numbers....the underlying assumption is not that Soviet forces won the contest in 1943, but simply that the German side lost it.

Overy argues that this view no longer holds up:

From everything now known....such an explanation is no longer tenable. Hitler may well have been a liability to German commanders, but until the failure at Stalingrad, as he told the staff the day Paulus surrendered, "We were always superior..." Moreover for the Citadel operation he left the planning and execution largely to the professionals...[t]he crude weight of Soviet numbers cannot be the answer either. Soviet forces on paper greatly outnumbered the German attackers in 1941, but were cut to pieces; at Stalingrad and Kursk, though the margin in equipment slightly favored the Soviet side, the gap was too small to blame German defeat on Soviet 'masses'.

So what was the reason for the Soviet victory in the east:

The reasons for Soviet victory on such as scale in 1943 are active Soviet reasons, the result of a remarkable resurgence in Soviet fighting power and organisation after a year and a half of shattering defeats. When Marshal Zhukov wrote his reminiscences of the campaign he could point to solid Soviet achievements: better central planning of operations, and their careful supervision by the General Staff; very great improvements in Soviet technology and the tactics for using them, exemplified nowhere more fully than on the prepared defensive ground around Kursk; and the ability to deploy millions of men and thousands of tanks and aircraft, with all their supplies and rearward services, in lengthy complex operations, without losing control of them. To this Zhukov might have added the argument that Soviet planning and central direction, generally viewed unfavorably today, were the final factors that turned the demoralized population and its shattered economy into a great armed camp, providing weapons and food and labour to sustain 'deep war'. No other society in the Second World War was mobilised so extensively, or shared such sacrifices. The success in 1943 was earned not just by tankmen and gunners at the front, but also by the engineers and transport workers in the rear, the old men and the women who kept farms going without tractors or horses, and the Siberian workforce struggling in bitter conditions to turn out a swelling stream of simply constructed guns, tanks, and aircraft.

To his credit, Overy acknowledges that much of the Soviet output was produced by slave labor, 'at the point of a gun and through fear of the Gulag', and he describes in vivid detail the brutal conditions many Soviet citizens worked under. Still, he insists there was more to the effort than that: "The effort was fuelled by the very visible consequences of invasion." It is a hard to argue with this. It seems obvious on the face of it that an invaded people have more to lose, and more to fight for, than the invaders. I believe this factor has been cited by historians of our own War Between the States when assessing the success of the South in the face of such overwhelming disadvantages. (Notice I did not call it the Civil War; I also stopped short of calling it the War of Northern Aggression. I'm going for something a little more neutral here, knowing what a touchy subject it is. Just ask Derb.) I don't find it implausible that it would not be a factor in Soviet victory in WWII, even in the face of near unimaginable repression and terror.

I'll continue my discussion of the book later in the week with perhaps Overy's most controversial position: that the Allied bombing offensive was a decisive element in their eventual victory.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Huckabee Phenomenon

I saw Mike Huckabee speak at a political conference I attended back in the early 1990s. This was before he lost all the weight. I'd never heard of him before the speech but he was delightful; charming, funny, articulate - the surprise of the conference.

I suspect the voters of Iowa are responding to the same things that I responded to. He's taken the lead in some polls and Mitt Romney, who must have thought a few weeks ago that Iowa was wrapped up, is starting to panic. Romney loses Iowa and his whole primary strategy goes out the window. He knows that the social conservatives are responsible for the Huckabee surge, and his Mormon speech is supposed to reassure them, I suppose, that, hey, he's a Christian too. Or at least convince those traditional Christians that he shares their values.

I think Romney does have a 'Mormon Problem'. I myself have no problem with him being a Mormon (my problems with him lie elsewhere) but I think some people do. Not many, mind you, but perhaps enough to make the difference in a general election. The electorate is split almost 50-50 these days; an issue that makes a percent or two difference in a battleground state could turn it - in this case, the wrong way. While I agree with Jonah Goldberg at NRO:

What I would like to know, however, is what exactly these people think a Mormon President might do that would be so unacceptable? Are there Mormon public policies I do not know of that would be implemented? Is there a Mormon faction in foreign policy?

it is also clear to me that there is an issue here among some evangelicals, and some others, that will hurt Romney.

Yes I know, my whole point goes up in smoke when I reveal to you that I'm a Rudy guy. I know, I know. If conservative Christians have a problem with Romney, how do you think they feel about a cross-dressing, homosexual-loving, abortion-supporting New Yorker? I take your point, and I'll give you my answer in another post at another time, but this post is called 'The Huckabee Phenomenon' so let me get back to talking about tax-hike Mike.

Tax-hike Mike indeed:

"Again, let me state what I've said privately as well as publicly, but I want to get it on the record again. There's a lot of support for a tax at the wholesale level for tobacco, and that's fine with me; I will very happily sign that because it's a revenue stream that will meet the needs if enacted at a level that will help us to meet that $90 to $100 million target, and that's what I would begin to focus your attention on -- is the target.

"Some have suggested the retail level of tobacco; if that ends up being your preference, I will accept that. Others have suggested a surcharge on the income tax; that's acceptable; I'm fine with that. Others have suggested, perhaps, a sales tax; that's fine.

"Yet others have suggested a hybrid that will collect some monies from any one or a combination of those various ideas, and if that's the plan that the House and Senate agree upon, then you will have nothing but my profound thanks."

If you are a low-tax, limited-government, free-market conservative, that ought to send a few shivers up your spine. Members of the legislature, I beseech you to raise taxes, any taxes, all taxes if you want, though let me suggest a few. It really doesn't matter, just please raise them. If you do, I will thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Actually, I decided a few months ago that Huckabee was not someone I wanted anywhere near the Presidency when I heard he was okay with a federal ban on cigarette smoking. That he believes the federal executive has any business deciding when and where people smoke is a disqualifier, period. At the time I thought it was because he'd lost all the weight and had possibly become a health zealot: what is good for me is good for thee. Now I see, as more information has come out, that it is the product of a more dangerous mind-set - he believes the government is there to improve you: what is good for thee we will force you to do. But, hey, it's for your own good. This is Michael Gerson's Heroic Conservatism it's GWB's conservatism. So-called compassionate conservatism, if you will, a phrase that has always annoyed me - it implies that non-qualified traditional conservatism is not compassionate, an assumption I reject, as do George Will and David Frum, among others.

However, it's all well and good to argue about Mitt, Rudy, and Huck and who you prefer as the nominee. I find Huckabee unacceptable, others have their own reasons to oppose Mitt and Rudy. But that's now, and that's all theory. As my buddy Mike always points out, when you go into the voting booth next November and the choices are Mrs. Clinton vs. the guy you find unacceptable (insert Huckabee/Guiliani/Romney/Thompson/McCain/Paul here), who are you going to pull the lever for?

Which gives me an idea for another post: Is this the best we've got?

Just Getting Started

I started a blog about four years ago and kept at it for, oh, about four days. I hope this one will survive longer. This is day three for What's New so it's looking good. Even if it does survive past the new year, I have no idea how it will turn out - it will be a work in progress for awhile. The general idea right now is to blog about whatever interests me at that moment. While I do have a lot of interests - music, old movies, politics, history, sports, finance and investing, reading - they tend to rotate in importance day by day. One day I may want to discuss who'll get the nominations for next year's general election, the next day I might want to discuss whether more great movies came out of the 1970s than the 1980s. Another day I might not want to discuss anything, just lie down with a great book and read all day, away from the world. Anyhow, I'm thinking writing about my interests may deepen my understanding of them. Pauline Kael once wrote, in her introduction to Deeper Into Movies, that "I write because I love trying to figure out what I feel and what I think about what I feel, and why." I guess I'm thinking something similar for the blog, though I'd be more comfortable saying "I write because I want to figure out what I think, and why." Never was too comfortable talking about how I feel. Or what the difference is between how I feel and what I think.

(Oh boy, I've just raised a bunch of red flags for some of you. Yup, you say, this guy has problems. The common malady afflicting white, middle-aged, conservative men. Can't get in touch with his feelings. He's repressed, in denial. The world has changed, it's passing him by, and he can't handle it. Get thee to a psychiatrist, post haste. Perhaps some diversity training might help. I hear they have some lovely re-education centers now. To which I say...well, if I could find a You Tube video of Archie Bunker blowing a raspberry, I'd insert it here but I can't. So just use your imagination.)

Okay, I'm back. Another reason I'm thinking this blog might be a good thing is it might help me remember what I read. I read all the time. I always have a book on hand, plus blogs and magazines. I'm a gatherer of information. But, somewhere about ten years or so ago, my brain filled up to capacity and there's no room left to fit anything else in. I went to Best Buy to see if they could add another gig of RAM but they said that technology has yet to be perfected. It was easy when I was young. I read it, I remembered it. Now, I read it and if you ask me about it the following day it's all fuzzy. Two weeks later, it's gone completely. Getting older is not so bad - I think I'm slightly wiser, more reasonable ('yeah, right', I hear my wife saying), a little more well-rounded, as I age. But this part of it stinks.

So I'm thinking as I read a book now, I'll mark passages (well, make side notes referring to passages - I hate marking up my books) that get at the essence of the book, or an interesting aspect of the book. Then when I'm done I can blog about the book and what I thought about it. I'll try it out with my current read, Richard Overy's
Why the Allies Won, which I am enjoying immensely. It's almost as good as another book of his I read a few years back, The Road to War. Great stuff. Anyhow, if you've done your due diligence, you've noticed the sidebars on the blog where I list what I'm reading now, what's on deck, and the list of books I've read this year. Perhaps I'll revisit some of those books as blog entries.

I'm also thinking about adding some regular features, like maybe a Song of the Week. Mark Steyn does this already and it is marvellously entertaining. But saying 'Mark Steyn' and 'marvellously entertaining' in the same sentence is redundant. There's no one like Steyn.

Of course I'll comment now and then on the events of the day, when they interest me enough.

Also, I need to find out more about managing the blog. Who can comment, how to add video, etc. That probably won't take long but I haven't looked into it yet.

My one fear: that writing this blog will take so much of my time it will push out my other interests (and leave me nothing to blog about!) I'm a slow writer, though I think I'll get a little faster as I get more experience at this. But I'm a slow reader also and there are only so many hours in the day. I don't want this to interfere with that.

I'm thinking the best way to handle this will be to blog in the morning, when I rarely read and when I'm freshest. Though that means I'll have less time to work around the house, help with the chores, do the grocery shopping, etc. (Sorry, babe.)

Anyhow, I'm working things out and will be for awhile. Stay tuned, if you're interested.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Kralik! She's Dunking!

That's a line from The Shop Around the Corner, one of my all-time favorites. I watched it again last night on TCM and it never gets old. Top Ten, definitely. The line comes from the scene where Pirovitch (the marvelous Felix Bressart) is peeking in the cafe window looking for Kralik's (Jimmy Stewart) girl, whom, at this point in the movie, Kralik has never laid eyes on - or so he thinks. He doesn't know her name or what she looks like; he only knows her through the letters they have been exchanging for months. They are supposed to meet for the first time that night, in the cafe, where she'll be carrying a copy of "Anna Karenina" with a red carnation as a book mark. Having just been fired from his job, Kralik is going to cancel the date by having Pirovitch deliver an explanatory letter to her. So Pirovitch peers into the cafe from the sidewalk outside and finally spots the book with the carnation. But he can't quite see the girl - a coat rack is blocking his view.

"I see a cup of coffee Kralik...and some cake...and...Kralik! She's dunking!"

As if it were a deal-breaker. Can Kralik actually be with a woman who dunks? It's laugh out loud funny. To Kralik's credit he immediately replies "Who cares if she's dunking?" So we breathe a sigh of relief - dunking is not an obstacle; happiness is still obtainable. Of course, a moment later Pirovitch can see the girl in the cafe and he reveals what really is the deal-breaker (almost) - it's Clara (Margaret Sullavan), one of the clerks in the Shop with whom Kralik has never gotten along - they can't stand each other. So within the space of a few hours, Kralik has been fired from his job of nine years and had his heart stepped on. He decides against having the letter delivered - he just leaves, leaving Clara sitting alone in the cafe waiting for a man who will never come. But, of course, he returns later, acting like it's just coincidence they are both there at the same time, not revealing to Clara that he is the man writing the letters.

Enough spoilers though. If you haven't seen it but the description above reminds you of another movie, well, of course, You've Got Mail is based on it. A lot of people pan the remake but I actually found it quite charming. To criticize it because it's not up to the original is silly - nothing could be. But "You've Got Mail" rides along easily on the likability of its three stars, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who seem to belong together, and New York City in the spring; the Upper West Side neighborhoods, Riverside Park - the sense of place is so pervasive it becomes a character in the movie itself. Take it out of New York and put it in Detroit and half the charm would be gone. Then replace Hanks and Ryan with others not so appealing, there goes the other half.

So what's your deal breaker, if not dunking? What about a potential lover constitutes such a grievance that, no matter what other positives they might possess, you could never ever consider a life with them? I think I ran into the concept for the first time when I was a kid and read Ball Four, Jim Bouton's extraordinarily entertaining diary of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros. In it, if I recall, he states how he could never be with a woman who had a southern accent. Or maybe he talks about another person who told him that (it's been a long long time since I was a kid).

Peter DeVries takes the concept further in "Madder Music" (that Peter DeVries, once this country's premier comic novelist, is now virtually out of print borders on the criminal). The book's main character, Bob Swirling, is having an affair with a woman named Becky Tingle. During their first, um, encounter, in moment of passion she cries out:

'Oh Bobolink!'

I'll let DeVries tell you the rest:


Again he refused to believe the testimony of his senses, much less the larger chilling implication that this was to be her pet name for him. She was given to the diminutive in addressing that every Tom, Dick, and Harry became Tommy, Dicky, and - well, you couldn't do anything much with Harry. But they had a mutual friend named Peter whom most called Pete, but she called Peterkin. Swirling had frequently been Bobby, which was enough. Now there was more, borderline unendurable. He was to be her Bobolink, and every time he heard it he died a little, every time he heard it he paid - another installment of interest on his moral debt.

Was it worth it?

Perhaps I should have called this post; 'Oh, Bobolink!'

The other night while watching a TV cooking show with my wife, the chef kept saying 'honking', as in, you don't want big 'ole honking pieces of peppers in this dish, you want to cut them up small. She said it many times during the show and I'd heard her say it before on previous shows. I finally had to pause (TIVO, what would I do without you?) and tell my wife that this was an 'Oh, Bobolink!' deal-breaker. I could never be with a woman who said 'honking'.

Which is neither here nor there for me - I've got my girl, and I intend to keep her.

Unless she starts saying 'honking'.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What's New...

....How is the world treating you? It's a great song, don't you think? And not a bad title for a blog either, especially one created to post my musings on anything that's grabbed my interest lately.

Of course, the song poses it as a question, as in, what's new with you? For my blog, the question mark comes off - I'm not asking what's new with you, I'm telling you what's new with me. Like you'd be interested. That's the biggest problem starting a blog - I'm afraid the lines from the lyrics that will apply most aptly to this blog will be these: "What's new? Probably I'm boring you..."

Well, just in case you're not, welcome, and read on....

What's new?
How is the world treating you?
You haven't changed a bit
Lovely as ever, I must admit

What's new?
How did that romance come through?
We haven't met since then
Gee, but it's nice to see you again

What's new?
Probably I'm boring you
But seeing you is grand
And you were sweet to offer your hand

I understand. Adieu!
Pardon my asking what's new
Of course you couldn't know
I haven't changed, I still love you so

Sinatra did it best, on Only The Lonely, but Helen Merrill ran him a very close second on her 1955 debut album, a perfect record, which I'll blog about some other time. The song is about running into an old lover, one you've never gotten over, and that's the message the singer is trying to convey throughout. It's subtle and nonchalant to begin with:

What's new?
How is the world treating you?
You haven't changed a bit
Lovely as ever, I must admit

The first three lines above are nothing more than the standard greeting we all use when running into someone we haven't seen in awhile. Not until the fourth line do we get a hint of what's really going on here. Then the singer turns it up a notch:

What's new?
How did that romance come through?
We haven't met since then
Gee, but it's nice to see you again

Translation: Are you still seeing that person? The one you left me for? Really? Well, I'd love to pick up where we left off.

What's new?
Probably I'm boring you
But seeing you is grand
And you were sweet to offer your hand

....I'm sorry, I know you're probably over me, never mind, it was good seeing you, thanks for stopping to chat.

I understand. Adieu!
Pardon my asking what's new
Of course you couldn't know
I haven't changed, I still love you so, nice seeing you, goodbye. Wait, wait, don't go - nothing's changed. I love you.

It's a fabulous song. Go listen to it.