Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Life is unfair to women ... again

Either that or it's easy to get used to complaining.

According to a study by Rutgers University, women's bodies release all sorts of oxytocin when they have an orgasm. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone and it tends to make women feel close to the person who is, ah, shall we say "present" when the orgasm happens. Men's bodies don't do this. And the good complainer writer at The Frisky presents the "problem" as follows:

I’ve long called it the orgasm curse—that thing that happens after great sex with a guy. He immediately goes from an insignificant satellite orbiting your universe to the goddamn sun itself. But why? He didn’t even do anything that impressive. You still find him as annoying as you did an hour ago, but you can’t stop thinking about bearing his children.  Logically, you know this is completely nuts, but you can’t seem to stop it.
I hate to come across  all traditionalist and so on but what the hell is the guy doing in bed with you if he is just "an insignificant satellite orbiting your universe" that you found "annoying" just an hour ago?

Women could try to only have sex and orgasms with decent, caring, interesting guys who are already important to them instead of annoying guys who don't matter to them. It's an approach that is sometimes called being a responsible, rational adult.

PS: Call me easy if you want, but any time someone is good enough to bring me to orgasm I tend to find that pretty darn impressive.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


I've been out most of the day at the Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome exhibit. I expected to be impressed and I was. It was a pretty safe bet this being Caravaggio after all. The curated part was pretty good but it was the paintings themselves that just blew us away.

It is was especially impressive to see his paintings next to those he influenced. The degree to which he did influence others is impressive but what strikes you even more is the degree to which the master exceeded his followers.

It is only in my lifetime that Caravaggio has begun to get his due. He was the victim of a negative PR campaign almost as bad as what the Jesuits have been subjected to. It's staggering to be in the presence of his works now.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What New York has in common with New Orleans

With all the hyperventilating about Irene and the seeming disappointment of some people that it wasn't worse, it seems to me that people have over looked something New York has in common with New Orleans. And that is that both cities represent past eras and not the future. New York is not so far in decline as New Orleans but its day is over. Culturally and economically, New York represents a world that is passing. If Irene had hid harder than it did, it would have only hastened an ongoing decline.

Sort of political Monday

The real divorce marriage problem
This week I am going to be giving evidence before a canon lawyer regard a request for an annulment of marriage AND attending a wedding so marriage is on my mind. The short version of what follows is: the problem is not the divorce rate but the declining marriage rate.

Is divorce a problem worth worrying about in a political sense? Divorce is obviously a problem for the two people getting divorced. It is also a problem for their family and friends who will be hurt and divided by this action. We all worry about the children, of course, but there is evidence that divorce affects a wider circle of people more deeply than we suspect. One person deciding to leave their marriage will often trigger their friends to make similar moves.

Those things are political in the very broad sense that they affect more than just the people immediately involved. I do not think they are enough to justify a response by politicians. If anything, I think politicians need to be much less involved in marriage and divorce than they already are. Most of what politicians have done regarding marriage, divorce and care of children since the 1960s has made matters worse not better and it seems to me that any truly caring person should be working to more severely limit the amount of damage politicians can do rather than giving them an excuse to do more. That said, however, I still think we need to ask ourselves what is a political question regarding marriage: What, if anything, does the high divorce rate say about the health of our culture?

If divorce really were the primary symptom of a cultural problem, we could reasonably conclude that the disease in retreat as the divorce rate is falling and has been for a number of years now. We might also note that the divorce rate has been exaggerated in the past. It never reached fifty percent; reports that it had were the product of sensationalist journalists with a poor grip on statistics.

In fact, even though divorce rates have been rather high in the past, the truth is that most marriages succeed and most marriages continue to succeed. The marriages that do fail tend to be mostly, although not exclusively, marriages that can be easily identified as fairly high risk to begin with. People who remarry after divorce, for example have a much, much higher divorce rate than people marrying for the first time. But most people outside the high risk groups who get married figure it out just fine.

The problem is the people who never get married. Now, this would not be a problem for them or society if they didn't want to get married. If you don't want to go to swimming, it's not a problem that you don't know how to get to the beach. But a society where virtually everyone wanted to go swimming but an increasing number of people couldn't find their way to the beach or the pool has a political problem and we might begin asking if the issue is poor signage or if it is an education system that has left the majority of people unable to follow simple directions.

In our culture, the vast majority of people want to get married. In fact, their desire to get married has been increasing in recent years. Young women and men at universities now rate getting married higher than young people in the 1970s and 1980s did. And they not only want to get married more they want to get married younger. In the past young women said they wished to establish a career before getting married. Today, most young women at university say they are willing to postpone a career in the interest of getting married and having children.

No the problem is that they are failing to negotiate their way to marriage. The marriage rate is falling because people are not succeeding at getting to go. And there is no evidence that suggests that they are changing their minds about wanting to get married. The path is not from young idealist who wants to get married to mature adult who decides she doesn't want it. The path is from young idealist who wants to get married to embittered adult who can't figure out why she has been denied this thing she so wanted.

Following my swimming analogy above, I don't think the problem is that people need better signs to help them drive to the beach. The problem is that we now live in a  culture where an increasing number of people can't find their way to marriage even with good roads that are well signed.

Why? I think it is this: if someone is getting married because they really love someone and want to spend the rest of their life with them, then they are getting married for the wrong reasons. Marriage is a project that exists outside of you and getting married means understanding and embracing that project.

Contrary to what some of my fellow Catholic bloggers would argue, openness to having children is not enough either. If anything it is worse to get married because you want to have children and the most spectacularly ugly and painful divorces I have seen have been from marriages where one or both partners were driven primarily by a desire to have children.

No, there is a project implicit in being a married couple before any children you do or don't have that is bigger than either of you. To marry is a political act because you make your vows before the community*. Your marriage vow is a promise to every single person in attendance. You promised every single person that you invited that you would be something as a couple. Otherwise, why bother invite them? You could just as easily have flown somewhere romantic, stood on the beach, looked deeply into one another's eyes and said, "I will love you forever".

That sort of vow would be easy to break, of course, but it would be easy to break precisely because it is so easy to make in the first place. Thousands of high school couples will make such a vow this year about relationships that won't last until graduation. Young women all across the continent will vow to be best friends for ever with other women they will soon decide they hate. It is the political aspect of marriage that makes it more durable.

This is why the whole debate about marriage rights is a farce. Who has a right to get married is a stupid and trivial question. The important issue is the responsibilities of marriage and the most important one is the responsibility to actually be married: to have and to hold**, forsaking all others, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad ...."

I met an old girlfriend on her way into her second marriage this winter. She has been in a number of serious relationships that have failed besides her marriage that failed. Comparing the guy she is living with now to the husband she divorced, she said, "This guy is much better for me." Those words did not seem to trouble her at all as she said them.

*You also make them before God and I think that is even more important but I am making a secular political argument here. In any case, I know some non-believers who have made a better job of marriage than many believers.

**It's amazing how many people forget that "to have and to hold" is a marriage vow. At the time you make it, this can seem so easy as to not be worth promising about. The tendency is to think that the really hard part is forsaking all others as if sexually irresistible people will be breaking the doors down trying to get at you and tempting you away from your spouse. The more important vow, and the one people are far more likely to break, is that you will maintain and nurture your desire for the other person until one of you dies.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The "folk" festival

Sat out on the deck having whisky, then wine and cheese and, finally, triple sec tonight. The city's folk music festival is happening in a park not far from here and I could hear it.

It's actually a rock music festival. As are the"blues" and "jazz" festivals here in town.

The only music festival in town that isn't really a rock music fest is the  Chamber Music Festival.

Materially speaking, this is the richest era in human history. So far anyway.

But culturally it is a black hole.

It's tempting to blame the generations that came of age since the 1960s but they might just as easily be the innocent victims of a culture beyond redemption. The only thing for certain is that it is a cultural disaster.

This won't last, if only because it cannot.


One of the interesting things about some things are called "class markers" is that the people who actually have achieved a level of socio-economic success make less of them than people who aspire to some level of distinction. The classic example used by economists who've studied this is cars such as Mercedes Benz and Porsche. People who aspire to social distinction tend to think that these vehicles will buy it for them but when you survey upper middle class and rich people, most of them think both are rather crass choices that reveal something lacking in the person who buys them. (And the exceptions among wealthy people who do want these vehicles—think celebrities—tend to justify the negative judgment.)

That isn't universally true. I've known one first rate human being who drove Mercedes Benz. That said, he came from a poor Irish family so he didn't have a finely tuned judgment on these things.

I live in a neighbourhood where lots of people could easily afford a Mercedes Benz or a Porsche but the most popular brand here is Subaru followed by Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. The thing about these cars as class markers is that they are not. Or to put it more accurately, the very act of seeking "class" or judging in terms of class is self-defeating. The point is to seek quality and not to to seek distinction.

It's struck me lately that even the words "classy" and "class"are similar markers for crass and vulgar people. It's a bad sign to find yourself using them and this is true even if your intent is critical or ironic.

There'll be some changes made

Readers may have noticed that I have pared down the blog list lately. I said that I was increasingly put off by the crassness of one of the bloggers I used to link to and that is the efficient cause for this change.

But the final cause is my ongoing struggle to better myself.

Over to you Dorothy Claire:

PS: Here is a picture of her with some of the boys in the band. She deserved to be a much bigger star than she was.

Womanly virtues Friday ...

Manners and morals pt 2
The flip side of the equation is that you can more effectively love others if you surround yourself with quality people and if you absolutely require yourself to be a quality person. That is you should have your act together and you should take as your closest companions people who have their act together.

I've met people who argue otherwise. There is an even old saw: "A friend in need is a friend indeed". You could take that to mean it is most important to love your friends when they struggle OR you could take it that we should pick as our closest friends people who need friends.

When I was a kid, my mother used to argue that way sometimes.  Most mothers will at some time or another. They'll see some other kid who really needs a friend and encourage you to be their friend. There is something right about that. But you wouldn't do that to pick a lover would you? You wouldn't walk into the party and look for the neediest, loneliest guy in the room and go after him would you?

No matter how seriously we take the commandment to "love our enemies" we all love our loved ones more. And we all take it as a given that we have an inner circle who have a stronger call on our love than others. No one seriously believes otherwise and we quietly tune out when some do-gooder a little too in-love with the sound of their own voice tries to get us to take "love your enemies" literally. If we are not nutcases, there is no danger on that side of the argument.

No, the danger is when we start thinking that love means close relationships between flawed people. To the contrary, we have a positive duty to be quality people for the ones we love. It's not good enough to say, I don't have my act together but I'm going to get married to you anyway. I recently ruffled some feathers by saying that attitude is crass, slovenly and immature but I stand by it. If you don't have your act together, your marrying someone is anything but love. And if someone who doesn't have their act together wants to marry you, they're lying about loving you. They may well mean to love you but they won't do it very well because they can't.

Now it may be that that other person doesn't know they don't have their act together. In fact, that is usually the case. Our character is the lens that we see ourselves through and someone with a flawed character will either see there is no problem or will conclude that their problems are normal and therefore nothing they can do anything about. And that is their problem so don't make it yours by marrying them.

This is not a requirement of perfection. Failing is a normal part of human life. But not having your act together is way, way below imperfection.

Womanly virtues Friday ...

Manners and morals Pt 1
One of the things that undergraduates can be counted on to argue is that manners and morality are clear different things. One pretty standard move, for example, is to point out that you can be polite to someone while hating them. That this sort of argument is quite literally sophomoric ought to be enough to make us wonder about it.

If we come at the problem from the other end of the telescope we might ask: can you really love the person you most care about if you aren't capable of being polite to people you don't like? If love is going to be more than narcissism it needs to be something we actually do to another person. I can sit here and feel deep love for you but unless I actually do anything it is like what James said about faith without acts.

We saw a couple yesterday who where in love but didn't know how to love. They were having an argument in a public place and, in the process, making life unpleasant not only for themselves but for everyone around them. The surprising thing, listening to them as we had no choice, was how tender their intentions were.

He'd obviously recently failed at something and she was trying to reassure him. But she didn't know how to reassure gracefully and he didn't know how to accept reassurance gracefully. And so they kept discussing and discussing as each tried to determine that the other was really entirely on their side.

And they weren't oblivious to those around them even though they acted like they were. Every once in a while, they'd notice they were making someone near them uncomfortable and cut the volume. But they would keep discussing and, because neither of them knew how to be polite, the volume would begin to rise and they would end up shouting past each other again.

If you try to love someone on an ongoing basis, the day will inevitably come when you feel angry with them, or you are tired of their company or even that you feel cold about them. That feeling will pass but the only way you can be sure you will still have a relationship after it passes is if you are good at being polite to people you don't like.

The virtue required here is amiability. You could also call it charity. Both of those are old-fashioned words. It's telling that there is no word in current use that means precisely what those words meant. And what did they mean? They meant the ability to treat others with the dignity that their humanity deserves even if you don't feel much like liking them right now.

Or even if you don't feel like liking them ever. The way you would towards an enemy, for example.

To be polite to an enemy, you have to be able to see the good in them. Think of a real example from your life when you contemplate this as opposed to a heartless criminal who ruins people's lives.  Think of the guy who makes life difficult at work or someone you know has said critical things about you or even a sexual rival.

More to come ...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Is it any good? As art?

That is Bridey's question from Brideshead and it's a question I have put off about A River Runs Through It. Short answer, no it isn't but a lot of films I'd cheerfully watch again aren't good art. (This is the third of a series of posts. Here are the links to part one and part two.)

I can say that it was a lot better than I remembered it.

But I raise the art question because the people who praise this film fall into three groups: a) men who like fly fishing and b) women who like Brad Pitt and c) people who think it is art.

If we look at the Rotten Tomatoes page for the movie, we can see that they give it an 82 percent positive rating. They arrived at this number by finding 39 reviews and determining that 32 (82 percent) of these were positive. That's a long way from scientific.

But it gets even weirder when we look at some of these "positive" reviews. Here are some examples.

1. Hal Hinson of the Washington Post is rated a positive review and he does praise the movie for being out of step with current Hollywood trends, but he concludes by determing that it doesn't make much sense:
"River" is a serious and, at times, moving film, and it deserves serious analysis. Yet serious scrutiny only leaves a deeper confusion. Redford did not make the film with the intention of making heroes; in a sense, it's an elegy for a lost style of living. But the sympathies of the gods appear to be divided here, throwing the moral compass out of whack.
And that's a pretty good assessment of it if you ask me.

2.  Jon Niccum's review for the Lawrence Journal-World is also rated positive. We don't have access to the full review but the blurb we are given reads:
Nice to look at but rather dull.
That doesn't sound like praise to me.

3. Emanuel Levy of Cinema 24/7 is also rated a positive review. Here is how he sums it up:
Rather dull, the film is made with too much reverence and taste for Maclean's short story, adapted to the screen by Richard Friedenberg, and not enough drama or compassion. The family members often just stare at each other without uttering one word. But it's nice to look at the landscape and at the gorgeous face of Brad Pitt, which gets the start treatment through numerous close-ups.
Rather dull is not a positive review.

4. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader is also rated a positive review and he says:
Though it's made as a labor of love, with a carefully fashioned script by Richard Friedenberg and attentive direction by Robert Redford that takes full advantage of the area's beautiful scenery, none of this ever quite compensates for the lack of a strong story line.
None of these reviews could properly be called positive. They are all perceptive reviews and, taken together, they correctly identify all the film's shortcomings.  But you might want to watch it anyway.

But, what gives? How did intelligent people read these reviews and think, "That's a positive review"?

I think the answer is because the film is supposed to be art. I mentioned Bridey's question at the start. The guys he asks it of (he has been asked to rate some architecture) says that he doesn't like it much but it may be good art. That's a strange attitude, as even an odd duck  Bridey can see. And yet that strange attitude kicks in whenever something presents itself as art.

What makes this so strange is that we ought to approach art with all our critical faculties working but there is this bizarre modernism that says we have no right to expect art to be likeable.

A River Runs Through It: The aesthetics of manliness

(This is the second of a series of posts. Here are the links to part one and part three.

If you're like most men, this is the image from the movie that will haunt you. (Click on the images to see them larger.)

The still doesn't even begin to do it justice. It's the graceful power that matters. He's laying sixty, seventy feet of line out here.

But there are a couple of problems here. In fact, the vast majority of trout caught on the fly are caught on casts of less than forty feet. This sort of thing is beautiful to watch but not terribly practical. But the really big problem is that he is casting straight downstream, an utterly pointless thing to do. Fly fishing in rivers and streams is done across the current. Depending on the circumstances, you might go up and across, straight across or down and across. But straight downstream makes it impossible to give any sort of natural motion to the fly. The bugs and small fish that live in fast water never just hold in one place against the current and they do not swim straight up current.

And that brings me to something I promised to come back to in the last post but forgot: that animalistic way that Norman conceives of Paul. Because every guy is haunted by the memory of that childhood companion who just seemed to have grace and power. He always pushed the limits and always seemed to get away with it. And even if, Icarus like, he flies too close to the sun, we remember that guy who just had effortless grace and not the charred mess after the crash.

Truth be told, he was never what we imagined. He was a projection. He was the guy whe chided ourselves for not being. Later, when we'd grown up and realized we'd never gone fishing as often as we wanted, he would haunt us.

You've seen that in real life. Many, many times you've been driving over a bridge and you looked to the side and you saw the river and it was beautiful just like that. And you wished you had the courage to park your car, and go down and fish that river. And you didn't for a lot of reasons.

Only one of the reasons was that you couldn't picture yourself casting gracefully enough or catching enough fish to escape the fear of seeming ridiculous of the next guy to come along. You know perfectly well that it would take practice to get good but you want to be past that. You want to be the guy laying out long, powerful, graceful casts that set the fly gently on the water and get the fish to rise.

And don't you imagine making love to women in similar terms?

Ah, the Craftsman style. As the aesthetics of American manliness go, this is as good as it gets. And this is the study, which is to say, the ultimate manly room. The only thing better than being a boy who gets invited into his father's study would be to be a father with a study like that.

Ultimate manly room in a house that is. This movie also has great bars in it. There are bars that just say manly success (I think they would have actually called them saloons at the time). To be at home here, would be to have arrived.

And then there are the bars you could get hurt going into and you don't really want or like the idea of being in them but you wish you had been in them once upon a time just to have had that experience under your belt.

Oh yeah, there is also the woman you wouldn't want to be with but you wish you had been in them once upon a time just to have had that experience under your belt.

All of these things, Norman projects onto Paul. Paul was comfortable doing these things, Norman felt awkward as we all do. He compensates with Paul but, in the process, he makes Paul into a beautiful graceful animal more like a trout than a trout fisherman.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Neo noir: A River Runs Through It
Okay, not a neo noir but it has a lot of the characteristics of one. And this movie had a huge impact on men. There is no room for dispute about this fact. The sales of fly fishing equipment spiked upwards after it came out. (This is the first of a series of posts. Here are the links to part two and part three.)

Given that, I think we can leave aside the question of whether or not the movie is any good for a while. The movie exposed millions of men to fly casting and wild rivers and trout and they loved it. An appreciable number of them loved it so much they ran out and bought the kit and set out to learn how to do it. My guess is that most of that equipment is now packed up and stored next to the guitar they never play, the golf clubs they never use and a few other similar items. But there was dream here and there was something that struck a lot of men as good and pure about this dream.

And it still does for those who discover it for the first time even now.

But even if you like the dream, the story has troubling ... what, shall we say discrepancies about it. Or shall we say, Maclean lies a lot in this story, both to us and himself.

The semi-repentant apostate
I think the place to start is with the lies.

This is a story that was told so the author could maintain a certain image of himself in the face of loss. There is no secret about the loss or his sense of failure related to that loss, by the way, he let's that slip right away. He failed as a brother; or he believes he failed, which amounts to the same thing. And now he needs to tell a story about it.

He says he is telling a story about his brother in order to understand. As if sticking someone into a story with a beginning, middle and end would help you to understand them when you'd failed to understand them in real life.

If you were a fly fisherman before seeing this movie it would become obvious as soon as he tells us about learning to fly cast that this story is a mythology. He just drenches his account of how he learned with mysticism, telling us that there was no clear distinction between fly fishing and religion in his family and even having his father pull out a metronome to help he and his brother with their timing. And then he goes on to describe a lesson that is so utterly conventional that only someone who knew little or nothing about fly fishing could be impressed. The mystical method he has spent so much time building up is exactly the one that you will find in any How to Fly Fish book published any time in the last century and a half that you can find.

And I think we can deduce a related bit of mythology here: young Paul Maclean isn't a smart fly fisherman. A lot of reviewers imagine that Norman is intimidated by his brother but there is a key scene here where Norman tells us that he is the better of the two. It's the scene where the two brothers and their father go fishing for the last time together. And young Norman slaps a bug on his neck and pulls off this big orangey-pink stone fly that is colloquially called a "Salmon fly". Later, Paul isn't catching anything and Norman is and Paul has to ask what fly Norman is using. That is what fly fishing is really about. Having the observational skills to notice what is happeninga nd the knowledge to apply a solution, in this case Norman uses a Bunyan bug which was a salmon fly imitation.

All the stuff that the movie praises in Paul, the ability to cast exceptionally well and the fight where he follows the trout through the rough water is something else that I'll get to in the manliness lesson below. But note that he appreciates Paul on a more animalistic level: Paul's skills are more instinctive than acquired.

If fly fishing really is like a religion, then Norman Maclean was the true devotee and later he was the apostate. He moved east an abandoned it all. And then he returned repentant.

But it is equally important to note that he was an apostate to both of the family religions.
I suppose that in any conventional sense I’m a religious agnostic. There are things that make me feel a lot better. I don’t particularly find them in a church. I find them in the woods, and in wonderful people. I suppose they’re my religion.
Here is what I think really happened. Maclean abandoned his father's religion and has retroactively made fly fishing into a second family religion so as to shift the guilt from his true apostasy which was from his father's faith. In fact, the person for whom fly fishing was a religion was always Norman himself. Returning to Montana to fly fish is a replacement for the faith his father gave him in and that he lost.

You can see the shift in two quotes. Here is what he says his father taught him about the the rocks on the riverbed:
Long ago, rain fell on mud and became rock. Half a billion years ago. But even before that, beneath the rocks, are the words of God. Listen.
And here is what he made that teaching into:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.
I put it to you that the father's words are the more profound ones. What Norman makes them into is just bad writing. He takes many more words than his father did because he has less to say.

Among other things, there is a painful antecedent problem here: "some of the words are theirs"? Who are they and what words are they speaking under the rocks? At best, that is trite. He means the "wonderful people" in his life who have died: his brother, his wife and his father. Their memory has become his god. And he wraps it up in a cheap mysticism that any dime-story Bhodavista could crank out by the yard: "all things merge into one" ... gag.

Was he his brother's keeper?
There are two staggering omissions in the novella and the movie. The first is that there is no mention of Norman and Paul's five sisters. You'd never know they even had existed. (UPDATE: And they may not have! See comments for further discussion.) The second is that the Maclean fails to tell us that Paul actually did move to Chicago and that is where he died. The novella very emphatically tells us that Paul could never leave Montana and that he died there, and the novel hints that he did so at the hands of gamblers to whom he owed money. None of that is true and, more importantly, none of it could be true.

But to admit this would upset the whole logic of the story. If fly fishing really was a religion it would be hard to believe that both brothers would move to Chicago. That is why the story sets it up such that Paul is supposed to be the true believer in this fly fishing religion who can never leave it or Montana. In fact both brothers left both behind for the big city.

Beyond that, we can't really say but Norman was living in Chicago when Paul was murdered. He was the family member closest to him. Was he a good keeper for his brother? Did he, in fact, induce his brother to move and later feel guilty for convincing him to move to the town where he met his end? Or did he know about his brother getting deeper and deeper into trouble in Chicago but was unable or unwilling to do anything about it?

Paul, by the way, was clearly an alcoholic and he was an alcoholic with a mean streak. That must have had a lot more to do with the stress between him and his family than the issues raised in the novel and the movie. The way Maclean tells the story, Paul is defined by something outside of him and outside of the family.
The title story, “A River Runs Through It,” was the big tragedy of our family, my brother’s character and his death. He had a very loving family, but independent and fighters. We were guys who, since the world was hostile to us, depended heavily upon the support and the love of our family. That tends often to be the case with guys that live a hostile life outside.
The problem can't be what he claims here. I think we can see that it probably was reading between the lines: that Paul had behaviourial problems right from the beginning that became much worse with his drinking.

In retrospect, Norman is tortured by his having been unable to help but we might wonder if the two boys were really as close as he wants to remember. Paul must have been a real trial when he was alive. We can reasonably wonder whether he really liked him as much as he says here. Again, if we pay attention to the way the story is told, there are lots of hints that the two did not see much of one another even while living in the same place together. Pay close attention and you'll notice lots of hints that suggest they did not fish or socialize together very much. Not the least of these hints is that it is a big production for them to actually get together to fish.

The manliness lesson and the Serpent in the garden
 One of the all time great titles is the one Robert Frost gave to his first book of poetry: A Boy's Will. The key, of course, is the double sense of "will" meaning volition and a document declaring how wealth accumulated will be dispensed. We start of thinking we're reading about the former but learn we are really reading about the latter.

In our culture, every boy must die to allow the birth of a man. And we feel the loss of that boy all our lives. That is what this story is really about.

A story of paradise lost needs its serpent and Maclean had one a little too readily made in the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Anaconda had a grip on Montana not unlike what the KC Irving company had on New Brunswick where I grew up. It was the dominant employer, the largest economic force, a huge player in backroom politics and it owned a slew of newspapers. They used the political and journalistic influence they had to maintain their grip on the state.

Maclean gave that as his reason for leaving:
I love Montana with almost a passion, but I saw I couldn’t live here really if I was going to be a teacher; I’d have to be degraded and submit to views that I couldn’t accept. I felt that this was imposed upon us from the outside—that wasn’t our true nature. I tried to figure out a way to continue this two world thing that I had begun by going East.
I don't believe that. But notice that he does the same trick with himself as he does with his brother: he situates all the threats to his bliss on the outside. He wants to believe that nothing about his leaving this paradise comes from him.

When I saw the movie in the theatre, one of the big laugh lines was when young Norman and Paul are talking about what they will be when they grow up. Norman says he will probably be a preacher and Paul says he wants to be a professional fly fisherman. People laughed very hard at young Paul's answer as soon as it was out of his mouth. The thing is, there are professional fly fisherman and there have been for a long time. It didn't quite exist when Paul is supposed to have made his remark but it was being pioneered.

But it is Norman's answer that should stick out. And we learn that "preacher" was his nickname as he grew up. Consider his education. Norman tells us that his father made considerable sacrifice to send him to Dartmouth. And of course he did because he thought that Norman would follow him and become a preacher. The story of that rebellion never gets told. The way Norman tells the story, it is his father who suggests that he take up being a professor. There has to have been more to it than that.

When Norman sits down with his father to discuss his career after returning from Dartmouth, the career he wants to follow is with the forestry service. That is what he really wanted to do. In real life, Norman wanted to do something not unlike being a professional fly fisherman.

I don't think it was so simple as his father wanted him to do something else and they fought and Norman went east after the fight. There were all sorts of forces at work. He was teaching about a religion of nature whose scripture was romantic poetry and he couldn't do that while living close to his father. He wanted the girl and she was the sort of girl guys in the forestry service didn't get. And he'd had taste of a kind of social status out east that also didn't come from the forestry service. But the dream was always Montana and the boy who could live there forever and he betrayed that dream. So he wrote a story about it.

There are two follow up posts coming.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Newsflash: bisexual men exist after all

Well, two new studies say so. My guess is that we can take this one to the bank but you can believe what you want.

In the unintentional hilarity department though, here is the opening line from the New York Times handling of the story:
In an unusual scientific about-face ...
That such appalling scientific illiteracy was written and then got by the editorial process is about all the reason any of the increasingly smaller number of Times readers need to abandon the publication. It's not just that. historically speaking, there are all sorts of cases of reversals in science. It's also the use of the term about-face which betrays the degree to which the intellectuals at the time see the role of science as shoring up public policy positions.

Never mind that a study does not and cannot establish what is to count as "science".

Intentional story telling

I am preparing tomorrow's movie post and the movie I have picked is not a neo noir whereas every film I've discussed on Thursday all summer has been neo noir. It has a lot in common with them and a big commonality is the lying. The narrator of this story is so deeply embroiled in his lies that it may as well be a neo noir.

Anyway, that got me thinking about one of the points The Last Psychiatrist is so good at: intentionality in story telling. We often tell stories that, on their face, seem to make one kind of point but actually betray a completely different purpose.

And we almost always do this when we tell a story intentionally. That is the story that is told not to divert or titillate but a told with a purpose. A doctor who specialized in alcoholism gave a great example of this sort of lie and how it gets revealed once. A guy made an appointment to see him and when he sat down he told the doctor that he'd had a recent drinking experience that had really bothered him. And then he said this,
Doctor, I'm not an alcoholic. I hadn't had a drink in seventeen years before this happened.
And the doctor said, "I knew he was an alcoholic as soon as he said that. Only an alcoholic would remember exactly how long it had been since his last drink."

The alcoholic does not actually know he is an alcoholic in the same sense that he knows he owns a blue shirt. But the fascinating thing is the way the story betrays conflicting intentions. He says he isn't but he is obviously worried that he might be and is trying to deflect the narrative from the conclusion he doesn't want it to run to. That intention is right in the telling of the story and in who he chose to tell it to.

Anyway, the movie for tomorrow is A River Runs Through It, and it is that kind of story. The things Norman Maclean tries to hide are more interesting than what he reveals.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Saint Recently Deceased Public Figure

The old line is don't speak ill of the dead. Lately, however, it feels like we have gone to the opposite extreme, at least with public figures.

A politician has just died in Canada and the instant canonization is amazing. I'm not making a point about the guy himself, which is why I don't name him here. He was a politician and neither an especially good nor especially bad guy.

The thing is the reaction. People are making tributes, holding vigils, setting up little memorials and so forth. We keep doing this. It's sad that the guy died and it's sad that there is a family without a father but people die this way everyday.

I think the Serpentine One put her finger on what drives this: it's a denial of the value of suffering and the inevitability of death. The tributes are all overcompensating because we don't want to face these things.

 We praise this life to the heavens because the death of a public figure at the height of his career seems so unusually pointless. But this is the way of all flesh.

Are we prolonging and denying boyhood at the same time

This is just my first, vague thought on this.

I keep seeing signs that men who feel they missed their boyhood by growing up too quickly. At the same time, I'm surrounded by by men who refuse to grow up.

And I keep wondering if there isn't some sort of paradoxical connection between them.

I wonder if our society doesn't sneer at boyish activities in ways that make us short change ourselves in that category, both as boys and as adult men. We still do boyish stuff but we do it with shame so we do it in a furtive or, much worse, a defiant way; that is to say, in the same way that someone has another drink after someone has made them feel like they ought not to. The consequence of this is that we never do boyish stuff the right way to begin with.

And yes, I think this does tie in with the way girls are rejecting their feminist mothers by dressing like princesses as children and then sluts, as teenagers. They want to be girls and are blundering around as best they can. But at no point does anyone tell them that being a woman is a serious project.

And so it is with being a man. Doing things like fishing, hunting, canoeing, heck, being a Boy Scout in a troop where girls aren't allowed, are all things that help us learn about the serious project of being a man. And that is all diminished by our culture.

From the top to the bottom

One of my mother's favourite themes was the way that really stupid ideas tend to go straight the top to the bottom. The example she gave was cocaine in the 1970s. It was a glamour drug used by rock stars and other celebrities at first. From there it went straight to clerical workers.

It was an odd thing, she pointed out, because it wasn't much of a drug if your goal was to get high. As a medical professional, she didn't think getting high was a good idea but, she couldn't help but point out, the actual high from cocaine was weak and short lived. The soul-destroying capacity of the drug was nothing to sneeze at. Plus it was very, very expensive.

It's not just cocaine. If you want to have a miserably unhappy life, model yourself on what spoiled rich kids and celebrities do. Make a tape of yourself having sex, experiment with drugs, get lots of tattoos, marry, have children and divorce ... .

In that regard, it is interesting that atheism and alternative sexual identities have moved from the top of our society to the bottom. Walter Russell Mead has a good post on atheism here.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Girls behaving badly

In the 1970s, in a high school in West Quebec, a girl named Constance did something that seemed uncharacteristic not only of her but of girls in general. During a break before the start of a music class, she picked up a recorder owned by a cute boy in the class. He was away from his desk. Then she turned so that only her best friend and a number of other girls could see what she was doing, and rubbed the mouthpiece of this instrument against her crotch and put it back at the boy's place.

Constance otherwise had well-earned reputation as one of the good girls at the school. A small number of us guys saw it happen despite her efforts to keep it a secret. We discussed it among ourselves a bit. At the time, things like this seemed isolated and did not seem to say anything about girls in general. That girls did crazy things driven by sexual tension was a common theme in male fantasies but no one believed girls really did these things. A single concrete example couldn't change the carefully maintained cultural illusion that girls are morally superior beings.

Then came the Internet and Facebook!

My favourite search string in a while

The stats function wasn't working properly over the weekend but is now working again. And I'm just thrilled because it enabled me to find out that one visitor to the site today came in on the following search string:
"chick lit with fly fishing theme"
Oh, I love that. As the Serpentine One said,  an idea whose time has come?
Katrina watched in horror as Sara waltzed through the door in her new, breathable Orvis waders, waggling a daring vintage Granger 3 weight hung with a Hardy Perfect reel. She realized that she could not possibly compete with her patched Red Ball waders, Eagle Claw rod and her serviceable but cheap Pflueger Medalist—a fear that was quickly justified as all the guides flocked to Sara's like Browns in a stone fly hatch.
Okay, easy to parody but I bet you could do something with it.

Sort of political Monday

What will happen to the Democrats?
A while ago I commented on the fate of the west's big "centrist" parties. These were parties that functioned, as I quoted Doug Saunders,
as the paternal overlords of protected, closed national economies, engaging in brokerage politics whereby the fruits of growth could be spread out among clients and beneficiaries on the left and right. The big political parties were like family heirlooms, their loyalties kept for life and passed on between generations – badges of personal identity, like Ford and Chevy, Coke and Pepsi, Apple and Microsoft. Membership had its benefits. 
If parties that worked on brokerage model are in decline all over the western world, what will happen to the Democratic Party? For if any party anywhere practices that sort of brokerage politics, it is the Democrats. Surely then, that party should be in trouble?

Part of the answer is a simple, Yes, they are in trouble. But that is not good enough for, although the signs of strain and decline are there, the party is doing much better than its other western counterparts. So far anyway. Why?

One thing the Democrats have in their favour is that the USA has a two party system to a greater degree than other western countries. As I noted in my previous post on these big "centrist" parties, they are all really incrementally leftist parties. As such, they had to worry about being undermined by attacks on their left flank by parties that were unelectable but still capable of exercising some power because of parliamentary arrangements. One of the ironies of the American system is that party discipline is exceptionally loose in Congress and, consequently, even if a minority third party did come into existence, it could have no real power as a party in the Congressional negotiations. The two parties do have to worry about third party candidates at the presidential level but these pose no threat at the congressional level. The individual members of this hypothetical third party would have much more leverage to negotiate their support as individuals than the party would have as a whole.

The really interesting thing that has happened in the United States, is that the internal workings of the two parties are much more evident. Again, as I have said previously, centrism is only a marketing position for parties such as the Democrats. They are really incrementally leftist. They don't have radical leftist goals but they are always moving to the left and are, for all intents and purposes, "go-slow socialists". Because of their "centrist" marketing approach, however, they all end up with some elected representatives who are not on board ideologically and these people need to be appeased and bought off to obtain any party discipline at all. In a Congress where the leadership has limited means to beat representatives into submission, however, these negotiations are far more open than what the brokerage parties in other western nations have done. (On paper a prime minister has far less power than a president, but he can make individual elected members from his own party cower in ways that an American president couldn't dream of.)

If you compare this with Canada's Liberal party—which is also a party whose leaders are incremental leftists—you can see that the Liberals can (or could until recently) almost always sweep the dissent under the rug. They have to negotiate and bribe and threaten too (for that is what brokerage politics is) but they can usually do this behind closed doors. The way Congress works, this negotiating is always evident no matter how hard leaders and members try to conceal what they are doing. The net effect of this is that a lot of the disdain that brokerage politics has attracted in other western countries has been channeled into a disdain for Congress as a whole in the USA.

All that said, I think the Democrats face a stark choice and you can see it if you consider the fate of the Liberals in Canada. And the cause of this is perhaps the Liberals only political achievement the last twenty years: the Liberals successfully reigned in spending and, along with reigning in spending, they changed campaign finance laws in such a way as to make it impossible for large donors to achieve any kind of quid pro quo. That is the thing that they achieved that none of the other brokerage parties achieved. But they paid a huge price for this undeniably positive achievement.

For what they have done is to take away their own power to dispense largesse to loyal supporters in return for being elected. Local bosses, leaders in the ethnic communities, community organizers and business people in government-favoured sectors no longer offer their support in return for considerations when it comes to brokering out. In that environment, the more ideologically driven parties have thrived. And the Liberals may very well follow suit as a faction within the party that would replace brokerage politics with ideology is challenging the old wheelers and dealers for hegemony within the party.

To take only three examples, imagine the effect on the Democrats if they removed their own ability to cut deals with union leaders, trial lawyers and heavily regulated businesses . Imagine, for example, if campaign finance was reformed such these groups could no longer make the sorts of financial contributions in return for considerations they have in the past and that government spending was better controlled, as it is here in Canada, such that it was much harder to channel government funds to pay these groups back for their support. While such a move make it possible for the Democrats to dump a lot of political positions that are liabilities for them, these are the Democrats three-biggest sources of campaign funds and in-kind help and losing this leverage with them would, severely undermine their ability yo get elected.

But while they may not willingly cut their connections with those three groups, other factors are increasingly making it inevitable. Not just the public at large, but especially the Democrats core constituency of voters, increasingly finds brokerage politics repulsive.

In a lot of ways, these brokerage politics are analogous to the segregation stance the Democrats implicitly and explicitly supported from the end of the civil war to the 1960s. They have very good pragmatic reasons to cling to it in the short run but, in the long run, brokerage politics are untenable. The party will have to go through another convulsion like it did in the 1960s and 1970s and you could argue that it already is doing so.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Womanly virtues Friday ...

Public and private
One the most valuable lessons I ever got from the Serpentine One was the importance of managing the public and private aspects of a relationship. As is often the case, she has no memory of telling me about this. We had only known one another a short while and had not yet begun to fall in love. We were talking about another relationship that had failed. And she said to me, "The problem with X and Y was that they only could make it work when they were alone. When they tried to function in public as a couple, they failed."

Before you can learn how to manage these two fronts in a loving relationship, you need to learn how to do it as an individual. And we learn that, or fail to learn, or fail to be taught, from our parents but most especially from our mothers.

I'll begin with failure. Here is what it looks like.

I was reading some mommy blogger a while ago (I can't remember which one) and she blogged about walking into the room where her daughter was watching television. Somehow, she blocked her daughter's view of the television and her daughter said, "Mommy, would you move your big fat ass."

Now, pause a moment and consider how you'd respond. And consider how your mother would have responded. I know how my mother would have.

This mommy blogger laughed. And in her blog she went on to say that she and her husband often talk to one another like that so it isn't any wonder her daughter picked it up. The whole point of her blog post was to publicly reveal her acceptance of this as inevitable; she was not going to beat herself up about this, although she could not quite bring herself to believe it was okay if it happened again. Several of the comments began with "I'm so glad you wrote this" and were followed by similar confessions—this revelation of personal failure having apparently sparked great relief in others desperate to tell the world that they too were failures.

That is why you now see restaurants with signs advising parents that they will be asked to leave if their children won't behave.

All the behaviours here make sense in isolation. Is it funny when an innocent child says something really rude? Yes it is. Do couples sometimes use what would otherwise be insults as private endearments? Of course we do. (Although I do have to say I would never say anything as crass and vulgar as what this woman's husband apparently says to her about anyone I cared about.)

What is missing is any sense of occasion, any sense of the place and company that remarks are or are not appropriate in.

I still remember the first time I dropped the F-bomb in my mother's presence. I picked it up from a new friend named Timmy in Grade school. We walked around and he used the word liberally. Like many a kid before me, I loved the word and started imitating him. And his parents used it too. His parents said a lot of things in front of the kids. I remember his mother making a joke about her pubic hair being grey because she didn't dye it the way she did with the hair on top of her head.

Anyway, I got so used to using the word over at his place that one day I blurted it out at home.

What followed I remember as being deeply unpleasant. Everything about my mother's response seemed deadly serious and earnest to me. I quickly grasped not only that I was not to use the word but also that I didn't want to be the sort of person who used that word.

I did still use it, of course. But I always used it with a sense of doubt. I could only feel comfortable using it in certain kinds of company. I used it with buddies and, like trump at Hearts, I never led with it until I heard someone else use it first. Even now in my fifties, I could not use the word in front of anyone I do not know well and even then it would depend.

The story has two sequels. Years later, I overheard my mother reassuring a young mother who had just dealt with her son saying the word. My mother said, "The hardest thing is keeping a straight face." And then told how she'd had to leave the room to laugh when I first said it. That was true although what she'd told me at the time, and I believed, was that she'd had to leave the room because she was so upset. And I believed her. Not because she was a great actress. She wasn't. I believed her because she was consistent and persistent in pushing for a standard of behaviour that did not include anything like the use that word in her home.

It wasn't just the F bomb. We weren't allowed to say "shut up" in our house. And we weren't allowed to refer to my mother using third person pronouns such as "she" or "her". Whatever private endearments and inside jokes my parents shared, they remained strictly private between them.

I, like every other kid in the universe, eventually figured out that there was a gap between the standards of behaviour that my mother demanded of us and what she herself sometimes did in private. Once when the extended family were all gathered down at P-town, and she and her sisters were alone around the piano late at night and they thought the rest of us were asleep, I overheard them singing a song whose chorus went, "My gal goes for all the guys but she only comes for me." There must have been more but that was the one and only time she let her slip show (and you can't really say that as it was a perfectly reasonable assumption on her part that we'd all be asleep at that hour). But I knew there was more.

You could dismiss this attitude of hers as hypocrisy if you think that will make you feel better but here's the rub. Those modern parents who talk about one anothers' "fat asses" in front of their children also have different standards they apply in public and in private. They have dirty secrets. And their children will also grow up to discover these things. The difference is that they don't keep the division between their public and private life up out of a proper respect for public decorum the way my mother did. They are driven by private shame. Thus this odd confessional release they get from telling the whole world that they are failures and all their readers can chime in and confess that they too are failures and everyone can get a warm fuzzy because if everyone is a failure, then no one is.

Meanwhile, families are less and less welcome in any restaurant that doesn't have golden arches out front.

Oh yeah, the other sequel. Timmy's father was later arrested for embezzlement. He'd stolen tens of thousands of dollars from his employer. The really odd thing is what he did with the money. He used every penny on a sports team he coached. The kids on his team had the best uniforms in the league. They had big team dinners with award presentations. They had great clinics with qualified professionals teaching them skills.

No, I don't think there is any cause and effect here but I do think there is a connection. It's the same lack of any sense of limits. It's the same failure to draw sharp boundaries between what is acceptable in some parts of life and others that caused this failure.

Timmy turned out okay, by the way. He is just Tim now. He was a martial arts expert for a while and has a fairly successful career as, of all things, a stock broker. He responds to his father's name the same way my mother responded to the F-bomb, which is to say he makes it very clear he doesn't want to hear it in public and he laughs about it in private. And what else could he do?

Do trolls know that they are trolls?

I don't advertize or promote this blog in any way or do anything else to attract readers. It's just here. As a consequence, I don't get many trolls. I've had exactly two to date.

I had seen them elsewhere of course. At first they read like any other commenter. They give themselves away, though, in the follow up comments they make because, oddly enough, they don't respond to what others write in response to them. They write other comments but they don't actually engage what is written in response. They are always launching some new line of attack; they are always trying to stir up a response.

And they can't quit. When they make a parting shot, it always is a parting shot. There is one last dig, one last provocation, in it.

They remind of guys I knew in high school who would take moral umbrage at the very existence of some other kids. Bullies for lack of a better word. I went to a tough high school in a declining mill town and we had lots of guys like that. We assume we understand their motives but I'm not sure we do and I'm not sure they do.

I wonder sometimes if trolls and bullies (same thing really) don't see themselves as driven by some moral purpose. They only have a vague grasp on it because they have never really thought it through. Not because they couldn't but because, in their eyes, they needn't. The moral purpose that drives them is so reliable that that is all they need. As crazy as it may seem to us, they finish the day with a sense of moral accomplishment for what they do.

You can, as many people advise, stop arguing with them and they will go away but what really makes them go away is when they begin to believe that no one thinks they have any standing to argue this case. That, and only that, goes right to the heart of what drives them by undermining their sense of moral purpose.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wild Things: The aesthetics of manliness

If you're a man, you want to go to this place:

As always, you can click on the images to see them larger.

Isn't that perfect? Let's take a closer look.

That is some more of that technology that puts us in touch with the past. That Coke machine for example. I remember those. You'd put your money in and open the door and pull the bottle out of these steel jaws that would loosen. A bit. You had to be real strong.

And there is the ice machine. You still see those. And the neon. Neon signs are real manly art.

Here is the interior.

I'm sorry to have to report that our hero walks up to the bar and orders a girlie drink: rum and coke. Men drink whiskey. Pussies drink rum and coke.

Before moving on, we need to take a closer look over the barmaid's shoulder.

Yeah! Pickled stuff. Yum, yum. The white stuff is probably pickled eggs. Every dive bar in Quebec had those jars. Apparently they did in Florida too. I've never met anyone man enough to actually order and eat those things. Particularly the eggs.

Okay, let's move on.

Like the "lounge"? Well, that's nothing compared to the view across the street.

I've always wanted to go to a motel like that with a beautiful woman, and not to drink rum and cokes. Unfortunately, I waited too long and the bed bug epidemic has pretty much put that fantasy to rest. Oh well, there is still Georges Cinq.

Okay, here is our hero's office. I don't think you could improve on this.

And are those vintage Rosenfield yachting prints I see on the wall?

Why yes, I do believe they are. And a lawyer's bookcase. I wish I had one of those. Wait a minute, I do have one. But, best of all, he has a Rolodex!

To wrap, two images that will probably mean more to me than to most others. One of the characters isn't supposed to know much about sailing but turns out to know a lot. Here is the boat they taught themselves on.

Recognize it? Probably not. It's a Windmill Class boat and the Windmill is one of the great old one-design racing classes. They used to have hundreds of these in Florida. I don't know if they did the research or just got lucky, but this is the perfect boat for this shot. (The class is still active.)

And then, there are these two fishing rods.

Oh yeah, the requisite fedora also makes its appearance in that shot. And yes, that is Bill Murray in the worst casting choice since they put Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. But back to the fishing rods. Maybe you missed them? They are over on the right. Those were made in the 1960s. You can tell by the rather garish wraps holding the guides on them. If you're not into vintage fishing tackle, it may not mean much to you.  They jumped right out at me because I own both those rods.

And I put it to you that it is irrefutable proof of manly aesthetics that the movie would feature something I own.

All for now.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Neo noir: Wild Things
Well it is neo noir. We may as well give them that. Otherwise you get into one of those stupid arguments like whether something really is art or really is poetry. But bad? I can't begin to tell you how bad this movie is. But, you know, it's bad in a sorta good-trashy way—if you were up at two AM and you couldn't sleep and your brain was so dead that only non-challenging trash would satisfy, you'd probably watch it wall the way to the end.

There is no narration but we do get the camera flâneur ...

Actually, let me start this another way. It isn't worth the deep analysis. I picked it for the series for two reasons: I'd never seen before (whereas I had seen all the other movies in this series so far) and it is number 4 on the Box Office Mojo list of top-grossing, neo-noir films. That, as we shall see, is a little less impressive than it might initially seem.

Back in 1981, Lawrence Kasdan surprised everyone by making a hit out of a movie called Body Heat. Wild Things made $30 million in 1998 but it cost $20 million to make. Body Heat, which comes in at #7 on the Box Office Mojo list, made $24 million in 1981. In constant dollars, that is about $42 million in 1998 dollars, the year Wild Things was released. And Body Heat was made for a lot less money; it didn't have a single big name star in it. (Although it had four actors who later became big-name stars: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke.)

So the things is, Hollywood, as it often does, has tried to duplicate the Body Heat phenomenon ever since. Look up erotic thrillers and you'll see literally hundreds of mediocre imitations of which Wild Things is probably the best known.

One of the cool bits of trivia about Body Heat—it must be cool 'cause everyone mentions it—is that it was supposed to be set in New Jersey but had to be moved because of a strike. I mention that because if it hadn't been moved, Miami Vice probably would have been New Jersey Vice. Why? Because Hollywood has raided Body Heat for television and movie concepts ever since the movie was made. Let me give you an example:
  1. Body Heat is set in a hot and steamy Florida town.
  2. There is a very rich community right beside a poorer community.
  3. It features a guy who wants to make it to the top but meanwhile is lazy and spends all his time seducing a series of women. 
  4. He gets involved in a murder plot with a woman that involves them taking someone for a lot of money and running away to a hot and exotic land. 
  5. There is a hot steamy scene in which the camera lingers on our hero removing a woman's sexy white panties.
  6. The movie makes repeated homage to Double Indemnity including, among other things, a moment which a detective says that having more people in the plot makes the crime harder to conceal. (The line is derived from one delivered by Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity.)
  7. After the murder there is some double crossing as one of the plotters tries to eliminate everyone who could incriminate him or her and suddenly, no one knows who can they trust anymore.
  8. It ends up with one person in a hot and exotic land with all the money.

Meanwhile, Wild Things features:
I'm not going to type the list twice: everything from 1 to 8 above is also in this movie.

I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I plan to swipe all or most of those elements myself someday. But it ain't enough to just put them all in the movie. There has to be some art about it and there isn't in Wild Things.

After Body Heat, Hollywood got in the habit of taking the elements from movie putting them into jar and shaking them up. Both Palmetto and this movie work like that. In typical Hollywood fashion, though, this one has been made on the theory that if one pill is good for you, the whole bottle will make you immortal. So if Ned Racine has sex with one hot woman whom he plans murder with in Body Heat, Sam Lombardo in Wild Things has sex with three hot partners (two women and one man) with whom he plans the murder. And if Body Heat has two surprise twists, well this movie has ... actually, there are so many I lost count. Far too many in any case. You stop caring long before the end.

Otherwise, they have all the elements right down to the white panties. These are worn by Denise Richards who spends a shocking amount of time in her underwear. And she does topless, which is a mistake because her breasts look real when she is wearing a bra but decidedly fake when she takes it off. She also does a scene in a bathing suit that is see through when it's wet.

That scene is at the high school pool because her character is supposed to be seventeen years old. Yeah, it's that kind of movie. You will be as relieved as I was to know she was actually 27 so that makes it alright.

I mean, it's not like they intentionally evoke Lolita or anything.

Uh oh.

They do evoke Lolita.

Oh well, at least they don't have any shots that really play up the notion of an adult male having sex with schoolgirls because that would be kinda like, what's the word, cheap exploitation of underage sex for gratuitous titillation.

They wouldn't for example, dress the underage girl up in little-girl shoes and socks.

Uh oh.

Oh well, at least they don't put one of the seventeen-year-old girls in a white shirt and pleated skirt that suggests a Catholic school uniform even though she goes to a public school that doesn't have uniforms and then have her have sex with an adult male.

Of course they do; they can't help themselves. (This film pulled this cheap exploitation trick one year before Britney Spears did it in case you are wondering. Maybe this is where her producers got the idea?)

Pedophiles must have loved this flick. If there is a way that this movie could have stooped any further, I can't think of it. It's a shockingly non-erotic experience for all that. It's no more erotic than any random episode of The OC.

The acting is television-show quality throughout. David Caruso's acting is lively and animated compared to what you see in this movie. The camera work and the art direction, however, are brilliant and I'll get to that later today with an "aesthetics of manliness" post.

Manliness lesson
Now, one of the themes I've been hitting on all these movies is that there usually is some insight into modern male sexuality embodied in neo noir. Well, there isn't much to say about this movie but I've come up with something appropriate to the film. (There is no limit to what I will do for you dear readers.)

At one point there was a shot of the two male leads in the shower together. The director cut it because the scene was "gratuitous". He did not feel the same way about several scenes in which the two female leads kiss and make out. Girl on girl action is essential to the plot, boy on boy action is gratuitous. That is our lesson for today.

An aside related to the above: I just found out that search engines that counts certain elements and if you have enough of them on your blog, and rate your blog as a "gay site". Google finds ten pages of likely posts for this site. (UPDATE January 28, 2012, I'm now up to 27 pages.) Who knew? I only know because one of my readers did the research before me and it showed up in my stats file. Someone out there, is trying to figure out if I'm gay.  Thank you; it's an honour just to be nominated.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What troubles me about a lot of the Catholic blogosphere

What with all this excitement, I almost forgot that I meant to come back to the uneasy feeling about a lot of the Catholic blogosphere that pieces such as the Simcha Fisher piece I was commenting on earlier arouse in me. Part of it is akin to something Mollie Ziegler Hemingway saw in Oprah Winfrey: the "practice of pseudo-confessional but ultimately self-justifying defensiveness". There is an awful lot sitting around validating one another's feelings and slapping ourselves on the back for our "vindications" in an imagined vis a vis with a mainstream culture that doesn't even know we exist.

But it's actually even worse than that. I couldn't quite pin down until I was walking by the river a while ago and a nightmare I'd long suppressed came back. I shuddered right to the core of my being as I suddenly remembered the awful name "Erma Bombeck". That's what that Fisher often reads like: one of those awful Bombeck columns from the 1970s. (If you are too young to remember, trust me, you don't want to know.) What we are seeing here is Bombeckification of Catholic culture. Kierkegaard summed up this stage in cultural degradation as follows:
But the present generation, wearied by its chimerical efforts, relapses into complete indolence. Its condition is that of a man who has only fallen asleep towards morning: first of all come great dreams, then a feeling of laziness, and finally a witty or clever excuse for remaining in bed.
And that is the condition so much of the Catholic blogosphere has worked itself into. It isn't pseudo-confession as self justification so much as it is pseudo-confessional as a prelude to a witty excuse to stay in bed.

I was asked ...

... about my views regarding judging whether someone is a solid marriage partner:
You say you don't agree with AoM. Why not? Perhaps you have some insight to offer? Perhaps you have a third way between AoM and Simcha's that you are dying to share? 
Well, I should say that I don't disagree with the Art of Manliness post. And I see, checking on my original post, that I never said I did. I said I didn't think it was perfect (and neither will this be). I think the A of M post says some good stuff, some of which could be expanded on and some of which can be challenged. I can't say that for the Simcha Fisher's column. Anyway, I'll go through the Art of Manliness points (which they, by the way, were very careful to call "guidelines" and not "rules") and add some comments of my own.

1. The relationship goes smoothly from the beginning.
Having been involved with marriage prep courses for a decade, one of the things that always struck me was how often the body language of some couples at the marriage prep sessions told us that they were in trouble before they began. The point that Brett & Kate McKay begin with is rock solid. How you get a long before marriage is a very good guide to how you'll get along in marriage.

One thing we always make a point of saying to couples considering marriage: "Everyone tells you you'll fight, what they don't tell you is that you'll fight about the same damn things over and over again." If it's a sore point now, it will still be a sore point ten years from now.

And let me take a moment here to note that the McKay's do not suggest that perfection or anything like it is required:
 I’m not saying that men in such volatile relationships should not get hitched. But the volatility will inevitably continue into the marriage. Whether that volatility is acceptable is up to each individual man and their sense of the strength of that relationship.
That is a very good point and worth heeding. Things are not going to change because you get married.

An aside: One really distressing pattern we see in the Catholic church is the couple who have been living together and have a huge blow out, possibly even breaking up, and then make up and, carried along by the heady feeling that comes with making up, decide to get married. And some fellow Catholics, overjoyed that this couple who have been living in sin are finally going to "do the right thing", support and encourage them. Please, please, please don't do this and don't encourage anyone else to either.

Yes, living in sin is living in sin but you can repent and confess your sins. The vow you make before God and God's priest you cannot take back. 

2. She gets along well with your family and friends.
After carefully qualifying what they are saying here, the McKay's make an absolutely essential point:
Think about it-your family raised you and made you who you are, and you picked your friends based on your common interests and values. If she doesn’t like them and they don’t like her, then it may mean you are not seeing something important about your girlfriend that they see. ... If you are sure of your relationship, be confident in moving forward with it. But it is wise to seek honest feedback from others.
Absolutely. And I'd add this: you are a lot more like your parents than you realize. If your girlfriend can't get along with them, that is a powerful hint that she may not really understand you. It need not, as the MacKays say, be fatal, but it should give you pause. Sit down and think carefully about the context that your relationship has taken place in. If your relationship until now has existed largely in isolation from your family and friends, that is not a good sign.

I'd also add here a point I've made before: you also want to note her attitudes towards men in general. You do not want to marry the woman who says, "Most men are jerks but you're different". If she is always saying negative things about men, or if she spews bile when discussing her ex-boyfriends, she probably isn't capable of having a satisfactory relationship with a man and you are one. (And yes, the same principle applies the other way in judging a man's fitness for marriage.)

3. There is nothing major you want to change about her.
... if there is something truly significant about your girlfriend that you wish she would change, then that is a red flag. In the initial stages of a relationship, when your brain is bathed with love chemicals, you may be willing to overlook the flaw or even find it strangely endearing. But after several years, when the love chemicals have ebbed, this flaw may begin to grate on your soul. Remember, people seldom change, and marriage won’t make her change either. If there’s something about your girlfriend that you know deep down you can’t live with, than it’s time to move on. You’re wasting both of your times. 
I can't improve on that.

4. She’s your best friend.
This is where I most strongly disagree. Of course you will be best friends but friendship is too easy to lie to yourself about. If we honestly consider our various friendships over the years, most of us will have to admit that some of our "best friends" have been real duds.

What you are looking for is a partner. A better question is, could I run a business with this person?

A friend of mine once told me about a custom she saw in a town in Germany where she was posted. The night before the wedding there was a big party and all the guests brought some dishware they had around the house. As they left the party, each guest smashed their contributions around the house. As Barb explained, it wasn't just a gesture. People had brought boxes full of things to smash. There was broken crockery several inches deep in some rooms. After all the guests, had left, the couple had to clean the entire house together before they were allowed to get married.

Now, I'm not recommending actually doing anything like that. But the principle is a good one: what you need is a good partner and the way the two of you work together to handle various challenges and crises is a better marker for how good a partner you both are for one another than being best friends is.

5. The thought of marrying her doesn’t scare you in the least. 
I'd specify a bit: the thought of marrying her shouldn't scare you. Having some doubts about yourself is normal and healthy. The morning of my wedding, I walked from back and forth across the front of the church over and over again and every time I went by Saint Anne, I prayed for help.

But the MacKays' main point was to say that you should not have any doubts about the person you are marrying. As they say, if you have some nagging doubt, look into it.

One of my greatest regrets is that I didn't push a friend of mine to examine his doubts more closely. I was the best man at his wedding and the priest put the two of us into a room just outside the sanctuary about a half hour before the event. As the priest was leaving, he jokingly said to me, "You're supposed to try and talk him out of it." After the door closed, my friend said, also in a joking tone, "Go ahead". As he said it, I could hear something in his voice. But I thought, "It's the morning of the wedding, you can't push him." I won't go into the details but I should have pushed him on it.

An additional point of my own:
MacKay quotes his father-in-law:
At my wedding my father-in-law said, “Marriage is not about finding a person you can live with, it’s about finding the person you can’t live without.”
I can't fault a man for crediting his father in law with wisdom, but that is nonsense. There are probably lots of people in this world that you could marry successfully.

I think there is no attitude more likely to be fatal to marriage than thinking that you have to marry this person, that they are the only only for you or that they complete you or any other such romantic stuff. As we like to remind couples at marriage prep, if you do everything right this will end with one of you comforting the other until death. Death is part of the marriage deal. If you really believe you can't live without this person, your vow will be a lie.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Simcha Fisher versus the Art of Manliness

Update: This post continues to draw traffic.  If you are really interested, I think my concerns about the culture of Catholic-Mommy bloggers come out more clearly at this follow-up post.

For the second time, Simcha Fisher has decided to be critical of The Art of Manliness. I noticed because I have both sites in my Blog List. I'm not an unconditional fan of either. But I found the attack helped focus some things have been bothering me about arguments I have been seeing in the Catholic-Mommy blogosphere for a while now.

I don't think either site is perfect but I have to say Fisher's arguments in both these posts just don't come off and I think they don't come off because there is no substance behind them. The first time she commented, back in June, she said something that is just wrongheaded:
I’m not very familiar with this website, The Art of Manliness; but I’ve always felt that one of the last manly things a man can do is to talk about manliness. Either you is a man, or you ain’t. I don’t really think it’s the kind of thing you can learn.
To the contrary, being a man, or being a woman for that matter, is something you have to learn. Being either is, to steal MacIntyre's example, is like being a sea captain: the fact that you are one requires you to aim for a certain level of competence at it. If you got on board a ship and the captain said, "Yeah I got my papers; what more do you want?" your quite reasonable response would be to say, "Listen I'll take the next boat".

The same is true of manliness and womanliness. If someone thinks that all it takes is the requisite chromosomes, we should be suspicious of anything a person with that attitude has to say about virtue.

The suspicions that first post raised in me were confirmed by Fisher's column today which takes issue with a three-year-old Art of Manliness piece about making sure about the woman you are thinking of marrying. Again, I don't think the original A of M post was perfect but I think Fisher's response is just wheel spinning.

The title tells us a lot, "Marriage isn't for perfect people". That must have them scratching their heads over at A of M because they never said it was. More to the point, there is something a little ridiculous in someone reading the piece and thinking it requires perfection. Every thing he says is carefully qualified.

Quite frankly, Fisher's piece makes me think of those passive aggressive tricks that teenagers pull when they know they are in the wrong but have no intention of changing. Some adult makes a perfectly reasonable suggestion and the 17 year old responds with, "You expect me to be perfect" and stomps their little foot and pouts.

She could and should do better.

UPDATE: I've given a fuller account of my views on picking a marriage partner here.

Note about the comments. We had a troll come in on this post and I subsequently removed all of his comments and some of my responses. That is why the comments thread below makes no sense.