Monday, September 30, 2013

What does the success of Breaking Bad tell us about the current state of marriage?

I know this is the kind of crass thing only I would link to a major moral point but go back to the pilot of Breaking Bad and watch the birthday handjob scene. Remember that Walter has done nothing particularly bad at this point. They are just husband and wife and he feels trapped by his job, his financial worries, his having to eat veggie bacon, his smart ass son and feeling old. So what does his wife do for him? She gives him a handjob with one hand while playing a video game with the other.  She won't even look at him and spends part of the time making plans for the weekend and part of it telling him this is "for you".

She only has two minutes left on her video game. She could have finished and then done more for him but she doesn't because she is a selfish jerk. And that is important to remember: she was a selfish jerk from the start.

Do I hear you say, "At least she didn't start making and selling crystal meth." That's okay because neither did Walter White. Yes, I know he does in the series but if you think that's a credible character development you're stupid. Mr. Chips doesn't become Scarface in real life. It just doesn't happen. The whole series is a lie.

Now that's okay for some kinds of shows. The A Team wasn't even remotely credible either. But that sort of lie shuts off any reasonable presentation of serious moral issues in a TV show. In Breaking Bad one of these is what an absolute horror it is to be dating or, worse, married to a woman like Skyler White.
Walter: Alright, I've got the Talking Pillow now. Okay? We all, in this room, love each other. We want what's best for each other and I know that. I am very thankful for that. But...what I want...what I want, what I need, is a choice.
Skyler: What does that...mean?
Walter: Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life it just seems I know, had a real say about any of it. Now this last one, cancer...all I have left is how I choose to approach this.
Skyler: Then make the right choice, Walt. You're not the only one it affects. What about your son? Don't you wanna see your daughter grow up? I just...
Walter: Of course I do. Skyler, you've read the statistics. These doctors...talking about surviving. One year, two years, like it's the only thing that matters. But what good is it, to just survive if I am too sick to work, to enjoy a meal, to make love? 
Again, take away the highly artificial background and imagine something remotely plausible like an ordinary science teacher with no huge achievements followed by unexplained failures in his past who isn't cooking crystal meth. Why is this poor bastard being obliged to play games like a kindergartener who has to wait for the talking pillow before he can express his view? Notice that when Walter says he wants to have some choice over his own body, his wife's response is to tell him that there is only one choice. If you saw this scene take place within some non-exotic family dialogue, the only reasonable response would be to think, "you poor pussy-whiped bastard."

Related to that, we might notice that the only time these new-golden-age television shows are worth watching are when the men do get to act and make choices. And others have noticed this too:
First, I’ll confess that I do watch the show and I don’t like her character (well until the last episode, now I hate Jesse), but it’s not because she wouldn’t stand by Walt’s side anymore or be a “good wife and be quiet,” it’s because she gets in the way of Walt’s character arc.

If she had stuck to her guns and not accepted money and took the kids after she found out about Walt’s new job, then she could have something to stand on, but she didn’t. She lost a lot of credibility when she didn’t leave. And the writers most likely wanted it this way.

Walt wasn’t going to hurt her and she knows he wouldn’t hurt the kids, so that’s the writer’s fault, not ours. She has little reason to complain anymore, because she’s accepted to live that life. Even though it’s been forced upon her, we all have the choice to leave a situation, no matter how crazy it may be. This is how the show’s writers wish her to be perceived.

I believe the biggest reason fans dislike her character is because she slows down the arc of Walt’s character. We want him out cooking meth with Jesse in some crazy situation; making deals, killing people – it’s terrible but it’s what has made the show so thrilling to watch.
(Exactly the same point could be made about Don and Betty/Megan Draper. It's only when Don swings into action that the show is worth watching.)

But while it is true that within the batshit-crazy logic of Breaking Bad that this life has been forced on Skyler White, the situation that Walter White finds forced on him at the outset is only a slightly exaggerated version of what a lot of men do live with the added complication that he will get no moral support if he leaves.

Do I think somet of the Skyler White and Betty Draper hatred is over the top? Yes I do but you but I suspect an awful lot of it is men who have had quite enough of living in a you-can-make-any-choice-you-want-so-long-as-it-is-the-right-one world are coming to a slow boil .

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Nostalgia and The Wonder years cont'd

Does anything about this paragraph from Slate's reconisderation of The Wonder Years strike you as odd?
For a head trip, consider that Kevin Arnold and Sally Draper are exactly the same age: While Kevin is sheltered in a safe suburban bubble with his nuclear family, not kissing Winnie even when they are parked at Make Out Point, Sally has been exposed to a creepy adult world full of home intruders, adulterous fathers with their pants off, avuncular family friends receiving blow jobs. Sally’s already practiced at contending with drunk, gropey boarding-school boys. It’s hard to imagine Kevin as one of those boys.
The words that should get your bullshit detector flashing are "sheltered" and "bubble".

Factually, it's credible. Kevin did live in a safe suburban neighbourhood and Sally has been exposed to a lot of creepy stuff. So much so that the parents of the girl who plays Sally won't let her watch the show. And I have no trouble at all believing that a child of divorced and dysfunctional parents like Sally Draper would have an unenviable childhood. (Families are never dysfunctional but the people in them sure can be.)

But why take it for granted that Kevin is sheltered in a bubble while Sally is exposed to the real 1960s?

What is at work here might be called the modernist fallacy. Modernists insist that we live in a world that is fragmented, disenchanted and frightening. They keep insisting this even though most of us in the west know no such world. The only way to avoid this indisputable evidence against their favourite fantasy is to insist—over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again—that the comfortable and comforting lives that most of us have lived is a sheltered fantasy only possible in a suburban bubble.
... The Wonder Years insists that the suburbs were a shelter, a place where the intensities of the ’60s barely registered, where the death of a beloved math teacher mattered more than the assassination of world leaders, where free love didn’t make Kevin and Winnie any less nervous about kissing.
That's projection. The show doesn't insist that the suburbs were a shelter. It only insists, because it's true, that the suburbs were actually good places to grow up no matter what intellectuals might insist to the contrary that these things either never happened or they were only possible because the people who lived them were members  of a privileged elite.

Interesting, in that regard, that wealthy Sally Draper is credible as a girl exposed to creepy and scary stuff while Kevin Arnold growing up in a very ordinary middle class setting is equally credible as not being exposed to all that stuff. Isn't shelter from scary stuff usually the sort of thing that comes from wealth and power, which Sally's parents have in abundance?

Nostalgia isn't the escape it's often painted as being. It's an act of rebellion against an intellectual elite who want to rob you of your history and culture.

Monday, September 23, 2013

What is Pope Francis up to?

(The post I promised on The Wonder Years and the meaning of nostalgia will be up tomorrow.)

I don't know. I should admit that upfront. I'm just going to ramble on here.

Here are some things I am pretty sure Pope Francis is NOT
  • He isn't humble. He is making a show of humility and that is a very different thing from actually being humble.
  • He isn't a throwback to Leo XIII or any of the social policy popes.
 Here is what I think he is:
  • I think he is a hard man, as tough as steel.
There is some good stuff in his interview. The best part was when he talked about the church as a field hospital. At first it was kind of ominous because it seemed to smack of the worst of the Catholic socialism of the 1960s and 1970s.
You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.
The lefty priests who nearly destroyed the church back in the day used to talk like this but they used it as an excuse to ignore , you know, Jesus. Their next move was usually to say we needed to to forget about all this humans are sinners in need of redemption stuff and deal with poverty and hunger first.

Francis doesn't do that. His next move is to deal with sin.
And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
That could have come straight out of Saint Alphonsus Ligouri. It's also a very high stakes move on Francis's part.

It's primarily a swipe at Humanae Vitae Catholics. He makes a bit of an Obama move here in that he seems to be taking a swipe in the other direction too in mentioning the loose minister but that is just for decoration. The real problem with loose ministers is not that they are too lenient in the confessional. The problem is that they don't encourage anyone to go to the confessional in the first place. Francis has said nothing to them here.

What is a Humanae Vitae Catholic? These are Catholics who define themselves primarily around a series of rules about sexual conduct. Humane Vitae produced two strong responses. One just about everyone knows about and another that only  a few do. Everyone knows about the opposition. Less well known was the reaction of millions of Catholics for whom the encyclical became their anchor in the storm. In the 1960s when the church was changing seemingly every week and in the 1970s when it became obvious that those changes had not revitalized the church and had probably made things worse, they sought something solid to cling to and church teaching about birth control became that thing.

You hear a lot about abortion but that is the outward cover. The real issue  for Humane Vitae traditionalists is contraception and, because it is firmly tied to it, the moral purpose of sex. It's one of the odd things about this kind of Catholic thinking that it respects the dignity of all human beings but simply takes for granted that lots of people who have made no vow of celibacy will be celibate.

It's important to state this because it so rarely is stated. The church teaches that gay men, widows, divorced persons, single persons are all to refrain from sex and masturbation. The woman or man whose spouse leaves them , for example, is promised love and compassion from the church but it is taken for granted, at the same time, that they will be expected live the rest of their lives without sex.

Now, the church has been around a long, long time and it would not have been if it had pushed a doctrine so obviously at odds with human nature. Historically, the problem was dealt with through a mixture of cynicism and idealism. The church was cynical about men and idealistic about women. Every Catholic town had its brothel and everyone knew this. At the same time, people went to great lengths to imagine women were something "pure" that women are not. An willfully blind eye was turned towards girls and women. And here the church had a massive cultural impact that is with us 'til this day.

Now some will rush in and point out that Francis was very careful to reaffirm church teaching on sexuality. They will insist that he has not and will not change the rules. And they are absolutely right about this. But he hasn't changed the rules because he couldn't.

But there is more than one way to skin a cat. The town I grew up in had a law against spitting on the sidewalks. Nobody had been arrested for spitting on the sidewalks for decades. More importantly, virtually nobody knew that the law even existed anymore.

That's the strategy I think Francis is pushing. Everyone noticed how he came back the day after the interview was published to reaffirm teaching on abortion. What they didn't notice was how little he has to say about contraception or sex outside marriage. Except the bishops. You can be sure they noticed and they know what is expected of them now.

He's done two things to reinforce this. One, as I've already noted, is that he's told everyone in the church hierarchy that they don't have to talk about sexual teachings anymore. The traddies have made it almost a litmus test for bishops that they jump up and salute every time these issues are run up the flagpole. Francis has given them new cover to avoid these issues.

The second thing, though, is something that has not been widely noted and it is much more significant. I am referring to his comments on the Roman curia:
They are instruments of help. In some cases, however, when they are not functioning well, they run the risk of becoming institutions of censorship. It is amazing to see the denunciations for lack of orthodoxy that come to Rome. I think the cases should be investigated by the local bishops’ conferences, which can get valuable assistance from Rome. 
That sounds reasonable only to someone who isn't aware of what local bishop's conferences are really like. This is a little like the mother who assures her teenaged daughter that she doesn't want to be repressive. "I'll be here for you if you need advice and guidance dear but I trust you to make your own decisions about sex." Anyone even vaguely familiar with the track record of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, to pick one non-random example, knows exactly how this will play out. They will return to their old games of, for example, teaching the exceptions to the rules while forgetting to mention there actually are rules in the first place knowing that the Pope has just taken away the faithful's sole recourse against their excesses.

Within two decades at the very outside, that will have the effect of reducing Humane Vitae to the same level as my home town's anti-spitting laws. To be brutally honest, I can live with that. At the same time, I fear Pope Francis may be disastrous for the liturgy.

 Again, that is in line with what Francis has said elsewhere. The current pope has made it painfully clear that he doesn't thing the liturgy is the way to reach out people in need. He thinks other channels are more fruitful. He's wrong about that. As I said at the top, he isn't humble. There has been some discussion in the Catholic blogosphere about whether the media is playing the pope or he is playing the media. My fear is that he is actually playing himself.

Friday, September 20, 2013


One of my favourite themes and it comes up in a post by Slate's television critic about The Wonder Years.
... it was always explicitly about nostalgia: a reminiscence of the honeyed, home-movie days of midcentury American adolescence that wanted its audience to miss the past from the very start. And unlike those series, The Wonder Years is hovering influentially over this fall’s new comedies, a batch of family sitcoms riffing on taciturn dads like Jack Arnold and the fantasy that life used to be simpler.
If you read it, you'll notice it's a weird piece in that it doesn't quite identify the problem it wants to talk about.

 I mean, you can guess the problem. It is anger at people who like shows like The Wonder Years for wanting to return to a past that either "can never be regained" or, more harshly, "never existed in the first place". It's a common strategy for reformers. Pope Francis was pushing it the other day.
The defining aspect of this change of epoch is that things are no longer in their place. Our previous ways of explaining the world and relationships, good and bad, no longer appears to work. The way in which we locate ourselves in history has changed. Things we thought would never happen, or that we never thought we would see, we are experiencing now, and we dare not even imagine the future. That which appeared normal to us – family, the Church, society and the world – will probably no longer seem that way. We cannot simply wait for what we are experiencing to pass, under the illusion that things will return to being how they were before. (Father Z's added emphasis retained.)
He doesn't want you to think that he is changing the church. He wants you to think that the world is changing so we have no choice but to change. (And ducking personal responsibility is a big part of this argument: "Don't hold me responsible for this.")

The argument that things have changed so we have to live differently is a powerful one and that is, no doubt, part of why people keep using it.

Two questions though:
  1. Isn't this trivial? Or, to put it another way, isn't change constant such that change is a thing that never changes, a thing that every generation in history has dealt with?
  2. Does everything change? Or are there aspects of life (really important, even basic aspects of life succh as human nature, for example) that don't change?
And I'll leave it there for now. More in Monday.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Skin-tight and see-through

A woman who went into the bank ahead of me today was wearing skin-tight leggings with see-through panels. I mention this because the combination had an odd effect. You might think that this would be forcefully erotic, if perhaps trashy, but it was not. The two effects produced so much noise that eroticism wasn't possible.

I wonder if this isn't the real point behind the old fashion advice that a woman should highlight her breasts or her legs but never both at the same time?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Responding to the same article by Joyce Maynard that I quoted yesterday, a writer at Legal Insurrection doubts the claim that, "To many, he was a kind of god."
Really? Many? No doubt some; I know there were (and perhaps still are, even though the elusive Salinger himself is now gone and not just secluded) people who felt that way, who revered him in a manner that seemed both excessive and unhealthy, and who considered his self-imposed exile a tease and an invitation to pry into it. But “the human embodiment of purity”—rather than just a really famous guy who wrote a really famous book and who, like Garbo, wanted to be left alone? Surely these worshiping fans were a fringe group of near-lunatics?
Well, actually, I suspect there are very many of them. Catcher sells some 250,000 copies a year.

I remember falling under its spell myself in high school. I found a copy and read it obsessively, dropping all responsibilities, including being social to other human beings, until I finished it.
 As with On the Road, I was enthralled while reading it but really let down by the ending. It doesn't go anywhere. When I'm feeling charitable, I can almost convince myself that Salinger did this on purpose and that the reader is supposed to figure out that Holden Caulfield is the biggest phony in the book.

To not see that, you have to think the way Adam Gopnik does:
The ironies could not have eluded the author, since the one thing that a loner like Holden doesn’t want to be is the voice of a generation—his contemporaries being the very thing he has most contempt for.
Logically, that makes sense. But just as it would be crazy to actually argue solipsism even if you could do so logically, there is something crazy about writing a book like Catcher. Does the solipsist want to reach out to other solipsists? Unless Salinger's point is to show us what is wrong with Caulfield, he can't honestly claim to be dismayed that a lot of readers identify with Caulfield. And if Salinger himself seems as obsessed as his hero is with some sort of personal quest for purity, which he often expresses using religious language, it isn't surprising that a lot of people (many, in fact) came to see Salinger himself as a sort of guru.

The solution to this conundrum, as Mary McCarthy long ago noticed, is that Salinger was a narcissist. The key to understanding what is really happening in his fiction is to grasp that Salinger was morally unaware of other people except as bit players in his story. (You have to pity the poor guy who gets stuck on a date with Franny.) Other people could only be part of Salinger's life until they went too far; meaning they could hang around until their independent identity risked injuring Salinger's sense of who and what he was.

How did Salinger treat obsessive fans who sought him out? Here's Gopnik:
For what it’s worth, the movie suggests that Salinger responded to most of the stalkers with surprising generosity, trying to explain to them that he was a fiction writer, not a guru. It didn’t help him, either. 
We shouldn't deny Gopnik the several thousand grains of salt that he might be hiding in that "for what it's worth". (We might also wonder how one-way this seeking out was as there seems to be considerable evidence that Salinger went looking for these obsessive fans when he got lonely.) For my immediate purposes, however, I can't help but wonder how he treated those obsessive fans who were also teenage girls with hot bodies and the sort of adoring stare that just might lead a man to wonder what she would look like naked, on her knees and performing oral sex on him while looking up at him like that? Or, if you prefer not to be so crude, what if all he did was be a little less careful about this kind of girl and let her hang around a bit rather than sending her on her way and, well, things tended to happen? And he did this not just once but over and over again?

That this is morally blameable is beyond any doubt. But is it more than that? Or, to put it another way, what is Joyce Maynard trying to achieve by bad mouthing her ex?

Gopnik reminds that sometimes obsessive fans  will shoot the person they were obsessed about. We might wonder if some similar sort of bizarre contradictions also exist in the minds of girls who idolize older men. When they obsessive male fan pulls out the gun, his victim has, for all intents and purposes, stopped having any existence independent of killers narcissistic fantasies. The teenaged girls Salinger had sex with also had no independent identity as far as he was concerned but what about going the other way? What does it say that a young woman at Yale drops out of school to go live with a man thirty-five years older than her? Did he have any identity outside of her narcissistic fantasies?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Here's a question

Some will argue that you can’t have it both ways: how can a woman say she is fully in charge of her body and her destiny, and then call herself a victim when, having given a man her heart of her own volition, he crushes it? How can a consensual relationship, as Salinger’s unquestionably were, constitute a form of abuse?
That's Joyce Maynard reflecting on the relationship she had with JD Salinger when she was a teenager and he was some thirty-five years older.

It strikes me that she would not have needed to justify herself before feminism.

It also strikes me that she—and, it appears, many others—was a groupie.

There is a great moment in Heart of Darkness  when a badly abused native man tentatively pushes his spear at one of the Europeans who had oppressed him and, to his shock, finds that it goes into the man's body quite easily. I sometimes wonder if impressionable young women don't sometimes attach themselves to older men because it feels safer than bonding with a man their own age. And then, to their shock, they discover that it goes in quite easily.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The state of the coffee culture Pt 2

Do you want to be a coffee connoisseur?


I mean that quite seriously. How and why would your life be better?

Before you answer, you might want to include this in your considerations: Your first step to becoming a coffee connoisseur would almost certainly be to start drinking a lot less than you are now.

The reason for this is something Billy Carmichael mentioned in the comments yesterday: the law of diminishing returns. The best tasting mouthful of coffee you will have today is the first. The second will be a little less satisfying, the third even less so and so on .... Drinking large amounts of coffee will only dull your ability to savor really good coffee.

Nobody would pretend that the man who drinks a half-bottle of whisky every day, always the same brand, is a whisky connoisseur. And yet people who get out of bed and start every single day with a cup of coffee and then go on to drink six more cups before the end of their workday are allowed to call themselves coffee lovers.

If you really want to do it, by the way, you'd start by developing your taste buds. You'd do that by drinking a lot less. A good first step would be to visit various coffee bars and sampling small servings of espresso. You'd sit down quietly and sip carefully and really concentrate on the flavor. The next step would be to set up taste tests where you sampled different kinds of espresso one after another to pick out the subtleties. The key point would be to develop your palate and not to acquire equipment and attitudes.

But all that is, as I say, an aside. The main question is: Why do you want to do this?

Here is a related question: Do you like to think of yourself as a critical thinker? Do you think you are clever enough to see through marketing ploys? I ask this because the people who work hard every day to get you to buy stuff want you to want to be a coffee connoisseur. They want that because they can then get you to buy a bunch of stuff that you associate with being the sort of fine discerning person who really knows about a good cup of coffee.

Of course, it's not just a good cup of coffee that they want you to want. They want you to buy into a whole concept of the good life.

In the Confessions Augustine compares himself at one point to a beggar. He says that the beggar at least got what he wanted; which is to say, the beggar got enough money to buy wine and get drunk. Augustine, on the other hand, spent a whole lot of time chasing shadows. His sin was worse than the man who spent his whole life in pursuit of drunkeness.

I'm a lot cruder than Augustine. Compare the coffee connoisseur to a man who devotes his life to being a seduction artist. Outwardly, they have a lot in common. The man after sex spends money on clothes and cars and affects to know have attained the good life in order that women will find him attractive. The coffee connoisseur does much the same sort of thing. The pay off for the seduction artist is that he gets laid. The pay off for the coffee connoisseur is ... well, what is it exactly.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The state of the coffee culture Pt 1

There was a review of coffee grinders in Wired last April that I have long meant to blog.

First a digression. About fifteen years ago now, I read a lot of articles about water features for gardens in order to prepare to build my own. Several of the articles I found featured a line about how you didn't want the finished product to sound like a running toilet. When I first read that line, I panicked. I pictured the garden atmosphere ruined because the sound was like a running toilet. I thought, "Maybe I shouldn't try this myself."

Which was exactly what the writers had been striving for.

Expert journalism—whether it's the op-ed page of the Washington Post or a review of coffee grinders in Wired—aims to make you feel helpless. This for a simple reason: If you didn't feel helpless, you might realize how little you need experts.

In this case, our writer, Lauren Crabbe, gets to work at making you feel like a loser right off the bat.
A great bag of coffee beans is the final product of a lot of hard work and a series of small miracles. From water quality at the farm, to the method used to process the cherries, to bean storage and shipment, and on to the final roasting, blending and bagging, those coffee beans have traveled a great distance and endured a lot of fondling before landing on your kitchen counter.
And then she slips in the first shot at undermining your confidence.
Now, it's up to you to brew it without messing everything up.
Now stop and ask yourself a  question: How much difference do you think the water quality at the farm really makes? Obviously it makes some difference that the water not be laced with diesel but do fine gradations in water quality make  a difference?

The correct answer is, "No!"The real point of that paragraph is to build up a whole of mystique about coffee. The truth is that coffee is produced in third world countries under conditions that are not only poorly controlled but under conditions which would be impossible to control. In the end, it really doesn't matter because you can produce good coffee under a fairly wide set of conditions. No, you couldn't grow good coffee in Montana but once you get into the right general territory, you can do it. The proof of this being that very good coffee is produced by unskilled labourers using crude equipment all over the world.

Now that she has you on the ropes, Crabbe goes in for the kill:
The biggest mistake home brewers make is in the grind. Most consumers are happy to buy pre-ground or (gasp) instant coffee, but if you're serious about your daily cup, you need to grind your own.

When coffee is ground, the surface area increases drastically, exposing the oils and dissolvable particles. The results -- and the taste -- will vary based on which method your grinder uses to pulverize the beans. There are the super-consistent conical burr grinders that have been around since the mortar and pestle went out of style. There are flat burr grinders which have a nasty habit of heating the coffee as they grind it. And there's the lowly blade grinders that will chop your coffee into a mix of huge chunks and super-fine powder. Seriously, if you're using a blade grinder, you'd be better off junking it and reverting to the aforementioned mortar and pestle.
There is some truth to this. Grinding coffee really does drastically increases the surface area exposing more of the oils and dissolvable particles  (grinding anything at all does). It's a good idea not to grind your coffee until just before you make it because the increased surface area is exposed to the air and leaving it like that will cause it to degrade in ways that will affect the flavour.

There is also a huge untruth here (but not necessarily a lie as Crabbe may actually believe what she is writing). That untruth is the claim that the coffee all needs to be ground to the same size.
The best grinder is the one that gives you the best particle consistency. 
That's roughly true. You want larger grounds for a French press than you do for espresso. But you don't need to be able to make gradations finer than you can see with your eyes and you definitely don't need to be any more consistent about the ground size than a quick visual appraisal will allow you to determine. (And if anyone tells you that you do need more, challenge them to a blind taste test.)

On the other hand, if you can be convinced you do, you can be convinced to spend a couple of hundred bucks on a machine that will use up a huge amount of counter space.

By the way, there is a fascinating reversal of attitude that happens as soon as Crabbe has you sufficiently paranoid.
But let's face it, grinding coffee should be as easy as drinking it. You're operating this machine before you've had your morning caffeine fix, so a good grinder needs to be quick, quiet, and easy to operate.
What you are being sold here is a sense of being elite with the minimum effort possible. Crabbe assumes that you don't have the time or inclination to really learn about coffee (and if you go to Wired for your expertise, she's probably right).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

For your consideration

There is a great post up by the always worth reading Phillip Jenkins. Here is a bit ofa teaser:
... for most Protestants (and some Catholics), the ideas I am describing – the whole Marian lore – is so bizarre, so outré, so sentimental, and so blatantly superstitious that it just does not belong within the proper study of Christianity. If anything, it’s actively anti-Christian. Even scholars prepared to wrestle with the intricacies of Gnostic cosmic mythology throw up their hands at what they consider a farrago of medieval nonsense.

As I’ll argue in a forthcoming post, that response is profoundly mistaken. If we don’t understand devotion to Mary, together with such specifics as the Assumption, we are missing a very large portion of the Christian experience throughout history. It’s not “just medieval,” any more than it is a trivial or superstitious accretion.
This Catholic cheerfully admit to  having trouble with some Marian doctrines, and even more so with some of the interpretations of these doctrines I have heard from Rosary-wielding Catholics I have met. I look forward to reading what Mr. Jenkins has to say on the subject.

BTW: One thing I have always wondered about is the issue of Mary's death. Here again, is Jenkins,
This literature had an enormous impact in giving pseudo-scriptural foundation to the very widely held church doctrine of Mary’s Assumption or Dormition. Assumption is the Western and Catholic term, suggesting that she was taken to heaven prior to death; the Orthodox accept Dormition, namely that after her bodily death, her body was raised as the first sign of the general Resurrection.
"Assumption" suggests she was taken prior to death? I've had this suggested to me by starry-eyed Marians who, like Jenkins, take it to be the Catholic church's view that she was taken to heaven without dying. I think he's just wrong about that. What church authorities I have heard talking on the subject have tended to fudge the issue by saying that we don't know and that assumption doesn't necessarily imply that she didn't die. On the other hand, they are very, very, very careful not to offend the many devout Catholics who believe she did not die.

So which is it?

This is Caravaggio's famous paining of the death of the Virgin. There is a significant dog that didn't bark hiding here.

When it was finished in 1606, this painting was harshly condemned by authorities. They objected to the undignified way Mary is presented, that you can see her bare feet, that her stomach is bloated .... No one, however, objected to the fact that she is presented as dead. They didn't for the simple reason that they couldn't; her death had been represented in art many times before.

There are, of course, many hard-core Marians who would like to have the church adopt the position that she did not die. Happily, John Paul II was not among them.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Widmerpools and the fall of Anthony Powell

I'm on the 11th of the twelve books in The Dance to the Music of Time. I picked it up as soon as I finished Proust.

Powell was a lot better than he gets credit for. That said, something goes wrong in the final season of the novel. (Dance is a novel made up of twelve volumes which are further organized into four seasons of three books each.) It's brilliant up until the end of book 9, The Military Philosophers. Book 10, Books Do Furnish a Room, falls off the standard Powell had maintained to that point but not so much that you don't hope Powell can pull it back together. Book 11, Temporary Kings, proves that hope groundless but remains a pleasant read even if not up to Powell's earlier standards. And then, disaster; Book 12, Hearing Secret Harmonies, is just awful.

An acquaintance of mine who has taught courses on, published articles and supervised theses written about Powell and Dance is of the opinion that Powell "went crazy" just before writing the final volume. Part of his anger is simply disappointment and part of it no doubt stems from having invested some of his academic career in what seemed a promising work only to have it not pay off.

It could be argued that it doesn't matter that much that the series lets down towards the end. As with Proust, you don't have to read the whole work to get a lot of good reading. You can stop after Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (my favourite) or The Military Philosophers and have a pretty satisfactory experience. Powell had also done very valuable work in influencing Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin and English anti-modernism generally, which alone is enough for us to remain forever grateful to him.

I suspect Powell's reputation would stand far higher today of he had managed, like Proust, to die before finishing. If he had left nothing but a sketch of the final two or three books, thereby inadvertently creating conceptual art, we would no doubt convince ourselves that a satisfying conclusion was possible (something that I think does happen with Proust) much the way we can look at a faded picture or listen to a beat up Edison cylinder and imagine how good it would be if only we had "the real thing".

So what goes wrong? There are a number of things.

1. The Lemon Girl has long been of the opinion that Pamela Widmerpool is one of the big problems with the later novels. I think that is right. She is a very real character. So real that all Powell's contemporaries had no trouble identifying Barbara Skelton as the model for Pamela Widmerpool. Ms. Skelton herself saw the similarity and took it with far more good humour than anyone familiar only with the character based on her would guess. The point of all that seeming digression being that, whatever is wrong with Pamela Widmerpool it isn't that she isn't a convincing character.

What I think is wrong with her is that Barbara/Pamela, however intriguing she might have been in real life, wasn't a good model for a character in a novel. And I think I know why because I was once in a long relationship with a fantastically promiscuous, careless and often cruel woman not unlike Pamela Widmerpool. Several times I've thought of using her in fiction—on the grounds that after all the suffering the bitch put me through, I should be able to make a little art and maybe money out of her with an easy conscience. I've always ended up giving up and this because a character like hers can't really go anywhere. She just is what she is and that is the end of the story. Any redemption would require her to betray her very being and to have her face some sort of downfall would be devoid of feeling because no one could feel much fear or pity at the fate of such a woman.

2. Which brings to Kenneth Widmerpool, whom Pamela marries. Widmerpool is unquestionably the greatest strength of the novel. Take him out of it and it would be a vastly diminished; so much so as to be not worth reading. That is quite a trick in that he is never a likeable character. But Widmerpool loses his "charm" towards the end.

I put the word in scare quotes because Widmerpool is not easy to like. From the beginning, one of the defining characteristics of Widmerpool is precisely that he isn't liked. And I think most people know someone like him at school—a boy or girl who is disliked for not-very-good reasons and yet somehow seems to be shaped by this unwarranted dislike into becoming genuinely difficult to like. (In Widmerpool's case, he came to school with the "wrong" type of overcoat.) And it is a lingering sense that maybe he might redeem himself that comes from this makes Widmerpool so intriguing. Right up until the war's end, you hope that he might change. After that there is no hope.

At which point, Powell saddles him with Barbara Skelton/Pamela.

3.  A related problem with the final volume is that it ends in 1971. Why is that a problem? Because it was written in 1975. Compare that with the opening volume, published in 1951 and concerned with an era some thirty years previous and you'll begin to see the problem. Powell simply didn't have enough distance and time to adequately assess the 1960s before writing about it.

He, like some lame NPR documentary on the 1960s, gets bogged down with a lot of stuff that seemed important at the time but proved to be much less so in the long run. In retrospect, the perspective we see in Mad Men—mostly focused on the world of business and family rather than rock and roll, drugs and the counterculture—gives a much better account of what the 1960s were really about than Powell's to-much-caught-up-with-the-fads-of-the-era account.

4. That feeds into the final, and I think most important, problem with the series. Powell simply never had an adequate philosophical framework to build the novel around. This seems quite forgivable to me: after all who could? Proust didn't either and anyone who really believes that time is in any sense regained is just shallow. The notion, entertained by both Powell and Proust, that a novelist has something useful to say about life in general as opposed to one particular era they happened to experience is about as perfect an example of hubris as you will ever find. Widmerpool's end is unsatisfying because too much depends on it.

What could he have done? The Dance, like British literature generally, struggles as soon as it begins to deal with events after the close of the second world war. British writers had grown up in a powerful and influential nation that dominated the English speaking world culturally, especially in high culture. This was suddenly all over. The election of the Labour Crapweasels after the war was an act of desecration of a once great culture comparable to what would have happened to Mother Theresa's legacy had her successors offered one of her hospices for use a season of Jersey Shore.

Writers who lived through this transition tended either to become bitter (Graham Greene, John le Carré,  Harold Pinter) or a comic to the point of being a little surreal (Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Tom Stoppard). Powell attempts to be cool and objective and does a better job than anyone else I can think of in doing so but bits off a big chunk in doing so. The problem isn't that he wasn't capable of it but that he should have focused much more time and effort on it. That falling of a great nation should have been the central theme. I think he might have done a much better job of it had he focused the final three novels on the period from 1945-1963 and wrapped the story up around something tragicomic like the Profumo Affair instead of trying to say something about the 1960s too.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A little light culture: Twerking the blurred lines

I suspect that from goldfish swallowing in the 1930s to planking in the 2000s, most fads tend to happen more in media coverage than they do in real life. And, as I've said before, ask a young person about any outrageous new behaviour you can make up and he or she will insist that they personally don't do it but they know lots of others that do.

Given that, I was a little surprised to be at a wedding a few days ago and see young women actually twerking. Apparently this one's real. To twerk, you plant your feet a little wider than shoulder width, squat and wiggle around in a sexually suggestive manner. You can really only do it if you're a woman and a relatively fit woman at that.

It's a lot easier to understand the phenomenon when you see it in person. It's much sexier in real life than it is in video. This is largely because it's done in a more restrained manner. It's really just a  dance move that a girl can slip into for a few moments. In real life it's not done by the sort of pathetic exhibitionists who put You Tube videos and that makes it much sexier.

That's generally true, by the way. Overt sluttiness may work on television but it doesn't in real life.

Anyway, to get back to the point, it makes a whole lot of sense and is much less shocking than you might be led to believe by media reports when you see it for real.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Oh! ....

I'm in town for the day and Ms. Althouse issued a challenge:
What songs do you have in your iTunes that begin with "Oh"? Don't add or subtract anything.
Her list is here.

Now for mine:
  1. Oh Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely) by Guy Lombardo (featuring Bing Crosby) 
  2. Oh I Baby by Bud Freeman
  3. Oh Peter! (You're So Nice) Billy Banks/Jack Bland
  4. Oh Susanna by Wendell Hall
  5. Oh You Crazy Moon by Mel Tormé
  6. Oh, Lady Be Good by Count Basie and his orchestra
  7. Oh, Lady Be Good by The Gordons, Dizzy Gillespie & Stuff Smith
  8. Oh, Lady Be Good by the New York Philharmonic & Zubin Mehta
  9. Oh, Lady Be Good! by Fred Astaire
  10. Oh, Look At Me Now! by Lee Wiley 
  11. Oh, Miss Hannah by The Paul Whiteman Orchestra (featuring Bix Beiderbecke & Bing Crosby)
  12. Oh, You Crazy Moon by Billy Eckstine & Russ Case Orchestra
  13. Oh! Don't The Winds Blow Cold by George Formby
  14. Oh! Red by Count Basie and his orchestra
  15. Oh! Susanna by James Hill & Anne Davison 
  16.  Oh! What It Seemed To Be by Jackie Gleason (featuring Bobby Hackett)
  17. Oh! You Sweet Thing by Billy Banks/Jack Bland
Ms. Althouse was born at the beginning of 1950s and I was born at the end. I find it interesting that only two of my Oh-songs were recorded after I was born, and both are new versions of older songs. Ms. Althouse's list features only one song recorded before she was born.  And that is significant why? I don't know, I just found it striking.

If pushed, I'd say it might suggest something about the difference in tendencies of those born towards the beginning and those born towards the end of the baby boom. I might expand on that someday.

I'm driving back out of internet and cell phone range tomorrow.