Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Month That Was - March 2010

The Month That Was - March 2010: Slow death by paper. I have been swamped this month doing my taxes (fairly straightforward), my incapacitated father's taxes (wearyingly complicated), and refinancing my condo (tiresome and trying). Taxes are, of course, inscrutable. They don't bother me because I don't cheat, I have a certain stoicism towards paperwork, and I accept that the correctness of a return or the possibility of getting audited cannot be known -- it is not a deterministic matter. If I get one of those notices about a problem, it's not scary; it only means I have some level of annoyance in my future to get things sorted out.

Refinancing is an astounding exercise in lowest-common-denominator bureaucracy. I think I signed two separate documents explaining that the mortgage company had to inform me if they were doing anything illegal and three informing me of my civil right not to be discriminated against on whatever basis. I'm surprised they didn't make me wear a bike helmet. This is why I pay taxes, so there will be laws forcing mortgage lenders to treat me like an infant. Ho-hum: life in the twenty-first century.

As a result I made little progress on Misspent Youth. That must change immediately. I am at the moment involved coming up with a long-ish description of the book. Part of the prep work for publishing is coming up with various length descriptions for assorted purposes. At a minimum you need a back cover blurb, a short description - say, 20-25 words -- when space only allows for a line or two, and a longer description - say 150 to 200 words for when you have more space. For non-fiction you probably want a multi-page abstract for some sort. I have also found suitable graphics to demonstrate the feel I want for the cover design, which makes it much easier to describe to a graphic artist. Anyway, all this has come in fits and starts this month because of the paperwork pox.

Posts are a little thin this month. Sorry 'bout that. I did manage to get a trip in this month, just barely. I met up with the crew down in San Juan for Miss Anna's 18th birthday, Puerto Rico being a place she would be able to drink legally at that age. The trip spilled into the first days of April (which is I am so late in posting this month) so the report will have to wait until next month.

One last thing: At the moment you can only see about the last 20 posts on this page, whereas you used to be able to see 200. This is a new pain-in-the-ass blogger policy about how much content can be on the front page in an effort to save bandwidth. It is especially annoying to me since I go to great effort to post only text -- no pictures on the front page so that it will load fast. That's what I get for trying to be a good citizen. I'll get archive links up when I get a couple fo hours to re-aquaint myself with the system. Sheesh.

[Movies] All kinds of Funny
[Books] Book Look: The Razor's Edge, by Somerset Maugham
[Rambles, Health and Fitness] A Diet So Easy a Caveman Could Do It
[TV] Toob Notes

[Movies] All Kinds of Funny

All Kinds of Funny: My movie watching is sporadic and random. Usually it's done in some nondescript hotel room on the company expense account, or at home during bouts of insomnia. (I remind myself once again to write an extended essay on why TV is better than movies.) Recently, though, I've re-seen three funny movies that couldn't be more different.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum -- The film version of one of the most successful musical comedies in the history of Broadway, almost 40 years old now. Terrific Stephen Sondheim fare with some of the most phenomenal comic actors in history -- Zero Mostel, Jack Gifford, and Phil Silvers put on a clinic in comic timing. Really, this movie could serve as a comedic actor's school. Yet the final product is uneven. Oh it's funny and madcap, but director Richard Lester does everything in his power to cheapen it by adding third-rate sight gags and camera effects that one would expect on a Saturday morning kids show. He can't ruin it, the material is too strong and the actors to damn good, but he does drag it down a notch or two. Still very much worth seeing. I remember seeing this as a child and I'd be willing to bet that my life-long appreciation of comedy stems in no small part from it the unbridled good humor of it.

Deconstructing Harry -- I am very close to declaring this the most outright funny Woody Allen movie. I've lost track of Woody's characters over the years, but this may be the only one where he lets himself be an outright sonofabitch; a depressive, misogynist, uncharacteristically vulgar jerk of an anti-hero. In fact he's so good at it makes me think that it is the Yang to his neurotic nebbish good guy Yin, long hidden and finally given free reign. A couple of fine performances from Billy Crystal and Alan Alda, and a show stopping scene from Kirstie Allie when she discovers husband Woody's infidelity. In the end, it's a story about how happiness does not always appear in a recognizable form.

Used Cars -- This was one of Steven Spielberg's early efforts back in the age of the Great American Farce -- Animal House, Caddyshack, etc. -- although it never received the recognition it deserved. And like the other G.A.F.'s you have to wonder whether it could be made today. In fact, there was a recent attempt to remake it, sort of: The Goods, with Jeremy Piven. It sounded promising, but it stunk. I don't know how you could take the premise of Used Cars and mix in the Piven and not score, but they managed. Actually, I do know, they were hamstrung by making Piven and his compadres good guys at heart, which is presumably what you've got to do in Hollywood now. In Used Cars everyone is a lying, opportunistic scumbag, even the hero -- especially the hero. In fact the one honest character comes around to seeing the light of dishonesty at the very end. Could you have that in a movie today? Spielberg certainly couldn't. Dirty, cold-hearted, slam-bang funniness. Kurt Russell at his best. Nearly thirty years on and it's still a riot. Yes sir! Did ya hear what I said!

[Books] Book Look: The Razor's Edge, by Somerset Maugham

Book Look: The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham: I chose to read this for two reasons. First, I know that early in his career, Bill Murray fell in love with this book and agreed to play the lead in Ghostbusters provided the studio would let him (and his cohort John Bynum) make a movie of it. The movie got mixed reviews and I haven't seen it, but since I'm a fan of Murray's work I was curious what he saw in the book that so affected him.

The other reason is that in the course of my web wanderings I ran into a comment to the effect of, "When I was young I thought I wanted to be Larry Darrell, but then I chose to be Dick Diver instead." Now, Larry Darrell is the lynchpin character of The Razor's Edge, I'll get to him in a second. Dick Diver is the protagonist in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. I would put Tender is the Night up against any novel, and Dick Diver against any character, in literature. So if this Larry Darrell was a comparable sketch, it was worth a shot.

Well, it was bound to fall short of my high expectations, but it hung in there pretty well. First off, let me say the Maugham is an extremely skilled at drawing characters. There are five or six major ones in this work and their images are clear as a bell. In fact, I would say the characters are almost all there are. We follow them across many years, and through hardships, and each subsequent encounter with them cements who they are and how they act, each staying true to form for the situation. But that's also part of the problem. They don't really change all that much; nobody really goes on a journey here. Not even the aforementioned Larry Darrell, although I can see why it might seem like he does.

We first meet Larry as a young man having just returned from a fairly traumatic stretch in WW1. He has none of the usual ambitions of a young man; no interest in a career, though he's had offers. He has a small stipend and is content to while away the hours in intellectual and philosophical pursuits, activities he refers to as "loafing." His diva of a fianc‚, Isabel, keeps hoping he'll snap out of it and join her in the material high-life, but he can't bring himself to do it. Waiting the wings is his friend Gray, goodhearted to his family but hardhearted in business. It is an open secret that Gray is in love with Isabel. Under the influence of her uncle Elliot, an incorrigible old world socialite with aristocratic delusions but a deep love of family, she accepts the practicality of the situation, breaks with Larry, and marries Gray. However, she continues to carrying something of torch for Larry.

Over the course of the narrative, Gray goes bust in the Great Depression, but keeps himself intact, with some help from Larry and his love of his family. By the end of the book he's back in the saddle, about to begin new predations in business. Isabel, sticks by Gray through the hard times and learns to live with less, perhaps making her wonder if she wouldn't have been happy with the life Larry offered. In time, the money begins to return and she slides back into her diva-esque ways, to a harrowing point with respect to her possessiveness of Larry. Elliot continues on, barely touched by the economic collapse around him, bobbing the swirling in the waves of European high society. His petty battles with the blue-blooded contrast with his kindness in providing for Isabel and Gray when they go bust. And Larry...

Well, Larry turns into a friggin' hippie. Of sorts. Larry, it turns out, is on a quest for Meaning or God. Perhaps traumatized over his war experiences, he is overwhelmed with the need to seek knowledge and metaphysical understanding. He does a stint in a coal mine in Bonn. Takes a job on a freighter and eventually ends up in India, where he lodges for a couple of years with a yogi and gains great mystical insights. In time he returns and hooks up with the old gang in Paris. He even, perhaps somewhat arrogantly, acquires a new fianc‚; this one a childhood friend who has turned to drink and opium, and whom he thinks he can heal. It doesn't end well. At the close, Larry is on a steamer bound for the States, planning to work as a mechanic and drive a taxi in New York and do other sorts of manual labor while quietly spreading the word about beauty and knowledge and the enlightenment of the East. Or something like that.

Here's the thing. Apart from being annoying, people who find themselves on grand spiritual quests that dominate their lives are crushingly tedious. And they generally lack irony or lightheartedness (which makes it odd to me that Bill Murray would be attracted to such a character). Maugham goes to great pains to explain the Larry is not the least didactic and that his spiritual comments seem weightless as though he were talking about the weather, but that doesn't work. You can't have a character go on for pages of high-minded rhetoric the turn around a say, "but it didn't come off as high minded." It does.

It's probably true that when Maugham wrote this (early '40s), there were fewer of these types around. It probably took Kerouac or Castenada or Then Came Bronson to generate swarms of people in pursuit of this wandering enlightenment and make them living into clich‚s. Such people were more of a novelty back then. But the real-life value of ultimate spiritual journeys aside, people on them just aren't that interesting. You go down a couple of paths of conversation and then all the steam runs out. The trappings of the sorry material world make up most of the stuff of conversation and human interaction. "OK, well, it was good talking to you. Look me up when you have your next holy revelation." The other characters in The Razor's Edge are much more interesting, striving to succeed in their own shallow milieus, making the best of their lives in the face of their flawed humanity. Saintliness doesn't make for good fiction.

Getting back to my original point, in the end everyone is pretty much the same person when they started. Isabel is snooty and true to Gray, while still loving Larry, just like at the outset. And Larry is the same as when we first met him as a young man; although much more worldly, he is still on a single-minded quest for spiritual enlightenment. Elliot is in pursuit of societal status while readily making monetary sacrifices for those he cared about to the very end. (For this Maugham narrow-mindedly implies he wasted his life on such shallow notions, when in fact, he was the one who kept the world together and grounded in reality. Sounds successful to me. I found Elliot to be the most interesting character of all.) The character arcs are trifling. It is a fistful of portraits through time. This may have been what Maugham was going for. At the end, in his role as narrator, he's seems to indicate that he sees no lessons learned either.

Should you read The Razor's Edge? Probably. I may have come off negative on it but I am not at all. I suppose I am mostly reacting to the contrast between what I have heard and read about it and the experience of reading it. It is a wonderful book. Maugham writes with great clarity. He places himself in it by name as the narrator and doesn't hesitate to break the third wall by directly addressing the reader or offering reminders of what came before. It is not a "hard" read by any stretch. And it is compelling. I blew through it pretty enthusiastically. Although not on much of a journey, the characters are interesting and I cared about them. I should also point out that I am definitely in the minority with respect to my somewhat muted reaction. There are plenty who have this on their reading bucket-list. No harm in putting it on yours.

[Health and Fitness, Rambles] A Diet So Easy a Caveman Could Do It

A Diet So Easy a Caveman Could Do It: I ate way too much while on vacation last week. I dread getting on the scale because I fully expect to be up a handful of pounds. For me, that means going hungry: cut down my portions significantly, go to bed with an achingly empty stomach. It is the most effective way.

See, I am of the opinion that anywhere but in the extremes of diet, the source of your calories is not that important. Homo sapiens is remarkably omnivorous. Our bodies have a marked ability to extract usable energy from an astounding variety of foods. Fish and rice in Japan, tortillas and pig flesh in Oxaca, red wine and cheese in the Latin Quarter, yogurt and granola in Haight-Ashbury. Unless you are subsisting on a diet of mainly lard, losing weight for you is going to mean eating fewer calories. Unless you can significantly alter the makeup your diet you will have to eat less of the stuff you eat.

I have given up attempting to make major adjustments in my diet. I am too weak willed for that. So all this equals hunger. Oh I have made small scale changes, replacing some fried foods with veggies and fruits here and there, but I just don't have it in me to go on a wholesale diet. It's simpler for me to embrace hunger. Here is my mantra: I am happy to be hungry. Hunger is not painful, it is a pleasant feeling. Hunger is what it feels like to be thin. Go to sleep hungry you have a reason to get up the next day: breakfast.

But that's just me. For most people, losing weight means dieting. The latest fashionable diet is called eating Paleo or Primal. The notion is that human metabolism evolved over millennia to optimally react to a hunter-gatherer diet. Along came agriculture, then centuries later, processed foods. This made foods that would have been rare treats our primal selves plentiful, but we are slaves to our evolutionary tendencies to want to load up on these things as if they were still rare. So we over-indulge and get fat. Or something like that, I confess I am not fully versed on the philosophy. Nor is there one true paleo-diet theory to rule them all.

The notion that it's healthier to eat like a primitive is really nothing new, as has been pointed out by the Freakonomics folks. Like other diet philosophies (low-fat, South Beach, etc.), it is not proven or documented to be fact, it lives in the realm of plausibility, with a pile of likely-biased anecdotal evidence in its favor and a pile of skeptics pointing out anecdotes are not science. Yes, as usual, you will find me in the skeptics corner.

But. It wouldn't surprise me at all to find that paleo dieting will work for a lot of people. Not because it matches up with our caveman physiology -- that seems a bit speculative (and remember what I said re: omnivores) -- but simply because it cuts down on the sort of foods our culture (Western culture) over emphasizes. In Paleo, you must either drop or cut way down on (among other things) bread, dairy and sugar. This is especially effective for people who eat on the go a lot. Everything you can quickly buy and eat will have bread and cheese in some form, especially bread. Everything you snack on will have sugar; we even treat something like a blueberry muffin as an acceptable breakfast. Once you start to drop or cut down on these things, you cut down on a lot of calories, and you should slowly start to lose weight. Or at least stop gaining.

Another good thing I have seen regarding paleo diets is that the gurus are less psychotic. Mark Sisson is a good one (book: The Primal Blueprint); he doesn't get all OCD about his diet and understands it's all about compromise and moderation, and he doesn't pass up a nice piece of chocolate when the opportunity presents itself. If you are going to try this, I'd recommend starting with his blog.

So I guess my take is that paleo diets are right for the wrong reasons. But who cares as long as it works. Of course, so does hunger. And I'm pretty sure cavemen were familiar with that too.

[TV] Toob Notes

Toob Notes: I have cut back a good deal on TV since returning to Misspent Youth in earnest, but let's do a quick round-up, since I haven't in a while.

House may have jumped the shark. The plots of the episodes have always been embarrassingly absurd -- throwaways, afterthoughts, mere props for the character's interaction with House. Years ago I predicted House wouldn't last because they could keep such a one trick pony going for more than a couple of years. I was quite wrong. They got quite a few years out of it, mostly owing to elevating Robert Sean Leonard, a remarkably fine actor, to almost a co-star level with Hugh Laurie. But ever since rehab, with House trying to be somewhat more human, things have gotten weak. Time to wrap it up. Maybe use the time slot to re-run Hugh Laurie's old Jeeves and Wooster series.

I don't expect much from USA's "characters welcome" shows beyond cotton candy for my brain, but the fluffy blue swirls were on the thin side this year. Burn Notice needed to go somewhere and it decided to try somewhere more emotionally serious. Wrong! Opposite direction would work better; nobody wants to take it seriously. We want to have fun. Hell, you got Bruce Campbell, and the hotness that is Gabrielle Anwar, why would you delude yourself that you're John LeCarre -- go lowbrow. In contrast, Psych remains comedy gold, in perpetual wisecrackery overdrive, although the plots were increasingly nonsensical and season finale was nearly incoherent.

My latest happy discovery is It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, for which I am late to the party, I know. An ensemble of characters of dubious morality and smoldering narcissism involved in highly contrived misadventures of daily life, making it similar to Seinfeld -- albeit a totally deranged and twisted version of Seinfeld, but still. This one's not for the kiddies. The underappreciated Danny Devito is sublime (rivaling his Louie from Taxi).

In the realm of good drama, Breaking Bad has just started but it's looking good. I'll cover it in full once the season's over.

Also happy was my second viewing of the entire Sopranos series at about a six-shows-a-month pace. As a hallmark of its quality, my appreciation of it deepened. I saw new aspects of its depth and knowing the ending didn't diminish it in any way. I remain firm in my judgment of it as the second best TV drama of all time, the last word on the mob story genre, and one of the very few TV shows that goes beyond entertainment to real art.

Since then, HBO drama has slipped unconscionably; their current flagship being the deplorable True Blood. But things may be looking up. The Pacific might actually to be worthy of its Band of Brothers predecessor, which is saying something. And no less than Martin Scorcese is kicking off what is sure to be a gritty series set in the '20's in Atlantic City called Boardwalk Empire. Could be outright awesome.

But the most uplifting news is The Return of the Milch. David Milch -- the man behind the Deadwood, the best TV show ever, and John from Cincinnati, the misguided but entertaining as hell experiment -- will be back with a series called Luck, about the world of horse racing. Presumably this will be about horse racing in the same way Deadwood was about the Old West. It will likely touch on metaphysics of chance and fortune. Two phenomenal actors have signed up: Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. That's some serious horsepower. This is reason-to-live level news.