I’m writing before Ichiro Suzuki, now largely a pinch hitter, reaches the 3000 hit mark. If the stars are aligned and the baseball gods awake, his 3000th will be a ground ball up the middle, a ball an acrobatic shortstop could spear and peg to first. The play should be close, but, as he has on most of the 3000, Ichiro beats the throw, hitting the bag just before the ball slaps the first baseman’s mitt.
I hear a lot about baseball having slipped out of the public’s attention, about the NFL and the NBA, maybe even MLS Soccer winning the hearts and minds of sports fans today, about baseball joining boxing, horse racing, and yachting as sports few people care to see. I’m not going to rhapsodize about the clean geometry of the game, or of the legacy of fathers playing catch with sons, although I start to tear up when I remember my own pilgrimage to the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa (midway between Luxemburg and Worthington), standing on the first base line when my son said, “Want to play catch, Dad?” No, I’ll put the drama in baseball up against any other sport, especially in this era, when we see pitchers routinely throwing strikes at a 100 miles an hour and offering up curve balls that seem to drop off the edge of the table, facing batters whose reflexes are incalculably quick. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, and a dozen others combine power and grace at the plate, and the current batch of daredevil fielders put on a display of acrobatic gymnastics in grabbing sure hits out of the air, catches that the barrel-chested shortstops of the Golden Age would have watched screaming past their outstretched gloves.
This is a golden age, and Ichiro will play his final games , stretch out his final hits, as the next generation of athletes come to plate. Others hit the ball farther (Stanton owns 20 of the 21 longest home runs in the history of the Home Run Derby), but none combine the craft with which Ichiro approaches hitting and the reverence with which he approaches the sport.
I’ve never been a Marlins fan, or a Mariners fan, or a fan of the contemporary celebrity warehouse known as the New York Yankees, but I consider myself fortunate to have seen Ichiro play in person and on tv.
I’m not a bandwagon fan (sorry Cubs/ Nats/ Sox). I was lucky in growing up in a small town in Connecticut that happened to get WPIX, Channel 11, from New York City, the station that broadcast the Yankees’ and Giants’ home games, and so got to see Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in their prime. Hard not to be a Yankee fan during those glory years. The Yankee-Red Sox duels were not as heated back in the 1950’s, so it was possible for a Yankee fan to appreciate Ted Williams and to enjoy the spectacle that was Jimmy Piersall. Piersall and Yankee second baseman, Billy Martin, were a matched set, both combustible with a very short fuse. They saved their best battles for after the game, fighting to a bloody draw in the tunnel under the stands. Good times.
I do admit to falling away from the Yankees as an adult, not in reaction to their lean years, but in response to what I saw as lapses in character. Look, Mantle, Ford, Martin and Bauer were bad boys; I know that now, but I did not then. The Bronx Zoo was too much to take, Steinbrenner was too much to take, and I’d spent years in Michigan by that point and had become grotesquely fond of Michigan football. Moving back to Michigan in 1980, I decided to get behind the Detroit Tigers.
Again, I got lucky. Sparky Anderson had just left the Reds to join the Tigers, and a roster that would take the team to a championship in 1984 began to coalesce, and the Tigers picked up Willie Hernandez, one of three pitchers to win the Cy Young Award, MVP, and a World Series Title in the same year, joining Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain in that select company. Great days for Tiger baseball. Then in 2003, the Detroit Tigers lost the most games in a single season in the history of the American League, but even in that year, the seeds of a contending team were starting to emerge, waiting for Rookie of the Year, Justin Verlander, and centerfielder, Curtis Granderson, to pull Los Tigres back to the top of the league in 2006. Hard times as they lost to the Royals at the end of the season to give up what looked like a certain Divisional title (don’t talk to me about the Royals), good times as they played their way as they beat the Yankees as the wild card team, and familiar times as they lost in the World Series to a Cardinal team they should have slaughtered.
So where does Ichiro Suziki fit into this narrative? My son and I got our first look at Ichiro in person during Spring Training in 2002, Ichiro’s second season with the Mariners. The Padres and Mariners shared a ballpark close to our home base, and as we tried to get in two games a day, we’d get seats for the first game and sit on the lawn behind center field for the evening game. Ordinarily, the best thing about seeing the game from the lawn was in being able to watch pitchers warm up in the bullpens, but on our first night in Arizona, we sat directly behind Ichiro, who played deep, almost to the center field wall.
I explained to my son that Ichiro was out of position, that he’d have no chance for balls hit just beyond the infield and would have a tough time trying to get off a satisfactory throw to any base but second. As I spoke, the leadoff batter for the Angels cracked a line drive over second base. Ichiro somehow got to the ball on the first hop and rifled a throw to first in time to nail the runner. I had seen Roberto Clemente’s arm on television, but I had never seen a throw such as that in person. A frozen rope.
Ichiro played a stunningly effective defensive game from center field that night. We had come to see the AL Rookie of the Year hit, and he was a spectacular hitter, but it was the completeness of his game that most impressed me.
A few words about Ichiro as a hitter. Everything about his stance and batting ritual is distinctive. Most fans are aware of his stretching and squatting before he steps into the box; he takes sweeping practice swings as he steps in and then out of the batter’s box. As he assumes his stance in the box, he twirls the bat in a giant arc, stopping the bat at the top of its second circle, tugging at his sleeve as his bat is effectively pointing at the pitcher. When he first came into the American League, after having been a superstar in Japan, that batting ritual seemed an affront to the pitchers he faced, and they tried to brush him back with what old timers call, “chin music”.
But this is where the Ichiro story takes on a different dimension.
The frenzy with which Japanese photographers flooded the sidelines as Ichiro became the first position player from Japan to hit the big leagues was compared to the pandemonium meeting the Beatles at Shea Stadium. The temptation was to write the guy off as a publicity hound, but Ichiro’s gravity and seriousness of purpose quickly convinced real baseball fans that they were watching something special. He went on to earn a place as an All Star seventeen times, also winning seventeen Golden Gloves. He was Rookie of the Year and American League MVP in his first year, added four batting titles and three more selections as MVP, and holds the single season record for most hits (262 hits in 2004 while a Mariner).
Stunning. And yet, what sets Ichiro apart in my mind is the ethos with which he approaches the game. It’s hard to remember just how spectacular Ichiro was in that first season; 242 hits, 56 stolen bases, batting average of .350, Gold Glove, and the best arm in the game. He was given the number 51 by the Mariners, and on learning that the number had belonged to Randy Johnson, a player Ichiro respected greatly, the rookie wrote a note to Johnson promising not to “bring shame” to the uniform. Ichiro’s fielding was so effective that his corner of Safeco Field was called “Area 51”. No shame in that.
Before facing the Red Sox’ s Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro famously announced, “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.” I think I knew he was an uncommon ballplayer when he refused to give the press the name of his pet dog, explaining that he didn’t have the dog’s permission to make the name public.
I’ve watched a lot of baseball over the years, but aside from the moment on the Field of Dreams with my son, the memory that lingers is of Ichiro, moving fluidly and with deceptive speed, snaking a ball from the turf and releasing a strike to first base without seeming to have moved at all.
OK, by the time I started this piece HBO, or Sesame Workshop, or whoever has the Sesame franchise in the post-Jim Henson universe had backed down, swallowed twice, mumbled something like an apology and invited three long-time residents of the fabled street back to the neighborhood after having sacked them without explanation.
My kids grew up with Sesame Street, the oldest almost from the start of the program and the younger son and daughter entirely in a pre-Elmo (pristine) universe. Over the years many significant adults came to Sesame Street; visitors in the early years included James Earl Jones reading the alphabet, Margaret Hamilton reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the west, Lily Tomlin eating a sandwich at the switchboard as operator Edith Ann, Madeline Kahn affectionately teaching Grover to sing, “Be My Echo”, convincing my children that Grover was entirely and undoubtedly her very real friend, perhaps convincing me as well.
The best of guests fell into a convincing relationship with muppets; the humans living on Sesame Street left no doubt that the complicated characters were part of the fabric of their lives. The humans had dimension as well; they were confused, occasionally surprised, and in some instances a bit crusty. The owner of Sesame Street’s grocery, Mr. Hooper, was curmudgeonly, affecting testiness but frequently revealing his heart of gold. It was Mr. Hooper who gently righted what might have been a painfully ironic ending of the classic Gift of the Magi Christmas episode. Bert had sold his paperclip collection in order to buy a soap dish for Ernie’s Rubber Duckie; Ernie had sold the Duckie in order to buy a cigar box for Bert’s paperclips. At the end of the episode, Mr. Hooper gave the friends the gifts they had sold, and all was well on Christmas Eve.
Not long after that broadcast, Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper died. With grace few people posses, the producers decided to acknowledge the loss on air. It was Bob, Susan, Maria, and Gordon who broke the news of Mr. Hooper’s death to Big Bird in an episode that did not duck the hard issues. Bird and my children grieved but learned that the seasons change, the world spins, and that, as it must to all men, death came to Mr. Hooper What comfort remained? Muppets, of course, and the remaining grown-ups. We were left with Bob, calm, patient, insightful, slightly odd, but buoyant. He sang in a lilting tenor, often reminding us of the great truths and remaining a constant model of quiet resilience. We had Gordon too, and Luis.
In an attempt to make the neighborhood accessible to a wider audience, Joan Ganz Cooney (journalist and documentary producer) and Lloyd Morrisset (Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale and Vice President of the Carnegie Foundation), the originators of the Children’s Television Network, had decided to add a Black neighbor with a family. Gordon actually had a last name (Robinson), a wife (Susan), and an adopted child, but was most appreciated as the only adult capable of contending with the perpetually disgruntled Oscar the Grouch. It was Gordon who became the hero (Trash Gordon) of the tales Oscar told to his pal, Slimey the worm. The first human joining the original cast was Luis, handy and philosophical, proprietor of the Fix-It shop. In the course of the first seasons, he married Maria, had a child, and brought a joyful Hispanic family to Sesame Street.
These were the men my children saw daily, as parents of their own children and adult friends of the furry characters who were children as well, characters who lacked discretion (Big Bird), who lost control of impulse (Cookie Monster), who lived largely in their own imagination (Grover), and who maintained unlikely friendships (Bert and Ernie, the muppet odd couple). These adults managed to meet the challenges unruly muppets presented on a daily basis with far more composure than I could muster, providing me with perspective I lacked and my children with expectations of adults that I hope have served them well.
I know that times change. Sesame Street now airs on HBO, passing episodes on to PBS five months after they have aired on the cable channel. The 26 new episode will be half hour shows; for forty four seasons, CTW aired more than a hundred episodes per year, each of which was a full hour in length. Kids have changed, cuts had to be made; snappy techno-whiz graphics had to have their place. Not much room for aging actors.
It’s easy for me to summon outrage. If Bob, Gordon, and Luis are expendable, how about the rest of the cast? Do we really want to see Bert at a stop light, roughly lettered cardboard sign in hand – “Will Work For Paperclips”? Does Mr. Snuffleupagus who had a hard enough time convincing the people on Sesame Street that he actually exists continue to mutter as he finds a dumpster to sleep in?
OK, that may be over the top.
I guess I write this piece now to thank Bob, Gordon, and Luis and all those who invited my children and countless others around the world to visit Sesame Street each afternoon for more than forty years. In ways the originators could not have anticipated, they gave us a second family, a family in which children matter, in which adults listen with patience. Sesame Street did all that it promised in terms of reading readiness and the development of math skills (How many aging adults were fired? One, Two, Three aging adults). It also gave children a place that was uniquely theirs and entirely safe, a place where characters delight in their differences. I’m grateful for the years Bob, Gordon, and Luis have shared with us and delighted that we may visit with them as they move into the next chapter of their lives.
We still have lessons to learn.
Note: The human-muppet relationship has never bee more lovely than in this short duet sung by Grover and the late Madeline Kahn.
Last night, Barack Obama, President of the United States, spoke to an audience that had heard him speak countless times. His ostensible task was to make clear that support of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the presidency would be an endorsement of the work begun and completed during his administration. In effect he spoke to those who wished we might have four more years of Barack Obama’s intelligence, courage, leadership, and grace, promising that the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton would secure the legacy of Obama’s years in office. With characteristic modesty and wit, he spoke as few leaders in our time have spoken. FDR spoke with assurance and comforting sincerity; Winston Churchill’s oratorical skills were magnificent, and his mastery of rhetoric impressive. Barack Obama, however, is clearly a very bright guy who speaks with the plain language of personal investment in the causes he champions and personal conviction in addressing the outrages he deplores.
The short video introducing Obama’s appearance emphasised the President’s calm, steady equilibrium, even when pushed to the limits of his patience. A nation has seen his tears in describing children killed in Connecticut and on the streets of Chicago, yet, even in those moments of personal pain and frustration, Obama returned to statements of hope and shared responsibility for a better future. His skill as a speaker is remarkable, yet for many, the most compelling moment of his presidency may have been in his singing of Amazing Grace in the service for the Rev. Clementa Pickney, pastor at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killed with eight others at a Bible study meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. He took the unthinkable risk of appearing ridiculous or disrespectful, not to ease his own pain, but to do what he could in that moment to help that congregation, and the nation, begin to heal.
It took rare inspiration and rare courage to begin the hymn. Within seconds every person present was raised in singing with him.
In eulogizing Pickney, Obama said, “We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith, a man who believed in things not seen, a man who believed there were better days ahead off in the distance.”
Those words describe Barack Obama, and after years of facing contention, contempt, partisan vilification, and hatred, he stood before an audience that had already begun to grieve the loss of this good man, an audience showering him with affection, an audience hoping in some fashion to say, “thank you”.
On Sunday, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza will be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It took Piazza four tries to garner 75% of the votes of the electors, baseball writers; Griffey was an obvious first ballot inductee, missing a unanimous vote by three, earning 99.3% of votes. It’s a measure of Griffey’s humility as a player that when asked about the three who did not vote for him, Griffey smiled and said that they probably knew he was likely to get in and wanted to save votes for players closer to the edge. Griffey is in pretty good company; Ty Cobb, first player inducted in the Hall of Fame, got 98% of votes, and Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest ballplayer of all time, squeaked in with 90%.
Piazza is historically the best hitting catcher to be inducted, and Griffey was among the most highly regarded players of his era, an era that included some of the most remarkable performances and some of the most remarkable careers ever seen in baseball. Griffey’s been compared to Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial, other superstars considered certain of membership in the Hall. He was not alone, however, at the top during the 1990’s, playing in the company of Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds, Rich Gossage, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson, Tom Glavine, Wade Boggs, Edgar Martinez, John Smoltz, Frank Thomas, Rafael Palmeiro, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Pudge Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, Barry Larkin, and Alex Rodriguez, among others (Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, John Olerud).
Of that extraordinary constellation of talent, Larkin, Henderson, Molitor, Boggs, Ripken, Gossage, Glavine, Maddux, Thomas, Gwynn, Biggio, Eckersley, Smoltz, Johnson, and Pedro Martinez have been enshrined. A change of rules limits the number of years that a player can remain under consideration to ten, reduced from fifteen only two years ago. Had the ten year limit been in place earlier, players absent from the Hall could have included Duke Snyder, Bert Blyleven, and Bruce Sutter, each of whom needed more than ten years to reach the 75% level. The same rule applies to consideration by the Veterans Committee , still considering Gil Hodges, Mickey Lolich, Thurmon Munson, Roger Maris, and Jack Morris (come on!).
The change of rules particularly affects the players who played in the 1990’s and likely reflects concern that players suspected of using PEDs might get past the 75% barrier and tait the sanctity of the Hall of Fame, particularly Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens. Edgar Martinez would be the first designated hitter to enter the hall, should writers recognize the importance of that skill as they did in honoring the contributions of relief pitchers. It will interesting to see if Trevor Hoffman gets in while Martinez is left out.
Arguments about the annual selections are to be expected; we are fans, after all, so our judgments are often clouded by our own experience of the sport. Of the four to be considered by the Veterans Committee, for example, two are Yankees and two are Tigers; I am not without bias in considering their careers.
It is in the furrier realm of establishing the worthiness of a player’s character that the arguments get truly heated. One camp holds prospective inductees to a high standard of behavior on and off the field; the other considers performance the only significant factor. For the first group, the inclusion of Barry Bonds would desecrate the sanctity of the Hall of Fame; for the second, the exclusion of Barry Bonds, clearly the most formidable player of his time, is absurd.
I’ve been reading about baseball for sixty years, which is significant only in that I read accounts of the early years of baseball, the unsanitized histories which included unapologetic womanizing, alcoholic binges before, during, and after games, fistfights, assaults, purposeful injury of other payers, gambling, unsavory associations with lowlife thugs, and rampant racism.
Shirley Povich, who was certainly among the most revered of sports journalists, described a Ty Cobb who would probably not find unanimous acclamation today. “Yes, the greatest player of all time was baseball’s preeminent unconscionable scoundrel; as miserable a cretin as ever pulled on a uniform, and an outspoken racial bigot to boot.” Rumors persist that Cobb and Tris Speaker were members of the Ku Klux Klan and that both had fixed games during their career. Grover Cleveland Alexander was notoriously a better pitcher drunk than sober. In modern times, Gaylord Perry probably ignored the rules of the game every time he took the mound, doctoring the ball with spit, vaseline, and other substances I chose not to imagine. Orlando Cepeda served ten months for smuggling marijuana.
I may have tipped my hand. Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame. Vile though I find him to be, Roger Clemens belongs in the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose is Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in hits and games played; he won three World Series rings, was Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and appeared in seventeen All Star Games. Rose should be in the Hall of Fame; “Charlie Hustle” was a dominant player of his era, and that criterion is the one that matters to me. Long banished Joe Jackson should be in the Hall. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Nap Lajoie considered Shoeless Joe Jackson the best hitter in the game. Bob Feller and Ted Williams petitioned the Veterans Committee to reconsider his candidacy; Williams considered him the hitter he most admired.
I’ll watch Piazza and Griffey as they are brought into the company of some of the game’s greatest players, cheer their achievements and continue to believe that the other greats they played with and against have a place in that exalted company.
I’ll get to Tom, Dick, and Harry shortly, but I do need to establish the context in which those names came to mind, arriving with great compassion for parents-to-be who labor so lovingly to find just the right name for a baby whose personality is not yet known. For reasons that may become clear, I begin by looking at the music of Cole Porter, Indiana aristocrat, Whiffenpoof, and composer.
I’m generally impressed with Cole Porter’s inventive lyrics, especially as they slyly approach naughtiness then veer at the last moment to an unexpected end-rhyme. The most lighthearted is performed elegantly by Ella Fitzgerald: “Let’s Do it – Let’s Fall in Love”. Below a few of the more marginally inappropriate exhortations.
Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love
In Spain, the best upper sets do it
Lithuanians and Letts do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love
Some Argentines without means do it
People say in Boston even beans do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love
In shallow shoals, English soles do it
Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love
The chimpanzees in the zoos do it
Some courageous kangaroos do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love
I’m sure giraffes on the sly do it
Even eagles as they fly do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love
There’s something wryly puzzling about the courage needed for kangaroos to enter into whatever union Porter has in mind; at his best, he composed show tunes that were both suggestive and sophisticated, and slightly odd.
Now, to get to the subject at hand. Porter used the then familiar phrase “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry” as the title of a song in Kiss Me Kate, implying that the female lead spread her affection widely. Tom, Dick, and Harry indicated a whole bunch of guys, and theater goers absolutely knew what he meant. These were the names of regular guys, not hoity-toity (chi-chi/ pronounced “she-she”) or precious, just ordinary, unaffected, nice guys. The names were without distinction of class, and served the purpose of identifying an unexceptional but inclusive cohort of men. The song doesn’t travel well these days, perhaps because the linking refrain between stanzas, is, “Uh Dick Dick, Dick, Uh Dick, Dick, Dick.”
I haven’t heard the phrase recently, and I wondered what combination of names would signify a similar constellation of men with whom Bianca, say, in Kiss Me Kate might have dallied. ( I don’t hear the word “dalliance” often either, so perhaps that stage, somewhere between flirtation and consummation, may have vanished). I did a quick search of the most common names given boys born in 1976, now forty year old men. Porter’s lyric would have become, “Every Michael, Jason, and Christopher” or “Every Mike, Jay, and Chris”. According to the sites I’ve visited, the greatest number of forty year old women would be named, Jennifer, Melissa, Heather, Michelle, or Kimberly, with Angela a strong favorite in some regions. That generation (the under-appreciated Generation X) turned around and named their sons Jacob, Michael, Ethan, Joshua, Matthew, Daniel, Christopher, Andrew, Anthony, and William. The top ten names for their daughters? Emily, Emma, Madison, Isabella, Ava, Abigail, Olivia, Hannah, Sophia, and Samantha. The boys’ names are downright Biblical, the girls’ simultaneously more fanciful and somewhat archaic (except for Madison which may have sprung from too many viewing of Splash).
This naming thing is fascinating, not only because it provides a kind of cultural snapshot, but because it reflects the aspirations of parents by generation. Game of Thrones has spawned a number of contemporary name choices; it’s easy to see how Arya and Daenerys, Bran and Tyrion might signify character and purpose. I can’t imagine what sorts of aspirations families have in naming their newborns, Cersei or Khaleesei. My grandfather was named Orlando after a character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (as he didn’t), and names continue to come from the Bible, from ethnic heritage, occasionally from places and brands (Brooklyn, Montana, Dakota, Lexus, Nike, Armani, Prada).
Some names have currency for a while, then disappear; Brandys and Brittanys seem to have lost some allure, perhaps due to the unfortunate habit of ending such names in “i” dotted with a small heart.
Demographic research has been done from an exhaustive study of names given to babies in California over a period of forty years. The single conclusion drawn is that the cycle appears to start with what might be called “high born” names (classy ), fairly quickly adopted by less affluent parents. If the theory is correct, “high born” names are adopted five times faster than “common” names, thereby becoming more common in a relatively short time.
Thus the task of picking a name becomes problematic if the hope is to avoid sending a daughter (Jennifer) to a kindergarten class filled with Jennifers, Jennys, Jens, J-dogs, and Jiffers. Had I a practice as a naming consultant, of course, I’d suggest the name Guinevere or the original Welsh, Gwenhwyfar, perhaps moving into Lord of the Rings territory. Welsh names are delicious, but risky. The chances of Gwenhwyfar placing an order at Starbucks in her own name are slim; she’ll become “Gwen”, and there it goes. Ffion, Lowri, Carys – these might be reasonably safe for a while, but any name is at risk when used in the real world.
I’ve put off the identification of the names I believe are the most likely to move from “high born” to more commonly found because I know so many lovely children with these names. With apologies to all my dearest friends and comrades who worked tirelessly to find names that were both lovely and distinctive, here’s the list:
Isabel (Isabella) Julian
There they are, a shining galaxy of uncommon and eminently distinctive names, doomed, if the research is correct, to become just another batch of Toms, Dicks, and Harrys.
I read Oliver Sacks’ obituary almost a year ago. He was what he called an “existential neurologist”, a scientist whose clinical work took him to considerations of human consciousness and the mystery of psycho neurological anomalies. In the intervening year, I’ve intended to write about him, particularly after having seen several documentaries about music and cognitive function, but other bright, shiny conversations pulled me off course.
Sacks began radiation treatment of uveal melanoma in2005, quickly losing sight in his right eye. He wrote about his own compromised vision in The Mind’s Eye, adding case studies of others who had been forced to adapt in order to move through the world with significant challenges to vision or communication. As he had in his previous work, the presentation of the cases, including his own, was precise, compassionate, and fascinating. Eight years later, the cancer metastasised to his liver and brain. He wrote about that as well, essentially taking his leave in an article published in The New York Times. Anticipating his death, Sacks wrote, “Above all I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Sacks wrote well, expressing complex neurological observation in language an untrained reader could understand and appreciate, detailed and metaphoric; The New York Times would call him, “…the poet laureate of contemporary medicine”.** Although they travelled very different intellectual pathways, Sacks and Sigmund Freud shared keen powers of observation, the ability to ask questions that delivered useful information, and authentic interest in the patients who appear in their case studies. Freud approached cases with a set of convictions about the psyche; Sacks was content to let the cases speak, for themselves. The neuropsychiatric information assembled by Sacks was based on his close observations of the methods his patients used to describe their condition; generalized judgments came after observation of specific behaviors. .
A quick summary of Sacks’ publications indicates the process by which he worked and with which he developed his theoretical (metaphorical) framework: Migraine, Awakenings, A Leg to Stand On, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, Seeing Voices, The Island of the Colorblind, Hallucinations, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, and The Mind’s Eye. His own experience of disability allowed him to organize information about the disabilities of others, and his clinical experience drove him to suggest therapeutic strategies for treatment. The documentary, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, and the establishment of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function bear witness to Sacks’ conviction that music opens pathways to expression for patients otherwise considered unresponsive, particularly those at late-stage Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Disease. Sacks wrote about phantom limbs, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, postencephalitic catatonia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, deafness, Tourette’s Syndrome, visual agnosia (the inability to recognize objects, i.e. wife and hat), color blindness, aphasia, and Charles Bonnet Syndrome (vivid hallucinations) with curiosity leavened with an appreciation of the adaptive processes of the brain.
I won’t try to assess the place that Sacks played or will play as a neuroscientist; some critics find his work anecdotal and hyper-sensationalized, an odd choice of word as most of the work does have to do with sensation and perception. I’m interested in three strands of thought that come to me as I read Sacks.
The first is the obvious understanding that the brain is one mysterious, uncharted universe, accessibility to which is limited by the singular experience of every brain owner.
The second is that the only access we have outside of our own paltry sensation is in the accounts of those who have developed a serious, often disabling, brain anomaly; in other words, something in a brain has to be disturbed before we can even begin to conceptualize how it works when no anomaly is present. If pressed, Sacks might have said that neural puzzles, such as phantom limb disorder or hallucinations offer virtually the only opportunity to find out how perception and expression actually work.
The third has less to do with neurobiology and more to do with conceptualization itself, and it is to that strand that I will return after setting the mind stage with a few autobiographical properties.
I fell into my first job, teaching in a boarding school, largely as result of having waited too long to begin applying for graduate school in history, or English, or film, or journalism, or theater, or foreign affairs. I’d rushed through a postponed senior year, grabbing credits where I could and hoping that the GI Bill wouldn’t run out before I managed to get a degree in something. So, newly minted graduate (English and history), I took a breather on Cape Cod for a few weeks and began the laborious process of writing to every school I knew of, with the knowledge that all reasonable posts had been filled, hoping, however, that some debilitating illness had carried off a sizable slice of the faculty, leaving a panicked administrator no choice but to pencil me in as a late hire. I threw in an application to one of the outfits accustomed to placing candidates but prepared myself for the prospect of returning to my former job as a floor slave in a steel slitting factory. Against all odds, I was asked to interview for a teaching job and was offered a position, teaching psychology.
Teaching psychology, an assignment that made me wish I’d taken more than one course in the subject at some point in my many years in college.
OK, it was 1970, and things had become slightly goofy in schools everywhere, including the old New England academies, and the search for “relevance” allowed this bumbling neophyte to trade on his recent experience as late-adolescent college guy. Coats and ties had given way to tie-dyed t shirts; I could only hope things had become loose enough that my vague recollection of Freud and Jung could see me through the first weeks. I grabbed the last six edition of Psychology Today, got at least one chapter ahead in the textbook, and counted on the Socratic Method to see me through the first semester; by Socratic Method, I mean answering every question with a question.
I’d read Walden Two, Brave New World, and seen A Clockwork Orange so I knew all about classical conditioning, operant conditioning, eye-blink conditioning, covert conditioning, and social conditioning. Between Psychology Today, Pavlov and the Skinner box, I was pretty well set for the first term. In the second, we read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg. My plan was to spend the third generally chatting about personality theory; after all, a theory is just a theory and I figured we all had a personality. I dug out my old copies of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and The Ego and the Id. Freud’s fingerprints were all over “modern” thought as I understood it in my college days; the celebration of unconscious motivation and compulsion was the stuff of every well informed conversation.
So, I taught personality theory from the Freudian point of view, with a tip of the hat to the behaviorists. I drew diagrams on the board, drew lines from one stage of development to the next, rattled on about Libido, the Death Wish, Id, Ego, and Superego, as if they were all demonstrable facts.
My first encounter with Sacks came only a few years later, with the publishing of Awakenings, documenting his work with patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica at Beth Israel Hospital; these patients were virtually frozen until Sacks administered doses of a newly discovered psychoactive drug, L-Dopa. The story of their liberation is exhilarating, and this early introduction to the complexity of brain chemistry fascinating, but it was the dedication of the book to poet, W.H.Auden and the inclusion of his poem, “The Art of Healing” that attracted me to Sacks as a doctor of rare compassion.
Papa would tell me,
is not a science
but the intuitive art
of wooing Nature.
I’ve come to admire Freud as a conceptualist, and the identification of unconscious propulsion of our behavior was certainly significant, but my admiration for Oliver Sacks has led me to see Freud’s elaborate psychic architecture as a sort of mythology.
Did I BELIEVE in Freud? Was I a true believer?
I think I was, and that recognition has allowed me to see other examples of mythological expression in a new light. I’ve never dismissed mythology; I’ve long believed that it expressed truths that could not otherwise be expressed.
For the most part.
Greek and Roman gods? I loved the stories, but always felt the Greeks and Romans (pretty clever people) were amusing themselves with fanciful, gossamer tales of riot and romance. Hmmm. As I think about my wholesale adoption of Freudian terminology to explain the working of the human mind, however, I see it as, well, fanciful. There was enough to it to allow me to begin to express the inexplicable, and I have to assume that’s what the accounts of Athena and Minerva accomplished with comparable strength of conviction.
Oliver Sacks chronicled the ways in which the mind works without words, and as a prisoner of words, I’m endlessly fascinated by how language affects self-awareness. I’m grateful for the work he left behind and for his willingness to woo Nature rather than force his will upon it.
**Whereas American protocol places ALL final punctuation within the quotation marks, the British (sensibly) identify the end of the quotation with the quotation mark and the end of the sentence with a period. I cannot escape the influence of the literature I read first in spelling or punctuation.
I love character actors, always have, all the sidekicks, kindly uncles, wicked bankers, pompous politicians. We have a bumper crop of great character actors today, in part because some directors have created what are essentially repertory companies; the same actors pop up in minor roles in most of their films. My favorites may travel with Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, etc) Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Bob Balaban, and Guest himself. My current favorite character actor is Ed Begley, Jr., probably best known for his roles on Arrested Development, Portlandia, and Better Call Saul, but equally effective in the Guest company. His dad, Ed Begley, was a great character actor as well, usually a very effective windbag.
Over the years, I’ve become convinced that most of the men who played leading roles in the Golden Age of Hollywood would probably be consigned to roles as character actors today. I don’t share that opinion with everyone as apparently it is not a topic of abiding interest to most (any) people. It happens to be the sort of topic that I can raise with my eldest son and his younger sister, both keen observers of popular culture.
My eldest son likes to remind me that my sensibilities are attached to an age I’ve never known, somewhere at the tail end of the 1920’s, just about the time sound came to moving pictures. He might say that the use of a term such as “moving pictures” indicates the distance between his inner world and mine, and he’s not entirely wrong.
I’m part of the post-war generation, born in the 1940’s and graduating from high school in the mid-1960’s. Think about that for a moment. As I started grade school, popular music included “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” and “Oh, My Papa,” as I left high school, “Hard Day’s Night” and “She’s Not There”. At home, in the smallest town in New England, I watched television (three, sometimes four channels) and went to moving pics once in a while (neighboring town theater, so small we could call and ask the owner/ projectionist hold the start of the film as my mother forgot to put the frozen dinner in the oven) , but I spent a lot of time alone, with books, looking through magazines, listening to daytime radio,and watching the Million Dollar Movie(Same movie five times a day for a week – ask me about Mighty Joe Young). Through a series of events I cannot explain, I often spent weeks alone with my grandparents, both virtually deaf and both wary of children. Tossing a rubber ball against the kitchen stairs took much of the morning, but the promise of a new book, a few radio shows, and bound collections of the Saturday Evening Post lay ahead.
All of which is to explain why it is that my turns of phrase sound more like those of a P.G. Woodhouse than a Hunter Thompson, although if I could write as well as either one, you wouldn’t be subjected to the sort of discoursive (British spelling) sentence such as that which I have just written.
This particular post was set off by the merry correction of my opinion of contemporary icons of the silver screen. My daughter may have been present.
I opined that “stars” included leading men such as William Powell (Dick Powell for that matter), what she might consider “older” men, men whose features were not classically beautiful. It seemed to me that no active producer would greenlight a film dependent on the star power of Fred Astaire or Humphrey Bogart. John Wayne was a large specimen (try standing next to him at a wax museum), but more rugged than regular. Even as I write, I recall taking a band of sophomores to the British Museum, expecting that we could stand in shared awe before the Assyrian Lions. They were halted in their tracks, not by the Rosetta Stone, but by a display of the armor Brad Pitt had worn while filming Troy. Whatever opinion I might have of the film, I won’t forget the scene in which Pitt as Achilles literally climbs up one side of an a much larger adversary and down the other, hardly pausing in his ascent and descent, slicing whatever important bits he could while in motion. Not the Achilles I had in mind when I read The Iliad, but darned impressive.
Impressive, and exactly the corrective I needed in order to try to modify my opinion that the culture had abandoned character for superficial symmetry of features. Brad Pitt may have begun slouching into fame as a hitchhiking boy-toy in Thelma and Louise, but he quickly acquired enough quirk to play some darker roles, playing against type successfully in 12 Monkeys and Snatch. Somehow, even with unfortunate goatee and weathered brow, he’s still what one of my students called, “a hunka-chunka manly man”. Pitt, however, may be an anomaly; consider this remarkable pack of very accomplished actors.
Tommy Lee Jones, fabulous human and actor, is not a leading man. Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Paul Giamatti, Ben Kingsley, Robert Duvall, Christoph Walz, J.K. Simmons, Alan Arkin, Chris Cooper, John C. Reilly are all “supporting” actors, even when the biggest name in the cast. Litmus test? Imagine any of these in a purely “romantic” role, clutched in a long close-up lip lock.
It has to noted that at least two of the “types” that starred in films of the 30’s and 40’s, the silky aristocrat and the buoyant song and dance man, have virtually disappeared.
David Niven, fox-faced Brit, played the smoothly aristocratic sophisticate. Other actors in that camp would have included Ray Milland, James Mason, Claude Rains, and any number of Shakespeareans looking for a Hollywood pay-out. I can’t think of a comparable actor in contemporary films. Colin Firth in his various incarnations of Darcy-like coolly distant men of character? Pierce Brosnan or Alec Baldwin? Anyone who has played James Bond has to be relatively toothsome and so out of consideration, and Baldwin has moved from attractive leading man to “difficult” character of wealth or privilege.
Very few conventional musicals make it to your neighborhood Cinema Fifteen, leaving less room for the supremely talented singers and dancers at the top of the marquee. Fred Astaire, was an oddity, essentially a corn-fed midwestern boy-next-door, who happened to be exquisitely graceful and capable of carrying roles which demanded moving around in white tie and tails. Astaire, born in Nebraska, played aristocrats less convincingly than he did the itinerant song and dance man. Gene Kelly was a more classically good-looking version of the athletic hoofer; James Cagney and Donald O’Connor were less poster worthy energetic (occasionally, antic) dancers. Anyone who can explain Bing Crosby as a romantic lead is warmly invited to add a lengthy response to this article.
There several types that still hit the screen, presenting opportunities for the more ruggedly featured. Bogart and Cagney may fall in the “barely-redeemed tough guy” role, played in recent years by Bruce Willis, Mark Wahlberg, Gerard Butler, Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Vin Diesel, Liam Neesen. Robert DeNiro bounces from entirely unredeemable to somewhat less dangerous dad/older mentor. James Dean and Marlon Brando were both unstable and dangerous, but both were handsome, as are James Franco, Colin Farrel, and Jake Gyllenhaall
The Boy-Next-Door is clean-cut, wholesome, and approachable. The key to appreciating the boys next door is to see that they remain popular without taking their shirts off. In the 30’s and 40’s, Mickey Rooney and Van Johnson played the part; today’s versions occasionally have a bad day, curse convincingly, but remain essentially good guys. Matt Damon is a heel in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but ordinarily sweet, even when tortured as in Good Will Hunting. Damon’s Bourne does the work of a trained killer but could easily retire from the killing craft and open a cheese shop in Vermont.
Fortunately, my daughter is not shy in expressing her opinion, arguing persuasively that actors with character have a place in contemporary hearts. She points to actors such as Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield as examples of type that she calls “really smart, quirky, slightly nerdy, and loveable.” Daniel Radcliffe, apparently, can also be included in that tribe. Point taken.
Henry Fonda’s name appears in the title of this piece. He was presentable in terms of appearance (his kids and grandkids are gorgeous), but he had great appeal as the man of character, a good man, occasionally placed in situations that tested that character. I would put Tom Hanks in that category today; he has played that part ever since he escaped Bosom Buddies and fell in love with a mermaid in Splash. As he aged, his roles have had more to do with character than with cuteness, but just as Ed Begley, Jr. was ready to follow in his father’s footsteps, our next thoroughly transparent man of character may be Colin Hanks, still cute but approaching mature good sense.
Two recent documentaries do a nice job of identifying faces we’ve seen a hundred times. The first was That Guy …Who Was In That Thing, and the second is That Gal … Who Was In That Thing. Great chance to catch up with Bruce Davison and Gregory Itzin, you know, the guy who was in 24? Want to give credit where credit is due? Track down David Costabile, Gale Boetticher on Breaking Bad.
We (not I or anyone I know personally) sent a probe to Jupiter that managed to survive an absurdly difficult approach in order to enter into an orbit from pole to pole. The launch took place in 2011 and the probe , Juno, entered into orbit on July 4th, 2016, so this was not a red-eye to the moon; people who know something about distance in space suggest that the route covered about 540 million miles. Had we the capacity to shoot a beam of light (at the speed of light, of course) it would take only about 48 minutes and 19 seconds to get to Jupiter. So, that’s faster.
Whatever dreamy misunderstanding I had about Jupiter was set straight by Scott Bolton, the project’s chief scientist. “It’s a monster. It’s unforgiving. It’s relentless. It’s spinning around so fast. Its gravity is like a giant slingshot slinging rocks, dust, electrons, comets.” Apparently, the beautiful rings are primarily made of flotsam, some of that far slung dust, particles of which can last from 100 to 1000 years.
We’ll know more about Jupiter when the work of Juno is done. We’ll know something about how the planet was formed, and probably a bit more about the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, but at the end of the day, in 2018, we’ll still lie awake and try to get our heads around the who, how, and why of all of it.
The who I mean is not the universal life force/creator/divine architect/good shepherd. The who in question is the person lying awake, quaking in the hour of the wolf, remembering the shock that arrived when first gazing up at the stars, lazily mind-swimming in the view until, uninvited, the thought nudges the rim of consciousness –
“Whoah! I’m pretty small. These stars aren’t actually where I see them but off somewhere else, dancing in some other formation that someone else will see after I’m long gone. This big picture makes my brain hurt. Oh, and, I’m mortal. These stars will outlive me, but someday they’ll burn out and fizzle like fireworks in a fish pond.
Or something roughly like that. And that set of brutal truths then bumps up against whatever psyche melting speculation has most recently playing at the Hometown Cinema 12, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, Abre los Ojos, any of the films or shows that seem to suggest thatthere is no demonstratable reality, that all we know exists only in our individual brain pan, and the entire structure of all that is (or isn’t) may be a subjective fiction. I don’t know why the thought that I am dreaming myself, that my life is a lucid/fog-bound dream should be more terrifying than realizing that Russia, China, Pakistan, and North Korea all have nuclear weapons, or that the polar cap is now covered with tiki bars. After all, it’s just a theory, as undemonstratable as anything else.
Well, it may pack a punch because it throws this whole “self” thing into question, shutting down just about the only set of certainties we thought we could count on. How do we make our way through the day if we are uncertain that the day actually exists?
Let’s just put that inconvenient doubt aside for a bit because we still have to contend with how, and again, I’m less concerned with the how of Jupiter’s birth and more concerned with the how of sentience. How does it happen that we are aware of our own subjective experience? I’m not asking why us (me) or why does sentience operate as part of our human experience; I’m asking how the complex electrochemical neurological spasms and spurts have anything to do with mentation. I’m ok with all the mapping and prodding (talk about probes!) brain research has done in the last twenty years, the genetic signals and the trace minerals, but we’re still left not knowing what a thought is, where it originates, or why we know it as our own. We can track down the flawed systems of sensation, processing, and expression when they break (phantom limbs, etc), but, like life itself, mentation is currently only indirectly observable. Flashes of light and color indicate brain activity, pathways glow, lobes glow, proteins glow, but we can’t identify the how of any specific thought.
So, why? Why has the universe bumping along on whatever spiral it has ahead included awareness of self? Problem solving makes sense. Kinesthetic awareness makes sense. Gooseflesh and body hair make sense. Not sure what evolutionary advantage resides in intimations of mortality or (perhaps) intimations of reality. It’s pretty clear that a bunch of life forms can learn to distinguish between the left turn and food and the right turn and a blast from the experimenter’s taser. At that level, probably not even mentation. I’m pretty sure planeria don ‘t think, even though they can be conditioned. Biologists call their behavior “directional bias”, and I’m likely to keep that tag at the ready whenever my choices about anything are questioned. Why do I prefer Michigan football to Alabama football? Directional bias.
I’m perfectly comfortable lounging in the hypothetical, but real thinkers want more rigorous standards, so I’ll ask the question: If the only purpose of sentience is primal (You exist as a person separate from all other life forms. Tigers are a life force that would eat you as an appetizer. Good idea to avoid tigers.), I can’t imagine (mentation 201) why we would spend the amount of time that we do in our heads, as it were. To take the issue one step farther, what’s the point of brain activity that often provokes those locked in self-awareness to do everything in their power to shut down the transmitter? Drink, drug, exercise, gamble, shop until somehow the noise inside the head quiets; otherwise unchained humans experience incessant thought about self as being trapped in a kind of cacophonous pinball machine.
How did I get from the trip to Jupiter to unrelenting brain static? I guess I wondered why a trip of more than 500 million miles is an easier trip than an idle visit to a fairly obvious human question. Who, How, Why am I?
I’m inclined to exercise my directional bias toward mystery. It may turn out that it is better not to know how we know, you know?
Every once in awhile, something I’ve heard drops from one shelf in my memory warehouse to the floor, sprays widely, and I am jarred into thought. Something about hearing the word, apology, pulled me back to a Sunday morning years ago.
I am about ten years behind in my listening to This American Life. The bad news? I’m getting farther behind every week; the show celebrated its 500th broadcast two years ago and is still going strong. Good news? There is an odd concentration of thought and feeling that comes in listening to a story that was entirely topical when recorded. And, to digress in the service of candor, I listen to some favorites more than once, especially the two great episodes, both of which follow a disabled news team, first presented in “Special Ed – How’s Your News”. I listen to the first story and the follow-up whenever the weight of the world gets too great; apparently we have heroes all about us.
In any case, a shuffle of archived shows brought me “Apology” and an episode I probably think about four or five times a week, “Apology Line”. Here’s the description of the episode as presented by Ira Glass when the episode was rebroadcast in 1997.
” Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today’s program, apologies. Stories of people struggling to apologize against some difficult odds. We’ve arrived act two of our show…, “Dial S for Sorry.”
In 1980, a New Yorker named Allan Bridge set up a telephone line that he called The Apology Line. And the way it worked was that you could call and confess to anything you wanted and you’d be recorded. Or you could call and you could listen to other people’s confessions. And over time– this is all pre-internet days. Over time, the whole thing turned into this little community of confession. People recorded messages responding to each other’s apologies. Mr. Apology, Allan Bridge, would leave messages responding to messages himself. Or sometimes he would call callers off the line and talk to them.”
Some of the apologies are fairly innocuous, some are appalling, and some are devastating. A caller lists the various violent and dangerous acts he has perpetrated on teachers, schools, governmental buildings, and individuals. The shift to a slightly higher degree of injury (fire bombings) is deleivered with little inflection. The call ends on this note:
“I’m sorry for the way I’m calling right now. I’m calling by way of a phony credit card. I’m sorry for harassing the teacher in school. I feel bad about it. I’d like to have a new lease on life.
What else? I’m sorry for just harassing a lot of people. For causing pain to my family. I felt so sad I was sick. I was sick by it. That’s all I have to say. So long.”
A runaway checks in:
Hi, I’m a runaway and all I want to say is that I’m kind of sorry that I left. See, I’m 15 and I saw your number in the newspaper. When I saw it, I had to call because I mean, you walk around on the streets all day long just looking for someone that just might say, hey, want a place to go? Come with me. They’ll give you food and everything. And they won’t ask or anything back. That’s all I want. I guess I take up too much time on the tape. But I just got to talk.
A phone call allows a surviving son to admit that he extorted payment from his dying mother, charging her $5.00 for a glass of water, $10.00 for a sandwich.
The call that caused me to pull my car to the side of the road came from a man whose confession was coldly lacking in affect.
“I’ve never told anyone this except my shrink. I accidentally killed my younger sister when I was a very small child and it’s haunted me all my life because I didn’t really mean it. It was just a game to me and I was really too young to realize what I was doing. And I was putting her head inside a plastic garbage bag and putting a rubber band around her neck just to see her face turn blue. I guess it was a lot of fun and I didn’t mean anything bad to happen. But I guess I didn’t realize what would happen if I did this too long and she suffocated. I hid the plastic bag and I went out of the house. My parents weren’t home. And they never found out. They thought it was crib death. They never found out I did it.
I’ve never been able to tell them. I think it would hurt them worse than losing her to find out that I did it. I kind of wish my parents could hear this tape, but I guess they never will.”
I guess it was a lot of fun.
Let’s be clear. That’s NOT an apology.
While there is value in confession, even the sort of anonymous confessions made on the Apology Line, an apology begins with the understanding that harm has been done, moves quickly to the assumption of responsibility, and then to an expression of regret, followed by an open-ended willingness to do what is necessary to make the situation right.
It’s human nature to hope that an apology will bring forgiveness, and it may, but an apology offered in exchange for forgiveness is essentially a transaction, hoping words are currency. They aren’t.
I had to learn that my version of apology was often simply an excuse. “I’m sorry, but that guy on the bus who stood on my toe made me so mad that I snapped at you.” That’s not an apology; it’s a defense of my behavior.
I was also the master of other equally bad apologies.
For example, I have learned that adding the word “if” turns the responsibility for injury back on the person I’ve injured. “I’m sorry IF you took it that way.” Uh, obviously my remark was taken as I intended it; I just hoped I could duck out of responsibility for it.
I could be even more offensively weaselish. “Ok, I’m sorry I didn’t show up, but YOU are the one who wanted me to clean up the garage.” The unfinished end of the sentence is, “so it’s your fault.”
It’s a slightly more authentic apology when statements of regret bump into boundaries. “I’m sorry I barked at you, but you kept leaning into me while I was trying to explain.” I’m rarely healthy enough to say. I’m sorry I barked at you. I’m still trying to figure out how to express myself when I’m uncomfortable.”
I may not be alone in not wishing to be held accountable for my actions, but I think I developed some advanced skill in pulling myself out of contact as consequences drew near. I know I’m still withholding when I apologize so generally or so abstractly that there is no texture or weight to my apology. The worst is flippant. “Sorry about that.” Only slightly better is, “I’m sorry for whatever it is that I’ve done. ” Marginally better? “I’m sorry for everything.” The shield is in place even as the words are said.
I have had to learn that an apology demands clarity. “I’m sorry I pouted and slammed dishes rather than talking about what was on my mind.”
The final level of apology has to do with contrition, authentic regret or remorse coupled with determination not to repeat the hurtful behavior. In some cases, an authentic apology demands a next question. “What can I do to make this situation better?”
That’s it,for apologies, unless I’ve offended anyone. IF I’ve offended it was because I’ve been running a fever and lost my favorite pair of sneakers, and YOU are the one who chose to read this stupid blog post anyway. Sorry about that.
Every Cineaste has a “pantheon”, a critical assessment of the directors and works that are unassailably the most significant films of all time. Some stick with the New Wave: Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol. For others, it’s Hitchcock, or Scorsese, or Kurosawa, or Bergman,or Welles, or Kubrick, or Fellini. What films are always at the top of the list? Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Rules of the Game, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Searchers, Battleship Potemkin, The Seventh Seal. All great films.
The same group confesses to what they call “Guilty Pleasures,” films so mainstream, so conventional, that no amount of critical jargon can elevate them beyond personal partiality as trivial entertainment. I’m quite fond of the films they nominate (Valley of the Dolls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Barbarella, The Boys From Brazil, Willard, Point Break) but each has a critical point of connection in terms of auteur (Russ Meyer) or actor (Crispin Glover, Sir Lawrence Olivier) that the films can be seen, at the very least, as worthy of polite, demi-eyebrow-raised discussion. The Love Bug and Honey? Gator and Bullet to the Head? Eye of the beholder.
I studied with Jeanine Basinger at Wesleyan and had the good fortune at the same time to have a slight friendship with Pauline Kael. Both women helped to invent the language of film criticism, and both women held films to a very high standard. They were each capable of writing and speaking with crisp insight, holding directors responsible for failure to make a film that kept its promise; they believed that form and meaning were essentially bound together; a film better look and play to some purpose other than flash and sizzle.
Kael wrote, “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we can’t appreciate great trash, there is little reason for us to go.” In print and in private, Pauline Kael enjoyed steamy, sexy films, especially those with lots of sweating, well muscled, lithe, lightly clothed actors, as long as the film did not drop into pathos. She loved Paul Newman’s Hud in part because he is an unredeemed heel and did not jump on the bandwagon when Scorsese’s Raging Bull was the critics’ favorite because she felt the film was suffused with sentimentality and self-pity, despite occasional physical brutality. As a critic, Kael thought Hud was sloppy; at home, she though Newman was a hunk.
Jeanine Basinger has a very clear critical voice and is among the most widely published of academic film critics and historians. She is a remarkable teacher, in part because she combines a love and reverence for film and for its history with a sharp critical eye. One of the highlights of my work with film came in listening to Jeanine as she screened Johnny Guitar; she noted every decision Nicholas Ray had made, essentially allowing us to see how a director creates a universe of incredible density and intensity. That said, she treasures the films of Frank Capra, has written about Lana Turner, Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, and a history of marriage in the movies. She is a curator, historian, critic, and above all, enthusiast. I owe my love of Preston Sturges to her, and it is with Sturges that I start the list of films that are pretty great.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Watching a Preston Sturges film is like being trapped UNDER a deeply cynical elder aunt maintaining scathing and wickedly funny patter as the thoroughly dysfunctional family moving through the room takes pratfall after pratfall. Sturges’ films are so tightly packed, both visually and with overlapping dialogue, that it may take more than one viewing to fully appreciate how cleverly ordinary exchanges become indelibly funny. Eddie Bracken frequently plays what I can only describe as an Everyman WASP nebbish/schlemiel, a nervous Charlie Brown, in this film Norval Jones, categorized as unfit for service, pining for blonde Betty Hutton,as Trudy Kockenlocker, a ditzy small town beauty who extends herself in every way to servicemen heading off to combat. Finding herself pregnant with no available husband, she enlists Jones as a stand-in, presenting himself as the father, although Trudy can’t remember the name of her one-night adventure. “It had a z in it. Like Ratzkywatzky or was it Zitzkywitzky?” Comedies about unwed mothers were verboten; censorship applied by the Hays Office (Motion Picture Production Code) prevented showing a married couple in the same bed and what they termed, “heavy kissing”. So, As Critic James Agee observed, “The Hays office must have been raped in its sleep” when Morgan’s Creek was released.
Ball Of Fire
I’m increasingly aware of the charm that seasoned character actors brought to the films their studios shot during the height of the studio system. A film programmer once asked me who my favorite actor was from that era, and my first thought was S.Z. Sakall, known to those who loved him as “Cuddles” Sakall. Casual filmgoers will know him as Carl, the headwaiter in Rick’s Club in Casablanca, or as Barbara Stanwyck’s chef, Felix Bassenak in Christmas in Connecticut. Sakall is one of seven professors living together as they compile an encyclopedic account of all things known. Think Snow White and seven brainy dwarves, one of whom is Gary Cooper, playing against type as a lanky academic, Professor Bertram Potts, untutored in affairs of the heart. Snow White in this case is anything but snow white; Barbara Stanwyck plays Sugarpuss O’Shea, a hip singer in a nightclub and a gangster’s moll on the lam, hiding out in the encyclopedists’ lair. Cooper and Stanwyck make a charming set of unlikely lovers, but the real texture of the film is in the various backstories of the remaining professors, each of which falls for Sugarpuss in his own gentle fashion. In addition to Sakall (eminently cuddly in this outing), the experts include Oskar Homolka (crusty uncle in I Remember Mama, frequently cast as dangerous spy from somewhere in Eastern Europe), Henry Travers (Guardian Angel, Clarence, in It’s A Wonderful Life), Tully Marshall (A Yank At Oxford), Leonid Kinskey (bartender, Sascha, in Casablanca), and Richard Haydn (Max Detweiler in Sound of Music). Gene Krupa puts in a cameo appearance as the star drummer in Sugarpuss’ nightclub, playing Drum Boogie on matchsticks, Allan Jenkins is a garbageman (voice of Officer Dibble in cartoon, Top Cat), and Elisha Wood is a waiter. Wood is a smarmy and ineffectual hoodlum in dozens of films, perhaps best known as the creep, Wilmer, in The Maltese Falcon, and is always a good bet to be the first to die in any film in which he appears. This great supporting cast bring out the best in Sugarpuss and Potts and makes this a thoroughly charming film.
Big Trouble In Little China
Big Trouble is as close to a successful self-aware pulp mash-up as you are likely to find. John Carpenter’s fondness for genre films has allowed him to turn out some dandies (Halloween, Starman, Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness), each of which has the Carpenter touch, a mixture of genuine appreciation of the tropes of the genre and a wry admission of the silliness inherent in the genre. In writing Assault On Precinct 13, Carpenter challenged himself to meld together two films he much admired, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. All for under $100,000.00. Genius! Similarly, when Carpenter was handed a project set in the American West in the 1880’s, it was but the work of a moment to transform it into a Chinese mysticism and martial arts film set in contemporary San Francisco. Kurt Russell plays a wisecracking truck driver, marvelously overconfident and monumentally ill equipped for the battles he will have to wage against The Lords of Death, a street gang set on kidnapping a young woman who will serve the needs of evil sorceror, Lo Pan (James Hong in a role that only he could play), and the Three Storms (Gigantic Chinese martial artists portraying the elemental forces of Thunder, Rain, and Lightning). There’s another war afoot between two competing ancient societies, Chang Sing and Wing Kong, allowing for widespread and almost constant mayhem (Carpenter had been dying to do a martial arts film) interrupted by two slight love stories. Russell’s macho posturing is a send-up of John Wayne at his most oblivious and, set against the creepily mythic forces with which he contends, truly memorable.
The Court Jester
Danny Kaye deserves his own tribute site, but The Court Jester may be the most enduringly accessible of the Kaye’s films (with the obvious exception of White Christmas). The premise is entirely familiar: Lumpish, greedy pretender (character actor Cecil Parker)has taken the throne abetted by a scheming advisor who wields a mean sword (Basil Rathbone, villainous Sheriff of Nottingham in Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood). A princess (Angela Lansbury well before her stint as Jessica Fletcher on Murder She Wrote) falls for Kaye’s character, an ineffectual hanger-on in the band of woodmen led by a ersatz Robin Hood, known in this pastiche, as The Black Fox. Through a series of misadventures, Kaye has to prevent the rotters from finding and eliminating the true heir. On the way to the castle, he falls for one of the Black Fox’s company, an extremely competent young woman (Stunningly young Glynis Johns, honey-voiced, most known now as the suffragette mom in Mary Poppins) and is forced to impersonate the most celebrated jester of his time in order to worm his way into the inner circle at court. There are many unexpected pleasures, but the best may be the extended duel between Rathbone and Danny Kaye, who slips in and out of hypnosis, alternately quivering wimp and contemptuous expert
This film is lavish in set and color, the most expensive comedy of its time, and a semi-musical romance as well. Kaye often performed the giddily goofy wordplay concocted by his wife, Sylvia Fine, a songwriter peculiarly gifted in the art of composing tongue-twisting novelty songs, done famously by Kaye, often in an assumed accent.
Tommy Lee Jones, Harvard roommate of Al Gore, All-Ivy football player, English major plays competent, tough, principled men with unfailing sensitivity. His performance in No Country For Old Men is heartbreaking, and his pursuit in The Fugitive set the bar for all bounty hunters. He’s on the hunt again in this film, but he is chasing a resourceful wronged wife, Ashley Judd this time. I don’t know if there is a badly-used-wife thriller genre (Sleeping with the Enemy, Enough), but this one has all the most disturbing of the elements, including injury, betrayal, and a contrived conviction for a murder. Both Jones and Judd are strong in their roles, and their adventure is filmed against some delicious backdrops. This is a clever edge of the seat chase film with balance and enough suspense to keep it moving well.
Point of No Return
Let’s start with Miguel Ferrer. He’s a good person. Really. He’s been kind to me. On the screen, however, he’s the best bad guy ever. His mom, Rosemary Clooney, probably never thought her little boy would turn out to be the oily villain in Robo Cop and the terrifying Shan Yu in Mulan. Happily, Ferrer is not the only horrible person in Point of No Return. How about Harvey Keitel as “the cleaner”, and this is 1993, well before Pulp Fiction. In fact, Bridget Fonda is wholeheartedly horrible at the outset, and increasingly dangerous from her point of no return as a highly trained assassin. I like the original, Nikita, directed by Luc Besson, and I like the John Badham version on its own merits, partly because the transformation Bridget Fonda undergoes as she is remade from skanked out drug addict to sleek human weapon and partly because Venice (California) looks fabulous. I don’t know that Joss Whedon absorbed the tone and shape of this film in conceiving the tv show, Dollhouse, but there are resonances that can’t be ignored. The soundtrack is remarkable; Nina Simone sings, “Here Comes the Sun”, “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”, “Feeling Good,” Wild is the Wind,” and a soul-searing version of “Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair.”
I know, the premise, putting a Playboy bunny in place as a sorority housemother, appears slight, and the weight of a thousand tasteless and almost routinely offensive Frat/College/Late Adolescent films is a profound burden, but The House Bunny is disarmingly sweet, essentially repurposing Ball of Fire by dropping good-hearted Anna Faris in the midst of the Nerd House, a collection of social misfits (Emma Stone, Katharine McPhee, Rumer Willis, Kat Denning among others), allowing each to bring out hidden capacities. Some of the charm is in seeing Emma Stone emerge from gawky, self-conscious goofiness to the hesitant beauty we have come to know. At the time, Stone had done a few television shows (Malcolm in the Middle), and had appeared in Judd Apatow’s Superbad, but was still a relative unknown. She’d hit it big in the next few years (Zombieland, Easy A), but was already unerringly effective in creating a character that was awkwardness personified. There are fairly conventional geek vs sorority queen sequences, but the abiding good heartedness of this film allows a conventional comedy to take on some surprising weight. A particular treat, I contend, is the trio (Stone, Rumer Willis, and Kat Dennings) backing Katharine McPhee’s take on the Waitresses song, “I Know What Boys Like.”
N.B. This is the opportunity to give credit to Kirsten Smth and Karen McCullah (formerly Karen McCullah Lutz) who wrote some of the most engaging of films in the genre that came to be called Girl Power. The two combined to write or co-write Ten Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde, Ella Enchanted, She’s the Man, and The House Bunny. You can add any of these to yet another list of films that are pretty great.
What About Bob
Movies that bristle with animosity rarely appear in the ranks of most appreciated comedies, but the descent of a noted Psychiatrist (Richard Dreyfuss) into frenzied retaliatory madness provoked by an unrelentingly needy patient (Bill Murray) works because Dreyfuss is put upon to just the right degree of insult and Murray demolishes boundaries with the clumsiness of a charismatic narcissist. Dreyfus is pompous enough to deserve some of the misfortune he encounters, and Murray is intrusive enough to make Dreyfus’ fury reasonable. The psychiatrist’s family, which could have become collaterally damaged, has been waiting for the transparent vulnerability Murray’s character brings to their summe retreat. Julie Haggerty, often given the role as a flighty and over-nervous woman, is kind and competent in this film. Son, Siggy (Sigmund) is played by Charlie Korsmo, a terrific child actor, who also played Robin William’s son, Jack in Hook. Korsomo left acting behind, went to MIT and then to Yale Law School – film’s loss. Daughter, Anna, is played by Katherine Erbe, now a regular on Law and Order: Criminal Intent and also a death row inmate on HBO’s Oz. For many, young Erbe has one of the most memorable scenes, as a fully sentient teen forced to communicate with her psychiatrist father through the use of hand puppets. Pretty great.
Get Over It
I can’t watch Martin Short for too long; his mastery of character is so painfully compelling, and those characters are ALWAYS grotesque and unsettling, that I have to take ten minutes to breathe a bit.. His work on Saturday Night Live is well documented, but he has been equally disturbing on Canada’s SCTV , in a number of cameo roles (Plastic Surgeon on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt!), as a host of various interview shows as an assumed persona, and in a series of impersonations that are devastatingly funny (Manic Jerry Lewis Telethon). All of which is to say that Short, a drama teacher in this teen romantic comedy mash up of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and any number of high school comedies (Clueless?) simply adds spice to a very strong cast. Ben Foster, Kirsten Dunst, and Shane West are the teens central to the romantic triangle, but older protective brother, Colin Hanks, rivals Short, essentially setting blind date Carmen Electra on fire in a Hibachi restaurant. The auditions for the musical version of Midsummer, a predictably terrible adaptation scripted by quintessentially narcissistic drama teacher (Short), may be entirely too close to the real thing.
State And Main
I’m a fan of ensemble films, movies that bring a great cast together and allow characters to bump up against each other in ways that drive the narrative but also reveal texture of relationships. Christopher Guest assembles ensembles in that fashion, bringing a cast from one film to the next, allowing actors to play differing sorts of roles, as in Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration. Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and the Coen brothers also carry actors from script to script, maintaining a balance among actors, even when an A list star is in the cast. America’s Sweethearts brings an ensemble together as does Love Actually.
State and Main is an ensemble film (William H. Macey, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Stiles, Charles Durning, Rebecca Pidgeon, Patti LuPone, Clark Gregg, Ricky Jay, Jonathan Katz, and John Krasinski) set in a small New England town. This is a version of the backstage film written with wry good humor by David Mamet. Mamet also directed, as he did The Spanish Prisoner, with the sort of attention to dialogue that allows actors of this calibre to flex their comedic muscles. Baldwin’s engorged libido has forced the cast of a film in production to flee the small town in New Hampshire appropriate to their needs to an equally small town in Vermont that is little prepared for the havoc the production will bring. The leading lady, Sarah Jessica Parker, refuses to do a nude scene unless she is paid what amounts to the film’s entire shooting budget. The leading man, Baldwin, sets his sights on an under ages Julia Stiles. Philip Seymour Hoffman, the screenwriter asked to modify the script as accident and human failings change the circumstance of filming, is charming and vulnerable as he battles a severe case of panic/writer’s block. Any one of these actors could be singled out as remarkable; the ensemble is, well, pretty great.