Monday, March 30, 2009


The last time I watched The Graduate I was around the same age that Dustin Hoffman was during filming (29, for those of you interested in trivia). I watched it again last night at around the same age as Mrs. Robinson (mid-40s, although Anne Bancroft was only 35 during filming, and that's it for trivia). All those years ago I experienced the film as the comedy/satire it's marketed to be, but age tempered my reaction. Yes, it is, in places, a very funny film, but it's ultimately an extremely sad, if not bitter, statement about post-war American bourgeois culture.

The film was released, and set, in 1967. Benjamin Braddock has just graduated from college and returned to his ancestral Pasadena home. From the establishing shots through the first half of the film he is portrayed as isolated, alone, and adrift. He walks zombie-like through LAX, attempts to disengage from the graduation party filled with his parents' friends, in fact appears to have no friends or social circle of his own. He is cut off from his parents' generation, the scuba suit in the suburban swimming pool just a literalization of his ennui. With the exception of Elaine, no one in his life even has a first name; not even a summer of sex with Mrs. Robinson personalizes her to the point where she can be named.

The affair itself does nothing to ground Benjamin, offering as it does only sex without real human contact. When he and Mrs. Robinson finally, at Ben's insistence, spend a few minutes talking, it only serves to show how cut off all human beings are from one another in this particular plastic-worshiping culture, rather than how they might engage. Benjamin's elders have nothing to offer him, and he can't imagine finding a home in their world.

On the other hand, although critics have interpreted the film as a statement on the "generation gap," Benjamin is equally estranged from his peer group. This is evidenced not only by the fact that he appears to have no peer group, but also in his character itself. He is clean-cut, polite, obedient. His disaffections are never turned outward. Unlike his contemporaries, he does not protest, demonstrate, grow out his hair, experiment with drugs. Before Mrs. Robinson he's even a virgin. His generation's preoccuations - free speech, free love, civil rights, Vietnam - are neither mentioned nor alluded to. His generation provides him no more succor than that of his parents.

His one act of rebellion, one moment of engagement, is his single-minded pursuit of Elaine, a pursuit that borders on the monomaniacal. He and Elaine in fact hardly know each other, and the fact that he feels so connected to her speaks more about the lack of connections in his life than it does about their relationship. The film appears to end in truimph, as Elaine flees the church with Benjamin to get on that bus and escape the marriage her parents have forced her into.

Look again at that final shot, though, and you see that this is as much a moment of confusion as it is of triumph. We see them looking out the back window, laughing as they are driven away. We then cut to the other passengers, turning in their seats to stare at the couple. They are isolated, cut off from the family at the church behind them and from the adults on the bus in front of them. This echoes the opening shot of the film, where a close-up of Benjamin's face pulls away to reveal the other passengers on the plane taking him home to LA, each in separate seats, each in separate worlds. The film dissolves to black with a shot of the couple sitting, staring ahead, blank looks on their faces. They don't know what to say, they don't know what to do, they don't know where the bus is heading. They may be "free," but they are also lost.

We end exactly where we began. Benjamin has achieved his quest only to find not the holy grail but instead a long road to nowhere on a bus filled with strangers. The greatness of this film lies not in the moments of pure comedy for which it is remembered but instead in the fact that pure comedy can be found even in this vast, desolate, uniquely American wasteland.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Magnificent Obsession

Like all obsessions, it began innocently enough. Join Facebook, my friend said, so you can play this game called Mafia Wars. It's really fun, it's a strategy game. I thought I might as well give it a try. After all, the whole thing was free.

I started slowly, not exactly sure what I was doing, but within a week I'd progressed to a level of play where I'd begun to acquire things: tommy guns, grenades, hideouts, body armor, members of my crew. Strangers began attacking me, which pissed me off. I acquired more defense and more attack, more weapons and more energy and more crew members. I began randomly attacking strangers in kind. I needed to do more jobs to pay for all the stuff I was acquiring, and then I needed more stuff in order to do more jobs. Suddenly it became necessary for me to log on to play the game three or four times a day in order to protect my assets, launder my money, ensure the survival of my character.

And so here we are, three weeks later. Because I work on my computer most of the day it's possible for me to check in on the game every few hours, and I find myself doing just that. I'm always running short of energy, but I can fill out ridiculous consumer surveys that lead nowhere but provide me with enough points to refill my energy and play the game even more. It's a downward spiral, solitaire on crack. I need help.

It would help if more people joined my mafia, but then again a larger crew would just enable me to fight and win more often, and to purchase more safe houses. What I really need is a different online activity, one that's less addictive. Or a real life. I need for spring to finally really arrive, so I can leave my house and turn my back on the soft glowing call of my monitor, sucking me in. Maybe what I need is to finally and irreversibly be whacked. Someone, please kill me, so I can live again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another Haiku

8 AM meetings
are something less than humane.
I envy my dog.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Kleenex in pocket,
I turn into my mother.
Emery boards are next.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Waiting On My Bonus

Our tax dollars are hard at work, paying performance bonuses to AIG executives. The debate over whether or not the bonuses should have been paid is now three days old and makes me sleepy, so I'm not going to join in. Instead, I would like to formally request that the federal government pay me a bonus for my stellar 2008 fiscal and executive performance. The highlights:

1. Having bought a new house in September 2007, I attempted to sell my old house at precisely the wrong time, and listed said house for too much money. In 2008, I continued to be unable to sell the old house and watched its value plummet. However, I did find tenants for the house, turning what was a street of homeowners into a street with a rental property and thereby further eroding the value of that particular asset. Bonus time!

2. I sold my business in August, 2008 and began looking for work in the fall, at precisely the time when the financial crisis hit hard. In other words, I have been looking for work in the middle of nationwide hiring freezes. However, because I was self-employed I do not qualify for unemployment benefits. My lack of employment is in this sense actually bringing added value to the American taxpayer by not costing him a cent. For this lack of planning and foresight I should be rewarded.

3. When my investments lost 35% of their value through the end of last October, I decided that the bottom had clearly arrived and let everything be, single-handedly averting a complete panic. Those assets have since lost even more value, demonstrating the sheer idiocy of a laissez-faire attitude toward the markets. This is precisely the kind of performance that cries out for a bonus.

4. Although I am careful to pay as little in taxes as possible, I believe I am entitled to receive much more in return than I could possibly put in over my lifetime. Isn't that how markets work? Where's my payout?

Surely these arguments are as persuasive as any given by the AIG Corporate Communications office. I shall assume that my check is in the mail.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Pat's Trivia

I don't have a drop of Irish in my blood, but as it turns out my ancestors made an important contribution to the way St. Patrick's Day is celebrated in the United States. Back in Ireland, for centuries March 17 was a holy feast day. People would attend Mass in the morning, then go home and celebrate. Until the 1970s pubs were even closed, hard as that is for Americans to believe. Because March 17 always falls during Lent, Bishops would waive the stricture against meat, and celebrants would consume the traditional feast of Irish bacon and cabbage.

Early Irish immigrants to the US were either upper middle-class or in fact wealthy, but the potato famine brought wave after wave of poor Irish to our shores. Many of them congregated on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where they lived in a ghetto neighboring the Jewish and Italian ghettos. Discrimination kept them poor, and their poverty meant that they couldn't afford the luxury of bacon. The immigrants took a cue from their Jewish neighbors and discovered corned beef, a cheap alternative to bacon. And so we have my great-grandparents, living in poverty somewhere around Hester Street, to thank for today's preponderance of corned beef and cabbage. Sometimes cliches are true: we are all a little bit Irish today.

While I'm on the topic I have one final bit of St. Paddy's trivia. The color normally associated with Saint Patrick is blue. The wearing of green began a couple hundred years ago in the US, and was a show of solidarity with the Irish struggle for independence from England. OK, one last note of trivia and then I'm really done: Saint Patrick was undoubtedly an important guy, but he couldn't have driven all the snakes from Ireland, because Ireland never had any snakes to begin with. The terrain doesn't support them. Happy green drinking to all!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Free the Weeds

I've spent a decent number of hours and a decent number of dollars over the past two weeks to do a spring clean-up in my yard. The fact that I dedicated days to leaf blowing and raking just four months ago seems to have mattered little. I have a partially wooded lot, full of older and not necessarily healthy trees, and winter's after-effects include a yard full of downed branches, sticks, pine needles, and leaves blown over from the neighbor's.

I know some people either like or take satisfaction from yard work, but I'm not one of those people. It feels to me that I'm fighting repeated battles with nature, and nature always wins. Pull a weed and two replace it, cut the grass and it just grows back, trim the hedges and they climb twice as high. Why do we bother?

Until around a hundred years ago, Americans didn't have lawns. Their yards were comprised of dirt and utilitarian vegetable gardens. Until the invention of the lawn mower the only way to trim a lawn was either by scythe or by letting sheep or cattle graze, so it really wasn't worth the bother to plant grass. Our native grasses aren't lawn grass, so until the invention of hybrid grass that could withstand our climate without too much watering, lawns were pretty much the province of the wealthy who could afford the paid labor needed to trim and water grass.

What made people bother? Why replace carefree dirt and healthful gardens with high-maintenance grass? To some degree we have the American Garden Club to thank. During the 1920s these grass enthusiasts waged an aggressive PR campaign promoting the beauty and benefits of the lawn. By then, the middle-class could afford a rotary lawn mower and to buy produce rather than grow it, so the notion of a lawn for every house took hold. To a large degree we also have the American hatred of the weed to thank. One thing manicured grass can do is take up all the space, light, and nutrients available and starve away weeds.

In order to make life easier, or at least to make my life easier, all that would need to happen is that every invasive plant species currently categorized as a weed be recategorized as a thing of beauteous splendor. A cultural appreciation of dandelion, crabgrass, goldenrod, sumac, and every other thing that wants to take over my property would allow me to give my property back to the forces of nature. Nature doesn't want me to have a yard. It wants me to have a clearing filled with sticks and leaves and "weeds." I'm tired of fighting it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Want Candy

When I was a kid jelly beans were my least favorite part of the Easter basket, probably because my mother would buy the cheap crappy grocery store brand. They'd sink to the bottom, to be eaten only once the malted milk eggs, peanut butter eggs, hollow foil-covered bunnies, and even the slowly-hardening Peeps were consumed. But what do kids know? Now that I'm grown and exceedingly saavy, the weeks before Easter are my favorite time of the year simply because that's when the jelly beans come out.

Putting politics aside, we all have Ronald Reagan to thank for the proliferation of Jelly Belly. Unfortunately, I don't think these are particularly good candy; for me, they are too sweet. Around here they also come in packages filled with either 30 or 40 flavors, half of which are gross. Cotton candy? Say what you will about me, but I'm not a two year-old.

No, the best, the supreme, jelly bean is produced by Just Born. They're the good folks who also bring you Peeps and Mike and Ikes, and as gross as those two candies are, the jelly beans are as great. They are medium sized, of medium firmness, slightly but not too sweet, and well enough flavored that you can actually taste the difference between them. The yellow actually has a taste reminiscent of lemon, the orange of oranges, the green of...something green. Better yet are the spice variety, particularly the clove, which actually tastes like clove, and the wintergreen, which can double as a breath mint.

Just as you're thinking I'm ridiculous and obsessive for writing an entire post about jelly beans, let me lead you to this site, or this one. I am not alone. Just Born is located near me in Bethlehem, and I happen to know someone who works there manufacturing Peeps (in particular, she puts the eyes on them, which is a job deserving of a blog post all its own). I have inside information that the jelly beans aren't made year-round, so if you see them in a store near you, pick some up while they're available. It's what Reagan would have done.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Rant About General Motors

I read once that we experience time inverse to our metabolic rate. When you're a kid, with a high metabolism, time seems to stretch forever: Santa will never arrive, summers seem without end. When we're middle-aged, on the other hand, with a slowed metabolism, we can blink and a week has passed. I realized this morning though that time seems to pass so quickly once we become adults simply because more and more of it gets sucked into the vacuum of frustrating stupidity. But two hours dealing with General Motors will do that to a person.

The driver's window on my Saab has a recurring problem. When you close it using the "one touch" button it taps the top, then goes a quarter of the way down. In order to get it to close you have to simultaneously press the child lock button while you hold the window button, an operation that takes two hands. I first experienced this problem a year after purchasing the car. While it was under warranty the dealer "fixed" the sensor with a "software patch" five times. This was last "fixed" last March, and is broken again.

Now that the car is no longer under warranty, Saab has put out a "service bulletin" noting that software patches probably don't work and that what's needed is a new window motor. Duh. So I called demanding that I get a new motor for that window, since this is a recurring problem that has existed since the day I purchased the car. After an hour with the customer care rep, it was decided that I "probably" have a case, but that a dealer needs to provide an official diagnosis to Saab USA (since I'm not under warranty I've been dealing with a mechanic, not the dealer). OK, except I have to pay for the diagnosis.

Another hour of my life was wasted with my arguing that if the diagnosis is in fact that this is the recurring problem that my service records indicate it is I should not have to pay for said diagnosis. If it turns out to be a different problem, fine, I'll pay, but I should not have to pay up front and then hope for some kind of refund. No dice. If I want to have a $35,000 car with a functioning window I also have to fork over $67/hour for a diagnosis to prove that the window has a well-recorded recurring problem.

I have just lost another half hour of my life composing this rant. Sure, my metabolic rate's gradual decline might be hastening the passing of days, but mornings spent like this also play a part. Also, note to Detroit: it's things like this that lead Americans to buy Japanese cars.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Compound Life

What is it about those zany fundamentalist Mormons? They just fascinate me. Big Love got me started; before that show, I'd never given LDS or the FLDS a thought. At heart, all religious stories are fantastic and unreal. To have faith is to suspend disbelief. So, while some people believe in trans-substantiation, others believe Joseph Smith found some golden plates in upstate New York, translated them, and became a prophet. People believe what they believe, no sense going there.

It's when the Little House on the Prairie garb comes out that I become fascinated. Who are these people who believe in sacred underwear? Why do they wear prairie dresses and sweep their hair up into beehive wings? Why do they listen when the Prophet tells them to marry off their barely post-pubescent girls and leave their sons on the side of the road? Why do they obey when music is banned?

Escape and Stolen Innocence, two women's accounts of their life in the FLDS and their escape from it, help to provide some answers. With no contact with the outside world, and having been told from birth that outsiders are evil and the Prophet's way is the only way to the celestial kingdom, it's easy to see how an unquestioning mindset evolves. It's easy to see how and why people live as the FLDS lives, when no other option, no other life, ever presents itself.

To a heathen like me, life on an FLDS compound feels like fiction, so perhaps it makes sense that the most enlightening book on FLDS I've come across is David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife, a novel. Ebershoff entwines two stories: the fictional account of Ann Eliza Young, 19th wife to Brigham Young who leaves the church to prosyletize against polygymy; and the story of Jordan Scott, a contemporary "lost boy" who was banished from a fundementalist compound when he was 14, whose mother, herself a 19th wife, has been accused of murdering his father. The murder mystery and the historical fiction unfold together, and through both well-researched narratives I've learned more about the FLDS mindset than I did from any factual account.

Can I ever really understand why people who live lives so different than mind do what they do, believe what they believe? Probably not, no matter how much I read. However, if I can devour a good murder mystery during my attempt at understanding, so much the better.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Blog Posts, 75% Off

If you have any disposable money, go buy something. I actually bought something yesterday, and then stocks went up, because I'm just that powerful. They probably crashed again by the end of the day, I don't know and am afraid to look. But in the short run, buying things is good. If you haven't been shopping lately, here's a secret: the entire world is on sale. Seriously, nearly every item in every store was on sale. The one advantage to being worth 60% less is that things in turn cost 60% less. Go shopping, people. There must be something you need, and there's surely something you want. That is all.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

In the Hood

Once or twice a day Brody goes on a walkabout around our little neighborhood. I know I'm not supposed to let him do that, but he confines himself to the immediate area and mainly goes from house to house looking to visit with one or another of his dog friends on the block. Often, he'll come home carrying some delectable treat found in a neighbor's yard. The Bichon down the street buries his soup bones, for example, and Brody likes to dig them up, bring them home, and try to hide them in my bed.

In the past year, Brody has also found three antlers, part of a deer hoof, and rawhide chews in various states of decomposition. None of this is weird. Here is what is weird: at least once a week he returns home with an entire piece of fried chicken in his mouth. It's always a thigh, and it's always whole. This never happens on trash day, so wherever he's finding the chicken it's not by rooting through someone's trash. It appears that someone on my block is simply buying large amounts of fried chicken and leaving it out somewhere.

In the summer, the chicken was putrid from the heat. These days it's frozen, and today's piece was coated in snow. I like fried chicken as much as the next person, but I have yet to buy a bunch of it and leave the leftovers in my yard. Why is Brody finding friend chicken in someone's yard? Why is it always thighs? Thighs are the best part. Neighbor, whoever you are, eat the thighs! If you must leave chicken in your yard, leave the wings.

Also, neighbor, fried chicken isn't good for you. Chicken also tastes good roasted, broiled, or grilled. I'm just saying. Also, Brody likes mashed potatoes with his chicken, and maybe a biscuit or two. If you're going to leave a meal in your yard, at least try to make it well-balanced. Finally, neighbor, if this is leftover chicken that you're saving for lunch, well, I'm sorry. Try storing it in the refrigerator next time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Culture High and Low

There's so much television and so little time it's hard for me to even know where to begin. I'll start by noting that, if you're a fan of Life on Mars, either US or UK version, you'll want to know that BBC America will be running Ashes to Ashes, the UK sequel, beginning Saturday night. Sam's story is done; in the sequel, another cop finds himself in the past, this time the past of 1981. I've never seen it so I can't comment on its quality, but I do look forward to finally seeing it.

I felt iffy about Big Love in its first season, liked it a lot more in its second, and am finding the third season frankly incredible. The long hiatus caused by the writers' strike appears to have allowed the writers time to intricately plot this season, and the way various threads hinted at in the past have been brought to the fore and woven together is something to behold. If you haven't been watching there's still time to catch up via On Demand, but you better start now; only three new episodes remain. Prepare yourself emotionally before playing catch-up, though. One of my complaints about the first two seasons has been that the toll of the Hendricksons' chosen life - not just polygamy but the fact that they have chosen a life of secrets, lies, and isolation, and the way their choices effect and affect not only the adults but also the children - had not been dealt with sufficiently. The toll of all choices is dealt with again and again in this season. It's tragic in many ways, and sad, and affecting. Don't miss it.

I have no idea how or why I became addicted to Bravo's Real Housewives shows, but here we are. The OC girls have been put out to pasture for the year not a moment too soon, because the level of downright nastiness between and among them had become as hard as it was fascinating to watch, but now we're back in NYC for a second season, which is reason to rejoice. Like most of America, I spent last season laughing at Alex and Simon's quixotic quest to be something other than the pretentious wannabe poseurs that they so clearly are, but this year they have been supplanted in my affections by the Countess.

The Countess is Luann Somethingorother from Connecticut, who parlayed a minor modeling career into marriage to some minor Eurotrash Count whose family bought a title a couple of generations ago. The Countess hangs onto her title in the way only a chick from working-class Connecticut can. She insists on being called Countess Luann and presents absolutely no indication of any knowledge that the words "Countess" and "Luann" should probably never be placed next to one another. She often referes to herself in the third person, as befitting a royal. "The Countess does not drink from a bottle," she chastised the wait staff at a benefit during the season premier, and I thank her for providing me with a new catchphrase.

Countess Luann is working on a book of etiquette, because people named Luann are naturally savants in this area. In last week's episode she became angry that those attending a funraiser were talking amongst themselves as she was being introduced as a contributor to the charity in question, so she strode onto the stage and shushed the crowd. She then strode back to her seat and proceeded to talk to her tablemates while the M.C. continued with the program. She's an expert, that one.

Catch it on Bravo, Tuesdays at 10, with marathons running pretty much anytime during the week that a Top Chef marathon isn't. You will not be sorry.