Octoberfest

I missed a really good baseball game tonight.

Because I am a Yankees fan “abroad” I have to subscribe to Major League Baseball’s online service to watch their games in low-quality streaming video. Except when they are in the Midwest–my “local market”–then the games are blacked out. Evidently I’m supposed to subscribe to cable or satellite as well. This means I wasn’t able to watch the 1-0 White Sox-Twins game, even though they were playing four hours away from here.

But it sounds like a great game. I look forward to reading about it in the paper tomorrow. I’m glad to see an underachieving team like the White Sox was able squeak past the vastly inferior Twins into the playoffs. Why can’t the Yankees be in the Central Division?

To commemorate this dreadful Yankees season, I wanted to write a player-by-player airing of grievances, but since I don’t have anything truly original to say about them I’ll desist.

So here are my foster teams for October: the Tampa Bay Rays and the Chicago Cubs. The Rays are the real deal. They not only won the toughest division in baseball but they exceeded expectations with astonishing consistency. As for the Cubs, they were the only truly excellent team in the National League. They just won’t be endearing anymore if they screw it up again.

The House Bunny

Anna Faris is underrated. I haven’t seen that much of her before “The House Bunny”. I remember catching a few minutes of “Scary Movie 2” once. She was pretending to walk on the moon, making these big slow steps. She’s a very funny actress.

“The House Bunny” is full of girls (or women playing college students) being funny. Which they don’t get to do very often. Actresses usually play the straight women opposite funny actors, if they feature in funny roles at all. “Tropic Thunder”, which was very funny, barely had any women with a spoken lines. It was that movie’s biggest weakness.

Isaac’s Storm

A recent topic of conversation, besides bank failures and Sarah Palin, is Hurricane Ike. My co-worker, who is also something of a weather buff, recommended “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson, a book about the Galveston hurricane of 1900.

The book is not as impressive as its subject, but it’s a decent read. The first chapter is oppressively descriptive; not bad but with excessive use of a foreboding tone. It gets better after that, but I got tired of paragraphs closing with, “And in two hours they would be dead” or something like it. It’s not a like a novel where we don’t know the ending and foreshadowing is a useful device. There are some annoying errors, like misspellings and the repeated use of “altitude” when he means “elevation”.

The title is a little misleading. Isaac Cline, the local Weather Bureau station chief, for whom the book is also a biography, really had nothing to do with the forecasting of the storm. He underestimated it right up until it started destroying the city. The book lacks maps and photographs: there are a couple of crummy maps at the beginning, and no photographs except the illustration on the jacket cover. For a book that deals with geography and archival materials, this is unbelievable. And, despite all his parsing of Galveston in 1900, Larson does not give a population figure that I can find.

That being said, “Isaac’s Storm” includes an interesting chapter the history of climatology up to 1900. Larson digs up some of the political forces at work in the Weather Bureau. His accounts of the storm from multiple points of view are excellent and reflect a good deal of meticulous research. The varied perspectives give a human element to a story that could have been overloaded with facts and statistics. His description of the death and destruction wrought on Galveston is a bit voyeuristic but appropriate for the impact it needs to deliver.

“Isaac’s Storm” is worth borrowing from the library, but poor editing keeps it from being a great book.

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?

I really liked Morgan Spurlock’s film from a few years ago, “Super Size Me”. His films are a little like Michael Moore’s but less caustic.

“Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” documents his ostensible search for Number One Bastard. That is more like an excuse to talk to lots of people in Islamic countries. He’s at his best in these interviews and he lets the human side of his subjects come out. Which, it turns out, the point of the film: the typical Muslim isn’t very scary or very different from us.

A few of the people he interviewed said they like Americans but not our government. Their problem is with our foreign policy. I’ve heard this before. It’s either a convenient way to express mixed feelings about the U.S., or they don’t believe that, unlike their own, our government is representative. After all, there are a frightening numbers of people in this country who are comfortable dehumanizing people in other countries. We’ve all heard “we should just nuke them” before, right? Maybe someone from the Middle East should make a film interviewing regular Americans to see what they are really like.

Nah, that’ll never happen.

Tropic Thunder

“Tropic Thunder” met my expectations. It’s great if you can handle off-color and politically incorrect humor. In other words, if you’re an adult. That being said, it’s definitely a “guy movie”. I can’t recall any significant female parts, except in vulgar verbal descriptions.

The first time I had ever heard of blackface acting (my mom explained it to me), I was outraged. People were so racist that they would rather see whites playing blacks than blacks? It was offensive beyond my imagination. I was surprised when I first saw Robert Downey, Jr. would be playing a black man, but in fact he’s playing a white man playing a black man, and the movie treats it as absurd. The other controversial part of the movie, Ben Stiller’s character’s portrayal of a mentally retarded man-child, is in the same vein. The whole movie is a parody of Hollywood’s weird, self-absorbed business.

See it often.

On bad satire

The operators of a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville were charged this week with breaking child labor laws and child endangerment. The plant owners are Hasidic Jews from New York. The pictures in the newspaper are of two hook-nosed old men with beards and hats. They look like actors hired to play Shylock.

I was going to write something sardonic about how we finally have some Jewish stereotypes to kick around again. It wasn’t working and fearing someone would take it the wrong way, like the Barack and Michelle Obama cartoon on the cover of “The New Yorker”, I stopped writing it.

This bit of politically correct self-censorship gave me some pause at first, but I know my limits as a writer. The problem with bad satire is that only I would know it was satire.

The strange case of Sarah Palin

Everybody is ga-ga over Sarah Palin lately, and I think this is a case of liking a politician mostly because you don’t know anything about her. In fact there’s been some buzz about her late unwillingness to answer any questions or deviate from her convention speech. I suppose there is some virtue to being a small town, rugged Alaskan type (or at least being married to one), but it would be nice if she had some grasp of the issues that we lesser Americans find interesting.

The media kept repeating last week that Sarah Palin had “energized the Republican’s conservative base” without giving a single example (likewise Joe Biden was credited with bringing blue-collar workers into the Obama fold in spite of the evidence that his own presidential campaigns revealed no meaningful national constituency). This week, though, it turns out she is indeed a wacky Christian.

So here’s some doublethink for you: conservative commentators regularly excoriate single mothers (Jim DeMint, senator from South Carolina once proposed banning them from teaching jobs) but shrug off Sarah Palin’s daughter’s failure to heed her abstinence mantra. I’m glad she’s going to have a bastard grandchild; maybe the stigmatizing will finally stop.

In this week’s Economist, Lexington opined that McCain’s choice of Palin has neutralized his ability to criticize Obama’s inexperience, and this throws his own judgment into question. But what if it works the other way, by causing Obama to attack her lack of experience he continually exposes himself to the same; in other words, depriving himself of the ability to neutralize that criticism. Might McCain’s strategy and judgment turn out to be pretty good? There’s some more doublethink at work.

What will save us from this sideshow is that most of us don’t vote for the vice-presidential candidate.

1984

Way back in high school, I borrowed a copy of 1984, by George Orwell, from the school library. I made it through only a few chapters. This week I finished it.

What a dismal story: authoritarianism taken to its logical extreme, stripped of any facade of humanism or justice, existing only to enslave and demean people. Orwell had a very good insight into the psychology of authoritarianism. He used the term “doublethink” to describe accepting two opposing ideas at the same time. We usually call this hypocrisy and I’ve been hearing a lot of it lately, John McCain and Barack Obama.

River towns

To break the boredom today I took a little drive down to Burlington and Muscatine along the Mississippi River.

Burlington is a an old railroad town. It’s a city in the old sense: block after block of beautiful old brick commercial buildings and stone churches, and crowded districts of old factories and warehouses. Though pretty, it was an odd place. A lot of cars were parked in the street but very few people walked around and it seem that there’s not much to do there. I walked around a little bit and took a few photos. I found Snake Alley, a brick side street that winds its way down a block of a steep hillside.

From Burlington I drove up a county to Toolesboro, home of the Toolesboro Indian Mounds. The mounds are Middle Woodland burial sites. I had a nice conversation with the old lady in the visitor center. They have some nice exhibits there. Unfortunately, their artifacts on display are all replicas because they were robbed clean a number of years ago.

I made my way up to Muscatine, another river town. Like Burlington, Muscatine has a big old downtown for little city, a reminder of its heyday as a manufacturing center. Muscatine was known as the Pearl Button Capital of the World because of the dozens of factories that turned local freshwater clams into buttons. As in a lot of industries environmental degradation, foreign competition, and changing fashions wrecked the pearl button industry, but they still make plastic buttons in Muscatine. The Pearl Button Museum tells all about it.

Iowa’s river towns remind me of the towns down on the Mississippi in Mississippi like Natchez, Vicksburg, and Greenville: former regional commercial centers that may have lost their economic edge but none of their beauty.

McCain

John McCain’s speech was a very good one, but it was a bit light on the specifics that a lot of people like to look for. I did find a set of noble guiding principles that he will follow if elected. Can he deliver? I fear that despite his sincerity, he will not be able to change the Republican Party away from the cabal on the far right, one that is an exceptional danger to this country.

The positive is that it looks like we have two exceptional and talented candidates. I’ll give this one some serious thought.

The Great Gatsby

After a short discussion with someone a couple of weeks ago about “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald– short because I had never read it– I borrowed it from the library. I was surprised how short it was. Fitzgerald packed a lot of good descriptions into it anyway:

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

He may as well have painted it.

The main character and narrator, Nick, is a sensible Midwestern type who witnesses the dalliances of New York’s super-rich, people who have nothing better to do except make each other miserable. He introduces himself as a good and impartial observer, which has “made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.” Gatsby is his mysterious neighbor. We’ve all known a Gatsby, an acquaintance outwardly impressive but as full of the same squishy goo as the rest of us.

If I pick up anything else by Fitzgerald, it will be because I like his flair for being succinct and vivid at the same time. That’s a writing skill I wish I could master.

The Dark Knight

I drove out to West Liberty for some good Mexican food and to see “The Dark Knight”. Lots of good actors here. The movie is a little too long. There are one or two twists too many, which makes it hard to follow Gotham’s complicated ethics and only belabors the point that the Joker is so evil (he’s more like an anarchist or a nihilist) that he turns everything upside down. Heath Ledger was great. There’s not much more I can say about him that you can’t read from a competent critic.

I like the direction this recent incarnation of the Batman movie franchise is taking, mostly because of the better acting. I did not like Tim Burton’s version and its successors. They got stale fast with the parade of celebrities dressing up as villains and phoning in their roles. I’m still disgusted with Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in… I don’t remember which one it was. All I remember is that a good and sincere actor was wasting his time and ours.

And for all the perpetual effort to get the campy Adam West taste out of our mouths, Batman is still a comic book character. Bruce Wayne is still a guy in a bat costume (a bat costume for goodness sake!) fighting crime with his bare hands. It will always be campy. Remember the plot by the Society of Evil Bastards to evaporate the city water supply or whatever in “Batman Begins”? Why didn’t they just unleash some more of their plague rats? I didn’t get it, and so it goes with “The Dark Knight”. It was worth the four dollars I paid at the little one-screen restored downtown theater where I saw it. It would have been worth eight or whatever it costs at a big multiplex.

p.s. No matter how good an idea you think it is, it is never, ever, EVER a good idea to bring a baby to a movie. NEVER! Leave the baby home with Grandma!