Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Two Minutes of Mean

First: I want to be very clear that I have the deepest sympathy for people who were tricked or defrauded into taking on a mortgage they cannot afford, particularly veterans who would have qualified for stable, low-interest Federal loans and were instead funneled into sub-prime and/or adjustable rate mortgages. You were rooked, and I am sorry.

Second: Some people currently affected by the real estate market probably knew they were buying at the top of the market, and carried out their plan, thinking that it still made sense. Now some aspect of their lives have changed, they cannot make their payments, need to sell and cannot. That is a hard situation, and I am sorry.

But if you are basically fine, except for being somewhat underwater on your house: Shut up about it already.

Not just because there are people in much worse situations, although that is a good reason to shut up about it.

No, you should shut up about it because there is NOTHING SPECIAL about your situation. Pretty much everything there is in the whole world loses value as soon as you buy it.

Cars. Food. iPods. Furniture. Clothing. Jewelry with the exception of perhaps a dozen really major pieces, most of which are held by the British royal family or Elizabeth Taylor -- they all lose value as soon as you buy them. Which is to say, having bought a head of lettuce or an iPod Touch, you will not be able to find someone to buy it off of you for anything close to what you paid.

The reason for this is that anything for which there is more supply than demand will experience falling prices.

I know, real estate seemed like a special case, a situation in which demand would outstrip supply forever and ever.

That was wrong. Real estate was not a special case. And hearing people -- smart people, ethical people like Elizabeth Warren -- talk about being underwater on a mortgage as if it were akin to, say, losing your house completely... well, it's infuriating. Let's save our sympathy and our energy for the people who ARE in peril, who WILL lose their houses.

I know it is hard to look at a mortgage and see how many thousands of dollars you owe on a property that is not currently worth that amount. But try not to get too worked up about it.

Think of your home or your condo as a iPhone, which you bought on the first day Apple was selling them. Sure, lots of people paid 10-25% less for the same exact (or even nicer) device, but did they have the use of their iPhone for the last two years? NO! And you did! So you've paid a premium for that convenience -- isn't that one of the foundations of our modern world?

We live in a nation that worships market forces. We seem to think there's no problem in the known world that cannot be fixed by market forces. When GE bumps 200% in 5 years and someone sells his stock to buy a house in Bermuda, we're like: YES! Go market forces!

But these same market forces have dragged down real estate prices, behaving according to the exact same principles of supply and demand that pushed up GE in days of yore. So to stand around now, complaining that It's Not Fair and It's Not Right and I Should Be Able to Adjust My Mortgage Even Though I Can Make My Payments Just Fine?

Shut. Up.

Or failing that, take that head of lettuce back to Whole Foods and see if they'll give you back half the price because now that it's a couple days old, no one will pay you the $7 it originally cost.

It's like gravity. We love gravity when it pulls the basketball through the hoop on a free throw. We love gravity when it drops the club into the hand of the juggler. And you notice that we don't stand around complaining when gravity makes a basketball player hit the ground like a ton of bricks. We don't stand up and yell "Boo gravity! This is bullshit!"

It's the nature of market forces that some prices will rise, and some prices will fall. To get all worked up about the fact that right now, the market is doing what markets do, is like getting angry at gravity for making your pen fall off your desk.

This concludes this week's Two Minutes of Mean. Please return to your regularly scheduled civility and good manners.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Yet More Excerpts of Prose That I Like a Lot

Some good-humored ribbing of David Foster Wallace over at JohnAugust.com sent me on the hunt for a portion of "Infinite Jest" that has stayed with me from the day I read it.

I think I have explained this before, but my position on David Foster Wallace is: Thank God. As in, literally, thank you, God or what/whoever confluence of events and causalities brought him to fiction writing within my life time.

I suspect that my feelings about David Foster Wallace and "Infinite Jest" are roughly akin to cinephile's regard for Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane." Neither the man nor the work are without flaws, but in both cases, you have someone at the top of his game, swinging for the fences with every fiber of his being. Accusations of trying too hard, going too far, not accomplishing his goal -- these are the very things that haunt every artist, and for a brief moment, they both said "Fuck it, I'm going for it." If you love that art form (for me, fiction; for others, film), you are profoundly grateful for their bravery.

Okay, so now that I've bored everyone with my rambling, here is the excerpt, which explains how a tennis player came to join his college football team as a punter, despite a disasterously bad try-out moments earlier:

What metro Boston AAs are trite but correct about is that both destiny's kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person's basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life: (100) i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can't even hear because you're in such a rush to or from something important you've tried to engineer. The destiny-grade event that happened to Orin Incandenza at this point was that just as he was passing glumly under the Home goalposts and entering the shadow of the south exit-tunnel's adit a loud and ominously orthopedic cracking sound, plus then shrieking, issued from somewhere on the field behind him. What had happened was that B.U.'s best defensive tackle -- a 180-kilo future pro who had no teeth and liked to color -- practicing Special Teams punt-rushes, not only blocked B.U.'s varsity punter's kick but committed a serious mental error and kept coming and crashed into the little padless guy while the punter's cleated foot was still up over his head, falling on him in a beefy heap and snapping everything from femur to tarsus in the punter's leg with a dreadful high-caliber snap. Two Pep majorettes and a waterboy fainted from the sound of the punter's screams alone. The blocked punt's ball caromed hard off the defensive tackle's helmet and bounced crazily and rolled untended all the way back to the shadow of the south tunnel, where Orin had turned to watch the punter writhe and the lineman rise with a finger in his mouth and guilty expression. The Defensive Line Coach disconnected his headset and dashed out and began blowing his whistle at the lineman at extremely close ranger, over and over, as the huge tackle started to cry and hit himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand.
This passage arrives at the bottom of p. 291 of the hardcover edition of IJ, and represents the moment when I fell wholly, completely in love with the book and its author. It is probably a mistake to post it here, stripped from the previous 290 pages which, in a variant of Stockholm Syndrome, softened me up like a clementine, until I fell apart at the gentlest touch. And I mean fall apart in several ways, including the vernacular phrase for losing control, as I put my head down on pages 292 and 293 and laughed until I almost could not breathe.

Then I went back and started from "What had happened..." and began to uncontrollably giggle at the phrases "beefy heap."

All the while, btw, my roommates at the time were in the next room, watching an especially farce-heavy "Frasier," a show I loved at the time, and were themselves laughing uproariously at some misunderstood confusion between Daphne and Niles, and still, though I could hear David Hyde Pierce's flawless comic timing wringing gales out of both my roommates and the studio audience, I remained totally absorbed in my book.

A guy named David Bordwell taught film studies when I was at Wisconsin, and as you might expect, he had a giant professor boner for Orson Welles and especially "Citizen Kane." He wrote a textbook that virtually every undergrad at Wisconsin bought or read at one point, myself included, and early on, there's a still from CK, one of those massive-depth-of-frame specials from the newsroom scene. Now, years later, I still understand the technical accomplishment of the shot, but for the life of me, I have no idea what Bordwell thought was so amazing.

I know many people feel that way about "Infinite Jest" -- they have no idea why anyone would think it was so amazing. They find the prose pointlessly abstruse, they think the critical adoration that rained down on DFW was undeserved. That's a perfectly valid reaction, and one I would never try to argue with, anymore that I would welcome a 30 minute lecture on how I'm a philistine because I only kind of like "Citizen Kane."

But if you can make it through the first 150 pages of "Infinite Jest," the pay off is there. Not in the ending, which is either 1150 pages ahead of you or 150 pages behind you, depending on you look at it, but in the reading itself, which is so rewarding that when you at last come to the true end of the story, you wish only that it would keep going for another 1300 pages.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Found Comedy

I am profoundly grateful to Emily Yoffe's recent piece in Slate on narcissistic personality disorder, which is not only a ripping good read, but also drew my attention to perhaps the best two sentences to appear in the NYT in this or any other year:
[He] is unapologetically late to almost everything, and can treat employees with disdain, cursing and erupting in fury for failings as mundane as neglecting to have at hand at all times his preferred black Paul Mitchell hairbrush. He calls the brush “the football,” an allusion to the “nuclear football,” or the bomb codes never to be out of reach of a president.
This sentence describes the beloved ex-governor of Illinois, but it is also a miracle of concise comic character development, of a caliber I have not seen outside of Dickens, or early Fellini.

We are told earlier in the article that this information comes from former employees, and for all that Blagojevich is held up for ridicule, this passage also has the tang of long-suffered humiliations finally redressed, of teary conversations in supply closets finally coming to a much deserved resolution, of panicky dawn nightmares finally put to rest. In short, like all comedy, it contains a seed of great pain.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Some of My Super Powers

I know most super heroes like to keep their powers under wraps, so as not to alarm the populace.

However, there is little point in my trying to be all slick and Jane Not-S0-Special, because as you probably know, the word "Powers" is actually part of my name. Me = busted by my own birth certificate. Also, my dad who has that name, and my mom who took his name when she married him.

So in order to help the public feel a little more comfortable around super heroes, I've decided to pull back the curtain and reveal some of my not-secret-for-very-much-longer abilities:

1. Gravy - I've been pretty forthright about this, but let me clear up any lingering misconceptions: I make the finest G.D. gravy known to man. It can from a turkey, it can be from a standing rib roast, no matter. The resultant liquid will be so potent and flavorful that grown men will attempt to fill a syringe with it, the better to inject directly into their veins. Needless to say, my powers of gravy making come with tremendous responsibilities, and I have always been careful not expose small children or the mentally feeble to the full brunt of my abilities.

2. Advance Planning - I have executed post-college nine moves to date, three of them involving transitions across multiple states and/or time zones. Five were solo missions, one of which involved picking up a Budget rental truck in the Bronx and driving the length of Manhattan in order to reach the Williamsburg bridge. In order to move to Los Angeles, I planned a week-long cross country drive, tied to the one night in July when there was an available cabin at the Grand Canyon National Park. I have also planned a wedding for 130 guests, a handful of mindblowingly elaborate birthday & Christmas dinners, and my own application to and enrollment in graduate school.

I totally rock the check list, yo.

3. Predicting the Future - First thing this morning, I discovered that the charger outlet in my car had died. This was a minor problem, in as much as my iPod adapter needs live current to play through the radio. But a brief rummage through my glove box revealed: a) a small box of replacement fuses, and b) a fuse-puller. Why were these things in my glove box? Because I know me, and I know that I will want to replace a burnt fuse THE VERY SECOND I realize it has gone to the Fuse Shop in the Sky. I will not want to stop at an auto supply store and buy a fuse and fuse puller. And so, very cleverly, I stocked the very things I would need, in my glove box.

(Also in my glove box: a jar of Advil Gel Caplets, a thing of Secret Powder Fresh, nice stationary, a ball point pen, and a disposable camera -- in case I'm in an accident and need to document the scene.)

4. Solving - Simple math problems, of course. But also larger difficulties, like: Why doesn't this drawer open smoothly anymore? Why does this one chair make such an annoying squeak when anyone sits in it? Why doesn't my iPod adapter work? How can I make sure the cats have a satisfactory scratching post without buying them a new one every six weeks?

(MG says this last power is obviously something I get from my engineering-minded Dad, but I submit that my Nurse Practitioner Mom diagnoses 8-year-olds with a thermometer and a juice box, and treats homeless people with whatever medical supplies can fit in a large suitcase, so I think they both have to get credit.)

5. Ability to Identify A Movie from Less Than 1 Second of Footage - This is probably the most terrifying of all my powers, and something I know MG struggles to accept, because it's one of those things, like x-ray vision, that just doesn't seem possible. But in the past month alone, I have identified "Some Like It Hot" from a shot of the mafia banquet -- a frame that did not show either Jack Lemmon or Tony Curtis, and "Jaws" from a shot of a sneakered foot climbing around the edge of the boat.

(MG, btw, should know better than to doubt me, since he can identify pretty much any jazz standard in under 10 seconds, no matter how unbelievably deconstructed/riffed upon the performance.)

6. Mastery of the Obscure Cocktail Recipe - When I recreated Brennan's Absinthe Frappe, I thought it was a one-time thing. Also, I was incredibly motivated, because I love Brennan's Absinthe Frappe, and when the hell am I ever going to get back to New Orleans? But I have now mastered the Queen Elizabeth, a recipe so complicated it calls for an eye dropper, and I think we have to face the very real possibility that this is yet another one of my super powers.

7. Seek, Locate, Obtain - I am descended from apparently the Queen Mother Champion Berry Gatherer of Northern Europe, because there's almost nothing I cannot track down, given sufficient resources and time. Sometimes I use this power for my own personal gain, as when I tracked down a replacement Burleigh Arden tea cup and saucer, to replace the set that broke some years ago. Sometimes I harness these abilities for the benefit of others, as when I found a vintage fertility pamphlet produced and distributed in 1963, as part of my research for a certain show set in the year 1963, in which certain characters were struggling with fertility issues.

An off-shoot of these powers is my mighty Research Fu, which is so relentless that I will get up at 6 a.m. in order to reach a volunteer docent at a Navy museum on the east coast in order to find out how WWII vets pronounce "keitan," the Japanese word for their one-man suicide subs. As with many of the martial arts, this one involves me entering an out-of-body state, in which I seem not to register pain or fatigue. You might also call it a kind of focused, berserker rage, a description born out by one witness's observation that I am "a fucking Viking" when I'm tracking down an answer.

And that, for now, will have to be the final power I reveal today. The first draft of this list was quite a bit longer, but the government redacted the remaining items as classified and not for public knowledge, so I'll have to content myself with this partial inventory.

However, in the spirit of encouraging public discourse, I invite you to post your own secret powers in the comments.

Embrace your awesomeness, Super Persons! You have nothing to lose but your cleverly disguised alter egos!

Monday, February 23, 2009

If I Were Still in Grad School

I have the greatest fondness for the Critical Studies courses I took in film school, and especially for the insane papers I was given license to write for said classes.

For Prof. Drew Casper's Hitchcock course, I explored Hitch's use and subversion of Cary Grant's public persona. This was hugely enjoyable, not least because it allowed me to a) watch Notorious over and over and over again and b) rail at length against the fiasco that is Suspicion. God! Just saying the name of the movie makes me angry all over again. It's a perfectly good, even chilling piece of suspense -- it even has a haunting scene involving a staircase, as in Notorious -- but with one glaring flaw.

Someone convinced/bribed/forced Hitchcock to re-edit the end of the movie, on the grounds that the American public did not want to see Grant as a bad guy. Result: You waste two hours of your life watching a movie that STRONGLY IMPLIES that Grant intends to kill his wife, and then see the whole thing go pouring down the drain when it ends with heavily doctored scene of the two actors, apologising to each other for all the previous two hours of misunderstandings, and agreeing to go forward in marital bliss.

(I say "heavily doctored" because each actor delivers the crucial lines with the back of his/her head to the camera -- the better to conceal that whatever's being said, it isn't what actually came out of the actor's mouth when they shot the scene the first time.)

Almost as enjoyable, but utterly indefensible as a serious critical studies paper was my James Bond paper, exploring the motifs from Thunderball borrowed/misappropriated by the BBC production team behind the mid-60s seasons of Doctor Who. This involved multiple viewings of Thunderball and a grainy, US-format videotape of a DW episode entitled, I believe, The Silurians.

I realize that might sound insane, but the production team actually admitted they had, in fact, based the Third Doctor and his various toys on James Bond, so in many respects, this paper was far more factual and academically valid than my Grant paper.

Film school is far, far behind me now. (Er, by which I mean it's been about a year since I graduated. Whoo hoo! Fourteen months of MFAhood!) But I still feel the urge, now and then, to hole up with a pile of books and a couple of DVDs and whip off 12 pages on some intersection of high and popular culture. In recent weeks, the list of possible papers has been stacking up in my mind, so I'm making a blog post of them, the better to inspire topic-hungry scholars everywhere:

Dollhouse vs. A Doll's House - Joss Whedon a) is a graduate of Wesleyan, with b) well-documented feminist beliefs (see: Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and c) has eyes. Therefore, there is zero chance he has not read/studied the ur-feminist drama, Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. In this paper, we will explore the thematic commonalities between the two works, including the female protagonist who is underestimated by everyone in her world, the rigid institutions around both Echo and Nora that will not allow them to grow into full personhood, and the explicit debt each woman owes and is endeavoring to repay by "serving" in one or more roles within the existing power structure.

Becker vs. House - Two likeable comic actors, two surly misanthropic medical doctors. One is a monster hit, one is a little-respected sitcom now enjoying a belated popularity in syndication. What the hell?

From Fast Ball to Sleaze Ball: The Evolving Dramatic Personae of Ted Danson - The same guy that America scorned when he played a surly misanthropic doctor, now enjoying critical acclaim for his turn as an utterly corrupt pump-and-dump CEO on Damages. Is it the silver hair? What the hell?

Jack Lemmon: Stinking up the Joint Since 15 Seconds After Filming Wrapped on The Apartment - Yes, agreed. Jack Lemmon was amazing in his early films. And then he ossified in a horrific caricature of his earlier performances. So much so that I believe Mamet deliberately cast him in Glengarry Glen Ross because Lemmon's terrible, overly-mannered acting was the only way to show the audience exactly how rote his character's salesmanship had become.

Richard Dreyfus: The Anti-Jack Lemmon - Unlike Lemmon, I think Richard Dreyfus has delivered a lifetime of smart, unique performances. (Not counting his laugh, which is always the same, no matter what movie. But I can't hold that against him. A man's laugh is like his sex face -- it's not really the kind of thing he can change.)

(Mom, if you're reading my blog, now might be a good time to stop.)

But in 2009, there is an unthinking tsunami of critical admiration for Lemmon that he does not deserve, primarily because so many of his early films are considered classics. While Dreyfus, who has turned in marvelous performances in so-called fluff, such as Jaws, What About Bob? and Moon Over Parador, enjoys no such acclaim. I call bullshit -- it's high time we recognized Richard Dreyfus for the unique American talent that he is.

Quint's Indianapolis Monologue: A Critical Exploration - Yes, since you ask, I did see Jaws on HBO last week. So what? My larger point is still valid, i.e., as a piece of dramatic storytelling, Quint's monologue is without peer. It segues seamlessly between the drunken scar comparisons that come before, and the boisterous singing that comes after. It explains Quint's maniacal determination to bring down the shark, and it reminds the audience -- who hasn't seen anyone eaten for almost an hour at this point -- exactly what the worst case scenario is. And, of course, it sets up the dramatic irony that is cruising towards Quint in about 20 minutes time.

Getting High Off His Own Supply: Why You Never Want to See the Words "Written and Directed By" in the Opening Credits of Any Movie, But Especially If the Next Words Are "M. Night Shyamalan," "Paul Haggis" or "Charlie Kaufman" - I also saw The Lady in the Water on HBO last week. It was not a good experience. In the Valley of Elah made me so angry it gave me a headache.

And I cannot pronounce the world "synecdoche," so I'm throwing Charlie Kaufman in there for good measure.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I Made This! (NSFW!)

If we're Facebook friends or you follow me on Twitter, or we otherwise know each other in one of the 9 million forms of acquaintance that exist in this modern age, then you already know about this, and I apologise for bringing it up again.

The AMC website calls this a "minisode." It's basically a 4 1/2 minute sketch, using the characters from the original dramatic series "Breaking Bad." I believe it is wholly, entirely awesome, but just to hit some of the essential points:

* From the very beginning, the show was determined to make these minisodes only if it would throw a little work and/or cash to the various aspiring writers/assistants on staff.

* I had given up all hope of getting to write one, and on the last day before we wrapped for the holidays, I got a call from a producer, telling me to bring in a finished draft when we started up again in January.

* I got a lot of great feedback on that script, and then the whole thing was thrown out because the cast, subject matter and setting needed to be "more edgy."

* So instead, we went with this, which is many things, but most especially, it is more edgy. If by edgy you mean dirty.

* The whole thing is covered by the WGA, which means that, thanks to last year's writers' strike, I now can tip my baby toe in the warm pool of milk and honey that is the Writers' Guild of America. But only my baby toe.

* One Saturday back in January, MG & I drove out to watch them film this, and I have probably never had more fun in my whole life. (Previous never-had-more-fun-in-my-whole-life: Staying up until 2:30 a.m., watching the final day of shooting on Season One of "Mad Men.") Our cast is so incredibly talented and they were so generous with their time and ability. They took a script written by a writers' PA and worked with the same focus and energy they bring to every episode. I am beyond grateful.

* There is one minor gaffe. If you watch it more than once, you'll probably spot it the second or third time through. I'm not just saying that to drive traffic. Although it would be awesome if these things got a bajillionty hits apiece. (And that goes for all of them -- the other four minisodes are written by my fellow assistants, and they are EVEN FUNNIER than this one, so go watch them on www.amctv.com now!)

Friday, February 13, 2009


In time for Valentine's Day, a brief list of things of which I am especially fond:

* Clementines. These things will be the death of me. Whose bright idea was it to sell them by the crate? Do you know how many of these bastards I can eat in a sitting? Do you know what that does to my digestive tract? You know what, forget I asked.

* Wasabi crackers 'n peanuts. Spectacularly addictive. The packaging insists that they're "baked not fried!", as if that somehow means they're not still junk food.

* Wasabi tuna poke from Bristol Farms. It is probably a leading cause of over-fishing, and I have to stop buying/eating it, but it dumbfounds me that that $8 buys you 6 oz of red, tender tuna tossed with sesame oil, wasabi and seaweed. I don't know how authentically Hawaiian it is, but if this is any indication of the food there, I am suddenly a lot more interested in visiting.

* Roaring 40's Blue Cheese. Grab a chair, Stilton. Put your feet up, Gorgonzola Piccante. I have found the domestic, artisanal blue cheese of my dreams.

* "30 Rock." You complete me, Liz Lemon. The Generalissimo plot line and the line "But first, I would like to admire picture of your grandchildren." The callback to Liz's Mexican cheese curls. Your scrappy determination to squeeze every last product-placement dollar out of America's advertisers, if it means hanging around long enough to become a certifiable hit.

* "Damages." The women on this show are so strong, I cannot help suspecting that they're written via the "Sex and the City" method, wherein all the female characters are actually men, but for a few details of names and pronouns. Even so, I do not care. Also, I do not want and will never own a Cadillac, but I freely admit that otherwise, this show could sell me anything. The gracious good taste of Patty's offices; the witty clothes; the gorgeous, gracefully-aging beauty of Glenn Close and Marcia Gay Harden. (Although I think someone went after MGM's with a syringe full of Botox late in the season, because from scene to scene, her brows alternate between normalcy and a yanked-up arch that says "I can't feel anything north of my nostrils.")

* Rye. This is what happens to you when you work on "Mad Men" for any length of time. The fumes coming off the various early-evening tumblers are so enticing, with notes of vanilla and cinnamon. Eventually, you have no choice but to buy your own bottle. And then you are in terrible, terrible trouble, because it is amazing. About a thousand times smoother than bourbon, and tragically, worth every penny of its insanely steep price.

* Timely car repairs. Even though I had to rent a car to accommodate the brake shop's lack of Saturday hours, it gave me tremendous pleasure to drop off the Honda this morning, and get the follow up call that all is well, and that I am in good time to have my brakes replaced. This comes as quite the relief, since the service guys at the dealership have been pushing to replace the front brake pads replaced for the last year 12 months, and I was *almost* positive that they were fishing for extra repairs, but then again, you don't want to rip up your rotors just to prove a point. It also gives me an extra jolt of pleasure to use a highly ethical local guy and not the boobs at Honda of Santa Monica, who charged me $105 to fix my driver's side window in such a way that it actually was far, far worse and would not shut at all.

* Michael. Between triking over to the brake shop to pick up my car key before they close (see: lack of Saturday hours) and keeping me stocked with espresso and milk for my morning fuel, he takes such amazing care of me, and I am so grateful to have him in my life. He is my Lemon Pepsi.