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Sunday, December 30, 2018


The above characters, in spoken Chinese, are "Wǔshí ér zhī tiānmìng"--but I can't speak Chinese, so that is irrelevant. What is relevant is the phrase's meaning: "At 50 I knew the mandate of heaven." It is the fifth clause in perhaps the most famous passage from Confucius's Analects, found in Book 2, Line 4: "The Master said: 'At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I was unperturbed; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing the norm.'" The master is Confucius, of course (the photo above is of a statue of him in Nanjing, China, which I took in 2014). Did he actually express this personal biography. Doubtful, but it's really impossible to say.

I'm 50 today. How does my biography compare? By 15, if not earlier, I was pretty certain that mine was to be a life of reading, writing, thinking, and speaking, though whether that was going to be through teaching or journalism or some other vocation remained to be seen. By 30 I was in graduate school, and firmly committed to the path I'd chosen, though there were going to be a lot of difficult times and doubts ahead. At 40? By then I was here at Friends University, and content to stay; though the decade to come was going to involve the some of the hardest and most painful times in my family's life, it did not fundamentally challenge what I'd taken as my vocation. And now...50. Do I know heaven's mandate--or, depending on how you translate the line, its command, its decrees, its destiny, its will?

I know I don't have the confidence in my own person, or my own intellectual or religious traditions, that this line suggests Confucius himself had--which I guess implies, if I want to use the Analects as my standard, that I never really managed to get past 40. But my own doubtful nature may not mean that I, nonetheless, can't claim something of the connection he supposedly felt by the time he got to my age, a connection with something higher, something older, something truer. I've always been blessed--thanks to my upbringing, my family, my wife, my children, and so many other people and events in my life, including some pretty terrible ones--with a degree of sehnsucht, a longing that, however inchoate it may be, I've nevertheless also always been able to understand as connecting me to something real and meaningful. Consequently, I've never been able to understand those who think there's nothing above us, nothing around us, nothing in, or of, heaven, of Tiān (天). So maybe, on one level or another, I am hitting Confucius's 50-year benchmark. Or so I hope. Anyway, I guess I still have 20 years yet to improve, right? Time to get going.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The 10 Best Movies I Saw in 2018

Once again, these aren't necessarily movies that came out in 2018; in fact, only three of these ten are. But they are all movies I saw for the first time this year, and loved. In alphabetical order, by title.

13th. It's unusual that this year I watched a fair number of documentaries, three of which have really stayed with me. This is the first. Ava DuVernay has produced a documentary on race, violence, and the prison-industrial complex that is terrifically powerful--maybe almost too powerful, at the expense of the effectiveness of its message. The film's basic thesis--which follows Michelle Alexander's once radical but now broadly accepted argument that criminal justice policies in the U.S. have essentially perpetuated the same forms of surveillance and coercion that were constructed to control free blacks after the Civil War--is built impressionistically, with great use of music and horrifying visuals, but the middle section does a deep dive into the 1990s, focusing on Clintonian triangulation, ALEC, private prisons, party re-alignments, and economic inequality, to my mind sublimating the whole racial argument of the first 40 minutes to class-based one. But in the final section the explicitly racial themes re-emerge, connecting a lot of loose ends, though not all of them. The result is a film that left me with lots of unanswered questions--which perhaps was intentional. Anyway, a great, necessary documentary.

Blade Runner 2049. This was fabulous film. It was perhaps a little on the long side; there was definitely two hours of movie there, but maybe not more than two and a half. Still, without the long journey to the orphanage, the wonderful twist about who or what is the next step in human/replicant evolution couldn't have been set up properly, and pretty much everything else was wonderful, so I don't know what I would have cut. (Maybe the some of the weirdness with Joi.) The final scene of K laying on the steps, snowflakes melting and making tears on his face, with something nearly identical to the Vangelis theme playing in the background, was a wonderful homage to probably the single greatest scene in sci-fi cinema. In terms of the overall plot, I admit I think 2049 actually works better in terms of the original, theatrical release of Blade Runner, when there was no question of Deckard's humanity; the idea that he's a replicant himself I think actually takes something away from what 2049 had to say. But then, honestly, movies like this are about so much more than plot.

The Day of the Jackal. This is one of those classic spy thrillers from the 1960s and 70s that I've somehow missed out on over the years; it was great to finally sit down and watch this through. Terrific, intelligent plotting and acting throughout. It did what only the best of these sort of hunt-the-killer films manage to do--get you rooting for both sides, as they try to outwit one another, get desperate, and make mistakes, but never allowing one side or the other to appear to have the edge. I confess being a little disappointed by the final couple of minutes--after all this clever cat-and-mouse stuff, it ends with the good guy spotting the assassin, racing up the stairs, and breaking in on him just seconds before he shoots his target? But then it occurred to me: back in 1973, that probably hadn't already been done a thousand times already, and therefore worked better then than it does today. Every movie trope has to be cinematically invented at some point, right? Well, The Day of the Jackal probably invented a bunch, and used them all wonderfully. 

Hacksaw Ridge. This was a fine war movie, though it can't compare to Dunkirk, or other solid war films I've seen in recent years. In fact, much of Hacksaw was actually pretty close to your typical well-made WWII movie from the 1950s or 1960s--a straightforward tale of heroism, succinctly told. But the uniqueness of this particular war movie's story, about a conscientious objector of truly superhuman courage, demanded some scenes that kind of broke that straightforward mold (pretty much everything that featured Private Ross's damaged, WWI-veteran father, for example). And say whatever you want about Mel Gibson; his staging and shooting of the original assault on the ridge was one of the most efficient and visceral bits of cinematic warfare I've ever seen, easily comparable to Spielberg's famed 20-minute D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan. Every bullet hit somewhere, every explosion threw rocks and clods of dirt and flesh into the air, the chaos was total, yet I never lost track of the whole flow of the fight and where everyone was within it. Great, kinetic filmmaking there.

Ordinary People. This is a sad, powerful film, which interestingly exhibits in its form exactly one of the major sub-themes of the entire story: control. The first hour is just masterful in its refusal to give you any sense of where the story is going emotionally; Robert Redford, as a first-time director, made me feel as a viewer like everyone was holding their breath, just waiting, waiting for some moment of crisis and catharsis. When those things finally come with the revelations about Conrad's guilt and his own eventual healing, I found--perhaps not surprisingly, as a 50-year-old man with grown children and a 25-year-old marriage--that I was more drawn to the father, Calvin, than the son and his psychiatric drama. I wanted to understand Calvin's weakness, and his despair as he realizes he can no longer love his wife in her own weaknesses. But the movie wasn't about that story, and Ordinary People is a perfectly economical, perfectly organic film: it shows only what flowed naturally from the original premise, and there was nothing extra left at the end. A plain film, but absolutely deserving of its Oscars (though Sutherland was robbed).

Paris is Burning. This massively influential 1990 documentary on the African-American and Latino drag culture of New York City in the 1980s is one which I should have watched a quarter of a century ago. The first half is, perhaps, overly anthropological, almost clinical, in its look at the drag balls of Harlem, but then it takes a deeper turn, with every interview implicitly--or explicitly--haunted by the way this subculture was shaped by outside forces of racism, sexual violence, poverty, and the universal (yet always at least partially socially constructed) aspirations of the human heart. There's a deep sadness to the film, but even deeper than that is a feeling of joy, which you kind of can't help but experience, I think, when you see any community of human beings, in the midst of decisions both good and bad, coming together to--as Dorian Corey, a self-described "old queen" who'd been around the scene since the 1960s, and probably my favorite character in the movie, put it--"make their mark on the world." A great, important film.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Simply put, this is the greatest comic book movie I've ever seen. Note that I didn't say "super-hero movie"; while those two genres are obvious deeply entwined in each other, for all sorts of historical reasons, technological developments of the past couple of decades have really made it possible to take super-heroic (and super-villainous) characters and situations and make plausible, even persuasive, cinematic use of them in any number of science-fiction, fantasy, action-adventure, horror, and even other story-telling contexts. That's not to say lots of super-hero movies have successfully pulled that off; few have, I think. But the fact remains that we can accept super-heroes on the screen as characters who aren't necessary obliged to seen in terms of the colorful, melodramatic, outrageous, always-partly-winking mise-en-scène of a comic book. Which means that we're at the point that we need to recognize the "comic book movie" as a distinct thing, of which super-heroes can be a part, but aren't necessarily. Of course, that's not a new recognition: just think of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, or Ang Lee's Hulk; think of Sin City or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World--of them, to one degree or another tried to get the comic book sensibility on the screen. Well, Into the Spider-Verse was easily ten times better than all of them combined, and I say that not just because I am an old, old fan of these characters. Visually stunning and engaging, it had jokes (both straight-forward and profoundly meta), thrills, tears, and triumphs, every one of which was, to my eyes, utterly inextricable from the way the animation dazzlingly portrayed it in front of my eyes. In short, it was everything a well-made comic book story can be, and it was also a movie. More than any other film I saw this year, Into the Spider-Verse was, or at least should be, an absolute game-changer.

The Witch. This wasn't the best horror movie I've ever seen, but it came pretty dang close. Besides the gorgeously unnerving sets and scenery and dialogue and costumes, what I loved most of this tale of the supernatural in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s was that it really was a straight-up tale of eldritch evil, with all sorts of scenes and narrative beats to misdirect you, convince you that there was going to be some wild psychological reveal (it's group paranoia! it's familial self-delusion! it's predestination hysteria!) just around the corner, any minute now, explaining everything. Or at least, that's how I felt watching it: I kept anticipating a hint of ambiguity, and read what I saw accordingly. But no, actually, there was no ambiguity, no unreliable narrators, no nothing: it really was just a story of the Devil destroying an isolated Puritan family all along. I love it when a story manages to pull the legs out from under my own intellectual rationalizations, and this one definitely did.

Won't You be My Neighbor? The third documentary on my list this year, and certainly the best; probably, if I had to rank them, the finest film I saw all year. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a tremendously affecting film telling a tremendously affecting story; a beautiful, inspiring, deeply sobering documentary about great, strange, beautiful man. Fred Rogers was, to my mind, a Christian saint, and his saintliness is underscored by just how obviously weird his determination to love and trust all children, and to be seen as lovable and trustworthy by all of them, sometimes was. I appreciated so much that the film, while by no means wallowing in that weirdness, never downplayed it; on the contrary, it regularly came out--implicitly, if not directly--in the comments of the many people interviewed for this pseudo-biopic, including his wife and children and television people who worked with Rogers for years, as he went from one crusade to the next, as he grew older and sadder, but always returning to that core of honesty and grace and optimism that enabled him to be the communicator he was. A film worthy of its subject.

Working Girl. I had this dvd laying around the house for months, and finally got around to watching it, not expecting much from this early 80s comedy. Man, was I wrong. Sure, it's a Wall Street Cinderella story, with plenty of surprisingly unsubtle--for a Mike Nichols's movie, anyway--class and ethnic touches: all the Staten Island secretaries working on Wall Street have huge hair and gaudy jewelry, and are all dating miserable cheating Irish guys. (I should note, though, that subsequent arguments on FB have convinced me that, while the hair may well have been employed by the filmmakers for stereotypical purposes, it was nonetheless definitely reflective of the reality of the era.) Anyway, the movie absolutely charms. By the final scenes, when Harrison Ford's sad-sack character declares his love, Sigourney Weaver's bitchy character gets her comeuppance, and Melanie Griffith's character gets her dream job, I was surprised by how delighted I was by various dialogue and staging choices (the quick elevator bit at the end had me completely sold). This is one discovery I could watch again and again.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018

No fiction made my list this year, in part just because of different reading choices I made this year, and also because the largest fiction reading projects I took on this year was a long re-read of some of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern books, and, over the Christmas holiday, re-reading, for the first time in decades, the complete The Lord of the Rings. The ones listed here are best new books, the books I enjoyed and learned the most from, this year, alphabetized by author.

Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Essays. I've been a fan of Wendell Berry's writings for many years, and even at this late stage in his life his personal and critical essays remain beautiful, challenging, and thought-provoking reading. I've never developed a taste for his fiction and poetry, which I hope I will someday correct; as it was, this collection could have been an introduction to such, but for me the fictionalized pieces herein, with the exception of the title piece, mostly fell flat. But that doesn't matter, because this collection contains three essays by Berry equal in range and power to any he has ever written, I think. "Thoughts of Limits in a Prodigal Age" lays out Berry's vision of agrarianism, incorporating within it a thorough exploration and condemnation of the presumed "inevitability" of technological progress, and thus environmental destruction. (This essay prompted a long blog post, and an even longer argument with an online friend.) "Leaving the Future Behind: A Letter to a Scientific Friend" reveals Berry at his most cranky, as he, while never disputing the facts behind the danger of climate change, reveals himself as one who finds those claims being made by erstwhile environmentalist allies of his as mostly accepting the same sense of technological inevitability which made climate change a threat in the first place. And finally, my favorite (and the longest) of the bunch, "The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation," in which Berry artfully weaves together poetry, Christian theology, environmental science, and the history of writing about agriculture, to give a portrait of a "Mother Nature" that I, at least, think is worth believing in. All of these essays are great, and worth the price of the book alone.

David Bollier, Think Like a Commoner. David Bollier's brief argument on behalf of the importance of defending those places and processes in our lives which could be labeled "commons"--parks and pathways, obviously, but also all sorts of things from open-source software to natural aquifers to regular assemblies on public squares--is wonderful and important. Much of what he argues for are matters familiar to me from other works of socialist or anarchist or radically democratic theory, but he puts them all together in a wonderfully practical and persuasive way. I think he may be a little too enamored of the technology-enabled aspects of "commoning"; his enthusiasm for the "sharing economy" would have been better balanced with a little more time addressing the "subsistence" aspect to the commons, and the fact that--which, to his credit, he doesn't deny, even if he doesn't address it at length--turning away from the profit-maximizing habits of enclosure and privatization would probably often result in less overall productivity and wealth for us to share. Still, I learned a great deal from this book, both about the history of the commons (I'd never heard of the Charter of the Forest, a companion document to the Magna Carta before) and the ways in which commons-thinking necessarily pushes in philosophical directions that prioritizes the tactile and the local, rather than the abstract and rational. A great, thoughtful primer on an important social, economic, and environmental topic, one that I ended up employing in an effort at local historical preservation--a failed effort, as it turned out, but worth trying all the same.

Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fraser's biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (as well as her daughter Rose Wilder Lane) is simply wonderful, backed with hundreds of trenchant observations about history, agriculture, journalism, psychology, geography, politics, economics, and more, all of which are there to be revealed as one tries to understand the. in hindsight, monumental work that is the Little House books. Fraser's reconstruction of the editorial relationship between Wilder and Lane, as they worked together (sometimes greedily, sometimes with idealism, sometimes with Wilder leading the way, and sometimes with Lane prodding her mother along) to turn Laura's memories into the Little House books, is equally filled with fascinating details, and seamlessly supports Fraser's overall contention: that there is something profoundly American about not just Wilder's story, but the way it came to be told. Fraser visited Watermark Books this year, talking about her book, and it was a delight to meet her, and dig into our mutual love and fascination for what Wilder created, and how she created it.

Hugh Heclo, Christianity and American Democracy. I used this book as the basis for an Honors Seminar I taught this year, and while the arguments advanced in Heclo's long essay on Christianity and American democracy were often of a highly abstract nature, the conversations they gave rise to were wonderful. Based on a series of lectures he gave, centering on the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, Heclo's broad thesis is that, soon after the first Great Awakening in American life (usually associated with the 1750s through the 1770s), the different Christian denominations of early America arrived at a point there they nearly all were in theological agreement regarding the relationship between religion and self-government: namely, that it was simply un-Christian to judge too harshly the particular beliefs of other Christians (or at least other Protestant Christians). This level of intra-Christian tolerance came over time, according to Heclo, to contribute to notions of the human person, notions of human history, and notions of political life that became deeply entwined with American democracy. He calls this long era of America's (Protestant) Christian civil religion the "Great Denouement," and thinks its legacy lasted, with the eventual inclusion of Catholics through the first part of the 20th century, until the rise of secularism in the 1960s. There are some real challenges that can be made of this thesis--and various authors, in particular Michael Kazin, offer from trenchant criticisms of Heclo's lecture at the conclusion of the book--but I personally found his argument enormously insightful, pointing as it did to many distinct phenomena in American life and showing how the evolutions of different aspects of American Christianity linked together. Agree with it or not, this is a thesis worth grappling with.

Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities. A vitally important classic on the nature and design of cities, one whose arguments I was basically already familiar with, yet one that I also should have read years and years ago. It's probably longer than it needed to be, and I suspect that even when it was first published, in 1961, some of Jacobs's anecdotes might have seemed a little belabored and precious. Still, for all that, a brilliant and deeply informed jeremiad against the rational, top-down envisioning of cities. She offers no comfort to inhabits of cities like mine (Wichita, Kansas)--for her, the glory and value of cities, about which all her observations are wonderfully sharp, demands a density and size and an economic diversity that many American cities--lacking both the immigrant population and multiplicity of economic resources--could never aspire to, even if they wanted to. So in the end, this was a monumentally necessary treatise on one particular, and wonderfully important, kind of urbanism--the urbanism of the "great American city." Her points about mixing old and new buildings, about mixed residential and commercial districts, about small blocks, and about so much more--parks, sidewalks, kids playing the streets--have all entered into the canon of urban discussions (however little they may be adhered to!), and deservedly so. Anyway, a great, great book.

Localism in the Mass Age, edited by Mark T. Mitchell. This collection of essays from the webpages of--or inspired by--the Front Porch Republic is pretty excellent. Some of the essays are much better than others, and there are--from my perspective as someone interested in structural critiques and the theoretical analysis of political and economic systems--some real gaps in the discussion: no real engagement with the scholarship on republicanism or environmentalism, for example. But all of them are worth reading, and some are beautifully insightful and incisive. The overall thrust of the volume is getting people to think about their own connections, or lack thereof, to their local communities, and what the strength of absence of those connections can reveal to us historically, politically, economically, or spiritually. There is a genuinely new localist argument emerging out of (or alongside of) the slow collapse of the all the systems associated with the liberal, late capitalist state, an argument with relevance to how we think about foreign policy, the U.S. Constitution, the do-it-yourself economy, the relationship between farms and cities, technology, sexuality, and the liberal arts. This book probably isn't the perfect introduction to that new argument, but its multitude of voices, both personal and political, is a great start.

Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet. This is a wonderful book--not perfect (I could have done without some of Mann's occasional excursions into side characters and issues that didn't, to my mind, directly contribute to his overall investigation), but very, very good. In a nutshell, Mann is exploring two possibilities which human beings have to avoid what he, like many students of biology, genetics, and environmental science, accepts as an unavoidable biological fact: that the human species, like every other species, will overpopulate, use up its available resources, exhaust its physical environment, and thus, ultimately, will destroy itself. (Given all the dire news about climate change this year, that's something everyone else ought to find plausible too.) One possibility is that we will use the advantages that no other species has--our ability to construct new technologies, to unlock new environmental capacities--to escape our natural limits and transcend our environment. His exemplar of this approach (the one of "Wizards") is Norman Borlaug, one of the founding fathers of industrial agriculture, genetically modified foods and fertilizers, and the Green Revolution generally. The other possibility is that we will use our self-control and conscience to recognize our limits and change our ways of living so as to sustainably exist within those given limits, through renewable energy, conservation, population control, limited consumption: in other words, the whole "small is beautiful" ethic of E.F. Schumacher and others. His exemplar of this approach (the one of "Prophets") is William Vogt, a little known but highly controversial and important early advocate of environmentalism, anti-industrialism, organic agriculture, solar power, Birth control, and all the rest. The book not only provides a wonderfully thoughtful contrast between the two men, but investigates the implications of their ideas in a time of climate change, conflicts over water and oil, and so much more. I've written some much more extensive thoughts about Mann's whole argument, in light of the question of localism, here--but whether that's your interest or not, this is a book worth reading.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This book is a phenomenal work of reportage, a careful--but never drowned by unnecessary detail--investigation of a routine medical practice (the taking of cell tissues from patients for study) and the way it had, in one rare case, spectacularly non-routine results. The cancer which killed Henrietta Lacks--for reasons that are still, more than a half-century on, not fully understood--provided doctors with a set of cells which have resulted in a steady, consistent, endlessly multiplying cellular culture, upon which thousands of medical experiments have been performed (and through the marketing and exchange of which, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent and earned). The family of Henrietta Lacks, a poor, mostly uneducated urban black family in Baltimore, originally only one generation removed their segregated, sharecropper past, knew nothing about what doctors at Johns Hopkins had done while Henrietta lay dying, and when they did find out, that opened the door to further misunderstandings, miscommunications both legal and cultural, and exploitation by hustlers and the mass media alike. Skloot wonderfully weaves all of this together, writing with equal skill about the hard-nosed business of medical research, the racist arrogance which attended mid-century American medicine, the culture of dysfunction and ignorance which discrimination and poverty results in, the particular (and often sad and bizarre) family dynamics of the greater Lacks clan, and the larger legal questions of using biological "waste" (skin, organs, blood, cells) without consent. This is a strange and fascinating medical saga, and a personal saga as well, for Skloot herself (she frequently writes in the first person throughout), as well as, and more importantly for, everyone touched, in one way or another, by the profound mystery that emerged solely through one random person's death. This is the best book about medicine and American society I've read since Anne Fadiman's wonderful The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which in a sense told the same, amazing and tragic story: that is, a story of the tragic disconnect that can occur when the worldview of modern medical science, and the worldview of a culture that is economically, racially, and religiously set entirely against it, clash.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. This is a superb book--perhaps not as lyrical or as literary as its often heart-rending subject matter might seem to demand, but Bryan Stevenson's clear-eyed retelling of dozens of cases of unjustly convicted, horribly abused individuals (many of which, through the immense efforts of he and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative, were saved from unwarranted execution--but more than a few of which were not) does the job very well all the same. He doesn't spend much time telling his own story, so the book doesn't provide much of a portrait of Stevenson himself--but whether he intended it or not, Stevenson can't help but come off as a bit of a saint. By his own account, the thousands of hours he has spent over a period of decades, dealing with police hostility, racist prosecutors and judges, confused and terrified and mentally disturbed victims, distraught family and community members, oblivious outside investigators, and sometimes threats of violence, were utterly exhausting, though usually rewarding (emotionally, that is--the lack of financial resources to support the pro bono work his law office, and to even pay his and his colleagues salaries, and the lack of financial resources for those whom they serve, is a constant sub-theme throughout the book). Stevenson exemplifies a profound sense of what he calls "reciprocal humanity"--as do the work of the many activists he has teamed with, as do the poor African-American matriarchs of Alabama who have stood beside him and inspired him as he's confronted angry sheriffs, ignorant attorneys, and blood-lusting jurors, and most of all as do those who he and his fellow attorneys have been able to save, who have left prison to the freedom that was taken from them with a determination to live the best they could, even if they never could escape the memories of the lost years, the horrors and abuse of prison, and their own guilt. This books is crowded with their stories, and every single one of them is worth learning about. A great, great read.

Robert Wuthnow, In the Blood: Understanding America's Farm Families and The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. I'm cheating here, putting two books together, but I really view my study of the patient sociological work of Wuthnow this year--he's one of those scholars who, with his team of researchers, has produced dozens of books in his long career; I read four of them this year--as a single, lengthy read. I have no idea what Wuthnow may himself prioritize as his life's work, but on the basis of the works of his I've read, and in particular on the basis of these two books, I can't imagine any better title for him than to recognize him as a masterful storyteller of the lives of the (overwhelmingly white) rural and small-town Americans of America's Midwest and Great Plains, as those lives have been changed since the early 20th-century by both their own (and their childrens' and their grand-childrens') choices and by forces far beyond their influence or (often, though not always) understanding. Through hundreds of interviews, and carefully studying thousands of documents, his sociological portraits provide a history of at least one part of the story of America's middle and of the small town economies that shaped the whole culture of that region. Wuthnow's writing is not lyrical, but he gives voice and shape to the communitarian principle of feeling attached to a particular, limited place; demonstrates the tension felt by those who embrace the pace of life in a farming and small rural communities, even with the knowledge that their livelihoods depend upon financial entanglements that extend far beyond the land; and reflects upon how the Republican party has effectively made use of all the above confused feelings and resentments to expand upon the already conservative, mostly racially homogeneous culture of small towns, and thus planted the seeds of the Tea Party and Trumpian populism. His works inspired me to write a couple of lengthy blog posts, but read them for yourself, and see what you think.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Songs of '78: "I Wanna Be Sedated"

Yep, one more, though I basically wrapped up this series back at the end of November. True, there were songs released in December of 1978, but none that really stick in my mind. I felt bad, though, as I thought about this journey, that with the debatable exception of one song by Patti Smith none of my (often reconstructed) memories of pop and rock radio from that year included any punk. Going through the back files of my brain, I realized that there was one more I could have stuck into this personal musical history: the furious punk anthem by the Ramones, "I Wanna Be Sedated." I have no idea when I first heard it; I've never listened to the album it was part of, and it wasn't even released as a single to get airplay on American radio until 1980. Still, there is this concert video of them playing the song at the historic Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on this date, 40 years ago. (It was the third-to-last concert ever hosted at that venue; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played there two nights later, and then the Grateful Dead--with the Blues Brothers!--brought the year, and the venue, to an end the night after that.) Anyway, this isn't a bad way to send off the Songs of '78, is it? Of course not. Enjoy, everybody!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Five Silent Nights (Plus One)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Probably just about right now (or if not now, then within the next few hours), in Oberndorf, Austria, at Central European Standard time, many are or will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the very first time "Stille Nacht" was ever performed. The lyrics had been written a couple of years earlier by Father Joseph Mohr, while the music was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, an organist and schoolmaster in a nearby village, for the Christmas Eve services Mohr would be conducting on December 24, 1818. Legend has it the organ was broken, and so Mohr asked for the composition to be for two solo voices, with guitar accompaniment, but the truth of that story is unknown. What is known is that John Denver was right--this song has become, very simply, "the most beloved of all Christmas carols." Here are five versions that matter a great deal to me.

Low's very traditional version is reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel's approach in "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night," but I think it's better to let the song speak for itself, rather than enlisting it into a rather unsubtle ironic statement, however earnestly meant.

I can't speak much German anymore--never could speak very much in the first place, really; I only had to get to the point where I could do some reading and translating during graduate school. But Melissa and I both have long agreed upon our affection for the carol's original German lyrics, and why not hear them sung by the Wiener Sängerknaben (the Vienna Boys Choir)? "Christ in deiner Geburt!" indeed.

A beautiful contemporary version by Sinéad O'Connor, recorded in 1991. There was a weird video made along with it, which strikes me as having been part of some long-forgotten Christmas special or public service announcement; much better is this live version where O'Connor performs the song with the English [Correction, 1/9/2019--Ack! Irish! My apologies!] group Westlife, and her quiet humor and deep Irish brogue are on full display.

I came late to gospel in my life, unfortunately. But now, sometimes, I really need it--and that means I need Mahalia Jackson. So do you.

My sentimental favorite is the recording by Mannheim Steamroller, which delicately, hauntingly, and brilliantly turned Stille Nacht into a song about winter's silences, and in particular about those glimmers of light--dare I say grace?--that come to us, comforting us, on dark winter nights. I first started listening to this version late on Christmas Eves many years ago, and when Advent comes to its conclusion, I still seek it out. I also decided long ago that the bells that quietly come in at the very, very end is, of course, Santa (who is real, by the way) arriving on his sleigh. Listen for yourself. I'm not wrong.

Have wonderful night tonight, everyone. And a wonderful Christmas tomorrow.

(Oh, all right: let's get John Denver and the Muppets in here too.)

Our Own Private Idaho

This past summer, Melissa and I, along with our two youngest girls, visited the old Fox family cabin on the Moyie river, north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. It was the first time I or my immediate family had been to "the Moyie," as everyone in the extended family refers to it, in nearly 15 years. Unfortunately, we were only able to stay for a single night--but it was a wonderful journey out to the woods nonetheless. And it got me thinking about all the family lore which surrounds that cabin, and all the ways growing up as a Fox involved trips into the Idaho Panhandle. Of course, we're hardly alone among families in Eastern Washington making that comparatively remote corner of the Gem State our preferred playground--but nonetheless, we have enough history doing it, I think, to justify putting our stamp on it, however small it may be.

After all, growing up in Spokane--or, if you're a secessionist and must insist upon the point, the city of "Spokane Valley"--our holiday and weekend and Saturday afternoon orientation was overwhelmingly towards the east, not the west. That's not to say we never explored Washington state; we did--but not nearly as often as we would jump over the state line to enjoy the mountain wilderness which began just a couple of miles away from our home. Scout campouts at Farragut State Park, cliff jumping beneath the dam at Post Falls, fishing at Spirit Lake, skiing at Schweitzer Mountain Resort--and, in recent years, heading to Silverwood for all-day amusement; there was all of that, and more. And, of course, that's just recreation--there are family memories and histories that go beyond any of that. Here are three which come to mind.

Lake Coeur d'Alene

There are larger and deeper lakes in the Idaho Panhandle (Lake Pend Oreille), and colder and more remote ones (Priest Lake), but Lake Coeur d'Alene, whose shores we could reach from our front door--at least back in the 1980s, before the traffic around Coeur d'Alene became constantly terrible--in just 20 minutes, is the lake that we all remember best and have most often returned to, year after year after year. How many times over the decades have some combination of Fox parents, siblings, cousins, church friends, and others pile together in one car or another and make that quick drive, to swim or sail or cruise or play? Hundreds and hundreds, surely.

A lot has changed over the decades, of course. Coeur d'Alene was a sleepy town through the years I grew up. There had been a marina for fishing and sport boats there forever, obviously, but back then, before the massive resort and golf course which transformed the shoreline (which, according to Wikipedia, all happened between 1986 and 1991, which fits with my memory), you could park your cars right on the edge of the lake. The city park along its shore was rarely busy as well (the massive jungle gym/playground area there now wasn't built back then)--we'd regularly head out there with one or two families from church to grill burgers and play with Frisbees every Memorial Day, and have the place much to ourselves. And, of course, there was Wild Waters, the water-slide park right off the I-90 exit to Coeur d'Alene, where we'd spend entire summer days, sneaking our inner tubes back up the waterfall ride, and going down it again and again. It's no longer there (and honestly, good riddance; I broke a rib while speeding down one of its slides 20-odd years ago, back when I could still pretend to be a teen-ager); in its place, and all around Lake Coeur d'Alene, are restaurants and real estate offices and tourist traps galore. Yes, it's a different place.

The lake, though, isn't. For all its size and all the construction that surrounds it (to say nothing of all the multi-million-dollar "vacation cabins" that adorn its distant coves and inlets, claiming bits and pieces of what once were rocks we were free to climb up and leap from), Coeur d'Alene remains a broad, beautiful, blue mountain lake, with a surprisingly fine--and only partly assisted by truck-loads of sand--beach and gorgeous cold water. It stands equal to Point Pele in Ontario and Hapuna Beach in Hawaii in my memory as one of my favorite swimming locations, and I know that's not a rare opinion among many Fox relatives. In particular, for a land-locked, Kansas-dwelling family like our own, going out on the water--whether it be for a cruise on the evening of July 4th with family, watching the fireworks shoot off from the resort, surrounded by a hundred or more other dinghies and motor-boats, with celebrating drivers and riders (and drinkers) doing the same thing, or perhaps on a rented speedboat, tearing across the lake's usually smooth surface, stopping only to dive in ourselves or to hook up an inner tube to pull at full speed behind us, then watching it skim and bounce along the water, its riders (our kids or various nieces and nephews, or maybe ourselves) laughing and holding on hysterically, trying not be thrown off--is a profound joy. Melissa in particular finds the water healing: just sitting on the beach and listening to the waves lap up and retreat, again and again, or letting her arms reach out into the spray as the boat cuts across the lake's surface, leaving its momentary wake of white churn behind it, before the lake's blue closes in on the ribbon we've cut across it once more. The is a deep beauty in finding so much of such a precious resource, all tucked away in an ancient glacier-carved valley. I couldn't have articulated that as a child, but it may partly be because Lake Coeur d'Alene has been part of my life since I was a child that I can articulate that today.

The Bonners Ferry Farm

Unlike other houses and vacation spots from our family's collective memory, "the farm" never had a name that I can remember. But we all knew what it was, and where it was--tucked away in the Kootenai River valley, just north of Bonners Ferry, not far from the cabin along the Moyie--whether or not we spent much time there. Our great-grandfather, James William "Big Bill" Fox, purchased it in a land swap for some commercial property he owned in downtown Spokane in 1932, which must have been soon after the Army Corp of Engineers constructed a series of dikes to protect the bottom-land in the valley from flooding, thus enabling farming to really take off in that district. My grandfather, James Wesley "Little Bill" Fox--and thus, many years later, to me and other grandchildren, simply "Grandpa Bill" (shown standing there in the prairie grass)--worked out there as a young man, and in turn his children, including my father, did as well, helping to plow, irrigate, harvest, and--this is a favorite old story--string lines of rope across the Kootenai River so as to drag whole chicken carcasses through the water, thus helping to catch some of the huge sturgeons that swam there, long before Libby Dam was built in the early 1970s.

Who were they helping? The Amoths, a Mennonite family with whom my great-grandfather made connections long ago, and who took primary responsibility for farming the land (originally about 400 acres, but over the decades and through several acquisitions it eventually grew to nearly 1800). The Amoths weren't the first local farming family in the area, by any means; there was, in fact, an old wooden homestead cabin already standing on the property great-grandpa Bill obtained, a remnant of some even early farming settlement, no doubt dating back to when the whole valley regularly flooded. It's still there, a reminder of the history of the place, probably dating back more than century. But as for recent history, well, four generations of Amoths--first Abel, then his son Victor, then his sons Dallas and Chris, and now their children as well--have been the real story of that land. In coordination with Grandpa Bill, and then later mostly Dad, they farmed red spring wheat, winter wheat, barley, lentils, and lately alfalfa and other feed-grass for animals; for decades, the arrangement between the Amoths and our family held steady. They now do it mostly for themselves, since financial troubles forced Dad to sell off different parts of the farm in early 2010s, and Chris bought a large piece for himself. Their generations-old connection with the Fox family remains, though; Victor and Nancy were there for Dad's funeral in 2016, and when Melissa and I stopped at a grocery store in Bonners Ferry during our trip there last summer, Chris and Terry, who just happened to be there as well, saw us, invited us to visit their home and tour the farm the next day, which we did. Soon we were talking about old times, and I was able to see something which had loomed both large and distant in my memories made immediate and intimate.

In the summer of 2004, right after the July 4th holiday, I drove to check out the farm with Dad. The wheat was tall and green, though already beginning to turn slightly yellow. Dad, as my years in Kansas have made clear to me, wasn't really a farmer; he was a businessman, an investor, a speculator, like Grandpa Bill had been--it just so happened that the arena within which they made their speculations, for many years anyway, was agricultural: grain and feed and cattle, mostly. But Dad also took seriously the tactile knowledge that makes for good speculations, and he impressed that upon me that day. Walking along a path near the Kootenai River, he pointed out the contours of the land, then dropped down on his knees, ran his hand along a stalk, took out his penknife, and separated out kernels from the head of the stalk, talking all the while about the kinds of diseases the Amoths and others have to guard against, but expressing satisfaction, nonetheless, at how full the head was.

A little less than two years after that visit, I talked to Dad on the phone about the future of that property, and whether there could be something for me to do there with the Amoths. I thought my academic career was at an end, after having been turned down, for the second time, for a permanent job at the institution I'd been teaching at, and after five years of traveling from Virginia to Mississippi to Arkansas to Illinois, I figured it was time to fish or cut bait: to give up on my dream of being a professor--a dream that had saddled us with debt and prevented us from putting down any lasting roots--and find something else to do. I didn't really know what that "something else" might be--but even in 2006, before I became a Kansan and discovered a vocation here in a city surrounded by wheat fields and cattle lots, I suspected it might have to do with farming, with a life tied to wrestling food from the land. So I wondered about moving the family to Bonners Ferry, and becoming someone very different from whom I have--probably very much for the best--since become.

Like pretty much every other descendant of Bill and Edra Fox, with the legacy of the feed mill and of milking cows and raising calves and bailing hay and shucking corn and fishing trips and riding horses and so much more deep into my soul, though mostly more than three decades distant now, it's probably a little too specific to associate a passion that I realized was my own, both intellectually and practically, only in my 30s and 40s, with a farm that I've only ever visited perhaps a dozen times in my whole life. But I wonder. Agriculture isn't farmer's markets and memories of Footloose (though I learned everything I know about tractors from the latter); agriculture is the art of making productive a particular place. This place, this verdant valley north of Bonners Ferry, was a place we had--and in once having it, maybe a little bit of that productivity remains with us still, and always will.

"The Moyie"

It's a simple A-frame cabin, built by Grandpa Bill, my Dad, and my uncle Bob Church (who married Dad's older sister Marilyn), in a lot which Grandpa had purchased along the Moyie River (the land surrounding it is partly national forest, and partly owned by the Burlington Northern railroad; I've no idea when or how those particular lots along the river became available). Now that everyone who was involved in the building of the cabin has passed away, nailing down specific historical details is difficult. Very likely the cabin was built entirely in the summer of 1971. Originally it had a plain, open bottom floor, divided between three rooms--a bedroom, a kitchen, and a living room with a round, indoor fireplace whose chimney extended through the roof--and a half second-floor that was entirely open, and accessible only by a wooden staircase that could be raised or lowered by ropes. Within a year, improvements began: an attached bathroom (so no more need to use "Big John," the outhouse out back, which became a source of jokes and vague nighttime terrors for us grandkids for decades to come), and a circular metal staircase to replace the long wooden one. (This is actually a real surprise to me, as I'm certain I can remember the wooden staircase, which means I have memory from when I was less than three years old.) In the years to come, the upstairs was enclosed and divided into two different bedrooms, and the central wood stove eventually fell out of use and was locked. But those alterations didn't change the basics. This glorious little A-frame cabin, with its combination of hominess (Grandma's years of copies of Reader's Digest magazines! Decades of accumulated fishing gear!) and isolation (not so much now, with so many other cabins along the Moyie having been decked out with satellite dishes and permanent mailboxes, but for a long time, between the turn-off at the Good Grief, Idaho, tavern and the cabin, there was pretty much nothing but an old railroad junction, a bridge with warning signs about truck weight, and a lot of spooky woods) became a weekend and summer vacation home for the whole extended clan, giving rise of thousands of memories.

Most involve the river--which seemed a lot more impressive when I was little, but even as recently as this summer, could be the stuff of wonderful and (often hilarious) wilderness fantasies. The part directly in front of the cabin is pretty slow moving, but that hasn't stopped it from, when the winter run-off is good, being deep enough to wade, wash, and occasionally catch catfish with your bare hands in. It's a cold mountain river, and thus has, for many years, served as a first rate spot for storing soda or watermelons to be eaten later in the day. On the other side of the river runs the railroad, and generations for Fox kids have rushed down to the river's edge in the morning as the train comes by, miming for the driver to pull the train's horn (they usually succeed).

But the real river memories, I think, all involving rafting down the river--and while the low and placid character of long stretches of the Moyie--with it sometimes shallow enough you need to get out and pull your raft, canoe, or rowboat off of sandbars--might make you think it's an easy trip, there are enough small rapids along the way to give 6, or 9, or even 14-year-olds some real moments of panic. Especially on the longer journeys--I can remember once traveling down the river in a rubber raft all the way from the Canadian border about 7 miles north of the cabin; it was a grey and cloudy day, and at one point a cold rain fell, and the trip took hours of negotiating deadfalls, hidden rocks, and rapids that left us all soaked. I'm positive I was crying by the end--I suspect I was around 10-years-old at the time, at most--but now, decades later, I consider it a mighty adventure.

It occurs to me now that the decades-old Fox family tradition of putting relatively young people out on the water (often without life jackets) almost certainly runs afoul of any number of Idaho state rules about river use--but then, I can't recall anyone ever running into any kind of state official anywhere on the Moyie, so if those rules actually exist, they're obviously not enforced. And would we have acknowledged them the moment any such hypothetical officer turned aside, after handing out a warning? Given our love of water fights on the river, and challenging each other to ridiculous stunts while out on the boats, I'd say probably not. This was our retreat, our isolated compound, our natural playground: if we wanted to toss fireworks into the river when we made the woods around the cabin echo with explosions on July 4th, or shoot them off the edge of the aforementioned bridge, who was to say no?

The same goes for the woods all around us. There were, of course, plenty of well-marked trails to follow throughout the Kootenai National Forest--but were those the ones we used? In my memory, mostly no--instead we took off up into the mountains, looking for the legendary miner's cabin (which, I have since learned from some of my cousins, you can apparently just drive to, if you know the right turn-offs), or the borderline racistly mis-named Chinese Dam (actually Eileen Dam, which has been a ruin--as well as a nigh-inaccessible and consequently much prized mountain swimming retreat--for nearly a century; the name the Fox kids and grandkids passed down among themselves for the dam probably started with Grandpa Bill, who must have somehow connected the story of dam's construction in the 1920s with the impoverished Chinese laborers the railroad companies used back then). My own record on these adventures in the woods is mixed. I never have managed to find the miner's cabin, despite hiking through the Idaho backwood's on one occasion decades ago for an entire day, only discovering too late that we'd actually been going up the wrong mountain entirely. As for Eileen Dam, though, I remembered our visit to that glorious, remote, wonderfully cold and deep swimming spot well, and was able to take my family to it this past summer--it hadn't changed much in the 30 years or so since I'd swum there last. No doubt the track record of many other members of the extended Fox clan is much better.

Of course, this is all outside-the-cabin stuff; it is ignoring the ghost stories around the campfire, the Risk games around the kitchen table going for all hours (one day at the Moyie long ago being the only time in my whole life that I managed to beat all my brothers at Risk, and with the out-of-Australia strategy too, if you can believe that), the midnight walks with other family members trying to scare you along the way, the craft projects for the little kids, the tinfoil dinners cooked in the fire pit, the weekend trips dedicated to nothing but Dungeons & Dragons, the fights with flaming sticks while cooking shish-kebabs on the fire, the constant need for ad-hoc medical assistance as we (and later our children) all encountered poison ivy, hornets, and other assorted creatures (to say nothing of the aforementioned flaming sticks), the hours of quiet reading time (at the Moyie, at least, there is no landline, no internet, and no data), the sunrises slowly lighting the wooded glade around the cabin, and the family gatherings as the years and decades have gone by. There are great and important memories associated with that cabin, tucked away in mountains of northern Idaho, some playful, some spiritual, some personal, some a little bit of both. Missions, marriages, and more have been shaped by the time the Foxes have spent in that little A-frame, usually for better, or so I hope. It's been part of our private Idaho history for nearly a half-century, and I hope it will be able to remain part of our stories for many years to come.

Of course a cabin is just a building, a place where people gather, so at least in theory we could share any number of those exact same memories with any place where the Foxes have spent time over the years. Similarly, a lake is just a hole with water in it, and a farm is just soil that has plants growing on it. But that theory, as we all well know, doesn't quite match reality. The reality is that there really are places where the piling up of history and associations is so great that the places themselves start to do some of your own remembering for you, making what happens there meaningful almost without your realizing it. How very blessed our family is have these little slices of shared experiences, these little bits of the Gem State, as part of our lives. They all, of course, have their own complex existence--ecological, economic, and otherwise--entirely apart from the extended Fox clan's uses of them as well. Still, with them and around them, we can make plans, make references, make our trips from our eastern Washington home bases, and find them waiting for us, rewarding us with things--fun, adventure, exploration, relaxation, information, reminders of days gone by--that, in a small but important way, is actually, already our own. As Goethe had Faust say: "Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast / Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen"--"What from your fathers you received as heir / Acquire anew if you would possess it." Hopefully the Foxes will keep re-acquiring, and keep re-remembering, our own private Idaho for a long time to come.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Worst Christmas Specials Ever. Still.

Exactly ten years ago I shared this wonderful relic of the Olde Days of the Blogosphere, by John Scalzi. It was old then, and it's even older now. Still make me laugh, though. Maybe it will you too.

An Algonquin Round Table Christmas (1927)
Alexander Woolcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, George Kaufman, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker were the stars of this 1927 NBC Red radio network special, one of the earliest Christmas specials ever performed. Unfortunately the principals, lured to the table for an unusual evening gathering by the promise of free drinks and pirogies, appeared unaware they were live and on the air, avoiding witty seasonal banter to concentrate on trashing absent Round Tabler Edna Ferber’s latest novel, Mother Knows Best, and complaining, in progressively drunken fashion, about their lack of sex lives. Seasonal material of a sort finally appears in the 23rd minute when Dorothy Parker, already on her fifth drink, can be heard to remark, “one more of these and I’ll be sliding down Santa’s chimney.” The feed was cut shortly thereafter. NBC Red’s 1928 holiday special “Christmas with the Fitzgeralds” was similarly unsuccessful.

The Mercury Theater of the Air Presents the Assassination of Saint Nicholas (1939)
Listeners of radio’s Columbia Broadcasting System who tuned in to hear a Christmas Eve rendition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol were shocked when they heard what appeared to be a newscast from the north pole, reporting that Santa’s Workshop had been overrun in a blitzkrieg by Finnish proxies of the Nazi German government. The newscast, a hoax created by 20-something wunderkind Orson Wells as a seasonal allegory about the spread of Fascism in Europe, was so successful that few listeners stayed to listen until the end, when St. Nick emerged from the smoking ruins of his workshop to deliver a rousing call to action against the authoritarian tide and to urge peace on Earth, good will toward men and expound on the joys of a hot cup of Mercury Theater of Air’s sponsor Campbell’s soup. Instead, tens of thousands of New York City children mobbed the Macy’s Department Store on 34th, long presumed to be Santa’s New York embassy, and sang Christmas carols in wee, sobbing tones. Only a midnight appearance of New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in full Santa getup quelled the agitated tykes. Welles, now a hunted man on the Eastern seaboard, decamped for Hollywood shortly thereafter.

Ayn Rand’s A Selfish Christmas (1951)
In this hour-long radio drama, Santa struggles with the increasing demands of providing gifts for millions of spoiled, ungrateful brats across the world, until a single elf, in the engineering department of his workshop, convinces Santa to go on strike. The special ends with the entropic collapse of the civilization of takers and the spectacle of children trudging across the bitterly cold, dark tundra to offer Santa cash for his services, acknowledging at last that his genius makes the gifts — and therefore Christmas — possible. Prior to broadcast, Mutual Broadcast System executives raised objections to the radio play, noting that 56 minutes of the hour-long broadcast went to a philosophical manifesto by the elf and of the four remaining minutes, three went to a love scene between Santa and the cold, practical Mrs. Claus that was rendered into radio through the use of grunts and the shattering of several dozen whiskey tumblers. In later letters, Rand sneeringly described these executives as “anti-life.”

The Lost Star Trek Christmas Episode: “A Most Illogical Holiday” (1968)
Mr. Spock, with his pointy ears, is hailed as a messiah on a wintry world where elves toil for a mysterious master, revealed to be Santa just prior to the first commercial break. Santa, enraged, kills Ensign Jones and attacks the Enterprise in his sleigh. As Scotty works to keep the power flowing to the shields, Kirk and Bones infiltrate Santa’s headquarters. With the help of the comely and lonely Mrs. Claus, Kirk is led to the heart of the workshop, where he learns the truth: Santa is himself a pawn to a master computer, whose initial program is based on an ancient book of children’s Christmas tales. Kirk engages the master computer in a battle of wits, demanding the computer explain how it is physically possible for Santa to deliver gifts to all the children in the universe in a single night. The master computer, confronted with this computational anomaly, self-destructs; Santa, freed from mental enslavement, releases the elves and begins a new, democratic society. Back on the ship, Bones and Spock bicker about the meaning of Christmas, an argument which ends when Scotty appears on the bridge with egg nog made with Romulan Ale.

Filmed during the series’ run, this episode was never shown on network television and was offered in syndication only once, in 1975. Star Trek fans hint the episode was later personally destroyed by Gene Roddenberry. Rumor suggests Harlan Ellison may have written the original script; asked about the episode at 1978’s IgunaCon II science fiction convention, however, Ellison described the episode as “a quiescently glistening cherem of pus.”

Bob & Carol & Ted & Santa (1973)
This ABC Christmas special featured Santa as a happy-go-lucky swinger who comically wades into the marital bed of two neurotic 70s couples, and also the music of the Carpenters. It was screened for television critics but shelved by the network when the critics, assembled at ABC’s New York offices, rose as one to strangle the producers at the post-viewing interview. Joel Siegel would later write, “When Santa did his striptease for Carol while Karen Carpenter sang ‘Top of the World’ and peered through an open window, we all looked at each other and knew that we television critics, of all people, had been called upon to defend Western Civilization. We dared not fail.”

A Muppet Christmas with Zbigniew Brzezinski (1978)
A year before their rather more successful Christmas pairing with John Denver, the Muppets joined Carter Administration National Security Advisor Brezezinski for an evening of fun, song, and anticommunist rhetoric. While those who remember the show recall the pairing of Brzezinki and Miss Piggy for a duet of “Winter Wonderland” as winsomely enchanting, the scenes where the NSA head explains the true meaning of Christmas to an assemblage of Muppets dressed as Afghan mujahideen was incongruous and disturbing even then. Washington rumor, unsupported by any Carter administration member, suggests that President Carter had this Christmas special on a repeating loop while he drafted his infamous “Malaise” speech.

The Village People in Can’t Stop the Christmas Music — On Ice! (1980)
Undeterred by the miserable flop of the movie Can’t Stop the Music!, last place television network NBC aired this special, in which music group the Village People mobilize to save Christmas after Santa Claus (Paul Lynde) experiences a hernia. Thus follows several musical sequences — on ice! — where the Village People move Santa’s Workshop to Christopher Street, enlist their friends to become elves with an adapted version of their hit “In The Navy,” and draft film co-star Bruce Jenner to become the new Santa in a sequence which involves stripping the 1976 gold medal decathlon winner to his shorts, shaving and oiling his chest, and outfitting him in fur-trimmed red briefs and crimson leathers to a disco version of “Come O Ye Faithful.” Peggy Fleming, Shields and Yarnell and Lorna Luft co-star.

Interestingly, there is no reliable data regarding the ratings for this show, as the Nielsen diaries for this week were accidentally consumed by fire. Show producers estimate that one in ten Americans tuned in to at least part of the show, but more conservative estimates place the audience at no more than two or three percent, tops.

A Canadian Christmas with David Cronenberg (1986)
Faced with Canadian content requirements but no new programming, the Canadian Broadcasting Company turned to Canadian director David Cronenberg, hot off his success with Scanners and The Fly, to fill the seasonal gap. In this 90-minute event, Santa (Michael Ironside) makes an emergency landing in the Northwest Territories, where he is exposed to a previously unknown virus after being attacked by a violent moose. The virus causes Santa to develop both a large, tooth-bearing orifice in his belly and a lustful hunger for human flesh, which he sates by graphically devouring Canadian celebrities Bryan Adams, Dan Ackroyd and Gordie Howe on national television. Music by Neil Young.

Noam Chomsky: Deconstructing Christmas (1998)
This PBS/WGBH special featured linguist and social commentator Chomsky sitting at a desk, explaining how the development of the commercial Christmas season directly relates to the loss of individual freedoms in the United States and the subjugation of indigenous people in southeast Asia. Despite a rave review by Z magazine, musical guest Zach de la Rocha and the concession by Chomsky to wear a seasonal hat for a younger demographic appeal, this is known to be the least requested Christmas special ever made.

Christmas with the Nuge (2002)
Spurred by the success of The Osbournes on sister network MTV, cable network VH1 contracted zany hard rocker Ted Nugent to help create a “reality” Christmas special. Nugent responded with a special that features the Motor City Madman bowhunting, and then making jerky from, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree, all specially flown in to Nugent’s Michigan compound for the occasion. In the second half of the hour-long special, Nugent heckles vegetarian Night Ranger/Damn Yankees bassist Jack Blades into consuming three strips of dove jerky. Fearing the inevitable PETA protest, and boycotts from Moby and Pam Anderson, VH1 never aired the special, which is available solely by special order at the Nuge Store on TedNugent.com.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Songs of '78: "Shattered"

The fifth and final song from Some Girls that my pop radio memories of 1978 present me with--following "Miss You," "Far Away Eyes," "Running Away with Me," and "Beast of Burden"--is the wonderfully punky "Shattered," released 40 years ago today. It's actually the final single released from Some Girls, the Rolling Stones album I love the most and think most highly of (and which I think I can critically defend as their best, or at least one of their very best, my own biases not withstanding--it's sleazy and misogynistic, but also filled with stripped-down power and creativity, as well as a defiant exuberance, something which, I think, they just couldn't generate any more as the 1980s progressed, thus heralding their gradual transformation, with the occasional exception, into the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Rolling Stones Tribute Band in the world). The only released single of theirs from Some Girls that didn't make my list of memories is "Respectable," which is a nice rocking tune but probably my least favorite cut on the whole album. As for "Shattered"--why? Well, why not?

Maybe my love for it goes back to the fact I grew up reading Marvel comics. While the maturity level of the tales of Spider-Man and other in the late 70s and through the 80s was nothing like what became standard in later years, the close reader--and I'd like to think that included me--couldn't help but pick up all sorts of rather adult clues about how tawdry and broken-down New York City was in the era of Ed Koch. Trying to decipher Jagger's slurred lyrics made me feel like I was unlocking a key to a cool, crazy, dirty, dangerous world that was a universe away from me. Plus, you can't but love that crunching bass line (played by Ron Wood, stepping into his new role with the Stones with great confidence), over which Richards is playing all sorts of cool, phased-out chords. It wasn't punk music, really, but it was close.

Of course, it can also be a sweet Julie Andrews song. Really.