12 Takes on the Al Smith Dinner

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Hearing all these points about The Al Smith Dinner.

There is something grotesque about a white-tie banquet with the wealthy and powerful laughing about how they’re all on the same team.  On the flip side, there’s something great about the wealth and powerful laughing about how they’re all on the same team if the team has some common, positive values.

The Al Smith Foundation raises money for the sick, the poor, and the orphans of New York.  It honors a great, cheerful, positive public figure who rose up from poverty to run for president despite religious prejudice.

The dinner is an old-fashioned truce.  Swallowing the noxious flavor of eating with your opponent is how societies can function and remain peaceful.

History offers many stories about how deeply fucked up things get when someone violates the tradition of a ceremonial truce:

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People who jockey for political power should have to sit there and be made to at least pretend to be humble.

IMO this is a great tradition even if only for giving us this wonderful gif of Mitt Romney ironing himself.

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Through a friend from my Catholic childhood, I got to go and sit up in the rafters a couple times.  McCain, who must’ve known he was about to lose, gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.

Obama smashed too, of course.

Perhaps the two funniest candidates in American history?

Made it to the Romney/Obama one as well.

I remember a guy younger than me in the crowd was pumped, felt sure Romney was gonna win.

Watched this year’s on C-Span.  Man, it was gnarly.  Here are some takes:

  • The #1 thing holding Donald Trump back is that he’s too sensitive.  If he had a thicker skin, if he could laugh off attacks on himself, believe he could’ve won.  Hillary was right about the “baited with a tweet” thing.  If he had one ounce of Reagan’s ability to laugh something off Trump could’ve pulled it off.
  • Al Smith’s nickname was The Happy Warrior.
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Pic found here

Which candidate can be said to be more Happy Warrior?  Thought Hillary did a good job of Happy Warrioring at the second debate, under very tough conditions:

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and it worked for her!

  • Much of the preliminary business of the Al Smith Dinner is talking about how much money has been raised for charity.  As you listen to that, it’s hard not to be revolted by Trump’s total scumminess on charity.  My perception was the room grew angrier and angrier at Trump as they heard this, and so were primed against him by the time he got up there. A politician is one thing, but a rich guy who gives nothing to charity?  That sucks.  That’s the complete opposite of the values of this dinner.
  • For someone on the verge of achieving a lifelong dream she’s worked impossibly hard for, Hillary seems miserable.  What is the lesson there?  Is it campaign fatigue and going to bed every night with a knot in the pit of her stomach?  Is it the regular reminders that a lot of people, probably a majority, just kind of don’t like her?  There’s something real devil’s bargainy in the cruel twists that seem to meet Hillary’s ambitions.
Deeply reviled.

Deeply reviled.

(should admit I am 100% in the tank for Hillary.  Even her soldiering on in the face of all this I admire.  Will the rest of the media admit as much?)

  • This event must be as close as possible to a pure nightmare for Donald.  New York’s elites laughing and booing at him. In front of him and behind his back.  Read anything by or about Trump:  his greatest fear/source of rage is being mocked by Manhattan.

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This headline would’ve appeared to Trump if he summoned the vision serpent. We are caught in a snobs vs slob death spiral.  A sharp commentator points out there was a real Nelson Muntz aspect to Donald at this dinner:

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Is Nelson in his way a sympathetic character?  Trump’s father was a nasty piece of work, has there ever been a bully who wasn’t bullied?

  • Hillary had some great jokes but she is not great at comic delivery.  Then again, who’s the best over-70 year old joke deliverer?  (Gotta thank Medina for asking that one).  My first picks: Mel Brooks or Bill Cosby.
  • Katie Dunn’s parents would only let Al Smith marry their daughter when he promised he would never become a professional actor (per Caro’s The Power Broker, p. 117).  In those days you went into politics because everybody liked you.
Katie and Al

Katie and Al

  • There’s a lot terrible about the Catholic Church, but in my experience growing up around the Catholic church I saw a lot more attention to and help for the sick, the old, the poor, the dying, the disabled, the mentally ill and the homeless than I’ve seen outside of it.

In Al Smith’s day the Catholic Church provided a social welfare system for the poor and the unfortunate and the immigrant.  Other churches did the same thing.  Think how many hospitals are named after saints.  As far as I understand it the Mormon church still does.  The Catholic Church in America is in a managed decline.

What will fill the social welfare vacuum?  Who will take care of the poor, the sick, the immigrant, they dying?  Who should?

Sometimes it seems like the domestic political argument in America is between two answers: “the government” and “nobody/family/somebody’ll handle it/I don’t know but not the government.”

Bill Clinton and George Bush both succeeded at least in pretending to find happy compromises, “the third way,” “compassionate conservatism,” etc.  For awhile I felt like Paul Ryan was doing a decent job of at least pretending, too.  But man when Trump came along he went the sniveling way.  Is he more dangerous and more vile than Trump?

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  • “They’re laughing at us” might be Donald’s campaign theme.  From The Washington Post:

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It’s a horrible feeling to be laughed at and it takes dignity to rise above it.  Watching him at the Al Smith dinner, in a way I almost felt bad for him.  If I could give Donald Trump advice I would tell him to relax and return to being a clown version of a rich guy.  It was a good job and he was well-compensated.  But he doesn’t listen.

In a way DT feels like a dangerous, bitter, vile version of this guy:

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  • Al Smith’s father was an immigrant.  Not from Ireland though, from Italy. (Ferraro = blacksmith = smith).  His mother’s parents were immigrants from Ireland.  A frustrating thing about this election is we couldn’t have a serious talk about immigration. How much should we have?  From where?  Infinite?  If not infinite how do we sort out who can come?
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Whose special praise it is

Source: David Sowell for Wikipedia

In this church in Staunton Harold, England, there’s an inscription:

When all things sacred were throughout ye nation Either demollisht or profaned

Sir Robert Shirley Barronet founded this Church whose singular praise it is to have done ye best things in ye worst times And hoped them in the most callamitous.

This is Sir Robert the 4th Baronet, who died a prisoner in the Tower of London.

shoutout to FWJ who told me that one.

Source: Colin Smith for Wikipedia


Classical KUSC / soundless WW2 footage

found that playing Smithsonian Channel’s The Pacific War In Color while KUSC our local classical station was coming out of my old radio created a cool effect.


Water Dreaming at Kalipinya

Says the 2001 NYTimes obituary of painter Johnny Warangkua Tjupurrula:

He died a penniless alcoholic. In 1997 one of his paintings, ”Water Dreaming at Kalipinya,” which he had sold in 1972 for $75, changed hands at a Sotheby’s auction in Melbourne for $263,145, setting a record for any Aboriginal work of art. Mr. Tjupurrula’s request for 4 percent of the sale price was refused by both seller and buyer.

Not cool!  From a 2010 Smithsonian article by Arthur Lubow:

The Wilkersons’ costliest board was the 1972 painting Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, a dazzling patchwork of stippled, dotted and crosshatched shapes, bought in 2000 for some $220,000—more than twice the price it had been auctioned for only three years earlier. The painting was done by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, an original member of the Papunya cooperative and one of its most celebrated. Sadly, the artist himself had long been overlooked; in 1997, an Australian journalist found Warangkula, by then old and homeless, sleeping along with other Aboriginal people in a dry riverbed near Alice Springs. Though he reportedly received less than $150 for his best-known painting, the publicity surrounding the 1997 sale revived his career somewhat and he soon resumed painting. Warangkula died in a nursing home in 2001.

Here’s his 1972 painting Potato Dreaming:


More investigation into New Zealand politics

The Economist reports:

A larger-than-life sculpture made of manure that depicts the hapless environment minister, Nick Smith, defecating into a glass of water has been a hit.

Some American politician should steal the New Zealand First party’s idea for the SuperGold card:

SuperGold Card

SuperGold Card, a flagship policy

The SuperGold Card, a discounts and concessions card for senior citizens and veterans, has been a major initiative of the party.

New Zealand First established a research team to design the SuperGold Card, which included public transport benefits like free off-peak travel (funded by the government) and discounts from businesses and companies across thousands of outlets. Winston Peters negotiated with then-Prime Minister Helen Clark, despite widespread opposition to the card on the grounds of high cost. As a condition of the 2005 confidence and supply agreement between New Zealand First and the Labour Government, Peters launched the SuperGold Card in August 2007.

The card is available to all eligible New Zealanders over the age of 65. The card provides over 600,000 New Zealanders with access to a wide range of government and local authority services, business discounts, entitlements and concessions, such as hearing aid subsidies. A Veterans’ SuperGold Card, also exists for those who have served in the New Zealand Defence Force in a recognised war or emergency.

SuperGold Card came under threat in 2010 when National Minister Steven Joyce tried to terminate free SuperGold transport on some more expensive public transport services, including the Waiheke Island ferry and the Wairarapa Connection train. The Minister retreated when he came under fire from senior citizens.

Give old people a card that gets them free stuff!  They’ll love it!


Old Dale, CA

The people who populated this remote mining region were tougher than a tortoise shell and twice as dusty. To describe some of these hard scrabble miners as rugged individualists is like describing the Coen brothers as a couple of kids with cameras.

The miners defined the term colorful character, some of whom would made a cholla cactus seem cuddly by comparison.

Little is left but a grave

By April 1896, Dale had two small mills and an arrastra to process ore, a general store, an assayer’s office, a blacksmith shop, a saloon and a house of ill repute.

No structures remain in any of the settlements today. Everything has been salvaged, stolen, vandalized or burned to nothing but ash piles and rusty nails. Roofless adobe walls have melted back into the sands from which they rose.

Blow sand that had covered the arrastra at Old Dale has recently been excavated. Contrary to being pleased by the amateur archeological work, Wharff is wary, concerned that the people who did the digging may return to unearth the stones, looking for any traces of stray gold that may be left below the rock floor of the historical structure.

found here in a Hi-Desert Star article by Jimmy Biggerstaff, “Tracking the ghosts of Old Dale,” Feb. 27, 2008.


The Generals by Thomas Ricks

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This book is so full of compelling anecdotes, character studies, and surprising, valuable lessons of leadership that I kind of can’t believe I got to it before Malcolm Gladwell or David Brooks or somebody scavenged it for good stories.

Generaling

Consider how hard it would be to get fifteen of your friends to leave for a road trip at the same time.  How much coordination and communication it would take, how likely it was to get fucked up.

Now imagine trying to move 156,000 people across the English Channel, and you have to keep it a surprise, and on the other side there are 50,350 people waiting to try and kill you.

The Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment's bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War. Dominic D'Andrea, commissioned by the National Guard Heritage Foundation

The Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment’s bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War. Dominic D’Andrea, commissioned by the National Guard Heritage Foundation

Even at a lower scale, say a brigade, a brigadier general might oversee say 4,500 people and hundreds of vehicles.  Those people must be clothed, fed, housed, their medical problems attended to.  Then they have to be armed, trained, given ammo.  You have to find the enemy, kill them, evacuate the wounded, stay in communication, and keep a calm head as many people are trying to kill you and the situation is changing rapidly and constantly.

32nd Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Ed Hansen, on floor in front of podium, accepts reports from battalion command sergeants major as the brigade forms at the start of the Feb. 17 send-off ceremony at the Dane County Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Madison, Wis. Family members and public officials bade farewell to some 3,200 members of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and augmenting units, Wisconsin Army National Guard, in the ceremony. The unit is bound for pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas, followed by a deployment of approximately 10 months for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Larry Sommers.

32nd Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Ed Hansen, on floor in front of podium, accepts reports from battalion command sergeants major as the brigade forms at the start of the Feb. 17 send-off ceremony at the Dane County Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Madison, Wis. Family members and public officials bade farewell to some 3,200 members of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and augmenting units, Wisconsin Army National Guard, in the ceremony. The unit is bound for pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas, followed by a deployment of approximately 10 months for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Larry Sommers.

Being a general is a challenging job, I guess is my point.

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U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, talk on board a C-17 while flying to Baghdad, Dec. 15, 2011.  Source.

I saw this post about Gen. Mattis, possible future Secretary of Defense, on Tom Ricks blog:

A SecDef nominee at war?: What I wrote about General Mattis in ‘The Generals’

The story was so compelling that I immediately ordered Mr. Ricks’ book:

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A fantastic read.  Eye-opening, shocking, opinionated, compelling.

The way that Marc Norman’s book on screenwriting works as a history of Hollywood:

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The Generals works as a kind of history of the US since World War II.   I’d list it with 1491: New Revelations On The Americas Before Columbus as a book I think every citizen should read.

The observation that drives The Generals is this: commanding troops in combat is insanely difficult.  Many generals will fail.  Officers who performed well at lower ranks might completely collapse.

During World War II, generals who failed to perform were swiftly relieved of command.  (Often, they were given second chances, and many stepped up).

Since World War II, swift relief of underperforming generals has not been the case.  The results for American military effectiveness have been devastating.  Much of this book describes catastrophe and disaster, as I guess war is even under the best of circumstances and the finest leadership.

Ricks is such a good writer, so engaging and compelling.  He knows to include stuff like this:

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Ricks describes the catastrophes that result from bad military leadership.  How about this, in Korea?:

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What kind of effect did this leadership have, in Vietnam?:

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He discusses the relationship of presidents and their generals:

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Here is LBJ, years later, describing his nightmares:

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Ricks can be blunt:

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Hard lessons the Marines had learned:

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Symbolically, There’s a Warning Signal Against Them as Marines Move Down the Main Line to Seoul From RG: 127 General Photograph File of the U.S. Marine Corps National Archives Identifier: 5891316 Local Identifier: 127-N-A3206

A hero in the book is O. P. Smith

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who led the Marines’ reverse advance at the Chosin Resevoir, when it was so cold men’s toes were falling off from frostbite inside their boots:

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The story of what they accomplished is incredible, worth a book itself.  Here’s Ricks talking about the book and Smith.

A continued challenge for generals is to understand the strategic circumstances they are operating under, and the political limitations that constrain them.

 

031206-F-2828D-373 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld walks with Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez after arriving at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on Dec. 6, 2003. Rumsfeld is in Iraq to meet with members of the Coalition Provisional Authority, senior military leaders and the troops deployed there. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

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Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld walks with Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez after arriving at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on Dec. 6, 2003. Rumsfeld is in Iraq to meet with members of the Coalition Provisional Authority, senior military leaders and the troops deployed there. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force. (Released) source

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Recommend this book.  One of the best works of military history I’ve ever read, and a sobering reflection on leadership, strategy, and the United States.


Yo Monkeytrial!

This post is in response to my East Coast buddy Monkeytrial, who says:

We haven’t been to the moon in 42 years, and the richest 1 percent of humans own half the world’s assets.

I’d like to read a discussion of the psychological implications of growing up in a time of dramatic technological progress (my parents’ generation) versus consumer-focused incrementalism (my own). If any of my zero readers know and could link, much appreciated.

Hmm!  Let’s think about the idea that technological progress has slowed from a rapid rate 1940-1970 to a stagnation now.

Is this true?

What does it mean?

I don’t have exactly what Monkeytrial is looking for.  But through the glory of the Internet, we can converse via blog.

Some uncooked ideas inspired by him.  First, a rec:

Check out Peter Thiel.

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If not exactly this, he is obsessed with similar problems.  He talks about ’em in his book which I recommend, thought-provoking to the max. Dude is thinking interesting thoughts at a rapid rate:

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Even more on Monkeytrial’s theme is this essay, from National Review (I know, I know):

When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems. Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story — “Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?” — barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.

Another roundup of Thiel pessimism.  This one seems to really nag at him:

The Empire State Building was built in 15 months in 1932. It’s taken 12 years and counting to rebuild the World Trade Center.

(Well, was that an engineering problem, or a political one?  I don’t know a ton about New York City politics in the ’30s, but from what I understand, between former governor Al Smith as president of Empire State Inc., FDR as governor, Jimmy Walker as mayor, and James Farley supplying the building materials there was more or less a semi-benevolent mafia running the city.)

Maybe: we work in levels, like an orbiting electron?

Like, maybe we humans make big jumps, and then plateau for awhile?  Nothing happened in Europe between 5oo and 1300 AD (let’s say) and then there was the Renaissance.  Maybe what DFW’s characters speculate about tennis applies?:

“‘He’s talking about developing the concept of tennis mastery,’ Chu tells the other three. They’re on the floor indian-style, Wayne standing with his back against the door, rotating his head to stretch the neck. ‘His point is that progress towards genuine Show-caliber mastery is slow, frustrating. Humbling. A question of less talent than temperament.’

‘Is this right Mr. Wayne?’

Chu says ‘…that because you proceed toward mastery through a series of plateaus, so there’s like radical improvement up to a certain plateau and then what looks like a stall, on the plateau, with the only way to get off one of the plateaus and climb up to the next one up ahead is with a whole lot of frustrating mindless repetitive practice and patience and hanging in there.’

‘Plateaux,’ Wayne says, looking at the celing and pushing the back of his head isometrically against the door. ‘With an X. Plateaux.’

Maybe: we got scared by the speed of what we were doing. 

Nukes, etc.

This caused us to pull back on investment/energy in areas like nuclear engineering where there may have been big if scary advances to make?

Maybe: we were really just plucking low hanging fruit.

The Tyler Cowen theory, that there was a lot of low-hanging economic fruit, esp. in the resource rich United States, and we ate it all up and now it’s gone.

Maybe: globalization happened in one big boom.  

Like, it was a closer to a one-time event than an enduring process, and it already happened, between say 1960 and 1989, as China opened, containerization blasted international shipping forward.  The revolution is over, we already got the major results in the form of Wal-Mart and so on, now it’s just a matter of economic water shifting across the world until all the glasses (countries) are level, and that’s gonna look like reverse progress from here in the US.

Maybe: it only looks bad here in the US.  

Sure, it seems like technological progress has stalled out since 1970~ here in the US, but it sure as hell doesn’t look like that in China, India,  dunno parts of Africa, where changes from 1970-now are as rapid as 1945-1970 in the US?

Maybe: tech “progress” isn’t necessarily good.

Maybe the jarring nature of it, the disorienting and alienating effects, level out the material gains?  Maybe we’re feeling some kind of technological hangover and we’re all kinda cooling it?

What about social/cultural progress?

Food.  I’m eating better every year.  The food a person in Los Angeles or New York can access is insanely better than it was in 1970 in terms of variety and quality.  Here’s literally the first pic I found when I googled “Food 1970:”

Sex.  Sexual freedom is insane now.

Art.  There’s pretty much no limit on what you can do artwise in the Western World – a guy inflated a buttplug in the middle of Paris and the President of France stuck up for him.

Drugs, alternative lifestyles, dressing weird – it’s becoming pretty much a field day. Whether that’s “good” or “bad” is another puzzle but we are “progressing” very rapidly in a direction.

In less ambiguous ways, there’s been massive social progress.  We’re getting more inclusive.  Here’s a clearly stated example Aisha happened to put on This. today: Shonda Rhimes putting racial/gender/representational progress in sharp terms she receives the Sherry Lansing Award:

Look around this room. It’s filled with women of all colors in Hollywood who are executives and heads of studios and VPs and show creators and directors. There are a lot of women in Hollywood in this room who have the game-changing ability to say yes or no to something.

15 years ago, that would not have been as true. There’d have been maybe a few women in Hollywood who could say yes or no. And a lot of D girls and assistants who were gritting their teeth and working really hard. And for someone like me, if I was very very VERY lucky, there’d have been maybe one small show. One small shot. And that shot would not have involved a leading actress of color, any three dimensional LGBT characters, any women characters with high powered jobs AND families, and no more than two characters of color in any scene at one time — because that only happened in sitcoms.

30 years ago, I’d think maybe there’d be a thousand secretaries fending off their handsy bosses back at the office and about two women in Hollywood in this room. And if I were here, I would serving those two women breakfast.

50 years ago, if women wanted to gather in a room, well it had better be about babies or charity work. And the brown women were in one room over there and the white women were in a room over here.

What if: technological progress – the speed of it, especially – itself aggravated the wealth inequality.

Twitter was created eight years ago.  It’s now worth roughly $24 billion.  Have people ever, in the history of the world, gotten that rich that fast?

Also: the last period of insane technological progress culminated in a horrifying cataclysm.

World War I, where all those terrific machines were turned to gassing and machine-gunning each other.  Then, when they were done with that, they ramped up to the next one: twice as cataclysmic (but on the other hand, very fertile for creating more technological progress).

So, maybe we should just count our stars we’re lucky we dodged that and closed out a tech boom peacefully.

And: Why should we expect things to be linear?

Maybe this Thiel idea that technological progress has “stalled” is like the weird thinking of an Asberger’s robot, human history is chaotic and works in undiagnosable, epileptic fits and starts that can’t be rationally charted.

Did the rapidity of change make us (sanely enough) feel more unsettled about predicting the future? 

Maybe that itself acted as some kind of check on technological progress?  The optimism of a 1960s Popular Mechanics cover

feels dated today.

Anyway, I guess my point is: check out Monkeytrial.


We Spent It All On Kites

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Ann Summa for The New York Times

Haven’t read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner yet despite strong recs from Pittsburgh office and elsewhere.

How about this, from this NY Mag profile?

In Eugene, Oregon, where the Kushners lived in a painted school bus like Ken Kesey’s, Rachel walked to her “totally hippie preschool” unaccompanied. Hard at work on their Ph.D.’s, the Kushners often left her and her brother at home alone, once for days with no sitter. “They left money in a jar,” Kushner says. “We spent it all on kites, and then we didn’t have any money to buy food.”

And:

Eugene “was a sweet little town,” Kushner says now, “but it was the seventies. I feel like there was a certain kind of evil lurking around the edges.” She and Smith are raising their own 6-year-old son very differently. “We actually take him to school and make his lunch. We dress him in clothes.

TheFlamethrowersKushner


Adam Smith

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Got that from Peter Thiel.  Wikipedia reports about Adam Smith:

He never married, and seems to have maintained a close relationship with his mother, with whom he lived after his return from France and who died six years before his own death.

Smith was described by several of his contemporaries and biographers as comically absent-minded, with peculiar habits of speech and gait, and a smile of “inexpressible benignity”. He was known to talk to himself, a habit that began during his childhood when he would smile in rapt conversation with invisible companions… According to one story, Smith took Charles Townshend on a tour of a tanning factory, and while discussing free trade, Smith walked into a huge tanning pit from which he needed help to escape. He is also said to have put bread and butter into a teapot, drunk the concoction, and declared it to be the worst cup of tea he ever had.

Adam Smith got a job tutoring the young Duke of Buccleuch, and with him they traveled all over Europe and met Ben Franklin.

This Duke of Buccleuch spawned a whole line of British aristocrats: one of his descendants was this handsome devil, Prince William of Gloucester:

Apparently it’s after this Prince William that the current Prince William, husband to Kate Middleton, is named.

On page 3 of The Great Gatsby, Nick tells us:

The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day.


Empire States of Mind

Sam Valadi for Wikipedia

Peter Thiel cites the fact that the Empire State Building was built in 15 months as a sign that maybe our society has stagnated. Can we build things any more? Why not?

I’ve wondered if part of the answer was the political power of Al Smith, who was appointed head of Empire State Inc, and various other elements of the former Tammany/Democratic machine that controlled New York City at the time. An argument for the efficiency of political machines?

But what if the answer was: fairness?

The Empire State Building was constructed in just 13* months, and that included the dismantling of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel that sat on the site. Paul Starrett, the builder, treated his workers rather well by the standards of the time, paying much attention to safety and paying employees on days when it was too windy to work. Daily wages were more than double the usual rate and hot meals were provided on site.

The concept is known as “efficiency wages”. Companies that compensate workers well and treat them fairly can attract better, more motivated staff. Unlike most construction projects, the Empire State Building had low staff turnover, and workers suggested productivity improvements such as building a miniature railway line to bring bricks to the site.

That’s Bartleby in the Dec 12, 2020 Economist, reviewing a book called The Art of Fairness, by David Bodanis. Starrett was not “naively generous,” the article also notes. He checked worker attendance four times a day.

I’d kind of resolved to stop reading these books that are just collections of neat anecdotes under some big umbrella, but maybe I’ll make an exception here. Another example cited: Danny Boyle used thousands of volunteers for the 2012 London Olympic Ceremonies, but he also had to keep details of the show secret:

The conventional approach would have been to make the volunteers sign a non-disclosure agreement. Instead, he asked them to keep the surprise – and trusted them to do so. They did, thanks to the grown up way he treated them.

Also in this week’s Economist, Buttonwood reports on a study in India:

The study’s main finding is that retail investors who were randomly allocated shares in successful IPOS view their good fortune as evidence of skill.

* note the revision to Thiel’s figure


Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Finally read this one, and it’s a lot of fun! Well, by read I mean skimmed, there are a lot of details of dinners and discussions of particular plays of the period that didn’t hold my attention. Still, sift through the slag and there’s many a jewel here. Boswell was a young lawyer from Scotland when he met Johnson (Johnson never misses a chance to roast Scotland). He reconstructed the life of Johnson previous to meeting him, and then picks up, more or less writing down any witty or interesting things Johnson had to say, which were many.

On Johnson’s college years:

Dr Adams told me that Johnson, while he was at Pembroke College, ‘was caressed and loved by all about him, was a gay and frolicksome fellow, and passed there the happiest part of his life.”  But this is a striking proof of the fallacy of appearances, and how little any of us know of the real interna state eveon of those whom we see most frequently; for the truth is, that he was then depressed by poverty, and irritated by disease.  When I mentioned to him this acocunt as given me by Dr Adams, he said, “Ah, Sir, I was mad and violent.  I twas bitterness which they mistook for frolick.  I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority.”  

Johnson recounts to Boswell what happened on the way to his wedding:

Sir, she had read the old romances, and had got into her hear head the fantastical notion that a woman of spirit should use her lover like a dog.  So, Sir, at first she told me that I rode too fast, and she could not keep up with me; and, when I rode a little slower, she passed me, and complained that I lagged behind.  I was not to be made the slave of caprice; and I resolved to begin as I meant to end.  I therefore pushed on briskly, till I was fairly out of her sight.  The road lay between two hedges, so I was sure she could not miss it and I contrived that she should soon come up with me.  When she did, I observed her to be in tears.

Despite this, it appears to have been a happy, if short marriage. Johnson’s was a love marriage to a woman significantly older than him. On marriage in general Johnson muses:

I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter.  

When Boswell met Johnson, he was a widower, who’s often with his friends the Thrales or other people who take him in for his charm. For his dictionary Johnson got paid 1575 pounds, and “when the expense of amanuenses and paper and other articles are deducted, his clear profit was very inconsiderable.” As for money:

He frequently gave all the silver in his pocket to the poor, who watched him, between his house and the tavern where he dined.  He walked the streets at all hours, and said he was never robbed, for the rogues knew he had little money, nor had the appearance of having much.

I liked this:

In 1761 Johnson appears to have done little. 

Johnson has much advice about drinking and melancholy:

Against melancholy he recommended constant occupation of mind, a great deal of exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, and especially to shun drinking at night.  He said melancholy people were apt to fly to intemperance for relief, but that it sunk them much deeper in misery.  He observed, that labouring men who work hard, and live sparingly, are seldom or never troubled with low spirits.    

I heard him once give a very judicious practical advice upon this subject: “A man, who has been drinking wine at all freely, should never go into a new company.  With those who have partaken of wine with him, he may be pretty well in unison; but he will probably be offensive, or appear ridiculous, to other people.”

Boswell goes with Johnson to his hometown, Lichfield, and observes not much work going on:

“Surely, Sir, (said I,) you are an idle set of people.’  Sir, (said Johnson,) we are a city of philosophers: we work with our heads, and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.”

Johnson chastises Boswell for using the phrase “to make money.” 

Don’t you see (said he,) the impropriety of it?  To make money is to coin it : you should say get money.  

I feel like rappers are on to this one. On fame:

Talking of fame, for which there is so great a desire, I observed how little there is of it in reality, compared with the other objects of human attention.  “Let every man recollect, and he will be sensible how small a part of his time is employed in talking or thinking of Shakespeare, Voltaire, or any of the most celebrated men that have ever lived, or are now supposed to occupy the attention and admiration of the world.  Let this be extracted and compressed: into what a narrow space will it go!

War:

We talked of war.  JOHNSON: Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.  BOSWELL: Lord Mansfield does not.  JOHNSON:  Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in a company of General Officers and Admirals who have been in service, he would shrink; he’d wish to creep under the table.  Were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, “Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;” and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, “Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;” a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.  Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.

(I feel this is often misquoted, leaving out the “having been at sea” part, and the part about Socrates vs. Charles The Twelfth. Of course, if Socrates was in the Peloponnesian Wars like Plato claims, he could handle both).

Travel:

He talked with an uncommon animation of travelling into distant countries; that the mind was enlarged by it, and that an acquisition of dignity of character was derived from it.  He expressed a particular enthusiasm with respect to visiting the wall of China.  I catched it for the moment, and said I really believed I should go and see the wall of China had I not children, of whom it was my duty to take care.  “Sir, (said he,) by doing so, you would do what would be of importance in raising your children to eminence.  There would be a lustre reflected upon them from your spirit and curiosity.  They would be at all times regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view the wall of China.  I am serious, Sir.  

Johnson was not a fan of America:

From this pleasing subject [Jesus] he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American: and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he breathed out threatenings and slaughter, calling them, Rascals – Robbers – Pirates; and exclaiming, he’d burn and destroy them.  

Later, Boswell tries to put this in context:

Notwithstanding occasional explosions of violence, we were all delighted upon the whole with Johnson.  I compared him at this time to a warm West-Indian climate, where you have a bright sun, quick vegetation, luxuriant foliage, luscious fruits; but where the same heat sometimes produces thunder, lightning, earthquakes, in a terrible degree.

How about:

Depend upon it, said he, that if a man talks of his misfortunes, there is something in them that is not disagreeable to him; for where there is nothing but pure misery, there never is any recourse to the mention of it.  

Medicine:

On Sunday, March 23, I breakfasted with Dr. Johnson, who seemed much relieved, having taken opium the night before.  He however protested against it, as a remedy that should be given with the utmost reluctance, and only in extreme necessity.  

The idea comes up a few times that Johnson might be considered something of an underachiever, or at least that his position in the world doesn’t match his brilliance:

Mrs Desmoulins made tea; and she and I talked before him upon a topic which he had once borne patiently from me when we were by ourselves – his not complaining of the world, because he was not called to some great office, nor had attained great wealth.  He flew into a violent passion, I confess with some justice, and commanded us to have done.  Nobody (said he) has a right to talk in this manner, to bring before a man his own character, and the events of his life, when he does not choose it should be done.  I never have sought the world; the world was not to seek me.  It is rather wonderful that so much has been done for me.  All the complaints which are made of the world are unjust.  I never knew a man of merit neglected; it was generally by his own fault that he failed of success.  A man may hide his head in a hole: he may go into the country, and publish a book now and then, which nobody readys, and then complain he is neglected.  There is no reason why any person should exert himself for a man who has written a good book: he has not written it for any individual.  I may as well make a present to the postman who brings me a letter.  

A zinger on Adam Smith:

I once reminded him that when Dr Adam Smith was expatiating on the beauty of Glasgow, he had cut him short by saying, “Pray, Sir, Have you seen Brentford?”  and I took the liberty to add, “My dear Sir, surely that was shocking,”  “Why then, Sir (he replied,) YOU have not seen Brentford.” 

Animals:

I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters

(Boswell doesn’t really like Hodge, but tolerates him)

Mrs Thrale, while supping very heartily upon larks, laid down her knife and fork, and abruptly exclaimed, “O, my dear Mr Johnson, do you know what has happened?  The last letters from abroad have brought us an account that our poor cousin’s head was taken off by a cannon-ball.”  Johnson, who was shocked both at the fact, and her light unfeeling manner of mentioning it, replied, “Madam, it would give you very little concern if all your relations were spitted like those larks, and drest for Presto’s supper.”

(Presto being a dog who was present). 

One of Johnson’s good buds was the painter Joshua Reynolds.


San Luis Obispo

A couple years had passed since I’d last taken the train up to SLO. The town appears to be prospering. The Thursday night farmers market and Halloween festivities were full of happy faces, the farm produce looked amazing, the grilled meats smelled good. There are multiple stores that sell like soaps and globes and mugs and scarves. And places called like

The creek runs right through town. A fantasy would be to open a Japanese style inn alongside it, in about 300 years you might have a decent ryokan. Kids were on campus at Cal Poly, they looked healthy and vital. School pride there feels abundant, and it’s my sense that the learning there is practical and focused. Is the more famous Cal Poly alum Ozzie Smith or Weird Al Yankovich?

The Central Coast cadence of chill can be overheard everywhere, over pale ale and pinball at Lincoln Market for sure. Del Monte Cafe, La Loconda, Big Sky Cafe, Mistura all make my list. Dr Burnsteins Ice Cream Lab unfortunately somewhat disappoints. The “lab” theme is simply not maniacal enough.

Several California towns I’ve visited in the last year have a hollowed out feel, the main streets shells, but San Luis Obispo feels alive. I’ve never failed to feel good after a journey there. A small house in town will run you $600k at least, and there are not many available. In previous October visits the weather’s been brisk, but this time the air was quite toasty. Three or four visits over a few years is not a fair sample size, so I wouldn’t consider this science, but I feel the climate is changing.

Bought these at Phoenix Books, where I’ve never failed to score:

The Garden Street Inn has been taken over by Hilton, but not to worry, it’s still weird and the staff are still friendly and the rooms retain their individual themes (not on Madonna Inn level, just small touches).

Any traveler on Amtrak should expect a two hour or so delay somewhere along the line, and at least one semi deranged fellow passenger, but the Coast Starlight still can’t be beat for oceanside leisure travel. For lunch I had a baked potato with vegan chili, cheese, and half a bottle of Dark Harvest cab, tell me where you can have a better lunch at 50 mph.

WNBA should return to this fit

The mission in SLO is one of the more inviting California missions in its architecture, in my opinion. The town was named for St. Louis of Toulouse. Three hundred years after, the mission of converting California to Catholicism must be declared a failed project but the lingering relics of the medieval Spanish priests are significant and still impress.

“The solidity of justice,” my dad commented on my photos of the county courthouse.


Kansas

Fragments sad, frightening, and warm in this story “In Trying Times, a Kansas Community Faced Down Its Fear of Outsiders,” by Michael M. Phillips and Dante Chinni for Wall Street Journal. It began when a woman with Colorado plates showed up and tried to buy all the town’s toilet paper. Concerned residents, worried about just who could come up I-70, formed a protection group.

Worried about its image, the group went public early this year, posting a mission statement at the Dairy Queen, feed stores and the Pit Stop gas station.

“Gove County Emergency Response Group works to help maintain peace in Gove County,” the flier said. “By educating citizens in our area of preparedness and self-defense; inviting citizens of all backgrounds and races to stand unified against lawlessness in times of disaster and civil unrest; and building strong relationships with law enforcement through cooperative community efforts.”

Concerns:

A group of women who jokingly called themselves the Enlightened Ladies Club caught wind and were suspicious. They leaned liberal for the most part in conservative Gove County and sometimes dined together to share views. “We were anticipating some sort of vigilante group,” said Patrice Ostmeyer, who works part time at the public library.

Something Rockwellian in this photo by Christopher Smith:

Some real excellence in some of these text-image-scrolling blends that the NYT, WSJ, and Bloomberg in particular seem to have mastered.


Wildfire news

burnt over country, Lassen Volcanic National Park, a few weeks ago

I don’t want to be all fire content all the time, the Helytimes reader comes here looking for a little uplift, but since my drive through far northern California I’ve been absorbed by the great burning that’s begun. The scale of the fires and the fires to come are massive.

source. Don’t eat the lake!

As I write this the Dixie fire is something like 760 square miles, bigger in size by far than any city in California. The Dixie fire is almost as big as Orange County. That doesn’t mean it’s all roaring flames, but a smoldering area bigger than Los Angeles is quite wild to ponder.

Good first sentence for a novel there. Mike Nimz, quoted by Joe Mozingo in this LA Times piece on refugees from the Camp fire, the one that destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018.

That’s a tough situation right there. Supposedly the population of Chico, CA grew by something like 20,000 in the wake of the Camp fire.

(I kind of dug the town of Chico. College town, good bookstore. Downtown has some life to it, or did on the particular July Tuesday morning I cruised in. Sierra Nevada is not my go-to beer but respect. I have a suspicion people sometimes lump Chico in with Chino, a less appealing town).

I drove through Paradise on my travels. There was what looked like a brand new, prefab Best Western set up, and some trailers and construction activity on the cleared foundations. A few stray signs over missing buildings.

The sign survives

Now this is looking on the bright side:

And although the thick layer of smoke hovering over the fire is expected to dissipate Monday, McKeague said clearer skies actually expose the fire to more dangerous heat from the sun, which could lead to increased fire activity.

It was actually helpful,” he said of the thick smoke. “It sort of held a cap that blocked some of the sunlight.”

That from: “As Dixie fire nears half a million acres, containment is still weeks away” by Hayley Smith in LATimes (no relation to American Dad!’s Hayley Smith).


Visions of Captain Cook

for leisure he would climb a nearby hill, Roseberry Topping.

ChrisO for Wikpedia

Cooks’ Cottage, his parents’ last home, which he is likely to have visited, is now in Melbourne, Australia, having been moved from England and reassembled, brick by brick, in 1934.

CloudSurfer for Wikipedia

In 1745, when he was 16, Cook moved 20 miles to the fishing village of Staithes, to be apprenticed as a shop boy to grocer and haberdasher William Sanderson. Historians have speculated that this is where Cook first felt the lure of the sea while gazing out of the shop window.

Staithes, by Mike Murphy for Wikpedia

Fantasizing about a trip to Hawaii, I was reading up on Captain Cook. This led me to the poem Five Visions of Captain Cook, by Kenneth Slessor. An excerpt:

Cook was a captain of the powder-days
When captains, you might have said, if you had been
Fixed by their glittering stare, half-down the side,
Or gaping at them up companionways,
Were more like warlocks than a humble man—
And men were humble then who gazed at them,
Poor horn-eyed sailors, bullied by devils’ fists
Of wind or water, or the want of both,
Childlike and trusting, filled with eager trust—
Cook was a captain of the sailing days
When sea-captains were kings like this,
Not cold executives of company-rules
Cracking their boilers for a dividend
Or bidding their engineers go wink
At bells and telegraphs, so plates would hold
Another pound. Those captains drove their ships
By their own blood, no laws of schoolbook steam,
Till yards were sprung, and masts went overboard—
Daemons in periwigs, doling magic out,
Who read fair alphabets in stars
Where humbler men found but a mess of sparks,
Who steered their crews by mysteries
And strange, half-dreadful sortilege with books,
Used medicines that only gods could know
The sense of, but sailors drank
In simple faith. That was the captain
Cook was when he came to the Coral Sea
And chose a passage into the dark.

Kenneth Slessor seems interesting; how many poets wrote about rugby for Smith’s Weekly? Maybe when I head to Hawaii I’ll bring a copy of Slessor’s 100 Poems.

I come back to pictures of Roseberry Topping. You picture Cook in the Pacific, encountering these wild exotic landscapes, but on the other hand this hill in north Yorkshire, doesn’t it look like it could be some outcropping in the South Seas?

Mr R Jordan for Wikipedia


BJ and Ursula

source: CNN

Struck by how much the visuals of these two, Boris Johnson and EU president Ursula von der Leyen, look like a Black Mirror version of Trump and Hillary.

The group dined on a starter of pumpkin soup with scallops; a main of steamed turbot, mashed potatoes with wasabi and vegetables; and a desert of pavlova with exotic fruit and coconut sorbet. It was fitting that fish featured on the menu, given arrangements for fisheries is one of three outstanding sticking points in the trade talks, and particularly scallops, which were the subject of clashes between British and French fishermen in 2018. 

source. Love the idea of pointedly serving someone fish.

Ursula von der Leyen is interesting. She has seven children? And maybe plagarized her doctoral thesis?

Von der Leyen’s father’s grandparents were the cotton merchant Carl Albrecht (1875–1952) and Mary Ladson Robertson (1883–1960), an American who belonged to a plantation owning family of the southern aristocracy from Charleston, South Carolina. Her American ancestors played a significant role in the British colonization of the Americas, and she descends from many of the first English settlers of Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Barbados, and from numerous colonial-era governors. Among her ancestors were Carolina governors John Yeamans, James Moore, Robert Gibbes, Thomas Smith and Joseph Blake, Pennsylvania deputy governor Samuel Carpenter, and the American revolutionary and lieutenant governor of South Carolina James Ladson. The Ladson family were large plantation owners and her ancestor James H. Ladson owned over 200 slaves by the time slavery in the United States was abolished; her relatives and ancestors were among the wealthiest in British North America in the 18th century, and she descends from one of the largest British slave traders of the era, Joseph Wragg.

Boris Johnson for his part has been getting away with stuff his whole life. As with the naughty schoolboys of my youth, I have a desire both to see him “caught” and punished and also to see him get away with it. He seems to thrive in the space where, like, a Dec 31 deadline looms, and there’s lots of technical details to work out, and he’s barely started.


Founding Documents

Note to readers: from time to time we accept submissions written by correspondents about topics they’re passionate about that fit into our frame of going to the source.  Reader Billy Ouska sent us a writeup of something he’s passionate about, the founding documents of Facebook, and we’re proud to present it here.  If you’d like to write for us, send us a pitch!  – SH, editor. 

The Social Network (now available to stream on Netflix) tells the story of the creation of Facebook through portrayals of the legal battles over its ownership. In a pivotal scene, cofounder Eduardo Saverin flies out to Facebook headquarters to sign some seemingly innocuous legal documents. Of course, the cut to Mark Zuckerberg watching furtively from afar tells the viewer that something is up. We later discover that Saverin has signed off on corporate restructuring that will significantly dilute his equity in the company, leading to the lawsuit whose depositions serve as a narrative device for the film. (Moral of the story: know what you’re signing! If you don’t, hire a lawyer! If there’s a lawyer in the room, ask him, “do you represent me?” If he says no, get your own guy! If he says yes, make him put it in writing!)

We learn that Facebook was originally formed as a Florida limited liability company and that, through legal maneuvering, another Facebook entity was created in Delaware that acquired its Florida counterpart, giving it the ability to restructure ownership. I’m not here to delve into the legal tricks that were played; other corners of the internet have already done so. Instead, I’m here to talk about something even less interesting: entity formation documents!

Formation documents (what you file with a state to create a corporation or limited liability company) are almost always available to the public. If you know the state where the entity was created, you can easily find its initial records. So, after entering “Florida entity search” into your search engine of choice, you’ll get here. With some persistence, you should be able to find information on whatever company you’re looking for, like the initial Articles of Organization of thefacebook LLC:

Maybe it’s just me, but seeing a copy of these Articles feels almost historic, and maybe a bit inspirational. Facebook is now worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but only sixteen years ago it was so green that its owners listed in a public document what look like their home addresses—no, even better, their parents’ home addresses—because they didn’t yet have an office. Mark’s address even has a typo: Dobbs Ferry is in New York, not Massachusetts. (Or, was this not a typo but rather the first of many times in which Zuckerberg would intentionally flout governmental authorities?!)

Even better is that the amended Articles of Organization are also available for viewing.

I don’t want to pull you even further into the weeds of corporate law (thanks for even making it this far!), but what I find cool here is that the amended Articles include an attachment laying out the reorganization that is signed by the man himself. Another slice of history! Think of how much impact, both positive and negative, that Facebook has had on the planet: the media industry, the outcome of the elections, the way we communicate. So much of that can be traced back to this document (and a thousand others not available for public viewing). Did Zuckerberg have any idea? Did he pause and contemplate before signing this? Did he scribble his signature without reading it, like Saverin would later do? If you squint hard enough, it can be fun to imagine the answers to these questions.

It looks like the first Articles of Organization were sent to the Florida secretary of state via fax. So, after it was run through the fax machine, the original was probably put in a file cabinet by the Organizer (Business Filings Incorporated) or thrown out. I’m guessing the amended Articles of Organization were prepared by a Palo Alto law firm, signed in Palo Alto, and then faxed or emailed to a third party in Tallahassee, which filed the documents with the Florida secretary of state. I would guess that the original in Palo Alto made its way into a client file somewhere.
Even I, a noted corporate records enthusiast, don’t think that these documents need or deserve the reverence afforded to the Constitution. But I do think there is value in making them public record. Every once in a while, they give a peek behind the curtain into the workings of the corporate world, which could probably benefit from some more transparency.

(PS: every state lets you access corporate records like these from the comfort of your home, though some states will require the creation of an account and/or the payment of a nominal fee to search. Just imagine what you could find!)

 


Forty year old men in movies

I’ve been on this planet for forty years, and I’m no closer to understanding a single thing.

says Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation.

Forty years old, and I’ve never done a single thing I’m proud of.

says Harvey Milk, early in Milk.  It’s his fortieth birthday when we meet him:

The film then flashes back to New York City in 1970, the eve of Milk’s 40th birthday and his first meeting with his much younger lover, Scott Smith.

Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams tells us he’s thirty-six:

Annie and I got married in June of ’74. Dad died that fall. A few years later, Karin was born. She smelled weird, but we loved her anyway. Then Annie got the crazy idea that she could talk me into buying a farm. I’m thirty-six years old, I love my family, I love baseball, and I’m about to become a farmer. And until I heard the Voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life.*

but that was in 1989, when, believe it or not, life expectancy was 3.89 years shorter.

Then of course there’s:

and

What’s going on here?  I pondered this.  Is it because forty years old is about when directors get the chance to make movies like this? Most of them are men, so it’s no surprise the topic they’re obsessed with is forty year old men?

Are there movies about explicitly forty year old women? None leap to mind. There are several movies about a ~ thirty year old woman’s crisis. Bridget Jones, My Best Friend’s Wedding – but I can’t think of forty year old women appearing quite so often with such clear declaration. (Although maybe that’s a bias in what this observer, himself a forty year old man, picks up.)

Could it be the actors? This is when make actors tend to be developed in their craft, at the peak of their power, empowered to wrestle with material they choose, yet also perhaps pondering some bigger questions than might concern a younger man.

Is forty when a man straddles a divide between the free adventures of youth and the responsibilities of adulthood? Truly, finally, no more postponement, he must make some choice? Does that choice make for a movie?

Or maybe it’s simpler than all that.

Let’s say you just turned 40. Obviously, 40 is just a number, but in many ways, it’s a milestone. Though people are living longer these days into the 80s and 90s, still age 40 is considered the halfway mark.

(That’s from this article on Seeking Alpha.)

Maybe it’s just the halfway mark.  When you get to halftime you ask, how am I doing?  You check the scoreboard, talk in the locker room.  “Make adjustments,” as the football coaches always say.

In the middle of the journey of our life

I found myself in a dark forest,

for the straight way was lost.

Not a bad way to start a story. (Dante’s Inferno, Canto I, translated by Google)

Update:

A reader writes

Hi Steve,

I saw your latest blog post about movies where guys turn 40 and I can’t believe you left out City Slickers. Come on!
Best,
Ooo, fair enough.  City Slickers is kind of a blank spot for me, it just kinda passed me by.  Weirdly remember City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, at least as a marketing campaign.  I believe I only saw either film when I wrote an American Dad! episode in a similar genre.
Back in New York City, Mitch has turned 39 years old and realizes his trips are to escape the reality of going through a midlife crisis. Phil and Ed have problems of their own: Phil is trapped in a 12-year loveless marriage to his shrew wife, Arlene, while also managing her father’s supermarket; and Ed is a successful sporting goods salesman and playboy who has recently married an underwear model but is reluctant to settle down and have children.
says Wikipedia.

* Ray Kinsella says that before he heard the Voice, he’d “never done a crazy thing in my entire life.” But earlier in the same speech he tells us:

I marched, I smoked some grass, I tried to like sitar music, 

Sounds like a guy who’s at least experimental (or is he saying he did all the cliché things of any ’60s college student?). 

Ray also says that (along with Annie) he bought a farm in Iowa, the “idea” of which was, his words, “crazy.” 

I think Ray protests a little too much here. I think he is the type who would at least consider a crazy thing.  Perhaps that openness is part of why the Voice chose him.  

 

 


Books I’ve been meaning to review for Helytimes

There’s a big stack of books over here I’ve been meaning to write up.

This book is super good.  Full of vivid detail.

Drums were banned everywhere in North America except French Louisian by the middle of the eighteenth century, and so were horns, which are made from wood or animal horns and played in hocketing ensembles in the slave coast and Congo-Angola regions.

There are excerpts from a long interview with Jim Dockery, of Dockery Farms.  Stories retold and remembered.  Sonny Payne tells of the Helena, Arkansas based radio show King Biscuit Time:

These are well-to-do white women listening.  I listen, every day when I’m doing the show, for the simple reason that there’s something there.  They’re trying to tell you something, and if you think hard enough and listen hard enough, you will understand what it’s all about.

The story this book tells is really about how blues music went from its origin point, where the Southern cross the Dog in the Mississippi Delta, to Chicago and then by record to the UK, where Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and the Rolling Stones heard it and picked up on it. Along the way there’s so much juicy richness about race and America and music and history and everything.  Palmer takes us to a meeting in Chicago where they tried to encourage black migrants to come back to Mississippi.

This book is almost like a response to the fetishizing or the legend-building surrounding the Mississippi Delta and blues music.  Says Wald:

If someone had suggested to the major blues stars that they were old-fashioned folk musicians carrying on a culture handed down from slavery times, most would probably have been insulted.

I didn’t know that Mississippi was dry until 1966.

It is startling to thank that all of the evolution from the first Bessie Smith record to the first Rolling Stones record took only forty years.  When Skip James and John Hurt appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, they were greeted as emissaries from an ancient, vanished world, but it was only three decades since they had first entered a recording studio – that is, they were about as ancient as disco is to us today.

One point both these books make is that the Mississippi Delta at this time was actually kind of a dynamic region, crisscrossed with railroads, you could quit your job and move and get another one.

Wald tells of an anthropological team from Fisk University and the Library of Congress that visited the Delta in 1941 and 1942.  They reported:

There are no memories of slavery in the delta.  This section of the delta has little history prior to the revolution of 1861

The research team asked people what their favorite song was.  What a question!  (My Country Tis of Thee and The Star-Spangled Banner among the answers).

Gotta love a book where this is a footnote.

When I was a kid you couldn’t go to a library book sale or a book store without seeing some paperback Tony Hillerman mysteries, about the Navajo Tribal Police.  I never got into books like that, not sure why.  But when it comes to New Mexico writers, Tony Hillerman is a name to reckon with.  (And there are a lot of New Mexico writers, just see The Spell of New Mexico, edited by Tony Hillerman).

So, as I was gonna be in New Mexico, I got Tony Hillerman’s memoir.

Man.  Tony Hillerman was a combat infantryman in World War II.  Before he was twenty or so he’d fought his way through the Vosges, killed German boys yards away from him, gone on night raids and been shelled in the dead of winter.  Finally he stepped on a landmine, and his war ended in a military hospital.  There was a guy in the hospital, a tank gunner, who was called “Jug” because of the way his injuries had mangled his face.  Jug considered himself lucky compared to what happened to Colonel Delaney.

All this happened to Tony Hillerman when he was a teenager, before he’d ever really had a girlfriend.

When he got back home, he got a job driving a truck in the New Mexico oil fields.  In the Chaco Canyon country, he happened to come across some Navajos on horseback.  They were going to an “Enemy Way” ceremony, a ritual for those returned from war.

The healing power and religious idea of this ceremony impressed Tony Hillerman.  It was just what he needed.  (It sounds like the kind of ceremony Karl Marlantes describes the need for in his book).

Hillerman became a newspaperman in New Mexico, and the rest of the book is mostly funny and interesting stories about that life, and his family, and his decision to attempt some mystery books.  On a writing class he taught at UNM:

my premise was that power to persuade lies in the ability to make people see – sometimes literally – the situation as the writer sees it.  Instead of telling readers the city should improve its maintenance programs, walk them down the street with you and show them those same details that drew you to that conclusion – the roaches around the drains, the trash collecting on the fences, and so forth.  Based on that argument, I’d send them forth.

A good book by a man who seems tough and tender, humble and wise, I read most of it on an overnight train ride.

Speaking of trains, how about Hunter Harrison?  A first ballot Hall of Famer for sure if the Hall of Fame is “railroad CEOs.”  Hell they’ll probably name the hall after him.  Hunter Harrison from the time he was a teenager only ever worked for one kind of company: railroad company.

Harrison’s thing was “Precision Scheduled Railroading,” which apparently revolutionized a kind of sleepy industry.

Harrison created approximately $50 billion in shareholder value in his time as a CEO.

says the book jacket, telling you something about how we’re keeping score.  Harrison was an absolute fanatic about railroading.  He ran Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and died on the job running CSX.

I’m not sure if I’ll finish this book, it’s interesting and I’m learning a lot, but I’m just not sure I’m that interested in this guy.  So far the part that sticks out in my mind is Harrison’s semi-mentor, Thompson.

Thompson was William F. Thompson – a.k.a. “Pisser Bill”

says the book.  I thought the nickname might be kind of a metaphor or something, but no, a few pages later Pisser Bill was at the trainyard and saw something he didn’t like so he pissed all over the place.

This book was worth the price for that alone.