February Films: Straight No Chaser

The third movie of February was the documentary Straight No Chaser, a sorta-biopic about the jazz pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. I didn’t realize, beforehand, that the film was so old – from 1988, just 6 years after Monk’s death. When I learned that, my view of the film changed a bit. On watching it, I thoroughly enjoyed the music (Monk is one of my favorite jazz artists), but thought the “documentary” elements to be rather weak – slices of what were obviously just a few long recordings of Monk in the studio, traveling, or otherwise living. These sections seemed impressionistic at best, and unilluminating at worst.

After learning that the film was finished just a few years after Monk died, though, I realized that it was meant as much to be a vehicle for seeing Monk alive as a way to hear his music – much less to get a sense of his biography, which you can’t very well do. You do get a good sense of Monk’s personal oddity, which was even more impressive and challenging than his musical oddity. Monk was, the film makes clear though interviews and footage, a deeply troubled man who suffered, it appears, from some sort of bipolar disorder, and possibly from Asperger’s or another form of autism. The circular mania of many of his tunes seem to be musical proof of his mental state. It’s a wonder, and yet not, that he produced so much immortal music.

February Films: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Tonight’s film – number 2 of the projected 28 – was another animated movie: Fantastic Mr. Fox. I haven’t seen a Wes Anderson flick since The Royal Tenenbaums, so this was overdue, and sets me up to see A Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited. Mr. Fox was really good: the spectacular animation perfectly extended a story that would have been, frankly, insipid in another or lesser kind of animation. Mr. and Mrs. Fox were wonderful characters, and their son Ash and nephew Kristofferson were almost equally engaging. All in all, this is a great movie.

Dragging My Carcass Around

I went for a long ski tonight. Thanks to the exertion and an oddly wet snowfall, things got blurry just a few minutes into the session  and continued to get blurrier until I finished. At one point, I noticed what seemed to be a glove or mitten half-buried in the snow alongside the trail.

On my next lap, I slowed down to scoop up the item, thinking I’d stick it on a trailside sign for the owner to find later. Without stopping, I picked it up (rather deftly, if I do say so myself) and glanced down at it – whereupon I discovered that it wasn’t a glove or mitten, but a desiccated opossum. The empty eye sockets and bared white teeth were the tipoff.

I whipped the carcass back into the snowbank along the trail and continued on my way, now somewhat more grossed out than I had been.

I Resemble Hugh Hefner in at Least Seven Ways

We both…

  • live in deeply leveraged houses.
  • rarely pass up tasty adult drinks.
  • refuse to admit that our hair is thinning.
  • lived in Chicago during a formative period in our lives.
  • like to eat dinner in my pajamas.
  • prefer 1950s jazz to most other kinds of music.
  • are constantly surrounded by beautiful blondes.

Destroying the Evening in Order to Save It

Shannon was sick all day, and I had a relatively open workday, so I went home very early to take care of the usual end-of-day stuff: meeting Julia’s school bus, supervising afternoon snack, running an errand, doing dinner, et cetera.

From the moment I opened the door after pulling into the garage, I knew this good (or at least decent) deed was going to be roundly punished. Vivi was happy to see me, but annoyed, too: she loves her routine, and her routine doesn’t involve me being home at 3:00 p.m. She fussed a bit, but before it went too far, I had to go back out to meet Julia’s bus. When Julia saw me waiting, rather than Shannon, she did a doubletake and looked peeved. We went inside, and the ready availability of the afternoon snack headed off any incipient trouble.

For a moment. When I tried to get organized for a quick trip to Target for some necessities, Julia balked, saying she wanted to stay home. I wasn’t going to push that, but then Vivi, who’d earlier said she wanted to go with me, balked, too. Then unbalked. And rebalked. And finally decided that she would go.

So off we went. Before we reached the second stop sign, Vivi was crying about my misunderstanding of some arcane plot point in a cartoon she’d watched during the day. I killed that mini-meltdown with kindness, singing crazy made-up songs about passing gas and feet and other things that are preschooler comedy gold. Just as I ran out of rhymes, we made it to Target.

Peace lasted a few minutes, until we found the raisins that Vivi wanted to bring for preschool snack the next day. They looked different than they did in her memory: tears. I told her we’d have to go home if she didn’t stop crying, and didn’t she want to help choose the other things for snack day? She snuffled and moaned while I trekked around Target, picking up the must-buys.

As it happened, we wound up back by the toys, and I decided to spend my Christmas gift card on two games to play with the girls – dominoes, in which they have been intensely interested since we saw some teenagers playing it at the coffeeshop, and Sorry, the board game which I friend had recommended as perfect for the girls. Vivi was very enthused about the idea of buying these games, and said she understood that we wouldn’t have time to play them tonight – need to have dinner, school night, etc.

The ten-minute drive home went okay, but then everything fell apart for real when we arrived. All I needed to do to get dinner ready was heat up leftovers and steam some veggies, but those ten minutes were approximately a century too long for the girls, who lost their individual and collective minds, screaming with rage about how long it took to cook peas, about how Mama hadn’t said it was okay to buy games, about how Julia didn’t want to do homework, about how they weren’t hungry, et cetera. At some point in here, Vivi decided that she did want to play Sorry, and demanded that I stop making “dinnew” and play with her.

Eventually, while trying to ignore the lunacies but address the semi-real issues, and after serving an “appetizer,” I finished “making” dinner and got food on their plates, hoping to hell that they’d be better once they were fed.

No such luck. As soon as dinner ended, Julia – clearly exhausted from her second day back to school after the holiday break – began fighting the chore of five minutes of math homework and a few pages of reading aloud. Vivi reacted by begging more and more to play the board game, whose name seemed more and more apt. Somehow Julia finally finished her math and switched to her reading, which, being much easier for her, usually puts her in a pretty good mood. Vivi went upstairs, then stomped angrily back downstairs to retrieve the board game.

When Julia and I finished her reading, we went up, too, and found Vivi playing the game with Shannon – a situation in which she wasn’t happy to find herself. Vivi stayed there while Julia took a bath, one that was apparently the worst bath of her life, judging by the protesting and tears. She got out quickly, and through some miracle both girls let me brush their teeth and wash their tear-streaked, red-eyed faces. Since Vivi had been in her pajamas all day, she didn’t have to do anything more to get ready for bed. Julia finally gave up at about this point, putting on her own jammies, laying her doll down, and climbing into bed. After a story and songs, I turned their light out and left – only to be called back by Vivi, who hadn’t paid attention to my lustrous singing and missed one of the songs. So I had to sing it again before finally making my escape. They were asleep instantly, of course.

Moving Past Movember

A poetical take on the Movember experience.

“Mustache” is just a fancy name
For a hairy upper lip.
I successfully grew one,
But it looked more like a quip,
A kind of mid-face decoration
Or some infra-nostril frip
Pery, being quite unnecessary.
My girls offered me the tip
That I’d looked halfway decent
But now looked like a dip.
More, I learned the ‘stache
Hampered every sip
And bother me while eating,
Leaving me quite un-hip.
Plus, on the bristly tickleness
I never could get a grip.
And so on December 1,
My scissors went snip-snip
And left my face nude again.
Movember was a trip.

Why the Election Doesn’t Freak Me Out

The midterm elections, returns for which I’m watching as I write, are supposed to be a nation-wide rebuke of “progressive” (I prefer “liberal”) ideas, to be the death knell for the Obama Era, to be the (re)ascence of the supercharged Right, et cetera et cetera.

While I have a dim view of the Tea Party – its activists, its ideas, its candidates, its rhetoric – I don’t think that the 2010 midterms are going to turn out to be the disaster for the Democratic Party or the president that pundits have predicted and conservatives have hoped for. Sure, tonight and the next few months are going to smart, and the next two years are going to be intermittently painful, especially if the GOP wrangles control of both houses of Congress.

But partly because I’m optimistic and partly because I think I know American history better than the average American (better than most pundits and better than pretty much all of the Tea Pariers), I don’t think that the Tea Party is going to either derail the Obama presidency or have any serious long- or short-term effect on the Republic.

First and foremost, I’m confident that President Obama will be able to outmaneuver the GOP. Though he’s made some serious missteps so far in his administration (climate-change legislation!), he’s also accomplished a great deal, as the progressive commentator Rachel Maddow effectively argued:

These accomplishments were all realized in the face of massive resistance on the part of the Republican minorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. With the GOP likely to be the majority in the House, though probably not the Senate, the onus will now fall more heavily on the GOP to present a positive agenda – something they’ve been manifestly unable to do so far. And the president always has the power to veto bills coming out of Congress – a veto that the GOP will not have the numbers to override. Thank the Founders for checks and balances, and the president for his wiliness. It’s time for Obama to raise his game, as he might say.

Second, I won’t get freaked out about the GOP wins this year because they have been predicated on implicit and explicit appeals to the fear of white men and women about the “losing” “our” country. Did the Tea Party message (such as it is) have a better slogan than “Take Our Country Back”? (Right now, for instance, Marco Rubio (R-FLA) is giving his victory speech at a podium bearing a sign that reads “Reclaim America.”) But America was never only a white man’s country, and America is less and less that place. The Tea Partiers’ appeals to fear of difference won’t be the last time such appeals are made, but I think they’re one of the last times that those appeals will work – and even now, with the returns rolling in, it’s clear that not all Americans – not even a majority? – fear a black president and his supposedly shadowy agenda.

Third, I don’t fear the Tea Partiers or other Republicans in Congress because I know that Congress, for better or for worse, is designed to slow momentum, to dilute ideas, to compel compromises, to frustrate ambitions. Look back to 1994 and how the “Contract for America” class immolated itself with the government shutdown. When the likes of Rand Paul enter Congress, they’ll discover that their respective chambers are designed to impede individuals’ power, if not quite to mute individuals’ zeal. Because of the way Congress works, we won’t see this happen, at least right out in the open, but it will happen. Reactionaries like Paul will have to compromise or to get out. I look forward to seeing how they make that choice.

Last, I refuse to freak out about the election because the Tea Party is fundamentally based on ignorance and rage – the former an unchanging state of humankind, the latter a quick-dissipating reaction. I don’t think that many, much less every, Tea Party supporter or candidate is an idiot or a racist – only that they don’t care to understand to how the world in 2010 looks or works. Tea Party ideas (small government! no debt! liberty above community!) are just not suited for a country that is simultaneously an information-driven service economy, a (truly!) liberal democracy, an ever-less-white society, and an increasingly international and global culture. We’ll see all this proven in the next twenty-four months, if not the next six.

Red Wing Noshing

We took a nice little road trip to Red Wing today, a pretty little town on the Mississippi River that apparently thrives by appealing equally to Big Ag and Big Service: the ADM grain mill is the most prominent feature on the riverfront, but the entire downtown is a temple to the tourist’s disposable income. We worshiped at various shops’ windows, and even paid obeisance at the Red Wing shoe museum (home of the “World’s Largest Boot” – crazy and cool) but we only tithed at the farmer’s market and at the incredible Hanisch Bakery, where the girls had massive, heavily frosted cookies; Shannon had a donut; and I had both a delicious caramel roll and a maple-bacon donut. We later went to a playground where the girls burned off their cookies and I tried to resist the soporific effect of bacon.

Hanisch Bakery Treats - 1

Hanisch Bakery Treat - Maple Bacon Donut

Bikes Are for Riding, Not Blocking

One of the many construction projects at Carleton this summer was the remodeling of the entrance to the campus center, Sayles-Hill:

The plaza area in front of Sayles-Hill has been redesigned to provide additional bike parking and better pedestrian circulation. Most of the existing sidewalks will be removed. The project will be staged so that the front doors and the accessible ramp will be available for use at all times.

As the design illustration shows, the new plaza is pretty nice, with new masonry, new and better benches, a shady sitting area, and new bike racks. Lots of new bike racks, many of which were empty when I came out of the building today around 2:00 to find this at the bottom of the wheelchair ramp:
Sayles-Hill Barriers

Nice parking, liberal-artsers. (For what it’s worth, the bike on the right is often parked almost this badly behind my office building, blocking the rear entrance.)