Instapun*** Archive Listing

Archive Listing
August 18, 2012 - August 11, 2012

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Thought Experiment

So what makes you you? And how much of this light
 show are you personally willing to shut down for good?

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR. I'd thought of posting about a controversial rapper at the White House, but I'm doing this instead. A post I've been mulling for a long time now. It's about the self-annihilating properties of ethnic and other categorical hatreds. Before I begin. let me state what this post is not. It's not a defense of the multicultural political correctness that's been rammed down our throats by the lefty intelligentsia. It's not a national or global political argument of any kind. It's not an endorsement of  "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds" pollyanna-ism. Conflicts will always be with us, as will prejudices and irrational hostilities, and the inevitable conflicts, prejudices, and hostilities will be costly and perhaps, in some contexts, fatal. 

My only point here is strictly personal. What price are you willing to pay for your hatreds in terms of your own personal identity? Are you willing to stop being you or become a radically reduced version of the self who is living your life?

Here is the premise of the experiment. It's an act of subtraction. Examine all your own biases and resentments. Who would the world be better off without? Identify them and then subtract them completely from your own experience of life, your memories, your beliefs, the mind that makes you you.

To begin with a fairly vanilla example, the Irish reliably hate the English. But what if the English had never existed? Would the Irish still be the Irish? Yeah, they'd still be Celts on a green island, but much of their history, heroes, and poets would be swept away. Without the English, there would have been no United States that defined itself in opposition to British tyranny, no waves of immigration that transplanted as many Irishmen as who still live in Ireland to the brawling new world where some of them achieved spectacular heights and more sad Irish stories, like the tragic presidency of John F. Kennedy.

I'm not saying there wouldn't have been an alternative history, but how much of you, today's Irish, would remain? And again, I'm speaking personally. None of your cultural touchstones would be the same. Maybe there'd still have been a James Joyce, a William Butler Yeats, a Michael Collins, and even a St. Patrick, but they would bear no resemblance to the specific emotional foundations of your own life and personality. And for those who value brilliant poetry and prose and song, there would be no inspirational neighbors like Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Jane Austen, or Gilbert & Sullivan.

You see, the subtraction has to be total. Like Kevin Bacon's six degrees of separation, every loss ripples through the whole and winds up striking extremely close to the most intimate core of personal experience.

A lot of people hate the Jews, more and more all the time, including some of our most celebrated professors and intellectuals. Okay. Subtract the Jews. Completely. No Marx. No Freud. No threat of nuclear war in the 21st century middle east. Happy? Not so fast. At the extremes, there is no more Bible and no golden age of Hollywood. So there is also no Christianity, no Constitution of the United States, none of the movies you use as personal metaphors for your own heroic view of yourselves, and no Islam -- because there is no Ishmael for Muhammed to use in tracing his own lineage back to God. But remember that there is also no "David" by Michelangelo and, in fact, no Italian Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, no theory of relativity or quantum physics, no M.I.T. Start wiping Jews out of your mind and there won't be much left of what you call civilization.

There's no shortage of people who hate the Germans. Without them, there would have been no Hitler or holocaust. And no Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart, no Wagner opera about the "ring" and therefore no Lord of the Rings" and -- dare I say it? -- no Harry Potter. Also, no Mercedes Benz, BMW, Porsche, Volkswagen, or Apollo 11. No World War I and World War II that made heroes of our family forebears and bolstered the pride of family so many still feel today. No Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, and no pretzels, brats, hot dogs or hamburgers(!). Erase all those things from your life. Are you content to shut down all the synapses of your brain that connect to things German as if they had never existed?

No Russians? No Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, ballet, American figure skating team, Dostoevsky, or James Bond movies. Or vodka. Think about it. No vodka.

No Arabs? Well, then, forget Arabic numerals, algebra, and the sophisticated mathematics they made possible. Imagine yourself dialing cellphone numbers in Roman numerals. Except also subtract the cellphones. We'd still be using the biggest blackboards on earth to calculate simple square roots.

How many Americans are still shaped in one way or another by the Civil War? No slavery, no blacks, no century of humiliation and suffering for the south. In the north, probably no more United States. Don't forget that it was the Civil War which changed accepted usage from "the United States are..." to "the United States is..." We'd probably be three or four different clashing nations by now. The Civil War was a stupendous passion play that tempered the mettle of this nation into a force strong enough to bear sacrifice for others and do great good in the world. Do the southern boys want to give up their imaginings of Pickett's Charge, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee? Without the Civil War, Lee would be a footnote, a West Point officer who served with distinction and no memorable actions. Gettysburg would be a farm town and we'd never have heard of Abraham Lincoln.

A point to ponder for both blacks and whites. Without slavery, the Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation, there is no African participation in America. Blacks would still be in Africa and whites would be, well, blander. Anybody on either side want to subtract the African-American part of their lives from their lives? Really? No Martin Luther King, no lynchings, and no Nathan Bedford Forrest or Black Panthers, but also no blues, ragtime, jazz, or rock and roll, meaning no Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson, Beebe King, James Brown, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, no Motown, Temptations, Supremes, or Four Tops, no Michael Jackson, and no Allman Brothers, Van Halen, Pearl Jam, GNR, U2, Madonna, or Lady Gaga. Right. Subtract it all from your minds and memories. It's not there any longer. All the songs you fell in love to gone, gone, gone. Not all of us can fuel our romance with a strict diet of Loretta Lynn. Some of us still rely as much on Nat Cole as Frank Sinatra, and there's no Sinatra with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Coleman Hawkins.

No Hispanics? Forget Christopher Columbus discovering America. He was not Italian but Spanish, probably Catalan.

No French? Well. Paris no longer exists and a long list of other stuff too numerous to list in architecture, art, cuisine, and personalities -- Bridgette Bardot, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charlemagne, Debussy, Edith Piaf, and Voltaire -- without whom your mind would be substantially different. For example: without Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Moliere, and Voltaire, Mark Twain might have ceased his output after the "Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." Ripples. Ripples.

No Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Cambodians, Vietnamese? Toss out spaghetti (brought back from China to Italy by Marco Polo), martial arts movies (losing Bruce Lee would really suck, wouldn't it?), not to mention paper books, fireworks at the ballpark, Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, and that ugly chick everybody loves on Grey's Anatomy. And perhaps more importantly for American minds, no Platoon, Apocalypse Now, or Heavy Metal Jacket.  No Sands of Iwo Jima, no Doolittle Raid, no Battle of Midway. We'd have far less idea what we're capable of when the going gets really rough.

Even the people who oppose and challenge us help to make us who we are. When you imagine them out of existence, we all become poorer, smaller, and less interesting and individual.

I repeat that there would be alternate histories. But when you think about it, those histories would be less interesting and less dramatic.

I know there are times when we want to wish away the "bad people." But the result, if you contemplate it seriously, is worse than cowardly; it's boring.

No matter how much I complain, I would never wish any of them out of existence. I may want to defeat (some of) them, educate them, oppose their crazier agendas, and yearn for impossible accommodations, but they're built into the world that has made my own consciousness what it is. And I wouldn't willingly omit a single drop of my own consciousness for any cause on earth. Die maybe. But not dim my mind's eye or amputate huge chunks of my experience of life.

Some of you may feel differently. That would be your problem.

Final thought. What does "Common" mean? I think I've explained it.

Celebrating a Life

They called him Mr. Basset. He was 19 and a gentleman.

LOSING OLD DOGS HURTS TOO. Over at Hotair's Green Room, Jazz Shaw has a remembrance of a beloved family pet:

The dogs went for a walk each and every morning that the weather would allow with my wife and [me], and I think that the one sentence I said to her more often than any other was, “Everyone loves the basset.” And they did. It seemed to be almost impossible for anyone, male or female, old or young, to not immediately be drawn to Mr. Basset. I still remember one walk just recently when we were out strolling with them and two cars pulled up at the corner and stopped, with each driver pausing to stare and to smile. That’s probably what I will remember most about Mr. Basset. He brought a smile to the face of everyone he met. He was a fat old hound dog, so the guys always seemed to like him. And while he weighed nearly 80 pounds, he was low to the ground with those big floppy ears, watery eyes and short legs, so ladies and children did not find him threatening.

One elderly grandmother up the street from us did not even own a dog, but took to buying boxes of dog biscuits and knew when we went for walks, and would hurry out to give him a treat and pet him. I’ve long since lost count of how many people I’ve met in this town simply because they would approach to ask questions about Mr. Basset and pet him.

I can relate. Sighthounds draw the same kind of instant fans. It's a moving story. Thinking back to Charlotte's Web, all I can say is "Some Dog." You really do have to read the whole thing -- long and lesiurely as a basset hound taking his morning constitutional -- to appreciate the depth of feeling involved here. At the end you will shed precisely one tear, distilled finally from a dignified life that ended, not unheroically, in extreme old age. I'm not being callous. Mr. Basset wouldn't have wanted more than one tear. He was a gentleman, reserved and self-effacing to the last.

Jazz has my deepest condolences and, I'm sure, yours as well. But he's seeking immortality for Mr. Bassett on the Internet. I'm more than willing to help spread the word.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


From left to right: grandfather, grandfather, father, father.

TIME. Hadn't thought to do this until I got my own watch back from the jeweller, after God only knows how long without it, and realized nobody even wears watches anymore. Everybody has cellphones. So what are people going to do in future generations? Hang on to granddad's last iPhone? Get all nostalgic about his final digital apps?

I dug out this little set of keepsakes because all but the oldest still tick (haven't sent that one for repair) and I can remember the elders of my family wearing their timepieces. Something of them still attaches to the old mechanical movements. When the forgotten things respond to the winding and start up again, it's like having the owners back, their time resumed, if only for an hour or two. Did you know that they counted seconds even in the old days?

And way back then, there were two kinds of time. My dad had a minimalist wristwatch he used to go to work and keep track of his business appointments. But he also had a gold watch with a chain that connected  him to his past. (The fob that looks like a Phi Beta Kappa key isn't. The thing that looks like a cross is.) There were times when he wore that piece of lovely jewelry, because there's more than one kind of time. Something we've lost. Along with all the other things we've lost. Along the way.

He also started wearing, at some point, his own father's wristwatch, also shown above. As if its ticking was a continuation. Which I guess it was. Because when I wound them all up today and saw that they were still capable of keeping time, it was -- for the briefest possible moment -- like having them all back with me again.

Can you do that on your iPhones? Just asking.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


What You Never See.

Tuscaloosa tornado aftermath: they're going to put it back together.

RELATED... There's a gaping hole in the documentation of most American natural disasters. We get to see the damage the day after. The TV journalists pose in front of the wreckage of people's lives.

You'll have to imagine the network correspondent in khaki; he's long gone.

They cover the story in accordance with their own traditional values -- Are the people weeping and scavenging the ruins for pitiful reminders of what they've lost, like photographs and crushed tricycles? Is FEMA here? Has the president visited? Yes? The government will provide. Mission accomplished. And all go home to await the next catastrophe.

If you look at the volume of documentaries produced by the various channels that proclaim a nonfiction mission, it seems impossible that they could have missed anything. They're all over dinosaurs, guys who accidentally shoot themselves in the head with nailguns, the pyramids, climate change, brand new old footage of the Titanic, bigfoot, shark week, UFOs, the origins of the universe, Atlantis, Hitler, volcanoes, Nostradamus, the ugliest ever catfish, serial killers and why women marry them, asteroids aiming at earth, the history of mud, more Hitler, fixing gigantic things that are broken, hummingbirds, Nostradamus and the 2012 apocalypse, Roman sexual deviancy, the menace of pythons in the everglades and bears in the suburbs, why Jesus was just a nice guy who got crucified, duplex trans-gender operations, frozen mammoths, Jack the Ripper, base-jumping and other suicidal hobbies, still more Hitler, the Loch Ness monster, the manufacture of microprocessors and toothpicks and skateboards, Satan, things that melt, aggressively fat meter maids, ghosts, stalactites, women unexpectedly having babies in the ladies room, the absolute final word forever on Jack the Ripper, everything in the world you could possibly imagine about Princess Diana, why Darwin was so incredibly right about everything and the Bible not so much, celebrity ghosts, shark month, stone-age Amazonian tribes with breasts, mail-order brides from Russia and how they died, how much we love the Brit royals, angels and why they don't exist, what the world will look like after the pestilence called Man becomes extinct, the Jack the Ripper we never knew until this newest latest revelation, African tribes with breasts, AND a great many of the more arduous strains of blue collar American life -- crab fishing, coal mining, logging, sewer cleaning, hog slaughtering, Alaskan everything, the difficulty of being a professional urban vagina on meth-amphetamines, wrinkled moms who live with a hundred cats and never throw out the trash, plus innumerable treatments of the general awfulness of the south, with a special emphasis on the underground railroad, dead jazz geniuses, and hick spouses who kill each other using their Bibles as silencers.

What you never see, though, is what happens after the news networks fly home to New York after a natural disaster. Well, except for post-Katrina New Orleans, where everybody sat and waited for the federal government to fix everything and, uh, are still waiting.

The word "except" is key here. The experience of New Orleans after Katrina is clearly the exception. There is a zone of the United States called Tornado Alley that rips whole towns to pieces every year. And guess what? Those towns rebuild themselves. Year after year, decade after decade. HOW EXACTLY DO THEY DO THAT?

Think about it. You've seen the splattered houses, churches, hospitals, and stores. Places where it's hard even to figure out which pile of rubble used to be Main Street. But the people who are from there don't leave, and they rebuild their lives. Yeah, I know there's government money and loans and such that figure in, but let's face it, the work is done primarily by the so-called 'ordinary' people we last saw standing on the splinters of their homes and thanking God that most of their neighbors are still alive.

I want to see the process. I want to see the bulldozers and backhoes that clear away the flattened houses and shattered trees. (Where do they put all the refuse?) I want to see how these communities that no longer exist except for the people who lived in them come together and start building anew on the cleared ground. I want to see the churchless church suppers, the pitching in of nearby less damaged counties and towns, the ad hoc schooling that goes on in the absence of air-conditioned classroom buildings and hardwood basketball gymnasiums, the families living with families while they struggle through how long (?) without income, the mayor making deals with contractors and banks and farmers, the doctors who set up clinics at the only gas station still standing, the women who run the food and clothing banks to keep body and soul together for parents and children while the town comes slowly back to life.

It isn't FEMA that does all that. It's American people hewing together and working their asses off to make miracles happen.

We know it happens. Despite all the lamentations about New Orleans, Mississippi -- every bit as hard hit as the Big Easy -- quietly went to work and pulled off the standard American recovery while the Big Easyites wanted somebody else to do it. Why is theirs the only story worth covering?

I'm absolutely certain people by the millions would watch a series about such a recovery. It's a black hole in the media depiction of "the bitter ones who cling to their guns and religion." Because that's not all they cling to, and we all know it. They cling to each other, help each other, work for each other, and give new life to each other.

Are you listening, History, Discovery, NatGeo, Green, Current, TLC, and company? I don't need another fantasy science documentary about brightly feathered dinosaurs. If you're using CGI, you don't know. You're just guessing. What I need is a glimpse of facts that don't require any guesswork. Average Americans routinely, habitually, come back from the brink. Why can't you get off your high horse and show us that?

P.S. Affirmation from commenter Patrick:

I knew from the moment the storms ended (I live in North Alabama) that the people here would pull themselves back up. I actually got nervous when FEMA came in and the president came for his photo-op. My first thought was, "Thanks but no thanks. We need to stick to the people who understand the problem, not ones who will only contribute to it." I'm proud of the people in my community for getting through this with grace and dignity, and that's coming from a guy who is often very hard on his fellow Alabamans. Just stay out of the way. No cameras needed. We don't want your pity. Just let me get to work.

You see. My only point: we want to see, too. Need to see. All of us.

I mean, I know it seems like it should be a private thing, but it's gone beyond that. The rest of the country needs to remember how this country works. And not one micro-second of it is pity. It's learning.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Cravens & Cretins

The new Fox News "ace' foreign correspondent: Peter Doocy.
Sorry for the tiny picture. He may get bigger in time. Show me.

UGH. AND THE LIBS TALK ABOUT HYPOCRISY. A bad day. A day when I do despair of America. But one more time, credit where credit is due. For once, Hotair has been pretty much on point with its areas of focus. Let me count the ways, large and small, that I am disgusted by the current scene. Some will have links. Some won't. If you can't verify the linkless ones on your own, to hell witcha. These all from the past week, in no particular order.

The Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney, agrees with the decision not to release Osama death photos. Never mind that the righteous libs who defend this decision were hammer-and-tongs in favor of releasing all the Abu Graib photos, the only conceivable purpose of which was to tar all American troops in combat with the crimes of a few, so that they would be in greater danger from the mythical "moderate muslims" who have already swarmed the Arab Street to denounce (and deny) the "murder" of a muslim martyr. And never mind that the death of bin Laden is not remotely akin to the deaths of innocents which have been celebrated by Arabs of all stripes from the beginning of terrorist hostilities against the U.S. As we've said before, there really aren't any "moderate muslims." There are just three types of muslims: open jihadists, passive-aggressive jihadists; and a handful of American infidel (patriot) muslims who will probably be killed eventually. Not that any part of the MSM, or even Hugh Hewitt, ever notices. And it's way too late to get Mitt Romney a spine transplant.

Juan Williams, who owes his whole current income and career to Fox News, insists on referring to enhanced interrogation techniques as the popping out of eyeballs and severing of hands. He also referred -- without rebuke -- on Fox News Sunday to the "murder" of Osama bin Laden. Golly, Juan. We know you have an advocacy job to do. We'll never call you an asshole or punch you right in the face for spouting outageously false lefty propaganda on camera. We'd never do anything to make your kids feel uncomfortable about you at their prep schools on Parents' Day.

A street survey in New York City showed us that teenage New Yorkers don't even know who Osama bin Laden was and what he did. Hooray for government schools. Hooray for NYC parents. Hey. How is this even possible? uh, how did Obama get elected in the first place?

Another study, undertaken by government experts in Detroit, revealed that 48 percent of the residents of that city can't read -- can't fill out government forms or employment applications, decipher prescription drug instructions, or understand solicitations to the government programs designed to help them. I wonder who they'll be voting for in the next presidential election. No, I don't. I only wonder how they'll find the buses that take them to their polling places.

Don Imus, suddenly reversing his clicheed stance on Obama ("he's a good guy but he doesn't know what he'd doing") 180 degrees purely because of the Osama kill. "I thought he didn't know what he was doing, but I was obviously wrong about that." uh, saying yes to a military operation doesn't exactly make you Socrates. Unless, like Imus (er, scroll), you're Dummocles, the man who has one dumb unchanging opinion about everything that ever happened. But once Imus says something, you can absolutely count on the fact that he will repeat it, repeat it, repeat it, until we're all sick to death of it. I'm not going to be able to watch him anymore. Depressing.

Hotair thinks it's cool that Condi Rice argued idiot MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell to a standstill, although some of us remember -- in the blood is thicker than water department -- that Condi Rice went all squishy in the 2008 presidential campaign because she admired Obama so, despite his unrelenting villainization of her boss and the man who made her a worldwide celebrity, George W. Bush. Thanks, Condi. Good show. Loved that cameo with Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock. So so sweet. What a rock of principle. For a celebrity.

Fox News continues to decline in quality and credibility, as if consciously boosting the claims of the liberal plutocracy that they're a joke. This morning, F&F host Gretchen Carlson used the word "poignant" as if it meant "pointed" in characterizing Chris Wallace's best question during an interview with National Security Adviser Donilon. Fellow host Brian Kilmeade, on a similar point, spoke of the difficulty of "disseminating between" rather than "discriminating between" administration positions on waterboarding and shooting an unarmed bin Laden in the head. Meanwhile the interns in charge of the F&F chyrons remain in open warfare with the interns in charge of the F&F news crawlers. Where the chyron says (correctly) "protesters," the crawler insists (incorrectly) on "protestors." Where the crawler says (correctly) "al Zawahiri," the chyron, for day after day, announces (incorrectly) "al Zawahri." Often simultaneously on screen. And nobody ever corrects the errors. My favorite crawler: "No group has yet to take credit for the attack..." Diagram that one, Doocy. And speaking of Steve Doocy, F&F weatherman turned loose-cannon political wag, am I the first to point out the disgrace of the rocketlike, nepotistic ascendancy of his son, first-year college grad Peter Doocy, who just this Mother's Day weekend was tossed to by an FNC host to explain the difficult relations between the U.S. and Pakistan? Sorry. Whenever they do that, now and in future, I will -- as I did yesterday -- switch channels directly to the TruTV classic, "It Only Hurts When I laugh," which is much less embarrassing to watch or get caught watching. Fox News has indeed made itself a joke. Are you listening, Roger Ailes? Or just laughing your way to the bank?

I wouldn't have been as hard on Rush Limbaugh as I was last week if I'd realized no one else -- NO ONE ELSE ON EITHER SIDE OF THE AISLE -- would notice that his "incredibly gutsy call" was actually a no-brainer. If he'd passed up the opportunity to kill bin Laden with positive proof that he had done so, the fact would eventually have leaked, and the American people would never have forgiven him. Other presidents might have had some choice. Obama had none. What was the meaning of all those 'Birthers'? They thought he might be a muslim sympathizer. Why did it take 16 hours to decide to do what he absolutely HAD to do?

I was also taken aback by this reference -- I first heard it on Fox News Sunday, by newly chastened NPR mouthpiece Mara Liasson -- to an "Arab Spring." Again, no denunciation by the assembled elite conservatives. It's a ludicrous turn of phrase. Yeah, I'm sure all us elite conservative contributors to Fox News Sunday know that Mara is fighting for her NPR life, and we also feel sorry for the allergies that make it necessary to cut away from her when she can't speak, and she is such a nice woman, BUT -- what we're looking at in the Arabic middle east is hardly a push toward Jeffersonian democracy or even Lech Walesa's Solidarity-type populism. Every well organized political faction on the scene with a chance of taking power from the ancient autocrats is more kindred with the Ayatollah Khomeini and his "Arab Eclipse of Civilization" than with anything we'd recognize as a push toward individual feedom. The Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbollah, these are the forces of "democratic" rebellion that want to green the Arab deserts. Their idea of liberation is worldwide submission to sharia (i.e., annihilation of the Jews, honor killings of female relatives, clitorectomies, burkhas. overt female illiteracy, tacit male illiteracy, and a permanent shortage of wives achieved by murder that creates an endless pool of idiot adolescent killers of the "infidels" who can get laid in this lifetime. Cool.)  But it would be impolite to mention that, I guess. What with Mara's cough and all. But it does beg the question. Even Mara must know that "spring" comes with its own share of ills that must be treated before they become crippling or fatal. Or. Not.

I could go on. Obama on 60 Minutes taking credit for his "gutsy call" without being asked a single question about why his Justice Department is still prosecuting CIA interrogators who were acting legally and acquired useful information that helped kill Osama bin Laden. Fox News interviewers failing to challenge ex-CIA flack Michael Scheuer who claimed, without on-screen objection, that three administrations have "lied" to the American public by misrepresenting bin Laden's hatred of the U.S. as anything but a desire to get our troops out of Arab countries. "He doesn't care at all who we are and what we think," Scheuer said with smug finality. Is that so? Then what of the worldwide push for sharia? And... oh forget it. Scheuer has books to sell, and he's a Fox News analyst. Frank Luntz, another Fox News analyst, pretending that there was anything significant about an orchestrated second-string Republican debate in South Carolina. News flash to genius Luntz:  Nobody cares about Herman Cain. He's a more polite and admirable version of Donald Trump. He is not a presidential candidate. Meanwhile, the president's reelection campaign is already in full swing, with all the usual uncritical support of the MSM.

The new media are already as corrupt as the old media. And the ones who should be leading the charge are bunkered in fantasies that have nothing to do with either governing or fixing what's wrong.

Which is why I gave credit to Hotair up top. We've had our differences, God knows, but perseverance is a virtue, and Ed Morrissey has assembled a list of "Obamateurisms" that could and should be the basis for real Republican campaigns:

Previous 2011 “winners”:

Not a hat-tip but hats-off to Ed. This time he said it best.

Cheer each other up. You won't make a dent in my pessimism today.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Anatomy
of Success

More challenging than it sometimes seems.

CULTURE ON CABLE -- WITH ADS. I saw this documentary on the new Ovation Channel and just finished explaining to Mrs. CP why it couldn't be a post. Irrelevant, elitist, niche-oriented. But it is a post. It's the story of how the musical "Phantom of the Opera" became the single longest running theatrical production and most successful entertainment property in history, playing to more than 100 million patrons for ticket prices easily ten times (and more) what any movie can command. At a time when we're falling hook, line, and sinker for a success story in the killing of bin Laden, it's worthwhile to consider the weird combination of brilliance, accidents, egos, false starts, reversals of fortune, bonehead mistakes, high risk intuition for good and ill, and, well, luck (unless it's fate instead) that results in spectacular collaborative achievements.

I should explain that we saw Phantom on Broadway, and Mrs. CP was absolutely transported. Which was my whole intent in planning it. Nothing prepares you for the array of talent it represents -- actors, singers, dancers, set design, costume design, music, special effects, and emotional immersion in a theatrical experience beyond compare.

So how did it all come to pass? Talented people doing what they do, TA DA. Hardly. It was a long and frequently painful process. Andrew Lloyd Webber had a score with no lyrics. He cobbled together a first act performance at a personal theater on his own estate, and the lyricist he chose for that preliminary performance was committed to humor and what we'd call "camp." There's a video showing the audience laughing throughout. It was enough to secure some initial investors, but the end result that finally hit the stage would cost more than two million pounds, a ton of tabloid controversy, and the firing of a legendary director, the first leading man, the first lyricist (a veteran traded for an unemployed youngster), the music director, and nearly the composer, too, who announced less than seven days from the opening that he was withdrawing his score from the production. His tantrum was defeated only by his inability to carry the record-breaking poundage of the score out of the theater.

And that's not the half of it. The man finally chosen to play the Phantom was Michael Crawford, known throughout the U.K. as a physical slapstick TV comic who sang in a near falsetto that engendered gusts of laughter but nothing like musical praise. And the leading lady was Andrew Lloyd Webber's own wife, who was regarded by critics as more wife than talent. (Indeed her initial understudy eventually took her place and went on to become the most beloved leading lady the show ever had in its London run.)

The problems in its shakedown preview performances were so various, constant, and grave that the London press dreamt up the meme "Curse of the Phantom," meaning that the fictional character behind the play was so unhappy with the proceedings that he was haunting and sabotaging the entire production. The now famous scene in which a boat glides through the waters under the Paris opera was controlled by a remote radio device like those used to pilot model airplanes; the remote control used the same frequency as the London Fire Department, and whenever there was a fire alarm, the boat took off in odd directions, once nearly into the orchestra pit, restrained only by the main force of Michael Crawford, who couldn't sing the key "Phantom of the Opera" number because he was so out of breath.

Crawford became a problem himself. He plunged himself into the character from the moment every day when he began hours of makeup to transform him into the egomaniacal persona he was playing on stage. With all the problems, he took to summoning everyone from musicians to dancers to stagehands to his dressing room, where still in Phantom makeup, he shouted imprecations about their incompetence that could be heard throughout the theater.

What was the real problem? The extraordinary ambition of the production. Every single aspect of theatrical resources was being stretched to the maximum. The set was more spectacular, the costumes more intricate, the effects more complex, and the roles more demanding behind the omnipresent masks than anyone had attempted before.

The end result was an utter triumph. Princess Diana attended the final preview and it went like clockwork. The show never looked back, but many lives were never the same. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman divorced about a year into production. All the ones fired along the way never got over it fully.

Success is a messy business in any collaborative effort. Something we should maybe remember when we 're holding the top man accountable -- be he Bush or Obama, or even Clinton or Carter -- for everything that doesn't go according to plan.

In retrospect, it all seems inevitable, fated for success. But what's clear in the history is that Phantom could have crashed and burned a dozen times or more. It didn't. Was that luck? Destiny? Or human determination in pursuit of a vision the creators couldn't abandon no matter how rough things got before fortune finally turned in their favor?

Ah, sweet mystery of life...

Thursday, May 05, 2011


What I won't be watching

HE STILL DOESN'T. Neither of the big-ticket items today. Not the Ground Zero visitation by a president who couldn't be bothered to attend 9/11 ceremonies in 2009 or 2010. I gave him the credit he was due, but this is campaigning, cynical and exploitative. Sad for him that he's bungled everything after his initial speech, all the shifting and confused stories told by the White House staff, the revelation of electronic intelligence gathered at the scene that should have been kept secret rather than boasted of, and the refusal to release the non-secret that there's photographic evidence of bin Laden's death. Who paid for this hit? We did. Why can't we see what we paid for?

Likewise, not the Republican presidential debate being trumpeted by Fox News. I don't care what any of them has to say at this point in time, because it's just a circus or a beauty contest, your pick. Don't need to see them carping at one another when none of them has yet stepped forward to articulate a plan to fix what's wrong at home and abroad. And now they all seem generally timid about mentioning Obama's gross incompetence because he accepted a fait accompli on an item of old business brought to fruition by the momentum of a previous administration he blames for everything but cancer. Please. Campaign positions aren't terribly effective when all they make you want to do is throw up in disgust. Leave me out of it.

But I do have a suggestion about what you can watch. Granted, you can't watch it today, as I did, because it's already been aired for the only time today, but you can at least look forward to it. (Netflix has it.)

It's a movie called Doomsday. Sound appropriate? The Comcast blurb for the FX showing promised a combination of 28 Days Later, The Road Warrior, and Escape from New York. Right. Except that that's exactly what it is. The cast includes Bob Hoskins, Malcolm McDowell, a gang of barbarian Scottish punks, some medieval knights, a Bentley Mulsanne, a Brit who looks like he could be Denzel Washington's earnest younger brother, and a kick-ass action heroine named Rhona Mitra (who also had a role in Stargate Universe). It won't be  for everybody -- what with a couple of decapitations and some incidental cannibalism -- but it's the kind of dark dystopian picture the Brits still do so well.

And it's the kind of picture that suits my current mood. Check it out. Maybe it'll cheer you up too.

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