Mr.Simon (Ed Harris) conducts a junior high school literature class.

Mr.Simon (Ed Harris) conducts a junior high school literature class.

The title of this movie originates in a conversation between a junior high school teacher, Mr. Simon, and a student, Andy Nichols, who is long on caution and short on self-confidence. Mr. Simon (Ed Harris) thinks the observant and analytical Andy has potential as a writer, and Andy (Chase Ellison), who has no grasp of spelling or grammar, thinks otherwise. Mr. Simon makes him promise to tell himself every day, “I am a writer. That’s what I am.”

The story, which is narrated in retrospect by Andy ala The Wonder Years, takes place in California in 1965. Andy, despite his linguistic challenges, is a solid student who likes to keep a low profile so as not to attract scorn, or worse, from kids who think more of themselves than the facts warrant. Mr. Simon, who keeps a close eye on the dynamics among his students, is creating teams to work on a term project, and he matches Andy with a tall, awkward kid named Stanley (Alexander Walters)–“Big G” for short–who is an outcast, the butt of ridicule and abuse from those in the main stream.

From left, ED HARRIS, ALEXANDER WALTERS, and CHASE ELLISON.

From left, ED HARRIS, ALEXANDER WALTERS, and CHASE ELLISON.

Andy is keenly aware of the potential consequences for him if he spends time in Stanley’s company, but he develops a kind of frustrated fascination with Stanley’s passive demeanor in the face of the treatment he receives from his peers. But when Stanley faces up to a habitual bully–on behalf of someone else, not himself–and volunteers for a school talent show (“I am a singer. That’s what I am”) regardless of the hilarity this will inspire in some quarters, Andy learns a few things about self-awareness and dignity.

Meanwhile, a perennial rumor among students about the sexuality of Mr. Simon–a widower–migrates to a group of parents and spins out of control, compromising Simon’s position at the school and that of his principal and mentor, played by Amy Madigan.

This movie, a product of WWE Studios, was released to only about ten theaters in 2011 and made a little over $6,000 in three days. The film offers nothing new in the way of themes, so it depends on the writing and the acting, both of which make it worth watching, especially for the cost an Amazon rental rather than box office prices. The subject matter is also relevant to the current preoccupation with bullying among teenagers. Although it tends toward the sentimental, the story is realistic in the sense that it does not suggest that there was a satisfactory outcome either to Mr. Simon’s predicament or to Stanley’s isolation.

Bonnie Franklin In the summer of 2011, I drove myself and four companions from Rome to the Le Marche region of Italy. That trip involves some serious mountain hills with the obligatory switchbacks and the occasional tunnel. As I rolled into the first tunnel, I was startled to hear from the back seat: “Whenever I feel afraid / I hold my head erect /  and whistle a happy tune /so no one will suspect / I’m afraid.” It was Bonnie Franklin, singing in a quick-step tempo with her eyes shut tight. “I’m afraid of tunnels,” she told us afterward, “so I sing that to take my mind off of  it.” And she did. Every time.

I met Bonnie in 1970 when I stopped by a New Jersey theater where she was appearing in A Thousand Clowns. She had already made a splash on Broadway singing and dancing the title song to Applause. I was there during the break between a matinee and an evening performance to talk to Hugh O’Brian, but he had taken ill and gone to a doctor. Bonnie, who was sitting outside with her Yorkie , Jobie, thought I looked confused. “Are you looking for Hugh O’Brian?” she said. And she told me what had happened.

Bonnie 2I thanked her and was about to leave, but she patted the concrete wall she was sitting on and said, “Sit down here and talk to me!” It was irresistible. Bonnie was irresistible. I sat, we talked. I came back a few days later and we sat and talked some more. We were close friends for 42 years after that.

My family and I became great fans of hers, because she was an outstanding actress, singer, and dancer. I used to kid her that latching on to her was my way to see the country, and we did travel to Manhattan, Nyack, West Hampton, New Hope, Mount Pocono, Pittsburgh, Ventura, Washington, D.C., Overland, Kansas, and some town in New Hampshire to see her perform. I’d pay plenty right now to hear her sing “How Long Has This Been Going On?” or see her in Shirley Valentine. My wife, Pat, says, and I agree, that once you’ve seen Bonnie as Shirley Valentine, you don’t need to see anyone else.

The relationship that evolved between Bonnie and my family was characterized by two qualities of hers: unconditional love and enormous generosity. She was passionate about what she believed. I learned this the second time we met: she was very agitated about the U.S. military campaign in Cambodia. She and I were largely simpatico, but inasmuch as I am a Roman Catholic deacon and she was a progressive Jew, we could disagree about some significant issues. This had no impact on our relationship, and that was because she had such an expansive heart.

Bonnie was very generous to me and to my family, not in a showy way but in a genuine expression of love. It became a running gag between us to see which of us could be first to tell the host at a restaurant not to bring the bill to the table. I told that to a host as soon as I arrived at a restaurant in Maine, and he said, “You’re too late. She beat you to it.” But I think I won the last round — at Joe Allen’s in New York.

Bonnie 5 More important was Bonnie’s generosity for those in need. I happily supported the organizations that were important to her, and she returned the favor to a fare-thee-well. I once told her in a casual conversation that a local nonprofit group I was associated with — to provide an annual festival for people with mental handicaps — was in financial trouble. A few days later, I received a personal check from her with a very large donation. On another occasion she traveled from her California home to New York for the sole purpose of giving a gratis benefit performance for another organization I was connected to, an association that builds and operates group homes for people who are both blind and mentally challenged.

A friend of mine who was a professional fundraiser for non-profits once showed me an article in a journal reporting that a survey of people in that field had found that Bonnie Franklin was perceived by the public as among the most trustworthy spokespersons for charitable causes. I wasn’t surprised. I doubt that a false word ever crossed her lips.

And she was funny. Just naturally funny. Every year on my birthday, I anticipated the phone call — I’m sure I wasn’t the only one — in which Bonnie would sing “Happy Birthday” to me. I wasn’t to speak until she was done, and there was always a second verse (“Get plastered, you bastard.”) Once when she was doing her incomparable cabaret act at the Algonquin Hotel, she wandered among the tables during one of her songs and gave me a hug. When I asked her afterward how she had found me in the darkened room, she said, “Easy. I just followed the smell of Old Spice.” She always took a pass on dessert when we ate out with her and her wonderful husband, Marvin Minoff. That is, she didn’t order dessert. She instructed me to order something chocolate, and then she ate half of it.

She was talented, she was witty, she was sweet, she was warm, she was profane, she was passionate, she was genuine. Now she’s gone. I’m a better person for having known and loved her, and I know I’m not alone. I hope heaven is ready.

Gov. CHRIS CHRISTIE

I caught a few minutes of Ann Coulter’s appearance on one of the Sunday talk shows this week, and found that by not tuning in earlier I had missed hearing her reasons for promoting Chris Christie as a Republican presidential candidate.
Apparently, it wasn’t a half-hearted endorsement; I heard her refer to the governor as “my first love.”
Coulter is not the first person to make this case. Christie is a controversial figure in terms of his public policy and his style, but he seems to be developing a following around the country.

Still this kind of talk has an unfamiliar ring to us in New Jersey because, except for Bill Bradley’s failed attempt to win the Democratic nomination in 2000, making presidents has not been our thing in recent decades.

Even the two we contributed in the distant past had imperfect credentials. Woodrow Wilson wasn’t born in New Jersey, and Grover Cleveland – who was born here and is buried here – spent most of his life someplace else.

GROVER CLEVELAND

Christie hasn’t lent much credibility to the idea that he would be a willing candidate, but if he should run, one thing that has come up already and surely would get a lot of attention in the news coverage – and late-night commentaries – would be his girth.
Christie himself has often acknowledged that his weight is a result of his eating habits and that it is unhealthy.
In the world we live in, it is also a potential liability from the aesthetic point of view.

There already have been stories speculating as to whether a man of Christie’s size can be elected president – kind of a diss on the intelligence of the body politic.

In fact, that question has already been answered twice by the elections of William Howard Taft and Grover Cleveland.

Taft, the largest president so far, was six feet tall and weighed more than 330 pounds when he was elected president in 1908. After Taft had left the presidency, he lost about 80 pounds, which lowered his blood pressure and improved his ability to sleep.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

Cleveland – whose weight isn’t mentioned as frequently as Taft’s – was five-feet-eleven and weighed between 235 and 280 pounds. His weight is noticeable in photographs from his presidential years, but it apparently didn’t trouble the citizens who gave him the majority of the popular vote three times in a row – the only president besides Franklin Roosevelt to achieve that. (In 1888, Benjamin Harrison won the majority of the electoral votes.)
The criticism directed at political candidates in the 19th and early 20th centuries could be as cruel, in its own way, as the attacks that are leveled today. Cartoonists gleefully exploited the proportions of both Cleveland and Taft, and no one’s physical appearance attracted more public ridicule than that of Abraham Lincoln.

But the pervasive and relentless nature of media in our age add a lot of destructive power to negative messages.

Some voters might be legitimately concerned about the life-threatening nature of Christie’s weight, but the web of electronic communications has given people the idea that they can – and should – say virtually anything that comes into their heads. The comments posted on web sites suggest that many writers think it’s a virtue to be as coarse and demeaning as they can.

I noticed, for instance, that folks who frequent a Facebook page for graduates of my high school alma mater, say some pretty awful things about former teachers and classmates – undaunted by the fact that most of their targets are still living and could easily read these messages.

For his own well-being – particularly if he takes on the rigors of a presidential campaign and a term or two in the White House – Christie ought to do something about his weight.

Besides prolonging his life, it would spare him and his family the meanness that has become the lingua franca of smart alecs in the digital age.

Woodrow Wilson with his predecessor, William Howard Taft, shortly before Wilson was inaugurated as the 28th president. In 1921, the 29th president, Warren G. Harding, appointed a slimmer Taft chief justice of the United States. Taft is the only person to have held both offices.

The worst of the year?

September 11, 2010

I always read those warnings that accompany films — the ones designed to steer you, or prompt you to steer your children, away from what you consider offensive. The Joaquin Phoenix film “I’m Still Here” may not be unique in this regard, but it is for me — the first film I have seen in which the content warnings include “defecation.”

I generally don’t care about foul language, and nudity and sexuality aren’t show stoppers for me if they’re important to the context of the film, but defecation? Check, please!

I wouldn’t have seen this film even without the crap, as it were, because I’m not sufficiently interested in Joaquin Phoenix whether he’s drawing Oscar nominations or coming apart at the seams. What I do find amusing, though, is the coverage of this film — and particularly the speculation about whether it’s a true documentary, as billed, or whether it’s a put-on or a little of each.

Critics don’t often find themselves having to wonder aloud whether they’re watching fact or fiction, but they do in this case. Sheila Marikar of ABC News, for example, writes: “Joaquin Phoenix could be the most narcissistic, sniveling, drugged-up mess of a man ever to appear on a screen. Or he could be the greatest actor of all time. After watching ‘I’m Still Here,’ the just-released documentary that chronicles his 2008 departure from Hollywood and attempt to launch a rap career, the former seems more believable.”

Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer writes: “Joaquin Phoenix is either one of the greatest actors ever to walk the red carpet on his way to that Entertainment Tonight sound bite, or he’s an insufferably neurotic, narcissistic, doped-up jerk.

“Whichever turns out to be the case (I’m betting on the latter), ‘I’m Still Here’ — the documentary-like chronicle of a year in the life of the twice-Oscar-nominated thespian, as he announces his retirement from movies to pursue a career as a hip-hop artist – stands as a fascinating look at the cloistered, coddled world of a movie star who’s not quite up there in the A-list tier of, say, Leo or Tobey.”

“And Manohla Dargis of the New York Times describes the film as “a deadpan satire or a deeply sincere folly (my money is on the first option) about Mr. Phoenix’s recent roles as an acting dropout and would-be hip-hop artist.”

CASEY AFFLECK

I don’t want to go into detail about the contents of this film — the verbal abuse, the coke snorting, the prostitution, the revolting manners and, indeed the defecation — but it is spelled out in Laremy Legel’s review in the Seattle Post-Dispatch.

In 1958, a critic discussing the Broadway play “Make a Million” said he had spent the previous evening “laughing at a very bad play.” Legel acknowledges that he laughed at some parts of this film, which was directed by Casey Affleck, who is married to Phoenix’s sister.

Legel gets to the heart of the matter when he addresses the pretense that this is a documentary account of a man who has rejected both the work and the milieu of Hollywood and set out to build himself a new career:

“We don’t see him working on his craft, we don’t see him in the clubs trying to get better, we don’t see him reaching out to rappers or starting a writing notebook. What we do see is his him leveraging his celebrity to cause a spectacle. What we do see is him not taking it seriously. What we do see is him not caring, which would be fine, if only he didn’t ask us to instead.”

From what I can discern, Phoenix is a jerk and this movie is garbage, and yet Phoenix also seems to have gotten what he was probably after all along. Everyone is writing about him — including me.

THOMAS AQUINAS

“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”

Thus spake the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas was a master of the syllogism, and his idea of scientific scrutiny was that conclusions had to be based on premises which themselves were either self evident or had been objectively demonstrated. I thought of Aquinas when I wrote a post yesterday about Albert Einstein, who was in the business of putting together premises and conclusions. In a sense, Aquinas and Einstein came at the question of the origins of the universe from opposite directions. Aquinas was a man of faith, but he believed — and sought to demonstrate in his “Summa Theologica” — that a person could arrive at the existence of a First Cause — God — through reason alone.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Einstein didn’t believe in God in the sense that Jews and Christians and Muslims do. In that sense, he didn’t believe in a god at all, no matter how hard religious folks try to hear him saying otherwise. However, Einstein’s  lifetime of inquiry into the physical laws that govern the universe did lead him to speculate — forgive me if I don’t express this precisely — that somewhere beyond the seemingly endless questions about the universe must lie some force that governs it.

I recently discussed all this — Aquinas, Einstein, God, the origin of the universe — with, of all people, the actress Sandy Duncan.

SANDY DUNCAN

By “of all people,” I don’t mean to imply that there is anything surprising about Sandy Duncan discussing such things. In fact, I gathered she gives such things quite a bit of thought and has had provocative conversations about them with her two adult sons. I only meant that I would be unlikely to talk to Sandy Duncan at all, except that she was scheduled to appear in a new play that examines the outfall that can occur when science and religion collide head-on. The actress was to play the title role in “Creating Claire” by Joe DiPietro, but she took ill, withdrew from the cast, and was replaced by another talented performer, Barbara Walsh.

JOE DiPIETRO

DiPietro’s play begins previews tomorrow night at the cradle of new theatrical works, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. The title character, Claire Buchanan, is a teacher but now works as a docent at the Museum of Earth and Sky in upstate New York. She leads visitors on the Origins of Life Tour, reciting a script that focuses on the evolution of species. The script is the brainchild of Victoria Halstead, museum director and friend of Claire – in that order, as things work out. Victoria encourages a docent to “personalize” the presentation as long as the glosses are innocuous, but Claire is no automaton, especially when a reference in the script to “random mutation” complicates her attempt to understand a fact of her own life. Claire and her husband, Reggie, have an autistic 16-year-old daughter, Abigail, and Claire has been considering how the process described by Charles Darwin could result in an individual such as Abigail. Eventually, Claire’s contemplation creeps into her talks at the museum as she suggests to visitors that the processes of nature may have been – gasp! – designed. Once that genie is on the loose, there is hell to pay, as it were.

LYNN COHEN

Victoria — to be played by Lynn Cohen — puts her own belief in science and her vision for the museum ahead of friendship when she learns about Claire’s transgression. Reggie – a high school teacher who has considered his bond to Claire a “mixed marriage” only to the extent that he is an atheist and she is an agnostic — is stunned by this change of Claire’s train of thought. Disagreements over Abigail’s status have already revealed strains in the couple’s relationship; Claire’s public speculation about a “designer” pushes those strains to the breaking point.

This play, however, is not a death struggle between science and religion so much as an examination of intellectual openness and honesty. Claire is willing to at least entertain an idea that had been anathema to her but does not insist that others accept that idea. Victoria and Reggie opt to defend their “rightness,” as Duncan called it, regardless of the professional or personal consequences. The implications for contemporary political discourse may be painfully obvious.

Believe in God or not, but in the end it is Claire, and not the more “scientific” Victoria and Reggie, who seems to have heeded Einstein: “Only daring speculation can lead us further, and not accumulation of facts.”

“Peek-a-boo! I see you!”

February 13, 2010

animal.discover

I have become a voyeur.

Many men reach this stage at a younger and more virile age, but I was waiting for better technology. It has come with the marriage of the Internet and the live streaming web camera. Here’s fair warning: You can run, but you can’t hide.

I’m developing an addiction for the streaming web cam. I’ve spent far too much time searching for the better and better live images from all over the world. I don’t know what the attraction is; television has been broadcasting live images from around the planet for more than 50 years. But on television, we get what we are given. On the Internet, we increasingly are gaining the power to peek in wherever we choose, usually without the knowledge — and I guess this is the key — of those we are watching. We can watch them in real time, and they don’t know we’re here.

TIMES SQUARE

One of the most attractive scenes, of course is Times Square, which is alive at any hour of the day or night. The camera is mounted high above Broadway across the street from the Marriott Marquis. The sound feed is dominated by traffic noise frequently including screaming sirens, but the mike also picks up the voices of the stream of humanity that is always passing by the camera.

The TimesSquare Cam provides a larger image than many webcam sites do, so there are more details to examine. You can look in on Times Square at THIS LINK.

Some of the live images available don’t hold my attention for very long. Earthcam.com, for example, has a feed from a live camera in Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s a long shot of a skyline and traffic moving on a highway – there are no people visible.

St. PETER'S

Hotels around the world have taken to using live webcams to pump up their web sites. The Atlante Star in Rome is one of them; its camera shows about a half-dozen live images of scenes that can be seen from the hotel, including the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the traffic and pedestrians moving along the Via Vitelleschi far below the lens. This site, which is more interesting when it’s daylight in Rome, is located HERE.

I have also been misspending my declining years by watching two sea otters, Milo and Tanu, who live in the Vancouver Aquarium. Milo, the male, was born in an aquarium in Lisbon, Portugal, and Tanu, a female, was born in the wild, so to speak, in the ocean off Alaska. I spy on these otters at THIS LINK, which has a camera trained on their pool.

Sea otter at the Vancouver Aquarium

This site requires a little patience, because the otters are not always in camera range. When they are, though, they are very lively. The site includes interesting explanations of the behavior the otters exhibit onthe screen, which is a small image but has decent resolution.

I have found the streaming to be a little cranky on this site, and I have to frequently refresh the page to restart the video.

My favorite site for now is linked to a live camera mounted in a public square in Bydgoszczy, Poland, a city of about a third of a million people located up there just south of Gdansk. This camera pans the square, which includes rows of businesses and an outdoor ice skating rink.

BYDGOSZCZY

This site — CLICK HERE — has become an addiction for me. I find the square itself and the activity within it attractive and absorbing. I watch the passers-by and speculate about who they are and where they are going. I marvel at the strollers who  criss-cross the square regardless of the time. As I am writing this, it is 3 am in Poland, and there are people walking through that area and skating on that rink.

Another animal I visit on line is Lily, a black bear who at present is hibernating in her den in the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota. Lily caused a flurry on the Web a few weeks ago when she gave birth a cub — an event that was caught on the camera that is trained on her lair. Lily has since gone back to sleep. You can see her live — sort of — at THIS LINK. I check on her now and then to make sure she’s still breathing. Of course, it’s like watching paint dry, or grass grow, or metal rust, or …. well, like watching a bear sleep.

coffeeI see by the papers that Starbucks is going to raise the prices on some of its drinks and lower prices on others — and see what happens. The short version is that sales have been declining. So frappucchinos and caramel macchiatos are going up — maybe 30 cents a pop — and lattes, cappuccinos and brewed coffees are going down.

I won’t be a part of this study. I’m atypical where coffee is concerned. I drink it every morning, and I order it after most dinners out, but I wouldn’t care I never had it again. And when I do drink it, it can be Chock Full o’ Nuts or Folgers, with no additives. And I don’t want to pay for coffee as if it were gasoline. I have been in a Starbucks three times, and one of those occasions was to avoid freezing to death on a Manhattan street. On the other two visits, I had hot chocolate, which was also overpriced — but it was chocolate.

SHELLEY BATTS

SHELLEY BATTS

I had a supervisor on one of my first jobs who instructed everyone in our section not to talk to her in the morning until she had had two cups of coffee. She was serious. I’m sure she believed it herself, but I couldn’t understand it because the caffeine in coffee doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t make me jumpy, it doesn’t calm my nerves, it doesn’t jolt me out of a stupor, it doesn’t give me indigestion, and it doesn’t keep me awake. Whether two cups a day does anything else to me, I don’t know. Coffee’s reputation as a deadly poison or a life-giving nectar seems to ebb and flow. Shelley Batts, a candidate for a doctorate in neuroscience, looked back a couple of years ago in her fascinating blog “Retrospectacle” at a recurring theory that coffee was a treatment for plague. You can read about that at the following link:  http://scienceblogs.com/retrospectacle/2007/08/science_vault_coffee_as_a_cure.php

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

I just read a book — “Rebirth of a Nation” by Jackson Lears — that paints an uncomplimentary picture of Theodore Roosevelt, to the extent that Roosevelt was one of the principal proponents, during the so-called “gilded age” — of American empire-building. Considering his appetite for action at any price, maybe Roosevelt was hopped up on coffee. He was, after all, the source of the Maxwell House coffee slogan: “Good to the last drop.” The first time I heard that, I dismissed it as a fable, but apparently there is some authority for it. You can read about that at this link: http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/Maxwell.htm

A news story about the Starbucks pricing strategy — which I guess was broken by Bloomberg — can be found here: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/money_co/2009/08/investors-know-that-businesses-cant-cost-cut-their-way-back-to-prosperity-and-rising-earnings-so-what-wall-street-most.html

Shelley Batts is co-authoring a new blog — “Of Two Minds” — which can be found at this link: http://scienceblogs.com/twominds/

drivein3

The Christian Science Monitor has a story about a phenomenon known as “guerrilla drive-in” — referring to a fad in which movie buffs or people out for a good time are setting up ad-hoc outdoor movie sites.

In one sense, the full-blown outdoor movie — the drive-in — had two practical advantages that the indoor theater couldn’t match. One was the opportunity to make out in relative privacy — or so I’m told; the other was the opportunity to take kids to a movie regardless of how they behaved.

There were some disadvantages, including poor sound systems, mosquitos, susceptibility to bad weather, and rowdy patrons. Apparently these outweighed the advantages, because the number of drive-ins in the United States has dwindled from about 5,000 in the 1950s to 383 ( including the Delsea in Vineland, here in New Jersey) according to the Monitor’s story.

My strongest memory of the experience is of taking the kids to a drive-in one steamy summer night and being stuck with the choice of being eaten by the famous Jersey Mosquitos or rolling up the windows and suffocating — unable to see the screen through the fogged-up windshield.

carshow2 (1)But I also remember going to outdoor movies in a less formal way when I was a student at Penn State. Every Friday night, a screen was erected on one of the campus lawns, and we could sit on the grass and watch several slightly dated films, plus cartoons. That was almost 40 years ago, and I can’t remember whether we paid an admission. What I do remember was that, because we were seeing them outdoors, we enjoyed the movies almost regardless of their quality. I guess it’s the same effect as eating a dirty-water hot dog on a street corner in Manhattan.

The Monitor’s story is at this link:

http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0810/p17s02-almo.html

You can make your own drive-in movie marquee at this link:

http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.redkid.net/generator/drive-in/basesign.png&imgrefurl=http://www.redkid.net/generator/drive-in/&usg=__bDNz8UD3lAaW4BfCyFuvkjqV1TA=&h=324&w=441&sz=218&hl=en&start=3&sig2=iMS4QtFFc1akwdxXGK4OPA&tbnid=aF3kDHkv1hQiaM:&tbnh=93&tbnw=127&prev=/images%3Fq%3Ddrive%2Bin%2Bmovie%26gbv%3D2%26hl%3Den&ei=LjWDSoaJMo-ImwPFjb3mCw

drivein3 (1)

jalopiesThe controversy of the federal government’s “cash-for-clunkers” program dramatizes the odd position we Americans have put ourselves in as victims of our own success.

The program provides a $4,500 subsidy for a qualified buyer who wants to trade in an old inefficient vehicle for a new and “greener” one. Everybody wins in this program: the buyer can afford a new car, the auto dealer and — by extension — the manufacturer gets rid of inventory, the environment is subject to one less outrage, and the junk yard gets another heap to turn back into cash. The program is so beneficial, and consequently so popular, that it went broke in a hurry, and the question of whether to re-fund it is now being debated in Congress.

john_mccainOne of those opposed to more funding for this program is U.S. Sen. John McCain — Sarah Palin’s former running mate. McCain thinks this program is an unfair subsidy of the auto industry, as distinct from other classes of business that are at risk in this economic downturn. But the auto industry is getting this attention because it has become such a pervasive part of the overall economy; if it goes down, according to conventional wisdom, everything else goes with it.

BrandNewCarsRex460At the root of this phenomenon is the American obsession with cars and with new cars in particular. This has been out of control for a long time, but we were too giddy to notice. The industry produces too many cars, and whole sectors of the economy have grown around that practice like barnacles. This has happened in a country that has failed miserably at building an efficient mass-transit system, though it talks endlessly, and without blushing, about the need to get travelers off the roads and onto trains and buses and monorails and — while we’re daydreaming — into teletransporters. I don’t know if this is what McCain means by his opposition to this latest proposal to expand the federal deficit, but despite the rhetoric about reforming the auto industry, the game plan really seems to be to help it continue overproduction. And what do we think will happen in the long run if we win at that game? I admit to a prejudice here, because I drive a car until it has well over 150,000 miles on the clock, but if we continue the same behavior and expect a different outcome, aren’t we all — by definition — crazy?

"Beam me up"

"Beam me up"

frustratedIn one of his monologues, Garrison Keillor talks about the way in which our society has abandoned competence. His point was that as we have mastered more and more complex technologies and as we have educated ourselves in more and more specialized tracks, we have lost our grasp on the world that immediately surrounds us at every moment of the day.

Keillor used as an example a farmer who is capable of grappling with each of the many, and often unpredictable, circumstances that arise in his daily life. For the most part, the farmer does this on his own, Keillor said, drawing on a combination of knowledge, experience, skill, common sense, and wit that cumulatively constitute his competence. He is an electrician, a mechanic, a carpenter, a veterinarian, as the demands of the moment dictate. He doesn’t turn to someone else for help every time things don’t go just as they should.

Recently, we ordered a laptop battery from Dell. According to Dell, it was to be delivered on or before July 8. It wasn’t. On the night of July 9, I called Dell at the number the company provides for checking up on orders. Over the course of about 35 minutes, I talked to three people, each of whom required the order number and all or part of my Social Security number, and each of whom required that I tell my story from the top.

The first agent explained, after consulting “the system,” that the battery — which Dell had predicted would be delivered by July 8 — wouldn’t be delivered at all, because “Dell Financial” hadn’t approved the order. She neither knew nor could discover anything further about the matter.

biz12_cThat agent transferred the call — but, of course, no information — to Dell Financial. The agent there, after making me repeat everything, said he could not see in “the system” why the order wasn’t approved but that “the system” wouldn’t let him do anything further with it. He suggested that I talk to the Order Modification Department, have the original order cancelled and a new one issued. He transferred my call — but, of course, no information — to the gang at Order Modification.

The agent there, after making me repeat everything, said he could issue a new order, but that he couldn’t guarantee that it would be approved and suggested that he transfer my call to Dell Financial. As I, becoming increasingly agitated, tried to tell him that I had just spoken to Dell Financial and had been redirected to him, he kept repeating himself as though he were reading from a cue card. It never occurred to him that he, not I, should talk to Dell Financial and anyone else in the Dell empire who was in a position to let me spend my money with their company. I wouldn’t let him transfer my call, so — probably to get rid of me — he cancelled the old order and issued a new one and brightly told me that the battery should be delivered by July 21.

I figure the only way that’s going to happen is if the shipping department at Dell is run by a farmer.