Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The WASP Chronicles, Part Two

Wherein is contained an examination of the WASP and his life and living.

As we have begun to perceive, the WASP character is a series of conundrums born of seeming paradox. Example: The WASP is a materialist, yet he is largely indifferent to money itself. If a cynic, in the words of Oscar Wilde, is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, then the WASP is no cynic. He knows the price of many things--many of the finer things--yet the price to him is largely unimportant. If he wants it and can afford it, he will buy it. If not, he will wait until he has accumulated enough to do so. The WASP is not a miser. Money is significant only in that it can and should be spent. The WASP will, of course, "sock away" a certain amount in an IRA, planning for a retirement in which work no longer need impede the pleasureable aspects of the WASP existence (which are many), but for the most part, a WASP is not parsimonious. Indeed, he has very little sense of economy. That is for his accountant to determine, and the WASP trusts this professional fellow with an absolute faith that would rival the most devout Puritan's view of Divine Providence. (The WASP is only slightly more skeptical of his stock-broker--he will in fact read over the monthly reports on his portfolio, but only cursorily, and largely because the acquisition of funds without doing any work strikes him as slightly magical.)

There are, of course, certain exceptions to the WASP's monetary benightedness. For instance, the WASP tips with surgical precision. He can glance at a restaurant check and calculate, with the speed of a RAM-heavy hard-drive, the percentage owed to his server. (And this after a before-dinner cocktail, at least three glasses of wine, and an after-dinner brandy.) In tipping, WASPs are not cheap, but neither are they overly generous to their servers. A WASP expects competence--even brilliance--from service-people; he takes his own job seriously, and expects that they will, as a matter of course, treat theirs with a similar professionalism. Yet the WASP also recognizes that how he tips reflects as much on him as it does on the wait-person's efforts. A WASP does not want to appear stingy, and so he will, barring grotesque incompetence--say, setting a guest's hair on fire or breaking the cork in the wine bottle (equally grave sins) tip a minimum of 15 percent. But even magnificence--a waiter who manages to acquire entrees that are not only not on the menu, but contain a species of waterfowl that has been extinct since 1789--will merit only 20 percent. Heavy tippers 'have something to prove,' to the WASP's mind, and he does not wish to be identified with them.

But such niceties aside, a WASP is more concerned with spending money than in counting it. (Oddly enough, while he is happy to earn money, and plenty of it, he rarely chooses his profession on the basis of its remunerative qualities. But more of that later.)

A WASP does not believe in ostentation. Should you see a middle-aged man driving a flame-red Corvette convertable with chrome hubcaps, you are not looking at a WASP. WASPs believe in finery, not glamour. No other ethnic figure has as keen an appreciation for the subtle as much as the WASP. He dearly misses the days of the 1980s when both Mercedes and BMW were producing cars of dull visual design that nevertheless represented dependable and comfortable engineering to rival that of the finest Swiss watchmakers. Not for him the Jaguar--visually stunning, automotively treacherous. Now he must settle for the Lexus, a troubling breed of vehicle that, while reliable and pleasant, is still a bit too obviously "luxurious." A WASP does not believe in Luxury, he believes in Style. And to a WASP, Style means affording the best without appearing to do so.

The interior of the WASP home will bear this out. The true WASP home will be neatly appointed--the Latina maid has seen to that--but no single piece of furniture will catch the eye. Indeed, the decoration will be so much 'of a piece' that the home will appear not to have been decorated at all. The couches will simply be one with the coffee table, which will be indistinguishable with the rug--needless to say, it will be a rug--wall-to-wall carpeting does not exist in the WASP home--and the rug will simply 'go' with the curtains (they will be curtains, never drapes), and so on. The WASP home is an edifice to taste, which is to say it is practically invisible. The furniture will not be comfortable--no matter, since the WASP prizes the visual above the tactile in nearly all things--save perhaps in what the lower WASPs call the den, where, grudgingly, the television will be found. (The WASP simply doesn't know what to do about the television. It is invariably ugly and jarring in the WASP setting, and even the new plasma screens that hang like wall-art are so obviously expensive that, as with all such displays of capital-W Wealth, they simply cannot be permitted. Yet guests expect the television to be available, and the children clamor for it. The WASP usually solves this problem by placing the wretched apparatus in a cabinet with opaque doors, where, when not in use, it can be hidden away, the decorative equivalent of a dirty family secret.)

The art on the WASP walls will not contain recognizable 'originals'--WASPs dislike modern art, and genuine works of the Old Masters are ridiculously overpriced. (A WASP enjoys art, but even he is aware of his economic limitations when confronted with an object that will cost millions and will do little more than cover a few square feet of wall space.) There will, however, be a wealth of antique prints--portraits of obscure historical figures are most welcome, as are historical or mythological tableaus, provided they are not of the gaudy variety--black and white prints of sufficient age will usually solve this problem. Watercolors and landscapes, provided they are not of 'touristy' landmarks, are likewise acceptable. WASPs do not hang photographs; you will find no Ansel Adams on the WASP wall. Photographs are of family members only, or perhaps a favorite pet or two (the pet must be deceased before it is thus enshrined), and they are collected in unremarkable frames, clustered over the fireplace. Should you enter a home and see a painting of 'the family' in their Sunday best--you are not among WASPs. WASPs did allow such things when photography was still a blurry novelty, but they recognize that the function of the portrait is to show what a person looks like, and nowadays photographs do so better than oils. Paintings of the family, then, show an attempt to claim some kind of devotion to 'historically traditional manners'--a lamentable spectacle, revealing the ignorance of the owners. WASPs are not, in fact, utterly hide-bound. Times changes, and so do manners and standards. The WASP is far more adapatable than one would suspect, and those who do not adapt risk looking foolish, which a WASP will never do.

The pantry will be well-ordered, as will the refrigerator, which will probably be white, since the 'steel' variety strikes the WASP as a trifle too 'modernist'--it will most certain not have an ice-maker on its front panel. WASPs buy their ice; it is the only way to guarantee quality, and a WASP will not dilute his single-malt with frozen tap-water. It is unlikely that a cook is among the employees, and so the preparation of dinner--the only meal that WASPs take seriously when at home--will fall to the family. Here WASPs recognize a fundamental facet of human nature: some people can cook, some can't. Among WASPs, those who can, do. And the WASP is quite free of gender stereotypes on this subject. Since the best possible meal is the goal, a husband who can provide said meal is expected to do so if the wife cannot. Practicality is the watch-word of the WASP kitchen--everything is organized not because the WASP is anal-retentive and 'must have it so,' but because it simply makes more sense for the garlic press to be in the same place every time, and thus not require one to hunt for it.

The WASP bedroom is much like the other living quarters, neatly and unremarkably appointed. The bed will be double--single beds are for unmarried people, and the WASP has no qualms about intimacy between married couples behind closed doors. (The bedroom door will, however, have a lock on it, which will be used with military consistency in the likelihood of 'relations.' The WASP and sex will not be discussed here, except to say that, like so many other aspects of his existence, it is profoundly private.)

Bathrooms will be iconic bastions of hygeine. WASPs do prefer 'classical' fixtures, so porcelain and copper will be ever-present. There will be no whirl-pools, no fiberglass, no sliding doors on the shower, and the bath will have clawed feet. All will be blindingly white, and the cleanliness and order will be such that one would feel quite comfortable undergoing open-heart surgery in this environment.

Let us return downstairs.

The dining room will be used for dining, and only dining. It will be empty most of the time, the least-used room of the house. The table will be of some reliable wood--cherry, mahogany--and will pull apart in the center to accomodate leaves that will lengthen it to include as many as 14 to 16 guests. More than that is unnecessary, since the WASP does not know a larger number of people whom he values sufficiently to invite them into his home. The plates will be Blue Willow china, the settings will be silver, the glassware will be crystal, the candle sticks will be brass, the napkins will be linen. None of this will seem flashy or impressive, since the WASP will treat these appointments as a trivial matter of course.

The bar will contain only recognizable liquors. Stolichnaya or Absolut in the freezer--WASPs resist the attempts of the makers of Ketel One or Grey Goose to convince them that their products are in any way an improvement on the former two--Jack Daniels or Maker's Mark--Tanqueray or Bombay Sapphire--WASPs will have tequila and triple sec for those strange guests who require margeritas--such guests will not be invited back--but those bottles will gather dust. Scotch will be single-malt, as previously mentioned, and generally the WASP will content himself with a brand that is comparatively rare, but not unknown--MacCallum, say. (The exception to this rule occurs when, for Christmas or New Year's, a WASP will be given a bottle of some truly exceptional scotch, which he will not drink except when the individual who gave it to him is over for dinner and drinks, and then only to share with his benefactor.) WASPs drink simply. Uncomplicated, traditional cocktails are much preferred. Martinis are generally served on the rocks, except when requested otherwise. Scotch is usually neat, but whiskey is usually mixed with soda. Gin-and-tonics are considered somewhat effeminate, but will be permissable on late afternoons in summer as a companion to hors d'oeuvres. Requests for exotic drinks, even ones that have become as commonplace at the Cosmopolitian and the Mojito, will be met with blank stares. (The hostess will attempt to find the necessary ingredients, but will eventually have to confess that she lacks cranberry juice or grenadine syrup.)

The WASP is not a beer drinker.

And it is indeed true that a WASP will not imbibe before noon. This is a rule so absolute that no WASP would ever think to question it, lest he betray a desire to do so, and thus confess himself to be a dipsomaniac. The sole exception to this rule is the champagne contained in the mimosa, which can be partaken of at Sunday brunch as early as 10:30. The WASP reasons that this exception is legitimate because, in the first place, he may well have taken Episcopal communion that morning, and thus has already broken the rule for the sake of his immortal soul, and besides, he will linger at brunch until well after noon, so that the cumulative effect of his drinking will carry him well into the 'saftey zone' of the p.m.

The wine cellar will be well-stocked. We need say no more about it, save that WASPs do not experiment with wines. They will find a reliable vineyard or twelve, and rely on them to replenish their constant demand. WASPs are particular in choosing their vintages, but they are not vulgar wine-snobs--they know perfectly well that California wines can be far superior to their French cousins, and see no sense in denying themselves a pleasure simply for an empty gesture towards 'continental' sophistication.

Sweeter liqueurs will be spare--you will search for Drambuie, Southern Comfort and Tia Maria in vain--the WASP has never heard of such potables, and wouldn't drink, much less purchase them, if he had. Schnapps of any variety will not be found. Grand Marnier is about as close as you'll come, and perhaps some Bailey's for the older children. (WASP children are taught to drink with care and precision, which is why none of them ever perish as a result of alcohol poisoning during their freshman year at college.) Brandies there will be, perhaps even a selection, but nothing ridiculous as Louis XIII--WASPs know when they're being rooked on a product, and that $1000+ is too much to spend on anything that exists solely to get one pleasantly drunk. It tastes good, but to have it is to, once again, show off, and many cheaper varieties taste just as good. The WASP is no fool, especially where liquor is concerned.

For this is the WASP's avocation in the evening--his life at home during the working week is structured around the consumption of the proper liquor at the proper time. A small drink to relax immediately upon return from the office, a larger one before dinner, wine during, and something appropriate afterwards. The Irish are unfairly tarnished as drunks, but in terms of liters consumed, it is quite likely that the WASP exceeds all other ethnicities in his boozing. That he does so without ever becoming visibly intoxicated is a mark of the strict control of behavior that is the mark of his character. But it also points to a need for an escape from the pressures of sobriety. A window, if you will, into the angst that dwells within the WASP soul. We will have to study more of his habits as we attempt to locate that soul and the darkness that plagues it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The WASP Chronicles, Part One

A certain lovely and inquisitive young woman of my aquaintance, Jewish by birth and upbringing, confessed to me recently that she found much of my behavior, both social and emotional, quite puzzling. Why did I never openly express anger? Why was I so reticent, even unwilling to talk about certain subjects? How could I possibly drink martinis, and why was it so important that I wait until noon to do so? And I slowly began to realize that much of my behavior derives from something that, until now, I didn't realize that I had: culture. I am a WASP. The jesting comment that disguises honest opinion is that WASPs possess no culture. That we are ethnic ciphers--that we have, perhaps, habits that may be mocked, chiefly by African American and Jewish stand-up comics--but not an actual culture. But as I pondered this discovery, and began to tot up the number of behavioral signifiers that went into my identity, I realized that WASP culture is indeed quite real, and far more substantial than one would suppose at first glance. I propose, then, to begin a series of self-examinations--to reveal and analyze WASP culture, out of some attempt to discover its true nature.

This study, it seems to me, has been long overdue--the 19th and 20th centuries, for good or ill, have been the Era of the WASP, and while certain aspects of WASPishness have been anatomized to death, they are usually fettered by issues of class, race, gender, and a general sense of aggrievement against the WASP. Much attempt has been made--successfully and not without justification--to lambaste the WASP, but little if any attempt has been made to understand him. (To call the WASP a racist may be true--as I shall soon show--but it is to miss the forest for the trees. It is the WASP's form of racism that is in need of understanding, not the mere fact of it.) He is too easily regarded as 'the norm'--'the average'--but as I hope to reveal here, this view is inapt. WASPs there are in abundance, but not as many as one might suspect, and they do not represent the norm (that, as always, is determined by the lowest common denominator, to which a WASP would never stoop), but rather a self-segregated elite, a combination of class and breed apart. Yet despite their supposed prominence in public life--many assume that all White, Non-denominational 'Christians' fit the category, which would render Television, for instance, a near-exclusive milieu of the WASP--such is quite simply not the true state of things. There are very few genuine WASPs, and they guard their existence with a quiet fanaticism little guessed at by other ethnic groups. This fact renders them secretive, and given their disproportionate power over the world, we might do worse than turn our attention to the true nature of the WASP.

The WASP is essentially an American creature. True, he is the offspring of English and Dutch heritage, primarily, but the breed has long since divorced itself from its sires--and outpaced them. The WASP may perhaps be likened to the English gentleman, but with a key difference--the English gentleman no longer exists. The WASP does, and thrives.

An admission: I myself cannot claim true WASP-hood, in all fairness. My bloodline is Irish and Polish, primarily, and both the Celtic and the Slavic strains would cause true WASPs to turn from me in polite--always polite--disdain. But having lived on the fringes of WASP society, I have, in a process akin to osmosis, absorbed an understanding of the culture while maintaining an objectivity that allows me to examine it with some--though not complete--detachment. I am not, that is to say, a WASP, but I live like one, and often, and not always to my credit, think like one.

One thing that stands me in good stead as a putative WASP, though, is my religion. It is not enough to be a Protestant. To be sure, the exclusion of Catholics is a key factor in the WASP ethos; WASPs value their independence far too much to submit to the authority of any religious figure whom they cannot beard and berate after services--clergy within arm's reach can be kept under the thumb, and Rome is too far for such authority. Catholics, divided in their loyalties between the Pontiff and often soulless decorum, are not to be trusted to always make the right choice. They cannot pass muster.

But neither can many other Protestants. It is a key aspect of the WASP character that though he believes in Christ and His divinity, a simple acknowledgement of this belief is enough to satisfy his religious duties. Many WASPs are church-goers, but as many and more are not, and those who do go are usually contemplating brunch throughout the service, or using the occasion to 'be social,' as they put it, with neighbors in the opposite pew. True believers, then, are not welcome in the WASP circle, and they gravitate towards denominations that condone a certain spiritual laxity. Episcopalians are quite preferred before all others, but Presbyterians--provided they are not of the wild-eyed, Knox-influenced variety--are nearly as good. Methodists are tolerable, as are Lutherans and the milder form of Calivinists. Not many others make the cut. Baptists and Pentecostalists are entirely out of the question, needless to say--anything that smacks of the evangelical connotes raised voices, open communication of spiritual belief, and a willingness to forgo basic dignity--anathema to the WASP. All WASPs are Protestants, but not all Protestants are WASPs.

His bigotry does not end there. The WASP is racist, it must be confessed. Yet, as much as is possible, it is an inoffensive form of racism. No true WASP ever attended a lynching--violence of any sort is abhorrent to the WASP. Constructing a burning torch would involve manual labor--again, no WASP would, quite literally, sully his hands with such a task. There are no WASPs in the Klan--especially not now that it is made up of blue-collared simians who rarely bathe and have never known the inside of dental examination room. But even if he could join the Klan, the WASP would not. He does not hate. Hatred is an extremity of emotion, and thus vulgar and offensive to the WASP. He does not exactly approve of African Americans, to be sure, but the thought of one as a co-worker--or as Secretary of State--does not threaten him. The WASP knows that, when the chips are down, he will still be the one in charge of things, so the token appearance of black achievement does not threaten, and indeed, quite cheers him, as it seems to pacify the African race as a whole. (The last African American to truly terrify the WASP was Malcolm X, who understood--and worse, explained to his followers--that the WASP would only yield his power at the point of a gun. This is quite true, and it was an enormous relief to the WASP when this fiery prophet was murdered, and most conveniently by traitors in his midst. WASPs cheerfully endorse the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., since under that great idealist's legacy, power can only be yielded voluntarily, and that the WASP will never do.)

But though the WASP prefers to avoid the company of the African American, he does not actively dislike him. Racist jokes are not part of the WASP repertoire of humor, not even in private. (Contrary to popular opinion, the WASP has an extremely fine sense of humor--the opposite rumor exists because the WASP never laughs out loud. But still waters run deep, and do so here. The WASP has a fine sense of the absurd--and indeed, is the cause of much of it in the world.)

It is true that for centuries, the WASP was anti-Semitic, not virulently, but with an assurance and conviction that served, among his other expressed views on the world, as a sign of his good breeding. But following the horrors of the Holocaust, it was quietly decided by the world of the WASPs that genocide renders mild bigotry in bad taste, and now the Jewish people are among those with whom the WASP is most likely to gladly mix and mingle in the social arena. A similar effect on the WASP's relations with homosexuals was achieved by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Homosexuality itself is embarassing to the WASP; it is not that he has any moral or religious objections to it, but gays and lesbians, once out of the closet, tend to be free and open in their loving sexuality towards their partners. It is this, and not the sex of the partners in question, that renders the WASP squeamish on the subject. However, since objecting to homosexuality is the mark of the religious fanatic or the ignoramus, the WASP practices quiet, though long-suffering tolerance of the differently-oriented. Both the Jewish and the gay may be welcomed into the homes and workplaces of the WASP, if not as equals, then at least as 'valued associates.'

The end of the 20th century added Asians to this elect group; while a WASP might not like the idea of an Asian working side-by-side with him in the Human Resources department, where, it is assumed, the Asian "won't quite get" the nuances of American workplace etiquette--nevermind that the Asian is fourth generation and has twice the vocabulary of the WASP--he will reflect with pleasure upon the Asian's salutary presence in Research and Development. (The racism of the WASP is as inclined to anticipate the favorable as the negative: it would simply never occur to the WASP that there are Asians who are poor at math or science, or Jewish lawyers or accountants who are incompetent at their jobs. The WASP is small-minded in some ways, but even in being small-minded, he is charitable in his bigotry. The WASP enjoys the success of Tiger Woods as much as he did Jack Nicklaus--and the WASP is shrewd enough to recognize and admit that Woods's popularity is due as much to his novelty as a "golfer-of-color" as to his remarkable skill at the game.)

Of course, WASPs employ Latinos and--especially--Latinas with open arms, though admittedly only in the most menial of tasks, usually as the day-labor equivalent of the service positions once held by the staff of country estates. Yet Latina maids are afforded an intimate entre into the WASP home as would not be allowed to less-than-immediate blood-relatives. Alas, it is true that these maids are often ill-paid. But as often, they are quite well-paid. This haphazard state of affairs has much to do with the fact that the WASP does not understand the true nature of money beyond his own economic means. It is not a matter of stinginess that deprives many Latinas from earning a living wage from their WASP employers--the problem lies in the fact that the WASP has absolutely no idea what "a living wage" is, and is too embarassed to raise the subject with an employee. (The Latina, alas, is too petrified at losing her status as an employed illegal alien to kick up much of a fuss. If she did, she would probably find her WASP employer glad to remunerate her services with as much over-payment as the previous under-payment. Such are the small tragedies of the intimidation of both sides by the other. Also, neither speaks the other's language.)

As for the Native Americans, the WASP reflects contentedly on the flourishing spread of "Indian Casinos"--as far as he is concerned, this is a problem solved, and he gives no more thought to it, or to the people.

The WASP's racism is, in fact, motivated by the same kind of ethnic exclusivity that one encounters in Jewish and Japanese communities, where intimacy and especially marriage with the gaijin is considered a schande. So too for the WASP. He does not dislike the other races, but he recognizes that in a hostile world, he can only depend on his own tribe, and so he guards it with a well-peeled eye. Others will be admitted only so far as necessity and politeness demand, and no farther. In these barriers lies the core of his racism. But though firm, it is, as I say, generally mild. So-called "people of color" are largely ignored by the WASP--they are easily identifiable, and so pose no threat of infiltration into the ranks of power. The WASP is much more likely to cast a wary and hostile eye to those who are able to "pass"--undesirables from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Greece, and even the Nordic countries--which are regarded as belligerent and/or overly permissive--such people are the ones who meet with the WASP's true talent for bigotry, and woe betide the unwary Scandanavian who lets slip his family's original name at a cocktail party. He has seen the last of people he considered his friends, and may soon find himself unemployed. WASPs do not like to be 'taken in'--and as the people most likely to pull this off, other Whites are, in fact, their most dangerous of foes.

Such, then, is the religious and racial perspective of the WASP. Of his style of life and living, next installment.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Renewed Apologies

My blogging has been even more sporadic than usual--this has much to do with the terribly imminent approach of the school year (tomorrow morning, 10:00 a.m., I start twisting young minds with my gay-agenda pushing, atheistic, big-government supporting, America-bashing, bleeding-heart liberal perversity), and also to do with the personal issues to which I constantly allude, but which I seem never to directly address herein. This obliqueness on my part is largely the result of a general sense of gentlemanly discretion--and also a certain, hefty amount of embarassment. But let's focus on the former, shall we? There's a proper forum for the airing of one's miseries--it's called "a bar" and only works with total strangers you're never going to see again, and who are cushioned from your snivelling by much booze. Oh, and I suppose there's counselling, but really, why be dull?

So the word continues to be 'mum'--it's just crass, the b*tching and moaning some people do about whomever in their lives is giving them grief--all lives are strewn with misery at one point or another, and again, a quick flip of the news channels will confirm that I and most of us actually have precious little to b*tch about. And besides, is there anything that gets tedious faster than hearing other people describe their woes? I mean, apart from their dreams. And, come to think of it, I suppose their joys are pretty dull, too. Overall, people are at their most interesting when they're talking about something objective--a movie they've seen, a book they've read, a reaction to something outside themselves. These things tend to be varied, and engage the frontal part of the brain where the better parts of the vocabulary are stored. But if you've ever had to listen to a girlfriend complain about her mother for the umpteenth time, or a guy moan about a girlfriend who won't stop complaining about her mother, you'll know what I mean when I say that other people's problems are usually repetitive to the point of inducing catatonia in listeners. If you need to whine, see a shrink, who at least is paid to endure the tedium of your inner life. That's what I do, at any rate.

Anyway, as for the failure to blog, the continued bashing of Bush for various obscenities just seems old-hat--though as well-justified as ever it has been--and I haven't been keeping my head above water long enough to notice anything in the wind of pop culture, either good or bad, to fulminate about. I am therefore substantially mute, and if forced to write, would be thrown back upon the blogger's worst and most unreadable of entries: a description of the minutae of my day-to-day life. Yet, upon reflection, since I live an essentially hermetic existence these days, even this would be worse than the standard "hung out at the parking lot of the Gas 'N Go with the other guys--Brad's totally got this new move on the 'board that he hasn't got a name for yet, but which totally rocks ass" line of tedious crap. So I choose to remain silent, which is best for us all, yes?

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Bush actually fired someone incompetent for being incompetent. That's gotta be a first, right? God, please let him learn to like doing this. Please, God. I ask for so little. Just this, plus that other thing we talked about. All I need is another three inches and I can quit teaching and go into the career I was born for: hard-core--oh, wait, other people are reading this. Never mind, Big Guy, we'll talk later, OK?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Two Top Five Lists

OK. Boring. Tedious. Unimaginative. And yet, what the hell. Been thinking about this for awhile, and at least it doesn't involve the doomed state of the world.

I've been accused of thinking in terms of "ranking"--how I seem to have to evaluate my life in terms of numerical strata. Nevertheless, I apologize for nothing. If one cannot state with clarity and force that Batman is a billion times cooler than Superman, what else is life for? So, without much ado, I figured I'd offer my list of the the top ten film performances of all time. I have, because I am sexist, broken them down according to gender. Please note, I do not claim that these are the ten greatest actors/actresses of all time. You will not find, for instance, Brando or Von Sydow or Toshiro Mifune herein--this despite the fact that Mifune has never done work that was anything other than brilliant. But is there one Mifune performance that absolutely stands out? Maybe Yojimbo, but he was better or as good in Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, and Red Beard. Plus, he had Kurosawa behind the camera, and shoot, he could have cast Keanue Reeves in those films and come up with something watchable. Daniel Day-Lewis is alarming good in just about everything he's done, and yet no one performance really defines him--none of his films are raised to genius simply because of what he does. So you can see my problem. Anyway, f*** it, I couldn't care less who gets pissed off; I am right about what follows--do not dispute me.

5. Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry. If you've seen this performance, you understand why he's on this list. There's simply no need to discuss it. Jaw-droppingly perfect and he makes a by-the-numbers, watered-down version of 'an important book' a stunning experience.

4. Gene Hackman in The Conversation. An introvert. Pathologically repressed. Silent. Cold. Generally unpleasant, with no idea how to behave with warmth or kindness. And despite this personality that is the definition of 'impersonal', he becomes a man who is born again and then spiritually murdered over the course of the film. Hackman gives nothing away, and in doing so, gives everything away. Never has obscurity been so transparent. Brilliant. Perfect.

3. Jimmy Stewart--Tie: It's a Wonderful Life and Vertigo. Sigh. I couldn't decide. The first performance is just a display of such versatility with one character--he never does anything inconsistent with being George Bailey, and yet he goes from youthful love to towering idealism to snivelling drunk to family terrorizer to manic exuberance. If he wasn't in the movie, we wouldn't be forced to watch it every Christmas. And he's the only reason we don't want to claw our eyeballs out when we do. As for the second, well, has there ever been a more persuasive performance of a normal, decent guy who goes completely batsh*t monstrous and nuts without also going completely over-the-top? Again, you wouldn't watch the movie if he wasn't in it--and because you do watch the movie, you walk away feeling creeped-out and in-need-of-a-shower.

2. Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull. Seems like a cheap and easy choice--wow, he gained weight!--but it has a hell of a lot more to do with the fact that he plays a guy who's not only loathsome but dumb and yet manages to make his character compelling and occasionally admirable despite this--you actually feel sorry for this abusive, violent, vicious statutory rapist by the end. Wow.

1. Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II. What with Hackman being on the list, it must look as if I've just got a thing for Coppola, but Pacino's here for a simple reason--if Hackman's here because we see a man's spiritual rebirth, Pacino's here because spiritual death has never been so perfectly portrayed. You can actually see his soul die over the course of the film. And so quiet--so terrifyingly quiet--when he yells, you actually feel relieved, because it's much less awful than what is threatened by his silence. Watch the scene where Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth reads him the riot act, and Pacino just stands there, physically still, and takes it, because he's quietly making up his mind to have this man killed. And as for his over-the-shoulder expression when his treacherous brother weepingly embraces--oh dear God. Amazing. And Perfect.

Honorable Mention: Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers, Peter Sellars in Strangelove, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie--note that I've not included a comic performance in the Top Five, and it was really really hard not to, especially given these performances--Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (watch the scene in which he tries to catch the sunlight in his hands and you'll understand), Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2, Orson Welles in The Third Man, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers and Reversal of Fortune, Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter (man, I might have to go back and find room for him), O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Scott in Patton, Holden in Stalag 17, Bridges in The Big Lebowski, and--oh man, we can just go on forever, can't we? But f*** it. Let's move on to the ladies, shall we?

5. Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham. Possibly controversial choice here, but while everyone else in the movie is pretty good, and doesn't interfere with the success of the script, there's never been anyone like Annie Savoy, and no one could have played her like Susan. Possibly the most empowered woman in film history--simply because "empowered" in this movie means smart and thoughtful and confident--both spiritually and sexually--and, most importantly, she's not a bitch. God bless her.

4. Katherine Hepburn in The Philadephia Story. Kinda similar to Susan in Bull Durham, except Katherine plays it brave the other way: Tracy Lord is in fact, a bitch. But for good reason--in her world, where she's supposed to be nice and polite and genteel, she refuses to pretend that she's happy when she's not, and refuses to be likeable when she doesn't damn well feel like it. Plus, when she's given a chance--two chances, thanks to Mssrs. Grant and Stewart--to live a life that doesn't force her to be a bitch in order to be honest, she jumps at said chance. But that's the character. What Hepburn does is make Tracy complex and bitter and kind of a monster--and never lets us forget that she's also a sweet, good-hearted person who needs to love, really love, in order to survive--who can go believably from being viciously nasty with her ex to being meltingly romantic in the arms of Jimmy Stewart. She's great--and plays drunk wonderfully. And she's very, very funny indeed.

3. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. What list of this nature would be complete without a femme fatale? There've been some great ones: Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai, and so on. But here's the woman who takes a jaded, seen-it-all, brilliant investigator and dupes him into lust-crazed, murderous stupidity within about thirty seconds. If Stanwyck hadn't been perfect, the movie would have failed utterly. Instead, it's probably the best film noir movie. Well, at least the best one without Bogart in it.

2. Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice. OK, I'll admit it--this was a cop-out selection. She was brilliant, and the movie wouldn't work without her, but...I don't know. It just seems too pro forma. Too easy. Yet, the look on her face when she makes her choice--her scream of--wait, do I want to reveal the climax? Have we all seen it? Well, just in case, never mind. She's really, really good. Leave it at that. (I could be persuaded, under not-too-much duress, to swap in Vivian Leigh in Gone With The Wind. But then, Gable was equally brilliant in the film, and I haven't included him in my top five, and--well, it gets all messy and complicated.)

1. Bette Davis in All About Eve. Again, an obvious choice, but again, a brilliant actress plays a rather horrible person and makes her lovable and admirable--and besides, what would drag queens have done without her? (Yeah, yeah, I know, there'd always be Gloria Swanson.) Again, a just-so-perfect movie that would not have just-so-perfect if she hadn't been in it--well, George Sanders helped a bit.

Runners-up include--oh, f*** it--I said it before, I'll say it again: F*** it. It's too hard to keep listing great performances that don't make the cut because somebody has to and that means somebody has to NOT. Alas...But at least I can draw comfort from the fact that I am right. That's always worth a congratulatory masturbation session or two. (Oh, wait--shared too much there. Never mind, I didn't say that. Go back to being irate that I didn't include Brando in Godfather.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

Tonal Shift

I've been asked--and when I say "asked," that's me being polite in describing the tone that was used--to blog about something other than the imminent demise of Western Civilization/America as a whole. And I will. Honest. But before I do...let me just get one more in.

For years--decades--everyone thought that Barbara Bush was this sweet grandmotherly figure--the "nice" one of the Bush clan. Everyone, that is, except those who knew her. Sure, we caught a glimpse of her true nature back when her husband was running for Veep against the feisty Geraldine Ferraro, whose working-class manners were somewhat compromised in their credibility when, upon release of her tax records, it turned out she was rather well off. To which Barbara--whose own immense wealth had been used against her husband--responded by saying that she had never, at least, pretended to be anything other than rich, unlike Ferraro, whom she called "I can't say the word, but it rhymes with 'itch.'" Her aides later attempted to persuade us that she meant "witch," which makes no sense since "witch" isn't obscene, and couldn't 'not be said.' Ferraro knew exactly what she meant, and had a great comeback in "Why is that nice old lady calling me a bitch?" But that glimpse was quickly forgotten, and we all thought of her as that darling woman who wrote the first-person-narrative children's book about the White House dog, Millie. Adorable.

But now that Dubya is in charge, we've slowly begun to peel the mask away. Barbara, it turns out, is not a nice or good person. She is quite the nasty specimen, in the tradition of, say Joe Kennedy Sr. or Joan Crawford--her way of raising her children has been to encourage accomplishment by threatening abuse, and defending her family against the slightest criticism by declaring the WASP equivalent of fatwa upon the guilty party. She's Lucretia Borgia in a granny dress and pearls. Horrible, just horrible.

But I hadn't realized that she was an ugly-spirited racist, too. (Or at least, a classist who so despises the poor--most of whom, in the realms in which she travels, are black, and so you've gotta know there's a connection there.) Her comments on touring the huddled, food- and drink-deprived masses at the Astrodome in Houston--a city that, as a nominal Texan, she obviously feels protective about--are so jaw-dropping that of course they've made the rounds of the internet and I repeat them here only because they're so deliciously evil and because I am a pack hound at heart:

"What I’m hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them."

It's "scary" that they all want to stay in Texas. Well, that COULD be a comment on how bad things are at home, except that she clearly means otherwise when she comments that it's the Texan hospitality that's the draw--which means that she views them the way a cracker in Miami views boat people. A little less hospitality, and those people--who are nearly all black--would go back where they came from--hint hint you silly Red Cross workers! As for things working out well for them--she apparently has so little clue as to the true lives of the working-but-managing poor, that she thinks that they ought to be infinitely grateful for being garrisoned in living conditions that make a dercrepit homeless shelter--where at least they FEED you--look positively swanky. As I said before, Horrible, horrible woman.

OK, enough of that--a blog about something other than how the End Is Nigh. Hmm. Haven't seen any movies to bitch about or praise--although that's an indication of what's out there, since I'll see JUST about anything in order to distract myself from the various miseries of my life these days. TV's still in reruns, and I care about the return of no sitcoms except Family Guy and American Dad--the latter having grown on me considerably with repeated viewings (thank you, Adult Swim!) I do wonder that every other new show appears to be either some attempt to cash in on the supernatural craze touched off by the only moderately successful Medium, or else part of the bizarre flood of shows about invasion from various sources--Space and the Ocean seem to be our main choices. Not an optimistic outlook for adult viewing. I may have to give it up altogether, which is sad--as a former devotee, it's hard to see your love for something die--but hey, George Lucas managed to kill off my Star Wars fandom with those prequels, so what the hell--to everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn (thank you, the Birds!)

Have to back to school soon--teaching, not studying, thank God. Sigh. And I have to face the miseries of the job market again, as soul-crushing an experience as an academic can face. Sigh, again. And--well, I have much serious interpersonal difficulty in my life, which is precisely the kind of juicy tidbit that one reads blogs for, and which I am NOT going to share out of gentlemanly decorum, thus failing completely as a blogger catering to the salacious (which is redundant, I know.)

I don't know, without the use of the bile that world events inspire me with, I just can't seem to summon the requisite creative fire to produce a really GOOD blog-entry. This has been one of my weakest in recent memory. Or perhaps I just shouldn't blog before coffee. We'll try again soon, post-caffenation, and see if that helps. I've been muddling around with the idea of another Top Ten list, so that might be good for a spark or two...

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Reports of My Death...

...have been greatly exaggerated." Mark Twain, of course. And I think it's apt at this moment to recall those words as people of all hues of the political spectrum predict dire consequences to the Bush adminstration for the viciously insensitive clusterf*** that their work in New Orleans has been thus far. (I should also include those towns in surrounding areas that have been substantially MORE obliterated by Katrina.) Look, folks, as much as I'd like to join in the chorus of "Ding Dong The Witch Is Gonna Be Dead For SURE This Time"--I just can't. I just don't see it happening.

Is Bush utterly unfit to the task of leading the nation at this point? Of course--9/11 was a cakewalk, really--I mean, how hard is it to rally a nation against a vicious bad-guy who just killed a whole bunch of innocent people? Not too tricky, getting a good buzz from the crowd on that. But here--Ha Ha! No bad guy! No evil, dusky-skinned foreigner to blame! No one at ALL to blame--unless you want to blame God, and somehow, I don't see Georgie-boy doing that. So there's no "easy" way to get the people turned away from their shock and horror and riled up into a nice, soothing righteous indignation salted briskly with race-hatred. Nope, this time, S**t Just Happened. Period. And so, poor George. He can't go out and revel in his blood-lust--he has to fake giving a s*** about these poor (literally and figurative) black people. And, as I said before, he doesn't. And it shows. And nevermind all the other details--the repeated early warning about the levees, the inability of FEMA to find its butt with both hands and a flashlight, the woeful lack of any kind of organized response from Homeland Security--oh, why go on? In a just and fair world, the disaster of Katrina would have destroyed the administration that, by its criminally callous actions, made sure that the woes of the many were ten times trebled.

But that ain't gonna happen, folks. You know why? 'Cause we ain't got the memory, and we ain't got the attention span. No heads will roll, because a month from now, the TV cameras will be pointing another way, and we'll all forget to care. Our moral indifference--our comfort at our inert and prone state as spiritual beings--will save George and his buddies. We won't care. You won't, and I won't. And don't think they don't know it. Hell, what really could happen to George? Um, can anyone think of any way that he could realistically be impeached? I thought not. Barring that, what's he got to fear? And if he's untouchable, so's his whole cabinet. The GOP has a lock on both houses and the Court--and however pissed the McCains of the Senate might be right now, they ain't gonna actually take political action against George. So what'll happen? His polls numbers will slip a bit more. So what? He can still do whatever he wants in Iraq. He can still sit in his office and draw duckies until another vacation-time rolls around and he's off to clear brush. He can still be the kind of president he's always wanted to be: a do-nothing with a war to notch on his belt. All he's got to do is wait for the media to get bored. Which, if their past behavior is anything to go by, should be just as soon as they stop getting good footage of rat-eaten corpses. Trust me on this: Bush will survive, and thrive.

And the next guy? He'll be even worse. Because Bush has proved what we always feared: that when the conscience of the country dies--and ours has--there is no bottom to corruption, sloth, and vicious greed. It simply goes down and down and down and nobody ever cares quite enough to say stop. Ain't gonna happen. Mark it on your calendars, folks. We've begun to live in the fall of the American empire. And the Visigoths of Islam and Asia are pissed. I do not envy our grandchildren.

On a side-note, is it just me, or must every girl named Katrina be having the worst month of her life right now? Poor things. Damn Weather Service (with apologies to a good friend of mine who works for them.)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The A**holery of Our President

A quick note: I've added a "word verification" feature to the comments section of the blog, so as to prevent mass spamming therein, which I've had to delete much to my lazy annoyance. It will add about 5 seconds to your ability to tell me that I am full of s***, a waiting-period that may cause you to reflect and realize that I am, in fact, correct, as is inevitably the case.

That said, I return to the issue at hand: The a**holery of Bush. 9/11 showed us Bush the Lightweight. Those infamous minutes ticked by as he was reading "My Pet Goat" to those kids--kids who, if they'd been told that the country was under attack, would have at least had the intellectual fortitude to ask a few more questions: By whom? How badly? Shouldn't I be leaving now rather than endangering the lives of the other children, since someone might be trying to kill me? But then, those kids probably paid attention while they went to school. His pathetic excuse after the fact that he "didn't want to upset the kids" is just gut-wrenchingly stupid and offensive, especially since there were a lot MORE kids being SERIOUSLY traumatized while he sat in that classroom. But that thought would have required him to do math, which, as his plan to cut taxes without wrecking the progress on the national debt shows, is not his strong suit. Bush froze. Watch "Fahrenheit 9/11"--you may mute Mr. Moore's commentary, if you find such things offensive--and just watch, in silence, those minutes tick by. It's excruciating to think that this man had absolutely no idea what to do. Hell, even simple cowardice would have sufficed--it actually would have prompted him to get up, run like hell to safety, and there be able to calm down and take stock of situation. Which would have been the responsible thing to do as well. But instead, he froze. Don't get me wrong--I might have done so, too. But then, I'm not supposed to be a cut above the average man--I'm not the leader of a country. And if I were--I'd probably be prepared mentally for action at the drop of a hat, much less a couple of planes. A dismal moment for all of us, that "possum in the halogen-beams of a BMW" look on his face.

As bad as that was--and it was--I think we're now seeing something far worse. Yes, Bush is completely inadequate to the challenges of the era in which he happened to be elected. But in his cavalier response to Katrina's destruction of New Orleans--for God's sake, 80% of the city is under water, though Bush doesn't recognize that figure, because he never scored that high at any school he ever attended--he's showed himself for the true a**hole he is. He simply does not care. He doesn't. Now, to be fair, I've never quite understood the necessity of the president visiting the site of disaster relief. I mean, what the hell can he really do, except for pose for photo-ops, showing how much he cares? But even such a pointless effort is beyond him, for now. Because now we are seeing Bush the A**hole. This diagnosis is based on his decision to wait out one more day of his vacation--one more day to ignore Ms. Sheehan, one more day to clear brush and ride his bike--then just fly over the site on his way home--"Yep, sure is a lotta water down there"--based on the wretched speech he gave when he landed (the NY Times called it the worst he's ever given, which is a bit hyperbolic, but still), and that smug grin he gave when he gave us that 'everything's gonna be all right' routine as he left.

You know what, Mr. President? It isn't. It really, really isn't. We're not going to be able to fix this. New Orleans is f***ed. Seriously and thoroughly f***ed. In large part because your people ignored pleas to shore up the levees that broke and made a storm-based natural disaster a flood-based natural disaster. In large part because you've sent a ridiculous amount of National Guardsmen (and -women, I suppose) to Iraq to pursue your pointless war, and thus eliminating crucial man-power (and woman-power, I suppose) from where it's now desperately needed. In large part because you waited to send something as basic as drinking water to a city that is now an open sewer. But mostly, Mr. President, mostly? Mostly New Orleans is f***ed because you are an a**hole.

Rewatch Ordinary People, and you see the quiet evil of the American WASP, portrayed by Mary Tyler Moore--she's not actually malicious, she's not deliberately cruel, but when confronted by the pain of others--by the "mess" that caring and involving herself in alleviating that pain, she cold-bloodedly refuses to acknowledge that the pain exists in the first place. Such is the evil of Bush. He really does not understand, not for one second, the suffering of others. He can, I've been told, turn on the water-works when confronted by war widows and bereft parents of soldiers (ones that have been, presumably, pre-screened not to ask impertinent questions), but such cheap sentimentality isn't "caring"--it's the safety of feeling like a good, sympathetic person when you know that in a few minutes, this weeping woman will be gone and you'll never have to deal with her again. Hey, I cried when I watched Brian's Song--all men do, for some reason--it's actually one of the few movies where you're less of a man if you don't cry--but just because I cried doesn't make me a good person. And Bush isn't. Because as soon as those women leave the room, he's back to slashing veteran's benefits with vicious disregard to the merciless havok he's playing on the broken lives of men and women who fought in his war--making sure that, perversely enough, the ones who die in Iraq are the lucky ones.

Make no mistake: He doesn't give a s*** about New Orleans. The local people there--the disaster relief workers, in particular--remain appalled at the lack of federal response. This is a time when America shows itself at its best--citizens in the surrounding states are opening their homes to those who are refugees--there's a genuine lump-in-the-throat quality to the sudden generosity and decency of strangers who see only that others are suffering and can't help but respond with loving compassion. (I might add that I bet you a lot of these people are inspired by Christian principles, so let's keep that in mind even as we bash those who want to teach Intelligent Design.) But not from Bush. He tells us that America will be stronger for having endured this. Very Nietzschean, Mr. President. But you won't endure anything. You won't suffer for a moment. It is a cheap and easy thing to say. And you're doing very little to create this prospective strength. Mostly you're sitting back and letting things unfold. Your place is at the Superdome, Mr. President, making sure that the huddled masses there have food and blankets and someplace bearable to sleep. Your place is taking calls from the people on the ground and giving them whatever they ask for, NOW. Your place is located somewhere in the ability to let your spirit go forth from whatever cave it lurks in and recognize that other people exist and that their suffering actually matters more than your comfortable detachment, because you took an oath that it would be so. It's time to stop being an a**hole, Mr. President.

Of course, being an a**hole, you'll do no such thing.