Previous month:
December 1999
Next month:
February 2000

What's The Point Of Work?

There's a great deal of turmoil in my company these days. I'll spare you the details, but for a brief time last week, I contemplated applying to another company for a radio job, since my heart has always been in broadcasting. That's what I consider fun.

In the end, I resisted the temptation for some very practical reasons--I'd undoubtedly take a pay cut, earn less vacation, give up all my seniority, and have to commute into San Francisco five days a week.

But that, in turn, forced me to reconsider the age-old question: what is work for and how should we feel about it? I will never forget the comments of Larry King, my colleague and friend, who once said to me, " There's a reason we have two different words for work and fun."

I know I have been peculiarly blessed over the years with a series of jobs that I also considered to be fun. I know this is not the case for most people.

So, is the point of work to enjoy yourself? To make a living? To improve society? Or, at least, not to hurt anyone else with what you do?

It can't be just making a living. If it was, then the best-paying job would always be the right job, and we know that's not true, at least not for most of us boomers. Job satisfaction ranks high with us.

I’d like to thing I'm improving society, but I lost that illusion years ago. Journalism, at least the business-to-business journalism I practice, is a negligible public service, although a valuable commercial one. We do provide people the information they need to make business decisions. I just don't think those are as important as civic decisions.

Me? I've lowered my sights. If I can just create a positive working environment for the people who report to me, I'll consider I've done enough good in the world.

And despite the fact that I am quite sure loyalty is no longer a two-way street, I've been around this company for more than 20 years, and I can't just cavalierly walk away, even if I do think another job would be more fun, exciting, and challenging. Periodically over these two decades, my employer has managed to cough up interesting, challenging new jobs for me: more than a dozen. Frankly, a couple of times when I was on projects that didn't work out, I was carried for a while. For that alone, I owe the company the benefit of a doubt. So, I'll take the devil I know over the devil I don't know, for now.

But ask me in June if I still feel the same way. Man cannot live on promises alone, and at some point, the pie in the sky in the sweet by and by has to be cooked and served. I've got my napkin tucked in around my neck, and I'm waiting.

What's The Point Of Education?

Carey Perloff, the director of the American Conservatory Theater, also directed their production of The Invention of Love, which seems particularly apt, since she herself was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. The pamphlet, Words on Plays, for sale in the lobby contains a bushel basket of fascinating information, from Tom Stoppard, the play's author, from Perloff, the director, and from the program which accompanied the premier in London.

I was struck, while reading an interview with Perloff in this pamphlet, by her brief discussion of education:

What is education for? Is its goal to make you see Platonic human goodness and to understand humanity philosophically, or to equip you to actually do something in the world? An Oxford education equipped you to do nothing, and yet it was your entrée into everything. Proponents of Oxford and Cambridge despised practical education. They still do. They're incredibly arrogant about anything that might have a tinge of practical application.
I think that's why many people in England now avoid that approach, and are going to other universities, because the Oxford system just seems so out of touch. It was particularly disastrous in the sciences; Cambridge eventually realized that and is much better scientifically now. But smart British graduate students tend to go to the United States to study science, whereas those who want to study PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) or classics go to Oxford. Because I have always loved rarified education and knowledge for its own sake, I always thought the Oxford approach was wonderful, but I never did any education that was practically useful anyway.

As most of you know, I attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which, along with Stanford, is designated a "near Ivy" for many purposes, including joint admission and financial aid decisions. But the fact is that many faculty and students at Ivy league schools look at MIT as a "trade school," while many MIT people view Ivy League schools (esp. the one just up the river) as "a waste of time." Certainly, MIT made every effort to give me a practical education.

If I knew then what I know now, I'd have embraced a liberal arts education, and I'm pleased Marlow's getting one at Columbia University and Rae is likely to get one. Since we have no idea what the future will hold, it is probably best to educate our young people to educate themselves, to think critically, and to understand the past as a guide to future. I don't really believe human nature has changed since ancient Greece, do you?

Bottom line: I think the Oxford model is a fine one. We could use more of it in this country.

For a second opinion, I called on my friend Brian Jeffery, an ex-pat Brit of 20 years duration, and a graduate of Saint Catharine's college at Cambridge.

I can't really speak for Oxford, except to say that we always regarded the quality of its thought to be that which one would expect from a university located next to a large car factory (the British Leyland plant - it may be gone now). Not very practical. It would typically require at least five Oxford graduates to screw in a light bulb - four to determine its essence, and one to call the janitor. Assuming, of course, that you could find an Oxford grad who grasped the principles of electric illumination in the first place.
But the comments about Cambridge are unfair. There were always many different cultures among the students. One was as she described. But there were also good faculties for science, engineering, architecture and other more practical pursuits, along with some very good work on mathematics, computer science and economics. Cambridge was, and to my knowledge, still is strong in such areas as theoretical physics and biology.
Graduate students tend to go to the United States because the U.S. faculties are generally much better at applied science, particularly the experimental side. I guess it has something to do with American know-how. Also, American universities have more money to do experiments with, and their technology and computer skills are far superior.
You may consider me biased. I, after all, graduated from a college whose main claims to fame were that it fielded no less than three rugby teams, and had the highest consumption of Newcastle Brown Ale of any institution outside Newcastle. There were other colleges and faculties that dealt with man's higher nature. These included many fine and intelligent people, not all of whom were homosexuals.
Seriously, though, one of the greatest benefits of Cambridge was that you could live in either of these worlds. You could attend lectures, join discussions, whatever, in any discipline. In an average week you could learn about radio astronomy, great feats of bridge-building, 19th century rural demographics, post-existentialist theater, essential themes in pre-Socratic philosophy, and the basic principles of organizing a coup d'etat. (The radio astronomy course was particularly popular, not least because it always started with a lecture awesomely titled "The Universe in General". Also, I am not joking about the coup d'etat course - the army cadets loved it, and would spend many long, happy hours discussing which trades union leaders to arrest first).
You had to do some work on your major from time to time, of course. But in retrospect, it was all of this overlap that made attending Cambridge a worthwhile experience. I don't know if the atmosphere is quite the same in American universities, but somehow I doubt it.
I don't wish to be unkind to Carey Perloff, but her comments about Oxford say a great deal more about the people she cared to associate with than they do about the English education system in general, or Oxford and Cambridge in particular. I am sorry she did not get to meet the other thousands of students and faculty who make up 99% of both.

Bad Suspense Novel Metaphors or Similes

Two hits on the list this week. On Jan. 27, I came in at No. 5:

20> Worn down at the edges like a Times Square hooker, the caretaker's last tooth lay on the floor like a yellow Chiclet.

19> When she stepped out of her dress, she had the body of a 90-year-old nun, if the nun looked as young, attractive, and sexy as the dame standing in front of me.

18> The situation had become topsy-turvy -- like Christmas in the summer, if you're in Australia.

17> The information imbedded on the stolen computer chip was like an explosive so explosive it could explode, creating a massive explosion.

16> As I watched through the slatted shades, her bosom bounce like her suspicious husband's first check.

15> The killer was a misplaced comma in the jaunty, happy sentence that made up the party crowd.

14> His face looked like an ice sculpture. Not one of those pretty ones in the middle of a cruise ship buffet, but the kind they do in a contest with a chainsaw -- and it had been out in the heat too long.

13> Like any family, this house had its secrets, secrets it grimly refused to reveal, and would continue to refuse to reveal even if it could speak, which unlike a family, or at least most members of most families, it couldn't.

12> The air of danger perversely made Nina's nipples harden, like that Magic Shell stuff on a bowl of ice cream.

11> From his vantage point in the balcony, the would-be assassin looked down on the debating candidates like a webhead looking down on an AOL user.

10> The sudden darkness made the Countess tense, like Bobby Jerome that time with the bicycle in 7th grade, remember?

9> There was something funny about the kidnapping crime scene that Special Agent Frievald couldn't quite place, and the thought stuck with him throughout the rest of the day, like those tiny little bits of the circumferent skin from the bologna slices on a foot-long Subway Cold Cut Trio that get stuck in between the last two molars on the upper left, on the tongue side where you can't possibly reach them with a toothpick, your fingernails, or even a systematically straightened paper clip, they just sit there and make every-thing you eat at your next meal taste vaguely like vinegar and mayonnaise, and then somehow -- quietly but miraculously -- they disappear by themselves in the middle of the night while you're asleep, just like the visiting Countess appeared to have done.

8> Her parting words lingered heavily inside me like last night's Taco Bell.

7> The bullet burned Gilmore's gut like the first piss after a long night in a Singapore brothel.

6> A single drop of sweat slowly inched down Chad's brow -- a tiny, glistening Times Square New Year's Eve Ball of desperation.

5> His .38 barked fire, like John Goodman's butt after a chili cookoff.

4> Her blazing eyes dance like Astaire and Rogers, but since they were crossed, it was an ocular tango, and my eyes had to foxtrot just to maintain eye contact.

3> She had a voice so husky it could have pulled a dogsled, and the gun she was holding gave me a bad case of barrel envy.

2> The neon sign reflected off his gun, like the moonlight reflects off my brother-in-law's bald head after a night of beer drinking and cow-tipping.

and's Number 1 Bad Suspense Novel Metaphor or Simile...

1> Unable to contain his rage, he burst like a pimple of emotion, the pus of his fury streaking the mirror of calm in the bathroom of his life.

[ The Top 5 List ]
[ Copyright 2000 by Chris White ]
Selected from 86 submissions from 29 contributors.
Today's Top 5 List authors are:
Bill Muse, Seattle, WA -- 1, 14 (34th #1/Hall of Famer)
Paul Schindler, Orinda, CA -- 5


Dark Moments in Music (Part II)


But hey, I did even better the day before: No. 2, with a bullet!

12> July 16, 1993: Shaquille O'Neal skips free-throw drills to record his first rap album.

11> October 1, 1978: Michael Jackson takes in "Peter Pan" on Broadway and thinks how cool it would be to look more like Sandy Duncan.

10> January 6, 1995: Art Garfunkel gets three fewer hits than David Crosby on eBay when "celebrity musician sperm" is entered in the search box.

9> August 15, 1953: Future songwriter Jimmy Webb forgets his slice of birthday cake outside. Moments later, it begins to rain.

8> June 7, 1966: "Hey, chaps, I'd like you to meet my new girlfriend, Yoko."

7> July 23, 1956: Colonel Tom Parker says to Elvis, "Boy, you're nothin' but skin and bones. You better put on some weight, or people are gonna think you're sick!"

6> October 31, 1975: At a costume party in Greenwich Village, a soldier, an Indian, a biker, a construction worker, a cop and a cowboy all decide, "This is too much fun to do just once a year!"

5> November 17, 1984: "Don't worry, Mr. Dylan, the novocaine will wear off *LONG* before your recording session."

4> September 8, 1949: In Bavaria, Richard Strauss dies.
September 8, 1949: In Greece, Milos Muzak is born.

3> May 21, 1971: In a meat-deprivation-fueled stupor, Paul McCartney tells Linda: "Hey, Luv, why don't *you* play in the band?"

2> Sept. 17, 1955: Young Michael Jagger gets his lips caught in a Coke bottle for several hours.

and's Number 1 Dark Moment in Music History...

1> February 16, 1955: After 15 minutes of sitting in a boat listening to "Go Back Home, You Obnoxious Little Foreign Brats!", humorless Disneyland execs decide to look for another composer for their new attraction.

[ The Top 5 List ]
[ Copyright 2000 by Chris White ]

Selected from 92 submissions from 34 contributors.
Today's Top 5 List authors are:
Larry G. Hollister, Concord, CA -- 1, 5 (28th #1 / Hall of Famer)
Paul Schindler, Orinda, CA -- 2


Just the facts from the Internet Movie Database.

Directed and Written by Paul Thomas Anderson; Tagline: Things fall down. People look up. And when it rains, it pours; Plot Outline: A mixing and matching of friends in the San Fernando Valley; Tom Cruise: Frank T.J. Mackey ; Philip Baker Hall: Jimmy Gator ; Philip Seymour Hoffman: Phil Parma ; William H. Macy: Donnie Smith; Rated R for strong language, drug use, sexuality and some violence. Runtime: 188.

First, the rant. THREE HOURS AND EIGHT MINUTES. This is an interesting, engaging, multi-layered, well-acted film. But it ain't Lawrence of Arabia, [which only ran 34 minutes longer, at 222 minutes[don't you just love the Internet]] or Gone With The Wind [222 minutes]. What's the only thing anyone remembers about Dance with Wolves? It's 183 minute running time (OK, and six Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture). In a decade, that's all that will be left of Magnolia--its running time and its shelf full of Oscars.

I like Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights); he's a clever writer and director, and someday he could be another Robert Altman. He's a wizard with a camera. The film is chuckablock with "film director moments" that remind you you're watching a very clever simulation of reality. Unusual lighting. Odd camera angles. The whole Orson Welles "look at me" bag of tricks. I mean, you won't mistake this film for a TV movie of the week. And not just because of the length.

But man on man, someone has to show this guy how to tell a story. This is another in a spate of films that are enthralling without being either engaging or entertaining. I did come to care about a few of the characters, but I think I'd have been more interested if something coherent had happened to them.

I won't give away the fantastic event that ties all the disparate stories together, except to say that if it had happened in the first hour instead of the second, this would be a better film.

Magnolia is on all the critics' lists. It's likely to be up for a few Oscars. William H. Macy (Fargo) has a small but juicy part as a washed up quiz-show contestant. I don't ever remember seeing Philip Baker Hall before, but his turn as the clapped-out quiz show host is a remarkable piece of film acting, accentuated by a barrel of camera tricks that just won't stop. And what are the odds of two single-L Philips turning in great performances in a single film? Well, I guess if the film is long enough, there's also room for Philip Seymour Hoffman as the male nurse for a dying Jason Robards. No need for me to mention Tom Cruise's star turn, since everyone else has.

What do we go to a movie for? To be entertained or enlightened, typically. For me, being enthralled isn't really enough, so I left this film feeling unsatisfied. Definitely a flick that would only appeal to adult film fanatics who can't stand to miss a best picture nominee.


Just the facts from the Internet Movie Database.

Directed and written by Mike Leigh; Tagline: Gilbert & Sullivan & So Much More; Plot Outline: A view into the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan, and into the development of their operettas; Jim Broadbent: William Schwenk Gilbert; Allan Corduner: Arthur Sullivan; Rated R for a scene of risque nudity; Runtime: 160 minutes.

TWO HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES! Didn't I once hear Hollywood defined as 10,000 people who can say no and seven people who can say yes? Why didn't someone say, "Great movie, Mike. Now finish editing it!" As my first editor said to me, no one cares how hard you worked to get the story. The correct length is equal to the public's level of interest in the subject. You worked on it a week and it's only worth six inches? Too bad.

Clearly, Mike Leigh worked on this for months and months. And it's all up there on the screen. All of it. Ad nauseum. Look, I kind of like Gilbert and Sullivan, and I didn't know the Mikado all that well, so I loved the rehearsal scenes and the performance scenes. They were all well performed and properly lit, and there was a plot and motion and resolution and three acts and all the things a movie should have. But too much is too much.

As I noted in the review above, a movie should entertain and/or enlighten. This did both. I think now, and from now on, I will be able to remember which was Gilbert and which Sullivan, which wrote the words (Gilbert) and which the music, what their first names were (William and Arthur). I will even be able to tell you some of the songs from the Mikado. I came away with renewed respect for the talents of both men--something which they often lacked themselves.

But I have to confess that, apparently, response to this movie is going to vary quite widely. The New York Film Critics Circle picked it as the best movie of the year. That's rather extreme, I think, even considering the competition. American Beauty for example, is much more deserving of that honor.

I liked Topsy-Turvey a lot, and would recommend it. The single sex scene is brief and relatively discreet, and the rest of the film is family fare with the exception of about 30 seconds of screen time.

On the other hand, my wife, Vicki, found it only mildly entertaining. At the other extreme, Rae and her friend Tiffany walked out and spent the second half of the film in the lobby working on their joint project for public speaking class. How's that for a range of response?

I'd say you need to be an adult, a film buff, and a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. But at least it's not as inaccessible as Magnolia.

Life Returns To Normal

With Marlow's departure, life begins to return to what passes for normal around here. She left at 7:45 a.m. last Friday (requiring a 5:15 wakeup call). I miss her already, and I think I speak for Vicki and Rae when I say they do too.

Anyone who reads as many newspapers and magazines as I do is constantly reminded of the extremely thin string that holds our lives together. I have still not forgotten a headline I read a few years ago in the San Francisco Chronicle, to the effect that most middle-class families were one layoff and two catastrophic illnesses from the street. I am reading a novel in which an attorney spends $2 million to ameliorate his wife's ALS, an inevitably fatal wasting disease. In plays, movies and books, authors dwell on the life reversed in an instant, both because it makes good drama, and because it is true. I'm not even going to tell you my dark nightmares. They're easy to imagine, at least for me.

I appreciate and cherish normal, even though any particular normal never lasts very long. I mean, normal for the last four years was intense involvement in women's basketball from November through March of every year. That's over. Normal for the last 18 years was two girls at home. Now there's one.

I really enjoy my job at right now, which, historically, means some giant 10-ton weight as about to drop on me professionally. It's like telling a pitcher he has a no-hitter going--it's a jinx. Every time I get the least bit comfortable and say anything about it, the roof caves in. Change may be inevitable, but it doesn't mean I have to enjoy it. What some people call a rut I call a comfortable routine.

If I could, I think I'd eat the same breakfast every day, see the same people, and sleep in the same bed every night. Paul and Linda McCartney supposedly never spent more than a night or two apart during their entire three-decade marriage. That's my idea of a good time--but don't tell Vicki J