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December 2012
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February 2013

A New Cat

Life, as many people have noted, is what happens to you when you're making other plans.

Last year involved both human and animal death in our family, as we lost both my father and our two beloved cats (the boys), who died within a few months of each other. We spent two weeks away at Christmas, so we did not want to adopt a new cat (or cats) until the new year. Frankly, we were so in love with our two spayed male tabbies that we were thinking of looking for the same the next time around.

And then circumstances suddently presented us with a cat in the house for the forseeable future that wasn't what we planned. Her name is Patrice, and she is a calico. She's not as much of a lap cat as the boys were, but then she is younger than they ever were in this house. She performs amazing feats of leaping, loves being in drawers, and runs around with a speed and abandon that hasn't been see in this house in a decade.

It is too early to say much about her personality. She doesn't run away and she doesn't hide; those are good things in a cat. Someday, she may start to fill the hole in our heart where the boys used to live, but she's got really big paws to fill.

Why do I watch movies?

Why does anyone? I received several thoughtful responses to my query last week, with special reference to myself.

Not surprisingly, it seems no one else can tell me why I watch and enjoy movies in such abundance. A former colleague, fellow MIT graduate and Ph.D. offered some theories:

Interesting question. The thing about movies is they're meant to be single-threaded and absorbing. Most people find they can't do much of anything else while they''re in the cinema. So do you need a place where you can focus absolutely on an unfolding story and know you will not be interrupted?

That is also putting yourself at the filmmaker's mercy if the movie isn't very good. Lots of people can't stand that, and it's why I don't go to as many movies as you do. I want to be able to change the channel.

Or maybe you enjoy storing up and comparing the variations within a form. You were imprinted first on movies and maintaining your personal inventory has become an important aspect of the pastime.
In a followup, she added,

Look up work on "gaze and glance" if that phrase hasn't already triggered for you. Traditionally we gaze at movies and glance at television. Or we did before television got so HD and intricate.

On the one hand, it seems odd to me that movies have been my favorite form of entertainment for my entire adult life, without my ever questioning why. On the other hand, people rarely question their enjoyment of television; it is just there. I was not previously familiar with "gaze and glance;" if you've never heard of it, while away some time looking it up. It is interesting.

As for the particular application to me of the general reasons offered, "storing up and comparing variations within a form" is an appealing explanation. I have always been a collector of complete sets of things (types of books,  back issues of publications). Maybe that personality quirk extends to movies. I know I try very hard each year to see all the Best Picture Oscar nominees. In recent years, there has been a pair of theatrical releases two weeks before Oscar, "Oscar nominated shorts" and "Oscar nominated animated shorts," both of which I make a point of seeing.

A former student wrote to tell me, "It's not a problem, it's a hobby," and advised me to keep it up if I enjoy it. I do and I will.

Dern: Is the Home Page dead? Jon Carroll Cat Column, Surman on the GOP, Yelling at David Brooks, Dan Grobstein File

Daniel Dern finds the Columbia Journalism Review asking, "Is the home page dead?"

We thought she was a goner. The latest Jon Carroll cat column.

Barry Surman sents quotes and a conclusion:
We must stop being the stupid party."
                                                -- Bobby Jindal
“We need to be the happy party.”
                                                -- Newt Gingrich
My take: They should split the difference and just be the Sneezy Party.

An anonymous blogger I read has fulfilled my dream of  Yelling at David Brooks. The blogger added some commentary in an e-mail: "Ah, thanks for noticing. I'm not sure why Brooks irritates me so much, except that his reputation as the sane and sensible conservative that liberals can love seems to me entirely unjustified. What he says is largely nonsense; he just says it in a calm and reasoned tone rather than ranting about libtards and Kenyan socialist muslims and the coming of the Antichrist. But his arguments are as unconnected to fact as anything you'll hear from Russ Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.

One quick political brief: Obama: Election reform!

Dan Grobstein File

Muddled Theology

With the help of several women friends over the years, I have evolved in my theological views to the point where I no longer perceive God as an old white guy sitting on a throne in the sky. One has reminded me several times that God is love, and is omnipresent; that this life is a play and we are all actors doing dress up. As a practicing Episcopalian, I should believe in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And I do--as one metaphorical means of explaining God's many facets.

As a rule, I try not to run my life based on things I see in movies, but I rather like George Lucas' idea of the force; an invisible field that interconnects all living things. I am not ready to enter "Jedi" on my census form, like those who practice Britain's fourth most popular religion, but I do find I like the idea. It often floats into my mind as I say my morning thank you prayers while taking the golf cart down the hill to pick up the morning papers (I come from the "thank you" school of prayer):

Thank you for another beautiful day
Thank you for the wisdom to honor you and glorify your name
Thank you for the strength to do good works, should the opportunity present itself.
Thank you for my parents eternal repose
Thank you for (the health of all those around me)

Once I finish the prayer, I often remind myself that "by you, I don't mean a personal God."

I believe that The Force is like radio waves; we can't see, hear, feel, taste or touch them. But we know they are there by their results. In fact, as a former radio engineer, I have seen both the input and the output. I feel the same way about The Force. We broadcast goodness, decency and love, and we our receivers pick up grace as a result.

I showed the above to three women whose opinions I trust, and I got some positive feedback I feel obliged to share. One wrote, "It's your opinion and I think it is explained well.."

Another wrote, "It has been said that the best prayer is simply "thank you".  Did you know that Lucas chose the name 'Yoda' deliberately? He began with the work 'yoga' and played with it, changing one letter. I have an excellent source on this. It is not easy to write about one's spiritual inclinations without sounding like a jackass. You don't."

The third wrote, " it is important to not think of God as being a far away thing that you are thanking and praying to--but as the very Thing you live within, and that therefore All is already granted--we are not begging for something new to be given to us, but to be awakened enough to see that it is already All ours." I am not ready for this level of sophistication yet, but perhaps my masquerade will last long enough for me to get closer.

There are many unmitigated joys in my life. One of them is that there are women in it who can offer me spiritual advice and guidance. Between that and my membership in a lovely Episcopal church, I feel more in touch with my spiritual side than I have in decades.

(If you write to me about this, tell me whether I can use your name or not.)

Memoir Writing: A Plea for Help

I am writing my memoirs as you may recall. Big deal. Who isn't. As part of the process, my writing coach has been listening to me talk about my life. In a way, it is like psychotherapy, especially in the sense that she hears patterns I don't hear myself. One pattern that she heard was my passion, bordering on obsession, with movies. I have certainly seen more than 1,000 movies in my life. I reviewed more than 100 films during four years at MIT (some under the pen names Gene Paul and Paul St. John). The average American sees 5 movies a year. I see roughly 25 movies a year now, and 15 or 20 years ago I saw 50 a year. I took my daughters out for a movie almost every Friday night for six or seven years when they were in elementary and middle school. I love movies (too many movies, almost all movies, my daughters would say--even the awful ones).

My coach brought me up short with a simple question: "Why?" Given the centrality of movie-going to my life, why do I love them so? It is part and parcel of the difference between bad memoirs and good ones; good ones let the reader know how you feel about something. One of my problems with therapy during my several brief stints has been that, consciously at least, I have no idea how I feel about almost anything. I love my wife, my daughters, the rest of my family and my life in general. I have always loved my jobs. But why movies?

An easy answer would be that I inherited my love of movies from my parents, who came of age in the 1940s when Americans saw more than 50 movies a year on average, before television. But that can't be it, because basically all boomers had movie-loving parents, and most of them did not inherit the itch. Or were happy to scratch it with movies on television (I watched those too).

So here's the plea for help, especially addressed to those of you who have known me for decades. Why do you think I love movies? The common answers are escape, distraction, stimulation or entertainment. I don't have an awful life; what do I need to escape from? Ditto distraction. I find reality pretty stimulating, frankly. And, I love to read and have always owned a television, so I'm not short of entertainment (and now I listen to BBC Radio 4 comedies and game shows, so I'm even more entertained). So, what is it that drives me into the dark? I have a lifetime fascination with show business; is that enough? Was I a projectionist in a past life?

People who read this column have gone out with me to see dozens of films, in some cases hundreds of films. Surely someone must have given it some thought. Probably the only time in my life I didn't watch movies frequently was during my stint with UPI in Hartford, when I didn't own a car and there was no reasonable mass transit nor any nearby theaters.

Why do you see movies? Why do you think I do? Let's stay away from the question of why I like so many of them, including the awful ones.

Zero Dark Thirty

5 stars out of 5
There is absolutely no such thing as an absolute. Rules are made to be broken. The most amazing thing I can say about this film is that it is 2 hours and 37 minutes long, and I still liked it. I was chided last week by a friend, who pointed out that many Bollywood movies are more than two hours long. Many of those films are too long as far as I am concerned. But while a comedy seems bloated at 2+ hours, this film was exciting, entertaining and engrossing. It is 1/3 violent torture and killing people with guns (so stay away if you don't want to see that), and two-thirds detective story. The performances are picture perfect, and the lack of  a best director nomination for Katherine Bigelow is a crime of the first order. Yes, there is controversy over historical accuracy. When has there been a "based on a true story" that did not draw such criticism? I believe I could probably list every scene that was literally accurate and every one that involved combination of characters or imagined dialog. Anyone over the age of 12 who knows anything about movies could, because they know the difference between entertainment and documentary. This film is gripping, even though a reasonably well informed viewer knows every plot twist before it comes. A masterpiece. Which, based on the Golden Globes, will probably be cheated out of its best picture Oscar by either Argo or Lincoln, which, while they are both good films, are not as good as this one.

Mali explainer, Dern on Ender's Game and CNN, Dan Grobstein File

Baffled by Mali? This Washington Post article explains it well.

Daniel Dern Writes: "What do Harrison Ford and Orson Scott Card have in common? Answer: Ender's Game. Card, of course, wrote it. Ford is starring in a movie that's in production! 'Nuff said! "

He also wrote: "In case you don't watch The Daily Show regularly and on a timely basis (we typically see shows) the following evening, make sure you check out the middle segment from last night's (Mon Jan 14) show, where, as part of a (pre-produced) documentary on CNN's backing away from investigative  journalism, they go to... well, just find and watch it, it's short."

Dan Grobstein File

This and That

A week of settling back into work after a wonderful vacation, and of eager anticipation of my younger daughter's return from two weeks in India. In the meantime, I haven't been entirely somnolent.

Not the sort of thing scientists normally spend time on. I was heartened to read this: from UC Berkeley: The past year’s top 10 scientific insights about living a meaningful life It is nice to have people in my life who notice things like this.

The New Yorker ran a profile of a man who picks pockets as a form of entertainment (meaning he doesn't keep what he takes). They have posted a pickpocket video, six minutes long. You will not believe your eyes! This is amazing. The pickpocket takes the writer's watch, his cellphone  from his front pants pocket, and his wallet from his jacket pocket. Then you get to watch in slo-mo. From the same magazine, humor:  Letter from AIG.

A friend of one of my daughters wrote this anti-Romney video for I'd have plugged it during the campaign if I'd known about it.