Still trying to recover from a wonderful but exhausting Thanksgiving week, I pop Fantasia on for the first time in many years, so many that the 12-year-old is the youngest to remember it.
Top Management keeps muttering "Leopold! Leopold!" in wonder and awe.
The 7-year gasps when the Sugar Plum Fairies appear and doesn't seem to realize she's singing along with the entire Nutcracker Suite.
The 4-year-old could not possibly care less about Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor, but gets sucked in by the sadly racist "Chinese Dance." Which means he's totally ready for The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
I keep an eye on him because it's late enough that I fear nightmares—as in, I tremble in fear at the idea of him having one in the middle of the night; he gets up to use the bathroom at least a few times a week, and that's more than enough of a interruption to my meagre sleep as is.
And sure enough, his grip on the lego stack he's holding keeps getting tighter and tighter the worse things become for ol' Mickey, and his eyebrows are drawn down lower and lower. Finally, at exactly 9:01 of the embedded clip, the boy can't take it anymore, and he yells at the screen in anguish and anger at the mouse's obliviousness:
"Take off the hat!"
Which never even occurred to me. But of course probably would have worked. And then he (maybe) wouldn't have gotten busted.
I'm impressed and disturbed by his insight and deviousness.
I see the 9-year-old's lunchbox on the counter. He and his mother left a good three minutes ago, so even though it's cold and rainy, I realize there's no time to waste. I quickly slip on a pair of sneakers—ever so conveniently and thoughtfully always left right by the front door for just such an emergency, thus proving forever to my good lady wife what a fine idea it is for me to never get around to putting them away in the closet—and rush out in a t-shirt and jeans.
I hustle up the block and see them no more than a few dozen yards ahead. I slow down as I approach so I'm only going a bit faster than they are and fall into step slightly behind and to their right. Despite all the school moms right behind us, I gently reach out and cup Top Management's utterly perfect derriére. I can't help but smile as I eagerly await her shocked reaction.
Which never arrives.
After a few steps, during which she continues to talk to the 9-year-old on her left, she casually turns to her right, an only mildly inquisitive look on her face. Disconcerted, I hold up the lunchbox, and they both laugh. He takes it and they continue on their way, and I head home, wondering: what, exactly, usually happens on these morning walks?
[boy not pictured. lunchbox also not pictured.]
Human Touch's closing song, "Pony Boy," is perhaps the oddest Bruce Springsteen had yet released—and considering some of its peers, that's stiff competition—and, in retrospect, the way he approached closing songs seems to have changed with this track and this album.
The Springsteen recording is his arrangement of the 1909 song, "My Pony Boy," written (according to the handy wikipedia and the trusty YouTube) by Bobby Heath and Charley O'Donnell and was introduced in the 1909 musical "Miss Innocence." The same year Ada Jones and the Peerless Quartet had a hit with their recording of it.
Here's an excerpt of that recording.
(Huge thanks to Zefren Anderson for uploading this to YouTube.)
For Human Touch, Springsteen tweaked the lyrics and, in doing so, altered the structure. And simply by dint of his style, he moved it out of the realm of (Broadway) cowboy music and into a more purely folk neighborhood. (Obviously, there's more than a little crossover between folk and cowboy songs.) He also added a few extra verses.
Pony boy pony boy
Won't you be my pony boy
Giddy-up giddy-up giddy-up whoa
My pony boy
Ride with me ride with me
Won't you take a ride with me
Underneath the starry sky
My pony boy
O'er the hills and through the trees
We'll go ridin' you and me
Giddy-up giddy-up giddy-away
My pony boy
Down into the valley deep
'Neath the eaves we will sleep
Sky of dreams up above
My pony boy
It's intersting how much the last two verses—the new ones—echo/foreshadow the final track on Human Touch's companion LP, Lucky Town, with its dreamy nighttime imagery. It's also a bit humorous how he can't help but make his new verses much more sophisticated lyrically.
"Pony Boy" is unusual in several ways. It's the first cover on a Springsteen studio album. Sonically, it's worlds away from most of the rest of the Human Touch album, with not a hint of the soul music that makes up the majority of the LP, and absolutely none of the overproduction, as the track mainly consists of a quietly picked acoustic guitar; the ghostly keyboards that enter towards the end of the recording show up later on 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad album and, especially, the ensuing tour.
Even without knowing that Springsteen and Patti Scialfa had recently had children, it's nearly impossible to miss that this is a bedtime song sung by a parent (or, more accurately, given Scialfa's lovely harmonies, parents plural). So, thematically, you can more or less see how it sorta kinda fits in with the rest of the Human Touch album, especially given the LP's title. Except that it's the only song like it on the album—the rest deal strictly with the trials and tribulations of adult relationships. (More or less. Some of it's just bizarre macho posing. We'll ignore those for now. And by "now," I mean "hopefully forever.")
But it's not a good fit. The transition from the execrable "Real Man" to "Pony Boy" may be the most awkward in Springsteen's oeuvre. "Pony Boy" works less as a summing up of Human Touch and much more clearly and successfully as a signpost towards the subsequent album, Lucky Town, released the same day. (Not that it really would have been a good fit there, either.) It's easily the sweetest moment on his worst album, and a lovely recording, but still his least successful closing track yet. By a country mile.
But at least it's better than "Real Man." So there's that.
Here's a piece I wrote years and years ago—a decade ago, now, I think, on a Miles Davis email listserv, of all places—on the Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg film A.I. For some reason, I thought I'd crossposted it here, but don't seem to have, so here 'tis. And I still haven't rewatched the movie. (Yet.) I tried to recently, and got about twenty minutes in before the darkness became too much for me.
I’ve been thinking recently about A.I., the film Steven Spielberg made some years back. Actually, since I watched the movie about a year ago, I’ve thought about it quite a bit.
For those few who might not know, A.I. is a film that Stanley Kubrick had wanted to make for decades; he’d made copious notes and even a few tries at a screenplay. When he died his widow asked Spielberg, a good friend of Kubrick’s and the director Kubrick had finally decided was more suited for the film anyway, to take the project on.
So Spielberg ended up not only producing and directing, as normal, but writing the screenplay as well, something he hadn’t done in well over twenty years.
The result is…well, it’s odd. There are times the film could not be any more clearly a Spielberg film, and then there are times where it’s so damn Kubrick it’s bizarre. Sometimes it’s just part of a scene or a set design or even a single shot but there are Kubrick touches here and there that just suddenly scream at you. If you’re familiar with the work of both artists, it can be quite disorienting, but generally fascinating.
There are a few classic Spielberg mistakes, including a terrible, terrible bit of stunt casting in a cameo; what should have been an interesting three minutes pulls you right out of the film due to the intrusion. For the most part, however, the cast is outstanding, including a phenomenal Jude Law in one of his best performances ever, and the brilliant Haley Joel Osment, best known for his work seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense.
I should alert you: there are major spoilers coming up—in fact, I’m going to be discussing the last ten minutes of the film in detail—so if you haven’t seen the movie, well, you should. And then come back.
But I’m not waiting. It's been out for a long enough time already. Don’t worry, though, whenever you get around to it, I’ll be here.
Okay. The main criticism most people seemed to have with the film was its ending, which was slammed as being a typically Spielbergian uplifting happy ending, and one which seemed tacked-on at that.
This, I think, misses the point completely. Instead of being some saccharine sop to our bruised emotions, I think Spielberg’s premise is a withering critique of the human race and one of the darkest things he’s ever committed to film.
Allow me to explain. Throughout the entire film, the humans are shown to be self-absorbed, cold and uncaring about anyone or anything but themselves. There are a few exceptions—at the demolition derby the crowd does rally to save the android played by Osment, but even there, it’s clear that it’s only because he looks so human, not because there’s anything intrinsically wrong with torturing androids which certainly seem to feel terror and regret. As long as they clearly look like robots, it’s okay to ignore what seem to be their genuine feelings. It’s only when it looks like a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy that they become uneasy.
Even his mother tosses him aside almost as soon as the going gets rough. The fact that she tries to help him stay safe—him, an unusually smart six year old boy—indicates she knows what she’s doing is wrong, and that it bothers her tremendously…just not enough to actually do the right thing. If anything, her anguish over the fact that she’s throwing the little boy away—pretty much literally—that she knows it’s not right, simply makes her actions that much more reprehensible.
But the boy runs into the Jude Law android, on the run for his life. And yet the android helps the boy, even though he suspects—correctly, as it turns out—that it’ll cost him his own life, something the android otherwise tries desperately to protect.
And that’s one thing that’s made clear repeatedly—their intelligence may indeed be artificial, but it’s been programmed for self-protection. This makes sense, of course—if you’ve got a piece of machinery as expensive as these androids undoubtedly are, it’s only logical to make sure they don’t simply wander into traffic.
But the only character who acts out of, well, character, and is willing to sacrifice for another is the Jude Law robot. Not one of the humans were willing to make that leap. And that’s one hell of an indictment of our species.
But it gets worse. Or, in terms of art, better. Because the movie seems to end with the little fake boy at the bottom of the ocean, praying and praying and praying to Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy to please, oh please, make him a real boy. He prays over and over and over again, never tiring, never losing hope, never losing faith, until civilization collapses and the planet freezes and he’s embedded in ice, still staring at the clouded vision of the Blue Fairy. He’s now unable to speak, embedded in ice as he is, but for two thousand years, he keeps faith. He keeps praying, hoping, believing, knowing that eventually his faith will be rewarded, that he will be turned into a real boy, just like Pinocchio, and then, at last, his mother will love him. Finally, he will truly know his mother’s love. He will know what it is to be loved unreseverdly, unconditionally.
And that’s where it seems the film will end. With the title character still hoping desperately that his mother will finally love him.
And that’s where the film drove people crazy. Because the film doesn’t end there, and instead that most Spielbergian of creatures show up—that’s right, aliens. Spielberg said in interviews that they weren’t actually aliens, just massively advanced androids…but (I believe) that’s never actually stated in the film and they sure look (and act) like Spielbergian aliens. And just like the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., these are kind and benevolent creatures. And they rescue the little boy and explain that civilization on Earth perished long, long ago, eons ago, and that they’re anthropologists, here to study what they can. They’re able to recreate the dead as long as there’s some DNA left, but of course his beloved mother turned to dust centuries ago so they can’t help him.
Ah, but the little boy android has a lock of hair he’d cut from his mother before she threw him away. And using that the aliens are able to recreate his mother for one day, and one day only—that’s the extent of their abilities. And when she goes to sleep, she’ll die again, this time forever.
They make sure that this boy understands this and wants to proceed and indeed he does. So they bring his mother back to life and the two of them have the kind of day every little child dreams of, just the two of them, together, playing, reading, having fun—loving. And she goes to sleep and dies, and he lays his head on her body and himself appears to die.
And there’s your happy ending. Except that it’s not. Not really. Or rather, yes, superficially it is: the hero finally got what he wanted—his mother’s love, and therefore managed to die happy. (If indeed he really died. Which, again, how happy can an ending be if the protagonist is a little boy who either dies with his mother or at least lovingly lays his head on his dead mother's body?)
But it’s how he got his happy ending that’s so powerful. He got it because aliens cared enough about him to help. Aliens whose quest in life is to study other cultures. Aliens who could have brought this one human back and used their twenty-four hours to study her as much as they could, to have asked her questions, learned all she could teach in that short time. Instead, they let her and the little boy have their day together even though it was their best chance to understand humans.
Likewise, they could have studied the little boy, questioned him forever. But they’d didn’t. Instead, they allowed him his day, in fact, facilitated, initiated it. Even knowing that by doing so they were throwing away forever their one best chance at achieving all their goals on the planet.
The only characters in the film who cared about the little boy enough to sacrifice their own goals—or in the case of the Jude Law android, even his own life—were another android and these aliens. They were the only ones who displayed what we normally like to think of as a trace of humanity.
And that’s why all those who see this as a typical happy ending are completely and totally missing the point. It’s not a typical happy ending. It’s an indictment of humanity. It’s a desperate hope, perhaps, that if artificial intelligence ever does come to exist, it’ll be better than us. An acknowledgement that it'd have to be.
So this afternoon I had the opportunity to teach two of my girls how to change a tire. This pleased me greatly, since the 15-year-old is mechanically-inclined and the 12-year-old generally likes to accumulate as much knowledge as possible.
The downside, of course, is that I had this opportunity due to a mysteriously flat tire, spotted by my eagle-eyed 7-year-old.
Still, I'm nothing if not an eternally sunny optimist. Which is why I also was ever so grateful to be able to illustrate to the girls why, just because you're lucky enough not to have ever needed the spare tire, you shouldn't ignore it for nearly fourteen years, and how putting a flat spare on to replace the flat tire is not, generally speaking, a terribly cost-effective move and that, in the future, they should really do a better job of checking to see if the spare is, in fact, flat or not before putting it on, tightening the lugnuts, and taking the car back down off the jack.
Such a good time! Fun for the whole family! Happy happy joy joy!
I say something humorous. Top Management and the 4-year-old laugh appropriately. The 7-year-old grins, showing off the gap where one of her incisors had resided until just earlier today, then scrunches up her nose and sticks out her tongue.
"There's something on the tip of your tongue," I say. "Is...is that a fingernail?"
Her face changes, as she tries but fails to imitate the emotionless lack of expression expression her older sister has perfected for just such busted occasions. The corners of her mouth twitch with a smile she cannot entirely hide. "A toenail," she grudingly admits.
I know, I know, I know. A lot of people think J.K. Rowling...appropriated Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, or Diana Wynne Jones' Charmed Life or several other candidates.
But I think we all know where she really found her original inspiration.
The very spit and image.
[HT: the wondrous BeatlePhotoBlog]
You know, I call recall a time when conservatives liked a strong America, rather than actively wishing, rooting, acting for a greatly weakened one. Oh, 2008, where did you go? (And what could possibly have changed since then?)
In Britain, Jon Cunliffe, who will become deputy governor of the Bank of England next month, told members of Parliament that banks should be developing contingency plans to deal with an American default if one happens.
And Chinese leaders called on a "befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world." In a commentary on Sunday, the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua blamed "cyclical stagnation in Washington" for leaving the dollar-based assets of many nations in jeopardy. It said the "international community is highly agonized."
Here's the thing: I think most of the radicals on the far right in the House are honestly too stupid to realize that what they're doing amounts to treason, and perhaps that makes all the difference. But the fact that they can look at this:
And not run in horror?
It is not so much the behavior of the lone idiot that matters, but the tenor of the crowd around him.
If a patriot can stand in front of the White House brandishing the Confederate flag, then the word "patriot" has no meaning. The Nazi flag is offensive because it is a marker of centuries of bigotry elevated to industrialized murder.
But the Confederate flag does not merely carry the stain of slavery, of "useful killing," but the stain of attempting to end the Union itself. You cannot possibly wave that flag and honestly claim any sincere understanding of your country. It is not possible.
Stupid, racist, hateful, greedy, some combination of them all? Whatever the truth—and I'm sure it varies by person—it makes them terrible, terrible people. And a far greater threat to this nation than Osama bin Laden ever was.
Congratulations, Jefferson Davis. You still haven't lost quite yet.
Man. I'm so old, I can remember when "the party of personal responsibility" at least pretended to be just that, rather than openly advocating for the United States of America to become a deadbeat nation, and therefore blow up the world economy and kneecap our grandchildren.
Those were the days. Man, I miss 2010.
You know, it's funny. I hear a politician compare the world's largest economy to a family budget and I think, "my good golly, but anyone who doesn't realize how utterly different those two things are, how facile it is to compare the two, is simply a compete and total ignoramus." And then I wonder why there's anyone who graduated high school who doesn't think the exact same thing. And I don't like the obvious answer.
"The lyrical dissonance of this clip adds a layer to the song not present in either the words or instrumentals alone; while the lyrics are despondent, hopeless -- 'broken heroes,' 'no place left to hide,' -- the music sounds just the opposite -- not just hopeful, but triumphant.
"Together, they could indicate that things may seem now like it can never get better from here, but that in fact there is still hope, that the narrator and Wendy will someday 'get to that place where [they] really want to go' and 'walk in the sun,' no matter how bleak the future seems now."
So today is the first-ever day of school for Max. Given that she's 18 years old, that may seem a bit unorthodox but then I've sometimes gotten paid to read comics for a living so we're not exactly the typical family.
At freshmen orientation yesterweek, they stressed again and again how important it was not to be helicopter parents to your new college student children: you don't want to hover. You've done your part, now let them go and find their place in this world.
Given that I failed out of college, I decided the most prudent move was not to listen to that bit of advice.
So this morning, Top Management texted Max about 45 minutes before her first-ever class, just to make sure she was awake and would have time to eat before going to her first-ever class. Max replied right away, so all good.
But not good enough. Not for me.
So I chime in.
(On the off-chance there's a Left o' the Dialian so culturally-deprived as to not get the reference immediately, here's the origin. See? My kids aren't the only ones I coddle care about deeply.)
I saw this quote on the t-shirt of a father at Cal Poly this week.
It's awesome. Inspirational. Catchy. Memorable. And when you think about what the guy who said it accomplished? How can you not be moved? I mean...goosebumps.
The problem, of course, is that it's utter horseshit.
Here's the thing: did Michael Jordan work as hard as perhaps any athlete ever? Apparently so. Was he driven beyond all reason? Seems to have been. Does he have the championships to show it worked? He does.
But all you need to do is read anything written about him in the past few years to realize he seems to be every bit as hungry as he ever was. So...why isn't he the greatest player in the world anymore? Does he not actually want it anymore? Is he content to just wish for it nowadays? Why isn't he making it happen?
The answer, of course, is that it's not that simple and it never was. Time catches up with everyone eventually, even the greatest ever. And, barring a world-wide catastrophe, a 50 year man simply cannot be the best basketball player in the world. And if he had been six inches shorter, he would still have been an NBA all-star Hall of Famer. But he wouldn't be the greatest ever. If some freak accident, like a neighbor running over his foot when he was a teenager, had happened, it's unlikely he'd have gone on to be the greatest ever. If he'd had a bad back like Tracy McGrady, or a bum foot like Yao Ming, it's unlikely he'd have gone on to be the greatest ever. Again, maybe an NBA all-star Hall of Famer. But not the greatest ever. Because there's more than simple desire. There's more than hard work. Those things are vital, but they are simply not the end-all and be-all. There's genetics. There's timing. There's simple damn luck. And maybe a few more of those up there on Olympus should consider that every once in a while when looking down on the mere humans below. Maybe they think about how big a role luck played in their success. And what that therefore means for those on the exact opposite end of the spectrum.
I remember laughing quietly with Top Management as we realized the two of us just been watching this little baby, less than a week old, sleep. Just...sleep. For fifteen minutes we'd just been sitting there on the couch, leaning forward, watching her sleep. And we laughed at ourselves...and then went right back to simply watching her simply sleep.
And now, to quote the bard, it's all this.
So for the past four days, I've been reading Earth Abides, the utterly gripping 1949 post-apocalpytic novel by George R. Stewart each night before I fall asleep. And every night the same thing happens. At some point I wake up enough to look at my good lady wife sleeping next to me and think, "oh thank GOD! Another human! I'm not alone any more!" And thus relieved of my horrific solitude, I drift back off to sleep.
And a few hours later, at daybreak, to the familiar sounds of my boy's always frantic first thing in the morning ablutions in the kids' bathroom, I wake just enough to turn and make sure she's still there. And then I think, "oh...it was just a dream." And then I gaze at her a second longer and I think a tiny bit more and realize, "oh, wait...no, it wasn't."
The good lady wife is out of town this weekend, at the first ever reunion for her original college, which was sold to the Japanese after her sophomore year. (Oh, 1980s...you were wacky and no mistake.)
Took advantage of the absence to allow the girls to play Rock Band, she not being as fond of music at ear-splitting levels as some of us.
After searching the entire house, we were only able to come up with one drumstick, a shocking event, given that I spent the first half of my life attempting to never be more than a few feet from a drumstick at any moment.
Still, the facts were the facts: there were no other sticks to be found. So I grabbed the youngest and headed to Guitar Center to buy a pair of sticks, the first time I'd done so on this coast—I think the previous time I'd bought sticks was back in 2001, in preparation for my short-lived tenure with Gloria Deluxe, as we hit the road for a half-dozen rapturously received live dates in support of their then-newest LP, Hooker.
I slowly move past the plethora of guitars, each and every one of which seemed to be gazing at me with the saddest of eyes, just begging to be adopted. But I'm steely in my resolve, and we go back into the drums section. A kid asks if he can help, and I explain that I'm just there to buy some sticks, some 5As and, given that they're just for a wii game, the cheapest will do.
He grabs the cheapest and plunks 'em down on the counter. They've got a cardboard band around them, holding them together. I look up at the wall of sticks and notice that they're all already paired, wrapped in either plastic or cardboard.
He looks confused. "Well...yeah."
"Yeah. Have my entire life."
I look at him, effortlessly flaunting his 20 or so years on this planet. And I think back to the ritual of buying new sticks, how you'd ask for, whatever, Vic Firth 5Bs, perhaps, with the nylon tips. And they'd plunk a few dozen sticks down on the counter and you'd slowly roll each one back and forth a few times, to try to find a pair without even a hint of warp. Then you'd tap them against each other, to find the pair that were closest in tone. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you'd find three or four that were just perfect, and you'd feel like you'd found, if not the Holy Grail, at least a damn fine cup buried in the sand.
And this kid has no idea of how it used to be, and thinks I'm senile. And I don't just feel old, I feel ancient and decrepit.
The little girl at 3:52 absolutely broke my heart.
So. I have recently learned that, staggeringly, inexplicably, horrifyingly, a pair of loyal Left o' the Dialians have never seen this following clip, the first time Steves Carrell and Colbert appeared on television together. Naturally, I decided this Would Not Do and must be Rectified Post-damn-Haste.
(I love the way Carrell's eyes go utterly dead at the word "specials.")
And, according to my 7-year-old, I can do anything.
I even have the ocular proof.
(Note the shirt I'm wearing—and I quote: "Look, Daddy! It's you and me! The bog monster and the princess!")
So the other night I discovered, to my shock and horror, not just that I had seven billion children, but that I also had not one single copy of any of the myriad collections of Gary Larson's The Far Side in the entire house. Seven billion to zero is a ratio wildly out of whack.
This was insanity. This was horrifying. This Would Not Do.
Stunned at how terrible Top Management and I clearly are as parents (read: me), I immediately went to Amazon. And then quickly shuttered that idea and went to our library system where I found dozens, scores, hundreds of thousands of copies of various Far Side collections...almost all of which were checked out.
But! Not absolutely all of them. A little baksheesh may have greased the computer system's virtual palm, and mere days later, I get a notice that the first two galleries are in.
I rush to the library like a bat outta heck, grab the books, make a run for the car, get tackled by the librarian who must run the 100m in under 10, go back inside, check them out like the good law-abiding citizen I am, run back to the car, drive home in a safe and secure manner, come into the house, and casually say to the first child I see (which just happens to be The Bean), "hey, here you go—you might find this mildly amusing."
I observe her silently reading for two, five, ten minutes: no smiles, no chuckles, just page solemnly turned after page. Finally, I can stand it no longer.
"So," I say, as casual as all get-out,"How is it?'
She takes a long moment to look up, her eyes finally focusing. "It's awesome."
She pauses. "It's very odd," she adds. "And he's very fond of cows."
But then, paydirt. Five minutes later, she suddenly yells, "Hey! Ginger!"
I look up, confused.
She turns the book around to show me the page, an enormous grin lighting up her face, and one of our family's most quoted pop culture moments clearly on display.
Okay. Maybe we (read: Top Management) haven't done absolutely everything wrong.
I walk into the kitchen. The 14-year-old sees me, bends forward slightly and then slams her head into my sternum.
"Don't hurt yourself," I said, pretending I'd felt no pain. I gesture to my chest. "This? Titanium. Mixed with adamantium. It's an alloy. Coated in...what's Captain America's shield made of? Vibranium? Yeah, it's coated in that. And then dusted with Kryptonite."
"My goodness!" she says, trying to look admiring. She can't quite make it, and laughs instead. The idea of a 14-year-old seriously using "my goodness!" as a mild expletive makes me laugh. Which makes her laugh, which makes me laugh. And then she laughs some more. And I laugh some more.