Friday, August 31, 2007

Like Sands in an Hourglass...

I saw this image on someone else's page, and thought I'd add it here as a good fit for Blog Time Passing. Our metaphors for time lead us to think of time as a thing that we can have, and use, and lose, a thing of value, a commodity that we can invest, save, spend, lend, borrow, and so on. And that is a terrible way to think about time. This image conveys the sense of time as the environment we live in, which I believe is a truer sense of time. It really is an invisible environment. But is it a trap? That's what this image suggests, and the hourglass as a concrete metaphor tends to suggest this, but there too we are mislead by the maps we make of a territory we cannot quite grasp.

And maybe to go with it, Shakespeare's Sonnet #60

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked elipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Hey, I'm about to turn 50, I'm entitled to some wistful reflection...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Art and Memory

So, I grew up in a neighborhood, and within a larger network of Jewish immigrants, most of whom were either survivors of the Holocaust, or who were lucky enough to escape Europe before or just as things were falling apart over there. Everyone had stories of hardships relating to their travels, no one talked about whatever horrors they witnessed, however. But everyone had stories and memories of happier days in the old country (which could be Poland, Romania, Hungary, Russia, Germany, Austria, or any number of other nations). That's why this feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education (p. B14) caught my eye:

From the issue dated August 17, 2007

A Father Tells His Story

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett began formally interviewing her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, 40 years ago, while taking a folklore course. He had grown up in Poland, before immigrating to Toronto in 1934, and he had many stories of Jewish life in his small Polish town before the war.

When he retired early, at age 59, after a serious illness, his daughterwho by then had written her doctoral dissertation on traditional storytelling in the Toronto Jewish communitybegan encouraging him to paint what he could remember of his childhood, to bring to life the detailed scenes he had been describing to her for so many years. He refused, trying instead hobbies like collecting clocks and repairing and refinishing antique furniture. But nothing held his interest, and he became depressed.

Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett describes a turning point in 1990, when she and her husband, Max Gimblett, and her parents were touring New Zealand. "While driving in torrential rain through a gorge, with the road falling away, our hearts racing and our knuckles white, I overheard my mother murmur: 'Mayer, why don't you paint the kitchen? Do it for Barbara. She'll use it in her work.' Doris knew that, of all the scenes Mayer had described to me over the years, my favorite was the kitchen. Little did we suspect that for the rest of the trip through New Zealand's alps and fiords and temperate rain forests, without saying a word to anyone, he was imagining, in his mind's eye, exactly how he would paint the kitchen of his childhood." The floodgates opened, and he started painting his memories of life in Apt.

As he painted scenes of the house where he grew up, the people he knew, the town's synagogue, streets, marketplace, and surrounding countryside, he and his daughter — by then a professor at New York University teaching courses on Jewish performance, folklore, and ethnography — continued to talk. The book that would become They Called Me Mayer July was emerging. "The voice of the text is the voice of our collaboration," Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes in the book's afterword:

"As I began to compile the manuscript from the transcribed interviews and Mayer's pithy writings, I decided that the book's text would be entirely in Mayer's voice and that its structure would arise from an internal logic ... in the tangled network of stories and images that he had created. What resulted is more picaresque than bildungsroman. They Called Me Mayer July is episodic: It is made up of spare anecdotes told in the 'realm of living speech,' digressions into the practical workings of the world. ... This is Walter Benjamin's art of the storyteller, 'the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.' "

And here are two examples of Mayer Kirshenblatt's artwork:

The title for this one above reads: "Boy in the White Pajamas: Fooling the Angel of Death"

And the title here is: "Nakhete: Washing the Floor in Wedding Gown"

The feature also provides a written excerpt from their book:

'Paint What You Remember'

I started painting in 1990, when I was 73 years old, at the urging of my daughter and my wife. They kept cracking the whip. My daughter would say, "My daddy can do anything." She is a folklorist, an anthropologist, and she would beg me: "Would you please, please paint what you remember?"

"What do you mean, paint?"

"Paint, just go ahead, Daddy, and paint. I know you can do it. Please do it."

So, on my 50th wedding anniversary, when she came to see me in Toronto, I had painted my mother's kitchen in Opatów (Apt, in Yiddish), the Polish town where I grew up. By then my wife had been urging me for 10 years to paint. My daughter's husband is an artist, and he kept buying me art supplies.

In 1981, we were in Boca Raton, Fla., for the winter. We were staying in Century Village, a huge complex, which was mostly for seniors. There were lots of activities: movies, lectures, swimming, and stamp collecting. I was bored, so I wandered into an art class. There were about 10 or 12 people and an instructor. She put a few things on the table, and we would draw. I drew a lot of green peppers. I call this my green-pepper period.

A few years later, my wife signed me up for a painting class, a life drawing class, at our local Jewish Community Center, where we did aerobics four times a week. She said, "It's paid for, whether or not you attend." So, I went, but I didn't last long because the model moved so quickly from pose to pose, I couldn't finish the drawing. My daughter told me to forget about the classes and paint from memory. The teacher also encouraged me to work on my own.

At the same time, in the steam room at the gym or in a corner of the health club, I'd get together with my buddies. Most of the people there are Holocaust survivors. Within five or 10 minutes of any conversation, whether the topic was politics, women, this or that, we would be back in the concentration camps, on the march, in the railroad cars, in the bush with the partisans. It was as if there were no life before the war, so overshadowed had their memories become by the pain they suffered. I lost many members of my family in the Holocaust, but God spared me from living through that horror myself. He also blessed me with a wonderful memory.

I consider myself a storehouse of memories. My project is to paint prewar life in a small Jewish town in Poland. That's what really interests me. The way I paint is important, of course, but the most important thing is to get a subject. I have to get a subject. I think about it. I remember. It just comes to me. The subjects I decide to paint are those that have a story to tell. I draw mainly from memory. I also paint stories I heard from my Apt friends or read in the Apt chronicles, the memorial book for my town. Regrettably, I have very little imagination. I can only paint what is in my memory.

The places I remember exist no more. They are only in my head, and when I die they will disappear with me. I paint these scenes as I remember them, as a little boy looking through the window.

And here's the blurb at the end:

Mayer Kirshenblatt is a painter, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is a professor of performance studies at New York University. This essay is an excerpt from their book, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, to be published next month by the University of California Press and the Judah L. Magnes Museum, Berkeley. An exhibition of Mr. Kirshenblatt's paintings will be at the museum from September 9 through January 13, 2008.

In the modern era, we tend to think of art as a form of expression, a means of making statements or of just playing with pure form or with popular culture. We seldom associate the art of painting with the art of memory.

Memory is central to the Jewish religion, and to Jewish culture, however. Of course, all traditional cultures value memory, going back to oral cultures that are completely dependent on collective memory for survival. But in Judaism it is a religious imperative, a commandment, to remember--that ye may remember and do all of my commandments, and be holy unto thy God--such powerful words from the traditional translation of the V'Ahavta prayer.

Painting and the visual arts, however, was not a part of our tradition, due to the Second Commandment, so we don't have all of the icons common to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and with it the long history of achievement in painting. Jewish painters are all but unknown before the 20th century, Marc Chagall being the most notable example. And I recall going on a class trip to the UN when I was in elementary school, and how impressed I was when I saw Chagall's stained glass window there. In case you're not familiar with it, here's a picture of it, but this reproduction really can't capture the majesty of the work:

To get a different sense of it, here's a view of a detail from the window:

And here's some explanation from the UN's cyberschoolbus website:

Chagall Stained Glass

In the Eastern side of the Public Lobby visitors can see a stained-glass window designed by the French artist Marc Chagall. It was a gift from United Nations staff members as well as Marc Chagall himself, presented in 1964 as a memorial to Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the UN, and fifteen other people who died with him in a plane crash in 1961.

The memorial, which is about 15 feet wide and 12 feet high, contains several symbols of peace and love, such as the young child in the center being kissed by an angelic face which emerges from a mass of flowers. On the left, below and above motherhood and the people who are struggling for peace are depicted. Musical symbols in the panel evoke thoughts of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which was a favourite of Mr. Hammarskjold's.
The window was recently restored thanks to the Maecenas World Patrimony Foundation. And there was a Dedication Ceremony almost two years ago, as part of the events celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. Here's one more image from the restoration:

When I visited the UN as a kid, it was possible to purchase United Nations stamps commemorating Chagall's Window, and my friends and I were into stamp collecting at the time, so I bought a copy. I wonder where that stuff is now? Boxed up somewhere, I think. Ah, memory.

So, Mayer Kirshenblatt's painting does remind me of Marc Chagall's art. It's in the style, sure, but it's also in the power of memory to give meaning to art.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Going for the Onion Rings--Fallout from the Sopranos Finale

The HBO series The Sopranos has been one of my recurring topics, the most recent post being The Blimp Lampoonos Sopranos, the first one being the book chapter I wrote about the series from a New Jersey point of view, which I posted in my second entry on Blog Time Passing, and there have been many in between. So, I figured it's my duty to share the latest wrinkle in the redrawing of the cultural geography of our state. I read this in the New Jersey and the Region section of the Sunday New York Times, dated August 26, 2007, p. 7. On the paper's website, it comes up under N.Y./Region. Here's the title, dateline, byline sorta stuff:

August 26, 2007
Show Business

Ice Cream, Onion Rings and Tony Soprano


And now for the article:

THE party of four in booth B-3 was about to collect the lunch check and pay the cashier, but one detail needed to be taken care of before anyone moved. They handed their waitress a disposable camera and told her to fire away. With two flashes, she did.

Ron Stark, a co-owner of Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery, the suddenly famous sweet shop and restaurant on Broad Street in this Essex County town, glanced over at the diners as a flashbulb went off.

He smiled and said, “Every day there’s a couple of cameras going off in here.”

Holsten’s is the site of the last scene of the 86th and final episode of “The Sopranos.” Tony Soprano, the fictitious mob boss, meets his family there for dinner. Then, as strangers lurk in the background, the screen goes black.

Exactly what happened after that became hotly debated after HBO first aired the episode on June 10: Was Tony killed or not?

What is not such a mystery is that business at the real Holsten’s has soared after the episode and has not tapered off much.

“The first week or two was crazy,” said Chris Carley, the other owner, who bought into the restaurant in 1981. “We had no idea what to expect. It was just nonstop people when we opened the door, to late at night.”

Let me just interject here that I have never been to Holsten's myself. Having been a jaded New Yorker for most of my life, I have now spent over a decade and a half as a jaded New Jerseyan. But enough about me. Back to The Sopranos:

Other businesses are cashing in on “The Sopranos,” too. Satin Dolls, the club in Lodi that was portrayed as the Bada Bing, is auctioning off stripper poles and other items. The owner of the Kearny building used for Satriale’s pork store intends to sell pieces of the facade when he has it razed for a condo development.

Holsten’s, which was opened as Strubie’s in 1939 and was bought by the Stark family in 1964, became a tourist stop overnight. Take that party of four. Donald Higgins, who lives in a suburb of Chicago, brought his wife and two children to Holsten’s on a recent afternoon.

His son, also named Donald, is a high school senior thinking about attending Rutgers University. Besides a tour of the campus, the Higgins family decided to tour several North Jersey spots featured on “The Sopranos.”

They happened to arrive at Holsten’s when booth B-3, where the Sopranos sat during the last scene, was vacant.

“We got lucky,” the elder Donald Higgins said. “We walked to the back and said to each other: ‘That’s the table! Let’s go!’ ”

Their lunch, naturally, included a $2.75 bowl of onion rings. In the final episode, Tony ordered a bowl for the family, with the proclamation, “Best in the state!”

Quick aside here: I hadn't thought about it before, even though I watched that scene numerous times over, but who the hell talks like that, “Best in the state!”??? We'd just say they're the best, period, or the best around. North Jersey folks are not going to be thinking, hmmm, they have nothing like this down by Cape May, or over at the Delaware Water Gap! This isn't the state fair, after all. Obviously, the line was put there by David Chase as one last nod to the New Jersey landscape that he helped to put on the map, so to speak. Okay, now back to the article:

“Awesome,” the younger Donald Higgins said. “They were so good.”

The onion rings are bought frozen from a distributor. Mr. Stark and Mr. Carley are much prouder of their homemade ice cream and candy, as well as their hamburgers, which are made from beef that Mr. Stark said came daily from a butcher across Broad Street.

“They’re good,” Mr. Stark said of the onion rings. “Do I believe they’re the best in the state? Well, believe me, a lot of other restaurants sell the same thing.”

But David Chase, the series’ creator and executive producer, ordered onion rings — and liked them — when he had lunch there in February to check out the restaurant’s interior. Sales of onion rings have more than doubled since June 10, Mr. Carley said.

Don't you just love it! And ever wonder about how much of the food you order at a diner or coffee shop is actually just frozen food no different than the stuff you microwave at home? And remember that phrase we used to hear all the time, untouched by human hands? Whatever happened to that? Well, I guess that's not really relevant, but this next bit is great:

Mr. Stark soon noticed that the restaurant’s laminated menus were disappearing. A friend told him that patrons were taking them, and some were trying to sell them on eBay. One menu fetched $4,150, he said.

The owners then made paper menus, and those disappeared, too. Someone bid $121 for a paper Holsten’s menu. Mr. Stark said he thought that was crazy, contacted about 40 of the bidders and told them he would mail them free paper menus.

This reminds me of what Walter Benjamin called the aura of an original work of art (as opposed to a reproduction), which he described in terms of fetish value. But wait, there's more:

At one point soon after the episode first aired, the lines for a table — not just booth B-3 — stretched to the sidewalk outside the restaurant, which seats up to 80 people. The rush has died somewhat, says Ryan Moore, a waiter there, but tourists seem to know where to find it. The Higgins family said they used MapQuest.

The booth is not marked, and the only signs of Holsten’s place in television history are two T-shirts hanging from the ceiling above the candy counter. A white T-shirt with the Holsten’s logo and “The Final Episode” is being sold for $23.95.

“A lady came in and bought 80 of them for a wedding,” Mr. Moore said. “It’s crazy how many people take TV so seriously.”

There is talk of including Holsten’s on a Sopranos tour. Meanwhile, Mr. Moore finds himself snapping photos for tourists every day. He also answers the same three questions: Where did Tony sit? What happened to Tony? And where’s all the blood?

“They probably don’t think that this kid’s answered these same questions 100 times already,” he said.

Piped over a loudspeaker is a radio station whose playlist includes “Don’t Stop Believing,” the Journey song that Tony plays on a tabletop jukebox in the final scene. There are no jukeboxes at Holsten’s — “The Sopranos” used props.

Mr. Moore smiled when he said: “When that song comes on, we’ll turn the volume up. And they love it.”

The perfect song for people living out their televised fantasies, now that I think about it. Actually, there's been some talk in the local news about New Jersey's official state song--we don't have one. Here's a recent opinion piece from the editorial page editor of the North Jersey Record on the subject:

Mascara doesn't bring tears to Lesniak's eyes
Friday, August 24, 2007

NEW JERSEY doesn't have a state song. That came as a surprise to me. I figured Jersey had to have something. Consider all the elected officials who end up singing for federal prosecutors. Who knew they were ad-libbing?

Coming to our rescue is none other than state Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union. Not content with giving us former Gov. James E. McGreevey, Lesniak now wants to champion Jon Bon Jovi. The New Jersey tunesmith's band recorded "Who Says You Can't Go Home" and that is Lesniak's choice for official state song.

I've listened to it. Ray, the song isn't about New Jersey. It doesn't say "New Jersey." It doesn't even mention asset monetization! Ray, what are you thinking?

Having a state song that doesn't mention the state would be as stupid as having state officials support footing the bill for the debt of an existing sports stadium that will be destroyed to accommodate a new stadium for not one, but two, multimillion-dollar NFL franchises that will not put the words New Jersey on their teams' uniforms, helmets or merchandise. Oh, wait. That's exactly what elected officials in New Jersey have done.

Maybe that's the problem. Too many elected officials are star-struck by pop and sports celebrities. The celestial encounter leaves a large void in their heads where their gray matter should reside.

Lesniak told The Associated Press that the Bon Jovi song "brings tears to my eyes." The senator should get some Visine and Kleenex and stay out of the music business. The Bon Jovi tune is pleasant enough as pop songs go, but it's not a tearjerker. I don't think Barbara Walters could make someone cry listening to this song.

A more legitimate sob story is the tale of Red Mascara, who wrote "I'm From New Jersey." This ditty is the other contender for state song. The Legislature has given it a thumbs-up in the past, but it never has been signed into law.

I found the song online. You can follow the lyrics as the tune plays. It sounds like an early-20th-century college football song -- the type of song a chorus of ingenues would have sung to Ivy League athletes on the silver screen in a 1930's musical. Mascara is 85 and would like his song adopted by his home state. Lesniak has said he would support "I'm From New Jersey" as the official state anthem, but wants Bon Jovi to have the official state song.

So many songs and too many wrong notes. Mascara's melody is not bad, but it has no history for the people of the state. And it really does sound dated. It mentions places in New Jersey -- something Bon Jovi doesn't -- but if Jersey is to have a state song, it should have some resonance with the people of New Jersey. Neither Bon Jovi nor Mascara captures the magic of ...

"Start spreading the news. I'm leaving today. I want to be a part of it: Newark, Newark."

"It's a long way to Parsippany. It's a long way to go."

"Bogota, Bogota, that toddlin' town."

"Why, oh why, oh why oh, did I ever leave Lodi-oh?"

Mascara's efforts to get his song recognized are worth noting. But the Garden State's state song should be organic. It should be something that everyone knows and that says New Jersey all over. It shouldn't have to be promoted.

Despite what Lesniak thinks, Bon Jovi isn't doing the state any favors by living here. Lots of famous people live in New Jersey. Clearly, Lesniak, who has been pushing legislation that would ban smoking in cars when children are present, has way too much time on his hands. There are bigger fish to fry in the Legislature.

And if Lesniak is intent on promoting a Jersey song, I have a better suggestion: "Xanadu." I'm sure he knows the tune.

Alfred, that's not a bad suggestion, but a much better one was staring you in the face, or rather whispering in your ear, all along: "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, the perfect soundtrack for the Garden State, upbeat, catchy, certainly no more insipid than "I Love New York," don'tyaknow? Yeah, I know the lyrics say "Detroit," but maybe we can get Steve Perry to change them. How about:


Just a small town girl, livin' in North Caldwell
She took the midnight train goin' anywhere
Just a city boy, born and raised in south Bayonne
He took the midnight train goin' anywhere

A singer in a smokey room
A smell of wine and cheap perfume
For a smile they can share the night
It goes on and on and on and on

Strangers waiting, up and down the Parkway and the Interstate
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlights people, living just to find emotion
Hiding, somewhere in the night

Working hard to get my fill,
everybody wants a thrill
Payin' anything to roll the dice,
just one more time
Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on


Don't stop believin'
Hold on to the feelin'
Streetlight people

I think this is the perfect way to solve our state song crisis, it works well with the Atlantic City casinos, and it's a great way to properly recognize The Sopranos for all that they've done for our state. Consider it a modest proposal.

Oh, and while we're at it, let's make Holsten's the Official State Onion Rings!

Big Love, Big Hate

Just a few days ago in a post entitled Love (American Style), Big, Bigamy, Bigamist I wrote about the HBO series Big Love, about how the Mormon religion is central to the program, and about the polygamist lifestyle that the fictional series depicts. So today, I see a movie review in the paper, written by the dean of popular movie criticism, Roger Ebert. You can read the review at Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times site, or just stick around here and I'll get it for you.

The name of the movie is September Dawn, and it's about Mormons, natch. But it's a far cry from the sympathetic portrayal that Big Love provides. But let me let Roger tell you all about it:

September Dawn
You can't get 'em up in the mornin'

Release Date: 2007

Ebert Rating: Zero stars

// / Aug 24, 2007

By Roger Ebert

Just to interject here, you read it right, Ebert is giving this movie no stars whatsoever. So, the point here isn't that this is a movie worth the effort of shlepping to the theater and shelling out 20, 30 bucks on (assuming a companion and a trip to the snack bar), and it may not even be worth a couple of hours of your time catching it on cable, although I must admit that I am intrigued. But the point here is Ebert's review. So, let's get on with it:

On Sept. 11, 1857, at the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a group of fanatic Mormons attacked and slaughtered a wagon train of about 120 settlers passing through Utah on their way to California. Can we all agree that the date has no significance? No, we cannot, because "September Dawn" is at pains to point out that on another Sept. 11, another massacre took place, again spawned by religion.

But hold on. Where did I get that word "fanatic"? In my opinion, when anybody believes their religion gives them the right to kill other people, they are fanatics. Aren't there enough secular reasons for war? But there is no shortage of such religions, or such people. The innocent, open-faced Christians on the wagon train were able to consider settling California, after all, because some of their co-religionists participated in or benefitted from the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans.

Were there fanatics among those who ran the Salem Witch Trials or the Inquisition or the Crusades? Or the Holocaust? No shortage of them. Organized religion has been used to justify most of the organized killing in our human history. It's an inescapable fact, especially if you consider the Nazis and communists as cults led by secular gods. When your god inspires you to murder someone who worships god in a different way or under another name, you're barking up the wrong god.

The vast majority of the members of all religions, I believe and would argue, don't want to kill anybody. They want to love and care for their families, find decent work that sustains life and comfort, live in peace and get along with their neighbors. It is a deviant streak in some humans, I suspect, that drives them toward self-righteous violence, and uses religion as a convenient alibi.

That is true, wouldn't you agree, about Mormons, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and so on? No, not all of you would agree, because every time I let slip the opinion that most Muslims are peaceful and nonviolent, for example, I receive the most extraordinary hate mail from those assuring me they are not. And in a Muslim land, let a newspaper express the opinion that most Christians and Jews are peaceful and nonviolent, and that newspaper office is likely to be burned down. The worst among us speak for the best.

Which brings us back to Sept. 11, 1857, when a crazy Mormon zealot named Bishop John Samuelson (Jon Voight) ordered the massacre of the visiting wagon train, after first sending his spokesman to lie that if they disarmed, they would be granted safe passage. Whether the leader of his church, Brigham Young (Terence Stamp), approved of this action is a matter of much controversy, denied by the church, claimed by "September Dawn."

What a strange, confused, unpleasant movie this is. Two theories have clustered around it: (1) It is anti-Mormon propaganda to muddy the waters around the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, or (2) it is not about Mormons at all, but an allegory about the 9/11/01 terrorists. Take your choice. The problem with allegories is that you can plug them in anywhere. No doubt the film would have great impact in Darfur.

Let me interject here that, holding aside the intentions of the filmmakers, whatever they may be, the important point is that this film obviously plays on and reflects post-9/11 America, but also reflects our increasing interest in the Mormon religion. This is true whether the portrayal is positive, as in Big Love, or negative, as it is here. Either way, the attention being paid to Mormonism parallels the rise of the first major Mormon candidate for the presidency. Now, back to you, Roger:

There isn't anything to be gained in telling this story in this way. It generates bad feelings on all sides, and at a time when Mormons are at pains to explain they are Christians, underlines the way that these Mormons consider all Christians to be "gentiles." The Mormons are presented in no better light than Nazis and Japanese were in Hollywood's World War II films. Wasn't there a more thoughtful and insightful way to consider this historical event? Or how about a different event altogether? What about the Donner Party? They may have been cannibals, but at least they were nondenominational.

Confession time. When I wrote the post about Big Love, I was going to write that there is some question as to whether or not Mormons are Christians, but I chickened out. I remember reading that this is the case, but I felt that I wasn't entirely sure that I really knew what I was talking about in this instance, so instead I wrote that there was some question as to whether they are Protestants or not. I find it all more than a little strange, to be honest, and as far as I'm concerned, if your focus is Christ, you're a Christian, whether you're Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Anglican, Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, or Christian Scientist. The Mormons Church (and using the term "church" is another strong indicator, Scientology excepted, from where I stand) is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, so that seems pretty clear cut to me. That one Christian sect considers itself to be the exclusive holder of the truth and discounts all other Christian sects along with non-Christians is an old story, after all. And from my perspective, Christians are indeed gentiles, but again that includes these LDS folks as well. Not that there's anything wrong with being a gentile, mind you, some of my best friends are, we certainly don't have a problem with that. Well, okay, now that I've thoroughly embarrassed myself fumfering around about religion and offending the vast majority of my countrymen, and countrywomen too, let me turn the mike back over to Ebert:

If there is a concealed blessing, it is that the film is so bad. Jon Voight, that gifted and versatile actor, is here given the most ludicrous and unplayable role of his career, and a goofy beard to boot. Stamp, as Brigham Young, comes across as the kind of man you'd find at the back of a cave in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The Christians are so scrubbed and sunny, they could have been teleported in time from the Lawrence Welk program.

And isn't it sickening that the plot stirs in some sugar by giving us what can only be described as a horse whisperer? This movie needs human whisperers. And giving us a romance between the bishop's son and a pretty gentile girl? And another son of the bishop who dresses up like an Indian and goes batty at the scent of blood? And real Native Americans who assist the Mormons in their killing, no doubt thinking, well, we can get around to the Mormons later? I am trying as hard as I can to imagine the audience for this movie. Every time I make any progress, it scares me.

Right on, Rog, we don't want no haters round here! OK, time now for a still image from the film:

I'm think, Amish, how about you? Oh yeah, the gun. Well, as I said, I find it hard to tell the gentiles apart, they all kind of look alike to me. Oops, just kidding friends. Actually, the caption under this picture says:

Bishop John Samuelson, a crazy Mormon zealot (played by Jon Voight), orders the massacre of a visiting wagon train of Christians in "September Dawn."

Okay, now I know you're asking, what about the credits? Well, maybe not, but here they are anyway:

Cast & Credits

Bishop Samuelson: Jon Voight
Brigham Young: Terence Stamp
Joseph Smith: Dean Cain
John Lee: Jon Gries
Nancy Dunlap: Lolita Davidovich

Black Diamond Pictures and Slow Hand Releasing present a film directed by Christopher Cain. Written by Cain and Carole Whang Schutter. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for violence). Opening today at local theaters.

And of course, you're asking, what about the movie's official website, doesn't this movie have an official website, doesn't every movie have an official website? And yes, there is one, so if you want it, click here. And guess what, they don't mention Ebert's review--shocking! There's a trailer you can watch, which looks pretty cool (don't all trailers?), you can click on "Learn More" and there's over a dozen links to websites that provide documentation about the actual historical events depicted--the movie trailer says "Inspired by Actual Events" which is an interesting choice of words, especially since they are taking great pains to provide those other links to demonstrate the legitimacy of the events that the film depicts, er, is based on, I mean, is inspired by. And they make it sound like they are revealing one of the great cover-ups of all time. Watergate by the Salt Lake, it seems.

There's also a link where you can download a PDF of a New York Times article dated January 22, 2006, which is not and could not be a review of the film, but talks about the fact that the film is being made, and its significance. Odd, odd, very odd indeed. Well, as an academic with access to databases, I was able to track this article down in a form that I could add into my personal ConBlogRessional Record here, for the benefit of YOU, my faithful reader (singular used intentionally). So, here's the basic info first:

With Only God Left as a Witness
John Anderson. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Jan 22, 2006. pg. 2.13
And now, the article, in its entirety, without commercial interruption:

AS the new year dawned, Jon Krakauer's ''Under the Banner of Heaven'' -- about a ''divinely ordered'' double murder in 1984 by two members of a breakaway Mormon sect -- was fresh off the best-seller list. Warren Jeffs, the polygamist prophet of this splinter group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was on F.B.I. wanted lists. And the world's first-ever ''Mormonsploitation Retrospective'' (''Passion! Polygamy! Pamphlets!'') of vintage fear-mongering anti-Mormon movies had just finished at the fringy Pioneer Theater in the East Village in Manhattan.

In public relations terms, this is not the easiest time to have the words ''Latter,'' ''Day'' and ''Saints'' anywhere close together in your name. And the going may get rougher after the filmmaker Christopher Cain finishes his new movie about one of the darkest moments in Mormon history, the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857, in which 137 pioneers from Arkansas were killed in Utah by a raiding party whose ties to the Mormon church are still in dispute.

The film, ''September Dawn,'' stars Jon Voight, Lolita Davidovich and Terence Stamp (Dean Cain, the director's son, makes a cameo appearance). Two newcomers, Trent Ford and Tamara Hope, play a frontier Romeo and Juliet in a romance played out against a drama of a mass murder that continues to engender controversy almost 150 years after the fact. Financed independently by September Dawn and Voice Pictures, it is currently being screened for distributors.

An early look at parts of the picture -- viewed in a West Los Angeles editing room with Mr. Cain and his longtime editor, Jack Hofstra -- suggests that there will be fresh debate when it finally reaches the public.

As the story unfolds, a company of pioneers arrives from Arkansas. A couple of young lovers-to-be -- one a Mormon, the other part of the ill-fated wagon train -- meet amid a toxic atmosphere of suspicion and rancor. A Mormon raid ends with a castration, an enemy's testicles neatly nailed to a door. All the while, the territorial governor and president of the church, Brigham Young, played by Mr. Stamp, is heard in voice-over, encouraging vengeance, violence, ''blood atonement'' and divine justice.

''And by the way,'' Mr. Cain said, ''I didn't write any of his dialogue,'' explaining that it was all in the depositions that Young gave after the massacre. ''I sat here watching this a couple of weeks ago and I was thinking: 'Maybe I made that up. I don't think he would have said that.' And I went back and pulled it up and, man, he did.''

In a statement, Michael Purdy, a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, disputed historical claims that Young ordered the killings in a drive to keep non-Mormons out of Utah. Mr. Cain, whose movies have included ''The Principal,'' ''Young Guns,'' ''The Next Karate Kid'' and ''Gone Fishin,' '' had left filmmaking and retired to his home in Aspen. But he was lured back when a friend, Carole Whang Schutter, who now shares a writing credit on ''September Dawn,'' pitched him the idea of a film about the infamous attack.

That the 1857 massacre occurred on a Sept. 11 only added to the significance Mr. Cain found in the event: at a time when fundamentalist extremism seems to dominate political dialogue around the world, revisiting murders that occurred for religious reasons, he thought, seemed timely. ''You start asking yourself the question,'' said Mr. Cain, a soft-spoken and often dryly funny filmmaker of 62. ''What makes a young kid -- of any faith, in any part of the world -- strap a bomb on his back and walk into a school, or a mosque, or get on a bus full of innocent people, and blow himself and them all up? You ask yourself that question, and as you do, you start looking around and all of a sudden, it's what religious fanaticism can turn into.''

While Mr. Stamp plays the church leader in the film, Mr. Voight plays a fictional Mormon elder whose two sons fall on different sides of an age-old question that is hardly exclusive to pioneer-era Utah: Does one follow one's faith wherever its elders say it leads or does one exercise the free will and judgment presumably bequeathed by God?

Asked to comment on the making of Mr. Cain's film, Mr. Purdy, the church representative, responded: ''While no one knows fully what happened at Mountain Meadows nearly 150 years ago, we do recognize that it was a terrible tragedy for all involved. The church has done much to remember those who lost their lives there. We want to honor, respect and recognize them.''

''During the 1999 dedication of the Mountain Meadows memorial,'' Mr. Purdy wrote, ''Gordon B. Hinckley, current president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said: 'I sit in the chair that Brigham Young occupied as president of the church at the time of the tragedy. I have read very much of the history of what occurred here. There is no question in my mind that he was opposed to what happened. Had there been a faster means of communication, it never would have happened and history would have been different.' ''

Asked to elaborate, Mr. Purdy said, ''Regarding the reference to a 'faster means of communication,' Brigham Young sent a messenger by horseback to tell those at Mountain Meadows to not interfere with the wagon train. The messenger did not arrive in time to prevent the tragedy.''

This, like many key claims about the massacre, has remained open to challenge. As the Mormon Utah historian Juanita Brooks wrote in her 1950 study, ''The Mountain Meadows Massacre,'' ''The complete -- the absolute -- truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being; attempts to understand the forces which culminated in it and those which were set into motion by it, are all very inadequate at best.''

What is known is that settlers en route from Arkansas were attacked over a number of days -- either by Paiute Indians, a mix of Paiutes and Mormons, or Mormons dressed as Paiutes. After being deceived by a flag of truce, they were ultimately slaughtered. Children under 10 were spared, and adopted by Mormon families, until federal forces returned them to Eastern relatives.

Mr. Cain has chosen to tell a version in which the Paiute tribe was enlisted to help fight the supposedly hostile forces impinging on their land, but then quit the fight when they realized they were being duped.

In writing the script, Mr. Cain said, he and Ms. Schutter were helped by a great-granddaughter of Brigham Young, who has left the church and become a born-again Christian.

''But the entire massacre itself,'' he said, ''and the stuff with the Indians leading up to it, is taken from John D. Lee's confession, which was 25 to 27 pages long.'' Lee, a high-ranking lieutenant of Young's, was the only man prosecuted for the massacre; he was executed by firing squad in 1877 and went to his grave claiming that he was being sacrificed for other people's sins, a view echoed in the title of a 1961 biography by Brooks, ''John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat.''

The year of the massacre was an especially tense one for the Mormons of Utah, whose history in many parts of the United States had, from the start, been one of persecution. In the spring of 1857, President Buchanan replaced Brigham Young with a non-Mormon as governor and sent soldiers to enforce his decision. Young declared martial law, and on Sept. 15, just four days after the massacre,issued an order forbidding federal troops from entering the territory.

In the scenes that Mr. Cain and Mr. Hofstra were still molding into final shape, the violence perpetrated against the settlers' wagon train leaves very little to the imagination. And the intonations of the bearded Young -- Mr. Stamp plays him as austere, remote and steely -- give the narrative a sense of Old Testament wrath: ''Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood?'' he asks.

''I don't see any reason to soft-pedal anything,'' Mr. Cain explained of his movie's unblinking approach. ''This was a horrific act -- they murdered 140 men, women and children and they did it in a vicious, violent way, and if you're going to show that, I think you have to show what caused it. It's not like somebody got excited one day and shot somebody. They bashed their heads with rocks.''

Of his prospective Mormon viewers, Mr. Cain said he expected particular resistance to the film's treatment of Young. ''I mean, they don't like the fact that we're doing the Mountain Meadows massacre to begin with -- it's kind of a dark day in their history,'' he said. ''But I believe what we're doing is accurate. I believe that we're making a movie that has a certain power behind it.''

The picture's real power, Mr. Cain added, will most likely come not from history, but from its insistence on making the past personal. ''You can have all the rhetoric you want come out of your mouth,'' he said. ''But when you make it specific, a name, a beating heart, it becomes something else.''

Bottom line, this is certainly not good news for Mitt Romney's candidacy, but if Ebert is right, it will blow over without hardly making an impression. Me, I'm just looking forward to the next episode of Big Love.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

David Byrne Talking Autism?

A friend from MySpace (thank you, Jimmy) recently brought to my attention the fact that David Byrne, best known as the leader of the New Wave band popular during the late seventies and eighties, Talking Heads, has identified himself as being on the spectrum. I have not kept up with Byrne over the years, but I was a big fan of his band back in the day.

So, it seems that Byrne has a blog (who doesn't these days?), and in a post last year he wrote:

When I first moved to NY in the mid 70s I stayed with the painter Jamie Dalglish. In return for room and board I helped him sand the floors and renovate his loft on Bond Street — a stone's throw from CBGB as fate would have it.

I was a peculiar young man — borderline Asperger's, I would guess. Jamie occasionally made large abstract paintings and I wrote what later became Talking Heads songs. At one point Jamie decided to borrow some of the B&W video decks that were around at the time and do a kind of art talk show video — an artist and I would talk, but the camera would never show me. Here is the artist who later became Jeff Koons. I don’t recall ever seeing all of these — there are 7 hours’ worth!

And here's a post from a month later, where the topic comes up in passing as part of a larger meditation on human evolution:

“Are we still evolving?” asks a recent article in New Scientist. A touchy question, for a positive answer implies that some of us are more “evolved” than others. Uh oh. We’d like to believe in the myth that we were all created equal, but if there isn’t enough evidence to prove that we are not now there soon will be. The intent of that inspirational adage, I believe, was that we are equal in the eyes of the law. Our opportunities and rights are equal. Not that we all have the same hair color or are equally blessed with skills or abilities.

Now those who may be more “evolved” than others — carrying genes that make them better suited for the geography and society in which they live — but they may only be “better” in the sense of being more suited to a particular place and situation. In this sense evolution is relative, up to a point. In an odd environment something altogether freaky is more suited, more evolved, but clearly that creature may not be of much use anywhere else. A fish out of water is a dead fish.

It is still considered evolution if the species as a whole becomes stupider. Evolved does not mean “better”, there are no value judgments attached, we add and presume those ourselves.

Among recent evidence for continuing evolution are the Ashkenazi Jews. It seems that possibly as a result of being banned from many labor and work opportunities over the last 1000 years, this mainly Eastern European gene pool has evolved a higher than average intelligence (12-15 points higher than average). The blowback from repression is the creation of a super race. Poetic justice of a twisted sort.

Other evidence:

Gene CCR5-Δ32 a gene found in certain parts of Africa affords some protection against HIV.

Gene DRD4 is the dopamine receptor gene. It has become more common in the last few thousand years. It is positively selected for, so it will probably become even more common as time goes by. It is also associated with attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. Why humans should evolve FAVORING those conditions is still a mystery. My guess is that those conditions are the flip side of a genetic coin whose face side offers a more obvious suitability and advantage and, being linked on the same gene, you unfortunately get the bad along with the good. Aren’t the dopamine receptors also somehow related to the pleasure centers of the brain?

This could also be like the schizophrenia/creativity link mentioned in an earlier posting, or the genius-geek/autism link. A taste of Fugue gives a nice buzz, but too much and it’s your last meal.

Speaking of pleasure, some (Geoffrey Miller) propose that sexual rather than natural selection is the new driving force in evolution, in humans at least. Natural selection is about simple survival — the mere possibility of being physically able to pass on your genes. Now, Miller suggests, we are much pickier about whom we mate with. All creatures are somewhat picky — doing their best when making a choice to determine the odds of siring successful offspring. Courtship displays are often viewed as elaborate demonstrations of health, commitment and suitability. “Choose me!”

But now, Miller suggests, we have evolved to a whole new plateau. The social and even online connections and interactions among people and populations mean that a person can choose from a shop with a wider and deeper selection. People tend to connect with others who are like them, physically, mentally, financially — and the global and local mixing and interconnecting of recent centuries facilitates (and encourages?) extreme pickiness. People now CHOOSE how they will evolve — if the mating dance can be called a choice. It shifts human evolution into turbo drive rather than stopping it, as had been suggested would happen when it seemed we and our children would all more or less have an equal chance of “surviving”

Hey, I'm not saying the guys a scholar, or a philosopher--(he's a musician, artist, and writer, rather. I mean, after all, is there anything new about the idea that sexual selection has a big influence on evolution? How do you think the peacock got its feathers, etc., etc.???

well, back to the topic though, does David Byrne 'exhibit characteristics associated with the autism spectrum? He certainly does seem to fit the awkward, geeky image (just to be clear on this, I consider myself to be on the spectrum, albeit in a somewhat different manner), and there is no reason why being on the spectrum can't go hand in hand with being artistically talented. So, let me simply provide some examples of his lyrics which might fit the bill:

Tentative Decisions (from Talking Heads 77)

Now that I can
Release my tensions
Let me make clear
My best intentions
Girls ask and I
define decision
Boys ask and I
describe their function

Oh the boys
want to talk
Like to to talk about those problems
And the girls
say they're concerned
And they are
concerned with these decisions

And it's all
Hard Logic
To follow and the
Girls get lost
And the boys
say they're concerned
But they are
concerned with these decisions

I wanna talk
I wanna talk as much as I want
I'm gonna give
I'm gonna give the problem to you
I wanna talk
I wanna talk as much as I want
I'm gonna give
I'm gonna give the problem to you

Decide, decide
Make up your mind
Decide, decide
I told you what to say
Confuse, confuse
Describe what I found
Confuse, confuse
I told you what to say

Oh the girls
Still want to talk
Want to talk about those problems
And the boys
say they're concerned
But they are concerned with these decisions

And it's all
Hard Logic
I know
and the girls get lost
And the boys
say they're concerned
And they are concerned with these decisions

I wanna talk
I wanna talk as much as I want
I'm gonna give
I'm gonna give the problem to you
I wanna talk
I wanna talk as much as I want
I'm gonna give
I'm gonna give the problem to you

Decide, decide
Make up your mind
Decide, decide
I told you what to say
Confuse, confuse
Describe what I found
Confuse, confuse
I told you what to say

now, here's one that's especially clever:

Don't Worry About the Government (from Talking Heads 77)

I see the clouds that move across the sky
I see the wind that moves the clouds away
It moves the clouds over by the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

I smell the pine trees and the peaches in the woods
I see the pinecones that fall by the highway
That's the highway that goes to the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

It's over there, it's over there
My building has every convenience
It's gonna make life easy for me
It's gonna be easy to get things done
I will relax alone with my loved ones

Loved ones, loved ones visit the building,
take the highway, park and come up and see me
I'll be working, working but if you come visit
I'll put down what I'm doing, my friends are important

Don't you worry 'bout me
I wouldn't worry about me
Don't you worry 'bout me
Don't you worry 'bout me

I see the states, across this big nation
I see the laws made in Washington, D.C.
I think of the ones I consider my favorites
I think of the people that are working for me

Some civil servants are just like my loved ones
They work so hard and they try to be strong
I'm a lucky guy to live in my building
They own the buildings to help them along

It's over there, it's over there
My building has every convenience
It's gonna make life easy for me
It's gonna be easy to get things done
I will relax along with my loved ones

Loved ones, loved ones visit the building
Take the highway, park and come up and see me
I'll be working, working but if you come visit
I'll put down what I'm doing, my friends are important

I wouldn't worry 'bout
I wouldn't worry about me
Don't you worry 'bout me
Don't you worry 'bout ME..........
And the first big hit:

Psycho Killer (from Talking Heads 77)

I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I
Can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire

Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away
Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away

You start a conversation you can't even finish it.
You're talkin' a lot, but you're not sayin' anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?

Psycho Killer,
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away
Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away

Ce que j'ai fais, ce soir la
Ce qu'elle a dit, ce soir la
Realisant mon espoir
Je me lance, vers la gloire ... OK
We are vain and we are blind
I hate people when they're not polite

Psycho Killer,
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away
Psycho Killer,
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away

oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh....

This one has some media ecological appeal:

Paper (from Fear of Music)

Hold the paper up to the light
(some rays pass right through)
Expose yourself out there for a minute
(some rays pass right through)

Take a little rest when the rays pass through
Take a little time off when the rays pass through

Go ahead and mis it up...Go ahead and tie it up
In a long distance telephone call

Hold on to that paper
Hold on to that paper
Hold on becuase it's been taken care of
Hold on to that paper

See if you can fit it on the paper
See if you can get it on the paper
See if you can fit it on the paper
See if you can get it on the paper

Had a love affair but it was only paper
(some rays they pass right through)
Had a lot of fun, could have been a lot better
(some rays they pass right through)

Take a little consideration, take every combination
Take a few weeks off, make it tighter, tighter
But it was never, it was never written down
Still might be a chance that it might work out (if you)

Hold on to that paper
Hold on to that paper
Hold on because it'll be taken care of
Hold on to that paper

Don't think I can fit it on the paper
Don't think I can get it on the paper
Go ahead and rip up, rip up the paper
Go ahead and tear up, tear up the paper
Paper for Harold Innis, and this one for Lewis Mumford:

Cities (from Fear of Music)

Think of London, a small city

It's dark, dark in the daytime
The people sleep, sleep in the daytime
If they want to, if they want to


I'm checking them out
I'm checking them out
I got it figured out
I got it figured out
There's good points and bad points
Find a city
Find myself a city to live in.

There are a lot of rich people in Birmingham
A lot of ghosts in a lot of houses
Look over there!...A dry ice factory
A good place to get some thinking done

Down el Paso way things get pretty spread out
People got no idea where in the world they are
They go up north and come back south
Still got no idea where in the world they are.
Did I forget to mention, to mention Memphis
Home of Elvis and the ancient greeks
Do I smell? I smell home cooking
It's only the river, it's only the river.
And one for Walter Ong:

Memories Can't Wait (from Fear of Music)

Do you remember anyone here?
No you don't remember anything at all
I'm sleeping, I'm flat on my back
Never woke up, had no regrets

There's a party in my mind...And it never stops
There's a party up there all the time...They'll
party till they drop
Other people can go home...Other peoplle they can split
I'll be here all the time...I can never quit

Take a walk through the land of shadows
Take a walk through the peaceful meadows
Try not to look so disappointed
It isn't what you hoped for, is it?
There's a party in my mind...And I hope it never stops
I'm stuck here in this seat...I might not stand up

Other people can go home...Everyone else will split
I'll be here all the time...I can never quit

Everything is very quiet
Everyone has gone to sleep
I'm wide awake on memories
There memories can't wait.
and this one is another big hit:

Life During Wartime (from Fear of Music)

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,
packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway,
a place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance,
I'm getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstore, lived in the ghetto,
I've lived all over this town

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco,
this ain't no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain't got time for that now

Transmit the message, to the receiver,
hope for an answer some day
I got three passports, a couple of visas,
you don't even know my real name
High on a hillside, the trucks are loading,
everything's ready to roll
I sleep in the daytime, I work in the nightime,
I might not ever get home

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco,
this ain't no fooling around
This ain't no mudd club, or C. B. G. B.,
I ain't got time for that now
Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit?
Heard about Pittsburgh, P. A.?
You oughta know not to stand by the window
somebody might see you up there
I got some groceries, some peant butter,
to last a couple of days
But I ain't got no speakers, ain't got no
headphones, ain't got no records to play

Why stay in college? Why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time
Can't write a letter, can't send a postcard,
I can't write nothing at all
This ain't no party, this ain't no disco,
this ain't no fooling around
I'd like to kiss you, I'd love you hold you
I ain't got no time for that now

Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock,
we blended with the crowd
We got computer, we're tapping pohne lines,
I know that ain't allowed
We dress like students, we dress like housewives,
or in a suit and a tie
I changed my hairstyle, so many times now,
I don't know what I look like!
You make me shiver, I feel so tender,
we make a pretty good team
Don't get exhausted, I'll do some driving,
you ought to get some sleep
Get you instructions, follow directions,
then you should change your address
Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day,
whatever you think is best
Burned all my notebooks, what good are
notebooks? They won't help me survive
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace,
the burning keeps me alive
Try to stay healthy, physical fitness,
don't want to catch no disease
Try to be careful, don't take no chances,
you better watch what you say

Here's another hit:

Once in a Lifetime (from Remain in Light)

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!
Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...

Water dissolving...and water removing
There is water at the bottom of the ocean
Carry the water at the bottom of the ocean
Remove the water at the bottom of the ocean!

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/in the silent water
Under the rocks and stones/there is water underground.

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?...Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/in the silent water
Under the rocks and stones/there is water underground.

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...
Same as it ever was...Same as it ever was...
And yet another hit:

Burning Down The House (from Speaking in Tongues)

Watch out you might get what you're after
Cool babies strange but not a stranger
I'm an ordinary guy
Burning down the house

Hold tight wait till the party's over
Hold tight We're in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house

Here's your ticket pack your bag: time for jumpin' overboard
The transportation is here
Close enough but not too far, Maybe you know where you are
Fightin' fire with fire

All wet hey you might need a raincoat
Shakedown dreams walking in broad daylight
Three hun-dred six-ty five de-grees
Burning down the house

It was once upon a place sometimes I listen to myself
Gonna come in first place
People on their way to work baby what did you except
Gonna burst into flame

My house S'out of the ordinary
That's might Don't want to hurt nobody
Some things sure can sweep me off my feet
Burning down the house

No visible means of support and you have not seen nuthin' yet
Everything's stuck together
I don't know what you expect starring into the TV set
Fighting fire with fire
This last one seems a bit less spectrumy than the earlier stuff. But here are some that certainly show a sense of distance from the typical mode of thought:

And She Was (from Little Creatures)

And she was lying in the grass
And she could hear the highway breathing
And she could see a nearby factory
She's making sure she is not dreaming
See the lights of a neighbor's house
Now she's starting to rise
Take a minute to concentrate
And she opens up her eyes

The world was moving and she was right there with it (and she was)
The world was moving she was floating above it (and she was) and she was

And she was drifting through the backyard
And she was taking off her dress
And she was moving very slowly
Rising up above the earth
Moving into the universe
Drifting this way and that
Not touching ground at all
Up above the yard


She was glad about it... no doubt about it
She isn't sure where she's gone
No time to think about what to tell them
No time to think about what she's done
And she was

And she was looking at herself
And things were looking like a movie
She had a pleasant elevation
She's moving out in all directions


Joining the world of missing persons (and she was)
Missing enough to feel alright (and she was)
This is one for Korzybski, Sapir. Whorf, Langer, and Lee:

(Give Me Back My) Name (from Little Creatures)

There's a word for it
And words don't mean a thing
There's name for it
And names make all the difference in the world
Some things can never be spoken
Some things cannot be pronounced
That word does not exist in any language
It will never be uttered by a human mouth

Let X make a statement
Let breath pass through those cracked lips
That man was my hero
And now that word has been taken from us
Some things can never be spoken
Some things cannot be pronounced
That word does not exist in any language
It will never be uttered by a human mouth

Give me back my name
Give me back my name
Something has been changed in my life
Something has been changed in my life
Something must be returned to us
Something must me returned to us
This one is touching, I think, but again shows a sense of disassociation:

Creatures of Love (from Little Creatures)

A woman made a man
A man he made a house
And when they lay together
Little creatures all come out

Well, I've seen sex and I think it's alright
It makes those little creatures come to life
I can laugh or I can turn away
Well, I've seen sex and I think it's okay

We are creatures, creatures of love
We are creatures, creatures of love
From the sleep of reason, a life is born
We are creatures, creatures of love

It's okay to be afraid
When the blue sparks hit your brain
We can love one another
I've been told that it's okay

Doctor, doctor, tell me what I am
Am I one of those human beings
Well I can laugh or I can learn to think
So help me now to find out what I feel

We are creatures, creatures of love
We are creatures, creatures of love
We've been here forever, before you were born
We are creatures of love, We are creatures of love

A man can drive his car
And a woman can be a boss
I'm a monkey and a flower
I'm everything at once

Well, a woman and a man can be together
If they decide to they'll make little creatures
Watch 'em now!
Little creature of love
With two arms and two legs
From a moment of passion
Now they cover the bed

We are creatures of love, we are creatures of love
We are creatures, creatures of love
We are creatures, creatures of love
From the sleep of reason, a life is born
We are creatures of love, we are creatures of love
Here's one for Neil Postman:

Television Man (from Little Creatures)

I'm looking and I'm dreaming for the first time
I'm inside and I'm outside at the same time
And everything is real
Do I like the way I feel?

When the world crashes in into my living room
Television man made me what I am
People like to put the television down
But we are just good friends
(I'm a) television man

I knew a girl, she was a macho man
But it's alright, I wasn't fooled for long
This is the place for me
I'm the king, and you're the queen


Take a walk in the beautiful garden
Everyone would like to say hello
It doesn't matter what you say
Come and take us away

The world crashes in, into my living room
The world crashes in, into my living room
The world crashes in, into my living room
The world crashes in, into my living room

And we are still good friends...(Television man)
I'm watching everything...(Television man)
Television man...(Television man)
I'm watching everything...(Television man)
Television man...and I'm gonna say
We are still good friends...and I'm trying to be
Watchin' everything...and I gotta say
We are still good friends...You know the way it is
Television man...I've got what you need
We are still good friends...I know the way you are
Television man...I know what you're tryin' to be
Watchin' everything...and I gotta say
That's how the story ends.

Another hit:

Wild Wild Life (from True Stories)

I'm wearin'
Fur pyjamas
I ride a
Hot Potata'
It's tickling my fancy
Speak up, I can't hear you

Here on this mountaintop
I got some wild, wild life
I got some new to tell ya
About some wild, wild life
Here comes the doctor in charge
She's got some wild, wild life
Ain't that the way you like it?
Ho, ha!
Living wild, wild life.

I wrestle, with your conscience
You wrestle, with your partner
Sittin' on a window sill, but he
Spends time behind closed doors

Check out Mr. Businessman
Oh, ho ho
He bought some wild, wild life
On the way to the stock exchange
Oh, ho ho
He got some wild, wild life
Break it up when he opens the door
He's doin' wild, wild life
I know that's the way you like it
Wo ho
Living wild, wild life

Peace of mind?
Piece of cake!
Thought control!
You get on board anytime you like

Like sittin' on pins and needles
Things fall apart, it's scientific

Sleeping on the interstate
Woah ho ah
Getting wild, wild life
Checkin' in, a checkin' out!
Uh, huh!
I got a wild, wild life
Spending all of my money and time
Oh, ho ho
Done too much wild, wild
We wanna go, where we go, where we go
Oh, ho ho!
I doing wild, wild
I know it, that's how we start
Uh, huh
Got some wild, wild life
Take a picture, here in the daylight
Oh, ho!
And it's a wild, wild life
You've grown so tall, you've grown so fast
Oh, ho ho
Wild, wild
I know that's the way you like it
Oh, ho!
Living wild wild wild wild, life.

And one last set of lyrics, from their last album, with a real sense of finality to it:

(Nothing But) Flowers (from Naked)

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it's nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
you got it, you got it

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
we got it, we got it

There was a shopping mall
Now it's all covered with flowers
you've got it, you've got it

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
you've got it, you've got it

Years ago
I was an angry young man
I'd pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we'd start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it's all covered with daisies
you got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
you got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
you got it, you got it

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
you got it, you got it

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
you got it, you got it

This was a discount store,
Now it's turned into a cornfield
you got it, you got it

Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle

So, there you have it, a relatively representative sample I think, but I'll leave it for you, dear reader, to make the diagnosis. You can find these and all of the rest of their lyrics on the band's official site, in case you want to make further comparisons.

But thinking back on the whole punk rock movement (which Talking Heads was associated with, as New Wave became the more mainstream version of punk as the music scene evolved), a good bit of which I saw going on at CBGBs, Max's Kansas City, and a variety of other locales in New York City back in the late seventies and early eighties, back when I was young and going out to clubs (and before I say any more, let me acknowledge that my friend Brian Cogan is the expert on the history of punk, and my friend, music reviewer Robert Francos also knows a lot more about this subject than me), it seems to me that there was in fact much that was autistic or spectrumy about the form of musical (and artistic) expression associated with punk rock. I think David Byrne has given us a new lens through which to understand that significant moment in the history of popular music.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Quenya Inklings

So, not long after I posted the Tengwar transliteration of the Quenya translation of "The Ten Commandments" poem of mine, Rodger was at it again. This time he's translated another poem I posted on my MySpace poetry blog, Lance Strate's BlogVersed, this one called Inklings of the Hidden Realm. It's a poem about Tolkien's elves, and about the folks who have found a serious path to spirituality though Tolkien's elven mythology (there are some links pertaining to this in the comments section on the original post of the poem, which you can get to by clicking on the poem title above). So, here is the original poem accompanied by Rodger's Quenya translation:

Monday, August 20, 2007

Tengwar Commandments

In a previous post, Translations, I mentioned that one of my MySpace friends, Rodger Ashton-Smith of New Zealand, translated two poems from my MySpace poetry blog into Quenya, which is one of J.R.R. Tolkien's invented Elvish languages. Now he's gone one better by taking the translation of "The Ten Commandments" poem and writing it in Tengwar, the Elvish alphabet that Tolkien created.

So this is a process of both translation, and transliteration, which are two separate labors, after all. And once again, I am honored, flattered, and grateful to Rodger for doing this. And this time around, I'm posting it here first, so here it is:

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Love (American Style), Big, Bigamy, Bigamist

So, I've been meaning to write a post about the HBO series Big Love for some time now, and no time like the present, I guess. Now well into its second season, the series is about a modern polygamist played by seasoned actor Bill Paxton,

with interesting supporting parts from Harry Dean Stanton,

Bruce Dern,

and Grace Zabriskie (from Twin Peaks).

I suppose they could have called the program My Three Wives, with the better halves (but that doesn't add up, does it?) played by Jeanne Tripplehorn,

Chloë Sevigny,

and Ginnifer Goodwin (in order of priority).

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the modern polygamist is not a Saudi sheik, it's a red, white, and blue Mormon living in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah. Big(amy) Love, American Style! It's not quite as freaky as the old sixties sitcoms with witches, genies, hillbillies, and even astronauts and cavemen (did you think Geico was all that original? look up It's About Time, which featured comedy great Imogene Coca in a secondary role).

But it's certainly more way out there than mobsters from New Jersey, which raises the inevitable question, how does this show compare to The Sopranos? The answer is, Big Love don't mean a thing, cause it ain't got that bada bing! But then again, what else does? It's an unfair comparison, really, and all I mean to say is that isn't great, but it is good, another example of quality television, courtesy of cable TV.

I do think that The Sopranos not only set the bar, but provided a model, so that many of the series that have followed have tried to incorporate some Sopranos-like elements (The Sopranos series itself suggesting that there were many other mafias out there, in politics, religion, higher education, the motion picture industry, etc.). For example, HBO's Deadwood was The Sopranos set in the old west. So, Big Love's Sopranos-like element is the fundamentalist if not fanatical Juniper Hill compound, run by Roman Grant (played by Stanton), who is considered "the prophet" of what is described on the website as a breakaway polygamy sect (broken away from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, as I understand it). He is the boss of this particular mafia, which is held together not by greed but by fervent religious belief, and in addition to being in charge of the corporation that represents the financial part of the cult, he also determines who gets to marry whom, and takes the most wives for himself, of course.

Bill Henrickson (played by Paxton) grew up in the compound, but was thrown out as a young teenage boy, forced to fend for himself on the streets. This is a common practice apparently, as younger males need to be sent away because they represent potential competition for the girls that the older men want to take on as second, third, fourth, etc., wives. So Bill had to make his way in mainstream society, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, going to college, marrying his college sweetheart within the established, mainstream Mormon Church, and becoming a successful hardware store owner.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. His wife Barbara became ill, cancer I think it was, they needed help caring for her and her children and household, and she would no longer be able to bear children, to boot (this is one of those be fruitful and multiply religions). Bill turned to Juniper Hill for help, Roman sent one of his many daughters, Nicki, and the three of them over time decided to "live the principle," enter into plural marriage, making Barb and Nicki sister-wives, and Bill something of a priest or religious leader for his family (they became an independent unit, rather than following "the prophet" or the established Mormon Church). Nikki provided a stronger connection to the fundamentalist sect, and she herself is the least ambivalent about plural marriage in the family, and the most traditionalist, although she also developed an addiction to shopping and running up credit cards. Paralleling this, Bill also received financial backing to expand his retail operation from Roman Grant, so the links deepened despite his distaste for the compound. Nicki has had two kids with Bill, and later they were joined by a third wife, Margie, who is only 21, has added 2 more kids to the mix, with yet another on the way.

Oh, and they live in three houses, side by side, so from the outside everything seems normal, but on the inside it's all interconnected. And, Big Love takes us behind closed doors and picket fences, to spy on the lives of a polygamous family living an otherwise normal suburban American lifestyle. That's what's emphasized in many ways, the utter normalcy of their arrangement. The program makes it easy to identify with a way of life that might otherwise be considered deviant, abusive, and most certainly illegal. How do they do this?

For one, Barb is the first wife, which is significant in that the first wife is the one that's legal in the eyes of the government, but she also acts as the senior sister-wife--Nicki calls her "boss lady." And Barb is very much the classic wife and mother character, perhaps a bit less liberated than contemporary TV sitcom and family drama wives are, not all that career oriented, but she does work some of the time as a substitute teacher. And she does not come from a bigamist family, so she serves as a point of identification, having moved from an initial position of skepticism to one of acceptance, having made a difficult but deliberate decision to enter into the "principle" as they call it (albeit all of this occurred before the series began, and is revealed only in bit and pieces over time).

Second, the wives are depicted as basically liking, and loving one another. Yes, there are jealousies and squabbles, but they really do seem to be very sisterly. And there has been no coercion or pressure to marry here. Moreover, when it comes to taking care of their households, there seems to be a clear economy of scale, and sharing of different competencies, from Barb's intelligence and ability to deal with the outside world, to Nicki's pioneer-like self-sufficiency, work ethic, and basic skills such as appliance repair, to Margie's youthful energy and enthusiasm, and ability to relate to the children. And together, they are in charge of the domestic scene, and at times are able to gang up on Bill, so that he appears to be dealing with domestic pressures times three.

Third, there is no hint of any sexual abuse. There's no underage wife among the Henricksons (as opposed to the compound, where for example there is one that Roman wants to marry, who ends up running away). Margie is the youngest, but her relationship with Bill doesn't seem that different from a successful middle aged man's affair with a younger woman, or more to the point, his second or third marriage to one--it's been said that divorce and remarriage is serial polygamy, after all. There seems to be healthy sexual relations between Bill and his wives, with some touch of jealousy, but basically the wives work out a schedule for equitable distribution of their husband, each sleeping with him every third night. I think having two nights off might well seem appealing to a number of women, and as for Bill, his biggest problem is keeping up his performance level, and like a lot of men, he turns to Viagra for help. But sex does not dominate the program, and to the extent that it is a topic (and it definitely is one, and there are some racy scenes now and then), it's not reduced to lust, but appears within the context of their polygamous marriage.

Which brings me to the fourth point, that the Henricksons are depicted as religious, but not fanatics. They say grace before meals, are decent, respectful, God-fearing folk, but they don't try to proselytize in any way, or interject religion into everything they do. They don't drink alcohol or coffee, or smoke (Margie has been known to cheat, though), but you rarely notice the absence of these behaviors in the program (an exception being the last episode, number 22, "The Happiest Girl," where deliberate reference was made in an interaction with non-Mormons). Their religion lends a spiritual quality to their marriage and family life that is downright enviable, and all they seem to want is the freedom to practice their religion without fear of persecution, the problem being that plural marriage is central to that practice.

And while the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints is not entirely absent from the series, it is very much in the background, and typically only functions as one of several threatening forces hostile to this family (since it has long ago outlawed polygamy), along with various forms of governmental authority, and advocates and activists seeking to rescue women victimized by plural marriage and the children brought up in such families. Typically, these agencies are depicted in a relatively negative light, and as insiders in the Henrickson's household, we see them as hostile forces. The point here is that the LDS is not used to provide a contrast between mainstream Mormonism and the Henrickson's secretive practice of their religion. Instead, the Henrickson's normalcy is contrasted to the extreme fundamentalism and cult-like situation of the Juniper Hill compound--a compound that it is gated and guarded, with its own police force answering to Roman Grant. This is the fifth way that the show gets us to identify with Bill, Barb, Nicki, and Margie.

Of course, having established the differences between the two groups, things become more complex over time. For example, this season we are introduced to other groups even more extreme than Grant's. We also have been seeing over time that Bill either gets pulled back into compound affairs, or deliberately interjects himself into them, most dramatically by buying a seat on the corporation's board. And there was a brief mention in one episode of the fact that the former "prophet" that Roman Grant had displaced, through some kind of hostile takeover of the compound, was Bill's grandfather. It was mentioned once, and not brought up again, but in my mind this suggests that Bill might potentially vie for the role of "prophet" in the future, even though that seems highly unlikely at this point in the series. But the stage is set for some kind of move in this direction, with Roman being shot in a recent episode, and his frustrated son Alby taking over the leadership of the compound, and appearing intent on euthanizing his father. This should make for very interesting plot possibilities for the remainder of this and for next season. But so far, the emphasis has been on the distinction between the fundamentalists at the compound, and our modern, typical family with one dad and three mommies.

Now, getting the audience to identify with the main characters is typically the goal of a narrative (not necessarily, I should add, as the show could have just said, in effect, look at these freaks, how strange and bizarre they are, how much better off we are than them, or alternately, look at these beautiful people living a life we can only dream about). But in this particular case, I think there is some added significance that connects to the larger political and cultural environment of contemporary America.

First, there's the whole Mormon thing. I brought up Big Love in my popular culture summer class, and one of the students said that in her theology class at Fordham University, the Mormons were identified as a cult rather than a bona fide religion. Now, I'm not sure that the student was reporting this correctly, and I actually was surprised to hear that, as I tend to associate Mormons with certain other Protestant sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christian Scientists. I guess there's some question of whether Mormons are even considered Protestants, but who am I to say? And, figuring they mostly resided out west, I was surprised to find Mormons ringing doorbells and trying to talk to people and give them literature, much like Jehovah's Witnesses, here in Northern New Jersey--I could only imagine Tony Soprano's response! I actually asked them for a copy of the Book of Mormon many years ago, which they gave me, and I think they were a little disappointed with their follow-up visits when I explained that I hadn't read it yet--hey, I'm a busy guy, but I will get to it one of these days.

Whether Mormons are categorized as a cult or not, the fact that the question can be raised is itself significant. And while the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was good for the image of their Church, the South Park episode "All About Mormons" was devastating in its deconstruction of the origins of this religion, albeit while taking a few liberties. Of course, we might also ask what religion could stand up to such scrutiny? The bottom line is that it is easier to accept a mythic or legendary account from antiquity, and view it as a metaphor or at least subject to interpretation because the conditions of life have changed so dramatically since then, not to mention the language the account was written in, than it is to accept the same sort of thing coming from contemporaries or the recent past. I'm reminded of a Firesign Theatre routine where a preacher is saying something like, I'm not talking about a book that was written by a bunch of babbling barbarians thousands of years ago, I'm talking about a book some of which was written as recently as last night! Newer is better, after all, right?

At what point does a cult become a religion? Good question! My mentor, Neil Postman, was known to joke that if a religion is not at least a few thousand years old, it's just a cult. And perhaps religions need a certain amount of deep time to reach maturity. It does seem that after a period of time, a given religion's prophetic period comes to a close, and new claims to having a direct line to God are rejected. Thus, by the time Jesus and his apostles came around, many Jews could no longer find such claims credible, and by the time of Mohammad, most Jews and Christians could no longer accept a new prophet. Of course, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, was not the last of the modern prophets, he was followed by, among others, Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad later known as "the Báb," a prophet that most Muslims did not accept, who began an off-shoot of Islam known as Bahá'í (made famous in the U.S. by Seals and Crofts).

Ours is a pluralistic society, one that has grown increasingly more tolerant, but certain faiths are considered more or less mainstream and others not. And I do not mean to suggest that Big Love is responsible for moving Mormonism into the mainstream, no more so than I would attribute such a shift to Donnie and Marie Osmond (if you don't know who they are, don't ask). But Big Love does not hurt things at all for them, and more to the point, I take it as a reflection of changing attitudes towards this faith, a sign that this religion has come to be accepted as legitimate.

What fascinates me about all this is that it coincides with the appearance of the first serious contender for the presidency of the United States who is a practicing Mormon, Mitt Romney. Romney has a fairly decent shot at the Republican presidential nomination, although he is not the front runner, but I would not predict that he'd go all the way, at least not yet. I do find this an amazing coincidence, and it can't be deliberate because he was not a serious candidate at the time Big Love premiered, and anyway, if you wanted to launch a show to help a Mormon candidate, you wouldn't make the Mormon characters practicing polygamists since it goes against their church's present doctrine and potentially reinforces prejudices and stereotypes.

Time for a tangent, but a relevant one, something I share with my students whenever I teach about popular culture, and about how popular culture items are reflections of society in general, its myths, values, and beliefs, and how a given item is a reflection of the particular times it is created in. I begin with the common example that during the fifties, situation comedies featuring the nuclear family were popular, such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. This is understood as a reflection of that relatively conservative era, and a time when the basic family unit was still intact. I do make the point that the emphasis on the nuclear family also reflects the disintegration of the extended family, as postwar prosperity and mobility resulted in the middle class moving away from the old city neighborhoods, to the suburbs, while at the same time the need to stay close to extended family members for survival dissapeared. Anyway, things begin as we move into the sixties with the appearance of single family sitcoms like My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, The Doris Day Show, Family Affair, etc. Again, the obvious connection is that this shift reflects the rising divorce rate in the American population. So far, so good.

The problem is that none of those single parent sitcoms that start to appear are actually about a divorced parent. They're always about widows, widowers, or even a single relative taking care of orphans. This is an example of how distorted popular culture reflections can actually become. While the divorce rate was going up, divorce itself remained a stigma, taken as a sign of moral failing, lack of character. So these sitcoms reflected both the new demographic and the old negative attitude towards divorce.

And I remember very clearly the 1968 presidential elections, which we followed in my elementary school class, fifth grade I believe. At that time, Ronald Reagan, governor of California, was for the first time a candidate for the Republican nomination (which Nixon eventually won). And our teacher said that he would never, ever be elected president of the United States. You might guess that she said that it was because an actor could never be president, which is certainly how many people felt at the time, but that wasn't it at all. It was the fact that he was divorced! She said that the American people would never accept a divorced man as president (even though he had remarried). And this made absolute sense from the point of view of 1968.

But attitudes were changing dramatically at that time, with the civil rights movement, women's liberation, the antiwar movement, and of course the sexual revolution. As we moved into the seventies, divorce has become more and more commonplace, and less and less of a stigma. In 1975, the first sitcom featuring a single parent who was divorced, One Day at a Time, premiered. The following year, Ronald Reagan almost snatched the Republican presidential nomination away from Gerald Ford, a sitting president (albeit an unelected one). The fact that he was divorced was not an issue. In 1980, he captured the nomination, and beat Jimmy Carter, and not only was his marital status never mentioned, but he ran as the candidate of family values!!! I only wish my old grade school teacher had been around to comment on that development.

So, anyway, if Mitt Romney gets the Republican nod in 2012, you'll know why.

That takes care of the Mormon part of the equation, but what about plural marriage? Well, of course we've been grappling in this country with a somewhat different problem concerning the definition of marriage, the question of gay marriage, which was a big issue during the last presidential election, although it now has somewhat subsided. On one side, we have the idea that the government should officially recognize marriage between two members of the same sex just as it recognizes marriages between two members of the opposite sex. On the other side, there is the counter-effort to establish an official definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Now, given that this post has been about Big Love, I think the point is obvious enough, if we are going to widen the definition of marriage in terms of gender, why not also widen it in terms of number of partners?

There certainly is ample precedent for plural marriage in the Bible, and there is no commandment about monogamy in either the Old or New Testaments. I find it ironic that the Reform Jewish movement, of which I am a part, changed our liturgy in order to modernize and balance the patriarchal bias of traditional Jewish prayers, adding the four matriarchs to the three patriarchs: after saying, "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob" we add, "God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah," but this implicitly recognizes that Jacob had two wives at the same time (Leah and Rachel). Now, there is nothing in the Jewish or Moslem religions prohibiting plural marriage, and just from doing a quick Google search for "origin of monogamy" it seems that there is nothing in the New Testament of early Christian Church either. Instead, it seems that this practice is a pagan residue, mostly coming from pre-Christian Rome, with some Hellenic influence, although it is also acknowledged that they did not take marriage as seriously as the Church did. I should also point out that polygamy is an accepted practice under contemporary Islamic law, and various experiments with all sorts of plural marriage has been associated with communal living back in the sixties and seventies, and presumably to this day--this also shows up in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein.

Now, before you think that I've become an advocate for plural marriage, let me just note that I am not trying to make an argument for it, I am just pointing out that in this respect too, Big Love may be a reflection of our times. In a distorted or disguised from, it reflects the issue of gay marriage, in a more general sense, it reflects the decline of marriage as an institution, the symptoms including divorce, premarital sex, people living together without making it official, the greatly reduced stigma attached to adultery, not to mention the concept of "open marriage" from the sixties (does anyone remember Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice?). As a culture, our respect for marriage as an institution, not to mention a sacrament, is pretty low in real terms, even if there is a powerful sentiment reacting to the latest efforts to open it all up.

But ultimately, given the secular nature of our system of government, the question of defining marriage is a legal issue. And there really is no logical reason for limiting the definition, aside from tradition. Since marital status is linked to various economic and legal benefits, on what basis are those benefits given to one class of people, and denied to another? Having opened this Pandora's box, and we pretty much have, there's no going back. If two people of the same sex can get married, why not, say, a brother and sister, father and daughter, mother and son? Apart from the rather horrifying question of whether incest ought to be illegal, which I do not want to touch in any way, shape, or form here, what I mean to say is, why can't close relatives obtain the same legal and economic benefits from marriage that complete strangers receive? Marriage, after all, from the point of view of the government, is not a license to have sex, it's an official declaration of a particular legal status, one that entitles individuals to certain benefits from the government (e.g., tax breaks) and employers (e.g., health insurance). And again, why limit this status to only two partners? In the end, this is all simply a matter of contract law, and justice is, after all, blind.

So, where are we going? My guess is that the government will be forced to get out of the marriage business altogether, and marriage will no longer be a determinant for benefits, rights, and privileges. Perhaps an employer will simply make a certain amount of benefits available, the total of which can be spread among as many individuals as the employee designates, so that the more there are the less they get. Or maybe it's time for a new category to take the place of marriage, and family, or rather time for the retrieval of an old category which has been semi-retired, that of household to designate a marital or family unit of two or more individuals.

Bottom line, it's not really clear where we're headed exactly, but its pretty clear to me what we're leaving behind. And there is no question that cultures and social institutions change over time--marriage changed dramatically from the 19th to the 20th century. But there is also cause for concern here, because social theories all pretty much acknowledge that marriage, family, kinship relations, are foundational to every known society. They differ from one culture to another, sure, but the health of a society is dependent on the stability of these institutions, and if they break down, who knows what will happen? We are really heading into uncharted territory, and I don't know if love, however big, will be enough to get us through safely.