Cagney & Lacey: First Time Viewer

Cagney & Lacey is another of "those" shows that I never saw growing up (although I grew up in a home without a permanent TV, that's not a good enough excuse--I am familiar with a surprising number of Brady Bunch episodes).

Like with Columbo, I've been pleasantly surprised. It is naturally dated, not in the painful way of "vintage" shows--such as Simon & Simon--but in a charming nostalgic way--such as  Barney Miller and early Law & Order.

In fact, watching Cagney & Lacey is rather like watching a Barney Miller/early Law & Order reunion. I keep saying, "Wow, there's another early cop-show guest star!"

It resembles both shows in the quick dialog and (usually) not too heavy-handed balance of "tough" subjects and character development. There are, naturally, the "serious" episodes that touch on controversial issues (is porn a victimless crime? should cops go out on strike?). I didn't appreciate until Cagney & Lacey how far Law & Order had been anticipated re: its "pulled from the headlines" approach.

The marriage of Mary Beth Lacey and Harvey Lacey also anticipates Linda and Danny of Blue Bloods

Last but not least, the non-spick & span police station is anticipated by dozens of cop shows in the twentieth century. I have a soft spot for dirty, linoleum police stations. Truth: I've never fully accepted the sleek, clean settings of shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I totally understand why Tom Paris of ST: Voyager started building space shuttles with blinking buzzers and lights--it just seems more authentic.

Cagney & Lacey is helped by decent acting. I had no idea that Tyne Daly (whom I'd only seen in a Columbo episode prior to watching Cagney & Lacey) was that good. Cagney & Lacey actors are the kind that definitely fit the profile of "working actors." Harvey Atkin, for instance, seems to have been everywhere, performing in everything. These are actors who will do voice work, live action, movies, films. It's a job. Of course, it's a job.

Rowan Atkinson's Best Role

I love Rowan Atkinson in just about anything. I adore him in The Thin Blue Line.

In The Thin Blue Line, Rowan Atkinson as Detective Inspector Fowler gets to use his excellent physical skills, as when he acts like an alien (to instruct his constables on tolerance), attempts to fight a tree hugger and dances badly at a disco.

He also gets to show his sarcastic side. Fowler is smarter than everyone else in the police station (other than Habib, who is the only one who can keep up with him intellectually) and, perhaps more importantly, more endowed with commonsense. He rolls his eyes at Detective Inspector Grim's obsession with (to name a few) Scotland Yard slang, secret societies, the supposed end of civilization (due to whatever Grim is upset with that week).

Not that Fowler doesn't have his weak spots (like the Mayoress and chocolate hob-nobs), but his weak spots only serve to endear him to his subordinates.

Fowler's supposed weakest spot is his intense middle-class, bourgeois conservatism. He thinks highly of the Queen and actually buys her a present--as befitting a civil servant. He tut-tuts at Habib's "modern" sarcasm. He insists on using terms like "fair play." He is a fan of the dull and boring. When Habib points out that watching sport (European soccer) is wet and boring, he replies, "Yes, it is," going on to argue that this is part of its "British" appeal.

Fowler's self-mocking yet entirely serious conservatism is very British and only matched in America by Tim Allen's Mike Baxter.

The Gasworth team isn't very good. However, "not being very good is what we British are good at," states Fowler with utter goodwill. Showing up and being disappointed is the British way.

Ultimately, it is Fowler's goodwill that makes him so appealing (and far more lovable than the excellent Black Adder). He is sweet, kind, gentle, honest, brave, and easy-tempered.

Fowler is an excellent leader--he has no trouble keeping his
constables in line, yet he encourages creativity, even argument.
The "role playing" skits (see above) are some of my favorites.
My favorite example of Fowler's kindness is when Habib gets into trouble for helping her sister at a rave. Habib takes her sister's marijuana to prevent her getting arrested. When Habib is discovered, Grim and Doyle threatened to charge her. Fowler pleads for mercy--he doesn't debate the basic wrongness of what Habib did or even pretend for a moment that Grim and Doyle don't have the rights of the situation. Rather, he finds a way to force Grim to trade his own vaguely unethical behavior for Habib's far more comprehensible mistake.

While speaking to Habib, Fowler cries, "You fool, constable. What madness possessed you?"

It is almost impossible to convey how Atkinson says that final line. It is gentle, pained. Habib is left in no doubt that he is entirely on her side. As her superior officer, he will do his best to protect her even if he is disappointed in her.

All great comedians are great dramatic actors. Atkinson is no exception. 

An Actor In Search of a Role

Some actors can fall into any role. Other actors need to find their role.

Sabrina Lloyd doesn't quite work as Don's ex-girlfriend in the first season of Numb3rs. She also isn't quite right as Wade in Sliders, a problem I write about here. However, she shines in the comedy Sports Night opposite the endearing Joshua Malina.

On the other hand, Joss Whedon alumnus Amy Acker slides effortlessly into nearly every role.

Granted, Amy Acker is something of a marvel but the issue here isn't acting ability but how various roles seem to suit actors or actresses best.

T.J. Thyne had a healthy and respectable career as a minor-guest-character-with-clever-lines for years before he landed Bones. His prior roles were truthfully all variations on a theme. This doesn't mean T.J. Thyne isn't a good actor; it means he plays a particular role exceptionally well.

Yup, that's TJ Thyne on Friends
Elsewhere, I mention that Joan Fontaine was less than perfect as Jane Eyre. Hitchcock, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do with her. She was nominated for her role in Rebecca and won for her role in Suspicion.

Do casting directors get awards for picking the right person for the right role? Because they should. 

Another interesting point about casting directors is that many of them tend to pick similar-looking actors for guest spots. I'm sure there's a kind of underground rumor mill in Hollywood: "Hey, that show on CBS is looking for a guest star right now, and the casting director always picks rangy blonds of about 5'10"--you should try out!"

In any case, this is one more reminder to me of how much, for these actors, their roles are jobs. Which is why I always feel bad when an actor loses a role, even if that actor wasn't very good. It's a living, people!

Finding the right niche is part of making a good living.

The Emotional Intelligence of Castle

One of my favorite aspects of Castle, of Castle, is his emotional intelligence. Although he comes across initially as an irresponsible playboy (explaining why Beckett would be so cautious about forming a romantic attachment), that reputation is immediately undermined by his behavior towards his daughter and mother. In fact, Alexis and Martha are two of the smartest psychological story choices in Castle. Even before Beckett falls in love with Castle, his homelife offers her relationships that she lost when her mother was killed.

In addition, Castle is surprisingly mature. When Beckett's ex-boyfriend shows up in Season 1 and tries to mock Castle, Castle is unfazed. When, in the same episode, Beckett asks him to go home, he does, returning only when he figures out a clue.

Castle also looks out for Alexis's friends: the young model, the drunk Paige, and the sister of the rock star. He perceives his responsibility as going beyond "not getting upset." Rather, he goes out of his way to provide a safe haven for the model, call the drunk Paige's parents, and track down the sister of the rock star.

Oddly enough, however, my favorite example of Castle's emotional intelligence is not when he is behaving parental but in the episode "The Late Shaft." He sleeps with an actress who turns out to be using him to get the lead in the Nikki Heat movies. When she shows up to apologize, rather than acting hurt and thwarted and "how dare you!" Castle recognizes that she was playing a game that he willingly participated in and even should have foreseen. His pride may have been dented, but that's no reason to take it out on her:
Thanks. I'm headed back to LA, and I just wanted to say sorry.
Thanks. But the truth is, I've never had so much fun being used. You feel free to have at me anytime.
Well, I guess you'll rescind your recommendation of me to your producers, and that is the least I deserve.
No. Tony thinks you are great for it. And so do I. You are a better actress than I thought when I recommended you.
Well, you should know I wasn't acting the whole time.
Me neither.
Thanks, Rick. Take care.
You, too.
Castle's ability to take Ellie in stride reminds me of an Agatha Christie quote from Murder in Mesopotamia. Dr. Reilly states, "Men aren't little boys to be shielded and protected. They've got to meet cat women--and faithful spaniel, yours-till-death adoring women, and henpecking nagging bird women--and all the rest of it!"

Nathan Fillion sells the role of a guy who comes across (partly on purpose) as a fly-by-night, shallow narcissist but is in fact, as his mother points out, a truly good and mature man. Great character!

Barney Miller: Still Great Television

I now own the 6th Season of Barney Miller. I went through all the seasons a few years ago. Rewatching Season 6 reminded me all over again what great television it is--how impressively well-written Barney Miller was in the years before television really had a ton of money (proving that sometimes love outweighs cash).  

There are so many reasons Barney Miller is excellent, including the impressive cast: Hal Linden, Ron Glass (1945-2016, may he rest in peace), Abe Vigoda, Max Gail, Steven Landesberg, Jack Soo, Ron Carey, James Gregory . . . and a set of back benchers (as detectives, criminals, locals) with serious credentials (Roscoe Lee Browne and James Cromwell to name a few).

Hal Linden and the excessively dry
Steve Landesberg
Without the impressive acting, the show wouldn't be quite so good; in the long-run though, all the acting in the world can't make up for poor writing. And the writing on Barney Miller is as impressive as the comedic specialists who deliver the lines.

Barney Miller, in truth, skirts the line of moralistic television. This is different from episodes with a moral--moralistic television involves what I call "after-school special" writing. The moral in the former is an underlying thread or even joke. The moral in the latter is Something the Audience Should Learn.

Generally speaking, I don't like the latter in my fiction. Give me a moral perspective. Give me moral problems that the characters debate. Don't try to make me a better person (see the moralistic and cloying Rent as compared to the hilarious, ribald, and far superior Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Like other shows of the time period (see Star Trek), Barney Miller is grappling with heavy ideas: the definition of rape, cults, reminders of Vietnam, corrupt police, religious doubts, race issues, broken marriages, treatment of the elderly, treatment of gays . . .

It just avoids becoming moralistic and preachy, partly, again, because of the actors, but mostly, in this case, because the writers never forget the other side. The diatribes and excuses of the "bad" characters are often played for laughs, but they are never played easily. When Harris and Dietrich debate the Vietnam War with Wojo, Wojo is allowed to speak his piece. When various government officials show up in the precinct, their personal failings and desires, their little idiosyncratic dreams, are allowed expression. When Harris is shot at by fellow police officers, the fallout affects all the members of the 12th, who express a variety of hurt feelings and confusion at Harris's anger.

This is George Murdock NOT as Scanlon--but yes, he was
on Star Trek.
Scanlon is an excellent example of a thoroughly nasty character--he is the Internal Affairs officer who is always trying to find dirt in Barney's precinct--who manages to come across as more complex than a two-dimensional strawman, despite only twelve episodes.

He isn't merely a "Big Bad"--he has reasons for his behavior. At one point, he argues that Barney and his officers couldn't possibly be as clean and upstanding as they are because it isn't "natural." On several occasions, his efforts to expose other people's "criminal" attitudes highlight his own foibles. He comes across as more desirous of applause and affection, despite his slimy nature, than even he realizes.

It is clever writing and clever acting. And never fails to raise a laugh.

Barney Miller earned its Primetime Emmys.

Sad but Not Tragic: Two Television Deaths

I usually consider literary deaths as the result of lazy writing. I discuss this many times on Votaries.

Every now and again, I am impressed or not bothered by a death. The following examples from the following two shows are about not being bothered (and include spoilers--you've been warned!):
Person of Interest
I was surprised that Dr. Sweets' death didn't bother me more. It is possible that I was bothered less than I would have been if I hadn't known the death was coming (studies have found that spoilers actually enhance people's enjoyment of shows). However, I believe there is another reason.

In the Bones' Season 4 episode "Mayhem on the Cross," Gordon Gordon Wyatt and Sweets have a wonderful exchange. Wyatt pegs that Sweets was adopted relatively late (age six) from a horrific situation. He was taken in by elderly parents who loved him dearly. Wyatt continues:
Dr. Gordon Wyatt: [to Sweets] So now you're mostly alone in the world. But they had time to save you. They gave you a good life, and that's why you believe that people can be saved by other people with good hearts. That's the gift your parents left you. That, and a truly good heart. That gives you a deeper calling that I do not share.
This sense of calling follows Sweets throughout the seasons. Although he occasionally worries that he is not accomplishing enough or leaving a strong enough mark on those around him, the viewer knows that Sweets is living each day to the fullest; he treats every day, every interaction, as a gift, the fulfillment of a life he never thought to have.

Person of Interest
I haven't watched Season 5 yet, but I read the spoilers, and yes, John dies.

In the first season of Person of Interest, John and Harold have the following exchange:
John Reese: He said we don't need to worry. He might even help us someday.
Harold Finch: I was listening in, Mr. Reese.
John Reese: I was reading between the lines
Harold Finch: I suppose only time will tell which one of us is right.
John Reese: Thank you.
Harold Finch: I beg your pardon?
John Reese: For giving me a job.
Harold Finch: Try the eggs Benedict, Mr. Reese. I've had them many times.
Throughout the series, John tells others many times that he is grateful for his patron, benefactor, friend who saved his life and gave him a purpose. John perceives himself as a fallen soul (Harold perceives him as a knight, inherently good and noble). For John, every day is something he didn't look for, an extra gift. Like Sweets, he may have ended up quite differently; consequently, the life he currently lives has become a series of second chances, to live as the person he thought he wouldn't get a chance to be.

In real life, death is always sad. Also in real life, we tend to see an adult's death as less saddening than a child's since childhood is a gateway to the next stage, adulthood. In truth, in real life, adulthood has many stages of its own.

In literary terms, Sweets and John have tackled and overcome the final stage. Their deaths aren't mistakes. They are ends to lives already fully valued and enjoyed.

Remarkable writing. 

Successful TV Relationships That Didn't Work Out

Generally speaking, I'm a fan of an iconic couple getting together, especially since current shows are far better than shows in the 1980s and 1990s at maintaining a high standard of writing even after the  fatal kiss. Bones continued to do remarkably well once Bones and Booth formed a permanent alliance. And the final seasons of Stargate with Jack would have been better served putting Jack and Captain (Major) Carter together (it is heavily implied that they are together off-screen).

Every now and again, however, the lack of a permanent arrangement is a good call:

Diane Chambers-Sam Malone

Shelley Long is a talented comedienne, so much so that she falls into the so-awful-she's-hilarious category. As Diane Chambers, she is more quixotic than irritating (if she was too irritating, Cheers would be unbearable to watch). Still, I can think of no point during Cheers' original run (or now) where I believed she and Sam Malone would work as a couple.

Apparently, at the end of Season 4, when Sam Malone proposes to someone on the phone, viewers voted on whom he had proposed to (I vaguely remember this but never saw the results). I was flummoxed that anyone thought he proposed to Diane--or that if he did, the writers wouldn't immediately undermine the relationship. Did anyone ever think that Sam and Diane could possibly work? Ever?

To be fair, the 1980s and 1990s were filled with these types of oil & water relationships. I never believed in the Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd)-David Addision (Bruce Willis) romantic relationship either. Writers have not only gotten better at writing relationships after the couple get together, they've gotten better at preparing viewers for relationships that actually work: Bones and Booth are in fact more like each other than initially supposed.

This is not to say that Ted Danson and Shelley Long didn't have sexual chemistry. The characters are quite effective as fighting exes. Still, the writers were wise to keep them apart--though that decision may have been due to Shelley Long's decision to leave the show in Season 5.

"Put your brother on the phone!"
Frasier et al. 
I was a fan of Frasier getting together either with Laura (the married cellist that Frasier meets at the airport, sweetly well-played by  Linda Hamilton) or Lana (hilariously well-played by Jean Smart).

However, to a large extent, Frasier not ending up with anyone is the point of the show. The last episode sees him heading off to Chicago to hopefully continue his latest relationship with Charlotte (played by Laura Linney). It is an act of hope.

Frasier is the ultimate example of the guy who climbs back on the horse.

Although I criticize the writers' disingenuous claims that Holmes and Watson on CBS's Elementary were not written with sexual tension in mind (oh, puh-leaze), I am thoroughly impressed by their skill in making Holmes-Watson a non-romantic couple. They are great friends with strong chemistry, but there is no hint that they will ever end up in bed.

And absolutely no need. The friendship--especially the implication that this particular friendship will last a lifetime--is solid and reliable, exactly as the Holmes-Watson friendship is supposed to be. It is also a friendship of equals which Holmes-Watson friendships are not always portrayed as being. The viewer can be grateful that such disparate, unique, and somewhat aloof personalities have each other to rely on.

Wendie Malick: Comedienne Par Excellence

Wendie Malick is a gifted comedienne. She has starred in several sitcoms, such as Nina Van Horn in Just Shoot Me! (a well-received sitcom with a plethora of gifted actors, including the gifted Enrico Colantoni).

After Just Shoot Me! she guest-appeared as Martin's girlfriend/wife on Frasier, where her ability to deliver good-humored and confident lines made her the perfect foil to Frasier and an excellent second wife to the down-to-earth Martin (although the first wife, Frasier and Niles's mother, was more sophisticated and academic, both wives share commonsense as well as a similar build and look: Martin has a type). 

Malick is sassy without being shrill. She is also naturally pretty. She reminds me of Zoe Morgan (Paige Turco) on Person of Interest who is bone-deep beautiful. Any make-up is simply an accessory, not the purpose. Wendie Malick can play aging fashion model with no extra effort.

She also has a factor that I consider vital to all good (American) comic actors: she is unself-conscious. Like David Hyde Pierce, she doesn't mind playing "the fool." Nor is the audience left with the uncomfortable sensation that the actress was embarrassed in order to make the scene work. Rather, the actress (or actor) is in on the joke!

We laugh alongside, which is the best way to laugh. 

Emma Lathen: Early versus Later Mysteries

My version of John Thatcher (at home) sans the
laptop--because of course, the novels start
in the 1960s.
I recently read through all Emma Lathen's John Thatcher novels, most for the third or fourth time, a few for the second time.

There are 24 in total, starting with Banking on Death and ending with Shark Out of Water. I consider Banking on Death (1) to Going for the Gold (18) to be canon; the remaining novels are good but "less-canon."

I have always been hard-pressed to explain why. What exactly changes between Going for the Gold (#18, one of my favorites) and Green Grow the Dollars (#19)? It isn't the cast of characters. Thatcher, Trinkam, Miss Corsa, Gabler, Nicolls, and Bowman all make appearances. It isn't the emphasis on business and banking. Emma Lathen (two authors acting as a duo) have always been "Wall Street's Agatha Christie." As in all the novels, the resolution/denouement rests on a clever and insightful understanding of human nature.

The most classic Lathen murder
mystery: estranged husband & wife,
mistress, and deer antlers.
The later six novels seem to be less about a stock group of murder mystery characters (which I prefer) and more a listing of people who could possibly be involved in a deal (which I find tiring). It's the difference between the-wife-who-might-murder-her-husband and the research-partner-who-has-stock-options-and-is-also-related-to-the-vice-president-of-operations.

Due to the smaller cast, the earlier books also focus more on the detective, Thatcher, rather than on the multiple possible murderers. Many of the later books feel rather like later Columbo episodes where the script spends so much time introducing and explaining the soap opera relationships between the various characters, one begins to wonder when Columbo will show up (this may have been done to spare the aging Peter Falk physical exhaustion).

There is also a difference in tone. In Green Grows the Dollars, Thatcher and Trinkam end up at a seed & plant conference. When a CEO assumes Thatcher is there for the sake of his company, Thatcher responds:
"No. I'm in Chicago on other business. I recall your talk about the convention, of course. But I don't see that the Sloan [Bank] has anything to gain by attending."
This is, in fact, something that Thatcher would think. But it's not something he would say in the canon books. In the canon books, the narrator would write something like the following:
Thatcher  reflected how quickly people assume that the world is entirely concerned with their concerns. He had never attended a convention of plant specialists and although he was always willing to broaden his horizons, he saw no reason to do so now. He explained as tactfully as he could that a worldwide bank like the Sloan did have other reasons to visit Chicago. 
The books explore many business
ventures from hockey to the
automobile industry.
Funny. Wry. This tone is apparent in Green Grows the Dollars, which still delivers quintessential passages, but it is less prevalent than usual--precisely because Thatcher is less prevalent than usual. The attitude of wryness continues but not always the direct experience.

Thatcher is a great outside-the-box detective: he is a conservative, middle-class man, who appreciates the life he has chosen but doesn't take it quite as seriously as his fellow bankers. He works hard but at the back of all the work lurks a sense of bemusement: Why would anyone ever get so invested in this world he or she would resort to murder?

In the later books, by necessity (amid all the other deal-making characters), he becomes more The Earnest Man of Business.

All the books are worth reading. My favorites include the following:
  • Ashes to Ashes, Book 12, which involves the Catholic Church and parent protests as well as bomb threats (and comes down to a classic business murder suspect)
  • Sweet and Low, Book 15, possibly my overall favorite, which involves the cocoa exchange and has hilarious satiric exchanges between an avant-garde artiste and a couple of Italian businessmen who refuse to play the part of European highbrows
  • Going for the Gold, Book 18, which includes evocative scenes of a snow-bound Lake Placid during the 1980 Olympics (which was not actually struck by a blizzard but could have been)

How Patterns Influence Our Lives

In Beyond Human Nature, Jesse J. Prinz argues that culture is the ultimate determiner of behavior. In the chapter "Gladness and Madness," he addresses depression, which is statistically on the rise.
"Perhaps," Prinz argues, "we are learning how to be depressed . . . Each symptom of major depression can occur naturally, and each can be viewed as a coping response to the challenges of life . . . The difference now might have something to do with the fact that we all know about depression . . . Everyone has learned how to be depressed. We have learned the depression script. We have learned that a certain set of symptoms co-occur with an intensity that makes life painful and difficult . . . [Culture] can make a cluster of symptoms . . . define the relevant curve balls . . . train us to construe things in a way that increases the likelihood of getting depressed."
Prinz has a point. The idea that we "learn" (through culture) what certain experiences mean as well as how to react to them explains defunct behavior like swooning and the half-deliberate/half-non-deliberate hysterics of the teenagers in the Salem Witch trials.  Later in the chapter, Prinz relates how different cultures deal with or interpret depression, noting that the conditions and explanations can differ substantially.

Prinz does allow (repeating several times) that there may be a genetic predisposition or hormonal imbalance involved in depression (and he goes on to argue that strong cultural expectations make the experience largely involuntary--though not how someone deals with it).

In truth, I don't completely buy into Prinz's argument, precisely because I think he ignores the impact of biology and hormones to a stunning degree. I half-expected him to start arguing that women are the ones to give birth because, hey, that's what our culture expects. (The animal nature of the human experience is a force that many cerebral interpretations prefer to by-pass.)

However, I think Prinz has a minor point, especially when it comes to families (although he does not address families exclusively). I dislike environmental and genetic determinism and have no intention of replacing those "theories" with THE BLUEPRINT THEORY. The following is a possibility, not an explanation of all human behavior since time began.

The Possibility

Families, culture writ small, create blueprints in their members' heads. Some of those blueprints reside in the unconscious; we accept them because to not do so would make life impossible. This blueprint can involve traditions as basic as the fact that we call people by names (not numbers or emotions-see Inside Out).

Other blueprints reside in the semi-conscious: how people think about work, how people argue, how people react to holidays. These blueprints can be questioned. The questioning by itself is not inherently meritorious or unique. After all, there is no such thing as a life without patterns or a blueprint. As Hayden Fox explains on Coach, even the absence of a parent can be a blueprint.
It's impossible to imagine--humans ARE their patterns.

In fact, human beings couldn't exist at all without these blueprints--whatever John Lennon tried to

For instance, take a blueprint that exists in many families and churches: reverence. In Western, middle-class, American culture, this largely philosophical concept has a blueprint of people sitting quietly and politely in dresses and suits while listening to quiet music and/or quiet speakers in an often pastel environment. Or, being alone in a large quiet field with a beautiful (non-urban) view.

It is very Protestant.

When I teach my little kids at church, I teach them to behave in the above way (or try to) because I know they will benefit in Western, middle-class, American culture if they know how. I would be remiss if I didn't. This largely Protestant behavioral ideal is necessary if my American little kids want to grow up to get good grades in school, wait in line at post offices, learn to drive, get jobs after surviving reasonably civil interviews, attend weddings, attend movies in movie theaters, go to restaurants, not get killed by mobs at soccer games or music concerts, and so on.

However, I confess, I don't take the next step in the blueprint; I don't tell them that this particular behavior is inherently "righteous" or "Godly."

If they were older, I could explain that "this blueprint is the way that people demonstrate Godliness in our culture," but they aren't that old. They need to be socialized--and I'm perfectly willing to socialize them to the current norms since those norms are fairly effective (and I'm not the type of radical to "revolutionize" the norms until I know the new norms have been tested). 

But I can never forget--and I don't especially want them to forget--that it's a cultural and temporal blueprint. In the past, Bible men and women showed reverence by dancing, shouting, wrestling with angels, spitting on people (no kidding), and running away.

God is bigger than Protestant America.

Truth: the blueprint my students get at home and with their peers (see Judith Rich Harris) is more powerful than anything I tell them anyway. And those blueprints--how people are supposed to parent, how people are supposed to act in large or small groups, how people are supposed to handle sadness or confusion, how people are supposed to deal with defeat or success--are powerful.

I'm not sure how much the blueprints can be changed. I do know that many of them can be questioned and tweaked and that small tweaks can lead to decidedly different outlooks and choices in life (if this wasn't true, then human nature would never change at all: lower-classes in Europe wouldn't have upped and moved to America; medicine would never improve--see miasma theory; and people would never have gone into space).

Choice matters. As Judith Rich Harris states, quoted in Steven Pinker's Blank Slate, "We may not hold [children's] tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable," and as Stephen Pinker himself states earlier in the same book, explanation is not the same as exculpation (his emphasis). We may not be singly responsible for the rise and fall of cultures, but whatever happens in the present is well within our purview.

Forster and Travel

Forster fascinates me as much as a man as a writer. Furbank's excellent biography reveals a man who was diffident, opinionated, well-read, a product of his class yet surprisingly lacking in the prejudices of that class.

He had the remarkable ability (echoed in Fielding's character) to accept what a country or place had to offer. Consequently, he is probably one of the few intellectual travel writers who recognized the "boring" side of a place. Forster rarely fell victim to the "I am having a NEW experience--it MUST be grand because I am ABROAD!"

Forster's refusal to produce knee-jerk intellectual glorifications of his travels reminds me of a comment by P.J. O'Rourke when visiting the South American rain-forest:
"[The male witch or shaman] seemed to be a nice man, very dignified with sad and common-sensical eyes. I'm sure he was, in his way, as pious and devout as ever was Reverend Lackland, the incredibly boring pastor of Monroe Street Methodist Church, which I attended as a child in Toledo, Ohio . . . In fact, the [shaman's] spiritual cleansing ceremony was at least as tedious and lengthy as Methodist Sunday school."
Barbara Thorndyke: I was in Morocco when
I had writer's block...the man gave me [this]
brooch; since then, I've never had a problem.
This is my muse, my artistic inspiration.
Blanche/Rose: And it goes with anything!
Barbara: You missed the point of the story.
Blanche/Rose: Oh, really? Run it by us again.
It also reminds me of a scene in Golden Girls where Dorothy's new friend, Barbara, tells her
pretentious story of being "spiritually" inspired by a foreign place. Rose and Blanche keep interrupting with mundane comments. Barbara gets irritated: Rose and Blanche aren't responding properly; they're supposed to be awed by her soul-changing experiences. It's an astute encapsulation of adopting a pose about travel rather than being a honest tourist. Because of course, Barbara stayed at the nicest Americanized hotels. She only experienced "the other" as a touchstone to her own life.

Rather than producing knee-jerk intellectual pseudo-spiritual reactions, Forster observed. He was also willing to go along with the events of the moment (there was a playful side to Forster). When visiting the Maharaja (before he went to work for him), Forster and his British companions were given Indian court dress. One of Forster's friends "later recalled that, of all the guests, Forster wore his with the most dignity." Forster's friend guessed that princely grandeur appealed to Forster. My guess is that unlike the other guests, Forster wasn't self-conscious. His attitude was "oh, okay, why not."

  Forster was, in other words, the kind of tourist who, while visiting a country, stays not in the fancy "American" hotels but in a local hostelry. Eats the food. Wears the dress. Watches the entertainment. Talks to the natives. Yet at the same time, he is perfectly willing to say, "Hey, that makes me uncomfortable" or "Boy, that entertainment was tacky" without such comments becoming an indictment of the entire culture. Since he knows that every place has its complement of normal everyday people, he more or less expects to encounter the same variations of interesting, monotonous, enthralling, unusual, silly, puzzling, and self-interested behavior everywhere.

Forster measured a thing for its own sake or by his immediate subjective response, not because it did or didn't match up to what he was used to or what he was supposed to be experiencing.

So, for example, at the Maharaja's banquet, he disliked the apple-like sauce; heartily disliked the "dreadful little dishes that tasted of nothing until they were well into your mouth, when your whole tongue burst into flame"; become quite attached to a sweet rice; and so on.

Forster is NOT the kind of tourist who would visit Japan, stay in a monastery, then complain because it wasn't central heated. On the other hand, he might say something like, "I can never get used to waking so early." That is, he wouldn't immediately decide that the experience was "special" because it was supposed to be. Nor would he decide that it was dreadful because it wasn't what he imagined. He would simply decide to experience it. And if he got a little cold, that was part of the experience. He may or may not experience it again. That decision certainly wouldn't be based on what he was supposed to feel or think.

None of this is to say that Forster didn't have his prejudices. But he had the remarkable ability to objectify his own imagination.

Television as the Old-Fashioned Morality Tale

Back in the Middle Ages, players would stage morality plays in town centers. The plays, which often revolved around an Everyman character, could be boisterous, funny, saccharine, maudlin, sentimental, religious, thought-provoking. They were, in fact, medieval sitcoms.

Modern sitcoms attempt and often achieve the same feat.

Frasier, "Door Jam": Frasier and his brother Niles schmooze their way into an elite day spa. They are happy until they realize that there is a "gold" door (a step up from the "silver" door at the front of the spa). They wheedle and maneuver until they get through the gold door to a more upscale, exclusive area.

They enjoy their day at the spa right up until they are placed in the "relaxation grotto" where they spot--oh no!--a platinum door. Determined not to be withheld from the "grass is always greener" next exclusive area, they plunge through it (despite being warned not to), only to find themselves standing in the alley outside the spa, surrounded by bees.

Pride--in this case, envy and covetousness--comes before the fall.

Coach, "Uneasy Riders":  Dauber and Coach buy motorcycles even though their women (Dauber's fiancee, Coach's wife) would not approve. Desperate to avoid an argument, they keep moving the motorcycles around--from the college to the shed to under the porch. The episode ends with Coach and Dauber hiding under the front porch of the cabin. They hunch  over the motorcycles as the two women greet each other above.

"Yeah," Coach says, "this is freedom!"

What a tangled web we weave . . .

A life lived in fear is a life half-lived . . . and doesn't involve much freedom.
*Or, as Helen Keller would say, "Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold."
*In terms of politics: a scramble to protect personal liberty at all costs can often result in a loss of all freedoms.
*In terms of religion: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it . . ."

Friends, "The One With the Lottery": When the friends buy a bunch of lottery tickets together, they instantly begin to fight over how they will spend the money and who should get the money and whether or not they should share all the tickets. The only person who doesn't fight: Joey, who puts the welfare of his friend Chandler above his own monetary desires. The fighting only ends when Chandler gets the job he wanted--it won't make him and Monica as rich as the lottery, but it will give them more satisfaction.

The lust for money is the root of all evil. 

This is a proverb that I wish I could test more often.

Good thing television does it for me!

Z is for Zahler: Classic Retold Fairytales

Zahler writes retold fairy tales. I chose Princess of the Wild Swans because it was one of my favorite fairy tales growing up.

My mother told me the story first. Although I can't remember her version exactly, the basics are always the same: a princess's brothers are changed into swans by an evil enchantress. The princess escapes into the wild where she learns that she can turn her brothers back if she weaves shirts out of nettles--only she must not speak at all during the months of weaving. 

In the Grimm-like ending, a prince finds and weds her. While he is out of town, his (evil) mother decides that the nettle-collecting princess is a witch and tries to burn her alive. The princess continues working on the shirts as she is being hauled to the stake. Her brothers fly over the town, and she throws the shirts over them. Since the last shirt isn't finished, that brother ends up with one wing instead of an arm.  

I was utterly enamored of this tale, which I first heard when I was five or six. When our family journeyed out West and stopped in the Redwood National Park, I was captivated by the "walk-in" trees. That was where the princess lived!

When I got older and started collecting books off Amazon, Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Seventh Swan was one of the first ones I hunted down (I also own Nicholas Stuart Gray's impressive short story collection, A Wind from Nowhere).  

Zahler's coming-of-age story, although a tad slow in parts, is an excellent adventure yarn and actually makes more sense than the original. For one, the princess still mustn't speak, but she can telephathically share her thoughts with her helpers. So the last 2/3rds of the book is not devoid of dialog.

I also never understood how nettles could be made into shirts and assumed that the nettles were sewn together. Zahler makes clear that the nettles go through a process that eventually results in yarn: nettle yarn is a real thing. Consequently, however, this means the princess needs help, which again makes more sense than some starving girl hanging out in the woods by herself. She is helped by one of her brother's sweethearts, that woman's brother, their witch mother, some of the guards, and the townspeople.

The evil enchantress-stepmother poses a problem, and the final chapters are quite exciting!

In the wrap-up, Zahler thankfully retains the prince with one wing: it's a great pay-off for a story. So often, fairy tales end rather like Star Trek episodes: How did the ship get fixed so fast? But the swan story leaves a hint that a problem can resolve but not always exactly as expected.

This completes the third A-Z list. Coming next . . . non-fiction!

Quantum Leap: Great Moments 2

"Catch a Falling Star"--In this episode, Sam performs several songs from The Man of La Mancha; Scott Bakula has quite a nice voice. At the end, Sam (as Don Quixote) climbs the stairs to where Al, his sanguine Sancho Panza, awaits. They are ready to begin their chivalric (quixotic) quests again.

"Another Mother"--Sam performing karate in the headlights of the car is quite cool.

There's a lovely Sam and Al moment when Al is talking dinosaurs with Theresa (Troian Bellasario, who will show up many years later as McGee's sister on NCIS) while Sam looks on.

Generally speaking, in terms of writing, acting, and commonsense knowledge (what the characters would know at any given point in the episode), this episode is one of Quantum Leap's best. It is also the second time Sam plays the part of a woman and wears a dress. The first time, the episode was all about him being a woman. This time, it isn't, and Bakula wears his dress with utter unself-consciousness, which I admire.

"M.I.A."--Another well-written episode (which will be surprisingly paid off in the finale, something I didn't know until only a few years ago). Bakula and Stockwell deliver excellent performances; in fact, the entire episode is well-cast. And the ending is weep-worthy.

"The Leap Home, Part 1"--This episode contains a stellar scene that is so right psychologically, it always makes me gasp a little. Sam's little sister has been kidding him about "being from the future." She pretends to believe him and challenges him to play an as-yet unwritten Beatles song. Sam performs Lennon's "Imagine"--not one of my favorite songs, but Bakula sings it beautifully. Al stands behind him while he plays and joins in on the final line of the chorus.

However, the camera stays on the sister. As Sam gets further into the song, her face changes from amusement to pleasure to consternation to sorrow. It is a new song, one she has never heard before--which means, Sam might be telling the truth about the bad things that could happen to the family. It is a terrifically well-filmed scene.

"The Leap Home, Part II"--At the end, Sam discovers the photograph of Al as a POW. Standing in the bar in Vietnam, he looks up at Al with pain and queries him. With studied nonchalance, Al replies, "Hey, I was repatriated in 5 years," adding, "Up here [he taps his head] I was always free."

This scene is also a pay-off for "M.I.A." Al has come to terms with the fall-out of his life.

80's clothes--but very Al.
"Leap of Faith"--When Sam comes out of the church, Al is waiting on the sidewalk. This is one of the few times that Al doesn't arrive from the imaging chamber directly at Sam's shoulder. There is a psychological reason that Al doesn't do this, and I like the variation. Plus Al's cocky stance is quite sexy. Stockwell has great physical presence and wears his 80's clothes with panache and comfortable stylishness (sidenote: one of the smartest things about Quantum Leap is that even though it started in big-weird-hair 1980s, Dean Stockwell's thick hair is always kept clipped quite short; it looks very good). 

"The Boogieman"--I like this episode despite how utterly strange it is; Dean Stockwell does a great job as the character whose creepiness only slowly creeps up on one. I also love the Nehru-like tunic he wears at the end.

French Stewart: Great Character Actor, Great Performer

I adore French Stewart. He plays Harry, the dimwitted brother in 3rd Rock From the Sun
--who also happens to be a canny dope. One of my all-time, no holds barred, favorite scenes comes from the Season 2 finale of 3rd Rock--in which French Stewart performs a Broadway-like number.

He shows up in The Closer as "Gary Doesn't Lie!"--the real estate broker who is constantly trying to finagle Brenda into buying or selling a house.

And he was in Stargate (1994), which means I'll love him forever.

French Stewart has great verbal comedic timing but, perhaps more importantly, he has excellent physical comedic timing. He is one of those gifted actors who is actually a joy to watch even with the sound off. In 3rd Rock, he is correctly designated as the alien who knows how to dance, having instinctive rhythm. This ability continues to show up in The Closer where Gary's frenetic attempts to dissuade or persuade Brenda fit excellently with her own unpredictable energy.

Y is for Yolen: Dragons Belong to Sci-Fi, Not Just Fantasy

This is the cover I grew up with.
For Y, I went back to an oldie but goodie: Jane Yolen's Dragon's Blood, the first in her Pit Dragon Series.

Yolen is an extraordinarily prolific writer for YAs and kids. She is also the editor of multiple fantasy anthologies. And I'm not even going to try to list her awards.

I chose Dragon's Blood because I remembered reading it years ago. This is not always the case with writers whose works I haven't collected. I remember The Narnia Chronicles because I've read them so often (I had to put myself on a 10-year recess after I collected the 1970 paperbacks through Goodwill and Amazon). But Yolen, while not a writer I read much of, is a writer I am always aware of. And Dragon's Blood evidently made enough of an impact that I remembered not the plot, which I had entirely forgotten, but the experience of reading it.

This is the edition I read recently.
It holds up remarkably well. In fact, if one wants to make a movie about dragons . . . I guess Dreamworks came along and made the decent How to Train Your Dragon, yet for dragon lovers (see comments on G is for Gannett), Dragon's Blood should have been a no-brainer as a film. Not only does it have a sympathetic hero and non-stop action, it has sociological and character complexity as well.

Of course, lovers of McCaffreys' Dragonriders of Pern would likely say the same. What interests me is that Yolen--possibly inspired by McCaffrey but certainly not possessed by her--both set their series on other worlds. How to Train Your Dragon doesn't, though it might as well be another world, bearing absolutely no resemblance to the Viking world I had to research for "Grave's Bride."
Pern illustration

Dragons seem so imminently  earthly, so much a part of human folklore, creating another world seems unnecessary. 

Except McCaffrey's and Yolen's other-worlds-with-dragons don't jar. Dragons may belong here, but they thrive better elsewhere. They also seem, rather like Patrick Stewart, to cross without discord between genres. Unlike other supernatural legendary beings, dragons do belong to space, not only to sword & sorcery.

Forster as Role Model

Forster is an interesting example of an author whose work I only tepidly admire but for whom I feel a great liking.

So often it seems to be the other way around!

Forster is someone I probably wouldn't get along with in real life--he was a tad too highbrow--yet someone I easily understand. The product of the British upper middle-class, he was not exactly snobbish, not exactly intellectual, not exactly Bohemian, and definitely not a "good old boy." He went his own way without fanfare, so much so that even the Bohemian set failed to really "get" Forster. He was no rebel yet far more tolerant than I am of insipid philosophizing: he found D.H. Lawrence interesting if vaguely irritating, stating at one point that a book of Lawrence's was "the queerest product of subconsciousness that I have yet struck--he has not a glimmering from first to last of what he's up to."

Yet at the same time, he warns readers in Aspects of the Novel to avoid "resenting or mocking [Lawrence because then the writer's] treasure disappears as surely as if we started obeying him." I confess to being less kind to Lawrence, yet I admire Forster for reminding me to judge a book not by an outside official standard but by what the author is attempting to achieve (in this regard, Forster reminds me of C.S. Lewis's Experiment in Criticism although I've found no evidence that the two men met and cannot imagine they would have gotten along--though I could be wrong). 

I don't know if Forster would have liked Blackadder, but
he seemed to share many of his attitudes.
Forster's approach to politics was not dissimilar to his literary attitudes. He was able to stand outside any event, including his own self, and analyze it objectively even as he reacted to it with great sensitivity ("sensitivity" here means an eye for detail as well as tremendous compassion--many friends and acquaintances of Forster thought him the kindest soul they had ever met; it also refers to easily hurt feelings, the last of which Forster would wryly admit to). During WWI, he served more than competently as a searcher through the Red Cross (so well that he was promoted), yet he refused to report for military service, not because he was a conscientious objector (he admitted he wasn't) but because he had no desire to involve himself in what he considered a pointless war and he certainly couldn't fight. The "good old boys" of the British army were stymied. Forster pulled strings and was utterly unapologetic about doing so. The "good old boys" gave up trying to figure him out.

This is Forster: not lacking in moral beliefs but holding such moral beliefs that refuse to be categorized; consequently, he was sometimes perceived (on both sides of any issue) as lacking in commitment, even though he turned out to be invariably right about the pointlessness of running after a particular cause or banner. Yet even when right, he never saw himself as any kind of leader.

I mention his wryness. Forster's humor is entirely understated. He isn't precisely sarcastic and he isn't ironic in the manic style of Monty Python. In fact, he isn't truly ironic at all. He is, that blessed English word, droll. And not constantly droll or witty like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Forster's drollness is just there--quietly buried in gentle, analytical, friendly, occasionally quaint, descriptive sentences.

So at the beginning of Aspects of the Novel, whilst distinguishing between story (something happens; then another thing happens; then another thing) and plot, he writes (about story):
It is immensely old--goes back to neolithic times, perhaps to paleolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping around the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.
The final line slides in there without any preparation. I read past it for another three lines before I started laughing my head off. 

Likewise, in a letter regarding Thomas Hardy, Forster reports how Hardy showed him the graves of all his cats. "How is it, Mr. Hardy," Forster asked, "that so many of your cats have been run over? Is the railway near?" When Hardy replied that it wasn't; he didn't understand the number of mowed down cats himself and in any case, these weren't all of his cats, Forster ended the letter by commenting that he had difficulty not laughing, "it was so like one of Hardy's novels or poems."
Dog Culture

What draws me to Forster is not any particular biographical note or even a desire to imitate him.
Rather, I admire his reluctance to perform the tribal rituals of a particular clique or group or faction. And I like his steady refusal to see this as some kind of failure (though I haven't quite achieved that last yet). Forster's position is rather like always being the odd one out in high school, even moreso since it extended--with Forster--to literature, art, religion, politics, nations, relationships, and theories about life. Forster tried hard (and mostly failed) at being atheistic. Still, I utterly understand his quiet dismissal of people insisting that he THINK or BE a certain way. He is tremendously comforting to the individual who wishes to be neither follower nor leader, rebel nor patriot, conformist nor non-conformist.

And he seems to have enjoyed life far more than many of his contemporaries.