Pieces of my Brain

It’s the good anger: My two favorite movies of the December “let’s release all the good movies at once” season were “Spotlight” and “The Big Short.”  Both involve a serious issue that remains a stain on the national  conscience, its perpetrators unpunished, its victims uncompensated. (Yes, OK, some people got money. Not. Good. Enough.) Interestingly, both films end with simple white type on a black background detailing the damage done and the uncertain future. The real world intrudes, and it disorients us. You mean, it all doesn’t end when we leave the theater?

Both are angry movies, but the anger is processed in very different ways. “Spotlight” is a quiet movie; when evil-doers are confronted, nobody yells and nobody shoots. And yet the reporters are driven by a explosive sense of outrage and shame.

Newspaper people are hard to surprise. Every school board meeting, every political press conference, is another opportunity to see cupidity and stupidity in action. But the systematic abuse of children by priests, and the Roman Catholic church’s shameful refusal to deal with the issue, made the cynics mad. Reporters hate to be surprised by the extent of human depravity; when people who have “seen it all” see something new, they get really pissed off. And when they’re pissed off, they’ll never stop digging. This movie is a hymn to research.

“Spotlight” also gets the details right, including the deplorable fashion choices that seem to be the dominant mode in all newsrooms. Even when reporters go on television –the same dweeby jackets, the same unconvincing scarves.

“The Big Short” is not a quiet movie. Everybody yells; everybody walks fast. Director Adam McKay likes the razzamatazz; he throws in celebrities and cameos and drum solos. He wants to suck you in so you’ll understand viscerally how badly you were screwed. Somehow, he makes us root for the very guys who saw the fraud and decided to profit from it. There are people we like in the movie, but there are no heroes. Everyone is in on the con.

Only you, you poor bastard, missed out.

Still the Undisputed Champion: So Laurie Anderson gave a concert for dogs in Times Square. Dogs like very low tones, so there wasn’t much for humans to hear. And it was outdoors in January. Still, it was art. Anderson has a movie out about her beloved dog so perhaps she wanted to promote the movie. That is the way of the world.

But it was officially art, because Yoko Ono said so. She also said that a silent concert for dogs was something “only Laurie could get away with.”

Friends, this is Yoko Ono. She’s a living icon. She’s a link with the past. She’s the naked woman on the John Lennon album. She invented bagism. She and John Lennon climbed inside a large bag and stayed there for quite a long time, moving only slightly. Members of the audience largely stayed put and stared at the bag, hoping perhaps to see a glimpse of celebrity limbs. It was supposed to be a parody of stereotyping and prejudice, because you’re in a bag and nobody can see what color your skin is.  Or something.

So, in fact, she could easily get away with a silent concert for dogs. She’s the queen of getting away with stuff. All hail Yoko Ono! And imagine peace.

Wait, penguins:

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The music of my life: About five years ago, I began noticing that the music of “my era” (roughly 1960-1975) was being used disproportionately in films. I thought maybe it was because the directors were all elderly. Marty Scorsese and I (I call him Marty) have essentially the same tastes, but it’s not just him. It’s younger guys, guys who listened to the Dylan records their Daddy played.

The trailer for “The Big Short” used “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. I remember them. The film “Joy” used songs by the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, the Bee Gees and Ella Fitzgerald. (Indeed, the whole Great American Songbook has never been more popular). The music of Van Morrison has, interestingly enough, been featured in a wide variety of rom-coms. And Motown! It’s the fallback choice for practically everything from murder to making out.

So, maybe my suspicions are right, and my music is being used because it’s BETTER than other music. Just as I thought.

Because I care: I feel it is my responsibility to alert you to cultural matters of interest. So let me recommend “Girl Waits With Gun,” by Amy Stewart, a true tale of dastardly deeds and virtue triumphant. Also coming up: Sebastian Boswell III at the Fog City Magic Fest, doing his shocking, mysterious mentalism — a skill he learned, as I understand it, from Marcel Duchamp.

The fact that I am friendly with both of these people in no way influences my judgment on these matters. All my friends are people of great talent. If they’re not, I cut them off without a word.

So read that book and go to that show.

Wait, more penguins:


Oh my God it’s…: I sense a conspiracy, an unspoken benign conspiracy with thousands of participants. I am sure that somewhere on the Internet there are spoilers for the new Star Wars movie. But they’re not very frequent. I didn’t have to dodge any before I saw the movie, nor was I tempted to post any afterward.

There are of course fake spoilers (Carrie Fisher is in it! She  even has the same old double-bun hairstyle, except modernized! Not really a secret).  But there are also secret  secrets, and somehow there’s not a whispering campaign.

Maybe everyone is really rooting for the new movie, and they’re afraid people won’t like it as much if they know what’s coming. I didn’t, and I was real happy that I didn’t.

Not even “The Crying Game” had so many secret-keepers.

The Lithograph Gambit: Because of ethics rules at my old job, I have not contributed money to a political candidate in over 30 years. This has kept me off a lot of mailing lists, making cleaning my email box much easier, and leaving my snail mail box free to accommodate catalogues from American Girl (grandchild) and Dover Saddlery (other grandchild).

But lately I’ve been getting mail from Ben Carson. Yes, his shrinking and impoverished campaign has somehow found the wherewithal to mail me a large envelope with the intriguing announcement “Lithograph Enclosed.”

I believe that the Carson campaign has identified me as an old white guy. I don’t think the campaign’s metric gets any more granular than that. Hey, Ben — I live in Barbara Lee’s congressional district. She’s leftier than Jean-Paul Sartre.

So now I have a lithograph of Dr. Ben looking soulful. He  looks soulful the way Matthias Schoenaerts looked soulful in “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Like you’d want to take him into the sheep barn and fuck him.

If you’re into that.


Photography by Tracy Johnston
Mailchimp expertise and phone advice by Michelle Mizera

“…to live Peaceably with won a nother…”

Jane Franklin was born in 1712, in a dirty, smelly colonial city clinging to the edge of the continent. Louis XIV, the Sun King,  was still on the throne of France. Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift both published books,  Peter The Great declared war on the Ottoman Empire, and, in England,  John Shore invented the tuning fork.

America was muddling along, skirmishing with Indians and fretting about taxation. But it was 60 years before the famous Tea Party; Boston was content and placid as a colonial backwater.

 Jane Franklin did nothing that made history. She did not sew a flag, spy on the British or write even one Federalist paper. Like every woman of her time, she was shut out of politics (and philosophy, medicine, the law, religion, etc.) by social rules that have been immutable for most of human history.

But Jane Franklin was not exactly idle. She cleaned, she cooked, she planted, she butchered, she washed, she chopped, she repaired.  She made soap, a two-day process, and sold the extra to make money for the household.

She gave birth to 12 children, most of whom she outlived. Her husband was a wastrel and a fool; she was often close to debtor’s prison and had to take in boarders.  Yet she complained little and meditated on Christian theology.

Her story was much like the stories of women everywhere, in the 18th century but also in the 4th century and the 20th century.  Men make history and think great thoughts; women do the chores, raise the children, behave piously. Their ideas are not recorded; their triumphs are not commemorated. They are lost to history.

But Jane Franklin was different in one way; she was the beloved younger sister of Benjamin Franklin. She saved his letters to her, all of them. After a while, Ben kept his sister’s letters too, so we have some record of her thoughts, her sorrows, and her preoccupations.

From these and many other sources, Jill Lepore fashioned a biography, “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” from which I have lifted most of the data in this post.  (All errors mine). The book is an attempt (one of many) to bring the stories of women into the common historical record.  It’s a swift and satisfying read,  cleverly written and seriously intended.

Jane Franklin loved to read. The books considered suitable for women were mostly dry tracts about moral improvement. Her Boston church was relatively liberal; her brother was even more so. She debated religion with him (he was a newspaperman by training; a skeptic by inclination), and he sent her books filled with new ideas. She read them avidly.

She loved to talk politics; visitors to her house recall being quizzed about the events of the day and asked about the conversations on the street and in the taverns. Which was useful, because the talk on the street was “We’re thinking of starting a new country. Just floating the idea. Thoughts?”

She chided her brother for not answering her questions. but she knew what she knew: Ben approved of independence, and his writings (wry, modest, aphoristic) helped push the country into war.

At the start of the war, the British occupied Boston. There were shortages of almost everything; arrests were common; dying in jail was also common. When winter came, there was little wood for heat.  The British eventually decamped, but the war raged on. Families were fractured over political allegiances. Jane hung on somehow; the whole country hung on somehow.

Things got better when the British left. Jane rejoiced in her grandchildren (who seemed a lot saner than her children, many of whom seemed to have inherited their father’s troubled mental state) and traveled to see her relatives in other states. She even went to Philadelphia and lived with Ben for a time.

Finally she had time to read, time to think. She began being bolder in her letters to her brother, arguing (decorously) with the most famous and admired man in America. Their bond remained strong. During Franklin’s tenure as ambassador to France, he gave away samples of the “crown soap” she made as an example of homespun American pluck and ingenuity. So popular was it that he had to keep importuning his sister to send more.

(Franklin was a great manipulator of public opinion. He published a newspaper in which he humble-bragged his way to the top of colonial society. In France, he wore simple clothes and talked in provincial aphorisms, all to reinforce the idea that Americans were a simple people — and thus no threat to France.)

Ben was 81 when the Constitutional Convention happened. He was in pain from a variety of ailments, but he wasn’t about to miss the convention. It was a raucous business, as merchants, farmers, rum-runners, soldiers and other unlikely candidates attempted to make an imaginary country a little less imaginary.

The American Revolution put everything up for discussion. Everything. They knew they didn’t want a king; beyond that, it was open ocean. In the end, they decided voting might be a good idea. Voting!

They also liked freedom of speech quite a bit. That was sorta new.

Jane Franklin was busy writing letters to her brother, urging him to see the world as she saw it, to acknowledge the suffering of war. Here’s a little of what she wrote. I am keeping the original spelling because, as Lepore says, spelling is part of the story. Jane was self-taught; there were gaps in her knowledge, although not in the mind behind it. This is from a letter she wrote as the convention was about to start:

“I hope with the Asistance of Such a Nmber of wise men as you are connected with in the Convention you will Gloriously Accomplish, and put a Stop to the nesesity of Dragooning, & Haltering, they are odious means; I had Rather hear of the Swords being beat into Plow-shares, & the Halters used for Cart Roops, if any of that means we may be brought to live Peaceably with won a nother.”

Peace was not inevitable; the colonies were riven by factionalism. The only way peace could be achieved was by compromise, which depended on reason and good faith. I just want you to consider that for a moment: A political meeting dominated by reason and good faith.

And they got it done. They invented a country. No one was completely happy, but they invented a country.

Benjamin Franklin was the first to speak when the deal was finally done. It was a time of surging nationalism, a time of bunting and conspicuous patriotism. It was a time, in other words, ripe for demagoguery and triumphalism. But here is what Benjamin Franklin said:

“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall ever approve them. For having lived so long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I had once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”

So the most influential American of his age announced the beginning of the new nation by reminding his colleagues — by reminding everybody — that human error was inevitable, and that no one person held a monopoly on the truth.

He and Jane both came from humble beginnings. Social rules allowed one to rise while the other remained indentured by custom. She didn’t blame immigrants or criminals or the British. She didn’t even blame men, although she certainly could have. She stayed cheerful; she stayed alive to new ideas. She cherished peace; she loved reason.

I’d vote for her.


Photography by Tracy Johnston
Patience, marketing and general hilarity by Michelle Mizera