Monthly Archives: June 2012

How the rabbit ears died

Nothing ages faster than a vision of the future. Re-read A Clockwork Orange today and you’re reminded of the Cold War, Harold Macmillan, and B.F. Skinner. Re-watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and you wonder whatever happened to Pan-Am airlines. Re-read Fahrenheit 451 and you find yourself explaining the concept of rabbit ears. 

Yeah, rabbit ears. Fahrenheit 451 was part of the summer reading list Dances With Mermaids brought home from school, so I got her a copy along with The October Country. Since she more or less lives with earbuds pumping dubstep directly into her brain, I derived some small amusement from mentioning Ray Bradbury’s image of people walling themselves off from the world with tiny “seashells” jammed into their ears. Then I remembered the scene in which Montag notices that the only house in his neighborhood where people are laughing and talking to each other is the one without a television antenna on the roof. And I found myself explaining to this child of the digital age how TV was once delivered into the living room through a roof antenna that looked like a deranged Erector Set project, or a pair of rabbit ears on top of the TV set, and that television reception was often a very iffy thing, apt to dissolve into a blizzard of static if the rabbit ears were improperly adjusted, or if somebody stepped back from the television after tweaking the controls like a safecracker. Even the way you sat affected reception on certain days. No wonder cable caught on so fast. I didn’t know from tai chi when I was a kid, but later on I instantly understood its purpose — an ancient Chinese technique for improving television reception.

I rattled on about all this, even throwing in a mention of the Peanuts comic strip sequence in which Charlie Brown has Snoopy stand on his TV and move his ears to clear up the picture. Then I caught the distant look in her eye, the look of a teenager who knows that if she waits long enough, Daddy will run out of oxygen and she will be able to leap free of the Old School Time Machine Tour. I do go on sometimes.

I was thinking of showing her some episodes of The Outer Limits, but I wonder what she would make of the intro, and the idea of someone else controlling the sacred vertical and the sanctified horizontal. The course of one’s evening TV viewing used to hang on those two pegs.

Maybe I just won’t worry about it. One of those tempus fugit things.

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Radio Radio

Ann White and Pam Stack will have me on their Internet radio show this Friday, June 29, at 3:30 p.m. The main subject will be my novel We All Fall Down, though the talk will probably broaden to include the next two or three books looming on the horizon for next year. My man J.D. Rhoades (whose blurb graces the cover of We All Fall Down) has already spent some quality time with Ann and Pam — listen to it here.

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Letter to a young weasel

You’ve probably seen this video of Karen Klein, the school bus monitor being teased and insulted past the point of human endurance by a bunch of middle schoolers in upstate New York. Like me, you probably felt a little nauseous watching the thing. You probably also wanted to see the bullies punished in ways even the Taliban might consider inhumane:

Since the video became to talk of the nation, well-wishers have donated over a half-million dollars to a fund for Karen Klein, officials of the Greece Central School District are talking about disciplinary measures, and two of the four kids have apologized, though not in person. Apparently these faux badasses who could spend ten minutes vomiting filth at an elderly woman lack the stones to look her in the face and say they’re sorry. Why am I not surprised?

They certainly are a sorry bunch, and since Karen Klein seems to be taking her unwilling media celebrity with plenty of poise, I find myself imagining how the parents must feel. Sure, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and all that, but any parent knows there are moments when one’s child can do something horrifyingly out of character. And I’ve seen other children who behaved like disgusting creeps at a young age but matured into apparently decent and interesting young people.

What would I say to one of my kids in this situation? I would want to say something like this:


You picked on an old lady and made her cry. You looked at a woman old enough to be your grandmother, a woman with tragedy in her past, and the only thing you could think to do was make her life as shitty as possible. I spent years raising you, taking care of you, wrapping you in love and good things, trying to show you the best in the world, and this is what you did with it. I look at that video and hear the cruelty in those voices and I don’t recognize the child I raised. I wonder who you really are. I wonder if I really want to know.

Are you proud of all this?

The woman has said she doesn’t believe the apologies she’s heard, and I don’t blame her. She heard the vile way you talk when you think you can get away with it. Now, when you’re out in the open and everyone is watching, you say nice things and offer an apology. It’s nothing but a lot of words. I wouldn’t believe them, either.

The bad news is that nothing you say will redeem yourself in her eyes. There is some good news, though. Not much, but enough for us to work with. And you need to work on this.

You can get better. You don’t have to be a smirking creep your whole life. Learn good things, and do them. Improve yourself. Next time, instead of joining in with the weasels, you be the one who tells them to stop. Watch that video and memorize it. Whenever you find yourself sounding like that again, stop and go the other way. And while you’re learning to do this, I’ll be asking myself some hard questions, too. Did I do anything, model some kind of behavior, that made you think this was an acceptable way to act? But you’re old enough to bear responsibility for the things you do and the things you become. If you’re going to be any kind of man at all, you have to do better than this.

You may never again have that woman’s respect, but if you do things right, you may eventually deserve that respect.

Start now.

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Museum day

Today’s the day for my little talk at the Hoboken Historical Museum. Tales of murder, corruption, and traffic engineering. All the things that make the world go ’round. I’d want to go even if I weren’t already supposed to be there. 

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Don’t mess with Iceland

If Bill O’Reilly ever goes back to Iceland, I suggest that instead of crow, he be given some nice dish of hakarl to eat. Just saying.

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Turn and Facebook the strange

With my usual headlong rush to embrace new technology, I have started Facebook pages for my two books to date: the crime novel We All Fall Down and the popular history book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. If you pay them a visit, please be a mensch and click the Like button. It doesn’t mean a permanent commitment or anything. It’s not like there’s a Love button. It’s more like a “We’re good friends” kind of thing. No phone calls in the middle of the night — I promise.

And you know, in the coming months those two Facebook pages may have a couple more friends keeping them company. No details as yet, but gears are grinding and planets are aligning. More details as they develop.



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Andrew Sarris

Way back in the Pliocene — or was it the Holocene? — when I rode my faithful mammoth Woolly to the news stand every Friday morning for the latest edition of the Village Voice, I skipped past the Andrew Sarris film column as diligently as Beatles fans cued their needles after George Harrison’s track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and for pretty much the same reasons. Droning performance, slumber-inducing voice, off-putting religious veneration — I dig Hitchcock and Sturges, but critic puh-lease! — made for some tedious column inches. Not that J. Hoberman was much better, stylistically speaking, but his prospecting through the swampier recesses of art-house cinema yielded the occasional nugget of interest.

Along with Sarris’ clunky style there was always that odd defensiveness, the sense that Sarris saw himself as Thomas More resisting “the fashionable backlash” against some movie or other. Maybe he was afraid Pauline Kael would sneak into the office and yank away his chair while he sat musing on the glories of Marnie or Hail the Conquering Hero. Whatever the reason, there’s no disputing the fact that until David Edelstein wandered through the Voice door in the early Eighties, the magazine’s film section was nothing much. One immediately turned to the music and concert reviews, or to James Wolcott, and after him, Stanley Crouch (fleetingly) and Adolph Reed (even more fleetingly) for something sparky to read. If things were really slow, one might visit the resident coelecanth, Nat Hentoff, for those fleeting moments when he could still write something interesting.   

Back then, true-blue film buffs tended to group themselves around Sarris the arch-auterist and Pauline Kael the gut-reactionist. Kael was suspicious of schools and systems of analysis; Sarris hardly ventured beyond them. Both critics were formidably knowledgeable and aggressively opinionated, but Kael’s responses could be unpredictable and exciting, whereas Sarris seemed to evaluate movies by running down his auteur theory checklist and announcing “genius” when the right number of boxes had been ticked off. When his tastes coincided with mine, his observations never deepened my appreciation of the film; when his tastes clashed with mine, his arguments never prompted a reconsideration. Oddly enough, though I’m not much of a sports follower, I always found him most engaging when he wrote about sports.

Though he was a seminal figure in the development of American film criticism, Sarris faded more quickly than his colleagues. When he lost his perch at the Village Voice, he had to settle for playing second banana to Rex Reed at The New York Observer, a fate no self-respecting critic should have had to endure. (When career hack Jeff Lyons ended up as Michael Medved’s butt-boy, it seemed only fitting.) But his passing (like the news that Hentoff is now ranting for the neocons and Obama-haters at WingNutDaily) mainly stirs rueful thoughts about the decline of the Voice and the kind of magazine market that once supported eccentrics and cultists like Sarris. Where movie criticism is concerned, the fizz has moved to the Internet, and I would guess the spirit is closer to Kael’s than the man who, in his flightier moments, imagined himself her nemesis.          

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Drivin’ and Writin’

This is one of the most unusual writing methods I’ve ever heard:

Every evening, after supper and perhaps an hour or so of television, AJ would fill a thermos with hot coffee, check his tape recorder to make sure the batteries were healthy and there was plenty of tape, kiss his wife, Edna, good night and then get into his car and drive away. Drive where? That didn’t matter because he wasn’t sightseeing. What he was doing, Scheherazade-like, was dictating a new story each night, though instead of into the impatient ears of a threatening sultan it went no farther than a spool of magnetic tape — at least, not until AJ got home sometime in that early morning, dumped the filled tape spools next to Edna’s typewriter and went cheerfully off to sleep. Edna was an excellent typist, so by the time A J shambled into the kitchen for breakfast around early afternoon, the manuscript was ready to be shown to an editor.

Now is as good a time as any to restate my opinion that Frederik Pohl’s blog is one of the best writer’s sites to be found on the Intertubes. 

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Thirty years in the dark

Sure enough, the news that the Azaria Chamberlain death case has been resolved after more than thirty years brought out all the “a dingo ate my baby!” jokes, or at least references to them. Like most people living outside Australia, I knew nothing about the case before I saw A Cry in the Dark, the film version of John Bryson’s 1985 study, Evil Angels. The infant girl, just over eight weeks old, disappeared in August 1980 from a campsite near Ayers Rock. Though there was every reason to believe the child had been taken and killed by a dingo, a vortex of tabloid hysteria built around rumors that she had actually been murdered by her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. The Chamberlains were Seventh-day Adventists, and their obscure religious beliefs, combined with Lindy’s thorny personality — she refused to bare her feelings for exploitation — fueled preposterous stories about “Azaria” meaning “sacrifice in the wilderness.” There was also a lot of nonsense to the effect that dingoes, wild dogs often sentimentalized as symbols of Australia’s scruffy independence, were harmless to humans. An initial inquest cleared the Chamberlains of wrongdoing but left enough wiggle room for the law to take another run at the couple. Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty of murder in 1982; Michael was convicted of being an accessory. The two were finally cleared of the charges in 1988, following the belated discovery of physical evidence corroborating Lindy’s account.

A Cry in the Dark was a knockout, an unflinching look at how two people who should have been allowed to heal after suffering a terrible loss were instead tortured by the legal system (Australian prosecutors, like their American counterparts, apparently never admit to being wrong) and ghoulish tabloid reporters. The film was directed by Fred Schepisi, who along with Gilliam  Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), George Miller (The Road Warrior), Peter Weir (The Last Wave), and Bruce Beresford (“Breaker” Morant) was part of the initial wave of Australian filmmakers who made movies worth seeing in the Eighties, while American filmmaking was at a very low ebb. Schepisi had gone to Hollywood after making a splash with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and coming up from Down Under seemed to have given him the bends. A Cry in the Dark was a return to hard-edged form.

Unfortunately, A Cry in the Dark starred Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain, and coming a year after the disastrous prestige picture Ironweed it mainly served as an excuse to make jokes about Streep’s use of accents. Streep’s performance was superb, but a mangled version of a line of dialogue from the film became the pat reaction to any mention of the film. The joke is now firmly nested in pop culture, referenced in Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even those “Caution: Baby on Board” signs that used to clutter the windows of cars. “Caution: Dingo and Baby On Board” was the line, as I recall. As Roger Ebert noted at the time, Streep’s performance was very risky for a big-ticket Hollywood actress: in playing a woman who refused to be ingratiating, and thereby became the victim of hostile public opinion, Streep herself evoked hostility because she stayed true to her character. She was being knocked for doing her job well.

Maybe the word for Lindy Chamberlain’s behavior wasn’t “thorny” so much as “dignified.” She had the temerity to consider her family’s grief a private matter, but in the mass-media age a woman in her position is expected to play a role and satisfy television’s appetite for victim porn. For her offense, Lindy Chamberlain was the target of suspicion and mockery instead of sympathy. Maybe it would have been different if Azaria had been eaten by a wolf or a great white shark, but you know, dingoes. Funny name, right? It’s even funnier when you try it out with a nasal Oz accent. Put another shrimp on the barbie. A dingo ate my baby. Nyuck nyuck.

Lindy Chamberlain’s been on television a lot since the new finding was announced, and it’s clear she’s learned to present herself to the lenses in a conventional, acceptable way. It’s a lesson she never should have had to learn. I don’t know how a mother can live with the knowledge that her baby died in uncomprehending pain and terror, waiting for her mommy to rescue her from a terrifying monster. No parent should have to live with that.  

I like bad-taste jokes as much as the next bozo, and my love of black comedy and gallows humor is a matter of record. But whenever I come across one of those “a dingo ate my baby” jokes, I am reminded that popular culture, like popular opinion, is capable of bottomless cruelty.

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