Friday, March 23, 2018


Where At All Other Times, They Riot  (2017-2018)

I walk through snow and woods to see
Trees collapsed in each other’s branches,
Held aloft by a notch or twig.

One has snapped in two,
Its splintered shards rising like
Pikes and steeples;
The trunk bent over
Like a gate, or a bridge.

To me, it looks forbidding.

But the dog wades out,  
Through nettle and thistle,
To the bridge of the broken tree.
She will return, covered in thorns.
It will take me an hour to pluck them.

Some trees land hard;
Others are caught up in another’s embrace,
As if it had been waiting
For that moment all along.

So much happens where I walk,
Peacefully, among trees,
Where, at all other times,

They riot.

Deep Winter (2012)

Deep winter.
Fatigue, unaccountable loneliness.

Other people flee to warm climates
Joyful, hopeful,
Sustained by anticipation.

And though this winter has been mild,
(I think I’ve shoveled twice)
I see nothing to photograph:
A bare oak in a field,
Vacant nests among branches;
A red-tailed hawk perched on a wire
scanning the ground for a meal. 

It’s Tuesday.
Valentine’s Day.
I feel a sense of loss
And the beginning of the flu.

Tired, unsentimental,
Memory does not serve.

A bench in winter, covered by snow:
Unwelcoming. Solitary.

My thoughts, far from God,
Run cold.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Company of Men, or, Why Not-Good Podcasts Are Incredibly Popular

I have a 14-year-old son.  He watches a lot of YouTube, so I have watched a lot videos featuring my son's favorite You-Tubers: Philip DeFranco, PewDiePie, H3, Adam Rippon from "Hot Ones," and Rhett and Link from "Good Mythical Morning."

Philip DeFranco looks to be about 30.  He sits huddled in front of the camera with his shoulders hunched forward.  He gives the impression of speaking to the viewer with candor and intensity.  He speaks quickly, and if he hesitates or loses his train of thought, that gets edited out. The result is a continuous stream of verbiage from one topic to another, a non-stop flight to wherever DeFranco's taking us.

DeFranco is like the worldly uncle who holds forth at the dinner table.  The nephew, who doesn't care to listen to his parents speak on any subject for more than 30 seconds at a stretch, hangs on DeFranco's every word in reverent silence.

I don't mind DeFranco. He's not indoctrinating my son into some emergent neo-Nazi fraternity.  And that's a relief, because DeFranco seems to wield more influence over my son's world view than either of his parents.  (I was grateful to DeFranco for his take on the Parkland, Florida school shooting, the response of the students, the role of the NRA, and the government's inaction.)  DeFranco is my son's go-to guy for what to think about current events.

And then there's PewDiePie, of course.  Like David Letterman and Jim Carrey, PewDiePie sports a long beard worthy of ZZ-Top, or Moses. PDP is so big, he doesn't have to be handsome anymore.

PDP also speaks directly to the camera at close range in what appears to be a small room, not much bigger than a closet, with lighting that changes color constantly and makes edits appear jarring.  I get dizzy watching PDP in that color-variable space as he swivels and fidgets, looks this way and that, and struggles to find the right words.

I was kind of mad at PDP for doing a series of videos on whisky---reviewing different brands of very expensive bottles. It seemed like a bad choice of topics, considering the tender age of his audience, and the fact that he cannot describe whisky with any insight whatsoever. ("This one is nice! This  one is really nice!")

But I forgave PDP for the whisky series when he started reviewing books, and saying that he had forgotten how fun reading could be.  I bought Josh one of the books that he reviewed, and Josh was super excited to read it. Thank you, PDP!

Both PDP and DeFranco appear to talk very openly and candidly about their thoughts on every topic, and they never seem to patronize their audience.

I think there must be something about boys, young men, and grown men, too, that makes them care so deeply about what other guys think about everything.

Maybe they crave the company of men, and perhaps the approval of men--especially those whom they respect for being older, cool, or  accomplished in their field.

Or, as in the example of H3, maybe guys just like hanging out together.

H3 is a shaggy guy with moppy hair and subtly quirky Tourette's Syndrome. He's 20 - 35 pounds overweight,  depending, and he doesn't mind using his body to get a laugh.  He also has a warmth and humanity about him that is appealing, even to me, a quality that is much more pronounced in H3 than in either DeFranco or PDP.

H3 is goofy, self-deprecating, and often surprisingly sincere.  He's the friend that you would hang out with and share a laugh and be stupid with; but he's also the buddy who can be serious and sensitive when called upon.  He's not the one you look up to, but he might be the one that you lean on.  He might be the one that you would spend the most time with.  And in his studio space, which is bigger than DeFranco or PDP's, there are usually a couple of friends hanging out with him, blabbering on about whatever.  It is the loosest possible format.

H3 has a girlfriend, Hila. She's from Israel. She is a more or less constant presence on H3's podcasts.  She is not nearly as chatty as H3, but when she has something to say, she says it. She doesn't compete with him in any way; H3 clearly wants and commands center stage. Hila is the appreciative side-kick, the quiet Robin Quivers to H3's Howard Stern. She is a woman who has made a nest for herself among a den of men.

What I am impressed by is how, when H3 is hanging out with Hila in the studio, and there's some guy there, they're just hanging out, free-associating, doing nothing--they're attracting tens of thousands of viewers.

I guess, guys just like hanging out with guys--even vicariously. Maybe that's all, and maybe that's enough.  They don't need to be good. They don't need to be actively entertaining anyone. They can just do absolutely nothing. They don't need to be witty or clever or anything. They're like friends whose company is a comfort in itself.

And then there is Rhett and Link, the buddies on "Good Mythical Morning," a bro-mance of two appealing thirty-ish guys. Rhett has very high red hair and a very long red beard, between which are two enormous, arresting eyes.  Link has a good high head of hair, too, but it's going gray on one side. He looks like a cheerful mad-scientist.

Their format is not as loose as H3's, but it still allows plenty of margin for chaos, spontaneity, happy accidents, and rambling. The show always has a theme, and there is music, props, and production people milling about, commenting and assisting with stuff.

"Good Mythical Morning" doesn't feel contrived, yet.  It feels casually creative.  It feels like they're having a good time, and genuinely wish to entertain.  They pick topics like, What fast food joint makes the best biscuits, or the best subway sandwiches?  Or which frozen dinner entree is the most tasty or least revolting?  They conduct experiments in which they have to eat super hot peppers or permit themselves to be mildly injured.  They have done their part to create a You Tube culture that would inspire a foolish kid to eat a Tide Pod and videotape his own rapid physical decline.

That said, I don't blame Rhett and Link for that incident. I'm just saying, they have done some pretty dumb-ass things--like eating ghost peppers, for example.

But the point I wanted to make in this loosely formatted blog post was that Rhett and Link are yet another male archetype: The fun young hip dads.  So much energy!  So much imagination!  So much brio!

True, they may be more interested in hanging out with each other than with their own kids, but...But then their kids could be best friends: little Rhett and Link Jr., and everybody could be creative and have fun together.  Camping would be a blast.

And finally, there is Adam Rippon, host of "Hot Ones," a podcast in which Adam interviews mostly marginally famous people, most of them men, while sitting across from them at a small table eating chicken wings dipped in progressively hotter hot sauce until the guest can barely speak without drooling, vomiting, or passing out.

Adam, 27, is blandly pleasant looking, bald, and vaguely--just vaguely--sycophantically masochistic.

I mean, the guest is eating the hot sauce once, but Adam is burning a trail through his esophagus every single day, while peppering his guests with carefully researched questions about their careers, connections, and adventures.

Here again, I find a recurring theme in pain. Those chicken wings do eventually inflict serious discomfort and pain upon Adam's guests.  How they respond to that pain, and how far they're willing to go (all of the chicken wings? To the last dab?) becomes a test of character--in front of a camera.

Which also reiterates what we've seen on "Good Mythical Morning," where Rhett and Link have, as I mentioned, eaten excruciatingly hot peppers, as well as incredibly disgusting things. They have permitted pain to be inflicted upon them as part of an experiment in empathy.  They allow cake to be flung in their faces.  All in good fun.

I'm not interested in indicting anybody over this. I'm just saying: There's a pattern.  In one podcast,  H3 put on something like 50 or 100 shirts, one over the other, until he could barely breathe and started to panic, and then they couldn't get them off fast enough.

What is it all about?  How does this derring-do, this I-will-if-you-will, this bonding through agony, figure into the landscape of the American male psyche?

(Do women do this sort of thing?  I don't think so. Not that often.  Is that because we have menstrual cramps and vaginal birth seared into our pod-scripts?)

Everyone who goes on "Hot Ones" experiences not only the pain of the pepper sauce, but also the attention, adulation and publicity that Adam provides in exchange for their suffering.

Charlize Theron was on "Hot Ones" the other day. I couldn't believe it. Neither could Adam Rippon. Women are rarely guests on his show, and they often seem out of place. Charlize dropped a ton of f-bombs, but still, she was Charlize Theron at Any Bar On Main Street In Your Town...A fabulous non-sequitor...A movie star going through a hot pepper ordeal for...what reason...?

Oh, right: For the bazillion viewers watching "Hot Ones," a tightly formatted, super-low budget podcast about eating chicken wings with hot sauce until your head bursts into flames.

Men must crave each other's company in a way that, for many of them, probably goes largely unfulfilled in their lives. Clearly, the success of these YouTubers doesn't rest on their talent, per se. It isn't about their wit--or anything, really. Their popularity seems to stem from a lot of guys wanting to hang out with other guys, and maybe eat a few ghost peppers, or throw back a Tide Pod.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Seeing the Absence of Women

Of these 33 movies, three of them are about women.  ONE of them was directed by a woman--Kathryn Bigelow, and she remains the ONLY woman EVER to win an Oscar for Best Picture or Best Director.

  • 1975 The Godfather II
  • 1976 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • 1977  Rocky
  • 1978 Annie Hall
  • 1979 The Deer Hunter
  • 1980 Kramer vs. Kramer
  • 1981 Ordinary People
  • 1982 Chariots of Fire
  • 1983 Ghandi
  • 1984 Terms of Endearmen
  • 1985 Amadeus
  • 1986 Out of Africa 
  • 1987 Platoon
  • 1988 The Last Emperor
  • 1989 Rain Man
  • 1990 Driving Miss Daisy 
  • 1991 Dances with Wolves
  • 1992 The Silence of the Lambs
  • 1993 Unforgiven 
  • 1994 Schindler's List
  • 1995 Forrest Gump 
  • 1996 Braveheart
  • 1997 The English Patient
  • 1998 Titanic
  • 1999  Shakespeare in Love
  • 2000 American Beauty
  • 2001 Gladiator
  • 2002 A Beautiful Mind
  • 2003 Chicago
  • 2004 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • 2005 Million Dollar Baby  
  • 2006 Crash
  • 2007 The Departed
  • 2008 No Country for Old Men
  • 2009 Slumdog Millionaire
  • 2010 The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow--the first and only woman ever to have won an Oscar for Best Picture or Best Director)
  • 2011 The King's Speech
  • 2012 The Artist
  • 2013 Argo
  • 2014 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, African-American)
  • 2015 Birdman
  • 2016 Spotlight
  • 2017 Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, African-American)
  • 2018 The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, Mexican)
Why is the number of women directors so low?

A Google search of that question yields the following justifications:

1. The Academy selections reflect the reality of the film industry, and not the academy alone. (We didn't create the situation, we reflect it.)
2. "Most major film award organizations rarely recognize films directed by females as award-worthy." [ "Has A Woman Ever Won An Oscar for Best Picture?"]
3. The film industry rarely hires women to direct films.
4. "Films that are directed by women tend to be comedies or light dramas, which are not the types of films that often get nominated for Oscars." [Ibid.]
5. "While more women direct independent features, these are very often overlooked for major awards." [Ibid.]
6. The category for Best Director only supports five nominees in any given year. (What are the chances that woman will make the cut?)

This list of excuses sounds remarkably similar to an essay published this week, "From the Death Desk: Why M0st Obituaries Are Still of White Men." [NYT]

To summarize:
1. A lot of people die, and we can only publish obits about a few of them.
2. Choosing is a collaborative process. (Decisions were made by consensus--by a quorum of men, I'm assuming, though the editor wasn't specific on that point.)
3. "We're exclusive in the extreme." Due to space limitations. Why? What did you think he meant?
4. We necessarily have to focus on people that have "made a difference on the broad stage" and those whom we believe "will command the broadest interest."  In other words, like the Academy, their choices reflect broad cultural norms: a) Women are not seen to make a difference on the broad stage and b) No one cares about women anyway.
5. The credentials of privilege are an important part of our selection process: Curriculum Vitae and being well connected, for example.

In recognition of what has been, and apparently will continue to be, a formula in which women have always been and will continue to be overlooked (for the reasons enumerated above), the NYT has this week also published, "15 Remarkable Women We Overlooked in our Obituaries," by Amisha Padnani and Jessica Bennett. They will be extending that list every week to include more overlooked women, making this a regular new feature of the NYT.

You may be surprised to find, on this first list of 15 remarkable women, that the NYT had overlooked the painfully obvious Sylvia Plath, as well as their own New York native, photographer Diane Arbus; both of whom, I hasten to point out are listed beneath China's slain feminist, Qiu Jin (1875 - 1907) and Mary Eqing Outerbridge (1852-1886) who "established what may have been America's first tennis court." Talk about burying the lead!

And while I applaud this important step toward recognizing women, I was struck, as a long-time admirer of Diane Arbus, that her delinquent so-called obit did not actually celebrate her as an artist so much as it questioned her integrity and legitimacy as an artist.  (As if to say, What the hell are those disturbing photographs all about?!)

I think, if you are finally in a very delinquent manner deciding to honor someone's life, well then, fucking honor it.

What brilliant white male artist was ever referred to in his obit as the son of privilege, as the NYT refers to Arbus "the daughter of privilege"?

And what obit ever written about a famous white male artist reiterates all of the doubt and speculation cast upon him by his critics back in the day, and completely omits the perspective of the artist himself, or his proponents?

Because Diane Arbus very clearly writes in the long and eloquent Introduction to her first big published book of photographs about how, despite having grown up privileged, she has always felt very strange and different on the inside.

She found herself attracted as a photographer to what some people call freaks, because she felt that they appeared on the outside as outsiders the way she felt on the inside like an outsider.  If her subjects appear as outliers, alienated, or disturbed...Well, Arbus did kill herself, after all; a fact which, unlike other facts, did not go unremarked upon in the NYT's extremely delinquent obit.

Let's not confuse recognition of women with character assassination, however framed in honorifics.

Could anything be more insidious than to trot out all our overlooked greatness, only to bury it once again beneath a heap of critical scorn?

There is a place for thoughtful criticism. The artist's obit is not it.

The other 14 women fared better, on the whole, though I would say that the tone and treatment of the writing does not hold to the consistent level of dignity and respect that I associate with obituary writing.

Be that as it may, the positive side of this delinquent new obit list is that the identities, stories, and achievements of women are beginning to be recognized.

VISIBILITY of women--both dead and alive--will signal to our daughters and aspiring young women that we see them, and they will not necessarily be consigned to the dustheap of history, no matter how extraordinary their achievements, as other great women before them had been.