Sunday, December 21, 2008

A new holiday tradition

I'm not certain about this, but I am ready to bet that the phrase "the War on Christmas" was coined by Fox News' enfant terrible Bill O'Reilly, who, along with his simpering, platinum-haired cohort John Gibson, have made a new Christmas tradition (as well as, in Gibson's case, a fair amount of money) out of complaining that Christmas is "under attack."

By who? Well, liberals, of course. Liberals, one is led to believe, are taking over the country in what is ostensibly a renewed effort to force homosexuality, Leninism (that's code for universal health care), and godlessness into the impressionable and as-yet-pudding-like brains of your children. Yes, they're out there, those damn Reds... and they're battling as we speak to take the Christ out of Christmas.

This, of course, is utter nonsense -- and I am of course not the first one to point this out. But let's examine the American tradition of Christmas, now as in decades past, and find out exactly how much of the Baby Jesus is apparent in the way we, as a society, have celebrated the Savior's birth.

First, there are the old traditions. There's the timing, of course -- December 25, eerily close to the druidic celebration of the Winter Solstice (December 21), which is the shortest day of the year. According to Christianity Today, December 25 was settled on around A.D. 273 after a long controversy over whether to even celebrate the Nativity at all, and was eventually chosen to coincide with two pagan holidays: the natalis solis invicti (birth of the unconqered sun) and the identified birthday of Mithras, an Iranian god considered the "Sun of Righteousness." Both gods were popularly worshipped by Roman soldiers. Church fathers, apparently eager to make the transition to Christianity (which had recently been elevated to the status of "official religion of the Roman empire") as smooth as possible, decided to pick a feast day that already was being used as one by the people.

So, in terms of timing, we've already departed from the scriptural account (which lacks any mention of a specific date anyway). How about the Christmas tree?

Well, according to the hivemind responsible for Wikipedia, the Christmas tree is most likely a derivative of a Germanic pagan tradition linked with the Festival of Lights, celebrated on the Winter Solstice. The Wikipedia entry claims further that the practice of decorating evergreen trees as part of the Christian festival was initially decried as a pagan practice when it arrived in the United States in the 19th century... but apparently, the novelty caught on and its origins in the pagan wilds of medieval Germany were forgotten, replaced with new metaphors -- the evergreen tree, rather than representing the cycle of seasons, now represents Christ's triumph over death. Fair enough -- symbols are only as good as the notions they evoke in their viewers.

On to more recent additions. In a memorable Saturday Night Live skit, Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" decries Santa Claus, pointing out (to great comic effect) that there's only a transposition of letters separating the names "Santa" and "Satan." That aside, it's with the adoption of Santa Claus that the less-benign elements of the American tradition of Christmas begin to creep into the picture.

Saint Nicholas was traditionally honored on the anniversary of his death, which is recorded as having occured December 6, A.D. 346. He was a bishop who lived in Lycia, which is now Turkey, and had a "reputation for secret gift-giving," as well as having been a miracle-worker. Older traditions of Saint Nicholas Day involved placing small gifts in the shoes that children left out overnight on December 6. Other than being a Christian saint, Nicholas (in his own Greek, Agios Nikolaos), had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.

Christmas gift-giving ostensibly has something to do with the visit of the Magi, who are said to have brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Holy Family shortly after Christ's birth (their visit is traditionally celebrated January 6, on the feast of the epiphany). But Nikolaos of Lycia somehow got dragged into the mix, and this eventually was mutated into the decidedly non-Christian notion of a "kindly elf" who lives at the North Pole flying around the world distributing gifts to children who have been good all year.

Other cultures have interpreted the myth in different ways. But America's version of Saint Nick -- the plump, jolly, bearded grandfatherly-figure in red and white who works all year in his magical toy shop -- dates back only to the late 19th century (much like the Christmas tree), and was given his place in popular culture not by any church or faith, but by Coca-Cola (the company has since switched its holiday advertising mascot, and now uses polar bears).

It would no doubt be possible to make an exhaustive list of "Christmas Traditions" that have no roots whatsoever in the birth of Christ -- but hopefully, these few examples have made my point. There's very little of Christ to "take out" of Christmas in the first place, and to the extent that Jesus is remembered during the holiday, he is certainly not under any kind of real attack. The only place the story is actually celebrated is in churches, pageant plays, and in homes -- and there's nothing even resembling a credible threat to any of that (perhaps with the exception of school pageant plays, but really, how horrible would it be if those were to go away?).

What is under threat, however, is the assumption that everyone in the country celebrates Christmas in the way that Christians do. Jews, for example, who constitute a sizable minority among Americans, understandably want little to do with Christmas, and instead celebrate Hanukkah, their own festival of lights (which also has been corrupted over the centuries and now has its own cultural over-emphasis on gifts).

Simply saying, "Merry Christmas" to some stranger during the holiday shopping season -- and shopping really is what the season is about -- does little or nothing to recall the birth of Jesus, and the rest of the Christmas traditions have nothing to do with Christ anyway. Substantively, what changes if Wal-Mart or Target clerks politely call out, "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"?

Lots, if you're troglodyte like John Gibson or Bill O'Reilly. Apparently, it's phrases uttered by store clerks that inspire the bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked, Norman-Rockwell-esque youths populating our country to ask their parents questions like, "Mommy, who was this Baby Jesus guy?" Clearly, Toys-'R'-Us employees have a crucial role to play in the catechesis of the young. In all seriousness, though, why should anyone rely on the rest of society to instill religious curiosity in children? If faith is important enough that store employees remind kids of the importance of a particular holiday, shouldn't the subject have been brought up in the home by the time a child is old enough to start asking theological questions? Or are we to believe that parents, by and large, are mute on the subject of Christ until their offspring broach the subject?

On reflection, it might even be possible to understand if this indeed were the case. Christmas, as celebrated in the U.S., runs from the "Black Friday" (which, this year, resulted in at least three shopping-related deaths) to December 24, and has much more to do with bargain-hunting than Savior-celebrating. The cherished traditions have decidedly un-Christian heritages, and Jesus has indeed been relegated to an afterthought -- but not by any nefarious liberal scheme. Indignation over the new, alleged "War on Christmas" is sheer lunacy, because it is based on a notion as fundamentally fictional as Santa's eight tiny reindeer.


Monday, December 15, 2008

What did we learn?

Well, it appears (so far) that I've survived my first semester of graduate school. Now, I suppose, would be as good a time as any to look back and figure out exactly what it is that I've learned.

The first thing I learned was what political science isn't -- it is not comparative history, it isn't advanced civics, and it isn't about rhetoric. This may come as a surprise to no one other than me, but apparently, political science is actually science -- sort of.

Even practitioners of the "social sciences" (sociology and political science, for example) are careful to note the distinction between their field and the so-called "hard sciences," such as physics and chemistry. While the "hard sciences" study the interactions of physical bodies and particles and predict their behavior, doing the same thing to human societies is a little fuzzier... humans, as it turns out, are somewhat less predictable than hydrogen atoms.

Enter statistics, which I got a great introduction to this semester. Skipping over the boring, number-y parts, the value to using things like "normal distributions" and large sample sizes is so that you can get a reasonably good predictor of behavior to a certain level of probability. There are also handy ideas like "rational choice theory," which makes it possible to do a little hand-waving ("Okay, let's just say everyone's going to act in his own perceived best interest when making choices") and aggregate behavior over a whole system. To the extent that it works, it's a useful idea.

Deeper than that, however, is the issue of a philosophy of science. What exactly is "scientific method," and what is it meant to accomplish? Are we adding to the growing pile of human knowledge, or are we merely filling out the latest paradigm by which we understand the world? That still seems to be an open question, so I don't have an answer. But it's an interesting line of thought to follow down the old rabbit hole.

I've had at least one friend suggest that these courses aren't doing me any good -- that this field of study is encouraging my left-leaning tendencies. I don't really blame her for coming to that conclusion, but it isn't the case. My professors haven't made their personal political beliefs particularly secret, but the course material is almost completely sterile of normative political rhetoric or propaganda. Instead, our readings and discussions have focused entirely on theories of political phenomena -- given X circumstances, why does Y happen? That kind of thing. The suggested answers normally involve complicated algebraic formulas, and they tend to treat the workings of political entities like parts of a car... avoiding pronouncements about what is right and wrong.

So I haven't drawn my political views from the coursework -- although I do feel as though I have a better understanding of how things work, and that understanding has helped to reinforce notions I already had.

I'm looking forward to next semester. Now that the initial shock has passed, I think it'll be easier to keep my head above water.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

Since I wasn't able to find a theater near here showing it when it had its run, I only just now got around to seeing Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the post-humus documentary on the man whose writing has served as a touchstone and inspiration to my own career and outlook.

The film is, like a lot of documentaries, an amalgam of stock photos and archival video footage, focusing mainly on the events in Thompson's life that shaped his admittedly bent approach to journalism. The directors also staged a few dramatic recreations to highlight moments of the film -- the opening credits roll to a Hunter Thompson stand-in riding a BSA motorcycle at breakneck speed down the California oceanside highway, set to a raucous soundtrack and Johnny Depp's voice, reading Thompson's sequence on "an honest run."

It's a moving picture that does a rather good job of attempting to explain Thompson the man -- as distinct from the "Gonzo" character he created for himself (exploited some years later, and during Thompson's lifetime, by Gary Trudeau's "Uncle Duke" character in "Doonesbury"). It's not altogether flattering -- Thompson's reputation had equal parts of revolutionary writer and legendary substance abuser mixed in, and there were points where the latter outweighed the former.

The interviews come from many of the people who knew him in different aspects of his life and career -- his first wife, Sandy, decries his 2005 suicide, and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner tears up and has to halt the interview when it comes time to discuss his old sometimes-friend and sometimes-enemy's demise. But we also hear from contemporary "New Journalist" Tom Wolfe (whose Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, drew from audio tapes Thompson had made while covering the Hell's Angels for his own first book), and then-Nixon aide Pat Buchanan, who, surprisingly, had many warm (if sometimes alarming) memories of the writer. Former Sen. George McGovern (whose disastrous campaign against the incumbent Nixon Thompson followed and turned into a book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, '72) and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who took Thompson in after his first wife asked for a divorce, also contribute. 

The end of the film features footage from Thompson's funeral at his Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado interspersed with a younger Thompson walking the grounds of the expansive rural property and explaining how he'd like to be sent off -- he wanted his ashes fired out of a gigantic cannon, shaped like his trademark double-thumbed fist, over the place he'd called home since his move to Aspen at the end of the 1960s. This wish he was granted -- Johnny  Depp, who spent three months with the "Good Doctor" prior to playing him in Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reportedly financed a large portion of  the funeral.

It's a good watch. There could perhaps have been more time spent on the substance of Thompson's work, but perhaps a more personal look at him as a human being is exactly what we were missing in the catalog of Thompson-related memorabilia. As an avid Thompson fan, I have to say I was moved nearly to tears by the end. I felt, once again, remorseful, that there is no more Dr. Thompson to look to for that strange mix of hilarity, rage, and madness that somehow helped at least some of us better understand the crazy world we live in.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pirates!? reports that pirates have hijacked a supertanker off the coast of Africa.

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- A hijacked supertanker carrying up to $100 million worth of crude oil -- the largest vessel seized to date in an escalating regional piracy crisis -- was believed to have anchored off Somalia Tuesday, its operator said.

The Sirius Star's crew of 25, including British, Croatian, Polish, Filipino and Saudi nationals, are reported to be safe, according to Dubai-based Vela International Marine.

"Our first and foremost priority is ensuring the safety of the crew," said Vela President Salah Kaaki. "We are in communication with their families and are working toward their safe and speedy return."

The Saudi-owned vessel was seized on Saturday more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya in what Saudi Arabia's foreign minister called "an outrageous act."

An outrageous act? Yeah, you might say that. Seriously, this is the kind of thing that seems pulled out of a summer action flick.

For a long time, it seemed to me, the term "pirate" was increasingly being shifted to people sharing music and software illegally over the Internet. Cheers to these entrepreneurial types for taking the word back!

Actually, this is pretty scary, and I'm sure the families of the crew (who are all reportedly "safe," although I think that's a bit of a stretch for the term) wouldn't appreciate me making jokes about it.

What this actually reminded me of was a conversation I had a year or so ago with my brother Zach. We'd been sitting outside talking about the world and our lives and what we were eventually going to do with ourselves, and he brought up the concept of the Merchant Marine.

"These guys actually go and fight pirates off the horn of Africa," he said.
"Wow... can you imagine how cool a job that would be?"

We decided that it would probably be extremely dangerous, but it would be a great response for when you get asked about your line of work at a bar. Further, we figured that if everything goes pear-shaped for us, we'll just have to sign up with the Merchant Marine. Fighting pirates isn't a bad fall-back plan.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Am I dreaming?

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.
-- Barack Obama, Chicago, Nov. 4, 2008

There's no easily-referenced historical anecdote to bring up right now, no comparison I could make that I think could actually sum up what I just watched happen. Barack Obama has been elected the next president of the United States.

I have this cerebral knowledge that I just watched history happen, but I'm still having a hard time getting my mind around it. Maybe I shouldn't be as surprised as I am, though. There are plenty of other places to read run-downs of why what happened really happened, and I certainly don't need to contribute to the pile -- what I can tell you is how I wound up where I am, a "blue-gummed" liberal as an Army pal from Alabama recently referred to me, stunned that my country has actually done the right thing. I hope I may be granted the indulgence of making this "all about me" for a post.

I grew up observing passionately conservative values, which I equated -- as my parents still do -- with the Republican party. I knew God was watching me in everything I did, and as I grew older, I realized that society would be better the more it fell in line with the Catholic ideology I'd learned.

I graduated in 2002 with marginally decent grades and a degree in journalism from a stridently Catholic school, still espousing those same religously-grounded notions of right and wrong, and still equating those with the Republican party -- which had led me to vote in 2000, in Ohio, for George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative."

Still feeling some nascent nationalist rage over the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, I joined the Army a few months after graduating college. I had been utterly unsuccessful in my half-hearted attempts to find a job as a reporter, and I shipped off for basic with a contract to become a "public affairs specialist" on August 25, 2002.

Basic training was at Fort Benning, Georgia, and when I arrived, my coddled, comfortable world was taken away from me, and I learned what it was like to be afraid. I suppose that's the key to military training -- showing you constant fear and teaching you to operate even in the face of it.

Most of basic is a blur, now. But there's an image that has stuck with me: in late September, I was outside my company's barracks, trimming hedged with a pair of rusty shears on a Sunday afternoon. My battalion was located near the edge of the basic training area, and a set of railroad tracks ran past it. While I was out trying to appear busy while enjoying the suddenly pleasant weather, a long train passed by -- several locomotives towing a seemingly-endless chain of flatbed cars loaded with Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, all painted desert tan.

Our drill sergeants had told us since the beginning that we'd all be going to war within the next few months. They told us that we better listen, because if we didn't, we'd wind up being hamburger on the side of some Iraqi road (they all took it as a foregone conclusion that that was where we were headed).

Months later, in March of 2003, I crowded into my new company dayroom at Fort Meade, Maryland, to watch the beginning of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (which was later retroactively dubbed "OIF 1") -- U.S. tanks rolled into and across Iraq from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and we saw brief video of sporadic firefights interspersed with breathless after-action commentary from battalion commanders on the ground, whose men had fought valiantly against a foe all too eager to surrender.

It took a tour in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division and a subsequent reassignment to Fort Konx for me to finally realize what a horrible mess we were in -- war in Afghanistan had started before I'd joined, and the Iraq war was ramping up deployments of my more combat-oriented friends at an alarming pace. And our leaders were dissembling -- we'd gone in to Iraq on the assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons hadn't materialized. Worse, the team sent in to oversee things had hideously botched matters. All this I had been willing to forgive -- after all, I remained a loyal soldier, true to the oath I'd sworn in the Syracuse federal building some years before...

I, Ian Boudreau, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
But it eventually occured to me that the officers appointed over me, and to a much greater extent, the president of the United States -- one George W. Bush, who we've heard precious little of in the last three months -- weren't all they were cracked up to be. And the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was Bush's failed nomination of Harriet Myers to the United States Supreme Court.

There's not much to dig up here on how I felt when it happened -- it actually seems to have stimulated a long period of inactivity (which never seems to have entirely gone away, actually). But it was a chink in the armor of what I'd up till then held as unassailable beliefs -- in American exceptionalism, in the inherent goodness of capitalism, and in our right to do pretty much whatever we wanted because of those things.

Today, I watched a country -- a people -- tell the rest of the world that we're sorry for telling it to go fuck itself whenever it doesn't get along with what our leaders want to do. Today I saw that Americans, by a large margin, are upset that we've lost standing in world opinion, that we want to get along, and that we don't want to be seen as the rednecks of the globe.

The last thing I want to do here is to take anything away from Obama, who has accomplished something that couldn't even have been conceived of 50 years ago in Selma, Alabama. He has been accused of the most fatuous group of lies ever concocted about an American presidential candidate (early on, he was suspected of being the antichrist), and Americans spoke and said "We want him anyway."

As much as it is a validation of Senator Obama's platform, it's a vote of disgust and no-confidence for the ideals the Republican party has come to espouse over the past decade. We want forgiveness from the rest of the world, because we're interested in being a helpful and benign part of it, not an opportunistic, vendetta-oriented warmonger looking to depose and hang inconveniently popular rulers in areas we have economic interests in. We care about the way our soldiers behave, and we care about whether the prisoners we take are tortured. We care about social justice, we care about the poor, we care about veterans, and we're angry that getting sick in America means going broke for most people.

And the operative phrase there is, "We Care." Maybe I'm a short-timer compared to some of the life-long protestors out there, but god!

Barack Obama is going to be our president in January, and no other explanation makes sense other than, Americans really do care.

It's late now. This could have done better justice both to Obama's win and my own history. Maybe I'll write more down tomorrow. It was an interesting night.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Open Letter to French's

Dear Makers of French's Mustard:

I've got to give it to you guys, you really have embodied the American dream -- and you've done it with a name like "French's"! Seriously, you guys have to be laughing every time you take a check to bank -- the irony is just too delicious.

Much like the mustard you create every day. It's really amazing that you've been able to make this bright yellow substance and convince us all that it's "mustard," when around the world, people are spreading spicy, brown, seedy stuff all over their krauts.

But I digress. I didn't intend for this letter to spark off some kind of mustard war between yourselves and the Grey Poupons of the world. What I wanted to do was implore you to take a different kind of action; namely, get rid of that vinegar piss that comes out of your squeeze bottles whenever I'm trying to make a sandwich.

This is 2008, guys. There are iPhones, the Internet, and space-age polymers everywhere you look. You can't swing a dead cow around in this country without hitting a Wi-fi enabled hotspot. And yet, every time I want to make a goddamned roast beef sandwich, I have to suffer through the humiliation of one of your French's mustard squeeze bottles planting a diarrhea fart on my lunchmeat.

Get on this one, guys! Come on! I know you've got the money for it -- I haven't been to a July 4th barbecue and not seen a dozen of your mustard bottles everywhere, just waiting to make a PPPPFFFFTTTTTSSSH sound over someone's hot dog. Hire some good R&D guys and get rid of that crap.

Well, that's how I feel, and I wanted you all to know about it. I don't want to come across as hateful -- I'm merely suggesting you make an improvement to an already great product. Thanks for listening.



Lies and Bullshit: On the Campaign Trail, '08


Will it be Sen. Barack "Hussein" Obama, the shadowy character who has emerged out of nowhere, whose birth certificate no one can find? The Marxist, Muslim terrorist sympathizer with ties to political dissidents in Kenya and whose father might even be Malcolm X?

Or will it be Sen. John "Maverick" McCain, the cranky old Navy pilot who calls his wife the "C-word," abuses vacationers in Fiji with William Faulkner performances and whose hobbies have included crashing fighter jets?

Well, you read it here first, folks: the answer is neither, because neither of the two men described above exist.

Phony stories about presidential candidates are nothing new. Rumors circulated about the Clinton family in the lead up to the 1992 election, and George W. Bush was the subject of much fantastical speculation in 2000.

But in a world of news driven by sites like and the Drudge Report, these idiotic fictions are getting harder and harder to keep out of the mainstream discussion. It's end users who determine what the news cycle is -- they click on stories, moving them up in the "most viewed" list, or they forward vicious emails around the country. Phony news makes it from coast to coast before the first pot of breakroom coffee has percolated.

For anyone interested, it's usually easy enough to demonstrate these "email forward" stories as blatant falsehoods -- you've just got to wander over to or, both non-partisan sites devoted to identifying blogospheric baloney. But as easy as it is, and as much time as I've spent trying to convince people that Obama probably isn't the antichrist, these stories persist.

First and foremost, I think a large part of it has to do with wish-thinking. We are, by nature, not particularly scientific when it comes to things we want to believe. If I were a McCain supporter (I'm not), my initial reaction to a story that painted Obama in a negative light would be to believe it, and the same would go vice-versa. We seem tuned to filter out information that doesn't fit nicely with the worldview we already have, and anything we find that supports what we already think is automatically attractive.

So I do understand that element, but only to an extent. Some of these phony campaign stories are getting ridiculous -- beyond the point where it's easy to explain them away as simply fitting into existing worldviews. Questions about Obama's citizenship are still circulating -- even though there's plenty of evidence to show he was born in the United States, and none that he wasn't (for a great run-down of a few of these "unreported" stories, check out this item on Politico. My buddy Brad sent it to me). Attacks on McCain's military record are similarly out of order -- you can disagree with the guy, but there is simply no call whatsoever to question the integrity of his service in the Navy.

And I don't think it's the candidates themselves who are responsible for these slurs against each other -- in some cases, it's the people working on their campaigns, such as the McCain campaigner who scratched a backwards "B" in her face in Western Pennsylvania and claimed she'd been assaulted by a black man "enraged" by her McCain/Palin sticker.

But in most cases, it's just the "Joe Six-Packs" around the country, trying to weigh in on the election, thinking he or she has just found the next big story. We've arrived at the world Andy Warhol promised us, where everyone gets to be famous for 15 minutes. Normally, we seem content with viral YouTube videos, but during an election year, the contest seems to be finding out who can create the biggest, baddest meme about the election. And if it takes off, you're guaranteed press coverage... once something gets emailed enough, apparently there's no way for the networks to ignore it.

Maybe, though, it isn't about fame -- maybe it's because political campaigns are, considering the amount of hype and attention they get, perhaps some of the most boring things that go on in the world. Sure, there are the buses, the conventions, the whistle-stops and the stump speeches (and let's not forget the nail-biting debates). But to really get down to the nitty-gritty, what you're looking at is hundreds of pages of proposed tax plans and budgets. And who wants to read those? What these lies and exaggerations people are sending each other might be is a way they've found to superimpose a dramatic narrative onto something that actually bores them to tears. It's not as if everyone is making up their own stories -- but a lot of us are emailing them to all our friends. And maybe that just goes to show that we do want to participate in the election -- but that we've found the actual meat of it about as exciting as eating a bottle of Ritalin and then watching The English Patient.

Personally, I'm burnt out on it. I can't wait for Nov. 5. And I decided to STUDY this shit!


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weekends are overrated

For a variety of reasons, I spent Friday night at home drinking too much wine, which resulted in a Saturday that was characterized on my part by a hangover and hatred of the universe.

That was unfortunate, because what I'd planned to do was work on/finish a paper that's due tomorrow in my world politics class -- our assignment was to pick a data set and write a paper about it. No guidelines were provided as to length, and there were no specific instructions on what to include in the paper -- "Everything" was about as good as it was going to get.

I'd never written a data paper before. Using a method not much better than throwing a dart at a spinning globe (I've heard people sometimes plan their vacations this way -- but maybe that's just in cartoons), I wound up picking a data set called "Extra-State Wars," part of the Correlates of War Data Project, based at the University of Michigan.

I won't bore you with the details of the paper -- which involved looking at an Excel spreadsheet of 108 cases with 35 variables each -- but if you want to read it, you can email me and I'll send it to you. Maybe you're an insomniac and need a little help falling asleep, I don't know.

Precious little of it got done Saturday, so I spent most of today (Sunday) pecking away at it. I have no idea of how to use most of what Microsoft Excel does, and the analysis software normally used to examine stuff like this was far away -- in Binghamton, which I didn't feel much like driving to. So instead, I printed off the 12 sheets needed to contain the whole set, taped them together, and stuck the whole thing to a wall in my room. I then used several high-lighters to mark parts of the data I felt were important, then counted them up and plugged them into a calculator (for special effect).

The result is a 16-page pile of paper and ink that represents what I think may be the most boring thing I've ever written (unless you count this post, which at least at this point is way shorter). An informal poll I did after I finished the rough draft (Dad read it) produced positive results -- the paper was described as "scholarly, I think" by 100 percent of the respondents who said they'd read it.

I have no idea how well it's going to go over with my professor. Like I said, he wasn't very specific about what he was looking for, so my aim was to show that I'd looked hard at the information and maybe drawn an inference or two from it. I'm unsure of what else to do with it, short of folding up the high-lighted, taped sheets currently hanging on my wall and handing that in.

The underlying point here is that I'm still working on re-adapting to "school mode." Writing isn't hard for me, but writing papers isn't really like writing, at least, not in the way I've been used to doing it for the past six years. It's hard not to feel useless, too, when what you really need to spend your days doing is reading books with complicated titles and articles pulled off JSTOR and Lexis-Nexus.

Don't get me wrong, I like my current field of study -- although it's maybe a bit different than I'd been expecting. I had this idea about political science in my head -- something of a cross between a civics class and sitting around in togas listening to Plato talk about "the Republic" -- and it turns out that there's a lot more numbers and talk of "scientific method" involved than I'd initially expected.

Which is fine -- it's making me think in ways I hadn't before, which, I'm led to believe, is the whole point of "school."


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cherry picking

It's impossible to tell what's actually going on anymore.

Fox is hammering on Obama's connection to Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers, while (most) other news outlets seem concerned with the report of Palin's "abuse of power" in the "Troopergate" firing in Alaska (by the way, and I'm sure Bill Maher's already hit on this in his "New Rules" segments, but can we quit naming scandals with this "-gate" scheme? Watergate was actually the NAME OF THE HOTEL!). Meanwhile, Obama's supporters have dismissed the allegations of the candidate's connection with Ayers, just as Fox and the GOPers have already begun minimizing the significance of the Palin fiasco.

Examples of the different responses:

On the Huffington Post this morning, a headshot of Palin is accompanied by huge, red "Drudge Report" style headlines screeching the news that the probe has found her "guilty of abuse of power."

On National Review Online's The Corner, editor Kathryn Jean Lopez posted under "Confused" that she's puzzled by the furor over the report, since Palin apparently didn't do anything illegal.'s Hugh Hewitt ignored the Palin debacle and drew more attention to the Obama-Ayers connection, which is what some of the Corner posters are talking about this morning.

And that's just three major blogs. There are plenty more.

So if the media were bad before, they're worse now -- blogs, of course, have always led the charge, and now there are so many of them on either side that people can read enough of one angle to feel like they've actually got a clear picture of what's going on. Well, if all you read is Michelle Malkin, Hugh Hewitt, and National Review, you haven't gotten a well-rounded picture. The same goes if you spend all day on the Huffington Post and DailyKos.

Me, I have some reading to get done for my world politics seminar Monday (although not much, since we didn't get to much of what I'd read already last week), but in the meantime, I'm going to put together another cheesy horror movie live-blog. That'll probably be forthcoming later today.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Bad news for Palin

Looks like the panel looking into Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's alleged abuse of power haven't come down on her side:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CNN) -- Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin abused her power as Alaska's governor by trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from the state police, a state investigator's report concluded Friday.

"Gov. Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda," the report states.
This is not good news for the McCain campaign, particularly since we're so close to V-day. McCain's already trailing Barack Obama in the national polls, which stand tonight around 51.9-46.6 percent. His attacks on Obama's past association with William Ayers seem to have backfired, and according to this story, his hard-core followers are none too pleased... campaign journalists have reported having racial slurs yelled at them, and during a Palin stump speech earlier this week, a member of the audience screamed "Kill him!" loud enough for the microphones to pick up when the governor mentioned Obama and Ayers. "Rage" seems to be growing in the GOP base.

Eight years ago, Bill Clinton's eight-year presidency came to an end, but the protracted legal battle over the Gore/Bush vote lasted into December -- when the Supreme Court determined that Bush had won in Florida. There wasn't any kind of immediate shock or catharsis on November 5, 2000 -- nobody really would know what was going to happen for another month or so. I'm hoping we avoid a repeat of that fiasco this time around, but the tenor of the campaign has turned even more vicious this time around, it seems.

Today was the deadline for voter registration in New York, and a friend and I went to make sure we'd gotten registered. 2000 was the last time I voted -- I was in Ohio and in school, and I'd registered so I could vote for George W. Bush. That was a long time ago, and since then I finished college, did five years in the Army, worked as a reporter briefly, and have started on a new degree -- and my personal politics in the meantime have done a 180-degree turn from the conservatism I left undergrad with.

In all honesty, I agree with the late George Carlin as far as voting goes, more than anyone else. He made the point that the only time you have no reason to complain is when you DO vote... he, on the other hand, stayed home on election day, and therefore can't be held responsible for any of the incompetent idiots voted into office; whereas the chumps who go out and pulled the levers are the ones who have no right to complain about what they'd done.

I don't have much of a point here, and if I did, it was to go out and vote this November -- but I managed to shoot that point squarely in the foot with that last paragraph, huh? That notwithstanding, I do think it's important to cast votes in elections -- plus, you won't just be voting for the president, but for the state representatives, district attorneys, judges, coroners, mayors, and whoever else is looking for a job running your government. At least don't give the bad ones a free pass.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Debate 1

I only caught the end of last night's two-hour presidential debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Judging from the reaction in the polls and papers this morning, though, it seems like I didn't miss a whole lot -- the consensus seems to indicate that both men stuck to their talking points, neither made any huge gaffes, and both (according to managed to mangle the truth several times each.

I was actually looking forward to the start of the "debate season," since out of almost two years of campaigning (these keep getting longer and longer, don't they?), there've been precious few times where the candidates actually have to face each other and talk about their positions. But after seeing some of last night's debate and then reading the subsequent reactions, I remembered, "Oh yeah. This is a campaign debate. Nobody's changing their mind about anything."

The editorial pages are all echoing the meme that "there was no 'knock-out' blow," and there wasn't. And pundits, columnists, and voters on both sides believe the candidate they already supported won. Republicans are saying that McCain was able to attack Obama on foreign policy (saying he was "naive" in his first reaction to the Russia/Georgia crisis -- by the way, what happened with that?), and Obama's crowd has been pointing out McCain's apparent inability to make Obama seem any less polished on world affairs, and their own candidate's strength on domestic issues.

As the debate wore on in Mississippi, the New York Yankees were beating the stuffing out of the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park -- Cody Ransom hit two home runs and Johnny Damon hit one, leading the Yankees to a 19-8 victory over Boston... which would be great news for me, except for the fact that the Yankees were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs a week ago. The only good news is it keeps the Red Sox from the AL East title -- they'll have to make do with the wild card slot.


Monday, September 15, 2008


Okay, I've read over my last couple posts a few times and I can't stand them. I'd delete them wholesale, but I'm keeping them up just to maintain some sense of personal integrity.

It may have been the beers I drank (before the one immediately proceeding this especially) or the classes I'm taking in high-minded theoretical models of comparative politics -- or some combination of both -- but the end result is an embarrassing mess of pseudo-intellectual, poorly-thought-out bullshit that I'm not happy I put my name on.

So what I'm doing is promising not to ever pretend to sound scholarly on here, ever again. It's annoying and pretentious and it makes me come off like an asshole.

As for an update, well -- I'm a happy guy. Things are going well. Classes are demanding but I'm starting to feel like I'm actually learning something (other than how to write like a jackass).


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pigs and lipstick

"I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals." -- Winston Churchill

"I am very proud to be called a pig. It stands for pride, integrity and guts." -- Ronald Reagan

"[A] single pig can consume two pounds of uncooked flesh every minute. Hence the expression, 'as greedy as a pig.'" -- "Bricktop," Snatch, Guy Ritchie, 2000

"Hey, a sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I'd never know, 'cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That's a filthy animal. I ain't eat nothin' that ain't got sense enough to disregard its own feces." -- "Jules," Pulp Fiction, 1994

The poor pig does not get a very fair shake in literature. The pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) are stand-ins for communists (Snowball is said to represent Trotsky, and Old Major is said to be either Karl Marx or Vladmir Lenin or a combination of both); in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the severed pig's head is regarded as a savage diety by the eventually animalistic boys who find themselves marooned on the island -- along with their hapless, glasses-wearing compatriot, the chubby boy known as "Piggy."

Pigs then, one might guess, are fortunate to be blissfully unaware of the metaphors we use them in. Pigs are, genetically speaking, strikingly similar to humans, so much so that their organs in some cases can be used in humans as transplants. Despite their reputation as "filthy animals," both by pop culture (see above) and religion (see the Torah), pigs are naturally rather fastidious about their upkeep and hygiene. 

But their reputation as dirty, loathsome things persists, and it is as such that they are used in our present-day analogies.

"You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," said U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, talking about U.S. Sen. John McCain's recently-rebranded campaign of "change."

Obama has since come under fire for the comment. Republican boosters (and, I'm sad to say, the news media) nation-wide have crowed that the presidential candidate from Illinois was most certainly referring to McCain's pick for vice president, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who, during the Republican National Convention in Minnesota, joked that the difference between a bulldog and a "hockey mom" was lipstick.

Therefore, the logic seems to run, Obama must have been calling Palin a pig.

It isn't the case (Obama was actually referring to McCain's economic policy and deriding him for suddenly painting himself as a "change" candidate), but that's almost beside the point. What has happened is that attention has successfully been diverted from the question of "Where do the candidates stand on such-and-such a policy" to "who called who what barnyard animal?"

This makes my current field of study -- political science -- supremely frustrating. What's the point in learning about this stuff if ("We The") people pay about as much attention to the political process as pigeons do to traffic patterns?

I'm just a student, and a new one at that, in political science. But in my first few weeks of study, the subject of voting behavior has come up in discussion. It's difficult, apparently, to accurately model voting behavior, because mathematically speaking, there's really no reason to vote -- there's no "margin." Any individual voter has an infinitesimally small chance of actually having any impact on the eventual outcome of a national election.

It follows, then, that doing any serious research into what candidate will actually influence policy the way one wants is subject to the law of diminishing returns -- you're putting more time into a choice that still has a near-zero impact. Why bother?

But people do vote, and perhaps that's a phenomenon that can't be easily represented by equations comparing x and y. People still (less so now than in years past, maybe) understand that voting is their one shot at participating in democracy -- although the time they spend balancing one choice against another may be severely curtailed.

My guess is that both parties are aware of this, and are (more or less successfully) campaigning with it in mind. It's a little frightening, since there are two months between the party conventions and the general election, and at least two of the days in the interim have been spent figuring out the importance of an offhand reference to a pig and the makeup it might wear. Out of the 54 days between the close of the Republican National Convention and November 4, that's 3.7 percent of the time... which of course is time we aren't spending talking about issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country's flagging economy, energy policy and education.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sarah Palin's RNC speech

Alaska Governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin delivered her speech in St. Paul tonight at the Republican National Convention, and I have to say I was impressed, with perhaps a couple reservations.

Her family, including the overly-scrutinized 17-year-old daughter Bristol, joined her on the space-age stage as she discussed bringing what she called "real change" to Washington. In a comment leaked to the press pool ahead of time, she dismissed charges of inexperience, saying that being the mayor of a small town was "sort of like being a community organizer... but with actual responsibilities," an obvious barb directed at Sen. Barack Obama's own relatively recent beginnings in politics.

Speaking about her own experience as Alaska's chief executive, she said she had used her veto power to save state taxpayers about a half billion dollars in costly legislation proposed by the state legislature -- but she didn't mention any of the bills specifically, which means now I have to go look them up.

She criticized Obama (and really, the Democratic Party) for allegedly planning on adding billions of dollars in tax burden to the American economy, and talked about Obama's intention of raising the "death tax" (formerly known as the "Estate Tax") and further burdening American taxpayers.

It's worth noting here that Obama's stated position on taxes is to protect tax cuts to the low and middle classes, and reverse only the tax cuts Pres. George Bush instituted for the extremely wealthy -- a rather important distinction. But when have campaign speeches ever stuck entirely to the facts?

Palin made some hay with the notion that a Democratic administration would be for "bigger government" and "irresponsible spending." Again, these are bad things, but Obama's (who she never named) stated position is to eliminate these things, too. And it's also worth noting that it's been under a Republican president and administration that the federal deficit ceiling was increased to $9 trillon (which Obama as an Illionois state senator voted against), the apparently worthless Department of Homeland Security was established, and countless billions in federal dollars were awarded in no-bid contracts (here's looking at you, Kellogg, Brown & Root and Blackwater).

This is not to say her speech was anything less than impressive. Palin spoke with confidence and poise, and I can't not like her. She has a commanding presence and voice, and, unlike Sen. Hillary Clinton, doesn't sound like an alien from Mars Attacks!. It's clear that Palin is a leader and is comfortable in that role. 

On the subject of her running-mate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Palin praised his record of service in the U.S. Navy and his steadfastness during his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. She spoke of him, not surprisingly, as a change-oriented reformer with a maverick streak. It makes me wonder what happened to the bill he authored a few years ago that would have made the Army's Field Manual on the interrogation (read: torture) of war prisoners standard for all U.S. agencies (including the CIA, which proved to be too restrictive for Vice President Dick Cheney's tastes). McCain seems to have backed off on that position in the two years since it fizzled.

Some of Palin's material seemed designed to distance her campaign from the sitting president -- certainly a good move, given Bush's past 20 months of 33 percent or worse job approval rating. But she also made a few pandering moves, such as bringing up the stock-standard Republican paper tiger of the shadowy al Qaeda operatives lurking just beyond our borders and plotting our destruction. She derided Obama for being worried about them "not being read their rights," which drew jeers and applause from the crowd. Call me crazy, but I am and remain a big fan of due process. Oh, and the Constitution.

There's plenty more to say about the speech, but it's late and I have statistics homework to attend to. Sarah Palin is a remarkable candidate and, by all appearances, clearly cut out for an executive role. That her speech departed from or ignored certain truths is to be expected -- since, after all, this is all really just theater.


Sunday, August 31, 2008

Getting the inside track

I am Important. I know this because I've been getting text messages from Barack Obama. Joe Biden and Michelle Obama wrote me emails. They were addressed to me, personally, starting off with "Dear Ian."

Actually, the Obama campaign has become more like the annoying co-worker who won't stop sending email forwards. I've gotten ones presumably from all the top players in the campaign, and they're normally breathless reviews of the last night's speeches (and always accompanied with links to YouTube videos of the same), or indignant "taking the high road" rejoinders to the McCain camp's latest juvenile TV spot ("He's the most popular person in America... but he also might be the antichrist").

What they all are is marketing. Image creation and manipulation is the name of the game today -- and that extends to both sides' purported "plans" for this great nation of ours.

After eight years of George Bush and Republican boondoggles, I was only too happy to jump on board the Obamawagon. But the infatuation is now over, and I'm getting that September sinking feeling, knowing all too well that campaign promises -- whether it's Winning the War or Bringing About Change -- are all just so much hot air, delivered, often eloquently, by individuals whose sole goal is to get into office.

I'm not alone in that theory. In fact, according to a textbook I bought just last week and read the first few pages of, getting into and staying in office are the first and foremost priorities of any polticial leader. Every decision made by a politician, the authors of this overpriced book say, is designed to hold on to or gain more power.

So, posed with the ethics question, "Is it better to lie or to tell the truth," our hypothetical politician would most likely say, "Well, which one would get me elected?"

Which brings us to Sen. McCain's choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee. A startling choice (if one is to believe the AP headlines), particularly since Palin is a rank rookie in American politics, whose resume still includes her service on her small-town PTA.

But she does bring a seemingly important trait to the table: she is, indeed, a woman, which apparently is all a certain bloc of Hillary Clinton supporters need to jump ship and turn Republican.

I don't have any particular problems with Palin at the moment, but it's worth pointing out that her selection to the GOP ticket shoots holes in McCain's favorite criticism of Obama -- "He's popular, but is he ready to lead?" Sure, the vice president doesn't necessarily need the leadership skills that the president does, but isn't the whole point of having a vice president so that you have a qualified person ready to take over should the president become unable to lead? I mean, if not, why not have Rebecca Romjin as your vice president?

But, as I've been pointing out at every opportunity possible, experience either matters, or it doesn't. When you're talking about potential presidents and vice presidents, the same requirements should be expected out of all of them. And to me, "experience" is a bit of an ephemeral idea, anyway. I heard someone make the claim that Palin actually has more "executive" experience than anyone else in the race -- all the rest of the candidates only have legislative political experience.

Well, okay, but I think it's fair to draw a distinction between running a po-dunk town of 5,000 and governing the "Great" state of Alaska, and governing the entire United States of America. In fact, my own feeling is that serving on the U.S. Senate would probably be a better set of "experience" for executive office than being governor of the only state where your building codes have to make allowances for igloos.

Anyway, all that aside, the point I was setting out to make here was that Palin is a marketing choice on McCain's part. She's easy on the eyes, has a kid headed to Iraq, and is by all accounts a social conservative. These aren't really indicators of the influence she'll have on policy (should she and McCain make it into the White House), but they're tags that make her marketable to a certain demographic of voters.

I feel pretty much the same way about Joseph Biden, who clearly was picked to counteract the "inexperience" Obama has been constantly criticized for. Of course, Biden is now considered a "Washington Insider" and a "good old boy," so I'm not sure where one is supposed to draw the line.

Or if you're supposed to draw one at all. At this point, I'm pretty convinced that the whole lot of them are cynical scumbags out to advance their own careers at whatever cost. I'd love to see some change -- some REAL change -- but I'm afraid that the way we have things set up, change is about the last thing we're ever going to get... at least on our own.


Bad blogger

Yup, I admit it -- I suck as a blogger, and really have for, oh, the past two years or so. If you're here, chances are good that you accidentally discovered this page during a Google image search for ACUs, or while trying to find the lyrics to a Li'l Jon song I referenced a long time ago.

But that doesn't mean things here are dead. I may be shifting gears with the blog rather soon, since I'm going to be spending pretty much all my time reading about various theories in the field of political science.

I was just reading one such paper today, which conveniently happens to be written by my comparative politics professor. In it, he creates a mathematical model to predict the outcomes of party politics -- there are variables, Greek symbols, and a bunch of operations that I don't even remotely understand.

It's frustrating so far, because I feel distinctly out of my depth (which I may have mentioned below, in my last vodka-flavored post).

But the hope is that as the semester rolls on and I cram more of this stuff into my head, I'll eventually be able to start digesting it and making intelligent comments about it in class -- maybe even writing papers about the stuff. In order to help that process along, I think it might be useful to use this space as a sounding board of sorts -- a place where I can hammer out ideas or just spitball. And who knows -- maybe some poli-sci expert looking for ACUs or Li'l Jon lyrics will happen across it and provide some direction for me.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Post 410

Blogger tells me that up till this point, I've created 409 posts -- which makes this 410.

That really doesn't mean a thing. But it's enough of a start to get me rolling on a new post, anyway.

I've arrived at the beginning of yet another new chapter in my life: a return to school. Monday, I began coursework on a master of arts in political science at Binghamton University, a scant 40 miles down the road from where I live now.

After only a couple days of actively participating in the program, I'm already acutely aware of the fact that my classmates (and the faculty) are academics -- members, or potential members, of the intelligentsia I have never felt much of a synchronisity with. They've all got extensive backgrounds in the social sciences... familiarity with Gauss-Markov assumptions in analytical statistics, understandings of the differences between "soft" and "hard" power, and the knowledge of what the term "rent-seeking behavior" actually means.

So I tend to feel as though I'm starting from behind the curve. I'm good at dropping a name or two when conversations turn philosophical -- I can identify an idea as essentially "Rogerian" or explain how the terms "liberal" and "conservative" both began as descriptions of different branches of the same post-Frech-Revolutionary tree -- but I'm hopelessly at sea when it comes to scientific method and the tools used in empirical enquiry, which are critical tools in the study of political science.

At least, that's how I felt when I showed up on campus for the first time. There I was, a pot-bellied, tired, ex-soldier, looking for directions on a prestigious state school filled with fresh-faced freshmen 10 years younger than me, gabbing to each other about what they expected out of school.

And after delving into the first set of assigned readings -- all treatises either attacking or defending the social science claim known as "Rational Choice Theory" -- I can feel my brain starting to turn on again. I don't pretend to understand the underpinings of political science yet, but it's certainly fun to re-examine the differences between inductive and deductive reasoning, and to look at the various ways a dispassionate researcher might examine the current conflict between Georgia and Russia.

Without any claims of being a great writer, I know this, though: I've got them schooled when it comes to putting words into sentences. These clowns know nothing about getting ideas across to people outside their field -- which might make for an interesting research paper in itself. I may not know how to plot a curve on a Cartesian table, but I can at least express my lack of knowledge in a way that makes some sort of sense.

But I've gained at least one insight: my understanding and feelings about politics have, up to this point, been rhetorical in nature. That's kind of a loaded word, so what I mean is this: I've listened to arguments, and aligned myself with whatever argument I feel takes into account the most variables and offers the best solution -- in its own terms.

That's a little weird, even for me to go back over and try to make sense out of. But the point is this: till now, nothing I've understood politically has ever been based on any scientifically testable data. Evidently, this is exactly the problem I'm going to be fixing over the next three semesters, and truth be told, I'm both incredibly excited and hopelessly intimidated.

I now have a desk under the Glenn Bartle Library (South), where I am apparently free to keep books, and am informally expected to spend the balance of my time while enrolled in the Binghamton University Graduate Program. I'm looking at two months of being totally broke until my G.I. Bill benefits kick in, but once that happens, I'll be free to completely delve into devotion to study and academia -- which hopefully will mean more faithful updating of this poor blog.

They tell me I should look at this as a 9-5 job. I've had those -- which have typically been more demanding than "9-5." Whatever the case, I'm excited about this new step (which I'm not paying for -- thank you, five years in the Army), and while I'm admittedly nervous, it's certainly the "right" direction to be moving in.

More soon....


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Best man speech

I meant to post this a while ago. My brother Zach got married a couple weekends ago, and he asked me to be the best man. Naturally, I was honored, and I was given the traditional task of making a toast during the reception. Here's what I said (more or less).

As his older brother, I've known Zach for at least as long as anyone... with the possible exceptions of Mom and Dad, who technically met him before me.

I don't want to take up too much time here, but I wanted to tell you all a little about Zach, and why I'm very happy to be able to be here for this great day in both his and Kristen's lives.

We've been friends since the very beginning, in Wenatchee, Washington, where we were both born. Growing up, we did everything together. We'd spend our days building forts with the sofa cushions in the house, sledding down into the "Weeds" near our house on Canyon View Place, or climbing into the tree house Dad built in the willow by the driveway.

One thing eventually became clear about Zach -- that he is absolutely single-minded in purpose when he decides to do something. Over the years, this has occasionally been mistaken for obstinacy or stubbornness, but the fact is, when Zach wants to accomplish something, he does it.

A couple examples. As a teenager, Zach decided to learn how to play guitar. He started on Dad's, learning chords and picking patterns bit by bit. For his sixteenth birthday, Mom and Dad got him a beautiful Gibson Les Paul (that's an electric guitar, if you're wondering). After that, it seemed like he'd disappeared. We thought we'd never see him again -- but we certainly could hear him. He stayed in the basement with that guitar and an amplifier for hours on end, practicing, practicing, practicing. Eventually, he was playing licks from Guns 'n' Roses and Van Halen with note-for-note accuracy.

It wasn't long ater this that Zach decided to get into shape. Neither of us had been particularly athletic growing up -- we'd generally chosen Legos over soccer balls. But Zach apparently woke up one day and decided to lift weights -- which is exactly what he did. Every day, he was in the gym pumping iron, until he had transformed himself. I got a chance to experience this first hand once when I came home from Franciscan during my freshman year. Zach and I got into our only fight, and I was very soundly beaten.

Zach's determination is clear now from his decision to start off on a new career. He wasn't happy about what he was doing in the mental health field, and one day not so long ago, he decided to go into marine biology -- just like that. And he's done it. He's managed to turn his career around and start working in a field he really loves, and I respect that decision -- and the determination it took to pull it off -- a lot.

The reason I bring up these stories is partly to show why I've always had an admiration of my younger brother, but also to illustrate why I think he's going to make a terrific husband.

Zach and I haven't had much time together over the last few years -- our careers have taken us in different directions and to different places. But it has been reassuring for me to know that he has Kristen in his life now. I don't know of another couple who is easier to be around, or who seem more suited for each other than these two. Kristen has been an ideal friend, partner, and co-conspirator for Zach, and now, some eight years after they met, I find it difficult to imagine them apart from each other, and I feel very happy to be here to send them on their way into their life together as husband and wife.

So, thank you, Mr. and Mrs. M_____, for hosting this beautiful event, and thanks to everyone who has come, some from very far away. And I think I can speak for everyone here when I offer you, Zach and Kristen, my warmest congratulations and wish you the very best of luck. Thank you all. Cheers.
Congratulations, brother. Catch me a lobster.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Death by Commencement

This may come as a bit of a surprise for some people, but being a reporter for a small-town daily newspaper isn't all glitz and glamor. Sometimes you find yourself at events you have little or no interest in, and in many such cases, there's a good reason for not intending to attend.

How about an example? Sure. This Saturday, it was my turn to work. For the Saturday edition, what typically happens is copy from Friday afternoon is used to fill the local pages. Since we go to press around noon, there's not much time to pull things together the same day. The stories written by the Saturday reporter are kept in the queue for Monday's edition. Friday, I'd discussed coverage with my editor, and he'd wanted me to cover two things: first, a local high school commencement ceremony, and next, a memorial service held for a woman who was murdered last month.

The second item we can safely set aside for now. What I'd like to discuss instead is the atrocity against the human nervous system that was the high school commencement. "Boring" does not describe this event, since the word fails to conjure up the anger, fear, resentment and hatred generated in me -- and, I believe, many of the other onlookers -- at this ceremony.

It's not as if I had high hopes. Commencement ceremonies are boring even for the people receiving diplomas, to say nothing for their poor friends and relatives who have been guilted into attending. And for hungover reporters who have no connection whatsoever to the graduation, they're murderous to begin with.

And everything was right on track Saturday morning. I spoke to a few students outside -- my angle was, "What are you looking forward to most, and what do you fear the most, about post-high school life?" It was supposed to be a look at how today's high school students view the world and society around them -- a pretty safe premise for a very run-of-the-mill sort of story.

The problem with my thesis, such as it was, was this: high school students don't view the world and society around them. So as the ceremony began, I was 0-3 for useful quotes.

Then the ceremony, which was held in the state university's basketball arena, got underway. The band played "Pomp and Circumstance," the graduates, who wore purple robes and mortarboards over camouflage shorts and flip-flops or dirty basketball sneakers, filed into their seats. It was all very pro forma, and apart from the mild hangover, I was doing fine.

But after the principal's welcome and the salutatory, the gates of Hell opened and issued forth the worst speech ever foisted upon human ears. One of the school's gym teachers had been selected by the graduating class to give the commencement speech, and I hope the whole lot of them realize what a horrible mistake they made.

For 40 solid minutes, this woman rambled on about setting goals, creating strategies, and pursuing dreams. She encouraged the graduates, in the vaguest way possible, to accept defeats as learning experiences, reading from her notes with the emotional range of a metronome.

The entire speech -- or, at least the parts I could bear to listen to -- was made up of warmed-over cliches found in inspirational day-planners and Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

"Ask yourself, what are you passionate about? What do you want to do with your life? What are you good at? What's your game plan? What's your strategy?" she said, miraculously offering no insight whatsoever to the 177 graduates.

I wrote this in my notebook: "A tea kettle, when it's up to its neck in hot water, sings its best song." Next to it, I drew an arrow pointing toward the quote, with "Someone actually said that" written at the other end of the arrow.

Looking at my watch, I saw that 20 minutes had gone by. It had felt like a lifetime, and I was going from simply bored and distracted to incredulous and angry.

I sent a text message to a friend: "The list of things I would prefer to this includes being dragged through a cancer ward by my eyelids."

Walking out back, where I could still sort of hear what was happening inside, I ran into a man -- probably a father or uncle of one of the graduates -- smoking a cigarette.

"This is unbelievable," I said, not knowing how else to address the situation.

"Yeah, she just won't stop," he said. I lit up a Camel and looked back toward the building, where the crowd of hundreds was still being subjected to the verbal version of the Ice Age. As furious as I was at having to be there, I still felt a few pangs of sympathy for the parents, friends, relatives, and even the graduates themselves, who were locked into the seats they'd chosen.

As time went on, the speech continued, and gradually, people started leaving the building. Some came out to the area I was standing and lit cigarettes, and others with kids in tow moved toward their cars. I couldn't hear the actual words of the speech any more, just the dull, monotonous meter of the speaker's voice, reading line after line in the same droning cadence she'd started in.

When the commencement address finally ended, it occurred to me to check the stands for casualties who had succumbed to terminal boredom, but I was interrupted by the school principal, who decided to read off the names of scholarship recipients in a voice that would have been more at home at a midget pro wrestling extravaganza. Since there is apparently a new policy that demands every student must receive some kind of award, this went on interminably as well, and I remained outside smoking and wondering what poor life decisions I must have made in order to wind up in this horrible place. More audience members were trickling out of the doors, trying to make stealthy escapes to their cars in the parking lots on the other side of the building.

At long last, the ceremony ended and the purple-robed graduates filed out the large doors at the rear of the basketball arena. I spoke with a few -- one, who wore large earlobe stretchers, told me he planned to become a tattoo artist. Others told me they were going to the local community college and eventually wanted to become dental hygienists. Others said they were looking forward to "new beginnings" and "making new friends."

Almost three hours, and this was it? Yes, apparently... that was about all I got from all the graduates I spoke to. But I suppose I can hardly blame the kids. After that soul-crushing speech from one of their teachers, I can't even begin to fathom how they made it through high school without being voluntarily lobotomized.

So the lesson here is this: Next time your job requires you to attend a high school commencement ceremony, just quit and move to a new town. It'll be much less painful.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Concert, up too late

I went to see Scythian at The Haunt in Ithaca last night. The guys put on a great show -- initially, they'd planned on playing a quick set and hitting the road, since so few people had shown up. But by the time they'd gotten about 40 minutes in, a good-size crowd had gathered, and the band played on, shutting the place down at 1 a.m.

Afterwards, Joey, Dan and Nathan came back to my folks' house in Cortland, and we spent a while watching Darkness videos on YouTube, eating hummus, and telling animal jokes.

Around 4 a.m., Joe told me, "I'm dark and excessive. You're excessively dark."

It's amazing how every so often someone can sum things up with incredible accuracy and economy of words.

Which reminds me, I have some 40 pages of Scythian-related interviews and narrative that I need to boil down into something meaningful at some point. It's been sitting in my computer and weighing on my conscience for at least six months now.

Fortunately, we reigned it in last night and were responsible citizens. The bad news is that I only got about two hours of sleep before I had to head out for police beat, so I'm feeling a bit punchy this morning.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Burn it

Despite his nearly insurmountable delegate lead in the race for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is trailing Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) by about 40 percentage points in that bastion of free thought known as West Virginia, where residents will cast their votes Tuesday in the state's democratic primary.

Why? Some quotes from some of Mingo County's itinerant scholars:

“I heard that Obama is a Muslim and his wife’s an atheist,” said Mr Simpson, drawing on a cigarette outside the fire station in Williamson, a coalmining town of 3,400 people surrounded by lush wooded hillsides.


Most people questioned said they mistrusted Mr Obama because of doubts about his patriotism and “values”, stemming from his cosmopolitan background, his exotic name and the controversy surrounding “anti-American” sermons by Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor. Several people said they believed he was a Muslim – an unfounded rumour that has circulated on the internet for months – despite the contradiction with his 20-year membership of Mr Wright’s church in Chicago. Others mentioned his refusal to wear a Stars and Stripes badge and controversial remarks by his wife, Mich­elle, who des­cribed America as “mean” and implied that she had never been proud of the US until her husband ran for president.


Josh Fry, a 24-year-old ambulance driver from Williamson, insisted he was not racist but said he would feel more comfortable with Mr McCain, the 71-year-old Vietnam war hero, in the White House. “I want someone who is a full-blooded American as president,” he said.

We all know that "full-blooded American" is West Virginian for "white person," right? And I wonder who Mr. Simpson "heard" the rumor that Obama was Muslim from -- maybe it was from the state's senior democratic senator, Robert Byrd, who got his start in politics in the Ku Klux Klan?

The good news, I suppose, is that the nomination isn't going to be decided by any kind of "democracy" at all, but by mysterious people known as "superdelegates" who nobody knew anything about before January this year. While that's somewhat disenfranchising, it's a bit of a relief given that it'll keep the dolts in that intersection of the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt from having anything to say about who's running the country a year from now.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Eureka -- I've found it!

It's been a long, hard journey, but I have found it: the worst movie ever made.

Throughout the years, various critics have compiled lists of what they consider the worst movies ever. I've seen many of these pictures, which are indeed bad, but all have paled in comparison to the steaming pile of dogshit that is Cannibal Holocaust 2.

Before you point this out, I'll acknowledge that you're right -- anything called Cannibal Holocaust 2 really wasn't shooting for the Academy Awards in the first place. But this movie moves beyond the fun, party-atmosphere badness provided by sheer camp and exploitation and elevates awfulness to an entirely new plane of existence. I'm unsure if I even have the vocabulary necessary to explain how truly god-awful this film is.

Okay, some background information. First, I only recently became aware of what is now known as the "Cannibal Boom" of the late 1970s, during which directors (almost exclusively Italian) churned out a surprising number of cannibal-themed movies to grindhouses and drive-ins across the U.S. Cannibal Holocaust, which made its way to theaters in 1979, was considered the grisly pinnacle of the short-lived trend -- and it also was the first movie (at least that I know of) to use the faux-documentary style (a la The Blair Witch Project and, more recently, Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead) to lend the film an air of realism.

It inspired a host of knock-offs, including the thoroughly unpleasant Cannibal Ferox and, naturally, Cannibal Holocaust 2.

The original Cannibal Holocaust is gruesome almost all the way through, and I'm not proud of having seen it when all is said and done. But it's Bridge on the River Kwai compared to the sequel, which begins in a Brazilian courtroom where a young woman is on trial for murder. The majority of the action takes the form of flashbacks as she provides testimony detailing the murder (and decapitation) of her parents and her subsequent abduction by a tribe of "headhunters." As the story -- such as it is -- unfolds, she eventually falls in love with one of the tribesmen and exacts revenge on her parents' real murderers (who aren't the natives at all... that's a spoiler, but I'm not ruining this for anyone, because hopefully you will never, ever waste the hour and a half watching this piece of celluloid garbage).

There's not much else to it, really. Being one in the long line of Italian horror exports, it's horribly dubbed and the acting makes your local elementary school's last Christmas pageant seem like something fit for Carnegie Hall. The heroine narrates some of the scenes and provides the kind of commentary you'd expect from the explanatory boxes in Archie comics. The whole thing is remarkably boring, and winds up being something of a fake documentary on a tribe of people who do not exist. The film also has an almost childlike racism to it.

In short, this is a film that has absolutely no redeeming characteristics. It's awful from start to finish and from top to bottom. And it's so boring that you can't even laugh at the hideousness of it.

I'm not sure what it is, but I have a certain love for truly horrible movies -- I got kicks out of obscure camp horror movies like Slugs and Blood Beach, and the Friday the 13th movies are a hoot. For whatever reason, a movie can at some point move beyond bad and into this weird "good" category, where you enjoy it for its hilarious awfulness. However, Cannibal Holocaust 2 moves beyond bad, skips over that weird "good" category, and dives headfirst into a whole new level of horrid.

I had read that it is considered the last of the cannibal movies, and now I understand -- Cannibal Holocaust 2 was actually bad enough to destroy an entire subgenre of film. That sounds like exaggeration, but trust me, it isn't.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday night rumination

Today I read back through some of the posts I've written here years ago -- some news analysis from back in 2005, specifically.

Then I clicked back to the current posts -- and the only things I've really had the energy to write lately are "live blogs" of rotten horror movies... which I haven't even had the patience to really finish.

And it's not as if there isn't anything to write about. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are still squabbling over the Democratic nomination, there are still wars going on (we hit the grim milestone of 4,000 U.S. troops dead some weeks back), and the American economy is poised to take a headlong trip down the shitter. So where's my excitement? Where's this urge I once had to throw in my two cents about everything?

I think the problem, at least in part, is that the Problem is too big. As a people, we Americans are too complacent, lazy, ignorant, and comfortable to be bothered with anything -- at least for more than five or ten minutes or so. And there's just too many huge issues to try to take on: the epic failure of the current administration is a good example. Where do you start? The war? The collapsing value of the dollar? The fact that Americans are now pariahs wherever else we dare to venture in the world? The decline of our education system despite promises of "No Child Left Behind"?

On that last note, a friend of mine told me she'd recently read a study that showed that some 40 percent of high school students now use "emoticons" on text-script in their homework assignments. She's a teacher, and said she'd just graded an assignment that included "idk" as an answer. For the un-unenlightened, that's cellphone-ese for "I Don't Know."

I'd be more inclined to cobble some thoughts together on the presidential hopefuls who are crisscrossing the country at the moment hoping to shore up enough support to get elected in November. But unfortunately, the three of them -- McCain, Obama, and Clinton -- all appeared in videotaped messages at the WWE's Monday Night Raw this past week. I lost all respect I once had for Obama as soon as I heard him say, "Can you smell what Barack is cookin'?"

More importantly, I've lost all remaining respect I had for American voters. All three of the remaining (viable) candidates have large campaign staffs whose job it is to tell them where to appear and what to say to have the maximum impact on the electorate -- and all three agreed to appear on Monday Night Raw. This indicates to me that American voters have been measured as perhaps the stupidest demographic on the planet, vying with sub-groups such as "NASCAR Fans," "pre-frontal lobe lobotomy patients," and "Crossing Over viewers" for the coveted bottom slot.

Be that as it may, I've basically had it with being an American. I don't want to be associated with a people who need presidential candidates to appear on a professional wrestling/gay ballet show to get them excited about voting.

I'll end on that note, because I really don't know where else to take this. Current events are just depressing, so maybe for the time being, I'll stick with old horror movies.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Another old-school horror movie live-blog

This is always fun – I pop in an old horror movie, and write down my thoughts as the film unfolds. Tonight, it’s Dario Argento’s Suspiria, regarded as one of the scariest movies of all time.

Suspiria is dated 1977, and is apparently the first in some trilogy about evil mothers. It’s supposedly a legendary horror film, and it features music by the Italian rock band “Goblin,” who also provided music for several of Argento’s buddy George A. Romero’s zombie pictures (Argento’s daughter, Asia Argento, is an actress who had a lead role in Romero’s latest zombie apocalypse movie, Land of the Dead).

I’ll admit that I didn’t think of doing this until I’d started the movie up and gotten about nine minutes in, so here’s a synopsis of the first little bit. And be aware, there are spoilers coming up.

An American ballet student, Suzy Banyon, has decided to study at a prestigious school in Germany. She arrives (after some storybook-type narration over the opening credits) around 10 at night, and catches a cab to the school during a torrential downpour. When she arrives, there’s another female student fleeing in terror, and Suzy isn’t allowed into the building. A voice over the intercom tells her “Go away! I don’t know you!”

Suzy gets back into the cab and heads for a hotel, picking up the woman fleeing through the woods on her way. The two hole up in a very strangely-decorated hotel, and the German student tells Suzy that she must escape from the school – but for reasons that she couldn’t possibly explain.

“It’s too… fantastic,” she says, unhelpfully.

While she’s getting set for bed, a window in the bedroom flies open, scaring her. Suzy tells her to calm down… which puts us at:

00:09:20 – The girls are milling around the hotel room, and the tense Goblin music is building. Something bad is going to happen very soon, and if Dario Argento’s reputation is anything to go on, it’s probably going to be very gory.

00:09:55 – Blonde student is approaching the open window. This is never good.

00:10:27 – Huh? Nothing’s happened yet, but the musical tension hasn’t shut off. Blondie seems intent on hanging out right next to this window. Where’s that Alan Brooks character from The Trollenberg Terror? He’d get her mind off her troubles with a healthy shot of Scotch from his trusty flask.

00:10:39 – Nervous inner-monologue from the German girl: “Must… open… scary… window… for no… apparent… reason…!”

00:11:08 – Woah! Creepy moment Number 1: While dummy is staring out the window into what seems to be a loaded clothesline (who leaves laundry out on a line in a monsoon? And who has a clothesline up right next to the ninth floor of a hotel? What the hell is up with Germans?), she holds up a lamp to the window, and two weird disembodied green eyes suddenly stare back at her. Since this is a horror movie, and we couldn’t have two characters discussing and rationally dealing with something that screwed up, I’m afraid Miss German Dance Student is not long for this world.

00:13:40 – Well, I certainly called that one. The killer is apparently a somewhat hairy man’s arm, which comes out of nowhere and forces the German girl’s head through the glass window (she never really got around to opening it). Suffice it to say that she is now very, very dead. To top things off, the Killer Arm drops her through a stained-glass window on the roof, and the falling glass manages to kill another woman who happened to be standing in the lobby. That puts our body count at two, and my estimate on gallons of red-dyed corn syrup used so far is three.

00:13:47 – Cut to the next morning, and a blind man with a seeing eye dog and a fixation on the early Beatles’ wardrobe is wandering around the dance school. I need to pause right here and point out the fact that blind people really got a pretty bad rap in movies up until, say, Scent of a Woman. This dude is walking around as if he just now lost his sight: head tilted back, mouth agape, flailing around with his red and white cane (despite the placid presence of his guide dog, which you’d hope would keep him from having to whip that thing around so much). Anyway, let’s see what this dope is up to.

00:14:12 – Hah! Unintentional comedy moment number one: Blind Dude has just tied his dog up to the bike rack outside the school’s main entrance. In the seventies, you apparently could smoke your face off inside, but don’t bring your damn seeing-eye dogs in. Or maybe Blind Guy thinks he’s a cowboy, and that he’s just tied Old Silver up to the trough outside Poot’s Saloon in Tombstone. I have no idea. Actually, based on the way he’s dressed, I’d expect him to be singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan Show.

00:14:32 – Suzy shows up at the school right on Blind Guy’s heels. She clearly is unperturbed by the fact that her roommate was yanked through the bedroom window and given a working-over with a set of Ginsu knives last night, because she’s sort of moseying calmly toward the door, seemingly enjoying the nice morning weather. This time, she doesn’t screw with the intercom, and just heads right in.

00:15:22 – Inside is a blue atrium filled with students and instructors. One of the instructors is a severe-looking woman who inexplicably has the mouth of Ed McMahon. She introduces herself as Miss Tanner, and asks Suzy why she didn’t show up the night before. After Suzy explains the locked-door-and-hostile-woman-on-the-intercom situation, Tanner apologizes and takes Suzy over to meet Madame Blanc, the vice-directress. “She was a very famous ballerina,” Tanner explains toothily. Blanc is an older woman in what looks like a 1940s cocktail gown, who is talking with three guys in suits.

00:15:38 – Blanc’s first impression of Suzy seems good, if creepy: “You’re pretty. Very pretty,” she says. Suzy actually looks a lot like Marian Ravenwood from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Different actresses, though. As it turns out, the guys she’s speaking to are police officers, who are investigating the rather elaborate deaths that went on last night. I may have screwed this up, because Suzy seems to not know anything about the death whatsoever – only that she saw a girl running away from the school that night. I guess the two who died were both students… anyway, Suzy’s at the school, and Tanner takes her for a tour.

00:17:45 – The molarific Miss Tanner explains that the school doesn’t teach students to dance, because the assumption is that they already know how. During this conversation, a large servant passes them on the stairs. His name is Pavlo, and he might be the brother of Sloth from The Goonies. Apparently, he’s the general handyman at the school, and it’s perfectly acceptable for students to tell him how horrible he looks, because he only speaks Romanian. Pavlo looks a little crestfallen at this explanation from Tanner (but who can tell for sure? He looks like he’s capable of maybe three distinct expressions). He’s high on the Obvious List of possible dancer-slicers.

00:19:02 – Tanner shows Suzy to the locker room, where the other students are getting ready for class or something. Tanner tells Suzy to borrow a pair of shoes from someone who has two pairs. After she leaves, one of the students saunters over to Suzy and introduces herself as Olga, in a distinctly American accent. Apparently, she’s who Suzy is going to be rooming with off-campus. She seems to be out of her mind, and after Suzy meets another student, Sara, Olga observes that names that begin with the letter “S” are the names of snakes. “Sssss! Ssss! Ssssss!” she hisses. I guess now we know why this one wasn’t up for the Oscar in ’77.

00:23:29 – Back at Olga’s place, Suzy finds her room. An Italian guy – also a student, apparently – brings up her suitcases. He’s apparently got to get back to the school, since he lives on campus and “can’t be late for supper.”

00:23:39 – At the school, students are dancing ballet steps all over the place. Wonderful.

00:24:59 – Madame Blanc shows up and tells Suzy that her room at the school is ready, and free of charge. Suzy says she’d rather stay with Olga, and after some attempt at coercing her to change her mind, Blanc tells her it’s her choice. After the brief exchange, Miss Tanner creeps up behind Suzy and says, “I had no idea you were so strong-willed. I see that when you have made up your mind, nothing will change your decision. My compliments.” She grins, and I think she should be holding a giant Publisher’s Clearing House check.

00:25:46 – On her way down the hall after class, Suzy runs into a strange old woman polishing a crystal, as Madame Blanc’s odd little nephew stands by. As the woman polishes the crystal, it begins to glint, and suddenly it glows white, stunning Suzy. The lights go all weird, and Suzy manages to continue down the hall – looking as if she’s about to barf.

00:27:42 – At her next ballet class shortly afterwards, Suzy tells Sarah she’s feeling a little weak. She lets the grinning Miss Tanner know, who tells her to try the step anyway. The blind Beatle from earlier turns out to be the school’s piano player. Instead of wearing the normal sunglasses, he’s got what look like a pair of welding shades on, and he still looks like he’s just getting used to being blind. Suzy tries to dance along, but passes out – with bright red blood seeping from her nose and mouth. Why is it that horror movie blood looks nothing like actual blood? I mean, this stuff looks like red paint – which is probably what it is. Couldn’t they make it darker? And do I need professional help for this?

00:30:35 – Suzy’s taken to her room in the school – ah, so it was all a plot to have her move in! – where Miss Tanner is forcing her to drink water out of a crystal jug. The weird old lady is in the room, arranging Suzy’s possessions, which apparently Olga was kind enough to bring by. The doctor – if he is a doctor – says she’ll need some time in bed, plus plenty of peace, quiet, and bland food.

00:32:17 – Oh, and wine. Apparently, the professor – who is also some kind of doctor – has told Suzy that wine will be a part of her diet, because it “builds up the blood.” It’s constantly amazing to me how social attitudes toward alcohol have changed so much in the past couple decades. You watch a movie from the ‘70s or before, and alcohol was this ubiquitous thing that everybody just had as part of their daily lives. Now, anyone in a popular movie who drinks is usually a sad, sad case. The moral of the story? Well, apparently our parents were total drunks.

00:33:33 – Gross. Suzy has just found worms or maggots or something in her hair.

00:33:51 -- …which apparently dropped from the ceiling, which is covered with them. Gross, again.

00:35:33 – The maggots apparently were coming from a crate of food in the attic, which, Madame Blanc explains later, was ordered from what they believed was a reliable source. The story is that the food spoiled and drew the flies, which then dropped the maggots down through the cracks and onto the school’s shrieking female population.

--:--:-- — Okay, I don’t care if this movie is a horror classic. It sucks. That, plus pausing it every minute or so to write up my own commentary makes it take about three times as long to watch. I’ve had it. Just so you know, the dance school turns out to be a front for a coven of witches. Nothing else gets explained, you never find out who the killer is, and Suzy kills the big bad witch at the end. Oh, and the stupid piano player gets killed by his own seeing-eye dog.

The lesson I’m taking away from this is that the Italians should keep to making pasta, fast cars, and Coliseums. Leave the horror movies to the U.S. – they’re more our speed, anyway.