Chicago in the Movies (and One Television Show)

Possibly the best proposal scene of all romantic comedies!
A surprising number of my favorite films take place in Chicago:

I recently rewatched While You Were Sleeping. It utilizes the same core concept as The Proposal, another Sandra Bullock film, which I watched for the first time on DVD this fall. The Proposal is a cute film; however, While You Were Sleeping is better, and I figured--after watching The Proposal--that I might as well go back to the source.

The similarity: in both cases, Sandra Bullock's character pretends to be engaged to a man whose family takes her into their hearts. The man, or his brother, subsequently realizes that she is the best thing that ever happened to him and proposes.

Sweet, cute, and with Bullock in the heroine's role, surprisingly believable (by romance movie standards). Bill Pullman is 10 years older than Bullock and Reynolds is 12 years younger but Bullock pulls off the role of vulnerable ingenue in both cases while the heroes convince us that they are utterly smitten (personally, I prefer Pullman, simply because I think Pullman as a romantic hero was totally underused in his youth).

Besides, with While You Were Sleeping, you get all those great Chicago landscapes and references!

The same is true in The Lakehouse, one of Keanu Reeves best romantic movies (in general, Reeves should stick to action). It helps that he is paired with his Speed partner, Bullock! The Lakehouse is a sweet romantic comedy, reminiscent in tone more of You've Got Mail than Sleepless in Seattle (I  greatly prefer the former to the latter).

Gerard and team members
The Fugitive is one of my favorite action films (not as great as Die Hard, of course, but pretty far up there). It was my introduction to Tommy Lee Jones, who steals the movie, not to mention to the city of Chicago! Although The Lakehouse uses the imagery of Chicago to bring the romantic leads together, any beautiful city would have done. The Fugitive relies on Chicago to supply the clues and solve the mystery:
Marshal Henry: I may be crazy but that train sounds like an el.
Cosmo Renfro: St Louis doesn't have an elevated train. Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard: How do you know it's an elevated train?
Marshal Stevens: I think he's right. I lived under an el for 20 years.
Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard: Then you can explain the difference in the sound of an elevated train as opposed to a train that's running along the ground. You must have ears like a eagle: play that back; I wanna hear the sound of an elevated train.
And for a Chicago-based television show, check out Due South. I own all seasons of Due South and adore them all (I also wish more 90's shows were as readily available). Paul Gross plays the Mountie straight man, Benton Fraser. David Marciano excels as his first partner, and Callum Keith Rennie shines as his second partner:
Fraser: I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father and, for reasons which don't need exploring at this juncture, I have remained, attached as liaison to the Canadian consulate. [Later, Fraser adds the line, "A story that takes exactly 2 hours to tell," referring to the pilot.]
Delightful show--with the perfect setting!

If I had to live away from the ocean, Chicago would be my go-to choice--even with all that snow!

Great Adorable Grumpy Old Gals

To go with my post on great adorable grumpy old guys, here's a complementary list:

1. Selma (from Night Court)

Selma, played by Selma Diamond, is the straight-woman to Richard Moll's sweet-natured Bull, the other bailiff on Night Court. She is the essence of grumpy and acerbic as she delivers pithy quips in her raspy voice. Unfortunately, Selma Diamond died after Season 2. Moll would go through another side-kick before settling in with Marsha Warfield. All three female bailiffs would qualify for 'grumpy.' (Florence Halop, the second female bailiff, made some great guest appearances on Barney Miller.)

2. K Callan (from a number of things other than Lois & Clark)

In Lois & Clark, K Callan, as Clark's mom, is a sweetheart.

However, she has guest-starred in many, many mysteries as the grumpy neighbor, the murderous grandmother and even the criminal mastermind! Check her out going up against Patrick Jane!

3. Kathryn Joosten

With a similar acting background to K Callan, Kathryn Joost (one of the incarnations of god in Joan of Arcadia) was totally hilarious as a grump. She was especially good at barking orders in full-blown exasperation  (see The Closer).

4. Sophia (from The Golden Girls)

Sophia, played by Estelle Getty, is a tiny adorable package of grumpy one-liners. The Golden Girls, despite some dated jokes, is a remarkably relevant show. As I and my parents age, I find it downright comforting.

Despite her real age (at the time) Getty captured the walk, tone, and attitudes of an independent 80-year-old. I especially enjoy Sophia's "picture it: Sicily 1922" anecdotes, which always involve her meeting famous people from history.

5. Martha Rogers (from Castle)

Like Dick Van Dyke on the previous list, Susan Sullivan as Martha Rogers isn't so much grumpy as a straight-shooter. She can play grumpy! Most of the time, however, she breathes fresh-air and style into the aging process.

She was much grumpier, and just as funny, opposite (grumpy) Mitchell Ryan in Dharma & Greg.

Adorable Grouchy Character Actor: Kurtwood Smith

I just finished watching Hitchcock for the second time. It is a respectable movie; Helen Mirren naturally conquers the film as Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife.

Some of my favorite scenes, however, focus on Hollywood's censor, played by the talented Kurtwood Smith.

I adore Kurtwood Smith. He plays the dad, "Red" Forman in That 70's Show. That 70's Show is one of those sitcoms that I'll stop and watch if I see it in passing yet I never rent. My favorite episodes--the ones I stop for--are all "Red"-focused, and one of my favorite lines occurs when an exasperated "Red" barks, "Why is it, everywhere we go, all these kids come along?!"

Of course, Kurtwood Smith has done much more than play Eric Forman's father. His resume includes a deranged FBI agent (X-Files) and a slightly deranged but good-hearted ex-cop (Psych). He also delivers a tour de force as the complexly disturbed captain in my favorite Star Trek: Voyager two-parter: "Year of Hell." His character is a villain, yet a comprehensible one. His crew's loyalty is believable, and his desperate attempts to literally rewrite the past make for an excellent time travel problem.

Kurtwood Smith plays disturbed, kindly, captious, and, of course, grouchy! He is the type of actor who, while not disappearing into his part a la Gary Oldman, never draws attention away from the lines or plot. He does what is necessary, whether that entails a bravura performance, a subtle one, or a walk-on part: I imagine directors find this a great relief.

For his performance as "Red" alone, I must add Kurtwood Smith to my "Great Adorable Grumpy Old Guys" list.

Bon Jovi Inspired

I am currently working on Book 3 of my fantasy trilogy, the Roesia Chronicles; since this is the first time I've written a trilogy, I assigned a song from Bon Jovi's album Have a Nice Day to each novella to help me keep the themes of each distinct.

Bon Jovi was hugely popular when I was a teen. I wasn't much of a fan (if I remember correctly, I was listening to A-Ha , Elvis Costello, and Billy Joel while listening to my siblings play Pink Floyd, Queen, Neil Diamond plus Bruce Springsteen and to my friends play The Pogues and Duran Duran).

In the middle of all this, Bon Jovi produced the song "Wanted Dead or Alive" which led, circuitously, to him creating the soundtrack for Young Guns II and making a cameo appearance in the movie. THAT led to Bon Jovi doing an interview on the radio, which I heard. Bon Jovi was so adorably, well, dorky (I admire dorkiness) and self-effacing during the interview, I decided I liked him.

Approximately 15 years later, I saw him on American Idol looking adorably bemused ("Why am I doing this?") and decided I still liked him.

Every now and again, I listen to his music.

From Have a Nice Day, I assigned "I Want to Be Loved" to Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation:
So who I am now?
Who do you want me to be be?
I can forgive you but I won't re-live you
I ain't the same scared kid I used to be
I'm gonna live, I'm gonna survive
I don't want the world to pass me by
I'm gonna dream, I ain't gonna die
Thinking my life was just a lie
I wanna be loved
I wanna be loved
I assigned "Welcome to Wherever You Are" to Richard: The Ethics of Affection:
You're caught between just who you are and who you want to be
If you feel alone and lost and need a friend
Remember every new beginning is some beginning's end
Welcome to where you are
This is your life; you made it this far
Welcome, you got to believe
That right here, right now
You're exactly where you're supposed to be
Welcome to wherever you are.
To put it in Buckaroo Banzai's terms: No matter where you go, there you are.

And I assigned the signature song "Have a Nice Day" to Lord Simon: The Hauntings of Hannah:
Take a look around you; nothing's what it seems
We're living in the broken home of hopes and dreams
Let me be the first to shake a helping hand
Anybody brave enough to take a stand
I've knocked on every door on every dead-end street
Looking for forgiveness and what's left to believe
When the world gets in my face, I say

Have a nice day

The Complications of Wickham in Death Comes to Pemberley

The excellent Matthew Rhys as Darcy
reacting to Wickham's trial.
I recently watched P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley. All of my comments refer to the script since I have not read the novel.

The script is fairly standard Austen lite fare--I say that fondly since I have myself produced Austen lite fare! The romance in the household centers on Georgiana, but Elizabeth and Darcy suffer through a marriage crisis that doesn't differ substantially from their pre-engagement crisis. Whether or not a rehash of previous fears and misunderstandings is likely to occur 6 years into a marriage, I'll leave to the therapists.

I found the miniseries (3 episodes equaling a total of 3 hours) engaging although the mystery itself was kind of blah.

What I liked best was the treatment of Wickham.

He's the same guy as in the original. That guy: the one who meanders through life doing whatever he wants and then being shocked, shocked! when he runs out of money and gets threatened by creditors. He has all the moral comprehension of a weasel. Though maybe that's unfair to weasels.

Death Comes to Pemberley captures this aspect of Wickham perfectly. Although I greatly admire Longbourn, I think the Wickham of Jo Baker's imagination is too vile. Wickham isn't evil. He's just the "natural man" in a waistcoat.

At the beginning of Death, when Wickham is accused of murder, Darcy's knee-jerk, automatic reaction is, "But Wickham isn't violent." Darcy knows Wickham. He knows him better than any of the Bennetts. If one needs expert advice regarding Wickham's character, Darcy is--whether he likes it or not--the best person to provide that advice. 

In fact, Death illustrates a fundamental point that I feel is often missed, especially in lite fare: Wickham was and always will be Darcy's problem. Elizabeth blames herself for involving Darcy with Wickham. But Elizabeth didn't grow up with Wickham. Darcy did.

Darcy is often painted wholly heroically: the knight in shining armor who rides to the rescue and conquers the dragon (Wickham) out of disinterested magnanimity.

In truth, as an early nineteenth century landlord, Darcy has always been responsible for Wickham. He doesn't want to be. He tries desperately to break with Wickham completely. But the guy is never going to go away--and wouldn't have even if he'd married someone other than Lydia.

Matthew Goode as Wickham reacting to Darcy.
Another interesting aspect of Wickham that appears in Death is his comment to Darcy about why he keeps returning to Pemberley's grounds. Darcy accuses him of skulking about. Throughout their conversation, Wickham has behaved per usual--blithely shrugging off his circumstances, talking ironically about his wife--but at Darcy's accusation, he abruptly turns and snaps, "It's the only place I was ever happy."

I found this believable. Utterly lacking in introspection, Wickham has no idea how to recreate the life he had when he was young. All he knows is that once upon a time, he wasn't in trouble with (1) Darcy; (2) the army; (3) creditors; (4) his extended family, etc. etc. etc. The only person who doesn't give him grief is Lydia (who is portrayed quite well in Death), and she's a tad flighty (however, she is still more loyal and less critical than anyone else in his life, so he tolerates her, which I also found believable).

There will probably always be a part of Wickham that wishes he could get back to the life he had as a kid, when all he had to do was run around a huge estate with another kid.

Of course, Wickham probably hightailed it to London as soon as he hit late adolescence ("Pemberley is  SOO boring!"), but there's no reason those two realities--I couldn't wait to get away. I can't wait to get back.--can't exist at the same time in the same person.

People are complicated, even someone as apparently shallow as Wickham.

Kate Tries to Navigate HealthCare.Gov: Updated November 17, 2014

November 17, 2014
The Maine Community College System is not going to provide a healthcare package to its adjuncts. This is not a huge surprise, but it does mean that I had to go back down that rabbit-hole. 
I re-enrolled, which was far, far easier than the last time. This time, the website works! (It still has problems. For instance, once you are in your profile, you cannot return to the main screen without hitting the back arrow. I hate websites like this.)
I discovered what I feared in February. Because I am a contract worker, and my income fluctuates from year to year, if I make the same or more income this year as last, my tax credits  will not be enough to cover my health insurance. The least expensive (and useless) health insurance is the same amount as my monthly car payments. My tax credits would cover half--and that is NOT a guarantee since those proposed tax credits are based on last year's tax returns, not this year's. (I made more money this year per credit hour, but I lost two classes, so I think my income will come out the same.)
Open enrollment has been extended to February 15, 2015. Hopefully by then, I will have my W-2s and can see if I get a different result. However, if I decide not to get insurance (because it is useless and I can't afford it), unless I remove my account from the Marketplace, I may be enrolled without my permission (a pop-up in warned me of this possibility).
I refuse to let the Federal Government force me to spend money I don't have. I have not charged anything to a credit card in over 2+ years. How dare the Feds try to reteach me bad habits!!
Consequently, I may end up taking the "hit" in 2015 on my taxes (I will be punished approximately $300 worth). In general, I would be better off taking the "open enrollment" option since it cuts my insurance costs. Yet full price or half price . . . either way, in 2015, I won't have the money. At least if I wait (until after I pay off my car), I will know where the money is coming from!
The really disgusting thing is that insurance companies in Maine won't offer catastrophic insurance as a separate, non-Federally funded package since the Federal Marketplace has decided that anyone who is over 30 and not indigent doesn't qualify. (I have a call into Anthem to confirm this.)
February 22, 2014
I'm starting to do my taxes, and this is what I have discovered so far . . . I think.

First, the Health Insurance Tax Credit is not automatically folded into the 1040 form--even TaxAct, which is a fairly reliable program, required that I find and fill out an extra form: Form 8885. However, since I didn't purchase any Health Insurance in 2013, the form is irrelevant. This leads me to believe--and please correct me if I'm wrong--that if I do purchase insurance through the Marketplace to avoid the March deadline, I will have to pay for it out-of-pocket before getting reimbursed in 2015. Since my entire problem with health insurance stems from my inability to pay for health insurance right now, this doesn't help.

Update: According to the IRS, I can have Marketplace tax credit paid directly to the insurance company--this would be 2014 tax credit on the return I would file in 2015; consequently, I wouldn't be able to see how purchasing health insurance might affect my refund/income until 2015 (after the deadline). Also, in order for me to get this tax credit, my 2014 income would have to remain absolutely stable--if it varied at all, I could be surprised with a very big bill in 2015. 

This is called "awful budgeting" and "lack of transparency" when places like Enron do it, and when places like Enron do it, people get very, very upset. So why is it okay when our government does it?
Call me naive, but I honestly thought that TaxAct would present the following questions as part of the regular Federal form: "Do you have health insurance?" "Did you purchase it through the Marketplace?" "Will you purchase health insurance through the Marketplace in 2014?"
In sum, I find it bizarre that ObamaCare receives so little notice on the current tax forms although such disingenuousness is part and parcel of Washington's approach to the issue (it isn't a tax! it's a . . . .). If this insurance is so important, shouldn't I at least get some credit/recognition for getting health insurance before the deadline? And if I don't, why should I bother? I realize that these tax forms reference 2013 income, but it IS being filed in 2014, and the deadline for getting health insurance is March 2014, not December 2014. So I'm going to be penalized in 2015 for something that I didn't have for 9 months of 2014 and wasn't required to have for 3. Am I the only one who thinks this is all kind of odd?

My penalty for not purchasing health insurance, according to TaxAct, will be $200.

My employer is required to decide whether or not to give me health insurance by 2015. Since all I need is catastrophic health insurance (which is all the Marketplace can offer me in any case), I rather wish my employer would at least present us contract workers with that option (perhaps at a group cut rate). However, I'm not holding my breath.
(The adjuncts' union HAS forced the college to agree that adjunct hours won't be deliberately cut to avoid this issue; I'm not a fan of unions in general, but I have to give ours credit for this one. The college's pretense that it had "suddenly" discovered a need to limit adjuncts' hours per semester for reasons completely unrelated to health insurance was hard for even a sanguine Libertarian like me to take. I doubt the college system can afford health insurance for all adjuncts, but a reduction in hours would destroy my ability to be an adjunct at all--ironically, when one considers Obama's supposed love for education and educators. Besides, I rather dislike bureaucrats haphazardly inventing rules to try to avoid the consequences of their own behavior. If current academic powers-that-be don't like using adjuncts, then change the system! I wouldn't like such a decision, but I would respect it.
But of course, rehauling the system would negatively impact the powers-that-be. Ain't politics wonderful.) 
February 14, 2014
Towards the end of December, I finally got access to my eligibility results.

I am not eligible for Medicaid, which I knew before I applied. I occupy a not atypical position in American society: I'm not poor enough to get breaks but not wealthy enough not to care. For example, I make too much money in the Fall and Spring to be eligible for a break on my student loans--but not quite enough money to make it easy to pay such loans (however, going any lower would mean not paying the interest, so it actually isn't worth getting a break anyway).

In general, I save up for eye care and wait for things like semi-free clinics ($10 for flu shots!) which serves me well.

And will continue to serve me. As far as I could tell in December, if I get the cheapest (and most useless plan: see below), my health tax credits will pay for it all: $162/month.

I have decided to wait until I do my 2014 taxes (which I always do before the due date). I don't know if signing up for healthcare now will reduce my 2014 rebate or not (these days, I almost always get a rebate). Depending on what TaxAct tells me, I'll make my decision then.

By the way, to enroll in a healthcare plan, be prepared to fill out a trillion more documents: yup, just logging in is just the start! I tried going on today to finish the forms (my opinion about dental care, whether I smoke, blah, blah, blah) and . . .

It isn't working.
Consistently may be the hobgoblin of little minds but there's something almost comforting about the consistent ineffectiveness of large bureaucracies. 
December 12, 2013
My application has been submitted! I have eligibility results!

I can't view them because the screen isn't working. But I have them!!
When I consider what Amazon is doing right now with the Christmas rush--and the fact that everything I have ordered has been shipped on-time, even ahead of schedule . . .

Let's just say, I can't speak to capitalism's ethics (at least, I won't right now), but efficiency-wise, when it comes to Big Government:

The trains don't run on time.
December 5, 2013
I have been checking on my application here and there over the past month +. It is still in progress. (I can finally access the website using Firefox rather than IE.)

The website currently declares, "Enroll by Dec. 23 for coverage starting as soon as Jan. 1."

So I went to log-in.

It didn't work.

I don't mean my info was wrong. I mean, the website just kicked me back to the same log-in page (several times).

Do the people who designed the website believe what is posted ON the website? 

I have my doubts. 
October 22, 2013
I knew it! Very good article from Yahoo about the Marketplace's problems:
October 17, 2013

Over the past week, the Marketplace has been down more than it has been up.

My application is still in progress.

October 8, 2013
The system has been down (or at least has admitted to being down) for 24 hours now. The current message: We're currently making system improvements. Please try again after 10:00 AM Eastern. 
I'm afraid the fire sale of Live Free or Die Hard is looking less and less of a possibility. Why do people assume that the answer to a big inefficient problem is big inefficient government? And where's Harold Finch when you need him?
I was able to get on around 11:00 a.m.; my application is still being processed. I'm not sure if this is because the system was down or if several days is typical. If each application must be individually reviewed . . . I may not know if I have coverage until March 2014! (Except that I'm supposed to have the option of signing up for whatever they offer me on January 1, 2014.)
For the sake of clarification, the cheapest insurance currently available would cost me about the same as a car payment: $240 or so a month (I would save $70 because I don't smoke). This sounds great except it comes with a $5,000 deductible. I don't pay anything even close to this amount on my doctors' appointments per year, so basically . . . my life wouldn't change. (Now, if I HAD $5,000 a year extra . . .) Even the best plan in Maine--$373/month--comes with a $650 deductible; believe it or not, I don't spend even that much per year on medical bills. In fact, if the government just GAVE me $500, I would be able to see my eye doctor, my dentist, and maybe even get a check-up! 
Catastrophic Care--which is all I really need (in case of a $50,000 trip to the hospital)--would cost me only $40/month less with a $6,000 deductible.*
To sum up, whatever I do, I will mostly be paying to keep the government off my back. Granted, this is what I did all those years when I had health insurance through my workplace (I am currently a contract worker; my employers have until 2015 to decide whether or not their contract workers qualify for healthcare.) Though that health insurance actually paid for visits to a primary care physician. And of course, all I saw back then was $30 coming out of each pay-check. Ah, the difference immediacy makes . . . !
At this point, I have no idea what the Marketplace will offer me. I have a sneaking suspicion that it won't cover anything I actually use, so I'll . . . be paying to keep the government off my back. But right now, this is a wait and see game.
*I can appreciate that without health insurance, somebody--possibly me for the rest of my life--would have to pay that $50,000 hospital bill; however, I dislike politicians trumpeting how great it is that everyone has health care--come on, what does that REALLY mean?
October 7, 2013
The system fails to recognize my password. It then fails to "find" the website. Good thing I have until March 2014! (That's about how long this will take.)
October 4, 2013
I got on about 10:30 a.m. and was able to begin the application. I was stopped by not having all the necessary information (to provide accurate information, you do need tax forms, paychecks, etc.). I have not been able to get on again since. (It is now 4:10 p.m.)
As I mentioned before, the site is quite user friendly--though there are still bugs--just not accessible. There is something downright unsettling about the government being inefficient, tedious, and long-queued even online.
What--do bureaucrats take an oath or something? Do nothing in a timely fashion!
My personal theory: politicians are highly unrealistic. They said to each other, "Well, even though we've been going on and on about all the uninsured people in America, most people get insurance from their jobs, and they won't try to apply for a cheaper option because they will realize how important it is for poor people to get insurance, so they will get insurance the ordinary way, and besides, they have until March to get this done, and you know how people put off doing their taxes, and the IRS never has these problems."
In other words, politicians forget the basic rule of self-interest and free lunch. If there's a free lunch, people will want it.
8:00 p.m., using Internet Explorer, I successfully applied (I did have to start the process over). The system went kerplunk before it could offer me eligibility options.
Interestingly enough, between this morning and this afternoon, instead of having to enter my income employer by employer, the system was able to deduce my income from my 2012 Federal Tax submission. Well, duh! I mean, why ask me about my 2012 taxes in the first place if the system couldn't make the comparison all on its own?
Live Chat is now up and running. 
Back on! At this point, the program can't decide if I have eligibility results, if my application is still in progress, or if I should be forced to start all over again with the application process. Presumably, the bugs on this part of the process will be ironed out in a couple of days.
October 2, 2013
At 7:00 a.m., my log-in was successful. I was taken to an empty User Profile page (empty as in a big, blank, white screen). 
8:00 a.m., the site is now under maintenance.  
10:00 a.m., still under maintenance. U.S. Citizens broke the Machine!  
So much for the Matrix.   
At 12 p.m., I gained access to my account. I then tried to verify my identity--which failed. At 1:00 p.m. I was able to enter my phone number after numerous tries--identity now verified. (Maybe.)
7:00 p.m.: User profile not working.
9:28 p.m.: The friendly "Please stay on this page" notice has now been up for over 2 hours. This notice usually gives way within a few minutes to the log-in page. Methinks the machine 'tis truly broken. Luddites throughout the world rejoice! (But doesn't it kind of disprove every evil-government-conspiracy movie ever?)
Live Chat is still down.
Trying to access the account: 
Unfortunately, the site wouldn't recognize my log-in name or password. I requested a "reminder," and it still hasn't arrived (it never arrived).

Out of curiosity, at 11:00, I called the Help line. My estimated wait time was less than 5 minutes. While waiting, I had to listen to blurbs about the Affordable Healthcare Act.

My call was answered! The obviously working-from-a-script answerer used my phone number to connect me to an address. She then started to give me a spiel about where I could find more information on the website.

"Woah," I said. "I don't need this. I just need to know why I can't log in even though I've created an account."

"I'm required to give you this information," she said.

I guess the script then allowed her to stop trying to give me information and just talk to me.

"There's a lot of people on the website right now," she said.

"Is that why I can't log in?" I said. "Because the little note on the bottom of the page says it's because my information isn't valid. But is the real reason because of the number of people on the site?"

"Yes," she said. "Again, I apologize--"

"It's not your fault," I said. "I just wanted to know if that was the reason."

She would have sounded relieved if she hadn't sounded so tired.

"Yes," she said and then her voice lifted ever so hopefully: "You could try tomorrow!"

I suppose that's why they hired her: the eternal optimist. 
I'll say this: The interface is much more user friendly than, say, FAFSA or anything associated with the IRS.

But then FAFSA actually works.

And, okay, I have to say this: if a for-profit business went live on the Internet with these bugs, it would lose all its customers within a few hours. There's nothing like a captive audience! (Did the creators or the bureaucrats funding the creators think the traffic wouldn't be as heavy as it is today?)

The sign-up process:
I realize that trying to access on Day 1 is pretty silly, but I figured, hey, why not?!
Around 3:00 p.m., I went onto the site using Firefox. I started the sign-up process, but the security questions part of the sign-up process was blank.

I pulled up Internet Explorer and restarted the sign-up process. A page appeared telling me  that I would be transferred to the sign-up page once things got less busy (this is the electronic equivalent of waiting for your number to be called at the DMV--in a room with a linoleum floor and Formica chairs.)

The process didn't work on Internet Explorer either (even after I updated to IE 8).

I returned to using Firefox (which I prefer). This time, I hit "Live Chat" and ended up back in a waiting room.

I requested Live Chat at 3:23. At 4:32, I received this message: "Please be patient while we're helping other people." At 8 p.m., Live Chat shut down completely: "Sorry, Health Insurance Marketplace Live Chat isn't available right now. We apologize for the inconvenience. Please try again later, or call our Customer Service Center at 1-800-318-2596. We look forward to helping you."

9:30 p.m. The website changed slightly, becoming a little less DMV, a little more Walt Disney: "We have a lot of visitors on the site right now, and we don't want you to lose your place in line. Please stay on this page."

10:10 p.m. After two failed attempts where Marketplace couldn't recognize my answers to their (very limited) questions, I now have an account!

The Beautiful Idealism of Columbo

"Lieutenant Columbo is still working this case,"
the captain tells the bad guy.
"Stop harassing me!" the bad guy tells mild-mannered Columbo. "If you don't, I'll tell your superiors."

Columbo looks abashed and apologizes. A few hours later, he is back on the guy's doorstep with "one more thing" to ask.

"I thought you were told to stop bothering me!" the bad guy exclaims to which Columbo responds, "Oh, no,  they never took me off the case."

Columbo is the par exemple of individualism within a bureaucracy: he works by himself (most of the time). He has free rein: he uses his day however he likes; questions whom he likes; and follows the leads he chooses. And behind it all, in the background, never entirely present but never entirely absent is an entire complex of bureaucrats who never, never let Columbo down.

Granted, they occasionally harass him about passing his firearms qualifications or about his car. Every now and again, they make him attend "official" briefings. The rest of the time, he is left alone. Nobody breathes done his neck. Nobody forces him to jump through hoops. And nobody ever, ever abandons him in the middle of a case.

Columbo even takes down a police commissioner--
and nobody even flinches.
So it's not realistic. But it is a great break from the thousands (trillions) of cop shows and movies where the independent maverick is at constant odds with the "big machine." Since the audience is expected to always side with the independent maverick, this means overlooking the thousands (trillions) of times that the maverick cop breaks protocol. Isn't he or she fired yet?

Not to mention those seemingly endless story arcs where politics rule the day. Will the boss take the heat for the maverick cop's decision? Will the maverick cop give up his insider's identity? Will the powers-that-be lose face?

Bosses can be jerks. And political grandstanding is part of the working world. And episodes like this have their place.

The problem is that engaging with politics and bureaucracies doesn't involve quite as much unending drama as such episodes imply. As P.J. O'Rourke points out in A Parliament of Whores, being a member of a democracy--during the actual running of that democracy--is like being a cell in a plant. Likewise, facing down the big, bad machine is never as fascinating as us-against-the-establishment movies try to get viewers to believe. In the long run, paperwork is just paperwork: a great way to bring down Capone--not all that exciting in the day to day.  (Trials are never as exciting as television paints them either although all sidebars have their place and the loose, boring reality of original Law & Order is far preferable to the entirely unlikely overly dramatic "reality" of later Law & Order.)

The beautiful idealism of Columbo is that all the who-told-you-you-could-do-that stuff is all irrelevant anyway.

Are bosses as entirely hands-off and understanding (or tolerant) as Columbo's in real life?
Everyone else is there for the kidnapping.
Columbo is there for the murder.


Don't we wish they would be?


The school of "realistic literature" claims that literature should reflect "life as it is"--and then produces angsty narratives that blow "reality" far out of proportion.

I'd rather have story that doesn't pretend to be anything but story. And gives me a hopeful vision of human interaction. Columbo supplies a respectable standard for any organization--or individual. Viva l'homme in the trenchcoat!

Much Ado About . . . What?!

Clark Gregg as sincere father
and straight man--one of
the better aspects of the movie.
I finally got around to watching Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing.

Considering its origins (its writer, producer, director), it is bizarrely--bizarrely--humorless.

Clark Gregg does a fine job. Amy Acker is a natural. The first (but not last) mistake comes in casting Alexis Denisof as Benedick when he should have been cast as Don John or the Prince. (Denisof does "Mr. Dangerous" exceedingly well.)

When I first heard that Nathan Fillion was in the movie, I assumed he would play Benedick. After all, Castle could easily be sub-titled, "The Continuing Adventures of Benedick and Beatrice" with no great stretch of the imagination.

More on Fillion later--suffice it to say for now that he exhibits the perfect blend of wit and exuberance that has, in my experience at least, been the hallmark of great Benedicks, such as Branagh and Damian Lewis.

Damian Lewis and his Beatrice, Sarah Parish, cracking up
at their own wedding!
Alexis Denisof, an actor of no mean skill, plays (and was, as far as I can tell, instructed to play) Benedick as angry and morose. His quips in the opening scenes don't come across as funny; they come across as peevish. The quick repartee is lost in angsty self-indulgence.

Maybe it's a Mafia thing.

Although I quite like Whedon's film noir Mafia look, it is all wrong for Much Ado About Nothing. Only guileless people with innocent souls would fall for Don John's guff. Much Ado About Nothing is about happy people doing dumb things when an unhappy guy tries to take revenge. It is NOT about unhappy, dumb people becoming even more unhappy and dumb when an unhappy guy tries to take revenge. (It would be interesting to watch Whedon's Much Ado with the sound off; if I didn't know I was watching a great Shakespearean comedy, would I think I was watching Hamlet? Or King Lear?)

The only scenes in the movie where I laughed out loud were Nathan Fillion's. As far as I can tell (and it is hard to tell), Whedon was aiming for a kind of film noir comedy with a Double Indemnity double entendre flavor. Maybe it's all that Castle work but Nathan Fillion is the only one who actually pulls it off. He delivers Dogberry's pompous political police lines straight-faced with just a hint of something off-kilter. Tom Lenk offers excellent back-up.

Actually, I think Nathan Fillion is quite simply a very fine actor.

In any case, there's a reason Branagh--not Whedon--did Thor. Leave Shakespeare to the people who speak it as plainly as they discuss laundry. All the cleverness in the world can't make up for a lack of natural dialog--as Whedon well knows.

New Novella! Lord Simon: The Hauntings of Hannah

The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins
Introducing the 3rd Roesia Novel!

Starting today, American Halloween 2014, I will begin publishing sections from the third Roesia novel, Lord Simon: The Inquests of an Absent Houseguest.
Meet Lord Simon, the ubiquitous magician of Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation and Richard & The Ethics of Affection. He may seem to haunt the St. Clair family. In fact, his troubles and concerns are far more self-interested. Years before encountering the St. Clairs, Simon bespelled a woman into the walls of his house. Driven to free her, Simon bargains with smugglers, anatomists, priests, and power-brokers. As his reputation blackens and his house crumbles, his obsession to save a woman long considered dead may even drive him mad.
The Introduction is now available on my fiction page.

The first two Roesia books can be read sequentially or separately:

Book 1 of the Roesia Series: Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation.

Books 2 of the Roesia Series: Richard & The Ethics of Affection.

The Significant Other's Other: Bones, Season 6

Usually, I dislike the use of the "other" (man or woman) to disrupt a TV couple's growing relationship. It seems so contrived and often doesn't shed a good light on the couple since their constant switcheroos make them appear shallow.

Booth's girlfriend Hannah in Season 6, however, is done right.

This is my third time through the season after a hiatus of several years. (I'm behind on the show by three seasons; I recently started over.) The use of Hannah is so skillfully done, I have to hand out kudos to the writers. KUDOS, WRITERS!

To recap, Booth is terribly hurt by Brennan's rejection in Season 5. Although they have remained friends, he is desperate to move on with his life. He begins dating a woman whom he (wrongly) determines to be totally unlike Brennan (he makes a comment to this effect early in the season). In reality, he is dating a more socially adept, extroverted form of Brennan.

Booth definitely has a "type."

Regarding the Booth-Hannah relationship, the writers make several intelligent moves:

1. Brennan and Hannah become friends. 

Brennan and Booth are partners, and their partnership is important to both of them; Booth has no desire to sabotage his prior relationship in favor of his new one. He is touchingly relieved with Brennan and Hannah adjust to the new dynamic. His relationships are about affirmation, not destruction a la Emily in Friends. Hannah is NOT that type of "other"--the awful new wife/girlfriend who insists that her husband sever all connections with his past.

Bones is about real adults, not overgrown adolescents.

2. Brennan gets to see how a relationship with Booth could work. 

End, "The Sum of the Parts in the Whole"
Brennan is (understandably) terrified of a committed relationship. She rejects Booth in Season 5 out of fear that she will hurt him through her inability to make their relationship work.

By watching Hannah with Booth, she is able to see the day-to-day reality (which she probably over-imagined in her head). She can even see how her knowledge of Booth would aid her in such a relationship--especially since she uses that knowledge to aid Hannah on several occasions.

3. Booth doesn't drop Hannah when Brennan tells him of her feelings. 

This is so remarkably insightful, I applaud every time I see the scene.

It takes place in the episode "The Doctor in the Photo" (guest starring the equally remarkable Enrico Colantoni). It is quite painful to watch since Brennan breaks down when Booth gently tells her, "I'm with Hannah now." It also clarifies that Booth is in fact a really good guy.

Sure, on the romance side of things, we would all love him to say, "Oh, yes, Brennan, I love you too!"

Enrico Colantoni isn't relevant to
this post: I just like him!
But what kind of guy would that make him? He has vocally and physically (Hannah has moved in) committed himself to Hannah. He loves her. He is not the kind of guy to be swayed by the emotion of the moment. His refusal to walk away from Hannah reassures viewers that in the future, he won't walk away from Brennan.

4. Booth is truly hurt when Hannah refuses his proposal. 

I have my own theory about that proposal--for one thing, it is out
of character. I don't mean the writers messed up; I mean, Booth acts out of character within the established parameters of the show (he does a characteristic thing out of a character). For a patient and insightful man, it is out of character for him to jump the gun.

There are some subtle clues that by this point in the season, Booth has realized that he still has feelings for Brennan (even before she confesses her own). He isn't going to act on them, but he has them. There are also several clues that he is as enamored with her as he was before.

Which doesn't mean he doesn't love Hannah, especially since he is not a man to back out of his commitments.

Yet he pushes Hannah on the subject of marriage too fast, too far. And she says, "No."

At some level, it seems that Booth wants something to happen now--either a firm commitment in one direction or freedom in the other.

In other words, Hannah IS the rebound girlfriend.

Which doesn't mean Booth isn't legitimately unhappy. Oftentimes on television, the male lead, when dumped, becomes a comical figure. Booth, however, is allowed to be hurt and to show his hurt. He is near tears when he discusses the breakup with Brennan.

"What is it with women who don't want what I'm offering here?" he asks her, and this isn't mere male petulance or vanity. Booth's question is a valid one. He is stable. He makes a good income. He is trustworthy. He is handsome (if that matters). He likes kids. Why is marriage such a terrible option?

Bones is ultimately a rather conservative show, in the best possible way. It debates the accepted mores of orthodox society (what most people at the "center" seem to more or less accept) without either cynicism or defensiveness. Marriage and family are normal, acceptable things to care about.

So let our characters care.

It's Funny Because That's How People Act: Human Nature in Guardians of the Galaxy

We love Star Wars aliens, but can we relate to them?
*Minor Spoiler Alert*

Towards the end of the cute and well-crafted Guardians of the Galaxy, Quill shouts at Yondu, the alien who took him in as a boy:
Oh, will you shut up about [not letting the others eat me]? 20 years you've been throwing that in my face. Like it's some great thing: "not eating me". Normal people don't even think about eating someone else, much less that person having to be grateful for it.
It's hilarious because it changes the entire dynamic of the encounter. Yondu and his bandits are no longer some crazy alien race that "doesn't think like us humans." They are those crazy uncles at Thanksgiving who threaten little kids with fake eyeballs and scars and stuff.

Fantasy and science-fiction rely on that human connection. It's a dance between things being alien enough to indicate "no, this is not another drama about angsty people" and being relatable enough to keep us caring--because otherwise, the fantasy or sci-fi feature turns into a sociological National Geographic special.

In many ways, this is the same problem that anthropologists, sociologists, and businesspeople face every day. Every culture is unique in its history, lore, traditions, and business practices. At the same time, every culture understands and produces the six basic emotions of disgust, happiness, fear, hate, anger, surprise, and sadness. We are all different. Yet we are all the same. Hence, art travels; moreover, it travels remarkably well (if Law & Order: U.S., U.K., Russia, France, etc. etc. etc. are any indications).

This is likely one reason I've always appreciated the humanoid aliens of Star Trek more than the crazy-creatures-in-a-cantina approach of Star Wars. On the other hand, as Plinkett points out, the audience is able to handle Star Wars because we see everything through the human eyes of Luke Skywalker.

So it helps that the "guide" of Guardians is not only human but a very normal human with a taste for 80's soundtracks. How relatable is that?! It also helps that the "aliens" who join him are completely comprehensible in their facial features and personalities.

This is yet another reason that "types" work so well. Artsy literary folks often demand utter uniqueness from every fictional character (it is debatable whether this is achievable--but never mind): i.e, a "fully fleshed out character" whose biography has been carefully crafted to explain all personality flaws and psychological motivations. The end-product is usually not all that different from a really horrible job interview where the interviewee actually bothers to answer the question, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" with any degree of accuracy. 

And yet throughout history, literature from Odysseus to Dickens has survived quite well by utilizing "types," such as (circling from left to right), the affable yet firm leader type; the loyal type, the "dumb jock" type; the woman with a troubled past type (this is different from the "fully fleshed out character" above--the troubled past is simply a troubled past, not an excuse for long-winded exposition); and the sarcastic guy with a heart of gold type.

The pleasure and power of types is that they shortcut the need for a sociological treatise. We can get on with the story! They also provide fodder not only for recognition but for further development.

The latter potential is what artsy folks often miss. Picasso learned to paint like a classical master before producing Cubism. T.S. Eliot could discourse on any poetical form, including free verse. Freedom doesn't come when a writer or painter or poet starts from scratch. Freedom comes from mastering and building on types and forms. Guardians of the Galaxy characters are types; they are also completely recognizable and distinct as individuals. But the typing, I'll bet, came first.

Characters with a potential for depth with whom an audience can relate: any writer is lucky to get that!

Observing Cats: Saying Hello

Charlotte Aubrey Woodbury
Bob now has a new sister: Charlotte Aubrey Woodbury or Charlie. She has been a member of our household for about a month.

I did not intend to get a new kitten so soon and wasn't even sure that I could since after summer, the next kitten "season" of the year is mid-fall (about now). However, as mentioned in a previous post, Bob was going stir-crazy without warm-blooded companionship during the hours I am at work, so I decided to give myself a break and see if kittens were available at the Animal Refuge League.

They were: three Mackerel tabbies, of which Charlie is one, one calico, and three orange kittens, who appeared a little too aggressive for my taste.

Using Cesar's advice, I took note of Charlie's temperament and energy before making my final selection. Sure, cuteness is a factor! But temperament rules the house. Of the three Mackerel tabbies, Charlie stood out as being neither too somnolent and passive (I wanted a kitten who would help Bob be brave) nor too wild (one kitten was climbing the cage walls). Charlie was curious, brave, and clever (she would hide under a dish, then pounce on another kitten) with no signs of aggression.

So I brought her home and sequestered her in my bedroom as all manuals and experts suggest: separate the new cat from any other animals for at least 24 hours.

I rarely follow this rule as rigidly as experts advise since I think the smell of a new animal is far more traumatizing than not discovering the origin of the smell. Bob was far more disturbed by the smell of the Animal Refuge League cardboard carrier that the ARL sends cats home in than by Charlie herself.

However, he was sufficiently freaked out by Charlie to greatly increase my estimate of how long their introduction would take.

Aurora's introduction to Max took less than a day. She was nearly 2 years when I got him, a kitten of approximately 7 weeks. It never occurred to me to separate them. (I didn't know any better. In addition, I  have strong feelings about the craziness of owners who cater to their pets' frail psyches, insisting on keeping said pets in separate parts of the house, etc. This is one tribe, darn it all, not two or three!) Max climbed into Aurora's space and was getting groomed by her within a hour.

She took longer to warm up to Bob although she was immediately curious. They were intermingling in the same space within five hours although I kept them separated at night and when I wasn't home for about three days.

Bob: What have you done?!
Bob, on the other hand, was the opposite of curious. For two days, I wondered if I had made a huge miscalculation. He behaved like a creature constantly on the verge of being tortured What is that thing? Why does it move? Where is it going now? What have you done!?

However, within those same two days, I concluded that Bob's lack of ease needed to be nipped in the bud. The experts agree--kittens of the right temperament can easily be encouraged to socialize. Older cats have a harder time, especially if opportunities for socialization are removed. And lack of sociability isn't a good trait to encourage in any pet. (This is an irony that Cesar runs into quite often with dogs: fearful owners will remove their dog from socializing with other dogs, which only increases the dog's sense of isolation, which in turn increases its aggression. The very thing the owners fear is the very thing the dog needs. Human kindergarteners aren't too terribly different. Sure, little Suzy might bite little Joey, but removing her from the group isn't going to help anybody.)

Cats may not be sociable in the same way as dogs, especially with humans, but they do have associations. Feral cats are remarkably socially adept within their own communities (just not with humans). 

On the other hand, although I was determined to "normalize" Bob, I came to realize that I couldn't push him. My attempts to make him be "nice" (Don't hiss!) backfired since I was cutting off a normal reaction. The most I could do was go and get him when he'd been under the bed too long. This is where the family hangs out, okay mister? 

Tough love.

Four days into this emotional battlefield, Bob jumped off a settee from which he had been eying Charlie and walked up to her. I held my breath and forced myself not to interfere. Bob reached out and, claws sheathed, batted at Charlie's face. She reacted blankly, then ran off and pounced on a toy.

Although Bob is 4 (or 33), his behavior towards Charlie was not all that different from a large 6-year-old walking up to a toddler, patting her on the head, then getting confused because she didn't pat him back. This is a game, stupid! Don't you get it? 

I had been worried that Bob's lack of maternal instinct would give him nothing to offer Charlie. What I discovered--and my vet confirmed--is that male cats take upon themselves the "coach" role: they monitor wrestling matches and correct extreme behavior. They discipline biting tendencies (little kittens love to bite) and, alongside female cats, illustrate how to hunt. One major factor in Bob's change of attitude occurred when I began to play chase-the-ribbon with Charlie in his presence. He watched her closely. Then he chased the ribbon. Much to my surprise (and pleasure), Charlie began to imitate him (in general, she gets too excited to utilize his "stalking" techniques, but she does try). Up until that point, I'm not sure Bob realized that Charlie WAS a cat.

Since that first week, socialization has proceeded with few set-backs. Charlie and Bob play at least twice a day now. And sometimes they even sleep on the same bed together! (I haven't yet seen them cuddle--at least not around me.)

Solving the food crisis took longer.

As mentioned above, I am not an advocate of separating members of a household. I also agree with Cesar that meal time is a great way to increase socialization (in fact, I think this is mammal behavior, not simply pet behavior; all mammals, including humans, treat eating together as the ultimate bonding ritual).

However, I was concerned that Bob's finickiness about eating near Charlie would aggravate his nervous bladder. Bob's nervous bladder required a costly intervention when he was 1 years old. Luckily, none of his issues in this area have recurred. Still, me and my bank account suffered some qualms when Bob refused to sup near Charlie the first two days.

Bob's subsequent attitude regarding meal times can best be summed up in the line from Frasier: "Dogs are weird."

Or, in this case, "Cats are weird."

I calculated that the best solution would be to have Bob eat on a higher surface, one that Charlie currently shows no interest in negotiating.

He wouldn't.

So I caved and tried the eat-in-another-room scenario.

He wouldn't do that either.

Ultimately, not being able to SEE Charlie while he ate caused Bob far more frustration than seeing her while trying to eat.

They now eat in the kitchen at the same time, so the problem is more or less solved. Yet Bob's behavior continues to mystify me, especially since he won't fight for his food. He won't even hiss at Charlie over it.

Aurora and Bob waiting to be served. The hat and horn
were added to the image. No cat is THAT tolerant!
But then, Aurora wouldn't either. If Max or Bob wanted her food, fine, let them have it. I put her reaction down to maternal temperament. But Bob, who has no maternal instincts, is exactly the same. This may be because Bob is a less dominant personality than Charlie. Or it could be some "survival of the progeny" instinct that gives kittens precedence at the trough. If Bob becomes less forgiving when Charlie hits puberty, I will make  note of it.

My hope, of course, is to train Charlie to eat from her plate and no one else's. I monitor meal times (due to Bob's medical issues, I instituted specific meal times rather than leaving out food all the time; I far prefer the specific meal times!). Over a five-minute period, I will remove Charlie from Bob's plate six or seven times. She changes bowls even when hers is still full--his is SO much more interesting! When she finishes eating from her bowl, I let her play with the kitchen light string until Bob is done.

Kittens are trainable! But as experts point out, they react to the type of training that other cats would give them. There are kittens who can be trained to do dog and humans things like retrieve balls, etc. But in general, "This is NOT your food" and "NO BITE" are the most likely rules to prove successful.

Elementary and Producer Silliness

Apparently the producers of Elementary have claimed that they do not intend to get Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson together romantically. I don't fault them for this. What I find ridiculous and utterly disingenuous is the claim, We never intended a romance; why do people always leap to that conclusion; why can't men and women be friends??!!

Such offended surprise is disingenuous for the following three reasons:

1. Post-Arthur Conan Doyle (who is likely turning over in his grave, as much because nobody remembers anything else he wrote as for the assumptions that modern viewers make about his characters), Holmes and Watson have gained an edge of sexual tension--whether we are dealing with a man and woman or two men--hence Rowan Atkinson's outrage in Thin, Blue Line:

In more recent movies and shows, the homoerotic element is both more obvious and more unself-conscious. BBC Sherlock takes a modern approach; affection between the male characters is not perceived as automatically loaded (i.e., in need of repression). Nevertheless, for many years now Holmes and Watson have represented that all-encompassing male comradely which attracts women to yaoi manga.

2. If producers will go around casting Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as co-stars, they should accept that disclaiming an interest in producing sexual tension = instant rolling of eyes. Really? Have you seen them? Really??

3. Much like the Buffy writers who created a workable romance between Buffy and Spike and then started getting defensive about viewers wanting more, the writers and directors of Elementary have, for lack of a better word, already Freudianized the characters' relationship.

Sherlock has a tendency to barge into Joan's room in the mornings, while she is still asleep or just waking up. In a Season 1 episode, in one of my favorite scenes, Holmes comes in and sits down in a chair facing the bed. He sits with his legs spread. Watson turns over to face him, curling her hands under her cheek.

Everything about the scene screams physical and emotional intimacy. It isn't overemphasized. In fact, it is played to a fine degree of mellowness. But it isn't remotely platonic. Miller's posture demonstrates alpha-male sexual confidence while Lucy Liu is luminous.

It is possible, I suppose, for television producers to be completely clueless about the importance of visuals. Still, it's gotta make you wonder how these people get their jobs.

The producers claim that they want to avoid the "Moonlighting trap" (as one article puts it). However,  I think Moonlighting is no longer a proper analogy for the romance-that-kills-the-show (do producers watch nothing later than the 1980's?). Several recent shows have done a more than respectable job bringing the leads together without destroying the show's content or trajectory.

Writers are better than they used to be! (It takes skill to continue to make an ongoing, non-dysfunctional relationship interesting, but it is possible.)

My suggestion regarding Elementary: The X-Files solution. In  The X-Files, it is largely immaterial whether Mulder and Scully have slept together (they do eventually) or would label themselves boyfriend & girlfriend, yet their relationship from the beginning is more than platonic (see "Memento Mori" for a great example of this). My hope is that Elementary producers/directors/writers don't get so flustered by the idea of romance, they cut themselves off to its possibilities, such as the non-official romantic relationship, which has been so enormously successfully in shows (like early Bones) where the leads behave as if they are a couple, even though they are not.

"You're my work wife!" Castle tells Beckett in an early season. He has a point.

The Perfect Reader: Does He or She Exist?

Patrick Tull: He even
looks like Cadfael!
I adore audio books. I am also extremely fussy about my readers. My criteria have little to do with the reader's acting ability--I consider David Suchet the quintessential Poirot, but I don't much care for him as a reader.  Patrick Tull is a marvelous reader of Ellis Peters' Cadfael books (he sounds the way I think Cadfael would sound), but I rarely listen to him: he reads too slow.

Stephen Thorne does a pleasing job with Ellis Peters' Cadfael books and short stories. Hugh Fraser (who plays Hastings opposite Suchet's Poirot) does a more than respectable job with Christie's texts.

Speaking of mysteries, Ian Carmichael may not look like Peter Wimsey but nobody sounds more like him! He reads well and fast and doesn't try to "act" too many different characters (it impresses me when a reader can do this, but it usually slows them down, and few of them are as good as Jim Dale).

Joss Ackland as the diplomat
in hunt for Red October: that
gravelly voice!
James Saxon reads most of Ngaio Marsh books. I don't much like his voice (it isn't soothing or melodious--I listen to audiobooks when I'm going to sleep), but I think he is a good reader and captures Marsh's characters quite well. While I don't have any particular opinion about readers "acting out" different voices, I do like them to convey meaning and tone in their delivery. Saxon does this.

As does Joss Ackland! I am currently listening to him read The Screwtape Letters. I own the John Cleese-read version of the same text, and it is quite good. However, I must admit, Ackland's is better! (Joss Ackland played C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, the BBC version--which is far superior to the Hollywood version.)

Stephanie Cole: Hilarious comedienne.
Good reader!
Before I discuss good women readers, I have to consider Criminal Minds: each episode begins and ends with a quote. For reasons that I won't try to delve into, many of the actresses on the show in the earlier seasons would rush their quotes; the men never did (perhaps women are more uncomfortable than men about "taking up space"?). The readings improved in later seasons; the actresses who play Penelope and Emily Prentiss are quite good at delivering quotes.

So there are strong female narrators! Rosemary Leach and Stephanie Cole come to mind. Nadia May, a reader from the days before audiobooks were made for more people than the visually-impaired (and kudos to those readers!)--does a respectable job. Joan Hickson is a great reader of Christie's short stories (I prefer Leach and Cole for the novels).

Judi Dench is a strong reader. In one episode of As Time Goes By, Jean (Judi Dench) is reading in bed with Lionel; he has gotten a pile of books out of the library, including Winnie-the Pooh by A.A. Milne. After she teases him for his choice, she reads a passage. Cadence and tone are exactly right! Afterwards, Jean chuckles and admits that Winne-the-Pooh is worth rereading, whether one is an adult or a child.

Baldrick about to deliver his poem: Boom, boom, boom!
Audio books in general are problematic, having a shorter shelf-life than paperbacks. Publishing companies are constantly selling new audio versions of books (with the latest celebrity reader!). This is unfortunate. The best reading of Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones I have every heard was read by Blackadder actor Tony Robinson (who plays Baldrick). It is no longer available even though Amazon. Tony Robinson has read a number of Terry Pratchett's novels.

The all-time best reader in my estimation is Simon Prebble. He has good cadence; he captures tone and meaning very well. On top of all that, his voice is unbelievably sexy: think James Earl Jones, only English and not quite so deep. Prebble has read Ellis Peters' "contemporary" series (based in the 1950s and 1960s) as well as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark and some Sherlock Holmes' stories.

Observing Cats I: Saying Goodbye

What are they thinking?
As John Bradshaw remarks in his book Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, researching cats is a relatively new discipline. Dogs have been with us humans forever, living in our homes, guarding our property, organizing our sheep. But cats, even when domesticated, have lived parallel lives to humans (until recently). Scientific research and observation is being done even as I type--as are more popular forms of observation--but it is still relatively slim compared to the research and observation applied to dogs.

In the interests of science, therefore, I will being posting observations about my cats on occasion--especially since I already know far too much about their pee and poop habits! Although I am as capable of anthropomorphizing animals as anyone, I maintain that cats-be-cats, not humans in cat disguise. What I observe will not necessarily be a reflection of my state of mind.

Death and Cats

As Daniel Gilbert argues in Stumbling on Happiness, animals do not imagine the future (he then goes on to point on that although humans can and do, they aren't as good at it as they think they are). Animal behavior that appears to take the future into account actually comes from instinct and a kind of episodic memory bank (loud noises have occurred in this room: be careful!). But animals don't plan to become astronauts or imagine taking vacations. They don't even imagine what to do when YOU go on vacation.

Consequently, it is difficult to say (when humans are removed from the equation) whether animals really mourn each other (rather than just reflect their humans' emotions). When Aurora died, I was prepared for a few days of confusion on Bob's part, followed by complete indifference. I was sort of right. I was also sort of wrong.

To begin with, there is the issue of temperament. Max was a cat-who-thought-he-was-a-dog. When he got ill, his personality underwent a massive shift. Aurora--an older female cat with an aloof and self-sufficient temperament--ignored his decline. After he died, she adjusted almost immediately to his absence. She didn't go searching for him. Her routine didn't alter. And she took over the couch (the seat next to me in the living room).

Commemorative ornament.
On the other hand, when Aurora got ill, Bob--a 4-year-old of skittish habits who nonetheless likes to be around others--continued to associate with her. He would walk up to her and lick her forehead. He would look for her in the apartment. He would eat food alongside her. Although Aurora become very restless, her personality didn't alter substantially. Bob did not ignore her at any point.

When she died, Bob would go into the closet (where she liked to sleep), find her smell, leave the closet and go looking for her. After I vacuumed out the closet, Bob responded by staying under the bed (I didn't remove Aurora's smell/fur from there until a week later). He stopped going into the living room. The living room has always made him nervous (open windows: truck noises!); still, he had spent time in the living room when Aurora was alive.

Although I continued to get weepy (and still do), Bob adjusted to Aurora's death within three days (I am opposed to humans insisting that their animals mourn with them, so he got no pressure from me one way or the other). He no longer searched for her. He returned to the living room (helped by me shutting the windows, eliminating the scary truck sounds). And he took over the chair (the seat next to me in the living room).

Three days later than his adjustment, I thought I would lose my mind. Unlike Aurora, who adjusted to the absence of another cat without pause, Bob clearly dislikes being left alone. He began to demand more affection and playtime when I was home and before I left in the mornings. Some cats you can feed, and they saunter away without a backwards glance. Some cats you feed, and they curl up in your lap. Some cats you feed, and they demand to be entertained. Bob has always fallen into the last category--running off to the hall or living room and standing over a toy as soon as he lapped up a little breakfast. After Aurora's death, his demands became more vocal and insistent.

Aurora and Bob
I don't believe that Bob was necessarily demanding another pet in the house. I point this out because I think it is customary for pet owners to claim that their animals want thus-and-so when it is really the human's needs and desires that are being satisfied. (My animal wants me to buy a new bed! A new entertainment system! A new car!)

What I do know is that I don't have the time or energy to keep Bob fully entertained. "I have to go to work," I will tell him. "I'm the person who pays for all your food." Which means absolutely nothing to an animal with a fetish for warm bodies.

 To be continued . . .