Great Character Actor: Bruce Kirby

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I am quite fond of Bruce Kirby. A fan of mystery shows, I first encountered Kirby on Columbo as Sergeant George Kramer. And then--no great surprise--I encountered him on Kojak where he ambles about the squad room as Sergeant Al Vine. In the trifecta of perfection, Barney Miller--the best cop sitcom ever!--showcased Bruce Kirby as the criminal-or-cop-of-the-week on three occasions.

Born in 1928, Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu (Sr.--his son was junior), Bruce Kirby has had an extensive career (he was taking parts as late as 2009). As mentioned earlier on my blog, I really admire actors like this! Bearing a similar career history, his son, Bruno Kirby, Jr., appeared with his father in a Columbo episode, "At Dawn's Early Light," playing a young cadet.

The most endearing aspect of Bruce Kirby is his ability to capture blithe nonchalance. He strolls through an episode with careful insouciance and just a hint of a wink (but never too much; he doesn't steal scenes). He's the kind of actor where the viewer begins to suspect after awhile that he is simply being himself. Since what he is being is utterly adorable, there's no problem!

Maybe Kirby's quiet internal amusement is all an act. It is nevertheless singularly refreshing to watch--and often downright hilarious.

Daughter of Time: Why it's a great book, Part II

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Images from Digging for Richard III by Mike Pitts: the face
on the right is a reconstruction based on the discovered skull.
So Tey is probably wrong about who killed the princes. The aspect of her writing that sends professional historians into teeth-grinding pomposity is that she does miss context. Grant and Brent argue from a limited knowledge of the time-period and they isolate information--the princes' mother came out of sanctuary!--rather than placing action and reaction into a larger frame. Consequently, they miss the obvious: just because Richard didn't kill the princes at a particular time and place for a particular reason using a particular person doesn't mean he didn't kill them at a later time and place himself.

They don't even wonder if the princes simply died (because what kind of murder mystery would that be?!).

Nevertheless, Tey's book deserves accolades--not to say gratitude--for its lessons in historical research. Grant and even Brent may be amateurs, but they are amateurs who have grasped several basic principles of researching history, principles that non-amateur historians would do well to remember:
1. History tends to get reduced to memorable stories--this is normal, not evil.
2. Eyewitnesses don't always tell the truth.
3. Virtuous people may tell the truth; that doesn't mean the truth they tell is accurate.
4. Good historical research reveals its sources.
5. Contemporary judgments--such as sticking historical personages into pigeon holes--are not all that useful.
6. True history did happen; it is just terribly difficult to prove. 
What makes Tey's approach all that more fantastic is that Tey turned out to be sort of right . . . about Richard's position in history, that is.

The parking lot--the dig is about to begin!
Recently, Richard III's body was discovered underneath a parking lot in Leicester. Turns out, he wasn't dumped in a river, lost to us forever as that evil hunchback who didn't deserve a proper, kingly burial. I highly recommend the book of the find: Digging for Richard III by Mike Pitts. As Pitts makes clear, it was a scientific, archaeological find; when the skeleton was removed from its grave, it was not yet identified definitively as Richard III. It could be Richard III (it was--as the curved spine clearly indicates); it could also be an unknown male of the period.

However, a representative of the Richard III Society--of whom Tey would have been a proud member--wanted the skeleton removed with some dignity, as benefiting a revered-by-some, long-dead king.
"And so," Pitts writes, "late on a Wednesday afternoon in September, the remains of a then anonymous and undated man were carried across a car park in Leicester in a recycled cardboard box, draped with the flag of late medieval English royalty, and laid on the floor through the side door of a small white Citroen van."
There is something so charming and quirky and . . . oh, I'll say it . . . English about the whole thing, it brings a tear to the eye.

And lest anyone forget, the Richard III Society was largely instrumental in getting the dig started, continued, and accomplished in the first (and last) place.

So Tey's passion and the passion of those who have agreed with her over the years paid off.

Isn't that better than being stuffy and annoyed at her? As Mike Pitts writes about Daughter of Time, "[The book] is a warning to read evidence critically and not to accept blindly all you are told."


Tey should have the final word. At the end of his investigation, Grant returns the schoolbooks to the nurse who lent them:
 "We'll miss you, you know," she said. "We've grown used to having you here. We've even got used to that." And she moved her elbow in the direction of the portrait.
 A thought stirred in him.
 "Will you do something for me?" he asked.
 "Of course. Anything I can do."
 "Will you take that portrait to the window and look at it in a good light as long as it takes to count a pulse?"
 "Yes, of course, if you want me to. But why?"
 "Never mind why. You just do it to please me. I'll time you."
 She took up the portrait and moved into the light of the window. He watched the second-hand of his watch.
 He gave her forty-five seconds and then said: "Well?" And as there was no immediate answer, he said again: "Well?"
 "Funny," she said. "When you look at it for a little, it's really quite a nice face, isn't it?"

Daughter of Time: Who (or What) Killed the Princes, Part I

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The Princes in the Tower by Millais
Why did everybody want the princes dead?

The problem was the princes may or may not have been illegitimate. Richard III would want them to be illegitimate (and they were declared so while he was acting as regent) since that enabled Richard to become king, a healthier state of affairs, generally-speaking, than a regency (child kings cause lots of problems).

Since the illegitimacy was a matter of law, not absolute proof, the princes alive would still have found supporters among potential rebels. In fact, Anastasia-like claimants did crop up throughout Henry VII and Henry VIII's reigns. A fundamental attribute of the medieval English and British throne is that every politically-minded (i.e. crazy) person wanted it. Not only did Henry VII and VIII deal with Edward V wannabes, they also dealt with Richard de la Poole who made a claim for the throne based on a rather haphazard family line--though no more haphazard than Henry VII's really. Richard de la Poole's dad is circled on the family tree below. (I guess Game of Thrones is more accurate than anyone realizes!)

Henry VII would have wanted the princes dead since he repealed the act that made them illegitimate, so he could marry their sister, yet he certainly would not have wanted them around. Whether or not Henry VII believed the princes were dead in 1483 (when he began invasion proceedings), he would have (1) invaded anyway (oh come on, does anyone really believe otherwise?) and (2) never shared a throne, even as regent, with a dispossessed 13-year-old.

Tey argues that Henry VII had the stronger motive for wanting the princes out of the way, and she has a point, especially from a mystery point of view. Unfortunately, her argument doesn't take into account fear and self-protection. Richard III and his cohorts had good reason to be sick to the eyeteeth with the whole War of the Roses. If a couple of dead princes would help it end faster, well, okay then. (For problems with this argument, see My Theory below.)

The main problem with Henry VII as the guilty party is the time frame. The princes seem to disappear from the historical record in 1483. This means something but not much since historical records are not infallible. Richard III became king that summer. Henry VII began invasion proceedings . . . before that point really but actively in Christmas 1483. The invasion took place the summer of 1485. Henry VII was crowned in October 1485.

If the princes were still alive, surely someone would have removed them from the Tower as soon as Richard's death at Bosworth was reported! (The princes' maternal relations may have wanted Henry VII to save the princes; no one with half a brain would trust Henry VII with the princes.) I am aware that some romantics hope that this did, in fact, happen. My personal assessment is that there is simply not enough evidence to trek down that path.

Anastasia-like claimants of the time believed otherwise! Faced with impostors claiming to be Edward V, Henry VII did eventually argue that the princes were too murdered, so there, nah, nah, nah.

My Theory

It's boring but from an Occam's razor point of view, it makes a tremendous amount of sense:

The princes died in 1483 from illness. Richard covered it up. Henry VII lied his pants off.

The death of Eustace, heir
of King Stephen (above) at 23,
helped end years of civil war.
Infant and teen deaths happened all the time in the medieval era. Richard III lost his heir when the child was 6. Elizabeth of York lost two out of six children in infancy and died giving birth to another child, who also died. Henry VII's first heir, Prince Alfred, died at 15, leaving Alfred's wife Catherine a widow. Edward VI died at age 15. James I's heir, Prince Henry died at 18 and Henry's sister, Princess Elizabeth, at 16.

The list goes on.

Death by illness explains why both Richard III and Henry VII would pretend otherwise. From no sane political perspective could Richard III inform the entire world that his two nephews, both in his charge, were dead, not when France was making noises about invading. Henry VII, with French help, invaded anyway; the princes' officially proclaimed deaths would only have stirred the flames of possible rebellion among Richard's own people.

Death by illness would explain why Henry VII reacted as he did--he invaded on his own behalf and for Elizabeth, not the princes. He may have suspected the princes were dead; he had no way of really knowing until he arrived in London. If he arrived and found dead bodies with no obvious external cause (blow to the head, etc.), he would do . . . exactly what he did do: have Parliament repeal and censor Titulus Regius, the act that declared the princes illegitimate and made Richard III king.

If there had been an obvious cause of death, such as murder, Henry VII would have executed someone. That's the way his mind worked (Henry VII executed Tyrrell--the supposed murderer--for supporting one of the de la Pooles; Sir Thomas More made up the stuff about Tyrrell murdering the princes after Tyrrell was dead; as Tey points out, this doesn't really make sense, likely because the murder never happened at all!).

Faced with no way to make the princes' deaths helpful to himself, Henry VII swept everything under the rug. He not only didn't want the act, Titulus Regius, to exist; he didn't want any reminders of what the act said. He wanted the princes to disappear as if they had never been.

The princes dying by illness explains in addition why their mother rejoined the court under Richard III. She may have detested him, but her unmotherly behavior--so exclaimed at by Grant--would have been a non-issue if she had seen the dead bodies and/or had confirmation from their physician of their deaths. Even if she merely suspected what had happened and wanted confirmation, her worries wouldn't have stopped her from playing politics.

Blackadder is annoyed when the queen pardons people
he has already executed. Royalty has a tendency to
change its mind!
The princes dying from illness isn't a glamorous explanation. It wouldn't serve as fodder for a play. It doesn't satisfy either the Richardians or, oddly enough, the Henry VII-ists, who blame ANY defense of Richard on "amateurism" (patronizing dopes).

Nevertheless, it makes a great deal of sense. And it creates a true human tragedy. Imagine you're Richard--you've just become king, your kingdom is reasonably stable, you have enemies but you also have supporters, France is making threats but eh, when does it not?

In addition, you've got your biggest threat, two nephews, locked up in comfort. No one can accuse you of being a bad uncle; people have seen them playing on the Tower grounds.

And then they die. Overnight. Suddenly. You stand there in the tower looking at their dead bodies and you know if you aren't stupid (and Richard wasn't stupid), "It's all over. There's no way around this. It's the ultimate rallying cry. Even if I bury them literally and figuratively, their disappearance will make matters as they currently stand worse."

And doesn't this explanation also say something about the randomness of nature and the plans of powerful people? All the plans in the world . . . you can't stop Mount St. Helen's from erupting; the rats still arrive in Europe loaded with fleas, and somebody still burns London to the ground by accident.

"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Part II will discuss Daughter of Time, the novel, overall.

Daughter of Time: Research & History: Claims 11 & 12

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Ingrid Bergman as Anastasia being accepted
by the Dowager Empress. In real life, none
of the remaining Romanovs ever accepted
a self-proclaimed Anastasia.
While researching what truly happened regarding the princes in the tower, Grant (and Brent) postulate several scenarios. Although I am not qualified to judge the truthfulness of their scenarios, I can comment on several of the claims accompanying the scenarios.

Claim 11: If Richard had killed his  nephews, he would have published accounts of their deaths. After all, there is no point in having dead heirs if other people will claim they are still alive.

Consider Grand Duchess Anastasia. (And yes, the infamous impostor Anna Anderson was nuts. Added to which, in-depth forensic analysis of the assassinations of Czar Nicholas and his family indicate clearly that no one got out of that cellar alive.)

I think Grant and Brent have a point but miss out on context: according to one theory, Richard or one of Richard's cohorts reportedly ordered the boys killed on the eve of invasion as a kind of fail-safe. If this theory is correct, the deaths weren't thought through (and possibly not even approved); there certainly wouldn't be time to concoct, publish, and broadcast an official account.

Even if the boys died naturally (which I consider possible), I suspect that presenting the boys' dead bodies to the populace as fever victims would have been risky in the extreme. Richard had JUST taken the throne (he ascended to the throne in summer 1483 and was killed in battle in summer 1485). Having 2 "sweet" boys killed off on the eve of his royal triumph would hardly have made Richard look good (Henry VII and VIII would wait for their victims to hit adulthood before discovering excuses to order executions--how much difference a few years make!).

Claim 12 is one of Tey's sillier claims (yes, she does have them). The boys reportedly disappeared from view in 1483. (They were being kept under close guard in the Tower.) Their mother, Edward IV's wife, and her daughters returned to court. This is admittedly a bit odd. But Grant's deduction is still odder:
"Where would one have to go to meet a woman who became matey with the murderer of her two boys?" he exclaims, the implication of his indignation being that members of the royal family would never put their well-being above their children's. 
"How would you play her?" he later asks his girlfriend, Marta (an actress). "The woman who came out of sanctuary and made friends with her children's murderer for seven hundred marks per annum and the right to go to parties at the Palace." 
Grant makes at least two mistakes here: (1) he assumes that the prince's deaths correspond to their disappearance from the historical record.

Granted, Grant is making the same assumption as the historians he criticizes--all the more reason Grant should know better! The princes may have been killed in 1483; they may have been killed in 1485. Nobody really knows.

(2) Grant applies his own appraisal of how women should behave in 1950 to a medieval queen in the 1480s.

I'm guessing that Tey's interest in Richard was a limited--though fascinating--foray into history. Speaking historically, many royal mothers have shown less than maternal feelings (occasionally, too much). James VI of Scotland and I of England, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, never even knew his mother and made little effort to avenge her execution by Queen Elizabeth I. Queen Caroline, married to George II, had a less than satisfactory relationship with her son, Prince Frederick, who produced George III. Queen Victoria had strained relationships with several of her children, including the prince regent.

Before becoming queen, Elizabeth I did
everything in her power to placate a sister who 
feared her and a father who contrived the
execution of her mother: survival trumped all.
There are no murders here (in fairness to Grant, English queens showed far more loyalty to their children than to their husbands). However, the assumption that a royal mother will always act in the best interest of her child strains credulity. Consider that Jane Seymour's mother handed over her daughter to a man (Henry VIII) with a bad marriage record without apparently batting an eye.

In defense of Tey as a writer, I must add that Grant is reacting in character. He is a very smart guy with a blind spot, that blind spot being women in general (though not specifically). He understands his housekeeper and his girlfriend. That's about it. Otherwise, he seems to adopt the usual attitudes of a British man of his time (1950s). He fails to recognize that even if Elizabeth Woodville (mother of the princes) wasn't so blackhearted as to condone her sons' murders, she might be cunning enough to placate the king holding them captive. Plus, she has other children to worry about. When Grant later discusses Elizabeth of York, who married Henry VII, the man Grant does think murdered the princes (Elizabeth's brothers), he assigns her willingness to marry a monster to survival instinct.

So if Grant can accept that Elizabeth of York acted out of instinctive self-protection, why not accept that her mother might have acted out of the same motivation? 

Tey has made the same mistake here that, unfortunately, many historians make in reverse. Because Tey likes Richard and loathes Henry VII, she--through Grant--maintains that a good woman would have no practical reason to fear Richard but loads of practical reasons to fear Henry. Of course, Tey never saw an episode of Big Brother (he who holds the purse strings . . . )

I have no doubt that Henry would have killed the boys if they were alive when he took over the Tower. I also find it plausible that the boys were killed under Richard's aegis.

More to follow . . .

The Good-Hearted Character: No Angst, Lots of Lovableness

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Bingley played to perfection by
Crispin Bonham-Carter
Every series needs a Bingley--that nice guy who doesn't pretend to be anything but nice and actually is.

About Bingley, I wrote the following notes to A Man of Few Words:
One of the nicer things about Bingley is how completely confident and content he is with himself. Bingley can brag about writing letters quickly, and Darcy can question, "What is laudable in a precipitance which must leave very necessary business undone?" and Bingley can laugh and change the subject: "I assure you, that if Darcy were not such a great tall fellow, in comparison with myself, I should not pay him half so much deference." There's no snideness in that last remark, by the way. Bingley is the ultimate guileless man. For a worrier like Darcy, a friend like Bingley is enormously relaxing.
These guileless sweethearts are great characters! They are rarely the leads (Nathan Fillion as Mal and as Castle comes closest, but even those characters have their dark sides). Yet, without them, any series would be less enchanting.

Here are a few of my favorites:
Wojciehowicz: You spell it the way it sounds.

Wojciehowicz from Barney Miller: Wojo, excellently played by Max Gail, is honest to a fault, good-natured (most of the time), faintly hero-worshipping of Barney, and the quintessential "what you see is what you get" type of guy. Interestingly enough, the writers use Wojo's so-called simplicity to create decent conflict. It isn't only that Wojo creates conflict by his guileless acts (regarding a Russian seeking asylum: "I gave it to him!"). He also questions (and forces others to question) why the nice (if unthinking) act he did was so wrong!

Goober from The Andy Griffith Show, played by George Lindsey. Goober is Gomer's cousin. I prefer Goober. Gomer was . . . a guy who went on to have his own show. Too much of a particular shtick. Goober, on the other hand, is sweet, innocent, and fundamentally kind. One of my favorite episodes is "A Girl for Goober" where Goober fills out a questionnaire for a computer dating services (yup, they existed before the Internet!). Of course, he answers all the questions inaccurately, stating that he reads "30 books" a month since, after all, he reads "30 comic books" (hey, I would count them!) and that he enjoys "painting" because he is paints fences and barn doors. He ends up with a lady doctor (Ph.D.) who decides, what do you know, it's nice to be with someone nice!
A hilarious trio: Jerry Van Dyke 
really came into his own with Coach.

Dauber from Coach, played by Bill Fagerbakke. Dauber is Coach Fox's perpetual student assistant (he does graduate in Season 3). Dauber leads a wholly comprehensible life--he has been a student so long because he takes courses that are close to home or to the cafeteria: why walk any farther?! This means that Dauber has taken A LOT of courses unrelated to his major. He's a Renaissance Man! He is also utterly lovable with a strong sense of chivalry. This is all the more endearing since Bill Fagerbakke at 6'6" towers over the already tall Craig T. Nelson.

Narrative and the Problem of Hero-Worshipping

I recently watched The Missiles of October, a fictionalized docudrama that I've seen several times, and Thirteen Days, which I have now seen twice. Both tell the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, mostly from the point of view of the Kennedy Administration.

Whatever one thinks of the Kennedys, and who doesn't, The Missiles of October is far better in terms of writing than Thirteen Days. This is disappointing since Thirteen Days makes interesting choices regarding point of view; however, it largely undermines itself by its hero-worshipping attitudes.

The Kennedys are the main protagonists of The Missiles of October. William Devane plays Jack while Martin Sheen plays Bobby. William Devane specifically creates a powerhouse role--the tough, stern, no-nonsense president who plays fair, looks at all the options, and makes the tough calls. I can't say whether that's what really happened. I can say that Devane sells the part.

The main protagonist of Thirteen Days is not the president but his special assistant Kenny O'Connell played by Kevin Costner. The movie is told almost entirely from his perspective, a fascinating idea and one that I am (generally speaking) quite partial to (I've always enjoyed Star Trek episodes that are told from a peon's perspective).

Unfortunately, although Costner sells his part as far as it goes, he presents O'Connell not as an objective outsider but as a worshipping member of a boy's club. The Kennedys are SOOOO cool and awesome and smart and, well, cool. He is SOOOO lucky to be part of their coterie. They are SOOOO amazing.

If this was done critically or, even, ironically, it would be sad yet interesting. Unfortunately, it is done with utter seriousness. As a viewer, I am supposed to believe--without question--that these guys (Jack and Bobby) were American saviors.

And maybe it would work--except the audience never sees what O'Connell supposedly sees! Since O'Connell is the hero of the movie, he has to do heroic things, which means he spends more time telling the Kennedy characters that they are awesome as well as shoring up their confidence than actually witnessing their awesomeness.

Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy
The problem is not the actors. Bruce Greenwood plays Jack and Steven Culp, one of my all-time favorite actors, plays Bobby. To be frank, Devane and Sheen are better, but still, the problem is in the script, not the performances. By the end of the movie, if I didn't know better, I'd think Kenny O'Connell single-handedly prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating into World War III.

I think Kevin Costner, who was one of Thirteen Days' producers, found himself in a bind. He wanted the movie to be about his character; he wanted the movie to be about the Kennedys. And he might have been able to pull off both--if hero-worshipping had been excised from the picture. A narrative that tries to tell you how great characters are rather than showing you how they grow and struggle often ends up staggering under the weight of adulation--or lack of evidence.

Latest Publication: Lord Simon: The Dispossesion of Hannah

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My third novella in The Roesia Chronicles, Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah--is now available FREE on Amazon!

Here is the blurb:
Years before encountering the St. Clair family (as both a scourge and a blessing), the mysterious magician Lord Simon used his considerable (but untested) powers to save a woman under assault. As a result, he bespelled her into the walls of his house, where she remains. Trapped. Driven obsessively to free her, Simon consorts with grave robbers and physicians, politicians and priests, twisting the arms of the powerful and the profane in any profession. As his reputation blackens and his house crumbles, his obsession to save a woman long thought long dead may drive him mad. The third installment in the "Roesia" series, Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah encompasses the events in Richard: The Ethics of Affection and Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation.
Lord Simon is the first saga I have written. It starts when the titular character is twenty-three and ends--I won't tell you when . . . Suffice it to say that this was the most daunting writing task I've taken on and to date, one of the most rewarding. As his character emerged in the other two books, I knew I had to give Simon his own story, and *whew* I have!

Enormous thanks to Eugene for editing the entire trilogy, designing the covers, including the awesome one above, and setting up Lord Simon on Amazon.

Daughter of Time: Research & History, Claims 9 & 10

At this point, Chapter 8 in Daughter of Time, Grant and his researcher Brent begin to debate what actually happened when Edward IV died and Richard III took over. Was it a planned coup? Was Richard, as regent, as surprised as everyone else when Edward IV's sons, including the next king, were declared illegitimate? 

I am not qualified to debate these points. It would entail far more research--likely at the British Museum, like Brent, if anyone wants to pay my way--than I have time for. In any case, my posts address Tey's claims about research. I am not totally invested in Tey being right about Richard (partly because I'm not sure that she is).

What I am qualified to discuss are Brent's claims:

Claim 9: Taught history can be wrong/ misleading.

Although this smacks of the cynicism that I deplore, Brent has a point. He uses the Boston Massacre as an example:
The total casualties were four. I was brought up on the Boston Massacre, Mr. Grant. My twenty-eight inch chest used to swell at the very memory of it. My good red spinach-laden blood used to seethe at the thought of helpless civilians mowed down by the fire of British troops. You can't imagine what a shock it was to find that all it added up to in actual fact was a brawl that wouldn't get more than local reporting in a clash between police and strikers in any American lock-out . . . That's partly why I like to research so much.
Brent is being a trifle dismissive. The point of the Boston Massacre is that it offered a great rallying point for disenchanted colonists. What I've always found far more fascinating than the numbers is that the soldiers involved were defended, in part, by colonial lawyers! John Adams and Josiah Quincy II helped acquit 6 out of the 8 British soldiers. That degree of objectivity (John Adams was already a declared Patriot) impresses me no end.

The important aspect of Brent's self-revelation re: the Boston Massacre is that it leads him to Claim 10: Truth isn't in accounts but in account books.
 "A neat phrase," Grant said, complimentary. "Does it mean anything?"
 "It means everything. The real history is written in forms not meant as history. In Wardrobe accounts, in Privy Purse expenses, in personal letters, in estate books. If someone, say, insists that Lady Whoosit never had a child, and you find in the account book the entry: 'For the son born to my lady on Michaelmas eve: five yards of blue ribbon, fourpence halfpenny' it's a reasonably fair deduction that my lady had a son on Michaelmas eve."
Brent is discussing primary research. He makes a mistake (common to students) in that he assumes that primary research doesn't lie; on my semester research test, I ask, "Is a primary source automatically more credible than a secondary source?" Over half my students get the question wrong by answering, "Yes." But a drunk as eyewitness is far less credible than the CSU investigators who came in after the fact.

Richard Evans
HOWEVER, Brent has hit on the fundamental reality of all good research: if you want to know the truth, you have to check the sources. In the David Irving libel trial (libel suit brought by Irving), the vastly irritated Richard Evans was able to damningly show that Irving consistently misused original source material in defense of German Nazism. Evans was able to do this because he is an expert in these same materials, because he read all of Irving's works, because he could show that Irving spoke and read German exceedingly well (it wasn't a "mistake" that Irving misused the material) but mostly because Evans and his grad students actually checked Irving's footnotes, something that other reviewers of Irving had often failed to do.

Judith Rich Harris
The fact is, scholars usually fail to check footnotes since it is incredibly time-consuming. Those who do are rarely thanked for the effort. In No Two Alike, Judith Rich Harris writes about how an amateur historian challenged popular sociologist Sulloway on his theories about birth order (oldest children support the status quo; youngest children are rebels, etc.). Sulloway was completely offended that an amateur would point out the flaws in his arguments (a detailed description of the controversy, including Sulloway's petulant reaction to being challenged, can be found here: "Science, Sulloway and Birth Order: An Ordeal and an Assessment.")  But all the amateur historian did was actually check Sulloway's research. Sulloway made the elementary mistake of reasoning backwards: since I've decided that all oldest children support the status quo and all youngest children are rebels, this figure from history must have been . . . One of my students writing on birth order made the same mistake and got a number of basic facts about the birth order of major historical figures, including Hitler, wrong.

The fact is, birth order theorizing, while not quite as bad as astrology, is not all that dependable since so many things affect how children behave (a youngest child who has an early growth spurt will often assume a leadership role on the playground, which will ultimately have greater effect on the child than the home environment, etc.). As Judith Rich Harris states, " Getting research mentioned in a newspaper or magazine article is far more difficult than getting it accepted by a journal. I'll bet you've never seen a newspaper article with the headline STUDY FINDS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FIRSTBORNS AND LATERBORNS. And yet there have no doubt been thousands of such studies."

In other words, sometimes following things back to their original source will prove nothing. As Brain Games points out, we are conditioned to make comparisons and find differences even when there are none.

Which is why both Brent and Grant are very brave to take on primary research. It is a daunting task! 

Talking About Politics: The 6 Reasons It Stinks

Over the years, I've started to listen not only to what people say but to how they say it. I've consequently come to the conclusion that most political talk sounds the same (with occasional exceptions).

Political talk--specifically the political talk associated with what I call "crisis media" ("The sky is falling! You must vote for or against this policy, person, law, etc. immediately!")--has six traits:

1. It employs "us" versus "them" terminology.

2. It employs "us" versus "them" terminology at a remove.

Consequently, THEY are always intolerant while WE are not. This trait explains why the liberals in my master's program could say, with no irony, "I'm so glad we are more tolerant than those people." "Us" versus "them" at a remove is the same reason why a discussion about humility so often devolves into a discussion of how other (hypocritical) people should be more humble--certainly not me!

3. It employs labels (and the labels are pointless).

Saying, "Those people are power-hungry" or "those people are greedy" is meaningless. Nobody alive is actually greedy; rather, people behave in greedy ways for a variety of reasons.

Take Charles Dickens: one literary theory is that Dickens wrote the character Scrooge to mirror himself. Dickens was obsessed with money and ultimately worked himself to death. Saying, "He was greedy" is far less revealing than realizing that Dickens was haunted his entire life by the memory of his father in debtor's prison.

Likewise, in the great movie A Woman's World, the Fred MacMurray character is working himself to death (ulcers, heart palpitations) much to the dismay of his wife, excellently played by Lauren Bacall, because unlike the other candidates for CEO, he made his way to the top from the factory floor, not through a college degree. He is driven to never looked back, never give up, never stop.

Both far, far, far more interesting explanations than any amount of labeling.

4. Politicized talk is myopic. 

The tunnel-vision of politicized talk has nothing to do with how much a person reads on the web or, for that matter, how many pundits the person listens to since the how of the talk is about personal investment, not balance: THIS LAW, THIS PARTY, THIS EVENT MATTERS NOW. IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANYTHING!

Climbing on bandwagons is usually the result of this type of thinking. Writing about the Supreme Court's decision in 1989 on burning American flags, P.J. O'Rourke remarks in All the Trouble in the World, "I don't remember what my opinion was at the time but I remember that I had a strong one."

Time changes so much!

5. Unfortunately, those who indulge in politicized talk often also indulge in the "Chicken Little" syndrome. 

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

What is bizarre about this to me is how seldom anyone remembers their own history. I was told that the sky was falling when I was growing up in the 80's at the end of the Cold War. The Day After came out on television in 1983 and Red Dawn (remember: Russians invade Colorado) came out in theaters in 1984; nuclear power was being protested all over the place, and many of my friends believed (or claimed to believe) that the Soviet Union could blow us up at any minute ("I'm going to sleep with my boyfriend before we all die!").

Bunkers and food storage were also big.

Of course, at the end of Henny Penny (variation on
Chicken Little), the wolf eats the folks on
Henny Penny's bandwagon, so the end did come.
Hmmm, self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?
Since my parents were the kind of people who would have expected me to go to school and get good grades even IF bombs were falling ("Yes, I see the mushroom cloud, honey. So how did you do on your algebra test?") and since I was blessed even as a teenage with a skeptical (not, I like to think, cynical) mindset that acts in accordance with Newton's Laws of Motions ("But I don't see any Russians and I'd much rather continue to spend my time thinking about something else."), I never bothered to climb onto the "we're about to be bombed" bandwagon.

Turns out, the Soviets' nuclear weapons were in such bad shape that they would have blown themselves up first.

That's just my own history. A few years ago, one of my students asked me, "Do you think North Korea [which was making belligerent noises] is going to start a war?"

"No," I said and mentioned the Cold War. I then mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis and Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table at the U.N.  I wasn't alive during the latter two; still, I read history, and--

"All this sound and fury has happened before," I said.

The student was disappointed and assured me that WWIII was going to occur at any moment (I still went home and corrected papers that night; a cataclysmic event has yet to save me from having to take a test, attend an interview, go to work, or finish my grades.)

The student's disappointment leads to #6.

6. Politicized talk demands that others get upset and offended. 

Note: Acting upset is more important in politicized talk than doing anything. After all, one can do something without acting upset. But politicized talk always demands an audience.

I've mentioned in other posts that one thing that has kept my integrity intact over the years is that I read what I want, not what I'm supposed to read and/or value. I think there is a relationship here to ignoring politicized talk. In high school, I had friends who read teen paperbacks ("Will Caroline marry Dan?") and friends who read "heavier" stuff. Reading the "heavier" stuff was supposedly more enlightening, fulfilling, and insightful. But there was no notable difference between the behavior of the two groups. And I never could fathom why reading something that I found rather dull was supposed to lend me instant prestige or intellectual stature.

Along the same lines, if I'd wanted to join the "thoughtful teenagers who show awareness of contemporary issues!" brigand, getting worked up about an impending nuclear war would have been the way to go. But teenagers, even supposedly aware ones, aren't that thoughtful, having a tendency to reduce complex issues and motivations to "if only somebody would simply do X!" scenarios (arguably necessary in some cases;  Joan of Arc never would have gotten anywhere if she hadn't been a teen!). Some adults never grow out of this tendency.

In the end, borrowing the book (hey, I wanted to find out if Caroline chose that guy or not), finding out the answer, discussing it with my friends, then tracking down the book years later through Amazon to indulge in some misty-eyed nostalgia proved more satisfying and useful to the universe than a thousand hours of hand-wringing about an "crisis" that never took place.

Good Manga Art: Three Criteria

From Mars by Fuyumi Soryo

Granted, what makes good art is somewhat subjective (though not entirely: whether or not I like Picasso may be subjective; Michelangelo's David is great art). However, I have noticed certain criteria popping up again and again in my summer manga reading, namely three:

1. Good manga art gets the proportions right WHEN REQUIRED.

A great many manga artists use political cartoon type exaggerations (Obama's big ears; Clinton's bulbous nose, for instance).  Some artists employ a fantastical look, lots of flowing lines reminiscent of Arthur Rackham. And a number give us the muscular superman look of Arnold Friburg.

You will see the type I prefer by the manga examples I post.

The important point is that whatever the style, the proportions are accurate to that style. Every now and again, while reading a manga, I find myself doing the same thing I do when I watch Golden Girls, and I start fretting about the fact that there is really no way the outside of the house matches the inside.

I've been reading manga where I've suddenly yelled, "Look, most people's fingers fall below the middle of their thighs. NOBODY'S ARMS LOOK LIKE THAT WHAT YOU'VE DRAWN! Have you never heard of the Golden Ratio!?"

2. Better than usual manga captures motion. 

This is actually terrifically difficult to do--consequently, much manga falls into two categories (1) beautiful "pauses"; (2) motion.

Those who employ motion, such as the skilled Matoh, will often produce mixed work within a single manga. Compare the three pictures to the left. The one in the middle is off. The other two are beyond excellent. (Matoh does proportional motion better than any manga artist I've encountered.)

Those who employ the pause technique can produce lovely and heartrending stuff. Fuyumi Soryo of Mars and Eternal Sabbath creates stunningly beautiful images (see opening image above.) Although the pieces are more set, they do signal a sense of immediacy: a camera still rather than an oil painting.

The difficulty of manga art is that it needs to be more like the first rather than the second, no matter what art class tells you.
"L" from Death Note

And then there's Takeshi Obata of Death Note who occupies a category all of his own.

3. The manga art conveys emotion.

This is the most important criteria.

Yana Toboso of Black Butler effortlessly captures Sebastian's uncertainty (which is NEVER vocalized in the first volumes: he is a devil after all). Sebastian's outsized confidence is captured best in the cover art below.

Soryo captures young male insouciance at its most quintessential (see above).

Obata captures "L"'s confidence yet concern (see above).

And Matoh delivers a sense of fatigue (to the right) and would even without the thought bubble!

 Like Maximus from Tangled, a  well-drawn manga character can look deadpan or excited, sad or happy, and even exasperated! 

A picture in manga doesn't convey a thousand words--it conveys a thousand states of mind.

Daughter of Time: Research & History, Claim 8

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Source 6: A book by the authority of the period, Sir Cuthbert Oliphant.

Here, Grant discusses (as mentioned previously) how Sir Thomas More "got his account of Richard [from] Richard's bitterest enemy . . . from one John Morton . . . It is on that story that Holinshed fashioned his history, and on that story that Shakespeare fashioned his character."
Henry VII, Richard's royal rival

Claim 8: A more objective source would be more transparent.

First, Grant argues that Oliphant, a fictionalized pompous historian, is biased although he isn't "consciously Lancastrian." Grant points out  that while traducing Richard as an awful monster, Oliphant is "very tolerant of Henry VII's usurpation [even though Henry VII] didn't have a vestige of a shadow of a claim to the throne."

Tey misses a historical reality here; when English nobles of the past became dissatisfied with a king, they would look anywhere for a contender. When English nobles became disgusted with John circa Magna Carta, they went to a very distant relative in France to lead their rebellion (as soon as John died and his 9-year-old son Henry succeeded, the rebels sent the distant relative home).

On the other hand, Grant does make the more than valid observation that Henry VII (and his son Henry VIII) had a chilling  (by any political standard) habit of killing off their opponents using shifty legal means. He later reads from a source that "it was the settled and considered policy of the Tudors to rid themselves of all rivals to the throne, more especially those heirs of York who remained alive on the succession of Henry VII." He marvels on "this placid acceptance of wholesale murder . . . Richard III had been credited with the elimination of two nephews and his name was a synonym for evil. But Henry VII . . . was regarded as a shrewd and far-seeing monarch."

Prince John: A knife! He's got a knife!
Eleanor: Of course he has a knife; 
he always has a knife; 
we all have knives! 
It's 1183 and we're barbarians! 
Grant has a valid point. I have read books about Richard that argued something like, "Well, we have to understand that the medieval era was a dangerous time."

Yes, yes, it was. The problem here is labeling everyone before 1500 (the Renaissance) as brutal, torturing barbarians and everyone after 1500 as enlightened and noble (i.e., "shrewd and far-seeing").

Problems also arise when people decide the opposite: everyone before 1900 was sweet and pro-nature. Everyone after 1900 is cynical and greedy.

The problem in general is assigning valued characteristics to certain eras. Certain eras certainly had certain points of view, not to mention certain attitudes, ideologies, and problems, many of which I'm glad have faded away. Certain eras are, to be fair, better than others. But deciding, for example, All women before 1920 were meek and mild and bossed around by their husbands! shows a complete lack of understanding of the human condition. Women had far fewer rights in the past (in some places, none at all), but there were bossy wives and meek wives and loving wives and hateful wives and tough wives and commonsensical wives and flighty wives just as there were domineering husbands and mild husbands and amused husbands and destructive husbands and protective husbands and
Prince Geoffrey: I know. You know I know. 
I know you know I know. 
We know Henry knows, 
and Henry knows we know it. [smiles] 
We're a knowledgeable family.
indifferent husbands and dimwitted husbands. In some ways, "historical" romance novels are more accurate than many academic essays! The world changes. Human nature doesn't so much.

Likewise, deciding that Richard is barbaric while Henry VII is wily simply because one ruled in the 1400s and one in the 1500s is kind of ridiculous. They were more like each other than either one was like us. And they were more like themselves than they would have been like each other.

After establishing that Oliphant is not completely objective in his assessments, Grant states, "I'm as completely bewildered as Sir Cuthbert Oliphant [by Richard's behavior]. The only difference between us is that I know I'm bewildered and he doesn't seem to be aware of it."

Grant is talking, in part, about transparency, the ability for a source to SHOW how it reach its conclusions. Transparency is the reason academic papers are supposed to list the author's primary and secondary research; it is the reason that shows its math; it is the reason that good pollsters show ALL their questions (see below). A transparent source will show the problems with the research, including the failure of the research to answer all questions/reach certain conclusions.

Not only should an author like Oliphant be able to think critically about his monarchs, he should be able to show that he has thought critically. In Grant's opinion, Oliphant is like the conspiracy theorist who wants to argue that a worldwide conspiracy of big business, government, and the internet controls people's thoughts, then USES the internet to prove his point.

Clip: Yes, Prime Minister discusses transparency.

Thoughts On How People Respond to the Media, Part I

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I am moving this post from 2009 (now split into two parts) into the more current list since I recently discussed it with my artist mother.

* * * 
I just finished watching My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary about Marla Olmstead that came out in 2007. This post and the next is not going to focus on Marla Olmstead's work (except to say that I really like Bottomfeeder, see right). What it will focus on is people's responses to the media.

Part 1: My Response to the Documentary

After watching the documentary, I Googled "Marla Olmstead" and came up with her official website plus a number of blogs, posts, and articles from when the documentary came out. I read through some of the comments and was reminded, all over again, why I don't usually read comments anywhere except on my blog (where the commenters are generally very pleasant and insightful whether they agree or disagree with me--thank you, wonderful commenters!). I am bemused by individuals who seem to exult in passing negative judgment on people they have never met. Passing judgment on movies: I get that. Passing judgment on books: I get that too. Passing judgment on politicians: well, that's kind of a given. Passing judgment on a family viewed for 83 minutes and out of context: naaah, I don't get that.

Yet many writers, posters, commenters have accepted the documentary as THE TRUTH--with one major exception: Doug Harvey from the LA Times.

I find this unquestioning acceptance of a media production bizarre.

Here is my response to the documentary:

As it started, I said, "Nah, the kid didn't paint those" even though, at that point in the film, the documentarian did accept the "authorship" of the paintings. At another point, I said, "Wow, she's really smart" about the hometown reporter, Elizabeth Cohen (frankly, I think she's the best reporter featured in the documentary). I twice made positive comments about the parents. I really liked the mom, who made thoughtful observations about her role as a parent. (More about the dad later.)

Half-way through the documentary, the child's "authorship" is "debunked" by 60 Minutes. I cringed; I've never been a huge fan of CBS news. I agreed that the painting the child created for the "hidden" camera (note the quotes: children are like animals; they know instinctively when an environment has changed [if you don't believe me, watch Mythbusters' animal episodes, especially Jamie trying to get a duck to quack]) was different than the others although I thought, and still think, it resembled Bottomfeeder. (Later, the parents did their own documentation of the child painting.) I accepted the child psychologist's statements on 60 Minutes but decided later that one child psychologist isn't enough to convict anyone (child psychologists are capable of saying really dumb things). I noted that the 60 Minutes piece wasn't balanced. I was completely unphased by the father "losing" his temper: he didn't (more on this later). Besides, what is this obsession with children having pure, untainted childhoods where the parents are so good, they are inhuman? (Has anyone ever met parents like that?)

I was highly amused by one buyer finding "meaning" in Bottomfeeder (the kid's an artist, not a philosopher), but he framed and hung the painting beautifully. I had mixed feelings about the art dealer. He seemed to be distancing himself at one point, giving off a kind of "Hey, this has nothing to do with me" attitude which annoyed me since it seemed like a betrayal, and I think betraying people who have made you money is tacky. I also thought his comment about abstract art being a con because it doesn't take a lot of time to produce to be silly in the extreme. Taking a long time on a piece of art does not, ipso facto, make it good. It's like those Idol try-out singers who think they should get accepted because of how long they practiced, not because they can actually sing.

But I reminded myself that interviews in documentaries are often out of context (we don't always hear the questions asked by the interviewer). In any case, the art dealer is very good at his job as when he persuaded buyers to purchase the "proven" (documented) art piece rather than an art piece (by the same child) that they liked better. I think the purchasers did it because they were on camera which struck me as rather expensively touching: a $20,000 or so effort to demonstrate their belief in the artist!

I thought the documentarian breaking the wall between him and the audience was interesting, but I thought he failed to ask the right questions, namely, what does his obsession that he must "catch" the child producing great art say not only about how news is made but about fandom? (Elizabeth Cohen, local reporter, made some insightful comments here.) I also thought he was remiss to bring up the question of "fraud" without interviewing (1) other child psychologists; (2) a variety of art critics. In other words, he seemed to be caught between an objective look at the child's work and a subjective examination of the child and her family. He started both threads; he didn't finish both.

To continue: I had no trouble at all believing that the child painted differently when the camera crews were around from when they weren't. I had no trouble believing (I thought it was self-evident) that the father's anxiety to show what his daughter could do sans camera led him to push the whole painting thing on camera (at which point, like a normal 4 to18-year-old, the kid balked and went, "Do it yourself, Dad!" or  refused to cooperate). I thought one of the saddest parts of the documentary was when the child invited her father to paint with her, and he self-consciously declined: I didn't see it as proof that he had helped her in the past but as evidence of how much the accusation that he was helping her had boxed him into a particular role: spectator rather than participant.

I read absolutely nothing into any of the daughter's comments one way or the other. I have nieces and nephews. Kids are the kings and queens of non sequiturs. I personally am opposed to the use of child "witnesses" in legal situations--children can be coached to say anything and will change behavior based on outside expectations, including the expectations of a documentarian. (At seven, I would read slowly or quickly depending on what I thought my teachers wanted from me: proof that I was a good student or proof that I had trouble reading.) P.S. Cynics, don't read too much into this (see comments below).

I was impressed by the parents as parents. I was also intrigued by their decision to video their child painting (clips are shown on the documentary and on the website). It intrigued me because it underlined the parents' basic "naivety" (as the father put it); if we just SHOW the world what we see everyday . . . It also intrigued me because it backfired (to a degree). As an insightful commenter to one of Harvey's articles pointed out, the believers were actually disappointed by evidence that the painting process is mundane, not magical. (The child didn't go into a trance and sing "Kumbaya.")

I, however, found the parents' personal movie better than magical. The clips, though brief, showed that the child did behave differently when only her family was present. They also showed that she looked over the painting as she worked: where to place a yellow blob, where to add another batch of color. Forget prodigy, people! Doesn't anyone appreciate how amazing a talent/eye that is? The only abstract art I ever painted (in high school) was a drab mess--and at the time, I could produce fairly good representational drawings.

More differences: in one scene where outside cameras were present, the child squeezed out several tubes of color and mushed the paint together. "She doesn't do that when no one is here," the father said, exasperated, and he was right, she didn't. Later, when she was more used to the documentarian, she painted a rather ordinary picture in his presence. As she painted, she carefully selected which tubes she would use, varied her colors, and filled her canvas.

And yet all the documentarian saw was "She didn't produce a work of genius in front of me!" Here we have a four-year-old who sees color, actively chooses which colors to use plus fills her canvas, and all this guy sees is that he wasn't witness to some cataclysmic event? Talk about only seeing what one expects!

Am I open to the possibility that Marla did it all herself (except prime the canvases)? Actually, yes, more than I was before I watched the documentary.

Do I like the paintings? Absolutely. I was a tad surprised since I'm not a big fan of child prodigy singers and such, but hey, art is art is art.

Would the paintings have received as much attention and money if they weren't marketed as painted by a child? I have no idea. I mostly ignored all the stuff on the documentary about abstract art except for Michael Kimmelman's very interesting remarks; I happen to like (some) abstract art, and I don't believe that representational art is intrinsically worth more simply because it is representational.

Should art pieces, in general, be sold for as much as they are? Why not? If the market will bear it . . . (Take stamps. Or Hummel dolls. Those make a lot less sense to me than abstract art.)

Which brings us to the whole issue of capitalism and the free market and the point of these two posts--in a capitalistic society with a free market and free press, it is the job of the consumer to decide what something is worth; similarly, it is the job of the viewer to critically respond to information.

See Part II

Thoughts On How People Respond to the Media, Part II

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In Part I, I discussed my reaction to the documentary My Kid Could Paint That. In Part II, I respond to the sadly uncritical reaction of many commentators and commenters.

The Failure of Many Commentators and Commenters to Think Critically

I went into my viewing experience with opinions; I came out of my viewing experience with altered opinions. And I did some research after the fact. Which is all to say, I find it irritating how many commentators and commenters accepted whatever was placed in front of them without reflection or debate: the beginning of the film says she is a true artist: How sweet! The middle of film is all about the 60 Minutes documentary: Evil parents, bad dad! The end of the film expresses the documentarian's doubts: Frauds! Put them in jail!

A specific example: a lot of commentators (and the father!) accept 60 Minutes description of the dad's urging (in the "hidden" camera part) as "harsh" even though 60 Minutes played the dad's statement, and it didn't sound harsh at all. It sounded exasperated. It was the equivalent of a dad saying, "Stop putting Fruit Loops in your brother's ears!" Actually, it was the equivalent of a dad saying, "You sing for me and mom all the time. Why won't you sing for grandma?!" And yet 60 Minutes said it was harsh, ergo, it was harsh. 60 Minutes created an image of "stage" parents: Ooh, I hate those kinds of parents, let's make nasty comments about them on someone's blog.

Another example: her paintings now are less sophisticated. Why? Because 60 Minutes and the documentarian say/imply so. And maybe they are less sophisticated, but lots of people accepted the Vermeer fakes because they were told they were Vermeers. Gullibility works both ways: people tend to see what they want to see, and a thoughtful person questions his or her own sight, not just other people's. I ran across several comments that went something like, "I'm an artist, and all you people who say you are artists and say she is good—or did this herself—must be bad artists!"


"I'm an artist" may be a valid statement. "Those paintings aren't good" is a debatable but still valid statement. "All you people who disagree with me must be bad artists" is about as huge a leap in logic as anything I've come across. The assumption is: my eye is automatically better than your eye because I say so. I may believe my eye is better than everyone else's—there are some Marla paintings I wouldn't buy—but the claim by itself doesn't make a valid argument. Again, the dearth of any actual critique (as opposed to people slinging statements around) is a huge void in the documentary.

It's as if viewers get locked into one little box, NOT because the documentarian or CBS or the family locked them there but because they won't unlocked themselves. One of the "you are all bad artists" commenters was responding to L.A. Harvey's statement that he paints all the time and sometimes he produces good paintings and sometimes he produces bad ones. I think that's an interesting statement about artistic output and the function of creativity. But instead of responding to the interesting statement, the commenter got right back on the "she's a fraud/no she isn't" bandwagon.

One little box. Even commenters who have defended the family have used the claim on the documentary that a documentary is as much a creation of "truth" as art itself. Semi-interesting idea. But why would you defend your position using a statement by the guy who created the evidence that you wish to debate?

The worst are the commenters who think they have "seen through" the parents: "The father couldn't answer a question in the last interview. So, the parents were lying! They fooled you but not me!!"

To me, this is as pointless as anyone accepting the situation or documentary at face value. It shows a complete inability to understand the complexity of human communication or to understand the issue at any other level than "Me smart. You stupid."

It reminds me of some of the more frustrating moments in my master's program, usually caused when students who felt they were lied to in high school adopted either reverential attitudes towards our professors ("Everything THEY say is true") or cynical ones ("Everybody is controlled by Disney. Nobody knows anything.")


I didn't believe or disbelieve my high school teachers. I didn't believe or disbelieve my professors in my master's program. I don't believe or disbelieve the documentarian of My Kid Could Paint That. This doesn't mean I think truth is relative. What am I suggesting instead is that viewers should not: (1) abrogate their understanding of an issue to someone else's opinion or media presentation; (2) waste their time "outsmarting" all those horrible liars out there and then preening about it (talk about narrowing one's life to a single, rather boring purpose), and (3) rely on one news source.

Here's my libertarian take: In a democracy, it's a person's job to be skeptical but not cynical. And there's no point blaming one's lack of skepticism OR need for skepticism on the government or big business or whatever it is this week. Citizens of democracy, you don't know how free you are! Think for yourselves instead of blaming other people for what you think or don't think.

And think means think--as in, don't judge people on 83 minutes of their lives. That's not thinking; that's just rude.

Final Thoughts on Marla Omstead

Okay, the big question: Do I think the dad helped his daughter produce abstract art that sold in an art gallery? Yes, but I'm not sure exactly what I mean by that. I think he may have told her when to stop (my dad has sometimes done this with my artist mother!). I think he may have presented her with a choice of colors. I think he may have urged her to continue with a certain look or style. He may even have touched up the paintings. I don't believe he actually painted them. His own art looks completely different. There's an interesting issue here about production versus eye--a person who doesn't necessarily create but can make a created thing better; there's also an interesting issue of art and community--few artists throughout history have created in isolation or without input.

Unfortunately, both 60 Minutes and the documentarian made it impossible to explore these issues. The moment they turned their subject into FRAUD/BAD DAD/MY SAD DISILLUSIONMENT, they closed the door on a whole host of way more interesting questions. I thought the father reached the point where he was terrified of saying that he did anything to help his daughter: buy the paints, prime the canvas, anything.

If he were an editor (and she was an adult), nobody would care. We accept that editors do (and should) edit their writers' works, but a painting . . . even when the overall concept and composition is completely unique to a particular individual . . . that shouldn't be touched at all! Especially, the pure unfettered freethinking of a child!!

In the end, it is a pity that the documentarian wasn't a more perceptive person willing to think in bigger terms than the rather puerile ones of controversy and scandal. 

The Failure of the Soap Opera Romance in Manga and Other Mediums

I mention in an earlier post that it helps a shōjo manga if the characters have jobs. I've decided that, at least for me, it also helps if there are actual difficulties for the romance characters to overcome.

In Library Wars, Kasahara has to give
up her memory of the perfect guy
and deal with (grouchy) Dojo as he is.
She learns to do this as they work together.
This criterion creates an instant conundrum because I despise the soap opera romance, where the difficulties explode across every page to the utter disbelief of even the most accepting of readers.

So romance ("luv") by itself shouldn't run the story but neither should the crazy events (she had his baby, then he lost his mind, then his long-lost sister with whom he has an incestuous relationship returned after which the heroine was kidnapped by a wealthy motel owner . . .)

On the OTHER hand, I find Tail of the Moon--with its constant adventures--immensely charming. In fact, most manga series rely on continual external problems for their middle books. (And some manga writers are so good at continual problems, their series' endings fall a little flat.)

So, what's the difference (and I maintain there is one) between the romance run by a good problem and the soap opera romance run by (rolling my eyes) complications?

I think the difference is a direct heir of the "characters needing jobs" motif. The soap opera romance is run by whether or not the couple will fall into bed this time and is less effective (in my eyes) than the romance which is run by how the characters get along as they tackle a specific problem.

The falling into bed may happen in the better type of romance/manga, and it may even be the point, but it will take place within a context that allows the characters to bond and grow, not simply shriek, "You never told me that your long-lost father is my uncle!" Castle rightly determined that simply keeping the relationship unconsummated by increasingly manufactured interferences was rather pointless, especially since the consummated relationship offered far more story potential.

I've said it before. I'll say it again: no one did "romance
while a story is going on" better than Mulder and Scully.
We'll have to see if they can pull it off again.
Now the unconsummated romance of Darcy and Elizabeth IS the point of Pride & Prejudice but the issue on the table is not whether or not Darcy and Elizabeth will be kept apart forever (oh no, Lady Catherine de Bourgh just burnt down the Bennetts' house!). To an extent, their union is a given. The question is HOW Darcy and Elizabeth will come to understand each other as they tackle balls and errant sisters.

Increasingly bizarre and wild complications that separate a couple are far less satisfying than increasing understanding between two characters who face a single obstacle together. Such an approach also convinces the reader that the characters will survive as a couple. All the soap opera approach does is convince one, "Man, that relationship is doomed."