The Problem with Theory: Laura Thompson and Edith Thompson

I enjoyed Laura Thompson's biography of Agatha Christie. And I enjoy true crime analysis. So I decided to give her The Tale of Two Murders about Edith Thompson a try.

Edith Thompson supposedly incited her lover, Frederick Bywaters to kill Edith's husband, Percy. Think To Die For, only the incitement is the unwitting letters of a self-dramatizing, imaginative egotist rather than the more concrete and deliberate manipulations of a cold-blooded killer.

Laura Thompson's perspective is that Edith Thompson was hung due to hysteria and prejudice. She is correct. There was no evidence-based reason to hang Edith Thompson. Bywaters stated quite emphatically that the letters had not motivated him. He never really believed in them anyway (Bywaters appears to have been remarkably insightful regarding the nature of his lover).

Freddy, Edith, and Percy
Laura Thompson approaches the murder and its background through the lens of an overarching theory, namely that class and gender assumptions mingled to create a failure of imagination and understanding by the public, the jury, the judge, and the British legal system. Again, she isn't wrong. By the time of the Rattenbury case approximately 12 years later, public opinion acknowledged that Edith Thompson's hanging had been a mistake. It was the result of mass condemnation rather than legal consideration. 

The problem with A Tale of Two Murders is not the main argument. Rather, the book illustrates what occurs when theory overrides sense. At one point, Thompson (the author) relates the reaction of Edith's sister, Avis, to hearing her sister's letters. In particular, Thompson references a letter where Edith invented a dramatic quarrel between family members (over Bywaters) that never occurred.

The sister's reaction several decades later: "I just couldn't believe that my sister...could have lent her name to anything like this. I--disbelieved her writing the letters...It was her writing! I saw them. That was the only thing that convinced me. Because I said--she never wrote those letters. I said so...I couldn't lift my head up. I couldn't believe it. It knocked me back to such an extent."

Ha! Ha! proclaims Laura Thompson. Evidence of class pressure!
That was the reaction of her class, sad and humbled and ashamed, hopelessly in thrall to the opinions of other people whom one cannot escape. (70)
In fact, Sayers' The Documents in
the Case does a fantastic job capturing
the irresponsible cluelessness of an 
Edith Thompson.
At which point, I could no longer take The Tale of Two Murders seriously.

Yes, class played a part in the whole matter. But I'm not a fan of reducing people's statements to knee-jerk class reactions. I think it is small-minded and patronizing, the opposite of insightful.

I take Avis seriously. Every time I read her words, what strikes me is the sheer devastation of her reaction: "I--disbelieved her writing the letters...It knocked me back..."

Edith Thompson was not writing her letters filled with fake  quarrels and poisoning for anyone but Bywaters. Unlike Dorothy Sayers--who objectively turned her personal, private scandal into a book (Strong Poison)--Edith Thompson was not writing for posterity, as Laura Thompson rightly argues. Edith was barely writing for Bywaters. She was writing entirely for herself, sending off her letters (emails) into a void. Nearly eighty years later, she'd have started a Facebook account. Or tweeted. Or something.

That doesn't make the shock of what she wrote any less real and painful to a family member. Edith didn't invent entirely new stories to gratify herself. She used the people around her--a real lover, real parents, real husband, real sister--as fodder to feed her needs. She put words into Avis's mouth. She made her own sister a player in Edith's personal, private, dramatic theater.

There is a slipperiness here, a lack of basic honesty that would confuse any relation. The bright, flirtatious, fun-loving sister becomes a cipher, a person without definite edges. Do I even know her?

Consider family members who bring accusations of abuse that all other family members deny. Consider Yul Brynner whose outrageous deceits about his past went unprotested in the Hollywood of his day yet created for his son a sense of unreality. Who exactly was my dad? Consider Mary McCarthy relating quite matter-of-factly in Memories of a Catholic Childhood the failure of several siblings to remember events that took place years earlier even though they were all present at the time. McCarthy reflects on the problem of memory, why agreement would matter--or not.

Edith Thompson's "creativity" didn't evoke pleasure. It evoked confusion, even atavistic distaste. This type of reaction is basic, human, real. Avis's reaction is heartfelt, comprehensible. "I--disbelieved her writing the letters."

Yet Laura Thompson missed it.

Perhaps she would argue (as so many people in my student college courses did) that oh, sure, yes, the human element is important but it's the social-political reality that makes the difference.

I contend that it is the other way around. I think people reacted to Edith Thompson as a self-indulgent egotistical liar at an utterly base, human level, then went looking for social and political excuses to condemn her. Condemning people based on dislike is hardly legal--or ethical. But a failure to acknowledge how and why Edith Thompson's behavior and letters disturbed her family and others at a human level doesn't help. And a failure to hold her to some (any) account (Didn't she care at all what Bywaters might believe?) doesn't help women at all. We're responsible human beings, not mere class/gendered products to be patronized or defended. 

Maybe Laura Thompson gets there eventually, but it's a long book to not get there quicker.

Even When They're Bad Guys, I Like Them

Of course, it could make a
difference that I met Ted Levine
as Captain Stottlemeyer before
I watched Silence of the Lambs.
When I watched the first season of Without a Trace, I despised Anthony LaPaglia's character Jack Malone. I thought I would never like the actor in anything.

Then I saw Anthony LaPaglia as Simon Moon in Fraiser. He was hilarious!

Still, Anthony LaPaglia as Malone and Anthony LaPaglia as Simon remain entirely separate in my mind.

And then there's the amazing John Noble who always chills me. And John Glover, who always kind of creeps me out. And let's face it: they play chilling and creepy characters.

Every now and again, however, there's an actor I love no matter what role that actor plays: bad, good, whatever.

Here are three examples:

David Zayas makes appearances as a good guy and a bad guy, namely the talkative landlord in Person of Interest and an episode's murderer in Elementary. I adore him. I love his voice. He could show up as an elevator man, and I would be happy. (And yes, I even like him as the unlikable politician on Blue Bloods.)

Bruce Altman was one of Law & Order's regulars. He also shows up in Elementary. He tends to play ambiguous, sometimes amoral characters. He always strikes me as subtly sympathetic, no matter whom he plays.

And yes, he is also a politician on Blue Bloods (hmmm, I'm beginning to note a pattern here).

Ato Essandoh--who was born in my birth place of Schenectady, New York--is a fantastic actor. He plays Elementary's Alfredo, Sherlock's first sponsor and a definite good guy. On Blue Bloods, he plays Reverend Potter.

Reverend Potter is not exactly a bad guy. The writers give him more complexity than that. I generally dislike manipulative political characters (in real life too). With Essandoh, I listen a little closer because, well, its Essandoh. He has this captivating warmth that fills the role.

People who hire actors for even minor parts are well-aware of their reputations and prior roles. Whom they hire communicates a long-term vision or desired effect: do they want us to secretly love the character no matter what? That means something.

Great Psych Language Moment

Television scripts (even more than movie scripts) are written by people who love language. And they are constantly commenting on it.

In the episode "Bounty Hunters!" (with the exclamation point) from Psych, Sean and Gus get into a discussion on what to call the thing- that-people-carry-that-usually-contains-business-papers.
It's not just about denotation--the actual definition. It's about connotation--the word's associations. Does "attache" sound more refined than "bag"? What comes to mind when a person hears "satchel"? What about "briefcase"? Or is that just too generic and uninspired?

It's a very cute moment. And instructive!

Television We Recognize: The Workplace in Leverage

To a greater extent than makes us sensitive humans comfortable, we rely on cliches--or at least tropes--to understand the world. Humans create culture. Culture creates repetitive behavior. Recognizing that repetitive behavior brings people together either to protest or laugh.

One of my favorite examples of tropes being used for laughter occurs in the first season of Leverage. In a single episode, "The Mile High Job," Hardison (Aldis Hodge) enters a workplace (with fish), starts break-room gossip, holds a meeting full of pointless jargon, has a birthday party, and gets fired.

It's utterly hilarious because it is so entirely recognizable.

The break-room gossip? About video games and who likes whom.

The meeting with pointless jargon? A PowerPoint with a graph and Hardison proclaiming growth for the next year.

The birthday party? Hats and cake--what else?

The firing? Hardison stands in the hallway yelling at an invisible boss while carrying a box of "personal" items.

"Oh, I always liked him," says one employee as he leaves.

"I didn't," says another.

He has been working at the place less than 8 hours.

Meanwhile, the audience nods and sighs and says, "Been there! Done that!"

Halloween Picture in Portland, Maine

I love this celebration of Halloween in Portland, Maine! Everyone should have a dragon on the roof!!

Using the Domestic to Illustrate the Profound: Fusco on Person of Interest

So I am watching Person of Interest, Season 1 for the hundredth time (actually, more like the fourth time). And I've been struck by how similar Fusco is to Reese.

Like Reese and the CIA, Fusco was drawn into his life as a dirty cop almost by accident. Just as Reese signed up for service in the CIA out of loyalty to his country and then found himself dragged further and further into darkness, Fusco agreed to help fellow cops out of loyalty and then found himself dragged further and further into petty corruption.

Like Reese, Fusco would prefer to be good and has an instinctive understanding of it. Unlike his fellow dirty cops, he doesn't rationalize his behavior--he knows what he is and what he has done. He knows HR is corrupt. He even attempts to undermine it in subtle ways.

Like Reese, Fusco accepts that his past behavior may come back to haunt him. At the end of "Blue Code," Fusco delivers one of the most gosh-darn heroic noir speeches in all of television. Speaking to Davidson, he states, "You ever been shot? Craziest things go through your mind. Glad I put on clean underwear, hid that stash of porn. Sorry that your son had to find out that his old man was a dirty cop. Then you realize you're gonna die. And try to go down doing something good."

And at the end of "Matsya Nyaya," he says to Reese, "I got this one. I shot him with her gun . . . I was always good at this. That's why you picked me in the first place. Remember?"

Reese is immediately catapulted back in time to when he was betrayed by the CIA and his own partner. Looking at Fusco, he realizes that he has used Fusco in much the same way he was used, that he intends to go on using Fusco, and that Fusco fully accepts the reality of his situation (moreso even than Reese did).

It's remarkable characterization and accomplishes something I always enjoy with mysteries: the thematic elements of the large case (which most of us can't really relate to because we aren't billionaires and we don't get messages from omniscient machines) are reflected in the ordinary and everyday. Fusco is Reese at the mundane level--which makes him a character par excellence.

Puppets are Like Clowns: Not as Fun as People Think

In my review of Won't You Be My Neighbor? (which documentary I found quite interesting), I speculate on which part of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood bored me as a kid:
I think, oddly enough, that it was the make-believe part; when the trolley left the house, I lost interest. However, that could be me as an adult mis-remembering my youth. It could have been the other way around. (I didn't like Punch & Judy shows when I was a kid, but that was probably the violence, not the puppets.)
I've decided--it was the puppets.

Thinking back, I remember feeling almost entirely disengaged by puppets as a child. I was supposed to like them--rather like kids are supposed to like clowns. And I made do. But I remember being almost entirely indifferent to the puppet show in The Sound of Music. I was more interested in the children and the music than the marionettes.

Don't get me wrong--I liked marionettes. That's because my sister Ann took me to see the ballet Coppelia when I was little. The dolls come to life, the dolls which were played by real, live people.

I played make-believe with my own dolls (they were actually little plastic, ceramic, and metal animals) but I preferred movies and books--even movies and books with animals--to have people somewhere in the wings. The Muppets were okay because, okay, well, let's face it, Kermit practically is human. And anyway, Steve Martin shows up.

Even Cats, however dopey, always struck me as more watchable than movies and shows where the animals are so realistic I couldn't read their expressions.

I wonder now if the key here is "expressions." After all, I find Eddie's commercial on Frasier absolutely hilarious.

Police on Murder, She Wrote

Jessica with the clever and dry Det. Lt. Avery Mendelsohn
played by Herschel Bernardi in the episode "Capitol Offense"
One of the intelligent aspects of Murder, She Wrote is the police.

Murder, She Wrote relies on Jessica Fletcher encountering murder wherever she goes. Because she is already a well-known authoress when the series begins, she doesn't encounter all these murders in Cabot Cove. She travels to do book signings and to meet publishers. She also has a stunning number of relatives scattered throughout the U.S. in different states.

Everywhere she goes, she encounters police, and they are as variable as police everywhere. Some of them are Danny Reagan types, tough and down-to-earth. Some of them are genial. Some of them are arrogant. Some of them ask for help. Some of them let Jessica go her way while they take a different tack. Some of them are the murderers!

In other words, they are not all witless boobs, running to Jessica for help.

Okay, granted, darling Tom Bosley as Sheriff Tupper in Cabot Cove is rather witless (Dr. Hazlitt performs as his acerbic counter). He appears to have left the show to become Father Dowling. He was replaced by the gravel-voiced Ron Masak, who is somewhat less witless.

As Agatha Christie herself points out in several of her later books, Dumb police against whom the super-smart private detectives show off are soooo déclassé.

They remain a staple of Holmes mysteries, partly because that's the point of Holmes. However, Elementary--whose Holmes is somewhat more socially adaptable than BBC's Holmes--works quite well with certain members of the police. He's just really, really picky. When Lestrade gets all self-pitying, Watson tells him the following:
Lestrade: I bet you two had quite a laugh last night, didn't you, about my my little mishap. All the things I said.
Watson: Actually I didn't say anything to Sherlock. I didn't think it was my place. But since you brought it up, I don't find your self-pity amusing. When Detective Bell was out of commission, Sherlock ran through a string of detectives. Seven of them. Good ones. Far more than adequate. But none of them good enough for him. Or me.
Lestrade: Yeah, well, he did the same thing back in London, didn't he?
Watson: Until you. He stuck with you. He chose you.
Clever detectives with differing agendas from the celebrated P.I. are always more interesting than silly or dumb ones who can't engage.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? Review

I grew up in a house ostensibly without a television set.

This did not prevent me from knowing a great deal about television and television shows. I am as familiar with Brady Bunch episodes as anyone from my age group. At friends' and relatives' houses, I sat through a fair number of Happy Day episodes and a truly stunning number of Knight Rider episodes (which I have absolutely no desire to do now).

I saw episodes of Sesame Street and Electric Company. And Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

What I remember about Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is that part of it bored me. I think, oddly enough, that it was the make-believe part; when the trolley left the house, I lost interest. However, that could be me as an adult mis-remembering my youth. It could have been the other way around. (I didn't like Punch & Judy shows when I was a kid, but that was probably the violence, not the puppets.)

In any case, I never watched the show all the way through.  So when I watched the documentary, I had no investment in what it told me about Mr. Rogers.

I came away from the documentary with two definite opinions:

(1) Anyone who makes it in show business is  ambitious. What amazed me about Rogers was how hard the guy worked AND how clearly he believed in his mission. He was legitimately nice, legitimately kind-hearted, legitimately relatively easy to work with. He was also legitimately motivated and determined.

Anyone who goes into show business has to be ambitious, motivated, and determined--and they have to sustain it. Which is why I ultimately chose English rather than Drama when I got my B.A.

(2) The documentary is a study in contrasts. What separates a honest, loving parody (Eddie Murphy's spoof, no matter how caustic) from a cruel, demeaning one? What separates a fair critique (Is so much self-esteem good for kids?) from an angry diatribe ("evil Mr. Rogers")? What separates true kindness from supposed political or religious righteousness?

The documentary doesn't tell us what to think. It simply presents the man and his work over time. However, it does not give space to detractors. In some ways, it resembles Fog of War. The main focus--in this case, Mr. Rogers--is showcased without irrelevant tangents into other people's approval or disapproval.

He is what he is. What are you going to do about it?

Great Sit-Com Moment: Frasier

Would you marry me in this?
Niles and Frasier are watching Antiques Roadshow with their dad (the entire scene is hilarious, including the "veneer" drinking game). Daphne comes out to show Martin and the boys the wedding dress suggested by Donny.

Granted, the Go-Go 60's dress is hilarious. But the funniest part is the dialog before and after her appearance.

Niles and Frasier are surprised and pleased that due to Antiques Roadshow, they can talk "Biedermeier" and "credenza" and objets d'art with their dad.

Niles--who at this stage in the sit-com is still suffering unrequited love re: Daphne--remarks, "It's as if that panhandler I gave money to was a genie granting all my wishes."

Daphne walks in and asks her question.

Frasier looks up at Niles and mutters, "How much money did you give him?"

And I laugh my head off.

Fight the Fear: Review of The Monarchy of Fear

The 300's of the Dewey Decimal System are devoted to how humans respond to the world. Some of my favorite books end up in the 300's, so making a selection was difficult.

I chose a new book, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis by Martha Nussbaum because it tackles the problem of "doomsdaying."

"Doomsdaying" is my term  for the tendency of human beings to insist that things are getting worse (see "Talking about Politics: The 6 Reasons It Stinks").

I do not perceive myself as a rebel, yet I become a maverick in just about any group I associate with because I persistently refuse to adopt the premise that evil influences are trying to destroy our children, big businesses are trying to tear us down, the world is falling apart, Armageddon is right around the corner, eventually there will be nothing good left, how can you not see it?! 

When I resist, the people with whom I am trying hard not to argue will pull out their "facts" (which usually consist of stating that X number of people have died or caught diseases in the last 24 hours--I consider these types of facts misleading at best), occasionally religious texts (depending on the group), and almost always the latest news story.

I have never been the kind of person who could pull random information out of the air to refute false claims. So I end up simply shaking my head, leading the arguers to assume that I am oh, so, incredibly naive.

But here's the thing: no matter with whom I am arguing--atheists or fundamentalists, liberals or conservatives--the rhetoric is fear-based. The world twenty, thirty, or hundred years ago was a paradise and is now horrible.

The group getting blamed varies. I've heard lovers of doomsdaying blame the left, the right, corporations, 1 percenters, the news, Hollywood, Clinton 1, Clinton 2, the Bushes, Trump, religious people, atheists, etc. etc. etc.  The rhetoric is always the same.

Nussbaum provides a Freudian explanation for this tendency to panic--hey, being born into a scary world is difficult--while Hans Rosling of the delightful Factfulness calls on evolutionary psychology. They both argue (Nussbaum more philosophically; Rosling more jovially) that human beings have this single tendency: its bred into our bones, its part of our internal makeup.

Fear keeps us alive. It also keeps us stupid. Rosling points out that a test about the world's conditions that he gave to Nobel Laureates still resulted in more wrong answers than if he gave the test to chimpanzees. And Nussbaum states:
"On both the left and the right, panic doesn't just exaggerate our dangers, it also makes our moment much more dangerous than it would otherwise be, more likely to lead to genuine disasters. It's like a bad marriage, in which fear, suspicion, and blame displace careful thought about what the real problems are and how to resolve them. Instead, those emotions, taking over, become their own problem and prevent constructive work, hope, listening, and cooperation."
Nussbaum's best analysis is when she delves into the problem of envy. She argues that yes, there is a place for pointing out inequalities in our culture/country/world. But pointing out inequalities constructively with the express desire of righting those wrongs is quite different from destructively trying to tear down people who have more money, more privileges, more stuff.

Rosling makes the same point when he castigates the use of fear to bring about change. It's bad manners. It doesn't work. And it often ends up causing more harm than good.

And they are right! I see the use of fear and "you'd better do what we say or you won't make it to paradise" threats--in any venue--as having a boomerang effect. Sure, the fear and threats work temporarily but the resultant push back almost always results in more of the thing the fear-mongers fear. The Terror after the beginning of the French Revolution didn't result in reform throughout the European World. Instead, places like Britain pushed back on reform movements in their own countries out of fear that what happened in France would happen to them.

You can see their point.

I am personally pleased by the increase in books trying to lower fear or at least understand it. I recently watched the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, which I'll review at a later date. For now, let's just say, a lot of people are getting tired of meanness and fear.

So maybe eventually, I won't feel like so much of a maverick after all.

Why Mike Rowe Is Such a Good Host

Is it his boundless enthusiasm, his willingness to hang off tall buildings, wiggle into tight spaces, and pick up poo?


Is it his sarcasm, his willingness to say outright, forthrightly, "Wow, that's gross!"


I postulate that there is another overriding and utterly impressive (and very male) reason: Rowe is willing to subordinate himself to the people training him. (I realize the show ended; I'm still on Collection 6.)

Keep in mind that Rowe is very good at stuff. Yes, I know, he makes mistakes and "slows" things down (tips over rice bags, gets bitten by snakes, etc. etc.) but watch three episodes in a row and his overall quickness, competence, and physical strength become quickly apparent. The guy picks up on stuff fast. And he isn't afraid of much (as far as I can tell).

His crew is also impressively competent. Yes, we are allowed to see the foibles (which thematically, I consider one of the smartest aspects of the show). They make all kinds of mistakes. But that's fairly common in the industry, and their range of abilities and gosh-darn sangfroid is awe-inspiring. Barsky may be a good-natured and far more introverted Al. Like Al, the guy gets stuff done, even when a boat tips over in the middle of a swamp.

And yet, despite all this innate ability floating about, when Rowe takes on a job, he allows himself to NOT be the master of the universe. This is not due to lack of confidence. The guy is confidence personified. Rather, he places himself in the male hierarchy of guy-who-is-not-in-charge.

Interesting enough, in response to this persona, the women bosses tend to tease him. Women tend to be mavericks within the social network anyway, being independent forces who also want to get along.

The men usually want to get along too. They immediately respond to the inherent and unspoken sense of place that Rowe creates and even start mentoring him. He may be a television host. He is also the guy we help and tell what to do.

Same Producers--Different Products

Several sitcoms illustrate the impact of actors on producers/writers.

Producer Chuck Lorre created Two and a Half Men, which I can't stand. He also created Dharma & Greg, which I adore, and Big Bang Theory, which I greatly respect.

Along the same lines, David Lee was a producer on Cheers and later on Frasier. I find Cheers well-written but not all that appealing. I adore Frasier, own several seasons, and rewatch it every fall. 

Now, the role of producer/creator is rather ambiguous. As Rock Hudson states in the supremely sardonic The Mirror Crack'd, "The, uh, producer supplies all the money; the director spends it. Then the producer yells that the director is spending too much money; the director doesn't pay any attention, and goes right on spending. The director gets all the credit; the producer gets an ulcer. You see, it's all very simple; excuse me."

Still, in the world of compartments, shouldn't a producer produce a single vision in all his/her works?


One reason is obviously that with any new show or movie, other producers, directors, and writers are involved. But there's another reality that makes television and movies quite different from books. In television and movies, the actors themselves--their interactions, their skill level, their sense of humor, their abilities, their skill-set--impact the creation. Story-lines are influenced as much by what the writers see on the set as what they imagine in their heads. Although early seasons of Friends establish Chandler and Monica as "just" good friends, their natural chemistry made a future relationship possible.

The cast not only impacts future plots but the tone of the show in the first place. In both Two and Half Men and Cheers (which latter I consider better written than the former), the use of sexual innuendo becomes its own joke. Ha ha. We made another dirty joke. Ha ha. It's juvenile and eventually tiresome.

In Frasier and Big Bang Theory, the jokes are legitimately funny.

So how much of this is the new context and new writers, and how much is the available talent--who the writers are able to write for?

Fun Character Actor: Patrick Thomas O'Brien

Patrick Thomas O'Brien is a consistent character actor who is somewhat less recognizable than other consistent character actors like Christian Clemenson. O'Brien often plays unnamed characters like "barker" or "lab man."

O'Brien shows up in Lois & Clark's "The Green Green Glow of Home" as the barker. I didn't even notice him, but I recognized his voice!

I adore him for his guest appearance on Monk (an episode which also stars guest star par excellence Enrico Colantoni).

In "Mr. Monk and the Employee of the Month," O'Brien plays the soft-spoken, non-ironic manager who doesn't notice anything beyond Walmart--uh, I mean the department store where Monk is temporarily working. There's a wonderful scene where O'Brien comes into the staff kitchen where Monk is eating and looks at the chart of employee achievement.

He sees that Monk is successfully competing with another employee (the villainess) for the Employee for the Month position. He makes this tiny little gesture of pleasure: Isn't it nice that my employees are trying so hard. It is absolutely hilarious and absolutely perfect to the archetype.

Kudos, Patrick Thomas O'Brien!

When Television Heroes Stopped Smoking

April 28, 1998

Okay, not really. But April 28, 1998 is when the JAG episode  "The Return of Jimmy Blackhorse" aired. At the end of the episode, Harm quits smoking cigars because the addiction rules him, not the other way around.

Keep in mind, JAG was the brainchild of manly man Bellisario, who kept his finger on the pulse on what makes audiences tick. Al wandered around with a cigar. So did Magnum occasionally. But Harm didn't, not after the first two seasons at least (I can't speak for the actor).

Go back far enough in television and movies and everybody smokes. For a few years in the 70s and 80s, not only did everybody smoke but smoking had no negative connotation. Columbo smoked, and it gave him a sweet curmudgeonly edge. It never, ever, ever implied that he was undisciplined or irresponsible.

Hit the late-90s, however, and that is exactly the connotation.

This post is not a public service message. The point is that we always want our heroes to be good, noble, strong-minded individuals. What they are good, noble, and strong-minded about depends on the time frame.

What's extra interesting is that watching early Columbo doesn't change my mind about him. I adjust to the time period automatically. The same is true when I'm watching Cary Grant.

I should point out: I don't smoke and have no wish to. When I was growing up, the kids that smoked in high school huddled together on the edge of school property and got wet. It seemed like an awful lot of money for a habit that entailed  constantly ducking outside and, ya know, killing oneself.

And yet, I don't leap to those "lessons to live by" reactions when I watch old time movies. Or Columbo. Or Quantum Leap. On the other hand, I probably would if Gibbs smoked. So--

Popular culture in many ways proves that humans can (and do) adjust to context. We always want our heroes to be "good"--we recognize that good is both absolute and amorphous all at the same time.

In This Case, Disney Is Right

In response to Dwayne Johnson's Youtube video "You're Welcome," a reviewer complains about what is "really" going on between Maui and Moana: in sum, a teenage girl is being conned by a so-called God.

The reviewer's tone, though partly humorous, is underscored by a common complaint in Western culture: "The values being promoted here are just so anti-parent!"

Here's the weird thing: this comment could come as easily from the left as the right. The left accuses Disney of being sexist. The right accuses Disney of being immoral. Both sides get ever so miffed at the lack of parental control.

In Into the Woods, Disney went too far to satisfy these detractors. That musical is about adolescence, adulthood, and sex, not cute girls getting cute lessons, then going home.

In Moana, Disney moved back to a less ridiculous position. It's not edgy stuff, but at least Moana is being allowed to explore like any young man in the history of literature.

Remember Treasure Island? Nobody questions Jim's need/desire to explore, even if that means he will place himself in danger (okay, probably somebody does, but the trope is allowed as a given in our culture). Narnia fans like myself like to point out that Aravis as an equal partner to Shasta in the adventurous The Horse & His Boy was unusual in 1954 (and still kind of is).

Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia are right: if feminists want young women to gain the same experiences and opportunities as young men, those young women have to take the same risks and not run home to daddy.

That means, being out-smarted by (and out-smarting) a con-artist deity.

And dealing with coconut pirates.

Great Law & Order Grammar Moment

Back before Michael Moriarty left when Law & Order was fresh and captivating . . .

In "Wages of Love," the Season 2 episode that I believe to be largely based on the Mrs. Harris case, Cerreta pushes his partner to reopen a case. Instead of arresting the female victim's boyfriend, they should be arresting the male victim's wife.

About the son of this totally dysfunctional family, he says to Logan, "Why did he say, 'My mother wouldn't kill my father.' Why didn't he say, 'My mother didn't kill my father'?"

Later, Cerreta and Logan present their conclusions to their boss.

"You want to reopen 'cause the kid used the wrong tense?" exclaims Cragen.

Ah. Yes, the difference between tenses or, rather, the difference between modal verbs (see below) does matter--to English teachers and Hollywood scriptwriters.

This is when I remark, "They don't make television like they used to . . ."

Except, okay, truthfully, Hollywood scriptwriters are constantly working grammar and vocabulary issues into their scripts.

So, more to follow . . .

If You Want to Annoy People on the Left and the Right

1. Forego doomsdaying.

Seems like everybody loves to doomsday: The World Is About to End!

Who gets blamed for the world ending varies on who is speaking, but the insistence that things are worsening, things have never been so bad, dangerdangerdanger is a common thread. Maybe the Trump mentality is going to take over and civil liberties will be crushed. Maybe global warming will destroy the planet. Maybe supposed lack of religion (or supposed too much religion) will cause our society to disintegrate overnight. Maybe another Cuban Missile Crisis is just around the corner.

Warning: If you counter ANY of this arguments with a reference to actual history, objective goodwill, or dislike for overblown rhetoric in general, you will be accused of being a Pollyanna. You are not. You are simply being a realist or, as Hans Rosling says, a possibilist. But countering doomsdaying is as culturally out of bounds as Elizabeth Bennet wearing a bikini in Lady Catherine de Bourgh's sitting room. The world is Chicken Little's paradise and everybody must declare that the sky is falling.

2. Forego labels. 

For the sake of communication, we label people, things, and events out of necessity. However, there is a difference between descriptive labels and proscriptive ones. 

Proscriptive labels utilize stereotypes (all one-percenters, all vegans, all atheists, all fundamentalists, etc.). Proscriptive labels provide an enemy to fight. They avoid empathy because they override individuality. They also provide a sense of security (got that group figured out!).

If you want to irritate politically-minded people, argue that behavior not only exists on a continuum but ultimately comes down to individual background and choices: people do not in fact easily fit into compartments.

You may assume--as I often have--that this will cause consternation only on the right: You liberals and your politically correct sensitivity! You're misleading our youth into believing degenerate behaviors are normal!

You will find--as I often have--that those on the left can be as bitterly accusatory: How dare you pretend that those people are not all the same close-minded bigots! How dare you question the sensitive labels we have prepared for that group, so we can hold seminars and start clubs and "help" people!

It's all about control.

3. Argue in favor of free-will.


You will find yourself up against a multitude of conspiracy theories. Corporations are brainwashing us into buying their evil products. Hollywood is brainwashing us into accepting amorality with its evil entertainment. We are at the mercy of prejudiced politicians. We are at the mercy of socialist hippy pundits.

You may think that you are having a level-headed conversation with someone who believes in freedom of choice. Unfortunately, you may find that the other person's idea of choice only goes so far: mostly, it begins and ends with all the the mistakes other people are making: if everyone only had the freedom to think as I think, everyone would then think the way I think.

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Here is when you remind yourself: If I am annoying this many people, I must be doing something right. 

The game isn't rebellion, however. The game is to not let other people persuade you that they are the so-called rebels who are pushing the envelope, etc. etc. etc. You may come across as a fuddy-duddy. In fact, you will be remarkably idiosyncratic.