O down the drain.

If you grow up in Columbus, it doesn’t seem weird to have at least three friends whose parents have turned their rec room, or guest bathroom, or whatever, into a shrine to the Ohio State Buckeyes — the buckeye wallpaper, the block-O toilet seat lid, maybe a framed picture of the coach of the moment. When a baby girl is born to Mr. and Mrs. Gray, and they name her Scarlett Ann, netting them a cute story in the local media, it just seems…normal.

It’s a measure of how far I’ve come from Columbus that when the Free Press did a story last week about all the businesses along High Street had covered any Ms in their signage, I was able to finally say JFC these people. (Borden and I used to hang out at a High Street club called Crazy Mama’s, which I suppose would have to be called Crazy Xaxa’s. The basement place next door would be Xister Brown’s Descent. Down the Street? XcDonald’s.)

This is stirring up memories of working as a reporter in Columbus, and how it intersected with OSU. In Michigan it’s the couch blazes in East Lansing, but in Ohio, it can be anything. My favorite was the two city council members whose romance went sour: The spurned boyfriend drunkenly broke into her apartment in the middle of the night, and rousted his ex and her new lover out of bed. I believe he threatened them with a barbecue fork he found in the kitchen. He made them do Script Ohio stark naked, then stabbed their waterbed to death before fleeing the scene. This prompted a city editor, a legendary drunk himself but one blessed with a Shakespearean actor’s voice and diction, to crow to the newsroom at large, “Ah yes! Miss Coleman’s companion swung his baton while she enthusiastically dotted the I!” Newsrooms were fun places, back then.

I usually don’t take a side in sports contests, because it seems to be an E-ticket to misery. But man, I have to say: When Michigan put the smackdown on Ohio State on Saturday, it felt…wonderful. Underdogs, in hostile territory, all the sports yakkers calling them sacrificial lambs – and then they not only win, but win decisively? It was nice.

The chips and dip weren’t bad, either. I see why people get into this.

I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving, and I apologize for being absent. There was work to do, my back is still KILLING me, and ever since I got this new laptop, your comments are no longer coming to my email. A few will slip through, but it isn’t a steady stream rolling across my desktop. I have to check the dashboard, or just dial up the site like anybody else. It’s no biggie, but I get behind from time to time.

Anyway, it was a good weekend for me — holiday, birthday, OSU-beatdown day.

How about a meme, then?

Ha ha.

OK, enough gloating. Occasionally, I surfaced to check out the news. And whaddaya know? Nothing changes:

Republican lawmakers have largely remained silent in the wake of former President Trump’s dinner with antisemitic rapper Ye and white nationalist Nick Fuentes, reviving a tactic they frequently relied on during his presidency.

Wonderful. Just wonderful. I should go back to bed.

Hope the week ahead is good for everyone. I’ll be here more frequently.

Posted at 5:44 pm in Popculch, Same ol' same ol' | 41 Comments

Dirty books.

Note: I started to write this for Deadline Detroit, trashed it, rewrote it, trashed it again – it seemed too obvious. But now, in the last days before the election, gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon has unearthed dirty books as a campaign issue. So, with a sigh, I say the obvious.

Defending books from those who would ban them, burn them, keep them out of libraries – that’s porn for a progressive. It’s so easy to step up for Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, all of whom have written something to cheese off right-wingers. It’s almost literal virtue-signaling.

It’s harder to do it for the terrible writers – hacks, pornographers, crap-merchants – who also get swept up in the net wielded by people like state Sen. Lana Theis, who last summer choked back tears on the MIRS podcast when talking about the filthy, filthy books that Michigan children are exposed to in their school libraries. Stung by her tongue-lashing from her Senate colleague, Mallory McMorrow, she sought to get a little of her own back by also crying to the Detroit News’ Ingrid Jacques, champion of put-upon conservative women everywhere. Wrote Jacques, in her last column for the paper:

Theis points to specific books that she knows are in some Michigan school libraries or being taught in the classroom. Books such as “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health” depict in graphic detail masturbation, sexual positions and LGBTQ relationships. It’s targeted to children ages 10-13.

Other books such as “Push” describe a father raping his daughter, also in great detail.

“Do you believe preschoolers and elementary school children should be exposed to complex sexual and gender identity issues?” she asks. “Or do you believe children should be able to maintain their innocence at those young ages?”

Innocence. Huh. In my experience, 10-13 years is the age when puberty arrives, early for some (mortifying) and later for others (equally mortifying). Once that happens, one’s brain becomes a fetid stew of confusion, and innocence – at least, the innocence of early childhood – flies out the window. A book that explains how one’s body is changing, not just in medical terms but in a way that at least acknowledges all the weirdness one might feel as a result, sounds like a welcome addition to any school library. (Also, please: If 12-year-old boys, and some girls, aren’t masturbating, I’m Marilyn Monroe.)

I was about 12 when a different book was passed around my junior high school, like Soviets sharing samizdat. “The Godfather” was a best-seller, the ‘70s version of the Mafia tale. The paperback was everywhere, copies stained with pool water dripped by summer readers and ketchup from lunch readers, spines scored with multiple openings and closings. But we all knew what we wanted. Our copies fell open to page 21.

It’s the scene where Sonny Corleone screws Lucy, a bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding. Author Mario Puzo doesn’t spare a detail in describing Sonny’s huge penis, “an enormous, blood-gorged pole of muscle” that penetrates Lucy and causes “unbelievable pleasure” as she receives the “savage arrows of his lightning-like thrusts” which of course – of course! – end in a “shattering climax” for Lucy, the first of her life. Of course.

Junior high was different then. Most of us were still virgins. Our health classes talked about reproduction, sperm and eggs, but nothing about blood-gorged poles of muscle, needless to say. The passage was titillating, confusing and terrifying. We all had enough knowledge to understand, theoretically at least, that we’d be having sex one of these days, but we feared for the integrity of our tender interiors, should it be with a Sonny Corleone. But Lucy felt unbelievable pleasure; it said so right on the page. From savage arrows. What is going on here?

Here’s another book Theis named in her tour of aggrievement, “Push,” by an author known only as Sapphire. It opens with this devastating passage:

I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ’cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf’ grade so I can gone ‘n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.

Clarieece Precious Jones, the child telling her story, is not innocent, needless to say:

“Father,” (the nurse) say. “What’s your daddy’s name?”

“Carl Kenwood Jones, born in the Bronx.”

She say, “What’s the baby’s father’s name?”

I say, “Carl Kenwood Jones, born in the same Bronx.”

I can see where “Push” might not be Theis’ cup of tea. But imagine you’re a child who’s enduring this sort of abuse at home – it happens, even in Howell – and you pulled this book down from a library shelf. You might feel less alone in the world. And maybe you are a well-loved child from an intact family, and you did the same. Maybe you’d feel like the world was wider than you might have thought.

And that is the whole point of literature. To hold a mirror to the world, all of it. Children should be guided in their choice of reading material by adults, but not dictated to. (You should have heard what my school librarian had to say about Nancy Drew mysteries, my absolute favorite for a while.) In a just world, any child entering a school library in search of reading material should be treated with trumpets and salutes. If a plain old book can cut through the static of TikTok, homework, over-scheduling and the million other things competing for their attention, give that author the Nobel Prize. That’s an accomplishment.

Theis’ cause is not a lonely one. I recently stumbled across a spreadsheet, file name “inappropriate library books,” compiled by FEC United, a hard-right group that has established a beachhead in Grosse Pointe, where I live. It contains “Push,” needless to say. And there’s the 1619 Project and various books about racism. All three of the authors I mentioned in my first paragraph are there. And now, late in the race, the flailing Michigan gubernatorial campaign of Tudor Dixon has seized on dirty books, which she describes as “books describing how to have sex” as an issue. I can’t really top Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s riposte to that (“You really think books are more dangerous than guns?”), but I will add that in my experience, no one needs to be taught how to have sex; nature has endowed us with the instincts to figure it out on our own.

Anyway, like I said, we can all get a warm glow from sticking up for Toni Morrison. But I rise today to stick up for Mario Puzo, crap-merchant. His lousy novel was the foundation of two of the best movies ever made; that alone is the basis for a decent term paper. Lucy the bridesmaid gets her own subplot, a weird medical detour to explain her too-large vagina, and no I’m not kidding. It scarred me for years, worrying that one day I could only be satisfied by a donkey-endowed man like Sonny Corleone.

If only it had been kept from me!

Posted at 9:34 am in Current events, Popculch | 37 Comments

Rich people on film.

I think it was during the first year of the pandemic, all of us spending too much time on our phones and devices, that Fathers Day came along and Kate said, not entirely seriously but maybe not, that she felt bad about her gift, which was something like a home-cooked dinner and time together.

Why, I asked. He’s delighted to spend time with you, and the dinner was lovely.

“Some girl on Instagram wrote a song about her father, recorded it and put it to a slide show of pictures and videos of them together as she was growing up,” she said.

Ladies and gentlemen: Social media.

This morning I had the weekend shift for Deadline Detroit, and I aggregated (summarized, basically) a story based on the Instagram posting of a swimsuit model who became engaged to the Lions’ quarterback. I was struck by how…Instagrammy the whole weekend seemed to be; he popped the question on vacation in Cabo, and arranged to have all her friends flown in (PJ, natch), and they partied and celebrated and took 10 million photos and videos and it all came together in a very photogenic fashion.

I guess because I have worked with photographers my whole career, I always imagine what’s behind the fourth wall. I can understand wanting to memorialize a significant moment, but knowing the way photographers can bark orders, I can’t understand inviting one to a fairly intimate moment. Like this, say:

Honestly, I see this sort of thing everywhere, life not lived so much as lived for some fantasy audience, who will see, admire and envy you on social media. I also know, for public people, that social media is in some sense inescapable, but I hate to see people who can’t afford aspiring to what is, frankly, an unattainable life for nearly all of them.

And of course, the kings of tech not only brought this plague upon us, but now they’re ruining other things, too. Our newspaper carrier gave us a copy of the Wall Street Journal on Friday by mistake. We used to subscribe, years ago, and I remembered the Friday features section as a somewhat amusing catalog of rich people problems, and indulgences. Sometime before 9/11, there was a story on people who book name-brand entertainers for private parties, for example. I always looked for the YOLO quote, which was something like, “Yeah, it cost $100,000 to book Tom Jones, but mom and dad only have a 40th anniversary once.”

Anyway, for some reason the Friday features section was called Mansion, yes really, and the lead story was about the ruination of Malibu. People think Malibu is exclusively rich people, and it is, but it wasn’t always. Seriously:

About three decades ago, Beverly Hills native Andy Stern moved to the nearby beach city of Malibu to raise his young family. He quickly came to know all his neighbors, he said, recalling block parties with children pouring onto the streets to play together.

Now Mr. Stern—a two-time Malibu mayor and Coldwell Banker Realty real-estate agent—said he barely sees his neighbors in the Broad Beach area, because they are rarely there. The families that once lived in the neighborhood have largely been replaced by celebrities and billionaires, such as the Chicago-born real-estate billionaire Sam Zell, Miami Heat President Pat Riley and Torstein Hagen, the Norwegian billionaire founder of Viking Cruises, property records show. Mr. Stern said many of his neighbors own two, three or even four other homes, visiting Malibu only periodically while their houses there sit empty for much of the year.

This was the problem people talked about when I wrote about subsidized housing in Aspen, back in the day, for Bridge.

If it weren’t for the housing program, there wouldn’t be a single bartender, teacher, ski instructor or even doctor who would afford to live there. What’s more, the town would be empty all but a few weeks a year — maybe even two weeks, since that’s when the rich people who own houses there come in for skiing, around the holidays. And now Malibu is the same way? You don’t say. They don’t live there because they live everywhere, and can’t possibly live in a hotel when they’re somewhere. Rich people ruin everything.

Not to bring you down in the waning hours of Fathers Day. It really was a nice weekend, even though I spent a fair amount of it cleaning up construction dust. But there was also strawberries, bike rides, a boxing class and a haircut. A good haircut, too. No pictures, though — I have terrible Helmet Head at the moment.

Let’s go into the week and enjoy it best we can.

Posted at 9:16 pm in Current events, Popculch | 31 Comments

John v. Amber.

I paid zero, and I do mean zero attention to the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial. I don’t have cable, for one, and while I understand that the trial was live-streamed over the internet, I refused to engage. Depp is one of those celebrities who, if I saw them in an airport, I wouldn’t think of engaging with; I mean, I’ve seen him here and there in this and that, but I’m too old to think about him as a lust object, and I can’t think of a single question I might want him to answer.

As for his ex-wife, I wouldn’t even recognize her as famous. Pretty and blonde, because so many actresses are, but otherwise, a tabula rasa.

As such, I welcomed the chance to ignore, completely, a news event and not feel guilty about it.

I’m starting to gather this was a mistake.

I should have known when I started seeing #JusticeforJohnny trending among a few MAGA accounts I keep tabs on. I should have known when, late in the trial, the role of certain so-called Influencers began getting MSM coverage. I should have known when I finally did pay attention, and learned this was a defamation trial, based on an op-ed Heard wrote that didn’t even mention Depp. I should have known.

Then the verdict came in, and well, now I know. Anything TikTok plays a leading role in should be assumed moronic and toxic on its face. These damage awards are fucking insane, like the time a Columbus jury found one pornographer defamed another pornographer and awarded him $40 million.

It was later knocked down to $4 million, and Bob Guccione’s plans to use the settlement money to build an Atlantic City casino were stopped at the steel-girder stage. I’m sure someone else took over the project, which was notable also for the fact it was constructed around a single residential house, the proverbial stubborn homeowner who wouldn’t sell for any reason. Googling…and someone did take over the project. None other than Donald Trump. Speaking of pornography.

I hope Amber gets her award knocked down on appeal.

Sorry I’ve been scarce of late. No time, no ideas, rather stare at the horizon and wait for some Eastern religion-type enlightenment wash over me.

So here’s this, for Monday.

Posted at 1:56 pm in Current events, Popculch | 27 Comments

Our bodies, our selves.

I’ve been wanting to write something about transgender issues. I’m waiting for the static in my head around the issue to stop being so staticky, but the more I read and think about it, the louder it gets, so here goes. I usually work through these things by writing about them, anyway.

Let me begin with a revelation that shakes me to my core:

I find myself largely in agreement with this Ross Douthat column.

People? That never happens. Until now.

It’s paywalled, and I’ll clip/paste/summarize as best I can:

After laying out some rather eye-popping statistics — that 21 percent of Gen Z identifies as LGBT, he notes:

Here are three possible readings of these statistics. The first interpretation: This is great news. Sexual fluidity, transgender and nonbinary experience are clearly intrinsic to the human experience, our society used to suppress them with punitive heteronormativity and only now are we getting a true picture of the real diversity of sexual attractions and gender identities. (Just as, for example, we discovered that left-handedness is much more common once we stopped trying to train kids out of it.)

So the response from society should be sustained encouragement, especially if you care about teenage mental health: This newly awakened diversity should be supported from the time it first makes itself manifest, at however young an age, and to the extent that parents feel uncomfortable with their children’s true selves, it’s the task of educators and schools to support the kid, not to defer to parental anxiety or bigotry.

The second interpretation: We shouldn’t read too much into it. This trend is probably mostly just young people being young people, exploring and experimenting and differentiating themselves from their elders. Most of the Generation Zers identifying as L.G.B.T. are calling themselves bisexual and will probably end up in straight relationships, if they aren’t in them already. Some of the young adults describing themselves as transgender or nonbinary may drift back to cisgender identities as they grow older.

So we shouldn’t freak out over their self-identification — but neither should we treat it as a definitive revelation about human nature or try to build new curriculums or impose certain rules atop a fluid and uncertain situation. Tolerance is essential; ideological enthusiasm is unnecessary.

A third interpretation: This trend is bad news. What we’re seeing today isn’t just a continuation of the gay rights revolution; it’s a form of social contagion which our educational and medical institutions are encouraging and accelerating. These kids aren’t setting themselves free from the patriarchy; they’re under the influence of online communities of imitation and academic fashions laundered into psychiatry and education — one part Tumblr and TikTok mimesis, one part Judith Butler.

There is no clear evidence that any of this is making kids happier or better adjusted; instead all we see is a worsening of teen mental health, blurring into a young-adult landscape where sex and relationships and marriage are on the wane. So what we need now is probably more emphasis on biology, normativity and reconciliation with your own maleness or femaleness, not further deconstruction.

I find myself solidly in Camp #2. Like most people I know, the second interpretation fits with my direct experience and observation. I have known trans people, know them now, see elements of it in younger people, and even in the young children of people I know. I am happy, proud even, to support trans people in every way I can. I’ll use whatever names or pronouns they might want, treat them with respect. Share a bathroom. Hell, share a locker room if that’s the ask. It seems pretty simple to me, very live-and-let-live. People exist across a broad, vast spectrum of individuality, and that’s what makes them so wonderful.

That said, I am uncomfortable with some of the radical treatments being made available to children, adolescents and even young adults. I’m talking surgery, hormones, puberty blockers, etc. I understand that an older trans man, weary of binding his chest, may opt for breast removal, and OK, your body, your choice. But I’m really leery of saying that to a 19-year-old, let alone a 14-year-old.

Here are some of the ideas and experiences that contribute to the static in my head these days. I offer them in no particular order, just as a slide show of my brain:

** Many conservatives like to say trans people are mentally ill. Having recently shared an evening with a trans woman (hi there, you know who you are), as well as many other encounters in recent years, I reject that out of hand. (Although I’m convinced this trans man has more than one screw loose, sorry. It’s impossible to look at the near-full-length photo of him, showing off the new, surgically constructed bulge in his tighty whities, and not see the enormous divot on his thigh, where the flesh to construct it was harvested, and not be appalled. That’s not to mention the still-obvious female waistline, and I shudder to think how that’s going to be rectified in some future operating room.) But mental illness? For living as a person of another gender? Sorry, no.

** I think back on, of all things, Edward Bodkin, whom you can google, although Hoosiers will remember him as the Huntington Castrator. In the less-edified fog of the late ’90s, there was lots of discussion as to who, exactly, would seek out the castration services of a man who practiced his craft on a filthy kitchen table. As I recall, the easiest answer was transgender women who couldn’t afford the services of a reputable surgeon. I also recall one of my colleagues hanging up the phone after an extended interview with the editor of some fetish magazine — was it Ball Club? Something like that — and coming over to my desk, rather shaken, for a debrief. The gist of the interview was basically that body dysmorphia is real, that it doesn’t always break down along clear gender lines, and that for whatever reason, some men might want to kiss their testicles goodbye.

** Not long after that, the Atlantic published a long story about people who seek out amputation of healthy limbs, sometimes by mangling the ones they have in self-inflicted injuries, out of nothing more than a sense that they are meant to be amputees.

** I’ve been told most people do not regret assuming genders other than those assigned at birth. I accept that. But I reject that this number is so overwhelmingly large that those who do have second thoughts are outliers we can disregard. This essay, recently published in the WashPost, seems noteworthy:

When I was 19, I had surgery for sex reassignment, or what is now called gender affirmation surgery. The callow young man who was obsessed with transitioning to womanhood could not have imagined reaching middle age. But now I’m closer to 50, keeping a watchful eye on my 401(k), and dieting and exercising in the hope that I’ll have a healthy retirement.

In terms of my priorities and interests today, that younger incarnation of myself might as well have been a different person — yet that was the person who committed me to a lifetime set apart from my peers.
There is much debate today about transgender treatment, especially for young people. Others might feel differently about their choices, but I know now that I wasn’t old enough to make that decision. Given the strong cultural forces today casting a benign light on these matters, I thought it might be helpful for young people, and their parents, to hear what I wish I had known.

There follows a list of regrets, and they boil down to: I wish I’d been able to come to terms with my homosexuality. She concludes:

What advice would I pass on to young people seeking transition? Learning to fit in your body is a common struggle. Fad diets, body-shaping clothing and cosmetic surgery are all signs that countless millions of people at some point have a hard time accepting their own reflection. The prospect of sex can be intimidating. But sex is essential in healthy relationships. Give it a chance before permanently altering your body.

Most of all, slow down. You may yet decide to make the change. But if you explore the world by inhabiting your body as it is, perhaps you’ll find that you love it more than you thought possible.

One reason I am sympathetic to this view is my direct experience with a member of our commenting community here. Alex commented on this essay:

If I’d been given the opportunity to change genders at adolescence, I would have gone for it. After a dozen or so years of psychoanalytic work as an adult, I’m glad I didn’t. The counseling I underwent taught me many things, but perhaps most important of all, to accept myself as I am. My identity is no longer tied up in the arbitrarily rigid gender norms that I grew up with, and I find this so much more liberating than if I had gone under the knife and endured a lifetime medical regimen in order to conform to a physical ideal that I would have fallen short of anyway.

Gender fluidity is a state of mind, and a perfectly healthy one that needs no surgical augmentation.

Honestly, I think no one can make an informed choice who hasn’t had a sex life or gained significant social maturity beyond young adulthood. Not an easy message to impress upon young people who fervently believe that a sex change is the one thing they need in order to find fulfilment when they’ve gotten it from nothing else. But I’m willing to go out on a limb and risk being called a stodgy old fart and a buzzkill if I can persuade even one young person to reconsider. Next to getting myself some good counseling, it was the best decision I ever made.

Alex and I exchanged a few emails over “In the Darkroom,” Susan Faludi’s outstanding memoir of her reconciliation and short-lived relationship with her estranged father, following his gender change. I won’t share them; if Alex wants to, he knows where to do it. I highly recommend the book, by the way.

** Conversations with gay men on this topic all seem to end, maybe after a drink or three, with a lowered voice, a glance around to see who might overhear, and a confession that while they are supportive, etc., they sure seem to know a lot of hot-mess trans people. Maybe that’s because they’re treated so badly by others, so misunderstood. It can’t be easy.

** I know I’ll clash with some of you over this, but I’m a feminist who wonders why, once again, women are carrying most of the burden for all this societal enlightenment. Yes, I’m talking about That Swimmer, but also the issues J.K. Rowling is raising: What about women’s prisons? Domestic-violence shelters? What about…identity? Graham Linehan is affirmatively anti-trans, but it can be useful to check in with these folks from time to time. Do scroll through his recounting of the story of Jaclyn Moore, and make your own conclusions.

I’ve known radical feminists who are deeply offended by drag culture, who find it, at base, a mockery of womanhood. I’m not among them, but I feel that way about Jaclyn Moore, sorry.

** Speaking of identity, you know another bad actor in all this? The fucking Kardashians, who have steamrolled through the culture with this insane version of femininity that, had I confronted it at age 14 or so, might have made me call myself non-binary, too. The plastic surgery, the dieting, the fucking waist trainers, the laxative teas, the injections of fillers and plumpers and slimmers and all the rest of it — just fuck them all the way out of town. They are not helping. Has femininity always been this rigid? I thought we’d learned something during the ’70s, and here we are 50 years later, making the same mistakes.

** Language. Oy, the language. Here’s my declaration: I will never, ever be able to say “pregnant people” or “menstruating people” with a straight face. Never mind the they/them stuff. You should hear me talking to Kate about some of her friends, it’s like the who’s-on-first routine: “They’re going with you? X and who else?” etc. Language should make messages clear. This language does not.

Finally, I guess my conclusions are that I have no conclusions. I just have static. Some people are indeed walking around in a body that feels all wrong, and if they accommodate it in some way that doesn’t hurt others, that’s perfectly fine. Young people should be in counseling, maybe for years, before they undergo surgery or drugs that will leave them forever changed. And that’s it for me, for today. How’s everyone else doing today?

Posted at 2:51 pm in Popculch, Same ol' same ol' | 106 Comments

What’s on your bookshelf?

Another week in the books, and I can’t quite understand how it happened. You ever get that way? Monday dawns, and it’s another grind ahead, and then you look up and it’s Friday, and you’re another week older.

Not that I wish to depress you. It’s just something that happens.

Today I found Barack Obama’s year-end list of his reading and viewing, and once again, regretted… well, you know what we regret:

That’s a two-page list, by the way. I’ve read two books on there, total — “Harlem Shuffle” and “Leave the World Behind.” I’m clearly not smart enough to touch the hem of Barack Obama’s garment, but I think we could share a laugh at a cocktail party. I read “Harlem Shuffle” in Paris, where I learned that every current best-seller on the U.S. list is available in Europe in a fancy paperback, which is maybe not important to you until you have to schlep this stuff through one, two or more airports.

I did better on the movie list:

Saw three of these – “Pig,” “Summer of Soul” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” all excellent. I want to see the rest, but after the “House of Gucci” experience, I can wait until they play in the living-room cinema.

As you can no doubt tell, the holidays are sapping my energy, as is the January 6 subcommittee and all the rest of it. One of these days I’ll find something to say about it, but for now, probably just as well to look at other people’s reading lists.

Back after the weekend.

Posted at 8:44 pm in Popculch | 46 Comments

One star.

I forgot to tell you guys about our Friday evening over the weekend. The three of us went to see “House of Gucci,” and for Alan and me, it was our first trip to see a movie in a theater since the pandemic. The movie was just OK — more on that in a minute — but the experience of watching it in the theater was? Awful.

No wonder everyone is trying to short AMC stock. The whole experience was interminable and expensive.

If you’re going to a movie these days, especially a first-run movie the first weekend it’s open, you should expect to pay the top price, but holy shit — $14 per ticket, and that’s the beginning. Popcorn — two small popcorns, mind you — were $16. They were salty, so we got three beers to carry in. $35, plus tip. We’re now t $100 for three people to see a movie.

Showtime: 6 p.m. The previews start, and keep going. And going, and going. They ran for 25 minutes, followed by five minutes of turn-off-your-phone spots and a long one featuring Nicole Kidman, extolling the experience of seeing a movie in a theater. The movie finally started at 6:30. It was nearly two and a half hours, which meant we were there for three.

And it wasn’t very good. The short version: Everybody speaks in a mamma-mia-that’s-a-spicy-meatball accent, which somewhat obscures the clunky dialogue but doesn’t obscure that the movie is too long, verges on camp, veers wildly in tone and, most appallingly, is a movie about a fashion house that contains hardly any fashion.
Although Lady Gaga looks great and that’s about all I can say about it.

See it yourself if you want; maybe you’ll love it.

But enough about my petty complaints. Today we had a school shooting in exurban suburbia. Three dead so far, eight injured, including a teacher. It’s going to be a brutal few days, and I’m not looking forward to it. Who would?

Random France photo, on a government building. As national mottos go, it’s a good one:

Posted at 8:38 pm in Movies, Popculch | 45 Comments

Loose ends.

And…I am back. The Stones were great. I put off updating here until the column I wrote about it was published, as it is pretty much all I have to say about it, except for maybe this:

Leaving a football stadium with 30,000 other people the same week that Michigan led the nation in new Covid cases did not feel good. I had a mask on, but my friend kept muttering “CovidflumeCovidflumeCovidflume” behind me, and I fear he was right. I guess now we test the power of the ol’ booster.

I’ve never been to a Lions game. I was in Ford Field once before, to do an interview with someone who had an office there. Modern stadiums — stadia? — are marvels, especially if you’ve ever watched a Green Bay Packers game, or remember that Bengals-Chargers (? I think it was them) Freezer Bowl at Riverfront Stadium in 1980-whenever. Climate control is a miracle. I hope all those high ceilings kept the air moving, because: See previous paragraph.

Tuesday I and the Birthday Twins went to dinner at a local tapas bar, and Kate updated us on the exciting life of a rock musician/sound engineer. At the Seattle show, which was a festival scattered around multiple small clubs over three days, she walked into the green room and saw Michael Imperioli sitting there. Seems Christufuh has a band. They did not speak. Then they flew home on Delta instead of Spirit — “They give you a free cookie!” — and in another couple of days she’ll be freezing her ass off, doing live sound for the holiday tree lighting downtown. Living the dream.

It’s been a week. Next week will be bigger.

In the meantime, as we wait to watch the jury acquit Kyle Rittenhouse, let’s be grateful that as fucked-up as this country is at the moment, we can still despise Paul Gosar as one.

Good weekend, all. I’m off to pick out my turkey.

Random France photo: Used camera shop.

Posted at 11:01 am in Popculch | 64 Comments

This could be the last time.

You may not see much of me midweek, for lo, I am going to the Rolling Stones concert Monday night here in Detroit.

Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. No, I do: A friend asked if I’d like to go, and I said sure, why not. At the time, we thought we were buying tickets for a summer 2020 show, and I liked the symmetry: 25 years after the first (and only) time I’d seen the Stones. Five years after Kate’s first (and only) time seeing the Stones, both of us in the days after our respective high-school graduations. I figured it would be the last time (maybe the last time, I don’t know), but why not? Have the Rolling Stones ever disappointed us? Who cares if everyone is old? Isn’t that a triumph in and of itself? Isn’t that worth an evening of my life?

So I’m going to see the Stones with two friends. Kate, flying in from a weekend gig in Seattle, might be there with another friend — depends on whether everything is on time. Our seats won’t be close, but we’ll be under the same roof, and that’s symmetry enough.

But I’ll probably be very tired on Tuesday, fading into Wednesday. You never know.

On to more depressing topics: There’s a missing man in East Lansing, a 19-year-old who disappeared the weekend of the MSU-UM game two weeks ago. Last seen leaving a dorm. He wasn’t a student there, but at another school, in Grand Rapids. Since the last anyone saw or heard from him, his phone hasn’t been used, ditto his credit cards. As you can imagine, his family and friends are devastated, and there are prayer vigils, searches and fundraising for rewards and such. You can’t give up, they say, and I absolutely agree. It’s the not knowing that’s the worst, they say, and I agree with that, too. But I have a feeling I know where he is, and it’s not good. You tell me what your conclusion would be, factoring in that the football game is always a blowout party weekend, that the red dot is the dorm he left to walk back to his car and his phone last pinged on Beal Street:

I think he’s in the river. It’s terrible.

I can’t go further than speculation, because I don’t know the depth of the river there, and how hard it is to get to from the roadbed. But it puts me in mind of the deaths at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse some years back:

Between 1997 and 2006, La Crosse experienced tragedy after tragedy as 8 separate college students were found to have drowned in the Mississippi River. The deaths, contrary to some “serial killer” theories put forth, were determined to be the results of excessive drinking combined with a close physical proximity to Riverside Park, bordering the Mississippi River.

You don’t say. The 2006 victim had a blood-alcohol level of .32. I was thinking of these deaths when I worked on the college-drinking project for Bridge some years back. That year, there had already been three in Michigan – a Chinese freshman, a girl, who died of alcohol poisoning before classes even started (BAC >.40); a kid who thought it would be fun to cross the glass roof on Nickels Arcade in Ann Arbor (.20), and fell through; and a weekend visitor to Central Michigan who got lost walking late at night and stumbled into a pond in a garden and drowned (can’t recall his BAC, but he was drunk).

One might think, “But why would he go down to the river? That makes no sense.” But drunks often do things that make no sense. That’s one of the side effects, you drinkers might remember from the last time you were overserved. As I recall from our reporting, the single most dangerous time for college-drinking misadventures is the first semester of freshman year. All of this lines up with the missing 19-year-old here.

Rivers flow, and bodies flow with them. Cold water holds them down for a while, but eventually they get caught on something, stop their downstream progress and, in time, reach the surface. I expect his parents will get him home, soon enough. You always hope for a miracle and who knows, maybe he’s in Florida, having slipped the bonds of civilization’s expectations and lighting out for the territories. But I doubt it.

When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.

On a cheerier note, random French picture, this one sunset at Arles after a long, dreary storm:

I’ll say hi to Mick and Keef for y’all. Back whenever.

Posted at 5:41 pm in Current events, Popculch | 52 Comments

There she went.

I see Alex posted the excerpt from the Miss America book in yesterday’s comments, about the year Vanessa Williams won. It’s very good; if you haven’t used up your WashPost clicks this month, I recommend you spend one on it.

I attended, and covered, the Miss A pageant the year before that. I always have had abysmal timing, but 1982 was the year Miss Ohio was a local girl, and that’s the year the paper decided to send me. I flew to Philadelphia and then took a puddle-jumper to A.C., and there I was, at Miss America.

And yes, you can hum those last six words in the tune of the famous song. But that year, and I believe Vanessa’s year as well, it was not sung as the newly crowned Miss A took her first walk. It had something to do with firing Bert Parks and maybe he had copyright? Can’t recall. But the song that year was called “Miss America, You’re Beautiful,” sung by Gary Collins, Parks’ replacement. It didn’t go over well, and a deal was struck with Parks and “There She Is” came back.

I’m sure I’ve told all these stories before, so I won’t bore you. But as far as Amy Argetsinger’s excellent history goes, she notes an old Texas pageant coach told his own charge, well before they arrived in Atlantic City, the following:

“Miss New York is going to win,” he said. “She will be the first Black Miss America.”

I don’t doubt it, because even I had heard that. It wasn’t that the fix was in, but rather, that the timing was right. Various parties had been pestering the pageant for years for its lily-whiteness and retro ideas about femininity, etc., and they were under the gun to show nuh-uh, they were so not racist, and along came Vanessa Williams, and she was…perfect. Black, unmistakably so, but light-skinned, blue-eyed, fine-featured, tawny hair. She was Black, but entirely in the Miss America mold. And she could sing, god, she could sing. Looked great in a swimsuit. The whole package.

After my year at the pageant, I would read anything I could find about it, and I saw an interview before the ’83 pageant with Debra Maffett, who had won the year I was there. Miss California, wore the famous Lucky Swimsuit, another one you could tell was going to be in the top five just by looking at her. And even she said, in that interview, that “the time was right for a black Miss America.” My point being: Vanessa Williams was someone everyone saw coming.

That was such a weird week, hanging backstage at the pageant, doing interviews with any Miss who would consent to one, and they all consented, knowing the worth of a little press. I was the same age they were, and yet, they were…so. So polished, so sparkly, so…not charismatic, more like packaged. No other woman my age wore her hair the way they did, unless she was a TV news anchor or something, curled and teased and sprayed into a helmet. None of my friends wore that much makeup. And none of my friends read Time magazine like Talmudic scholars read scripture, so they could drop an opinion on Israeli foreign policy on cue. They were weird. I am an outgoing person, but couldn’t imagine being friends with any of those creatures, except maybe Miss Florida, who came in a bad girl (DUI) and left one, too. You could see the real person inside, trying to escape. The rest held their own actual personalities in with shellack – polish, nail and otherwise, foundation, sequins.

It was an old trick, the day of the swimsuit photo shoots for the wire services, for one of the Misses to jump into the pool they were all posing around, knowing that picture would lead the photo package (and ruining one’s hairdo, so you were effectively excused from doing any more). Miss California did that. I looked her up today: She’s a Trumper, and I see hints of QAnon lurking around there.

Anyway, that would have been roughly 39 years ago, and Miss A is so different now…wait, didn’t the pageant go bankrupt? I can’t remember. But when I saw Miss Michigan at the auto show a few years back, she had a couple of visible tattoos. In her introduction, she was quite the little spark plug. And a women’s studies major. What a hoot.

Another 90 degree day. Considered going out in it? And thought better. Happy Wednesday.

Posted at 9:00 pm in Popculch | 70 Comments