Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Price of Success

I am not a devoted sports fan, but I enjoy watching the University of Illinois football and basketball teams play, if the weather is nice and I don't have something more important to do. In the 25 years I have lived in Champaign-Urbana, I attend an average of one or two football and basketball games. I always buy tickets just before the game from people who have extra tickets or street vendors (sometimes pejoratively called "scalpers," but I think that is unfair because they provide a valuable service for which they should be compensated.) I never buy tickets at the box office because I figure that the only tickets the box office will have left at that late date will be in the upper reaches of the stadium or Assembly Hall.

Yesterday I received a text message from my brother (the "Sensible One,") suggesting an outing with our sons to see Illinois play Southeastern Missouri State University play Illinois in basketball. That was a good idea because the students are still not back from their Christmas break, and Southeastern is not a name opponent so there should be plenty of seats available.

I didn't get to any basketball games last year when Illinois played for the national championship, but I knew that there was more demand for tickets now than back in the days when Illinois routinely competed for the Big 10 championship but didn't get far in the NCAA tournament. When the teams aren't doing well, I can usually get tickets on the street for face value, or less. Because of the basketball's team's recent successes, I thought I would have to pay at least face value, $20, or a little more. I was prepared to go another $10 or $20 a ticket.

Imagine my shock after we found a parking space and encountered the first street vendor who said $60 a ticket or two for $100. I told the man he was crazy we would buy some up closer to the Assembly Hall from people who had extra tickets. But when we got up close to the hall, there wasn't anyone with multiple tickets. Either they had sold them all before they got that close or they had only an individual ticket. Since there were five of us, we figured we might not all be able to sit together, but we didn't want to take the risk of buying one ticket at a time and then one of us not being able to get a ticket, so we passed on the single tickets.

Being the experienced last minute ticket buyer, I still thought that as game time approached, the price of the scalpers would come down, but I was wrong. At five minutes before game time, we headed back out to the parking lot and the scalpers were still demanding $60 a ticket or two for $100.

The price of success was just a little too much for us. We headed back to the bar where we had eaten our dinners and watched the game for free on television.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Movie Report: King Kong

I hope the producers of King Kong got a discount on the fee they paid the writers since the plot was lifted from the original King Kong movie made, in 1933, and much of the dialogue consists of roaring. I was taken in by the hype on this movie and went to see it Monday night with my wife and son.

There is a lot to criticize about the movie. I was bothered by the inconsistencies in scale. King Kong is supposedly 25 feet tall. I don't know the heighth of Naomi Watts, the actress who plays Miss Driscoll, Kong's love interest, but she must be a minimum of five feet tall, which would be one-fifth the size of Kong. Even given that apes have disproportionately-large hands, compared to humans, how is it that she fits into the palm of his hand?

My companions thought there were large holes in the plot. Even a fantasy movie, such as this one, doesn't work unless it manages to convince the viewer to suspend his disbelief, at least for the duration of the movie. This movie runs on for three hours and that's just too long to give up disbelieving all its improbabilities.

I gave the movie two stars, mainly because all the critics love it and I'm sure they know more than I do, and it just seemed to cruel to rate a movie that cost $200 million to produce any lower. But this is one movie that I would recommend waiting for the DVD. That way you can fast forward through an hour or so of the roaring and just watch the high parts.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Book Report: "Shalmar the Clown" by Salman Rushdie

The friend who recommended this book for our reading group said that he knew everything that was going to happen before it happened, but nevertheless it was not predictable. Now I know what he meant. The American Counter-Terrorism Czar, former Ambassador to India, Max Ophuls, is murdered in the first chapter by Shalimar the Clown, a terrorist from Kashmir. Very soon we learn the motivation for the murder, Shalimar's wife, Boonyi, was seduced by Ophuls and left Shalimar many years ago.

But the devil is in the details, to coin a phrase, and the details of what happened provide for an engrossing 398 pages. Rushdie, as everyone probably remembers, is a Muslim Indian, who was educated and lived in England many years. He was put under a "fatwa," a sentence of death by Middle Eastern Muslims in 1988 because of his book "Satanic Verses," which offended some Muslims. Rushdie lived in hidding for about 10 years before the "fatwa" was lifted, miraculously escaping with his life.

One can see a lot of Rushdie in this novel, although its primary setting is Kashmir, while Rushdie was born in Delhi and grew up in Bombay, in south India. He paints Kashmir as a Garden of Eden with Muslims and Hindis living side by side peacefully, and even, in the case of Shalimar and his wife, intermarrying, before politics intervened to devastate the region and the villages within it.

There seem to be several levels to the novel, with the personal story being an allegory for the region. In fact, Ophuls's illegitimate daughter is called first "India," and then she changes her name to "Kashmiri." However, it is not a difficult book to read and follow. At first, the excessive use of Hindi words without translation is irritating, but by and large, the meanings can be approximated through the context.

Rushdie uses magic realism, a style of which I am not generally a fan, but it is not overly intrusive. Thus Shalimar, whose village specializes in entertainment, becomes a tight rope walker who gets so good that he eventually walks on air, but the magic is muted, he might just be imagining walking on air. Ghosts appear and talk with mortals, but, then again, it might just be their imaginations.

I was going to give the book five stars, my highest rating, until the Hollywood-like ending in the last 10 pages knocked it back down to four stars. Rushdie is an important contemporary writer, and everyone should read at least one of his books, just for the education. This is a highly readable book for the Rushdie part of your education.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Ooops

This fake "War on Christmas" brouhaha that Fox News and the right wing punditocracy is promoting is giving me fits. Like most people of my generation, I never gave a second thought as to what is the appropriate thing to say when greeting people this time of year. I said whatever popped into my head, which was usually "Merry Christmas." If I knew that the person with whom I was speaking was of some non-Christian religious tradition, I might say, "Happy Holidays," or "Have a good holiday," or something along those lines, but I wasn't consistent about it.

Now Bill O'Reilly and Fox News have me so confused that I don't know what to say. If I say, "Merry Christmas," I'm afraid the other person will think I'm a right wing zealot that is making a point of being in their face about my holiday greetings. If I say, "Happy Holidays," I'm afraid the other person will think I'm being anti-Christian.

Ironically, growing up in an ultra-religious tradition, we rarely said "Merry Christmas." If an English person said it to us, we might say it back out of politeness. The Amish recognized Christmas as the essentially pagan holiday that it is. Christ wasn't born on December 25, 2005 years ago; the date is an adaptation of a Roman celebration honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The idea that the way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose essential teaching was give away everything that you have; rich people cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, is by Buying Things is absurd. For many retailers, 80 percent of their entire annual sales are done in the Christmas season. That fact alone should make true Christians abhore any connections between Christmas and Christianity.

If Faux News and Bill O'Reilly really wanted to promote Christianity, they should try to promote a new saying, "Stop Spending."

As for me, I'm becoming more Buddhist. My holiday greeting from now is going to be "Be Merry."

Friday, December 23, 2005

Movie Report

I only saw 24 movies in theaters this year. Last year, I saw nearly twice that many, 46. Part of the reason is that I didn't get to the Ebert Overlooked Film Festival this year because of the death of my sister-in-law. Also, there were more Sunday afternoons when there was nothing playing that was sufficient inducement to leave my comfortable chair and a good book. Here is a listing of all the movies I have seen thus far in 2005, along with my ratings, 5 stars being the maximum.

Five Plus Stars

  • Crash
Five Stars

  • Meet the Fokkers
  • Look at Me
  • North Country
  • Walk the Line
  • Capote
Four Stars

  • Kinsey
  • Hotel Rwanda
  • Merchant of Venice
  • Apres Vous
Three Stars
  • Ocean's 12
  • Million Dollar Baby
  • Be Cool
  • Bride and Prejudice
  • The Upside of Anger
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
  • Cinderella Man
  • March of the Penguins
  • The Wedding Crashers
  • Hustle & Flow
  • Good Night and Good Luck
  • Grizzly Man
Two Stars
  • Playtime
  • King Kong

Monday, December 19, 2005

Book Report

For the last 15 years or so, I have inflicted an annual Christmas letter upon family and friends. If you're a friend and haven't gotten one, feel grateful, not insulted. One feature of the annual letter that recipients seem to enjoy the most (right after the fact that it only comes out once a year) is our annual book and movie picks. The winner of Best Movie Viewed in 2005 (we list only movies seen in theaters; movies were not meant to be watched on television, and although we watch DVD's occasionally, I refuse to review Bowdlerized versions) in both the Amishlaw and Mrs. Amishlaw categories is "Crash." (Official website:

Best Book in the Amishlaw category was "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson. Ms. Robinson, who teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop, has agreed to meet with our Sunday afternoon reading group. If that happens, I will certainly have plenty to blog about. In the Ms. Amishlaw category, Best Book was "Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford," by Kim Stafford.

Here is a listing of all of the books I have read this year (51, so far) by rating, 5 stars being the best. Only a few books in my lifetime have ever rated the 5 plus rating, which is the highest rating known to humankind.

5 Plus Stars

  • "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson
5 Stars

  • "Gain" by Richard Powers
  • "Silent Retreats" by Philip K. Deaver (This is a collection of short stories by a local boy made good. I particularly liked the story called "Arcola Girls," about the fast girls of Arcola High School from whence I graduated in 1964.)
  • "Embers" by Sandor Marai
  • "The Time of Our Singing," by Richard Powers
  • "Ex Libris," by Anne Fadiman
  • "Dreams From My Father," by Barak Obama
  • "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Religion" by Anne Lamott
  • "An Artist of the Floating World," by Kazuo Ishiguru
  • "We Were The Mulvaneys," by Joyce Carol Oates
  • "Paradise Gate," by Jane Smiley

Four Stars

  • "The Translator," by John Crowley
  • "The All True Travels and Adventures of Lida Newton" by Jane Smiley
  • "The Secret Life of Bees," by Sue Monk Kidd
  • "The Last Report on Miracles at Little No Horse," by Louise Erdrich
  • "The Testament," by John Grisham
  • "All Over But the Shouting," by Rick Braggs
  • "Colored People," by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • "Memoirs of a Geisha," by Arthur Golden
  • "Before the Trumpet," by Geoffrey Ward
  • "The Virgin in the Rose Bower," by Joyce Carol Oates
  • "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Huston
  • "One Foot in Heaven," by David Waltner
  • "A Tramp Abroad," by Mark Twain
  • "Until I Find You," by John Irving
  • "Shop Girl" by Steve Martin
  • "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini
  • "Shalmar the Clown," by Salman Rushdie

Three Stars

  • "A Widow For One Year," by John Irving
  • "Folly and Glory," by Larry McMurtry
  • "Home on the Prairie," by Garrison Keillor
  • "They Harry The Good People Out of The Land," by John Oyer
  • "The DaVinci Code," by Dan Brown
  • "A Complicated Kindness," by Miriam Toews
  • "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," by Helen Fielding
  • "Seize the Day," by Saul Bellow
  • "The Adventures of Augie March," by Saul Bellow
  • "Trout Magic," by Robert Travers
  • "Pellman Family History," by Hubert Pellman and Miriam Maust

Two Stars

  • "Chronicles," by Bob Dylan
  • "Simplify Your Work Life," by Elaine St. James
  • "Memoirs," by Pablo Neruda
  • "Growing Younger, Growing Healthier," by Deepak Chopra
  • "Out in the Midday Sun," by Elizabeth Huxley
  • "Cutting a Dash," by Lynne Truss

One Star

  • "Candide," by Voltaire
  • "Regarding the Pain of Others," by Susan Sontag
  • "Loop Group," by Larry McMurtry
  • "The Fair Tax Book," by Boortz & Lindner

Zero Stars

  • "The Pillowman," by Martin McDonagh


I apologize to the couple of readers I may have left for the nearly three week hiatus in providing fresh content. I got busy with other things, and the longer it went, the harder it got to get back to blogging. But I'm back now and pledge to get you fresh product every couple of days for the rest of the year and 2006.