Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Gratitude Concert

Son Number Two's first violin teacher, Ken Wollberg is in the news these days. He taught SNT for three years starting at age 8, before going to Korea for a few years with his wife, an English teacher there, (setting in motion the chain of events resulting in Son Number One going to Korea, and our getting a Korean daughter-in-law.) After coming back from Korea, and teaching violin in southern Illinois for a while, Ken went into truck driving and was in a serious accident that threatened to end his violin-playing permanently. AP has the story and the national media has picked it up. Here's the MSNBC version.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

JACK Report: Who's Ultramodern?

Kind of hard to imagine as an Amish boy, but Son Number Two is being labeled as "ultramodern" here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama Report: Please Don't Break My Heart

Regular readers know I am a long-time Obama supporter. However, for the record, with less than 48 hours to go before he takes office, I should warn myself and others that I am fully prepared to be disappointed.

Part of it is my nature. As I mention in my self-description above, I am an "aging skeptic." I haven't seen it all, but I have seen enough. The Wife says I look at a glass half empty instead of half full. I prefer to think I look at life realistically. We can ill afford illusions, least of all after eight years of disasters because our president thought it better to pretend that he knew what he was doing than admit mistakes.

Politicians have repeatedly broken my heart. I was elated when Jimmy Carter was elected, thinking at long last we had someone in office who would not lie to us. After four years, I was ready to vote for a senile actor who could not lie because he could not tell the difference between the truth and untruth. I was elated when Bill Clinton was elected, thinking at long last we had someone in office who could feel our pain; who cared about the little guy and knew how to get things done. I still think Clinton was the best president, by far, since Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he could have been so much better if he could have kept his pants zipped. The heartbreak of the Clinton Administration is what could have been if he had only been more disciplined.

Once again, I feel elation with the coming inauguration of Barack Obama. He is even smarter, politically, than Clinton, and that is saying a lot. His heart is in the right place. He doesn't need to tell us he feels our pain, we can see it in his life story. He didn't have a father pulling strings to get him into the best universities, set him up with sweetheart business deals and putting him in touch with the best political consultants. Everything Obama got, he earned. Imagine,just eight years ago, he had trouble making it to the Democratic national convention in Los Angeles because the car rental agency wouldn't accept his credit card. To then raise more money, far more money than anyone has ever raised in a political campaign; to put together a campaign organization smarter and more disciplined, far smarter and more disciplined than even the Clintons could put together is absolutely astounding.

It is tempting to ascribe super-human abilities to Obama because what he has already accomplished seems almost super-human. The problems our country faces after eight years of Bush malfeasance are so deep that it will take almost super-human efforts to save ourselves from further disaster. On top of the record deficits that Bush accumulated during good times, we now have to pump even more borrowed money into the economy to keep it from total collapse. That is a misstatement; we already have total collapse. Everywhere we look, businesses are closing and employees are getting laid off. I am convinced the economists, at least the Bush economists, have no idea whether the measures they are taking will work or not; they just feel like they have to do something; anything.

The world is a much more dangerous place than it was eight years ago. Bush neglected our real dangers in order to spend time and money in places where our security was not threatened. Can anyone fix the mismanagement that has put terrorists like Hamas in charge of the elected government of Palestine; that has made Iran the new best friend of its ancient enemy, Iraq; that has a nuclear-armed North Korea thumbing its nose at the rest of the world; that has a nuclear-armed Pakistan teetering on the verge of being controlled by fundamentalist Jihadists?

We want Obama to have super-powers because he is going to need them to get us through the next four years without further disaster.

I am not pleased with some of Obama's personnel choices. I still think the selection of windy Joe Biden as vice president was a mistake that will bite him in the rear before the next term is over. I do not think the selection of Hilary Clinton as secretary of state is going to turn out to have been a good one. She has not demonstrated the vision to bring creative thinking to solving world problems and she has not demonstrated the management skills to run the vast bureaucracy that is the State Department. Yes, she is a policy wonk, but wonks do best three or four layers down from the decision making levels.

And yet, and yet, I believe in the possibility of Obama to make everything come out all right. He has done so many things right, when the pundits were discounting him. Who am I to doubt him now? His efforts to change the tone in Washington are working. Having a dinner to honor John McCain, who is a very vain man, is nothing short of genius. Having dinner with the conservative pundits like George Will, William Kristol and David Brooks was a smart move. Having Rick Warren, whom I detest, give the invocation at the inauguration is very smart.

If Obama pulls this off, he will have been one of the greatest presidents of all time; on a par with Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt; worthy of a place on Mount Rushmore. I think he can. I am getting to be too old to have my heart broken once again.

Friday, January 16, 2009

No Doubt About It: A Great Movie

Doubt is not your standard Hollywood movie. No chase scenes; no sex; no satisfying resolution at the end. In fact, were it not for its two big stars, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, it's hard to imagine this movie even getting distributed.

But not because of a lack of quality. The movie is like life -- complex; without easy answers. It is set in 1964. A Roman Catholic parochial school in New York has its first black student. The principal of the school (Streep) thinks the priest (Hoffman)is paying special attention to the black kid. There is no question that he is; the question is his motivation. The principal is convinced he is a sexual predator; the priest denies it. Both have mortal sins in their past. In the middle are the student and an idealistic young nun, played by Amy Adams. Although the priest is nominally the principal's superior, she is determined to run him out of the parish, and she uses some underhanded tactics to accomplish her goal. But is her motivation only her concern for the student, or is it that the priest doesn't measure up to her strict conservative standards of religiosity? And is she helping or hurting the student? The student's mother is willing to overlook the allegations because of the alternatives for the student.

The movie was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (who wrote and directed Moonstruck and Joe Versus the Volcano 20 years ago. Shanley also wrote the play version, which in 2005 won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for its Broadway production. He dedicates the movie to his own first grade teacher on whom the Amy Adams character is modeled.

I hope I am not getting too generous in my old age, but I have to give this movie five stars, the second movie in two weeks to get my highest rating. Shanley, Streep and Hoffman all deserve Oscars for it, but I doubt that they will get them because this just isn't the type of movie that Hollywood likes. Gran Torino is more likely to win Academy Awards, in my opinion, because it has a Hollywood ending. Doubt has more nuance; maybe too much nuance for some tastes. Maybe the Academy will surprise me. I have been surprised before.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bush Report: The Cheney Lie Count

As usual, the comedians do a better job of reporting the news than the main stream media. Here's David Letterman:

Friday, January 09, 2009

Movie Report: A Grand Finale

Rumor is that Clint Eastwood has said that Gran Torino is his last movie. I hope that's true because it's hard to see how he could top this one; a movie that is a metaphor for Eastwood's own career.

It is always dangerous to conflate an actor's own personality with the character he plays. But in the popular imagination, Eastwood's own character was defined by the westerns he started out in and the Dirty Harry movies of the 1970s and 1980s. He played characters who finally were fed up with evil doers; and accomplished their missions by killing all the bad guys. Nuance was for sissies who would have lost their freedoms if not for the steely-eyed courage of Eastwood with a gun.

In more recent years, particularly in movies he has directed, Eastwood has been showing nuance. Movies like Letters from Iwo Jima, are not exactly pacifistic, but display a wisdom about the efficacy of violence that was not in his younger body of works. Gran Torino is the culmination of the evolution of the Eastwood hero from cold-eyed killer for righteousness sake to wise and courageous human.

Gran Torino is about an aging Korean War veteran who finds absolution for the horrors in which he has participated by a surprising self sacrifice for some Asians he has despised for most of his life. It would be wrong to say that Walt Kowolski, Eastwood's character, is prejudiced, he hates everybody, no matter what their nationality. Even his friends (well, actually, he was not the kind of person to have friends, he had one friend, his barber) are the subjects of his jibes and insults. After the death of his wife, he wants nothing to do with anyone; not his children, his priest and especially not his neighbors who are Hmong from Southeast Asia. All he wants to do is sit on his porch and drink beer, mow his lawn, wipe down his prize 1972 Gran Torino and keep everyone off his yard.

Although there is a lot of tension and drama in the movie, there are also a lot of funny parts. The theater where The Wife and I saw the movie Friday afternoon was nearly filled with people of that certain age who go to movies at 4:00 p.m. (younger people have to work and don't mind going at night when people of that certain age are in bed or thinking of it) and they kept chuckling or laughing throughout.

This is a very good movie; so good that although I have not seen many of the other Oscar contenders, I am going to go out on a limb and predict that it will win at least one Academy Award, that of Best Actor for Eastwood. I would also vote for it for Best Picture and Best Director; it is that good. Absolutely five stars.

JACK Report: ASCAP Gives Award

I honestly don't know how big a deal this is (apparently not a big enough deal that Son Number Two would call me about it, but thanks to Mr. Google I found out,) but the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) is giving an award next week at their convention in New York City to JACK Quartet for "adventurous programming." I see they're playing in Seattle the night before, so they might not even be back in time to receive the award. It must be nice -- another day, another plaudit.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Movie Report: Slumdog Millionaire

I saw Slumdog Millionaire. It rated three stars. (So sue me, Roger-Ebert-wannabes.)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Annual Book and Movie Ratings

Here are my annual book and movie ratings. The ratings are based on five stars being the highest, with the occasional exceptional book and movie that makes me say, "Wow!" at the end getting five plus stars. The books are ones I have read or listened to this year, some of them for the second or third time. I read (or listened to) a record number of books this year, 61, which is really remarkable for me, considering how slowly I read. I can't account for it; several of the books were quite lengthy. Twenty-nine of the books were ones I listened to in the car, so maybe I traveled more this year. As you can see, all but six of the books were rated average (three stars) or above, so I did a good job of picking books to read this year. There was only one, Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life, that I considered a complete waste of time. Thirty-seven of the books were fictional. Four were theological or religious.

I saw 44 movies. The movies are ones I have seen in theaters this year. They include several classics that were shown at our local classic film series.


Five Plus

A Bird in the House, Margaret Lawrence

Five Stars

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and other short stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka
Missing Mom, Joyce Carol Oates
A Separate Peace, John Knowles
The Innocent Man, John Grisham
Light in August, William Faulkner
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Home, Marilynne Robinson
The Anatomy Lesson, Philip Roth
The White Album, Joan Didion
On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwen
Main Street, Sinclair Lewis

Four Stars

Grant and Lee: A Dual Biography, Gene Smith
Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee
The Goldbug Variations, Richard Powers
A Writer's Life, Gay Talese
The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama
The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, Leo Tolstoy
Morality for Beautiful Girls, Alexander McCall
Against All Enemies, Richard A. Clarke
The Price of Loyalty, Ron Susskind
Tempting Faith, David Kuo
Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett
What Happened, Scott McClelland
The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam
Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones
That Old Ace In A Hole, Annie Proulx
I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron
The Man Without Qualities (Part I), Robert Musil
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
Miami, Joan Didion
Blue Diary, Alice Hoffman

Three Stars

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
New Land, New Lives, Janet Rasmussen
Casting the First Stone, Kimberla Lawson Roby
Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin
Jane and the Man of the Cloth, Stepahnie Barron
Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
Is It Okay to Call God Mother, Paul Smith
The Amish of Illinois' Heartland, Rebecca Mabry
Wiser in Battle, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez
State of Denial, Bob Woodward
Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare
Look Me In the Eye, John Robinson
Death Comes to the Archbishop, Willa Cather
Jungfrau and Other Short Stories, Caine Prize for African Writers
The River Between, Ngugi wa Thiong'i
Salvador, Joan Didion
Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Two Stars

The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder
Operation Wandering Soul, Richard Powers
Sideways, Rex Pickett
Personal Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

One Star

The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren


Five Stars

No Country for Old Men
The Savages
Shotgun Stories
Romance and Cigarettes
The Visitor
Burn After Reading
The Big Lebowski

Four Stars

There Will Be Blood
The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Young At Heart
The Band's Visit
Vicki Christina Barcelona
Man On Wire
Hamlet 2
Righteous Kill
Train Man
Josee, The Tiger and the Fish
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Three Stars

What Would Jesus Buy?
The Great Debaters
The Bucket List
Citizen Kane
The Bunk Job
The Real Dirt on Farmer John
The Taste of Tea
The Secret Life of Bees
Slumdog Millionaire

Two Stars

Charlie Wilson's War
The Fall
Get Smart
Mama Mia
Tropic Thunder
Happy Go Lucky