Thursday, December 31, 2009

Smoking 2.0

I spent a lot of my holiday break watching old movies ("The Thin Man," "Philadelphia Story," "The Big Sleep") which means I also spent a lot of time watching people smoke cigarettes. Let me say right from the beginning that I’m no fan of cigarettes. They helped kill my father. I remember finding, not long after his death, a filter from one of his Kents lying in the grass of my parents’ back yard, where he must have discarded it some time before, and where I was now doing some weeding for my mother. It was a hell of a thing to be reminded that the butts of his cigarettes were still around even after he’d gone.

And yet, is it possible to watch one of those old movies and not admire the way William Powell or Humphrey Bogart handled a cigarette? Smoking, as they did it, seemed less an activity than a gesture. There was a time when I aspired to smoke with that much style. Is there a better moment in movies than the first time we see Bogie in “Casablanca,” in his dinner jacket, dragging on a cigarette? Did these people have a talent for smoking, in the way they had a talent for acting? (Or was their smoking part of the act?) Now I sometimes see people standing in the cold outside the revolving door of downtown office buildings, dragging on cigarettes. There is nothing Bogart-cool about them. They look dreary and sad. Do they just lack the talent for smoking? Maybe the surgeon general’s warning on cigarette packs should advise people against smoking unless they are film stars of the black-and-white era.

Of course, today’s smokers are standing out in the cold because we’re in a period of antismoking repression. Now, instead of smoking at the roulette table in Rick’s CafĂ©, you do it, furtively, in the alley. Is it my imagination or did public opinion swing against smoking at around the same time we all started migrating to the Internet? I ask the question because if anything has replaced smoking in bars and clubs and parties (just once I’d like to throw a classic Christmas blowout like the one in “The Thin Man”) it is playing with information technology. Instead of smoking in social situations, we text and tweet and take pictures of each other with our phones. It’s no longer enough to throw a party or attend a party or enjoy a party. The party must be commented upon, documented as it happens. Even more remarkable, the traditional responsibilities of the partygoer—talking, laughing, trying to say something smart or funny—have been outsourced to the Web. Not long ago, I was at a party where one of the guests pulled out his smart phone and began reading aloud, at no one’s urging, the latest Southeast Conference football scores. Ask yourself: What would William Powell have done?

In his book, “Cigarettes are Sublime,” Richard Klein writes that the history of “antitabagism” goes back centuries, but that the historical cycle always swings back from repression to the return of the smoker. But is it more likely that smoking will one day make a comeback, or that one day we will come to ostracize social networkers and tweeters and people who can’t put away their Blackberries even at the dinner table? Will they have to do their thing as smokers do now, furtively, in alleys?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's the Most Fault-Finding Time of the Year

“In the spirit of Christmas grumpiness,” The Times Online asked a bunch of arts-and-letters types to complain about the putative classics that they secretly despise. There were some outstanding nominations: Romeo and Juliet, Charles Dickens, Monty Python. On the whole, though, the contributors set their sights too low, I think. Tom Waits? Oasis? I’d argue that since neither of these acts qualify as classics, they don’t even deserve our secret disdain. I think most of us have been happy to scoff openly at Oasis for some time now.

I would save my spite for Moby Dick. Or the faux-populist preener Bruce Springsteen. Or the insistently hardboiled David Mamet. Or soccer. Lumps of coal all around, if you ask me.

But to friends of Catapult, and especially to everyone who talked back this year: Have yourselves some merry little Christmases.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Downhill Fast

Spent part of yesterday sliding down a hill on my ass. This is one of the blessings of fatherhood: the license to act like an eight-year old. My boy and his friends were sledding on the hill down the street, and I walked up there under the pretext of calling them home for dinner. While I was there, I took the chance to make a few runs down the hill myself.

I once believed that fatherhood would transform me in some profound way, make me wiser, more mature, more of a man. What it has really done is give me an excuse to play with sleds.

The boys had built a little packed-snow ramp at the bottom of the hill that sends you—if you hit it just right—airborne and over a little stream that winds around the bottom of the hill. So it was me and a bunch of third-graders in the fading light, taking turns sliding and flying. It was so much fun that I’m afraid I might have hogged the best sled.

Tomorrow: Nerf basketball in the family room?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

John Adams vs. 1776

One of the joys of having any kind of specialized knowledge is using that knowledge to nitpick and correct other people’s errors. Grammar snobs and sports fans have known this for a long time. So have the sort of history buffs who like to complain about anachronisms and inaccuracies in historical films.

So it was interesting to see historian Mark Peterson, writing in Common-Place, take on the much-praised HBO John Adams miniseries for “trying too hard to insert the work of professional historians into the script” and “trying to create the illusion that you were watching something that looked pretty much like the way it actually happened.” Peterson argues that the series’ scrupulous attention to period details only makes it “sneakily inauthentic” because it doesn’t recognize “the limits of our knowledge about the past.” John Adams gets the wigs and knickers just right, Peterson suggests, but it still trades in the predictable conventions and motivations of the costume drama. Better that movies “call attention to . . . the fact that they are inventing and dramatizing . . . rather than pretending, as John Adams does, that they are not.”

So what American Revolution movie does Peterson recommend? The musical 1776, starring Ken “The White Shadow” Howard as Thomas Jefferson, because it “calls attention to its own stylized qualities” and “does a better, more compelling and more economical job of teaching audiences some of the fundamental aspects of the American Revolution.” For example, Peterson writes, the tune “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” from 1776 “tells [audiences] that slavery was a major issue in the Continental Congress’ deliberations on independence . . . without leaving them thinking that they know, that they have seen, just what happened.”

As long as we’re recognizing the limits of our knowledge about the past: Does this mean that Jefferson, Adams and Rutledge didn’t really jump up on their desks and break into song during that summer in Philadelphia?

I like musicals about the Founding Fathers as much as the next guy, but if I had to choose, I’d still take John Adams. And it’s not because of any verisimilitude or because wardrobe got the tricorner hats just right. It’s because of Laura Linney.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Buddha Does a Driveway

Over at the excellent Necromancy Never Pays, Friend of Catapult Jeanne sees my recent post about (not) meditating while shoveling and raises it with a Billy Collins poem, "Shoveling Snow With Buddha." Check it out. Clearly, my mistake was not getting Buddha to come help me shovel. He's relentless.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Let me confess from the very beginning that I can get a little obsessive about shoveling snow. I like to keep the driveway clear, is the thing. It has nothing to do with getting the cars in and out. I just don’t like having old snow sitting in the driveway. It seems like a kind of moral failure. Also, we’ve got a couple basketball hoops set up out there and I like to keep the court clear, just in case the 1985 Loyola University Sweet Sixteen team comes by for a pickup game.

So this morning I got the shovel out and went to work on the season’s first snow, which dropped overnight. It was a light snow, the kind of snow that most normal people would leave alone, knowing that in a day or two, with some sun and rising temps, it would be gone. But I shoveled. It was easy shoveling, and as I walked back and forth, pushing the snow around, I started thinking about the walking meditation techniques my wife has been trying to teach me. I’ve read about and seen gardens and labyrinths designed for this kind of meditation, but it seemed to me that there was something about the pace and rhythm of shoveling my driveway that would also encourage something like a meditative state. I thought I might try it. Except that when I tried to do a little meditating as I shoveled, I found myself instead thinking back to the pretending that I used to do when I was a kid and it was my job to shovel the sidewalk in front of my parents’ house. Like I’d pretend that it’s December 1944 and I’m the renegade captain of a special Army unit of expert shovelers whose mission it is to keep the roads of Belgium clear for the advancing Allied infantry. When you’re ten, you need some kind of fantasy life to get you through your chores. I suppose it helps for a long time after that, too.

The point is, I never did really get around to any actual meditation during my shoveling. But the driveway is clear now and the basketball can begin. And any Allied units that happen to come through this area will find easy marching in front of our house.