Thoughts on the DOMA and Prop 8 Cases

This is marriage equality week at the Supreme Court: the Court hears arguments on Prop 8 on Tuesday, and on DOMA Section 3 on Wednesday.

I’ve been paying lots of attention to these cases, of course. Matt and I are getting married this year, so we will be directly, concretely affected by the DOMA decision. In fact, I can’t think of another Supreme Court case during my lifetime that has had the potential to affect me so concretely and directly. Lawrence v. Texas affected me symbolically as a gay person, but it didn’t affect me directly, since I already lived in a state where gay sex was legal. This is different. It’s a weird, cool feeling.

It’s interesting that depending on where you live, you may be paying more attention to one case than the other. Gay Californians are likely paying more close attention to the Prop 8 case, although they are the only ones who will likely be affected by both the Prop 8 and DOMA cases.

I don’t think the Court is going to issue a broad, nationwide right to marriage equality. It has never overturned so many state laws at the same time. Roe v. Wade overturned at least 30 states’ laws on abortion; Loving v. Virginia overturned 16 states’ laws banning interracial marriage; Lawrence v. Texas overturned 14 states’ laws banning sodomy. Currently 41 states ban same-sex marriage.

It’s too early to tell what the Court will decide at the end of June, since we haven’t even had the oral arguments yet. But it seems most likely that the Court will get past the standing issue in DOMA (there’s an issue over whether the parties have proper standing before the Court in the first place, but I don’t think it will be a problem) and overturn it on federalism grounds. If the Court can get past the standing issue in the Prop 8 standing issue, I think it will find a way to strike down Prop 8 without affecting any other states.

No matter what happens, though, marriage equality is coming to California. If the Court upholds Prop 8, California will probably hold another referendum in 2016. (I don’t think marriage proponents would risk a referendum in 2014 — midterms are when all the crazies come out.)

And it’s coming to every other state, too. As Frank Bruni points out today, and as many others have said, and as the polls show, things are moving in one direction, and one direction only. This isn’t like abortion, where people argue over whether it’s murder. More and more people are seeing that letting two competent adults decide to get married hurts absolutely nobody. Not only is public opinion chaning; it’s changing quickly, as all the arguments against it fall apart like so many paper tigers.

In that case, why would the Supreme Court be so reluctant to overturn so many state laws at once? Because the Court cares about its reputation. The three or four conservative activists have no problem angering the public by twisting the law to overturn democratic decisions (see Citizens United, Obamacare, gun regulation, Bush v. Gore). But the others, despite what they might feel personally, do have qualms.

So I think we’ll see halfway, moderate, but hugely important decision in favor of more equality in this country rather than less. At least five, maybe six justices. Maybe even seven. (Or even eight – I could see Thomas being offended by DOMA on federalism grounds. Scalia will be a holdout no matter what.)

But that comes in June. This week are the oral arguments. Tuesday and Wednesday will be fascinating.

On Having Seen All 53 Oscar Nominees

I did it on the plane yesterday on the way home from a business trip: I watched Brave, thereby completing my quest to see all 53 of this year’s Oscar-nominated films. From A (Adam and Dog) to Z (Zero Dark Thirty), from under 2 minutes (Fresh Guacamole) to 2 hours 49 minutes (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), from nine months ago (Marvel’s The Avengers) to yesterday; from movie theaters to Netflix to Amazon Instant Video to iTunes downloads to Youtube to… “other,” I did it. Foreign films, documentaries, documentary shorts, live-action shorts, animated films, animated shorts…

Of course, it doesn’t take any talent to do this. Watching movies is very passive. Even paying close attention to a movie is mostly passive. It requires no physical exertion, and it probably takes less energy than reading. Yes, a boring movie can be an endurance test, and sometimes you have to read subtitles, but mostly you just sit there and… watch.

I decided relatively late that I was going to try and do this. First it was just going to be all the Best Picture nominees. I thought I’d try some of the other major categories too. But then I saw that @mattiek (former old-school blogger Cows in the Barn) was working his way through all 53 nominees, and I realized it was something I could try to do as well. There were a few days where I watched three or even four feature-length films. I ventured out to some movie theaters I hadn’t been to in ages. But I managed to check everything off my list.

What’s next? I might start working my way through Sight & Sound Magazine’s 2012 critics’ poll of the top 250 films of all time. It’s supposed to be the most respected list of movie rankings, and it only comes out every ten years. Even among the top 10, I’ve only seen two.

At any rate, tonight for the first time I’ll get to watch the Oscars without asking, “What the hell is War Witch?” or “What is Kings Point?” or “That movie looks interesting.” Because I’ve already seen them all.

Oscar Mania

I’ve been having a bit of Oscar mania this year. Usually I don’t even get a chance to see all the Best Picture nominees, but for some reason I’ve taken on the goal of seeing as many 2012 Oscar-nominated films (and nominations) as I can. For the first time I can remember, I’ve seen all of the Best Picture nominees (and there are nine this year!).

Today I saw The Impossible and The Master, which brings my total to 93 of 122 nominations seen, and 30 of 53 films. And with these two films today, and The Sessions and Flight earlier this week, I’ve knocked off all the acting nominations and have completed 13 of 24 categories total.

I find myself wondering why I’m doing this. I guess at heart I’m doing it because it’s fun. I love going to the movies, and I love watching the Oscars.

I guess part of me also hopes it will make me better somehow. More knowledgable about movies, or smarter, or something. But the thing is — sitting in a theater passively watching a movie takes no talent. To read a tough book you have to be smart, but anyone can watch a movie. So what do I really hope to get out of this? Do I really feel like I’m a more knowledgeable moviegoer? Not really. I haven’t seen most of the films on the Sight & Sound poll of top 250 movies ever. But I want to.

Also, why the Oscar nominees? I’m wary of just checking things off a list so I can say “done.” And the Oscars are fallible. Not everything is great just because it was nominated for an Oscar.

Still, this project is exposing me to movies I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I don’t think I would have seen The Impossible if not for Naomi Watts’s Best Actress nomination. A movie about the death and destruction of the 2004 South Asian tsunami? Count me out. But it turned out to be more engrossing than I’d expected (partly because my family used to go on Asian Christmas vacations when we lived in Tokyo, so it evoked memories for me and made me wonder what would have happened if my family had been in a tsunami). It was a bit hokey toward the end — I found my eyes welling up even though I totally knew my emotions were being manipulated. And I felt guilty that the movie focused on rich Western tourists as opposed to the native Asians who were killed. But I’m still glad I saw it.

I can get something out of a movie even if it’s flawed. Matt often says he can find something worthwhile in even the worst piece of theater; perhaps the same is true for me of movies. Well, maybe not pulp movies like the kind Quentin Tarantino famously used to love seeing: pulp westerns, blaxploitation, kung-fu, horror — those aren’t my thing. Not really into the teenage summer blockbusters either. Actually, maybe it’s just the serious arty-type movies I’m into — movies with a vision.

I guess I’m thinking too much. (Guilty!) As my therapist has been telling me, stop worrying about the point of doing things that seem fun, and just do them.

OK then.

The Oscar Nominees, or What Makes Good Art?

I’ve seen a lot of Oscar-nominated movies lately — it’s that time of year — and something is bothering me.

I can’t seem to tell whether a work of art is good or not. I only know whether or not I liked it.

Does this mean I’m stupid and unsophisticated? Or does it just mean I like to think for myself instead of just accepting other people’s judgments about art? I honestly don’t know.

This year I’m really making an effort to see as many of the Best Picture nominees as I can. As of today I’ve seen eight of the nine (!) nominees: Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Miserables, Life of PiLincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty. The only one I haven’t seen yet is Django Unchained. (That last one will definitely be an effort, because I’m not a fan of Quentin Tarantino or Jamie Foxx and it’s 2 hours and 45 minutes long. But I’ve come this far; I can’t give up now!)

Of the eight I’ve seen, here’s what I thought of them, from most enjoyed to least enjoyed:

Lincoln: Enjoyed unabashedly. Entertaining, moving, politically relevant, and fun. Two and a half hours flew by for me.

Argo: A great popcorn movie. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it except that the climax was a little too 1980s Hollywood adventure-y. Did Affleck mean it as an homage to 1980s popcorn movies or did he just get carried away? Either way, it was well made and exciting.

Zero Dark Thirty: Long, but intense, and riveting.

Silver Linings Playbook: Great characters and acting and an enjoyable plot. Parts of it were too conventional and neatly tied up, but I forgave that because I felt affection for this movie. I just liked the people. I guess that’s a good thing. But I can’t tell if it’s Best-Picture-ish. (That sentence kind of sums up this whole blog post.)

Life of Pi: I liked this more than I thought I would. Technically brilliant, narratively exciting. I think Suraj Sharma (the teenage lead) should have gotten an Oscar nomination.

Les Miserables: Didn’t really care for it. Bombastic, and too long. (I’ve never seen the stage production but have never liked the music all that much.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild: This is one I have trouble with. I feel like I was supposed to like it more than I did. But it didn’t really move me. I feel like I was impressed with it rather than liked it.

Amour: I saw this one today and it’s the one I have the most trouble with. Jesus Christ, what a depressing, severe, constricting, claustrophobic film. It’s about an elderly husband and wife, one of whom is slowly dying, and the whole film takes place in their apartment, except for one scene near the beginning. Many of the scenes are long single takes, with the camera staying in one place. At one point I looked at my watch because I got bored, and there was more time remaining than I’d hoped. It picked up a bit at that point, but still. All the critics seem to say this movie is a masterpiece, but I can’t figure out why. This is the one that most makes me wonder if I’m stupid, or at least if I just don’t know enough about film. Why is this a good movie? What do I know after seeing this movie that I didn’t know before? I already knew that growing old and infirm is terrible and ugly; do other people not know that? Is that why the movie is supposed to be good?

My point is this, and it’s true about movies and paintings and books and plays: if I can’t appreciate a work of art unless a critic — and I mean that in the best sense of the term, someone who is knowledgable about the art form and writes well — tells me why it’s good, am I dumb?

As Sondheim wrote, art isn’t easy. But shouldn’t I at least be able to figure out if something is “good” without a critic telling me so?

The reason this bothers me is because art is one of the great joys of life, and if I can’t appreciate a piece of art that I’m supposed to appreciate, am I missing out on one of the joys of life? If you have to be an expert on a particular art form to enjoy something, then what’s the point?

I can’t figure out how to resolve this. It just really bothers me. I have lots of unanswered questions and I’d be curious to know other people’s thoughts about art and “good”-ness.

Review: The Patriarch, by David Nasaw

I recently finished reading The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, a new biography by David Nasaw. It’s a good read, and it made me reconsider Kennedy’s pacifism, isolationism, and reputation for “appeasement.”

Previously, all I knew about Joe Kennedy came from biographies I’d read of his sons, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, as well as from random pieces of lore. I knew he was rich, probably antisemitic, smarmy, possibly corrupt, and maybe even a Hitler supporter.

I didn’t realize what a remarkably full life Kennedy led: an industrialist during World War I, a movie mogul during the 1920s, the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and then U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom at the beginning of World War II. (He resigned before the U.S. entered the war.) Nasaw debunks the myth that Kennedy was a bootlegger during Prohibition; he finds no evidence of this.

There are two things any biographer of Joseph P. Kennedy must deal with: his antisemitism, and his desire to appease Hitler.

Nasaw clearly shows that Kennedy was antisemitic. Like most antisemites, Kennedy thought that Jews controlled Hollywood and big business and had undue influence in government. He believed, with no evidence, that Jews were pushing FDR toward war. He also thought there was a Jewish conspiracy to tar his good name, even though one of his closest media allies was Arthur Krock of the New York Times — who was Jewish. Kennedy’s antisemitism is a stain on his life that can never be removed.

Nasaw perceptively relates Kennedy’s opinion of Jews to his identity as a Catholic, another religious minority that faced bias in the first half of the 20th century. Sometimes Kennedy wished Jews would do a better job of assimilating into American life, like he thought Catholics had. But when his son Jack ran for president, many influential Catholics opposed his candidacy. Kennedy wondered why American Catholics couldn’t get more organized, speak with one voice, and rally around Jack like he thought American Jews would do for a Jewish candidate.

In Kennedy’s favor, he did make some efforts to rescue Germany’s Jews and try to find a place for them in the British Empire — not out of humanitarian concern, but because he thought it might remove a cause for war against Hitler, a war Kennedy deeply feared.

Kennedy has gone down in history as a traitor, a Hitler-lover, an appeaser. This is a bit exaggerated; he wanted to prevent war because he loved his country. He thought Hitler was a man one could deal with, but so did many other officials. When he lived in Britain as U.S. ambassador, he supported Prime Minister Chamberlain’s attempts to make peace in Munich. He wrote ridiculously histrionic memos back home to the State Department, urging the U.S. to stay out of the war and predicting terrible consequences, such as worldwide economic devastation and a fascist American economy, if the U.S. went to war against Germany. It times it seemed like his greatest concern was keeping his eldest sons — Joe, Jr., and Jack — from having to fight and possibly die in a war. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened to his oldest son, Joe, Jr., who became a naval aviator during the war and died during a bombing run.

Of course, we won the war — World War II is seen as the last “good war” — and Kennedy is seen today as extremely wrong-headed and bizarrely pessimistic in his isolationism. But his pacifism continued into the Cold War; he opposed President Truman’s containment strategy against the Soviet Union and feared what it might do to our country.

When I read about his views on the Cold War, I started to think that maybe Kennedy was prescient. In a sense, he predicted what President Eisenhower would call the “military-industrial complex” in 1961. As Nasaw writes of Kennedy:

The depression that he feared would result from escalating military spending overseas did not come to pass in his lifetime. The American economy would be transformed, as he predicted, but money spent abroad, much of it on military projects, would not destroy “economic well-being,” but rather stimulate growth and increase per capita income at home. Only over the long term would it become apparent that this Cold War spending spree might have had other, perhaps less positive impacts on American “economic well-being” by diverting capital from infrastructure, nonmilitary industrial modernization, and social welfare projects.

It’s easy to look back and say that Joe Kennedy was an idiot for opposing our involvement in World War II. But look at Darfur and other places in modern times: many Americans, including myself, would like to “stay out of it.” Of course, we live in a different era, when the United States has overextended itself across the world. It didn’t have to be this way, but that’s what happened. If I were alive in the 1930s and not Jewish, what would I have felt about the idea of fighting the Nazi empire? I can’t know. I’d be living in a different time, with different memories, and different assumptions about the world.

As for the Cold War, Kennedy certainly seems prophetic. By the time the U.S. escalated its involvement in Vietnam, ostensibly to fight communism, Kennedy had suffered a debilitating stroke that kept him from communicating complex thoughts to anyone. It seems likely he would have opposed (or did oppose) that war, and he would have been right.

There’s more to this book besides antisemitism and isolationism and other “-isms.” Nasaw brings Kennedy to life as a person: his marriage to Rose; his affairs; his pride in, and concern and love for, his nine children (at times it becomes hard for a reader to keep track of them all); his great wealth; his influence; his ego. After reading this book, I don’t like Kennedy more than I used to, but I don’t dislike him any more either. I just feel like I understand him better — which is what a good biography should do.

Twelve Years of Blogging

I just realized, with less than 90 minutes to go, that today is my blogaversary. I started blogging twelve years ago today.

What are my secrets to continuing to blog after all this time? One: even though I don’t blog as much as I used to, I never decided to shut it down. (Well, except for that time I quit blogging for a year.) Two: I never publicly promised to rededicate myself to blogging more frequently, so there was nothing for me to live up to and therefore no reason to think I wasn’t blogging enough. I just blog when I want, about what I want.

That’s pretty much it, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.

And on we go.

On Returning to The Clock by Christian Marclay

The Clock Chart

Last night I returned to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock at MoMA. This was my third visit; I first saw it at the Lincoln Center Festival in July, from 3:15 p.m. to 6:33 p.m. Here’s what I wrote back then. It’s now at MoMA, and I had to go back because it’s so mesmerizing. Last Friday I saw it from 10:35 a.m. to 2:32 p.m., and last night I went yet again. On weekends it runs 24 hours, and I really wanted to see midnight, as well as 10:04 p.m., when lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future, which I’d read was included.

I got to the museum last night around 8:15. There was just a 10-minute wait to get into the theater; not bad at all. I entered at 8:33 p.m. I worried I’d have to go to the bathroom in the middle of it and thereby forfeit my seat and possibly miss midnight, but I wound up being OK.

Here’s some seating advice for The Clock. The viewing area consists of rows of low white couches. At MoMA, there are three couches per row, forming two interior aisles (in addition to aisles on the sides). I’ve found that the best place to sit is on an interior aisle, on one of the side couches. If you sit on the aisle you get an armrest, and if you sit on a side couch, your view doesn’t get blocked as much if a tall person sits in front of you as it does if you sit on the center couches. It’s something about the way the viewing angles line up.

Anyway, this was by far my favorite visit to The Clock. Every time of day has a different feel, and there’s something about The Clock at night that is just cooler than during the day. There were scenes of people at restaurants, at bars, seeing shows. People at parties. A few people lonely at home watching TV or movies, which was kind of meta. Many creepy nighttime mansions. And many, many bedside clocks: people getting into bed, then, later at night, people getting awoken by portentous phone calls.

As 10:00 p.m. approached, I knew the Back to the Future scene was coming up. At 10:04, lightning struck and Marty McFly traveled through time. The clip was about 20 seconds long, but among the vastness of The Clock it just came and went, and then we were onto the next movie. Kind of anticlimactic.

Then eventually it was 11:00. You could feel people begin to pay more attention as the witching hour grew closer and closer. At 11:30, the minute hand began its final upward sweep. Then it was 11:40, then 11:45, then 11:50, as the angle between the minute and hour hands began diminishing toward nothing. The tension and excitement in the room grew enormously.

11:59. “Get me the governor!” Then: the final seconds before midnight. Each. Punctuated. By. A throbbing. Beat.

And then midnight.

Big Ben exploded in a glorious flash. Clock after clock struck and chimed 12, one after the other, second by second. Orson Welles got stabbed on a clock tower. Mayhem on screen.

During the next few minutes, lots of people left, having gotten what they came for, and other people replaced them. I stayed a while longer. Just after 12:15 there was a long stretch of quiet scenes with no dialogue. A slow panning shot of people asleep on train station benches. A 1940s woman in a mansion welcoming her bleary-eyed husband through the front door. It began to feel late.

I simultaneously wanted to stay and leave. But at some point your brain starts to turn to mush and you just can’t take any more of it. It was time to go home and go to bed. So at 12:45, I left. And it was still full.

The weird thing about The Clock is that it’s playing when you arrive and it’s playing when you leave, and there are people already watching when you arrive and people watching when you leave. You always arrive after the beginning and leave before the end. There’s no other way.

So I have now seen noon and midnight. Noon was really cool, midnight was even better.

This morning I asked Matt if he could help me make a chart of my visits. He created the chart at the top of this page, with my input.

I’ve barely seen the morning hours. I hear the middle of the night has lots of dream sequences and creepy happenings. I’d love to see that, but I don’t see how I’d be able to stay up that late.

Marclay insists that The Clock be shown only in real time. I hope at some point he decides to livestream it online. I don’t know how it work for different time zones, but maybe he could figure that out.

At any rate, the film is at MoMA through January 21, including two more 24-hour weekends. I may have to go back and catch more of the morning hours. I love this film.

Post-Holiday Blues

I’m dealing with some post-holiday blues today.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. But I am feeling a little bit sad, and I’m missing the good times I had over the last week and a half.

A year ago, in 2011, I had a pretty bad holiday week. I was just depressed and bored and frustrated. I don’t think I felt that way the whole time; there were some nice moments. But overall, the week felt depressing. It resulted in me bailing on my old psychotherapist after 11 years and finding a new one, who I’ve now been seeing for a year.

I don’t know if it’s because of my new therapist, or because I learned from the previous year’s holidays, but this past week and a half went a lot better than in 2011. I decided not to try so hard to have a good time, and instead I just did things I wanted to do. There were also some nice moments that just sort of happened.

Highlights, which I wish I could freeze and go back to forever:

Christmas Eve — Matt and I went out to New Jersey to have dinner at a Chinese restaurant with my family. There were twelve of us sitting around a big table with a lazy susan in the middle. My sister-in-law’s father wound up ordering an enormous amount of food. There was something really lovely and warm and cozy about being in a boisterous Chinese restaurant with family; usually on Christmas Eve, Matt and I go out for Chinese in our neighborhood, and it’s quiet and sort of desolate. This was so much better. It was wonderful to be with a group of people.

When we walked out of the restaurant, it was snowing. Matt and I spent the night at my parents’ house; we sat on the couch watching TV while my parents’ dog snuggled up against me. The town was quiet and snowy, and “It’s A Wonderful Life” was on TV. I know that Jews aren’t supposed to care about Christmas Eve, but I do love it sometimes.

The next morning, we lingered over breakfast at my parents’ house for a couple of hours, which was also really nice.

Another highlight: Matt and I had dinner on my birthday. Instead of trying to find someplace new, we decided to go to a place we’d been to before – Glass House Tavern – and had a terrific meal. Afterwards, our friend Mike met us at the downstairs bar for birthday drinks.

Another highlight: dinner with Matt and my parents a few nights later for a belated birthday celebration at Joe Allen. It was lively and fun and Mercedes Ruehl was at the next table.

Another highlight: New Year’s Eve. That was actually the one time I started to get antsy, because New Year’s Eve never lives up to what everyone says it should be. Matt and I went to our favorite local restaurant, which we’ve done for the last few years. Then we went home and watched the ball drop on TV while drinking some champagne. It was low-key, but that’s OK.

I also went to the movies, sometimes with Matt and sometimes by myself. Matt and I also watched some movies at home. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art twice, once by myself — it’s one of my favorite places in the city. I saw The Clock at MOMA. I went clothes shopping.

And now it’s a new year, and it’s back to work, and time marches on.

I tend to wallow in nostalgia and feel apprehensive about the future. It’s just something I do. So I want to hold on to the nice memories. The thing is, there are always future good memories waiting to be made. You need to have stuff to look forward to in life.

Happy 2013. Hope there’s more good stuff along the way.

Books Read in 2012

Here is a list of books I read in 2012, in chronological order. As usual, lots of history. There were several books I stopped reading partway through. The only novel I completed this year was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, a highly entertaining read for 1980s geeks. I started another novel but I gave up halfway through.

I always enjoy looking over my annual list of books read — it reminds me where my mind was at any particular time in the past year. In the spring, I looked forward to the newest installment of Robert Caro’s LBJ bio; in June, I got interested in the Beatles and read Jonathan Gould’s terrific history of them; in the fall, I read a book about Paris before we went to Paris. And so on.

Here’s the list:

  • A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, Amanda Foreman
  • What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer (first 1/3)
  • Eisenhower: The White House Years, Jim Newton
  • Eisenhower in War and Peace, Jean Edward Smith
  • Watergate: A Novel, Thomas Mallon
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Robert Caro
  • Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro
  • Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, Jonathan Gould
  • Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick
  • How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, Elijah Wald (didn’t finish)
  • The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen L. Carter (read first half)
  • Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt
  • Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, Geoffrey Kabaservice
  • The Arabs: A History, Eugene Rogan (half)
  • Seven Ages of Paris, Alistair Horne (most)
  • From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage, Michael J. Klarman (first few chapters)
  • The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Rick Atkinson (first 200 pages)
  • Election Night: A Television History 1948-2012, Stephen Battaglio
  • The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, Jeffrey Toobin
  • Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers (re-read)
  • Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, Stan Tatkin (currently reading)
  • The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, David Nasaw (currently reading)

Thirty-Nine

Today’s my 39th birthday. This means it’s the last year of my life before I hit the big one. Another big one.

Whenever I feel old, I like to think about famous people who are within a year of my age. For instance, Rachel Maddow. Richard Engel. Jimmy Fallon. Seth Meyers, who is just one day younger than me. And three-fifths of the cast of my favorite currently-running sitcom: Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Radnor, and Alyson Hannigan. And Jim Parsons. And Seth MacFarlane. And Kristen Wiig. And Seth Green. And… on and on. (Those two links contain mostly actors, but that’s OK.)

I suppose this could all just make me realize how little I’ve accomplished in life. But for some reason, it doesn’t. Instead it makes me feel like I’m in the prime of my life, and that I can still accomplish things if I can figure out what they are. And more importantly, that I can still be happy.

Happiness is something you have to choose. You can’t wait for it to happen. You have to say: right now, in this moment, I choose to be happy. Because there’s always something to be happy about. Happiness doesn’t come naturally to me like it does to some other people; I have to work at it. But I’ve been getting better at it, I think.

Or maybe I don’t mean happiness. Maybe I mean contentment.

Either way, it’s always achievable.

So here’s to another happy birthday.

Kindle Paperwhite: Not for the Left-Handed

I finally ordered a Kindle Paperwhite last week. I’ve had a Kindle Keyboard for two years, and I love it, but I decided I’d try out the Paperwhite because of the higher color contrast.

The Paperwhite arrived yesterday. I really wanted to like it. But my experience with it so far is pretty disappointing.

I’m left-handed, and I find that turning the page on the Paperwhite — the thing you do more than anything else on the Kindle — is a pain in the ass.

WIth the old Kindle Keyboard, I could rest my thumb on the page-turning button while reading, and when I wanted to go to the next page I would just apply light pressure to the button, barely needing to move my thumb at all. It was practically automatic. But turning the page on the Paperwhite is much more difficult.

In order to go to the next page on the Paperwhite, you touch the screen. That would be fine if I were holding the Kindle with my right hand, because my right thumb could rest on the bezel while reading, and to turn the page I could just gently rock my thumb and touch the right edge of the screen where it meets the bezel.

It doesn’t work that way if you hold the Kindle with your left hand, because the left half-inch or so of the screen is reserved for going to the *previous* page:

Screen-Shot-2012-10-06-at-4.49.10-PM

So when I’m holding the Kindle with my left hand — which is the way I hold the Kindle — I need to lift my thumb from the bezel, move it at least 3/4 of an inch sideways, and then touch the screen. If I don’t move my thumb far enough to the right, I accidentally go back a page, so I need to overcompensate and move my thumb even further into the main tap zone than it should need to go. And then, when I move my thumb back to the bezel, I have to make sure I don’t accidentally touch the left edge of the screen, or else I wind up go back to the previous page. This may not sound like a big deal, but try doing it several dozen times, or even 100 or 200 times, in one reading session. It’s a total pain. It also destabilizes the Kindle in your hand, which is not good when you’re standing on a moving subway.

I did not realize how big of a problem this would be. And ridiculously, there is no way to change the tap zones in the Settings menu.

I miss the page-turning buttons. Not everything has to be about touchscreens.

So unfortunately I’m going to return the Paperwhite and stick with my old Kindle Keyboard until they release either a software update or a new Kindle with page-turning buttons. What a disappointment.

I Hate Guns

I’m sick and tired of this shit.

Last summer, Matt and I went to visit Matt’s family in Tennessee. Matt’s parents have a small motorboat, and one morning we went on a motorboat ride on the waterway near their house. Matt and I sat in the back. I sat right behind Matt’s dad, so I couldn’t avoid looking the NRA baseball cap he was wearing.

Matt’s dad goes hunting. Matt’s brothers are into guns too. The night after we were out on the lake, one of his brothers and his wife came to the house to stay overnight, because we were all driving up to Dollywood the next morning. His brother walked into the house with his pistol strapped around his ankle. It made me uncomfortable, so I left the room and went upstairs to go to bed.

I don’t like being around guns. A gun is a foreign object to me. I didn’t grow up around guns. I never saw a gun unless it was on a police officer’s belt. As far as I’m concerned, there is no reason for anyone to own one. The idea of owning a gun or having a gun seems absolutely ridiculous to me.

And I do not accept the argument that I’m a suburban northeastern Jew and therefore I’m in the minority and I need to accept that in other parts of the country there is a widely accepted gun culture. I do not accept that. You who live in gun cultures, you are the outliers. The rest of the civilized world is not like you. In other developed countries it’s not normal for people to have guns, or to talk about guns like you talk about carburetors. You people who do that, you are the outliers.

I don’t understand this country. I don’t understand why people need semi-automatic weapons to go hunting. I don’t understand why people are so scared of what other people will do to them that they need to carry guns in their cars or strapped to their ankles. I don’t understand why people need to have guns to feel empowered.

There are nuts out there who think they need machine guns to protect themselves from the government. But they’re a tiny minority. What’s everyone else’s excuse for not wanting to ban those types of weapons?

I am sick and tired of seeing Brian Williams report on location from some American town. I’m sick and tired of the footage of people running out of a building, inevitably underscored by the sound of a helicopter, because the footage is always shot from a helicopter. I am especially sick and tired of that helicopter sound.

I’m sick of people talking about “politicizing a tragedy.” First of all, do you know what a tragedy is? It is not “something sad.” A tragedy is a story of a person who is compelled toward his fate by a deep, irreversible character flaw. In that sense, perhaps these stories are tragic, because we seem compelled to relive them again and again. It’s the character flaw in our country.

As for “politicizing”: are you kidding me? First, how else are we supposed to address problems in our society other than through politics? “Politicizing” is a dirty word only if you think politics is bad. Second, the NRA has donated millions of dollars to politicians so they’ll vote the way the NRA wants. If anyone has “politicized” this issue, it’s the NRA.

I’m sick and tired of this shit.

The Supreme Court and Prop 8

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected president and California passed the unconscionable Proposition 8. Four years later, Barack Obama has been re-elected, but the legal status of same-sex couples in California remains in limbo.

And that limbo continues for at least several more months, because today the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear the Prop 8 case.

This is a surprise, at least to me. It was nearly certain the Court would choose to hear one of the DOMA Section 3 cases, but it wasn’t certain what they would do about Prop 8. The issue before the Court with Section 3 of DOMA is potentially narrow: whether the federal government must recognize the marriages of same-sex couples who were legally married in states that allow it. This wouldn’t have any effect on states that discriminate against same-sex couples with regard to marriage. The issue before the Court with Prop 8 is, potentially, more sweeping: whether any state in the country has the right to prevent same-sex couples from marrying.

That’s not the way the Prop 8 case came up to the Court from the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit struck down Prop 8 on narrow reasoning: that once a state grants same-sex couples the right to marry, it can’t then take that right away. The only state where those circumstances are relevant is California, so the decision got the job done on as narrow grounds as possible in order to prevent being overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the U.S. Supreme Court can rule as broadly or as narrowly as it wishes on case before it. For instance, in the Citizens United case, the parties came to the Supreme Court on a pretty narrow issue: whether ”electioneering communications” — in that instance, a political documentary — could be prohibited from airing on TV within 30 days of a primary election. But the Court decided, on its own accord, to broadly overturn a century of campaign finance law.

The Court can do one of several things in the Prop 8 case. It could rule that:

(1) The U.S. Constitution guarantees that same-sex couples have the right to get married. This would be a sweeping ruling that would probably lead to renewed calls for a constitutional amendment allowing states to discriminate against same-sex couples. Such an amendment would not likely get the 2/3 congressional majority it would need in order to be passed to the states, but there could be “massive resistance” in some states (let’s say, the southern states), where government officials may simply refuse to marry same-sex couples. This is the least likely ruling.

(2) Same-sex couples have no constitutional right to get married. States are free to allow it, but they don’t have to. In other words, we’d have the status quo, and marriage equality would continue its state-by-state progression. In 2016, there would probably be a ballot initiative in California to overturn Prop 8, and it would probably pass.

(3) The opponents of Prop 8 lack standing to argue the case. Interestingly, the Court directed the parties to brief this question. After Judge Walker struck down Prop 8, the state of California refused to appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit; Prop 8′s opponents asked the Ninth Circuit if they could argue it instead. The Ninth Circuit ruled, on the advice of the California Supreme Court, that it could. But the U.S. Supreme Court could find that the Prop 8 opponents are not a party to the case, in which case the Ninth Circuit’s Prop 8 ruling would be invalidated. It’s not clear what would happen then – would Judge Walker’s broad decision remain in effect? Or would it only apply to the couples who actually argued the case?

(4) Prop 8 is unconstitutional, but only because of the circumstances specific to California. In other words, it could affirm the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

I’m not sure the Court will do this. To be honest, the Ninth Circuit’s decision was a little disingenuous. The Ninth Circuit reached the right decision — that Prop 8 is unconstitutional — but it was a bit too clever. It doesn’t really make sense that the constitutional right to marry depends on whether a couple previously had the right to marry or not. The court, citing Romer v. Evans, says that taking away a pre-existing right is evidence of animus, and that animus is not a valid reason for taking away a right. But the people who didn’t want gay couples to get married after Prop 8 are the same people who didn’t want gay couples to get married before Prop 8. Why was it animus to believe so after Prop 8 passed, but not before? It doesn’t make sense, and I suspect a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court agrees, no matter how they feel about the substantive right at issue.

Then again, the Ninth Circuit did base its ruling on Romer, which said this very thing. So it’s possible that Kennedy (who wrote Romer) along with Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan could uphold the Ninth Circuit’s ruling using Romer as precendent.

But why would it do so? Why not just refuse to hear the case and let the Ninth Circuit’s decision stand? It takes four votes for the Supreme Court to hear a case, and we have no idea which justices voted to hear this one. If it was the four conservatives, perhaps they think they can win Kennedy over. Or Kennedy himself, who, for good and for ill, doesn’t seem to know the meaning of judicial restraint, might have voted to hear the case in order to put the Court’s own stamp on things. We have no way of knowing.

All we know for sure is that same-sex couples in California have been on a roller coaster over the last four years. Their hopes have been raised and dashed repeatedly. Last week it seemed that Prop 8 might soon be in history’s dustbin; the same seemed true earlier today. Instead, these couples will have to wait for justice until at least the end of June.

And justice delayed is justice denied.

Lincoln

I finally saw Lincoln yesterday and very much enjoyed it. I don’t have a particularly long attention span, and I often start to get bored when a movie passes the 100-minute mark. But even though this film is two and a half hours long, it flew by for me.

The combination of Tony Kushner’s words with Steven Spielberg’s visual direction was an interesting one that mostly worked. There were some middlebrow, emotionally heavyhanded Spielbergian moments, but not too many, and they were balanced out by Kushner’s complex, earthbound, well-crafted screenplay.

The acting is across-the-board terrific — and I hadn’t realized how many familiar faces were in this movie. More than once I had to rack my brain: “Who is that? I know I’ve seen them before.” Hello, Stephen Spinella and Julie White. And I had forgotten that Lee Pace, whom I adore, was in this, so it was a nice treat when he showed up on screen.

Daniel Day-Lewis, as usual, inhabits his role completely. He’s one of those actors who transforms himself with every part he plays. Sally Field gives Mary Todd Lincoln an unsettling, off-kilter energy. Tommy Lee Jones chews up the screen as the radical congressman Thaddeus Stevens — he’s so much fun to watch. David Strathairn as William Seward is also wonderful.

It’s a great movie. Go see it.

Obama’s Re-Election

At around 11:15 pm last night, when Rachel Maddow suddenly announced that Obama had won Ohio, putting him over the top, I felt joy, and also relief. A heavy tension lifted from my body, a tension that I’d felt for I don’t know how long — going back to the 2010 midterms, and even before then. Scott Brown’s election in early 2010? Death panels in the summer of 2009? The rise of the Tea Party a few months after Obama took office?

We have a weird system in this country: if you get elected president, you’re a success, but if you serve only one term as president, then you’re a failure. You’re only considered a successful present if you get re-elected. Presidents really start running for re-election the moment they win that first term.

And last night he did it. This man who came seemingly out of nowhere a few years ago to win the presidency in 2008 just did it again. One-term presidents (Carter, Bush I) are a blip; two-term presidents (Clinton, Bush II) get eras named after them. We’re not in the Obama blip; we’re in the Obama era. Now even more kids will grow up under a black president, and they will find nothing extraordinary about it at all.

Here is what I wrote about Barack Obama after he was elected four years ago:

Obama will make mistakes. He has difficult decisions ahead. Our country’s in the toilet. And day-to-day governance is messy, with its daily news cycles, the messy legislative process, wins and losses, Washington sniping, political roundtables on TV. Poetry gives way to prose. In the euphoria of his election and inauguration, Bill Clinton talked about changing the culture of Washington. So did George W. Bush. It never happened.

There will be times I disagree with President Obama, get annoyed at him, disappointed in him. There will be times when the public does as well.

But this is an extraordinary man. And if things are even a smidgen better than they’ve been for the last eight years, we’re in luck.

In retrospect, this seems pretty accurate to me. There have been a few times that I’ve been really pissed off at Obama: after Scott Brown’s election, after the midterms when it seemed like repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was off the table, during the debt ceiling crisis, and most recently about a month ago, when he tanked during the first debate. But I always come back.

During the transition four years ago, when Obama was at the height of his promise and seemed like he’d be truly, remarkably transformative president along the lines of FDR, I read a biography of FDR. Thinking back to that time, happy thoughts mingle in my head — the holiday season, the promise of a revolutionary presidency, a good book.

Now we’re coming upon the holiday season again, and instead of being almost over, it turns out the Obama presidency is not yet even halfway done. (We’re about 47.5% through it, to be specific.) This is probably the happiest time for a two-term president: after getting re-elected, but before the second inauguration. There’s lots of work to do — fixing the fiscal cliff, most importantly — but he also gets to enjoy a moment of triumph.

Here’s Obama’s first press conference as president-elect, four years ago. It reminds me how crappy things were at the time. Things are still improving. But wow, how far we have come.

Sandy

A few people have asked how we’re getting by in the wake of Sandy. Honestly, things are fine… for us.

Matt and I live in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Our neighborhood’s pretty far from where most of the flooding and power outages are, which is below 34th Street; we’re up in the 100s. The power flickered a few times on Monday night while the winds gusted, but it never went out.

New York City seems to be two different cities right now; up here, there are several downed trees in the nearby park, but other than that, things seem fine. A few miles south, though, there’s no power.

And in New Jersey, things suck as well. My parents and my brother and sister-in-law and their kids live in northern NJ, and they have no power. My brother’s house lost power sometime on Monday afternoon. My parents thought they were fine for a while; everyone across the street from them lost power, but they didn’t — until shortly after they went to bed on Monday. Since then, no power.

At least neither of them has any flooding or fallen trees. My parents have this big old stately tree in the front yard that has been dying for the last few years, and my mom was worried that it would fall. Fortunately, it didn’t, but I really hope they do something about it. They were lucky during Irene and they were lucky this time as well. They might not be lucky next time, especially if the tree fell on the house. It would be a shame to take the tree down, because it’s the only tree in the front yard, and without it the lawn would seem bare and the front of the house would get no shade. But apparently 75 trees fell in my parents’ town, including a few near their block. So they need to think about that.

My office is in New Jersey as well, and it’s been closed since Monday. Not that I’d be able to get there anyway, since both the New York City subway and New Jersey Transit remain down. Our subway line should be back up tomorrow, but I doubt NJ Transit will be. Fortunately I’m able to telecommute, which I normally do twice a week anyway.

So, in short: we ourselves are fine, my family is majorly inconvenienced, others are even worse off, and this whole thing is a big fucking mess.

George McGovern

Former senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern has apparently been moved into hospice care and is nearing the end of the life. He’s 90 years old.

So, while he’s still with us, let us marvel that every Democratic presidential nominee since 1972 is currently alive: McGovern (1972), Jimmy Carter (1976 & 1980), Walter Mondale (1984), Michael Dukakis (1988), Bill Clinton (1992 & 1996), Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004), and Barack Obama (2008 & 2012).

In fact, every losing presidential candidate since 1972, not including incumbent presidents, is still alive: McGovern (1972), Mondale (1984), Dukakis (1988), Bob Dole (1996), Al Gore (2000*), John Kerry (2004), John McCain (2008). This doesn’t include Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980), or George H.W. Bush (1992), since they were all incumbents when they lost. So everyone since 1972 who is most famous for not reaching the White House is still alive.

So really, every major party nominee since 1972 is still alive except for Nixon, Ford, and Reagan.

I just think that’s cool.

Trip Anxiety

This post is sort of an anxiety dump. Because my attempts to avoid anxiety about our upcoming trip aren’t working. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in three nights, and I had a bad stomach bug or something for the last day and a half, which thankfully seems resolved, but the anxiety won’t go away. I feel physically bleah.

My biggest fear involves our outbound flight. We’re flying on… American Airlines, which has been in the news lately for terrible performance, including terrible on-time performance. I could kick myself for choosing American. I honestly feel like a complete idiot. Why didn’t I know better?

I looked at the history of our flight, and it has taken off at least an hour late every night for the last week, except once. Last night it took off more than three hours late. So I’m worried we’ll be sitting on the tarmac trapped on an airplane, or camped out at the gate waiting to board, and I won’t get any sleep, and on top of that we’re basically going to lose a day of our trip.

I know, I sound like Mitt Romney, or some other member of the 1%. “Good heavens, our flight to Paris will be delayed!” Many people would be glad to have such a problem.

But still, the anxiety exists and it won’t go away.

Going to Paris

Matt and I are going to Paris on Sunday for a week. It will be Matt’s first trip to France — and, in fact, his first trip to a country where the main language isn’t English. I was in Paris for three days when I was a teenager, but that was years ago and it’s kind of a blur in my mind. (Here are some photos I took of Jason Bateman in Paris.)

We’ll be landing in Paris Monday morning, and flying back the following Sunday evening. In addition to Paris itself, we also plan to visit Versailles — as well as Disneyland Paris. Matt and I are Disney theme park nuts, so we couldn’t go to Paris without seeing it. Part of me feels like it’s a waste of a day when we could be seeing more world-renowned treasures, but I’m sure it will be fun, and there are some rides and attractions there that the other Disney parks don’t have.

Even though I’m really looking forward to the trip, I’ve been stressing out about it lately. In fact, I’ve been stressed out because I’ve been looking forward to it. I’m worried we won’t have time to see everything I want to see. But I also don’t want to feel rushed. I’ve made a mental list of things I definitely want to do, which should help. (Matt doesn’t really have any must-sees other than Disneyland Paris — he’s cool with whatever.)

I love history, so last week I started reading a book about the history of Paris: Seven Ages of Paris, by Alistair Horne. It’s longer than I’d realized – 422 pages, with smallish print — and I’d been hoping to finish it before we left for our trip, so I could know as much as I could about the history of the various sites before we got there. So I was sort of stressing about that, too.

But yesterday I realized that I’ve been treating our trip to Paris like some sort of exam. I don’t need to know everything about a site before we go there. That’s what guidebooks are for. I can read more about it after. Matt gets stressed out enough about travel; I don’t need to add to it.

So I’m going to try to just chill the hell out about all of this and try to enjoy myself. When you travel, it helps to go with the flow, and to not worry too much if things don’t go according to plan. Part of the point of traveling is having new, unexpected experiences. You can’t plan everything out ahead of time.

And it’s not just a city of the past: it’s a city of the present. People live there. We’ll want to spent time just people-watching, and taking in the atmosphere of the city.

And after all, it’s supposed to be a vacation. So I’m going to try to just enjoy what happens.

Women in the 2012 Senate Elections

I’ve been trying to figure out how many women could be in the next U.S. Senate.

Right now, 17 senators are women.

Two of them are retiring: Olympia Snowe of Maine (R), and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (R). So that’s -2.

But in Hawaii, where Daniel Akaka is retiring, the next senator from Hawaii will definitely be a woman, because both major party candidates are women: Mazie Hirono (D) and Linda Lingle (R). So that’s +1.

In California and New York, the incumbent and the challenger are both women: Dianne Feinstein (D) is being challenged by Elizabeth Emken (R), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) is being challenged by Wendy Long (R). Feinstein and Gillibrand should have easy wins; in any case, that’s +0.

So far, that’s net -1.

What about other races?

There are three races where women are running and are not likely to win (according to Nate Silver): in New Mexico, Heather Wilson (R) vs. Martin Heinrich (D); in North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp (D) vs. Rick Berg (R); and in Maine, Cynthia Dill (D) vs. Charlie Summers (R) vs. Angus King (I). So, that’s +0.

That leaves six races.

Five of those six races could increase the number of women:

NebraskaDeb Fischer (R) vs. Bob Kerrey (D). Deb Fischer is way ahead and will likely win, according to Nate Silver. So that’s a likely +1.

Connecticut: Linda McMahon (R) vs. Chris Shays (D). Nate Silver says Shays is likely to win, so that’s a likely +0. (My instinct says: who knows with this one, but I’ll trust Nate.)

Three of those five appear to be tossups right now:

Massachusetts: Elizabeth Warren (D) vs. Scott Brown (R): 0/+1.

Nevada: Shelley Berkeley (D) vs. Dean Heller (R): 0/+1.

Wisconsin: Tammy Baldwin (D) vs. Tommy Thompson (R): 0/+1.

And there’s one race that could decrease the number of women:

Missouri: Claire McCaskill (D) vs. Todd Akin (R). Despite Akin’s implosion, Nate Silver gives McCaskill just a 65% chance of winning — which is still pretty high, but who knows. So, -1/0.

Tallying this all up, and I don’t know if I’m doing this right, but:

Women in the Senate now: 17
ME (Olympia Snowe retirement): -1
TX (Kay Bailey Hutchison retirement): -1
HI (Hirono vs. Lingle): +1
NE (Fischer): +1
MA (Warren), NV (Berkelely), WI (Baldwin): +1.5 (based on probabilities?)
MO (McCaskill): -0.33 (based on probabilities?)

That works out to 18 plus a fraction. So it seems like there could be a net gain of at least one Senate seat, and maybe even two or three. The next Senate will most likely have 18-19 women. If McCaskill and all three tossups lose (which is possible), there will be just 16. If McCaskill and all three tossups win (which is also possible), there will be 20.

If all women running against men lose their races, the next Senate will have just 16 women; if they all win, even the long shots (CT-McMahon, NM-Wilson, ND-Heitkamp), the next Senate will have 24 women.

So the possible number of women in the next Senate is 16 to 24, with 18-19 most likely.

[Update: I forgot about Debbie Stabenow (D) in Michigan and Amy Klobuchar (D) in Minnesota, who are both heavy favorites for re-election. If they somehow lost along with all the other women, there would be only 14 women in the next Senate, but that's not gonna happen.]