Books I Read in 2013

Here’s a list of books I read in 2013, in chronological order. Pretty much just nonfiction, as usual. Actually, a couple of weeks ago I started reading The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s new novel (I really enjoyed The Secret History way back when), but for some reason fiction never absorbs me anymore, and instead I found myself pulled into a biography of Alfred Hitchcock.

Anyway, here’s what I read in 2013, starting in January. (Here is last year’s list.)

  • The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, David Nasaw (started at end of 2012)
  • The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, James T. Patterson
  • George F. Kennan: An American Life, John Lewis Gaddis
  • The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, David Thomson (first third or so)
  • Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, Max Hastings
  • Communism: A History, Richard Pipes
  • Ancient Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy, Volume 1, Anthony Kenny (almost finished)
  • On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present, Alan Ryan (2 vols.)
  • Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, Gordon S. Wood
  • The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Eric Foner
  • Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, James Oakes
  • The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, Dan Jones
  • The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England, Marc Morris
  • Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors, Peter Ackroyd
  • Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, Peter Ackroyd
  • Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Vincent Bugliosi (all except first part, which I’d previously read)
  • The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, Larry J. Sabato
  • Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, Jeffrey Frank
  • (Passage of Power – reread various parts of it – intro, JFK assassination, transition)
  • The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence, Robert Klara
  • Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, Peter Baker
  • The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer

Text of our Wedding Ceremony

Here is the text of our wedding ceremony, which took place in Sakura Park in Manhattan on Friday morning. It was performed by Dan Epstein in the presence of our families. Dan sent us the text of some ceremonies he had used in the past, and we took some stuff out and added some of our own touches to create a ceremony that spoke to us.

I discovered beforehand that the introductory quote, provided by Dan, has actually been misattributed to Dr. Seuss over the years and is really from Robert Fulghum. But Dan said “Dr. Seuss” sets a better atmosphere, so we kept it that way.

* * * * *

Introduction

According to Dr. Seuss:

“We are all a little weird. And life is a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall into mutually satisfying weirdness and call it love.”

This past June, the United States Supreme Court granted federal recognition of marriages of same-sex couples. This is a quote from Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in that case:

“I ask all gay couples who have lived together a long time and got married, ‘Was it different the next morning?’ And everybody says yes, and they don’t know how to explain it. Marriage itself, you know, it’s a magic word, everybody knows what it means, it means love and commitment and trust… but there’s this extra thing when it was always denied to you. But it’s profound. Whatever loving was there, it becomes really profound loving.”

Reading

Life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of loving moments that take our breath away.

You can have those moments. You just have to get over the jitters and let the dreams show you the way. Tie your kite to reality… check your gut whenever it says “hey, wait”… take action when the time is right… remember and treasure what life shows you… but don’t ever stand in the way of what you really love. As far as we can tell, dreams are nothing more than love trying to take wing and soar. Imagine for just a moment, the thrilling, distracting, wonderful, odd, unusual sensation of new love. You immediately begin dreaming of life together… of where you will go… of what life will mean for the two of you. Live in that moment every day. Fall in love with new ideas, new opportunities, and new places all the time. Trust it, live it, don’t say no to love or crush a dream that wants to live. It isn’t that hard to give yourself over to it. You just have to say yes to life and love. Love will never lead you astray.

Jeff and Matt, before you are joined together in marriage, in my presence, and in the presence of these witnesses, I will remind you of the serious and binding nature of this relationship. The traditional right of marriage, as most of us understand it, is the voluntary, deliberate, and full commitment of two individuals to one another to become partners for a lifetime. Jeff and Matt, have you come here freely and without reservation to enter into this marriage?

[Jeff and Matt] We have!

Great! Then let us begin the celebration of love and life!

Welcome to the guests

We welcome you, the families of Jeff and Matt, who have come to share this wonderful morning. Nothing is as hopeful, as joyous as a wedding. Getting married is the supreme act of trust; it is as much a union and a move of independence. It takes an absolute confidence in oneself to be able to give fully to another. This partnership is not new; it has been a journey of ten years.

In fact they met ten years ago on this very day, October 4, 2003. It seems that Jeff, living in Jersey City, and Matt living in Kirksville, Missouri, had discovered each other’s blogs, and had each been reading the other’s, commenting, and corresponding for a couple of years. When Matt moved to New York City in July of 2003 it was only a couple of months until they realized that this friendship rooted in an online correspondence should progress to meeting in person. So they got together for coffee…and a relationship developed from there. It means a lot to both of them that as their relationship progressed both sets of parents enthusiastically embraced it.

And so today is the beginning of a different journey for Jeff and Matt as a married couple. It is so meaningful that you can share this day with them as they make public the commitment which they have already made to each other in their hearts. For marriage is more than simply an agreement between two people; it is a chance for us to embrace them as a couple, as a family and as part of a larger community. They have been inspired by all of you. You have touched their lives in ways that have changed them forever.

Reading

Matt and Jeff are big Stephen Sondheim fans. Well, as Jeff says: “I’m a fan; Matt is a huge fan.”

Sondheim in his song, “Being Alive,” describes what it’s like to have someone important in your life:

Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
To ruin your sleep…

Someone to need you too much,
Someone to know you too well,
Someone to pull you up short
And put you through hell…

Someone you have to let in,
Someone whose feelings you spare,
Someone who, like it or not,
Will want you to share
A little, a lot…

Ellen Pontac and Shelly Bailes, who have been together for nearly 40 years, married in 2008. Ellen said this:

“Being married changes not only the fact that you can say, ‘I’d like to introduce you to my [husband or] wife, but it changes the way you feel inside, and the way the world perceives you.”

The Asking

Jeff, do you take Matt to be your husband, to love, honor, cherish and keep for as long as you may live?

[Jeff] I do.

Matt, do you take Jeff to be your husband, to love, honor, cherish and keep for as long as you may live.

[Matt] I do.

The Vows

[Jeff]

I, Jeff, take you, Matt, to be my husband.

I promise to share your joys when you are happy,

to lift your spirits when you are down,

to laugh with you and cry with you,

and to love you in good times and bad.

I give you my hand, my heart, and my love, from this day forward.

[Matt]

I, Matt, take you, Jeff, to be my husband.

I promise to share your joys when you are happy,

to lift your spirits when you are down,

to laugh with you and cry with you,

and to love you in good times and bad.

I give you my hand, my heart, and my love, from this day forward.

The Ring Exchange

May we have the rings please?

Matt, as a token of your promise to Jeff, place the ring on the fourth finger of his left hand and repeat after me:

Jeff, I give you this ring as a symbol of my love and commitment and as a token of the promises I have made here today.

Jeff, as a token of your promise to Matt, place the ring on the fourth finger of his left hand and repeat after me:

Matt, I give you this ring as a symbol of my love and commitment and as a token of the promises I have made here today.

In his Supreme Court opinion this past June, Justice Kennedy described marriage as

“a far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages. It reflects both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.”

Pronouncement

Jeff and Matt, you have proclaimed your love for one another. You have agreed to share your lives and hopes and dreams together. In this circle of community, in this embrace of spirit, you have created a union marked by taking vows and exchanging rings. As a civil celebrant, authorized by the state of New York, it is my honor and my joy to pronounce you married.

You may kiss!

Final Reading

Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be the shelter for the other.
Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.
Now there will be no loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the other.
Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before you.
May beauty surround you both in the journey ahead and through all your years
May happiness be your companion and your days together be good and long upon the earth.

[Followed by the ceremonial breaking of a glass]

Almost Married

At long last, this Friday, October 4, Matt and I are getting married. It will be the tenth anniversary of our first date.

Matt and I were aware of each other for quite a while before we first met in person. For a couple of years we read each other’s blogs. Matt was living in Kirksville, Missouri, and I was living up here in the New York area. The gay blogging circle was pretty small back then in 2001, small enough that most LGBT bloggers were aware of each other. Then, in the summer of 2003, Matt moved up to New York to take a job, and after a couple of months we decided we should finally meet in person, since we were living in the same area. So we got together for coffee at the Starbucks at Astor Place in Manhattan. It was Saturday, October 4, 2003.

Technically it wasn’t a date; it was just a meetup. But I thought Matt was cute, and more importantly, I felt immediately comfortable with him. I remember that he pulled out his phone and started showing me something cool on it, and there was something so cute and charming about his enthusiasm for gadgets. I just found him really appealing. We just kind of clicked.

After we left Starbucks, we walked around for a while, and then we parted ways but planned to meet up again soon. We had our first real “date” the following week. But we’ve always considered that first meetup to be our first date in retrospect, and we’ve always celebrated it as our anniversary. So we thought it would be special to get married on the same day. (It also means we get to keep the same anniversary, which is a nice benefit.)

Matt would have been happy to just go down to the Manhattan Marriage Bureau and get married by ourselves. But I wanted something a bit more celebratory. So we’re doing something in between: a small ceremony in the park with just our families, and then a somewhat larger party that night, although still not big by most wedding standards (though Matt might beg to differ). The wedding planning has made me very anxious over the last few weeks — I’ve been worried about what could go wrong, worried about my sleep, and so on. The planning has been rather, er, hit or miss (pardon the pun), and it has kept changing over the last few months. Toward the end of last year we decided we’d get married in 2013, since we predicted the Supreme Court would overturn DOMA Section 3 and our taxes would be easier this year. We thought we’d do it this past spring, but we decided we needed more time to plan and that it would be nice to get married on our anniversary. I think it was last February that we settled on this date. Back then it seemed so far away. Now it’s almost here.

So ten years later, here we are. Matt started as my online acquaintance, then became my friend, my boyfriend, and then my partner, and soon he’ll be my husband. We’ve both grown and changed a lot over the last decade, and we’ve learned a lot, too — about relationships, about ourselves about each other. Our relationship grows richer by the year.

It’s been a decade, but it’s just the beginning of our life together.

My Doppleganger Plus 50

We like to commemorate the half-century mark in our culture. It seems it’s always the 50th anniversary of something: next week is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In three months we’ll observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. The very next day is the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Doctor Who.

The first 50th anniversary I remember was that of DC Comics in 1985, which released its first comic books in 1935. Since then, I’ve experienced numerous 50th anniversaries over the years.

It strikes me that there’s someone out there who was born exactly 50 years before me, at the very end of 1923, who is my “doppleganger-plus-50,” as it were. At the same age as I experienced the 50th anniversaries of various events, he lived through the actual events. He’s living a life parallel to mine, just shifted 50 years.

In 1985 I discovered comic books when DC Comics celebrated its 50th anniversary. I was 11 years old and reading Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Superman, and Batman. I fantasized about going back in time to the 1930s and buying now-rare comic books for a dime. When my double was that age, he might have read those actual comic books. He’d soon encounter Superman and “The Bat-Man” as they hit the market.

In 1987, the Lincoln Tunnel had its 50th anniversary. I was 13 or 14. I remember being in a car approaching the tunnel entrance around that time, on a gloomy, cloudy weekend afternoon, and noticing its Art Deco influences and thinking about the Depression. At the same age, my double was a young teenager living through the gloomy Depression itself, and Art Deco design was all over Manhattan.

Two years later, in 1989, the media covered the 50th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland that began World War II. I was 15, in high school. My double was 15 and hearing about the invasion on the radio.

On the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in December 1991, I was 17 years old, in college, living a carefree life. We had a chorus concert that night. My double was 17 in 1941 and worried about being drafted and going to war.

I was 20 years old on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, in June 1994. I was still in college; a friend of mine and I were driving back to Charlottesville from an overnight road trip to Gettysburg, and we listened to coverage of Bill Clinton’s speech on the car radio. My double was 20 years old and might have been at war overseas.

Assuming he survived the war, my double came home, got married, and started a family in prosperous postwar America. At that age I was in law school in the prosperous late 1990s. He discovered television in his 20s, around the time I discovered the World Wide Web. At the start of 1950, he was 26, the same age as when I celebrated the year 2000. He grew older as the 1950s continued. He turned 30 in 1953. He raised children and saw them enter adolescence. On the night that Sputnik launched and “Leave It to Beaver” premiered (both on the same night, which was also Erev Yom Kippur!), he was 33. He was 37 when JFK was inaugurated; he was 38 when John Glenn orbited the Earth. I remember news coverage of the 50th anniversaries of all of these.

Now he is 39, almost 40, and it’s the late summer of 1963, and JFK will be assassinated in a few months. Shortly after he turns 40, the Beatles will hit America. Then there’ll be another war, along with a cultural and musical revolution, but he’ll be too old to get it. (He’s a couple of years older than Don Draper.) He’ll be 50 during Watergate, around the time when I’m born, and our lives will begin to overlap.

I like reading about anniversaries of news events and imagining how people experienced those events when they happened. Picturing my time-shifted doppleganger is a cool way to do it, because it helps put various events into a chronological context. Looking back on 1985 from 2013 is the same as looking back on 1935 from 1963.

And just over 10 years from now, a baby will be born, and I will be his time-shifted doppleganger. And the cycle will continue…

Back to the Future Part III Soundtrack Tracks in Order of Appearance

Warning: geekery ahead.

For some reason, the tracks on the soundtrack for Back to the Future Part III do not appear in the order in which they appear in the movie. They’re in movie order on the Part II soundtrack, but for some reason that’s not the case with Part III. I guess when they put together the Part III soundtrack, the producers thought the tracks sounded better in a different order.

But sometimes you just want to experience the movie through the music, and you want to hear the tracks in order. So I’ve managed (I think) to figure out the order in which the Part III tracks appear in the movie:

1 – Main Title
6 – Indians
3 – Hill Valley
4 – The Hanging
14 – We’re Out of Gas
12 – Doc to the Rescue
5 – At First Sight
17 – Doubleback
13 – The Kiss
10 – The Future Isn’t Written
7 – Goodbye Clara
15 – Wake Up Juice
11 – The Showdown
16 – A Science Experiment? (The Train Part I)
2 – It’s Clara (The Train Part II)
9 – Point of No Return (The Train Part III)
8 – Doc Returns
18 – End Credits

If you own the soundtrack, you can create a playlist of the tracks in the above order on iTunes or whatnot. Then you can just close your eyes and imagine your way from 1955 to 1885, and then back to good ol’ 1985.

I’m posting this in case anyone happens to Google the title of this post or something similar. I did my own Google search and couldn’t find anything.

This is How My Brain Works

I bought a Rubik’s Cube on Saturday, because we’re going on a Disney Cruise for our honeymoon.

What’s the connection, you ask?

On Saturday afternoon, we were talking about where to stay the night before our cruise. Our cruise sets sails from Port Canaveral in Florida, and we were thinking of staying in Cocoa Beach. Cocoa Beach made me think of “I Dream of Jeannie,” which is set in Cocoa Beach. I decided I need to hear the theme song, so I found it on YouTube. Then I thought about “The Brady Bunch,” because “I Dream of Jeannie” overlapped with “The Brady Bunch” by one season. That made me think about “The Brady Brides,” the “Brady Bunch” sequel from 1981. Then I started to think about how weird the very early ’80s were, which made me think of Pac-Man, which made me think about the Rubik’s Cube, and I got caught in an online memory hole. I found virtual Rubik’s Cubes online, started reading about Rubik’s Cube solutions, and thought about how my solution book, The Simple Solution to Rubik’s Cube by James G. Nourse, got stolen when I was in third grade. I suddenly decided I wanted a real Rubik’s Cube. So I put on my shoes, walked a few blocks to the nearest toy store, and bought one.

I also found my old solution book online. (Ignore the green arrows – the whole book is on one page, just scroll down.)

Apparently Nourse’s method is the simplest, but not the shortest or most elegant. In third grade I couldn’t quite figure his method out, but on Saturday I did, and now it’s fun to solve the cube with the book’s help. But I’m interested in looking up more elegant methods now.

Oh, and we still need to book our hotel.

The Ender’s Game Boycott

I’m kind of puzzled by this New York Times piece calling the proposed “Ender’s Game” boycott misguided:

Generally, boycotts are used to pressure companies or governments to end objectionable activities; consider the boycott of Chick-fil-A to protest the chain’s financial support of antigay organizations. What Geeks Out has in mind is closer to blacklisting. The group wants to “send a clear and serious message to Card and those that do business with his brand of antigay activism — whatever he’s selling, we’re not buying.” This isn’t about stopping the dissemination of antigay sentiments; it’s about isolating Mr. Card and shaming his business partners, thus cutting into their profits.

If Mr. Card belongs in quarantine, who’s next? His views were fairly mainstream when the Sunstone article appeared and, unfortunately, are not unusual today.

Who’s next? How about any other vocal anti-gay extremist? Fine by me. As recently as 2008, Card called homosexuality a “sex-role dysfunction” and said that committed same-sex relationships are nothing more than homosexual liaisons and friendships.”

He’s not just against gay marriage. He’s blatantly anti-gay. Why should I give money to support this bigot?

I don’t see what’s wrong with refusing to give your money to a person or organization that espouses views you find odious. A boycott is completely voluntary. Nobody is forcing anyone to withhold their money from this movie, just as nobody can make me spend money on it. Individuals get to decide whether or not to support something with their cash. I felt the same way last year when the anti-gay organization One Million Moms encouraged a boycott of J.C. Penney after they hired Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson; I think they’re bigoted homophobes, but hey, I can’t tell then what to do as consumers. If they want to boycott, fine.

I tweeted at the writer of the piece, Juliet Lapidos, and she tweeted back:

I replied that I’m Jewish too and that I have no way of knowing whether I would have bought their books. I’m not sure how she can know either. You can never truly know what choices you would have made in a different time; you would have been raised in a different cultural atmosphere, living in a different world, holding different beliefs, and therefore you’d be a different person. You just can’t know.

Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly had a nuanced piece last week about the boycott, including the following (boldface mine):

But should Card’s extremism lead moviegoers to boycott Ender’s Game, which, after all, has nothing to do with gay rights? As gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), who opposes a boycott, has noted, the film was made by a gay-friendly filmmaking team working for a company, Lionsgate, that has now publicly rejected his views. I can answer only for myself: I won’t pay to see the movie. I can’t get past the idea that my purchase of a ticket might put even an extra penny in the pocket of a man who thinks I should be treated as less than human; a hit film will increase sales of his books, and I want no part of it. Is that a boycott? It’s a personal choice, and a boycott is really nothing more than a network of people whose convictions lead them to the same personal choice. I understand the case that the art should be separated from the artist, and I have seen plenty of art by reprehensible people. But everybody gets to decide for themselves where they draw the line.

Lapidos says in her Times piece that the boycott could actually backfire by encouraging homophobes to see the movie, replacing one source of cash with another. That would be true if the boycott’s only purpose were to stop the movie. But a boycott can also inform. Will it force Card to change his views on gay people? Doubtful, but it’s already prompted him to respond, and Lionsgate (the film company) has also responded.

And many more people are now aware of Card’s views than before, so people can now make more informed choices. That sounds like a good thing to me.

The End of DOMA, and Being Haunted

When I was 11 or 12 years old I realized I had a terrible secret. I was attracted to other boys. I would develop these intense crushes: a handsome black-haired classmate in middle school, a kid at sleepaway camp the summer I was 12. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling; all I knew was that I felt it, and nobody else did. There was something wrong with me. I tried not to worry about it too much; I just hoped that it was temporary, and that at some point before I became an adult it would go away and I could be normal and get married. But I continued on through middle school and into high school, and it didn’t go away. I started to worry. I decided I must be cursed. My life already seemed bad enough: I was a nerdy, grade-skipping outcast, and yet not academically perfect enough to please my parents. And I hated my Jewish afro hair. On top of all that, why did there have to be this? Why did this alien presence choose to infect me and make me fall in love with boys?

It was the mid-/late 1980s. All I knew about gay people was that they got AIDS and went to hospitals where they wasted away and died. I remember once I heard my mom refer to someone derisively as a “frustrated homosexual.” And one day I came across a copy of a book called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). It was published in 1969, and it said horrible things about gay people. I didn’t want to turn out like the people in that book. I became even more terrified.

At 19 I told my parents I liked guys. They got mad and said it was not acceptable. So a couple of days later I went back in the closet, to them and to myself. Then I had five agonizing years of mental gymnastics as I tried to figure out what I was, until finally, at age 24, I decided, fuck this — it’s never going away, this is who I am, and I just want to be happy. So I stopped agonizing, accepted that I was gay, started dating and having sex, and the next year, at age 25, I told my parents that I was sure this time, that I really was gay. They were very upset for a few weeks. It was painful for me. But they eventually came around.

Since yesterday morning, when the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of DOMA, I’ve been thinking a lot about my past — mourning it, in fact. I’ve been wondering if I would have been a happier, less scared kid if I’d grown up in a country where gay people could get married, where I could have read an opinion by a justice of the United States Supreme Court recognizing the dignity not just of gay couples’ relationships but of gay couples’ marriages, where my country’s government treated those marriages with the same respect they treated my parents’ marriage and my aunt and uncle’s marriage and my grandparents’ marriage and the marriages of every other adult I knew. I wonder if my parents would have been more accepting of me if they’d raised me in that world. I wonder if they would have thrown away that old book. I wonder if I would have come out sooner, started dating sooner, had sex sooner, gotten more relationship experience sooner.

I’m so envious of gay kids today, and gay teenagers, and gay college students, and gay people in their 20s, for living in a different world from the one I grew up in, just as I’m sure many older gay men are envious of me for growing up post-Stonewall and coming of age in an era when the world knew already about HIV and how to protect ourselves from it. Just as every generation is envious of people who are younger than them.

I was already 22 and out of college when the Supreme Court first spoke up for gay rights in Romer v. Evans. I was already 29 when the Court first said in Lawrence v. Texas that I have dignity as a gay man. I was 37 when the state where I lived said I could get married. Now I’m 39, and I’m getting married to Matt in a few months, and my national government will treat us the same way they treat every other married couple.

In a way it feels very scary and “adult.” We’ve been able to get married for the last two years, but it always seemed like it would be somehow pretend, like playing at marriage: “skim-milk marriage,” as Justice Ginsburg wonderfully put it. But now we’ll be filing taxes jointly, and be eligible for spousal Social Security benefits, and have all the federal as well as state responsibilities of marriage, just like my parents, and my brother and his wife, and Matt’s parents, and all the straight married couples we know. Just like everyone else.

The Supreme Court’s decision yesterday was not the end. Thirty-seven states still tell gay couples they can’t get married. But we are closer to justice than we were yesterday. I see it as one of those pictures where your perception shifts between positive and negative space. Before yesterday, there were 12 islands of marriage equality in a vast sea. But now there are 37 islands of marriage discrimination. Now that the U.S. government recognizes same-sex marriages, the discriminatory states are the outliers, no matter how many there are. That shift in perception is crucial.

I’m happy I’m still young enough to live in this world. I’m happy I’m going to get married.

And I’m happy for all those gay kids who get to grow up in a different world from the one I grew up in.

Thoughts Before the Supreme Court Rules

Getting my thoughts down before the Supreme Court releases its decisions on DOMA and Prop 8 in just over an hour.

I slept badly last night. I fell asleep around 11:30, woke up around 3 a.m., took a four-hour sleeping pill but didn’t actually fall back asleep for another 40 minutes, then woke up again at 5:30. (So much for modern medicine.)

At least we know it’s coming this morning. That’s better than the last few days of watching and waiting.

It’s been a nutty 24 hours in American politics. The Voting Rights Act got eviscerated and Texas almost effectively outlawed abortion last night. I wish the United States were a normal country.

I feel a little selfish that I’m worried about DOMA when I have friends in California who can’t even get married in the first place. But Prop 8 is toast no matter what happens — if not now, then in the next couple of years via the ballot. Which is a long time to wait, but not as long as we’ll have to wait to get rid of DOMA if the Supreme Court does nothing about it this morning. The gerrymandered Republican House means that DOMA isn’t going away anytime in this decade without judicial intervention. A skim-milk marriage is better than no marriage — but we deserve full equality. I will be extremely sad if the Court lets DOMA stand.

The last day has reminded me that we live in a deeply flawed country in an imperfect world. But I still have hope that no matter what happens today, things will eventually turn out right. It will require work. But things will work out.

Still, Justices of the Supreme Court: do the right thing this morning.

Is Being Gay a Choice?

Today the Delaware Senate is debating marriage equality. According to Twitter, some anti-gay senator or witness brought up the old canard that being gay is a choice.

This is such an old, tired, beaten-to-death topic that it’s not even worth writing about. But I will.

First of all, shouldn’t we gay people be the prime authority as to whether being gay is a choice? We’ve said time and again that it’s not a choice. None of us chose to be gay; we just are gay. But apparently we can’t be trusted to know whether we actually chose it or not. Because we’re, I don’t know… mentally ill? Pathological liars? Brainwashed by imaginary gay central headquarters? Who knows. Even those who are professedly neutral and say things like “science is unclear on whether being gay is a choice” are insulting us. Is being gay a choice? Just freaking ask us. The answer is no.

I think the problem is one of language ambiguity. Being gay means, in most cases, “being exclusively (or almost exclusively) attracted to people of the same sex.” But some people mistakenly think that “being gay” means “having gay sex.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these people are themselves fighting homosexual urges. They tell themselves that as long as they don’t act on their urges, they’re not gay. Therefore, in their universe, “being gay” only means “having gay sex.” Because if “being gay” means “being attracted to people of the same sex,” they’d have to admit that they were gay.

These are probably the same people who think that if society becomes more accepting of same-sex marriage, everyone is going to turn gay and get gay-married and nobody will reproduce anymore and the human population will die out. They think that everyone else has secret gay urges just like they do.

Finally: even if we defined “being gay” as “having gay sex,” and therefore “being gay” was a choice, so what? Religion is a choice. Fine, that’s specially protected by the First Amendment, so also: masturbation is a choice. Heterosexual sodomy is a choice. Extramarital sex is a choice. Who cares?

But it’s not a choice in the first place. I wish that canard would stop quacking already.

Too Much TV

I am just about fed up with television.

This article about how there is too much good TV resonated with me because it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. These days I feel like I’m drowning in television. We bought an expander drive for our TiVo last fall; where previously our TiVo could hold 25 hours of TV, now it can hold something like 150 hours. We used to have make sure we watched stuff on the TiVo so we could make room for other things, but now we can just let stuff build up. This is good, but it’s also daunting to look at the TiVo screen and see how many shows are sitting on there, waiting to be watched.

And since there’s two of us at home, that means even more TV. Actually, I partially blame Matt for my viewing habits. (It’s OK; he already knows.) Back when I was single and lived alone, I didn’t watch much TV. There was time when I watched Buffy and Smallville; when I added on Angel, that felt like a lot. Matt was the one who introduced me to the TiVo; before I met him, I didn’t have a DVR.

I’m sure Matt would admit that he watches a lot more TV than I do. But Matt has also introduced me to shows over the years that I probably wouldn’t have sampled otherwise. Matt likes to check out new shows and see if they’re any good, so I do the same thing.  Back when I was not a big TV-watcher, I wouldn’t have done that.

Here are the shows I watch every week that I actually enjoy: How I Met Your Mother, The New Girl, The Mindy Project, The Middle, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Community, Parks & Recreation, The Office, Happy Endings, Once Upon a Time, Mad Men (which is my favorite show of the last few years), and Doctor Who.

I feel like I’m forgetting some. I actually thought I watched more one-hour shows. I guess there’s Smash, which I don’t really like; I only watch it because my theater friends watch it. I’ve completely given up on Glee, which Matt still watches but which I now find terrible and can’t stand anymore. I’ve watched the first two episodes of Bates Motel, which is intriguing so far, but I haven’t decided if I’m going to stick with it. There’s also The Americans, which I like but is starting to accumulate on the DVR, because there’s just not enough time.

That’s partly because in addition to all of the above (except for Bates Motel), Matt watches Elementary, Castle, Bones, The Vampire Diaries, Arrow, Being Human, The Following, and Warehouse 13 (which is summer only). Also Suits. And this Nickelodeon show called House of Anubis which is on like every single day.

And let’s not forget other stuff we watch: NBC Nightly News, The Daily Show, Rachel Maddow, and Saturday Night Live. And The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and American Dad. And Archer, which I only half pay attention to. And The Regular Show, which is only 10 minutes so that’s okay. Oh, and Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, which is a kind of funny and tongue-in-cheek iteration of the Scooby-Doo gang. And also Being Human, U.K. version. (I like the British version but not the American one.)

Thank goodness I gave up on Days of our Lives a few months ago.

Matt sometimes accuses me of taking a moralizing tone about his TV watching. I guess I kind of do. It’s just that I start to feel disgusting when I sit on the couch for too long watching TV. And I also feel like it keeps me from being social — although to be honest, I might be confusing cause and effect; I think it’s really low self-esteem that keeps me from being more social.

But I mean, we don’t just watch TV. We go to the theater a lot. And yet theater, like TV, is a passive form of entertainment. You’re sitting and watching something instead of connecting with other people socially.

That said, there are several TV shows I’d check out if there were only time. Game of Thrones, The Good Wife… OK, I can’t think of any others right now. I thought there were more.

But I really feel this anxiety about wasting away my life in front of a TV set.

What Happens After DOMA? (Cont’d.)

If anyone is interested in digging further into the post-DOMA issue I mentioned yesterday — whether the federal government would have to recognize a marrage validly performed in New York if the couple actually lives in Arizona — I found a law review article about it.

The article is long, as most law review articles are, but basically, the answer is: nobody yet knows how this would work.

The article goes deep into the weeds about conflict of laws. (Yay civil procedure!) In short, the author says that either Congress or the federal courts should make a uniform rule: either (1) the federal government should recognize a same-sex marriage if it was valid where performed, or (2) the federal government should recognize a same-sex marriage if it is valid where the couple currently lives.

Just because there would be confusion does not mean DOMA section 3 should not be overturned. Conflict-of-laws issues come up in family law all the time. And at any rate, there will be confusion as long some states refuse to recognize legal same-sex marriages performed in other states.

What Happens After DOMA?

Homer asked an interesting question about DOMA in the comments on my previous post:

If DOMA is tossed, will people who marry in New York and then return to Arizona have the same federal benefit rights as someone who marries and stays in New York?

I don’t think there’s a clear answer.

New York State doesn’t have a residency requirement for marriage. So any same-sex couple in the country can go to New York and get married. Or a same-sex couple who lives in New York, Massachusetts, Iowa, etc., could get married and then move to another state that doesn’t have marriage equality, for any of the many reasons that people move around: to take a new job, to care for an elderly parent back home, to live in a warmer climate, and so on.

So if DOMA Section 3 goes away, which married same-sex couples would federal recognition “attach” to, and when? Could it attach, and then later detach when the couple leaves the state? And then attach again when the couple goes back?

You could argue that once the couple gets married and federal benefits attach, they can never be taken away. It doesn’t seem quite fair otherwise. But you could also argue that since Arizona doesn’t recognize a New York same-sex marriage, and the federal government has to defer to the states, then federal benefits can detach once the couple permanently moves to Arizona. I don’t know. Or what if the couple lives in New York but owns property in Arizona, or say Florida? Would federal taxes apply to that property? What about inheritance?

I imagine the case would be clearer if a married same-sex couple is merely visiting a non-equality state, not moving there permanently, and some incident happens that involves a federal law. I can’t think of any examples, but there might be one.

It’s not just federal benefits we’re talking about, like tax breaks or Social Security or family leave. There are more than 1,100 rights and responsibilities that come with federal recognition of a marriage.

The law can be fractal sometimes. One big issue gets resolved, but other little issues come up in its wake. A future court would probably have to resolve these issues as they come up. That’s not a bad thing — it’s just how the law works. But it’s certainly interesting.

The DOMA Oral Arguments

When Matt and I get married this fall, will we just have a skim-milk marriage? Or will our country’s government treat us equally?

Today’s oral arguments in the DOMA case leave me cautiously optimistic — moreso than yesterday’s Prop 8 arguments. There seems to be a consensus among the experts that DOMA Section 3 is doomed, precisely and only because Justice Kennedy evidently believes that it violates the power of states to define marriage. Only four justices (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan) appear willing to overturn it on grounds of equal protection; Kennedy would provide the crucial fifth vote.

Roberts and Scalia also brought up federalism, but in a curious way. They asked: if the federal government is not allowed to exclude same-sex couples from the federal definition of marriage, does that mean it’s not allowed to include them, either? Wouldn’t that, too, violate states’ rights to define marriage? And if it is okay for the federal government to include them, then why isn’t it okay for the federal government to exclude them?

It was an odd perversion of the principle of federalism. The answer to their question requires asking: what’s the point of federalism in the first place?

Federalism is usually seen not as an end in itself, but as a vehicle to protect individual liberty — usually, negative liberty (“freedom from X”). How does it violate principles of liberty for the federal government to extend federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples? In other words, how does that interfere with anybody’s rights? On the other hand, when the federal government withholds those benefits from same-sex couples, as it does right now, it restricts positive liberty. (More here.) Our government was structured in such a way as to further certain principles, but Scalia and Roberts sounded like they were more interested in sophistic thought games than in the real-life implications of DOMA on these principles.

I thought Roberts, for one, would be more skeptical of DOMA, and I’m kind of disappointed in him. I guess the health care got all of our hopes up.

Then there was Alito, who twisted the principle of equal protection. Alito raised concerns that getting rid of DOMA would itself cause equal protection problems: what if a surviving same-sex spouse in New York doesn’t have to pay estate taxes because New York recognizes same-sex marriage, but a spouse in North Carolina does, because North Carolina doesn’t recognize those marriages? Doesn’t that raise equal protection concerns, he asked?

The answer is: isn’t that North Carolina’s fault, because it doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, rather than the federal government’s fault, since the federal government just defers to state definitions of marriage? Why wouldn’t the remedy be to shield all surviving same-sex spouses nationwide from the estate tax, rather than make all of them pay it? It seems odd and cruel to say that it’s better not to provide benefits to any married same-sex couples rather than provide benefits to all of them. It basically holds couples who live in same-sex marriage states hostage to all the other states. How is that okay?

Despite Alito’s questions, I still see him as a possible vote to strike down DOMA. Maybe not very likely, but still possible.

Thomas, of course, said nothing. But I wonder if he, too, might strike down DOMA on federalism grounds. I’m not counting on it, but not totally ruling it out either.

So that leaves the four liberals plus Kennedy. States’ rights isn’t the reason I’d prefer for striking down DOMA, but I’d certainly take it.

And now the long three-month wait to see whether Matt and I get to have a whole-milk marriage.

The Prop 8 Oral Arguments

Some quick, pre-seder thoughts on today’s oral arguments in the Prop 8 case:

As I wrote the other day, the DOMA case is more personally relevant to me than the Prop 8 case. I already live in a state with marriage equality, and at this point, the only way DOMA will be overturned is if the Supreme Court does it. Due to partisan gerrymandering, we won’t have a Democratic House of Representatives for a while, and no GOP-controlled House is going to vote to get rid of it. No matter what happens with the Prop 8 case, it seems clear that it’s going to disappear one way or another in the next four years. Four years is still a long time to those who can’t get married, but without judicial intervention, Prop 8 will disappear much sooner than DOMA will.

That said, today’s oral arguments in the Prop 8 case were frustrating to listen to and read. Some of the justices just don’t get it.

There was Scalia, snidely and passive-aggressively asking Ted Olson exactly when it became unconstitutional to deny gay couples the right to get married. Olson smartly parried with his own question: when did it become unconstutional to deny interracial couples the right to get married? Scalia was just beating his dead horse that the Constitution never changes. I’d like to ask Scalia: exactly when did it become unconstitutional to discriminate against women?

Then there was Scalia (again) saying that we don’t know whether it’s a good thing for children to be raised by same-sex couples, even though all respectable social science has shown that it makes no damn difference what the genders of the parents are. Is it a good thing or a bad thing for kids to be raised by interracial couples? Is it a good or a bad thing for kids to be raised by Jews who live in Christian neighborhoods? Is it a good or bad thing for kids to be raised by couples who are in any way different from everyone else?

That’s my biggest problem with opponents of marriage equality. Don’t they realize that thousands of gay couples are already raising children, married or not? And if these justices have a problem with marriage equality because it might lead to more kids being raised by same-sex couples, why don’t they have a problem with civil unions, which supposedly already provide all the rights and protections of marriage, because after all, marriage is just a “label”?

Then there was Alito, saying that we need to be careful because same-sex marriage is newer than cellphones or the internet, like that makes any difference when we’re talking about love and commitment and human rights.

I was discouraged by Kennedy, who didn’t seem to want to buy the Ninth Circuit’s argument that was tailored implicitly for him. Maybe the Ninth Circuit was too clever by half.

I was most of all discouraged by Chief Justice Roberts, who seemed as skeptical of marriage equality as the other right-wingers.

Oral arguments are not necessarily indicative of the final decision (just ask Roberts about the health care case). And it seems very possible that the Court could overturn Prop 8 through inaction, either by letting the Ninth Circuit decision stand or by dismissing the case for lack of standing. But the tone of the questions discouraged me.

Perhaps things will go differently tomorrow in the DOMA hearing, when federalism arguments will take prominence. I imagine someone will ask about what happens if a Mississippi couple decides to get married in New York, because it has no residency requirement, and then goes back home to Mississippi: will the couple have a marriage that is recognized for federal purposes but not for state purposes, and how is that more complicated than having a marriage that is recognized for state purposes but not for federal purposes? The answer is that far more couples get married in their home states than go forum-shopping for marriage. But the justices like to poke and prod at the issues, so the question could come up.

I don’t know. I’m just going to take a deep breath and remember that none of us can predict anything.

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.