Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Northerner/Southerner

My nephew posted an online quiz which purports to show whether you are a northerner or southerner.  No one's expectations for the accuracy of such entertainments is high - they are there for fun.  He is currently placed to be thinking about it a lot.  He is a Massachusetts boy studying at Tufts who has some of his graduate work at Emory at the moment.  And a southern girlfriend.

It was fun for me, too, though for different reasons.  I am always intrigued by what stories people tell about themselves and about others - what stereotypes they want to believe.

First, the quiz has to have been written by a southerner.  How do we know that, without having read a single word of a single question?  Because only southerners divide the country in two, contrasting themselves with northerners.  Everyone else sees several sections of the country: Midwest, West Coast, Northwest or Southwest.  Texas and Alaska both see themselves compared to the rest of the country.

The questions were clearly scored along an axis of Just Folks vs. Fancy and Maybe Artificial. Prefer expensive suburb, urban apartment, anything cheap, small town? Atlanta has some pretty gracious suburbs and the Research Triangle sure has apartments. Still, we know what they mean.

Am I ruining your enjoyment for the sake of mine?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Help Request

Help me out, if you can.  While traveling, I ran across some research about social conservatives contrasted with everyone else on the issue of gay marriage.  I was sure it was in the David Dunning article in the Pacific Standard that I got for free in Reagan National Airport in CD, We Are all Confident Idiots. This is the Dunning of Dunning-Kruger fame who I have referenced often here, and it is excellent and worth your time, though it runs to 6,000 words. It touches on our familiar points: that the completely ignorant are as confident in their correctness as those who actually know what they are talking about, that we all do it to a certain extent, and that education makes this worse in some ways (better in others...just be alert).

But the research I am looking for is not in there.  It must have been in a flight magazine (Delta, USAir, or United). It tied in interestingly to my observation that political liberalism is largely driven by social cues. This particular study found that almost everyone was socially influenced in their beliefs, and fairly quickly.  Social conservatives were notable in being the only ones who weren't. They ran some assessment of support for gay marriage, did something-or-other to illustrate how popular the idea had become, and remeasured, finding increased support for the concept among mainstream denominations, moderates, liberals, I forget who else.  Everyone listed except social conservatives.

I haven't mentioned before that despite my disapproval of coming to one's opinions in such a manner - and it's pretty easy to be dismissive - I can also see advantages.  There is generally an evolutionary advantage in not being too far off the centerpoint of the society one lives in.  Being entirely uninfluenced by those around you suggests some social lack that foreshadows trouble for all.  We can make up scenarios in which standing firm for principles is necessary, but also scenarios where flogging dead horses wastes everyone's time.

There are a few possibilities as to what is happening - some interpretations I would love to see proved out, while others would leave me scrambling for excuses. But I can't do anything unless I read at least the summary, or preferably, find a link to the actual research.

Commenting on the linked article is encouraged.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Princess Bride

I read the book long before the movie came out. As these things go, therefore, parts of the movie didn't please me. I continued to love the movie as a shared experience with my sons - I made sure they were early participants, before it became a cult classic. There is a joy in liking something and watching it gradually become popular with just the right people.

Cary Elwes, who played Westley, has put out his memoir of the making of the move.  Fittingly for his character, it is called As You Wish. It's not much of a book, but it did tell me a lot I didn't know about how it came to be written, accepted, adapted, cast, etc. Elwes can't stop telling us how wonderful everyone was, reminding us of their resumes before and after, and describing them as the only possible people who could have played each part.  It gets irritating after a while. However it is just that sort of gushing that pushes one back a distance and allows the questions "What makes this good, then?" and "Why do I like this?" much more possible to answer.

That has been fun.
 
In some types of comedy, it is important that the actor not betray that he knows he is being funny. He or she has to play it straight, with no wink-wink nudge-nudge to the audience, or even an acknowledgement that there is an audience. Elwes keeps reporting throughout the book how Rob Reiner stressed this during “The Princess Bride,” not merely as a tactic to calm his actors, but as a key to understanding the script.

I entirely agree, which is why I can’t fathom how Reiner thought Billy Crystal was so uproarious as Miracle Max.

But first, I give credit to Mandy Patinkin, who got this so thoroughly right that it held everyone else together.  Almost everyone in the cast plays it pretty straight, but there is a lot of leakage – tongues creeping into cheeks, smirks playing at the edges of lips.  If anything, Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya is a little too serious and intense – or would be, if it weren’t the anchor for the others.

Compare: The most similar movie would be “Monty Python and the Quest For The Holy Grail,” which relies much less on actors playing it straight. We see from the landscapes, the costumes, and parts of the dialogue that they would be capable of making a serious Arthurian movie – a pretty darn good one, actually – and that is enough.  We don’t require that they go farther than that. In that context, Inigo Montoya would only partly work.  Certainly, his dead-serious “I want my father back you son of a bitch!” would be jarring.

Yet it is that line, and the strand of seriousness that runs through everything leading up to that, that makes The Princess Bride funny.  Patinkin can shrug when the Man In Black will not say who he is, or joke with Fezzik, with the complete naturalness of a normal man in an odd world. There is no movie around him and he is not joking with us. There are men with six fingers and giants of unbelievable strength, but these are details to him.  The horrible childhood tragedy and life given over to revenge are all that matter to him, and are no different than they would be in our world. He wouldn’t be funny if he weren’t a little unnerving.

It was nice to learn how earnest the Greatest Swordfight of Modern Times was – they hired the best fencing instructors and worked for weeks, and it absolutely shows in the believability of the encounter. Again, it is the seriousness – one senses that if by some slip one did cut the other, the script would go out the window and they would keep going, this time for real.

Robin Wright plays Buttercup almost entirely straight, and Andre the Giant is a showman within the movie (“poor circus performers” does not seem at all untrue in his case), providing cover for any possible breaks in the fourth wall in his case.  Elwes tries, and gets it most of the time – Sarandon, Shawn, and Guest  (Humperdinck, Vizzini, Rugen) not so much.  Peter Falk did not seem to be the sort of grandfather who would like the book he is reading to his grandson, but he played it seriously and I bought it.  The others are cartoons and they know it. They drag the movie down. 

I always thought that Crystal didn’t really know Miracle Max and seemed rather wrongly inserted at the end, and now that I know about the making of the movie, I find this is true.  He and Carol Kane were brought in briefly at the end, did their schtick, and left.  The rest of the cast is more of an ensemble. Apparently Rob Reiner found Crystal so uproarious as Max that he had to repeatedly leave the set to prevent his laughter from spilling into the scenes.  I don’t get it.  Crystal played Crystal + 40 years.  “To blathe…mutton, lettuce, and tomato…” Just not right. You’ll like the Miracle Max in the book better.

Cary Elwes keeps gushing how every cast member was the only one who could play the part, the perfect choice. Not really.  It is likely true about Mandy Patinkin, and is nearly true about a few others, including Elwes himself. I doubt that another director would have gotten as close as Reiner.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Wyman Family Christmas Letter 2014


It seems to be a family tradition to pack the Christmas letter so tightly that a line gets left off the end. This has left our many OCD friends and family wondering whether they had missed one line or another whole page.  We'll try to get it right this year, though funeral arrangements scramble our brains a bit at the moment.

The End of An Era
Tracy’s dad and David’s stepdad both died this year.  The outline of their lives was similar: born around 1920 within a hundred miles of NYC, married in the early 1940’s, went to college - and to war in the Pacific. Returned home to work hard, raise families, volunteer in their communities, and gradually prosper. They had good intelligence and senses of humor, good health until the last few years, and lived to their 90’s to see many grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Both watched their wives through long final illnesses and missed them after – yet both considered themselves fortunate men. A common outline, but uncommon men.

"Call Us Nana and Pops"
In addition to our actual granddaughters, we are acquiring extras among their friends at church who do not have their own grandparents nearby. We rather expected a predictable, sharply-defined family for our lifetime, but things didn't turn out that way.  A friend at church described the Wymans as a cross between the Waltons and the Simpsons.  That's about right, actually. 

"...except WALKER! I would trust him to have my back and make the right choice in a domestic dispute."
Yes, Drill Sergeant Murphy was trying to shame the other recruits in the MP Battalion at Ft. Leonard Wood. Perhaps.  Still it must have been nice to hear, and nicer to report home.  By the time you read this, Kyle will be officially in the Army Reserve. Going to school for criminal justice starting in January.

Crying In the CEO's Office
John-Adrian's hospital in Nome switched to Electronic Health Record, and the lead-up was ugly. Norton Sound Health brought in a person specifically to manage the transition, who proceeded to spend a great deal of time crying in the CEO's office.  So about a week before they went live they sent The Expert home, called John-Adrian in to the office, put him in charge of the transition, and gave him a raise.  Things are different on the frontier. Being John-Adrian, he has complete confidence.  He has been there more than four years now. 

When Does All This Craziness Stop And Real Life Begin?
Tracy and I used to say that humorously to each other when we were first married. And then when the children were born, somewhat less humorously.  Then also when school schedules and church meetings dominated so much of our lives for years, not so humorously at all.  We're still saying it. Wryly. 

Ja, I'm going to Julbord at work, wearing a full suit.
Another one of those "is this really my son?" moments.  Ah, they grow older.  They prosper. They understand social situations.  They dress better. Chris continues in Tromsø, visiting other parts of Europe when he gets the chance.

Here I Am! In Africa!
Jonathan used this line to make fun of one of Ben's pictures of himself in a scenic venue on his mission trip to Rwanda. Just jealous, I think. More 3rd-World orphanages, more Ben drawing attention to the need.  J-A and David went to Houston just before Christmas to see Ben's new house in Spring and watch him direct filming at The Woodlands UMC, where he works. It's one of the busiest times in a big church, but we did get time with Ben and met his friends. Plus, JA got to see the sun again and feel the warmth.  We finished by flying to Missouri to watch Kyle graduate at Ft. Leonard Wood, and bring the lad home to NH.

Negro League Baseball Museum

I visited the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. My fear was that the only patrons would be buses of schoolchildren from black neighborhoods, and old white guys.

It was worse than that. I was the only one there. When I told the young woman selling tickets that coming to the museum was a goal of more than a decade, a man behind her in the gift shop looked over and came around to the front. We chatted a bit - he was a dapper black man slightly older than I who said... he was off to a meeting and couldn't stay but did exchange a few words with me in front of the ticket booth. He was clearly knowledgeable and I felt encouraged that there might be more kindred spirits about.

As he left he said he was Bob Kendrick, president of the board - and he was the last person I saw. Along about the Rube Foster exhibit I teared up over it all. One can't make people like things, and desert is not a measure of personality, and it is sad that this is always going to be an enterprise held afloat by outside help for symbolic reasons, rather than for its considerable intrinsic merit.

When I wandered among the statues- a mock field with a palyer standing at each position - an eerily live creature among bronzes of dead heroes, I wanted so badly to be able to discuss with someone why they had made the choices they had*. So few care, and it will all be preserved entirely as a politically correct Good Idea, something that people feel the should like, even though they don't.

It's worth it on it's own merit. One could teach the history of race relations 1860-1960 with this as the framework. And it's got both stories and statistics, as baseball always does.


Hilton Smith, a personal favorite of mine.

*John Henry "Pops" Lloyd at 2B, a position he did not play.  He was a SS whose arm weakened late in his career, and he moved to 1B. I imagine he was moved off short because neither of two third basemen, Ray Dandridge and Judy Johnson, could be left out. Similarly, Cool Papa Bell was in left because Oscar Charleston was in center. Martin DiHigo was the batter, likely because he played everywhere, removing any number of arguments at other positions. But there is controversy because some authorities consider him generally overrated, not in the top 15 overall. Glad I got to say all that.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Travel

Heading to Houston, then Fort Leonard Wood.  I will at least have the yearly Christmas letter to publish when I get home.  For the moment, my father-in-law is failing and there is not much spare energy around.  But I do think of you all, and talk to you in my head.