Short Thought: "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race. ~H.G. Wells"

So here’s your headslap moment for the day — a little delayed, since this Boston Globe op-ed went up last week — but, hey, a good headslap moment is good at any time, right?

Okay, fine, but last week I tweaked out my wrist and couldn’t type. A little delay is only normal.

Boston Globe op-ed columnist Brian McGrory wants to ban bicycles from Boston. Why does he want to do this? Well, they annoy him. Folks on bikes — he doesn’t like ’em. Spandex, not his thing. L.L. Bean cycling outfits leave him cold. And he feels cyclists as a group are rude, inconsiderate, thoughtless people.

Isn’t it good that all Boston drivers are so considerate, thoughtful, and attentive people, then.

You never walk past one — and I walk everywhere — who is texting while driving.

You never walk past one who has just cut off an old lady on a crosswalk in an attempt to cut off someone else for on-street parking.

You never go through a pedestrian crossing and feel a breeze on the back of your legs as someone takes an illegal right turn.

Nah. In Boston? Man, that’d never happen.

(I said it was a good headslap moment, didn’t I?)

Are there rude cyclists in Boston? Sure — of course there are, because they’re people and people — along with demonstrating a wide variety of other behaviors — can be rude. You know what this means? There are also rude drivers in Boston — there’s a reason Massachusetts drivers have the nicknames they do in the New England area. Hint for those of you not from New England: the best one (my personal favorite) starts with “Mass” and ends with a single syllable noun easily discoverable by testing out rhymes for “mass.”

And, please, Mr. McGrory, don’t tell me about Boston being “designed for cars.” I can only stand so much hysterical laughter once in a week and most of mine was taken up with Stargate: Atlantis/Girl Scout cookie porn. (Truly. Hilarious.)

Beacon Hill? Built for cars? Yeah, sure — that first wave of settlers who began building around what was then an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean were totally working on spec for Chevy. Don’t insult my intelligence, Mr. McGrory; it makes me grumpy. Try checking some facts past the Mass Historical Society, the State Archives, and the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections next time — they can tell you exactly when the main roads of the city were laid out and when the city started being “designed for cars.”

Tell you what, Mr. McGrory. You want to reduce traffic congestion in Boston? I thoroughly support this idea. This is a fantastic idea.

Here’s how to do it.

Take a leaf from the books of London and Paris and ban private passenger vehicles from Beacon Hill, the North End, Downtown Crossing, and the financial district. I can think of a few other choice areas — like Harvard Yard — but those will do to start with.

Don’t let taxi-cabs cruise for passengers.

And you really want to do a number on the congestion on sidewalks? Here’s a nifty notion: ban baby carriages. Especially those side-by-side “I got an extra zygote!” numbers. Hey, if I want it, I have to take it with me; if my cat has to get to the vet, I — or my partner — have to carry her there. You bred it; you carry it. Got two? Then it looks like one fore and one aft for you: think of the noble koala bear and work up those lumbar muscles.


Short Thoughts: "How [Not] To Do It"

And to those of you who realised the complicated Python joke I just made: congratulations. Now go outside and get some fresh air. I’ll join you momentarily.

At the library a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, by Glynis Ridley. While the book sells itself nicely — the cover is attractive; the blurbs impressive; and the subject matter highly appealing as we’ll see — why I actually picked it up is an old Beverley Nichols book on gardens — one of many he wrote and they’re all wonderful light reading if you’re looking for something so English it creaks — where he — or possibly the character he wrote to stand in for Aldous Huxley? — tells the story of the discovery of the bougainvillea in tropical seas.

The story involves the simultaneous discovery that the assistant of the botanist credited with the discovery of the plant was discovered to be a woman. The story as Nichols tells it — or retells it; I don’t have the book to hand — is pleasingly vague and focussed mostly on the discovery of the plant rather than on anything to do with the young woman…although it does suggest she had a less than pleasant afternoon with the sailors on the island where the bougainvillea bloomed so plentifully.

Ridley has discovered this story, too — why not, after all? It’s a great story! Enlightenment France, botanical discovery, trans-oceanic voyages, cross-dressing — what’s not to like? Well, lots, frankly, at least in Ridley’s handling.

I must say, in all fairness, I didn’t finish the book. But there are reasons and I’ll get there in as short a fashion as I can. To put it as briefly as possible: Ridley commits just about every version of the sin of presentism in writing history as it is possible to commit. In addition to this, with the self-announced, loudly trumpeted goal of giving Jeanne Baret, the young cross-dressing botanist, her voice and agency as an individual back, Ridley only redefines the role of victim and Baret really moves nowhere.

Admittedly, this is not entirely Ridley’s fault. Baret left only questionable written evidence behind — some papers in the botanist Commerson’s collection have been tentatively reidentified as in her hand — and no cache of letters, diaries, or notes from any point in her life, to say nothing of the climactic voyage of discovery have been found to help along the curious researcher.

Despite this, excellent biographies have been written by historians with equally shady or scattered or shadowed evidence — Annette Gordon-Reed, anyone? To say nothing of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich — she had more evidence, yes, but the skull-sweat needed to make it into anything useful is just staggering.

I wish I could say that Ridley had done the same kind of work in rehabilitating Baret and bringing her back to the central role she may deserve in the botanizing of French ships in the tropics. Instead, she reduces Baret to the status of a hanger-on, even falling into the fatal trap of putting unjustified words, thoughts, and emotions into her experience to justify what to Ridley seems like the obvious. Well, yes — it is the obvious to a 21st century reader (at least, a certain type of 21st century reader), but not so much to an 18th century French peasant woman. She probably lived with a very different type of obvious and to pretend anything else is to do a radical disservice to her.

I really wanted The Discovery… to be something better than it was; when it descended to the level of imaginary psychobiography, I was done.

What Baret did — even when seen through the lens of other contemporary diaries and accounts — was phenomenal, even if you only consider what she did in France: moving from the countryside to Paris with her richer, better-educated lover; leaving her family behind permanently in the south; taking over housekeeping of a Paris household; bearing a child and leaving it at an orphanage at her lover’s insistence — and then the capstone experience (if you wish to see it like that) of choosing to cross-dress and accompany said lover on a massively dangerous ocean voyage with no promise of pay-off. Are you kidding me? You couldn’t write a novel that good! And to reduce Baret’s choices and motivation to those of “following her lover” and “rape trauma” as Ridley does is deeply disrespectful.


Rant over.

And before you go on with your day, please enjoy this lovely photo of Beverley Nichols with some of his cats.

Short Thoughts: Also, Magical Cats

I’ve been doing something that I should have done a long time ago: watch through Hiyao Miyazaki’s/Studio Ghibli’s back catalog.

Believe it or not, until recently, I had only ever seen two of these films: Mononoke Hime and Nausicaa. I love them both and I own Nausicaa — a fancy collector’s edition, actually, that was a birthday gift — but I hadn’t seen anything else.

Now I’ve got two more under my belt — Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle, which I know isn’t technically a Miyazaki story since he adapted it from the late Diana Wynne Jones’ novel which I have never read.

And I always have the same reaction and now I’ve come to expect it as I start to watch: “Oh, this again. I know how this goes. Yes, yes, I know what all this looks like. Yup, there’s little furry things. Oh, well, I guess this is the one where…” And then the dots lead into the bit where my brain simply goes wstfgl because something so lovely and unexpected has happened that I can’t think what to think about it for a minute.

I don’t know how else to explain it, really, other than by saying that every time I think, “Oh, this is just another Miyazaki movie; fine,” there is always something surprising and something that transcends the film. Maybe it isn’t a grand philosophical statement — although sometimes it is — but most often it’s something that’s simply beautiful.

Or weird.

Or both.

Short Thought: "Squirrel!"

I deeply resent being told things are going to make me cry. I don’t know why, but I do. If you want me not to watch something/read something/listen to something, tell me it will make me cry. I don’t resent people who do, but I don’t enjoy doing it myself.

There are, of course, movies and TV shows and books that make me…ahem…require the services of the Kleenex Corporation, shall we say. But I don’t particularly enjoy being warned ahead of time that something will, of course and inevitably make me go all soggy.

So I avoided Pixar’s latest production, Up, like the plague because that was what everyone I knew who watched it told me: “Oh, you’ll cry your eyes out.” “I cried so hard…” And…why would this make me want to watch a movie again? I want to cry, I’ll watch The Dresser or the second part of End of Time again. Plus…something about the whole thing just looked so — cheesy cute. I’m not a fan of heartwarming. I prefer my heartwarming accidental rather than intentional. I find the end of Terminator 2, for example, quite pleasing. You don’t call me weird; I won’t call you weird.

Still, this evening I was tired and feeling unwell and my parents had just watched it and raved about how good it was. Not how cute or how sobby it made them feel — which would have made me worry about their alcohol consumption for the weekend — but that it was a good movie. That, I will go for.

So I watched it. And it is a good movie: Pixar is a continual pleasant surprise in the quality and ability of their storytelling. The first eleven minutes and some-odd seconds of the film are…brilliant. A grand illustration — literally — of wordless (or nearly so) storytelling.

Once the story gets rolling in the present, of course, it’s more or less your standard fairy tale: old guy is grumpy about his now deceased wife not getting to fulfill her life’s wish; decides to fulfill it for her; attaches small fleet of balloons to house; takes off for South America. Er. Well, okay, maybe not quite standard, but you get the point. Pixar rings the changes quickly enough that you don’t get bored and the lovely moments of character development and narration aren’t subsumed under a heap of visibly fancy computer animation (although I can only imagine the skull sweat that went into making this thing.)

To cut a long story short, I was on board until the dogs started flying biplanes. Then — I kind of opted out. Not that the ending of the story wasn’t wholly satisfactory in an H. Rider Haggard/Indiana Jones-kind of way because it totally was, but there was only so far my headachey suspension of disbelief was going to stretch and that was it.

I loved Carl’s storyline; was less interested in the boy, although he was sweet; and I kind of wish someone had done more with Doug. Something more like the valet-bot in Wall-E would have been nice. But, honestly, I adore Wall-E — this really had no chance of unseating my favorite Pixar. (And it would have to work past Finding Nemo first, in any case.)

But Up is very sweet — Carl’s story is lovely — and you don’t have to go through two boxes of tissues to enjoy it either.

Short Thought: Reasons to Put a Book Down

I picked up Fred Inglis’ A Short History of Celebrity at the library after recognizing the cover from seeing it in an advert in the London Review of Books. The premise is simple enough and pretty much all there in the title: celebrity is not a modern phenomenon — or at least it is only if you’re willing to take “modern” in the sense of the historical modern which means it’s part of a period that stretches roughly back to the French Revolution or, possibly for those of us who are generously minded in these things, a few decades earlier — say the middle of the 18th century at least. Celebrity encompasses fame, notoriety, scandal, recognition — all sorts of things that are totally recognizable to anyone living today who has even a passing acquaintance with Hollywood, Bollywood, the BAFTAs, the Oscars, a political election, or the internet.

So far, so good, and Inglis is an amusing and highly informed writer. He takes the stance of the ‘fusty but (accidentally) up-to-date old don’ — not a bad stance to take since it lets him deal in classics with as much ease as it does with recent tabloid publications. He zooms through the 18th and 19th centuries without much of a glitch; I don’t know if I agree with everything he says — if put to it, I’d probably say I think he could stand to do a bit more thinking about the differences and intersections between fame, notoriety, and celebrity as concepts. I think he conflates American and British or European culture a little too readily. But in general terms — yes, I’ll go along with what he says. Celebrities reflect something back to the culture or society from which they spring; there is a closely knit, reciprocal, sometimes damaging relationship that can prove to be entirely too hothouse for either one or both of the parties involved. Things can go to hell in a handbasket very quickly and public favor can be entirely fickle.


Neither of these people are Jimmy Stewart.
But those are donuts.

Then he hits the 20th century and starts to talk about film and things all go a bit weird. When I really hit a rock and, to be honest with you, stopped reading with any attention, was when he tried to tell me that Jimmy Stewart was the star of It Happened One Night. Er. Not so much, my friends. Check himself out over there on the right. It isn’t her, either.

I must admit, this is a minor point — and yet, it kind of isn’t. When it comes in the middle of a major point in Inglis’ argument about the nature of stardom and celebrity and Jimmy Stewart is one of three American actors — actors, mind you, not performers, note the gender of the pronoun — he has chosen to represent his argument — it kind of is a big point. It makes me wonder if he has done his research properly; it isn’t as if Stewart doesn’t have plenty of big-name films in his back catalogue — or even plenty of romantic comedies, come to that: The Philadelphia Story comes zooming right to mind without much effort and that even involves Cary Grant, one of Inglis’ other picks.

When Inglis also talks about Cary Grant and discusses His Girl Friday at length without talking about the story’s back-history as both a stage play and a moderately successful film adaptation prior to the massively successful Russell/Grant vehicle that most people know — I start to wonder again. But when he simply misattributes a pretty important film — then I’m really unhappy. Not that I argue with his choice of Stewart as a seminal male performer in the history of American cinema; no, there I’m right with him. Absolutely fine choice. Grant, likewise; ditto John Wayne. No problems. But I wish I felt he’d done his homework.

As soon as he hit the 20th century — and film and TV in particular — Inglis’ whole argument started to feel facile and glib — Sunday supplement stuff decrying the lapses in cultural standards since “the good old days,” not the intellectual exploration he had promised.

So, yes, Mr. Inglis and I are done with each other. I thank him for the amusing half-dozen chapters or so but I think he should learn to love IMdb a little bit more.

Short Thought(s): Bad Shark Movies

In recent weeks, I’ve watched a lot of bad movies. And, for your entertainment and edification and possible warning, here are the worst of the worst:

Shark Attack in the Mediterannean, 2004. This has to be some of the worst of the worst of the worst. A German (dubbed with no real care into English and Italian) genetically engineered prehistoric giant killer shark movie. There are boats, helicopters, and a Rolls Royce. The hero is a dude who looks like he really wanted to go up against Schwarzenegger for Mr Universe back in the 1970s. There’s an evil German geneticist, for heaven’s sake, and a recreated prehistoric shark! You’d think there was real possibility there!

And you’d be wrong. It is so bad it’s good, but only barely. Mostly, it kind of hurts. The actual shark footage is ok — they got half-way decent documentary footage from somewhere — but the giant genetically engineered thingummy? Oh, heavens, no. It just simply doesn’t work. Your eye looks at it and says, “No. No, I don’t buy that.” There’s some kind of altruistic hoohah about the shark having been created to “cure cancer,” but that line didn’t work in Deep Blue Sea either and that had way better sharks.

~ ~ ~

Shark Zone, 2003. Excellent documentary footage here but you’d really do better to avoid this movie entirely and watch Air Jaws. The Shark Zone sharks look vaguely embarrassed to be in such an awful movie and, frankly, they should be. Someone on the production team decided that a great white isn’t frightening enough as is: it also needs to make some kind of noise.

Like…like a dog kind of noise.

So these sharks don’t just bite you — they growl when they bite you.

I’m not kidding. You’ll wish I was.

~ ~ ~

Blue Demon, 2004. Now these sharks: they have a moral purpose. 
These are anti-terrorist sharks. I’m not kidding about this, either. 
This is another “lets break open sharky brain and see if we can make ’em worse” movie. In this case, two scientists have been genetically engineering them — some days, I think screenwriters, if they want to write screenplays involving scientific concepts, should be forced to attend seminars at MIT or CalTech or something so that they know what these words mean — to be border patrol guards from hell, essentially. 
Of course, they get out; of course, the Good and Kindly Scientists want to warn people; of course, the Evil Military Dudes won’t let them. You can write the rest in your head, really.
These sharks — suck out loud. They’re clearly computer generated — I think on some kid’s Mac PowerBook in his bedroom at about 2 a.m. They look like the sharks from EverQuest — and I mean EverQuest I, here, back in the late ’90s.

Short Thought: "The Last Place on Earth"

A few months ago I wrote a post about how I’ve been on a nonfiction reading kick lately. That really hasn’t stopped and my last entry in the reading list was Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth, a sort of combo thumbnail biography of Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen and Polar exploration in general, culminating with a blow-by-blow account of the English and Norwegian expeditions to discover the South Pole in 1911.

The shortest of all possible short thoughts I can come up with for this book is this: if you want to read something that will convince you that Scott was the biggest plonker of all time, read this book. Me being me, I am going to go find another biography of Scott and find out if Huntford’s total lack of respect was deserved or merely the result of personal dislike. Because biographers and historians in general do like or dislike their subjects — and I don’t mean in terms of “Well, I like thinking about nationalism so I’m going to write about modern Israel” or “The Wars of the Roses are fascinating, so it’s pre-Tudor England for me!” I mean that we develop real, visceral, sometimes painful and awkward attachment to or revulsion from our topics.

I read another biography recently — Dancing to the Precipice, by Caroline Moorehead — which is a perfect example of this problem. Moorehead is writing about the diary of a woman named Lucie de la Tour du Pin, whose life spanned all the French Revolutions to the mid-nineteenth century. She lived in France, England, and America for long periods and travelled mainland Europe fairly extensively. She and her husband were, literally, at the heart of the French court — or Republic — or the next court — or the next republic. He was a career soldier and then a diplomat, quite highly respected at the time, and she was a socialite and “good wife,” a career in itself. The book is based on Lucie’s personal diary which looks to be an absolutely fascinating document written in later life to tell her whole life’s story. Examined by a less partial historian, I think the diary would be hot stuff — even in Moorehead’s highly partial and deeply biased telling, Lucie comes out as a fascinating character.

The problem with all this is that Moorehead is so invested in Lucie being so many things — a modern woman (read: 20th century woman) before her time; a perfect wife; a wonderful mother; a subtle diplomat; a clever hostess — that Lucie has no faults. Her obvious self-deceptions and 180-degree changes in opinion, belief, or ideology (which come out in the longer passages from the diary despite Moorehead’s brilliant ability to ignore or read over them), not to mention her ability to surf successfully through the rapidly changing and very dangerous waters of post-Revolution France speak to her being a woman with a highly flexible moral code, to say nothing of political views that could change with the lightest breeze from Paris. Not that any of this is a bad thing! Lucie was very successful at what she did: she survived, for heaven’s sake, when so many others in her position did not. She was adaptable, very flexible, exceptionally intelligent, sensitive to the community around her — I could go on. This woman was no slouch whatsoever and a less biased biographer who examined all sides of her character as revealed in the diary and other contemporary documents would have served her much better.

To return to Huntford and Polar exploration: Huntford suffers from much the same problem in regard to Captain Scott. He just can’t stick him at any price. Amundsen is his ideal of a good Polar explorer — a good explorer and leader in general — and Scott just can’t hack it at that level. Huntford doesn’t quite come out and say, “Scott was a moron and he got himself and everyone in his last exploration party killed because he was, as aforementioned, a moron,” but it comes close.

Even toning down Huntford’s adjectives a bit, it does seem fairly clear that Scott simply wasn’t very good at what he did — or perhaps he just wasn’t as good as Amundsen. What is interesting here — and what Huntford doesn’t explore very deeply — is how both men are products of their environment and their contemporary culture. With Scott, this is a particularly interesting question since I love all 19th century British anything and he is a stone-cold 19th century British guy. He acts, thinks, talks, plans entirely from that kind of background which can only have been deeply and probably unconsciously formative of how he decided to tackle his Antarctic explorations.

Despite this, Huntford’s book is a great and engaging read. This is an edited Modern Library edition — frankly, I don’t know what was edited out. It’s a long book as it stands now — over 550 pages — and I felt swamped with detail more than once. Want to know the exact dietary details of Scott’s and Amundsen’s respective expeditions? It’s in there; down to the calorie. Want to know about how the dietary habits of sledding dogs change in extreme weather conditions? It’s in there. Want to know about the affair Fridtjof Nansen had with Kathleen Scott? That’s in there, too.

So you may want a pillow to cushion it on your lap — it’s heavy, even in paperback — and some tea to make sure you stay warm reading about them nearly freezing to death, but The Last Place is a fun, fast, entertaining read.