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Pitch Perfect 2: Movie Review

The first Pitch Perfect movie came out three years ago, and kind of took people by surprise. It was a word-of-mouth success. I’ve heard from lots of people who had the same reaction my wife and I did; we weren’t much interested, but so many friends recommended it, we decided to give it a chance. And were blown away. It was a movie of gross-out humor, exuberant energy, and lots of terrific a cappella music. I didn’t even know that national a cappella pop music competitions were a thing, though I did know that lots of local a cappella groups were popping up in and around Provo. And we’re big fans of Pentatonix, and were thrilled to see that quintet make a too-brief cameo appearance in the second movie. The sequel has the same energy and sense of fun the first one did, and the music is every bit as delightful. It is, however, a subtly different movie than the first one, and I think, is a stronger film, a little more sure of itself. Here’s why I say this: the movies are very similar, but the first one was, frankly, pretty much a rom-com. This one isn’t. I found it kind of confidently and surprisingly Bechdel-test-friendly, and really liked it for that reason.

Both movies are essentially structured the same. In both films, the all-female a cappella group, the Barden College Bellas, compete in formal singing competitions. The films are structured, frankly, like sports films; we meet the members of the team, see them work through personal and team issues relating to their ability to compete, culminating in a final high-stakes game/match/contest. Which, SPOILER, they win. I mean, come on; we’ve seen hundreds of these things; the good guys always win, right? The journey’s the point.

There is this difference, though. In the first film, one of the main conflicts involves Beca (Anna Kendrick), a gifted music arranger and singer, but not really a Bella type. She’s not sweetly feminine; she’s alt-indie chick. And she meets a guy, Jesse (Skylar Astin) the lead singer for a rival a cappella group, and their romance is beset by competition-related vicissitudes. Both the romance and the competition come together at the end, when she includes “Don’t you forget about me” from The Breakfast Club (his favorite movie) in the Bellas’ final set. The Bellas win, and Beca gets her man.

Here’s the difference. Jesse’s still a character in Pitch Perfect 2, which is set three years after the earlier movie. He and Beca are still together. That’s it; there’s no conflict involving them. They’re a couple now; it’s all good. The conflict now is that Beca is getting worried about what she’s going to do when she graduates from college. The Bellas are, after all, an extra-curricular activity for her. She’s going to need to get along with her life. She wants to become a music producer, and has landed an internship as a crucial step towards that goal. Her boss is a big deal producer-type (amusingly played by Keegan-Michael Key). (In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, they’re trying to record a track for a Snoop Dogg Christmas album–we get to hear Snoop sing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”). And she has a bit of a break-through. There’s a new girl in the Bellas, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who writes music; Beca produces a song for her, and it’s good; a nice little pop song. Not great, but a song that might advance both their careers.

That relates to the main conflict of the film; what will the Bellas do when they graduate? What will these talented, intelligent young women make of their lives, and how will the spirit of sisterly comradeship they’ve developed as Bellas help them?  Chloe (Brittany Snow), the Bella’s leader, is terrified at the prospect. Aubrey (Anna Camp), a co-leader of the group in the last movie, has already made that transition. She runs a teamwork-building corporate-retreat outdoors camp for big business, and she’s, uh, amusingly forceful in that role. Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is the only character who really gets much of a romantic relationship in the movie, and it’s very much a sub-plot. (Fat Amy, BTW, is the character’s listed name, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s the one who ends up with a boyfriend).

The first movie was directed by Jason Moore, and it employs the ‘big competition’ structure to essentially explore a romantic relationship. It defined its protagonist, Beca, romantically. This movie is directed by a woman, Elizabeth Banks, who turned it into a subversively funny feminist comedy. Banks also plays Gail, one of the two a cappella announcers who comment on the competitive action–her partner, John, was brilliantly played by John Michael Higgins. Gail and John are hilarious throughout in both films, but honestly, I thought they were meaner, and therefore funnier this time around. Higgins was spectacularly clueless, and Banks plays Gail as equally unaware, a sexist-pig-enabler, if you will. Anyway, I think it’s significant that a woman directed this movie. Banks is a smart, savvy actress, and she turns this slight, fun comedy into a feminist fable. It’s a movie about young women growing up, growing together, competing together, supporting each other. It’s a movie in which the romantic partners and romantic lives of women are basically irrelevant to the plot, subordinate to their professional aspirations and achievements. A movie in which young women embrace feminism with exuberant good cheer; what’s not to like?

Throughout the movie, of course, the music is terrifically sassy and energized and fun. The Bellas’ big rival is a German a cappella band that my wife and I ended up calling ‘The Hitler Youth.’ (Actually Das Sound Machine; even funnier). With their stage outfits straight from Kraftwerk, and their scary Teutonic discipline, I loved everything they did, most especially an a cappella arrangement of Muse’s hit, “Uprising.” Best of all, a scene in which a variety of goofy ensembles engage in a kind of improv battle of the a cappellas; funny, funny stuff.

The film’s inciting incident, the plot point that launches the main story, comes early on, when the Bellas give a command performance for, among others, President Obama. And Fat Amy, doing a kind of Cirque du Soleil dance wrapped in cloth, (to Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”) gets all tangled up, and her skin-tight trousers split. And, to the horror of the crowd, she slowly rotates up there, and exposes her vagina. (We don’t see it; the story is told through reaction shots). The crowd’s reaction is appropriately over-the-top; basically everyone overreacts as though Amy had committed some kind of gross indecency. She didn’t. She had a wardrobe mishap, an accident. She flashed the President. Not the end of the world. Though that’s how it’s treated.

I’m sorry, but I think that crowd overreaction was intentional. I mean, imagine the same scene with a male actor. Let’s suppose a performer had a wardrobe malfunction in which he dropped his trousers, exposing his penis. I think the reaction would be amusement; some outrage, possibly, but not this kind of ‘it’s the end of the world’ hysteria. Maybe I’m reading feminist commentary into a simple comic stunt and plot point, but given the rest of the movie, I don’t think so. I think Elizabeth Banks is pointing to a specific kind of cultural anatomical hypocrisy. And power to her.

Anyway, my wife and I had a blast. What do you know? A movie about an all-female musical ensemble that ends up being about, well, women, and female achievement and solidarity and ambition, about talented young women finding their collective voice.

Mad Men, the finale

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men

The central rule of television narrative is that there has to be the constant illusion of change, without anything actually changing.  Most individual TV episodes have to serve two major story objectives. There’s a micro story: we’re on this planet, and there’s a problem that has to be solved, or there’s been a murder, and the bad guy has to be identified and arrested, or one of the guys at the bar has a problem that needs resolving. And there’s also a larger macro story, relating to the central conflict of the entire series: Voyager’s lost a long way from home, Detective Kate Beckett’s Mom was murdered, and that murder nags at her, Sam and Diane are desperately in love, something neither can ever acknowledge. And of course, it can get ridiculously formulaic, even in classic TV series. Did you see the episode of Home Improvement where Tim inadvertently hurts his wife’s feelings, and the neighbor advises him on how to fix it? Or the Bewitched where Endora casts a spell on one of the Darrens, and Samantha has to save his career? Or the episode of I Love Lucy, where Lucy gets a new idea of a career she might try, Ricky tells her not to, she does it anyway and makes a frightful (and funny) hash of it. And then he forgives her. (Blarg!)

But in recent years, thanks in part to new producing entities, like HBO and TNT, we’ve seen some of the best writers in America have turned to writing multi-episode long-form television series, like Shakespeare did with the War of the Roses. Which is why some of the best writing in current American culture is happening, not in novels or films, but on television. And why we’re in the midst of a new Golden Age of television. Nowadays, the point isn’t just to keep a story going indefinitely. Now, there really is a discernable end towards which the macro narrative is heading. And when we get there, in a final culminating episode, it’s a magnificent viewing experience. And afterwards, we sit there, in front of our TV sets, and only when we let our breath out, do we realize that we’ve forgotten, for a moment, to breathe.

And that was what happened last night, with the final episode of Mad Men.

At its best, Mad Men wasn’t really even about narrative. It bordered on the surreal, at times, while also, paradoxically, grounding itself in sociology. It deconstructed the sixties, but mostly the sixties that I remember, a sixties where anti-war protesters and hippie spiritualism existed, sure, in magazines and in the songs we’d sometimes hear on the radio, but which was mostly pretty distant from our everyday concerns. Which were consumerist, honestly. I was a kid in the sixties, and I remember Christmas, and the build-up to Christmas and the marvelous feeling of anticipation over all of that year’s new toys. And then the toys would arrive under our tree, and my gosh they were terrible. Over-hyped, badly produced crap, almost without exception. Lincoln logs? Silly putty? Erector sets? Model airplanes? My gosh, they were worthless.

That’s what Mad Men was about, ultimately, worthless people energetically selling worthless products. All that sexist garbage, the dirty jokes and clandestine gropes and mistresses stashed in penthouses. I remember how shocking it was when we learned that Don Draper, whose, uh, active dating life we had seen up close, was also married, with two kids.  That’s why the two most fascinating characters really were women–Peggy and Joan–in a show about an aggressively masculine world. The men were real oinkers.

In the final episode, Don Draper, the ultimate Hollow Man, goes on a journey of self-discovery. And, because he’s Don Draper, that journey will involve sleeping with a woman, not quite a hooker, who steals his money, gives it back when he catches her, then sleeps with him again when he relents and lets her keep it. And of course, that’s Don, successful as a womanizer because he’s got money. (The last we saw of Megan, his second wife, was the look on her face as he wrote her a check for a million dollars). And then he meets Stephanie (Anna Draper’s screwed-up hippie niece), and offers to save her, because that’s also Don Draper, fixer of broken women. That doesn’t work either. When he learns of his first wife, Betty, and her terminal cancer, he immediately decides to go home and be A Dad to his three children. But Betty (and his ultimately more-mature-than-he-is daughter Sally) persuade him to give up that fantasy. His kids hardly know him, and with the death of their Mom, are going to need more stability than Don’s emotionally capable of providing. And so, we see the third kind of relationship Don is capable of having with women, women who mother him, who take charge, who make his life easier. And so he calls Peggy, and breaks down on the phone, desperately pours his soul out, about his life failures and his lack of direction or a plan. Peggy is sympathetic, but can’t help. And in any ever, she might possibly be ready to find some happiness with Harry.

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

And so Don ends up at an Esalen camp, practicing yoga and TM and, in a group session, connecting with another hollow man, a total stranger, who talks about never experiencing love, not even with his family. And Don begins to weep, and crosses to the man, and they weep together, embracing. But it didn’t so much feel like a break-through for him. It felt like acute self-pity. And that led to the final images of the show. Don, in a yoga pose, chanting. And the camera moves in on a close-up. And we see the smallest traces of a smile. Cut to this commercial:

The most cynical commercial in the history of advertising, a commercial that used all those great sixties ideals of peace, love and understanding, and commodifies them, uses them to sell sugary soda pop.

Some critics have called those final images ‘enigmatic’ or ambiguous or something. I don’t think so. All the way through the series, I wondered how it would end. The opening sequence, with a stylized body falling out of an office building, suggested that it would end with Don’s suicide. It didn’t. He’s going back to work. He’s going to create the most cynical and successful ad ever for the sinister and piggish agency that most of his friends can’t wait to abandon. He’s never going to grow, and he’s never going to stop being Don Draper, this fake identity he killed for, and with which, as he says to Peggy in his cry-for-help phone call, “I have done nothing.”

The men stay children, and the women grow up. Joan, bless her heart, grew, over the course of the series, from the ultimate enabler of male privilege to the show’s great feminist icon–her production agency is going to soar. Peggy finds some joy with Harry, and in time, she’ll get the promotions at work she deserves. The straw men will remain stuffed with straw, though Roger Sterling is too clueless to notice. As for Don?

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Dr. Ben

Dr. Ben Carson announced his candidacy for President earlier this week, and I feel kind of bad about it. Dr. Carson is a retired pediatric neuro-surgeon. He’s from Detroit, oldest kid in a dirt-poor family, raised by a remarkable single Mom. Went to Yale, then the University of Michigan Medical school. After a residency at Johns Hopkins, he began practicing there, and became, at 33, head of pediatric neurosurgery there. He’s a pioneer in a number of surgical techniques. He’s also a fine author, with six published books, mostly about his own auto-biography and his philosophy of success, which can basically be summed up as ‘work hard, and have faith.’ He’s a devout Christian, and a dedicated family man.

And he’s a conservative African-American. And he came to prominence following a speech on Feb. 7, 2013, when he was invited to speak at a White House prayer breakfast, and turned it into a hard-right political speech. Since President Obama was there, Carson’s speech was interpreted as ‘courageous independent speaks truth to power,’ and went viral. Since that time, he’s been a popular conservative speaker, and kind of a darling of the Tea Party right.

He’s an admirable guy. I applaud his success. And I don’t think that someone who has never held political office should be banned from running for President. Not at all. If he can convince enough people to vote for him, he’ll win. No one can question his intelligence, work ethic, or his patriotism. Polls show him doing surprisingly well among likely Republican voters. He’s raised a lot of money, in small increments, suggesting the strength of his grass roots support. Here’s a website supporting his candidacy, which includes a link to his fund raising page.

So why do I feel bad about him running? Well, for one thing, he’s not going to win, and if he won the nomination, he would lose the general election badly. He really only distinguishes himself from the hard core conservative right on a few issues. He calls the US invasion of Afghanistan a mistake, though he hasn’t been clear about what he would have done regarding foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. I actually think he’s right on that issue, so good for him. He’s pretty extreme on the big social issues–opposes gay marriage, opposes all forms of gun control, opposes Obamacare, radical on abortion rights–but predictable on economic issues. He supports a flat tax. He supports school choice. On all those issues, he’s way to the right of the general electorate, but in the mainstream of the Tea Party.

But that’s not why he’s going to lose. To tell why he’s going to lose, let me tell a Karl Malone story. I remember when Karl was close to retirement, he was asked what he wanted to do with his life. And he said he wanted to get into acting, become an action hero.

I thought Karl Malone was one of the greatest basketball players who ever played the game. Strong and athletic and powerful and smart, a great shooter and rebounder and defender, he worked hard for 18 years, and had a brilliant career. And I’m sure he thought; ‘action hero; it’s all about physicality and athleticism. I could do that.’ And it would have been the way to stay in the limelight, which he’d gotten used to, and make a lot of money, which he’d gotten even more used to. And he got a screen test.

But acting is really hard. Acting on a sound stage, in front of a green screen, is incredibly difficult, requiring imagination and focus and all the other skills actors develop through years of training and talent.

Most people in life don’t get to be good at multiple things. Ted Williams, the old Red Sox star, was a terrific combat pilot, in addition to being a great baseball player. Later, after he retired, he became an award winning commercial fisherman. I remember commentary about him, how rare it was to be one of the best in the world at three separate things. But he worked hard, and was a unique talent, plus all three skills required other-worldly hand-eye coordination. So he pulled it off. But it was the height of arrogance for Karl Malone to assume that being good at basketball meant he could be just as good at acting.

So it is with Ben Carson. Running for elected office is a difficult thing to do. It requires certain skills, and those skills need to be refined and developed over time. It was interesting for me to watch Mitt Romney run for President. By his third campaign, he’d gotten pretty good at it. But it took awhile, and, as it happened, the guy he was running against was better at it than he was. That’s not surprising.

I think Dr. Ben Carson is an admirable guy. He’s running, and he’s going to lose badly, and I”m very much afraid he’s going to make a fool of himself. And I think that’s a shame.

 

 

Five bills to pass

So now what? Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives, and a smaller majority in the Senate. The President still has a veto, and has made it clear that he’ll use it. It’s time for (drumroll) bi-partisan cooperation. This President has never, once, shown any interest in working with Republicans, on any issue ever, according to my Republican friends. He has also been so open to working with Republicans, he’s consistently in danger of violating utterly essential tenets of liberalism, according to my Democratic friends. To both sides, the truth of Obama’s bi-partisanship couldn’t be more obvious. Obama simply will not work with Republicans, ever, on anything. Simultaneously, he’s so intent on pushing for Grand Compromises that we wonder how anyone could ever have considered him progressive at all. He’s ‘my way or the highway!’ He’s also Mr. ‘meet you way way more than half-way.’ It’s like those hardcore conservatives who insist that he’s Bozo, clownishly inept at everything. And also a tyrant, horribly dangerous because he’s such an accomplished villain. Both/and, either/or.  All, and also none of the above.

Anyway, them dudes gotta work together, or ain’t nuttin’s gonna happen. So what are some actual genuine real national problems Republicans and Democrats could maybe work together and pass? Here are a few thoughts (and please feel free to correct me if I get any of these details wrong. I’m not a policy analyst-just an old retired college prof/playwright):

1) Highway bill. There’s about a 100 billion dollar gap between infrastructure needs nationally and the amount of money the gasoline/diesel tax raises for the Highway Trust fund. The gas tax is 24.4 cents a gallon, and hasn’t been raised since 1993. Raise the gasoline tax (which is comically low anyway, compared to most of the industrialized world. In Germany, for example, it’s, like, 8 bucks a gallon). There’s a Democratic bill that would raise the US tax by 15 cents a gallon, with a slighter higher hike for diesel. I don’t think that’s anywhere near enough, but it’s a start. Something needs to be done; the current approach is to toss an extra 10 billion or so into the pot every few months. A fix here should be possible.

2) Time to actually pass the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama was asked to hold it up for a few months, so that moderate Democratic red state US Senators could attack him for holding it up, distancing themselves from him, and demonstrating their ‘independence.’ Buncha cowards. Glad they lost; good riddance. Build the darn pipeline.

3) I rather like the Hire More Heroes bill, though. It’s a bill that would allow employers to not count veterans for purposes of the ACA employer mandate. Employers have to provide health care if they have 50 or more employees, but veterans already get VA benefits. Pass it; give our men and women in uniform a leg up in hiring.

4) It’s hard to imagine Republicans wanting to give this President more power, but Vox.com suggested they might pass a fast-track trade authority agreement that would make it easier for him to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Car companies don’t like it, but it’s a good bill and one Republicans have traditionally supported.

5) George F. Will had a recent column outlining the various things Congress could try to do now. It was, for the most part, a list of suggestions for legislation that, if passed, Obama will simply veto. But a repeal of the medical devices tax wouldn’t be the end of the world, and might slake some of the Republicans’ thirst for anti-Obamacare measures. Expect that to pass, and expect Obama to sign it. Though I sort of hope he doesn’t.

I’d love to hear some other suggestions. Certainly, it would be nice for Congress to actually, you know, do its job. Maybe get their approval rating up to Paris Hilton levels. Wouldn’t that be just swell.

 

 

Game Seven

This is it. Tonight, this is finally it. Baseball is a grueling endurance test, a 162 game regular season marathon, followed by three rounds of white-knuckle playoffs, a test of character, of consistency and finely honed skills on daily display. It’s about nagging aches and high pain tolerance levels, about sliding strawberries and pulled hamstrings and hard baseballs fouled off feet and thighs and ankles. The best teams are the teams that make a habit of professionalism, the teams that drill into their players the need to always take the correct route to a fly ball, to always throw to the right base, to always stay low on grounders. Play the right hop, swing at good pitches, cut off errant throws, back-up teammates.

And the quality of baseball has improved markedly over the years. When I was a kid, I read the baseball kids’ novels by Duane Decker, and in those novels, on ground balls to the infield, a sign of extra hustle, unusual enough to remark upon, were instances where a catcher hustled down the first base line to back up the first baseman in case of a bad throw. This wasn’t required, we were given to understand, but was something special, for important games and big moments. And Decker was reflecting the baseball of his day; Yogi Berra almost never hustled down the line. Now, Buster Posey, the Giants’ catcher, always does it, always backs up first. He never doesn’t. All catchers play it that way; it’s expected. I remember when, on double plays, the second baseman didn’t actually have to tag second, but just tagged the ground somewhere close to it. It was called a ‘phantom double play’ and it was the normal, everyday way you turned one. Never happens anymore. Television has done this, increased accountability, and therefore, professionalism and quality.

Game Seven. And because of the way pitching has gone in this series, neither manager is able to start his ace tonight. Madison Bumgarner of the Giants has pitched brilliantly. Right now, in his third World Series, he ranks statistically as the finest pitcher in World Series history. That’s ever; he’s been better than Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford and Christie Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Ever. But he last pitched on Sunday, and may only be available for an inning or two tonight. “Big Game” James Shields, the Royals’ ace, is likewise gassed, and unavailable.

Instead the Giants are going with Tim Hudson, who is 39 years old and therefore the oldest pitcher to ever start a Game Seven. He’s been an outstanding pitcher for many years, with Oakland and with Atlanta, but he’s never pitched in a World Series before. The Royals’ pitcher is Jeremy Guthrie, another veteran and one of the few Mormons in all of Major League baseball. He attended BYU, served a full-time mission to Spain. Another respected veteran, he’s known as a tough and smart competitor, if a trifle under-talented. Both pitchers, in other words, survive on guts and guile, not raw talent. I love it. It’s going to be a match-up of craftsmen, two intelligent and respected leaders making the most of fading gifts.

This World Series has, above all else, honored the game of baseball. The defensive play, on both sides, has been remarkable. The Royals’ outfielder, Lorenzo Cain, has been a revelation, running down fly balls that looked completely unreachable. Both shortstops, Alcides Escobar and Brandon Crawford, have played well, Crawford, perhaps, a bit more consistently. One things I’ve noticed is that neither team seems to strike out much. Baseball today has evolved into a home-run happy game, where hitters swing from the heels and try to hit the ball a mile, and if they miss, no big deal. Neither the Giants or Royals do that much. Both teams hit well with two strikes, both sides believe in hitting the ball and making the other team play defense.

I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan since I was eleven, growing up in Indiana. I’m going to watch tonight in a kind of heart-felt agony. But the Giants won in 2010 and 2012. And this Royals team is exciting, young, appealing and tough. If we lose, we lose to greatness. This is it. The end of an endless season, the finale, the curtain. Go Giants! Gulp.

Divas

My parents are in town this week, visiting, and my Dad and I had a long chat this morning, him reminiscing about his career in opera. My Dad was never an opera star, as stars go. He was like a good Triple A catcher; the best player on a high minor league team, with a long career and multiple call-ups to the majors. He sang at New York City Opera, at Chicago Lyric, at Boston Lyric, but he didn’t have a long European career, nor a career at the Met. He could have; I don’t have any doubt of that. He was a terrific bass-baritone, with a voice strong enough for Wagner, but lyrical enough for Mozart. And he was a fine actor.  So if the Scarpio got sick (in Tosca), New York City Opera could call my Dad, and he’d fly in and sing the role at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, he had regular gigs with Kentucky Opera, back when, under the direction of Moritz von Bomhard, it was one of the best regional opera houses in the country.

But Dad never wanted a European career, or a career at the Met. He taught voice at Indiana University (back when it was either number one or two in any listing of American music schools), and loved teaching. He loved his life in Indiana, playing catch with my brothers and me, sailing on Lake Monroe, camping and hiking and enjoying his family. I don’t want to say that he wasn’t ambitious, exactly, just that his ambitions revolved around family and teaching and the Church, not opera stardom. As a singer and performer, he would rather be good than famous. People who mattered to him knew the high level of excellence his work regularly achieved. And personally, he was kind of a blue-collar guy. He’d been a sheet metal worker, and was a dab hand with a set of carpenter’s tools. And he brought that work ethic and lack of ego to his opera career. He was never a diva.

But boy did he know some.

And that’s what made this morning so fun. Mom and Dad and I sat together in our family room, and he told stories of the great opera singers he knew, both at Indiana and in his career, and how preposterous their ego demands could become. I’ve worked professionally in theatre for over thirty years, and I’ve known some egotistical and demanding actors. And I’ve stood in the wings and snickered with fellow cast members at the antics of diva-esque stars. But theatre divas can’t even begin to compare with opera divas.

Case in point: Madame M—-, a singer Dad knew at IU who turned to teaching after a long career at the Met. She didn’t have a car, or any means of transportation, so she took cabs everywhere. She’d call the cab company and she’d say, in her heavy German accent, “Peek me opp.”  And, sure enough, the cab would show up. She’d take the cab to wherever she was going, and then she’d sweep regally out, saying to the cabbie, “zank you very much.”  The cab company would then send a bill to the Dean’s office at the Music school, where one poor secretary had the responsibility of paying this singer’s bills for her, carefully deducting them from her paycheck. She did the same thing at clothing stores. She’d select a few dresses and walk out with them, with an aristocratic smile for the clerks at the store, who would follow her around, keep of track of what she took, and send the Dean the bill.

Dad told a new Madame M—- story, one I hadn’t heard before. Apparently, a colleague followed her into a lady’s room, and heard, coming out of Madame M—–‘s stall, a most spectacular, lengthy and melodious fart. Then, after a moment, Madame M—– said, almost reverently, this: “schön.”

Dad told of the tenor who was singing the demanding title role in Verdi’s Otello.  As was often the case back in the day, he didn’t show up until the week the opera was to open; he’d walk through a dress rehearsal, then perform the next night. He showed up–the set completely built, the opera entirely staged, and saw that the door for his first entrance was stage left. He called for the stage director, and said, ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’ The stage director pointed out that the set was completed, that there was no door stage right, and that he had been staged entering from the left. The tenor responded ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’  And that was it. Tickets had been sold to an audience expecting to see this particular star. There was nothing to do except to completely rebuild the set that night, to give him a stage right entrance.

Another story, a favorite of mine: a soprano, arriving in Los Angeles for a gig, called her agent in New York and woke him from a sound sleep to demand that he call the driver of the limo she was sitting in to tell him to turn down the air conditioning. Obviously, she couldn’t be expected to, you know, actually talk to the limo driver herself. There are people who do those jobs.

A few years ago, I remember, my wife and I went to an opera. And before it began, we heard this pre-show announcement: “Miss _______ (the leading soprano) is ill, and not in good voice tonight. She has nonetheless consented to perform.”  I try to imagine, I don’t know, an actor like Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart or Michael Gambon doing that. “Mr. Gambon is ill tonight. Nonetheless, he has consented to perform.”  The best actors I know would honestly rather die than let you know they were under the weather some night. The show must go on, and every audience for which you perform deserves your very best. That’s the theatre ethic. Not this opera singer. What if she cracked on a high note? Better for us all to know how courageous she was even performing.

Dad did, of course, also sing with other big stars who weren’t remotely divas.  He was good friends with James King, for example, a splendid tenor and a fine actor and complete professional. One of my favorite roles of my Dad’s was his John the Baptist in the Richard Strauss opera Salome, with the wonderful Nancy Shade in the title role. Most opera stars are perfectly reasonable people, dedicated to their craft and easy to work with.

But sometimes, a combination of ego, insecurity and selfishness leads performers to misbehave. And this was the final point my Dad made, chatting about divas this morning. He said he saw this over and over; a diva opera star would perform, and during the curtain call, you’d hear thunderous applause for all the other performers, and then, for the diva, a big fall-off.  “You can’t fool audiences,” he said. “They can always tell a phony.  They see through them every time.”  I’ve seen that too. The diva’s mask may look, initially, comic. But it’s pure tragedy every time.

 

 

The Hobby Lobby decision

“I’m not a. . . ” Jon Stewart recently did a montage of statements from politicians in which they declared repeatedly what they are not.  “I’m not a legal scholar, but. . . ” I’m not a professional chef, but. . . ” “I’m not a climate scientist, but. .  . .” It was a funny bit.  Obviously, the point of saying “I’m not a. . .” is to insist, against all evidence, that a person nonetheless has something cogent to say on a subject in which s/he isn’t actually expert, with the amusing subsequent possibility of idiocy resulting.  “I’m not a rocket scientist, but it seems to me that if we’re going to send astronauts to the sun, we should probably go at night.”  That kind of thing.

Well, I’m not a legal scholar, but. . . ”  I’m a playwright, with a Ph.D. in history.  Uh, make that ‘theatre history.’  I’m not an attorney, a law student, a legal scholar.  I’m a guy who writes dramatic entertainments, for fun and for profit. And I’m a guy who likes reading court decisions.  I read Scotusblog.com for kicks.  I like Supreme Court decisions basically because I like the logic of them, and I dig the prose.  They’re not written in legalese, really.  The language is accessible.  So with all those caveats and disclaimers, understand that I probably don’t know what I’m talking about.  But the recent Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is really amazing.

First of all, let’s admit this: as big, for-profit corporations go, Hobby Lobby is one of the good guys.  They don’t sell cocaine.  They don’t sell missiles.  They don’t sell smallpox diseased blankets. They sell crafts supplies.  Check out their website.  They have knickknacks you can use to spruce up your backyard patio.  Cool stuff.  And they treat their employees fairly.  They pay double minimum wage for full-time new hires.  They give lots of money to charity (well, Liberty and Oral Roberts Universities).  They close the doors of their stores at 8, instead of 9, to give employees more of a family life.  They close on Sundays.  On a moral continuum from ‘contemptible’ to ‘Christ-like’, with the Tijuana drug cartel way over there on the left, and the American Red Cross on the right, Hobby Lobby’s over there towards the right, next door, but to the left of, Costco.  Way to the right of, like, Walmart.

But now, because of Obamacare (shudder) (ironically), they have to provide health care for their employees, something they were already kind of doing.  They’re run by the Green family; their CEO is David Green. And he’s a very religious guy.  And he objected to paying to provide some kinds of birth control for his employees.

There are 20 different birth control medications approved by the FDA.  4 of them, including morning after pills and IUDs, constitute, in the opinion of some Christian traditions, de facto abortions.  If ‘personhood’ begins at conception, then birth control methods that terminate post-conception zygotes would be, I suppose, sort of abortion-y.  Those are the methods to which Green objected.

Here’s the logical chain of his objection, best I can ascertain it.   The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 restricts the government from “substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion.” The ACA (Affordable Care Act–Obamacare) required employers to provide birth control, and allowed the Department of Health and Human Services to define what, specifically, that meant.  They declared that all 20 birth control options approved by the FDA were covered.  Religious non-profit organizations, however, who objected to contraception mandates, were exempted.  Hobby Lobby is a for-profit corporation mostly owned by one family, and run by members of that family.  So Hobby Lobby can claim that it is a religiously oriented for-profit corporation, and that it should receive a similar exemption to the ones non-profits receive.

So that’s the first issue: can a for-profit corporation define itself as a person with religious objections to, well, anything?  I wouldn’t have thought so.  Who owns a corporation?  Shareholders, officers, employees?  Presumably a big variety of religious opinions are included within the ranks of ‘owners.’  This would be particularly true of a publicly traded company.  But Hobby Lobby is not publicly traded. It’s owned by a small number of people, nearly all of them from one family, all of them religious.  To quote Justice Alito (writing for the majority):

Finally, HHS contends that Congress could not have wanted RFRA to apply to for-profit corporations because of the difficulty of ascertaining the “beliefs” of large,publicly traded corporations, but HHS has not pointed to any example of a publicly traded corporation asserting RFRA rights, and numerous practical restraints would likely prevent that from occurring.
In other words, theoretically, any company might claim a religious exemption, but mostly, such claims would probably fail.  But it doesn’t fail to a company like Hobby Lobby, which only has a few owners.
But what’s the difference between a company offering 16 different methods of contraception and offering all 20?  Since the women employed by the company are the ones that decide which method to use (presumably in consultation with their physicians), then why would it be sinful for the company if some employees choose a method of which their employers disapprove?  It’s here that Alito’s decision starts to fall apart.
The belief of the Greens implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is immoral for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another. It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.
So, it’s not sinful for employees to choose which contraception methods they’ll use, but since, in the opinion of their employers, some of the possible choices are immoral, their employers might end up sinning second-hand?  If I’m a pacifist, I’m opposed on moral and religious grounds to all war.  Can I object to paying taxes, if those taxes might be used to build weapons?  Obviously not. This ‘second-hand sinning’ stuff seems seriously problematic to me.  Obviously, HHS isn’t requiring David Green personally to abort a fetus.  Maybe one of his employees might, of her own free will, take a medication that, to Mr. Green, might be construed as abortion-like. That strikes me as a problematic standard. And Alito offers no legal reasoning to support this, to me, odd little side-step.
The court also suggested that if the government wanted to give women the option of using other birth control methods than the 16 the Greens approve of, the government could simply pass a bill paying for it.  “The Government could assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives to women unable to obtain coverage due to their employers’ religious objections.”  That’s almost comically naive; obviously, today’s Congress is never going to pass a law approving any such thing.
Then, right at the end, Alito’s decision veers into sheer incoherence.
This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandate for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.
Just ’cause.
It’s really bizarre.  The court crafted a narrow ruling out of whole cloth. If the Greens can refuse to offer their employees birth control options they, the Greens, object to, then why couldn’t a Jehovah’s Witness CEO refuse to provide her employees with health insurance through which they might get a blood transfusion paid for?  Well, they just can’t.  Alito offers no rationale for this, no legal justification for it, no logical transition to it.  He just says ‘this exception is limited to this one case only, because we say so.’  No slippery slopes on this hill!
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent makes for fun reading.  If you don’t want to read 35 page dissents, here’s a highlight reel.  Or, if you’d prefer to hear her dissent in song form, here you go!
So it’s a narrow decision.  Justice Alito says so. But as often is the case with women’s health issues, (male) trolls pretty quickly started crawling out from under their bridges.  My favorite was our own Mike Lee (sorry, that should be Constitutional Scholar Senator Mike Lee), who opined that women use birth control for ‘largely recreational reasons,’ (or agreed with another troll who said it), and added “this administration is using the often coercive power of the federal government to force people into their way of being and their way of existing, their way of believing and thinking and acting.”  Not really, no.  Contraception is medication. 60% of women have used contraception for reasons other than to prevent pregnancy.  Also, what’s wrong with preventing pregnancy?  Isn’t it wonderful, that we live in an age where women can make their own decisions about how they’re going to live their lives?

So how is the Hobby Lobby case not an example of unwarranted judicial activism?  There are three women on the Supreme Court; they were joined, in dissent, by one man, Justice Breyer.  Also, and I feel bad pointing this out, but it does seem germane; there are five Catholics on the Court.  Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy.  And Samuel Alito, hapless author of this unfortunate decision.  Meaningful?  That all five Catholics on the court concocted this bizarre mess of a decision, which also happens to deal with contraception and sort-of-abortions?
Here’s what I think: Kennedy, or maybe Kennedy and Roberts, was leaning towards joining Ginsburg.  So Alito appended this odd little final paragraph, limiting the possibility of Hobby Lobby causing further mischief down the road.  We’ll see what further mischief it actually causes.

Iraq again

Once again, Iraq is in the news. A Sunni army, called The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis, for short), has been sweeping through northern Iraqi cities, butchering as they go.  They seem to be headed to Baghdad.  And Iraqi troops have responded, basically, by laying down their weapons, ripping off their uniforms, and running away.  President Obama met with Congressional leaders, like he’s supposed to, and announced that 250 troops will be going back, tasked with embassy security and some minimal training of Iraqi forces.  (And Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority leader McConnell and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi all agreed that, Article One Section Eight notwithstanding, the President has plenty of authority to do anything militarily he wants to. Political courage has not been in abundant display over this one).  Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki asked for some limited American airstrikes, which President Obama agreed to, if they can be precisely targeted.

And so Dick Cheney (and his daughter, Liz, straight off her failed bid for the Wyoming Senate seat) unloaded on President Obama in an op-ed piece, saying ‘rarely has an American President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” while calling for American soldiers to return to stabilize things.

The response has been remarkable, especially on the Right. Glen Beck (!?!?!?!?) said, on his radio show, that liberals were right, and he was wrong, about Iraq. Jim Webb, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, wrote a very strongly worded op-ed piece opposing any further US involvment in Iraq.  And a lot of liberal websites showed the remarkable footage of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly taking the former Vice President to task over his piece.

Sadly, they didn’t show the whole clip.  It’s true that Megyn Kelly started off with some tough questions.  But she’s Megyn Kelly, and she does work for Fox; the interview devolved into typical Fox blather about what a dangerous (really, seriously, dangerous) president Obama is.  Usual argle-blargle about how feckless he is, how he doesn’t take the terror threat seriously, how he’s left America weak, and so on.

So Factcheck.org ripped Cheney to shreds.  In fact, every substantive claim made by the two Cheneys on their Fox appearance is demonstratively false.  Basically, the complaint Dick Cheney has against President Obama is that he’s not quite as crazy paranoid about terrorism as Cheney was.

I don’t doubt that terrorism and terrorist groups and support for jihadists have all increased under President Obama.  But it’s not because he’s soft on terror.  That’s ridiculous.  I maintain that terrorism has increased precisely because of the actions we’ve taken to fight it.  I strongly suspect that every time an American drone kills a terrorist, we recruit fifty new terrorists.  The secret to fighting terrorism is winning the hearts and minds of people who mostly want to be left alone to raise their families in peace.  When an unmanned drone swoops out of the sky to fire missiles at a Pakistani village or Yemeni town, one response for those witnesses is to become radicalized.  Their friends, neighbors, acquaintances, townspeople, tribesmen, co-religionists have just been killed.  How would you feel about it?

As for Iraq, I do suppose the President is right to want some additional security for our embassy there, and if a little more training can make a difference for their army, then fine, though I’m skeptical.  Black-flagged Isis is plenty scary.  But I’m worried about mission creep.  I’m worried that 250 advisors today becomes 500 tomorrow.

The invasion of Iraq under President Bush remains the single most appalling blunder in the history of American foreign policy.  It’s time for Dick Cheney to shut up.

Grand Budapest Hotel: Movie Review

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel is just exquisite, a bittersweet confection as beautifully shaped as the Mendl’s pastries served to honored guests by M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes, in one of the great performances of his career), the legendary concierge of the hotel of the film’s title.  Like all Wes Anderson films, the film’s delicate artificiality (even preciosity) is evident in every carefully framed shot, in every time actors face and address the camera, in every perfectly staged set piece. Watching the film last night, I kept wanting to hit a pause button; there’s always something going on in the background of that production design, some detail in the corner of the frame that you just don’t want to miss.

But of course, the mannered, stylized performances also contrast with the shocking vulgarity of some (not many, just enough) of the lines.  When M. Gustav is arrested and imprisoned (in the grimmest of Eastern European hellholes), we think ‘he’s so high class, so hoity-toity, how can he possibly survive?’  But, visited in the pen by his loyal assistant, Zero (Tony Revolori), he growls “you can’t be a candy-ass in a place like this,” and we know he’s going to be fine.

That’s the key to the film, I think.  M. Gustav represents civilized values.  He’s endlessly polite, endlessly charming, endlessly suave and cultured and completely on top of his job.  He’s the best concierge in Europe, and if his understanding of his duties includes sleeping with the odd wealthy elderly widow, it’s all part of the service, and always in the most exquisite good taste.  When he escapes with prison, and Zero loyally waits by the sewage culvert from which he emerges, Gustav takes the time to upbraid Zero about his lack of preparedness.  Zero hasn’t thought of a hideout for them, he hasn’t provided an escape vehicle; worst of all, he’s forgotten M. Gustav’s cologne.  Gustav chews the kid out, then is stricken with remorse for it, and elaborately apologizes.  All the while, of course, they should be high tailing it out of there.  But first things first.  A gentleman apologizes, and only then escapes.

We’re told almost nothing about Gustav’s past, and only a little about Zero’s.  But what we are told is sufficient; it’s a raw and brutal and violent world out there.  And the best way to survive is to cling ever more fiercely to civilization, to its forms and manners, to its high culture and higher ideals.

Anderson gives the film a five act structure (of course he does), and begins it with a series of flashbacks.  A young woman, living in the bleak gray of an eastern bloc nation, visits the grave of The Author.  Cut to the Author, now elderly (Tom Wilkinson), finishing a memoir, interrupted by grandchildren. Cut to the Author as a young man (Jude Law), staying at the now hopelessly run-down Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets an elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham).  Then cut to Zero’s youth, as lobby boy to M. Gustav, in the 30’s, when most of the film takes place.  In the end, we return to the Author’s grave, and the young woman, reading a book; presumably the one we’ve been following, about the hotel and its concierge.  And there we go.  What survives, is literature.  The part of the human spirit that endures is cultured, refined, well-read.  A beloved book can transcend even the ugliest of realities.

The tone of the film is so light, and so comedic, it feels like a trifle.  But it’s not.  One of M. Gustav’s elderly patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) has died, and her nephew Dimitri (Adrien Brody) hopes to inherit. It turns out, though, that she’s left an immensely valuable painting, Boy With Apple, to Gustav.  Dimitri wants it all, and he has an evil henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), ready to murder anyone who stands in his way.  Dimitri gets Gustav falsely accused of murder, and imprisoned; he escapes, with the help of an elderly-but-ferocious inmate, Ludwig, (Harvey Keitel, demonstrating all kinds of growly Harvey Keitel schtick).  Meanwhile, a well-meaning and decent Army officer, Henckels (Ed Norton), is trying to sort the whole thing out. And Gustav’s escape is aided by a secret society of concierges, including Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson.  A complicated plot, in other words, with an army of terrific character actors popping in for a scene or two each.

But to what end?  To show, finally, the triumph of brutality and violence over civilization, at least potentially, and also, of course, historically.  It’s an extraordinarily funny and engaging film, but it’s also bittersweet; things do not turn out well for M. Gustav, nor for his friends.  I haven’t mentioned Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Zero’s brave and loyal fiancee, but her character epitomizes the film’s large themes.  She’s a cake-maker, for Mendl, a mean and demanding boss. She also has a large birthmark on her face.  She falls in love with Zero, and eventually marries him.  (At one point, Gustav rhapsodizes about how her finest quality is ‘her purity.’  The look on Tony Revolori’s face was priceless; he knows full well what they’ve been up to.)  So it’s a love story?  Well, yes and no.  It’s the thirties. We learn her fate; she just dies, as so many did in those terrible times. Courage and kindness, loyalty and love didn’t much matter in a world gone mad.

In the closing credits, we learn that the film is dedicated to (and based on), the writings of one Stefan Zweig.  I expect that most viewers of the film wouldn’t know who that was.  There was a time when Zweig was the most popular author in Europe, and even in the US (he never really caught on in England).  He was a novelist, a playwright, a critic and historian, but the short story was his preferred form, and he crafted hundreds of them.  They’re very much like Wes Anderson films, actually; beautifully executed, funny, warm, a bit artificial, tasteful.  I know him primarily through an odd book, rather a favorite of mine: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. It’s a collection of critical/personal essays, each inspired by one quotation from one favorite author.  Here’s his quotation from Zweig:

With whom have we not spent heart-warming hours there, looking out from the terrace over the beautiful and peaceful landscape, without suspecting that exactly opposite, on the mountain of Berchtesgaden, a man sat who would one day destroy it all?

Zweig was Austrian, from Vienna, and he was a product of that time and place, of Vienna, opera and concert halls and gardens and monuments, the most civilized society in Europe.  He eventually settled in Salzburg, where he assembled the most magnificent personal library in Europe, and turned his home into a permanent literary salon.  But underneath Vienna’s politesse, beneath the civilized veneer, was the most rabid and ferocious anti-Semitism; Vienna was not just where Zweig set his most charming stories, it’s where a failed art student learned the craft of rabble-rousing.  And in 1938, a Nazi committee declared Zweig’s library ‘decadent’, and burned it to the ground.  And in 1942, Zweig and his wife, rather than live under the rule of a thug, chose to commit suicide.

We see that too, in this, yes, mannered and precious and charming and hilarious film, but also in the brass knuckles Willem Dafoe wears as Jopling, and in the thuggish prison guards and the thuggish brutes who demand to see Gustav’s paperwork on a train. And in one extraordinary scene, in which Dimitri, seeing Gustav and Zero, pulls out a gun in the hotel, and fires, and room after room of soldiers all open up as well, everyone shooting at everyone, amidst the Art Deco splendor of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s funny, but it’s also pretty grim, and also pretty accurate. How many different armies invaded and despoiled small Eastern European countries like the fictional Zubrowka of this film? How many different uniforms were worn by thugs, on trains, demanding to see passenger’s papers? And, we suspect, when those papers weren’t entirely right (by this week’s rules), those guards on the train could take Gustav outside and shoot him by the tracks.

We don’t see that, of course.  We don’t view such things in polite society.  We’ve invented polite society, and also politeness itself, and manners and good taste, all to hide that part of ourselves that knows that, in this world, candy asses can’t survive.  Wes Anderson’s greatness as a filmmaker isn’t about how perfectly he frames every shot in his films.  It’s in what that perfect framing is meant to distract us from.  It’s what’s underneath.

The Founding Fathers, and Obamacare

A warning: this is a silly post on a silly subject.  A response to a Facebook meme; hard to get sillier than that.  Apparently Nancy Pelosi said that the Founding Fathers would be pleased with Obamacare.  And this led to all kinds of mockery from conservatives, who continue to double-down on their ‘Obamacare will destroy America’ obsession.  The Founders, it goes without saying, would never have agreed to a socialist takeover of American health care!  Never in a million years.  ‘The Founders,’ in this case, constructed entirely of freedom-loving Christian Republicans. Job creators, don’t you know.

Anyway, it tickled my funny bone, the idea of the Founders ‘opposing Obamacare.’  So I thought, I’d dialogue it.

Me: So. . . . do you oppose the Affordable Care Act?

FF: What’s an Affordable Care Act?

Me: Uh, well, let’s see.  It’s basically a reform of the health insurance industry.  Most people have health insurance, but there are around forty million who don’t.  So it’s an effort to provide them with coverage.

FF: The US has forty million people?  Where?

Me: Well, all over, really. The US stretches all the way to the Pacific.  Ever since Jefferson bought Louisiana.

FF: Jefferson did what?

Me: Look, just take my word for it.  There are about 300 million people in the country right now.  317 million, to be exact.  And it’s kind of a problem when 40 million don’t have health care.

FF: What’s health care?

Me: You know, medicine.  When doctors make sick people better.

FF: Doctors make sick people better?

Me: Yeah.  See, lots of people used to die of diseases that we can cure now.

FF: How?  Are you just better at bleeding people?

Me: No, we don’t do that anymore. See, diseases are caused by microbes.  Uh, little tiny bugs, uh, germs, uh, just call ’em ‘creatures’, too small to be seen except by microscopes.

FF: What’s a microscope?

Me: Come on, guys.  You’ve heard of microscopes.  Galileo made one?  You’ve heard of van Leeuwenhoek?

FF: All right. But you tell me that you can see these tiny disease-causing creatures?  We can’t.

Me: Isn’t it reasonable to imagine that we, in the future, can build better microscopes?

FF:  All right.  We’re very scientific people, you know.  Franklin even figured out that lightning is made of electricity. So you’ve figured out how to cure diseases.  Like what diseases? Surely not cholera?

Me: No, we can cure cholera.

FF: Diptheria?  Yellow Fever?  Malaria?  Influenza?  Measles?  Mumps?  Dysentery?  Gout?

Me: Pretty much.  All curable.

FF: Smallpox?

Me: We’ve completely eradicated smallpox.  Gone.

FF: Colds?

Me: No, we still get colds.  Sorry.  Did I mention we’d cured smallpox?

FF: Well, you live in an age of miracles.

Me: We do.  Heart disease is still a problem; we’re working on it.  Huge progress on cancer, though it’s still a frightening and dangerous disease.  Those are the biggies.

FF: So what’s the problem?

Me: Well, it’s all very expensive.  Doctors have to train for years to become doctors, and they charge a lot for their expertise.  And diagnosing all those diseases is expensive.  We have all kinds of amazing diagnostic equipment, but those machines are costly, and we have to train people how to use the devices properly.  We also have lots of drugs that can affect amazing cures, but they’re also really expensive.  There’s an entire pharmaceutical industry constantly coming up with new medications, but their research is also expensive.  Anyway, most people can’t afford the more expensive procedures; in fact, hardly anyone can.  So we created insurance for medical care.

FF: That makes sense.  In fact, Ben Franklin created the first fire insurance company in the Americas.

Me: Right!  Only, Mr. Franklin, you wouldn’t insure some houses, if you thought they were a fire hazard.

FF: Of course not.  Insurance spreads risk around. But an insurance company can’t survive if people only buy it right before their house is going to burn down.

Me: Exactly.  What we do is require everyone in the country, if they own a home, to buy fire insurance for it.  And we also won’t let them build a house that doesn’t meet certain safety standards.  That way, only a few houses burn down annually, and they are able to rebuild with the insurance money.  And insurance companies can make a profit, because everyone with a house also has to buy a policy.

FF: Most sensible.  That’s another way to do it.  We had people who built foolishly, and their wooden houses burned all the time. So we just wouldn’t insure them. Insurance has to limit risk for the insurer and the insured. Same basic principle.

Me: Well, we applied the same principle to health insurance.  If you have insurance, you can afford to pay for medical care for yourself and your family.  But we had a problem.  Really sick people would go to hospitals and get treatment, but couldn’t afford it.

FF: We have hospitals.  Real nice one in Philadelphia.

Me: Right.  Except that the hospital in Philadelphia wasn’t very good at making sick people better.  Mostly folks just died there.

FF: You can’t have everything.

Me: No.  Well, our hospitals are better than yours were; in fact, they’re kind of miraculous.  And we didn’t want people to die just because they were poor.  But when people couldn’t pay for their care, it was a problem.  Mostly, costs just went up for everyone.

FF: Why didn’t you just throw people into debtor’s prison?

Me: We don’t really do that anymore.  What we have instead is collection agencies.

FF: Sounds horrible!

Me: Yeah.  But we thought; wouldn’t it be better if everyone had health insurance?  And if we allowed all health insurance companies to compete in an open market for clients?  With some minimum requirements their policies had to meet?

FF: So, what’s the problem?

Me: Well, you don’t approve of it.

FF: We don’t approve of it?  George Washington died of a simple throat infection.  Mostly, he died of being bled and given a powerful purgative at a time when his body was fighting off an infection.  Our health care was a joke.  If you know how to make sick people better, and have figured out a way to share the cost of it nation-wide, why on earth would we oppose that?

Me: I don’t know.  Some people think you would have.

FF: They’re crazy. Wait, is craziness curable?  Do you still have madmen?

Me: We do.

FF: Well, ignore them.  We’re entirely in favor of this ‘universal health care’ thing.  Whatever it is.

Me: Okay!

FF: Universal, though?  Everyone gets good care? Even slaves?

Me: Yeah.  About that. . . .