Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Congratulations, Erin Andrews!

As I post this entry, I am still watching the grand finale of "Dancing with the Stars," and therefore do not know who will win the coveted mirror-ball trophy. But I do know that Erin Andrews, who has had my sympathy vote all season -- and who deserved to do well on the merits, too, because from week to week she improved so dramatically as a dancer -- has finished third. In my book, that is enough to make her the true winner of this season, even though she will not go home with the trophy. Last year, through absolutely no fault of her own, she underwent what surely has to rank among the most cruel and outrageous of public humiliations; and, in her own words, being a contestant on the show made her smile again and gave her back her life. It was clearly a healing experience for her, and evidently proved to be exactly what she needed, although I rather doubt she fully realized that the first time she appeared on the program with her professional partner, Maksim Chmerkovsky.

I know that much of my empathy for her stems from my own experience with dance, which has easily proven to be the most therapeutic activity I have ever engaged in. I can relate to Erin because, even though my own valley of humiliation was very different in nature from hers, I likewise discovered the joy of dance during a season when I desperately needed something to cheer about, something that would make me laugh and smile and enable me to be my better self once again. Prone almost since childhood to depression, brooding, and cynicism, I have become much more so in recent years, owing to a succession of personal tragedies and misfortunes; but in a word, I discovered very quickly that dancing makes me happy and acts as a natural counterbalance to my deeply-rooted propensity for gloom. I honestly believe it has been instrumental in saving me from having a breakdown. Someday, given the opportunity, I would love to dance with Erin myself; and if, as a prelude to the dance, I were to have occasion to swap stories with her, I think she and I would understand each other, at least insofar as this particular aspect of our lives is concerned.

Just this past weekend, I shared some observations about my dance experience in an e-mail message to a friend. I continue to marvel at the enduring impact Angie Hines has had on my life, even though I have not seen her in well over a year; but, as I recognize and mentioned to my friend, she didn't do that all by herself, and her principal assistants in the effort were Amber Barnes and Gergana (Gery) Slavova. With ample justification, they can each claim me as one of their true success stories, and I hope they will all remember that during the times when life is unkind to them, as it surely will be from time to time. All three of these unforgettable young women have left the Fred Astaire studio, the scene of so many happy and exhilarating moments for me over the past 3-1/2 years; and needless to say, I miss them, as they did so much to make my experience there what it has been. But I'm also immeasurably grateful that they stayed with the studio long enough to give me what was surely the greatest gift I could have received from anyone during that uniquely difficult season of my life, and to ensure, as well, that their gift would be permanent. I hope that will always hold true in Erin's case as well. Brava to you, Erin Andrews!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Letters to Juliet"

Of all the comments my wife has ever made about me during our marriage -- which will be exactly 23 years tomorrow, by the way -- my favorite was when she remarked to some friends a few years ago that she wasn't quite sure what to make of a husband who loved Dante -- and "Calvin & Hobbes." She obviously had a point, and it is surely one of the more amusing paradoxes of my life that I read almost exclusively for information and intellectual stimulation, but entertain myself in other ways with assorted fluff. For instance, I love James Bond movies and regularly watch television fare such as "The Bachelor," even while freely admitting that the program is as dopey as a midsummer's day is long. There are, of course, a few exceptions to the general rule. For instance, one of my favorite movies of all time is "Judgment at Nuremberg," which has the distinction of being one of the very few films I have ever seen that has actually made me think. (Another is "Breaker Morant.") All of the foregoing should be taken into account as you read what follows.

One of my regular Friday-night rituals is to chauffeur Vanessa and one or more of her friends to the Chandler mall. Sometimes they just want to hang out for a few hours, and sometimes they go to a movie. For my part, I usually just hang out at Barnes & Noble until the mall closes, and then I take them all home. Last night was pretty typical, except that instead of spending three hours browsing around in the bookstore, I decided to go see "Letters to Juliet," which I had seen featured in recent TV ads and thought I might like.

My hunch proved correct, although anyone expecting an intellectual feast is certain to be disappointed by this film. But it incorporated a long list of things that I love: Italy, overtones of Shakespeare, romance, humor, and even the barest hint of Dante, although he is never mentioned in the film and one must be more than casually familiar with the Divine Comedy in order to understand why I include that last item in the list. (I wish the movie had also included some dancing, but one obviously can't have everything.) The plot is about as predictable as a sunrise or a Joe Biden gaffe, and most viewers will probably figure out its general thread in the first 15 minutes or so. (I recently saw "Leap Year," which I also enjoyed, and "Letters to Juliet" is cut from the same piece of cloth, so to speak.)

I won't discuss here the plot or the characters, which, as I have already noted, are predictable enough anyway. "Letters to Juliet" is, pure and simple, a chick flick, and light fare as far as movies go. But there's nothing wrong with that, and in my case, it was a perfect way to spend this particular Friday evening. I, for one, thought it was delightful. Vanessa and her friend went to see another movie at the same theater complex, and I told them afterward that I wouldn't mind seeing "Letters" again, including with them if they were interested. This one will not be an Oscar contender, but if it hits the spot in other ways, who really cares?

A link to the movie's official site, which includes the trailer, may be found here. I noted above that there is no dancing in this film, but perhaps I should qualify that by mentioning that certain parts of it might make one want to grab a partner right there on the spot. Its soundtrack includes the Taylor Swift hit, "Love Story," a perfect song for the Arizona two-step -- which, incidentally, happens to be the only country dance I know.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My newest blog

I created a new blog about a month ago, and a permanent link to it is provided on this site. The new one will showcase my favorite poetry. I posted an introduction at the time I created the blog, and in addition composed the draft of another post -- the first one devoted to an actual poem -- which I finished this evening. The delay was occasioned by the length and complexity of the poem in question, which was Canto V of Dante's Inferno, posted there in both English and Italian. Obviously, my first post simply had to be something by Dante; for me, any other choice would not have been quite appropriate. But now that I have given my favorite poet his appropriate place in the blog, other entries should generally be both shorter and easier to post, although Dante will make some additional appearances there as well. (For instance, Inferno XXVI and Paradiso XI and XXXIII, to mention just a few.)

I hope the new blog will attract at least some of my regular viewers here, and that it will prove to be a source of inspiration and enjoyment for all who do visit it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

" . . . e vidi le sue luci tanto mere"

Today I created a new photoset on Flickr, devoted to pictures which received a great deal of very favorable attention but, for reasons unknown, failed to make the Explore page. Thus far I have included ten images in the set, and will probably not add any more from my collection as it currently exists. When I created the set, this, which is surely my most successful photograph so far in 2010, was among those I had in mind. It was taken about three months ago, during Hamilton High School's stage production of "Guys and Dolls."

The girl in the photograph is a senior named Kaitlin Booth, whom I had never even seen until that Saturday afternoon, when I attended the matinee performance. I like the photo for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it represents one of my success stories, and serves as a reminder that in spite of all the failure and disappointment I have experienced in my life, perhaps I have not lived in vain after all. Sometime in the near future I plan to order a print of this one from Mpix, then frame it and put it on display in my office, where it will join the other portraits and ballroom dance photos that comprise much of my decor.

A few days after I posted this unposed portrait on Flickr, I learned that Kaitlin had seen it there and been moved to tears, because, in her words, I had succeeded in capturing what she had tried to accomplish every time she made an appearance on the stage. Two of the comments on this photograph are from Kaitlin's mother, who suggested that it would now become a family heirloom. Unbeknown to either of them at the time, a short time later I took steps to make that possible, by ordering several Mpix prints of the image and having them delivered to Kaitlin by a mutual friend. I was later told that Kaitlin had blinked back tears once again when she saw the prints; that her mother had wanted to replace Kaitlin's senior portrait, which was prominently displayed in their hallway, with this one; and that they eventually decided that both portraits should be displayed together.

We never know what kind of impact our actions, even the seemingly minor ones, might have on others. I have loved this picture from the moment I first saw it on my camera's LCD screen, but I had no idea then that it would come to mean so much to its subject and her family. All I did, after all, was to aim my camera and push the shutter button. But the reverse of that is also true, and surely Kaitlin has never realized how she has blessed my own life, in this case by simply being herself. If, as Paul says, God loves a cheerful giver, then surely He loves a cheerful receiver as well.

So while this spur-of-the-moment portrait failed to make Flickr's Explore page, it has, in another and much better sense, become one for the ages, at least insofar as her world and mine are concerned. And I wonder, too, if it is any coincidence that Kaitlin also happens to be a Latter-day Saint.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On Dr. Johnson's musings

While visiting Jewish World Review today, I came across this article about one of my favorite books of all time: Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, which was published near the end of the 18th century and is considered one of the classics of English literature, as well as one of the finest biographies ever written. I hope the column will encourage at least a few individuals to take a stab at digesting Boswell's opus, and in my case, this piece did evoke a smile or two, partly because of one of the author's final observations. He wrote, "I’m not expecting you to run out and read it — it took me months, and I think you have to be a certain sort to finish." Virtually everyone who has ever known me agrees that I am a bit "different," in one way or another; and if the columnist's observation is true, perhaps I do indeed qualify as being "a certain sort." I have read The Life of Samuel Johnson twice, all the way through, and it is on the short list of books I want to reread sometime in the not-distant future.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

On loony conspiracy theories

I belong to a distinct and apparently very small minority of Americans in my belief that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, who acted alone. Although I am familiar with many of the conspiracy theories related to the assassination, I have always believed Oswald was the lone gunman, and after all these years, I seriously doubt that I will ever be dissuaded from this view. But while I find the persistent and generally loony ideas rather annoying, I occasionally like to have some fun with them as well. About a year ago I considered posting a new theory here, to the effect that if one closes his eyes and clicks his heels three times, a la Dorothy, while intoning the magic words, "There's no place like the grassy knoll," he can then clearly see O. J. Simpson, armed with a rifle, in frames 55 through 117 of the Zapruder film. But I decided against the idea, knowing that if I posted it, some nutcase would say it was true and spread it around the Internet.

Last night I found a YouTube video of a portion of the speech Kennedy gave which supposedly led to his assassination. The speech in question has cropped up elsewhere, and nearly always in this same context, so I was already quite familiar with it. At least the speech itself has the merit of being a genuine part of the historical record. Kennedy delivered it to the American Newspaper Publishers Association in April, 1961, surely with no idea that his words would be a focus of fringe conspiracy theories nearly 50 years later. In pertinent part, he said the following:

"The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know. . . .

"Today no war has been declared--and however fierce the struggle may be, it may never be declared in the traditional fashion. Our way of life is under attack. Those who make themselves our enemy are advancing around the globe. The survival of our friends is in danger. And yet no war has been declared, no borders have been crossed by marching troops, no missiles have been fired.

"If the press is awaiting a declaration of war before it imposes the self-discipline of combat conditions, then I can only say that no war ever posed a greater threat to our security. If you are awaiting a finding of "clear and present danger," then I can only say that the danger has never been more clear and its presence has never been more imminent.

"It requires a change in outlook, a change in tactics, a change in missions--by the government, by the people, by every businessman or labor leader, and by every newspaper. For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence--on infiltration instead of invasion, on subversion instead of elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerrillas by night instead of armies by day. It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations. Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed. It conducts the Cold War, in short, with a war-time discipline no democracy would ever hope or wish to match. "

I have intentionally quoted more of the speech than the conspiracy theorists normally do, and certainly far more of it than appeared in the YouTube video; but to anyone with a basic understanding of 20th-century history, the context of Kennedy's remarks should be abundantly clear. This, after all, was 1961, the year of the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin crisis, and the year before Khrushchev began his secret deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. In short, the speech was given at the height of the Cold War, and the references are to Soviet-style Communism, which at the time was generally seen as a monolithic juggernaut, as well as the number-one threat to the American way of life. The President was not referring to the New World Order, nor to a shadowy and supersecret cabal which included the Illuminati, the Bildeberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, or some combination of those particular organizations or groups similar to them.

I decided to have some fun with the video, and began an exchange of comments with the individual who posted it. Because comments on YouTube videos are limited to 500 characters, I have chosen this forum to amplify my comments there.

I began by noting that the interval between the speech and its supposed consequence was about 2-1/2 years, and speculated that since Oswald was still in Russia at the time, perhaps the conspirators first needed to return him to the United States, he being absolutely indispensable to the plot and there being nobody else competent to do the job.

My friend wrote back a short time later. He said I had it all wrong -- no surprise there, of course; that Oswald was merely the "scape goat" (sic); that these things needed a great deal of advance planning and preparation; and that JFK was killed by the driver of his limousine. (Parenthetically, as regards that last assertion, in more than 45 years I have only heard of one that I think is crazier; apparently a few people affirm that Kennedy was complicit in his own assassination, as his approval rating was going down in November of 1963, and he supposedly saw this as a good way to improve his poll numbers.)

I wrote back this morning, but had to cut out much of my comment in order to bring it within the 500-character limit. I had intended to start off with my own firm belief that O. J. Simpson was involved in the plot, but had to leave that out, along with my speculation that one might have expected the driver to wait at least a few more seconds before pulling the trigger, as by that time the car would be going through the underpass and his actions could not be seen by the spectators in Dealey Plaza. (But then, perhaps the conspirators had decided that their need to be rid of the President had become so urgent that any further delay could not be tolerated, and that by the time the motorcade turned down Elm Street toward the underpass, there literally wasn't a moment to waste.) I did suggest that bumping off the President could reasonably be expected to require some 2-1/2 years of careful planning and preparation, which, as I pointed out, was longer than it took to plan and execute the Normandy invasion. Finally, I added that it made perfect sense to me that the time and place chosen by the conspirators to carry out their violent coup d'etat was high noon at Dealey Plaza, in an open limousine, and in front of dozens of eyewitnesses, many of whom were equipped with cameras.

I'm sure I will hear back from this individual, but I don't know if I will bother to continue the correspondence, which, like an estate conveyed in fee simple absolute, could end up being of potentially infinite duration. But if I do so, my next point will likely be that the conspiracy theorists, who love to give short shrift to the so-called "magic-bullet theory," have come up with a far better version of it all on their own. Since the driver was two seats in front of Kennedy and at roughly his 11 o'clock position, and Kennedy was facing almost directly ahead and slightly downward at the moment of the fatal shot, how did the bullet supposedly fired by the driver manage to strike the right side of the President's head?

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination are perhaps the closest thing to eternal life that we are likely to see in this world, so I should probably devote my time and energy to projects more worthwhile than engaging in further polemics over this rather threadbare issue. For instance, are any cable channels broadcasting reruns of "My Mother, the Car?" Perhaps I should watch a few episodes of that short-lived mid-Sixties sitcom instead. At least the program was unabashedly idiotic, an opinion disputed by hardly anyone at all, and thus unlikely to give rise to arguments as futile as they are contentious.