The Family Stone

The Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus of The Family Stone is that “This family holiday dramedy features fine performances but awkward shifts of tone.” Which, yeah. That’s why it’s so good.

I didn’t come away loving it when I saw it in the theater. Too mercurial, I thought. And that excruciating dinner scene… But upon further viewings, I’ve come to realize it’s one of the greater Christmas movies, precisely because of its mood swings. Perhaps your family was different, but “awkward shifts of tone” should be one of the definitions of family.

Not only does the film capture a particular kind of cozy, Hallmark-approved Christmastime—and one that’s distinctly New England—but it also captures what it’s like to go through any kind of Christmas with the people you love but who are also most adept at driving you crazy.

An immediate familiarity sets in as we’re dropped into this year’s Stone Family Christmas, which feels like it could be any of the many Christmases they have shared together. The family members gradually arrive at the Stone home and start chatting as if continuing an ongoing conversation. There’s hardly any backstory, no “remember last year when…” or other expository filler that can weigh down family dramas. As we meet each Stone, we can deduce at once their role in the family, though not yet what role they will play in the unfolding story.

Little things stuck out during my most recent Christmastime viewing. Like the random assemblage of characters piled into a car to go get pizzas, a reminder to me of how driving to places around the holidays with the people you don’t usually drive to places with feels a bit more special. Or Amy and Sybil pestering Everett about taking his tie off, which at once told us that was something Amy and Sybil cared enough about and that Everett was the kind of person to wear a tie at a family get-together.

Everyone starts out on a certain trajectory, but writer/director Thomas Bezucha does a great job of steering the key characters into unexpected directions. These trajectories are just as varied as the film’s tone. Sybil’s terminal breast cancer is alluded to but never exploited, and is the impetus for the brief but powerful moments of reconciliation she experiences with her adult children before the end of the movie. Amy’s prickliness, which bleeds into outright hostility at times, gives way to brief moments of vulnerability. And though the partner swap revealed in the one-year-later epilogue is borderline preposterous—Meredith’s totally cool with her sister dating her former fiancé? really?—the circumstances that led to each character’s moment of clarity were sold well.

I’ve found my opinion of The Family Stone is in the minority, but there are others out there who see what I see in it. I absolutely understand the counterpoints as well, but ultimately I don’t care whether you like it or not!

America in Five Cities

It dawned on me recently how the names and locations of the top 5 most populous cities in the United States tell the story of the nation:

New York, in the east, with the English name, representing the history of our relationship with England.

Los Angeles, in the west, with the Spanish name representing the history of our relationship with Mexico.

Chicago, in the north, from the Potawatomi for “wild garlic place”, representing the history of Native Americans.

Houston, in the south, named after Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas, representing the history of the Wild West.

Philadelphia, in the east, Greek for “brotherly love”, representing the ancient origins within the founding of the nation.

This has a nice round feel to it. That is, until Phoenix comes for that fifth spot

Escanaba in Da Moonlight

For dose dat don’t know much about the Superior State, dere’s a couple of tings that need to be explained. First ting is, in da U.P., we don’t explain tings. Second ting is, we got some of the best huntin’ and fishin’ in da whole world.

So says Albert Soady, patriarch of probably the most Yooper family you’ll see on film thanks to Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in Da Moonlight. I learned about the movie from a book about midwestern accents, and since I’m from Wisconsin and have been deer hunting, I was very intrigued.

Written and directed by Jeff Daniels, a Michigan native, the movie is based on a play also written by Daniels, which focuses on the peculiarities of hunting culture and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Daniels plays Reuben, a sadsack hunter haunted by never having shot a buck. He meets up with his father and brother at a rural cabin the night before deer hunting season opens desperate to shed his “Buckless Yooper” curse. This year, however, he comes equipped with potions from his Ojibwa wife meant to attract deer to him. They apparently work, because supernatural wackiness ensues.

The strange rituals, the sing-songy local accent, and the abundant flatulence all felt familiar to me, having for years trekked to a cabin in the Northwoods for “deer camp” (and duck camp and fish camp) for some fresh piney air and a chance at cynegetic glory. The specific delights and idiosyncrasies of this experience are hard to explain to the uninitiated, but this movie does it well. Half the fun (and strangeness) happens when you’re not hunting.

The movie’s origin as a play is evident. There are stretches of tightly paced dialogue, with characters trading time in the spotlight, and a single setting where most of the action occurs. Yet despite the story taking place mostly within the cabin (which feels appropriately ramshackle and lived-in), Daniels stretches outside when needed to take advantage of the authentic Michigan wilderness around them.

Joey Albright shines as Reuben’s brother Remnar, whose Kevin James-style physicality contrasts well with Reuben’s browbeaten neuroticism. Add to this Harve Presnall’s stentorian father figure Albert and oddball supporting characters, and you’ve got a pasty-esque mix of flavors in this bizarre yet lovingly crafted indie movie that’s best watched in long underwear with a case of Leinenkugel’s.

Word by Word

“The process of creating a dictionary is magical, frustrating, brain wrenching, mundane, transcendent. It is ultimately a show of love for a language that has been called unlovely and unlovable.”

Unlovable? Bah! English may be a strange, amorphous beast, but its quirkiness is its charm. In Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, captures this charm with verve and infectious enthusiasm. She brings to life a profession that, like many old trades, has been disrupted by the internet, in good ways and bad, yet still (I believe) remains vital. The institution of Merriam-Webster, Stamper writes, “has been around longer than Ford Motors, Betty Crocker, NASCAR, and thirty-three of the fifty American states. It’s more American than football (a British invention) and apple pie (ditto).”

Then again, as one of those people who keep a word list and lights up when I stumble upon a new fancy word, I’m an easy mark for a book like this. But I’ve also tried similar books written by word or dictionary people, and none of them hooked me like this one.

Tackling a different word or phrase with each chapter, Stamper addresses the typical ongoing lexicographical catfights—is “irregardless” a real word (technically), do people who write “it’s” instead of “its” deserve to die (no)—but also ventures into muddier terrain. How should “bad” words like “bitch” be handled? How to modernize the “nude” definition (in the pantyhose color sense) without racializing it? How to respond to the write-in campaign to eliminate the “same-sex” aspect of the “marriage” definition (because removing a word from the dictionary removes it from existence, apparently)?

The chapter on the word “take” is especially illuminating. You’d think the obscure ten-dollar words would require more work to nail down, but those are relatively easy; it’s the small words like “take” and “but” that are more demanding because they have so many different uses and senses, most of which native English speakers don’t even consider. I now have a vastly greater appreciation for the thousand and one small choices that go into every dictionary edition, and not only from the definers but the etymologists, word daters, pronunciation editors, and proofreaders who somehow corral the incorrigible, ever-expanding, often insensible English language into something approaching order.

But to do that, Stamper writes, requires all English speakers to think of the language not as a fortress to be defended within the paper walls of the dictionary, but as a child:

We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go; it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.

Hear, hear! And may dictionaries flourish along with it.

Ötzi-quel

This ongoing saga of Ötzi the Iceman fascinates me. I first learned of him from Radiolab a few years ago, but turns out we keep learning more about this mythic Italian mummy:

The more scientists learn, the more recognizable the Iceman becomes. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall (about average height for his time), weighed 110 pounds, had brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair, and a size 7½ foot. He was about 45, give or take six years, respectably old for the late Neolithic age — but still in his prime.

Still kinda blown away science can figure this stuff out:

From examining traces of pollen in his digestive tract, scientists were able to place the date of Ötzi’s death at sometime in late spring or early summer. In his last two days, they found, he consumed three distinct meals and walked from an elevation of about 6,500 feet, down to the valley floor and then up into the mountains again, where he was found at the crime site, 10,500 feet up.

More to come, I hope.

Saint Benedict in Technopoly

Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology when I started in on Rod Dreher’s latest, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but I was detecting a subtle yet strong Postmanian vibe throughout the book. Then, when Dreher actually quoted Technopoly, I realized that wasn’t a coincidence.

First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.

I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.

The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:

In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.

And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.

Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”

Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.

Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.

Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.

But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.

Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

Down with S-Town

Yesterday I managed to mainline all seven episodes of S-Town, the new podcast from This American Life and Serial that were released all at once. It’s a fascinating blend of those two shows: at once an extended version of a TAL episode, complete with idiosyncratic characters and a vivid setting, and a Serial-esque mystery, with room to explore the unexpected narrative turns.

John B. McLemore, the central figure of S-town, gives incredible tape. The first episode features reporter Brian Reed’s first phone call with him, and immediately you get a sense of McLemore: sardonic, crass, hyper-articulate and smart, obsessive, and very Southern. Even when he’s not directly in the story, McLemore hovers over everything. The final episode (no spoilers) also manages to close his narrative loop with a link back to something in the first one, which I thought was a brilliant choice.

Check it out.

Top Shelf Madness

Almost two years ago I started writing about strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk, in a series I call Refer Madness

My latest one, titled “Finding Angels,” is debuting over at Booklist, as part of the latest issue of “Top Shelf Reference” newsletter. This latest one is about a patron who came in looking for a book about angels, but actually desired something else. 

I’ll continue Refer Madness here, but hope to keep them going in Top Shelf semi-regularly. Thanks to Rebecca at Booklist for the opportunity! 

If the President Tweets It

When the National Review is calling Trump out, it’s worth reading:

[Trump’s] tweets, however, are exposing something else in many of Trump’s friends and supporters — an extremely high tolerance for dishonesty and an oft-enthusiastic willingness to defend sheer nonsense. Yes, I know full well that many of his supporters take him “seriously, not literally,” but that’s a grave mistake. My words are of far lesser consequence than the president’s, yet I live my life knowing that willful, reckless, or even negligent falsehood can end my career overnight. It can end friendships instantaneously. Why is the truth somehow less important when the falsehoods come from the most powerful and arguably most famous man in the world?

I guess it’s the “if the president tweets it, it’s not a lie” doctrine. That’s worked out well before.

I’ve watched Christian friends laugh hysterically at Trump’s tweets, positively delighted that they cause fits of rage on the other side. I’ve watched them excuse falsehoods from reflexively-defensive White House aides, claiming “it’s just their job” to defend the president. Since when is it any person’s job to help their boss spew falsehoods into the public domain? And if that does somehow come to be your job, aren’t you bound by honor to resign? It is not difficult, in a free society, to tell a man (no matter how powerful they are or how much you love access to that power), “Sir, I will not lie for you.”

GOP gratitude for beating Hillary Clinton cannot and must not extend into acceptance (or even endorsement) of presidential dishonesty and impulsiveness. Trump isn’t just doing damage to himself. As he lures a movement into excusing his falsehoods, he does damage to the very culture and morality of his base. The truth still matters, even when fighting Democrats you despise.

Helen Huhta: A Life

“Take care and keep in touch.” My grandma Helen would close every letter she sent to me with that phrase. They were also the final words I said to her on Sunday, before she died yesterday at the age of 92.

After slowly declining for years, she took a turn for the worse this weekend. Jenny and I had already made plans to visit Madison for other reasons, but suddenly there was only one. Hospice was called, other family flew in. She was breathing but unresponsive, opening her eyes only rarely and smiling at whoever was there—that’s Helen for you—but then quickly fading again. We kept watch over her and made sure she was comfortable as we reminisced and discussed what to do with all of her things when the time came. She had moved thrice since leaving Texas after her husband of 63 years died, each time winnowing more and more things.

It was in her first Madison apartment where I began recording my conversations with her. These interviews, which I transcribed along with interviews of her family and friends, became a family oral history of her life. I compiled it into a book and gave her a printed copy for Christmas 2013. She never stopped thanking me for it. She also kept telling people that I wrote it, but I couldn’t get her to realize that I didn’t write it at all. It was her life—and such a life—as told by the people she loved and who loved her.

“Take care and keep in touch.” I could barely speak the words to her as I held her hand for the final time. She meant those words, because she lived them. She made a long life out of caring for people and staying in touch: birthday cards, phone calls about the latest family happenings, letters of encouragement and descriptions of the weather (always the weather). To the end,

Jenny and I made dobbins last night in honor of her. If you’ve ever had a Dobbin (or mound bars as she called them), you know Helen. They are her recipe and trademark within the family. Like her, they are sweet but powerful, and you can’t get enough of them. They are also the theme of one of the last emails she sent to me:

I love you too.