Categories
Books Review Science

The Ghost Map

When I learned Steven Johnson (my favorite author) has a new book out, it prompted me to finally read one of his previous books that’s been on my list for a while.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World was a timely read, for obvious reasons. Though cholera is a different beast than COVID (“Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew that there was an entirely reasonable chance you’d be dead in forty-eight hours”), its effect in this story and throughout history shows us both how far science has come since the Victorian Age and how vulnerable we remain to infectious diseases.

What I love most about this book—even beyond the historical factoids and masterful storytelling you can expect from any Johnson joint—is that it’s basically a murder mystery, with cholera as the microbial serial killer and an unlikely detective duo of a doctor and a priest hunting it during a deadly epidemic in the crowded, putrid London of the 1850s.

Call it an epidemiological thriller. Probably not much competition in that sub-genre, but Johnson made the most of it.

Quotes

I like Johnson’s description of London at the time:

an industrial-era city with an Elizabethan-era waste-removal system as perceived by a Pleistocene-era brain.

On the topography of progress:

The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors.

On great intellectual breakthroughs:

It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

On miasma theory and the “sociology of error”:

It’s not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it’s the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. …

How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline—the sociology of error.

Categories
Photography

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

Nice and clean newly painted line in a corner of my library’s under-renovation lower level:

We had some trees removed and the guy in the bucket truck looked like he was chillin’ on the roof despite actually floating through the air:

From our first time in Half Price Books without the stroller, where he definitely took advantage of his freedom:

While rock hunting at the beach I thought it’d be fun to throw one in the air and try to catch it on camera as it fell. This was the only shot that turned out, and it was kinda perfect:

Post-rain monkey bars at a local playground:

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard recently

The Good Lord Bird. The limited series really captures the book’s madcap and dramatic spirit. Ethan Hawke is so delightfully committed to the dead-serious absurdity of John Brown.

The Underground Railroad. Two of my main takeaways while watching this 10-episode limited series: 1. I can’t believe I get to watch essentially 10 new Barry Jenkins movies! And 2. That’s a few too many given the heavy subject matter!

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia. Recently my wife asked me to “get some jazz” from the library, so right before I left I grabbed a few albums more or less at random. Struck gold with this one.

Benny Goodman, Mozart at Tanglewood. Wanted to find some good concertos and heard good things about this one. Those good things were right.

Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking by Annie Atkins. A cool visual compendium and behind-the-scenes exploration of a film graphic prop designer’s impressive work, including lots from Wes Anderson movies.

Categories
Life Nature

Mulch ado about gardening

We’re finally, finally, doing stuff in our yard and garden areas. Some of it is remedial caretaking—fertilizing and weeding the lawn, removing dead bushes and trees—but a lot of it has focused on beautification and planting vegetables we’re not totally sure will thrive but are giving a try anyway.

I gotta say: I’ve really loved it. Perhaps because the work is the polar opposite of my digital, desk-bound day job: it’s an ancient practice, outside, requiring arduous physical labor, with visual progress toward to an end goal but no screens whatsoever.

The key reason we’ve been able to do so much thus far is Mr. 2 Years Old is now old enough to help, and boy does he enjoy it. We got him his own set of tools so he can work along with us, both for real and in the little dirt area we set aside just for him to romp around in. So far it’s collected a bunch of rocks and sticks, though we also set him up with a geranium to water.

As is the case with homeownership writ large, the list of things to do is seemingly endless and grows longer the more ambitious we get. Who knows what we’ll actually get to this year. That said, I’m kinda shocked by how much progress we’ve made with only partial weekends and the scattered weekday morning at our disposal.

Next up on the list: laying down a goodly amount of fragrant cypress mulch!

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2005

I started making annual top-10 movie lists in 2007, so I’ve been going backwards from there to create lists for each year retroactively. See all my best-of lists.

I really enjoyed kicking off my back-in-time film rankings series with the 2006 slate.

Most of my indelible memories from this moviegoing year involved the late, lamented Westgate Cinema, a rundown strip mall theater in Madison that showed the arthouse flicks I was really getting into at this time as a high school junior and senior. I saw several of my top 10 films there.

Looking at the box office from that year reveals a now-familiar dominance of franchises, though only one superhero movie. The only two original concepts represented in the top 10 were Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Hitch—one of which made my own top 10 and the other just missed out.

As for the Oscars, the bit that sticks out (besides the surprising-but-not-really Best Picture triumph of Crash over Brokeback Mountain) was host Jon Stewart’s quip after Three 6 Mafia won Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow: “For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one.”

On to the list…

1. Brokeback Mountain

True story: when I started teaching myself how to play guitar around this time, the first two songs I learned were “Blackbird” by The Beatles and “The Wings” from the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain score by Gustavo Santaolalla. Partially because they happened to share a similar riff (and, I realize only now, theme: “Take these broken wings and learn to fly…”), but also because they’re both gorgeously evocative in their own ways.

2. Good Night, And Good Luck

There’s a cozy intimacy this film accomplishes that sets it apart from other star-studded period dramas. Maybe it’s the smooth-jazz score, the black-and-white, or the short runtime. Or maybe it’s the contrast of big issues—freedom of speech, the power of the press—being teased out through small conversations in unassuming rooms.

3. Grizzly Man

I’ve seen and enjoyed many Werner Herzog documentaries, but this one still reigns supreme.

4. Batman Begins

Ah, the halcyon days of when a gritty superhero reboot was a novel concept.

5. A History of Violence

The fight in the diner. The stairway sex scene. The final shot.

6. The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Let’s save the discussion about the cancelability of mid-2000s comedies for the 2004 list (Anchorman, Dodgeball) and say for now that this felt like a sea change at the time, not only for the humor but also for the ultimately positive portrayal of virginity.

7. The New World

I remember going to see this with some friends who were expecting something closer to Pocahontas than the slow, meandering, meditative epic this actually is. Needless to say they didn’t like it, but I did.

8. Walk the Line

At my high school, seniors were allowed to make a big raucous commotion between classes on their last day of school to celebrate graduating. My contribution to this day was hoisting my boombox above my head and playing this movie’s soundtrack on repeat while I walked the halls.

9. Four Brothers

An underrated winter movie, crime movie, family drama, and ensemble piece, with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s truly chilling turn as the sadistic, fur-spangled crime boss Victor Sweet as a bonus.

10. Mr. & Mrs. Smith

We now know how Brangelina would turn out, but at the time the chemistry of Pitt and Jolie was as incandescent as this movie’s alchemy of action, humor, and romance.

Honorable mentions: Broken Flowers, Fever Pitch, Hitch, In Her Shoes, Just Friends, King Kong, The Squid and the Whale, War of the Worlds

Categories
America Life

Marveling at masks amidst the plague experience

In his latest column “Are Face Masks the New Condoms?” (paywalled), Andrew Sullivan reflects on how difficult it is to change pandemic-induced behaviors:

With HIV, as with Covid, a transformation of the facts did not necessarily mean a transformation of psychology. Human psyches take time to adjust to new realities; fear and trauma have a habit of outlasting our reason; and stigmas, once imposed, can endure. Camus noted how his citizens in The Plague were oddly resistant to the idea that their pestilence was over, even as the numbers of deaths collapsed. Reactions to the good news were “diverse to the point of incoherence.” But for many, “the terrible months they had lived through had taught them prudence,” or imbued them with “a skepticism so thorough that it was now a second nature.” They had become used to their new routines, and the sense of safety they gave. However bizarre it seems, they became attached to their plague experience.

Sullivan is specifically referring to some people’s resistance to going mask-less outdoors despite the latest science condoning it. But his larger point about the stubbornness of human psychology and becoming emotionally attached to the pandemic experience rang very true for me.

Marveling at masks

Not long before lockdown last year, wearing a mask was still liable to be seen as paranoia even as the specter of the pandemic lurched ever closer. Yet now, long after mask mandates went into effect, it’s not wearing a mask that attracts suspicion and consternation—at least in the Chicago area where I live (obviously it’s a different story in other parts of the country).

And that’s one aspect of pandemic life I’ve become not necessarily attached to, but certainly appreciative of. Anytime I go to a store or other indoor public place, I see every person wearing a mask, even young kids, and think, This is pretty cool.

It’s pretty cool that all of us—whether willingly or begrudgingly—are undertaking collective action to benefit the health of our neighbors and nation. Again, whether you see it that way or not is irrelevant; it’s the fact that it’s happening at all and on such a grand, widespread scale that’s a bit of a marvel to me.

It makes me feel a kind of kinship with my fellow countrymen and women, an esprit de corps that makes the frustrations of pandemic life a little more bearable. Or, as Matt Thomas tweeted:

(Notably this tweet was from before we knew COVID transmission was far more likely through air droplets than direct touch, but the sentiment remains valid.)

To be clear, I’d rather not have to wear a mask. Once mask mandates end and the prevailing, science-based wisdom allows for a more normal life, I’ll celebrate with everyone else. But until then, I consider masking up something to embrace as a small but significant action I can take to nudge this plague in the right direction.

(That and getting the vaccine, which I’ve now done.)

In this together?

“We’re all in this together” started the pandemic as a motivational motto that even yours truly deployed, but over time kinda curdled into a cheap slogan of hackneyed false optimism due to the decided un-togetherness fostered by a very tumultuous 2020. We all haven’t had the same COVID experience.

I’m one of those people for whom there was very little that was negative about it. I didn’t lose my job. I got to and continue to work from home (saving a bunch of money on commute fuel, among other things). I avoided catching COVID, as did my immediate family and friends (knock on wood). And above all I got so much more time with my wife and 2 year old than I would have otherwise, which was a priceless gift.

For those reasons I’ve very much become “attached to the plague experience.” The new routines it generated will be hard to kick. Slowly, as more people get vaccinated and another summer outdoors approaches in relief, maybe a new mindset will take hold. (I for one eagerly await going to a movie theater once I’m past my post-vaccine waiting period.)

Until then, the plague experience abides.

Categories
Photography

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

This picture barely captures how cool the evening light was through these clouds at my local strip mall:

Remnants of winter:

Black Play-Doh + white Play-Doh = accidentally awesome marbled design:

“Aphyllous trees beneath cirrocumulus clouds” sounds like a line from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” but is really just what I caught here at our park:

Just doing domino runs with Jenga blocks with the 2 year old:

On the move in Pure Michigan:

Liked the colors and lines here:

Shout-out to the kids playing pickup baseball at the park who probably have never seen The Sandlot but nevertheless showed why it’s such a timeless classic:

Categories
Film Life

Favorite Films of 2006

My annual top-10 movie lists begin in 2007, so I thought it would be fun to start going backwards from there and create lists for each year retroactively.

First up is 2006, which is now 15 years ago and a notable year for me in several ways: it’s when I graduated high school, went on tour with my band (RIP Ice Cap Fortune), entered college, and started this blog.

I also have a lot of movie-related memories from that year, including:

  • seeing Brick at my beloved Hilldale Theatre in Madison not long before it closed permanently
  • going to my first and last midnight screening (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
  • suffering through some truly awful movies (X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Lady in the Water)
  • starting to write about movies (Quinceañera, The Prestige, the 2006 Oscars)

But the abiding memory from 2006 was the day I saw five movies in a row.

My mediocre movie marathon

This may be a common occurrence for film festival-goers or professional critics, but for me it was something I did just to see if I could pull it off—both as a tactical feat of avoiding detection by the theater staff and as a moviegoing stunt.

I walked into Marcus Point Cinema in Madison, WI, for a 12pm showing and reemerged into the darkness just before midnight (paying for only one ticket—yes, I was a teenage scofflaw). It’s not the best lineup, but here’s what I saw:

  1. The Pursuit of Happyness
  2. Rocky Balboa
  3. The Nativity Story (an unplanned addition but it fit perfectly between other showings, and my mom joined me with some contraband McDonald’s)
  4. Blood Diamond
  5. The Good Shepherd (my dad joined me for this one)

I never did this again and would not recommend it. By Blood Diamond my eyes were getting blurry and my butt hurt, so I don’t think I could fully appreciate that or The Good Shepherd. But it was bucket list cross-off and gave me a story to tell on my blog 15 years later.

Anyway, on to the list…

Top 10 of 2006

I suspect this won’t continue to be the case as I move back in time, but I saw almost all of the films in my top 10 in theaters at the time. By then I was an ardent cinephile with a job and a car, so I was able to see a lot of movies. And there were a lot of great ones. Here are my favorites:

  1. Children of Men
  2. Brick
  3. Tell No One
  4. Casino Royale (review)
  5. Inside Man
  6. Stranger Than Fiction (review)
  7. The Departed
  8. V for Vendetta
  9. Pan’s Labyrinth
  10. Jackass Number Two

Honorable mentions: The Prestige, Borat, Little Miss Sunshine, Idiocracy, Half Nelson, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Shut Up and Sing, Monster House, Old Joy, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Mission: Impossible III

Categories
Review Television

My favorite Boomtown moments

After writing my paean to Boomtown, the cry of the masses rang out from sea to shining sea with a resounding message: “More Boomtown content!!!”

I live to serve.

During my latest rewatch, I took note of the moments that have stuck with me in the almost 20 years since the series debuted. I considered including them in that post but figured I’d give them some space of their own.

This list is, of course, inexhaustive. Though I’d derive much pleasure from an episode-by-episode review of the show, I also want people to read this blog.

There will be spoilers. I include quotes from each moment, but they’re best experienced through the original show in the provided YouTube links.


“I don’t have any prayers, but I do have a story.”

(Episode 1, “Pilot”)

In a scene that bookends the episode, a man is dumping the ashes of his grandson into the Los Angeles River with detectives Joel and Bobby “Fearless” by his side. He asks if either of them have a prayer. “I’m fresh out,” says Joel, for reasons we’ll learn later. But Fearless offers a story—the first of many times he’s good for a wise and timely one—and tells what serves as a riverside eulogy:

There was this wave, way out on the ocean. And he was just racing along having a great time—and just sunlight glinting, spray just flying—until one day he looked ahead, and he saw wave after wave in front of him crashing on the beach, and he got scared. And this older wave in front of him said, “I know exactly what your problem is. You’ve been having so much fun being a wave, that you forgot you’re really just part of the ocean.”

It’s a fitting preamble to a show that follows the perspective of several waves, so to speak, and watches how they blend into a narrative ocean.


Don’t help the police.

(Episode 2, “Possession”)

The husband of a dancer at a private club is dead and the cops are questioning the business owner, who refuses to reveal his clientele. Enter Neal McDonough as the razor-sharp deputy district attorney David McNorris in a two-minute scene that sets up so much about him: his charisma, his love of boxing, his tortured relationship with his father, his ruthless cunning. He begins on the ropes, lying to his wife on the phone about his whereabouts, but then comes out swinging—literally and figuratively:

*David punches a wall*

So the favor I’m gonna ask is really quite simple. Don’t help the police. Don’t tell them who was at your party last night. Don’t help them stop a guy from killing his wife. Just don’t. ‘Cause let me tell ya, I’m not in a good mood today, and there is nothing I’d rather do than beat that supercilious look off of your face. You get me?

Needless to say, he got him.


“I just don’t understand how you can let someone go.”

(Episode 11, “Monster’s Brawl”)

Sam Anderson (a.k.a. Bernard from LOST) shines in a guest spot as Scott Dawson, the father of a homeless addict named Bradley who’d been mistakenly considered killed. After talking about his wayward son’s struggles with sobriety and having to let him go emotionally, he overhears Joel wonder aloud how a parent could let their child go and confronts him in an exchange that touches on the joys and anguish of parenthood:

BERNARD: Do you have any children?

JOEL: A boy.

– How old?

– Eight.

– Magic age. You can play catch but you can still chase him and tickle him. You ever just watch him? Without him knowing—just watch him, the back of his head, his hair. You look at that and you just can’t believe it because you never thought you could love somebody so much, or be so loved. OK, now jump forward 20 years, and that same little perfect boy is now a hopeless drunk. You have tried everything you can think of to help him and nothing works. And every time the phone rings you think, This is it, he’s dead. And then one day the call does come, and you come down to a police station and you look at a jacket and you think, My boy died in that jacket. Can you imagine how that feels, detective?

– No sir, I can’t.

– Well, try. You go home to your wife and your little boy, and you try to imagine exactly that.

In another great moment at the end of the episode, Joel shares with Fearless that his wife Kelly, suffering from postpartum depression, had tried to kill herself after their baby died mysteriously (more on this later), which is why Scott’s words had struck him so deeply:

For Bradley’s dad, it’s coming home, hearing the phone ring, and thinking it’s going to be news that his son’s dead. But for me it’s coming home, finding a knife out in the kitchen, thinking I’m going to see Kelly in all that blood again.

Dark, for sure, but also a reminder that people’s motivations and inner battles are often unknowable.


“Will Andrea Little be covering this story?”

(Episode 15, “Storm Watch”)

Officer Ray Heckler is often portrayed as just an affable chatterbox, but he’s also sneakily smart and a reservoir of veteran savvy. That comes in handy during this riveting two-episode arc (along with Episode 14, “Execution”) where a dirty cop in the LAPD facilitates the killing of three fellow officers, and suspects abound. Ray is already tainted by a corruption investigation involving his ex-partner, and McNorris tries to use that as leverage against him to spill on his fellow cops. But Ray has some leverage of his own:

RAY: Oh, I’ll talk. I just gotta ask you a question first. Will Andrea Little be covering this story?

DAVID: How would I know that?

– If she is, I suppose she’ll be banging out the first draft over there at Fulham’s on Eighth. She’s got a back booth reserved there. She’s there all the time—it’s where she writes her stories. And sometimes she’s joined by this guy. Between swapping spit with him and knocking back the Jamesons, it’s a wonder she ever gets anything done. So you do what you gotta do.

– Nice try, Ray. FYI, though, in the future, if you’re going to blackmail someone, make sure you have a little leverage. My marriage is over.

– Oh no, I wouldn’t think of bringing up a tawdry little subject like sex. I’m talking politics! I’m talking about a deputy district attorney wrapping up with a crusading reporter who’s supposed to be covering his office. Not exactly going to help your credibility in certain circles, is it?

Not only does his maneuver keep McNorris at bay, he also got information earlier in the scene that he uses to identify the crooked cop. It’s one of many times in the show that Ray cracks a case, pleasantly surprising his colleagues and viewers.


“You knew it wasn’t my brother.”

(Episode 16, “Fearless”)

In a mirror version of the previous Joel/Fearless scene, Fearless is now the one confessing a secret shame to his partner in an episode that follows his personal reckoning with being a sexual abuse survivor. He was able to track down his abuser and get an opportunity to exact the vengeance he’s long sought, but decides against it. Then Joel arrives:

FEARLESS: I didn’t do it.

JOEL: I know.

– But what if I had?

– You wouldn’t do that.

– But what if I had?

– It’s not who you are.

– But what if I had?

– I brought a shovel. You’re my partner, Fearless. Of all the people I’ve met, I’ve never respected anyone as much as I respect you. If you’d have done it, then he’d have deserved it.

– You knew it wasn’t my brother.

– You knew my wife didn’t break our shower door.

This is an amazing exchange for several reasons. Joel shows up for Fearless in a crucial moment, ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of his colleague and brother-in-arms. Then they mutually confess to the fictions they’d perpetuated with each other out of fear (even for “Fearless”): that it was Fearless’s brother who was sexually abused and that Kelly’s arm cuts were from accidentally breaking the shower door.

Later on, Fearless talks to his lover about the triggering event that set him off on his painful journey:

It was in the store. There was a father walking with his son. And out of the blue he just bent over and kissed the top of his head. I knew it was innocent, but I couldn’t help but have a moment of suspicion. I mean, I’m cursing myself that I should even question this loving gesture. I guess I’m still a prisoner of something that happened a long time ago.

As someone who loves being affectionate with my son all day, every day, I can only grieve for the people whose instinctual response to such a loving gesture would be poisoned by their traumatic history.


“You don’t have to do this alone.”

(Episode 17, “Blackout”)

Andrea and David began the series in an affair, but by now they’ve drifted so far apart that Andrea is grasping at David while he descends toward rock bottom as a philandering, self-destructive, and reckless alcoholic. With experience as the daughter of an alcoholic and as a savvy reporter, Andrea cuts through David’s bullshit:

ANDREA: David, you don’t have to do this alone. There are people that can help.

DAVID: See, now therein lies the problem. The lie.

– What lie?

– That somehow we’re not alone, that we’ll be somehow there for each other.

– And what’s the truth, David?

– The truth is that we’re born alone and we’re gonna die alone. And sometimes there are these sweet little moments that we have this illusion that we’re connected.

– You just don’t get it, do you? It’s all right there in front of you and you can’t even reach for it. All we have is each other, David. That connection. All the rest—the careers, the homes, the cars, the money—that’s the illusion.

– Can you really see me unfolding chairs in a church basement singing “Kumbaya” with a bunch of drunks?

– No, you’re right. You’re so much better off going on like this…

Season 1 does find David in a better place, heading off to rehab with a newfound humility and gratefulness. (Again, haven’t seen season 2, so don’t know if that stuck…)


“You haven’t read this? You should have.”

(Episode 18, “Lost Child”)

This is the payoff the entire season was building toward, at least in Joel’s arc. He and Kelly are at their psychiatrist’s office after Joel gets tangled in an investigation on the mysterious death of their infant child Emma. They requested a second coroner’s report but haven’t read it, not wanting to confront the awful possibility that Kelly might have inadvertently caused the death while having a bad reaction to sleeping pills.

Joel and Kelly finally lay it out to each other: she thinks she somehow killed the baby; he knows she didn’t because he was watching her that night instead of the baby. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist has been reading the report and delivers the news:

You haven’t read this? You should have. According to this, Emma had a brain aneurysm. It was bound to go off—then, or in grade school, or as a young mother with three children herself. There was nothing you could have done, even if she was in your arms. Your little girl got dealt a bad card, and so did you.

This moment is so cathartic—for Joel and Kelly, but also the viewer, who’s been piecing together this story arc throughout the season. The fact that they’d avoided reading the report out of a fear for what it could reveal illustrates the power of guilt to forestall any attempts at healing and finding closure.

Categories
Life

What music is that noise?

We were driving with Mr. 2 Year Old and he heard some noise outside and said: “What music is that noise?” And I’ve thought a lot about it since.