Super dead girls


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I just finished reading Catherynne Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues, which the lovely Lea Seidman Hernandez recommended to me, and I recommend it to you.

In the afterlife, a bunch of super-heroines, girlfriends of super-heroes, and at least one villainess — all deceased — gather to tell each other how they lived, how they died, and what they think of the super-doings that they encountered. None of the characters is exactly Gwen Stacy or Harley Quinn or Jean Grey, but it’s not hard (or even very important) to dope out who’s supposed to be who.

The writing is sharp, the insights into character are smart, and the stories rattle along swiftly, with virtually no narrative waste. I think the book will entertain a variety of readers, even people who know about super-heroes only through movies. And for comics fans, the book provides nasty little thrills on the order of “This is what nice, sweet Gwendy would’ve really felt about Spider-Man after one of his adventures got her throat snapped.”

Buy. Read. Enjoy.



Donald Trump, rich kids, and the impostor syndrome


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donald-trumps-pivotal-childhood-experiences-in-the-art-of-the-deal-include-punching-his-second-grade-teacher-in-the-faceYoung Donald Trump

I grew up in Beverly Hills. The experience has given me an idea about Donald Trump.

My dad didn’t earn one percent of the money that Trump’s father did — far from it! — but I knew kids whose parents had heavy money. It can make a kid insecure: “I’ve got so much stuff, but I didn’t earn it. Maybe I don’t deserve it.”

If an insecure person achieves high status, his self-image can congeal into the impostor syndrome: “I’m in this great position, but if people find out that I don’t deserve it, my life could fall apart.”

That person might hide this fear under bluster and bravado: “If I act like I’m the greatest and like anyone against me is just jealous or lying or crooked — like they’re the undeserving ones, not me — then I’ll be safe.”

Trump would probably deny that insecurity could be driving him. He doesn’t seem introspective enough to explore whatever subterranean fears might be spinning his turbines. Nor does he seem likely to consider that he may have built up the hard-charging front-line fighters of his outward behavior to protect him from his own feelings.

And I’ll admit that Trump-size wealth seems likelier to make a kid feel secure, not insecure. If everyone around you always gives you the best of everything as if you deserve it all, then you’ll probably believe that you deserve it.

But when I see someone who boasts about himself and denounces others as often and passionately as Trump, I see insecurity. And it may be the insecurity of the rich kid who feels like an undeserving impostor.

If Hitler wrote science fiction


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I’ve just finished Norman Spinrad’s 1972 book The Iron Dream, which answers the question “What if Hitler had become a science-fiction writer instead of a dictator?”

Most of the book is Hitler’s allegedly Hugo-winning 1954 novel Lord of the Swastika, plus blurbs from Spinrad’s peers (Michael Moorcock: “It is bound to earn Hitler the credit he so richly deserves!”), a short bio of Hitler (who “dabbled briefly in radical politics in Munich before finally emigrating to New York in 1919”), a list of Hitler’s other SF books (e.g., The Master Race) and an afterword by a New York University professor who attacks Hitler’s literary flaws.

Of which there are many. The book’s a heavily romanticized, post-apocalypse version of Hitler’s real-world career. Blonde, muscular, genetically perfect Feric Jaggar (same scansion as “Adolf Hitler”) accumulates dark-eyed, intense propagandist Seph Bogel (an analog of Joseph Goebbels), worshipful aide Ludolf Best (Rudolf Hess), portly war minister Waffing (Goering), and SS leader Remler (Himmler) as lieutenants in his crusade to eliminate inferior “mongrel races” and the evil Dominators, whose subversive influence weakens the spirit of pure, true humanity.

After Jaggar rises to rule the noble land of Heldon (in German, “Held” means “hero”), he leads his men — the story has no women, except in very brief passing — to war against the Dominators and their slaves. At this point, the book loses dramatic tension, because Jaggar is so superior to non-Helders that they rarely offer him a challenge — just opportunities for him to inflict orgiastic violence, which Hitler/Spinrad describes in the pulpiest prose. True to Hitler’s roots as an artist, the book packs its scenes with vivid and often grotesque visual detail.

The book parodies space operas in which a manly, all-American champion destroys an entire (predatory and physically ugly) alien race, and sword-and-sorcery epics pitting a beefy, undauntable conqueror against corrupt, decadent schemers. If you’ve ever cheered for such protagonists, Spinrad gives you an extreme version and then says, in effect, “You enjoy stuff like this? Well, it’s the kind of thing Hitler would write!”

Spinrad deliberately wrote a bad story to make you feel bad about enjoying other bad stories. This is high satire.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — one year later


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maxresdefaultYesterday as I write this, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off aired for free online, courtesy of Domino’s Pizza.

I always wanted to see a sequel showing Ferris’ future, in which these events have happened:

• Ferris, always unable to ignore temptation, cheated on his beloved Sloane and broke her heart. 

(The original movie hints at this future during the parade scene, when Sloane looks up and sees the girls on Ferris’s parade float adore him — and, to her disappointment, he enjoys and indulges their adoration. Later, when he’s running home under terrible time pressure, he stops to chat with two swimsuited women sunning themselves. His devotion to Sloane is not exactly monogamous.)

• Cameron told his father about destroying the man’s beloved Ferrari, whereupon Dad beat Cameron nearly to death, shipped him to military school, and (using the benefits of being rich) escaped prosecution and bad publicity for assaulting his son.

• Jean/Shauna got involved with the druggy Charlie Sheen character, who used her as his drug mule; she got arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for possession and trafficking.

• Ed Rooney’s agonizing failure to take Ferris down pushed him into a spiral of attempted (but always failed) revenge. His unending obsession led him to losing his job and near-death by alcoholism.

• And Ferris, as usual, skipped away from all of this suffering — until Sloane, Cameron, Jean, and Ed caught up with him.

How fame, wealth, and power made Donald Trump weak


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Something that Gwyneth Paltrow said reminds me of Donald Trump:

“Fame is such a weird and distorting thing. I’ve thought a lot about it, and my theory is that you kind of stop growing at the age you are when you become famous. Because what happens is, people start removing all your obstacles, and if you have no obstacles you don’t know who you are. You don’t have real perspective on the problems that face you in life, how to surmount them, and what kind of character you have.”
–– Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales.

Paltrow’s right. But fame isn’t the only attribute that removes obstacles. Wealth and power have the same effect.

Whether you have wealth, fame, or power, people without those advantages will try to do favors for you. They may not like you, but a lot of them will try to please you, because you have what they want or what they fear.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

Trump has been wealthy since infancy, famous since his early thirties, and powerful — first in business and then in politics — for decades. Whenever he’s faced obstacles, he’s used his wealth, fame, and power to help him surmount them.

When someone without Trump’s wealth, power, or fame faces obstacles, she can surmount them only by raw strength of character. Even the mostly despicable Richard Nixon developed impressive tenacity and resilience.

Not Trump, though. He’s never had to build up those mental muscles.

No wonder he goes on Twitter rampages when people displease him. He may never have needed to learn other ways to respond.

Veterans and taxes


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On this Memorial Day, while we remember people who have fallen while in service to this country, I’d like to propose something for those still living.

Right now, disabled veterans get tax breaks. That’s a good thing.

But I’d go further. I’d provide tax breaks for all veterans, even those not disabled.

These breaks would last for as long as the veterans spent in uniform. So if you spent four years in service and then left the military, you’d enjoy tax breaks during your first four years after becoming a civilian. These breaks could be similar to the tax breaks that servicepeople get while still in uniform.

Veterans have served us. Let’s serve them.

The beat of the Beatles


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I’m no expert, and maybe my fondness for the underdog is showing —

— but as I listen to Sirius XM’s new Beatles channel, I find Ringo’s drumming especially appealing.

Ringo does what great movie/theater designers and crew do: create the ambience and environment that let the stars appear at their best. In the Beatles’ case, the stars were the melodies and lyrics, and the performances thereof.

But Ringo does more. As a song progresses, and its melody and rhythm repeat over and over, Ringo tosses in inventive fills and other touches to keep the song fresh.

Since, as I said, I’m no expert, and maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about — but dang, I think Ringo was good.

Is Donald Trump a disruptor? Or: Do presidents ever “drain the swamp”?


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drain_the_swamp-crop-promo-xlarge2A colleague of mine, Adam Freeman, recently asked me and other anti-Trumpites on Facebook:

What if we are wrong [about Donald Trump]?
What if he is a patriot and a disruptor? What if what we need is someone to break the status quo and rebuild a more just system of government, or a stronger economy? What would it look like if that were the case? How is that different than what we’re seeing?

I don’t know if I want a president to disrupt the system. Presidents who do it usually do it by taking more power for themselves.

A disruption that helped to “drain the swamp” was the 1883 Pendleton Act. The law tore down the “spoils system” — as in “to the victor belong the spoils”; the system gave jobs to people who were loyal to people who won elections — and installed the Civil Service, which would (in theory) reward people for merit and seniority.

The Pendleton Act didn’t come from a president but from a senator, George Pendleton of Ohio.

(You could argue that we have a spoils system today. The federal government has grown so huge that after every presidential election, the government issues the “Plum Book,” a list of more than 9,000 federal jobs that the president can fill even if his appointees haven’t risen through the Civil Service. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

Other disruptions came after the shocking revelations of Watergate: the Campaign Finance Law of 1974 and the Ethics in Government Law of 1978, which changed elections and government practices.

Yet another disruption came as a result of the disastrous Vietnam War: the War Powers Act, which limited the president’s power to make war.

None of these 1970s laws came from the White House. Members of Congress proposed and passed them, sometimes over presidential vetoes.

Another category of disruption has been letting a vastly increased number of people have voting power, generally by amending the Constitution. The 15th Amendment let African-Americans vote. The 17th Amendment allowed ordinary voters, not state legislatures, to elect senators. The 19th Amendment gave women the vote.

Again, though, these weren’t presidential initiatives.

I’ve heard conservatives say that Ronald Reagan’s reforms were disruptions that took power from the federal government. But as the Reagan administration was ending, the free-market Mises Institute’s Sheldon Richman tallied the results in government spending, taxes, regulation, bureaucracy, and trade. He concluded, “[Reagan] was to be the man who would turn things around. But he didn’t even try. . . . There has been no sea-change in thinking about the role of government.”

So if you expect Donald Trump or any other president to drain the swamp, forget it. He just drains the people from the previous administration and inserts his own loyalists, like every other president.

And if you expect him to be a disruptor — nope, that won’t happen, either. When a president disrupts Washington’s power centers, he usually does it to pull more power toward himself.

Is that what America wants?

“When you call me that, SMILE!”


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I just finished The Virginian, generally considered the first novel about the old West that wasn’t just a bang-bang dime-novel shoot-’em-up.

The book was a gigantic best-seller that has directly or indirectly influenced every Western in print or on screen. It established one Western trope after another:
• It takes place in a tiny town on the edge of the frontier and on the endless, wild prairie surrounding the town.
• The main character, a cowboy, is a Byronic hero on horseback — a strong, silent type. He has a strong moral code but doesn’t get all flowery about it. He’s a natural leader who stands up for justice and integrity — by fighting, when necessary.
• A pretty, young schoolmarm comes to town. She and the hero have a courtship that plays out the differences between her Eastern background (gentility, distinguished breeding, proper education) and his Western ways (informality, familiarity with nature, readiness to face violence).
• The villain, a cattle rustler who’s jealous of the hero, lures him into a climactic shootout.

The book also originated a classic scene between hero and villain during (of course) a poker game in a saloon:
The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. . . . Drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: “When you call me that, SMILE!” . . . .
Silence, like a stroke, fell on the large room. All men present, as if by some magnetic current, had become aware of this crisis. . . .
Then, with equal suddenness and ease, the room came out of its strangeness. Voices and cards, the click of chips, the puff of tobacco, glasses lifted to drink,–this level of smooth relaxation hinted no more plainly of what lay beneath than does the surface tell the depth of the sea.
For Trampas had made his choice. And that choice was not to “draw his steel.”

By the way, the phrase that caused the Virginian to demand a smile was “You son-of-a—.”

The author, Owen Wister — a silver-spoon Philadelphia banker, musician, and lawyer — wrote the book in 1902. I started the book expecting it to be little more than a historical curio. But Wister tells his story well and presents characters who range from intriguing to genuinely moving.

I found certain elements especially interesting.

The style sometimes gets so plain and straightforward that it foreshadows Hemingway. For instance:
The murder had been done from behind. We closed the eyes.
 “There was no natural harm in him,” said the Virginian. “But you must do a thing well in this country.”
(A few decades later, Wister and Hemingway would become friends.)

One brief passage, in which the grieving Virginian grieves over having to kill his best friend, seems to hint at a gay subtext:
The tide of emotion was even now whirling him. . . . “Steve and me most always hunted in couples back in them gamesome years,” he explained. And he fell into the elemental talk of sex, such talk as would be an elk’s or tiger’s; and spoken so by him, simply and naturally, as we speak of the seasons, or of death, or of any actuality, it was without offense. It would be offense should I repeat it. Then, abruptly ending these memories of himself and Steve, he went out of the tent, and I heard him dragging a log to the fire. When it had blazed up, there on the tent wall was his shadow and that of the log where he sat with his half-broken heart.

And the book is light on the racism that would scar the Western genre. Wister was a racist in his personal views, but this book doesn’t ridicule Mexicans. It doesn’t include any comical Chinese who can’t speak English well. It doesn’t slur Indians, although the characters sometimes refer to some Indians as dangerous and ready to kill white men.

The book does include a couple of Jewish peddlers but plays them straight rather than as stereotypes. And when it mentions African-Americans, it does so in the context of condemning Southern lynch mobs:
“Judge Henry,” said Molly Wood, also coming straight to the point, “have you come to tell me that you think well of lynching?”
He met her. “Of burning Southern Negroes in public, no. . . .
“I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous . . . . We [in Wyoming] do not tortur
e our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony. We put no such hideous disgrace upon the United States.”

Unfortunately for matters of race, the book’s characters are almost all white. That may have been historically accurate for Wyoming; but today, having no non-white characters seems like an unfair exclusion and a blind spot on the author’s part.

In general, though, I think the book holds up well.

Weak-willed super-heroes


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Will power. In DC Comics, Hal Jordan and his comrades in the Green Lantern Corps focus it through a ring that can make or do nearly anything. Green Lantern stories imply that Green Lanterns have more, purer, and stronger will power than anyone.

Too bad that’s not true.

When we call people strong-willed, we mean that they obey no one’s will but their own. The most famous film about Adolf Hitler is titled Triumph of the Will, hinting that Hitler rose to conquer Germany by applying tenacity and determination; and the movie got that part right. In The Godfather, Mario Puzo described mafia bosses as men whose will was so strong that they refused to knuckle under to any authority, even the cops and the courts. A person with more will than anyone else — that is, more drive, desire, and ambition — isn’t going to take orders.

But the Green Lanterns have usually obeyed the orders of little blue men half a universe away, the self-appointed Guardians of the Universe.

If the Green Lanterns did have truly supreme will, then they wouldn’t work for the Guardians. Can you imagine Hitler or a mafia kingpin saying, “Yes, sir, right away, sir” if he didn’t have to?

When Green Lanterns do prove themselves supremely strong-willed, the Guardians don’t like it. All the way back in Green Lantern #7, by John Broome, Gil Kane, and Joe Giella, the Green Lantern Sinestro proved too willful for the Guardians to control. He says it himself: “I am Green Lantern — no one can tell me what to do!”

So the Guardians kicked him out of the Corps.


They’ve even punished Hal Jordan for being too willful. In Green Lantern #76, by Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and Frank Giacoia, an enraged Hal was about to slug a slumlord when the Guardians ordered him to leave, chewed him out, and told him to go away and cool off until they called him. When he defied them and returned to Earth — that is, when he asserted his own will — they got even madder.



You can do a lot of things in the Green Lantern Corps — but don’t demonstrate too much will.

(P.S. DC has shown at least one character with more will power than a Green Lantern.  In Justice League International #18, by Keith Giffen, J.M DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire, and Al Gordon, the interstellar badass Lobo walked right through a barrier that the Green Lantern G’Nort constructed. G’Nort’s a comedy-relief character, so maybe he doesn’t represent the bulk of the Green Lantern Corps. But he’s still one of them.)