The Only Derek Jeter T-Shirt I'd Wear
Jordan Shusterman, a writer over at Cut4.com, has a piece from earlier this month called “Let's appreciate how long Ichiro has been playing professional baseball.” It's mostly timeline, and not bad, although my version would include different historic markers. But I particularly like this one: Shohei Otani was born two years after Ichiro began playing professional baseball with the Orix BlueWave. How about that?
Here's my favorite part, though. It's the historic marker for 2014.
It's the combo of words and images. Jeter seems to be celebrating with us that he's leaving.
In reality, Jeter was celebrating because his last at-bat at Yankee Stadium yielded a game-winning single. But it was a meaningless game—the Yanks missed the post-season by a big margin that year—so why such excitement? Because it helped secure his legacy and legend. It was another “Derek Jeter moment.” It was all about him.
But the above? Put it on a T-shirt and I'd wear it—the only Derek Jeter T-shirt I'd be caught dead in.
Still practicing my Chinese—slowly but way not-so-surely—and was working on gei or “to give.” Wo gei ni kahn, etc. This is that character:
Oddly, though, every time I'd begin, rather than a straight line under the radical, the part on the left, I'd add three vertical dashes. I did that like three or four times, again and again, chastising myself all the while. “Where did that come from?” I wondered.
It came from the past. It came from muscle memory. Because that's how the traditional character, which I learned 30 years ago, is written:
I do think China screwed up a lot of characters when they simplified. For example: This is ur, or “son,” first as traditional and then as simplified:
兒 vs. 儿
The traditonal always reminded me of a wobbly-headed kid on splindly legs. That's how I always remembered it. It looks like what it is, and it's kinda cute. Don't know what to make of the simplfied version. Just legs? Like spider legs? I'm getting nothing here.
They also butchered dong, or “east”:
東 vs. 东
The first is a rising sun, which, you know, makes sense. The second is ... what ... the Fantastic Four signal? I‘ve got no clue. It’s lopsided, too. I hate writing that character.
I know: Who am I to criticize. 我是什么东西？
Movie Review: Shabab Sheyab (2018)
Hamad, Hassan and the General. Think Steve Buscemi, Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones.
I was drawn to the movie by its description in the film guide for the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival:
After one of them receives a windfall inheritance, a group of fiesty [sic] elderly men escape their assisted living home and hit the streets of Dubai to explore the dreams they had all but forgotten in this tender comedy-adventure that proves you are never too old to discover life's joys.
In Hollywood, I figured, it would be a forgettable, dispiriting film with a few elderly actors romping around, making non-poignant jokes about aging, and, for a scene, dressing up in ridiculous hip-hop fashions and walking in slow-mo toward the camera. But at SIFF? From United Arab Emirates? I had confidence it would be better than that.
Everything wrapped up nicely
“On Borrowed Time” (Arab title “Shabab Sheyab” or “Old Youth”) borrows the clichés of Hollywood movies—including that hip-hop, slow-mo walk toward the camera—without its century of professional storytelling. It’s a bad combo. Thirty minutes in, I silently chastised myself: “Dude, you really have to check out the trailers before you drag your wife to these things.”
It begins well. An old man in voiceover talks about the stars and the moon aligning and making the conditions perfect for writing. And what he’s writing? It's good. I assumed he was a writer, a professional, now living the last years of his life in an assisted-living facility in Dubai. I wanted more of it. But that angle disappears almost immediately.
The voiceover belongs to Abu Hassan (Sad Al-Faraj), who has an expressive face and a twinkle in his eye, and would be played by Morgan Freeman in the Hollywood version. He’s the one continually urging his three assisted-living friends to make the most of the rest of their lives. Basically: Get busy living or get busy dying. The three friends are:
- General Talaat (Salloum Haddad), who still gets up early and shaves every morning, and would be played by Tommy Lee Jones.
- The Pharmacist (Mansoor Alfeeli), a good-natured germaphobe who wears rubber gloves and takes too many pills. (Dick Van Dyke, maybe?)
- Abu Hamad (Marei Halyan), affable and wheelchair-bound, who still dreams of making a recording. (I could see Steve Buscemi playing older.)
When lawyers reveal that the General has inherited 50 million dirham (about $12 million) from a distant relative, the four, plus their youthful caretaker, Khalid (Fouad Ali), go out to claim the money. The law office is closed, but in the parking garage, look, there’s a recording studio. Some subterfuge is necessary to get Hamad to the front of the line, but he makes his recording—which, of course, will be left at the club/disco the Pharmacist always wanted to go to (the one for which they wear the hip-hop clothes), and will then, of course, wind up on the radio, where, of course, it will become a hit. For a minute they celebrate. Then that storyline is dropped.
This happens with all the plot points. There’s a thing that needs to happen, it does, it's dropped. It’s always obvious what needs to happen and it’s always easy to make it so. Hamad should sing, the Pharmacist shouldn’t be such a germaphobe, and Khalid should get together with the pretty doctor, Ruqayyeh (Layla Abdullah). Yes, yes, and yes. Problems solved.
Ed Rooney lives
The biggest such problem is reuniting the General with his estranged son. Indeed, the whole inheritance thing was a fake, a subterfuge concocted by Abu Hassan to bring father and son together. Initially, it fails. When the two meet in a mall, the General curses his son and slaps him. When Hassan tries to intervene, he has a heart attack and dies. Road to hell/good intentions.
But in the aftermath, with the subterfuge revealed, the General’s heart softens, and his son forgives, and the grandson wants nothing more than to sit on grandpa’s lap. Meanwhile, the manager of the assisted care facility, who, for a time, chased after the four as if he were Principal Rooney in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is fired and mocked by the residents on his way out.
“On Borrowed Time” is dreadful. Don’t go expecting any insight into UAE. Expect Hollywood-lite.
Tweet of the Day
When one political party loses its mind and the other doesn’t it is not your responsibility to be “even handed” or to pretend not to see what is happening. We should not split the difference as a country and become half-crazy.— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) May 23, 2018
Philip Roth (1933-2018)
I was thinking of a Philip Roth line yesterday morning before I heard the news of his death yesterday evening at the age of 85. It's a line from “The Ghost Writer,” my favorite of his novels, about a young Nathan Zuckerman visiting his idol, E.I. Lonoff, who is a combination of Malamud, Bellow, Salinger and probably other Jewish authors I'm unaware of, in the Berkshires—“that is to say,” Zuckerman adds, “in the goyish wilderness of birds and trees where America began and long ago had ended.”
But that's not the line. This is the line:
To get it wrong so many times.
It's Lonoff's line. He's an exacting presence, a meticulous writer and personality who often goes through 20-30 drafts of a short story before it's considered done. When he's complimented on this, by Zuckerman, he says the above. I‘ve quoted it before. Here, for example. I can’t remember why I thought it yesterday. Probably work related. But I think of Lonoff a lot. He read with a pen in hand to mark passages, and I began to do the same. I still do it when I'm not on a Kindle. Like Lonoff, I have trouble concentrating otherwise.
I urge “The Ghost Writer” on you as I‘ve urged it on, and given it to, countless friends over the years. I think it’s about as perfect as a novel can be. It reminds me of “Gatsby” or “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” or “Breakfast at Tiffany‘s” in that way. All of these books are eminently accessible, fun and profound. They stick with you. They’re deep in my bones.
That was my first Roth, wasn't it? It was the summer of 1981, we were on the eastern shore, at Rehoboth Beach, Del., and I'd been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I think my father was finally curious about Vonnegut, picked him up, thought “Not bad, but ... ” When I objected to the “but,” he suggested I read some Roth. I was used to Vonnegut's short sentences and Roth gave me this at the opening of “The Ghost Writer”:
It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago—I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman—when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man. The clapboard farmhouse was at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires, yet the figure who emerged from the study to bestow a ceremonious greeting wore a gabardine suit, a knitted blue tie clipped to a white shirt by an unadorned silver clasp, and well-brushed ministerial black shoes that made me think of him stepping down from a shoeshine stand rather than from the high altar of art.
It would be easier to name the Roth books I haven't read than the ones I have. I didn't read him much this century, so I haven't touched “Everyman,” “The Humbling,” “Nemesis.” I failed to pick up “The Dying Animal” and “Exit Ghost.” Back in the day, I didn't make it through “Operation Shylock.” “Shop Talk,” no. The other 25 books, yes.
In pre-social media days, I was part of a group of friends that met in a private online chatroom to talk about the world, and within it, by its ringleader, I was given the nom de plume Zuckerman, after Nathan, Roth's alter ego. The ringleader and I had known each other since the 1980s, and I guess I spoke a lot about Roth then. Or it could be that my early work was very much Roth-influenced: that super-articulate howl, that beating your head against the wall, that catch between being the good boy and living the good life.
How much yiddish do I know because of Roth? He was my entree there. (He and Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers.) “Gonif,” certainly. That's “Goodbye, Columbus.” It's a scene between Roth's alter-ego, Neil, and Mr. Patimkin, the father of Neil's girlfriend, Brenda, two-thirds of the way through the novella:
“Here [in business] you need a little of the gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?”
“Thief,” I said.
“You know more than my own kids. They‘re goyim, my kids, that’s how much they understand.”
That's such great dialogue. All that doesn't need to be said. Patimkin is the mercenary business Jew, the man who raised himself by his bootstraps, and made his children taller, more beautiful, but ultimately softer than he was. He made them goyim. That unspoken sigh of resignation when Neil knows what his kids don‘t. There’s so much of America captured in this little back and forth.
That's the thing I missed when Roth went on his spree of Great American novels in the 1990s. I reviewed most of them for The Seattle Times—I was considered their Roth expert—but gave them middling reviews. They won national book awards and I was disappointed. The themes were amazing, it was America through the American century, but by then Roth had moved past dialogue (and his trademark brilliant sense of humor) and into monologue, which was often humorless. He traded dialogue for diatribe. I missed his back-and-forths. I wanted Alvin Pepler on the scene.
I still feel guilty about those reviews. I want to return to those books to see what I missed.
In the middle of the Trump era is no time to die for someone like Roth. The man who skewered Nixon and his men in “Our Gang” in the early 1970s dismissed Trump in a paragraph just last January:
I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.
He was in retirement by then but maybe shouldn't have been. I could‘ve used an essay, or a book, on the above. His novel, “The Plot Against America,” imagined a fascistic U.S. in the 1940s with a Pres. Lindbergh in charge, and Jews rounded up and taken into those goyish woods, and for that Roth was considered prescient. He dismmised it. Lindbergh was a hero, he said. “Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” The unstated is that 21st-century America can’t even do fascism right. We voted for a strutting clown, a pompous ass. During the 2016 campaign, I could never understand why more people didn't see through Trump, and why it was so easy for me to do so. Maybe because I saw him partly through Philip Roth's eyes.
He was the starting right-fielder of my literary nine. When Gore Vidal died I wrote “Doctorow and Roth live” and when Doctorow died I said “Now just Roth.” And now, not. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye.
Quote of the Day
“You have to ask yourself how you will be remembered: as one of the three big internet giants, together with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who have enriched our world and our societies; or, on the other hand, in fact, the genius that created a digital monster that is destroying our democracies and our societies. That’s the question that you have to put for yourself.”
Former Belgian prime minister Guy Maurice Marie Louise Verhofstadt, speaking to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, before the European Parliament in Brussels as Europe prepares to implement new data protection regulations
Richard Goodwin (1931-2018)
As I was leaving to get a coffee Sunday afternoon, for some reason I focused on the book “Remembering America” by Richard Goodwin on the bookshelf in the foyer. Just the title. It had meaning for Goodwin when it was published in 1988 amid the Reagan Revolution, which was undoing much of the good work he and Democrats had done throughout the century; and now, in the Trump era, it had even greater meaning. Was I thinking about reading it again? Or just getting it off the shelf? I did a day later when I heard Goodwin had died of cancer at the age of 88.
My copy wasn't even my copy—I'd forgotten that. It wasn't the copy I'd read and marked up in 1988. It was a replacement I bought in a used bookstore in Seattle. But I knew there was a quote in there that once had great meaning for me, and I was trying to find it. It was at the end of a chapter. An early chapter? Maybe even the one where he recounted his involvement in uncovering the game show scandal of the 1950s, which was made into the movie “Quiz Show,” where he was played by Rob Morrow? Or working the JFK election in ‘60 and then in the JFK administration? Or being LBJ’s favorite speechwriter and coining the phrase “The Great Society” and writing Johnson's “Voting Rights” speech? He split with Johnson on Vietnam. He abandoned LBJ for Bobby, then Bobby for Eugene, then Eugene for Bobby again. And on June 6, 1968, in Los Angeles, it all crashed.
The quote I was looking for was at the end of the book, of course. Its last lines:
If this book has any purpose at all, it is not to impose a guide on that future, but to remind that men and women can live as if their world was malleable to their grasp; and that, true or false, to live in this belief is to be the most authentically alive.
That felt profound to me in 1988. I particularly liked the “true or false” line, the implication that it's not true, that the world isn't malleable to our grasp, but fuck it, do it anyway, since it's the best way to live. I repeated that line a lot back then. If it feels less profound to me now, maybe that's why. It's part of my make-up. It's obvious because he made it so.
Here's the Times obit.
Shining City on a Hollywood Hill
It still astounds me that one of America's most successful industries is forever being disparaged by the political party that claims to care about American industry.
This is from two weeks ago on box office mojo:
Look at that. What other country can do that? None. I‘ve written about the box office of “Wolf Warrior II” and other Chinese films, as well as the fact that China is on the verge of becoming the world’s No. 1 movie marketplace. But Chinese films don't travel well. Few besides the Chinese go see them. The world goes to see Hollywood films.
Americans don't comprehend how much Hollywood dominates the world maybe because we‘re used to it and maybe because we’re too close to it, but it's stunning and has real-world consequences. China Daily just posted an article on the number of Chinese students who come to the U.S. to study. Their lede is about a young man from Henan province who became determined to study here after seeing a Hollywood movie (“High School Musical”). He's not alone. People don't come here just because there's greater freedom, or because within a generation your family can become American—in a way that you can never become, say, Chinese or French. It's more than that. It's the movies. The shining city on a hill has a Hollywood sign on it.