Monday, October 31, 2016

Movie Monday: Boo! A Madea Halloween

This is the first Madea movie I have seen.  Its thin, wobbly plot involves a divorced father (played by Tyler Perry) who is called out of town and wants someone to watch his willful 17-year-old daughter.  His Aunt Madea (also played by Perry), Madea's brother (also played by Perry) and two of Madea's friends come to stay at the family house and keep an eye on the girl.

The daughter and her friend sneak out of the house to attend a fraternity Halloween party.   Madea and friends go to bring them home, and hilarity ensues.  The father is called back, and there is a long discussion among the adults about how to discipline the disobedient teenager.

Some scary clowns and the de rigueur band of zombies are shoehorned into the action but are by no means frightening.  (This was fine with me -- I lost my interest in horror films around the same time I lost interest in roller coasters.)

Madea, as played by 6-foot-5 Tyler Perry, is a an amusing character who speaks her mind and, when provoked, cold-cocks anyone who tangles with her.  In conversation, she doesn't have much of a filter, and it's fun to watch her spar verbally with everyone she meets.

The audience in the theater where I saw the film was larger than I expected, and about 40 percent African American.  My fellow film-goers laughed more loudly and more often than I can recall at any other comedy I have seen.  My guess is that they had enjoyed previous Madea movies and had come back for another helping.  They loved the "Boo!" movie.

Tyler Perry

Perry was raised in New Orleans by an abusive father and a churchgoing mother.  His formal education career ended with his GED, and he spent most of his 20s in Atlanta perfecting a musical play based on his difficult childhood.  After that effort was completed and became a success, he used his self-taught skills to write, develop and produce plays, films, television series (most notably, House of Payne) and books.

His works generally include Christian and family-values themes that do not always appeal in our largely post-religious country.  Personally, I am not offended by religious characters or people setting good standards for young people in movies, but these elements are pretty darn scarce these days.

Although Perry is among the most successful African Americans in the entertainment industry, some African American auteurs have charged that his characters are outdated black stereotypes.

For many years, white critics gushed about his work, but even they have come to resent some of his themes.  One of his noncomedic movies, for example, was the story of a woman who cheated on her husband, blowing up their marriage and contracting HIV from her paramour; this was seen as heavy-handed moralizing.

Since this was my first Tyler Perry experience, I don't consider myself qualified to evaluate his oeuvre.  Maybe later.

But I will say this about "Boo!" It cost a modest $20 million to make and was the most-attended film in the country in its first two weekends.  In addition to covering production expenses, the $52 million in ticket sales likely will cover the film's promotion and advertising; every additional ticket, pay-per-view rental and television screening will be profit.  It's a smart business model.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Time for a Break

No good choice here.

The world's a mess right now.   People go back and forth on whether the United States is the source of the problems, but all can agree that our country is not contributing solutions at the moment.

Back at home, the presidential election offers a sham choice between an emotion-driven, narcissistic man-child and a crook known for poor judgment and a bone-deep disinclination to play by the rules.

Unfortunately, one of these people is going to win.  For the next four years, the country will be in damage-control mode.

Instead of lamenting our fate, I think we should spend our time making lemonade.

I have two proposals -- one to limit the damage over the short term and one to make sure we never find ourselves in this awful position again.

1.  Boycott

Let's ignore the inauguration.  Also the 2017 State of the Union address.  All of us.

The next president is not going to be given a mandate.  That point needs to be pounded home again and again to the new office-holder.

No signature legislation.  No big new programs.  No major tax cuts.  No new Supreme Court justices. Nothing. Nada.  If the president wishes to undertake improvements in the efficiency of the federal government and to make reductions in the size of its larded bureaucracy, such efforts may be a good use of her or his time.

If an emergency arises, I suppose we should expect Congressional leaders and the president to confer and agree on appropriate, limited action.  It's unfortunate to leave important matters to such a collection of dunderheads, but I don't see any way around it.  It goes without saying that "emergency" should be defined quite narrowly.

It also would be nice if, during this period, Washington's many lobbyists found that their advice -- and money -- were not sought, and if the lobbying firms, law firms, press bureaus and other D.C. hangers-on were to shutter their offices.  Mostly, the nation's capital should be empty and quiet.   I'm picturing tumbleweed blowing across the national mall.

Freed from the chore of addressing matters of state (and causing more damage), the president should consider taking up a hobby.  Winston Churchill was a pretty good painter, for example.  Our next president will not possess Churchillian wisdom, of course, but there's no harm in trying to emulate a person of good character.

Honorable people naturally will decline invitations to state dinners and other presidential events.  Those who wish may attend such functions, but they should expect to be shunned by at least some of their fellow citizens.

2.  Fix the Elections

Let's adopt a 28th Amendment to the Constitution with regard to presidential elections.  My proposal is this, but I am happy to consider other ideas.

     A.  Every state's ballot shall include the option to vote for "None of the Above."
     B.  If "None of the Above" wins the popular vote (plurality, not majority; I don't want
           to involve the Electoral College here), the election shall be declared a failure.
     C.  Political parties shall have two weeks to name new presidential and vice presidential
           candidates. (The previous candidates shall be ineligible.)
     D.  The parties shall have three weeks to campaign and hold debates.
     E.  On the Tuesday following the third week, a second presidential election shall be held.
           All traditional electoral arrangements shall apply.

The reasoning here is simple: American voters should not have to choose the "least bad" candidate.  The country is full of bright, accomplished people with distinguished records.  We can do better than we have this year.


As citizens, we are responsible for this terrible situation.  Over the next four years, it would behoove us to learn the nature of our government:  the roles of its three branches, the purpose and function of checks and balances, etc.  Perhaps we could set up civic groups in our communities to study and understand the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and to offer classes in American history.

We all should acknowledge with humility and regret this awful choice we have prepared for ourselves.  Going forward, we should be modest about our political beliefs, and we should practice listening to others who do not share our views.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Civil War Coda: The Sultana

The photograph above, taken on April 25, 1865, is believed to be the last picture of the Sultana, a coal-powered steamer that carried cargo and passengers up and down the Mississippi River.  Two days later, in the pre-dawn hours of April 27,  one and then two more of the Sultana's four boilers exploded, lighting flames all through the ship, which ultimately sank.  

As the photo suggests, the ship was very crowded.  It was designed to hold 376 passengers but at the time carried as many as 2,400.  By sunrise, about 1,800 passengers and crew members had drowned or died of burns. 

The Sultana incident is the most deadly in American maritime history, eclipsing the more often discussed loss of 1,500 lives when the Titanic plowed into an iceberg in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage from England to the United States in 1912.

Maybe it's proportion.  The Titanic sinking occurred in peacetime, when large-scale deaths were rare.  The Sultana incident followed the Civil War, when the country was reeling from the loss of 620,000 combatants who had died of wounds and disease.  Another couple thousand lost lives may not have seemed to matter so much.


The war had ended earlier that same April.  After several days of useless skirmishes in Virginia, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee answered a message from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, saying, "I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood."  Two days later, on April 9, Lee signed surrender documents at Appomattox Courthouse. 

Less than a week after that, on April 15, Pres. Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.  Booth was hunted down and shot dead on April 26.

In the south, Union prisoners were released from Cahaba Prison in Alabama and the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia.  Many made their way by train or on foot to Vicksburg, where they were to be transported up the Mississippi to their northern homes. 

One Union officer agreed that all 2,100 of the camp's remaining residents would be sent north on the Sultana, which already had booked a couple hundred other passengers, overloading it to many times its capacity.  The soldiers, accustomed to crowded prison life and very eager to go home, no doubt  boarded without complaint. 

In exchange for premium pricing from the US Army, the ship's captain agreed to pay a bribe to a Union quartermaster.  All wars attract profiteers, alas.

On April 26, the Sultana docked at Memphis and took on a new load of coal for fuel.  It left that evening and exploded around 2 a.m. after traveling about seven miles north.

Several reasons have been advanced for the explosion, starting with crowding on the passenger decks.  On the other hand, it has been noted that the steamer's cargo hold was largely empty and the overall weight of the ship was not extreme.

In addition, the first boiler to blow had been repaired with a metal patch on its side in its most recent stop at Vicksburg.  The repair may have been done badly.

And finally, the winter of 1864-5 had been an unusually rainy one.   The runoff in the river was much heavier than usual, creating a stronger southbound current against which the Sultana made its way north. 

The current, fed by ice-cold runoff from distant mountains, made survival particularly difficult for the former war prisoners who went into the water.  Most were malnourished and  emaciated, and many were suffering from diseases contracted in prison camps.   And, in that day, few people knew how to swim.  

Boats from shore rescued some people, and another steamer heading south stopped and pulled as many as 150 passengers out of the river.  But most of the passengers and all of the ship's crew died.


The Civil War has been a preoccupation of American historians, professional and amateur, for150 years.  I spent an afternoon recently at the downtown Nashville library, reading from books about the Sultana and its sad end.

From "Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors," (edited by Chester D. Berry, published by the University of Tennessee Press, 2005), comes one many soldiers' stories:

"My first recollection was that I was on my feet and enveloped in a cloud of hot steam, and was considerably scalded in the face.  After the steam had risen I said to Corporal Irons what is the matter.  He said the boat had blown up.  He seemed to be very much excited, and told me they thought they could make it to shore.  These were the last words he said to me, but as the boys kept jumping off from the boat into the river he kept calling for them not to for they would all be saved.
      "I then began to look around to devise some means of escape.  I stepped back to where some of my company's boys were untying a yawl; I thought that I would help them get it down, and then I thought if I did they would all jump for it and perhaps be lost, which I learned afterward was the case.  I then got a shutter and board from off the pilot house and tied them together with a pair of drawers.  By that time the flames had come through.  I then got over the railing behind the wheel house and climbed down to the lower deck.  By this time all was confusion and men were jumping into the river to get away from the flames.  I looked around for a clear space to jump, for I knew that if I jumped in where men were struggling they would seize my board and I would be lost, for I could swim but little.
      "I waited a short time and when there was an opening large enough I threw my board in, jumped on and went down under quite a way, but came up all right and floated away from the boat.  After I had gone four or five rods a bundle of clothing came floating along and I took it in with my right hand and held on to the board with my left.  I then floated with the current. . . .
       "I was picked up four miles below Memphis by two men in a yawl and rowed to a gunboat . . . where I was taken in . . . eleven miles from the disaster.   I wish to state here that there were thirteen of my company on board the Sultana, and but two besides myself were saved."
Daniel Carber

Passengers threw boards, hay bales, doors and shutters into the river, then held onto them to float.  There were fights in the water for these handholds, and the losers drowned.  As people on the Sultana prepared to jump, they found the water crowded with other people, some drowning, and so had to spend time looking for clear spots of into which to leap.

Others were not so fortunate.  The boilers' explosion dislodged large pieces of the cabin walls, which pinned down some passengers who, their colleagues observed, "roasted to death."  Many of the burn victims begged to be thrown into the water to die there rather than endure the pain of the flames.

Some other Sultana titles:

Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy:  American's Greatest Maritime Disaster," Pelican Publishing Company, 1992.   

Alan Huffman, "Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, Harper Collins, 2009.

Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865," Naval Institute Press, 1996.


--Like D-Day veterans or relatives of those who died on 9/11, the Sultana survivors gathered in various cities regularly on the anniversary of its occasion.  The last known survivor, a Midwestern man, died in 1935.

--The remains of the Sultana were located in 1982, under an Arkansas soybean field.  (The river, appropriately called Big Muddy, had changed course over intervening years and deposited so much silt that the Sultana's final resting stop was two miles inland.)  
         The nearby city of Marion, Ark., opened a small museum commemorating the Sultana last year and plans to increase the range and size of its exhibit over time. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Movie Monday: American Honey

"American Honey" opens with 18-year-old Star rummaging for food in a supermarket dumpster in Muskogee, Okla.  She is taking care of her younger half-siblings because her mother can't be bothered and her mother's boyfriend, drunk or drugged, is more interested in molesting Star than helping out around the house.

Star catches sight of a van full of young people, especially a charismatic young man named Jake, who invites her to join them.  She does so, abandoning her unsatisfying life with no regrets.

The film follows her as she learns that she has joined a team of door-to-door magazine salespeople who move from town to town.  They stay in cheap hotels by night and swill liquor and smoke marijuana pretty much all day long.  Their craven manager constantly exhorts them to "Make money!" by using hard-luck stories to convince homeowners to buy magazines they never knew they wanted.  Unproductive sellers are threatened with beatings at the end of each week.

Effectively the group functions as a tribe or a family.   Like Star, the other members seem to have joined and stayed because this fairly dismal life looked better than what they had before.  Star and Jake bounce back and forth between intimacy and jealousy.

There is no real plot.  There are several themes -- poverty, children raised by no-hope parents,  affection for animals -- and of course the obligatory swipe at a woman who identifies herself as a Christian but whose comfortable existence hasn't stopped her tween daughter from dressing and acting like a tramp.

The implication is that this is the new normal for many young Americans.  It's interesting that the film was put together by a highly regarded young British director, Andrea Arnold.  The idea, I believe, is that an outsider sees our problems with new eyes.

We know there are children growing up in chaotic family situations now, of course, but we do not want our own relatives to be drawn into these matters.  And we sure don't know how to make things better.

"American Honey" was made in a real-time documentary style.  Major cast members are actual actors, and good ones, but the other young people in the sales group are amateurs who were cast because they looked right for their parts.  All we learn about them as characters are that one of the boys whips out his penis frequently and that a sad-eyed girl named Pagan is obsessed with Darth Vader.

In an interview, the filmmaker said she put the group in a van and hit the road.  Cast and crew traveled 12,000 miles in the course of filming.  Arnold said she liked the authenticity of the people she met in Muskogee, where the story begins, and that she actually downplayed the amount of poverty she observed when readying the final cut.

It's a good, well-made film, but many scenes could be cut without damaging the impact. At almost three hours, "American Honey" is way too long.


--The idea for the movie came from a grim 2007 New York Times article about "mag crews" of young people recruited to sell magazines door-to-door.  I don't know if there are such crews now, but the concept was employed to good effect -- rootless young people traveling the country to sell magazines to people who actually had homes and, at least generally, more conventional lives.

--"American Honey" takes its name from a Lady Antebellum song whose lyrics are sweet and nostalgic.  This movie is neither.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Press and the 2016 Election

This year, we have a divided electorate and two divisive candidates, each of whom seems to want to claim the populist mantle.  One promises to "fight" for us, and the other to "make America great again."

My sense is that most people are eager for the election to be over, especially members of the press, which seems to have lost its way in the two-year-long campaign season.

How We Got Here

Start with Donald Trump.  At the beginning of the Republican primary season, the party had 17 potential candidates, but 16 of them struggled in the shadows while the "news" network, CNN, gave Donald Trump his own reality show.  For CNN, the ratings were great -- it was like the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370, all day every day.  It went on for months.
        Trump didn't raise campaign funds until just before he got the Republican nomination because he didn't need money.  He got so much more coverage from CNN and other broadcast outlets that disapproved of him that no other Republican really had a chance. Trump is now the Republican candidate.
         My impression is that CNN now has taken up the cudgel to slay the monster it created.  Even so, it has much to answer for.

Continue with Hillary Clinton.  She's not a natural gasbag like Trump, but she is canny.  Her path to the nomination was enabled by the raising of a $2 billion slush fund -- er, charitable foundation -- that scared all the credible challengers out of the Democratic primaries.  Even at that, it took a heavy DNC thumb on the scale to help her defeat a 74-year-old socialist.

Hillary Clinton also has received many assists from the press.

        --In exchange for the opportunity to interview her, reporters have agreed to submit their questions ahead of time.  These interview opportunities were valuable because many of Clinton's speeches were at fundraisers closed to the press and because she spent more than six months of her campaign without holding a single press conference.

        --In one case, a reporter from an ostensibly serious publication exchanged emails with a Clinton campaign official to massage the wording of a story he was writing about the candidate.

        --In another case, a DNC operative obtained and shared with Clinton the exact wording of a question to be asked in one of the three televised debates.  Some reporter or editor gave out that question, allowing one candidate the opportunity to prepare for it but not the other candidate.

        -- In August, the New York Times ran a front-page story, written by a reporter, announcing that Donald Trump was so terrible that the traditional objectivity in coverage needed to be jettisoned in the more important effort to assure that he lost the election.  Asked later, the paper's executive editor said he shared the sentiment.

I used to be a reporter, and I sometimes covered elections, albeit smaller elections at local and state levels.  If I had committed any of the acts above, I would have found myself looking for a new job in public relations.  Or possibly shoe sales.

Downstream Effects

A Harvard study released this summer confirmed what people already sensed about press coverage of the primaries -- that it paid little attention to candidates' platforms and suitability and spent more attention on so-called "horse races" -- who was ahead and who behind at any given point. This gave Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who had the greatest name familiarity, an early advantage that just kept growing.

It will be interesting to see what happens after the election.

If Trump wins, it is fair to expect that everything he does will be scrutinized closely and, even if he has a good idea, that it will be given a full scrubbing.

If Clinton wins, it seems fair to expect that news coverage will continue to support her -- not to do so would discredit the press and its no-holds-barred promotion of her candidacy.

 Institutional Confidence

Americans now lack faith in many national institutions.  This is demonstrated in the Gallup chart below, released following polling in June.

The press is not held in high regard.  It has only itself to thank.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Election of 1828

The other day I visited Andrew Jackson's estate, the Hermitage, just outside Nashville.

It's a handsome spread, but after I left I found myself thinking more about the presidential election of 1828, which was described in some detail in the associated historical displays.

Here's a bit of a recap of the personalities and the race.

The Candidates

The incumbent president, John Quincy Adams, was the son of John Adams, our second president. The two of them, elites from Massachusetts, and a bunch of Virginia aristocrats had held the presidency since the founding of the republic.  JQA was extremely well educated and had a distinguished career as an American diplomat in Europe. Before becoming president, he served eight years as secretary of state.

Andrew Jackson, born in the Carolinas, was a self-made man.  At 13 he joined a Carolina militia in the American Revolution and then was captured and held prisoner.  By war's end, all his immediate family were dead.  He got a law degree, moved to Tennessee as a prosecutor, bought land, served in public positions and became the general of the state militia.  His national reputation was made in the 10-day Battle of New Orleans, when he led a force that outfoxed and defeated a  much larger British naval and ground assault.


Jackson was nominated for the presidency in 1824 by the Tennessee legislature.  There were four candidates that year; Jackson received the most popular votes and the most electoral votes, but not a majority.  For the first and only time, the election was decided by a vote in the House of Representatives.  Henry Clay, a Virginia candidate who loathed Jackson, threw his support behind Adams, who won.  After the election, Adams made Clay his secretary of state.

Jackson supporters called the result a "corrupt bargain." Jackson resigned his Senate seat, returned home to Nashville and began to campaign for 1828.  His affronted supporters formed Hickory Clubs (Old Hickory was Jackson's nickname) to promote his candidacy.

Adams spent his term in office pushing for transportation improvements and signing an 1828 bill known in the hinterlands as the Tariff of Abominations.  The tariff benefitted New England and disadvantaged southern and western states.  It inflamed America's early battle over whether the federal government or state governments were primary.

This states' rights view was held largely in the western and southern states, including by Thomas Jefferson, who shifted his support to Jackson before his death in 1826; this helped Jackson two years later.

The Campaign

Adams was a brilliant man but not a people person, and certainly not a charismatic leader.  Americans were still finding their footing with the presidential election process, and Adams' view seems to have been that campaigning for office was beneath his dignity.  Given his scholarly character, it has been suggested that he ran in 1824 only because his parents, stern people both, expected him to do so.

Jackson was more motivated, and he almost certainly had a large chip on his shoulder. He entertained influential people in his Nashville home and wrote opinion pieces for newspapers across the country.  His was the first populist campaign in the country, and he made a point of pledging himself to represent the "common folk."

Each candidate was qualified, in his way, and their individual platforms, while different, reflected honest divisions of opinion within the country.

Press Coverage

Newspapers of the day were house organs of political groups.  Both candidates were accused of low behavior, and almost all the accusations were laughable.

--Adams was called a "pimp" for procuring a young American woman's company to the czar during Adams' tenure as ambassador to Russia.  Absolutely false.

--Jackson's mother was described as whore who married a mulatto man (with African as well as Caucasian blood) and had three children by him.  Also false.

--Adams was accused of bringing gambling into the White House.  The evidence included a chess set and a billiards table, the latter of which Adams bought with his own funds.

--Jackson was charged with personally killing six militia deserters in his term as general.  Executing deserters was common in that period, but a cartoon of six black coffins laying the full blame at his feet was pretty harsh.

The most famous charge was that Jackson was an adulterer and his wife a bigamist.  She had left an abusive marriage before they met, and they claimed that they believed her divorce was finalized before they married.  Later, when the divorce was finalized and after Rachel Jackson's first husband had remarried as well, they had another marriage ceremony.  Divorce was controversial then, but by 1828 the Jacksons had been married for 37 years.  Mrs. Jackson died just after the election, apparently of a heart attack for which Jackson blamed her accusers.  He hated them and mourned her for the rest of his life.


With the Virginia support and that of the western states, Jackson won a decisive victory in 1828 and was re-elected in 1832.

As for his part, Adams returned to the House of Representatives, where he served for many years.  To his credit, he spent the rest of his life agitating for the abolition of slavery.


The press of 1828 did not acquit itself well in the Jackson-Adams election.  This year's press coverage also has been a disappointing.  More on that tomorrow.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Movie Monday: A Man Called Ove

Let me digress a bit before I discuss this movie.

Gran Torino

In 2008, there was a popular American movie, "Gran Torino," whose plot was similar to that of "A Man Called Ove."  Clint Eastwood played Walt Kowalsky, a cranky, racist autoworker whose plant had closed, whose wife had just died and whose neighborhood was filling with Asian immigrants.   Kowalsky was tightly wound and quick to anger.  "Get off my lawn!" was his most famous line.  Over the course of the movie, his sense of justice led him to help his Hmong neighbors and befriend them, ultimately exposing his humanity and generous heart.

A Man Called Ove

This movie came from a book that evolved from posts on a popular blog in Sweden.  The book has been translated into many languages and has been well-received in other countries as well.

The lead character, Ove, has lost his job and, we learn over time, all the people who mattered to him.  He is an unreformed grouch, the cranky enforcer of every niggling rule in his neighborhood.  His efforts to kill himself are interrupted various times, most notably by the arrival next door of a pregnant Persian woman, her klutzy Swedish husband and their two daughters.

Over the course of "A Man Called Ove," we learn the sources of his deep sorrow and we see him extend himself many times to help people.  We learn that he is a soft-shelled character with a good heart.  Over time and seemingly against his wishes, he gathers to himself an extended group of friends who care deeply for him.

Like Walt Kowalski, who treasured his 1972 Gran Torino, Ove is a Saab man who has no use for drivers of Volvos or BMWs.  So they have the car thing in common.  But where Walt comes off as a coiled spring ready to snap, Ove's impatience with his neighbors becomes a source of humor.

The Swedish movie, like "Gran Torino," ends on a bittersweet note.

Two Characters, Two Countries

Maybe the difference between the two films is the difference between Clint Eastwood and Rolf LassgÃ¥rd, the Swedish actor.  Or maybe it is the difference between the United States and Sweden.

The Ove source novel sold 650,000 copies in Sweden.  An equally popular novel in the U.S. would sell 21 million copies.  (True, "To Kill a Mockingbird" has sold more than 30 million copies here, but only over 60+ years.  "A Man Called Ove" was published in 2014.)  It seems fair to guess that Swedes are more devoted readers than Americans.  Maybe it's the cold winters; who knows?

And then there is the matter of violence.  The "Gran Torino" plot is driven by threats of beatdowns and shootings.  "A Man Called Ove" includes violent deaths, but only accidental ones. While Ove tries several times to kill himself, neither he nor any other character wishes physical harm to another person.
The Ove movie was a huge phenomenon in Sweden, where it won the country's equivalent of the best-picture Oscar.  Here, the film is being screened in small, arty theaters and is unlikely to get the kind of broad distribution that "Gran Torino" did.  The New York Times review of "A Man Called Ove" seems to concede this point.  Its last, summing-up sentence is this:

       Good-hearted stuff, to be sure, but mainly of interest to lovers of cinematic comfort food.

Translated for Swedish readers, the point is this: American moviegoers aren't a bunch of pussies, like de svenska folket.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sprawling Novel Overload

I'm currently reading a 620-page novel called "The Nix," and am about halfway through the book.  My understanding is that it is the story of a lonely man trying to understand what became of his mother.

The book is well-written, frequently hilarious and getting to be a load.  So far I have learned about the narrator's childhood, his abandonment by his mother, his nowhere job teaching literature to uninterested college students (with a long, screamingly funny foray into the self-justifications of a girl who has been buying term papers online for years), his father's background, his mother's teen years, the writer's obsession with a video game called Elfscape and his awkward reaching out to another Elfscape devotee who also is profiled, and the narrator's adolescent-now-adult enchantment with the twin of a friend who was killed in Afghanistan, as well as a very realistic description of that event.

Next up, I gather, is a long set piece on the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Did I mention I'm only halfway through the book?


We have great writers now.  The one above, like most current novelists, has completed an MFA in writing at a fine school.  He now teaches college English, which seems to afford him some inside-college material and also plenty of time for abundant research into everything from Norwegian lore to historical events of the last 50 years or so.

Another recent novel, "The Sympathizer," also was written by a professor.  This author, a Vietnamese refugee also with time on his hands, wrote wonderful passages about the American abandonment of Saigon, the making of an influential movie ostensibly about Vietnam, the separate killings of two people, the gruesome gang rape of a Chinese spy, the process of re-education in a North Vietnamese prison camp, Americans' bigoted views of Vietnamese people who arrived in the 1970s and Vietnamese Americans' nostalgia for their traditional fish sauce.

"The Sympathizer" is another well-written tour-de-force.  It won this year's Pulitzer Prize for literature and, compared with "The Nix," runs to an economical 371 pages.  But it felt longer.

I could go on about the current trend of "sprawling" novels (especially the two previous years' Pulitzer winners) but enough is enough.


I have time on my hands.  I don't work a full-time job, and I don't watch television.  I read lots of books.  But if I am having trouble absorbing the literature of the moment, I can only imagine who among my countrypersons  -- bequeathed poor educations and absorbed with other commitments -- is reading this stuff? 


In the past, before the days of television, the interwebs and even radio, reading was a pleasant diversion.  Charles Dickens' works generally ran as series in weekly publications and, published as books, ran to 800 pages or more.  Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" clocked in at more than 1,200 pages, and "Anna Karenina's" recent editions run to almost 900 pages.

Frankly, "Anna Karenina" is worth that kind of time.  But how many other 1873 novels of its length are we still reading today?  Darned few, that's how many.


I have not published a novel, but I have done a fair amount of writing (true, of varying quality) over the years.  This work has taught me at least two things.

First is that you can fall in love with your own cleverness.  Almost always, my favorite sentence, anecdote or passage needs to be edited out of the final draft of any piece of work.

Second is that, when you are juggling massive amounts of narrative detail, it is a good idea to consider cutting the work into two, or sometimes even more, pieces.

I'm just saying. . . .

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sexual Harassment

Some years ago, just out of college, I took a reporting job with a mid-sized daily newspaper.

The newspaper office was across the street from a car dealership.  Occasionally I would walk downtown to the bank or the post office.  This walk took me past the dealership's service center.

After a few months, every time I walked past the service center, there would come a bunch of wolf whistles and rude shouts.  It annoyed me.

I turned to an older woman who worked with me and expressed my frustration.  She had a busy job and a family, and she suggested, gently, that I should let go of my frustration because, after all, there were many people out there with real problems.  Which was true.

So I tried not to pay attention.  The whistles and shouts continued.

After another month,  I went into the dealership and spoke briefly with the manager.  I explained the situation and, without making a big deal about it, said I found it annoying.

"I'm sure the guys are just trying to flatter you," he ventured.

"Maybe so," I said, "but I wish it would stop."

The next time I walked past the service center on my way to the bank, I was greeted by an even louder chorus -- this time of boos and crude remarks.

After that, I took a different, longer route, detouring around the car dealership, when I walked downtown.  I never walked past the car dealership again.


During that same period, I drove home late one Sunday night after a weekend visit with a friend who lived several hours away.  As I pulled onto the street near my apartment, I realized that a stranger in another car had followed me from downtown.

After I parked, he stopped his car alongside.  He motioned to me to get into his car.  He seemed to think that this was an acceptable way to pick up women.  I shook my head.

Then I pushed my car's horn button and kept it on.  He drove away.  I waited a few more minutes and then ran to my apartment.  


A few months later, some creep figured out my phone number.   He would call and say pornographic, lewd, terrible things.  I learned to recognize his voice and hung up the phone as soon as I heard it.  But he kept calling back.   Finally I canceled the service.


These things happened in a period of less than two years, at a time when I was young and more easily shocked.  Sadly, I have seen much worse since then. 


I did not grow up in an age of chaperoned tea dances and church socials. As time passed, I moved in more professional circles and sometimes attended parties with rich people, powerful politicians and sports celebrities.

I saw women fighting with each other to get close to rich guys, old men grabbing at scantily dressed young women, politicians taking up with women not their wives -- all the run-of-the-mill vulgarity that is part of our common culture.  

Now we have an election coming up.  Every day we hear about the lecherous candidate who harassed women.  For 30 years, we have heard how the other candidate enabled the possibly worse behavior of her own husband.

Neither of these candidates strikes me as admirable in the treatment-of-women department.  

But as my older colleague counseled all those years ago, there are bigger problems to be faced.  The country needs better schools, a faster-growing economy, a well-managed government and a thoughtful foreign policy.  

All the sanctimonious talk about women and their rights has led to more heat than light.

I can't wait till it's over.  Whoever wins, the next four years are going to be dismal.  Sexual harassment, bad as it is, will be the least of our problems.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Rebuilding the World Trade Center and the Port Authority

Above is a view of what remained after most of the debris had been cleared from the 9/11 World Trade Center bombings.  The destroyed buildings had been built and owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, whose initial mandate was to manage joint transit projects.

The resulting rebuilding, also involving the port authority, has been messy and expensive.

Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor in late 2001, said he believed the entire site should have been set aside as a memorial; the sentiment was understandable, but impractical.  The incoming mayor, Michael Bloomberg, favored conversion of the area into housing, always in short supply in New York.

Over time, the plan became to build new office buildings on the site, if only to show the bastards that America would come back better than ever.

One World Trade Center

In 2005, the decision was taken to replace one of the towers with One World Trade Center.   The budget was set at a very high $2 billion.

Nine years later, the first tenants began to move in.  The building was the tallest in the United States, a symbolic 1,776 feet. The cost had ballooned to somewhere between $3.8 billion and $3.9 billion. It was and remains the most expensive office building in the world.

(Meanwhile, a taller [2,700-foot], larger [80 percent more floor space] building was constructed in six years in Dubai for $1.5 billion.  Construction and regulation costs are no doubt less in the UAE, but 40-mph elevators and an on-site Armani-designed hotel don't come cheap.)

As of this summer, the new trade center tower was 69 percent leased.  Posted rents were 50 percent higher than in neighboring buildings, but the port authority cut the premium to about 40 percent for space in the middle floors.  Apparently rents are higher on the top floors, where the views are the grandest.  (I wonder: Even 15 years later, are there any firms eager to lease space on or above the 90th floor in New York?)

The building is expected to be fully leased by sometime in 2019.

The Transit Hub

The 9/11 wreckage also included a transit hub underneath the twin towers.  The port authority commissioned a famous (also famous-for-overruns) architect and planned a $2 billion train station.  By the time it was finished in 2015, the cost had grown to $4 billion.

The train station is showy and has a beautiful, airy hall that includes a shopping mall.  The mall's prospects were called into doubt, however, by the famous retail analyst, Paco Underhill.  In several visits, he wrote, he noticed only about one in 20 visitors were carrying shopping bags.

The Museum

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum is said to be very well done.  Construction costs were $700 million, and annual operating costs are $68 million.  Admission is a firm $24, almost as high as the Metropolitan Museum's "suggested donation" of $25.  Fifty years from now, I wonder, will people still be flocking to the museum in such numbers?  Will the $5 million operating cost of the two dramatic square fountains have lessened?

Two World Trade Center

A second, slightly smaller tower is in the planning stages.  It is of a different design, arguably more complex than than the now-opened building, also beautiful.  There have been hints that its construction might be more expensive than that of 1WTC was.

The Port Authority

In 2012, the Port Authority announced a 56 percent increase over three years in bridge and tunnel tolls, in part to pay for WTC construction.  It now costs $15 to drive your car through the Lincoln Tunnel and back; the George Washington Bridge fare is $13.

In fact, the authority has other projects on its plate:

-- Updating LaGuardia Airport, a public-private project began last summer.  In June, the governor of New York announced the total cost would be $7 billion.  One month later, the cost projection was increased to $8 billion.

-- Updating and/or replacing the 66-year-old midtown bus terminal is a new priority.  The cost was projected at $5 billion to $8 billion a couple years ago.  More recent estimates run as high as $15 billion.

-- Raising the Bayonne Bridge's road clearance to allow newer, taller cargo ships to berth at area ports started in 2013.  The expected completion date, originally 2017, has been pushed back to 2019.

--Another Hudson River tunnel between New Jersey and New York is needed for an estimated doubling of interstate traffic over the next 15 years, but finding the money, $20 billion, is proving difficult.  In addition, officials have warned that either or both the Holland and Lincoln tunnels may need yearlong closures in the next 20 years for maintenance and repair of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was established in 1921 to concentrate on mutual major transit projects.  The idea was that a single agency would be more efficient, saving money and time on major projects.

In March, the current chairman said it was time for the group to get back to its mission.

“The time has long since passed for us to be building new buildings,” he said. “We ought to sell any real estate we have that isn’t related to the transportation mission and leverage the money we get from that."

Sounds right to me.


A man I know is friends with several New York fireman and visits the city for each 9/11 anniversary.  This year he filmed the following piece, whose first and last sections are views from the new One World Trade Center building.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Movie Monday: Middle School, the Worst Years of My Life

Here's the lead from Joe Leydon's review of this movie:

         As Francois Truffaut sagely noted, adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for
         adults who cannot remember. So it’s entirely possible that even the folks who made
         “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” will be pleasantly surprised by the
         cross-generational appeal of their spirited comedy about a sixth-grader’s
         antiauthoritarian campaign of rule-breaking mischief.

I usually agree with Leydon's pieces, which run in Variety, but I wasn't with him on this one.  (True, I may have been in a bad mood because I saw the movie just before yesterday's presidential debate.)

The film takes its name and inspiration from a series of James Patterson books about Rafe, a boy who arrives at a school run by a principal who seems to hate kids and be determined to grind every ounce of creativity and enthusiasm out of their middle-school careers.

Early on, the principal destroys the most important item in Rafe's life.  After that, it's war.  Rafe, with a constant friend and the growing admiration of other students, sets out to violate every single law in the principal's personally written rule book.

Early adolescents yearning for autonomy and chafing under the close supervision of helicopter parents may take joy in the boy's clever mutinies.  Maybe they can put up with late-in-the-show revelation of the roots of the boy's deeper sadness.  Personally, I found the whole setup labored.

The main character seems like a reasonable young man surrounded by some pretty awful adults.  Who among us would begrudge him some subversive satisfaction?

The movie will be available shortly on television subscription channels.  If you have children aged 10 and up, they might enjoy it.  My guess is that most adults would prefer to see something else.

Middle School

I make it a point to tell every middle-school student I meet that high school is much more fun than middle school and that college is even better than high school.

Middle school is a terrible concept.  It's a bunch of students who are in the middle of a biological learning lag and who also are confused about the adult changes happening to their bodies -- all locked up together in a single building.

No wonder kids hate those years.  No wonder a market-savvy author like James Patterson wrote a series of books addressing their frustrations.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

World Trade Center: From Concept to 2001

The Name

Below is a picture of New York's first World Trade Center building, part of the 1939 World Fair in Flushing Meadows, a neighborhood of Queens. (If you squint a little, you can make out the words near the entry.)

The World Fair was organized during the depths of the Depression with the goal of promoting economic activity.

In fact, the World Trade Center building was an afterthought, put together only after China declined the space allotted for its exhibit.   The empty slot was offered to the International Chamber of Commerce and similar groups.  It was built with the motto of "world peace through world trade."

By the time the fair closed, World War II had begun and the pursuit of world peace through war occupied everyone's attention for the next six years.

After the war, the idea of a World Trade Center lingered in the minds of Gotham leaders. A state agency was created to plan a permanent trade exhibition space in the city for the display and promotion of products for sale and trade.

The trade center never was built because leaders agreed that investments in ports and infrastructure would yield greater benefits.  Today, trade exhibitions in New York mostly are held in the enormous Javits Convention Center on 11th Avenue.

Still, the World Trade Center name animated the imaginations of big thinkers, including uber-planner Robert Moses and businessman David Rockefeller.  Over time, a project came to shape and was planned for lower Manhattan, which was home to many small businesses but was seen as losing ground to newer skyscrapers in Midtown.

The Port Authority 

World Trade Center planning was taken up by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a two-state agency created in the 1921 to develop ports and transit within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty.

A key piece of real estate, a large two-block train station that anchored a Newark-lower Manhattan train line was acquired along with a bankrupt railroad, now known as the Path (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) in 1962. Many other buildings were condemned, bought and razed -- often over owners' strong objections -- to assemble the final 16-acre site.

What was planned was an eight-building office complex with the two prominent square towers, World Trade Center 1 and World Trade Center 2.  Wags at the time said initial mockups of the towers looked like the packing boxes for the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, Midtown's two most prominent skyscrapers.

The towers, which opened in 1973, were the tallest in the world at their time.  In a sad irony remembered only later, construction plans stressed that either tower could withstand the impact of a plane as large as a Boeing 707.  (There were no Boeing 767 airliners then.)

A Good Idea?

The World Trade Center was an example of city planning writ large.

No agency smaller than the port authority could have pulled the thing off.  It required government involvement to assemble the necessary properties and to sell bonds to fund the construction.  (New York's financial situation was not good at the time; the city nearly went broke in 1975.)

When completed in 1974, the trade center was a collection of big office buildings that happened to house some port authority offices. Despite its name, the project had little if anything to do with trade.  For years, people questioned why an agency whose mandate included ports, airports, tunnels and bridges had got itself into the office-building business.

Early on, the World Trade Center complex had trouble leasing its office space.  It filled up with time, but it is fair to ask whether a similar neighborhood transformation would have happened anyway.

The other notable feature of lower Manhattan is the New York Stock Exchange, the symbolic heart of the city's financial district.  In fact, financial employment went wild in the years after the WTC opened.

According to a 1991 Bureau of Labor Statistics report on New York employment, there were 101,000 banking jobs in the city in 1960.

Thirty years later, banking employment had rise to 166,000, and a new financial category, securities and commodities brokers, accounted for another 129,000 jobs.

At this point, the financial institutions were making very good money.  At least two investment banks planned their own privately funded skyscrapers near the NYSE building.  Others might have done so as well if the World Trade Center had not been built.


We know what happened to the Twin Towers in September, 2001.

On Wednesday, I'll discuss changes to the World Trade Center between 9/11 and the current day.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Sympathizer

This novel, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Fiction award and many other prizes, is a hybrid.  It is a Vietnam War story told from the point of view of a Vietnamese man.

But not just any Vietnamese man.  It is a confessional written by a Communist spy who left Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975 and entered the United States as a refugee mole, commanded to infiltrate the Vietnamese expat community in California.

If this sounds complicated, don't worry.  The author is talented and knows how to tell a story.

And what a story it is.  The scenes of the American military's withdrawal are vivid and horrifying. Once in the U.S., the anti-hero narrator (described in a subsequent interview as "a bad James Bond") embeds himself in the company of the general he previously served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army.  To protect himself from suspicion as a spy, he participates in the killings of two blameless innocents.

And that's just the beginning.  To call this book "sprawling" is to understate its range, but it is good, really good.

One long set piece has the narrator hired by a character called the Auteur (presumably Francis Ford Coppola) to provide authentic details to a movie called "The Hamlet" (presumably "Apocalypse Now") being shot in the Philippines in the late 1970s.  The narrator comes to understand that Vietnamese authenticity is not wanted so much as an American's eye view of Vietnamese authenticity.  As the film's shooting ends, the Auteur almost kills the narrator in the film's final explosion scene.

From there it's back to a land infiltration of former South Vietnamese military veterans hoping in vain to  retake the land they lost.  There are ghastly well-described torture scenes and a long turmoil that ends the book with many questions.

A sequel is planned.

The Author

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in 1971 to a devout Catholic family that had fled North Vietnam in 1954 fearing persecution at the hands of the Communist government.  In March 1975, after the North Vietnamese Army took over his village, his mother walked 150 miles to Saigon with Viet, then 4, and his 10-year-old brother to meet up with her husband, who already was in Saigon on business.   Turned away at the airport, they boarded a barge and made their way to the United States.

After a difficult period in Pennsylvania, the Nguyens joined a Vietnamese community in California, where the parents opened a food store and worked 12- to 14-hour days and encouraged their sons to concentrate on their studies.

The parents succeeded and made a good life. Viet's older brother is now a highly regarded scientist.

The author, who majored in literature and ethnic studies at Berkeley, remembers almost nothing of the difficult exit from his homeland.  But he is the the member of the family who has steeped himself for more than 20 years in Vietnamese history, the Vietnam War and the experience of his compatriots in the U.S., which he regards as a refugee -- not an immigrant -- experience.

Nguyen is now a professor at the University of Southern California.  He has given many interviews about his remarkable first novel, and another nonfiction book he wrote covering much of the same ground.  He has cited W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and Ralph Ellison -- outsiders all -- as inspirations.

His essential, and valid, critique of American stories and films about Vietnam is that they are American stories with Vietnamese people in the background.

       Oftentimes, when you’re a minority writer in the United States, especially if you’re an
       Asian-American writer, you’re put into the position of apology, of being the cultural
       ambassador, of being the translator. This is how I would’ve been classified. This is how
       Asian-American writers are made legible in the publishing industry, so the novel’s very
       deliberately designed not to do any of those kinds of things. I wanted it to be a
       confrontational novel, one that wouldn’t try to hold people’s hands or try to translate
       things. I worked on the assumption that, if I did it well, readers would go along with that.

Anger and Projection

More from another interview with the the author:

       Very little has changed since the moment that I satirize in the novel. The novel is set in
       the second half of the 1970s, but the effacement and erasure of Asians, Asian Americans
       and other minorities or people of color still continues to this day in the U.S. What it means
       is that this industry of memory, which is built on inequality, is rendered very visible in
       Hollywood both in terms of what it produces, but also how Hollywood itself is structured.
       That mode of erasing, effacing, or marginalizing people who don’t happen to be white is
       absolutely central to both the maintenance of structural inequality in the United States, but
       also as a justification of war against people of color overseas.

The novel, while sensitive to the difficulties of Vietnamese refugees, also gets in some gratuitous stereotypes that I found a bit jarring. Examples:

         The majority of Americans regarded us (Vietnamese) with ambivalence if not outright
        distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat.  We threatened the sanctity and
        symmetry of a white and black racial America where racial politics left no room for any
        other color, particularly that of pathetic little yellow-skinned people pickpocketing the
        American purse.

A dialogue between Vietnamese characters:

        "Have you noticed how a white man can learn a few words of some Asian language, and
        we just eat it up?"

        "Have you noticed that when we Asians speak English, it better be nearly perfect or
        someone's going to make fun of our accent?"

There are many other examples.

None of this takes away from the power of "The Sympathizer," but it does fall in line with much discussion, especially political discussion, in our country today.  People dream up exaggerated and unflattering stereotypes of other people whose views they do not share.  Right or left, atheist or religious, we respond to people as caricatures and treat them with contempt instead of talking and listening to each other.

It seems worse than ever in this election year.  I'm tired of it.


In my view, “The Sympathizer” is a much better book that the two previous Pulitzer fiction winners.   Let’s hope this signals the start of a higher-minded trend.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Movie Monday: Deepwater Horizon

If you ever harbored dreams of working as a roughneck on a deep-sea oil-drilling platform, watching this movie will cause you to think again.

This film's re-enactment of Deepwater Horizon's 2010 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico is a fine crescendo of rising tension and the hellish firestorm that killed 11 of Deepwater Horizon's 126-member crew.  It does a good job explaining for laymen some of the elements of the myriad difficulties of drilling for oil, particularly offshore.

Inevitably, like most disaster films, it dwells on the personal stories of the workers who maintained the rig and were faced with almost certain death upon its explosion.  We understand things best when we identify with characters who seem real.

The film also personalizes the blame for the explosion, in the person of a grim, tense British Petroleum employee who repeatedly urges the platform operators, employees of the Transocean company, to work faster to get the project online after cost and time overruns.

It's a movie, and it needs a bad guy.  It convicts BP of all blame, which may not be fair.

What Is Missed

Here, from an excellent longer article, is Britannica's summary of the event:

        The Deepwater Horizon rig, owned and operated by offshore-oil-drilling company
        Transocean and leased by oil company BP, was situated in the Macondo oil prospect
        in the Mississippi Canyon, a valley in the continental shelf. The oil well over which it
        was positioned was located on the seabed 4,993 feet (1,522 metres) below the surface
        and extended approximately 18,000 feet (5,486 metres) into the rock. On the night of
        April 20 a surge of natural gas blasted through a concrete core recently installed by
        contractor Halliburton in order to seal the well for later use. It later emerged through
        documents released by Wikileaks that a similar incident had occurred on a BP-owned rig
        in the Caspian Sea in September 2008. Both cores were likely too weak to withstand the
        pressure because they were composed of a concrete mixture that used nitrogen gas to
        accelerate curing.

If you are curious, I would encourage a look at the entire piece, available online.

This is just one movie.  Well done as it is, it cannot explore the widespread, catastrophic damage the explosion and follow-on release of oil caused in the Gulf of Mexico, along its shores, to wildlife and businesses and the economy.

It also cannot cover the legal parade of damage claims, some fraudulent, in Louisiana, a state known for its well-fed plaintiffs' bar.  Halliburton alone paid more than $1.1 billion in claims.  (I would not be eager to be the insurer for an oilfield services company.)

It also cannot contextualize the danger of work on offshore rigs.  Transocean, a highly specialized offshore drilling company, had lost another 11 employees in North Sea drilling operations in various incidents from 2002 to 2000.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Mainstreaming Short Socks

Yesterday I noted that women's stockings -- specifically crew socks and ankle socks -- were making a comeback in street fashions in Europe and parts of the United States.

This fall's ready-to-wear designer shows seem to be making the new look official.

Hermes is selling the pump below in several colors with coordinating short socks and longish skirts. 

Missoni, famed for colorful knitwear, sent runway models out with contrasting shoe and short sock combinations..

Rochas of Paris has shown street socks occasionally since at least 2011.  Here's a pre-fall show look. The autumn ready-to-wear line has many other outfits, most with longer, looser, cable-knit stockings in colors that contrast with dresses and skirts.

Anthony Vaccarello, who was named recently to replace Hedi Slimane as creative director at Saint Laurent, has been showing black socks with high-heeled sandals for at least a year.
This fall he paired the black socks with white sandals, as in the example below.

In a signal that perhaps this not is just a European trend, these three looks from Tommy Hilfiger showed various outfits, even very short ones, with socks.  

To Adopt or Not to Adopt?

Some of these looks seem jarring to my traditional eye.  I could more easily imagine them in neutral colors than as bright contrasts.  And I would avoid wearing them with micro-mini skirts and dresses because I would worry about looking like an overgrown toddler.

What I might try is wearing such stockings with ankle boots and knee-length or longer skirts and with some of the new, shorter pants.

In fact, hosiery manufacturers are all over this idea.  Every department store or online fashion site is offering multiple crew socks types, from laced-topped to neon shades to fishnets.

Since even the most expensive stockings are cheaper than most fashion purchases, why not give these a try?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Stockings Trending

For the last 10 years or more, the business of women's stockings has been very simple.  The general theme was "No socks."

--If you were wearing a dress or skirt, you wore no stockings.  Occasionally, if an outfit or the weather demanded it, you wore tights.  Black tights.

--If you were going to the gym, you wore stockings that peeked a teense over the top of your sneakers.

--If you wore pants, you wore no stockings; occasionally, you wore short crew socks in the same color that were mostly covered by your long pants hems.

That was about the extent of the stocking thing.

This regime had consequences.

For me, it meant a smaller stocking wardrobe.  Over time, I realized that all I needed were a few pairs of pant socks (black, navy and gray) and a couple pairs of black tights, which lasted much longer than pantyhose. I moved my stockings to a smaller drawer

For hosiery manufacturers, this was a disaster.  True, there were efforts to pitch tights in different colors or with herringbone checks, but these did not capture the public fancy.  The only possible uptick was in sales of gym socks (assuming more women were taking up exercise or yoga or barre workouts, which I'm not sure is true.

Change Is Afoot

In Europe, the sock thing seems to have been changing in recent years.  I can think of two reasons.

First, Kate Middleton, the duchess of Cambridge, has been seen wearing pantyhose at several events.  This may be because she married into a pretty conservative family, but she still is an international fashion icon.

Second, many fashionable Europeans spend more time walking in crowded cities, and they may crave a bit more comfort.  City streets are littered with small stones carried in on the tires of cars and buses.  Stockings offer a bit more protection than shoes alone, and much more protection than open-toed sandals and the open-toed boots that have been so popular recently.

The Sartorialist

One of my favorite websites is  Sart is a fashion photographer who posts excellent street snaps of fashionable people, chiefly in major European cities and New York.

For the last couple years, his posts have included many, many pictures of European women wearing short socks with street clothing.  Here are a couple from last summer.

And here is a version caught by Sart last May in New York's Bowery neighborhood.

These things have influenced me.  A week ago, I attended a fancy-dress event in New York.   The weather was fine, but for the first time in years I decided to wear pantyhose.  (Turned out I had an old pair, still in the package, at the back of the hosiery drawer.)  When I got to the event, I found that I was not alone in this impulse.

So there.

Tomorrow: Hosiery from the Fall Collections