Mr. Roy Griffin

I was watching Saving Private Ryan recently, and my thoughts turned to Mr. Roy Griffin.

Roy is a gentleman 90 years of age who lives by himself in a house with a large vegetable garden a block north of my house on Tyler Street in Hillcrest. I’ve met him only twice. On a particularly chilly Sunday morning a few years ago, I was stepping out in my pajamas to get the newspaper when my front door closed behind me, locking me out. Barefoot in 35 degree weather at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, I knocked on a couple of neighbors’ doors to no avail. A black Ford SUV pulled up and the man at the wheel was Mr. Roy Griffin, on his way to church. He asked me if I needed a ride somewhere, and I figured my friend Sara’s place would be the next best bet, so he took me there.

He told me, “I know what it’s like to be cold. I spent a winter in Belgium in World War II.”

He dropped me off at Sara’s and waited with me until she answered the door (which she did very grumpily, of course). I just needed to get the number of my friend Kathy, who had my spare key, so I waved Mr. Griffin goodbye and he went on his way. A few days later I took him some cookies to say thanks. He was on the phone when I went by, so I didn’t stay to visit. And, because I’m naturally kind of shy, I never got around to going back to his house just to chat.

Truthfully, his statement about knowing the true meaning of the word “cold” always kind of intimidated me. I never figured I’d have anything to offer the guy – he’s a WWII vet who still drives to church and works in his very impressive garden, so the guy is clearly tough as nails.

And today I found out just how tough. I Googled him. As it turns out, AETN has a vast website of veteran interviews and archives at Here is Mr. Griffin’s page. He was an amphibious engineer in the Army. He fought WWII from the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia to Omaha Beach, and helped liberate the concentration camp at Buchenwald. It’s a lot to dig through, but here are some highlights to get you interested.

From Video #9:

When I first come home, I was just hanging. What I wanted to do most of all was to get my feet on the ground, just be a normal person. And I could picture myself going way out into the Rocky Mountains and get so far out I couldn’t hear a train blow or nothing. It didn’t work that way. I know if it hadn’t been for my family I’d have probably lost it all. I never did get depressed, but I was worried because I was with this tough outfit for five years.

Also in that video, he tells about finally getting home from the war, to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, just a few hours from his hometown of Yazoo City. He was being told about his options for assignment, none of which involved getting home to see his family any time soon. When an officer told him he didn’t have any privileges while awaiting assignment, he said:

Then I told him which side his bread was oleo’d on. “I’m a tell you something. I haven’t seen my wife in three years. Do you think I’d recognize her if she walked in?” I said, “if you need me in the next few days, get a bunch and come after me, don’t come by yourself. Just sure as God made little green apples, I’m gonna go home.”

I won’t give away the ending, because it’s great.

All of this made me realize that war stories are only stories to those who didn’t live them. The rest of us can only sit back and be fascinated and enthralled. Reading about Saving Private Ryan on, I see in the trivia section that the film is listed as President Bush’s favorite movie. Neither President Bush nor I have ever seen combat, but I can’t help feeling like he missed a lesson there: War is a last resort. And as the world is coming to a slow realization that the Iraq War represents either the world’s most colossal intelligence blunder or the world’s most cynical exploitation of warfare for corporate gain (or both!), maybe we’ll even start to realize that there was a justifiable war once.

And even it was hell.

Happy New Year. Here’s to 2009 being a time for learning lessons.

Socio-Economic Silver Lining?

From Vanity Fair:

Another Upper East Side woman often goes from lunch at Michael’s restaurant on West 55th Street to Manolo Blahnik a block away to pick up a $600 or $700 pair of shoes as “retail therapy.” No more. “I was at Michael’s yesterday and was thinking, Oh, Manolo’s … But then I thought, Why? Why do that? It just doesn’t feel good.”

One prominent “hedgie” recently flew to China for business—but not on a private plane, as before. “Why should I pay $250,000 for a private plane,” he said to a friend, “when I can pay $20,000 to fly commercial first class?”

From Newsweek:

Steve Schwarzman of private equity firm Blackstone Group expressed regret for the $3 million he spent on his 60th birthday party in February 2007—an event that politicians and the press won’t let him forget. “Obviously, I wouldn’t have wanted to do that and become, you know, some kind of symbol of sorts of that period of time.”

It’s Still a Wonderful Life

It’s interesting to watch It’s a Wonderful Life through the lens of the current economic crisis. Watching the run on the Bailey Building and Loan, and listening to George explain how bank loans work, I’m struck by how far finance as an industry has come, with so many labyrinthine variations on illiquid funds, debt, stocks, speculation, etc. A modern version might go something like this:

“You act like I’ve got the money back in the safe. But it’s in Joe’s house, and he’s mortgaged to the hilt because although he only makes $80,000 a year he wants people to think he makes $100,000, and he wants the jet ski and the Hummer and so you loaned him the money because you were in the same frat and why not? They’re just numbers, ink on a page. Everybody fudges the numbers, even Joe!”

And the scene where Potter tries to buy George out. It’s become the American Dream.

You wouldn’t mind living in the nicest house in town, buying your wife a lot of fine clothes, a couple of business trips to New York a year, maybe once in a while Europe. You wouldn’t mind that, would you, George?

I think most of Wall Street sold out to Potter at birth. It’s pretty much the goal of most Americans. But it shouldn’t be; and that’s actually one of the lessons of the movie that people miss.

The movie is trying to tell us that the stuff we think of as “important” – building big things, living the good life, fame, fortune – is so far, far less important than helping people and holding it down in your own corner of the world, wherever that may be.

One of the things Camille Paglia[1] talks a lot about is elevating the trades. We’ve become so materialistic that we assume that anyone who makes less than $30,000 or who doesn’t work in an office is automatically a second class citizen. We’ve got to find some way to be happy with who we are and what we do. Because it seems like no one is.

1.) Who by the way, clearly has a big crush on Sarah Palin, so I take her less seriously than I used to.

Race is Bunk

Mara Leveritt at Arkansas Times has a fantastic piece on race, a concept she cunningly refers to as “junk science.”[1] I hadn’t given it much thought, but from a strictly scientific standpoint, race is kind of a crock. Certainly there are evolved characteristics among people adapted to a specific environment, but cultural factors define and divide people far more than genetic ones. Skin tone has until recently been the clearest indicator of cultural background, but this is changing more and more every day.

I really want to send the article to Thom Robb and see what his reaction to it would be. He’s built his identity on his notions of racial superiority. I’m sure he’ll fume. He was bouncing off the walls when Obama referred to himself as a “mutt,” because he didn’t understand that, to Obama, the term is pretty inert and worthless. It’s simply a descriptor, like “tall,” or “skinny.” To Robb, it means everything; it stands for impurity and implies disadvantage and low status. With one casual aside, Obama singlehandely deflated the position of people like Robb.[2]

Obama’s ascendancy reminds me of medieval times, when two lords wanted to unify their houses by marrying their childen together. The offspring would be of united blood, loyal to both houses. Obama seems to be in a similar place. The more unity children this world has, the less petty squabbling humans can do.

1.) Somewhere there’s a racist Creationist jumping up and down with steam puffing out of his ears saying, “that’s my derisive label! Not yours!”

2.) Interesting side note: my office blocks websites with potentially offensive content. When I started my new job, I was able to peek at Robb’s blog. This is now no longer the case. That means somebody saw the traffic, checked out the content, and blocked it. I hope nobody thinks I’m a bigot; I just find them hilarious.

Treasure Trove of Trash Talk

If we needed any more proof that swear words are a legislative and judicial Pandora’s Box of insanity, Jay Wexler brings up the recent hilarious Supreme Court case between the FCC and Fox TV. Justice Scalia made this curious remark:

“Don’t use golly waddles instead of the F word.”

Wexler suspected that Scalia improvised “golly waddles”[1] and consulted language expert and Harvard Psych prof Steven Pinker, who confirmed the invention, and who then proceeded to let loose this handy list of polite and/or archaic euphamisms for such things.

“I am pretty sure that Scalia made up ‘golly waddles’ on the spot. He needed a hypothetical term that was not “f*ck,” and so used that; I don’t think it was an allusion to any commonly used euphemism. On the other hand he was certainly influenced by the truncated profanities for “God” that are ubiquitous in polite speech, such as golly, gosh, egad, gad, gadzooks, good grief, goodness gracious, Great Caesar’s ghost, and Great Scott. Similar truncations pop up for just about every taboo term, including Jesus (gee, gee whiz, gee willikers, geez, jeepers creepers, Jiminy Cricket, Judas Priest, Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat), sh*t (shame, sheesh, shivers, shoot, shucks, squat, sugar), and f*ck (fiddlesticks, fiddledeedee, foo, fudge, fug, fuzz, flaming, flipping, freaking, frigging, effing). I’m not sure why he felt he needed a second word in his hypothetical euphemism, but it may have been inspired by the prevalence of two-part euphemisms for bullsh*t, like applesauce, balderdash, blatherskite, claptrap, codswallop, flapdoodle, hogwash, horsefeathers, humbug, moonshine, poppycock, tommyrot.”

Truly amazing is the human capacity for human linguistic invention, especially in finding safe alternatives for the “magic” words. I wonder if any of the outmoded examples were as weighty in their heyday. People forget that a lot of swear words from a hundred years ago are teethless and innocuous today.

UPDATE: After ruminating on “golly waddles” I think Scalia may have meant “mollycoddles.”

1.) Of course, Scalia is old as the hills, so you never know if he’s using some Depression-era Jersey slang.

Chunks of Childhood

I wrote this on Facebook today, and thought it was worth sharing:

Once you’ve been tagged you have to write a [note] with 15 weird/random facts about you. I was tagged by Jill, so I’m doing my duty. This one seems to have a childhood theme to it.

1. I don’t think I ever learned how to properly untie my shoes until college. I used to always pull the loops rather than the ends. I have no idea why.

2. When I was 4, I knew every make and model of every car on the road in the US. Or so my mom tells me. I have no recollection of this whatsoever.

3. When I was 2 or 3, I left the house in my pajamas at 8am and went across the street to our neighbor’s house for cookies. I think Mrs. France called my mom to let her know. Mom was looking everywhere for me. So yeah, I’ve had this cookie thing for a long time. It may be congenital, because….

4. …My dad always had a stash of Butterfingers. He called them his “medicine” and kept them on a high shelf away from our stuff.

5. In 1982 or so I burned my Star Wars AT-AT into plastic glop on a snowy day. I was burning a hole in the underbelly (like Luke!) when it caught fire. I learned that when plastic catches fire, there’s no stopping it. I threw snow at it, but eventually gave up and threw it in the fireplace.

6. Elizabeth Evans and I would constantly re-enact the scene in E.T. where Eliot’s mom hits E.T. in the face with the refrigerator. Guess who played E.T.? I wonder if chronic mild head trauma has cumulative effects over time…

7. In the days before video rentals, and yes I’m old enough to remember them, my dad had a friend dub Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back onto VHS tape, which I watched with a regularity that approached monomania. By 1985, you could see through the tape.

8. My dad owned an old and busted Austin Healey. It lived in the garage and made scary noises and I used to have nightmares about it because the grill looked like the teeth of a monster. Cut me some slack, I was 5. In 1986 my stepmom’s cat had kittens in it, and the car was sold not long after.

9. In kindergarten, my sister and Amy Crosland locked me and Robert Whisenant out of my house. We panicked and then totally went on the offensive by trashing Amy’s mo-ped. I poked holes in the seat and Robert put rocks in the engine. We had to pay for that.

10. In the summer of 1990, I would walk to Quail Tree swimming pool listening to nothing but Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare on cassette. That fall, I started guitar lessons.

11. The only time I ever went to drama competition, I got first place in solo acting, thanks to a great piece my dad gave me, written by Peter Cook. I’ll post a link to it on my page in a few minutes.

12. In 3rd grade Chad Causey and I used to have competitions to see who could put more pepper in their chili. Mountains we’d put in there. I don’t recall who won. But I know that I’m addicted to Vietnamese hot sauce today.

13. In addition to the many ashtrays stolen from Burger King, I participated in the heisting of a newspaper rack, along with Odie and I think Dave Deere? Maybe Lance. I forget. I know it was in Odie’s truck. Probably listening to BloodSugarSexMagik. Because music makes kids commit crime.

14. I was only paddled once. Summer Rec, by Coach Hudson. My crime: going into the stands of the junior high gym to retrieve a frisbee, after we were specifically forbidden from doing so. I was clearly a juvenile delinquent and had to be punished.

15. My grandfather was a minister who wrote and self-published a book on ghosts and their relationship to divine spirit. He did this on a Mac Plus in the mid-80’s, hampered by his slow-moving fingers, which gave him limited movement following a stroke in the late 60’s. I only ever knew him as a man with slurred speech, with a walker or a wheelchair, but his mind was as sharp as a tack.

The Death of Niche Cable

I think it started with MTV’s The Real World. That was when MTV realized that it could make more money with shows that have a clear demographic than it could with just random videos all day long. This inevitably led to our current state of affairs wherein actual music videos on MTV are as scarce as hookers in Times Square. MTV is even saying goodbye to TRL, the last outpost of daytime video programming on MTV.

I’ve noticed an alarming number of cable channels finding greater profits in programming that violates the channel’s name and mandate.

VH1 was quick to follow, eventually packing its schedule with reality shows and instant nostalgia programs. The name VH1, for those who don’t remember, once stood for “video hits.” Like its big sister MTV did with M2, so VH1 begat VH1 Classic, tasking it with doing the chores VH1 was too busy making money to bother with, namely, playing video hits.

Next up, Bravo. Once a channel dedicated to actorly pursuits like Inside the Actor’s Studio (itself now a show featuring stars rather than actors), Bravo now boasts a schedule packed to the gills with reality shows of questionable relevance to its original charter of focusing on film, drama, and the performing arts. It should be noted that Bravo’s Canadian twin, Bravo!, never made this transition.

More recently, AMC, a channel whose name once stood for “American Movie Classics,” launched in 2007 its first original drama series, Mad Men. At least they’ve violated their namesake with a really good show.

The lesson here is that there may not be any money in niche programming, and as soon as there is, the niche is the first thing that dies. I’m once again reminded of that Eric Hoffer quotation, “every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Maybe that’s a natural consequence of the old business adage: “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

Link Inventory

I’ve had a glut of fun links that I’ve sent around to various people recently. After a certain critical mass, I realized I should just drop them all onto the blog for everyone to enjoy. Also, if you’re on Gmail, I’ll be adding fun links as I find them to my status there via Snurl, a service for making really long links into tiny ones. My intake of new blogs and articles has multiplied exponentially since I added The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Wired and New York Magazine to my Firefox bookmarks toolbar, and here are some of the results:

  1. ClapClap’s history of the long, slow rise of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which began its pop-culture life as Jeff Buckley’s cover of John Cale’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s tune, and now, given its apparent pervasiveness, seems poised to become the next “Amazing Grace.”[1]

    ClapClap’s Michael Barthel talks about how the song gets used on Scrubs and The OC as an easy and cheap emotional shorthand. This made me realize how easily a legitimately emotional piece of music can easily become banal through overuse, the entropy of art. Classic rock stations have the same effect. But Barthel disagrees:

    “This is the beauty of the pop song: it’s an artistic hooker with a heart of gold, always willing to be used. It can become a tool, but a song isn’t a Matisse—if it’s used as a washcloth, just wring it out and it’s good as new.”

  2. McSweeney’s deliciously satirical sendup of Ayn Rand, updated for the new financial crisis.

  3. And speaking of economics, I’ve read in several places now that economic downturn is bad news for libertarians. The Becker-Posner blog says it best:

    “The financial crisis has hit economic libertarians in the solar plexus, because the crisis is largely a consequence of innate weaknesses in free markets and of excessive deregulation of banking and finance, rather than of government interference in the market.”

  4. Completely unrelated to anything else thus far, here’s a story about a woman with completely perfect recall. She can remember every detail about every day of her life. Why the Greek tragedians never thought of this, I can’t say.
  5. And, for dessert, cupcakes from John Mayer.

I should mention that a few of these items came via Andrew sullivan’s blog at The Atlantic. I’m addicted. His range is wide, his diction and syntax elegant, and his politics reasonable. I found it very interesting when Michael Barthel of clapclap said, “when you mainly get the world through people who share your filter, it strengthens and hardens.” Incidentally, Andrew Sullivan is a conservative, gay, Christian British guy. So he’s nobody’s echo chamber. Everyone should check him out.

1.) We’ll have to wait about 50 more years to really find out, though.

Noel Murray Nails It

The AV Club’s yearlong feature Popless, in which Conway’s own Noel Murray takes a sabbatical from all new music listening to focus on weeding and reviewing his entire collection, is wrapped up, and I had to pass along this elegant crystallization of what it means to move into parenthood from mere adulthood:

And I’ve got no problem at all with music that’s soft, pretty—even wimpy. I’m a middle-aged family man. I have nothing invested anymore in being thought of as a badass.

This may be the very reason why my musical tastes are all over the map: I have nothing invested in being thought of as anything other than someone whose tastes are all over the map.

While I’d like to admit that I’ve never much cared for what people think about the music that I like, somewhere in college, as I was transitioning out of metal and guitar wizardry[1], I think I subconsciously was guided by the desire to be known as someone whose music collection had no borders, someone to whom nothing was musically off limits. Working at a college radio station, I saw a lot of people putting limits on what they could or should listen to or not. Indie/college rock demands that you not listen to a lot of things: 80’s rock isn’t cool, jazz fusion isn’t cool, mainstream pop isn’t cool, thrash metal isn’t cool[2]. I certainly wanted no part of that hierarchy of badassery. If loving Huey Lewis and the News and Megadeth is wrong, I didn’t want to be right. And I still don’t.

By the way, I cannot recommend more highly that you go back and read each and every weekly Popless entry to learn about a lot of music you’ve probably never had the time or inclination to listen to – here is the first installment of Popless. And here is the index of all the articles.

1.) Or more specifically, “being thought of as someone who was a guitar badass.”
2.) Except Slayer, because there’s a certain hipster credibility to Slayer, because Slayer is the scariest band most indie rockers have ever heard.