Saturday, April 30, 2005


Looking up a movie on gets you, along with some cast, crew, year of release and such, a random bit of trivia and user comment. When I looked up the 1976 version of “Carrie,” the user comment was titled “Agenbite of Inwit,” and I read the whole piece just to find out what that meant.

Eighteen agonizing paragraphs later, I still didn’t know, but had been introduced to poet and critic Christopher Mulrooney in much the same way people pitched down a flight of stairs without warning are introduced to new senses of the words “surprised” and “hurt.” I credit Mulrooney with expanding my mind in two ways: a realization that the free nature of the Internet can be abused by the giver as well as the receiver; and a new understanding of what makes criticism good or bad.

I feel a bit foolish on the first. People have been warning for years that there’s a lot of bad information available on the Internet, and I’ve given the same warning to myself and others. But I’d thought of it mostly in terms of flawed spelling and incorrect facts. Mulrooney shows the same concerns can apply to opinion, just by sheer volume.

To give a sense: Mulrooney has 114 pages of movie reviews on That translates to 1,137 reviews for this Web site alone. His writings elsewhere on the Web are even more exhaustive. And exhausting.

On the second mind expansion, the nature of bad criticism, I think it’s time to quote from Mulrooney’s work. Out of his thousands, I will quote from just two.

Here’s the first few sentences from “Agenbite of Inwit”:

Maslin calls it “misogynistic” and misses it by a country mile. There is an ultimate cruelty in this film revealed at the last, and the victim is the horribly defenseless individual you will at last remember from your school days.

Other than this, Carrie either defies criticism plainly or puts it to its mettle with prodigious inventions that require description, one after another.

There is a beautiful setup at the first, a high angle on girls in gym class playing volleyball, which cranes down and in to the inept Carrie being flouted as the other players pass her on their way to the locker room. As the credits play, De Palma simply fabricates one of the greatest shots in cinema. In slow motion, the camera tracks right across the girls before the rows of lockers, finds an aisle leading to the showers and dollies-in to Carrie under the stream, bleeding, with her back to it.

Pino Donaggio’s theme here anticipates the remembrance of Morricone’s in Once Upon A Time In America. De Palma pursues his image in a remarkable scene at the principal’s office, tilting down from a close-up of Carrie’s face to an ashtray with a lit cigarette on the desk before her, which her distress plummets to the floor.

A provisionally-furnished suburban ranch house is seen, visited by Carrie’s mother, proselytizing. Her girlish turn at the door after a last adjuration with lifted right hand is a key element of the performance.

Here’s some from another astounding piece, this time on the 1961 film “Francis of Assisi”:

A prophetic film, in that Dolores Hart in fact became a nun, the church at Assisi fell down, and Michael Curtiz is rather a saint himself tortured on the rack of such criticism as Professor Sarris’s, which holds that among his films “none of the later ones are even worth seeing,” and while such a censure is kinder than Stanley Kauffman’s pronouncement on Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, “If I were Pope, I would burn it,” and far less harmful than the Vatican’s ban on Godard’s Hail Mary, still it must be allowed that for a saint the flames of an auto da fe might after all amount to no more than a tickle.

Rossellini seems to have been the first to grasp this about Francis Of Assisi, that it is swift, sure and subtle, and the result is Augustine Of Hippo. It was generally Curtiz’s fate to labor in the vineyard unesteemed, like Tennyson at Oxford. “If I were you,” said the dean of dons during the ceremony, “I wouldn't publish that poem,” to which the Poet Laureate replied, “If it comes to that, Master, the port you served at lunch was beastly.”

Now, Curtiz goes to another difficulty even than in the absurdly excellent King Creole by filming on location in color. I may be wrong, but I am under the impression that this was held to be an economy on his part. It’s odd that Professor Sarris denies him credit in an artistic sense for Casablanca, when here too is a monumentally pointed script of which every other line is quotable. It is perfectly suited to the story, matched excellently well by the articulate direction encompassing sets, locations, costumes and settings, a precisely calibrated treatment of the actors within it all, and no nonsense about the subject interfering in the slightest with its presentation on the screen.

These are not the worst of his reviews, by the way, merely two chosen more or less at random because, really, how can one choose among such riches? It’s best to look through his works for yourself, although it’s an occupation that can easily blow an afternoon. Or a week.

Comparing these two, though, it’s interesting to see Mulrooney can apply his awfulness in at least two ways. The “Carrie” review goes into deadening specificity on the story of the movie, the action and visual details of each scene and the decisions made by cast and crew in filming them. The “Francis” review skips this completely and still winds up being useless.

This is largely because Mulrooney is almost autistically referential. Never mind that he expects everyone to know who Maslin and Sarris are (film reviewers) and follow his dizzying summoning of other works by the director of the film he’s discussing or the director of any other film ever. He also brings up and discards in a continual burst of Burroughsian semantic pyrotechnicality (see how it’s done?) marginally useful allusions to everyone from Duchamp to — on the phrase “agenbite of inwit” itself, which means something like “the remorse of conscience,” choose whomever you like — James Joyce, Marshall McLuhan or Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss. Finally, he makes thematic connections that can’t possibly exist, and does so with astonishing satisfaction, if not the self-deceiving smugness of a half-bright nerd.

In the space of two sentences in the “Carrie” review, Mulrooney says her destruction of a high school gym with mysterious mental powers has “an incidental echo of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ to say nothing of ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’” and insists a girl who visits Carrie’s wrecked home at the end of movie “is seized by ‘the agenbite of inwit’ in a shot echoing ‘Deliverance.’” His “Francis” review says a scene in the movie in which guards let their cheetahs attack Francis of Assisi was copied 17 years later in the television movie “Columbo: How to Dial a Murder” when guards let doberman pinschers attack ... well, some guy. Certainly not Francis of Assisi.

Mulrooney delights in knowing things, and it’s difficult not to appreciate the breadth of his knowledge even while despairing that he’s so busy showing off he can’t actually connect meaningfully with whomever he’s trying to reach. For a reader, connection requires not just catching all Mulrooney’s references, but following his tortured sentence structure well enough to link references to meanings and meanings to relevance.

Many critics compare too much, because all are obliged to debate the worth of what’s being reviewed against its place in history and debt to its predecessors — then gauge that against how much the lay reader has to know to appreciate what they’re about to see. Mulrooney, though, embraces rather than debates, and there’s no precedent, similarity or coincidence he will not joyfully smother against his chest.

Reading his work — if not his unabridged work — is enjoyable in a jaw-dropping, forehead-rubbing kind of a way. In addition to the perverse pleasure of witnessing the innocently awful, such as badly dubbed flicks with kung fu or rubber-suit monsters, or celebrating the best in bad taste, such as babes-behind-bars flicks in which every inmate is hot and they shower together, there is always awe of the immense.

Mulrooney has accomplished a lot, even if the meaning of that is limited to the strictest definition of those words: He’s prolific. He’s got quantity going for him.

And, on the Internet, you’ve a better chance of stumbling across his writing than that of any number of brilliant writers, poets and critics who let standards get in the way of production.

Insert Ed Wood reference here.

Friday, April 29, 2005


I was distracted and not catching many details. The chummy voice on the phone — he called me by my first name and I think even slipped in a “buddy” — wanted me to contribute money to an area foundation for disabled policemen. He said, I believe, he was calling from the foundation, although he might have said “for” the foundation. If it makes a difference.

I asked if he was a police officer and the level of chumminess fell. “Am I a policeman. No, they don’t make these calls. They hire us to make these calls for them.”

Then I asked how much of the money solicited actually went to disabled police officers.

I hadn’t even finished the question before the line went dead.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


It’s unlikely to amount to much in the long run, but to the Republican stumbles of Social Security privatization, Terry Schiavo, John Bolton’s nomination to be United Nations ambassador and the “nuclear option” meltdown, you can add the retreat from changing U.S. House of Representatives ethics committee rules ... and even a change of heart on arctic drilling by Eskimos who were longtime supporters.

Reuters is saying that residents of Kaktovik, the only population center on the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, are going against their own financial interests — they get part of the $46.7 million in oil-extraction money promised for offshore drilling — “because of potential threats to migrating whales and other sea life.”

Drilling in the refuge was approved in the House on Thursday, 249-183, as part of a wide-ranging energy bill. The Senate will vote on ANWR drilling in a budget bill; Republicans put it there because the budget bill can’t be delayed with a filibuster. The March 17 vote that put oil drilling into a budget bill was decided 51-49.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


They might be given the benefit of a doubt, but it sure looks as though Senate Democrats are close to giving Republicans yet another incremental win, this time on judges and the filibuster.

Democrats have been killing votes on several Bush-nominated judges by using filibusters, a procedural trick long used by whichever party is in the minority (including Republicans during the Clinton years) when they find a nominee offensive. Republicans are proposing a “nuclear option” that would kill the filibuster itself, which they want out of the way before Bush nominates any Supreme Court judges.

And lead Democrat U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is proposing a compromise that would let through some of the judges in exchange for Republicans backing off from the nuclear option.

Let’s see how this works: Republicans present nominees considered unacceptable by the Democrats. Democrats use the filibuster to prevent the nominees from taking office. Republicans threaten to kill the filibuster. Democrats accept some unacceptable nominees if Republicans let them keep the filibuster Democrats use to reject unacceptable nominees.

Yup, that sounds about par for the course for the Democrats lately.

There’s always the tiniest possibility Democrats opposed more judicial nominees than they truly found offensive, just so they’d have room to maneuver later. But that’s an incredibly cynical move that would have proved Republicans right by precipitating a crisis, and there’s fortunately no signs this is the case.

This is politics. Sometimes you take a strategic loss. But if Reid’s compromise goes through, it will stand as yet another depressing example of what happens when you let the other side define the argument.

Monday, April 25, 2005


Something of a celebrity has visited the blog. Jennifer Mickel has replied to Tuesday’s “Chastity belt” posting about abstinence efforts at her school, Princeton. Her reply is eloquent and thoughtful, certainly a better, classier effort than I could have offered at the age of 19.

She shames me in another way, as well: I noticed, in the original post, a cringe-inducingly clumsy bit of writing that has me telling Jennifer to “fuck off” when the intention was to direct that at abstainers-as-victims or abstainers-as-heroes in general. I apologize to my readers and to Jennifer, who should be able to discuss serious topics on campus and in The New York Times without becoming the target of misdirected execrations by random self-righteous blogs. And I will be taking a correspondence course from the local junior high to avoid such embarrassments in the future.

There is still room for debate, however, on the original topic. Jennifer’s correction that “The Ivy Council discussion I attended was NOT a discussion about sex” is disingenuous; it was a conversation about sex that may have come amid discussion on any number of topics, one described by Jennifer herself in the Times as being “very sex-focused” and dealing with “rape kits in medical centers and condoms and the morning-after pill.” Yes, it sounds kind of like a discussion about sex.

And while Jennifer is clearly not a deeply silly person, chiding schools for having rape kits in medical centers when there should also be support for abstainers is, in fact, silly as well as a nonsequitur. Hospitals shouldn’t stop stocking trauma kits, even if most of us vow to drive safely, live healthier lives and stop all gang activity.

It is true, as Jennifer says, there are groups for all sorts of people out there, although not every one is a support group, and there is even a long history of people gathering for, so to speak, nothing. Extending the argument that there’s little need to expend resources on abstinence and chastity, one would also assume there was never a need for freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and disbelievers to gather, either, since they merely reject religion — a negation similar to abstinence and a largely private choice. The reason freethinkers had such a thriving speakers circuit, and rock stars such as Robert Ingersoll, was not just the limited entertainment options of the 1800s, but the need to defend, explain and disseminate a way of living and thinking.

So my dismissal of Princeton’s earnest abstainers may have a personal element. I’m just not much of a joiner, and my lifelong rejection of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, coffee and mushrooms has never needed a support group backing it up. These are personal decisions, ones I do not try to foist or inflict on others (except for the one about the mushrooms) and pressure to give in has always been answered very simply, without struggle, with “I don’t want to.” Similarly, my disbelief in God doesn’t go much beyond, “That’s silly,” and I don’t need to belong to a group to reinforce that. I know I’m free to smoke pot or drink a scotch or espresso any time I choose, and, the next day, not to, or pray to God or Ahura Mazda and then do it never again.

This is not a big deal.

And it does not make me a victim, even with all those around me engaging in behavior I resist, even were I to feel the full energies of the advertising industry, pop culture and society pressing me constantly to surrender. People can fall prey to these forces. But not much can stand up to a sincere “I don’t want to.”

This suggests that support for those espousing chastity and abstinence is needed because, actually, they “do want to,” just as people in Alcoholics Anonymous need support to stay away from substances they feel are destructive to their lives.

That’s not really what’s going on with Jennifer and like-minded people at Princeton, though. Listen again to the leader of the abstinence group, speaking ex cathedra from the moral high ground to all the poor saps in the gutter engaging in animalistic rutting just because it feels good:

We don’t believe that human beings should be used as instruments or objects. We think the proper relationship between humans should be one of respect and love, and we think promiscuity and random hook-ups are completely destructive to respect and love. Dignity itself is a moral standard.

In addition to my eyebrows, gorge and level of impatience, this raises all sorts of questions about the actual limits of chastity for the Princetonians. Do they kiss? Engage in mutual masturbation or oral sex? What if it’s not a random hook-up, but a friends-with-benefits situation? How many dates qualifies a boyfriend or girlfriend for sex, or even a kiss or mutual masturbation? Do they recognize that they can be in a relationship without sex that still lacks respect and love? Surely they know long-term relationships, even with sex, can lack respect and love.

Whatever. I sincerely apologize to Jennifer Mickel. I wish her a life of respect and love.

I also wish her and her abstaining peers at Princeton some rocking orgasms. Like respect and love, they’re pretty good.

Saturday, April 23, 2005


Typical for giant building projects, at least those in Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts expansion is trailing its schedule and will be a disappointment when done. London’s Foster and Partners, which designed the addition, said construction would begin in 2004; the museum boasts that:

Now, in 2005, we have completed design development and are in the final stages of document preparation before ground-breaking, anticipated for late this year or early in 2006. The public phase of the Campaign to support this project was launched last fall and is well underway.

But it will hardly matter when the $385 million project (another $40 million will pay for maintenance and such) is complete. It’s another entirely forgettable, vaguely irritating design of straight lines and cubes, and the best that can be said of it is that some of it is glass.

In other words, when the museum describes the addition’s “deep respect” for the original buildings, the phrase apparently refers only to the fact that people in one of the bigger glass cubes get to eat overpriced museum meals under or across from the original walls. They’ll have a great view of 100-year-old structures, graceful stone edifices that awe and soothe in soft harmony with the grass, trees and sky around them.

Architects almost never make such buildings anymore. From the whimsy of Frank Gehry to the anonymous oppressive butcher blocks of Foster and Partners, they create buildings intended to shock and contrast. Or, in this case, become cold, sharp planes where people stand for the privilege of looking across a garden at a building that actually looks good. If there’s an expansion of the museum after this one — if this one is ever finished — it’s a certainty no one will be creating spaces that have “deep respect” for the Foster and Partners addition. It’s unworthy.

The galleries are inconsequential, the lobby obvious (a stairwell between black boxes looking out upon an expansive floor), the “jewel box” merely big. It is no trick to make a hallway with good lighting or create an impressive space by including lots of it. Nature did that everywhere without a $420 million budget, and more besides, and humans have demonstrated ad nauseam their mastery of it in building since, almost always to show superiority over humanity.

It’s time to either move on or, if the intention is truly to show deep respect to 1907 architect Guy Lowell, demonstrate mastery of his idiom instead. The new wing of the Boston Public Library was an earlier attempt to complement beauty with modernism. The result is a new library building that’s dated (an indelible time stamp of 1972) and an old library building that’s timeless (starting in a glorious 1895). Entering from the new is like walking into a cold, run-down office building; entering from the old is like walking into, well, a museum, complete with creamy marble, elegant stairwells and murals by John Singer Sargent.

Lowell created a Museum of Fine Arts equal to the art it would hold. Foster and Partners, and the museum directors who chose the firm, are creating space that, while claiming to be “establishing a creative dialogue between the old and the new,” merely highlights Lowell’s accomplishment and diminishes their own.

At its current pace, the addition may never get built. Aesthetically, that’s not such a bad idea.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


Five of us climb into the elevator.

“Where are you going?” one of the women asks, fingers poised over the buttons to select a floor.

“Ground floor,” I mumble.

“To hell,” the big guy says loudly.

Everyone laughs. The woman presses “1” for me, “B” for the big guy, who’s dressed in a sort of janitorial uniform.

“I didn’t realize that was in Malden,” I say, to more laughter.

“It is Malden,” he replies, to even more laughter.

Malden: About five miles from Boston, 5.1 square miles of land with 55,816 people — and growing, with 19 building permits in 2001, 25 the next year and 50 the next — served by orange line T service trundling over simple, cluttered homes with hopeless-looking aboveground pools. Downtown, the food is good, but the level of sophistication is somewhere in that basement. The local daily paper, all 12 sprawling pages of it, continues to exist with five or fewer ads per edition and a lot of wire copy, stripped of its “Associated Press” identifers so it looks as though the Malden Evening News has a Victor L. Simpson in Vatican City just as it has a Kevin Maccioli down at the brush fire on the Melrose border.

The lead item in the front-page “It is said ... in Malden” column for Wednesday, April 20, verbatim:

That Malden Police community officer Ptl. Jon Crannell is reminding Malden and area resident that the memorial season is approaching and that they should take extra care in securing their motor vehicles and personal belongings when visiting cemeteries due to heartless and conniving criminals who will stake out and steal from those visiting graves and tombs of their loved ones and that anyone observing any suspicious behavior in Malden cemeteries are urged to contact Malden Police immediately.

On the bright side, there’s free skating this afternoon at 3 p.m. at the rink on Holden Street.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Massachusetts pharmacies may soon get to dispense the morning-after pill, also known as Plan B, even though the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved it for over-the-counter sales. Unlike other states considering this deal, which would require training, certification and an ongoing partnership with a doctor, Massachusetts would add a requirement: Hospitals have to tell rape victims Plan B is an option.

Colorado just went through a vote on this, with the House approving it 46-19 and Senate approving it 22-13. The governor, a Catholic named Bill Owens, vetoed it. The House can override the veto; the Senate is two votes short.

The governor’s reason for the veto? That Catholic hospitals would be obliged to provide such information, although their individual employees would not. The quote:

It is one of the central tenets of a free society that individuals and institutions should not be coerced by government to engage in activities that violate their moral or religious beliefs. While this bill did offer health care professionals the right to decline to offer emergency contraception due to religious or moral beliefs, it did not offer those same protections to health care institutions. This is wrong. And it is unconstitutional.

Interestingly, religious pressure has cut funding to any number of secular institutions and organizations that want to tell clients and customers about contraception and abortion options, which means the government has been in the position (during the Reagan and both Bush administrations) of “coercion” based on moral and religious beliefs — not to be too obvious, but exactly what Owens is opposing. Starting in 1984, pausing during the Clinton years and continuing again through today, all U.S. dollars were cut from overseas health organization budgets if abortion was provided, suggested or even discussed, and it’s hard to argue that abortion-rights and contraception supporters aren’t engaged on a moral level.

The separation of church and state provided for in the U.S. Constitution is to protect religion from government, yes, but Owens and his ilk ignore at will the fact (the very obvious fact) that it is also intended to protect government from religion. Hundreds of years of history and precedent support this view.

It’d almost be worth it to somehow give Owens a Plan B exemption for religious institutions — if he’d just go on record, and back it with votes and lobbying efforts, supporting abortion and contraception rights for nonreligious institutions.

And it’ll be interesting to see how this debate plays in Massachusetts, which has religious nuts of its own, albeit fewer and farther between, and a governor who’ll stoop to anything in pursuit of the far-right’s votes in 2008.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Yesterday’s warm weather put my hormones on high yearn. It’s mating season, in evolutionary terms, and the women of Cambridge were, knowingly or not, doing the equivalent of the mating ritual. On one side of the T car I stepped into, for instance, was a girl in shorts putting nail polish on her toes, tan, lean legs spreading to allow her access. Turning away brought no relief. I was standing above a woman whose dress seemed to be more a frame for her breasts than protection for her modesty. It cupped her, offered her, like a pair of hands.

So it seems brutally amusing that, on what was essentially day one of the year’s God-given season of going forth and multiplying, I was reading in the Times about the chastity and abstinence crowd at Princeton. These people complain of “an atmosphere that not only condones sexual activity among young adults, but ... expects it.”

One member is Jennifer Mickel, 19, from Louisiana, who was disturbed by the talk at an intercampus women’s forum.

“The discussion was very sex-focused, like about having rape kits in medical centers and condoms and the morning-after pill,” Ms. Mickel said. “And I asked, ‘What do your schools have for women who are not having sex?’ And the room fell silent. These delegates are appointed by their schools to be experts on these subjects, and no one had anything to say about abstinence.”

Yes, Jennifer, the room fell silent. No one had anything to say. Because it is impossible to have something along the lines of condoms, morning-after pills or even information about an act that consists of not taking place. Nothing is needed for nothing. One should ask, rather, what you were doing in a conversation about sex when your interest is a lack of same. It’s doubtful your peers are trying to join conversations about the best ways to sublimate sexual urges into chastity and abstinence, because they’re not part of the discussion.

There are no weight-loss books, products or programs — nor, for that matter, are there menus, specials or buffets — for people who do not eat. There are no gym fees or surging, rippling muscles for people who do not exercise. And there are no pop quizzes, class schedules or graduation ceremonies for people who do not go to school. That’s how things are.

The Princeton group’s president, David Schaengold, says its intent is “not ideological” but that

We don’t believe that human beings should be used as instruments or objects. We think the proper relationship between humans should be one of respect and love, and we think promiscuity and random hook-ups are completely destructive to respect and love. Dignity itself is a moral standard.

Perhaps good judgment and sensitivity can be a moral standard as well, and perhaps his group can consider the possibility that not every sex act, even a random hook-up, is devoid of respect, sweetness and even love. The positions of people such as Schaengold are invariably insulting, because they claim the moral high ground with no evidence except that of ideology, and inject time-wasting nonsense into conversations of substance — like creationism and intelligent design taking up time and space in a scientific discussion of evolution.

Or like abstinence and charity in a discussion of having rape kits in medical centers. Which, oh my very young and deeply silly Jennifer Mickel, has nothing to do with promiscuity or even choice, but is a terrific if unconscious revealer of your “nonideological” agenda. All the more revealing, in fact, because it was unconscious.

So don’t take this in a sexual way, but, well ... fuck off.

Monday, April 18, 2005


Somerville’s rotting medieval castle, once an armory, next to be an arts center, will not be open any time soon.

The May 14 groundbreaking reception (starting at 4 p.m. and featuring food, drink, tours and music) might suggest swiftness, but a visit to the 16,200-square-foot oddity makes it clear the groundbreaking will be just that: The beginning of work, and a ceremonial one, at that.

The building is in such an exquisitely preserved state of decay that yesterday it stood in as backdrop for fashion photography celebrating decadence amid ruins. The work, organized by the legendary Pia Schachter, is to show at Cambridge’s Zeitgeist Gallery in early May, with an opening that first Friday. It’s not yet on the gallery’s calendar.

It was only mildly surprising to find the front door push open without complaint, and, oddly, not much more surprising when voices came echoing and bodies emerged, some in eternally wet-looking black latex, some in dull black T-shirts, some in balletlike gossamer. The building is a maze, three levels of rooms tiny and sprawling connected by staircases claustrophobic and grand, and groups of models and photographers appeared and disappeared at random. The most elusive person was Pia herself, who’d always just been and always just left. No one could say for certain where she was. Or quite explain the point of the photography, other than to impart a sense it seemed valuable to capture the place before it got cleaned up.

The armory closed in the fall of 2003, and the neglect since seemed to be right, somehow, like a molting period, or a long rest before heading into a new purpose.

The mess adds to the 1903 building’s sense of mystery, the same melted stoicism as Fort Warren, the 1847 complex sunk into Georges Island in Boston Harbor. Paint is chipped, wood droops, the tile of a shower floor sags, the occasional massive metal door hangs from hinges with comic surrendered gloom. (Renovation has been estimated at $1 million above the $2.4 million paid at auction a year ago.) The shape and location of rooms only hint at their utility. And the same chill permeates, if not the same awing sense of history, as you can step over a discarded pair of khakis or note a small American flag and, many rooms later, find yourself staring at a classic moment of 1970s poster camp in faded full-color glory: four trollops in thong bikinis, seen from the rear, standing in the back of a pickup above the legend “Haulin’ ass.”

The purchase of the armory by the Sater brothers, who own Cambridge’s Middle East rock club, might have hinted in the direction of rock, but the building is surrounded by homes, and Somerville’s mayor has already declared concern over “huge crowds and noise at night.” In fact, Joseph Sater has already spoken of artists’ lofts, gallery shows, music classes and dance and musical theater performances.

It’s almost a pity the armory can’t be left exactly as it is. Just run tours. Let people lose themselves inside. And rent it out to fashion shoots.

Friday, April 15, 2005


Little has changed at The Middletown Press in the four-plus years I’ve been gone, including the broken toilet seat in the upstairs men’s room. The $20 expense, apparently, would have eaten into the bottom line (so to speak) of the Journal Register Co. paper too much.

But the bumper sticker adhered to the stall door has been modified delightfully. It used to say “Vacation Connecticut: We’re full of surprises,” although someone had long ago added “and taxes” to the slogan.

Now someone’s crossed out “full of surprises” and written in a revision. “Vacation Connecticut: We’re,” the new version says, “between Boston and New York.”

By the way, if the Journal Register Co. is shamed into springing for a new toilet seat, perhaps it could make up for years of neglect by buying the Press a Galactika, a transparent seat with lights inside. “At its first exhibition [the seat] was a very big sensation,” says the entrepreneurs selling the “long-awaited” device. “That’s no miracle, as we entered a terrain which bored us all” for a long time.

Like Connecticut, if despairingly witty bumper sticker vandals are to be believed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


As a follow-up on telefiling tax returns, it’s worth noting a peculiar disagreement between state and federal philosophies on revenue collection.

Federally, this is the last year for telefiling, a service used by about 3.8 million people with simple tax returns — which usually means little income. Along with the end of this service goes many hours of tax help by telephone and 105 of the 367 walk-in tax-help centers. The cuts will save between $17 million and $21 million, according to coverage in The New York Times, far less than one-half of 1 percent of the annual budget of the Internal Revenue Service.

But upon completion of telefiling in Massachusetts, a recording thanks taxpayers for using the service ... because it saves money.

There’s no real confusion here. Telefiling does not save money in Massachusetts but cost money federally. Mark W. Everson, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Services acknowledges that it’s “crazy,” but the budget pushed through by the White House and Congress is cutting services known to make money.

It’s just a coincidence, surely, that the cuts hurt only low-income earners.

And just a coincidence it makes filing taxes more complex. And frustrates taxpayers so they’ll support simplification of the tax code, even if the simplification takes the form of something even more injurious to low-income earners, such as a flat tax or consumption tax.

It’s just a coincidence.

There’s no accounting for it.


Thomas L. Friedman wonders in today’s New York Times about the lack of U.S. terrorist attacks since 9/11, mainly concluding the bad guys are focused on beating us in Iraq, on their own territory. “When and if” that fails, he says, “they may want to launch a spectacular, headline-grabbing act of terrorism in America that tries to mask, and compensate for, just how defeated they have become at home.”

Well, Friedman always comes off the rails when it comes to Iraq. It’s impossible to say he’s wrong, but not very difficult to think why.

For one thing, his theory suggests Al Qaeda, the Baathists and Jihadists have colorfully garbed representatives sitting around a large table in an underground lair plotting world domination — with elaborate miniature dioramas, no doubt. Friedman brings up the absurdity of the image (“To the extent that the Baathists and Jihadists have a coordinated strategy”) and goes on anyway conjecturing as though the image is accurate.

Terrorists in Iraq plot terrorism in Iraq. Others probably support it, financially and tactically. But the idea terrorists around the world are so fixated on Iraq that they can’t spare a few members and several thousand dollars to plot evildoing in the United States? Please.

Friedman should also consider that whatever terrorists consider the United States their responsibility aren’t working on any particular timetable. For every Millennium plot, there’s been a significant lack of plots targeting our Fourth of July or giftmas holidays or even our elections. The 9/11 Commission said Osama bin Laden wanted his attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center to happen not on Sept. 11, 2001, but on May 12, the seven-month anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole.

Can you really second-guess terrorists who want to mark a seven-month anniversary?

It makes more sense that the terrorists have been silent in the United States — aside from the complications of dodging the country’s intelligence agencies — because they’ve more or less accomplished their goals here. Our borders are tightening, with fewer Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners getting in for westernized educations. We’ve been made to look as though we’re conducting a war on Islam, with rabidly Christian generals and a tolerant White House playing the role willingly, if not eagerly. The rights and civil liberties that made our country great are being eaten away by paranoia and power consolidation, making our noise about democracy sound laughably hypocritical. We’re increasingly disliked around the world, even among traditional allies.

In general, after 9/11 the terrorists could have high-fived each other and merely settled back with a bowl of popcorn to watch the evolving mess.

The problem with our response to terrorism is the same problem with capital punishment everywhere: It’s not a deterrent.

Especially when the bad guys stop to contemplate whether, with all apologies to Friedman, the United States’ leaders started kicking ass around the world when they started feeling “just how defeated they have become at home.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Anyone used to telefiling Massachusetts taxes may find themselves feeling suddenly stupid, but it’s a change in the forms, not brain chemistry, that’s doing it.

The 2003 telefile sheet was largely free of confusion and could be done just by looking at forms provided by employers, banks and such. This year the commonwealth’s Department of Revenue made curious changes ending those advantages. For instance, last year they identified which boxes to look in on a W2 to fill in the corresponding worksheet boxes; this year they decided to end the specificity and instead make a blanket suggestion: “Refer to the box numbers on your Form(s) W-2.”

This seems remarkably useless, considering that the previous sentence is about entering “information from each Form W-2.” It’s possible someone could enter information from the forms without referring to the box numbers, but it’s a bit like dialing a phone using an address book ... without referring to the phone numbers you need.

Further examples: Anyone used to telefiling knows, as last year’s return instructed, to “Round all dollar amounts to the nearest dollar (do not include cents).” Is that still the rule? Who knows? There are no such directions on the current form, and the department’s Web site is spectacularly unhelpful on this, and several other, obvious questions.

Last year’s return also put unemployment compensation calculations on a page skipped if there’s no such compensation to calculate. This time around, it’s questions 7 and 7a of a total 22 and requests “Total Massachusetts withholding for unemployment compensation (from Form 1099-G),” implying cause for concern even when there’s none. For many people, the issue’s gone from invisible and harmless to high, thick and prominent hurdle.

This is the last year of telefiling for the federal return; it’s been killed to save money, along with many Internal Revenue Service branch offices and most tax assistance by telephone. Massachusetts has made it look as though they’re killing the wrong one.

Monday, April 11, 2005


A cruel use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy is reintroducing me to all sorts of regressive, anti-intellectual behavior (hints: “Sin City” shows at 6:25 p.m. at Loews Boston Common; Honeycomb cereal is only $1 per box this week at Star Market and sweeter than real food).

I almost resented it when a Pepsi commercial raised me out of my alpha-wave stupor, but there was no keeping it from dragging me back to consciousness. I came to, snorting derisively and rolling my eyes.

Perhaps you’ve seen the ad: It interpolates new material with clips from the gladiator pic “Spartacus,” in which Kirk Douglas’ character so inspires his fellow slaves that rather than give him up for punishment, they stand up and claim to be him. (“I’m Spartacus!” “I’m Spartacus!”) The new material and clever editing makes it look as though instead they’re all trying to claim the Pepsi cola intended for Spartacus.

Yes, clever ... except that Pepsi has been claiming off an on since 1967, seven years after “Spartacus” hit cinemas, to be the choice of “the Pepsi Generation.” In 1984, it claimed to be “The Choice of a New Generation.” In 1992, it insisted its drinkers “Be Young. Have Fun. Drink Pepsi.” In 1997, it clamored for the attention of “Generation Next.”

It’s unclear how well it will speak to the demographically hot 18-to-34 set to harken back to a gladiator film old when the first Pepsi Generation was named. (I’m 36 and I’ve never seen the movie.) It’s more than likely that Pepsi would prefer to become the choice of a generation that can barely be bothered to watch “Gladiator,” from 2000, let alone a Stanley Kubrick flick from before the Beatles even landed. But at least it woke me up — albeit with a wicked aftertaste.

Friday, April 08, 2005


On March 29, someone wrote the words “Happy spring” in chalk at Woodbridge Street and Massachusetts Avenue, even leaving a piece of chalk behind as though inviting reply.

The sentiment was warming, and it was walking weather, but the walking was still best done in a heavy jacket. Now the teases of sun and warmth are more sustained touches, and the weather today was of mild and playful challenge, like a lover given to dancing at the end of your hand.

The women of Harvard Square were beautiful, people everywhere were pleasant and I stood and watched the first squirrel of the season alight from a tree, go this way and that, find a seed and eat it, eyeing the territory of Cambridge Common.

We made it through another winter.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


We have already discussed combining Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Let’s move on.

First of all, Fridays are now Causal Fridays. Everyone can stop dressing down and start making sense. There will be no surreality, no nonsequiturs. Every action will lead to a result; every result will have stemmed from an action.

February will be spent in critique and appreciation of the 1983 science fiction film “Krull.” March will entail much eating and discussion of the cruller, the long, twisted pastry. April will remain the cruelest month.

Thank you. There will be further memos as necessary.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


How long before I walked in did William E. Rapp walk out? Ten seconds? Thirty? A minute? A short enough time that the automated teller he used, which was next to the one I was using, was still beeping, asking if another transaction was wanted.

Rapp, whomever he is, had left his HSBC Mastermoney debit card in the teller, absentmindedly turned away — no doubt stuffing his cash in his wallet and his wallet in his pocket — and walked out.

We waited in the teller for him to return, but there was no sign of him. I called the 800 number on the back of the card to explain the problem and the customer service representative sprang into action: A letter would soon be sent to Rapp telling him he could get his card back using the contact information I would provide.

“But he’s right here,” I insisted. “He’s somewhere right around here. He left here only minutes ago.” Couldn’t they try to use his contact information immediately? After all, he was likely to cancel the card that night, or at best the next day. When the letter got to him, it would be too late, a wasted effort.

No, I was told. There are laws that prevent the company from contacting their customers that way after a certain hour.

Now there’s a carefully written law. To spite the telemarketers, we cut off the customer service.

I also tried calling directory assistance for his telephone number, and he was listed in Cambridge, but the answering machine at his number was for “Alex and Sarah.” And I still have Rapp’s card, on the off chance he gets that message or the letter and the card is needed.

But it’s nearly certain Rapp will have to go on feeling stupid for a while. He’ll probably start to feel better only when a letter from HSBC arrives, several days after he’s canceled his card and forgotten it, telling him his card was found seconds after it was lost, and that HSBC knew about it but could do nothing to help him.

Now that, Rapp will say, is really, really stupid.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Stay with it. There’s a punchline.

With construction on the green line, T train service ends at North Station. If you want to get to the CambridgeSide Galleria, you have to hop a shuttle bus. In typical Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority fashion, this isn’t so easy.

Our mass transit officials apparently couldn’t figure out a way for the buses to stop near the T station. Instead, seekers after the shuttle must walk three or so blocks, following signs — if they know to look for them in the first place — to where the buses stop. Except they don’t stop there.

They’ve been moved. It’s confusion piled atop confusion.

Now, a small sandwich board at the T exit says to go the “Tip O’Neill building (Lomasney Way),” but its flip side says the buses stop at “Merrimac and Causeway.” Both can’t be right, but they’re still equally useless to someone who doesn’t already know where they’re going. Tourists can despair twice as much, or even cube their despair, given the added challenge of knowing or guessing that the Tip O’Neill Building is, in fact, the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Federal Building. (Everyone knows to ignore half the official name, including the beginning, right? Even teenagers from Samoa, Bosnia and Iowa?)

Perhaps it’s best to follow those signs — again, if you know to look for them in the first place — three of which guide you forward. Then one leads you vaguely to the left. If you don’t get lost as a result, by completing a tight arc around a building, you find the last one pointing definitively at where the buses don’t stop.

Right. Because, as you may remember, one half of a small sandwich board three blocks back told you the bus is at the “Tip O’Neill Building.” So does a sign where the buses are supposed to be: “T bus stop has moved to Lomasney Way at ‘Tip’ O’Neill Bldg.” (Perhaps the sign should say, “Turn around. Walk opposite direction to sharp-angled brown building across the street.” Perhaps it should also provide a brief history of the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, including or consisting only of the fact he was known as “Tip.”)

If you survive crossing the street and identify the need to go around yet another building to a spot you can’t see from where you’ll certainly be, you will finally find the place where the shuttle buses stop. And if you spend the time waiting for the shuttle buses by looking around, you’ll finally come to the punchline that makes this all worthwhile in a tragicomic kind of a way:

There’s a sign amid construction saying “T improvements ... Creating jobs for today, better service for tomorrow.”

Will tomorrow never come? Will it come before the next shuttle?

Monday, April 04, 2005


My video store shut down. Two Tuesdays ago I rented, blithely shrugging off the opportunity to redeem my frequent-renter points and even asking the proprietor a question about how they worked. Grinning as usual, he confirmed that the points could be redeemed for a midweek two-for-one rental. Such a deal! I looked forward to using them.

On that Thursday, when I returned my movies, City Video was gone. Shut down. In the process of being stripped of its tapes, discs and shelves. The owner was inside, grinning as usual, this time confirming for me that he was not moving or renovating: This was the end. I could feel the frequent-renter cards in my right back pocket sag in disappointment, never to fulfill their purpose.

“I knew business was down,” a former store worker said, “and he wasn’t doing anything to revitalize.”

The movies, some of them hard-to-find gems, were auctioned together on eBay, due for a store in Maine — ostensibly in a rural pocket somehow safe from Blockbuster and Netflix, the competitors driving mom and pop video stores out of commission and now turning on each other. The corpses of both will be eaten by broadband Internet access and vomited as video on demand.

In the short years before that happens, Eddie Shaw and Brad Chapman have fled their jobs in the ruins of City Video to build their own niche at Movies on a Menu, at 148 Massachusetts Ave. in Arlington. They sell DVDs, which may not be a long-lasting option, but are trying to create a destination as well, with movie memorabilia, books, baked goods and, best of all, a front room with a giant flat-screen television and comfortable chairs. People are meant to come and watch. Organized screenings are on the way.

Movies on a Menu will have to anticipate the changes in the industry, guessing direction and timing perfectly to survive. The baked goods are pedestrian and the concept uncertain, but the place is handsome and worth supporting, just like City Video and its mom and pop siblings. In a world increasingly composed of Internet connections and isolation, it’s something real and comfortable, a place of conversation, relaxation and enlightenment.

In the meantime, with City Video gone for rentals, I’ve switched to the only slightly less convenient Hollywood Express. For as long as it, too, lasts, I guess.

Saturday, April 02, 2005


We interrupt this vacation to alert whoever’s still reading to the brilliant New York Times Magazine interview tomorrow with Richard Cizik, the don’t-call-me-an-environmentalist Christian environmentalist.

The interview, by Deborah Solomon, quotes Cizik as saying that he and other “creation care” fans stay aloof from self-identified environmentalists because, for one thing, “they keep kooky religious company ... pantheists who believe creation itself is holy, not the Creator.”

Two questions after recoiling from the kooky religious beliefs, Cizik confirms his own faith in the Rapture.

“I believe there will be a Second Coming of Jesus Christ,” he says, “and the believers in Christ will rise to meet him in the air. The dead first, and then those who are still living.”

That’s not kooky. That’s mainstream Christianity.

Brilliant, Deborah Solomon. Genius.