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» 2012 » January

Monthly ArchiveJanuary 2012

Books & Commentary & Family life & Movies 26 Jan 2012 11:55 pm

Creepy crawlers invade the movies

This week’s column:

Despite the convenience of watching movies at home, where we barricade ourselves in the privacy of our living rooms and subvert the filmmakers’ art by pausing for snack breaks and phone calls, I still enjoy going to the theater.

Maybe it’s only to remind myself that I know how to behave in a crowd and bemoan the fact that more people don’t. Maybe it’s the magic of hearing audiences gasp or laugh or cry in unison, transported for a magical few hours away from their own problems to become invested in the stories of larger-than-life fictional characters. Maybe it’s the decadent, buttery popcorn.

Regardless, from the first trailer I saw for “Contagion,” months before its release, I knew this was one movie I would be watching at home. The description on the back of the DVD box explains why: “When a lethal airborne virus with the power to wipe out humanity is unleashed, the worldwide medical community races to find a vaccine to stop the panic from spreading.”

I am a germaphobe who only gets along day to day by willfully denying knowledge of various micro-critters that inhabit every square inch of our environment. Countertops, hotel pillows, restaurant drink stations, door handles — you name it, germs have been there, done that.

I’m the kind of person who figures out how to open restroom doors with his elbows, who slides food and medicine under a closed door when his spouse gets the sniffles, who actually follows those crazy directions about washing hands in warm, soapy water for a full minute even when a gigantic patron in a cutoff T-shirt is tapping one steel-toed boot on the floor behind me.

A few years ago, I read Richard Preston’s “Hot Zone,” which relates the true story of pubic health officials’ attempts to circumvent a potentially lethal outbreak of Ebola virus. Unfortunately, I was on vacation at the time, so my poor family had to put up with my graphic descriptions of the horrors that Ebola could wreak on the human body, all while watching me turn doorknobs with napkins and question the cleanliness of condominium bedspreads. It was traumatic for all of us.

When I go to the movies, I am acutely aware that the seat where I choose to park myself has been occupied by thousands of people before me, and that many of my celluloid-watching predecessors have hygiene habits roughly equivalent to Old World rats. The plush headrest could have been last touched by somebody who slathers Vaseline on his scalp as a means of lice control; the cup holders could have been fondled by people who touch dead animals or who practice coprophagy (look it up); the seat itself could have cradled somebody whose terminally sagging pants allowed the cushion to come into contact with his underwear.

No way was I going to watch Gwyneth Paltrow — the modern-day Typhoid Mary in “Contagion” who sashays from Hong Kong to Chicago to Minneapolis, spreading a lethal virus she picks up from eating a contaminated pig — while sitting in a seat where other patrons hacked and coughed and wheezed and affixed their DNA-riddled gum to the underside of the armrest.

Instead, I sat next to my wife on the couch, who halfway through the movie started holding her stomach and complaining of chills. At first I thought she was just playing with me, but no, she was really sick. So, with a portable electric heater keeping her and her germs comfortable, warm and breeding, I watched as characters on the screen had symptoms remarkably similar to hers, except that they were dying by the thousands while she just kept flopping around on her end of the couch.

I pulled my shirt up over my mouth and persevered.

Twenty-four hours later, my wife felt well enough to watch the parts of the movie she had been too feverish to enjoy the first time, thereby reinforcing certain scenes in my already troubled mind.

Now I’m questioning if I will ever go to the movies again. If so, I may take along an old fitted sheet to cover the entire chair, something I can roll up — wearing disposable gloves, of course — and throw away on my way out.

And I may replace the decadent, buttery popcorn with something more healthy. Like Purell.

Commentary 19 Jan 2012 07:42 am

Not impressed by psychics’ claims

This week’s column:

Dr. Phil McGraw left his much-ballyhooed common sense in the dressing room on Jan. 10 when he interviewed two “renowned” psychics, John Edward and Char Margolis.

I tuned in to see McGraw, a straight-shooting Texan, skewer the charlatans in the same way he dismisses excuses offered by drug addicts or cheating spouses on his daily show. Instead, the episode was a veritable commercial for the psychics, played before a studio audience of believers in extrasensory powers.

At no point did McGraw lob anything other than softball questions to his two guests. I waited in vain to hear a discussion of “cold readings,” an advanced version of 20 Questions through which so-called psychics fish for information while talking to their subjects, and “hot readings,” the practice of researching subjects before the session. I was certain McGraw would offer an exasperated, “Oh, come on!” when Margolis went on a fishing expedition in the good doctor’s head, pretending to be speaking to his dead mother, but it never happened.

To be fair, the episode made a point of showing how producers warned audience members not to talk among themselves prior to the taping to avoid eavesdropping that some skeptics feel is a psychic’s primary means of gathering information. But that’s as far as the debunking efforts went.

I am firmly in the skeptic camp when it comes to psychic baloney, which puts me in the minority. According to a CBS News poll, 57 percent of Americans are believers. When McGraw asked how many people were certain that spirits of the dead surrounded them daily, most everybody in the audience cheered.

That level of belief is a psychic’s dream. All Edward had to do was turn to one half of the room and offer a general statement — he felt a “male energy” with a connection to the astrological sign Sagittarius, the name Robert Michael or the initials “RM” — to quickly cull three women from the herd who lost a father and a cousin and who were amazed by his pronouncements, even though they provided much of the ammunition for him. Never mind that half the people who die are male, Sagittarius is the sign of approximately one-twelfth of the world, and that Robert and Michael are extremely common names. While you’re at it, never mind that Edward identified the wrong woman as kissing a corpse in the casket — they were still amazed.

Despite this gaffe, Edward is much better at his chosen profession — separating people from their money — than Margolis. The best she could offer Dr. Phil were references to railroads (his uncle worked on one), a go-cart (it took McGraw’s wife, Robin, to recall a minor go-cart accident involving their son) and engine issues on a plane (a safe guess, as McGraw is a private pilot, which anybody can learn by Googling him).

Surely, I thought, Dr. Phil will point out how often these “readings” begin with questions, such as “Your mom’s deceased, right?” and “Is your dad passed?” and then build on information the subject willingly provides. Certainly, he will mention how psychics fill a psychological need by assuring clients that everything is OK with loved ones beyond the veil. Absolutely, he will note these generalizations are so vague that they can apply to large groups of people, and that anybody who is sensitive to body language can derive much information about us before we even open our mouths.

No, no and no.

Look, dead relatives who wish to contact me had best be armed with specific pieces of information. I want them to tell me the address of the house I lived in when I was 10, my Social Security number, the make and model of my first car, what they gave me for my 16th birthday and my cat’s middle name.

And I don’t want just one of these facts. I want them all, along with detailed references to specific conversations, peppered with first and last names of people who have played supporting roles in my life. The psychic who can do that might have a chance of persuading me that he’s talking to a ghost with nothing better to do in the great beyond than chitchat with me.

Nothing I saw on the Jan. 10 episode convinced me that psychics are anything more than gold-digging opportunists preying on the emotionally vulnerable, just as I suspect that nothing on the show convinced the faithful that psychics are anything less than 100-percent genuine. I guess the whole experience was a wash.

But I expected more from Dr. Phil, who should have taken these fakers down like he would a faithless husband. Instead, he climbed into bed next to them.

Commentary 13 Jan 2012 12:09 am

Carve your initials in a trunk

After more than a decade of teaching, I don’t have many firsts anymore, but I did last week.

On Friday, a student rolled up her sleeve and showed me a new tattoo, memorializing a quotation from a novel I’d assigned last month to her class.

The quote, “You forget what you want to remember, and remember what you want to forget,” is from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” a mournful little book about a father and son fighting to survive after civilization has crumbled. If you’ve not read it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’ve only seen the film, starring Viggo Mortensen, of “Lord of the Rings” fame, you’re missing out on McCarthy’s stripped-down, almost poetic prose. As is usually the case, the movie is no more than a patch on the original.

Anyway, it’s the first time a student has ever connected so strongly to a line from a novel I’ve assigned that she’s gone out and had it indelibly carved into her forearm, at least to my knowledge. Along with the quote, the tattoo featured a winding road, presumably to remind her in later years of the book where the line originated. (She did not have Cormac McCarthy’s name tattooed in her skin, maybe because she had run out of real estate. If you’re going to carve a writer into your flesh, best to go with a short and pithy name, like Avi or Dr. Seuss.)

Tattoos these days are like weeds or graffiti, sprouting everywhere. In an adult writing class I taught a few summers back, I was the only person in the room without ink somewhere on his body.

According to a 2003 Harris Poll, 16 percent of adults have tattoos. In the 25- to 29-year-old demographic, the percentage jumps to 36 percent, while in the 30 to 39 age group, it’s 28 percent. My group, the 40 to 49ers, has a 14 percent ink rate. The survey is old and, based on anecdotal evidence, can have only increased.

No wonder I sometimes find myself cocking my head like a dog to read the name of a significant other on a cashier’s neck at Dunkin’ Donuts, or trying to find the head or tail of a snake slithering around a bicep at the gym.

This willingness to apply ink to various body parts puzzles me. I can’t think of a single aspect of my life that I believe in sufficiently to have it burned onto my body, probably because I would jinx whatever it is by having it advertised on my body.

Wife? She’d leave me the next day.

Daughter? She could disown me.

Dead relative? DNA evidence would prove I had been switched with some other baby at birth.

Religion? None.

Dog? Rabid.

Cats? They’d go feral.

Favorite author? He or she would be revealed as a plagiarist.

Favorite band? They’d break up or do a Milli Vanilli on me.

Besides, I’d worry that today’s svelte, sexy tattoo wouldn’t look so good if I’m fortunate enough to be around in 30 years. At the Old Folks Home circa 2050, when staff members roll their eyes at Guns and Roses and Metallica music playing softly in the hallways and park wheelchair-bound patients in front of TVs to watch musty old movies like “The Matrix” and “Pulp Fiction,” the talk of the lunchroom could well be which patient has the most ridiculously deformed tattoo — the Mickey Mouse that stretched into Stewart the Rat, the proud bald eagle that sagged into a fleshy vulture, the naval anchor on the chest that sunk below the navel.

Maybe I’m silly to worry about such hypothetical conversations, but as a teacher who is sometimes concerned about “kids these days,” I wonder if any of my students could end up spooning pureed food into my toothless mouth at some later date, and at any of the dozens of ways they could avenge the imagined injustice of their C+ in English. A tattoo would give them one more thing to talk about.

I’ve tried not to think about this, but — “You forget what you want to remember, and remember what you want to forget.”

It seems to me I’ve read that somewhere.

@cschillig on Twitter

Commentary 13 Jan 2012 12:06 am

Get the facts straight

Courtesy of Santa and his elves, the “2012 World Almanac and Book of Facts” waited under the tree this year, and what a treasure trove it is.

I’m as Google-search crazy as the next person, but for convenient and reliable information, a good almanac has the Internet beat. It’s like John Henry vs. the steam drill — sometimes, the old ways are best.

What you can do with an almanac that you can’t with a search engine (at least not easily) is stop and gawk at unrelated information or flip the volume open at random and learn something surprising. While an Internet query can certainly lead to interesting cul-de-sacs along the information superhighway, almost all are tangentially related to the initial search. Not so with a printed almanac.

Here, for instance, are random chunks of data pulled from a browsing of this year’s edition (with my snarky comments in parentheses):

  • In 2006, 14 million smartphones were sold in the United States; in 2011, that number jumped to an estimated 78.6 million. (Most users are texting while driving and refusing to turn them off on airplanes. If that doesn’t make you decide to stay at home and become a hermit, nothing will.)
  • The average salary of a doctoral-level male professor at an American public college is $120,690, while the average salary for a female at the same level is $109,032. (And they say the glass ceiling has been shattered.)
  • John F. Kennedy was the first American president born in the 20th century (1917), and Jimmy Carter was the first born in a hospital (1924). Woodrow Wilson is the only president buried in Washington, D.C. We’ve also had only eight left-handed presidents, including Barack Obama. (This feeds my belief about a conspiracy plot against left-handers.)
  • Throughout the history of the Roman Catholic Church, 37 people (but maybe only 35 — I get a different number each time I count) have illegitimately claimed to be pope. (One of them, in the year 903, was named Christopher, my namesake.)
  • More people speak Chinese than any other language. English ranks third. (Pig Latin doesn’t even make the list. What an ameshay.)
  • “Wheel of Fortune” was the most-watched syndicated program during the 2010-2011 season. (T_at’s inc_edib_e)
  • Facebook had 160.9 million unique visitors in June. (And 100 million of them posted vacation photos.)
  • “Airplane!” was added to the National Film Registry’s list of “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American films in 2010. (The exclamation point in “Airplane!” is part of the title, but it could just as well express my dismay that this film is considered “significant” in any way.)
  • The highest recorded temperature is 136 degrees Fahrenheit in El Azizia, Libya, on Sept. 13, 1922. The lowest recorded temperature is -129 degrees Fahrenheit at Vostok Station, Russia, on July 21, 1983. (This is similar to the temperature spread on my wife’s side of the heated mattress pad versus my side.)
  • The odds against a royal flush in a five-card poker hand are 649,739 to 1. (Close to the odds against finding my car keys in the pocket where I think I left them.)
  • With 33,515,702 volumes, the Library of Congress is the U.S.’s largest. (Too bad some of our elected officials don’t spend more time there.)

This is just a sampling of the contents of this year’s edition, which totals 1,008 pages. The cover trumpets “82 million in print,” but I wonder how much longer the publisher can hold out before it all goes digital.

A few more decades, I hope. As much as I love computers and the Internet, I prize the conciseness and accuracy of this annual holiday visitor even more.