Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Just Keep Swinging

"What I learned from Roth is what I learned from Babe Ruth: the name of the game is coming up to the plate. Home run kings are also strikeout kings, but they just keep swinging."
--Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, on what he learned in adapting Philip Roth's novel "The Human Stain" for the screen, quoted in Barnes & Noble's surprisingly good Book Magazine.

At the risk of being forcibly ejected from progressive circles from Sacramento to Saskatchewan, I have a confession to make: I always found Charles Bronson's character in his Death Wish movies rather appealing. The stoic one died over the weekend at 81, and much of the resulting coverage seems to be focusing on his oddly uncinematic looks. Or, as this piece liltingly puts it, his "charisma of ambiguity: Was he an ugly handsome man or a handsome ugly man?" That's an interesting asterisk perhaps, but it pales in comparison to his true legacy: in a time (the Ford-Carter '70s) of dithering uncertainty and confusion about how best to combat crime, the miner's son almost single-handedly made it okay for intelligent people to at least broach the subject of meeting rising street crime with deadly citizen resistance.

No, I'm not a closet NRA member (like Michael Moore in "Bowling for Columbine," improbably purporting to lifelong NRA membership!). But you have to remember the context of the times from which these movies sprang as well as the full panorama of the stories they told. There was a justifiable sense in the '70s, a panic really, that urban crime would just keep on growing, ending civilization as we knew it. That turned out to be largely a function of demographics, a massive influx of young men into the prime testosterone-drenched years of about 14-26, and crime has steadily reduced ever since, as this cohort has been replaced by a far smaller one. As for the movies, while they generally reduced the thugs to one-dimensional cartoons, which struck some as rendering them useless for dramatic purposes, I always liked how Bronson played a victim who only acted after both the maximum provocation (the murder or maiming of a family member) and having exhausted all his options in getting the police to help him. And it seemed clear from every fiber of his body and every note in the script that he took no joy in doing so.

It was with these movies as the implicit backdrop that the Bernie Goetz subway vigilante case came to be such a big deal a few years later. Three days before Christmas 1984 (at the height of the Reagan Revolution that rejected the wishy washy Carter "malaise") a thin "electronics technician" (today's "geek") plugged a trio of urban toughs when they tried to aggressively hit him up for money on the New York subway. Unfortunately for him, they were all black and he was white. And so many, naturally perhaps, jumped to the conclusion that the gunman was a racist, when really he turned out to be merely a lifelong pushover who, angered at two previous muggings, decided to stop being a victim. Call it vigilantism if you will (and everyone in my circle then of earnest young Washington liberals did, I recall no one--including me--taking the other side as we sat for hours talking about it over cheap wine and Italian food before catching the midnight flick at Dupont Circle). But now, perhaps looking back with the perspective of a parent or possibly as a result of a more mature and nuanced political sensibility, I think the hoods got what they deserved. I suppose on this issue I'm more Old Testament ("eye for an eye") than New. So would-be muggers be duly warned.

Of course, the American way is for tragedy always to end in farce, as it seems to have here. In a deliciously ironic development which no outlet that I've yet seen has yet picked up on, it seems Bernie is now running for mayor of New York, on a platform of vegetarianism and being nice to animals. Go figure. Of course, there's always the possibility that his site, which mentions no date, is merely a vestige of some ancient and little-noticed spoiler candidacy long since passed..

Is Email Dead for Publishers? The occurance of email viruses and bugs have obviously increased as of late. But did you know that those plagues, along with the rising tide of spam, has rendered email all but dead as a delivery vehicle for publishers? That's the opinion of Steve Outing, probably the leading guru of e-publishing, who has been writing longer and more lucidly on the subject than anyone. He says in a recent column that "with email under siege and no relief in sight, radical measures are required." That means RSS (rich site summary) as an alternative. But he cautions that while it's been around for a decade, it remains largely in its infant stage. He recommends FeedDemon, still in beta testing...

Girl Scouts Get Hip. With just about every venerable institution struggling over how to remain relevant in the 21st century, I suppose I've become something of an amateur student of these various strategies. One of the better ones I've seen lately is the Girl Scouts' Girls Go Tech initiative. "Are you an inventor, scientist or a computer engineer?" the slogan begins. "Girls can do absolutely anything--and math, science and technology are no exception." On this topic, I'll have to admit to having been influenced more than a little by Hathaway Brown's head of school Bill Christ, my wife's boss (to use the ugly but descriptive old economy term). In his approximately 15 years at the school, Christ, a former English teacher who's justly famous in the HB community for his literate and engaging beginning of school year letters, has built HB into at least one of the top half dozen private K-12 schools in the country. But like all visionaries, he never stops setting the bar higher. Julie came home from the latest round of pre-school-year teachers meetings half exasperated and half exhilarated. After having heard him over the years voice his goals of having HB become the best private school in Cleveland, then Ohio and later the U.S., now Bill's goal (remember: home run kings always keep swinging) is for HB to be known simply as the best school for girls in the world. That may not be so far-fetched: HB, for instance, sent no fewer than eight students to the Intel Science Fair (the successor to the world-famous Westinghouse science competition). Perhaps that would even qualify them as future Girl Scout leaders...

More Good News for Goldberg. The free wi-fi access momentum continues to build. Now, Panera is jumping on the bandwagon, vowing to roll out free connectivity in all its locations, which pretty well girdle the Cleveland suburbs. Unfortunately for Steve, the upscale chain has no plans to stay open 24 hours a day...


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