Green Book

Kish and I have taken a break from going to the movies — the holidays were hectic, we were on the road, and the standard superhero and shoot-’em-up fare just isn’t very appealing — but we wanted to get back into the habit of identifying thoughtful, interesting films and supporting them with our ticket money.  Yesterday, we went to see Green Book.  It was an excellent vehicle for allowing us to reengage with the movies.

16GREEN-BOOK-articleLargeGreen Book tells the story of a brilliant African-American pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, who decides to take his musical trio on a tour of the Midwest and then the deep South during the last two months of 1962.  It was a brave decision intended to help spur social change, because in 1962 Jim Crow treatment of African-Americans, and legally enforced segregation, was still very much alive in the South.  Dr. Shirley’s record label decides he should hire a driver to shuttle him from performance to performance and also help him to navigate the racist barriers that he will inevitably encounter.  Dr. Shirley chooses Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana who is temporarily unemployed while the club is undergoing renovations.  Vallelonga knows how to use his fists and is nicknamed “Lip” because, by his own admission, he’s a consummate bullshitter who can talk his way out of a jam.  The record label then gives Vallelonga the “Green Book” that gives the film its name — a paperback publication for African-Americans that tells them which hotels and establishments in the South will actually welcome them as guests and patrons.

Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga are an odd couple indeed.  One is a virtuouso musician who is highly educated, extremely refined in his tastes, and impressively (and at one point in the film, surprisingly) multi-lingual; the other is a barely literate graduate of the school of hard knocks who has street smarts and a prodigious appetite for hot dogs, fried chicken, and just about everything else in life.  And, Vallelonga is a product of the casual, everyday racism found even in the North at that time.  According to the film, at least — the Shirley family disputes the film’s accuracy on this point — during the tour Dr. Shirley and the Lip overcome their differences and become friends.  Dr. Shirley schools Vallelonga on his diction, helps him to write more meaningful and expressive letters to his wife, and exposes him to music, musical talents, and concepts that Vallelonga had never experienced before.  Vallelonga, in turn, introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and popular music and uses his bullshitting skills and street smarts to support and protect Dr. Shirley as he deals with racist treatment on a daily basis.

The story of the friendship is entertaining — and Mahershala Ali, as Dr. Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen, as Vallelonga, are terrific — but the emotional core of the movie is found in its depiction of the Jim Crow South and the ugliness of its racist, segregated, hateful ways and of the people who stubbornly refuse to change.  Whether it is the overtly racist small-town deputy enforcing a “whites only after dark” law, or a rich owner of a lavish house who won’t let Dr. Shirley use the bathroom in his home, or the country club manager who refuses to allow Dr. Shirley to eat in the dining room and pleads with him to “be reasonable,” the onslaught of racist ugliness is constant, jarring, and deeply appalling.

Green Book is a powerful film that will leave you embarrassed, sick to your stomach, and shaking your head about a terrible chapter in American history.  It’s well worth seeing.

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When The Shutdown Hits Home

You could almost forget about the government shutdown, it being the holidays and all — except for the fact that the port-a-potties at the national park next door have been closed and sealed and aren’t available for use. The sign on the door reads: “AREA CLOSED. Because of a lapse in federal appropriations, this national park facility is closed for the safety of visitors and park resources. Please visit http://www.nps.gov and select ‘Find A Park’ for additional information about access to other parks and sites in this area.”

You learn something new every day, I guess. I had no idea a port-a-potty is a “national park facility,” or that letting a visitor use it for its intended purpose would pose a risk of safety to visitors and national park resources. An inoperable port-a-potty seems like a good metaphor for our federal government these days, though, doesn’t it?

Living In A Van (But Not Down By The River)

The Hollywood Reporter has an interesting story about people living in vans in the Los Angeles area.  Unlike Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character, they aren’t motivational speakers — they’re just everyday entertainment workers who happen to live in their cars.

thr_mobile_la_thr_joe_4547_hirez_splashAccording to the article, the number of Angelenos who live in their vehicles has spiked.  In 2017, 600 vehicles were being used as homes; now the number is up to 9,117.  There’s even an organization called Safe Parking L.A. that operates secret, guarded lots where people living in cars can sleep with some security.

Why do so many people in southern California live in their vehicles?  The high cost of housing factors into the decision-making of virtually everyone interviewed in the article.  Some people simply can’t pay the exorbitant rents; others could afford the cost but object to doing so and live in their cars because it allows them to move more quickly toward their financial goals.  But living in your car obviously comes at a cost, too.  You have to strip down your possessions to a minimum and configure your vehicle to allow it, you need to develop a strategy for taking care of basic bodily functions, you’ve got to figure out where to park your car at night, and there are obvious, ongoing security concerns — which is why an organization like Safe Parking L.A. exists.

And there are other issues that people who don’t make their vehicle their home would never consider — like the need to drive very carefully through those crowded southern California highways and byways, because if you get into an accident and your car goes into the shop, you’ve just lost your housing until the repairs are completed.

Humans are highly adaptable creatures, and you have to admire the grit of people who have figured out how to live in vans.  But I also wonder:  is living in L.A. and being part of the entertainment industry really worth it if it means living in a van?

Another Date That Will Live In Infamy?

There are some notorious dates in American history.  FDR declared December 7, 1941, the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, “a date that will live in infamy.”  September 11, 2001 obviously is another, and so is April 14, 1865 — the day John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, and sent history veering off into a different direction.

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Should February 5, 2013 join them in the annals of infamy?

Why?  Because, according to this interesting article in Politico, that’s the date Donald Trump learned how to send tweets all by himself.  Before then, all of The Donald’s tweets were typed and sent by his social media manager.  But on February 5, 2013, Trump personally composed and issued a tweet that was a simple thank-you to an actress who said something nice about him . . . and the rest was history.

Of course, you can’t really equate mastery of Twitter with a bombing that pulled America into World War II, or the assassination of the greatest President in American history — but the Twitter breakthrough clearly has had profound implications.  Before, politicians and Presidents tended to communicate with the American people primarily through speeches and prepared statements that could be carefully vetted.  Now, tweets are issued directly from the President himself, without any ghost-writing or review.  Ill-advised 140-character (now 280-character) blasts thumbed in at odd hours can set a new direction for American policy or radically change the news cycle.

In my view, that’s definitely not a good thing.  But the genie has escaped the bottle, and you wonder if we’ll ever get back to the day when there is some kind of gravitas and mystique — and distance from the masses — to the office of the Presidency again.

And here’s an even more disturbing thing:  according to the Politico piece, President Trump’s former social media manager is advising him to “up his game” on social media and engage more personally with his supporters, by making his Instagram account more interesting and doing things like live-streaming from the Oval Office.  Hey, what could go wrong with that?

Holding Congressional Harassers Accountable

We frequently criticize the Congress in this country, and for good reason.  So when Congress does something right — and on a bipartisan basis, to boot — it’s only fair that it should be recognized.

Sexual-Harassment-in-the-Workplace-722x406Yesterday Congress passed legislation that would end taxpayer financing of settlements of claims of congressional harassment of staffers.  Under the current system, if a Senator or Representative is accused of sexual misconduct and decides to settle the claim, the settlement is funded by our tax dollars.  And, because settlements typically involve strong confidentiality protections, we may not even learn of the existence or nature of the harassment claim or the amount of the settlement payment.

And get this:  more than a thousand former congressional staff members wrote to Congress in support of the bill.  One of the bill’s sponsors, Democrat Jackie Speier, said that their letter “made the case all too clear, that sexual harassment in Congress was a huge problem.” Speier added:  “Time is finally up for members of Congress who think that they can sexually harass and get away with it. They will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed. … They will pay back the U.S. Treasury.”

The legislation reflects a compromise, as congressional legislation typically does; it also caps lawmaker liability at $300,000 if there is actually a court finding of harassment and assessment of damages.  But at least court cases and decisions are matters of public record, so the misbehavior of the Senator or Representative will become known to all and they can be held accountable by voters for their misconduct.  In my view, that cap on damages is more than outweighed by the elimination of taxpayer funding of settlements, a requirement that Congress report on and publish such settlements, and changes to other rules to strengthen protections for congressional staffers.

I don’t like the special treatment that members of Congress routinely receive, and my tax dollars obviously shouldn’t go toward enabling congressional misbehavior and funding secret settlements to cover it up.  I’m glad Congress finally agrees with that common sense conclusion.  The bill now goes to President Trump for his consideration.  Let’s hope he also sees the light and signs it into law.

The Vestiges Of Prohibition

I thought Prohibition — America’s doomed effort to legislate morality and propriety by banning the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages through a constitutional amendment that gave rise to bootleggers, speakeasies, and rumrunners — ended back in the ’30s.  And it did . . . in most places.  But weird vestiges of Prohibition-era laws still can be found even now, more than 80 years later.

we-want-beerTake Colorado, for example.  Thanks to a law that traces its roots back to Prohibition, grocery stores in that state haven’t been able to sell full-strength beer.  If you walk into a store of the grocery chain of your choice in Denver, for example, you can buy 3.2 beer — and that’s it.  If you want to buy full-strength beer, you’ve got to go to a state liquor store. It’s kind of weird to think that such a limitation on beer sales would exist in Colorado of all places, because it has been one of the leaders in the movement to legalize the sale and consumption of recreational marijuana.  But Prohibition-era laws die hard.

Grocery stores apparently put up with the limitation because, until 2008, liquor sales of any kind on Sunday were banned in Colorado, except for the 3.2 beer you could buy in grocery stores.  That restriction no doubt gave grocery stores a boost in Sunday sales to thirsty drinkers who couldn’t buy anything else.  When the blue law ended, however, grocers started advocating for change, the legislature finally acted, and now the 3.2 beer limitation will be ending.  Effective January 1, 2019, you can walk into a grocery store in Colorado and buy a six-pack of Sam Adams seasonal — just like you can in Columbus and pretty much everywhere else in the United States.

For those of us of a certain age, the notion of drinking 3.2 beer brings back memories of our adolescence, when people of a certain age in Ohio (and elsewhere) were permitted to drink 3.2 beer and nothing else.  It was a rite of passage.  I don’t remember much about the quality of 3.2 beer, but I do remember the quantity, because you had a drink a lot of it to attain the desired effect.  The 3.2 beer laws in Ohio ended decades ago, however.

Welcome to the modern world, Colorado!  And down with the Volstead Act!

Oil Independence

Last week the United States passed a milestone that is almost unimaginable for those of us who have lived through the “oil crises” of the past.  For the first time in 75 years, America ended its dependence on foreign oil and became a net oil exporter.

shutterstock_360583700-0The transition of America to a state of energy independence has largely occurred because of the huge surge in production of oil and natural gas from shale formations that have been found throughout the country, in Texas, and North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, and even here in Ohio.  Last week there was a sharp drop in imports and a sharp increase in exports that nudged the U.S. into energy independence territory.  And while the production of oil will vary, the amount of oil-producing shale formations will likely keep America in positive net production territory for some time.

What does America’s status as a net oil exporter mean?  The oil boom has obviously produced a lot of new wealth and jobs in the U.S., but more broadly it means that the role of OPEC as a major world player, capable of affecting the economies of oil-using countries with a few pricing decisions — or even worse, embargoes — has been greatly diminished.  In fact, the production from the United States has effectively flipped the power equation, because many of our producing wells are profitable at oil prices as low as $30 a barrel, which is a lower price than is profitable for many OPEC countries.

The American oil boom thus presents OPEC with a serious challenge:  if it tries to enforce higher prices, buyers will turn to American oil and OPEC countries will lose market share — but because Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries need higher prices to be profitable, OPEC can’t afford to let profits fall.  Last week in Vienna, OPEC and Russia announced an agreement to cut production in order to keep prices up.  It remains to be seen whether that agreement will work, given American production, or whether OPEC members will begin trying to recapture market share by selling at lower prices than OPEC is trying to enforce.  In fact, there are signs that the oil cartel is fraying around the edges.  Last week, for example, Qatar announced that it is leaving OPEC.

Imagine:  an American foreign policy that no longer needs to focus obsessively on the Middle East in order to ensure that the oil spigot remains turned on.  That’s just one of the interesting consequences of our surging domestic production.