The Alternative Calendar’s Tale

My longstanding practice is to put things on my work calendar as soon as I plan them, even if they are not going to happen for months.  It’s not unusual for me to have deadlines and appointments on my calendar a year in advance.  In my experience, I’m just less likely to create a scheduling conflict or double-book myself if I keep my  calendar current.

0frjo3qnmby6xfgkoNormally, there’s nothing strange about this.  The planned dates and deadlines arrive, the appointments and conferences and meetings happen, and the calendar pages turn and fade into the past.

Of course, in 2020 nothing is normal.  In 2020, all of the appointments and meetings and trips that were planned were cancelled — but they have remained on the calendar because there’s no point in going through the effort needed to delete them.  As a result, each week I get notices of what I was supposed to have been doing if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t thrown us all a gigantic curve ball.  I’ve gotten reminders of haircuts missed, dinners that didn’t happen, performances that never occurred, and business and personal trips to places like Austin and Chicago that simply vanished on the wings of the wind.

Looking at those calendar entries that I made long ago has been a very weird experience.  It’s like unexpectedly catching sidelong glances of yourself in a mirror, where your reflection is reversed, or getting a glimpse of my life in one of those parallel universes that have been fodder for so many Star Trek episodes and sci fi novels, movies, and TV shows.  And, because all of these things were actually planned, they are far more plausible than the scenarios where the Nazis won World War II or an evil empire controls the galaxy.  If anything, the reverse is true:  Alternative Bob’s life seems a lot more plausible than one where the United States shut down for months due to a virus.  In fact, the sudden emergence of a virus causing the world to close its doors seems like a pretty contrived plot device.

I’ve been following his exploits with some interest, and I can tell you that, so far, Alternative Bob has had a heck of a 2020.

Seinfeld — In The Nick Of Time

Last night Kish and I watched the new Jerry Seinfeld special, 23 Hours To Kill, on Netflix.  It was a great way to end a nice Mother’s Day, at a time when just about everyone can use a hearty laugh.

s2In the new special, filmed before the coronavirus consumed New York City, Seinfeld touches upon some familiar Seinfeld topics — such as breakfast foods, how we communicate with each other, and relationships — and some new topics, like how the decade where you are in your 60s is his favorite decade of life so far.  As always, it’s a treat to watch a real comedic pro at work, as he combines facial gestures, careful language choices, coordinated body movements, vocal inflections, and deft timing to wring every ounce of humor out of his observations.  This is a person who obviously has worked very hard at his craft and isn’t resting on his laurels.

And he clearly hasn’t lost his touch, either.  Some of the pieces — like those about the invention of Pop Tarts, and how marriage is different from dating — had me laughing helplessly, while other observational bits about things like why people like to text and why they should change the name of “email” had me smiling, chuckling, and nodding, just as with Seinfeld humor of the past.

The special was filmed at a packed theater before the advent of social distancing, but there is one bit — about why New Yorkers would want to live packed together, rather that in the beautiful surrounding green countryside — that reminded us that we’re in the midst of a pandemic and densely packed Manhattan is once again ground zero.  For the most part, though, it was nice to enjoy something that didn’t focus on COVID-19 and was simply intended to be funny.  The special is well worth a watch — and maybe a rewatch, too.  This Seinfeld special seemed to come in the nick of time, to give a much-needed laugh to a bored, homebound world.

As always, Jerry Seinfeld’s sense of comedic timing is impeccable.

After Life

We’ve been watching a lot of TV lately.  Who hasn’t?  When the workday ends, you’ve been reading from a computer screen for nine hours straight, and you’ve just taken your third walk of the day around your neighborhood, what the heck else are you going to do?

after-lifeI’m not sure you could call this a positive, but because of abundant TV sampling we’ve watched some shows that we probably wouldn’t have watched otherwise.  And, because of the high-volume exposure to the boob tube, I’ve also identified a core problem with me, as a TV viewer.  The problem is that, instead of simply enjoying a show, I always try to figure out what the creator of the show wants me to think about the main characters.  When I watched House, for example, I always wondered whether the creator of the show wanted me to grow to like the brilliant main character, or sympathize with him because of his bad leg, or think he was a colossal, egotistical jerk who would never have a friend like Wilson in real life.  Dr. House’s complex, multi-dimensional character (brilliantly played by Hugh Laurie) was one of the things that made that show a good watch in my book.

For most shows, figuring out how you’re supposed to react to a character isn’t a problem, because most shows are written so that it’s quickly apparent that a particular character is supposed to funny, or repellent, or heroic, or whatever.  It’s pretty rare for a show to leave that central issue ambiguous, where the creators are comfortable with different viewers, perhaps, reacting to a particular character in different ways.

After Life is one of those rare shows.  Written and created by, and starring, Ricky Gervais, it features a main character, Tony, who is one of those ambiguous characters.  He’s obsessed with watching highly personal videos of his life with his wife, now dead of cancer, and has been toying with the idea of killing himself because her death makes him so sad.  That’s pretty sympathetic, but a lot of the videos that he watches reveal him to be a kind of annoying prankster and a bit of a jerk.  (His wife, on the other hand, seems like a real saint to laugh, for example, when he sets off an air horn while she’s sleeping.)  He’s a colossal jerk with some people, for no readily apparent reason, and a nice, supportive guy to others.  He’s ridiculously mean to people who wouldn’t challenge him, but won’t say boo to the world’s worst therapist who’s supposed to be helping him deal with his grief.

So, what are we supposed to think of this guy?  Dismiss him as a weepy sad sack who just can’t move on?  Feel sorry for him because he’s so totally distraught?  Think he’s funny because of his witty snark?  View him as a jackass who’s just pushing away most of the people who are trying to help him?  Decide he can’t be all bad because he’s got a great dog that he obviously cares about, and anybody who’s got a relationship like that with a dog must have some redeeming qualities?  The perspective on Tony keeps shifting.

It’s worth watching.

Starved For Sports

Yesterday the National Football League draft broadcast set an all-time record for viewership.  And it didn’t just sneak past the prior record, either — it obliterated it.  Some 15.6 million people tuned in to watch the draft, which is 37 percent more than the number of people who watched the 2019 draft.

5ea250d00ec19.image_Gee, I wonder why the viewership numbers went through the roof?  After all, the NFL draft is normally one of the most overhyped, boring events imaginable, with a bunch of delays between picks and countless talking heads yammering about the best player still “on the board.”  And this year, where all of the participants in the draft were carefully maintaining social distancing and sheltering in their different houses, there was even less drama than normal.  No rational person would spend hours watching the NFL draft — unless it turns out to be the only live event for a major sport in, say, six weeks, and a bunch of sports-starved Americans are dying to watch something, anything, that wasn’t recorded in 1988.

I’m guessing that the rest of the NFL draft will set records, too — because what else are you going to watch?  And if some of the lesser sports want to increase their fan base, they might just decide to put on some made-for-TV event that allows Americans to satisfy their lust for sports.  Badminton?  Curling?   Bocce?  They all allow participants to maintain some appropriate distance, and yet also involve that essential element of competition.  At this point, the true sports nuts would probably be willing to watch two geriatric guys at some retirement center in Florida play a death match on the shuffleboard court.

The interesting thing about the NFL draft is whether the extraordinary ratings mean anything about what fans are going to do when the restrictions are lifted and sports begin to actually be played again, in arenas and stadiums.  Will they go watch live, or has weeks of social distancing caused them to want, instead, to only watch the games on TV?  I’m guessing that there’s a fair number of people who will happily don their masks and go to see their favorite team play — especially if its an event that is played outdoors.

The Nazi Alternative Universe

We’ve been watching the excellent HBO mini-series The Plot Against America.  It’s a gripping, well-acted, and very difficult to watch story that is part of the “alternative history” genre.

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In the show, Charles Lindbergh — still a hero to millions for his solo flight across the Atlantic years before — decides to run for President in 1940 on an isolationist platform.  Lucky Lindy barnstorms across the country in the Spirit of St. Louis, giving the same short speech about America’s choice being between Lindbergh and war.  Lindbergh surprisingly defeats FDR, and the result is catastrophic for American Jews generally, and one Jewish family in particular, as the country slides into a cozy relationship with the Nazis, fascism, and virulent anti-Semitism.  (And I haven’t had the chance to watch the last episode yet, so no spoilers here.)

It’s a difficult show to watch, of course, because no one wants to see the kind of America depicted on the show — but as I watched I found myself thinking about the role of Nazi Germany in the alternative history genre of fiction.  So many books and shows revolve around “what if” questions in which the Germans win World War II — The Man in the High Castle is one recent example — that it almost seems as if Nazism was responsible for the creation of the alternative history genre in the first place.  And it’s interesting that, of all of the potential turning points of history, World War II seems to be the source of far more interest than others.  There might be alternative histories written about “what if” worlds in which, say, the British won the War of 1812, or the Kaiser emerged victorious in World War I, but if so there aren’t many of them, and they’ve remained in obscurity.  The Nazis, in contrast, always seem to take center stage.

Why, exactly, do the Nazis command so much more interest and attention?  Part of it is that their creed and philosophies were so murderous, hateful, and outlandish that it’s hard to believe that they controlled a country and were able to launch and fight a global war, and implement the Holocaust, less than 100 years ago.  There’s a certain amazement about the fact that it happened, and that the Nazis actually existed in an era of automobiles and planes and telephones.  That still-shocking realization gives a powerful narrative punch to alternative history stories about what might have happened had those terrible, soulless murderers won, even 80 years after the Nazis were hurled into the dustbin of history.

Whenever I see or read an alternative history about a Nazi triumph and what it would have meant for the United States, I’m always reminded of a quote from Tom Wolfe in the ’70s, when he observed that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”  In short, people have long loved to predict that America is teetering on the brink of fascism and totalitarian repression.  World War II, perhaps, was the closest those predictions came to being realized.  Part of the reason that the Nazi alternative history genre is so crowded may be that the Nazis are a storytelling device that allows people to imagine that fascist America that has for so long been predicted, but has never come to pass.

I doubt that The Plot Against America will be the last alternative history in which America has fallen in World War II and fascism reigns in the former land of the free and home of the brave — and that’s OK.  Depictions of what a fascist America might look like helps us to keep our guard up.  That’s a big part of the reason that the “dark night of fascism” has never landed on our shores.

 

Close Talkers (Video Conference Version)

I’d say that I have participated in more video conference calls over the past three weeks than in the rest of my extended work life, combined.  And, as I participate in the calls, I realize I’ve got a lot to figure out.  Other people do, too.

forehead man wrinkles before and afterRecently I was on a multi-party video call with one of those split screen set-ups.  One of the participants was positioned too close to his camera.  His oversized eyes and forehead, positioned in the upper left corner of my computer screen, loomed over the other talking heads like he was Gulliver among the Lilliputians.  It made me think that, if there was a Seinfeld about life during the coronavirus pandemic, one episode probably would be about close video conference talkers.  (And I expect that, in the COVID-19 Seinfeld world, Kramer would undoubtedly violate all social distancing requirements and still barge into Jerry’s apartment to eat his cereal.)

The gigantic forehead incident made me realize that I need to think carefully about my  video conference presence.  Am I too close to the little glowing dot at the top of my computer screen, or too far away?  Is your video conference head supposed to pretty much fill the screen, or is the proper dimension three-quarters of the screen, or one half?

And the position of the head is important, too — especially for the older guys like me.  If your head is tilted forward, you’re giving the unfortunate viewer a huge dose of your forehead, receding hairline, and thinning scalp.  If you lean back, on the other hand, you’re forcing the viewer to focus on the multiple chins and the vibrating neck wattles.  Either way, it’s not exactly a pretty picture.

There’s also the issue of what kind of attitude you’re projecting with your video position.  If you’re leaning in, you look earnest and engaged, but also perhaps hard of hearing.  If you lean back, your look “cooler,” but maybe uninterested.  And if you’re somebody who uses his hands to accentuate the point you are making, as I do, how can you be sure that the screen is capturing those carefully calibrated gestures?

It’s all pretty confusing for the novice video conferencer who doesn’t want to assume the Gulliver position in the upcoming conference calls.  It makes me think that the picture element adds a really significant dimension to the communication that requires you to give some careful thought to these issues before the calls start, and position yourself accordingly — and deliberately.

Better Call Saul

Normally I will not watch TV shows or read books about lawyers.  I hated L.A. Law, for example, and the few John Grisham books that I tried.  The problem for me is that I just can’t get past the implausibility of most of the plot lines and that unrealistic (in my experience, at least) depictions of lawyers and legal scenarios.  My inner groaning at the dubious fictional reality always made it impossible for me to enjoy the book or the show.

Then Kish and I started watching Better Call Saul, and I finally got beyond my fictional lawyer mental block — and in the process found a really great TV show.

better-call-saul-recapBetter Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad.  When we first meet Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, he’s a classic lawyer caricature — crooked, conniving, duplicitous, and seemingly designed purely to provide some comic relief.  I groaned when Saul Goodman was introduced, because he was everything I disliked in a fictional lawyer character.  But Breaking Bad was such an excellent show that I watched despite my initial dislike of Saul Goodman — and as the show progressed the character grew on me a little, and I found that I could accept Saul.

Still, when Breaking Bad  ended and I heard that a new prequel was being filmed that would focus on the Saul Goodman character, I was skeptical that I would like it.  It only took a few episodes for me to get hooked on Better Call Saul, and only a few episodes more for me to get to the point where I think you can make a reasonable argument that Better Call Saul is, arguably, a more groundbreaking show than Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul takes us back to when Saul was known by his given name, Jimmy McGill.  We meet a bunch of new characters — including Jimmy’s lawyer brother, Chuck, and Jimmy’s love interest and stalwart, dependable friend, Kim — as we go back to several years before Breaking Bad begins.  Jimmy’s got a sketchy history back in Illinois, but after a close brush with the law he’s come out to Albuquerque, where Chuck is a prominent lawyers, he’s met Kim, and he’s tried to pull himself up by his bootstraps.  Jimmy McGill has some endearing qualities — he’s a natural charmer, and loyal, and he goes to great lengths to help his brother, Chuck, deal with a very odd condition, for example — and he’s even gone to a correspondence law school in secret and passed the New Mexico bar.  From time to time, at least, it’s not hard to see why go-getter Kim finds Jimmy attractive.

But life and the fates seem to conspire against him, and — here’s the lawyer part — whenever he is confronted with an ethical issue he makes the wrong decision.  In fact, Jimmy’s ethical instincts are so unfailingly misguided that law professors could have their students in an ethics class watch the show and follow the rule of thumb that if Jimmy is doing it, it’s violating every ethical rule known to the organized bar.  And there’s a tragic element to that, because Jimmy actually would be a pretty darned good lawyer if he could just avoid the ethical snares that trip him up.  He’s hardworking, and creative, and has a good eye for legal problems and potential claims — but the ethical issues are his Achilles heel.

Jimmy McGill’s story would be enough to make Better Call Saul an enjoyable show, but what really makes it must-see TV is the whole narrative arc that comes from being a prequel.  In short, we know how this narrative must end.  In addition to Jimmy/Saul, many other Breaking Bad characters are prominently featured, and it’s both jarring, and unnerving, to know what’s ultimately going to happen to them.  But that’s only part of the “prequel” effect.  We know that other characters who are new to Better Call Saul don’t have a role in Breaking Bad — and we wonder why not, and what happens to them between now and then.  It really puts the viewer on pins and needles, and it’s why you really need to watch all of Breaking Bad before you try Better Call Saul.  I think this whole “prequel effect” makes Better Call Saul a truly groundbreaking show.

This is a remarkable, exceptionally well-acted show, featuring Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy/Saul, Jonathan Banks reprising his role as Mike from Breaking Bad, and Kish’s and my favorite character, Rhea Seehorn as the hardworking, supportive Kim, a great lawyer with a heart of gold but also a nagging desire to visit the dark side now and then.  But all of the actors are good, all of the characters are compelling, key characters from Breaking Bad are starting to show up, and we’ve reached the point in the narrative where things are about ready to spiral downhill and out of control.  We’re just holding our breath and waiting to hear the first mention of “Heisenberg.”

Whether you’re a lawyer or not, Better Call Saul  is well worth watching.