new year bullshit

Okay, look, this whole New Year bidness? It’s bullshit. I mean, sure, we live in a culture that requires us to establish metrics for Time. But basically, I’m with Thomas Mann on this: Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year.┬áThe objective differences between December 31, 2021 and January 1, 2022 are trifling.

Even if we agree that there are valid reasons to demarcate one year from another, the only reason January 1–a date right in the middle of the fucking winter–is considered the first day of a new year is because Julius Caesar yanked the old 10 month Roman calendar and imposed a new, improved 12 month one. He added a couple of months, clever boy, one of which was January–named for Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings, the god of gates and doorways, the god of transitions. Caesar made the imperial decision that the first day of the new month would be the first day of the new Roman year. I’m not saying he deserved to be stabbed to death for that, but c’mon, what an arrogant prick.

Generally, folks living in the Roman Empire at that time (which was seriously huge, by the way) felt a new year began at some point around the Vernal Equinox. Which totally makes sense. It’s around the end of March, winter is over, the land begins to come alive again, leaves grow on trees, plants bloom, days are longer, everything is new. So when Caesar imposed this new calendar on the empire, common folks mostly ignored it. They continued to celebrate a seasonal new year rather than a calendar-based one.

Then three hundred years or so later, Christianity came along and sort of fucked things up. When the Roman emperor Constantine decided that Christianity was the Official Religion of Rome (which is a whole nother story), all his generals and high ranking officials had to become Christian if they wanted to advance their careers. That meant supporting the nascent Church, and supporting the Church meant adapting pagan holy days to Christian holy days AND marking them on the Roman calendar.

Still, hardly anybody celebrated January 1 as New Year’s Day. It was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. You may be asking yourself how Romans decided that Jesus was circumcised on January 1, which is a reasonable thing to ask yourself. What happened was a Roman historian named Sextus Julius Africanus, after some serious consideration, decided Jesus was probably conceived around the Vernal Equinox. That’s why Christmas is mostly celebrated on December 25, nine months later. And according to Jewish law and tradition, eight days after a boy is born his parents hold a bris. What’s a bris? It’s a ceremony in which a mohel comes to the family’s home, snips the foreskin off the boy’s penis, then everybody has a nice meal. Eight days after December 25 is January 1.

Now, there’s a whole weird, uncomfortable history dealing with early Christianity and circumcision which isn’t worth going into (so much of history has been shaped by the relationship men have with their dicks). There’s a whole sub-genre of art devoted to Jesus getting snipped. The important thing, though, is that over time the Christian discomfort over the celebration of Jesus being separated from his Holy Foreskin morphed the event into a celebration of the New Year.

This is why folks are putting on pointy party hats and blowing horns and getting high school drunk tonight. Because Yahweh decided Abraham should be circumcised and Julius Caesar wanted a better calendar and a Roman historian made a wild guess about when Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and Constantine decided to become a Christian and early Christians became awkward and uncertain about circumcision so instead of celebrating a bit of foreskin-snipping they fell back onto celebrating Caesar’s arbitrary decision to start a new year in the middle of the fucking winter.

It’s all bullshit. The sun rises, the sun sets, the earth orbits the Sun, tilts on its axis, we have seasons. And basically, that’s it. Some folks just need an excuse for a party.

that’s right, it’s a movie review

I sporadically read movie and/or television reviews. I don’t necessarily trust entertainment reviewers, but I tend to assume they get it approximately right. Maybe they don’t point to true north, but they wave in a general northish direction. The reviews of Don’t Look Up were harsh; I saw it described as glib, as disastrous, as unamusing, as obvious and without subtlety, as over-the-top, as trivializing an actual social problem, as cynical and mocking. Reviewers said Don’t Look Up failed both as satire and as comedy.

But sometimes all I want is mindless, distracting entertainment–something glib and trivial and obvious. Besides, there were a lot of really fine actors in it, so how bad could it be?

I won’t say Don’t Look Up is a great movie; it’s not. But it’s not at all what the reviewers claimed it was. It’s not mindless entertainment; it’s not glib or trivializing or without subtlety. It’s a damned fine movie. It IS over-the-top, but considering the last few years, it’s only over the top by inches.

With only the tiniest possible SPOILER, I’m going to tell you what the movie is about. I’m not going to relate the entire plot; I’m only going to reveal one plot element (which you probably already know). But I’m going to describe what I think is the pivotal scene. It takes place fairly early in the film, and it establishes the theme on which the movie depends.

Three people–a grad student who discovers a comet heading directly toward earth, the professor who oversees her research, and a government official who heads some obscure agency devoted to protecting Earth from comets and/or other space stuff–are at the White House with a high-ranking military escort. They’re there to warn the president of the impending extinction level event. POTUS is busy doing political bullshit, so they’re left idling in a hallway. The escort leaves briefly and returns with bottled water and some snacks. He complains about how expensive the snacks were. The others reimburse him–US$20. He keeps the change. Later, the grad student (played by Jennifer Lawrence with unfortunate hair) discovers the snacks and water were free. Periodically through the rest of the film, she talks about how astonished she was that this guy screwed them for a few bucks when they were at the White House trying to warn humanity that all life on the planet is likely going to be extinguished. She just can’t understand people who act that way.

And that’s the movie. Good, decent people trying to do what’s right, trying to do what’s best for everybody, trying to deal with a system designed for–and occupied by–people primarily concerned with themselves and their own gain, people who are willing to lie, mislead, and manipulate others to achieve their short term goals. It’s not just that they have incompatible value systems; it’s that they don’t even share the same definition of values.

It’s a comedy. Sort of. It’s satire. Sort of. Actually, I’m damned if I know what genre it falls into. It’s a critique of the politico-corporate culture we live in, where maximizing profits and shareholder value have priority over human concerns. It’s a critique of the social media driven culture in which celebrity is valued over knowledge and manipulated opinion trumps science. All of that sounds very dull, doesn’t it; but this is not a dull movie.

In the end, I found Don’t Look Up to be weirdly hopeful. It suggests that trying to do good, trying to do the right thing, is in itself a worthy goal, even if you don’t believe you can succeed. It suggests a person’s sincere attempt to do what’s right confers a sort of grace on the person. I like to think that’s true.

Don’t Look Up is worth watching.

EDITORIAL NOTE: By the way, this is one of the few films in which scientists are depicted as normal people who are simply devoted to science. Nerdy, perhaps, but ordinary.

Melanie Lynskey

Also? The cast includes Melanie Lynskey, who has a brilliantly quiet career playing strong, soft-spoken women; she deserves a lot more attention than she gets. It’s a small role, but she’s perfect in it. She knows how to throw a pill bottle and make it sting.

accountability, not vengeance

Let’s talk about Kimberly Potter, the Minnesota police officer who was recently convicted of manslaughter. This case has been badly reported in the news media; it’s both more simple and more complex than the news reports.

Potter, who’d been a police officer for 26 years, was acting as a Field Training Officer at the time. Here’s a true thing about training: the stuff you learn in a classroom doesn’t always translate well in real life. I’ve done OJT (on the job training) as a medic, as a counselor in the Psych/Security unit of a prison for women, and as a criminal defense investigator. You can learn initial treatment of a traumatic amputation in a classroom, you can practice on an actor wearing a moulage, but it’s not the same as being confronted with a screaming, bleeding, panicked person who’s just had his arm torn off. You can teach somebody various interview techniques, but it’s not the same as finding a witness in a bar and trying to get them to talk to you. Real life is a lot weirder and slipperier. The only way to really learn to do a job is to do the job.

Potter was a passenger in the police squad car driven by her trainee. While they were on patrol, he saw a white 2011 Buick signal a right turn while it was in a left turning lane. He also noticed the vehicle’s registration tag on the licence plate was expired. There was also an air freshener hanging from the car’s rear view mirror, which technically could be considered an obstruction which might impair the driver’s vision. The news media focused almost exclusively on the air freshener, but the reality is that there were legal justifications for stopping the vehicle.

To be clear, they were all bullshit justifications–they’re the sort of things police officers often use to stop black/minority drivers. But, again, the only way to really learn to do a job is to do the job. Even if it was a bullshit justification, it was a legit teaching opportunity–a way for Potter to see how her trainee would handle a real life traffic stop. And also again, real life is a lot weirder and slipperier.

They stopped the car, did the usual “License and registration, please” business. This is what they learned: 1) Daunte Wright, the driver, didn’t have a driver’s license, 2) the car wasn’t registered to him or the woman passenger, 3) there was no proof-of-insurance, 4) a records check showed there was an open arrest warrant on Wright for failing to appear in court on weapons violation, 5) and a protective order had been filed against him by an unnamed woman. Even though it was a bullshit traffic stop, Potter and her trainee had probable cause to arrest Wright. In fact, until they determined whether or not the woman passenger Potter was the same woman who had the protective order against him, they’d have been negligent not to arrest him.

So they did. And then it all got weird and slippery. Wright decided to escape. In her 26 years as a police officer, Potter had never used either her pistol or her taser. When Wright broke away and got back in the car, she drew her pistol instead of her taser. Instead of tasing him, she shot and killed him.

Potter was just doing her job. But had what’s known in tort law as ‘a duty of care’. She had a legal obligation requiring her to adhere to a standard of reasonable care while performing any act that could foreseeably harm others. She had an obligation to know whether she was holding a pistol or a taser. And even though she clearly didn’t intend to kill Daunte Wright, he’s still dead. And Potter had to be held accountable for that.

This is exactly how the justice system should work. This is how it should work for every officer-involved incident. It’s about accountability, not revenge. It’s about a professional being held to a standard of behavior.

If a surgeon makes a mistake during an appendectomy, they have to be accountable for that. If the pilot of a commercial fishing vessel misjudges their speed and crashes the ship into a marina dock, they have to be accountable. If a bartender serves a clearly intoxicated person and that person dies in a traffic accident (or kills somebody else in a traffic accident), they have to be accountable. If a landscaper accidentally kills your lawn, they have to be accountable. And if a police officer kills a person in the line of duty–even if it’s unintentional–they have to be held accountable.

Kimberly Potter was almost certainly a good, solid police officer. She made a terrible mistake and Daunte Wright died as a result. It doesn’t matter that Wright was complicit in his own death, she remains responsible and accountable. I hope she gets a relatively light sentence, but at the heel of the hunt, she has to be accountable for it.

It’s about accountability, not vengeance.

This also applies to presidents.

devil’s scorecard

The Devil appears to Comrade Donald Trump the morning after the 2016 election. He says, “Comrade, I have three suggestions for you as president. First, you should undermine and destroy representative democracy. Second, you should downplay the severity of a deadly epidemic. Third, you should stop wearing lifts in your shoes.” Trump asks, “Why should I stop wearing lifts in my shoes?” The Devil grins. “Yeah, I figured you wouldn’t object to the first two.”

I’ve been on something of a social media holiday the last week or two. I haven’t been actively avoiding it; I’ve just spent less time fiddling with social media and engaging in or responding to it. But this morning I read some reporting about Comrade Trump and found myself imagining Trump in conversation with the devil.

The reporting this morning suggests Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who has been investigating whether the Trump Organization deliberately misled lenders and/or tax authorities about the value of its properties, is going to indict Trump personally for racketeering. It may be true. If so, it will be a tiny (but very welcome) step toward holding Trump accountable for some small fraction of the harm he’s done to the United States.

It’s difficult to describe…hell, it’s difficult to even comprehend…the scope of Trump’s corrosive effect on US society. His casual, reflexive lying about almost anything has become a common aspect of GOP political rhetoric. His nonchalant petty corruption–using the office of POTUS to enrich himself–has tarnished the office itself; perhaps not beyond repair, but the Trump stink lingers. His vindictiveness against anybody or anything he believes has slighted him has created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in governance. His indifference to public health has not only contributed to the death of more than 800,000 US citizens, but sparked an unhinged conspiratorial view of the medical profession. His unthinking automatic racism has fueled racial violence against almost every racial, ethnic, and religious minority group in the country. His cheap, performative imitation of patriotism has degraded the national capacity to be truly proud of the nation. His perpetual insecurity has turned conservatism into a whiny, grievance-oriented, resentful group of fear-biters.

Hold this feculent sumbitch accountable.

Combine all that with Trump’s deliberate, willful undermining of the norms of representative democracy, and you end up with a bitterly divided nation in which a third of the population is willing–even eager–to scrap nearly 250 years of semi-cooperative governance and replace it with an authoritarian regime grounded in white resentment and free-floating rage.

I don’t know that indicting–and, it’s to be hoped, convicting–Trump for ordinary crimes like racketeering or tax evasion (rather than the political crimes he’s certainly committed) is the most effective method for undoing the damage he’s done. But it’s a good start.

That assumes the reporting is accurate. Which reminds me–Trump’s manipulation of the news media had warped the very notion of responsible journalism. One more black mark on his Devil’s scorecard.

i read the news today, oh boy

The cat and I have checked the perimeter; it’s secure. I’ve got my coffee, the cat has her kibble, there’s enough light outside to suggest the sun still exists above all the cloud cover, but it’s like the sun just isn’t willing to invest the effort needed to show itself. I understand the sun’s perspective and mostly agree.

So, onto this morning’s news feed. What’ve we got? Chris Cuomo got fired by CNN for doing something unethical (I haven’t bothered to read about it) to help his unethical brother in his futile and unethical fight to remain the unethical governor of New York. I’m with Melania on this — I really don’t care.

What else have we got? Pro-Trump counties in the US have far higher Covid death rates than counties that voted for Uncle Joe. Could it be because Trump supporters are refusing to get vaxxed? Of course, it is. I should care more than I do, because 1) by refusing to get vaxxed, these fuckwits are not only putting others at risk, they’re also giving the Covid virus the opportunity to mutate multiple times into variants that are more resistant to treatment, and because 2) that whole John Donne thang:

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Well, it tolls mostly for fuckwits who won’t get vaxxed, but the fucking bell keeps tolling regardless because that’s what bells do. I care for the vaxxed folks who get infected by fuckwits. I should care more for the fuckwits…and I try, honest…but they don’t make it easy.

Then there’s this headline: Why Moderna is the Biggest Winner from Covid Boosters So Far. Well, that’s a pretty fucking heartless take, isn’t it. And what’s the deal with that ambivalent ‘So Far’ business? I guess Pfizer investors are huddling and thinking, “We’ve still got a chance!” I’m thinking Big Pharma investors would benefit from a visit by Marley’s ghost.

Let’s see, what else is in the news? Cryptocurrencies are apparently crashing. That’s presumably bad. Maybe tragic? I don’t know. Hell, I’m trying to decide if I should keep paying US$7 for BritBox now that I’ve seen the new season of Shetland, or if I should cancel that service and invest those funds in beer futures. I mean, Firetrucker Brewery has a seasonal Black Walnut brown ale (100 pound of local walnuts in every batch brewed). The money I save from cancelling Britbox would buy…well, a pint at the bar, but almost a four-pack in cans. I care more about the ale than about cryptocurrenies.

What else…ah, here’s something. Alec Baldwin gave an interview about the shooting that…oh, lawdy, his wife also apparently gave an interview. Why? Who is the audience for this? Are there really people out there who are concerned about what Alec Baldwin’s wife feels about the shooting? Maybe let’s put more effort into getting legislators to pass some sensible firearm safety legislation. And not just on movie sets, but in the homes of regular people. For fuck’s sake, people. Ignore Alec Baldwin’s wife. Ignore him too. This isn’t anything remotely like news.

Ah, here’s a headline: Bowl Projections: Will Alabama or Michigan be the #1 seed? I don’t know. Has anybody checked to see if Alec Baldwin’s wife has an opinion on this?

Surely there must be SOME news I’m interested in. Oh, wait. Here’s an article about twelve colorful holiday cookie recipes to illuminate the season. Okay, cookies are NOT a reliable source of illumination, but we’re mature enough to look beyond that. Besides, who doesn’t love cookies? There’s a Tamarind Mantecadito cookie recipe, which looks improbable but is probably tasty. I was completely ignorant of mantecaditos; they’re basically shortbread cookies. This particular recipe is a tad too precious for my tastes (I could probably find some frozen tamarind paste somewhere, but the ‘edible gold leaf’ and the ‘fresh edible flowers’ are over the top). The cookie that inspired it, though, is right in my wheelhouse. That said, I abandoned the article as soon as I got to the recipe for Fig and Ginger Terrazzo Tiles with Disco Sugar. I don’t even want to know what those are. I’m sure they’re tasty, but fuck me with a chainsaw, no.

So, that’s today’s news. The cat is insisting I go park my butt in a chair so she can sit on my lap. She considers herself to be the #1 seed AND the winner of the Covid booster challenge. Who am I to argue with her?

in this together

It was Oxford Township, Michigan’s turn to hold a candlelight vigil last night. You know, for the three kids who were murdered and the eight others who were wounded by a 15-year-old classmate. We’ve gotten really good at those candlelight vigils.

One speaker at the vigil said, “We’re all in this together.” But no, we’re not. Well, we’re all “in this” but we’re not in it together. Most of us are in the Jesus suffering fuck, pass some goddamn sensible gun safety laws already contingent, but the folks in power mostly belong to the God gave us the 2nd Amendment and if we have to routinely sacrifice random men, women, and children to it, then that’s just what we’ll have to do club. So no, we’re not in this together. Except, you know, when it comes to that whole candlelight vigil business. We’re totally in that together. Those things don’t just happen; they take work. Organization, cooperation, shit like that.

The headline in this morning’s Washington Post:

Oxford High School shooting suspect in custody, motive unknown after 3 killed, 8 injured in Michigan

Motive unknown. Motive. Like this is some television show where the crime can be solved. If only we understood why this kid decided to borrow the Sig Sauer 9mm pistol his daddy bought on Black Friday and used it to murder his classmates, we’d…what? Solve school shootings?

We can all hazard a half dozen guesses as to the kid’s motive. There’s no fucking mystery here. Every kid who has ever attended school in a modern industrial society has, at some point, felt miserable and hopeless and frustrated and unloved and resentful and alienated and lonely and angry. A very small minority of those kids have focused all those awful emotions on their classmates.

The problem isn’t the kid’s motive. The problem is the capacity to act on the motive. Some of those kids have access to firearms. How did this kid get access to his daddy’s new pistol?

That’s not a mystery either. Michigan doesn’t require firearm owners to lock up their weapons. That’s right. If you live in Michigan, you can just leave guns lying around the house–like throw pillows or coasters for your drinks. Maybe this kid’s daddy kept his guns (yes, guns, plural, the police seized a bunch of them from the house) locked up–I don’t know. But in Michigan, he had a legal right to leave them scattered around the house like Hummel figurines.

This is America. We don’t do common sense gun law. We do candlelight vigils. We hold a vigil, then we ask why this happened, after which we vow to make sure nothing like this will ever happen again, and then we lament that there’s absolutely nothing we can possibly do to prevent it from happening again. That’s what we do. Because we’re all in this.

But not together. We’re a long way from together.