The Beauty of Abandonment and Decay

Speaking of The Third Man… There’s that one most famous scene where Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles go up in the Wiener Riesenrad and Welles, as Harry Lime, talks about how insignificant humans are. “Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?” The film takes place in Vienna, after World War II. Few people have any money and so the amusement part is abandoned. There’s something very special about that. And when Lime not so subtly tells Joseph Cotten, as Holly Martins, that he might just throw him out of the car, it’s believable.

Most people find abandoned places creepy. That’s especially true if the location is one where people usually are—in abundance. Like an amusement park. When it’s empty, it seems almost post-apocalyptic. But I like it. To me, it is the way things ought to be. It reminds me of 10,000 year old settlements like Catalhoyuk. The things we humans make outlast us by a long time. In a sense, it shows that we are better craftsmen than God. But even still, what we do and who we are only matters right now.

Shakespeare wrote only 400 years ago, yet the language has changed so much that we probably wouldn’t even understand the words if we heard them spoken the way they were while the poet was alive at the Curtain theater. And Shakespeare is lucky. Many thousands of people over the years have worked very hard to keep his work alive. And for what? The plays of Shakespeare like the work of all humans is destined to disappear, just as humans themselves. And I see nothing sad about that. In fact, it is a testament to the greatness of humans that we take pleasure in the creation of the ephemeral. Many of us even create art without any intention of sharing it with anyone—just for the joy of doing it.

It is with these thoughts in mind, that I came upon an article this morning, The 38 Most Haunting Abandoned Places on Earth. For Some Reason, I Can’t Look Away… Do click over, because the photos are beautiful. But are they haunting? I don’t think so. They are, instead, completely alive. Consider, for example, this picture of the Great Wall of China:

The Great Wall of China Overgrown

The article explains, “The Great Wall is 13,170 miles long and vast sections receive little maintenance because of the enormous cost of caring for such a monumental structure.” I’ve never especially wanted to see the Great Wall. But if I could go here, where this picture was taken, well, that’s another matter entirely. That’s a beautiful thing: the forest is literally eating the wall. Imagine if you had built the wall and lived for thousands of years. Would you do something to stop the destruction of your wall? If you did, you would be a fool. You would be so much better to make something else that is ephemeral like yourself. Everything is ephemeral. Even the universe is ephemeral.

God, being a creation of man, is ephemeral. Just look at this abandoned church with its beautiful stained glass windows. As with so much in life, they overshadow man. Or am I wrong? When you looked at the picture, did your eyes avoid all the beautiful art that this church still is? Did your eyes instead, lock onto the child’s coffin in the middle of the picture? I wonder if it’s empty. And if it isn’t, does it matter?

I am not afraid, because I know the answer to that question.

The Third Carol Reed

Carol ReedWe have a big day for music today. But ultimately, the day belongs to a filmmaker.

On this day in 1853, the great French composer Andre Messager was born. He wrote very lively and lyrical compositions like Solo de concours, which we hear here:

Rock music innovator Bo Diddley was born in 1928. He was one of the most important people responsible from changing the blues into rock music. Here he is doing his signature song “Bo Diddley”:

The singer-songwriter Patti Smith is 67 today. Here she is back in 1976 doing “Horses” and Billy Roberts’ “Hey Joe”:

Other birthdays: painter Louis-Jean-Francois Lagrenee (1724); Miss America host Bert Parks (1914); singer-songwriter Del Shannon (1934); bluegrass musician John Hartford (1937); singer Davy Jones (1945); comedian Tracey Ullman (54); and golfer Tiger Woods (38).

The day, however, belongs to the great film director Carol Reed who was born in 1906. He is known for films such as Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and the musical Oliver! But I mostly know him for having directed one of my very favorite films, The Third Man.

Here is the trailer for The Third Man. It is absolutely terrible. “He’ll have you in a dither with his zither”? Oh my God! But the film really is great. Like The Fallen Idol, it was written by Graham Greene. If you have never seen it, you really must. And if you have, it is worth watching again. It is always even better than you remember:

Happy birthday Carol Reed!

What Will Conservatives Blame Our Bad and Expensive Healthcare System for Now?

Aaron CarrollAaron Carroll has another one of his Healthcare Triage videos out. I have to say, it’s a mixed blessing. In general, I agree with everything Carroll has to say about just about everything. So the information that he presents is really good. But does he have to try so hard to act and sound like his producer John Green? Green is a good example of how you can be really successful at something that people think of as creative, while not being the least bit creative. It’s been about a year since I’ve watched any of Green’s highly polished videos because (1) they are all the same and (2) he generally manages to waste ten minutes of my time without informing me of anything at all. Compare him to CGP Grey, and there is no contest. Of course, Grey doesn’t put out videos every week like his livelihood depended on it. (Oops!)

Carroll’s newest video is “The Sky Isn’t Falling.” That’s great, because that’s what I try to explain to people in my life. If you’ve heard some outrageous story, chances are it isn’t true. And if it is true, it is most likely not indicative of a trend. And if it is indicative of a trend, it’s a new Republican plan to stop people from voting. Carroll is a doctor, so he’s talking about doctor stuff. And it is really interesting. It turns out that our kids drink less than kids in other comparable countries. And they smoke less. They have less sex. Pregnancy rates are down. Stealing is down. Assault is down. It isn’t all good, but it mostly is. The main thing is that our kids are fatter than kids in other countries, but even there, the trend is good: our kids are getting less fat.

But Carroll is such a white bread kind of guy, he won’t make the important connection that I will. We here in America spend about twice what comparable countries do on healthcare and don’t even provide healthcare for roughly 20% of our citizens. Conservatives like to blame this on the unhealthy lifestyles of Americans: we’re fat; we smoke; we’re violent. But the data that Aaron Carroll presents indicates that this is not the case. So what exactly are the conservatives going to blame our poor healthcare system that nonetheless costs us a fortune?

I’m not being naive here. That was just a rhetorical device. They will blame it on whatever is handy. Remember when the deregulated collateralized debt obligation (CDOs) caused a financial crisis? Or when deregulated Savings & Loans caused a financial crisis? Or basically when any kind of deregulated thing caused catastrophe? Remember what the conservatives always said was the real problem? It was the fact that there was still some regulation. In a truly, completely, “more mythical than A Midsummer Night’s Dream” world, there would be no problem.

So if we aren’t being over-charged for bad and incomplete healthcare, it must be the government’s fault. It must be that Medicare exists. Or Medicaid. Or food stamps! Whatever. It doesn’t matter. The main thing is that it can’t be that we have a totally screwed up pseudo-free market healthcare system that doesn’t work. Remember how the conservative mind approaches problems. First, it eliminates all possible solutions that contradict ideology. Currently, that eliminates pretty much all solutions. Then, from the couple of possible solutions left over, it picks one. It doesn’t matter how the solution is picked, because they are all useless. The conservative hope is that the problem fixes itself, so that their useless “solution” is eventually forgotten.

It is important to remember, however, that things are in generally not so bad. And this is despite the conservatives doing everything they can to make the world the worst place possible.

Happy new year!

Don’t Cry for the Democrats

Don't Cry for the DemocratsI’m not big on predictions, especially political predictions. But back in July, I did offer up, The Next Three Election Cycles. That was not so much a prediction as it was an explanation of what I thought it would take for the Republican Party to make substantial changes in order to start winning national elections again. The predictions in the article, however, still look pretty good.

I said that the Republicans will likely pick up a few seats in both the House and the Senate. What’s more, I said there was a 50% chance that the Republicans will retake control of the Senate. The reason for this is that 2008 was such a great year for Democrats. They have to protect a large number of seats compared to the Republicans. The fact that the Democrats still have a 50% chance of holding onto the Senate in an off-year election should give you some idea of just how badly the Republican Party is doing.

And it is important for the Democrats to maintain control of the Senate. There are lots of federal executive and judicial nominations that Obama will need to make the last two years of his presidency. So it would be really good if the Senate stays in the hands of the Democratic Party. But it wouldn’t be catastrophic if it didn’t happen. And the reason it wouldn’t be catastrophic is that if the Republicans gain control of the Senate, it will be for two years, and two years only.

This morning, Ed Kilgore helpfully reminds us that the political landscape will be infinitely better for Democratic Senators in 2016. Instead of trying to hold onto the gains they made in 2008, it will be the Republicans who are trying to hang on to the enormous gains they made in 2010—you remember: Obama’s “shellacking.” Kilgore provides the numbers:

Check out what happens two years from now: 24 of 34 seats will be Republican-held. All ten Democratic seats at risk will be in states Barack Obama carried twice. And seven of the GOP seats will also be in Obamaland.

Remember, if the Republicans take control of the Senate after next year’s elections, they will only take control by the smallest of margins. In fact, people are talking about there being a 50-50 split in the Senate, requiring Joe Biden to spend most of his last two years as vice-president hanging out at the Senate. So just with those numbers, the Senate will go back to the Democrats in 2016. (I predicted this as well in my article.)

But it is even worse for the Republicans. The 2016 election will be “on year”: a presidential election. So the entire electorate will be more liberal. So there will be a Democratic Senate after the 2016 election. That isn’t a debatable point. What’s more interesting at that point is what will happen to the House. Every day that goes by, the great Republican gerrymandering coup of 2010 gets less powerful. So by 2016, the Democrats could take back the House. And that has to cause thoughtful Republicans a great deal of worry. After all, they will be but four years away from another gerrymandering opportunity, but this time it will be during a presidential election. The Democrats might gerrymander the Republicans right out of existence.

Regardless of all the predictions you are going to hear over the next couple of days, remember this: the 2014 elections are not going to be a big deal for either party. About the only good news that the Republicans might get is that they control the Senate. And that will last exactly two years. The Republicans are a dying party. And having a slim majority in the Senate may be the last thing they have to celebrate for a very long time.