Things Can Only Get Better

It‘s a bit ironic to be reading Factfulness at a time of a global crisis when factual information is necessary and disinformation is rife. Factfulness’ late author Hans Rosling was trying to battle the perception that the world is falling apart using simple, readily available data, and maybe right now that battle seems a bit naive.

But one of the side effects of reading Factfulness is discovering the ability to take comfort in hard facts. As intense as the spread of COVID-19 seems, looking at the raw numbers indicate to me that the recovery rate is high.

I’m not kidding myself into believing that those numbers are perfect. For example, the number of cases may be artificially low based on how many people are getting properly tested and how (or even if) governments are reporting their stats.

And I’m not kidding myself that the spread of COVID-19 won’t get worse. It probably will, which is why my home state of Maryland has closed schools and libraries. But while living in a time when people are panicking because they’re not finding accurate information and when some leaders dawdle as some leaders act, the best thing I can do is be informed by reliable sources and take precautions, both with my physical health and my mental health.

So I will close this out with two quotes. They are keeping me as grounded as I can get during a tough stretch of time.

People often call me an optimist, because I show them the enormous progress they didn’t know about. That makes me angry. I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve. I’m a very serious “possibilist.” That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.

Hans Rosling on page 69 of Factfulness

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien on page 82 of The Fellowship of the Rings
(Ballantine Books edition, 1986 printing)

(To be fair, the rest of Gandalf’s quote isn’t as inspiring as that, so maybe just stick to the version from the movie.)

You Slay Me

I am a big fan of musical theater and an even bigger fan of unintentionally campy entertainment. You can understand how I became such a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, although these days I’m more apt to defend it against accusations of being campy entertainment. I may have lived with it too long!

I trace my camp sensibility to Bad Movies We Love, an offshoot of the old Movieline column that scoured old Hollywood for classic examples of unintentionally funny hamfests. Reading that, then subsequently watching Valley of the Dolls and A Summer Place in college prepped me for the misguided glories of ShowgirlsGlitter, and Battlefield Earth.

While still in college, my budding interest in theater merged with my affection for flops when I came across Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie. Bookended by the story of the ill-fated musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie, the book describes noteworthy flop Broadway musicals from 1950 to 1990. There are bombs from famous stars like Lucille Ball and Yul Brenner and from famous composers like Stephen Sondheim and Stephen Schwartz. There are weird little over-plotted oddities, like the puppet-driven Flahooley. And there are grandiose over-budget disasters like Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge. Not Since Carrie covers over 200 shows and explores how they all went awry.

Unlike Bad Movies We Love, which revels in its cattiness, Not Since Carrie is fairly even-handed. Not to say that Mandelbaum can’t be a bit harsh from time to time: he describes the rock musicals Dude and Via Galactica as “the two most salient horrors” of the post-Hair era and writes that Peter Allen is “a star with a passionate following” but “lacks hits records and is not really all that famous.” You can’t savor camp without a little bit of a zing, right?

But Mandelbaum doesn’t celebrate these shows’ failures. He tries to figure out what went wrong, and even offers up advice on how to avoid making the same mistakes.

His analysis really helped me arrive at the way I write about Eurovision now. The early days of Eurovision Lemurs are marked by snarky commentary, boarding on being mean-spirited. Later, my wife challenged the both of us to write more thoughtfully and more analytically. Since taking on that challenge, our work gradually began to resemble the work Mandelbaum did in Not Since Carrie.

Of course, we still have our moments of comedic depreciation (we do have a page on our website about camp classics, after all). So I guess without trying to do so, we created the Bad Movies We Love meets Not Since Carrie for the Eurovision Song Contest. If what we do is half as good as either of those books, I’ll be pretty happy.

Do I Believe In Me?

I really like Prince, so I have enthusiastically gobbled up the archival material his estate has been putting out in the past few years. But I have a question in the back of my head and the New York Times podcast Popcast asked it out loud: “Would Prince Have Wanted His Rough Drafts Made Public?

The general consensus among the Popcast panelists was that fans were already sharing bootleg versions of much this material, and the estate has generally done a good job of curating and releasing material in a way that remained respectful of Prince’s career. Even if that isn’t entirely in the spirit of Prince as a control freak.

I still can’t shake the feeling, though, that there is a need to generate revenue here too. Maybe I’m being harsh, but in the introduction to the book The Beautiful Ones, co-author Dan Piepenbring writes:

And one of [Bremer Trust’s] first priorities [to run Prince’s estate], given the sizable tax bill the estate was facing, was to monetize Prince’s assets however they could. As it happened, the book had been one of the last projects he’d finalized with a contract. With that in mind, representatives from Bremer got in touch with Random House: Was there any way the book was still possible?

Dan Piepenbring on page 43 of The Beautiful Ones

So maybe my concerns are legit.

Prince had just begun sketching out his ideas for The Beautiful Ones when he died in 2016. He wanted the book to be part autobiography, part biography by Piepenbring, part handbook on how to create and how to control what you create, and part treatise on race relations in the United States.

There was no way that book was going to live up to those expectations, but Part I of The Beautiful Ones is an aching glimpse into the possibilities. It is transcribed directly from Prince’s notepad, right down to his use of abbreviations: 2 for two, R for are, and  a drawing of an eye for I. It’s a first draft, as indicated by the liner notes in the margins that describe ways to fill it out. But Prince’s sense of humor, his philosophical nature, and his contradictions are all on display. Regardless of what the end result would have been, it wouldn’t have been boring.

But that’s just 40 pages of a 279-page book. Piepenbring’s introduction makes up another 43 pages. At first this section grated on me, as he only seems to be confirming the popular image of Prince on display in his cameo on New Girl or in Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Story on Chappelle’s Show. But eventually I found his story to be kind of sweet in a melancholic way. He had this amazing opportunity to work with Prince, but fate conspired against him. It’s heartbreaking, but at least he can appreciate that he got to experience something most people never would.

The rest of the book is filled out with interesting items found in the vault: photos, storyboard drawings and sketches, drafts of lyrics, quotes from interviews, even an outline for the script to Purple Rain. There are extensive notes describing all of the material, and this is where The Beautiful Ones becomes a museum catalog more than a book.

So on the one hand, it’s nice to have these snapshots into Prince’s life. On the other hand, Prince never got the chance to write about his creative process, and that’s gutting to me. While there are other sources available to provide insight (see below), it sucks that we didn’t get a chance to hear from the man himself. And, fairly or unfairly, that makes The Beautiful Ones most disappointing to me.

To Raise the Ghost of An Idea

I am not a huge fan of Charles Dickens, but I do love A Christmas Carol. It’s a story told with great economy: Dickens wastes no time in establishing how awful Ebenezer Scrooge is. And the trope of spirits showing Scrooge shadows of his life and the London around him is ingenious. It allows Dickens to neatly combine the biographical details that made Scrooge the miserable bastard he became with the compulsion he needs to reform himself and wrap the whole thing up in about 100 pages. (I have an edition without illustrations that totals 68 pages.)

Dickens wrote the book in roughly two months, and he financed the publication himself. Impressive, but I get the impression that no one, least of all Dickens, cast a critical eye over the final manuscript before it went to press. How else to explain the random tangent Dickens goes on in just the second paragraph:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Funny? Sure, but if I were editing A Christmas Carol, I’d cross that out straight away.

This is not an isolated example; for such a short story, there are a number of digressions and asides to pad out the book. In many cases, I’m willing to give them a pass, because it usually adds colorful detail to the picture of English Christmastime that Dickens is painting.

But sometimes, he goes off the rails in utterly ridiculous ways. For example, there is no scene creepier in this ghost story than the part where Dickens the narrator ogles Scrooge’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter:

The consequences were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the mother and daughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. What would I not have given to one of them. Though I never could have been so rude, no, no! I wouldn’t for the wealth of all the world have crushed that braided hair, and torn it down; and for the precious little shoe, I wouldn’t have plucked it off, God bless my soul! to save my life. As to measuring her waist in sport, as they did, bold young brood, I couldn’t have done it; I should have expected my arm to have grown round it for a punishment, and never come straight again. And yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.

That’s what a stalker says! A stalker says that. Perhaps Dickens ultimately realized it, since he cut that part out of his edited text for public readings.

Although I’ve read A Christmas Carol dozens of times, I think it was years before I read it closely enough to pick up on a lot of the details Dickens packs into the book. Part of the reason why is because I have seen so many of the various adaptations that I had a tendency to gloss over scenes that weren’t universally included in them. Certainly it took a long time for it to dawn on me exactly what was going on in this passage:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

He left the room, and went up-stairs into the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face. He was reconciled to what had happened, and went down again quite happy.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a version of A Christmas Carol that depicts that.

Dickens can be rightfully accused of making Tiny Tim ridiculously angelic, but then Scrooge is awful to an exaggerated level as well. Dickens uses Tim’s death to make the point that even the greatest good can be destroyed by unchecked evils like avarice, ignorance, and want.

The final Stave of the book features some of Dickens’ most expressive and joyful writing. When Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, he says, “I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby.” Dickens describes Scrooge embracing all the trappings of the Victorian-era English Christmas with a child-like exuberance that is a lot of fun to read. And that’s really the reason why I’ve read A Christmas Carol so many times: as Dickens catalogs and defines in lush detail the joys of the holiday season, he gets me into the Christmas spirit every year.

Note: I wrote this post six years ago for an old blog and am republishing it because there are plenty of Scrooges out there right now who need to be visited by Spirits.