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The Devil Is in the Details

Here I was, ready to write a nice, clean Super Bowl preview. For the second year in a row, the top two seeds will meet in the finale. Add to that the Seahawks vying to become the first repeat Super Bowl champs since the Patriots did it in 2003 and 2004, and we’ve got a legitimately good matchup to dissect. And then Ballghazi happened. For those unfamiliar, Ballghazi a.k.a. Deflategate, is the latest in a string of NFL scandals. To wit: The New England Patriots have been found guilty of using underinflated footballs during their 45–7 beat down of the Indianapolis Colts Sunday before last. A slightly deflated ball is easier to grip for the quarterback and receivers—especially in the cold, wet conditions of a winter night in Massachusetts. In terms of loft, a deflated pigskin won’t sail as far, which is a drawback if your QB lobs the ball long distances. But not so much if your quarterback favors short passes, like the Pats’ Tom Brady. How big a deal is this? That officials didn’t notice any difference in the balls until midway through the game says a lot. As does the Patriots having destroyed Indy not through the air, but with a devastating running game (just like the last two times these teams met). I think it’s safe to say this game would have gone to New England no matter how inflated the balls were. But adding to the controversy is that eight years ago the Patriots were caught videotaping opponents’ practices. They proceeded to win every game but the Super Bowl following their punishment, so once again it could be argued that this had no real effect. But when coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots continue to break the rules for minimal gain, it just makes them look small. culturemap_side_super_bowlAlthough the NFL is coming off a year of abysmal PR, I’d like to believe that football remains a sport that honors passion and heart. I am by no means a Seahawks fan, but I can’t help admire how they play. Their defense is brash and aggressive, swarming the ball and legitimately entering the conversation of best defenses in NFL history. On offense, Marshawn Lynch runs like a man possessed, sometimes carrying multiple tacklers for extra yards and fully earning his nickname Beast Mode. And quarterback Russell Wilson scrambles and makes plays out of thin air, all without the hype and platitudes that surrounded RG3, Michael Vick or dozens of other mobile quarterbacks once thought to be the next big thing. In the NFC Conference game, Seattle trailed the Green Bay Packers 19–7 with just three minutes to go in the fourth quarter; they had a one percent chance of winning. That they took that chance and ran with it certainly adds to the Seahawks’ appeal as a scrappy, hardworking bunch. And then you picture reticent Belichick, hunched alone in his office, trying madly to find one more minuscule, petty angle to exploit. You’d think a team that has won 11 of the last 12 division titles and made it to six Super Bowls since 2001 would be a bit more dignified. In the biggest game of the year, I hope the team who dares to play big is rewarded. The Patriots have been slinking around the edges of a championship for a decade. Let’s hope their public embarrassment continues on the field. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia bottom_blog_button_super_bowl

by Austin Murphy-Park

Jan 30, 2015

Watching “Gilmore Girls” Again for the First Time

During its original run from 2000 to 2007, I wanted nothing to do with Gilmore Girls. Same reason I didn’t want to read Wild: It hit too close to home. I knew GG was about mothers and daughters, emotions and estrogen, and I was busy running away from all that. I was way too cool for a sappy show about an adorable mother-daughter duo who not only get along but are actually best friends. What you may already know but I learned only recently is that Gilmore Girls is not just about a loving mother-daughter relationship, but a difficult one. The backstory: When Lorelai Gilmore gets pregnant at 16, her waspy parents, Richard and Emily, demand she marry the baby’s father, Christopher. She refuses, taking her daughter and leaving her tony upbringing behind. Now Lorelai, 32, lives in Stars Hollow, a comically quaint Connecticut village, with her 16-year-old daughter, Rory. Lorelai (Lauren Graham) manages a gorgeous destination inn with aspirations of one day owning her own. Rory (Alexis Bledel) is a precocious, studious, sweet girl—and she’s just as willful as her mother. In the opening episode, Rory is accepted to Chilton, a prestigious private high school in Hartford. The problem? Single mom Lorelai can’t afford the tuition. To secure a loan from her parents, Lorelai agrees that she and Rory will go to Emily and Richard’s house every Friday night for dinner. Thus begins the seven-season road to reconciliation—at least, I presume they’ll eventually find some kind of accord. (Full disclosure: I’m only on season three and did not heavily research this article for fear of spoilers; I do get the feeling, however, that fans weren’t totally psyched about the show’s conclusion…) There’s one thing Lorelai and her mother Emily do agree on: Rory is special. But the show is not just about Rory growing up. It’s about Lorelai growing up, too. Compelled by circumstances to become a responsible adult at a young age, fiercely independent by nature and still pretty pissed off at her parents, Lorelai is thrust into frequent, frustrating contact with them and faces an empty nest as Rory prepares to leave for college. Gilmore Girls deals with serious stuff like class tensions and the meaning of family, but keeps things light with its hyper-stylized dialogue full of witty banter and pop-culture references, the hallmark of show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. There’s also a steady succession of cute boyfriends, plenty of coffee and an amusing ensemble of townsfolk: Sookie St. James (Melissa McCarthy), the chef at Lorelai’s inn and her best friend; Lane Kim (Keiko Agena), Rory’s best friend; Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), the diner owner and Lorelai’s eventual boyfriend (even I know that); Paris Geller, Rory’s high school nemesis and college roommate (okay, I watched a few episodes back in the day); and many more quirky characters who make life in Stars Hollow rich and interesting, and take the edge off all that too-true, sticky-icky stuff. connects_side_GilmoreGirlsI was about Rory’s age when the show premiered, and now I’m the same age as Lorelai. I think this has a lot to do with my reversal of opinion. The town where I grew up and subsequently ran away from is not quite as picturesque and wholesome as Stars Hollow, but it’s certainly got eccentric characters who know everything about each other’s lives. When Gilmore Girls originally aired I wanted to go there about as much as Lorelai wants to attend her mother’s DAR soirees. Now it seems I’ve built up enough nostalgia to want to visit—if only for a few days a year, or a few hours via the magic of streaming TV. Or maybe I’m just getting too old to care if I’m cool. Photo courtesy of Everett

by Emily Burns Morgan

Jan 29, 2015

Don’t Sleep on “Transparent”

We regret to inform you that you may have passed over one of the best new shows of 2014. It wasn’t because the drama was too somber and you opted for something lighter, or because there was simply too much to watch; the show’s first season comprised just 10 agreeable half-hour episodes. If you missed it, which most of us did, it’s because you aren’t paying the $99 annual fee for Amazon Prime, which allows subscribers to stream the award-winning comedy Transparent. Set in L.A. in the 2010s, but heavily inflected with the 70s and featuring flashbacks to the early 90s, Transparent explores the lives of a secular Jewish family after its diffident patriarch Mort, played by the excellent Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development), comes out as Maura, a woman. All three of Maura’s self-absorbed adult children—Sarah, an anxious and idealistic stay-at-home mom; Josh, a philandering music producer; and Ali, a maladjusted weirdo played by Gaby Hoffmann—find ways to appropriate their father’s coming-out. Soon they are airing long-kept family secrets, and having their own identity crises and not a few sexual encounters. connects_side_TransparentTransparent’s aesthetic is stunning: The stylish editing and incredible soundtrack reliably transport the viewer with the ease of a veteran driver seamlessly shifting gears. And the writing is uproariously funny, and at times heartbreakingly tender. The family members meditate on birth, death and romance, peppering their conversations with Yiddish. Tambor may be a cis man playing a trans woman, but Maura’s friends Davina and Shea are not, and their graceful, generous performances contribute hugely to the show, as does Ian Harvie’s as Ali’s love interest. At its heart, Transparent is about love as well as its opposite, loneliness. So cut your losses and plan a night or two in the coming weeks to devour this delightful show. Amazon ordered a second season in October and just this month Transparent won Golden Awards for best series and best actor (Tambor), so it’s as good a time as any to get caught up. We won’t tell if you don’t stream it legally—it’s a shame to keep television this good under lock and key. Photo courtesy of Everett

by Emilie Ruscoe

Jan 28, 2015

War Stories: A Conversation With Phil Klay, Part II

Phil Klay is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and the author of the short story collection Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction. Last week, the National Book Critics Circle announced that Redeployment will receive the John Leonard award for best debut. We sat down with Klay to talk about that book—read the first part of our interview here—as well as Georges Bernanos, acronyms and Stephen Colbert.   One of the aspects that makes Redeployment feel so immediate is its language. The characters often use military jargon—such as “SITREP” for situation report—and so do your narrators, often without identifying what the acronyms and rankings signify. Can you talk a little about this narrative choice? I had to be honest to the experience, to describe things the way I felt that narrator would. There are two stories that are acronym heavy—“FRAGO” and “OIF.” The narrator of “FRAGO” has probably the most distilled Marine mindset. Tough guy. Tough and unapologetic, but also astute in understanding what his guys are going through and trying to manage that experience for them. The opening of that story is just a slew of acronyms, describing going through a house, killing people, finding those guys in the basement. Just how that looks on the page, before you even read it, I wanted you to think, “Okay, this is a different culture.” But there’s definitely a difference of opinion. A lot of people think I should have had a glossary. But the point is not, if you don’t know a certain term, to go look it up. The point is to keep going. Right. Also, I’m not doing it to be a jerk, or to keep civilian readers at bay. When I was writing “OIF,” I was constantly sending drafts to civilian readers—just to make sure they could understand the story arc, the emotional stakes. It was a matter of trying to really push it, so that there was an acronym in every sentence except for one, but still making it comprehensible even when there were so many incomprehensible elements. In the story “Ten Kliks South,” the gunners successfully hit a target of insurgents six miles away—their first kill. When Jewett, a private on the ammo team, says he doesn’t feel like he’s killed anyone, the sergeant says, “You wouldn’t know. Not until you’d seen the bodies.” But no one in the gunnery company ever sees them—in fact, the base seems to be organized in such a way that they will never see the bodies. Do you think there’s something artificial about how Operation Iraqi Freedom was waged? I’m thinking also of the firefights in your stories “Prayer in the Furnace” and “Psychological Operations,” which are essentially induced by American provocation. It feels very removed—removed by design. There’s a point in the story with Jewett and the narrator where they’re trying to figure out their degree of collective responsibility. Sergeant Deetz asks his men why not the factory workers who made the ammo or the taxpayers who paid for it. “Because that’s retarded,” he says. In reality, all of those people are responsible to some degree, but he doesn’t want his men thinking too hard about that. Because it would compromise their ability to go out the next day. Exactly. But clearly, the chain of responsibility doesn’t begin and end with those nine guys. And part of the narrator’s frustration is that he’s never allowed to get enough information to feel one way or the other. “Ten Kliks South” is a first-hand account of an artillery mission and yet its real subject is war from a distance. As you reminded the audience when you appeared on The Colbert Report, “These are our wars,” referring to Iraq and Afghanistan. But what do you really think about a situation in which the conductors of war, be they soldiers or voters, don’t feel wholly culpable for their actions despite very real consequences—dead bodies, in the case of “Ten Kliks”? book_button_redeploymentBasically, I think we all need a greater sense of accountability. That’s the endpoint. But part of the reason the book’s not political is because I’m so distrustful of that impulse. Frequently I find that kind of moral posturing is about absolving yourself. If you can point to a mistake that Obama made, if you can point to a mistake that Bush made—which wouldn’t be hard—then it’s their fault and not yours, or the fault of those who don’t share your politics. And so it’s not your responsibility. We all find it very pleasant to get up on our high horse. Which is not to say there aren’t people deserving of tremendous censure. Some of the things that were done were unconscionably arrogant, irresponsible and vile. There should be—but probably won’t be—accountability for that. Nonetheless, I’m distrustful of how comfortable it feels to stand up and accuse someone, particularly in regard to something we should all feel responsibility for. In your acknowledgements, you list several books, mostly nonfiction, which you read as part of your research in writing Redeployment. Are there other influences you didn’t get a chance to mention? I love good photojournalism. Ashley Gilbertson. Peter van Agtmael. Tyler Hicks. Louie Palu. So uh, did Colbert say anything cool to you? [Laughs.] You know, he was nice, he came in and said hi to my family. My great-aunts were there, and my dad and my brother. He sent flowers to my wife to thank her for letting me come on the show. Tell me about “War Stories.” That story is in many ways me working through the uses of the war story, the way it can be leveraged in uncomfortable ways. And I think we assume that a war story must be morally serious just because it deals with so much death, suffering, trauma and so on. But that’s not necessarily what makes a story matter. When I was writing “Prayer in the Furnace” I was reading Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, which is a beautiful, beautiful book. The stakes are absolutely as high for Bernanos in that book as for any war story. It’s a Catholic novel, so people’s souls are in the balance for him. The country priest is ministering to people living embittered but comfortable bourgeois lives. It may seem like a minor story, but it’s dealing with the same human imperfections that are present in war, where the consequences are sometimes easier to see because there are people dying. But most of our lives are not spent in those intense moments. I mean, is War and Peace a more serious novel than Anna Karenina? That story begins with a character saying, “I’m tired of telling war stories.” Are you? [Laughs.] I’m—no. I’m not. But I remain critical of why I’m telling them, if I’m going to tell them.

by Mediander Staff

Jan 27, 2015