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This Week, in Limerick: Flip Turns and U-Turns


Thursday, August 25 U-Turn Is Trump’s favorite music now hip-hop? Does he now think that Hillary’s tip-top? No, it’s on immigration And on mass deportation That the Donald’s now doing a flip-flop. Overflow Donald just cannot turn off the spigot: Now he calls Mrs. Clinton a bigot! Just one more shibboleth— She’s so sick she's near death! It’s not true? So who cares? Truth can frig it.

by James Waller

Aug 26, 2016

Alison Gopnik's Advice to Parents: Stop Parenting


Alison Gopnik’s latest book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, differs from most parenting books in two important ways. For one thing, Gopnik rejects the word parenting, which she associates with the conventional idea that children are molded or built rather than grown. The second is that a great number of individuals, from siblings to grandparents, contribute to the caring and loving of a child; this book honors that shared network of child-rearing, which stretches far beyond parents. Gopnik’s emphasis on these two points provides a framework for exploring love, development, evolution and theory of mind. The book marries Gopnik’s research at the University of California, Berkeley, where she runs a lab and teaches psychology, with her personal experiences as a mother and grandmother. When it comes to child-rearing, imaginative play is important for both child and parent. Take a stroll to a neighborhood corner store on your own and you might be tempted to listen to music or text friends in order to stave off boredom. But have you ever done that walk with a young child? Dandelions beg to be wished upon; houses tell fantastical stories about the people (or perhaps dinosaurs) living inside of them. We aren’t just shaping children into the kind of people we wish they would become, Gopnik argues; they shape us as well. Gopnik urges all adults, not just parents, to think of themselves less like carpenters and more like gardeners. A carpenter sets out with a specific plan in mind, and at the end of the day success or failure is clear. A gardener, however, provides a safe, nourishing environment where plants can grow. The gardener doesn’t know exactly what will grow, or when. This mind-set informs Gopnik’s research at Berkeley, where she conducts experiments to illuminate theory of mind. What do children understand about the minds of others? It’s an academic question that bridges psychology and philosophy, and Gopnik explores it through experiments conducted in her laboratory. These experiments embody elements of joy and play—a huge challenge in a laboratory setting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hLubgpY2_w When Gopnik wants to test children on their understanding of counterfactuals (asking what happens if a true premise is false—that is, if a implies b, but a is false), she does so with the aid of a machine she playfully calls a blicket, and blocks called zandos. She also introduces a stuffed monkey (appropriately named Monkey) who is about to celebrate a birthday, and tells the children that the blicket will play “Happy Birthday” when a zando is placed correctly on top of it. The experiment begins with counterfactuals—what if the block wasn’t a zando?—and then becomes ever more complex, uncovering information about how children elaborate upon what they have pretended, and how they are able to sort out hypothetical situations. In a moving detail, Gopnik notes that when she removed the “Birthday”-singing blicket from the room, some of the children “presented Monkey with elaborately wrapped invisible pretend presents.” It’s this joyful attention to detail, along with Gopnik’s well-constructed experiments and deep understanding of theory of mind, that makes The Gardener and the Carpenter both touching and informative. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have the same strength when it moves from early childhood into teenage years. Gopnik claims erroneously that “contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grownups.” This is incorrect, as children and teenagers spend a lot of time communicating and playing on electronic devices like tablets and phones, which they will be expected to complete tasks with as adults. In the same paragraph, Gopnik states, “contemporary adolescents often don’t do much of anything beyond going to school.” Again her observation is off. According to U.S. News & World Report, 55 percent of high school students play a sport—and the percentage is steadily increasing. (It is true, however, that on average fewer teens are working.) Still, the book accomplishes something very difficult: Honoring the complexities of relationships between children and the people who care for them. In discouraging the reader from thinking in terms of parenting, Gopnik reminds us that we don’t use the words spousing or friending to describe our other relationships. She urges our understanding of “caregiving as a form of love.” As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the gifts the children gave Monkey, and those that children have given me over the years: drawings; a little necklace with a dog on it; flowers; and, of course, many elaborately-wrapped, invisible birthday presents. Feature photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

by Monica Wendel

Aug 25, 2016

Nichols, May and The Heartbreak Kid


There’s a famous line about Ginger Rogers and her struggle for recognition in a male-dominated Hollywood: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in heels.” It's a great little phrase and you can (as Barack Obama did recently) easily sub out Rogers for any number of famous women. One such woman is Elaine May, an extraordinary screenwriter and director who, like Rogers, risked disappearing in the shadow of her male creative partner. To my mind, May was the Rogers to Mike Nichols’s Astaire. Before they were successful directors and screenwriters, they were the improvisational comedy duo Nichols and May. As partners and contemporaries of the famed acting coach Del Close, they began their careers in the mid-1950s with the Compass Players, the Chicago theater troupe that would become Second City. From the improv circuit, they took their two-person act to television and stage and recorded a handful of albums—one of which went on to win a Grammy. While their act tended to appeal to the highbrow, their premises were based on the mundane and archetypal—a rocket scientist who is chewed out by his mother for being too busy to call; a psychiatrist who can’t stop hiccupping through his patient’s sobbing confessions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKL1tNv__kU In 1961, at the height of their fame, Nichols and May disbanded. “Several things happened,” Nichols explained. “One was that I, more than Elaine, became more and more afraid of our improvisational material. She was always brave. We never wrote a skit, we just sort of outlined it: I'll try to make you, or we'll fight—whatever it was. We found ourselves doing the same material over and over, especially in our Broadway show. This took a great toll on Elaine.” Following their split, Nichols went into film and May into theater. Nichols’s break came in 1966 when he directed the classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Critics dubbed him the “new Orson Welles,” and the next year he bested himself with The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. May, meanwhile, found moderate success in the theater until 1971, when she directed her first feature film, A New Leaf. The following year she had her first big Hollywood hit, an adaptation of the Neil Simon–penned screenplay The Heartbreak Kid. While The Heartbreak Kid was warmly received by critics, many reviews seemed to boil the film down to a satire of, or even a malicious jab at, her former comedy partner’s film The Graduate. Both movies certainly parallel each other in plot: The Graduate is a dry comedy about a boy named Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) drifting through life after college, having an affair with a married woman twice his age and then falling for her daughter; The Heartbreak Kid is a dark comedy about the recently married Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), who regrets his wedding and likewise falls for a teenage beauty, Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), ultimately terminating his marriage to pursue her. Both films end similarly, too, with the main characters, immediately after their impulsive romantic elopement, staring into the camera with an indefinable expression on their faces. In a way, The Heartbreak Kid picks up where The Graduate leaves off—with a man realizing that his fantasized romance didn’t fulfill his spiritual desires, which leads him to chase another whim. Unlike Benjamin, Lenny is living purely on impulse. His realization at the end is one of selfishness; he desires the chase more than the prize. It’s a great juxtaposition—Nichols’s gentle flirtations with existentialism versus May’s darkly realistic and fully grounded musings on male ego (the type only a woman in the 1970s would be so acutely aware of). Whereas The Graduate is told through Benjamin’s eyes, May defines her protagonist primarily through the supporting cast. She sets up her shots with a focus on secondary reactions in relation to her main character, keeping the audience pointedly outside of Lenny’s thoughts. The result is that the viewer learns about Lenny through the expressions of his companions: Through his wife’s tears, his paramour’s amused smiles, her father's simmering glares. The infamous dinner breakup scene is a perfect example. Though driven forward by Lenny’s awkward stammering, as he attempts to ever-so-politely end his week-old marriage to Lila (expertly played by May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin), the focus is all on his soon-to-be-ex-wife, who barely has to say a word to steal the scene. Lila’s expression falls from love and sincerity to innocent confusion, to philosophical awe, to mortal fear, and at last to pure stomach-churning devastation. While Lenny tries to comfort her, the camera fixes on Lila’s dry heaving. We never get this sort of intimacy with Mrs. Robinson, the object of young Benjamin’s illicit fantasies; compared with the supporting cast of The Hearbreak Kid, the family Robinson is rather one-dimensional. While both films surely stand on their own, I think of May’s as the perfect comedic heightening of Nichols’s, especially given May and Nichols’s history. The Heartbreak Kid is not a satire as much as an alternative perspective—the flip side of the same coin. For every Benjamin Braddock out there who believes they’re fighting for truth and meaning in a void, there are just as many egocentric Lenny Cantrows, leaving Lilas in their wake. Feature photo: Everett Collection

by Jenna Ipcar

Aug 23, 2016

This Week, in Limerick: Robbin' of Lochte


Thursday, August 18 Robbed in Rio The boys’ story did not make good sense, And it gave the Brazilians offense. The four U.S. relayers Aren’t sportsmanlike players (Plus, they all seem to be somewhat dense).

by James Waller

Aug 19, 2016

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