Friday, December 25, 2009


What a wonderful Christmas! EO spent Christmas Eve at his sister's, where sister and brother-in-laws served up a sumptuous dinner in their delightfully Christmas-ee house, full of 9 and 10 foot ceilings, wooden floors and a very tall Christmas tree.

Not my sister and brother-in-law's house, but close.

Christmas morning was at grandpa/grandma's, where all EO's children (save the oldest, who is protecting our southern border along with her husband) were in attendance as we opened presents. What a delight! I told my absent daughter I get too absorbed watching everyone else open presents to remember my own, which has always served me poorly when the time comes for thank you notes.

Somehow the story of the King of the Universe being born in a manger touches people's hearts with a sense of joy and wonder. It really does cause our hearts to expand, and for the love of others to take root in our often cold and merciless souls. If the King of Universe can be so kind and so vulnerable, maybe so can we.

The Grinch after realizing the Spirit of Christmas was in the Whos' souls.

There is something wonderful about the accumulated traditions of Christmas, no matter all the excesses and commercialism. Giving gifts, being present in the lives of those we love, giving to those in need - these are all by-products of our meditation on and celebration of the birth of Jesus. Even our obvious mistakes have a certain charm when they represent our bumbling attempts at celebrating the love of the Savior.

The famous Leg Lamp from "A Christmas Story:"
Mr. Parker: "Fra-jee-lay? That must be Italian."
Mrs. Parker: "Uh, I think that reads "Fragile."
Mr. Parker: "Oh. Yeah."

So the next time you read a book by Richard Dawkins and listen to him celebrate the triumph of "bright" science over idiot Christianity, think about a life governed by 9th grade Physical Science teachers, where there is no Christmas.

Tell me who's got the better deal. I'll take Christmas - brought to you by Jesus, Mary and Joseph. And the Catholic Church. Thanks, guys.


Saturday, December 12, 2009


In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
So long, Holly.

- Harry Lime, "The Third Man."

Orson Wells, as Harry Lime

It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight. Now if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return you gotta go bettin' on chance, and then you're back with anarchy. Right back inna jungle. On account of the breakdown of ethics. That's why ethics is important. It's the grease makes us get along, what separates us from the animals, beasts a' burden,
beasts a' prey.

- Johnny Caspar, "Miller's Crossing."

Jon Polito, as Johnny Caspar

Watching "The Third Man" recently, I was struck by its relationships with "Miller's Crossing," which I watched a few weeks ago. The Third Man is a 1950 movie starring Orson Wells. Miller's Crossing is a 1991 movie by the Coen brothers. The similarities and contrasts were no doubt deliberate.

The Coen Brothers

The two movies feature almost incomprehensibly devious plots involving intricate deceits and betrayals. The plots serve as exposition and symbol of the lot of humankind, with its capacity for love and hellishness bound up in the same heart. In The Third Man, Holly Martin, an alcoholic writer of pulp Westerns, travels to Vienna to work for his old friend, Harry Lime, only to be confronted with the fact of Lime's recent "death." The truth about Lime's fraud scheme and faked death is slowly forced on Martin, until he decides to shoot Lime in the movie's climactic scene.

In Miller's Crossing, Tom Reagan advises his mob boss, Leo, to permit Johnny Caspar, another mobster who pays tribute, to kill Bernie Bernbaum, a bookie who has "cheated" Caspar by trading on inside information on a fixed fight. Leo rejects both Tom's advice, and Tom himself, after Tom confronts Leo with the news that Tom's been "cheating" with Leo's mistress, Verna Bernbaum (the bookie's sister). Tom, out in the cold, falls in with Caspar's gang, and is asked to "whack" Bernbaum as his initiation. Tom manages to fake Bernbaum's death in the lonely woods of Miller's Crossing. Bernbaum, ever the con, turns on Tom and blackmails him. Tom manages to survive, double crossing both Caspar and Bernbaum in the process, and in the movie's climactic scene, he executes Bernbaum.

Both movies proceed by the plot device of a "death" that is in reality a con. The slow moving camera in each film deliberately contrasts its visual calm with the feverish plot twists and moral dilemmas driving the characters. Each movie is set in a weirdly empty city: post-war Vienna, in The Third Man, and Prohibition New Orleans, in Miller's Crossing. In each case the oddly empty cities evoke the essential loneliness of the moral choices faced by the protagonists, Tom Reagan (in Miller's Crossing) and Holly Martin (in The Third Man).

The ominously deserted Ferris wheel, from The Third Man.

The ominously empty woods in Miller's Crossing.

Both movies culminate with the main character choosing to execute a scoundrel, a fraud and murderer, who has up until that point been the object of undeserved pity and mercy by the main character. In each scene the scoundrel is on the verge of once again evading responsibility for his crimes. Bernie Bernbaum, in Miller's Crossing, has just killed Johnny Caspar, his nemesis. Harry Lime, in The Third Man, has just evaded the police and is about to climb out of the sewers which have been his refuge throughout the movie.

In each movie the execution takes place despite the scoundrel's desperate plea for life. In Miller's Crossing Bernie Bernbaum pleads to Tom Reagan to "look inside your heart!" In The Third Man Harry Lime gives a beatifically lit, pleading backward look to his old friend, Holly Martin, as Lime desperately pushes against the sewer grate, moments from his escape. Both protagonists lose a part of their innocence and humanity, however misshapen, when they choose to execute the scoundrel. In each movie the protagonist's execution of the scoundrel is also a knowing renunciation of the possibility of love with the woman attached fervently to the scoundrel: Verna Bernbaum (in Miller's Crossing) and Anna Schmidt (in The Third Man).

Both executions are very personal, conducted in a claustrophobic one-on-one scene with no other witness present, driving home the point that moral choices are intensely individual, yet are always fraught with social consequences.

Of the two movies The Third Man is superficially the bleaker. It is shot in black and white, and much of it occurs at night and in the sewers beneath post-war Vienna. Miller's Crossing is shot in a strange, stylised color, heavy in browns and deep reds, in a New Orleans winter.

Harry Lime fleeing through Vienna's Sewers, from The Third Man.

Tom Reagan and Verna Bernbaum, in a scene from Miller's Crossing.

But the soul of Miller's Crossing is in fact the bleaker of the two. Holly Martin, in The Third Man, executes Harry Lime because he must, in order to affirm a rule of law in a lawless place. In the process Martin nobly sacrifices his own friendship and love.

By contrast Tom Reagan, in Miller's Crossing, kills Bernie Bernbaum at exactly the moment he no longer needs to, as an act of personal vengeance for a personal betrayal by Bernbaum. Bernbaum pleads with Reagan to "look inside your heart!" As Tom pulls the trigger, he responds "What heart?" Reagan's murder does nothing to affirm a rule of law. There is no rule of law in Miller's Crossing, only competing lawlessness and corruption, in the form of two opposing criminal organizations. Tom's ambivalent and hopeless self-assessment, at the end of the movie, says it all: "Do you always know why you do things, Leo?" We are left with no such doubt at the end of The Third Man, however painful the choice has been.

The difference in tone and moral conviction is marked by the last scene of each movie. In The Third Man, Holly Martin stops the car driven by the symbol of weary but determined morality, a military policeman. Martin gets out to stand and watch, silently, while Anna Schmidt, his lost love, walks toward the camera, on a dirt lane lined with barren trees. The policeman waits for Martin as he stands, a symbol of a muted and weary, but very much alive, moral code.

In Miller's Crossing Verna Bernbaum, Reagan's love, tells Reagan to "drop dead" as she walks from Bernie's grave. The camera follows as she drives away, down a dirt lane lined with barren trees. A few moments later Leo, the gangster for whom Tom held some shred of loyalty, walks away from the camera down the same lane, Tom having rejected Leo's offer to return and work for him. There is no car waiting for Tom Reagan. He is utterly alone as the credits roll.

The two movies are an insight into the great moral chasm we have crossed in a generation. The Third Man, in the shadow of WWII, was still able to affirm a morally correct choice, no matter how crippled the characters and how agonizing the choice. Holly Martin chose to sacrifice his own attachments for a higher good. Miller's Crossing, released in 1991, is only able to look on helplessly while competing criminals destroy themselves and murder one another to satisfy their personal lusts and sensibilities. Tom Reagan chooses, at the end, to deny any human connection at all, his hopeless and silent comment on the universal corruption of humanity.

The chasm between these two movies is the chasm between my parents' generation and my own.

The next generation - my children's generation - has a choice between these two opposing visions: God and the demands of objective morality, however painful, or the seductive worship of self, in all its loveless and sterile futility. I wonder how they will choose?

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Mrs. Optimist and our optimistic children visited some friends this past weekend. Our friends have 8 children and 1 on the way. Both parents have their PhDs, which means the large brood is not the product of a lack of education. This is usually the second assumption of anyone who hears you have a large family. The first assumption is that you are Catholic. Which in this case is correct.

Big church. Big families.

Big families are kind of rare these days, if you haven't noticed. In our own case, we have only 5 children. We feel like lightweights when talking with our friends who have 8, or our other friends who have 10. Nevertheless, we are part of the fraternity, although we are clearly not top dogs.

Over the years Mrs. EO and I have been fascinated with the level of intimacy people adopt when they find out you have a large family. One of the first questions is usually "are you done yet?" Another question that gets asked is "haven't you heard of birth control? Ha Ha Ha." To which I normally respond "yes" and just stare. That's usually a conversation stopper. And this is fine by me.


I have a theory about the intrusive questions. I think people are both fascinated and repelled by the idea of having lots of children. A large family forces a whole panoply of uncomfortable issues to the forefront of people's minds - birth control, abortion, and tough economic decisions, like staying home from work.

And maybe all those children force you to confront the immense difficulties that attend child-rearing itself, and one's own sense of inadequacy. When somebody else has 2 or 3 times more children than you do, it tends to engender instant angst, especially if the children in the bigger family are relatively well-behaved and happy, and your own darlings are currently morose brats. Hence the goofy "questions" that are more like commentary.

Americans of my generation generally have done a worse job as parents than their own moms and dads. This cannot be easy on people's minds. The thing was, we had the best self esteem of any generation in history. We were certainly the smartest and the most morally enlightened generation ever; we said so constantly, during the '60s and '70s. We were obviously several levels of consciousness above our parents' generation, which consisted of corrupt, racist war-mongers (just for starters).

Talkin' 'bout my my generation.

For various reasons, things haven't gone so well lately. We have had far fewer children than my parents' generation. Sadly, we have raised more criminals, people with mental illness, suicides, and bums than my parents' generation did. Our divorce rate has all but guaranteed that our children will have more parent-generated problems than we did.

The difficulties don't end there. For the first time in American history, our children may be worse off financially than we were. Somehow, we have taken the richest country in the world and run it off the rails financially. A trillion here, a trillion there; it has started to add up to real money.

So, I would say the case for our "suckiness" as parents is strong. What makes it tougher still is that our immediate predecessors were the "Greatest Generation," who overcame the Depression (despite FDR), won WWII,

Quick, find Jane Fonda.

shed the Jim Crow laws handed down to them by their own parents, and created the most powerful and prosperous nation in the history of the world.

Curiously, they managed to stay married and raise big families, too.

Greatest generation liked big families.

My theory is this: when we hit our teens and twenties and wanted to rebel, the only options we had were bad ones. So instead of saving the world from totalitarianism, we worshipped Chairman Mao,

Killed a hundred million. What a guy.

smoked dope,invented AIDS,

legalized abortion, and institutionalized divorce and bankruptcy as secular sacraments.

Well played.

On the other hand, we also invented the internet, Caddyshack, blogging and YouTube. So we got that going for us.

Cinderella Story.