Ice-coated crabapple tree a Racine, Wisconsin backyard, February 22, 2023
Our backyard crabapple tree, beginning to get coated by the ice storm on the afternoon of February 22, 2023.

Another Week: Number 9

by | February 26, 2023

Sitting in the dark Wednesday night during our ice storm power outage, I told Amy that we were just a notch or two above our animal friends outside. We had peanut butter and bread, some canned food, and a can opener. We had a roof over our heads, and some heat in the house for as long as that might last.

Some weeks are like that — just hunkering down amid life’s storms and keeping on however you can.

But then the electricity comes back on, and you get right back to deciding what to watch.

Below are my hebdomadal notes.


Instagram and Facebook verification fee to follow Twitter blue check

Sunday, Meta — the company behind Facebook and Instagram — announced Meta Verified, a scheme to squeeze $12-15 per month from users that will “make it easier for people, especially creators, to establish a presence.” The move follows the similar Twitter Blue subscription scheme rolled out a few months back.

The news was met with headlines like this one:

Vox: Social media used to be free. Not anymore.

The Vox story opens by quoting the cliché, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

But that’s only half the joke.

As I pointed out in a blog post thirteen years ago, social media users are not just the eyeballs being delivered to advertisers, they are unpaid writers and photographers

Think about how old media used to work, using the morning newspaper as an example. Someone sat down to breakfast, opened the paper, and read stories written by paid employees, many of whom studied journalism in school. These reporters and writers and editors and photographers received paychecks for their work, plus health insurance and retirement plans.

Today we sit down to breakfast and scroll through Facebook, where the “news” is written and photographed by our neighbors, in-laws, and co-workers. It may or may not be true, or even spelled correctly, and we might only ever see the most inflammatory nuggets of it. All of it slides down the page, never to be seen again — because our neighbors, in-laws, and co-workers are working to create more of it, for no pay, around the clock.

Social media companies make billions off of your content, and you get squat.

And now they want you to pay $12-$15 per month for the privilege of “creating” for them.


Empire of Light (2022)

We love Olivia Colman in anything, so Monday night we watched Empire of Light on HBO Max. The movie is written and directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, 1917) and it has a bunch of different moving parts, each of which have some potential, but they never come together.

Olivia Colman is great — even breathtaking in one scene — working in middle management at a superb movie palace, the Empire Cinema, on England’s southeast coast in 1980.

At times, this movie is an homage to motion pictures — from the miracle of film projection to the very canisters in which film reels are stored and the touchstone movies of that time, like Chariots of Fire and Being There.

Then again, this might become a love story between Colman’s character and a young Black British man with whom she works.

Or maybe it’s about right-wing racism in 1980s England, as suffered by Colman’s co-worker.

Then again, there’s a major thread about mental illness.

Also, Colman’s boss at the cinema (Colin Firth) is sexually abusive.

Following any of these various paths through an actual story might have resulted in a fine movie. Instead, we wander a little way down all of them, but never really get anywhere.

Several times, the path dead-ends into a real head-scratching moment, only to take off in some other direction, as in a frustrating dream. The loose ends are never gathered, and when it ends you wonder what the point was.


Between Two Kingdoms, by Suleika Jaouad

After my sister Lori died last week, Amy borrowed Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted from my mom. Since 2011, author Suleika Jaouad has been dealing with acute myeloid leukemia, which is what Lori had.

Following her diagnosis, Jaouad shared her cancer experiences in blog posts and video pieces — which is also what Amy did when her breast cancer odyssey began in 2013. Jaouad’s work was picked up by the New York Times and won an Emmy Award.

Amy reads a lot anyway, but she’s completely engrossed in this book. In between page turns, I will hear her laugh with recognition and then ask if she can read me a passage.

So when Wednesday night’s ice storm knocked our power out for a few hours, I propped our trusty flashlight on an old gooseneck microphone stand so Amy could continue with Jaouad’s book. She asked if I wanted her to read aloud.

“Sure — what else am I gonna do?”

So Amy read. Listening from our sofa in the dark as the wind blew and the icicles dripped outside, I learned more about the harrowing situation my sister had been facing than she ever chose to discuss with me.


The Reluctant Traveler with Eugene Levy

We’ve been fans of Eugene Levy since the early days of SCTV. We enjoy travel shows, and we’re trying to find things to watch on Apple TV+.

So The Reluctant Traveler with Eugene Levy seemed like a good bet.

If you take the edge of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown down about five notches, you get Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. If you ratchet down another thirty notches from there, you get The Reluctant Traveler. It’s the sort of travel show Disney might aim at either pre-teens or the very elderly — not as hip as The World According to Jeff Goldblum, but a similar sort of exploration.

It has plenty of orchestral soundtrack, almost like an old Looney Toons cartoon, alternating between rascally and wonderous. Many of Levy’s amusing confessional asides are repeatedly repeated — especially the title paradox that he’s reluctant to travel, and yet here he is travelling!

The first 35-minute episode is “Finland,” which, more specifically, all takes place in Lapland. Levy states that he’s never even heard of Lapland, which is hard to believe of a sophisticated 75-year-old. The most obvious Finnish things are dutifully checked off — sisu, the aurora borealis, dogsledding, ice fishing, bathing in ice-covered lakes, vodka, and reindeers.

Reindeer meat is the freaky local food that Levy must eat out of obligation as a TV travel star. Can you believe it? Reindeer meat. Crazy! But also tasty.

Here in Wisconsin, we call it venison.

We don’t have any pre-teens, so we probably won’t be revisiting The Reluctant Traveler much. But if you have kids, maybe check it out — and hope they don’t take up vodka.


The 1619 Project

I did not read The 1619 Project when it appeared two and a half years ago in The New York Times Magazine (I have just downloaded the full issue PDF for future study) — but obviously, a work that wins a Pulitzer Prize and gets so many Republicans so upset that they pass laws against it must be powerful stuff.

This month, we’ve been watching the six-part Hulu series, also by investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and it is a thoughtful, enlightening look at six aspects of the history of Black people in America — democracy, race, music, capitalism, fear, and justice.

For example, Episode 2, “Race,” dug into the motivation behind this absurd American obsession and confirmed my instincts in answering “human” to that question on any form I’ve filled out over the past 20 years.

Thursday, we watched Episode 3, “Music,” which unfurled Black musicality as the impetus behind American music from the earliest Black folk songs to the latest hits.

I was, however, disappointed to see Disco Demolition dismissed by music god Nile Rodgers as a racist backlash.

Disco Demolition was a publicity stunt aimed at promoting Steve Dahl (later my boss) at his new station, WLUP, after his previous station, WDAI, had changed formats from rock to disco and fired Dahl on Christmas Eve 1978.

The motive wasn’t racial; it was competitive revenge. I am certain that if WDAI had switched to a Country format, Dahl would have blown up Conway Twitty records to promote his new frequency.

Anyway, now that I have detected this error in The 1619 Project, am I going to condemn the series and work to get it banned?

No — I’ll watch the rest of it knowing that no history gets everything absolutely right. History is necessarily subjective. Getting new perspectives is nothing to be afraid of, and certainly nothing to outlaw. Bringing all of these items — beautiful ones, ugly ones — out of our national basement and attic and putting them on the table in the light is how we learn, absorb, and take a better path forward.


Fire of Love (2022)

It’s a classic story: geochemist gal meets geologist guy, and from that moment on they wander the globe getting as close as possible to every volcanic eruption — until the day their luck inevitably runs out.

Fire of Love is an Oscar-nominated documentary currently available on Hulu documenting the ultra-geeky partnership of documentarians Katia and Maurice Krafft, who married in 1970, honeymooned on Stromboli, and photographed (Katia) and filmed (Maurice) all the big volcanoes from then on until 1991 — Mauna Loa, Mount Nyiragongo, Krafla, Mount St. Helens, Piton de la Fournaise, Mount Colo — you name it.

They were a solitary pair sharing a general disappointment in humanity and an irresistible attraction to the awesome power of volcanos — “the reds, the nice ones” as well as “the grey volcanoes, the killers, the explosive ones.”

Fire of Love is a 93-minute flourish of the Kraffts’ stunning film and photo archives with soft-spoken narration by Miranda July. Besides all the spectacular lava, the couple’s wacky, nerdy antics are shown, along with clips of their media appearances, and their reflections on the Armero tragedy, which killed 23,000 people in Columbia in 1985.

 The film is on Hulu until March 11 — the day before the Academy Awards.



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