Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Les Miz Is Coming! Les Miz Is Coming!

I am a huge Les Miserables nerd.  Or, I guess it's fair to say, a Les Miserables the musical nerd.  Though I've read the novel and seen a couple movie incarnations, the musical has always had a special place in my heart.  I saw it for the first time with my French class when I was 13 years old.  I've since seen it five more times, in San Francisco, London, and Los Angeles.  I've seen the "old school" turntable version and the 25th Anniversary projection screen version -- otherwise known as "the version where we actually get to see Gavroche die" versus "the version where we get to see Grantaire scream about it."  I've purchased both the 10th and 25th Anniversary DVDs.  I have weighed in on Michael Maguire versus Anthony Warlow, Francis Ruffelle versus Lea Salonga, Colm Wilkinson versus Alfie Boe, and Patty Lupone versus Ruthie Henshall.    

I am far from the only person obsessed with this musical.  Les Miserables, like the source material itself, has proven to be immensely popular and enduring all over the world.  Yet for years, it remained a mystery as to whether the musical could ever be made into a decent screen adaptation.  After several aborted attempts, it looks as though they have finally succeeded.  Les Miserables the musical will finally be hitting the big screen on Christmas Day 2012

Before I get into that, let me give an overview to those not entirely familiar with the story.  Jean Valjean is a French peasant who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  He is finally released and discovers that he is unwelcome everywhere as a former criminal.  Finally a local bishop invites him to stay, and Valjean rewards his kindness by stealing his silver.  When Valjean is caught and turned in, the bishop pretends that he gave Valjean the silver as a gift and gives him a pair of silver candlesticks as well.  He then tells Valjean that he used the silver to buy Valjean's soul for God, and Valjean must be a good man from now on.  Valjean takes him seriously and assumes a new identity, eventually becoming the wealthy mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  However, his good intentions for the town are interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Javert, a man who worked as a guard at Valjean's prison.  Javert begins to suspect the mayor of being Valjean, who is wanted for committing a minor crime after his release (in the musical, he is wanted for breaking parole).  

To make matters worse, Valjean learns that Fantine, one of the workers at his factory, was unfairly fired and must resort to prostitution.  He agrees to take her in and care for her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, but quickly learns that Fantine is dying.  Valjean agrees to bring Cosette -- who is staying with another family, the Thenardiers -- back to her.  Before he does, Javert informs Valjean that the "real" Valjean has been caught and is awaiting trial.  After much soul-searching, Valjean reveals himself at trial.  He comes back to Fantine just in time to see her die (in the musical, she has a much kinder death than in the novel).  He then manages to escape Javert and go to the Thenardiers, where he learns that they have been abusing Cosette.  Valjean finally gets them to agree to "sell" Cosette to him, and he takes her away.  The Thenardiers realize that they could have gotten more for Cosette and decide that Valjean stole her from them.  Valjean and Cosette flee to Paris and manage to take refuge in a convent for nine years.  When they emerge, it is 1832, and a student uprising is brewing.  Cosette falls in love with one of the students, Marius Pontmercy.  Valjean becomes intensely jealous of Marius, and paranoid that Javert could still be after him (which he is).  He decides to take Cosette away to England before the fighting starts, but ends up changing his mind.  

Instead, Valjean sneaks behind the barricades wearing a National Guard uniform and fights alongside Marius.  The students manage to capture Javert, who was acting as a spy for the Paris police.  Valjean is given the honor of killing him, but sets Javert free instead.  The student uprising takes a turn for the worse, and just about every student dies except for Marius.  However, Marius is gravely wounded and in need of care.  Valjean escapes with him through the sewers just before the barricade is ambushed.  Valjean stumbles upon Thenardier, who recognizes him and thinks that Valjean is carrying a dead body.  Valjean later runs into Javert at the exit.  Javert is ready to arrest him for his past crimes, but unexpectedly lets Valjean take Marius to his grandfather's house instead.  Unable to face the reality that he lives in a morally gray world, Javert leaps to his death into the Seine.  Marius and Cosette marry, but after Valjean confesses about his past to Marius, Marius tries to keep Cosette away from him.  Valjean goes away on his own and loses his will to live.  Marius then learns inadvertently from Thenardier that Valjean saved his life the night the barricade fell.  He and Cosette rush to Valjean's side just in time to see him before he dies. 

The musical manages to retain most of the major elements of the novel, with a few key differences.  One is that Marius is much gentler in the musical than in the novel.  In the novel, he mistrusts Valjean and actively tries to keep Cosette away, which results in Valjean losing the will to live.  While it's true that Valjean almost dared Marius to react this way when he confessed his past crimes, Marius could have looked past his prejudices and realized what Valjean meant to Cosette, and vice-versa.  Another key difference is that Eponine Thenardier, rather than be just a slightly crazy, mildly annoying thorn in Marius's side, is his good friend and a normal, pretty person who secretly pines for him.  She gets to sing all of the great songs, like "On My Own" and "A Little Fall of Rain," while Cosette remains a prim school marm in the background.  I suppose the third key difference is that grown up Eponine takes center stage in the musical, whereas in the novel, she is much more marginalized than grown up Cosette.  It is frustrating to see what happens to Cosette in both the novel and musical, but in the novel she has more of a presence.  There is no love triangle involving Cosette, Marius, and Eponine in the novel. 

But I could see why these changes were made, and they mostly work.  The English-language version of Les Miserables premiered in London in 1985.  Colm Wilkinson originated the role of Jean Valjean, while Roger Allam played Javert, Michael Ball played Marius, and Francis Ruffelle played Eponine.  The musical was based on a French-language musical, for which the concept album is still available to purchase.  Besides translating the lyrics, the London version of Les Miz reworked certain parts of the story.  Instead of starting with Fantine at the factory, the London version included a prologue that portrayed Valjean's release from prison and rescue by the bishop.  It also included quite a few other pieces that were stripped from the English-language version of the musical once it made its debut on Broadway in 1987 (but would live on in non-English versions).   

Gone was the moment when Eponine saved Marius by throwing herself in front of a bullet.  The new version had Eponine getting shot on her way back from delivering Marius's letter to Valjean.  Also gone was the full-length version of Gavroche's "Little People," which was an English-language version of "La Faute a Voltaire," a much better song.  In its place were a few lyrics here and there, most notably during Gavroche's death scene.  The Broadway version of Les Miz kept Wilkinson and Ruffelle in their respective roles, while adding Terrence Mann as Javert, David Bryant as Marius, Judy Kuhn as Cosette, and -- most notably -- Michael Maguire as Enjolras, who played the role much more forcefully than his predecessor, David Burt.

From there, the English-language version of the musical did not change much.  Over the years, a few lines were snipped here, a musical sequence snipped there.  One revival version replaced "Little People" with "Ten Little Bullets" as Gavroche's death song.  Enjolras's hair went from black pompadour with a ponytail to blond, like in the novel.  However, other things remained the same.  One was Enjolras's "xylophone," the nickname for the elaborate vest he wears during the fighting.  Another was the turntable, which gave the audience multiple views of the stage.  One minute you would see the students at the barricade; the next, the turntable would show you what awaited on the other side.  Police?  Gavroche about to face death?  The turntable was wonderfully flexible and helped create some truly memorable scenes, including a view of the dead students in the aftermath of the fighting.  

Major changes would not affect the musical's staging until the 25th Anniversary tour version in 2010.  Away went the turntable, which made it possible for the production to finally have some standing sets and real  props.  However, it also took away some of the musical's more affecting moments.  Instead of seeing Gavroche on the other side of the barricade getting shot and dying, the audience stays with the students' point of view and merely hears Gavroche in the background.  When Gavroche dies, Grantaire lets out the most ridiculous "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!" you are likely to hear in a musical production.  Other than that, the changes were mostly effective.  The colors are brighter; the costumes seem more specific to the time period; and a projection screen in the background enhances certain scenes, such as Valjean's escape through the sewers.

At the same time, the line snipping and musical sequence cutting to keep Les Miz under three hours reached truly ridiculous proportions by the 25th Anniversary production.  To the point where the musical lead-in to "I Dreamed a Dream" was cut and the beautiful "Come to Me" had some of its lines stricken.  As I watched the 25th Anniversary production in Los Angeles, I could not help feeling like everyone was on a treadmill.  Scenes were not allowed to breathe.  Hopefully, the movie version will restore some balance.

What's that?  The movie version?  When will I get around to talking about it?  Well, I had to give some background about the musical first.  However, as the opening day approaches, I will be posting my thoughts, as well as my opinions about the English-language versions of the musical and the two concerts.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Tales of Public Transportation, Part Infinity: What Is Niceness?

Say you were taking public transportation.  If you were in the middle of an activity, such as putting on cologne, makeup, or nail polish, and someone in the seat behind you said: "Excuse me, I'm sorry: your [insert activity] is causing me to have an allergic reaction," what would you do?

In my case, my immediate response would be: "Oh, I'm so sorry!"  And I would promptly stop the activity.  Maybe afterward, I would wonder if my activity were really that bad, or if I should have really had to stop.  But my FIRST reaction would be: "Oh, I'm so SORRY."  Because I would understand that I was not in my own bathroom and that I was sharing this space with other people, and that other people could be affected by what I do.  Even when I'm in a shitty mood, I am mindful of this.

Not an actual representation of my train. 
This one is much, much nicer.
So this morning, I was sitting behind a man and a woman on the BART train into San Francisco.  About halfway through my trip, the woman pulled out a big case of makeup, with multiple powders, blushes, et cetera.  I don't know whether she was applying it or demonstrating it to her seat mate.  However, I would not have cared either way, if not for the fact that it emitted a large burst of perfume scent.  For several minutes, I did not say or do anything, but the scent was starting to affect my sinuses and my throat.  I can get pretty bad allergies, and public perfumes and other scents are no joke.  A lot of public or business environments have imposed bans on scents because of their effect on so many allergy sufferers.  And while I would not have been in mortal danger had I continued to inhale the perfume, it was definitely making me uncomfortable.

I looked around for another seat, but by now, the train car was full.  The only open seat (for a few minutes) was a seat across the aisle from the woman with the perfume scent.  I did not think that would be a sufficient distance.  So I said to the woman in a soft voice: "I'm sorry, but your makeup is causing me to have an allergic reaction."

The woman responded immediately: "Then go sit over there [in the seat across the aisle]."  Note that this woman didn't know me from Adam and had no idea how severe my allergies were.  I could have been one of those people whose throat swelled up when exposed to certain scents.  That I wasn't was fortunate for her.  At first, I thought that she was implying that the scent was coming from across the aisle, which confused me.  I was like: "Wait, what?"  I then tried to tell her that I didn't think it would make a difference, and the guy snapped: "Just shut up."

Wait, what?!  Okay, I get that I am providing you with information that inconveniences you, but this is your immediate reaction?  The woman's unwillingness maybe wasn't so hard to fathom, but this is how the guy greets people he doesn't know who say things he doesn't like?  "Just shut up."  I haven't concealed anything -- there was no point where I just went off, or called the woman a bitch, or started yelling.  That was literally what I said and what they said.

So I sat there stunned for a couple of minutes, thinking: "Did I say anything bad enough to deserve that reaction?  I don't think so..."  While I can't pretend that I'm never belligerent, I know that I wasn't in this case.  It really bothered me that my request drew the response that it did, and I said: "I'm sorry, I'm just telling you what I felt" or something of the like.  The woman responded: "Well you were trying to make me stop my activity" and oh I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were in your bathroom.  I told her that I had been trying to ignore her scent for several minutes, and asked her if she was angry about something else.  The guy said "You're really irritating me."  He may have also told me to just shut up again, but I can't quite recall.  But it struck me that his reaction was excessive for someone who was not the subject of the request.  Confused, I asked: "Are you two together?"  Apparently they weren't, at least not in the couple sense, though they might have been friends or colleagues.

Shortly after, the guy got up and announced they were moving, and said to me: "You are a bitch."  Wait, what?!  I didn't leave out or play down anything I said.  While I'm sure my tone grew progressively irritated, it definitely didn't start that way.  So from my perspective, what I said did not merit that response, especially from him.  In the woman's case, her immediate response suggested that I was not the first to object to her scent, or at least to object to something about her.  Maybe she felt judged and was just pissed off.  Still, it's not like I was complaining that her talking was too loud.  In the man's case, I would guess that he was having a bad morning prior to getting on the train.  Otherwise, I can't imagine how many women he calls "bitch" before nine o'clock every day.  Maybe I would have been able to predict their reaction if I had been paying attention to them all along, but I wasn't until the scent started to affect me.

So that is MY perspective of the incident.  However, it struck me that maybe I have enormous blinders on and someone else who read this would think that I crossed a line in making the request.  We are all the heroes and "reasonable" people in our own head.  Truth be told, I am less reluctant than most to tell someone when his/her activity is bothering me.  I figure that if it were the reverse, I would want to know if I were bothering someone else.  However, other people are often reluctant to be a squeaky wheel and say what they really think.  Some of that is necessary just to live in society, but where do you draw the line?  When is it "okay" to speak up for yourself?  I suspect that the threshold is different for each person.

Even if the general consensus were that I crossed a line, would the consensus be that the man and woman's reactions were merited?  Should people be able to do whatever they want on public transportation, even knowing that it bothers someone else?  Was the guy's response merited?  Was I that big a "bitch" for making my request?  Should I have been "nice" and just stayed quiet for the rest of the trip (about 20 minutes), even as the perfume scent continued to bother me?  Does being a nice person mean always quietly enduring other people's behavior, only speaking up when the situation becomes life threatening?  If that is the standard, I am not a nice person.  Or is it nicer to inform someone (nicely) when their behavior is a problem, so that they have a chance to correct the problem and so others can get relief?  Who knows?

All I can say is that I do not think my behavior was out of line.  If that guy called me a "bitch" for making a request, I would hate to see his response if I were really angry.  If I have any major regret, it is that I let him get away with using the word "bitch" as a slur.  When he called me that, what I should have said in reply is: "Why thank you.  What a nice compliment!"

Image taken from the royalty-free media source stock.xchng.   

Friday, September 7, 2012

MTV's Daria: Its One Great Miss (Cont'd)

It struck me that the title could be construed to suggest that Daria itself was MTV's one great miss.  On the contrary, Daria was the best series to come out of MTV.  I would even venture to say that its very existence almost makes up for MTV's other drek.  Almost.

So after I built up the show so well in the last post, what was it that was Daria's great miss?  Well, for a show that managed to create such complex characters and a high schooler who was unique, yet to whom we could all relate, Daria never really seemed to get high school.

It is far from the only show to miss in that respect.  Saved By the Bell and Beverly Hills 90210 divided the school into Popular Kids and Everyone Else.  Occasionally an unknown character might pop up to "school" the Popular Kids about the Specialness of other students, but that person usually vanished by the next episode.  Buffy acknowledged the unpopular kids, to the extent that they really were unpopular, but the rest of the school was filled with affable nerds -- when they weren't turning into demons -- and comical popular people like Cordelia Chase.

The unpopular kids either did not exist, or, as shown on Buffy, they were the "cool" kids whom everyone would love to join if only they knew what they were really up to.  There is some truth to both perspectives -- I'm sure most popular kids really are not at all aware of the unpopular kids, and unpopular kids do all kinds of objectively "cool" activities.  However, despite the fact that Buffy speaks of the persecution of unpopular kids, except for one or two scenes of Willow being taunted, the viewer never really sees it.  In that sense, I actually find the Saved By the Bell universe to be more believable, since I'm sure many popular kids think of themselves as sensitive and caring, while doing very little to show it.

Since Daria purports to tell high school from the perspective of an unpopular person, I was expecting to really remember what that felt like.  The callous looks; the whispers behind your back; the "friendly" questions that contained hidden barbs; the crank calls; the refusal to pick you in gym class; the cretins who sometimes bellowed out sexual slurs as you walked past.  You didn't have to experience these often to experience them, and I'm pretty sure I experienced them all.  Yet oddly enough, Daria didn't.

Daria's "antagonists" were Kevin Thompson and Brittany Taylor, who were supposed to represent everything that was wrong with high school.  They were vapid, popular, cared little about substance, and routinely dismissed Daria.  But wait!  Despite this, neither Kevin nor Brittany was actually very... mean.  Already in the second episode, Brittany was inviting Daria to her house party.  ("You're not popular, but you're not so unpopular that I couldn't invite you to my party Saturday night.")  By Season Three, Brittany was giving Daria encouraging words through the door of a bathroom stall.  Kevin wasn't quite as generous, but he also never teased Daria or made intentionally derogatory comments.  Instead, he and Brittany routinely approached Daria and Jane in public, called them by their correct names, and seemed to genuinely respect them on some level.  So much for being Daria's high school persecutors.

The only other popular people in Daria and Jane's class, with whom they regularly interacted, were Jodie Landon and Michael "Mack" MacKenzie.  Jodie and Mack, aka the Only Other Intelligent Teens at Lawndale High, were far closer to being Daria's allies than adversaries.  They never had trouble approaching Daria in public and talking to her with respect.  In fact, Jodie sometimes went out of her way to get Daria and Jane to join activities, even asking Daria to be her partner for an economics project.

So there was no one on Daria's grade level who teased her or laughed behind her back.  What about the other grade levels?  One grade below her, Daria's most obvious antagonist was her sister, Quinn.  The Quinn of Season One, and possibly all the way through Season Four, would have made nasty comments about unpopular people and even laughed at them in their presence.  She did make some nasty comments to Daria, usually along the lines of "Go away!  I hate you!  You're so unpopular and unattractive!"  No doubt hearing those comments from her own sister was painful for Daria.  Yet I also think that having Daria's main antagonist be her sister neutralized some of the impact.  First, some of what Quinn said could hardly be distinguished from what any sibling might say to another when they attended the same school.  Second, Daria had the opportunity to get even with Quinn in ways that would not have been possible were they not related.  Take, for instance, her response to Quinn's comment in "The New Kid" that she had received 2,500 hits on her webpage: Daria shut the door and started hitting Quinn.  Imagine Veronica Sawyer being able to do that to Heather Chandler every time Heather got on Veronica's nerves -- maybe then she would not have resorted to more drastic measures.  Finally, Quinn being Daria's sister meant that the things Daria said and did actually influenced Quinn, to the point of making Quinn a nicer, deeper-thinking person as the series progressed.

In addition, I should point out that even Quinn at her meanest was less intent on humiliating Daria than on simply making her go away.  Had their paths never crossed, I doubt Quinn would have wasted a moment of energy on Daria.

If Quinn, the main antagonist, was neutralized, then who was left to make Daria's high school a meaner place?  The Fashion Club could have picked up the slack, especially Sandi Griffin, the president.  Spoiled, vapid, vain, and nasty, Sandi was the embodiment of the high school Mean Girl even more than Quinn.  Countless fanfics (including some of my own) were devoted to building her up as a nemesis for Daria and Jane.  But the "clash of the titans" never occurred: Sandi was far more intent on keeping Quinn down than on making Daria's life a living hell.  When she did encounter Daria, Sandi was intimidated.  She could hardly get three words out when she went to ask for Daria's help in "Quinn the Brain."  Nemesis indeed.  And once Daria decided to make Stacy Rowe a nice person and Tiffany Blum-Deckler too stupid to tie her own shoes, the Fashion Club lost whatever threatening quality it might have had.       

To sum up, the popular students at Daria's high school did not tease or humiliate her.  Instead, they spoke to her willingly, respected her to the point of being intimidated, and even tried to involve her in activities.  At the very worst, Daria was ignored, or Kevin and Brittany insulted her without realizing that they had done so.  Quinn, Daria's biggest antagonist, was neutralized by being Daria's sister and by becoming a nicer person throughout the series.

It is not as though I expected Daria to suffer Welcome to the Dollhouse levels of persecution.  That isn't necessarily a typical high school experience, either.  But to go through high school without any painful moments of humiliation at the hands of another student?  Even for only a few minutes?  It just does not ring true.  Why go to the trouble of making Daria so alienated and so misanthropic, only to have her glide through high school?  Why make Daria sensitive to injustice and not present any real injustice, apart from Ms. Li's machinations?

If there is one word that I would use to describe Daria's high school experience, it is "comfortable."  Which is the one thing that high school is not.  Since Daria's writers have shown that they are capable of presenting nuance, it would have been nice to see an edgier version of Lawndale High.  A version that was a little less safe, where Daria had a few more antagonists who were not just fish-in-a-barrel for her verbal putdowns.  The writers did not do this, though, and that was their one great miss. 


Monday, September 3, 2012

MTV's Daria: Its One Great Miss

Since I want this blog to look at media as well as general social issues, it only makes sense that I start with the show that was my passion for the good part of a decade: MTV's Daria.

From the left: Jake, Helen, Quinn, Daria, and Jane
Many are probably already familiar with the show, since Daria was finally released on DVD in May 2010.  In case you are not, though, here is a brief description.  Daria was a half-hour animated series that ran from 1997 to 2002, for a total of 65 episodes and two full-length TV movies.  It was a spinoff of Beavis and Butt-head, another MTV animated show that ran from 1993 to 1997.  The character of Daria was originally created because someone at MTV thought that Beavis and Butt-head could use a smart female character as a foil for the "protagonists."  Around 1995, MTV executives approached Beavis and Butt-head writer Glenn Eichler with the idea of creating a spinoff show for Daria.  That was when MTV executives had a glimmer of intelligence, and MTV programming was actually pretty good.  (Not that it was flawless: already by 1995, The Real World was growing stale and histrionic, a disturbing sign of reality trends to come.) 

Daria was a smart, cynical teenager with a talent for delivering cutting one liners.  In fact, Daria was one of many smart, cynical girls to emerge during the 90's.  Already, the decade had witnessed the rise of Roseanne's Darlene Conner and Wednesday Addams of the Addams Family movies (as well as Christina Ricci in anything, really).  A forgettable 1992 B-movie had even introduced us to Buffy Summers five years before she got her own show.  The "smart, cynical" trend might have begun in the 90's, but contrary to what many might believe, I don't think it ever went away.  The most obvious current example that I can think of is Nostalgia Chick, a latter-day Janeane Garofalo if ever there was one.

So what Daria did wasn't necessarily new, but she did it damn well.  Daria moved her to a new town, Lawndale, and gave her a family to work off of: mother, father, and popular younger sister.  Daria's mother Helen was the breadwinner of the family.  Hard talking and power suited, she was the sort of lawyer I hope to never become, but I do find sort of awesome to watch.  Daria's father Jake... had issues.  I'll just leave it there.  Daria's sister Quinn was her antagonist, in so far as the show had one.  For at least the first three seasons, she was everything that Daria envied and despised: cute, popular, and fearless in social situations.  

Daria also had a new crop of teachers at Lawndale High to hit with her verbal darts.  Sensitive, clueless Language Arts teacher Mr. O'Neill.  Bitter, enraged history teacher, Mr. DeMartino.  Manhating science teacher Ms. Barch.  Tempting targets though they were, they were nothing compared to the students.  There were Kevin and Brittany, the school's quarterback and cheerleader, whose special talent was smiling vacantly.  Sandi, Stacy, and Tiffany -- aka the Fashion Club.  Quinn's generic love interests, Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie.  And lots of random backgrounders who tended to just stand around and stare.

Jane Lane was an exception to the rule, so naturally she and Daria quickly became best friends.  Their friendship was one of the best parts of the series and was key to making Daria seem human.  Daria's crush on Jane's brother, Trent, was also the first sign that, despite her best efforts to hide it, Daria was still a teenager and could be ruled by her emotions.  

The thrust of the series was jaded, cynical Daria slowly learning that people weren't one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, and that even the stupidest could be perceptive (well, Brittany at least, if not Kevin) and helpful now and then.  Most significantly, Daria reached a peace with Quinn, who became less afraid of using her brain.  Of course it helped that Daria was about to leave for college and she and Quinn would no longer share the same territory.  

I was in college when I first started watching the show.  It was like an elixir for me and my roommate -- oh my God, a show about us!  (The first episode I saw was "The Invitation.")  And even now, Daria is something of a revelation.  While yes, there were other smart, sarcastic girls on TV, they usually had a "cool" element that made them too far removed to be relatable.  As soon as Darlene Conner reached her smartest and most cynical, she left for a prestigious art school and was no longer a regular cast member.  Even if Buffy weren't a vampire slayer, there was something too pretty and blithe and flippant about her for me to believe that she could ever be truly unpopular.  And Wednesday Addams... enough said.

Remove Daria's almost superhuman ability to quip, and she was... kind of dull.  She wore the same styles day in and day out, hated trying new things, and watched a lot of exploitation TV.  Most significantly, despite Daria's constant barbs, she never got into any real trouble.  One of the few exceptions was in Season Two's "Arts N Crass," when she and Jane destroyed their poster.  Yet as Helen pointed out to Ms. Li, they couldn't very well be punished for destroying their own work, which Ms. Li and Mr. O'Neill had stolen.  Daria's utter normality made her relatable in a way that most other quippy heroines were not.

So what is that "one great miss" that I was referring to in the title?  Well, this post is already much longer than I expected, so I'll let you know next time.

The image was taken from Wikipedia and is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  See Wikipedia's explanation for more details.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Leaf Blowers: Satan's Tool

Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration.  No, not really.

And this guy is doing... what exactly?  Blowing leaves back
onto the grass?  Into the water?
I hate leaf blowers.  Really, really hate them.  It's not just that a leaf blower sounds like a jumbo jet landing on your front lawn, but also that so much noise and pollution comes from so little.  It just blows leaves around for Crissake.  You would think for all that noise, it could at least vacuum the leaves up and turn them into easily disposed-of mulch.  But no.*  Most of the time, the people that use leaf blowers aren't even blowing around big leaves, but tiny little leaves that no one notices, except for those who think it is their job to make the yard look as sterile as possible.  Half the time, the end result is not forming a neat pile of leaves that can be easily scooped into a bucket for disposal.  It is blowing the offending leaves into the street... or onto a neighbor's property.

Why this doesn't bother more people, I don't know.  Maybe because when most mow-and-blow companies come around, the property owners are at work?  Maybe because most property owners have a superhuman ability to tune out prolonged, incredibly harsh sounds?  The most likely explanation is multi-fold.  Most property owners probably think that it is simply a normal part of "modern" America to have technologies that make such noise.  If they or their gardener couldn't use a leaf blower to dispose of those nasty, offending leaves, then they might have to resort to raking, and it's not as if people can rake leaves just as fast as they can blow 'em away.    

I think also that a lot of people are bothered by noise from leaf blowers and other property care equipment, but they are concerned about offending their neighbors, about looking "abnormal" and "overly sensitive" if they complain.  Because if no one else is complaining, then no one else must be bothered.  On a previous occasion, those concerned might have been intimidated by that one neighbor everyone has, the one who must make as much noise as he wants, when he wants, or freedom is under siege and this is no longer America!  Yeah, that neighbor.  That neighbor will try to make you think that noisemaking is a God-given right, and those who like peace and quiet -- and respect for other people's peace and quiet -- are crazy commies out to enslave the human race.  

The final reason is more sensitive: a lot of people who object to leaf blowers may be afraid of looking racist.  Many of the mow-and-blow workers are nonwhite, and those who would complain about leaf blowers fear that they will look as if they (a) don't appreciate the workers' hard work and (b) want to add to their burden by making them rake instead of blow.  Certainly understandable, although given the damage that leaf blowers cause to the body, and the fact that many mow-and-blow workers operate without masks or ear protectors, you might think it worth the risk if it could help them avoid lung cancer and deafness.

Oh, did I forget to mention the other "benefit" of leaf blowers?  They are toxin-spewing monsters.  Leaf blower engines produce smog levels equivalent to that of 80 cars driven 12,500 miles per year.  Even the supposedly less-offensive electric blowers kick up dust laced with pesticides, molds, bacterial spores, and toxic metals such as mercury and arsenic.  The dust particles hover in the air, where they are breathed in by anyone who passes by.  These particles can embed themselves deep in the lungs, leading to various lung diseases, including cancer.  Children are considered to be especially vulnerable.  But hey, as long as leaf blowers keep the lawn looking pretty, what's the problem?

I've been focused on leaf blowers' impact on suburban neighborhoods, but they are no less obnoxious in an urban environment.  On my way to work, I've passed by maintenance workers, employing blowers as loud as super sonic jet engines, who are literally blowing nothing.  Nothing.  No leaves, not even dust.  They just have the blower aimed at the ground and blowing nothing.  Maybe because they want to look like they are doing something.  Maybe because it's what they were taught to do.  Maybe it's because they like that ear-splitting, blood-pressure rising sound.  Nothing.

While dozens of cities across the United States have banned or restricted leaf blowers, most communities give them free rein.  So they blow from dawn until dusk, on holidays and weekends.  While children are playing.  While people take walks.  While you are on an important conference call.  While you are sick in bed.  After you just put the baby down for its nap.  While you are trying to have a quiet conversation with a friend in your backyard.  They blow and blow and blow.  And you don't complain, because Goliath next door made you believe that endless noise was "normal" and you will turn yourself into an outcast if you complain.  Maybe Goliath wants to get lung cancer.            

* I realize that many leaf blowers do have a vacuum function, but I have yet to see it used.

Image was taken by Bobak Ha'Eri and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons in February 2006.  The image is not meant to suggest that its author endorses the views in this blogpost.