Is Frank Burns the true good guy of M*A*S*H?

As a nation reevaluates Atticus Finch - a purported hero in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and revealed to be a racist in the sequel Go Set a Watchman - we should take a closer look at Frank Burns. While binge-playing M*A*S*H in our household, familiar sitcom dialog from childhood coming to the fore, it occurred to me: what if Hawkeye is meant to be an unreliable narrator, unfairly maligning Major Frank Burns?

Think of it: Burns wants order and protocol to be followed in a dangerous wartime environment. Chain of command is essential to reliable operation. Safety is essential in a hospital. Emergency life & death issues emerge on a regular basis. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce is an agent of disruption with deep contempt for authority. Yet the story of M*A*S*H centers on Pierce. The camera angles in The Swamp tent always favor Pierce, not Burns. Through Pierce's eyes, Burns is reliably the ninny and appeaser to those in authority.

Consider a couple things:

  1. There is only one prominent female in the entire M*A*S*H cast for its full run, Major Margaret Houlihan. She is a woman in power, outranking Pierce and his sidekick-of-the-day, whether Trapper John or B.J. Yet, save for the last few seasons, Pierce and his toadies regularly hold the powerful, self-assured Houlihan in deep contempt. Burns manages a longterm relationship with her for many years.
  2. Pierce and Trapper John had a black tentmate the first season. A doctor, just like them. They called him "Spearchucker".

Even trying NYT? Sometimes the daemon evokes tedium.

Note to the New York Times Book Review: if your cover review has "bestrides [...] like a [...] colossus" in its second sentence my self-preserving cliché survival mechanism kicks in and I cannot retain anything farther.

Now, I hardly read. At all. But the few things I do read I often re-read multiple times. Harold Bloom's 80s & 90s books, especially The Western Canon (which I wrote about here) among them, and to a lesser extent The Book of J and the The Anxiety of Influence. So far as I can tell, the last few decades Bloom has largely been rehashing the same approach: encomium to classic/canon literature and comparing one established author to another even if he has already compared them to each other in other works. This new book, The Daemon Knows, appears to be more of the same. Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolator.

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My 'World According to Garp'

The death of Robin Williams got me to re-read The World According to Garp for the first time in several decades. I saw the movie in a theater (hip parents) at the age of 13, and after watching the movie a few times on home video, I read the book around age 16 or 17.

Back then, I was very dialed in to its dark humor. By that point, I could relate to the sexual elements (#ExplanaBrag) but had to synthesize and speculate what it was like to be in an adult relationship. The last fifth of the book is almost unrelentingly sad. The final line, which Irving said was originally much earlier in the book, then kept getting nudged throughout composition until it finally reached the end: "In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases." My teenage brain, as teenage brains do, may have confused feeling sad with feeling depth.

Back then, when filling out college applications that required an answer to what-book-inspired-you type questions, I cited Garp. These answers were probably embarrassingly shallow. My memory is they focused on the book making me feel like an odd sense of humor and morbid perspective were actually okay. Despite that shallow response, a couple colleges accepted me anyway. I also sent in an epic parody that was a hit in one college's admissions office, with multiple staff people giving compliments when I stopped in.

Even then, into now, I am distracted by a couple things about John Irving's image.

David Bowie endorses reading

My high school Advanced Junior English teacher had a poster of John Irving in wrestling gear (maybe also with protective headgear) in a badass/beefcake photo. I can't find it in online image searches, but it struck me funny: like a fitness campaign for writers with the subtext "Hey, writers! Shake off the burden of consciousness and ennui! You can exercise, too!" Like those "Read" posters featuring celebrities to encourage youngsters to use libraries.

Irving's character, T.S. Garp, is a wrestler and later a wrestling coach. Irving himself plays a wrestling referee in the movie. Later profiles of Irving during and after the campaign for the Garp movie featured a LOT about exercising. "Look at me, I'm a writer who can benchpress! And you other writers who can't or won't? Well, you should [looks writers up and down], consider it."

John Irving and Robin Williams in "The World According to Garp"

I wasn't a writer at that time, but that image and persona projection wants to nag me into exercising more. I did not start exercising because of it.

The book retains its charms over me, perhaps more, now with a few secret writing projects here and there done, fatherhood, life, all making Garp even easier to relate to than it was at the age of 17. The sentences are short and muscular. It's difficult to not think of Irving, who is short and muscular. Jenny Fields, Garp's single mother who becomes a political and feminist icon after her book A Sexual Suspect becomes part of a political movement, seemed less severely funny and more sensible to me reading it as an adult. Should I worry?

I have not read another John Irving book, and probably will not. I like Garp plenty, and cried over the Philadelphia Eagles memorial to Roberta Muldoon near the end, but it takes a lot of effort for me to read a living writer. Why? Haven't pinned that down. And I want to keep reading Garp a singular event. I will continue to read/watch interviews with Irving. And, of course, he's right to endorse exercise for everyone, including (especially) introspective creative types.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”    

— Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollak, 27-January-1904

The time I (didn't really) pass out at a bookstore

The first paragraph below is real. The other paragraphs are largely made-up.

Upstairs to the Poety & Beat Literature room. Community Bulletin Board asks questions, customers answer with Post-Its. 

Upstairs in the Poetry & Beat Literature room in the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco it was muggy, musty, but calm and infused with history. Beats! I knew little about them other than what could be gleaned from movies and television. I've not read any Kerouac and only a little Ginsberg. Gore Vidal in his memoir Palimpsest boasted of buggering Kerouac. Always the buggerer, never the buggeree. I stipulation I now know was common among homosexuals. Then, it seemed an odd and selfish admission from Vidal given his libertine reputation but typically offered few personal details.

Maybe he placed a silver dollar on Kerouac's back, who, when he caught his breath exclaimed: "I can use this!" 

Above the bookshelves, posters ran round the room of poets that listed the year of the photo. Walt Whitman. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Anne Sexton. 

A trigger was pulled and I stomped downstairs and yelled at the slight blond young man at the register with an earnest soft meticulous beard. "How can this place have a poster of Anne Sexton and not one of Sylvia Plath?" A pause. My loudness increased. "They're both American. I revere Anne Sexton. She's a personal favorite and I talk with her in dreams. But Plath is the better, stronger poet. What are the standards here? Is Plath thought of as too precious? Too much the purview of cloistered Women's Studies departments and sensitive teenage souls to be brought out for display? Break Plath free!"  I stumbled over my tongue on the last sentence and repeated is more slowly and loudly. "Break Plath free! Bring her to the Pantheon upstairs! Set her among the stars!"

I blacked out. Then I came to. I was still in the City Lights Bookstore, seated at a corner table, my head resting against a bookshelf. A paper cup of water was in front of me and I sipped from it. My courier bag was set at my feet. I dragged the main zipper open to extract my large Moleskine journal. I fetched a pen, and opened my journal to see a series of blue and red marks and edits across the 30 or so pages I had already written up. 

Violated, I looked closely and found myself agreeing with almost all the suggestions. I made faces at the excess of added commas. I am a devotee of the Oxford comma, but loathe when commas are added to indicate a pause as if in a speech. Not necessary. Ruins the flow. 

I took myself, the cup of water, my bag, my pen, and my emended journal and exited the bookstore, placing a dollar in the tip jar for art, shame, and karma. 

N.Y. Times - Print Happens: Glamor Clowns

A print misalignment in the The New York Times resulted in blurry faces in a series of glamor photos in the SundayStyles section. I snapped examples:

Glen Close, Lena Dunham, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amanda Seyfried all glamorous, all made clowns by an errant printing process. January Jones also a victim on the page.

Funny, right? Mistakes happen. January Jones was another victim. Naomi Campbell, on the same page, managed to look even better. Presumably these beautiful people will continue on, undeterred by what happened to a West Coast printing of the NYT. Having canceled by subscription to The Oregonian (its new publisher is an Orange County, California neocon jerk) and choosing the Sunday New York Times has been much more entertaining. Though I miss Doonesbury and the weekly pondering of what life would be like if my only information about the outside world was reading Parade magazine each Sunday (on my bucket list of experiments once I'm wealthy).

The NYT motto: "All the News That's Fit to Print" is vomitous. Not a boast the NYT has earned, and reminiscent of Sarah Palin's 2008 answer to which newspapers and magazines she read to stay informed: "All of them."

It was a funny answer, but I would have LOVED if this vision of Palin, a constantly-churning-information-Braniac-machine, had turned out to be true.

But every weekly opening of the The New York Times I am haunted by two ghosts. I hear Christopher Hitchens moan about the New York Times slogan, and Gore Vidal sneers and spits at the New York Times Sunday Book Review. It held a vendetta against him for decades, and even when it started reviewing his books again he thought it was sloppy and ramshackle. I'm glad to have those voices. They're good reminders that because something feels information-packed and sophisticated, doesn't mean it's true.

Quickie post - Marilyn and James Joyce

A fast entry because I'm tired of a squirrel carcass being the toppamost post. Here's a photo of Marilyn Monroe reading 'Ulysses' by James Joyce. One may snort derisively. Remember Monroe was married to esteemed playwright Arthur Miller. She likely enjoyed the book. Also this photo is adorable and brainy and hot.

Origin of "text"

On a lark, I looked up the word "text" in the Oxford English Dictionary. Here's what that Good Book gives as the origin:

"Etymology: < French texte, also Old Northern French tixte, tiste (12th cent. in Godefroy), the Scriptures, etc., < medieval Latin textus the Gospel, written character (Du Cange), Latin textus (u-stem) style, tissue of a literary work (Quintilian), lit. that which is woven, web, texture, < text-, participial stem of tex-ĕre to weave."

I had never thought of text as a tissue or something that is woven into a tissue. It always seemed a linear train of words flopped one over the other, then stacked sheet over sheet. Or typed up and pasted in. A product to be stored. Had never considered it as a planned fabric both lateral and longitudinal. I like that very much.

Gore Vidal now through the door marked "exit"

I'll miss this guy. He was sometimes full of horseshit, but when others claimed he was full of horseshit often they were proven to be wrong. So allowance must be given.

He tended to bring out the worst in people who weren't confident in themselves. Interviewers/journalists suffering from what Harold Bloom would call the anxiety of influence got con-testy with Vidal, which he would detect and throw back. The best interviewers were fine in their own skin and ended up in decent conversations or giving him good setups for his lapidary phrases and tales.

He loved his country, his republic, with a deep love that meant always wanting better, and wanting to ward off its perceived decline by calling out when it had more pomp than substance. No, that's way too buttery. He saw our country as a Miss Havisham, and described her past charms and decay in great and savage detail. If he had a magic wand to restore her vitality he would, but he knew woefully no such wand was available.

Feeling sore about both Vidal and Christopher Hitchens dying within a year of one another. I doubt I'll be as deeply eager what any other public figure, or eager to be suprised by what any other public figure thinks.

Chronically elegiac with a zest lit from a core of hope.

Ah, I get it now! "Popsicle" = tumescent male appendage!

"California Gurls" [excerpt] by Katy Perry

Daisy dukes, bikinis on top.
Sun-kissed skin, so hot
We'll melt your popsicle.

Uh-whoah-oah. Uh-whoah-oah.

 

For AGES I took these lyrics to be a flat, scientific statement. Of COURSE human skin, exposed, presumably at normothermia let alone warmed by the sun, would carry sufficient heat to melt a popsicle that will turn liquid well before reaching 98.6 degrees Farenheit (37 degrees Celsius for the rest of the world).

Nearly two years after this poem was released in 2010, it finally occurred to me this was a metaphor. See, a man's popsicle (i.e. penis), normally rigid in a state of arousal, would find itself liquified due to the allure and heat generated by the narrator's Daisy Duked clan. Fine enough considered blithely. To give longer thought to an organ melting, though, seems horrible. Like what happens to that Nazi's face when the Ark of the Covenant is opened in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Thanks but no thanks, Ms. Perry. Has anyone checked that Snoop Dogg is okay?