Rand Richards Cooper

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor. 

By this author

Charlie Hustle and the Hall of Shame

Now that non-baseball fans, having read the title of this post, have left the ballpark, the rest of us can talk turkey about Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame. What do you think -- should he get in?

I’ll say up front that I was never a Pete Rose fan. Far from it, actually. His sins, in ascending order of gravity, were that he played in the National League; that he captained the Cincinnati Reds team that beat my Red Sox in 1975 World Series; and, worst of all to me as a sports-obsessed kid, that he epitomized the opposite of cool. All that running down to first base after ball four – how dorky, how strivey, how utterly uncool could you be? Charlie Hustle, aka Mr. Square.

As an adult, having at long last grasped that there’s more to success than being cool, I have to admire any batter with the dedication to squeeze every last drip out of the probabilistic grapefruit by always running to first after ball four, on the slim chance of a passed ball. Still, and probably in keeping with my childhood affections, I’ve been a staunch supporter of the “Keep Rose Out” school of Cooperstown theology, ever since the league banned him in 1989 for gambling on games.

But now I’m wavering.

A 2015 Movie Roundup

The end of a year conduces to retrospection—in our lives, and in cinema too. All six movies I watched between Christmas and New Year’s Day were about looking back: to historical eras; to the protagonists’ pasts; or, for us, to our own pasts as moviegoers, via film franchises that began decades ago, when everyone was young.

Changes

I was stunned today to go onto the Times website and see that David Bowie had died. I knew that Bowie had a new, jazz-inflected album out, called Blackstar, yet hadn’t known that he had pancreatic cancer and was dying. Neither, apparently, had the author of the New Yorker review of Blackstar that came out two days ago. And the Arts section of the Times—today—has a blurb, titled "Saluting David Bowie at Carnegie Hall," announcing a March 31 concert honoring him with a house band of longtime collaborators, surprise guests, etc. Not an event in honor of him because he died; he was supposed to be there. The article's lede: "It's a good time to be David Bowie. He just celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday, released an album, and has a show running off Broadway." So Bowie must have been keeping his illness secret. A big sigh, to think about all that involves.

Intermittently today I’ve been cueing up various songs and revisiting the career of a chameleonic talent who seemed to reinvent himself every few years. The reinvention had an element of pure show, but fundamentally it reflected Bowie’s roving mind and his insistence on finding something else, something different, to be interested in musically—a new noise to make, instead of the same old ones. I admire that.

The Price of Eggs

An article in the New York Times provides an unnerving look at egg “donation,” a pillar of the assisted reproduction industry.

Up till now, prices for eggs have been limited by voluntary guidelines, set in 2000 by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, that deemed it “inappropriate” to pay more than $10,000 for a woman’s eggs. The guideline is being challenged by a class-action lawsuit on behalf of egg donors, spurred by strong supply-and-demand forces. If unconstrained, these forces will rev up an already humming, $80 million market in a big way. 

As the Catholic News Agency reports, egg donors are typically students responding to ads posted by “egg recruiters” in cafes, fitness centers and school newspapers. The article sums up the allure: “Dangle $8000-$10,000, per monthly cycle, in front of a cash-strapped college student or a barista struggling to live in an expensive city and you’ve got donors.” Roughly one in seven American couples now suffers from infertility, and demand for eggs is strong. And not just any old eggs. There are plenty of people willing to pay large sums of money for eggs they deem of premium quality. The Times reveals one agency promising $50,000 to $100,000 “to egg donors who meet stringent, personalized search criteria.” Donors considered premium include actresses, models, Asians, Jewish women and Ivy League students with high SAT scores. “For us, a first-time Asian donor might get $10,000-$25,000, and a repeat donor might get to $40,000, occasionally $50,000,” says Darlene Pinkerton, a founder of A Perfect Match, an agency in Southern California.

Trump, Take Two

Herewith is an update on my earlier thoughts about Donald Trump, set down in the balmy days of late summer, when one could take him less seriously.

How seriously do we have to take him now? I’m fascinated by the hermeneutical nature of Trump – the way he is less a polished and serious candidate than a social and political phenomenon begging for interpretation. What explains his improbable rise? Many frameworks have been put forward. There’s the anti-political-correctness framework, which is essentially what I argued back in August. There’s the white-male-working-class resentment framework. The Ayn Rand, worship-of-capitalist-titans framework.  The triumph-and-travesty-of-entertainment framework. And, most recently, the “unstoppable digital virality” framework.

Remembering Robert Stone

The end of the year approaches, a time for thinking about those who were with us a year ago and no longer are. Today I’m thinking about novelist Robert Stone, who died in January. My friend and fellow Commonweal contributor Jonathan Stevenson has written a fine assessment of Stone’s oeuvre.  For my part, long ago Stone was my teacher; some months back I wrote an appreciation, and I want to offer it here, for Commonweal readers who admired his work. 

As a novelist Stone earned renown for his mordant renderings of American recklessness abroad and tumult at home. In a valedictory appraisal, the Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani judged him “one of the few writers to capture the apocalyptic madness of America in the 1960s,” praising his “dense, philosophical, baroque” prose for “conjuring the emotional temperature of a time and place with extraordinary intensity and fervor.”

That extraordinary intensity characterized the man himself. In 1977 I took Bob Stone’s fiction-writing class at Amherst College, where he was Visiting Writer for several years. At that point he was best known for his Vietnam novel, Dog Soldiers, and for his association with novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, whose escapades were captured in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. One afternoon a week for three hours, a dozen of us would sit in a seminar room in the English building, Johnson Chapel, discussing our stories and monitoring our teacher’s intense and enigmatic presence.

Staff Picks: The Poetry of John Updike

A book I’m glad to have read this year is the Selected Poems of John Updike. It brings me back to a day thirty years ago, when I took a bus out to Seton Hall University to hear Updike read. In a smallish lecture room he stood behind a lectern and, in a quiet voice adorned with the slightest lisp, he read... poems. The audience was surprised and perhaps a bit restive. Turns out Updike had agreed to do the reading only on the condition that it be poetry and not prose.   

Heist!

OK, this one is just for fun. Every now and then I read a news story rich in the kind of detail that discloses a journalist taking special delight, reveling in the quirks and serendipities that define “human interest.”

I also have a weakness for heist movies.

If you do too, maybe you relished this article in the New York Times recently, about the team of four geriatric bank robbers arrested in London after drilling through the wall of a safe-deposit vault and making off with $30 million in gold, jewelry and gems. It is Grumpy Old Men meets Ocean’s Eleven – and I’ll be shocked if we don’t see it in theaters in a couple of years.

As I noted above, the devilishness, and the delight, are in the details. Thus, we learn that the crew that pulled off the heist ranged in age from 60 to 76; that they consulted a book called Forensics for Dummies; that the 76-year-old ringleader took a public bus to the job – using his senior pass to ride for free – and wore “distinctive striped socks” later easily identified on security tape; that they were assisted by a mysterious red-haired man, still unidentified, named “Basil”; that they practiced using their diamond-tipped drills by watching Youtube videos; that despite their aches and old bones they shimmied down an elevator shaft to reach the basement; that they bungled the job the first time, drilling through the concrete wall only to find themselves unable to move the safe-deposit cabinet bolted to the floor and blocking the hole – and so returned two days later with different tools, to finish the job; that one of the gang brought insulin with him to ward off his diabetic shakes; that the security company ignored the alarm because it had recently been triggered by an insect; that the gang ultimately gave itself away by bragging about the caper at their local pub, over “heaping plates of bangers and mash;” and, finally, that their chief regret was failing to take a group selfie in front of the vault.

You really can’t beat that as a treatment for a screenplay.

Prompted by this story, and by the end-of-the-year rite of making lists, I’ve put together my top-dozen list of heist films (with Wikipedia links), in roughly descending order:

The Transgender Moment

The battle over transgender rights stayed in the headlines this fall. A few weeks ago, The New York Times detailed the finding by federal education officials that an Illinois school district broke the law by not allowing a transgender student who identifies as a girl to change and shower in the girls’ locker room. And voters in Houston repealed a 2014 anti-discrimination measure, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), that prohibited bias in housing, employment, city contracting and business services on the basis of race, age, sexual orientation and gender identity. It was the last of these protected classes that caught all the flak.

Though the Houston ordinance had broad application, the repeal campaign focused exclusively on... bathroom issues. Labeling HERO “The Bathroom Ordinance,” opponents crafted a campaign with a stark message – “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms!” The slogan framed the referendum as a public-safety issue, both inciting and exploiting the fear that granting transgender people the right to use the bathroom of their choice would allow male sexual predators to gain entrance to women’s rooms by posing as women. “It [is] about protecting our grandmoms and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters,” asserted Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who supported repeal. The campaign aired a disgraceful TV ad. Shot in black and white, with ominous background music, it shows a man entering into a women’s restroom and hiding in a stall. A little girl wearing a school backpack walks in. “Even registered sex offenders could follow young girls into the bathroom,” says the voiceover, “and if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined.” The ad ends with the man entering the girl’s stall and shutting the door. “Stop Houston’s Bathroom Ordinance,” pleads the narrator. “It goes too far.”

What Terrorists Want

In the aftermath of  Paris and San Bernardino, cries for increased security and policy shifts to counter ISIS leave a basic question unanswered: what do the terrorists want? The immediate goal, of course, is to inflict pain, create mayhem, and sow fear. But what is the ultimate goal? What were the attackers in Paris trying to achieve? What did the “radicalized” Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik hope to accomplish in San Bernardino – and believe strongly enough in that they gave up a life with their newborn child to try it? And what role does religion play in all of this?

Terrorism is easiest to grasp when its aims are concrete and specific. Hold hostages to exchange for prisoners held by the other side. Draw world and media attention to a cause. Advance geopolitical goals. Alter a powerful nation’s foreign policy. (Remember the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, and how quickly Reagan pulled out our troops afterward?) Terrorism in Ireland involved trying to prevail in a civil and colonial war. Narcoterror in Mexico and elsewhere reflects brutal infighting over drug markets along and an attempt to cow governments, police forces and journalists. European terror groups in the 1970s, such as the Red Army Brigades and Baader-Meinhof Gang, acted on ideological animus in the hope of effecting political revolution. Ditto the Shining Path in Peru. Palestinian terrorists hijacked three airliners in 1970 to win the release of colleagues imprisoned in Great Britain and Germany. The Tamil Tigers were the terror wing of a secessionist insurgency. And on and on.