what i'm watching: m*a*s*h re-watch update: still funny and other observations (updated)

Back in August, I started re-watching M*A*S*H end to end on Netflix. I promised updates... and here we are. (tl;dr: it's great.) Random thoughts below.

A huge number of M*A*S*H episodes have no plot whatsoever, but are a series of unconnected scenes or vignettes. These aren't clip shows, as the scenes have not aired before.

For many years Allan and I have called any TV show comprised of vignettes and framed by narration "Hawkeye writes home". We both remembered M*A*S*H frequently using this structure, with Hawkeye writing a letter to his father. Turns out there's a reason we remembered it: it's used all the time. In the first season alone, there were three Hawkeye-writes-homes, two narrated by Hawkeye and another by Henry Blake. This remains a constant from season to season: Radar writes to his mom, Henry Blake writes to Lorraine, BJ writes to Peg, Colonel Potter writes to his wife. In most shows I would call it lazy writing, but here the writing is so good, I just go with it.

Every episode of M*A*S*H has two distinctly different parts, with two different feels: the operating room and everywhere else. The distinction is achieved by what must have been a very bold move in its day: there's no laugh track in the OR. (Much is written about this online; producer Larry Gelbart talks about it here.) In the absence of canned laughter, Hawkeye's bon mots are revealed as grim, gallows humour. Hawkeye's and BJ's commentary on Frank Burns' inferior surgery techniques becomes deadly serious.

In Season 3, the episode "O.R." is set only in the OR - which means that there's no laugh track at all, for the entire show. It's extremely fitting, as the episode is not funny: it's an indictment of war. (There's some good commentary on this episode, including a quote from Gelbart, here.)

Season 4 ends with a famous episode called "The Interview," in which a journalist - apparently an actual war correspondent playing himself - interviews the cast. It's another Hawkeye-writes-home, written by Gelbart himself, shot in black-and-white, with no laugh track - also with no laughs. This episode is clearly not intended to be funny.

When I started this re-watch, I wondered if these serious episodes would be maudlin or overly sentimental. They are not. They are hard-hitting and heartbreaking.

I know that M*A*S*H was a commentary on the Vietnam War, but I didn't remember how far it went as a commentary on all wars generally. One way this is achieved is by having serious, honourable characters make anti-war statements. Colonel Potter, who fought in both World Wars, will often comment on the waste, the futility, the brutality, the unfairness of war. He is an honest and revered figure, a career soldier, yet he understands war only as a necessary evil - and often questions the necessary part. Pro-war statements, on the other hand, only come from buffoons - Frank Burns, Colonel Flagg, and other bit roles.

The future-famous-actor cameos ended early. Since my last M*A*S*H post, only Alex Karras and Mary Kay Place have appeared. Mary Kay Place (who I adore) was absolutely unrecognizable, but I'd know her voice anywhere. She also co-wrote the episode. Of course, there might have been guest appearances by people who were known in real time, but wouldn't necessarily be remembered by a 21st Century viewer.

Here's something that dawned on me slowly: the most important character of the show isn't Hawkeye, it's Radar. Walter "Radar" O'Reilly is the thread that ties all the characters and scenes together, the one character who has reason to interact with every other character, in any setting. Over the seasons, Radar's character develops with both humour and pathos, and Gary Burghoff's performance is brilliant. When I watched M*A*S*H in real time, as a child, I was always confused by Radar's age: other characters talked about him like he was a teenager, even a kid, yet he was clearly an adult. I mean, he was balding! Watching it now, I still note his hairline, but it's very clear that the character is meant to be a young person.

And finally, a note about M*A*S*H's theme music. There's no cold open, and the show opening with those first minor-key notes, as the helicopters hover, preserves a plaintive feel. The music builds as the medical staff race to receive the wounded. The music is sad, and urgent, and very effective. In the first four seasons, however, one note was bothering me. Literally one note. As strange as this might seem, the final note of the theme music was out of place. It sounded comical, with almost a zany sitcom feel, more fitting for Gilligan than Hawkeye. It bothered me in every episode. Then, amazingly, in Season 5, the note is gone. Apparently I'm not the only person who heard an incongruity in this note. The producers cut one note from the theme music, and that changes the viewer's expectations from sitcom to serious.

Update. How annoying! I just found some notes I made with more inconsequential M*A*S*H information. It doesn't warrant its own post, so...

I was wrong about the disappearance of the guest stars. I spotted John Ritter, Terry Garr, Robert Alda (Alan's father), and Michael O'Keefe. I'm thinking that many other small parts were played by actors who were known in their day.

In one episode, Colonel Henry Blake remarks that they watched a double feature: "The Blob" and "The Thing". Now, The Blob holds a very special place in my life; perhaps I will blog about it at some point. The original The Blob came out in 1958. The Korean War began in 1950 and ended in 1953.

For "The Thing", the only similar title I found was the 1951 "The Thing from Another World." Making up a title, no problem. Using the title of a real film that wasn't out yet... you can bet the producers got cards and letters about that one.

My other observations, I've decided to hold for a post about re-watching TV shows from the 1970s.


what i'm reading: dead wake: the last crossing of the lusitania by erik larson

On May 7, 1915, the gigantic luxury ocean liner Lusitania - an engineering marvel, the fastest ship of its era - was hit by a torpedo shot from a German "U-boat" submarine. The ship had nearly completed its crossing from New York and was in sight of the Irish coast.

Eighteen minutes later, the Lusitania had sunk. 1,198 passengers and crew, including three German stowaways, were gone. Only six of the ship's 22 lifeboats had been launched. Many passengers drowned because they had put their life-jackets on wrong, so their feet waved in the air while their heads were held underwater. The passenger list included an unprecedented number of infants and children, including several large families. 764 people survived, including the ship's captain.

Before reading Erik Larson's Dead Wake, I knew nothing about this incident. I might have vaguely known that it had something to do with World War I, perhaps not even that. So for me, this book was a revelation, and I think most readers would agree.

Larson tells the story through multiple perspectives, cutting in short chapters between the ship, the U-boat, Woodrow Wilson's White House, and the top-secret British naval intelligence office. Despite the known outcome, Larson builds suspense masterfully. The first-person accounts of Lusitania passengers, and dozens of perfectly placed details, paint a very vivid picture.

I found the chapters on the German side particularly fascinating. Most of us know something about travel on the glorious ocean liners of that era, from all the Titanic lore. But I'm sure I'm not alone in knowing nothing about submarine technology of that time. The conditions on the U-boats were beyond grueling, and so dangerous that early forays were suicide missions. Reading Dead Wake, I developed an unexpected sympathy for the U-boat captain and crew, despite knowing that they were preying on undefended civilians. This is a tribute to Larson's considerable skill.

Larson is an absolute master of literary nonfiction. He established his reputation in 2003 with Devil in the White City, about a hunt for a serial killer during the Chicago Exposition of 1893. I haven't read his other books, but White City is a true page-turner, and Dead Wake is even better.

Many things about the sinking of the Lusitania remain unsolved and controversial. To those ends, Larson presents new evidence suggesting that British naval intelligence knew, and possibly even expected, the attack, but allowed it to happen to give the United States a pretext for joining the war then raging in Europe and elsewhere. According to this review, Lusitania buffs will encounter nothing new. But how many of us are Lusitania buffs? For everyone who is not, this book will be richly rewarding.


meet the new boss and etc.

Well, here's something I never expected: the Harper Conservatives get booted out, and I'm not celebrating.

I'm happy they're gone, of course. And some spectacular assholes lost their seats. But on the other hand, Canadian voters in 100 ridings wanted to keep them in power. And more importantly, almost every Member of Parliament who I felt good about is out.

We have a lot of work to do.


#elxn42: fear, frustration, disbelief, and hope

Although I haven't been blogging much (or at all) about the upcoming Canadian federal election, I've been thoroughly and utterly obsessed by it for months. These last weeks have brought an almost intolerable level of suspense and frustration. I've been expressing that on Facebook, rather than here on wmtc - small bursts of agony, links to share, commiseration. Seesawing emotions, trying to keep hope alive and despair at bay.

If seat projections are to be believed, only a month ago, the New Democratic Party was mopping the floor with blue and red. We would see Canada's first NDP government. It might even be a majority! The Harper Conservatives would limp in at dead last.

Fast-forward to last week, and - again, if polls are to be belived - the NDP has lost a huge chunk of seats, to the gain of both the Conservatives and Liberals.

The generally accepted explanation for this is Stephen Harper's disgusting anti-niqab campaign. Supposedly Harper waved Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia in the face of Canadian voters, and they ran screaming away from the NDP into the arms of the tried-and-true blue team. Orange crush turned into orange crash.

I simply don't believe it.

I don't believe this niqab nonissue resonated so strongly with so many Canadians that they would actually change their voting preference. I believe that most Canadian voters understand that a woman covering her face during a citizenship ceremony, as she does daily, is not actually an election issue.

So: are the polls to be believed?

Many sources point out that polling is based on an antiquated model. Pollsters call landlines, which already selects a demographic. Caller ID narrows it down even further. So polling information is gleaned from people with landlines who are willing to answer their phones and willing to answer questions. Online polls are basically useless.

Making it even crazier, many voters are (supposedly) influenced by these polls. People are willing to vote NDP if it looks like the NDP can win. So-called strategic voters obsess on voting Liberal, as if they can predict what everyone else is going to do.

This excellent editorial in The Hill Times suspects the Canadian electorate is insane, and incapable of imagining what real change would look like.
A wise man once defined insanity as the act of “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Being that our political pendulum seems to be swinging back toward old faithful (the Libservatives) I’m going to go ahead and suggest the Canadian electorate start facing some cold, hard facts. Namely, that our country may very well be insane.

As much as we liken ourselves a wiser and broader-minded breed than our neighbours down south, Canada has been oscillating back and forth, back and forth, between two primary governing parties since 1867. Just two.

And though these two parties like to think of themselves as different as night and day, in many ways, they’re one in the same. Don’t believe me? Indulge me for a moment...
Are the polls and seat projections wrong? Are they wrong on purpose? If you noted the media meltdown after Jeremy Corbyn was elected Leader of the Labour Party in the UK, it's not out of the question. Tom Mulcair is no Jeremy Corbyn, but an NDP government would be a herald of change, of people pushing back the corporate hegemony. Why would the corporate media want that?

Was the NDP majority government in Alberta - can you believe I just typed that?! - predicted? Was the 2011 Conservative majority predicted? Was the first NDP Official Opposition predicted? I find a lot of conflicting answers to these questions.

I have some problems with Tom Mulcair. I don't agree with absolutely everything he says. But if he will deliver on promises, if he will take us in the direction of the NDP platform, we may just see "the Canada of our dreams".

Some good stuff:

Globe and Mail editorial: The niqab is a distraction. Voters should focus on real issues.

Chatelaine: I'm Muslim and I'm sick of hearing about the niqab

The Common Sense Canadian: Niqab defence might cost Trudeau and Mulcair, but they're right

Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal: Don't like the niqab? Don't wear one.

The Sun (The Sun!!): NDP popularity a sign of voters' optimism

The Beaverton (Canada's answer to The Onion): Unemployed Canadians so happy to see politicians addressing the niqab again

John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star (a must-read): The niqab crisis: by the numbers

Don't-Be-A-Fucking-Idiot.ca, Created By A Human Being Who Gives A Shit: A SWEARY

And finally, VOTE THAT FUCKER OUT!!, definitely NSFW.

excellent selection, price, and service from canada computers

Allan has been using Canada Computers & Electronics for a while, but for some reason, I was not onboard. I thought they were a small outfit that wouldn't have a good selection or good prices. Wrong! They have a full selection, very good prices, and excellent customer service.

Right after we moved, we needed three computer-related purchases in a row. When it rains, it pours, eh?

First my computer wouldn't connect to the internet, and we suspected it needed a new wireless card. At the store, we didn't have the right information, and bought the wrong one. Allan returned it the next day, very easily, and came home with the correct card (which was less expensive).

Next, setting up our TV and Roku, we couldn't get a decent connection. It's a good thing we already knew that Roku works great, or we would have thought the whole streaming thing was crap. In the last two places we lived, the distance from router to Roku was much greater, and our connections were always fine. Now we're in a smaller space, the router is much closer to the Roku, and we can barely connect. We find this very strange!

I did some research online, and thought we should try a wifi range extender. Back to Canada Computers: another good selection and very good price. (The range extender solved the problem, and we intend to buy a second one, to cover both our wireless networks, the ISP and the VPN.)

Then, most annoyingly, my external hard drive failed. That's my backup, all my photos, my own writing clips, and whatever else. Yup, I failed to backup my backup. Photos from trips are also on CD, and some are on Flickr, so it wouldn't be a total loss. But it wouldn't be fun.

We went straight to Canada Computers. They told me how their data recovery service works: a minimum of $20, and if they can't recover the data, they'll let you know and you can collect the drive, no further cost; if they can recover it, it's $80 per hour for labour, and usually runs around $200. I expected to pay around $200, so that seemed fine. I also had to buy a new external, someplace for them to save the data if they could recover it. (It's been an expensive move!)

Two days later, they called to say the data was recovered. When we picked it up, we were very pleased to be charged only $80, the minimum one hour of labour. That kind of honesty gives me a really good feeling about going to Canada Computers again.

Also, although I always call them "Canada Computers," the store is actually "Canada Computers & Electronics". They sell TVs, home appliances like refrigerators, and small appliances like coffee makers and toasters. Their staff actually knows about the products they sell, and their prices are competitive. Good bye, Best Buy and Future Shop!


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #19

A mother and her young son enter the library, returning a big stack of books for beginning readers. A conversation is already in progress. Imagine this in a voice - no, a whine - of pure sadness.

"But why do I have to return it?"

"Because it's not yours. It belongs to the library."

"But it's the best book ever."

I hustled over. I assured him he could take it out again, as long as no one was waiting for it. "Can I please see the book?" He reluctantly handed it over, near tears.

It was an easy reader with lovely Eric Carle-esque illustrations... a nonfiction book about spiders! I renewed for him. "Here you go." His face lit up.

Mom said, "You will have to return it eventually, you know."

Boy: "But whyyyyyy?"

Mom: "Because it belongs to the library."

Me: "I bet I could find other books that you would love just as much."

He looked very skeptical. "This is the best book ever."


a gray rug, a black kong, a happy white dog

We need to get rugs or carpet runners for Tala; she's slipping on the wood floors when she and Diego play. But with one heavy shedder and one heavy drooler, we're not too keen on buying nice rugs. While looking for something else at Ikea, we found a rug they were promoting: $17! They're not bad looking, either.

I put the rug down, Tala immediately ran down the hall, retrieved her squishy bone toy from my office, ran back, and settled in for a chew. She saw that rug and she knew exactly what she wanted.

For $17 each, we can cover a good portion of the floor with these babies, and make Tala very happy.


votepopup: voter education at the library

On the long list of anti-democratic policies the majority Harper Government has enacted, the Orwellian-named Fair Elections Act ranks near the top. More properly called a voter suppression law, the Act effectively disenfranchise tens of thousands of Canadians.

The Council of Canadians has taken the issue to court, including an ongoing Charter Challenge, but those won't affect the upcoming election. That means there's only one way to lessen the effects: voter education. 

Last night at the Malton Library, we contributed to that effort, with #VotePopUp, a voter education program for new Canadians. 

Some weeks ago, I learned that one of our libraries had hosted this program, and jumped onboard. I worked with an amazing community organizer, who has a bit of funding from Samara Canada and Elections Canada, and copious amounts of know-how through the Peel Poverty Action Group and her own nonprofit, Building Up Our Communities.

I promoted the program through various community organizations in Malton, and by chance it was scheduled on the same night as a newcomer ESL class, known here as LINC: Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada. These programs have been hit hard by Conservative and Liberal budget cuts (do you see a pattern here?), but thanks to dedicated teachers and social workers, they survive.

So last night, 39 adults crowded into a room in the Malton Community Centre to talk about voting. 

Why vote? Am I eligible to vote? Where do I vote? What ID do I need? How do I mark the ballot? ... and a few dozen similar questions were answered. Many of the students have voted in their original countries and are very keen to do so in Canada. Many of their original countries make voting much easier; others, more difficult. 

The program is completely nonpartisan, of course. By another excellent coincidence, there is an all-candidates meeting in Malton tonight, the night following the program. We were able to distribute flyers and explain what would happen at that meeting.

The presenter had prepared a mock ballot, and students chose the issue most important to them: jobs, transit, education, healthcare, and so on. Jobs won by a landslide. Using that, I was able to demonstrate how this would tie in with an all-candidates meeting: "What will your party do to bring more jobs to my community?" 

The library is the perfect place for a program like this. Our customers can use free, public computers to register to vote or look up their polling station. They can ask experts for free (and friendly!) help. They can use their library cards as a piece of voting ID. The public library is all about democracy and levelling the grossly unfair playing field. Voter education is naturally a piece of that picture.