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Category: Culture

In keeping with a fine Eaganblog tradition, the time has come to present my annual predictions for the new year.

My first prediction is that all of my predictions will turn out to be correct. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve all been right so far. Nitpickers might point out that this is the first installment in this fine Eaganblog tradition, but that does not make it any less flawless.

Global warming will continue. On the plus side, it will be a dry heat.

Hillary will prove that she is still tone deaf by signing her own speech at the American Council of the Blind.

Donald Trump will eat a toddler on live TV and the next day be named The Sexiest Man Alive.

Bernie Sanders will be elected President (though Trump will win the popular vote by over ten million votes).

The Supreme Court will decide that, like corporations, guns are people too. As such, they have rights, including freedom of speech. In fact, they are entitled to the last word on almost any subject (especially the right to bear arms).

In art news, the Taj Mahal will be exposed as a forgery.

Self-driving cars will appear in showrooms. They will feature plenty of bells and whistles, but only the luxury models will offer a road rage package, complete with self-firing bazooka.

“Affluenza” will reach epidemic proportions, ending poverty worldwide.

Drones will begin delivering packages right to your door along with firefighting equipment and emergency medical assistance.

Robot umpires will be introduced in the minors, along with robot cops in minority neighborhoods. Bad calls will go way down.

Quentin Tarantino’s next movie will be released in full Bloodvision. Depending on your ticket, you will be spattered, splashed, or drenched in gore.

Jesus will come to earth and appear in front of the U.N. General Assembly. He will reveal that he is really more of a secular humanist himself, but that the Rapture will go on as scheduled. Accordingly, only sincere Democratic Socialists will be transported to heaven.

The sun will go out for a few minutes in late May, but it will come right back on so don’t sweat it.

And finally, Jennifer Lawrence will ask me out on a date, but I will be forced to decline.

See you next year (at least that’s what I’m predicting).
I saw a production of Macbeth a while back. I’d read the play, but this was the first time I’ve ever seen it presented on stage. Maybe it was actually seeing it live that made the difference, but the experience gave me a whole new take on this great tragedy.

The common wisdom holds that Macbeth’s tragic flaw, the profound defect of character that eventually spelled his doom, was his overweening ambition. He had big dreams, and he wanted them too badly. I now reject this assessment.

I am not a particularly ambitious person, but I have been advised that having at least some ambition is a good thing. Fine. I can see where it might be useful in getting ahead. Furthermore, I am willing to agree that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. The same goes for too much curiosity, too much self-doubt, too much self-confidence, or too much pride. All of those traits can be helpful in small amounts, but they’ll burn you if you overdo it.

But none of those, including ambition, is the root cause of Macbeth’s fall. He was ambitious, but that’s not what took him down. His flaw was even more fundamental than that. Indeed, he was cursed with a fatal weakness that is not helpful in any quantity. Macbeth’s flaw, poor fellow, was stupidity. Okay…overweening stupidity, if you insist.

It all comes clear in that scene with the three witches. They lay that prophecy on him — in witch poetry — and he bites so hard on it that he almost breaks a tooth. Then he swallows it whole and spends the whole play trying to convince himself that it must be true.

For the record, here’s what they said:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.

And later:

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

Let me say again that these are witches we’re dealing with — foul and reeking of evil. In fact, they revel in their evil. They're not the Salem witches, falsely accused and burned alive. These are genuine, unabashed, certified witches who traffic in trickery, deceit, and foul play. Why would someone believe anything they have to say? I’ll tell you why: because he is really, really stupid. So stupid, in fact, that he doesn’t know how stupid he is.

I mean, of course witches are going to yank you around. That’s what they do. Did it even enter Macbeth’s mind that their “prophecies” were nothing more than snares to capture the weak of mind? Did he stop to think, at the very least, that he should not take their strange verses literally? That he was not, in fact, invincible, always and forever? Did he for one moment consider the possibility that three scary old hags, smelling of eye of newt and goat gall, might not the best people to take career advice from?

No. And there you have his tragic flaw: being so sack-of-hammers stupid that he blows his status as a war hero, kills all his friends, and ends up dead and despised for all eternity by everyone in Scotland. It may seem odd that Shakespeare would elevate boneheadedness to the level of a hubristic defiance of the gods, but what other conclusion can we draw? The stupid had eaten into his judgment like an infestation of termites. If he were a house, he would have been tented and gassed.

I suppose that ambition, despite its upside, might rise to the level of a tragic flaw and finally pull a hero into tragedy (keep an eye on this year’s presidential campaign.) And there’s no doubt that Macbeth was ambitious. But good for him, I say. Go ahead, try to make something of your life. But do not assume that it's a done deal strictly on the say-so of three tools of Satan. That, milord, would be stupid. Tragically stupid, it turns out.
Lava Falls
A million years or so before we got here, the cinder cone now known as Vulcan’s Throne reared up on the lip of the Grand Canyon and discharged enough magma to fill the gorge from rim to rim. When the flow hardened, it blocked the river, creating a lake that extended all the way back into present-day Utah.

Since then, the river has resolutely sought its original course through the basalt, so that now what is left of the dam — coupled with prodigious flash flood debris from nearby Prospect Canyon — has made the Class 10 rapid called Lava Falls. Class 10 is the maximum rating for rapids judged to be safely runnable in the Grand Canyon.

Our time in this place will be considerably shorter than that ancient lava flow. Fifteen seconds is the average clocking of a successful passage through the falls. An unsuccessful run, one in which our boat might flip and empty us into the churning chaos of the river, would take a little longer. We would need that time to be fished out and reunited with our boat.

Before our trip began, I suspect that most of us had some uneasy nights while contemplating this very moment — perhaps entertaining some vague notion of being swallowed alive by the river, then spattered across a field of boulders. But we have come ten days and 179 miles since then, and now those wild, unfocussed fears seem a little silly. For the most part, that is.

We had, after all, chosen one of the most exciting methods for experiencing the Colorado: by dory. The Grand Canyon dory, a boat that has evolved through the years under the hands of many boatmen, is a light, agile craft, one that will respond instantly to boatman and water alike. It is a bit over twenty feet long, with upturned bow and stern and a flat bottom that magnifies its maneuverability. Unlike an inflated raft, it does not float over the waves, but dives into them like a flying fish. When you ride in a dory, you are meeting the river on its own turbulent, unpredictable terms.

So there is still plenty of uncertainty in our minds. We have been seasoned by the one-two punch of the Sockdolager Rapid (Bam! from the left, Boom! from the right), the rollercoaster at Hance, and the mad washing machine at Upset. Lava, though, has always loomed as our biggest test. It holds the greatest potential that dark hydraulic forces and pure chance might conspire to make our worst fears come true.

That said, we are not completely at the mercy of the river. Even though passengers in a dory do not handle the oars in a rapid, they can play a critical role in their boat’s safe passage. To help prevent flipping, the beefiest sit up front, lightweights in the rear. Our biggest edge against disaster, however, is “high-siding.” When one gunwale or the other swings up, we rush to that side, even clambering over our seatmate to keep our dory on course. If a wave is bearing down on us, we move toward it, looking to take the hit straight on. The dory wants to stay upright, we are told, but she is a sensitive creature, and if she is to succeed, she will need our full, unconditional support.

We know what to do, then, but will it be enough? We’ll soon find out, since now the moment is upon us. Lava Falls roars just ahead. And here it comes…we head, as usual, onto the “tongue” of the rapid, the long, smooth continuation of the current that tapers into the seething heart of the whitewater. The Santa Ana picks up speed, skirting a wide circle of confused water that fronts a monstrous hole to our left. We zip by the monster, turn quickly left behind it, and Wham!... Bam!... Boom! Three big waves hit us.

I think it’s three, anyway; it’s hard to be sure when things are happening so fast. We lean into them, we high-side…and we’re through! A brief pause to spy the other dories, then it’s into Lower Lava, and we’re through again! We turn back to watch our sister boats, ready to pick up any swimmers.

The Dark Canyon comes through cleanly, then the Hidden Passage. Last comes the Lost Creek, and we can see right away that things have gotten dicey. Its bow has come up just as it is hit by a wave. Boom! The dory seems to do a little toe dance on top of the foam. It’s as if the flying fish now thinks it’s a bird, and it wants to take flight.

On board, Jennifer and Greg are up front, furiously high-siding. Ryan, their boatman, tucks his oars and hunches forward in his seat, as close as possible to the wave…and the bow comes down! They rock and roll down along the wave train and on through Lower Lava.

Our three support rafts follow us through without incident. We go seven-for-seven through Lava Falls — not a miracle, exactly, but it was never a sure thing, either. Sometimes, the river will have its way in spite of what you do. Roger, our boatman on the Santa Ana and a veteran of nearly two hundred trips down the river, had flipped here for only his second time just a month before. But that ghost has been banished now, along with whatever private demons the rest of us may have had. We are delivered.

It is true that our fifteen seconds on the falls don’t count for much when stacked up against Vulcan’s Throne and the slow march of geologic time. We are an infinitesimal tick within that enormous clockwork of events. But for our brief time here, let it be said that we were fully present, with no thought for past or future. Only the water, the dory, and our own split-second reactions mattered.

Our complete attention is all that the river had ever asked from us. For those few moments, at least, we were happy to comply.
I have never looked forward to the release of a movie more than Animal House. That was back in 1978, and I had long since left fraternity life behind for the much more structured world of adulthood. The fond memories of my three-year binge of nihilism, however, were still strong in me. I wanted to see how the Big Screen would present that dark culture to the movie-going public.

What made the event especially interesting was my familiarity with the script. Several of the episodes in the movie had appeared years before in the National Lampoon, and before that I had heard them as part of the rich oral tradition of the AD bar — or witnessed them myself. AD (for Alpha Delta Phi) was my fraternity at Dartmouth — and the model for Animal House.

Chris Miller ’63 (called Pinto by some) wrote those stories in the Lampoon and later became a co-screenwriter for the movie. (If you look online, that’s him, third from the right in the cast photo. He and his two fellow screenwriters also appeared as Delta Tau Chi brothers in the movie.) I think one of the reasons Animal House was never matched by any of the frat house comedies that followed it was its quasi-realism. The sickness, the black humor, the tales of creative repulsiveness were based on real events. For the most part, that is, relatively speaking, when adjusted for Hollywood input.

The scene from the movie that has become most associated with college debauchery, however, never happened. There were no toga parties at AD and never would have been, according to some of the older, grumpier keepers of the AD flame (myself included). What costumes there were tended to be impromptu affairs, and they were mostly meant to appall people, not as fun-loving hi jinx. But the toga metaphor persists, and it has spawned similar events all over the country, including at Dartmouth itself. Life imitating art, you might say. A lot of what actually happened at AD, I expect, might not find such favor in popular culture.

In many ways, what went on there was nothing special. Groups of young men have been abusing alcohol since the dawn of civilization, and they have been doing stupid, disgusting things that whole time. I have no doubt that many of those stories would easily trump anything done by a bunch of fine, young Ivy Leaguers with bright futures. Still, we had our fling at nihilism, and it was good.

I won’t apologize for our real-life cast of characters, either. There were some genuine wild men in AD. None exactly like John Belushi’s creation, but they had that same level of fertile, funny dementia. Chris once told me that he built his characters for the movie from pieces of the real brothers of AD. The personae we saw onscreen, then, were cut-and-pastes of the real thing, and to that degree they were real.

I visited Dartmouth a couple of weeks ago for the first time in forty-five years. I have nothing surprising to report; the house has changed, Dartmouth has changed, I have changed. All that is to be expected. There is some news from Hanover, though. While I was there, the Daily D broke the story that the College had hit AD with a suspension (read “double secret probation”). The house, it seems, had hosted an unpermitted party (I told you things had changed). The punishment: no booze of any kind in the house until next September. I am not sure that the current brothers are pursuing their own brand of nihilism, but if they are, this is a serious issue; alcohol, particularly beer, would play a central role in their quest.

I wish them well. As fine, young men with bright futures, they will need that experience as a bulwark against the stultifying tedium of the world they will soon enter.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon