Thoughts on Viewing “Before Midnight”


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“Try a Little Tenderness”


Try a Little Tenderness 3Having watched the first two movies in the series, last weekend my wife and I attended a showing of “Before Midnight.” For those not familiar with the series, it began with “Before Sunrise,” which came out in1995. Jesse Wallace (Ethan Hawke) is a young American who meets Céline (Julie Delpy), a young French woman, on a train. They disembark in Vienna, where they spend the night walking around the city and getting to know each other. If you don’t think you’ll ever see this person again, you will sometimes reveal considerably more of yourself than what might otherwise have been the case, which is what happens. At the end of the movie they agree that there’s an attraction and also agree to meet again six months later.


The second movie was titled “Before Sunset” and takes place nine years later, actually being released in 2004. This time Jesse is in Paris at the end of a European tour for his bestselling novel on that earlier encounter. Céline attends the reading and they spend time together again for the first time in nine years, as the earlier planned meeting fell through. Jesse is married and unhappy; he stays only because he has a son. Céline has a boyfriend who also does not make her happy. Jesse has to catch a plane, but at the end of the movie when Céline reminds him he’ll soon miss it, he says only, “I know.”


Well, naturally the next part of the story, which also takes place nine years later, is for the two of them to be together in wedded bliss, except that they haven’t gotten married and are not as blissful as one might have expected on the basis of those first two movies. I’m not really writing this as a movie review, but for those who are interested, I will say that both Christine and I very much enjoyed the movie. We thought the acting excellent and the storyline itself, sadly, was very true to life.


Try a Little Tenderness 4That first movie in 1995 was a passing fancy, a single night, but it never left them. Nine years later when they reunited in Paris it was clear that this time they meant to become the couple they wish they’d become after that first chance encounter. So when we see them again after another nine years, this time with twin daughters, it seems only natural that they will be happy, but as the day becomes night we see that reality has intruded into that fairytale world we all thought they would now be enjoying.


In deference to those who have not yet seen the movie, I won’t go into the many arguments they have that night, but there were several things that struck us as we discussed the movie afterwards. It’s one of the joys of being childless, and we’ve always taken full advantage of it. We both love the movies and like nothing better than going to a late afternoon movie and following it with dinner where we can discuss it. This time round we talked about it most of the night and even a little the following morning.


Jesse and Céline had it all in the beginning. What the hell happened? Most longtime married couples, quite a few of whom have had similar experiences, would retort that life has intervened. But we happy few who have been blessed with truly happy marriages (we’re approaching our 37th anniversary and are still absolutely nuts about each other) would surely all say the same thing: those two have not worked on their relationship. Petty jealousies and resentments have intervened. Worse, they have not learned a principle we have always considered to be most fundamental. Words hurt.


We have honestly had very few arguments in all those years. I have always said that I don’t want to argue with Christine about anything, but I extra especially do not want to argue with her about nickel-and-dime things. As we approach our fourth decade, I suppose we have probably had half a dozen or so major arguments—and even fewer nickel-and-dime arguments. That is not to say that we don’t have problems and do not step on each other’s toes from times to time. We just handle it differently.

Try a Little Tenderness 5Most married couples experience two things with arguments. The first is a strong sense of déjà vu. Typically, a married couple will argue about some six or seven things. He won’t take out the garbage when she asks him to or insists on wearing a god-awful yellow shirt or well, pretty much anything you can imagine, I suppose, because people argue about the damnedest things. But here’s what happens. Each of them goes into it with one thought: no compromise, no way but my way. In time the argument ends because of exhaustion, but the next time they decide to go out, he’s sure to dig out that yellow shirt, and they’re sure to argue about it again.


The other thing that often happens—and we saw a lot of that in the movie over the weekend—is that the couple gets rather vicious with each other at times. Those arguments tend to follow the same course. He keeps at it until he has her in tears, and then he feels like a chump. And then, if this couple actually has a brain that works, they will sit down with each other and say, “OK, what can we do so we don’t have this argument again?”


Our solution is simplicity itself. We just cut to the chase. We already know we have a problem; that’s why we’re talking to each other about it. But from that it does not follow that we are obligated to go through the usual mean-words-make-her-cry scenario. We can just discuss whatever is wrong, put our heads together, and come up with a solution to it. The other secret is this: whatever we agree on is what we actually do. In all those years we have never encountered the same problem twice, and since there is typically very little disharmony in a happy marriage (they start that way, right?), you can work through that litany rather rapidly.


But that brings us back to poor Jesse and Céline. It was as clear as anything that neither of them really yielded a point to the other. They always had to win every point, which means that even though they’d been together some nine years, they had not yet decided on a place to live that suited both of them! He was no support to her in her work, and she frankly resented his success because he tended to write fictionalized accounts of their relationship, and the world he created for them was a far cry from the one they actually occupied. Worst of all was the language they used with each other.


Try a Little Tenderness 6My parents both had sharp tongues at times, and I always vowed that I would never treat another human being that way, but especially not my wife, and I never have. We have actually argued on a few occasions, and when you argue, you do so because you’ve lost your temper, which is to say you’ve lost control of yourself. But even though we’ve lost control, we always hang on tightly to the social graces. We do not call each other names. We do not hurl insults. Anything that we say is directly related to the subject at hand. So the next morning when we’re putting the pieces back together, we don’t have to start with this kind of exchange: “I’m sorry I called you a fat bitch.” “Thanks. And I shouldn’t have called you a selfish pig.” And face it, folks, that’s the G-rated version. I absolutely cannot believe some of the language used by people who purportedly love each other.


Here’s the other aspect of that. How in the world do you recover from that? Once you say it, it’s out, and no amount of apologies will ever wish it away. It’s like spilling black polish on a white carpet. Do what you will, it is forever stained.


But to bring this back to the movie, it was clear that Céline and Jesse rarely talked to each other without a fair number of snarky comments, and especially so when one was irritated with the other. And now after so many years together, they were beginning to wonder why they clung to the relationship. I wonder, though, what might have happened had they started each day with good mornings and peppered each day with “please” and “thank you” and an occasional “I love you.” Just a little tenderness. It doesn’t cost much.



My Favorite Romantic Movie


Favorite Romantic Movie 1




Favorite Romantic Movie 2When I was asked about favorite romantic movies, the answer was easy. Hands down, our favorite movie is “Barry Lyndon.” Nothing else even comes close. It’s a long story, dating back to 1976. Prior to a month we still refer to as “enchanted April,” we were just co-workers in the same department at the newspaper. I’d known her for two years and wanted desperately to date her, but how? Trust me, this woman was waaaay out of my league, and I knew it. I also knew that if I asked her for a date, she’d decline on the grounds that we worked in the same department, and I would forever be dead in the water. Two things coalesced.


First, she signed up for a writing class at a junior college. She knew I was a writer, and she asked me for a lesson. We met at my place, and she was pleasantly surprised when I did not “make the moves on her.” I have always thought that sort of thing was very underhanded. I was a complete gentleman, and at some point in the lesson she realized that I really was trying to teach her. My birthday was a few weeks later in April, so she invited me over to her place for a birthday dinner. I’ve written about that evening elsewhere in a blog entitled “Love’s More Comfortable.” Here I will say that from the moment I entered her apartment, it was if someone had flipped on a light. All these years later the light has never flickered or dimmed. So that was the first night.

The second item was music. She was not herself a fan of classical music but knew that I was. The movie “Barry Lyndon” directed by Stanley Kubrick came out in March of 1976, and one morning she came in gushing about the music used in the movie. She said she’d been so impressed that she’d stayed to read the credits and was astounded to learn that it was all classical music.


Favorite Romantic Movie 3After such an amazing first night, we got together for a second evening at her apartment the following Saturday. Knowing how impressed she was with the music, I got a record of the soundtrack for “Barry Lyndon” and took it with me. We, um, got to know each other VERY well that evening, and one of the records continually playing in the other room was that soundtrack.


That Sunday I was back at my apartment, and not having seen the movie to that point, I went to a showing of it. I entered the theater just as the end credits of the previous showing of it were airing. It starts with an arrangement of a sarabande by Handel, and when I heard it (having heard it so many times the previous night), my knees actually buckled. If I hadn’t grabbed the back of a chair, I think I would have fallen down.


It was the power of that music along with the certain knowledge that I had, after so many years alone, found the woman of my dreams. Four months and eleven days after that birthday dinner, I had dinner with my bride. And this morning, 36 years, 10 months, and 5 days after the first dinner as husband and wife, I had coffee with her. She’s still the one!


When we got our first DVD player, “Barry Lyndon” was the first one we purchased for it, and we still watch it from time to time, snuggling on the couch together, remembering a long ago evening that is like our love: ageless and ever evergreen.



The Problem with MBAs




“Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be MBAs”


clip_image004For a long time I did not know what an MBA did, and once I found out what they did, I still did not know what they did, or that is to say, I did not know of any essential service they provided. The dictionary definition of Master of Business Administration (MBA) is a master’s degree in business administration. And I am told further that the program is designed to introduce students to the various areas of business such as accounting, finance, marketing, human resources, operations management, etc. Armed with their MBAs, the young, the eager, and the ruthless have transformed the world of business in a surprisingly short time. When they first developed, they were dismissed as bean counters. Sadly, their effect on the world of business has been considerably less benign. The reason’s simple. They count and measure and squeeze every drop of juice out of an orange. They do not invent or produce or become passionate at the sheer joy of creating. They cut costs and kill dreams and often destroy businesses.


I first entered the world of business in 1967 when I was hired in one of the advertising departments for a large city newspaper. After a few years I noticed a change in management. It was a family business, and they continued to promote their own (nepotism is the word you’re groping for!), but the new breed of managers coming in didn’t know anything about the newspaper business. One of the new managers, a guy the same age as me, explained that he’d learned all that was necessary for his type of managerial style when he got his MBA. I really couldn’t see how he was going to manage something he didn’t know anything about, but that philosophy was in vogue then and they ran with it. When I left in 1982 I came away with a wariness of that kind of thinking. Any business must prosper or perish, but with the Young Turks, all the emphasis seemed to be on turning a nickel into a dime, how one got there being deemed irrelevant.


One of the more timely books I’ve read in recent months was actually published in 1986 and deals with matters one would have thought long since settled, but the hubris that created the problems described in the book, because it’s hubris, has simply multiplied like some sort of malignant corporate hydra. It’s “The Reckoning” by David Halberstam but it really should have been entitled “The Beginning of the Decline and Fall of the American Economic System.” The book itself, for those not familiar with it, deals with the problems of the automobile industry, more specifically, with the reaction of American auto makers when the Japanese first entered the fray. What makes it timeless is the persistence of the very pMamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be MBAs 4roblems and attitudes that so plagued Detroit at that time—and still do. These days, of course, Toyota is the Number One Auto Maker in the world, but they did not begin at that place and might never have achieved it, but for the very people Detroit thought would save them.


It was the Whiz Kids. They started in World War II as a group of young, undeniably brilliant, hand-selected junior officers who were sent to Harvard Business School for a special two-month course in the use of statistics. Thus armed, they developed a system of statistical control to bring rationality to decisions about military production. They really were a success at improving the logistics of deciding what was needed where and how best to get it there, and from that they began to think that they could run any business once the war had ended. And they went further than that. They decided they would job prospect en masse, seeking out those struggling companies most in need of their services.


They ended up at Ford Motors, having been, as they wished, hired as a group. Charles Thornton, who’d put the group together, soon went on to other things. The rest, led now by Robert McNamara (future Secretary of Defense under Lyndon Johnson) stayed on. At first they were finance people, the numbers people, bean counters, but all that counting and analyzing quickly became detrimental.


“Finance was soon a power of its own. Its principal driving force was Bob McNamara, and its basic philosophy was: Whatever the product men and the manufacturing men want, deny, delay it as long as possible. If in the end it has to be granted, cut it in half. Always make them fight the balance sheet, and always put the burden of truth on them.” David Halberstam, The Reckoning Pg. 236


Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be MBAs 5Paradoxically enough, it is a theory that both works and does not work. Yes, they could often save money for the company by simply making it more efficient, but there was that constant nagging idea that any additional cost was always detrimental to the bottom line, so a less expensive alternative, regardless of its merit, was the preferred path. That kind of thinking immediately ran up against one of the primary obstacles in competing with General Motors—the age of Ford plants. By 1949 they were in desperate condition. They were really leftover Model T Factories, and it showed. Plant people couldn’t even get a forklift into them to move materials back and forth because the aisles were too narrow. The obvious solution was to modernize, but the Whiz Kids constantly fought against it. By the time McNamara became head of the Ford Division, matters had come to a head.


“Nothing reflected the new split personality of the Ford Motor company, the clash between modern efficiency and old-time flawed reality, more than the battle of the paint ovens. Because the plants were in bad shape, inadequate to produce cars for the hungry postwar customers, there was soon a violent collision between McNamara and the manufacturing men over these facilities. The plant men wanted newer and better factories. McNamara wanted greater speed from the existing plants. The bottleneck, it quickly became clear, was the paint ovens. They were old, technologically outdated, and too small for contemporary cars. A manufacturing man, Neil Waud, told McNamara at one meeting of senior officials that there was no way that the painting could be expedited. Waud was stunned when McNamara then suggested that the chassis be built in two main parts, painted, and then welded together into one piece. Waud quickly explained why it was impractical, that the welding could not come after the painting and that even if it could, the car thus produced would be significantly weakened and vulnerable to all kinds of stress. But McNamara was insistent; there had to be a way to do this to speed up production. The more insistent he was, the blunter Waud became. ‘The problem with you,’ Waud shouted, ‘is you don’t know a goddam thing about how our cars are actually made.’ After the meeting broke up, McNamara turned to one of Waud’s superiors and said, ‘I don’t want that man at any more meetings.’” Ibid., Pg. 242


Notwithstanding the absurdity of McNamara’s position on that particular issue, he continued to prosper and eventually became President of Ford Motors, the first nonfamily member to do so. A year later McNamara left and was replaced by another numbers cruncher. Interestingly enough, McNamara went to the Defense Department and helped bring us the tragedy of the Vietnam war, no doubt something he managed most efficiently while presiding over the death of some 56,000 Americans, 1,000,000 Vietnamese and the utter devastation of a third world country for absolutely nothing. But to return this to business, the problem with not actually having a passion for making automobiles tells and tells very quickly.

Henry Ford was a tinkerer. He loved motors and having grease on his hands, loved developing new automobiles, and on the basis of that love, he eventually prospered as developer of a low-priced quality automobile. For the first few decades all who prospered at Ford Motors were also tinkerers, people who loved and died for automobile innovation. What changed all that was turning the plant over to numbers people, MBAs. Their sole objective was to squeeze a nickel till the buffalo pooped a dime.


Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be MBAs 6Nothing so illustrates the problem with numbers people running the show as the undercoating problem. One of the places on an automobile most prone to rust is the underbelly of the vehicle. They did paint it, but they were never able to get paint in all the nooks and crannies, and whatever they missed was vulnerable to rust. Finally in 1958, someone at Ford Motors came up with an idea of sheer genius. The E-coat was applied the way metalworkers plate metal with silver or chrome. The car body was completely submerged in a tank of paint and given an electrical charge, thereby adhering paint to every surface. It meant that vehicles had a much longer life because they wouldn’t rust so easily. But it meant, too, that the production people at Ford Motors were in for several decades of denials.


The MBAs running the show repeatedly pointed out that no one could put a number on a satisfied customer, and it would cost a hundred million or so to implement E-coat in all of their plants. Year after year Ford wrestled with rising loss numbers on their warranty guarantees because of rust issues, but the numbers people continued to prevail. And to add insult to injury, Ford Motors licensed that process to other automobile manufacturers, who promptly implemented it! Not until 1984, some 26 years later, did Ford finally use that method in all of their plants and only because the Japanese had long subscribed to it and used it in promoting vehicles which had, as one of their principle selling points, superior quality.


Despite the obvious quality control issues, Ford Motors actually prospered, and that, in the end became what business people are wont to describe as the “take away.” And because it was largely the culture fomented by MBAs that had produced such profits, the feeling began to develop that it was not necessary for people to actually know anything about any business they might care to manage. If they had mastered business administration, product knowledge was irrelevant.


Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be MBAs 8I was once a huge fan of college basketball, and one of the things I remember is games in which a team would get a large lead by taking chances on both offense and defense. Then they would concentrate on protecting the lead to such an extent that they would eventually lose it, at which point the announcers would be sure to point out that they had “forgotten what got them the lead.” American manufacturing used to count for something. Now it doesn’t, and I honestly believe MBAs have played a factor in that unfortunate development.


I don’t think MBAs are necessarily greedy or even that they create greed, but what I do think is that they enable greed. Part of the problem with a corporation is the many ways in which it can prosper, only some of which are beneficial. Invent a better mousetrap, and the world beats a path to your door, they say. What often goes unmentioned is the flip side of that—sell the sizzle, not the steak. Which is to say that if one can simply create the appearance of a better mousetrap, one can continue to peddle the old. And if it costs money to implement the better mousetrap, as it did with so many of the quality issues that plagued Ford Motors during the years surveyed by Halberstam and in the decades since, well, the solution seemed obvious. Sell the sizzle. So the American public is continually subjected to slogans like “Quality Goes in Before the Name Goes On” and “Have You Driven a Ford Lately,” while the deliberate inferiority of the product itself continues unabated.


MBAs did not create the type of mindset that sees only the bottom line, but they have surely contributed to it. In that sense, I suppose it’s a lot like the gun debate. One of the lines used by the NRA is, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” To which the answer often is, “Yeah, and they use a gun to do it.” Paraphrasing their slogan, than, those who defend the status quo might well say something like, “MBAs don’t pervert corporations; corporate management perverts corporations.” In both instances the instrument used to accomplish those ends is obvious. Please remember that, mamas, when your children go to college.