Saturday, August 29, 2020

Postal Service Reform is Necessary .... Sometime

It’s well past due for this country to reform the US Postal Service. A postal service is required in the U.S. Constitution, which says, “The Congress shall have the power] to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.” Article 1, Sec.8. But Benjamin Franklin, our first Postmaster General had established post offices before the Constitution was adopted. Nothing appears in the Constitution suggesting the Postal Service must be self-sustaining. Since the earliest days of our republic, news and information has been delivered to homes and post offices. As we spread west, postage was delivered by Pony Express, Well Fargo station wagons, and RFD (rural free delivery established in the 19th century) to postal boxes at the end of lanes heading up driveways to farms, homes, and estates. 

Meanwhile, post offices, large and small, were established in such a way that every Member of Congress maintained a vested interest in keeping employees and services at work in order to service voters throughout their districts. This has come to mean that every elected official has an interest in keeping the Postal Service, post offices, and postal employees. They constitute a working crowd now consisting of over 600,000 employees and costing $71 billion dollars, serving every home and office in the country. These people and the institutions all affect people who vote. The Postal Service has long been in need of a major overhaul, but not this way and not now!

President Trump has chosen to make massive changes, with no particular plan in mind, let alone on paper, describing what his goals are or how he wishes to achieve them. Rather than undertake the legislative process necessary to make rational and needed changes or to prepare the population for them, he has staked his possible (but not likely) re-election on disrupting the postal delivery service by sabotage and fiat rather than by negotiation and compromise, which might take years to achieve. He has sown distrust in a system which most Americans have trusted, used, and revered. 

The biggest change affecting how we receive and exchange information, goods,  services, as well as money is the advent of the digital information age and widespread use of the Internet. The Covid-19 Pandemic has not only accelerated the urgent need for rethinking our communications and delivery systems, but forced many Americans to rely ever more completely on some sort of integration between old-fashioned mail, and ubiquitous electronic communication. But, sadly, those able to avail themselves of widespread electronic and postal services are only those who live in areas dense enough to have provided nearly universal services or who are wealthy enough to assure their becoming a fully integral part of our daily lives.


Banking, bill paying, investing, Christmas cards and birthday cards, personal and business correspondence, advertising, and a plethora of other communications which once arrived by mail now come to us through a variety of digital devices, each of which is built into one or another digital device which have now become ubiquitous, but certainly not universal. Until electronic services are as available to nearly everyone today as postal service was by the end of the nineteenth century and electricity by the mid-twentieth century, major changes in the US Postal Service will remain impossible. 

Families living without access by cable or, at least, cell-tower still cannot access the internet. However, as of 2019, according to a Pew Research Center report, that percentage had only reached 85% in rural areas.

Until we can provide, at a reasonable cost, nearly 100% availability to the Internet in America’s rural areas, we cannot undertake extensive overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service. Even if in large parts of the country there will be redundant availability of access to computers and supplies to those needing to use them as an adjunct to schooling, the Postal Service can be fully accomplished. Now, just before a hotly contested election in the midst of a pandemic when the country is more divided than ever surely cannot be the right time to begin work on accomplishing this enormous and enormously expensive national goal. 

While the USPS is no longer the source of innumerable patronage jobs for members of Congress to dispense to constituents, there are still post offices in all but the smallest hamlets in the nation. Taking those small village post offices, which function to deliver the mail as well as being a place where neighbors cross paths on a regular basis, would become contentious for those running for office. Eliminating this widespread source of jobs and information could make the thorough re-imagination of distribution and reduction in size of the Postal Service costly to any politician.

Nevertheless, the ways we distribute goods and services, information, and entertainment have changed substantially in the last three decades or so. Changes in the scope and mission of the USPS in the face of these changes are inevitable and important. At the very least, such changes deserve thoughtful, considered decision-making and a full-fledged administrative and legislative cooperation. All this argues strongly against the immediate and politically oriented reduction to postal delivery we currently face. Finally, saving the postal system and integrating it properly will require striving for a level of consensus not currently existing in the country. It’s time to put such major changes on hold until more light and less heat is shed upon the many serious problems we face. 


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Last Tango In Halifax - Review

Last Tango in Halifax available for streaming on Netflix consists of four seasons already released in the US, as well as a fifth season to be released in US on PBS starting on September 20, 2020 and, presumably later on Netflix. The story follows the adventures and misadventures of two families in Yorkshire, one urban and relatively comfortable, the other a rural family living on a sheep farm all brought together when their senior members, Alan and Celia,  meet through Facebook and re-kindle their stillborn relationship after more than sixty years of missing, lost love. Celia, played by Anne Reid and Alan, by the great Derek Jacobi, soon decide to  marry and we’re off to the races. 

Anne Reid & Derek Jacobi

Located and mostly filmed in and around Yorkshire, UK, the scenery is lovely, no matter the weather, as the tale wends its way through the physical year and the seasons of family dynamics in four generations of complex relationships involving assorted current and ex-partners. Together, the characters will grab your attention, keeping you focused on this not-always-lovable extended, but constantly intriguing and surprising, family as they go about living complicated and often difficult lives. The narrative takes on the full load of issues involved when living in contemporary society: elder sex, alcoholism, class differences, gender identity, race, fidelity and infidelity, family violence, and more. 

Large and Varied Cast

No character is without problems or flaws, each becoming more human and approachable because of their flaws rather than despite such foibles. Nicolla Walker, familiar to British detective series fans, is superb as the tortured almost accidentally nymphomaniacal Gillian. Sarah Lancashire plays Caroline, simultaneously vulnerable and arch as head of the local public (thus private) school finds herself confused in every corner of her life. And, of course, both Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid dominate as the aging risk takers willing to shoulder new commitments while reaching into their mid-seventies. The lovers and children all make this romp both believable, funny, and tragic. The series transcends situation comedy without ever becoming farce or tragedy, but always seeking to remain hopeful, emphasizing the ultimate humanity of each character. 

Sarah Lancashire & Nicola Walker

Playwright - Sally Wainwright

Currently available on Netflix and PBS PassportLast Tango in Halifax, written by Sally Wainwright, remains human and believable, as relationships rise and fall, even crumble while the characters learn and grow. Filled with laugh-out-loud comedy and eye-wetting tragedy, this is a hard series not to like or even to pace your viewing, as it encourages binging. Give yourself up to those few parts seeming unbelievable by sitting back and letting it all in. You'll love it that way.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Perry Mason - 2020


The criminal lawyer Perry Mason has stood for defending the innocent for nearly one hundred years. Author/lawyer Earl Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) wrote eighty Perry Mason novels and short stories, beginning with The Case of the Velvet Claws, published in 1933 and selling twenty-eight million copies in its first fifteen years. At the time of his death, he was the best selling American author...ever. Beyond the novels, six Perry Mason movies were made during the 1930’s, a radio show ran on CBS from 1943-1955, the television program starring Raymond Burr as Mason ran from 1957-1966. You can still view the first eight seasons of Perry Mason on CBS All-Access. 

Earl Stanley Gardner

Those of us of a “a certain age” all have Perry Mason in our backgrounds in some way or another. I remember the fifteen minute radio show, gathered around the radio in our third story New York apartment. In books as well as films and tv the formula of half a show dedicated to the investigation and the second half devoted to the trial, always ending in the accused being found innocent, is still the basic model for detective fiction and film. This formula for telling the Perry Mason story still dominates the current version, whose first season has just been completed on HBO Max, where it was green lighted for a second season before the first one ended. But the differences in style and substance are considerable, and perhaps not acceptable to some older Mason fans. 

Raymond Burr

The calm, self-possessed, Perry Mason played by Raymond Burr who inhabits the consciousness of so many of us, is not the current character at all. Perry Mason, played by Matthew Rhys, who you’ll remember as the two-lives spy in The Americans, is tortured by fear and doubt as a shell- shocked (now properly labeled as PTSD) WW I vet in 1931 Los Angeles. The series provides back-stories for all the major characters appearing in the books, on film, radio and television - Della Street, Hamilton Burger, Paul Drake - but they’re nothing like the mid-century cutouts you’d recognize. No Black characters appear in the original Perry Mason shows, while this iteration is filled with color, awareness of women’s concerns, ethnicity, and real language you’d never experience on television. 

Matthew Rhys

The plot, very broadly, concerns the kidnapping and murder of an infant child. Also, front and center is a  religious zealot looking and sounding a lot like the famous (notorious) evangelist, Amy Semple McPherson, who created a national sensation during the 1920’s and early thirties from her base in Los Angeles, played by Tatiana Maslany.  Mason is a down-at-the-heels private investigator doing the legwork for DB Jonathan, played by the always terrific John Lithgow. Included is a full-scale explanation of how the attorney Perry Mason emerges, as well as other familiar Mason characters like Della Street and Paul Drake. All the characters emerge as complex individuals, each coping with real issues complicating their lives while making them interesting as well as arresting. Cloaked in moral, sexual, and religious ambiguity, this story moves way beyond anything you might see on network television, even today, which remains one of the great gifts of streaming television.  

Juliana Rylance as Della Street

The settings are period Los Angeles, nighttime scenes are often dark and threatening while agricultural and desert surroundings brightly, even harshly lit. The film noir atmosphere provides a perfect setting for tortured, often violent lives of the characters. Car lovers will enjoy this series simply for the range and quality of antiques on display. The sets capture the period highlighting architecture, furniture, lighting fixtures, and more to create perfect settings for the hardship of the times. The script reflects the racism, sexism, police, and civil corruption into which Mason tries to bring his simple morality of right and wrong over what’s simply legal. 

Running for eight recently completed episodes on HBO Max, Perry Mason proved itself to be a highly rewarding, tension-filled police/legal procedural with plenty extra. Ratings were: IMDb = 8, Rotten Tomatoes = 75%. Irene sometimes found it to be “too talky,” but I enjoyed the pacing, development, and nuance of the plotting and acting added to the pleasure of the entire production. Perry Mason has been renewed for a second season, which I hope will lead to several more.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Yellowstone - A Modern Western


The great West, as portrayed in movies since The Great Train Robbery, was made in 1903 and known as the first western. From my first experiences with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Lone Ranger, the myths of western self-sufficiency have fevered my imagination, and built our nation as well as our notions of manhood, inspiring while damaging us, too. A leader in this tradition was the great sixties era Bonanza, standing out as a model for Yellowstone as the family empire built on the power, will, intelligence, and hard work of a patriarch whose children cannot possibly live up to his standards, but strive to be true to the great mythic tradition they come from.

Kevin Costner

Executive producer and star Kevin Costner has contributed mightily, and often with great sensitivity and intelligence, to this tradition in films like Dances with Wolves, Wyatt Earp, Silverado, and more. In Yellowstone, as John Dutton, the patriarchal figure, he’s a fifth generation rancher, a billionaire trying to preserve the traditions of a cattle ranch set in unbelievably beautiful scenery beside Yellowstone National Park. Besieged by commercial development, age-old conflicts with the indigenous population (referred to as the Confederated Tribes), as well as local, regional, and national politics in a modern world where ranchers break horses and fly helicopters on the same day, there’s endless room for drama, conflict, action, sex, and intrigue in this compelling series. 

Now completing its third season, the program retains its drive and drama, often also tugging at the heartstrings as characters develop further every week. The program sometimes displays raw violence in large and small ways. For instance, newly hired and properly taken into the inner circle, new ranch hands are brutally branded with a large Y on their chests, making their jobs a lifelong, two-way commitment, and Yellowstone a place you leave at great peril. Gunfights no longer feature two men meeting each other face-to-face on Main Street, but often control and revenge are taken with automatic weapons in military style insurgent raids.

The Dutton Family

Action in the series alternates between the conflicts and machinations of the Dutton family and life in the bunkhouse where there’s an active social life as well as dreams, challenges, and choices. The secondary characters are well drawn, convincing personalities adding to the show’s richness. The three Dutton offspring, each one a damaged yet compelling personality tortured by the early death of their mother and deeply conflicting motives, strive to succeed. Meanwhile, Costner’s John Dutton drives them all to keep the family together and the ranch in one piece. 

The Bunkhouse

The cast is filled with quality, but not big, recognizable names. Dutton’s two sons and a daughter are, as you might suppose, each dealing with such an overpowering father in their own ways, and by season three coming to terms with their relationships. Spouses, lovers, and children are all built and damaged by the relationships, as in any good soap opera. 

For, after all, Yellowstone is a first rate horse opera which has attracted loyal fans to what must be the Paramount channel’s most successful offering ever. A fourth season of Yellowstone has been optioned, but filming has not yet begun due to the pandemic. We watched the show through our cable system’s app’s on demand feature, which reduced, but didn’t eliminate, the commercials. It can also be rented without commercials from Amazon Prime Video or other film outlets. Just Watch is a useful website for discovering every channel carrying particular programs. Season three will end in a couple of weeks, and I look forward to the coming season four with great anticipation. Stream from the beginning to keep the history and the story straight. The biggest star of the program, however, is the incomparable western scenery.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Fall on Britbox

The Fall, filmed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and first shown in Ireland on RTE in 2013 and later on BBC in 2017 is a police procedural on steroids, a psycho-sexual exploration of obsession, torture, death, and discovery. Marvelously structured, filled with portent, and atmosphere, and often searingly honest as well as scary, this is not for the weak of mind or stomach, but, for those who stay with it, the three season seventeen episode production streaming on BritBox is filled with tension, anxiety, and fully revealed, complex characters. 

Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a formerly London-based police detective, has been transferred to Belfast to oversee the search for a serial killer who has become known as the Belfast Strangler. There is little mystery about who the killer is. The story revolves around his clever ability to avoid capture and the depths to which his character can move him in a strange death-dance with Inspector Gibson, who has her own mysteries and troubles. 

Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson

Starring Gillian Anderson, who Americans will recognize from her role as Special Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, as DSU Stella Gibson and Jamie Dornan, an Irish actor and model, in the role of Paul Spector in a duel of wits, tortured drives, and multi-layered secrets, the interaction is often startling and electric.A strong, persistent, and believable feminist theme runs through the byplay between Stella and the other female characters whose moral and intellectual strengths overpower the political weaknesses found in the male characters. Meanwhile, the antagonist, Paul Spector, damaged and flawed, is not a simple stereotype, no matter how dangerous and evil he is.

Jamie Dornan as Paul Spector

The cinematography on the dark streets of Belfast creates the scene. A large cast of complex, nuanced characters who emerge with all their strengths and flaws as the story progresses add to the strength of The Fall.

There’s no getting around the truth that this is a dark, even upsetting film, filled with violence and anger. However, if you love British story-telling with ever so much more subtlety and punch than most American TV fare, you might just love this series.