Book Review: The Corrections

The Corrections

Note: This is #43 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

In The Corrections, author Jonathan Franzen presents us with a meticulously painted picture of a midwestern family as they go through all kinds of strange difficulties in trying to live their lives and get together for one final Christmas. This before the family patriarch, Alfred Lambert is swept away by the one-two punch of Parkinson’s disease and severe dementia. Besides Alfred, there’s his wife Enid, whose long-standing fantasies about social climbing and the perfect family (in the perfect Christmas gathering) still drive her every wish as she tries to deal with her stubborn and ailing husband. And there’s the kids: wayward Chip who threw away an academic career over an affair with an undergraduate, lesbian chic Denise whose unrestrained emotional and sexual needs are threatening to torpedo her own rising star as a celebrity chef, and elder brother Gary who seems to have the perfect job and the perfect family except that his wife and kids have aligned themselves into hateful coalitions against him and he suffers from acute clinical depression.

The Lambert family strikes me as definitely not well adjusted, but not messed up enough to land them a spot on Jerry Springer. In following Enid’s quest to reunite her family for Christmas, Franzen shows us various flashbacks into the family members’ pasts, focusing largely on one member at a time to give us a good look at how unhappy they are, how utterly they screwed up their own lives, and how much they hate each other. Things move back and forth along the time line of their lives as needed for Franzen to make whatever point or paint whatever picture he wants painted, and generally it’s done with a admirable skill. Things flow quickly and it’s easy to get caught up in the book and its characters. What Franzen seems to do really well is give you a sense of how the various family members relate to each other and how their desires drive their actions, even when they’re being self-destructive. While it’s a bit exaggerated, there’s enough truth in it to make you periodically think “Ah, yeah. I know what he means.”

And despite all this gloom, it’s actually a pretty funny book in places. The chapters with Chip in particular were amusing, and I enjoyed following him through the annihilation of his hoity-toity academic job, to his failed (and manic) bid to become a screen writer in New York, to his eventual partnering with a Lithuanian crime boss in an attempt to create absurd web-based scams that fleece American investors.

The problem with The Corrections is that while Franzen’s writing is rich, it’s sprawling and often wanders all over the place. The book could have easily been a lot shorter than it was. The language occasionally seems self indulgent and overly florid as well, though that only distracted me a few times. Perhaps the biggest problem I have with it is the whole melancholy tone that pervades the whole work –these people are screwed up and seemingly incapable of making the corrections to their own lives that would allow them to be happy. They’re also oblivious to each other and refuse to allow themselves to be supported. I know this is probably the whole POINT of the book, and that it’s tantamount to saying you don’t like ducks because they QUACK, but in the end it left me pretty unhappy.

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Book Review: Bonk


Note: This is #42 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex is a book about sex. Well, sort of. It’s not erotica. Or a how-to manual. Or an exploration of sexuality in our culture. Or an examination of sex in the media. Rather, while it does touch briefly on some of those topics, Bonk is the history of the scientific study of sex. It’s also pretty funny and kind of makes me uncomfortable.

You may be unsurprised to find out that sex as a research subject has a history of taboos and upturned noses once you stray outside of baby making territory. Studying the practical plumbing of the human reproductive system is generally seen as okay, though Roach does point out that aspiring gynecologists used to have to learn their crafts by working on cadavers and even when graduating up to the real thing they had to turn their heads politely and work by feel. But the study of sex for its own sake is more hush-hush and got a much slower start thanks in no part to the many weird and unconventional places it goes.

And go there you shall, curious reader. Roach is fearless and unapologetic in her exploration of the field, and she shines her light right up into some pretty shocking places. This was both great and not so great for me. For example, I found the chapters on sex machines and the people who make them weirdly fascinating, and the chapter where Roach talks her husband into experiencing first hand (so to speak) a study that used ultrasound machines to get cross-sections of their coital act was hilariously awkward. She also throws herself into the research in other places, such as touring a prosthetics factory (and by “prosthetics” I mean “prosthetics“), and getting personal with attendees of a meeting people who build those homemade sex machines. But then again, there was only so much discussion I could take when it came to monkey orgasms, genital surgery, and other things I’d rather not even write about here. I’m no prude, but it didn’t take long for me to get my fill of those topics, which Roach goes into with incredible detail.

The best part of the book, though, is Roach’s style, because she is the most entertaining science writer I’ve come across this side of Bill Bryson. She is possessed of a sharp wit and great sense of humor about all this, which goes a long way towards keeping the weird and traditionally private topics approachable and easier to relate to. And it’s not of the sophomoric “boobies, tee hee!” variety, either. Well, sometimes it is, but not often. Instead, Roach makes effective use of footnotes and asides to make jokes about not only the people she’s reporting on, but also to make self-deprecating quips at her own expense since she’s not as far out there as they are. In short, Roach manages just the right mixture of factual science reporting and wry humor. I laughed out loud many times during this book, and that’s got to count for something.

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Week 243: Time Out, Laptop, and George

Another week, another dozen new things that Mandy has done, approximately half of them cute and half of them “oh, geez, not this already.” For example, she has gotten quite into mimicry, particularly things that her sister does, but also things done to Sam. The other day Mandy picked up her doll, held it at arm’s length with a sour look on her face, marched it into the area of the kitchen where we usually make Sam take her time outs, and deposited it in the corner. She then stood back, crossed her arms and shouted “TIMEOUT! TIMEOUT!” Then, after a couple of heartbeats she picked the doll back up, hugged it to her cheek, and said “Why timeout? I love you!” I’ll just let you draw your own conclusions about how often this little one-act play gets performed with the regular cast instead of the understudies.

Mandy also continues to freak me out a little with how fast her verbal skills are developing, given that she’s still 3 months away from being two. Last night after work I sat down with her on the floor to say hello. “What did you do today?” I asked, off the cuff. I didn’t really expect her to answer, or maybe she’d reply with some typical non sequitur like “Dolly poo poo.” Instead, Mandy looked me in the face, paused for a second to let her cranial gears turn a few times, then said “I played at grandpa’s house today!”

Not only was this statement true, but it marked the first time I’d heard Mandy talk about something in the abstract –some event or activity not happening in front of her right then, but sunken several hours into the past. As I sat there blinking at her in surprise, she smiled proudly, the followed up by grabbing a stuffed bear and announcing, “Bear poo poo.” I guess that particular epilogue kind of evened things out, but I still love those kinds of unique moments.

Sam continues to do well, though she’s still prone to outbursts we think are related to losing her Grandma. In fact, we have pretty good reasons for thinking this. The other night Ger and I were sitting on the couch and I had my laptop open on my lap. Sam grew bored with playing on her own and asked me to close my computer and play with her. I complied, shutting the laptop lid, but before I could move it Sam grabbed it and lifted it off my legs.

Both Geralyn and I stopped breathing, too shocked to react. Touching Daddy’s electronics was a taboo that we thought we had pretty thoroughly drilled into both kids’ heads. If Sam had, say, lit a bottle of bleach on fire and started swinging it around on a chain, we would have immediately snapped at her and told her to quit it. But touching my camera or my laptop? That’s just unthinkable. I think Sam realized the line she had crossed after it was too late, but she still set the computer gingerly down on the coffee table before seeing the looks on our faces.

At this point, though, Sam just burst into tears. Half a second later Geralyn gathered her up into her arms and tried to shush her, but Sam wailed “Grandma died!” At that point we pretty much forgot about the computer.

Thankfully these kinds of outbursts seem to be trailing off, but just as Sam probably thought she was putting this whole death business behind her, we dropped another (though admittedly smaller) bomb on her last night. We hadn’t told Sam this, but a few days after Joan died, Geralyn’s godfather passed away shortly after being diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Sam had known her “Uncle George” by name, thanks to the pool parties he and his wife had invited us to over the years and the times we had invited them over to our own house. Last night at the dinner table Sam had, through a mouthful of meatloaf, said that “When Uncle George gets better, we can go to his house for a pool party!”

“Sammy,” Ger said, “Uncle George is in Heaven with Grandma.”

Sam stopped chewing her meatloaf and her expression, had it been worn by an adult, would have been one that you expected to preceded the words “Son of a BITCH!” Owing to her underdeveloped obscenity vocabulary, though, the best Sam could manage was “He died? Oh, DARN IT!” She frowned a minute after that, then scooped up some more mashed potatoes. So she seems to be doing okay.

Book Review: American Nerd

American Nerd

Note: This is #41 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

In American Nerd: The Story of My People author Benjamin Nugent starts off with a great premise. He aims to trace the origin of the nerd stereotype, see how it developed, examine how it’s depicted in popular culture, and see how it’s entangled with our thinking about masculinity, technology, and outsiders. It is a great premise, one in which I no doubt have somewhat of a vested interest. But unfortunately after some early successes Nugent seems to run out of material and just kind of starts to wander. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: he’s not really a nerd.

As I said, American Nerd starts off strong. Nugent traces the history of the nerd stereotype back all the way to the days of Jane Austin novels and little geeky guys who like to play with lizards. And the author even approaches some real insights when discussing the phenomenon of “Christian masculinity” that swept through America during the early part of the 20th century, which provided a flipside to contrast the nascent nerdegalian. We’re given examples of what kinds of people nerds were through the decades and how the distinction rode the rising crest of national emphasis on technology, science, and math during the early days of the Cold War. We even get into the etymology of the word “nerd” itself, seeing how it grew out of terms like “greaser” or “nurd” until it settled into the national vernacular. This is fascinating stuff!

Unfortunately, about halfway through the book, Nugent seems to just run out of things like this to talk about, and he starts ticking off chapters dedicated to traditionally nerdy topics: Dungeons & Dragons, video games, Renaissance fairs, high school debate teams, science fiction conventions, computers, and the like. Some desultory attempts are made at linking these various topics by examining what they have in common and searching for a deeper understanding of their appeal to nerds, but it never really coalesces. They’re sometimes interesting as little vignettes, but not much beyond that.

It’s about this point that one begins to realize that Benjamin Nugent’s credentials are suspect and he isn’t a nerd. At best he’s a former nerd, someone who played a little D&D and maybe a little Nintendo as a latch key kid. Plus he has a perplexing habit of conflating nerdiness with having a lousy home life while growing up. His perspective on all the aforementioned nerdy topics seems very much to be as an outside researcher looking in, having to interview people and try really hard to understand why they’re so into science fiction or video games. A real nerd would, so to speak, grok such things inherantly and sharpen the narrative through his own experiences. But there’s very little of that. It’s more like listening to your friend try to explain the local customs of a place they passed through on vacation once rather than someone who lived there for years.

As a result of all this, the early parts of the book that rely on pure research are the best, but the later parts and the overriding intent of understanding the nerd pathos and subculture falls short by quite a ways.

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Week 242: Grandma

As you may have noticed from the post last week, Geralyn’s mother passed away. While Mandy was oblivious due to her tender age, we weren’t quite sure how to approach this with regards to Samantha. Joan had been in the hospital since May and Sam knew something was up not only because we explained it to her but also because Geralyn was going to visit her mom almost every night. Along the way we had fallen into a policy of honest with Sam, partly out of thinking that it was the best policy and partly out of a fear that our lies would spin out of control until the point where Sam would be telling her preschool teachers that Grandma had been abducted by aliens while on the run from the ninja mafia.

Sam seemed to take it okay, over all. When Geralyn got the dreaded phone call from the hospital Sam was actually the first other person to find out, by virtue of standing there asking if she could watch an episode of Bob the Builder while Ger gripped the phone and felt her stomach go cold. For the same reason Sam was also the first person to hug Geralyn and try to make her feel better. Probably by suggesting that they watch an episode of Bob the Builder.

I rushed home after hearing the news, and the first thing that Sam blurted out when she saw me was “Daddy, Grandma died.” I had halway expected her to say this in the same tone that she uses for news items like “I saw a dog,” or “I ate a hot dog for lunch,” but she really was a bit more subdued than usual and she stared down into her lap after her announcement was over. Over the next few days leading up to the funeral we also noticed an uptick in aggressive behavior in Sam. She seemed more likely to slap at you if you didn’t do what she wanted, and she seemed more ready to talk back and pick fights than normal. She also kept asking us if we’d love her forever (answer: yes, but you still have to put your shoes on before going outside), and seemed to want to make sure that we knew she’d love us even after we’re dead (which made us wonder if she knew something we didn’t). We gave her as much attention and affection as we could, but things were busy.

My mother and sister came in town for the funeral, though, and that helped immensely. We decided that we wanted the kids at the funeral mass, but Mandy came down with an ear infection and a 103.5 degree fever the morning of the event, so my Mom stayed home with her. I actually cut out early from post-funeral luncheon to pick up Mandy and take her directly to the doctor’s where I was bemused to see that I, in my black suit and tie, was the best dressed parent in the waiting room.

We decided to spare Sam the open casket viewing that Ger and I went to first thing in the morning, but her aunt Shawn brought her to the subsequent funeral mass when the lid was firmly and permanently shut. I’m not sure what my mom and sister said to Sam about how to behave before they left, but I wish I had gotten it on tape so I could replay it ever week because Sam was on the best behavior I’ve ever seen her at in her life. Normally during mass she’s a squirming, noisy rascal, but she seemed to know that this was different and she was an angel. She sat and scribbled in her Wall-E coloring book (bought especially for the event), else she affectionately but quietly gave hugs and kisses on the elbows to me, Geralyn, and her grandpa. We’ll all love her forever for that.

After the mass, a caravan of cars trundled across town to the cemetery. My sister drove Sam in her car, announcing that the line of cars with its motorcycle escorts was “Grandma’s special parade” which Sam found somewhat awesome. Upon arriving at the grave site, Sam tip toed up to the gaping hole in the ground while the casket was still being unloaded from the hearse. I stood next to her and watched her as she knelt in the damp grass and peered down. “Daddy,” she said, “that’s a lot of dirt. Why did they dig a big hole?”

I squatted down next to her. “They’re going to put Grandma’s body in there, Sam. Then they’re going to fill the hole with dirt.”

This seemed to throw her off. Sam is nothing if not assertive and prone to argument when things don’t go how she wants them to, so I waited for her to throw a fit and make demands to put things back the way that they had been so that she can visit her grandma again, get slipped covert treats from her again, sleep over at her house again, help her water her flowers again, go to the beach at The Farm with her again, and everything else that she loved to do with her.

Instead, Sam crouched there quietly at the lip of the grave for a moment longer until the pallbearers approached with the casket. “Oh,” she said, then stood and went to go sit quietly next to her own mother.

I’m sad to see Sam have to say goodbye to her grandma, just as I was to have her miss out on better knowing my own dad when he passed away a couple years ago. But I’m glad Sam and Mandy had the time together with her that they did. They loved their grandma.

Book Review: Born Standing Up

Born Standing Up

Note: This is #40 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life is Steve Martin’s autobiography about how he broke into stand-up comedy during the 1970s. As you might expect from a biography, it starts off discussing Martin’s early family life in Southern California and how he got bitten by the entrainment bug at a young age, performing magic tricks at a Disney World magic emporium and then working his way up to amateur night at local clubs doing a curious mix of stand-up, banjo playing, magic, and fearless idiocy. From there we get to see how Martin worked really hard to develop his act and polish it until he was writing for comedy TV shows, selling out stadiums, and igniting catch phrases on Saturday Night Live.

Oddly, the book has Martin as its secondary focus, with the spotlight on the real star of the tale: his act. Though we do get plenty of autobiographical details, the author’s attention is clearly on his stand-up act and how it developed through trial, error (lots of error), experimentation, and good old fashioned play. Martin discusses his philosophical approach to comedy and how he periodically had to step back and re-examine his act to see if it still fit with the cultural zeitgeist of the times (this was the 70s, after all). We also get interesting trivia about some of his iconic props, such as the white suit that he bought simply because it would make easier to see on a large stage. And eventually Martin explains why he got fed up with his own success and why he walked away from it, never to return.

It’s not a bad story, but ultimately I found it unsatisfying, feeling as it did like the first segment of a complete biography. I wanted to learn more about Martin’s years as a movie star, a producer, a writer, and an SNL regular. I wanted to know more about his personal life in addition to his professional one. Instead Martin just cuts things off at the knees and says “Nope, this book is about my stand-up career. That’s all you’re getting.” I also felt that Martin’s attempts at sentimentality were ham fisted and somehow cliche, particularly the whole estranged daddy syndrome that he ultimately comes to terms with on his father’s death bed.

But even though his comedy seems a little dated and tame compared to the genetically engineered super comedians that modern science produces these days, the story of Martin’s stand-up career is compelling enough to carry a short book like this one, and it’s worth a quick read.

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Joan Sommer, 1928 – 2008

Joan Sommer

Joan T. Sommer (nee Seliga) passed away Tuesday, September 9th. An adventurous spirit, Joan earned her pilot’s license before earning her driver’s license. Joan enjoyed the thrill of flying with a close knit tribe of girl friends. Joan was also gifted in academics. She graduated a year early from Notre Dame high school and went on to St. Louis University where she earned her Bachelor’s & Master’s degrees in Speech Therapy.

Joan is survived by her husband of 40 years, Gregory Lucas Sommer, her daughter Geralyn Madigan & son-in-law Jamie Madigan, granddaughters Sammy & Mandy Madigan, her brother Cliff Seliga, sisters Cleo Meiburger & Mary Chapman. Joan is now reunited with her sister Pat Lehmann, who passed away earlier this year. Joan had a zest for life and loved gardening, the Farm, the outdoors, and good chocolate.

Visitation will be held at St. Genevieve Du Bois Parish, 1571 N. Woodlawn Ave. in Warson Woods at 9 a.m., followed by a 10 a.m. funeral Mass, followed by burial at Calvary Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Our Lady’s Inn.

She will be greatly missed.

Week 241: TV, Sand, and Carnivals

Though still generally sweet and, appropriately enough, childlike, Mandy has started to explore some areas of behavior that are shall we say undesirable. The other day I was lying on the couch when Mandy walked up to me, gave me a beautiful smile, and then slapped me as hard as she could on the nose. And then there was the incident that happened the other day. Sam had decided she wanted to watch some Bob the Builder, so Geralyn put it on for her, fenced off the stairs with safety gates, and ran upstairs to take care of something while leaving Sam and Mandy downstairs. Mandy wandered out the sliding glass door to our enclosed patio where she began playing in the makeshift sand box I had made for them. Apparently, though, she decided that in addition to building sand castles she ALSO wanted to go watch Bob the Builder with her big sister, and having never been informed of any proscriptions against combining the two activities, she filled a bucket with sand, carried it into the living room, and proceeded to dump it all over the carpet, her chair, and the coffee table.

And of course the best part of the story is that Sammy actually just calmly sat there watching Mandy do this, waiting only until the bucket was empty to shout to Geralyn to “come see what Mandy did.” My guess is that Sam was too impressed by the mayhem to put any stop to it.

This leave us wondering how best to chastise and punish Mandy, though. I can’t remember when we started instituting time outs for Sam, but I don’t think it was this early. Besides, I’m pretty sure that if we told Mandy to stand in the corner she’d just wander off after a couple of seconds, feigning miscomprehension as an excuse. Knowing her, she’d probably even mutter “No hablo Engles” on her way past you to get another bucket of sand, which is REALLY a dead giveaway but I’m still out of ideas.

You may have noticed many pictures of the girls involved in some carnival-like festivities. Apparently these kinds of neighborhood events are quite common around here, and we keep going to them. This one was not quite as good as previous carnivals, though. I had a corn dog and curly fries that jointly comprise the most disgusting thing anyone has ever expected me to eat, and somehow we spent $40 on 90 seconds of ride –TOTAL. Seriously, Sam would get on some ride, spin around twice, and the disinterested operator would punch at the “Stop” button with a niccotine stained finger and expect us to enjoy it.

Well, actually Sam did seem to enjoy it. Mandy, unfortunately, seemed to fall short on the height requirements except for the merry-go-round, which she loved.

Book Review: Lolita


Note: This is #39 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

Well, how to describe Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov? Those in touch with popular culture may know that this book is about a Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who is educated, European, dapper, and a pedophile obsessed with what he calls “nymphets” — certain girls between the ages of 9 and 14. Through a series of misadventures in 1947 he is introduced to a 12 year old girl nicknamed Lolita, with whom he is immediately obsessed. From there he begins conniving ways to seduce this new nymphette and steal her away, but it turns out that Lolita is not quite as innocent as you might think.

Far from an endorsement of pedophilia, Lolita‘s Humbert (who narrates the tale from first person) is drawn in clear, bold lines as not an underdog or even an antihero, but as a clear-cut villain. He is derisive of everything and everyone else around him (particularly all things Americana), he is treacherous, he is limitless in his self-deceit (especially when it comes to the ignobility of his desires), he is cruel, and he is generally really screwed up in the head. His robbing Lolita of her innocence and childhood is really sad to see, no matter how manipulative and occasionally mean-spirited she can be. And then of course there are his plans for drugging her into unconsciousness so he can have her way with her. That’s kind of bad.

But because Nabokov’s writing is so masterful and he makes Humbert so strangely charming, a lot of the appeal of the book is flowing along with this beautiful prose and letting it carry you closer to Humbert’s mind so that even if you don’t sympathize with him (I’m going to assume you’re not a misanthropic pervert here) you do get to see the complexities of his character and his motivations. It’s ugly, but at the same time it’s impressively crafted. I really can’t overstate the beautiful, flowing, and elegant quality of Nabokov’s writing, and it’s all the more impressive because English isn’t even his native language. Here, look at this famous passage that describes Humbert and Lolita lounging in the drawing room of Lolita’s mother’s boarding house:

She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled on in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola, the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.

It’s downright weird how that can be so elegant and so disgusting at the same time.

What also struck me about the book was how funny it was. Well, darkly funny. REALLY darkly funny. Humbert Humbert is almost farcical in his disdain for everything around him, and combined with his silver tongue and sense of European dignity this leads to some reasonably amusing rants as he and Lolita criss-cross the United States on a year-long road trip. Humbert is also often undone by his own manners and perverted predilections in comical ways that in another context would paint him as a classic, downtrodden, sad sack. All in all, the book is a masterful mixture of comedy, tragedy, and “ick.” And it’s worth it just to marvel at the prose alone.

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Week 240: This, that, and um, that

Okay, really short update this week. Closes I’ve come to missing one, probably. Here’s some pictures!

Ger’s mom has been in the hospital pretty much for the last few months, and things don’t look good. Part of the reason I’ve been so short on time is that Ger has been spending a lot of time there visiting her mom, and I’m supposed to make sure the kids don’t hurt themselves or cause some kind of “border incident.” We’ve been up front with Sam about the situation, and it’s been interesting to see her deal with it. Mostly she seems to be not that concerned about it –great thing about being 4 years old is that you can get away with things that would normally brand you as a sociopath.

However, there seems to have been an uptick in the number of emergency trips to the hospital that her various stuffed animals take, and it’s not uncommon for Sam to grab a plastic butter knife from her toy tea set and announce that “And now, you need surgery” before slashing at the hapless faux pet. And Sam seems to pretty much be practicing vivisection here, since the anesthesiologist apparently couldn’t put in an appearance. Maybe that was Mandy’s job, but she’s usually too busy splashing around in the cat’s water bowl.

Here’s another parenting pro-tip for you: iPod + headphones + long wait for dinner at a restaurant + the They Might Be Giants video podcast = some quiet time. I keep the ipod and headphones on me at all times when I’m out with Sam now. I also like to point out to Geralyn how much calmer and more polite Sam would be if we got an iPhone, but it doesn’t seem to be flying.