Sunday, May 30, 2010

Wizards Who Live in Glass Houses...

...shouldn't throw seeing stones. Confused? Then you know how I felt after reading the fourth installment of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, Wizard and Glass. Read more, if you're not sleepy, at the long-post blog here.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Holiday Weekend Sermon

That's what you'll see here. Or, if you'd like, you can see it live (and in color) at our church on Sunday morning.

So St. Peter Rubs His Eyes and Says...

"Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper? Somebody must have a really...interesting...script in the works around here."

And I'm sure I'm not the only one who's surprised that of the three very troubled young people who starred on Diff'rent Strokes, Todd Bridges is the one still living.

(Coleman and Hopper were actually cast in the same movie once, 2008's An American Carol.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Over the course of the past few months, I've been transferring my vinyl records to MP3 files in preparation for selling off the collection. I put the decision off for awhile because I really like having the old vinyl around, and I like the way it sounds to have a little crackle and pop in between songs when I listen to them. Which just means I grew up listening to music in a different time, I guess.

I bought my first turntable of my very own just before my senior year in college. I had been a cassette listener because they were smaller and easier to store in dorm rooms, plus buying a cassette player or "boom-box," as we called it back in those prehistoric days, was a lot cheaper than picking up a whole stereo system. But after a summer's worth of mowing lawns and mopping floors at a local nursing home, I had enough saved up for an adequate little system. It was kind of like a compact car, designed to save space. The actual stereo and cabinet were narrower than a full-sized LP, so cutouts in the turntable lid allowed it to be closed while the record was playing. The very first LP I bought after picking it up was called Dressed Up to Get Messed Up, by the journeyman R&B outfit Roomful of Blues. At the same time I bought the single "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron," because I think that song is funny.

Many LPs, as well as more good old 45 RPM singles, followed. I frequently gathered favorite cuts off of the albums in tapes that I could play in the car. That wasn't so easy at first, because the combination of transmitter proximity and metal-frame building construction of my dorm meant that the campus radio station signal could be heard on every tape. Somewhere some of those tapes may still rest quietly at the bottom of an often-moved and never-unpacked box. Archaeologists will have to piece together the sequence of their creation from arcane titles like "Tunes VII" or "Tunes XXIII."

And now, as I have a profession that involves moving around every few years, those large, lovable and extremely weighty LPs have become a liability. They will be sold off. As I've played each one while recording it to the hard drive, I have asked myself "Exactly what in the heck was I thinking?" more than once. I've also noticed the steady decline in LP construction as CDs gained ground at the expense of vinyl sales. Older, previously-owned records from the 1960s and 1970s were solid affairs with squared-off edges. In the last days of vinyl dominance, the flimsy black albums stuck inside wrinkly plastic dust covers that never fit back into the sleeves right had edges that offered a serious danger of paper cuts for the unwary.

Although I'm keeping about 20 LPs for mostly sentimental reasons, they will all be reduced to bits of data stored along with all the other music I have on a single external hard drive (note to self: Back these files up someday). The CDs haven't yet gotten so massive they have to be purged, and I still like having an actual physical thing that I can look at and handle. Their time may come, though. But I think that'll have less of an impact. Yes, I do know -- and still own -- the first CD I ever bought (Let It Bee, by Voice of the Beehive). But most of the time I've been buying CDs, I've been a grown-up -- legally speaking, that is. The lifespan of my LP collection stretches across my last summer at home, my last year in college, my first year at a real job, and so on. That's a bridge across lots of different countries, and the fact that I can still listen to the songs themselves and recall the journey doesn't make me any more eager to part with the bridge.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

There Is a Precedent...

It's too bad that Ronnie James Dio's predecessor as the vocalist of Black Sabbath is kind of spaced out and not very strong these days, and that he and Dio didn't seem to care much for each other. Because in my mind I'm seeing what might happen if ol' Ozzy in his prime were to come face-to-face with some of the folk from the Westboro church who plan on picketing Dio's memorial service.

After all, a man who is legendary for supposedly biting the head off a bat might feel like testing his choppers out on a group of people who seem bat-poop crazy. Or saying, "Sure, I released an album called Diary of a Madman, but you people make crazy a 24-7 reality show."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Once in a Lifetime?

Updated for 2010:

"Charlie Crist may tell himself, 'This is not my beautiful song.'
"Charlie Crist may tell himself, 'This is not my beautiful million.

"...Charlie Crist may say to himself, 'My God, what have I done?'"

Monday, May 24, 2010

Adieu, Island!

I was never a "Lostie," or one of the people who followed the show Lost since it started back in 2004. I have friends who recommended it highly, but I was often busy when it aired and it seemed, in the middle seasons at least, to be a show with a really steep learning curve and I'm pretty lazy when it comes to things like that. Got some spoilers here, so you've been warned.

I had watched a few episodes this season at the gym, since it was on when I was there in the evenings, and as I've mentioned before, I caught up with this final arc pretty quickly. I knew enough that I was curious to see how it would all end, so I did watch the finale. One thing that interested me was that, after having read his dialogue for a few months via the closed-captioning on the gym TV sets but not heard him for about six years, I had forgotten that Matthew Fox had such a nasally voice.

Reaction to the finale has been as most finale reactions are: Mixed. Some people loved it, some people hated it. The lovers seem to focus on the "happy ending" flavor of the scenario for the characters they'd grown to care about. The haters seem to think that the show's writers -- or in the case of one resident of the very summit of Mt. Dudgeon that I read, "writers" -- should have answered more questions about what the island was, and what was going on with certain characters who hadn't been around in awhile, and so on and so on. Or at the very least, answered them differently than they did. It almost seems like they figured the show had to be way smarter in order to entice intellectuals such as themselves to watch that most plebian of entertainment media, television, and they're angry because it turns out some of the answers to their questions were pretty simple, and some of them were just left up in the air. And some folks had both reactions, with their love focusing on the happy ending and their distaste on the lack of answers.

As a non-Lostie, the lack of answers didn't matter so much to me because I didn't have years invested in trying to figure them out. I did find the final vision of the characters, gathering in a church setting before headed on to the life after this one, fascinating. My guess is that they are there together after they have died. One character points out that there is no "now" where they are, so they are together no matter how many years may have elapsed between their real-world deaths. The strong bonds they built during their island experiences mean that they have forged a community, and it's as a community that they will move on when they have come together.

The way they get to that time together is apparently through taking actions or envisioning themselves taking actions that help set right a lot of things that may or may not have been wrong during their lives. When they have done that, their idealized self somehow integrates with their real-world self and they are ready to move on. The "sideways" alternate universe that this season has shown us, where Oceanic Flight 815 never crashed, is a sort of Purgatory-like existence that helps them overcome those things that they apparently believe were wrong with their lives before they died. It's not a very harsh version of Purgatory, though, as their experiences are designed less to purge them of wrongs as they are to allow them to right them.

It fascinates me because it's a spin on C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, in which Lewis imagines a man is given a vision of both hell and heaven. He sees hell as endless gray city, populated by joyless folk who labor away at meaningless tasks and who make the city so immense because they are unwilling to ever live near each other or have anyone interfere with their lives. In essence, Lewis suggests we make our own hells, and the irony is that we do so as we attempt to create our ideal lives, or paradises. Lost has its characters create their own purgatory, then, by comparison, but an interesting factor is that they are ready to leave it and move on only when they reunite with their island community. Jack first warns the crash survivors of the need to work together in the fifth episode of the show by saying, "But if we can't live together, we're going to die alone." Other characters will echo that phrase through the show's run, and it's the title of the season 2 finale. In the end, the characters of Lost reach their heaven -- or whatever it is that comes after this world according to their universe -- when they rebuild the community that gave them life when they were in their time of greatest need.

Although I wasn't one of the hip and relevant preachers who successfully or otherwise tried to shoehorn the series finale into a Pentecost sermon just because both events happened on the same day -- I can preach a confusing sermon on Pentecost just fine without Lost's help -- I think that final scene is a close enough allegory to the body of Christ to make me happy with the show's end. If not happier than I was when I watched Newhart, at least a lot happier than I was with Battlestar Galactica's windup, anyway.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


The third in a series of "reader's diaries" of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series is up over at the long post blog.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Giving In

I have decided that, despite the advice of many well-meaning junior high school teachers, I will give in to peer pressure. I am going to follow the crowd, go with the flow and do stuff just because someone else is doing it.

I am going to skip Will Forte's new movie, MacGruber, just like most of the rest of the country is doing. But I suppose it's only logical. Apparently, MacGruber gave in to the peer pressure of all but two Saturday Night Live-based films by being awful.

(Those two films, for the curious, are The Blues Brothers and Wayne's World. Although most of Will Ferrell's big screen output is just as bad as, say, A Night at the Roxbury, that's the only movie where he plays a character that came from a Saturday Night Live sketch.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

From the Rental Vault: The Killing

Stanley Kubrick's had a wide-ranging career. Visual epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Spartacus. Iconic commentary on war and violence like Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove.

Early on in that career, he directed a little film noir heist story called The Killing, which he also co-wrote with Anadarko's own Jim Thompson, taking it from a story by Lionel White called Clean Break. The Killing came out in 1956.

Sterling Hayden, the 6'-5", deep-voiced actor who would later have a bad dining experience as Captain McCluskey in The Godfather, plays Johnny Clay, an ex-con who's looking for one big score to finance his retirement with his girl, Fay. Clay is a meticulous planner and has devised a precision scheme for a $2 million score from a horse-racing track -- that'd be somewhere north of $15 million in 2010 money. He has four accomplices, two of whom work at the track, whose help will be crucial to the plan's success. Clay also hires a couple of small-time thugs to play smaller but no less important roles in his plan.

Unfortunately for Clay, the kind of people that are most susceptible to the kind of temptation he offers to steal from their own workplace are also the most likely to be incompetent losers. As the plan progresses, their weaknesses create wrinkles that might derail the heist and put them all in danger.

The Killing is full of straightforward, rapid-fire line readings that help define noirish crime pics. All the old familiar faces have a show, from the spineless worm married to the femme fatale (and how the heck do all these jellyfish wind up with these hotter-than-fire babes, anyway), to the femme fatale herself, to the dumb thugs who can do one thing well but almost everything else poorly. Kubrick lets the lights and shadow of his black and white screen do as much of the talking as the words Jim Thompson put in the actor's mouths, and the scene gets set and re-set several times as we explore each man's role from the beginning. Hayden's really the biggest name onscreen, although Ben Casey fans will be somewhat aghast at what their clean-cut and virtuous doc is up to in this story.

There are times when it feels like The Killing crosses the line into self-parody, but even the best crime noir movies display the same kind of over-the-top bravado that so defines their own characters, so that's not necessarily a failing.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Journey Continues

The second post of the "reader's diary" of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series is up at the long-post blog. I have enabled anonymous comments there as well, subject to moderation. Spoilers abound, read at your own risk!

Monday, May 17, 2010

It's That Time!

The New Yorker offers parents of recent college graduates (or those about to graduate) some helpful tips on how to parent their new semi-adult offspring.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Real Difference?

A Reuters writer wonders if the Los Angeles Lakers will make a gesture of protest about Arizona's immigration law. The Phoenix Suns put the Spanglish phrase "Los Suns" on their jerseys on May 5, the anniversary of the Mexican army's defeat of a French army in the Mexican state of Puebla in 1862. This holiday, called Cinco de Mayo, is mostly celebrated in Puebla itself and in the United States, which is understandable when you realize it marks a victory over the French. Even Greenpeace has a victory over France (the French defense minister resigned and France had to pay Greenpeace $8 million), so the calendar could get filled up pretty quickly if you started marking them all.

Anyway, the "Los Suns" jerseys -- available online! -- were hauled out again so the team owner and the National Basketball Association could make their protest gesture. At the time, the Reuters article notes, Lakers coach Phil Jackson suggested that teams shouldn't get involved in "the political stuff." Jackson actually voiced support for the law, noting that the NBA prohibited him from wearing his Bill Bradley for President button.

So, will the Lakers now wear jerseys sporting "Los Lakers?" Will they use actual Spanish words and be Los Laguñeros -- "laguñeros" itself being kind of a guess because I don't know if "Lakers" really translates into Spanish. Will they go full out and be Los Laguñeros de Los Angeles? Probably not. Based on Jackson's earlier words and the lack of comment by team members, it seems like they want to play basketball and win a title. They're the Lakers and I will root against them unless they're playing against Goering, Goebbels, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, but I'll leave them to their game.

What interested me was that the writer, Lucy Nicholson, as well as the people she interviewed, seemed to think only of symbolic gestures. She says, at one point, "Obviously, it would be absurd to expect the Lakers to boycott their series with the Suns." Why? Why, if they feel the law is wrong, should they not make a meaningful gesture? The law, opponents say, is going to put an unfair burden on not only illegal immigrants but also lawful residents and even U.S. citizens who have dark skin or speak with Latino accents. So if you want to show some real solidarity, then take on an unfair burden of your own. The Lakers have the home-court advantage, meaning four of the games will be played in Los Angeles and three in Phoenix. Were they to boycott the games in Phoenix, the most logical outcome is that they would forfeit those three games. They could still win the series, but even if they lost they could still demonstrate solidarity with the people whose side they're supposed to be taking.

Now, of course I think that would be a silly thing to do, and I'm really more on board with Jackson's comments about sports teams not getting involved in politics. What sticks out to me is that we have here yet one more call for an empty gesture, either supporting or opposing something. African-Americans who boycotted buses in Montgomery during the 1950s had to walk where they were going instead. Other civil rights protesters were arrested and imprisoned for sitting at lunch counters (Martin Luther King's letter, you may remember, was from the Birmingham jail.) Chinese citizens who wanted a voice in their government faced down tanks at Tiananmen Square.

But few people today seem to have in mind making any kind of statement that might risk or cost anything. During the 2008 presidential election, I saw a number of people on Facebook "donate their status" to one candidate or another. What a joke. Today, I frequently see people join Facebook groups that say "One million for" this or that, or "I bet I can find (random large-sounding number) who (agree with/oppose this statement/person/idea/situation)." It seems rarer and rarer to find causes, actions or ideas which motivate people to put skin in the game, or maybe it's rare to find people who want to do that. I'm probably just as guilty in a lot of ways, so maybe someone else should be giving this pep talk.

Maybe it'd be a great idea for the Lakers to refuse to travel to Phoenix and forfeit all three of those games. Maybe it wouldn't. But I guarantee you I would pay more attention to what they said they believed in if they did that than if they just wore some different words on their uniform shirts.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cool Indeed!

This past week, I heard "Cool for Cats," the witty tribute to old movies from the early-period Squeeze album of the same name, as well as a cover of the Kinks' tune "Stop Your Sobbing" by the Pretenders, originally released as a single in 1979 before appearing on their 1980 debut Pretenders.

On my radio. Thanks, Ferris!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Final Gavel?

After 20 years, NBC has canceled police/courtroom procedural institution Law & Order. In one sense, it's a year too soon. Had the show been renewed for the fall, its 21 seasons would have broken the record set by Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955 to 1975.

In another sense, the cancellation comes years too late. TV years may be something like dog years, in which one calendar year is roughly equal to seven years of lifespan, because the show had been a creaking Jurassic-Park refugee for some time. Its height of popularity centered on the 12-year reign of Jerry Orbach as Detective Lenny Briscoe, the "experienced one" of the show's investigative team. He followed Paul Sorvino and before him, George Dzundza, in being partnered with Chris Noth's Mike Logan. Orbach outlasted Logan, working later with Benjamin Bratt's Rey Curtis and Jesse L. Martin's Ed Green. Briscoe was always good for some kind of acid observations on human nature as well as a dark-humored quip about the murder victim whose discovery would open the episodes. Orbach's acting skill made Briscoe well-loved in spite of the character's frequent displays of misanthropy.

Orbach's departure in 2004 signaled the acceleration of the downward trend of the show. Most of the other characters had pretty much done whatever could be done with them at least a season or two earlier. The courtroom side of the series was saddled with Sam Waterston's 70th trip through righteous indignation as DA Jack McCoy and the robotic line readings of Elisabeth Röhm as Serena Southerlyn, whose strangely-spelled last name was the only interesting thing about her. Although the presence of the mighty Dennis Farina -- a former real-life Chicago cop -- as Detective Joe Fontana added some flavor for awhile, he left after three seasons. Several new cast members were quite accomplished actors, but since they were doing the same things quite accomplished actors had already done on L&O, there were few reasons to watch.

Viewers were more drawn to the soapy, titillation-driven stories of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, where lead detectives Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson wielded self-righteousness thicker than any Kevlar vest and more suffocating than tear gas. They were also initially lured to the quirky Robert Goren of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, at least until Goren's character went from quirky to irritating (about thirty minutes into the second episode by my watch, but others, I am sure, disagree). Chris Noth returned to the L&O franchise by playing Logan again for a few seasons on Intent, but it only served to highlight how long of a way a little of Vincent D'Onofrio's Goren went.

Producer Dick Wolf has given NBC a sixth L&O show, Law & Order: Los Angeles. No word on whether or not attorneys Michael Kuzak or Arnold Becker will appear. Sebastian Stark is probably waaaay too much to hope for.

The fourth show, Law & Order: Trial By Jury, bombed and was yanked after a few weeks. The fifth is Law & Order: UK, which airs in England and features Jamie Bamber, lately Lee Adama of Battlestar Galactica and Freema Agyeman, lately Martha Jones of Doctor Who and Torchwood. According to the English producers, the show re-uses some of the original L&O's episodes for its own scripts. Which is fine, because the original show over here has been re-using them for...nah, that's too easy. The major differences center on English law as opposed to U.S. law and the fact that attorneys (barristers) in England wear powdered wigs and robes in court.

Wolf, according to one item I'm not linking to because it seems mostly gossip and also features some free-range vocabulary to boot, was taken by surprise by the cancellation and may shop the series to a cable network. I don't know about the wisdom of that move; scheduling it so it's even easier to forget when an episode is on doesn't seem like a good send-off to an iconic show. Unless he decided to shake things up and make them really interesting, that is.

Like hiring Buffy Summers as an assistant DA, and every now and again make the defendant a vampire that she has to stake with a very sharp No. 2 pencil. Or inserting the Blue Collar Comedy group as cast members: Larry the Cable Guy stuns the perpetrator by pointing out that people really do pay to see him onstage, Ron White drinks him into a confession, prosecutor Jeff Foxworthy closes the case with, "If you think that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt...he might be a guilty redneck" and judge Bill Engvall hands down the sentence: "Here's your sign!" Stupid? Sure, but we're talking about television here. Stupid is its common currency.

Law and Order started in a time when scripted dramas were the heavyweights of television programming and no one had ever heard the oxymoron "reality show." It predates MTV's The Real World by two years and Survivor by a decade. A resurgence of those kinds of dramas, like Burn Notice, Monk, Mad Men or even The Sopranos could have given it a wave to ride to a resurgence of its own, but Wolf's vision couldn't encompass enough change to allow it to take advantage of the opportunities they represented. So if Law & Order is really over,  I'll miss what used to be a must-watch show. But I -- along with quite a few other former viewers -- seem to have been missing it most of the time for awhile now anyway.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Something Else I Learned

Over the last couple of days, we've had some severe weather in Oklahoma, including deadly tornadoes. The weather has prompted a large amount of television airtime devoted to covering the storms. I have, through hard work at making things up, uncovered a memo detailing how this weather coverage is to proceed. Any personal names or other identifying information has been removed because these things could apply to any station on the air anywhere.

(Please do not circulate, meso-cyclonically or otherwise)

1. Male on-air weather personalities shall not wear their suitjackets while coverage is ongoing. Although they do the same thing they do twice a night, five nights a week -- stand in front of a camera and talk -- with their jackets on, the removal of the jackets suggests diligent effort and helps convey the gravity of the situation, i.e., "I don't have time to put on my coat, I have to look at these computer screens right now!" Notes: A) Regular anchor personalities shall keep their jackets on to indicate their overall command of the situation and that they are, like always, On Top of the Job. B) Female on-air weather personalities may remove their jackets or keep them on; they're not going to get to talk except in special circumstances (detailed below) so it doesn't matter what they're doing. C) This rule may be waived for severe weather coverage that happens very late at night or very early in the morning, because nobody cares about our 3 AM ad buys so we can just pass along needed information.

2. Facial expressions when on the air should be kept at Second Degree Seriousness, No-Nonsense Taking Care of Business Mode. The speaking personality may alter expressions suitably while communicating information, but these must remain at the Second Degree Seriousness level. Non-speaking personalities may from time to time add a slight Brow Furrow of Concentration, especially when changing the view on an existing screen instead of looking at one of the other half-dozen screens that may be showing the same thing, but should not overdo this to the point where people wonder if the personalities even know what's going on.

3. We are aware that the radar images projected onscreen are false color -- real thunderstorms are white, black, and various shades of gray. We are also aware that the different colors actually indicate amount of rainfall rather than some kind of super-severe storm. Nevertheless, red is an urgent color that commands attention and suggests that changing the channel from our coverage will doom viewers to being uninformed about the very latest developments of impending rainy disaster. Radar screen shots should include as much of the red zones as possible, even when it means zooming in so closely that no one can tell where the storm is except for the people in the towns shown, who are presumably in their storm shelters and not watching us.

4. Mobile news crews and helicopter cameras should shoot as much footage of the storms and of storm damage as they possibly can. Not only does it allow us to continually loop that footage while we essentially repeat ourselves every five minutes, it gives us footage to show long after sunset, when cameras would not be able to pick up images of either storm or damages. When we begin to recap the storm that ended barely 30 minutes ago, we will also need this footage to show people what happened in the dim misty pasts of the last half hour.

5. We paid good money for this whiz-bang high-tech equipment. It should be used at the drop of a hat, whether it provides any useful information at all. Whether an area has seen 500 lightning strikes in the last hour or 600 may not be relevant to the viewer, but we will make sure they know it and see the neato animation on the screen that shows exactly where those strikes happened. Also, be sure to mention the name of our specific whiz-bang radar frequently; we want viewers to think they will see something different when our installation bounces radio waves off the storm than they will see when other stations' installations bounce radio waves off the storm.

6. Many people will accuse us of sensationalizing the most trivial weather disturbance by offering it three or more hours of live coverage. We know this is untrue. But we should frequently insert genuinely useful warnings and information into our coverage, such as "You should take shelter now," or "Do not approach downed power lines." This will help strengthen our cloak of self-righteous indignation with which we will respond to those accusations by allowing us to assert that our efforts may very well have saved lives. Also, it is possible that some of the people working for us genuinely care about the well-being of others and want to be able to believe they have been of help. Marketing is working on this last issue but as yet has made no breakthroughs.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An Experiment

Something new begins, over on the long-post blog, with a sort of reader's diary of reading Stephen King's The Dark Tower. I mention it over there and I'll also say it here, there will be spoilers aplenty in those posts, so if you don't want to know how individual volumes or the series itself turn out without reading them for yourself, skip this series for now.

Choices and Rules

Larry Bond began his writing career as a co-author with techno-thriller king Tom Clancy of Clancy's 1986 bestseller Red Storm Rising. He's spent quite a bit of time writing his his own since then, and developed the Harpoon military gaming system that's also used by military academies as a training tool. In Cold Choices, he brings back a character from his earlier Dangerous Ground naval thriller, fighter-pilot-turned-submarine officer Jerry Mitchell. Mitchell is the navigator of the U.S.S. Seawolf, an attack sub that has been ordered to sneak into an area where Russian naval forces often conduct war games and leave behind listening devices to gather information on them. U.S. naval intelligence believes that there will be no Russian vessels in the area at this time of the year, but they are mistaken as the Seawolf is discovered by the new Russian attack submarine Sverodvinsk. Some dangerous close passes by the Sverodvinsk prompt the Seawolf to leave the area, but the Russian captain is not satisfied and his last close pass brings about a collision. The damaged Seawolf limps away towards a port for repairs, but turns around when they learn the Sverodvinsk was even more badly damaged and is marooned on the ocean floor. Politicians ashore in both countries have their own agendas and try to drive them, and not all of those agendas have the rescue of the trapped submariners at heart. Bond has done an excellent job of creating a good, old-fashioned submarine thriller after the manner of Run Silent Run Deep or Ice Station Zebra. Sailors on both boats display varying degrees of courage and despair, each dealing with the disaster in their own way. It's a meat-and-potatoes kind of read, seasoned with effective characterizations and enough techincal detail to help the non-naval reader know what's going on.
In 2007's The Watchman, private-eye novelist Robert Crais allowed Joe Pike, usually seen as partner to Crais's mainstay character Elvis Cole, to take center stage. Pike is back behind the wheel in The First Rule, trying to learn who was behind the death of a former mercenary companion and his family. At first, the deaths seem like the result of a brutal home invasion gang, but some questions about the death of the family's nanny lead to a trail that involves other mercenaries from Pike's past and modern-day East European gangsters that have followed their version of the American dream into Los Angeles. Pike finds himself working with people on both sides of the law to get the information he needs, and at times it's not clear which side he can really trust. Crais manages to bring a different voice to the Pike novels that's a better match for the taciturn soldier of fortune than the smart-alecky, almost breezy tone of the Elvis Cole books. The scenes which include Cole highlight how effective a device that is for creating the atmosphere of The First Rule. But in either voice, Crais keeps the action humming, drops in some well-crafted gun and/or fistfights and doesn't let too much get in the way of the story. In both Pike novels, Crais has offered a little peek under Joe Pike's hood, to see what may be behind the silent enforcer usually seen at Cole's side. It'll be interesting to see how he continues that pattern.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Death Dealt

"Really, something just got in my eye.
Come over here and I'll show you."

Iconic fantasy artist Frank Frazetta passed away today. Across the ancient lands of the Hyborian world, mighty-thewed barbarians drained casks of ale, demolished taverns, slew foul-breathed demons, evil monsters and the endless armies of sinister wizard-princes in an outpouring of grief.

A caution, though, O Reader! Should you suggest that the moisture near their grim, iron eyes is anything but the manly perspiration of the honest effort that comes from dispatching these fell creatures screaming to the hells that spawned them, then you had best draw forth your own blade and prepare to match it against the notched and dripping steel that has drunk deeply of the lifeblood of a thousand foes. For Frazetta's barbarians may be beaten and fall unknowing into darkness. They may be overwhelmed by the cowardly hordes that press them too tightly to allow them to swing a sword. They may be bewitched by the charms of a comely lass, or overcome by the drugging scent of the purple lotus, whose fantastic blooms are shrouded in mystery.

But they do not weep. Not even now.

From the Rental Vault: High Anxiety

In High Anxiety, Mel Brooks finally steps out to lead one of his films after many years as a writer and producer. The previous year, he'd brought the silent movie back to the big screen with Silent Movie, but in Anxiety, he led the cast and spoke out loud. 

Anxiety is an homage/spoof of suspense films, particularly the suspense movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Brooks' character, Richard H. Thorndyke, has just been selected to head The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Although he himself is a brilliant psychotherapist, Thorndyke suffers from "high anxiety," a form of acrophobia that leaves him debilitated when he is in high places. The same affliction torments Jimmy Stewart's character in Hitchcock's Vertigo. Other Hitchcock references crop up throughout the movie, albeit with a Brooks twist. Thorndyke is at one point attacked by pigeons, as the residents of Bodega Bay were attacked by several species of birds in The Birds. Fortunately for Thorndyke but unfortunately for his suit, this flock does not attack with their beaks but rather in a more traditional form of avian assault.

Thorndyke learns that not all is as it seems at the Institute, and that there may be a scheme afoot run by the villainous Nurse Diesel (Chloris Leachman) and her toady, Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman). Before he can get to the bottom of things, though, he is set up as a murderer and must race to clear his name and save the life of wealthy industrialist Arthur Brisbane, held prisoner at the Institute. He is helped (more or less) by Brisbane's daughter Victoria (Madeline Kahn) and by his chauffeur, Brophy (Ron Carey).

Not all of the gags measure up; the twisted relationship between Nurse Diesel and Dr. Montague isn't as funny as Brooks seems to think it is, and Charlie Callas' role as a patient who think's he's a dog runs out of laughs long before it runs out of screen time. But it's obviously as affectionate a spoof of the suspense genre as Young Frankenstein was of monster movies and Blazing Saddles was of Westerns. And it's mostly effective even if it isn't as inspired as those two high points. In 1977, Brooks still commanded quite a bit of his comedic powers and he utilized a skilled group of players who showed off their own talents as well as his. The Brooks who could only echo some of his earlier efforts, who would inflict Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It on the world, was still some 20 years in the future.

Birthdays and Wisdom

Today, the shy fellow born Paul Hewson turns 50 years old, and he might greet that number with a couplet from one of his band's songs:

"I can't believe the news today
Oh I can't close my eyes
and make it go 'way."

Today also marks a birthday for my secretary, and idiot though I be, I am in no way fool enough to acquaint you with the number involved there.

We can also mark the passing of one classy lady, the singer Lena Horne. Oklahoma seems to have decided to honor her memory by having some "Stormy Weather" of our own today.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sermon Repost

This week's sermon covers the same subject matter as did one from a couple of years ago, so that week's sermon manuscript has been re-posted here.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Acting! Genius!

Gwyneth Paltrow is an outstanding actress. She seems to have a gift for saying things that tick people off, like snotting on the land of her birth. She blows a lot of smoke about being a vegetarian but regularly posts recipes containing meat on her website,, and wears goodly amounts of suede and leather. I've got no idea what she's really like as a person, but she's got a public persona that I don't think I could avoid fast enough were I for some unfathomable reason ever to meet her.

Which is why I say she's an awesome actress, because when Ms. Paltrow is playing Virginia "Pepper" Potts in Iron Man 2, she's radiant, witty, sharp and as likable as a cute puppy. If she could figure out a way to stay in that character more often...

The movie, by the way, is just as much of a load of fun as is Ms. Paltrow. Robert Downey, Jr., continues to bring the right mix of cynicism, ravaged nobility, desperation and wackiness to make Tony Stark seem like a real person, for all that he has billions of dollars and flies around in an armored suit. Don Cheadle ably replaces Terrence Howard as Lt. Col James "Rhodey" Rhodes -- Cheadle seems to be able to bring a little bit more smart-aleck to the screen than did Howard, so perhaps the trade-out works for the best.

The villains work well also. Sam Rockwell seems ready to take up the Smarmy Sociopathic Yuppie character niche previously owned by James Spader and as Justin Hammer, shows how his desire to one-up the effortlessly cool Stark leads him to cross more lines than is good for one's legal status. Mickey Rourke could have been given more to do as Whiplash, but the upside is that he doesn't have to wear the ridiculous costume the character had in the comic books -- a lavender jumpsuit with orange fabric flaring out from the backs of his legs and a wavy topknot plume on the top of his head.

Iron Man 2 wastes a little bit of time helping set up the eventual Avengers movie that Marvel is aiming for in 2012, but since that time also features Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov/The Black Widow, it's a happy little diversion. A lot of fun and a good way to kick off the summer movie season here in little ol' 2010.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Geeking Out!

Indeed, you can't stop the signal...

I'm Not Laughing With You...

...Comedy Central. I'm laughing at you. I'm laughing at you because you think you're edgy. I'm laughing at you because your head of original programming says "comedy in its purist form is uncomfortable" -- I don't know if "purist" is a misspelled version of "purest" and if it is, whether the error is with you or with the web article writer. I'm pretty sure that comedy, in its purest or purist form, is...what's the word...tip of my tongue...funny! Yes, that's it! It's funny!

Sometimes the funny is comfortable like a Cosby Show episode and sometimes it's uncomfortable, but the common factor, if you will, is that it's FUNNY!

I'm laughing at you because when the usual suspects get hot and bothered about your inane and ultimately irrelevant little cartoon you'll talk about your bravery and your artistic independence even though it's been barely weeks since you censored a South Park episode that showed the prophet Mohammed. I'm laughing at you because you're providing one of the best examples of the emperor's new courage with such a straight face it's the kind of thing no writer would ever dare make up.

Most of all I'm laughing at you because mockery is earned and you, Comedy Central, have gone above and beyond to earn this..

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Now Watch This...

...and you'll get a little hint of just how those walls came down.

Watch This!

Since there are several TV's to watch at my gym, I can learn several things at a time.

1. The complete inadequacy of American Idol as a vehicle for discovering great singers is made clear when the contestants try to cover Frank Sinatra songs. Sinatra was a personality and a star, but before he was any of those things he was a singer. Had he not spent his time perfecting the craft of singing, then pretty much the entire rest of his career was unlikely to have happened. Since American Idol seeks to find pop stars, who have to worry about their appeal in so many other ways besides their singing, the contestant's performances of the Sinatra tunes are wan, bloodless and boring. Sometimes a great pop star is a great singer, but the connection is not at all automatic.

2. Why does Harry Connick, Jr., have a career? He sings great old standards (like the Sinatra catalog) and brings absolutely nothing new to them. Why, when I can pop in a CD any time and listen to the Chairman sing "That Old Black Magic," would I want to listen to Connick smirk his way through the same song in a manner that mimics Sinatra, only lacking Frank's originality, presence, wit and feeling?

3. Even though I've only sporadically followed Lost here and there, it's amazing that I can get sucked in to the story in the last episodes and know enough of what's going on to follow it and care what's happening. That's some good storytelling right there, I'll tell you what.

4. One way to tell that the new V show isn't all that great -- aside from the sloppy, unoriginal writing and plot -- is to look at what the human resistance fighters are doing and imagine asking them, "What would Ham do?" Ham, of course, being Ham Tyler, played by Original Bada** Michael Ironside in the initial V miniseries sequel and the short-lived weekly series. Well, Ham wouldn't have been fooled into shooting down a Visitor shuttle full of humans, for one thing. And Ham wouldn't have blabbed about the plan to a guy who couldn't be trusted, and Ham sure as shooting would have at least slapped around the guy who did the blabbing, clerical collar or no clerical collar. But then the show would have cut to a scene with Willie, the lovable nerd Visitor played by Robert Englund, and that would have stunk just as bad as the new show does.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


After the fashion of silly protest gestures like "Boobquake," we now have the Phoenix Suns joining the bandwagon. Their uniforms in tomorrow night's NBA playoff game will say "Los Suns" instead of just "Suns."

The idea, according to team owner Robert Server, is to protest the recently-passed Arizona immigration law. He opposes it and wishes to express that opposition, both of which are actions he has the right to do. In fact, if he really does believe it will be harmful to our nation and to his state's Hispanic population, he has an obligation to express himself, for their sakes.

But this is another dumb and useless gesture. For one, "Suns" in Spanish is actually "Los Soles." "Los Suns" is as meaningless as "el shirt" or  "the equipaje." For another, Mr. Server, like many NBA owners, is not a poor man. Lawsuits filed against the state to fight this measure will require money, and he could definitely contribute some assistance to them. For a third, the Suns have worn these jerseys twice already this season under conditions that have had nothing to do with immigration law (but they just happen to be for sale now in the team store for $79.99, listed as a "new arrival" with the style name "Latin Nights Swingman Jersey"). Wait -- maybe Mr. Server and the NBA plan to donate proceeds from the sale of the "Latin Nights" jerseys to help fight the immigration law. I sure hope so, or else I'd get disillusioned and think that this silly protest gesture actually had some meaning, but that the meaning wasn't very nice.

(Equipaje, by the way, translates into English as "luggage" and is one of my favorite words to pronounce in Spanish.)

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

This move, by the Loyola University School of Law, wouldn't have helped me all that much in seminary, because when I was in school there I was a grownup who went to class, did my readings, studied the material and put effort into my classwork instead of saving the Illinois barley producer. The words cum laude on my diploma actually belong there.

But if someone wants to retroactively bump my undergraduate grades by a third, that would be just swell. Imagine how I could hold my head up with pride when I hob-nobbed with all the C+ students instead of just the plain old C students I'd been stuck with.

I do have to say that this idea is not all that original to Loyola. A number of my classmates in high school and junior high practiced the same kind of thing, albeit with techniques that relied on liquid paper, white-out, carbon paper and sneaking access to a teacher's IBM Selectric. Ah, the modern world. Not only can your grade be changed and all records of the previous grades be erased at the touch of a button, you don't even have to worry about getting caught by school officials. After all, they're the ones making the change for you.

(H/T Erin O'Connor)

Electron Boy Comes Through in the Clutch!

Well played, Seattle. Well played indeed.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Not Political, Just Incorrect

When Bill Maher's documentary Religulous came out last year, some people I know asked me if I was planning on seeing it. I said no, and I was usually asked if it was because it would offend me.

Well, no, not really. I read about who Maher interviewed for his movie and I didn't see a single person on the list who had any kind of scholarly background at all. As I understand it, he mostly talked with people who had some, shall we say, colorful ideas about religion, but nobody who'd studied Biblical languages or church history. Maher, for all his inability to distinguish between acerbic wit and bitter sniping, isn't completely stupid and had done a little bit of homework. So he was far better equipped, information-wise, than those with whom he spoke. But as I said, he didn't ever interview someone who might have been able to talk with him about what people who've made careers out of studying Biblical languages, archaeology, history and the like think about these things.

And after watching George Will make Maher look like a fool on Sunday morning, I can see why he didn't. A man's got to know his limitations.

(My apologies for the Newsbusters link; I usually try to find their original sources to link to instead because I think they get a quite a bit too shrill sometimes.)