Monday, February 28, 2011

Gentlemen, You Stand Relieved

Our nation plays "Taps" for the last doughboy, as he joins his comrades in arms as well as his opponents in the place in which there is neither war, nor sides to choose, nor enemies against which one need guard. Rest in well-earned peace, Corporal Buckles.

New Reading Matter

Well, not necessarily new, but it's a pleasure to know that I will able to read The Atlantic again now and then. Even though the magazine could somehow never figure out the need to remove its own refuse, at least the refuse has decided to take itself somewhere else.

Sullivan's move will not remove The Daily Beast from my reading list; as is evidenced by the level of delusion Beast editor Tina Brown shows in her post on the subject (Sullivan "willing to admit mistakes?" In what dream-fugue upside-down alternate reality was this?), there really never has been much of a reason to read it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why Do You Say You Want a Revolution?

I've made fun of Newsweek a couple of times, so they deserve some credit when it's due. In an online piece that went up today, Niall Ferguson points out that we Americans have a fondness for revolutions and overthrown dictators that's not always warranted.

He takes some shots at the Obama administration's handling of the series of uprisings that have plagued North Africa and some countries in the Arabian Peninsula, which not everyone might like nor think are fair. But his main point -- that the happy results of the revolution that founded our country have not often been duplicated by other revolutions around the world -- seems a pretty solid reading of history, and might serve as a caution about too much excitement over current events.

And the Winner Is...

Well, we'll see. Don't have plans to watch the Oscars this evening, to be honest, although I think the Best Picture category is stronger than it's been in a long time. Even so, the Academy criminally overlooked Get Low, as well as Robert Duvall for best actor and Bill Murray for best supporting actor. It lumped True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld into the best supporting actress category, when she's actually the first of the three main cast members to appear onscreen and has a larger role in driving the story than either of the other two.

Colin Firth is likely to win best actor because he performed well but didn't win last year, even though Jeff Bridges and James Franco both topped him. Javier Bardem and Jesse Eiesenberg's presence on the list of nominees is not, as some movie writers suggest, a travesty. It is, however, a mystery.

Natalie Portman is likely to win best actress because she plays a woman losing her mind and acting that out sexually (including a meaningless titillation scene with costar Mila Kunis), which the Academy rarely fails to reward. She's actually the second weakest performance on the nominee list, although on odd-numbered days I'd agree she was the worst and that Nicole Kidman edged her out. Jennifer Lawrence from Winter's Bone ranks at the top of the nominee list.

The King's Speech, starring Firth, is considered the favorite for best picture. It's certainly not a bad movie, but there's nothing about it that couldn't be seen on any Masterpiece Theatre production on PBS. The only ones of the ten that would rank as Crash-level head-scratchers would be Inception, Black Swan or The Social Network. The first is a dazzling spectacle without much of a story at its center, the second's an un-dazzling spectacle without much of a story at its center and the third tries to make me care about a fictionalized version of the creation of Facebook, and I don't. If I go with the one I liked best (which is what Academy voters will do anyway), I'd take True Grit, Toy Story 3 or Winter's Bone.

For best supporting actor and actress, I'll take my lead from Mr. Murray, who used to do an Oscar prediction bit on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" sketch: "Who cares?"

ETA: But Bob Hope rocked ;-)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Library Fun

Each year, an organization called the Friends of the Library holds a book sale at the state fairgrounds in order to help raise money for the Oklahoma City Metro Library System. It allows them to clear shelf space, unload duplicate editions or duplicate donations, publicize the city library and make a couple of bucks into the bargain.

Some things you need to know if you attend:

1. Hardcovers and paperbacks are in separate sections. Hardbacks cost a buck, paperbacks 50 cents. Trying to negotiate a price down because a book is not in the greatest shape or lacks a dust jacket only holds up the people in line behind you. The Collector's Corner room has more variation, but still -- is trying to dicker a $3.00 book down in price worth the frustration of being told "No" every time you open your mouth? Since the clerks and such are all volunteers, having to be the ones to tell you "No" is probably not worth their time.

2. A scan up and down the table shows that there are definitely reasons why people didn't want to keep some of these books.

3. If the kids are old enough to run around on their own they probably will. I'm no parent, but I bet saying "Stay with Mommy" probably loses its effectiveness when Mommy is doing something as boring as walking very slowly next to a table too tall for you to see over and doing that inexplicable adult thing of looking at books that sadly lack pictures.

4. To those minding your own business on your own two feet: Some people brought rolling suitcases (or two-wheeled handtrucks stacked with milk crates) so they could get a lot of books and how dare you think that you can just stand there taking up no more space than God gave you instead of contorting yourself so they can shove past you?

5. And further, how dare you think that they, or the people whose large backpacks swing across the narrow aisles every time they turn, should think of saying "Excuse me?" You some kind of Emily Post or somethin'?

But if you manage to find one of those elusive titles on your list -- in my case, another Robert B. Parker in the smaller, book club-sized hardcovers -- that helps make up for several of your squashed toes and backpack-thumped scapulae.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Official Notification

Tomorrow is one of the Holy Days of Observance for the Friar -- the birthday of the Man in Black himself, John R. Cash.

Since this is a day of observance, rather than one of obligation, the wearing of black is only encouraged, not required. As always, though, remembering the ones who are held back is a part of the way to live right.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Most people today link the name James Clavell to books like Shōgun, one of his six "Asian Saga" novels. But before that, he helped co-write the classic war film The Great Escape, as well as write and direct the Sidney Poitier classroom drama To Sir, With Love.

Clavell's first novel, 1962's King Rat, was a fictionalized version of his own time in the Changi prison camp during World War II. He followed it in 1966 with Tai-Pan, a story of finance, espionage and intrigue set in mid 19th-century Hong Kong. Both were well-received, but in 1975 Shōgun blew through Clavell's previous sales records as well as turned him into a kind of "brand name" author. He helped produce the 1980 miniseries based on his book, which ranks as the second-most watched miniseries in television, grabbing 120 million viewers over its nine hours and taking home three Emmy awards.

The book itself probably represents Clavell's high-water mark as a novelist. King Rat and Tai-Pan lack its depth of story, and the subsequent books Noble House, Whirlwind and Gai-Jin lack its focused narrative. Clavell was probably way too much of a professional to fall victim to the kind of bestseller bloat that weighs down modern bookshelves, but his last three books show a need for trimming that Shōgun doesn't.

Loosely based on the life of British sea captain William Adams and the beginning of what's called Togukawa Shōgunate in Japan, Shōgun tells the story of John Blackthorne, an English pilot sailing with a Dutch trading fleet around 1600. Blackthorne and his shipmates aboard Erasmus are shipwrecked in Japan, a country mostly closed to foreigners. The only European influence has been through Portuguese trade, accompanied by Portuguese priests from the Roman Catholic Church. Blackthorne, as an Englishman and a Protestant, finds little common cause with his fellow Europeans and also finds himself involved in the efforts of Lord Toronaga Yoshi to calm unrest and protect his own family and holdings during troubled times. Toronaga is also based on an historical character, the feudal lord Togukawa Ieyasu whose victory in the Battle of Sekigahara established him as the Shōgun, or supreme military dictator.

Clavell spends much of the novel weaving Blackthorne's story into his learning about Japan and Japanese culture, such as the warrior code bushido and the way of the samurai. He meets and falls in love with the Lady Toda Mariko, though her marriage to another means the affair could end in both of their deaths. A parallel story follows Toronaga's political games and intrigue in thwarting his enemies, General Ishido and the Lady Ochiba, and his use of Blackthorne in these activities.

Shōgun rarely, if ever, clogs its story with exposition even while Clavell explains Japanese culture to the reader through Blackthorne's own education. The Englishman's encounters with laws, customs and philosophy different from his own almost make Shōgun read like a science-fiction novel, which could have been one reason the sci-fi-preferring me appreciated it when I first read it in the early '80s. It may not be high literature, but it definitely represents an older tradition of the so-called "airport novel," in which the idea of fast-paced adventure and intrigue didn't have to mean cardboard-cutout characters, clunky writing and sloppy storytelling.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I am sure that somewhere, Hizzoner Da Hon'rable Richard J. Daley, Mare a Da Great City a Chicago and All Its Great People, is confused.

The City of the Broad Shoulders has just elected a ballet dancer as its mayor. And he won without a runoff, easily breaking the 50-percent line with a 55 percent total. His closest opponent only had 24 percent of the vote. Emanuel is a former congressional representative and had served as White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama.

Daley's views on dance were never widely known, but it is probable he thought the only dancing a man should do was with his wife at wedding receptions, or maybe with a woman he wanted as his wife at a USO function. He did not have a record of public support of the arts, in any event.

Of course, it would be foolish to suppose Emanuel's collegiate career as a dancer somehow unsuits him for the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago politics. For one, the college where I used to work had a phenomenal dance program and I used to see those guys in the gym -- few of them looked as though they would be unable to give a good account of themselves in feats of strength or that they lacked for grit when it came to hard work. For another, the man sometimes called "Rahmbo" seems to have no problem understanding "The Chicago Way" when planning on how to deal with opponents. Although he was certainly speaking metaphorically in that last story, the mindset is clear.

Emanuel has also been noted as a man who is free with his language -- we could here have a case of Chicago deciding that those downstate dumbos who elected Rod Blagojevich as a governor need to learn just what the effective use of profanity sounds like. Daley, according to the biography Boss by Mike Royko, didn't much care for hardcore profanity or off-color humor and so this habit of Emanuel's might puzzle him also. Of course, the late Mayor was known to relax his restrictions now and again.

One might also, if one were inclined, see something in the fact that the Mayor of Chicago grew up in Wilmette and went to school in Evanston (his time there overlapped mine, but I do not believe we met. Luckily for me). Both of those are suburbs of Chicago, and one might very well see Emanuel's election as the Revenge of the North Shore Suburbs.

That much, I believe, the late Mayor Daley would understand quite well. And disapprove.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Full Tank of Gas, It's Dark, Sunglasses, Etc., Etc.

It appears that Indiana legislative Democrats have followed the lead of their Wisconsin fellow legislators and fled to Illinois to prevent a quorum in their state House of Representatives. Wisconsin Democrats lit out across the border last week.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that, during my time in Evanston, I too crossed the Illinois-Wisconsin border from time to time to further my avoidance of certain residency-based requirements. In my case, these requirements were age-based and involved something known as "Blatz." You need not know more, except that the cheeseheads across the line soon matched the oppressive, fascist and un-American restrictions of both my adopted and my native state. At least, that's how I saw it at the time.

This situation is probably confusing to Illinois Democrats, influenced heavily over the years by the power wielded from the so-called Chicago "Machine," centered in Cook County. They are, of course, used to one person voting for more than one legislator or more than one alderman -- although, technically, they are used to one person voting more than once for the same legislator or alderman, rather than different ones. But the idea of a state having more that one state legislature at a time must seem strange to them.

According to the Indiana paper, the legislators went to Illinois -- and some, perhaps, to Kentucky -- because these states have Democratic governors. Republican governors might order state police to find the rambling lawmakers and return them to the state line, where their own state police will take custody of them. Our own Oklahoma Democrats would have three options to be able to flee the state safely should they try this tactic: Missouri, Arkansas and Colorado, all of which have Democratic governors.

I don't remember that wrinkle being raised before, either with Wisconsin or with the Texas Democrats who did the same thing back in 2003. Of course, if it is true, it fits well with the history of our nation and the Republican party. Law enforcement officials have long been used to escort undesirables to the border and there bid them farewell, and who could be less desirable than politicians from somewhere else that you can't even vote against? And it would be just like those killjoy Republicans to arrest someone and then send them to work without even a giddy little de-lousing session for fun.

Monday, February 21, 2011

If It's Legit, It Sure Fits

The Detroit Pistons apparently plan to retire the number of former Piston and former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman in a ceremony later this year.

I say apparently because the ceremony is planned for a game hosting the Bulls, with whom Rodman won three NBA titles compared with the two he won as a Piston. And it's planned for April 1. And it's Dennis Rodman. All of those things add up to a "we'll see, I guess."

But if it's true, it's pretty well deserved. Although he was and is one weird cat, Rodman's basketball abilities are rock solid. He led the league in rebounds for seven straight years, from 1991-1997, and posted leading numbers in offensive rebounds in three separate years and earned All-Defensive Team honors eight separate times and was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 and 1991.

And really, what better day could you pick to honor Dennis Rodman than a prank-filled one like April 1?

Sunday, February 20, 2011


It is a measure of how big of a geek and how big of a Firefly fanboy that I am that this news made my day.

Dear Columbia University,

I am writing to alert you to the fact that a number of your students seem to have been replaced by alien pod people with doo-doo where their cerebral cortices should be.

You can tell them from the regular protesters engaged in debate on both sides by the fact that they booed and heckled a man in a wheelchair. I strongly suggest contacting federal authorities to aid in your search for your actual students so they may be returned to their families and the pod people can be repatriated to the bizarre and apparently impolite world from where they came.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Exceeding Expectations?

I attended a pretty high-quality high school in a town that had a significant portion of middle, upper-middle and upper-class families. Consequently, we sent a lot of kids to top colleges and many of those colleges gave my classmates and I no small amount of coin to show up and grace them with our presence.

I remember being a little arrogant in my first newspaper job when I saw that the local high school was pretty wound up over a National Merit Scholar graduating one year -- between my school and our crosstown rival, we notched 14 such scholars the year I graduated. Yes, I was one of them, and if you want to say that my presence on that list is a sign that some National Merit Scholars take standardized tests well but then don't don't exactly live up to that promise once they arrive on campus, I can't disagree. I have, after all, seen my GPA.

Anyway, the young men in the Class of 2011 at Chicago's Urban Prep Academy for Young Men bested our record, in terms of its seniors being accepted into college, by a long long way. Every one of the 104 class members has been accepted to college, for the second year running. And four years ago, when these guys started school at UPA, only eleven percent of them could read at their own grade level.

They take English twice a day, they go to school for two hours longer than their non-UPA peers and they have to wear a coat and tie to class every day. They abide by a specific code of conduct. Their teachers and staff are available to make the same extra effort the students make in order for the young men to succeed.

Our hats, should we be wearing them, are off to the UPA Class of 2011. Heck, with the kind of effort these guys are used to putting forth, I wonder if college will challenge them at all.

(H/T The McCarville Report)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Playing Percentages?

Over the last week, an IBM computer named Watson has played the television trivia game Jeopardy against two human Jeopardy champions.

The contest was pitched as more difficult than a plain "look up the answer" trivia game, since Jeopardy categories are sometimes puns or intentionally misspelled phrases that help indicate the answers. Since categories and clues are not simple phrases, Watson had to process more information than a simple encyclopedia lookup. Watson won handily.

Of course, there's more than just providing the correct question to the clue in Jeopardy. You have to beat your opponents to the buzzer for the chance to respond, and show staff had the IBM team make a mechanical finger that the computer had to use to press its buzzer, instead of just signal with a light or sound. Even though Watson had to perform the same physical action as its human opponents, a mechanical finger can activate its buzzer with a precision human muscles can't match. So I have to wonder if Watson proved much more about computer abilities than we already knew: They can store more information than human brains and they can move and respond more quickly than human bodies.

On the other hand, Watson also muffed it when given this clue in the category "U.S. Cities" : "Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero, and its 2nd largest is named for a World War II battle." The correct response is "What is Chicago?" Its largest airport is named after Lt. Cmdr. Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient from Chicago who died in World War II, and its second-largest is named after the Battle of Midway.

But Watson guessed "What is Toronto?" A former technology writer for Business Week, who blogs for The Huffington Post, defends the answer as not as dumb as it first sounds, when you understand the programming parameters under which Watson operated. OK, he knows a lot more about programming than I do so I'll take him at his word. But let's explore some trivia, shall we?

Toronto's largest airport is Lester B. Pearson International Airport, named after former Canadian Prime Minister and Nobel Prize winner Lester B. Pearson. During World War I, Pearson began serving in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps but was injured twice. He crashed during his first flight but recovered, only to be hit by a bus a year later and discharged. During World War II, Pearson served as the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., which meant he played an important role in the Allied coalition that united to defeat the Axis but probably fell short of the status of "hero."

Its second-busiest airport seems to be Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, named after William Avery "Billy" Bishop, a World War I  pilot credited with 72 kills who is Canada's top military aviation ace. Bishop was named Canada's honorary Air Marshal during World War II and given the responsibility to recruit pilots for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was so successful that the RCAF had to turn applicants away. Again, invaluable service that helped insure an Allied victory, but Marshal Bishop was certainly not a World War II battle.

So to sum up, although Watson did actually win the two-day battle against the Jeopardy stalwarts, it thought Toronto is a U.S. city, that a World War I pilot was a World War II hero and another World War I pilot was a World War II battle. Judging by all of the scare stories about how little high school students know about geography and history, I think Watson's on track to get his diploma this May and start partying on campus in August.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Monetary Oralization?

The proposed budget from the Republican-led House of Representatives does not -- at this point -- include any money for the Americorps program, a Peace-Corps like public service agency that helps people around the country in a variety of useful ways.

Among the projects connected to Americorps is one that connects to my denomination and which stages, among other things, summer education and reading programs for less well-off children. College students work with the youngsters helping to increase their reading ability, have a good time and do so in a faith-friendly environment. I like this program a lot.

The zero-dollar line item prompted several people to tweet, Facebook update and otherwise inform folks that the program is in peril. Folks who like it were urged to call their congressperson and ask them not to vote for the current budget resolution or to support an amendment which would restore funding. They were also urged to contact others to do the same and to pray for its continued funding.

Nobody suggested giving it any money or donating. I didn't call my congressperson, but I did donate. A couple of reasons brought me to this decision. One, my particular representative is solid GOP and has probably already made up his mind to vote for the budget resolution as is. He's not going to get enough calls to make him believe that he could safely buck the party leadership on this issue and say that he was just doing what his constituents wanted him to do. Not very many of the calls he does get will stick in the minds of people come primary season next summer or general election time next November; we voters have long memories about very few things and this one is likely to be replaced in the public eye before then.

For another, if I want this program to have funds, how sincere am I if I don't give it some funds myself? Since the Senate and the White House are in Democrat hands, Americorps and my own favorite program are likely to see some of their money restored. But not all, perhaps, and there's still the chance the whole program will be sliced out. If all I've done is bug the U.S. House switchboard and my representative's already overworked office personnel and told lots of other people to do the same, how will my program function if the worst case happens? Can it write checks drawn on my phone calls? Will it be able to spend staffer job stress?

The bottom line, I think, is that when we turn over functions to the government, we will find ourselves at the mercy of the government's funding. As long as the people holding the purse strings think like we do, that's fine for our favorite programs. But once different people take up the job -- and they will, someday -- we're stuck because our favorite program doesn't get money from us anymore. It depends on tax revenue, and the people who say where the tax revenue goes want it to go somewhere else.

During my seminary internship, I used a local health clinic instead of a personal physician, because the internship didn't feature insurance and the clinic was less expensive. It meant waiting longer in the doctor's office, since being poor almost always means waiting longer somewhere. I remember overhearing a conversation between a young woman there with a baby and another person. The young woman was talking about how she had saved some money for part of the visit she was making, instead of applying for public assistance. She was proud of herself for taking care of her own family without relying on someone else for help. She also said something that I think many of us in the coming weeks and months are going to realize is uncomfortably true.

She'd watched her mother on welfare, she said, and she'd vowed she'd never do that except as a very last resort. "She went on, and she couldn't ever get off," the young woman said. "They'd only give her everything, or nothing, and she was stuck. I'm not going to be stuck."

Fifteen years later, I remember sometimes to pray for that young woman, that she never got stuck and that she was able to raise a healthy child and make a great home for them both and whoever else happened to become part of their family. And I also remember it because I'm afraid a whole lot of us have gotten stuck, in more ways than we might realize.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


This evening at the gym, a character on one of the TV shows (I have no idea what the show was -- it seemed to center on young doctors in a remote jungle area) mentioned he was a graduate of my alma mater, Northwestern University (guardian institution of all that is right with the world and home base in the battle against Illini communism).

It got me to thinking. My school has a number of well-known alums in the entertainment industry (such as this fine character and comic actor who passed away recently). Although I am obviously not one of them, I maintain the hope that one of those more famous alums will call me during some kind of fund raiser, as outlined here.

We get mentioned every now and again onscreen. Buffy Summers almost took her vamp slaying act to the shores of Lake Michigan -- I have to say that, were I a sun-wary vampire, I might reside in rainy Chicago instead of sunny California myself, but not if the Slayer's around. It seems like I remember either Harry or Sally of this movie being a student there, but I'm not sure. In one scene from this adaptation of a David Mamet play set in Chicago, Demi Moore's character is folding a Northwestern sweatshirt, but there's no other connection. Except that this NU alum has a bit part in the movie. This young lady encounters a strangely non-Illini demonic force in the movie version of this novel.

Some movies were also filmed, at least in part, on the campus. Two of them I remember, because I was there then. I can recommend this one, with Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason. I can't really recommend this one, even though it has Jacqueline Bisset, because it's pretty stupid. I have attended a party in the same common room at the frat house where a party scene in the movie is filmed, though. Although it's set in Cleveland, a library scene from this baseball movie is filmed in the old library building on campus. Tom Hanks returned to Wildcat land for this 2002 noirish thriller, but I haven't seen it so I can't say which scene is on campus. Our football field was used in this movie about the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner, who played in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Valiant Purple were already a decade past their most recent bowl win, sadly enough. We are also capable of lending our space to really stupid movies, too.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

He Iss Vallowing een Ees Gandfadda's Vootshtaps!

There may now be no one to keep us safe from the bizarre doings of the family Frankenstein, as Inspector Kemp (aka Kenneth Mars) has gone on to the great Village in the Sky.

Of course, given the unseemly scientific habits of "yunk Frankenshtein," it may be that the honorable inspector is not allowed to rest in peace for very long. In which case, we may hope that he is at least given some sponge cake and wine.

A Story With Everything...

The controversy/charges/hoopla surrounding this story out of India has got everything you'd need for a great movie: Religion, spies, the quest for sacred relics, international intrigue and finance and, at least according to the writer of the blog entry, a dashing leading man at the center.

Is Ogyen Trinley Dorje of Tibet a spy? Is he His Holiness the 17th Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism? How was he smuggled from Chinese custody as a child? Somebody's gotta write this one!

If that somebody turns out to be a Bollywood studio, we'll get the added bonus of lively musical numbers in addition to the fascinating story.

Monday, February 14, 2011

I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means

I didn't watch the Grammy Awards, but when I checked my Facebook news feed, I found out many of the people I know did. I had thought the 1990 Milli Vanilli win for Best New Artist -- despite the fact that neither of the two singers from Milli Vanilli actually sang on the album and the Grammy had to be revoked when that was discovered -- cemented the award's irrelevance, but it seems I was wrong.

I also found out that many people equate "I've never heard of this band/performer/musician" with "This band/performer/musician should not have won in this category." I'm pretty sure those statements don't correlate, since most of the time I've never heard of any of the nominees but people who pay more attention to the music biz than I do can figure out which ones they'd prefer win a particular award.

The Grammys strike me as another award show where the more obscure the category, the more likely the win is to be meaningful and potentially accurate as a measure of quality. For example, the "Best Short Form Video" award went to Lady Gaga in a category in which Johnny Cash was also nominated. Videos are, of course, a fairly well-known area of music these days, and the idea that there is an area in which something done by Lady Gaga can be considered superior to something done by Johnny Cash is ludicrous to a degree that the word loses all meaning.

Yes, Cash passed on in 2003, so the video didn't technically come from him, but remember, we are judging between Lady Gaga and Johnny Cash. Even a dork like Justin Timberlake realized he didn't deserve something as ephemeral as an MTV Video Music Award win over Cash back in 2003. A three-minute video of a guitar Johnny Cash may once have played would outrank whatever might be considered Her Ladyship's finest "work."

On the other hand, it probably might have been fun to have been present long enough to watch the likes of Eminem, Cee Lo Green and Jay-Z sit there and take it when country popsters Lady Antebellum walked off with the Record of the Year Award.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Seen at the Gym

Many women have begun wearing yoga pants -- thin and apparently often quite snug sweatpants -- for their workout. Many of those who do should not.

Many men seem to be working out with shirts from which they have removed the sleeves, exposing the bicep area on which they wish to concentrate and a good deal of the side view of their chests and stomachs. Many of those who do should not.

To the gentleman who walked up to the workout towel shelf before me: If your hands sweat so heavily that you require two towels apiece, folded in half, in order to grip the handles of the elliptical machine, perhaps you should consider medication. Or at the very least, since you are taking the last four towels for your own personal use, you should consider not being a jerk.

White Chicks is one stupid movie.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

From Fabletown With Love

In 2002, comic writer Bill Willingham introduced his series Fables, which set the heroes, heroines and villains of some classic fairy tales and stories in our modern world following a disastrous battle with the Adversary. The more human Fables are immortal but blend in throughout what they call the "mundane" world, though concentrated mostly in a New York City neighborhood known as Fabletown. Their non-human companions live on a sprawling compound in upstate New York called "The Farm."

Willingham's Fables have their roots in the historic characters, but he re-imagined them with a number of modern twists. Among them: the double life led by Cinderella, publicly a ditzy rich shoe-store owner and fashionista but also Fabletown's top secret agent.

Although the premise seems to owe a lot to the Dreamworks version of William Steig's Shrek! and there is plenty of humor in Fables, Willingham's vision is generally bloodier and much more risque´. It's published by DC Comics Vertigo imprint, which the company suggests is for mature readers. What that actually means is that there will be some fairly explicit sexual references, quite a few four-letter expressions and cheesecake shots that go quite a ways beyond looking up Supergirl's skirt, but "suggested for 13-year-old readers trying to act the way they think grown-ups act" doesn't have the same ring to it.

In 2009 and 2010, writer Chris Roberson helped create a limited series dealing with Cinderella's mission to find out how magical artifacts were winding up in the hands of mortal folks like you and me, calling it Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love. The title riffs on the James Bond movie From Russia With Love.

Roberson maintains Willingham's sense of fun that has kept Fables a best-selling title since its early days. Cindy winds up working against and then with a number of legendary characters before learning the source of the magic artifacts and the plan behind their spread. Confronting the mastermind behind it all will involve confronting some of her own past, and Roberson handles that clever twist quite well. Artist Shawn McManus also has a good handle on the Fables concept, easily switching between fantasy and secret-agent scenes as needed.

Fables fans will obviously like From Fabletown, but regular comics readers will find it an enjoyable intro to the Fables universe as well. Persons put off by four-letter words, sexual innuendo and the like might balk at the read, but the blatantly adolescent tone of their use makes these features hard to take seriously enough for them to offend. Roberson, McManus and cover artist Chrissie Zulo will re-unite for the sequel, Fables are Forever, later this year starting this month.

Friday, February 11, 2011

No-Brainer, Eh?

A new Oklahoma representative wants people who receive state assistance to take drug tests in order to get their aid.

Rep. John Bennett says in the press release that he "realize(s) there will be legal challenges to this idea," but says that "from a common-sense perspective, it's a no-brainer." Another way of saying "no-brain" is "brainless," so I am happy to agree with Rep. Bennett here. Let's set aside the minute chance that there is a court outside of Teheran that would OK this kind of law, or that by some malignant misalignment of the stars it passes and survives legal challenges, making Oklahoma the state that makes you pee in a cup to feed your kids. The impressively low level of neuron functioning shows forth abundantly:

1) Rep. Bennett's law seems to overlook an important item in folks' choices to chemically damage their ability to function, namely, booze. Since only illegal drugs would get you suspended from your state aid, you can get yourself as sloshed as you want and still cash your checks made up partly of my money. The constituents on whose behalf Rep. Bennett says he filed this bill are apparently not all that concerned when people get drunk "on our dime."

2) Who all has to be tested? Mom? Dad? Heck, let's make it a family affair! The text of the bill, available here (the link opens a Rich-Text Format [rtf] document), includes Section 1-F-3: "Testing for children under the age of twelve (12) may be provided by the child’s primary care physician at the discretion of the applicant." So when Junior has to pee in a cup in order to get state aid, he can do it at the family doctor's office instead of wherever the tests are set up to be performed. The fact that Junior will have to pee in a cup is something the tough-talking Rep. Bennett left out of his square-jawed law-and-order press release. Since there's no minimum age listed in the bill, perhaps it should be amended to include allowing the applicant to submit used diapers as samples in case Junior is not yet able to stand up to pee in the cup.

3) Let's talk money. Rep. Bennett says that the cost of a test will be deducted from the first payment given to applicants who pass. So who will pay for the costs of those who fail the test? Let me look in the mirror -- oh, I see who. Rep. Bennett's campaign website, under the issues section, says he is against excessive government spending, noting that we will be "a billion dollars in the hole starting the next legislative session in Oklahoma." Will the creation of a new layer of state bureaucracy add or subtract from that billion dollars? After all, someone's going to have to keep records of the tests, handle the appeals about supposed false positives, notify aid recipients that their testing date is coming up, etc., and I doubt they'll do any of those things for free.

And finally, 4) -- although there are a whole lot more things wrong with this law, you should get to have some fun of your own picking it apart -- the rationale behind Rep. Bennett's law is that the taxpayers of Oklahoma should know that the people to whom their money is given are drug-free. I don't disagree, which is why, unless he turns down his paycheck, offices out of his car and parks on the meters instead of the reserved lot at the Capitol, Rep. Bennett should volunteer himself, his wife and his four kids for drug testing forthwith.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Missed It!

Had he not overdosed back in 1982, John Belushi would have been 63 at the end of January, an anniversary I overlooked. The good folk at Mental Floss have compiled 10 clips of great Belushi bits here.

For my younger readers, many of these clips are from a show called Saturday Night Live that featured a variety of humorous sketches and musical performances. This show has no real relationship to the 90 minutes of fail bearing the same name that NBC currently emits on Saturday nights.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Now This is Fun!

Although I read it pretty often, I rarely link to items on the website Pajiba. The two main reasons are that they practice a very free-range vocabulary that not every reader of a minister's blog might appreciate -- and they almost always do it with the exact same wit, thought and maturity I employed using the same kinds of terms when I was 11 -- and because they're a textbook example of how some people think that the way to look smart is to not like anything except really weird stuff no one else has ever heard of, let alone enjoys.

But since this post is about forty-seven million kinds of awesome, I'm breaking my rule. The idea is that you take some of our recent glut of superhero movies and you re-cast them using famous actors of bygone days. The post's author, for example, suggests that Gregory Peck play Superman, or Jimmy Stewart the Green Lantern. Start digging through the comments and you will see some fabulously creative choices. A couple that jumped out to me were the idea of Humphrey Bogart playing Watchmen's Rorschach or James Garner taking Stewart's place as Green Lantern (I like that one better myself). Heck -- Bogie as Batman? You probably only have to shoot two or three scenes of him in the suit and he still owns the character. Charlton Heston as Captain America -- too obvious? Maybe, but you know he'd believe in the part.

Think how many toadyish villains or villiain sidekicks the great Peter Lorre could do. Or the baddies that could be brought to life by Christopher Lee or Boris Karloff. Or -- and this is one where modern Hollywood really pales compared to the days of yore -- what Lois Lane would be if brought to life by Lauren Bacall instead of Kate Bosworth. Or by Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn. Or we could watch Maureen O'Hara kick megalomaniacal tuckus as Sue Storm or Wonder Woman.

This, to me, seems like a worthy endeavor for the latest CGI technology, and I hope someone somewhere gets cracking on it.

ETA: Jimmy Cagney or Burt Lancaster as the Joker. Or Lancaster as Batman. Vincent Price as dang near any villain you care to name. Boy, I hope I live to see the software that can do this.

Dead Weight

The Weight is Andrew Vachss' fourth novel operating outside the world of his criminal avenging anti-hero, Burke. It's the second one he's written since ending the Burke series with Another Life in 2009. Vachss' non-Burke books have been hit and miss. Only the brief 2003 Hard Case tale The Getaway Man has really come anywhere near the gripping quotient of the best of the Burke books. Haiku was confused, at least, and Two Trains Running was an almost incomprehensible mess. The Weight is better than either of those latter two, but doesn't really represent much of a step forward for Vachss in creating good work outside his central series.

Tim "Sugar" Caine, a top-level thief, has been arrested for a crime he didn't commit. He could beat the rap by offering a solid alibi, but the problem is that his solid alibi is his presence at a crime he did commit, along with a couple of partners. All he has to do is give them up to the police, but Sugar isn't that kind of thief. So he spends five years in prison, and when he's out he goes to the man who planned his last job, Solly, in order to get his share of the take. Solly tells Sugar that one of the men on that last job came to him from another planner, and since that planner is now dead, Solly is worried about whether or not that man can be trusted. He wants Sugar to find out, so Sugar is off to Florida to meet with Rena, mistress of Albie, the other planner, to learn what he can about Albie's man Jessop.

Sugar is not nearly as damaged a man as Burke was, so even though he's just as hard a case his first-person narration is not as dark. In that sense, at least, Sugar's story is a lot easier to read than were some of the things Burke was involved with. But after reading a few pages of the conversations between Sugar and Solly, or Sugar and the police interrogating him, or Sugar during one of his flashbacks, it becomes pretty clear that Vachss is planning to welsh on the most basic deal between writer and reader: As readers, it's OK if we don't know where the story is going as long as we know that the author does. About 70 or so pages into The Weight, it becomes hard to believe that Vachss knows where his story is going, whether he knew how he would end it or not. Meandering dialogue, narrative-killing flashbacks, Sugar's cryptic inner monologues and Solly's even more cryptic conversations spur an urge to either flip back a page or two to see if I missed something or forward about fifty or sixty to see how this thing ends and get it on the "donate" pile.

Among Vachss' non-Burke work are two short-story collections, Born Bad and Everybody Pays. Like the novels, they are hit-and-miss, but they have a lot better average and indicate that if Vachss decided to invest some more in that format (both collections date back to the 1990s) he might produce some of his best work. The Weight, trimmed down to short story or even novella length, could have been a much better read. But as a novel, it's carrying too much extra to be worth the time.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Monday, February 7, 2011

Some Thoughts Occasioned By the Recent Blizzard

1. You don't need to go to the gym if you've got a couple of six-foot drifts and a 40-foot sidewalk to clear. This may explain why our forebears were less likely to be obese, even though they were painfully short of zumba instructors and elliptical machines compared to modern times.

2. If we're going to have this many snowstorms of the century during my lifetime, I expect to have at least that many centuries of actual lifetime. To whom do I address this request?

3. Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good shovel at your side, kid.

4. To all who grade and clear roads during and after major snowfalls: Thank you. However, a small suggestion. When the wind is somewhere upwards of 30 miles an hour, snow piled on the windward side of the road will blow back across the road and cover it again. Snow piled on the lee side of the road will blow on into the fields and stay there.

5. Experiencing a blizzard after one has shed 20 or 30 pounds prompts this observation: It's frickin' cold out there!

6. A note to those whose vehicular capabilities make them bold upon the snowy and icy roads: Four-wheel drive is not four-wheel stop. Your SUV's ability to accelerate in a normal fashion in these conditions does not imply it will be able also to decelerate in a normal fashion, and my pokey little four-banger Toyota pickup cannot haul you out of the ditch you slid into.

7. Persons who live in housing additions whose streets are not themselves main roads: If you would like your addition plowed, you should probably pool your money in a homeowner's association through its dues and hire someone to do it. The publicly-owned snowplows of different municipalities and government agencies are busy clearing emergency and main routes. Of course, I might donate to your cause -- all you have to do is clear a path out of your neighborhood and into mine and I'll be happy to entertain your request.

8. The proposed switch to a year-round school term may happen without legislation if there are any more snow days.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Long Ago and Far Away?

When I watch the Super Bowl commercials, I wonder if the idea that they represent some special level of creativity and artistry has itself been a part of the Super Hype. They weren't so hot this year, the storyline goes, but a few years ago they were something else! Thing is, it seems like that was being said a few years ago as well.

Sure, some of them are very funny, but so are some of the ones that get shown throughout the year. And the funny ones lose that quality when they go into the same kind of heavy rotation as a new Billy Idol video on MTV in 1985. The only thing about the Snickers/Betty White commercial that cracks me up anymore is that when the candy bar transforms Betty into the semi-bearded listless football player, he still looks less tough than she does. I agree, the Volkswagen/Star Wars spot is neat. It won't be in July.

The "meaningful" commercials age less gracefully. Eminem and Chrysler can pump up all the Detroit civic pride they want, but as late as 2009, its unemployment rate was still officially 30 percent and maybe as high as 50 percent. It'll take more than arty footage of the city to turn that around.

None of this, of course, means that I would say "No" to someone who wanted to donate a 30-second spot during Super Bowl XLVI to my church.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Some Other Important Questions

Q: What's better than beating the vile scoundrels of the University of Illinois in basketball?

A: Beating them by leading the entire game, tipoff to buzzer.

Q: What's better than beating the vile scoundrels of the University of Illinois in basketball by leading the entire game, tipoff to buzzer?

A: Having them stage a comeback that falls one point short of victory, letting them taste the hope of a road win at Welsh-Ryan Arena before destroying it.

Q: What's better than beating the vile scoundrels of the University of Illinois in basketball by leading the entire game, tipoff to buzzer, when they stage a comeback that falls one point short of victory, letting them taste the hope of a road win at Welsh-Ryan Arena before destroying it?

A: Doing it on national television.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Shoulda Paid Attention

Hey, remember when you hated doing algebra and math and homework of any kind, and gave voice to your Lament of Displeasure at the Unfairness of It All, since you were (all together now) NEVER GOING TO USE ANY OF THIS IN REAL LIFE...

Is it too late to say "Never mind?"

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Passport to Peril : Original RBP

Wow! This Robert B. Parker guy is something else. Born in 1932, he wrote a suspense novel at just 12 years old, 1944's Headquarters Budapest. He then followed that up with 1950's Ticket to Oblivion and 1951's Passport to Peril before going silent until 1973's The Godwulf Manuscript.

Wait, what? Oh, Robert Bogardus Parker, not Robert Brown Parker. Well, now that makes more sense. The original writin' Robert B. was actually born in 1905 and spent World War II as a war correspondent who also did some work for the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the forerunner of the CIA. His wartime espionage fueled his three novels and especially Passport to Peril, a cloak-and-dagger tale of mistaken identity set in Cold-War era Budapest.

American John Stoddard is on the Orient Express, trying to get into Communist-ruled Hungary in order to lay to rest some personal demons left over from his time flying bombers during Word War II. Stoddard, a reporter by trade, is traveling under an assumed name and what he believes is a false passport because the Hungarian Communists are keeping Americans from entering their country. On the train, he meets Maria Torres, who turns out to be fleeing some menacing folks that may have harmed her boss. When the beautiful Ms. Torres tells Stoddard who her boss was, he realizes trouble is ahead, because the name is exactly the same as the one on his supposedly false passport.

Stoddard and Torres wind up on the run from several different intelligence agencies, and find out that there was more to Torres' employer than she knew, as well as the fact that (surprise, surprise), they can trust no one but each other.

This Parker writes in a good deal more workmanlike style than the writer who brought us Spenser, even though it's perfectly serviceable narrative and has every now and again some snappy wit of its own that Spenser might have appreciated. Passport has some plot holes and a couple of confusing patches, as well as one more plot thread than it actually needs. But it's a fine piece of pulp storytelling (complete with a killer opening sentence), and one might wonder what kind of career Parker would have had had he not died of a heart attack just before his 50th birthday in 1955.

This edition of Passport, published by the pulp revivalists at Hard Case Crime, contains a short afterward with a little bit of biography and remembrance from Parker's daughter Dorothy (no, not that one). In it, she notes that before divorcing, her parents had her as well as her brother, Robert Bogardus Parker III, leaving yet another Robert B. Parker wandering around out there. Robert B. Parker the Spenser creator, who passed away in 2010, had two sons, but named neither of them after him, which we can hope will begin to narrow the confusion a little.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

News Flash

I hate snow.

That is all.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Losing Contact?

The Washington Post ran a story recently on the troubles facing the Borders Books and Music store chain. The story's hook was that, even as Borders helped revolutionize the way people bought books, it failed to see subsequent revolutions and is now in a very perilous position.

The original Borders owners developed software in the 1960s and 1970s that tried to predict which books would sell, and then stocked those books. Their success led to Borders stores popping up around the country, with an even bigger expansion following the chain's sale to Kmart  in 1992. Their problem now is that Amazon has refined the predictive-buyer gimmick to the point of suggesting books to each individual person based on what they've bought. Even though their suggestions are often, in my own experience, ludicrous, they take better care of the dead-tree book buyer than Borders did. Ebook readers chopped another significant percentage of the buying public away from the notion of the big-chain bookstore, and Borders has been late to that game as well.

I've noted just how sad it can be to enter a Borders store these days and see so much empty space where there used to be things like shelves, books and music. Perhaps the blizzard we're currently enjoying has made me melancholy, but the Ebook phenomenon especially makes me morosely reflective. I recognize the convenience of having many texts stored in one device, and of the space it saves in the home and elsewhere. The same idea is, I think, behind the failing sales of CDs and other physical forms of recorded music in favor of digital versions.

I confess nostalgia for things like real books and real CDs and albums -- even though I sold the LPs because there were too many and they weighed too much for someone who moves every few years. And maybe that drives my questions, but I think only partly. If I owned an Ebook reader and just bought books via that format, what would I have when I was finished? A file of data -- and Amazon's dustup with its Kindle owners from July of 2009 demonstrates that I don't even have the file of data if they don't want me to, their promises to never ever ever do that again notwithstanding. Some folks suggest that this desire to have physical books or physical copies of music represents materialism, and I agree, but probably not the way they think.

If this kind of feeling was just another form of greed or being possessed by possessions, then something that reduced it or replaced it would be good. Except that most of the time, it seems to me like the materialism surmised as the culprit behind overstuffed bookshelves isn't too different from the materialism that shows off whiz-bang toys that replace overstuffed bookshelves.

The kind of materialism I confess to focuses on the material nature of things like books, CDs or albums. They are physical things, and in a way they embody something. I can see, touch and in cases where the book has been left in my gym bag too long, smell them. They represent another person's thoughts or creative work, and the solidity of their respective media gives a reality or embodiment to those thoughts or creativity that I just do not get from purely digital copies.

An iPod is an iPod. I listen to all kinds of different songs on it. But an album by, say, Keely Smith is most definitely not an album by Nick Cave. I will hear only one or the other depending on which physical copy I have decided to play. Even if one or the other artist has recorded a song the other has written (something which has not, to my knowledge, ever occurred concerning Ms. Smith and Mr. Cave), their respective albums embody their work in a way that files stored on my iPod don't.

I'm no Luddite here; I own an iPod and I have digitized most music I own. I love the convenience of an iPod shuffle when working out at the gym, especially when the TVs show Joy Behar deadening the minds of all who hear her words or Oprah celebrating her own wonderfulness or Dr. Phil proclaiming his own special brand of advice like the emperor's new judge and jury. But I'm in a line of work that considers embodiment important, especially when it comes to that li'l ol' thing we call the Word being made flesh. And I don't know that the pendulum needs to swing so far away from physical copies of things that we reduce everything to just a bunch of ones and zeroes in a bunch of files.

So maybe I'm just too cautious, but maybe it wouldn't be the worst idea in the world if we slowed down a second and thought this through. It'd kind of stink if we found out that, in a quest to have no things, we instead wound up with nothing.