Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Get Lost 2008, We'll Hardly Miss Ya

In honor of the passing of another year, an epic, crazy, fucked up, gloriously inglorious year, redeemed for this soul by unlikely victories in sports and in life, here's photos of the last sunrise and sunset of 2008.

Both taken at LeVois Vineyards overlooking Dry Creek Valley in Healdsburg, Ca.

Happy New Year everybody. May 2009 seriously and loudly rock. See ya next year!



Monday, December 29, 2008

Why I Love Pugs

Reason no. 3: they'll sleep with anyone.

(Hat tip to my pug friend, Sara in Las Vegas and her great shot of one of her three pugs and her cat).

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bad Santa

Sorry to drop this on you during the holidays but I should warn you, this post is about a grizzly crime. If you're not up for it, please don't read today's post.

Bruce Pardo killed 9 people on Christmas Day
I've always been fascinated by true crime. It helps to be up on the latest terrible things people do to each other world when your job is writing fictional stories about cops and detectives and bad, bad guys.

It's not fun for me, for anyone, to read these stories -- it's hard not to think about the lives wrecked by senseless murders, not only those killed but those that are left behind to grieve. And it's a serious mindfuck to try to make sense out of them. Some things don't make any sense, some things are just wrong or evil or both and nothing's gonna change that. Life, it appears, really does suck sometimes.

Yet, you can't help but think 'what if' -- what if the murderer didn't have access to a gun, what if someone discovered his plan and stopped him, what if he shot himself first? Seriously, what about that? Why do these fuckers always kill themselves after they murder as many people as they can?

I bring this up because I've been transfixed by the story of Bruce Pardo, an unemployed electrical engineer, who dressed up in a Santa suit to gain access to his ex-wife's parents' home in a Los Angeles suburb and when he was done shooting at people, including children, and setting the house on fire, nine people were dead, including his ex-wife, her elderly parents, her two brothers and their wives, her sister and a 17-year-old nephew.

Forensic shrinks say these types of murders have "triggers" -- that is something that happens in the killer's life that turns him from angry to mass murderer. This guy had his share -- his divorce had just gone through, he was getting buried under a crushing debt and he was about to lose his dog and probably his house, too. None of that is enough to get me to kill anybody but nobody really understands what despair can do to a person. His original plan was to escape to Canada with his last $17,000 but when he set the house on fire -- using a type of auto fuel -- he suffered excruciating burns up both arms. He drove to his brother's house in Sylmar, Ca., and reportedly shot himself in the head. Or maybe he just couldn't face what he had done.

But by every other account by people who know him, there was no sign of his impending implosion. You wonder what causes these guys to cross the line from regular guy to murderer. I mean when Pardo gained entrance to the house, he reportedly started firing his gun -- first hitting an eight-year-old girl in the face and another young girl in the back. I guess you could imagine him being angry at his ex-wife, but how does that jibe with shooting old people and children? And then burning the whole damn house to the ground? On Christmas? You have to wonder what goes through a person's head to do such a thing.

Is it the relatively easy access to guns and ammo? Is it cultural or societal thing? I sure don't have any answers. And I'm not sure this fucker's story is going to shed any light on it.

Here's some links to the New York Times' coverage of the story, here, here and here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

NFL - Final Weekend

I really need to teach him to do this with a Cowboys hat.
I admit to following the NFL mostly from afar this season. Part of the reason was work commitments and part of it, I think, is that last season ended on such a high note for me that I didn’t think it could get any better.

I probably should explain myself here. Most of the teams I root for mostly suck. They lose a lot and worse, even when they’re good, they end up disappointing me. This is the life of a fan of the Mets, Knicks, New York (football) Giants and Boston Red Sox (an allegiance built up during my summers on Cape Cod back in the days before cable. It was the Red Sox or nothing. Of course it didn’t hurt that I grew up hating the Yankees). Frankly, I don’t know what it’s like to root for a team that wins every year and believe it or not, I don’t want to know. Seriously, imagine you’re a Yankees fan and you’re disappointed if your team doesn’t make the World Series every year. What kind of life is that? It sucks because no matter how much money a team spends or how many superstars they lure into their clubhouse, it’s still really, really hard to get to the World Series. I mean how many years does the best team win it all? Like almost never, unless you think Philadelphia was the best team in baseball last year. Hey, I’m a Philly hating Mets fan and all kudos for their championship but pulease, they were given a gift-wrapped present when the Brewers won the Wild Card and the Dodgers beat the cursed Cubs. Anybody think the Phils beat the Red Sox in the World Series? They sure don't dominate like they did against the surprising (and fun to watch) Tampa Rays.

Anyway, I’m getting off topic. The Giants had a terrific season – compiling a 12-3 record going into what is a meaningless final game tomorrow in Minnesota (meaningless for them -- the Vikings need a win to take the NFC North title). They quite easily could have gone 14-1 to this point if their best receiver hadn’t first gotten hurt and then hit red on the crazy motherfucker meter. Speaking of, you’d think NFL players would be better behaved – unlike the MLB and NBA, contracts are NOT guaranteed, which means if you’re cut, you’d don’t get paid. There are signing bonuses, but even those aren’t necessarily safe. I don’t know if it’s the nature of the game or what, but I’ve never seen so many knuckleheads throwing money away like it grows on trees.

Back to the games: it’s been an intriguing season for sure and I’m humbled at how many predictions I made were completely off. I thought Cleveland and Buffalo were going to be breakout clubs and I expected more out of St. Louis. I was right about the Cowboys being overrated. I’ve been smack-talking my Dallas-fan friends after every under-whelming loss. I give ‘em credit beating my boys two weeks ago but they couldn’t close the deal in Pittsburgh and got stomped by Baltimore last week – two teams the Giants beat up on. Only pure luck has Dallas even in the playoff race at this point and they still have to beat Philadelphia in Philly to get in. I predict they won’t for no other reason than the ‘Boys simply have not been able to get it done in big games.

I think the problem with Dallas is Tony Romo, the most overrated player in the NFL.

I don’t know what his stats are but I’m wholly unimpressed with his game. He makes a lot of mental errors, is terrible at game management and makes too many risky throws. He had his coming out party in 2006, subbing in for aging Drew Bledsoe at halftime in a game against the Giants and promptly threw and interception on his first pass. He would go onto throw three in the game. It was a harbinger of things to come but Cowboys owner Jerry Jones fell in love with Romo and in the middle of last season, signed him to a huge contract. You can count the number of his big victories on one hand since, including last year when they faced the Giants in the playoffs as the number one seed in Dallas.

The thing is that when he was looking like a world-beater in ’07, he had Terry Glenn on one side, Terrell Owens on the other, an adequate two-headed monster at tailback and Jason Witten, a fine pass-catching tight end. Add in a better-than-average offense line and you could put almost anyone at QB and be successful. Well, anybody but Bledsoe who made snails seem like competition for Usain Bolt. That his success was an illusion was made clear in Romo’s most famous fuck up (you can see below in living youtube color shot by a guy who was at the game -- the crowd reaction is awesome), but Jones isn’t the kind of man who owns up to his own mistakes.

Still, Romo isn’t the only thing keeping the Cowboys down. I never thought Wade Phillips was a good coach, he might be the most as overrated as his quarterback and his two outside receivers are crybabies. And spread some of the blame to the owner, who chased Bill Parcells off the sidelines with all his meddling. Tuna's doing pretty good this year (see: Miami Dolphins).

I guess Dallas could make a Giants-like run through the playoffs, but I'm not seeing it. And anyway they have to beat the Eagles to even get a shot at winning their first playoff game since 1998. I think the Eagles take care of business in their house and send the Cowboys home.

The other interesting game for me pits the New York Jets against the Miami Dolphins for the AFC East title. There are so many storylines for this game, it’s unreal. Beginning with the fact that Miami’s starting quarterback was let go by the Jets in the preseason after New York scored what was considered a major coup in getting Brett Favre from the Packers. I didn’t have the Jets making the playoffs even with Favre – though my predictions supposed a stronger Buffalo team and a healthy Tom Brady. Nobody predicted Miami would go from a one-win season to a 10-5 record in week 17 with a chance to earn a trip to the playoffs. Watching the Jets play must be maddening for their fans – they’re inconsistency is ridiculous. I blame it all on their coach who I used to think along with everyone else was a young genius-in-training. Now it seems obvious he’s a control freak who has made so many poor game-management decisions, you have to question how he convinced the Jets to hire him in the first place. Sorry Jets fans, but the New York “Bretts” are over; Miami is the better team (they should have won the first meeting) and it’s time for number 4 to retire and stay retired.

Update (12/28): Well, ain't SOL on a football predicting roll? The Eagles didn't just beat the Cowboys, they crushed an uninspired, dispirited team 44-6. And Brett Favre sure went down with a whimper, as the Jets completed their fall from contention with a loss to Miami at home. It's been an interesting NFL season for sure -- and anybody who thinks they know what the playoffs will bring is crazy.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Music -- The Trimmings

Now that I've posted about my favorite sentimental classic Christmas music, I'm going to offer up some trimmings -- that is a few songs and cuts from my embarrassingly vast Christmas music collection. I chose to continue the traditional route -- next year I'll offer up some of the more wild and rare stuff. This year, I'm feeling especially sappy.

Fourth on my list of my favorite classic holiday songs is I'll Be Home for Christmas written by by Walter Kent and James "Kim" Gannon, and first recorded by Bing Crosby the year after he made White Christmas a big hit. It's a great song for a Christmas music sap like myself because like the others I dig, it counters the joy of the holiday season with a tinge of sadness. It's told from the point of view of someone who isn't spending Christmas with his loved ones, but will "in his dreams.'' Told you I'm a sap.

Like the others, it has been recorded numerous times by a fairly broad range of performers. My favorite is probably Rosemary Clooney's version, which is streaming here. No matter what anybody says, you don't get more classic than this. And like I've said in previous posts, I think she's among our greatest interpreters of Christmas music and this song is no exception. There are a few others I dig as well. And since this is the trimmings, I've stocked up the old Vox stash with a whole host of songs today. Here's a few choice cuts as we say goodbye to Christmas 2008.

Tony Bennett has recorded Christmas songs at various times in his long career. I mentioned my favorite of his -- White Christmas with Dexter Gordon -- in a previous post. But he made a record in the late 60s that I like a lot. Click on the song title to listen to his version of The Christmas Song and Winter Wonderland.

I had to drop ol' Blue Eyes on you, even though I'm not a huge fan of his versions of Christmas songs. Still, it's Frank Sinatra and his version of White Christmas was pretty popular in its day.

Speaking of White Christmas, here's a version you may not have heard -- that amazing voice should sound familiar -- it's opera star Placido Domnigo and it's beautifully arranged. Perfect for waltzing around the Christmas tree, I mean if that's something you do.

Here's a couple of soulful versions of The Christmas Song, one that works a lot better than the other. First is from Al Green who really does a nice job on it, even including the original lyrics. The second is James Brown who in this blogger's humble opinion, should've stuck to his comfort zone. The arrangement is god awful. Still you can't help but be happy he gave it a go.

I'm not a huge fan of Dean Martin's work but I am a big fan of some of his songs. His laid back, tipsy approach sometimes works unbelievably well -- and seems, to me anyway, perfectly suited to classic Christmas tunes. Here's two of his: I'll Be Home for Christmas and my all-time favorite Dean Martin Christmas song: Winter Wonderland. He totally makes it his own. Some serious rat pack swing cool here -- really, what is Christmas without Dino?

I'm not always up for a Christmas downer and when I need some pick-me-up, I put on Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas CDs. Here's her peppy version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas -- try not snapping your fingers and tapping your toes to it. I swear when you play it back-to-back with Judy Garland's or Etta James' version, it almost sounds like a whole new song. Gotta love Ella.

Chris Isaak is one of the more palatable of recent pop stars doing Christmas songs. I like his surfer vibe on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

And speaking of recent, here's a couple of modern Christmas songs I like. Joni Mitchell's The River, done here by James Taylor and Richard Thompson's Happy Days & Auld Lang Syne.

Happy Holidays y'all!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

What I Got for Xmas

My good, good, great friend Keiko gave these to me for Christmas. I feel like clicking my heels.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Sap's Guide to Christmas Music Part 3

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose

Yuletide carols being sung by a choir

And folks dressed up like Eskimos

And so begins the immortal holiday classic, The Christmas Song. Written by Mel Tormé (born Mel Torma in Chicago to Russian Jewish parents) and Bob Wells, it was first recorded by Nat King Cole.

There is a cool story behind the writing of this song which I was lucky enough to hear straight from Tormé's mouth back in the late 1980s. He was in town for a week-long appearance at a now defunct jazz club that was practically across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The story goes that on a blistering hot day in Beverly Hills, Ca., Tormé dropped in on his buddy, the lyricist Bill Wells. It seems Wells was having trouble with the heat and on top of his piano he had written some phrases in a spiral notebook that all had to do with the cold and winter. Stuff like “Chestnuts roasting on a fire,” and “Jack Frost” and Eskimos and snowmen and such.

Wells hadn’t intended them to be lyrics; just his own way of trying to cool himself down (which most any writer would totally appreciate). Tormé saw the notebook and told his friend he was onto something and so the two of them went to work. Some 40 minutes later, they had The Christmas song or as it's also commonly called Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.

When Tormé told me the story, he added a second part on how Nat King Cole became the first person to record it. According to Tormé, he and Wells decided they had to hear someone sing the song that very moment and so they thought of Cole who lived nearby. They went over to his house and talked him into playing the song – Cole immediately loved it and got his label to let him record it.

It’s no secret that back in those days, the very best songs were almost always offered to other singers first – that is other white singers to be precise. As great a talent as Cole was, he was rarely offered first-rate songs first. However, this was one of the rare moments when he got first dibs on a really great song – and he did what any great singer does and made it his own.

Of course, I have to include one of Cole's versions in my Vox stash for today, Christmas Day. And here it is – I believe this is the third recording he made of it with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra.

Also, here's a youtube clip of Cole singing it in person. Gosh, I love youtube.

Tormé, who had his own successful singing career (he was called "The Velvet Fog"), eventually recorded the song himself in the mid-50s. It’s slightly less cheerful than Cole’s but I find I like them both. So you can check them out, I’m going traditional on y’all and including Tormé’s version too.

Incidentally, Tormé was quite the renaissance man and from all accounts a man of talent and immense intelligence. He not only was a successful songwriter (with something around 250 songs to his credit including many standards) but a talented multi-instrument musician, singer and actor (in his youth, he had a brief stint as a teen idol). His non-fiction account of his work with Judy Garland is considered one of the best books of its kind, a precurser of the so-called "tell-all" books, though his was critically praised for its seriousness. He also wrote a book about drummer Buddy Rich and a novel called Wynner in 1979.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Sap's Guide to Christmas Music Part 2

Today's song is White Christmas.

It was written by Irving Berlin (yep, another Jew) and was first recorded by the silky smooth Bing Crosby in 1942 although that Decca recording's master was damaged and Crosby recorded another version in 1947. That one is said to be the most successful selling song of all-time until it was usurped by Elton John's Candle in the Wind although it may (already have retaken the lead since then). Yeah, I know: crazy. No single piece of popular music is more associated with
modern Christmas and believe it or not, it's the most recorded song in history. Wow, right?

It first appeared in 1942's Holiday Inn and later in the movie White Christmas in 1954. NPR ranked White Christmas, the song, as one of the 100 most important songs of the 20th Century. There is even an entire book written about it, reviewed here in the New York Times back in 2002.

According to legend, when Berlin finished the song, he reportedly said, "Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote.'' It's hard to argue with him. A beautifully constructed melody with a wonderful lyric. Seriously, who does n
ot dream of snow on Christmas?

Since Crosby debuted the song, it's been recorded by a remarkably wide range of performers, from the usual suspects (Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Tony Bennett) to a strange mix of folks, Beach Boys, Al Green, Bob Marley and even Charlie Parker.

It was hard to narrow it down to just two versions of it, but I'll save the couple that didn't make the list for my post-Christmas day Christmas music blog.

I've posted two of my most favorite versions on my Vox stash. The first is in my view by Rosemary Clooney, who was actually in the film White Christmas. All due respect to
Bing Crosby, Clooney's is the traditional version I most prefer. In fact, if I was forced to hear only one artist sing Christmas songs, I'd pick Clooney. With a few over-produced exceptions, she always seems to perfectly walk the line between sentimentality and melancholia, owning the song as much as inviting you to sing along with her.

She recorded many versions of the song (and I happen to have most of them) but my favorite are the ones she did later in her career. They were much more sparse and relied on her voice and p
hrasing as opposed to overwrought orchestrations. This one is one she recorded in the late 90s and again in the last few years before she died. I actually saw her sing the song in person -- she did it live on a sound stage for a TV show I worked for back in the late 1990s.

I know I said two, but just for fun, here's another version by Clooney that includes the rare first verse about Beverly Hills L.A. It's a very smaltzy orchestration -- not my favorite -- but you can get an idea of how good she was -- her voice easily cuts through the sugary sweetness.

Finally, this one pretty much speaks for itself, a soulfully jazzy version by Tony Bennett with a mournful yet sweet sax backup by Dexter Gordon, in what I believe is one of his final recordings. Bennett does what he does best -- relegate his ego to the song and then lets Dexter roll on out of there with his horn. One of the best arrangements of the song ever and believe it or not, you won't even find it on a Christmas record but on Bennett's tribute album to Irving Berlin's music called Bennett Berlin.

Tomorrow: The Christmas Song.

A Sap's Guide to Christmas Music Part I

Winter in Wine Country
I admit it.
I love Christmas music. It's true.
And I don't even celebrate Christmas.
But not just any Christmas music. Oh, I love the classical stuff -- give me Bach or Handel almost any day -- but the stuff I dig is the true Christmas classics. I'm talking "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," shit. Gimme that groove any day of the year.
I blame it on my youth when, home sick from school, I would spend hours going through my parents' record collection. It was in those stacks where I discovered Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, Oscar Levant, Dinah Washington and Judy Garland, Bobby Short, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme Tony Bennett and then a whole host of 1950s folk singers, from Leadbelly to Pete Seeger.
Those days taught me to love all kinds of music, but at heart I'm a big ol' dyed-in-the-jukebox sap and so the one happy place where I return is to American popular standards. I used to know all the words to the songbooks of Gershwin and Rogers & Hart, Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael, to the great songs sung by the great popular singers of our time.
I've tried to see as many of them as possible; among the performers I've seen live are Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaugan, Etta James and Bobby Short. When I was a journalist, I interviewed both Bennett and Bobby Short, two of the nicest guys you'll ever meet.
For my money, some of the best American standards ever are Christmas songs. Three in particular are my personal favorites: White Christmas, The Christmas Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. They are more than just holiday tunes, but incredibly strong songs that have stood the test of time and thousands of interpretations from artists as different as Placido Domingo and James Brown.
Over the years, I've collected as many different versions of these songs as I could find and my collection numbers in the hundreds. I would say that the vast majority of them are awful, in particular most of the recent interpretations by pop singers.
Over the next week, I'd like to share some of my favorite renditions of these songs and a few other Christmas songs of note.
I'm going to start with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which was introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The song was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Funny but true fact: this is the one song of the three I've listed here that wasn't written by a Jewish songwriter.
It is a lovely song and despite being a holiday standard, is also a very sad one. It is a big reason why I love it so much. Many interpretations of it are bright and airy but Garland's original stings with a deep longing melancholia that marks a number of other well-known versions.
I'm posting two of my favorites in my Vox stash that really hit the sentimental note hard. The first is the aforementioned version by Judy Garland from the Original Cast Album of Meet Me in St. Louis and the second by Etta James, whose sadly soulful take is perfect for a song about being far away from your loved ones for the holidays.
Tomorrow: White Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why I Love Pugs

Reason no. 2: They make great writing partners.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Time for Justice

Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a joint report accusing Bush Administration officials of creating an atmosphere that permitted torture by U.S. military and intelligence officials and that led to the institutionalization of grave prisoner abuse.

The joint bi-partison report confirmed findings by a number of administration critics and also journalists (most notably Jane Meyer in her book, "The Dark Side: How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals") who contended that high-ranking officials in the Bush White House, at the Pentagon and State Department actively promoted torture as a means of fighting terrorism despite solid evidence that it doesn't work. I wrote about this issue last month.

Unfortunately, it seems the Senate report has sparked little mainstream interest of the American public.

But in today's New York Times, the newspaper's editorial staff published a searing, 1200-word editorial that lays out a compelling case for bringing the chief architects of the Bush Administration torture policies to justice, namely Donald Rumsfeld, William J. Haynes and David Addington.

It's a start, but more must be done. If our ideals are as sacred as we claim them to be, then the most important statement we can make as Americans is to police ourselves. The actions of this administration has severely damaged our standing in the world and it's time we set things right again. A good start would be to show that we know the difference between right and wrong.

Below are excerpts from the Times' editorial. The rest of it can be found here. You can also find links to downloading the Senate report here.

Most Americans have long known that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were not the work of a few low-ranking sociopaths. All but President Bush’s most unquestioning supporters recognized the chain of unprincipled decisions that led to the abuse, torture and death in prisons run by the American military and intelligence services.

Now, a bipartisan report by the Senate Armed Services Committee has made what amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his legal counsel, William J. Haynes; and potentially other top officials, including the former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

The report shows how actions by these men “led directly” to what happened at Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in secret C.I.A. prisons.

It said these top officials, charged with defending the Constitution and America’s standing in the world, methodically introduced interrogation practices based on illegal tortures devised by Chinese agents during the Korean War. Until the Bush administration, their only use in the United States was to train soldiers to resist what might be done to them if they were captured by a lawless enemy.

The officials then issued legally and morally bankrupt documents to justify their actions, starting with a presidential order saying that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners of the “war on terror” — the first time any democratic nation had unilaterally reinterpreted the conventions...

...One page of the report lists the repeated objections that President Bush and his aides so blithely and arrogantly ignored: The Air Force had “serious concerns regarding the legality of many of the proposed techniques”; the chief legal adviser to the military’s criminal investigative task force said they were of dubious value and may subject soldiers to prosecution; one of the Army’s top lawyers said some techniques that stopped well short of the horrifying practice of waterboarding “may violate the torture statute.” The Marines said they “arguably violate federal law.” The Navy pleaded for a real review.

The legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time started that review but told the Senate committee that her boss, Gen. Richard Myers, ordered her to stop on the instructions of Mr. Rumsfeld’s legal counsel, Mr. Haynes....

....We expect Mr. Obama to keep the promise he made over and over in the campaign — to cheering crowds at campaign rallies and in other places, including our office in New York. He said one of his first acts as president would be to order a review of all of Mr. Bush’s executive orders and reverse those that eroded civil liberties and the rule of law.

That job will fall to Eric Holder, a veteran prosecutor who has been chosen as attorney general, and Gregory Craig, a lawyer with extensive national security experience who has been selected as Mr. Obama’s White House counsel.

A good place for them to start would be to reverse Mr. Bush’s disastrous order of Feb. 7, 2002, declaring that the United States was no longer legally committed to comply with the Geneva Conventions.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Little Happiness

I've been in bed for two days with a damned stomach flu, too tired still to do anything. At all.

So I thought I'd share a little happiness with y'all. My friend Susie turned me onto this video.

Back in 2005, Fat Boy Slim hosted a video competition based on his single "That Old Pair of Jeans," and among the submissions, was this entry which didn't conform to pretty much the only contest stipulation: that there be juggling somewhere in the video. While it didn't win the competition, Fat Boy liked the video so much, he wanted to honor it, giving Hula Girl a special "non-juggling" award.

Click here for more details and a link to a list of 10 other finalists. (Note: the links to the videos are broken but I'm pretty sure you can find them all on youtube. )

Monday, December 8, 2008

Mad Love

The cast of AMC's Mad Men
I can come off as a snob sometimes, especially when it comes to art. I like to be challenged by my entertainment as much as I want to be entertained by it. Those people who have “Kill Your Television” bumper stickers are full of shit. Really. Hey, I’m all for getting people to watch less TV, especially kids. In fact, I don’t think children should be allowed to even see a movie picture until they’re at least five years old. Like the late great George Carlin used to say. Get a stick. Go out and play. You’ll learn a lot more than you would watching purple dinosaurs.

But that doesn’t mean I condemn all TV. I think the boob tube gets a bad rap and it’s not just by people who don’t work in the business. I cannot tell you how many of my colleagues claim they don’t watch TV. Yep, you heard me right – TV writers who do not watch TV. Or claim they don’t anyway. Can you say “self-hate”. Christ, could you be any more transparent?

Me, I'm one of those people that loves TV. And right now, I think it’s an entirely supportable argument that there’s better art on the small screen than the big one. Take a look if you doubt believe me. I mean if you’ve ever watched even one episode of a great TV show, you would appreciate the power of that amazing little box of wires and lights (to paraphrase Edward R. Murrow).

Purists might argue with me, but I say that (with the exception of comedies) we are currently in the Golden Age of television; that there’s more really great shows on then ever before.

I had feared that the end of The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Shield and soon, Battlestar Galactica, would mean the end of an era, but there’s a lot happening on TV that makes me hopeful.

I hear David Simon’s new show is going to seriously rock – for starters, it’s set in New Orleans and will feature an awesome soundtrack. I have high hopes for Sons of Anarchy, too. It's a very cool-ass take on the outlaw biker world which just wrapped year one on FX. Tell you what I like about this show – even if you don’t know anything about outlaw biker clubs (and I don’t know much) you can tell the writers care about their subject. It just bristles with authenticity and yet it handles the whole world with a kind of fairness that sometimes gets lost when writers try to outsmart themselves. I came to it late but I like it and I’m looking forward to next season.

I don’t love Alan Ball’s True Blood (like I loved Six Feet) but it does have its moments and I like the acting a lot. Even though it’s getting canceled, I totally dig the look and idea of Pushing Daisies. I wish Barry Sonnenfield could bottle what he did on the pilot and make a movie like that. As much as I enjoy his work, the excellence of the pilot for this show (which he directed and produced) makes me think he could do a lot better on the big screen. I also think Shonda Rhimes is one of the most original voices working in Hollywood today. Grey's Anatomy has it's down moments, but when it works, it absolutely kills. (And I would kill to be in a writing room with her). I'm not as into it as I thought I'd be, but I acknowledge the greatness of Breaking Bad produced by Vince Gilligan another of our great current writers of TV.

But these days, I'll tell you what I'm really in love with, or more precisely who I’m in love with and his name is Don Draper.

Some shows are defined by a great cast, others by their unique take on a world, and still others by their writing or their finely drawn characters and some even work combinations of these attributes. There are shows I watched just for how good they look. A select few bring you into their world in such a way that you find yourself completely transformed. To me, right now, that show is Mad Men.

The show, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, is set in the early 1960s, centered around a rising young advertising executive with a mysterious past, a darkly brooding man who is trying to figure out why having everything isn’t making him happy.

There's so much in each episode even though it seems like nothing is going on. I could be wrong but it feels like a creative choice. This show is all about the subtext, all in the nuances, which doesn't make it any more smart or doesn't mean you have to be "in on the joke," it's just its style of storytelling. And, frankly, the reason I think it's brilliant is because this was the reality of this time in America. It's not that we're all that different than we were then, but we didn't show our foibles as much. It was what we did then, we hid our skeletons in the closet. It was expected of us. It's not that it wasn't happening, it was just happening behind closed doors. And this show is set at a moment in our history when the doors were starting to open.

It was a moment of real, concrete change, where traditions of all kinds – religious, racial, sexual, social -- were about to be blown to pieces, literally and figuratively. Those last days of America’s so-called innocence, before Cuba and Vietnam, Birmingham and Kent State., Dallas and Memphis.

When I began watching it, I didn’t know much about Matthew Weiner, the producer (except that he'd been a writer and producer on The Sopranos), but I wondered if he was a fan of the works of John Cheever, the 20th Century American writer famous for his explorations of post-war suburban landscape. (My feeling was confirmed when I mentioned this to a friend, he showed me an interview Weiner did for Variety in which he mentions he was influenced by Cheever).

Don Draper, the show’s central character, played wonderfully by Jon Hamm (he's that hot guy in the picture to your left), lives in Ossining, New York where Cheever lived and where back in the early 1960s my parents were buying the house I grew up in.

Like Cheever’s stories, the themes of Mad Men are rooted in the main characters, who are, like most people, not what they seem. It's just like advertising, about which my Dad used to say, “the big print gives it to you, the small print takes it away.” The real world of Mad Men is simmering under the surface.

It’s the same thing that fascinated Cheever (and Updike, Rick Moody and others) who saw the modular sameness of suburban streets and their perfectly-trimmed lawns, white-washed fences and happy (mostly white) families, and couldn’t jibe it with the melancholy faces they saw on commuter train every morning. All this happiness and nobody’s happy.

Don feels like a guy in one of these stories. A man who seemingly has everything he’s ever wanted, realizing suddenly that it’s not filling up the hole in his gut. Part of it is the not knowing – he has a line in the middle of the second season about how he can't seem to feel anything - he's numb to everything. In the show, Don is doing what people like him do – he’s looking for answers, trying to find some kind of anchor to the world, something that makes him feel he’s not alone.

This theme runs through almost every character's storyline.

The cast is tone perfect, especially Hamm who seems to have walked right out of Breakfast at Tiffany's. John Slattery, who plays Don's boss and friend Roger Sterling, is particularly good. His dialogue rat-a-tat-tat-tat's off his tongue like machine gun fire.

The women are all fabulous -- ranking as some of the best female characters I've ever seen on television. They could have easily sunk into cliches of their time, but they almost never do. Betty Draper (January Jones) as Don's suffering, seemingly dumb-blonde wife who turns out to be much more complicated. And Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) as the secretary who wants a seat at the table with the guys.

The sets are amazing and fun as hell. One thing that's hard to get used to is how much smoking they did then. Hard to imagine but it wasn't that long ago where you could smoke inside bars and on airplanes and in elevators. I mean there's a part of you that wants to put a "cigarrette smoking will kill you" as a running warning on the bottom of the screen.

It's not just the smoking. They drink a lot too -- everybody has a bottle of booze and two glasses in their office. (The old school journalist in me totally loves this part). And they drink and drive. It's as jarring as the oh-so-casual racism and sexism. It's all tightly bound up in a martini-cool soundtrack.

The show is more than the sum of its parts -- it says something interesting about its world and ours and the characters take us on a journey that's so far been rich and compelling. Some of it is uncomfortably heavy, but I like that the writers aren't trying to sugar coat an innocent time, like the world only got fucked up when we modern folk arrived. It's dark, yes, and brooding and there's been one or two off-course storylines, but the devil is truly in the details. This is one ride I'm thoroughly enjoying.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Problem with Plaxico

I was reading a message board recently where half the posters were calling for the head of Plaxico Burress. Just like the Mayor of New York, they wanted to see the Giants receiver thrown in jail for discharging a weapon in a Manhattan nightclub and accidentally shooting himself in the thigh. Period. Let's forget that quaint notion that you're innocent until proven guilty or that the jails are overcrowded enough as it is -- with real criminals.

Nope. Let's make an example of a celebrity. Let's show we treat them the same way we treat the poor kid on the street.

Only he isn't being treated the same.

Because while it's true that there's a mandatory sentencing law in New York for carrying an unlicensed, loaded weapon the fact is that few people charged with the offense actually end up going to jail.

In fact, Jim Dwyer, writing in illuminating detail in his About New York column in the New York Times last week, makes this exact point. He quotes John M. Caher, a spokesman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services who says “Less than 10 percent of the people charged with second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, which carries the mandatory prison sentence, are ultimately convicted of that charge.”

In addition, there has been much speculation that the very fact that Burress is a celebrity will net him special treatment, but not how you think. It appears that prosecutors may not agree to a plea deal in this case, even if they would in other, similar cases -- because they want to send a message: if we throw Plaxico Burress into jail, we'll do it to anybody. Which is a load of horseshit because it sends more than just one message, like it's okay for the law to be applied to different people differently. Nice lesson in civics there, Mr. Mayor.

I'm not about to condone Plaxico's behavior. It was stupid, even if he had a reasonable concern for his safety, which I'm sure his lawyers will argue. Just four days earlier, another Giants receiver, was robbed at gunpoint. There is also a disturbing recent history of gun violence around the NFL -- a number of players have been severely injured, even killed by gun violence. Last year, Washington safety Sean Taylor was murdered during a home invasion. This September, Jacksonville lineman Richard Collier was shot 14 times by a man he reportedly had argued with, ending his football career at age 27. The shooting left him paralyzed below the waist and had to have his right leg amputated above the knee.

While his history is not as checkered as Collier's (he had substance abuse problems and at least one DUI arrest -- and so far none of that history has appeared to play a roll in the shooting), Plaxico's past is troubling, there's no doubt about that.

The guy clearly needs help, but he's no Terrell Owens. Not even close. What he did last year, showing up every Sunday and playing like a warrior despite ankle and knee injuries that would require offseason surgery, earned the respect of every man in his locker room. It also earned him a contract extension though I think the Giants took too damn long to ink that deal and as a result, Burress skipped most of training camp. How much this led to his problems (on and off the field) this season is uncertain.

On a team of mostly model citizens, he's unfortunately stood out this season. He is a very complicated man -- extremely bright, yet very emotional and extremely, painfully private. His teammates describe him as likable but aloof and distant. And while he's been accused in the past of not leaving it all on the field every Sunday, he has showed up for the Giants when counted upon. It's a cliche, I know, but if anything, his behavior this season feels like a classic call for help.

Does that make him a victim? No. Does it make what he did any less wrong? Of course, not. Should he go to jail? Hell, no.

I think he should be treated like every other first offender in this sort of gun case, not made an example of because he's a public figure. Fine him. Get him some counseling and take away his license to carry a weapon. And let's not pretend he murdered anybody.

Yeah, he certainly could have hurt someone and he certainly should have known better. But let's not turn his stupidity into a referendum on gun control. If New York City or any other place for that matter wanted to get guns off the street, they could do it. That's another argument altogether.

You gotta think Burress has finally received his wake-up call. You would hope anyway. We don't need to lock him up to teach him that lesson -- that's not what jail is for anyway. It's to put away people who are a danger to society.

Now for my second sermon in two days: this is the problem with mandatory jail sentences. For one, they're too rigid and don't take into account what almost always are extenuating circumstances. Second they rely far too much on an idea long ago debunked -- that harsh prison sentences are a major crime deterrent. Third it ignores the fact that sending minor offenders to prison exposes them to more violent offenders and likely influences them negatively, as opposed to "scaring them straight." Fourth, mandatory sentences haven't proven to significantly curtail violent crime and in some cases, makes dangerous criminals more dangerous. All they do is put an insufficient Band Aid on the issue of chronic recidivism, which is the real problem. Full-court handling of suspects who commit lessor crimes -- including psychiatric counseling and rehabilitation support -- works for most first-time offenders (those who aren't sociopaths or severely mentally ill and even some studies have shown it can work with a percentage of that population too) by preventing them from turning into violent criminal in the first place. If we really wanted to make a difference in violent crime, we'd stop locking everybody up and start spending time, money and resources on prevention and rehab of early offenders. Get them when they still have something to live for. Don't get me started. Fuck.

Okay, I'm done.

I just don't think there's any serious person who could put Plaxico Burress into the category of "danger to society." Everything he's done has been self-destructive pleas for help. At the moment, despite imposing a very severe penalty (one I think is warranted), the Giants seem to be willing (at the moment anyway) to ride this storm out to see if Plax can get his shit together.
It's possible that while his season is over for 2008, the Giants would welcome him back next year -- provided of course that he prove he's addressed his behavior problems.

This shouldn't be seen as coddling a rich superstar, but instead the pragmatic actions of an organization that wants to protect its investment while at the same time understanding there is a difference between a troublemaker and a guy who is clearly troubled.

I hope Plaxico can find his way through this. Even if he never plays football again, he's a bright, thoughtful man and he owes it to himself and his family to straighten his act out.

Better Days: Burress catches the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Big Three Bailout

I don't know much about whether the government should bail out the Big Three, but it doesn't take an economist to see the short-sighted greediness of the American auto industry. For almost every major advancement in auto safety and fuel economy and improvement in workers' rights and benefits, Detroit has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the point where it's a wonder they have any fingernails left.

All their protestations to the contrary, that the government has, for example, made them meet stricter fuel economy standards and put windshield wipers and airbags in every car isn't the reason they're bankrupted.

I've heard the argument that the industry is making the cars that people want. But that's just bullshit. While Ford, GM and Chrysler were putting all their efforts into making unsafe, inefficient, badly designed SUVs, the rest of the world's automakers (with a notable exception here and there) were making better cars. Which is why I drive a 6-year-old BMW that's running, after 80,000 miles, as good as it was when I drove it off the lot in 2002. The reason the Big Three were making SUVs was because they were cheap to make and had a far bigger profit than regular cars.

By the way, if you remain one of those people who still think that the only problem with SUVs is that they're not fuel efficient, or you're still under the impression they are NOT the most dangerous vehicles on the road for everyone, including the people driving SUVs, than read this book and get your facts straight. Seriously, if there is an object outside of guns that has a clear moral identity, I don't know of one. SUVs are unsafe. People who drive them are not bad people but they need to understand that by just being on the road with other cars, they are making the the world more unsafe for everybody. And it's a canard that SUV drivers are more safe just because they are in bigger, heavier cars than everybody else. First of all, just making the argument is frightening, because it means you could give a rat's ass about other people's safety. Second, it's statistically a lie. People IN SUVs are more likely to be seriously injured in an accident than if they are in a sedan. You can look it up.

Okay, sermon over.

Back to the Big Three, who are now, hat in hand, begging for a $40 billion bailout from the U.S. Government, all because they didn't look farther than the road than their own diamond-studded driveways. The only reason Congress hasn't kicked these idiots to the curb yet is because it would mean putting hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work.

That doesn't mean giving them a load of cash is a good idea though. What the fuck to do with them then?

Michael Moore posits one idea on his website today that, in general at least, seems to make a lot of sense to me. Moore is the Flint, Michigan native whose documentary films include "Bowling for Columbine," "Sicko," and his first major film, "Roger & Me," which chronicled the effect of General Motors on the city of Flint, Mich. (The Roger in the title being then-GM Chairman Roger Smith.) So he's not usually my go-to guy for objective political commentary, but I find if you look past his ego, the guy does have something important to say. In this case, I thought it was worth sharing.

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008


I drive an American car. It's a Chrysler. That's not an endorsement. It's more like a cry for pity. And now for a decades-old story, retold ad infinitum by tens of millions of Americans, a third of whom have had to desert their country to simply find a damn way to get to work in something that won't break down:

My Chrysler is four years old. I bought it because of its smooth and comfortable ride. Daimler-Benz owned the company then and had the good grace to place the Chrysler chassis on a Mercedes axle and, man, was that a sweet ride!

When it would start.

More than a dozen times in these years, the car has simply died. Batteries have been replaced, but that wasn't the problem. My dad drives the same model. His car has died many times, too. Just won't start, for no reason at all.

A few weeks ago, I took my Chrysler in to the Chrysler dealer here in northern Michigan -- and the latest fixes cost me $1,400. The next day, the vehicle wouldn't start. When I got it going, the brake warning light came on. And on and on.

You might assume from this that I couldn't give a rat's ass about these miserably inept crapmobile makers down the road in Detroit city. But I do care. I care about the millions whose lives and livelihoods depend on these car companies. I care about the security and defense of this country because the world is running out of oil -- and when it runs out, the calamity and collapse that will take place will make the current recession/depression look like a Tommy Tune musical.

And I care about what happens with the Big 3 because they are more responsible than almost anyone for the destruction of our fragile atmosphere and the daily melting of our polar ice caps.

Congress must save the industrial infrastructure that these companies control and the jobs they create. And it must save the world from the internal combustion engine. This great, vast manufacturing network can redeem itself by building mass transit and electric/hybrid cars, and the kind of transportation we need for the 21st century.

And Congress must do all this by NOT giving GM, Ford and Chrysler the $34 billion they are asking for in "loans" (a few days ago they only wanted $25 billion; that's how stupid they are -- they don't even know how much they really need to make this month's payroll. If you or I tried to get a loan from the bank this way, not only would we be thrown out on our ear, the bank would place us on some sort of credit rating blacklist).

Two weeks ago, the CEOs of the Big 3 were tarred and feathered before a Congressional committee who sneered at them in a way far different than when the heads of the financial industry showed up two months earlier. At that time, the politicians tripped over each other in their swoon for Wall Street and its Ponzi schemers who had concocted Byzantine ways to bet other people's money on unregulated credit default swaps, known in the common vernacular as unicorns and fairies.

But the Detroit boys were from the Midwest, the Rust (yuk!) Belt, where they made real things that consumers needed and could touch and buy, and that continually recycled money into the economy (shocking!), produced unions that created the middle class, and fixed my teeth for free when I was ten.

For all of that, the auto heads had to sit there in November and be ridiculed about how they traveled to D.C. Yes, they flew on their corporate jets, just like the bankers and Wall Street thieves did in October. But, hey, THAT was OK! They're the Masters of the Universe! Nothing but the best chariots for Big Finance as they set about to loot our nation's treasury.

Of course, the auto magnates used be the Masters who ruled the world. They were the pulsating hub that all other industries -- steel, oil, cement contractors -- served. Fifty-five years ago, the president of GM sat on that same Capitol Hill and bluntly told Congress, what's good for General Motors is good for the country. Because, you see, in their minds, GM WAS the country.

What a long, sad fall from grace we witnessed on November 19th when the three blind mice had their knuckles slapped and then were sent back home to write an essay called, "Why You Should Give Me Billions of Dollars of Free Cash." They were also asked if they would work for a dollar a year. Take that! What a big, brave Congress they are! Requesting indentured servitude from (still) three of the most powerful men in the world. This from a spineless body that won't dare stand up to a disgraced president nor turn down a single funding request for a war that neither they nor the American public support. Amazing.

Let me just state the obvious: Every single dollar Congress gives these three companies will be flushed right down the toilet. There is nothing the management teams of the Big 3 are going to do to convince people to go out during a recession and buy their big, gas-guzzling, inferior products. Just forget it. And, as sure as I am that the Ford family-owned Detroit Lions are not going to the Super Bowl -- ever -- I can guarantee you, after they burn through this $34 billion, they'll be back for another $34 billion next summer.

So what to do? Members of Congress, here's what I propose:

1. Transporting Americans is and should be one of the most important functions our government must address. And because we are facing a massive economic, energy and environmental crisis, the new president and Congress must do what Franklin Roosevelt did when he was faced with a crisis (and ordered the auto industry to stop building cars and instead build tanks and planes): The Big 3 are, from this point forward, to build only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil and, more importantly to build trains, buses, subways and light rail (a corresponding public works project across the country will build the rail lines and tracks). This will not only save jobs, but create millions of new ones.

2. You could buy ALL the common shares of stock in General Motors for less than $3 billion. Why should we give GM $18 billion or $25 billion or anything? Take the money and buy the company! (You're going to demand collateral anyway if you give them the "loan," and because we know they will default on that loan, you're going to own the company in the end as it is. So why wait? Just buy them out now.)

3. None of us want government officials running a car company, but there are some very smart transportation geniuses who could be hired to do this. We need a Marshall Plan to switch us off oil-dependent vehicles and get us into the 21st century.

This proposal is not radical or rocket science. It just takes one of the smartest people ever to run for the presidency to pull it off. What I'm proposing has worked before. The national rail system was in shambles in the '70s. The government took it over. A decade later it was turning a profit, so the government returned it to private/public hands, and got a couple billion dollars put back in the treasury.

This proposal will save our industrial infrastructure -- and millions of jobs. More importantly, it will create millions more. It literally could pull us out of this recession.

In contrast, yesterday General Motors presented its restructuring proposal to Congress. They promised, if Congress gave them $18 billion now, they would, in turn, eliminate around 20,000 jobs. You read that right. We give them billions so they can throw more Americans out of work. That's been their Big Idea for the last 30 years -- layoff thousands in order to protect profits. But no one ever stopped to ask this question: If you throw everyone out of work, who's going to have the money to go out and buy a car?

These idiots don't deserve a dime. Fire all of them, and take over the industry for the good of the workers, the country and the planet.

What's good for General Motors IS good for the country. Once the country is calling the shots.

Michael Moore

Prop 8 - The Musical

Why I Love Pugs

Reason No. 1: They know what friends are for.

"All the songs Odetta Sings"

Odetta died today. Here's a link to the New York Times obituary. It's a huge loss for the world. According to the story, friends said she hoped to sing at Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20. How fitting for a giant of the Civil Rights Movement to have performed at the inauguration of the first African-American President. Now, it will feel like something is missing. When Rosa Parks was asked what songs she liked, she answered "All the songs Odetta sings."

I got to see her many years ago. She was a gifted singer but she also had a singular stage presence -- not something you ever forget. And she could sing almost anything from old spirituals to blues to rock music.

Thankfully there's a number of videos of her performing sprinkled around youtube. Like this one of her performing with Tennessee Ernie Ford on his variety show.

And this one from 2003 at the Philadelphia Freedom Festival doing Amazing Grace. These guys are really jamming.

Odetta was 77. She died of heart disease at New York's Lennox Hospital. A great voice of the people is gone.