Monday, January 26, 2009

A cold night in January

Solitary road trips are always a time for reflection. But when the purpose of the trip is to see a beloved sister for what seems likely to be the last time, reflection turns easily to regret. Today I covered about 700 miles under a low sky the same color as the pavement, the dun fields on either side wheeling by like the gears of time. If there's a suitable venue for contemplating life and how it ends, that's as good as any. Every mile I thought of Val, the impetuous girl she'd been and the kind, patient woman she became, and how my memories between the two are far fewer than they should be.

That's where the regret comes in. I could have have been a much better brother. Could have sent birthday cards, could have helped out, could have dropped by once in awhile with a bucket of chicken and a smile. I could have done a lot of things; I hate knowing that I didn't. I hate that every feeling I have about this is a cliche. Most of all, I hate that my sister is dying and there's nothing I can do about it except curse the cancer and wallow in self-indulgent melancholy. And drive 1,200 miles to say goodbye after years when I wouldn't drive a quarter of the distance to say hello. Here's another cliche: If you care for somebody, let them know -- don't wait until you have to.

It's deep winter here in Wyoming. Tonight it's supposed to hit 25 below. There's a bunch of semis outside, all idling through the night lest they be dead in the morning. A better writer might wring a metaphor from that. I won't try it. It's a winter night, cold enough to hurt, and there's going to be a death in my family. No metaphors are required.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Some rags for Mr. Madoff

We saw Slumdog Millionaire yesterday. It's a gritty story, less buoyant than grim, until an improbable ending that could only happen in the movies. We loved it anyway. It's the only one of this year's best-picture nominees I've seen, but I'll go ahead and award the Oscar now -- and wait, as I usually do, for the Academy to rubber-stamp my pick.

Rags-to-riches stories have universal appeal, especially one told so artfully as this. But I wonder if Americans aren't ready for a look at the other side of the coin: Riches to rags. As uplifting as it is to see kids overcome cruel poverty, a better fantasy might involve billionaires going in the opposite direction. Imagine Bernie Madoff in ragged shorts, combing through a garbage dump in Mumbai. Tell me that's something you wouldn't pay to see.

But the rich never seem to get poorer, do they? Even the most venal and crooked seem to weather personal disgrace just fine. As far as I know, Mr. Madoff is still gazing down on Manhattan from the great height of his upper East Side apartment. Same with the other titans of greed, and there are a lot of them. Failure's always an option and the consequence is a comfortable retirement. This is America: You hit a certain level of obscene wealth, and you become untouchable. In a good way.

Somebody makes a movie like Billionaire Slumdog, I'm first in line at the box office. I don't want to see all the blameless greedheads blinded, necessarily, or dipped in excrement. But I would like to see them poor.

Friday, January 23, 2009

This is no time for illusions

Yeah, it's a minor deception, but it still feels like a letdown. Turns out that beautiful inaugural piece "Air and Simple Gifts" was not really being performed in the cold sunshine of D.C. It had been recorded two days before, so some of the best musicians in the world could finger-synch along.

And yeah, there were a lot of good reasons for that: the New York Times points out "the possibility of broken piano strings, cracked instruments and wacky intonation" at a time when everything had to be perfect. But under that logic, maybe Obama and Justice Roberts should have taped the swearing-in part in advance too. After all, it also had to be perfect. And it wasn't.

“No one’s trying to fool anybody," the woman in charge of the ceremonies said. But that's not quite right, is it? The entire point of a fake performance is to deceive, to create the illusion that here is a talent and a time too great to succumb to circumstance. In the case of Ashlee Simpson, we can understand why technical help is essential. During the Beijing Olympics -- well, it's the Chinese, who have little faith in the genuine. In the case of Obama's inauguration, I was sort of hoping for the real thing.

If it's too cold to play the cello, then just play the damned recording. Don't trot out the artists and make them go through the motions. It's a new day in America, right? I think we can handle the truth.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A few moments to remember

That was quite a speech. I like the part about "a new era of responsibility," even though I have a feeling everyone is still thinking of somebody else when they think about responsibility. But you have to hand it to Obama. He wasn't exactly promising us a rose garden. And as far as I could tell, the man did not mangle one single sentence. It truly is a new day in America.

It was classy of the Obamas to walk the Bushes down to the helicopter. Ex-President Bush looked just as small as he did eight years ago when he was standing next to Bill Clinton. The look on his face was identical, too: A man in over his head, feeling not quite equal to the day. His will be an interesting memoir, as long as he finds the right person and the right time to write it. Then again, maybe he'll want to leave well enough alone.

At first I thought Obama muffed the oath; now I learn from CNN that the gaffe belonged to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. You know, it's not that long an oath. Would it have killed Roberts to rehearse it a couple of times? Another sign of Obama cool, though -- he remained unfazed.

Not sure about that inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander. It seemed a bit pedestrian, almost prosaic. Maybe her careful pronunciation robbed the work of some feeling. Personally, I've come think we could dispense with poems written specifically for inaugurations. The last really good one was by Robert Frost in 1961, and it wasn't the one he'd planned.

Then there was Dick Cheney in that ridiculous black fedora and wheelchair, wielding a cane. He reminded me of Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, hunched there thinking, "These fools." I'm surprised he bothered to attend.

I recorded the event. I plan to watch it in eight years -- although surely technology will have rendered my DVR useless by then. For now, a toast -- just tea, at this time of day -- to our new president. I wish him all the best. And I'm taking this responsibility thing to heart.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The ghosts of presidents past

In America, a new presidency has a significance quite separate from politics. It's personal milestone too. You remember what your life was like when the last president was sworn in, and you reflect on all that's different between then and now. You wonder what changes, great or small, will occur in the next eight years. The night before an inauguration is like New Year's Eve without the booze. It's a time for taking stock.

When I think back on presidents past, each of their names is like a snapshot from that time in my life. Mostly, presidents are like wallpaper, a bland background to real life. But they become a entwined with your personal experience: Eisenhower and toy sixguns; Kennedy and Playboy magazine; Johnson and bell-bottom pants. Mention the name Gerald Ford and I think of Saturday Night Live, and the dopey clothes I wore as a cub reporter.

I hope President Obama imparts more significant memories than that. I think he will. But thinking back on all the presidents who have served during my time on the planet, I can't think of a single one who had greater impact on my life than myself, or the people closest to me. It's worth keeping in mind that for all the hope a new president inspires, real change -- for better or worse -- starts right there in the mirror.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Maybe worship is a bit much

Let the record show that it's Sunday, Jan. 18, and this is undeniably a blog post. This keeps alive my string of daily consecutive posts since the start of the year. And thus my New Year's resolution to post every stinking day. So suck on that.

It was a day distinguished by the Philadelphia Eagles' ignoble loss to the Cardinals -- a team named not after a city, but a state jam-packed with oldsters. Arizona is the new Florida. Or maybe Florida is the old Arizona, I can never be sure. It's enough to to say that if you're going to cheer for laundry, you might as well cheer for laundry that wins. All hail Pittsburgh. On Super Bowl Sunday, I will be watching C-SPAN instead.

Since there were no good games to watch, we occasionally switched over to stations carrying the orgasmic celebration of Barack Obama's inauguration. Let me just say this: Stevie Wonder is fat. Bruce Springsteen is not a working man. Samuel Jackson is wearing the same Kangol hat he was born in. The inexorable march of time hasn't improved Sheryl Crowe.

It's sad that the adoration of celebrities is not enough to create a great presidency. If it were, everything would be jake this morning, and we could look for the Dow to surge 1,000 points. All the boys would be coming home from Iraq, and somebody else would be making my house payments.

But maybe it's better to wait. Maybe we should see what the man can accomplish before we decide he's already done it. And if I read one more time that Obama's moment "is one that I never thought would come," I will puke. Yeah, it's a great moment, historic and everything. Who could have seen it coming? It was also great when he was nominated. And when he accepted the nomination. And when he'll be sworn in. Can we give it a rest now? Can we treat the man as a president, instead of an affirmative-action poster boy? I'm just saying.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What would Mickey do?

A few words in praise of Garrison Keillor, whose gentle, avuncular demeanor has been sorely tested under the Bush administration. Now that Bush is transitioning from leader of the free world to leader of the George W. Bush DVD Library, G.K. seems a lot more at ease. The role of political scold never fit him that well.

Keillor's column in Salon is one of the few I look for each week. His latest, contrasting "girlish, moody fiction" with the sort of stuff people might really read, is something I dearly wish I'd written myself:

"...what readers really want is the same as what Shakespeare's audience wanted -- dastardly deeds by dark despicable men, and/or some generous blood-spattering and/or saucy wenches with pert breasts cinched up to display them like fresh fruit on a platter. ...

"Unfortunately, writers are a gloomy bunch given to whining about the difficulty of getting published, the pain of rejection, the obtuseness of critics, etc. They sit at their laptops and write a few sentences about pale reflections and then check their e-mail and Google themselves. Maybe click onto a Web site where young women display their breasts like ripe fruit. They get busy messing around and don't have time to write fiction so they write poems instead."

Of course, I'm not one of those writers. Not me, no not at all. The biggest difference is that instead of writing poems when I get distracted, I fiddle around with this stupid blog.

It's a funny column, but Keillor has an excellent point about fiction, and writing in general: Readers like stories. They like conflict; they like cause and effect. They like it when something actually happens. All the self-indulgent interior monologues and sensitive observations in the world won't make the pages turn if the reader is convinced that's all there is. We shouldn't all write like Mickey Spillane, but for a lot of us, it might be a useful exercise.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Call Nancy Grace; there's a poem missing

This month's poetry selection is not really a poem, but the half-remembered fragment of a poem. I came across it a decade ago while at work, and printed it out and memorized as much of it as I could. Now the printout is long gone, and my memory isn't much of a backup system.

The poem, I'm pretty sure, is called "Song on Turning 70." It's by John Hall Wheelock, and even the power of Google has been insufficient to recover the complete work. Guess it's time for a trip to the library. My apologies to readers -- and to the estate of Mr. Wheelock -- for the words and line breaks I have inevitably gotten wrong:

Shall not a man sing as the night comes on?
Great night, hold back
a little longer yet the mountainous black
waters of darkness from this shore,
this island garden, this paradisal spot
the haunt of love and pain
which we must leave, whether we would or not
and where we shall not come again.
More time. Oh, but a little more ...

Does that ring a bell with anyone? I'd love to have the whole poem, but as I say, Google -- which is so diligent about indexing every scabrous blog and bus schedule, doesn't help much with works of poetry. And don't get me started about Wikipedia: Its original entry for John Hall Wheelock cited him as the author of Spoon River Anthology -- which is the best-known work of another favorite poet, Edgar Lee Masters. Be careful when you Wiki, folks.

The title of the poem is "Song on Reaching Seventy" (italics mine), which may account for why at least a few of my earlier searches came up short. The rest of them -- well, I'm not as smart as I look. Turns out it's helpful to put quotes around the lines you're sure of. Sorry, Google. The poem may be found in The Best Poems of 1957, published by Stanford University Press, and other volumes.

For anyone who cares, here's the entire poem:

Shall not a man sing as the night comes on?
He would be braver than that bird
Which shrieks for terror and is gone
Into the gathering dark, and he has heard
Often, at evening's hush,
Upon some towering sunset bough
A belated thrush
Lift up his heart against the menacing night,
Till silence covered all. Oh, now
Before the coming of a greater night
How bitterly sweet and dear
All things have grown! How shall we bear the brunt,
The fury and joy of every sound and sight,
Now almost cruelly fierce with all delight:
The clouds of dawn that blunt
The spearhead of the sun; the clouds that stand,
Raging with light, around his burial;
The rain-pocked pool
At the wood's edge; a bat's skittering flight
Over the sunset-colored land;
Or, heard toward morning, the cock pheasant's call!
Oh, ever sight and sound
Has meaning now! Now, also, love has laid
Upon us her old chains of tenderness
So that to think of the beloved one,
Love is so great, is to be half afraid --
It is like looking at the sun,
That blinds the eye with truth.
Yet longing remains unstilled,
Age will look into the face of youth
With longing, over a gulf not to be crossed.
Oh, joy that is almost pain, pain that is joy,
Unimaginable to the younger man or boy --
Nothing is quite fulfilled,
Nothing is lost;
But all is multiplied till the heart almost
Aches with its burden: there and here
Become as one, the present and the past;
The dead who were content to lie
Far from us, have consented to draw near --
We are thronged with memories,
Move amid two societies,
And learn at last
The dead are the only ones who never die.

Great night, hold back
A little longer yet your mountainous black
Waters of darkness from this shore,
This island garden, this paradisal spot,
The haunt of love and pain,
Which we must leave, whether we would or not,
And where we shall not come again.
More time -- oh, but a little more,
Till stretched to the limits of being, the taut heart break
Bursting the bonds of breath,
Shattering the wall
Between us and our world, and we awake
Out of the dream of self into the truth of all,
The price for which is death.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

For average acts, please remain seated

When's the last time you attended a live performance that did not culminate in standing ovation? Here in Wichita, I don't think it's ever happened. This city is charming in a lot of other ways, but the obligatory Standing O has become one of my pet peeves. You can be Pavarotti or one of the freak acts from American Idol, and people are still going to leap to their feet when the song is done.

OK, we're nice here in the Midwest. But standing up while applauding is about the highest gesture of appreciation an audience can bestow, short of women throwing their underwear. This is not something you award to any schmuck who walks by whistling Dixie. Doing so rewards mediocrity and makes the standers look like rubes, grinning bumpkins who are just real glad somebody decided to spend the night here in Punkin Holler.

I'm glad to see Miss Manners and I are on the same page on this: You reserve exceptional gestures for exceptional performances. You clap for everyone, that's just courtesy -- but you only stand up for the very best. If everybody gets a gold medal for showing up, then what's a gold medal worth? Treating both the mediocre and the marvelous as Special Olympics contestants doesn't help either of them.

Next week: Why getting killed in the workplace doesn't necessarily make you a hero.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

This reality show has been plummeting in the ratings for about six years, so the finale might not do so well either. President Bush gets on TV tonight (7 p.m. Central) to bid farewell to a grateful nation.

Except the nation is not all that grateful. Yes, terrorists haven't knocked down any skyscrapers since 9/11, but they might as well have: The financial geniuses who worked in those skyscrapers have mostly decamped for the high weeds, taking with them the unearned wealth we'd all hoped to coast on during our golden years. So many of their offices are empty now, it's like a neutron bomb went off on Wall Street. Thanks, Mr. Bush, for keeping the country safe. Turns out the biggest threat to national security was thieves in expensive suits. They didn't even have the decency to send crappy audiotapes warning of their intentions.

I was never a Bush hater. I always thought he was a decent man who had trouble putting sentences together. I was somewhat late in realizing that he's really not very smart, not very interested in being smart, and far more malleable in the hands of scheming advisers than he will ever admit. When you're president, being decent is nice, but it's not quite enough.

He seems more reflective now, but I don't think he's a changed man. The last few years have been a been a time ripe for epiphanies, but I don't think he's partaken. So I won't be watching his address, and my DVR will be otherwise engaged. I'll leave it to The Onion to parse his meaning.

Speaking of the Onion and President Bush, this is one of the best things they've done:

Economists Warn Anti-Bush Merchandise Market Close To Collapse

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

God help me, I do love it so

I suppose if a man runs a personal blog, there's no great harm in disclosing an embarrassing personal detail once in awhile. Here's mine for January: I watch American Idol. What the hell, here's another: I like it.

Not that I would ever admit this while watching the show in the company of others. During the two-hour season premiere last night, I was all snorts and sneers, dismissive of the talented and untalented alike. Somewhere in my childhood, I must have been taught that it was unmanly to watch shows in which people willingly trade dignity for camera time. Of course, I may have been taught that it's unmanly to bloviate on topics about which I know nothing, but I've forgotten about that too.

Every Idol season starts off scripted for freak-show appeal -- how else can you explain Humongous Afro guy or Monotone Bass guy getting in the door? I cringe at that sort of thing. But every now and then there's something surprising and funny. Biggest laugh of the night was the video of the five or six adolescent girls waiting for the results of last year's finale. When it turned out not to be David Archuleta, their anguished spaz-out was a joy to behold. I've got to watch that again -- thanks, DVR. Second biggest laugh was Ryan Seacrest trying to high-five the blind guy -- realizing one second too late that a blind guy might not be able to see his proffered hand.

Then there's Bikini Girl -- who can sing, yes, but her true talents seem to lie elsewhere. Wink wink.

I'll be watching it again tonight, so no phone calls between 7 and 8 p.m. Central. And I would like to stipulate that no matter how much I watch the stupid show, I will never, ever hit speed dial to cast a vote. That really would be unmanly.

By they way, strictly off topic: a prize to the first person who identifies the source of my headline on this item.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Times are tough? Here's how you cope

Look, I try not to be so cynical all the time. I didn't exactly make a New Year's resolution to see the good in all things, but I have flirted with the idea that a more positive outlook wouldn't hurt, in certain situations. So I'm grateful that Victoria Osteen is out there offering positive reinforcement. A wretch like me can use it.

Victoria, the beautiful millionaire and co-pastor of the 16,000-seat Lakewood Church in Houston, is touring the country offering tips, to those who aren't beautiful and aren't millionaires, about coping during these uncertain times. If people ask, she will also mention her new book, Love Your Life: Living Happy, Healthy and Whole, which debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list but has since vanished from view.

In her interview with CNN, Victoria sums up the section on finances: "I think we could all do better sometimes of not overextending ourselves as much. It's easy in our day and age to just extend ourselves in the credit line and things like that."

We? Let's not go there. That would be cynical. She got a tough message, but it needs to be said: Restraint, people. You think Victoria buys a new Bentley every time she wants one? No, because it's all about family. And God. Don't forget to tithe. All major credit cards accepted.

On the strength of the interview, I recommend everyone buy this book. The thing is, if you're not gorgeous and wealthy in these uncertain times, you're going to need all the help you can get.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The show must go on. And on.

Last night, while watching a bit of the Golden Globes, I wondered: What if actors had to write their own lines? We wouldn't be doling out movie awards each year like blocks of government cheese. That's because there wouldn't be any movies to see.

How about that Mickey Rourke? He's begun to look like a claymation caricature of himself, and sound like the guy you encounter at Stockman's Bar after a few too many 7&7s. Kate Winslet is still easy on the eyes, but I now feel truly blessed by all the awards she didn't win: the woman is a windbag, babbling away like an 8th-grade valedictorian hyped up on Mountain Dew. Colin Farrell is even more tedious, boundless narcissism emanating from every carefully coifed hair as he rambles his way through far too many minutes of our fleeting lives.

But we love that kind of stuff, don't we? Love to see the beautiful people make asses of themselves, clutching their awards and droning on like regional honorees at an Amway convention. Love the painfully practiced smiles of those who didn't win. Love every stammered word and clumsy expletive. It makes the Hollywood gods seem a little more mortal, a little more like ourselves. Makes us thank the Lord for writers.

Then again, a little of it goes a long way. This year I'm thinking of putting the Oscars on DVR, so I can race past the tedium and see, for my own edification, how much time it really takes to announce the nominees, show a few clips, and present the damned award. I'm guessing a half-hour, tops. But I'm also guessing the wife won't hear of it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

You've got no mail

I hardly ever get e-mail these days. In fact, without my good friends at Dell, Netflix and L.L. Bean, I'd go entire weeks without getting any. In 2009, it's come to seem as clunky and time-consuming as what we used to call snail mail. Blame the advent of texting and Twitter. A dozen years of rampant spam hasn't helped -- forever associating the e-mail inbox with Nigerian schemes and lurid porn come-ons and unsolicited offers to supersize one's salami. "You've got mail!" used to be good news; now it seems more like "You've got herpes."

It wasn't always that way. I remember the dawn of the Prodigy network in the early '90s, how wonderful it seemed to write to somebody and know that they'd get the message instantly -- or at least as instantly as a 300-baud modem would allow. The graphics were chunky and the connection tenuous, but it was a heady feeling, typing out a few pithy phrases and sending them out into the ether with the press of a key. You might wander back to the computer a couple of hours later and there would be a reply. In the early days of e-mail, I remember thinking that family and friends would never again have a good excuse for not staying in touch.

With Google, it got better: Now I could reach out not only to people who were close, but to people who weren't. I went through a phase where, during idle moments at work, I'd look up the names of old friends from work or school. If they had an e-mail address, I'd sometimes shoot them a message: "Hey, how's it going? You may not remember be, but ..."

I renewed quite a few old acquaintances that way, and with some I actually corresponded for quite awhile. But the years went by. The e-mails tapered off. At some point I think we all came to understand that there's a reason people lose touch with each other, and it doesn't have much to do with the lack of technology. It's about natural affinity, and a shared world-view, and maybe a shared history extending beyond a couple of years at a rural high school or a backwater newspaper. None of those things can live on text alone; none are nurtured by forwarded jokes. When people forget each other, whether once-close friends or casual acquaintances, it's because neither of them saw much reason not to. But that's not something they're going to come out and say. Better to just let things slide.

So yeah, I'm not bemoaning the end of e-mail so much as the end of thinking that it might make life better. Turns out it didn't greatly expand my tiny circle of friends. It didn't open up this broad range of contacts to further my brilliant career. In the case of certain family members who've given up on checking their e-mail, it doesn't even obviate the need to keep envelopes and stamps around.

That's fine. If somebody really matters, you go with what works. You can write a real letter, you can pick up the phone, you can tap on the wall between your cells. Yes, you can also Tweet, although I may be past that too. But finally, it isn't the medium. It's the message.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sex is timeless, the book not so much

Raise your hand if at any time in the '70s or '80s you had a copy of The Joy of Sex tucked away in a bedroom drawer. No? Must have been just me, then.

Monica Hesse of the Washington Post has a funny essay on the revised edition of this not-so-timeless classic, the original of which can still be found on the back tables of garage sales everywhere, sandwiched between copies of The Thorn Birds and The Complete Book of Running. I haven't picked up a copy in years, but I still remember how wonderfully erotic all those drawings seemed at first, and how quickly they became blase. The woman was cool; the guy sort of reminded me of Chuck Mangione.

As Ms. Hesse points out, the drawings are now photographs, and the randy couple now look like J. Crew models, without the benefit of J. Crew apparel. This edition includes 42 new sections -- apparently a lot has changed since people started having sex in the primeval suburbs of 1972. I suppose I should have a look, to keep up with the latest developments.

Then again, maybe not. I think the market for tastefully titillating sex manuals has gone the way of Fu Manchu moustaches and enormous shirt collars. Hard to imagine much demand in the age of the Internet.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Pixar pathos and box-office gold

I probably shouldn't admit that I'm kind of neutral on WALL*E, Pixar's latest animated feature about a couple of robots that rescue humanity. It scores 98 percent on my favorite film site,, and even jaded critics are deploying phrases like "entertaining and inspiring," "flat-out thrilling" and "almost heart-breakingly tender." Only a small-hearted, small-minded man would conclude his Netflix screening with the phrase, "Well, I've seen worse."

I loved Toy Story, Pixar's first computer-animated film about a lovable loser who eventually wins. But that's been 14 years ago, and every holiday season since we've seen a replicating mob of computer-animated films -- all about lovable losers who eventually win. For me, the cynical regularity of the plots and release dates of these things has become tiresome.

WALL*E isn't a bad movie. In many ways, it's pretty good -- as long as you accept that robots might experience physical attraction for each other, and that they might also possess an affinity for plants. Right. I did like the vision of a distinctly American mankind evolving into fat blobs on hovering lounge chairs, whose only interest is mindless chatter and empty calories. Take away the hovering chairs, throw in an iPhone and a Ford Explorer, and you have a portrait of America in 2009.

That's the best part about WALL*E: Under the bland syrup, a bit of bitter social commentary. But as an Oscar contender? I don't think so.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Trouble in the Mideast? Call Joe

Picture this: It's the day after a terrorist attack, you've lost everything in spectacular fashion and the media's dying to talk to you. You're expecting Anderson Cooper, but the guy who steps out of the van is Yoab the Drywall Man. You wonder: What the hell is CNN thinking?

And I wonder: What the hell will Israelis think of Joe the Plumber as war correspondent? Samuel Werzelbacher, the guy who skyrocketed to prominence by asking Barack Obama a single disingenuous question, has been hired as a reporter for the conservative Web site He intends to let Israel's "Average Joes tell their story."

I don't have much to say about Samuel Werzelbacher. I don't know the man. But I will say that Average Joes, the ones proud of uninformed views and crappy grammar, are way overrated when it comes to writing books or running for political office or wandering around a war zone with a press pass and a microphone. Samuel Werzelbacher has now expressed interest in all of those things, without yet distinguishing himself in the profession for which he's best known: Plumbing.

We can take comfort from the fact that is no CNN. But will the American celebrity mill ever tire of elevating dumbasses out of obscurity?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Thieves, yes. But not that lovable

We've all seen the movies: Lovable thieves make a nice living ripping off the corrupt and venal, until one day they rip off the wrong people and complications ensue. Maybe Sonja Kohn has seen those movies too. She's the Austrian banker who harvested billions in Europe for the cash-incineration machine that has come to be known as Bernard L. Madoff.

Sonja has dropped out of sight recently. As this New York Times story mentions, it's probably not just to catch up on her reading. Turns out some of the investors she suckered are Russian oligarchs -- people not known for simply committing suicide when things go south. If someone must die as the result of a swindle, they generally prefer that it be the swindler. Dropped out of sight? Sonja Kohn is lucky she's not been dropped off a bridge. I'm guessing she's doffed that red wig for something a little less conspicuous.

I'm just hoping this possibility has occurred to Mr. Madoff himself. Yes, being forced to pad around a luxurious Manhattan apartment, mailing off expensive jewellry to family and friends, is punishment enough -- but I wonder if those mercurial oligarchs will see it that way. I hope not. Bernie could use a little more drama in his life. But maybe I've seen too many of those movies myself.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Love the movies, hate the theater

When I'm at a party and the conversation lags (it tends to do that a lot when I'm at a party), I have one sure-fire technique for getting it going again that does not involve me leaving the room. I just start talking about some movie I've just seen.

Movies are the one safe topic in any situation, unless you get somebody who loved The Horse Whisperer arguing with somebody who hated it, such as myself. But mostly, everybody goes to the movies, and everybody loves to go on and on about their favorites, to the point of reciting lines of dialogue and expressing inappropriate urges towards the actors. Don't get me started on Renee Zellweger's turn in Chicago. I fully intend to abide by the restraining order.

Good thing party season is over, because these days I don't have much to talk about. Of the 22 films lists has having a shot at major Oscars, I've seen exactly three of them: Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight and W.

The rest? I don't know. I've got Wall-E coming from Netflix and I'm interested in seeing Clint Eastwood's last role in Gran Torino, but I'm just not that curious about the rest of them. Benjamin Button sounded intriguing when I first heard of it, but I've seen so many stories and reviews since then I feel like I've already seen it. I'm sure The Changeling is a fine picture, but I find Angelina Jolie's lips a distraction, dominating every scene like a pair of fresh pork tenderloins.

But really, the biggest reason I haven't seen more of these movies it that it's not that much fun to go to the movies anymore. I spend the first third of any film waiting for some idiot to take a business call, or start talking to some other idiot seated next to him, or to start texting, his wonderful little iPhone screen an effective distraction to anything happening on the big screen. These things don't happen very often, but the expectation that they might always puts me on edge. I fear I might become confrontational, and any enjoyment the movie provides might quickly dissipate during the ensuing fistfight in the parking lot.

I may have mentioned my big TV. It's no subsitute for the grandeur of a movie screen and THX sound, but I prefer the TV because I can tell the dog to shut up and she's unlikely to want to make something of it. I can use the captions if I want. Also, my popcorn is better. The downside is that it takes me longer each year to get around to seeing the nominees. And there's always the matter of locating the remote when it's time to hit the bathroom.

We have a party each Oscar night, in which we pass around ballots for five bucks a pop and award the winnings to whoever makes the most correct picks. Tess and I always try to see as many of the nominees as possible, in the false hope of narrowing the odds, but that's not looking so good this year. I'm going to rule out the three I've already seen for the following reasons: the Coen brothers scored big last year, Heath Ledger died a year ago instead of a month ago, and George Bush is already yesterday's news.

That leaves 19 others. What do you think? Check out the Variety list and pick a couple of likely winners.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A brief list of some lists of 2008

I love this time of year: When everybody comes out with their lists of the best and worst things of all time, or at least 2008. Or at least in very recent memory. Without preamble, here's my list of the best lists out there. Well, perhaps not the best. But they are definitely lists:

1. The 10 Best American Movies by Stanley Fish. Surprising for its inclusion of Groundhog Day, which certainly belongs on some list. The rest of them ... meh. I don't want to see Double Indemnity on any more best-movie lists. I watched it in 2008 and it seems like a parody of itself. Ditto with Shane. That Joey kid was annoying in 1953, and he hasn't gotten less so.

2. The Best of 2008 by Malu Fernandez of the Manila Standard, which, in the manner of most lists, weighs in with the most recent moment the writer can remember: the profane rant by Kathy Griffin against a heckler in Times Square -- a pivotal moment in celebrity history that shall surely outlive us all. Malu also considers Kath & Kim the best TV show of the year, so you may want to take the rest of his list with grain or two of salt.

3. Time Magazine's list of everything that occurred in 2008. Actually, they missed that time I was rear-ended by a cell-phone using driver in April, but everything else is there, collated in convenient list form. Sometimes the categories seem a bit narrow as a result: Couldn't Top 10 Campaign Gaffes, Top 10 Campaign Video Moments and Top 10 Open Mike Moments have been combined into one Big Political Embarrassment category? Note to Malu Fernandez: Check out the top 10 TV series. Kath & Kim is not on there.

4. The Quigley Poll's list of the top money-making movie stars, in which Will Smith comes out on top and Tom Cruise doesn't place. This is news you can use. But whatever the hell happened to Chuck Connors?

5. The Religion Newswriters Association's list of the top 10 celebrity meltdowns. Just kidding, it's really a list of the top 10 religion stories of the year, starting with our friend the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and concluding with the thousands killed during the free exercise of religion in Iraq. Conclusion: It's been quite a year for religion. At least there were no hajj stampedes.

6. Yahoo's list of the Top 10 searches. Leaving aside the question of who uses Yahoo to search for anything these days, it will come as no surprise that the number-one search term is actually two words, and those words are Britney Spears. Moving down the categories until we come to Influential Women, we find that the most influential woman of the year is ... Angelina Jolie. Followed by Sarah Palin. I want you all to think about that for a moment.

And that's enough of that. Who ends a list at six? I do. But I'm not getting paid for this and I have other irons in the fire, so to speak. See you tomorrow.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Generation Brayden, Jayden and Caden

I was born during the Truman administration, a time when all parents named their children Michael or Dave or Linda or Cathy and they didn't need a stupid book or Web site to do it. I took this for granted as a kid, but I've come to appreciate it later in life. Here in Wichita, every male I meet who's within a few years of my age is also named Dave, and those who aren't are named Randy. Needless to say, within this circle I don't forget names very often.

I have a harder time remembering the names of the kids born to my various nieces and nephews over the last decade or so. In fact, I can't quite bring them all to mind. There is a Telmar, and a Shiloh and a Gabe and, I think, a Tiell. There is also an Aiden, although it may be spelled differently than that. Aiden, at least, will probably run into a few folks with the same name over the course of his life. According to this piece in the Wichita Eagle, Aiden has emerged as one of the most favorite baby names in Kansas. It's right up there with the other top boys' names, Brayden, Jayden and Caden. For some reason, variations like Fraiden, Gayden, Maiden and Bin Laden aren't on the list.

For girls, we have Addison and Madison, Kaylee and Hailey. Also the occasional Emma and Olivia, but it seems most new parents in Kansas favor names aimed toward a lucrative career in cheerleading.

The curmudgeonly thing to do would be to complain about this trend of christening kids with random collections of syllables, or with names that rhyme with random collections of syllables. But I'm not going to do that. Parents have a right to name their kids whatever they want, without regard to how it will elicit snickers somewhere down the line. Parents have the right to discard the venerable names of the saints, the ones used by IT guys and carpenters and math teachers and truck drivers the world over. Dave's been a good enough name for me, but far be it from me to foist it on Jayden and Caden, or little Addison -- who's perfectly happy to be named after a disease.

Thing is, it's a competitive world out there. The best way to make your kid stand out is to give him a name no one's sure how to spell. Every time he corrects somebody he's going to get noticed. Maybe that'll take off some of the pressure to actually perform.

No, my only concern is the beleaguered souvenir sellers, the mom and pop shops unable to unload their huge inventory of coffee mugs and key chains and miniature license plates pre-stamped with names that used to be common. Once in awhile a Pete or Denise or Hank or Betty will wander in, but those people are dying like flies. I suppose it's too late for the souvenir industry to ask for a bailout. But they should anyway.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Seen "Ghost Town"? Why the hell not?

Turning now to the cinema, here's a plug for Ghost Town, the finest comedy of 2008. Too bad nobody bothered to see it during its brief run in theaters.

The wife and I watched it last night, courtesy of Netflix and my great big 52-inch television. Ricky Gervais is not precisely the same character he played in the original The Office and Extras, but his role as a dentist named Bertram Pincus isn't quite a departure, either: a veneer of British civility stretched way too thin over a fundamentally misanthropic personality.

After a colonoscopy complication leaves him clinically dead for seven minutes, Dr. Pincus finds himself beset by a variety of spirits who want him to help complete their unfinished business in the physical world. Complications ensue. It's Sixth Sense with a sense of humor -- and surprisingly, a bit of genuine poignance at the end.

Ghost Town was hawked heavily in trailers and TV spots before its release; usually this means you see the funniest parts so often that the movie itself feels like a rerun. Here, the ads don't do the film justice. The biggest laughs come not from the sight gags but the deft dialogue. SNL's Kristin Wiig has a slight role as a clueless doctor, but she delivers some of the film's biggest laughs.

Four thumbs up here. Dave Bob says rent it now.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Keep the stock. I'll take the Subaru

I drive an 8-year-old Subaru with average miles and a couple of dents. As of today, it's worth about 14,000 shares of Lee Enterprises. When I left the company in 1997, the same sort of vehicle would have been worth about 120 shares. Maybe Lee should have been selling used cars instead of newspapers.

I worked for a Lee newspaper -- The Missoulian -- for 14 years. The highlight was the annual Christmas party, distinguished by a lavish buffet and easily counterfeitable drink tickets. As with all Lee papers, there was a stock-purchase plan. You bought stock through a payroll deduction at 15 percent less than the current value. Most of us then turned around and sold our paltry 15 shares and squandered the cash on a vacation or a VCR. The stock was always going up, but it always felt like we'd gotten away with something.

Turns out, we didn't. Most of us were also putting as much as we could into the company's 401(k) plan. We all know how that turned out. The vacations and the VCRs are now but a memory, and so is the dream of a comfortable retirement.

The New York Stock Exchange is warning Lee that it may be delisted. Not hard to see why: It's a penny stock now and nothing on the horizon suggests any reason for optimism --except maybe some wild pump-and-dump scheme, but even Nigerian e-mail fraudsters have more credibility at this point. Somebody tells you he's got a sure-fire way for newspapers to turn things around, it's probably wise not to disclose any personal information.

I get misty. I loved those Missoulian Christmas parties. But this is the last time I bemoan the fate of newspapers. They all spent the better part of a decade paring the product, maintaining big profits, and trying to figure out how to cash in on the Internet. Hey, two out of three ain't bad. Now it's time to move on. Somebody offers me 14,000 shares of Lee for my Subaru, the answer's no.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A modest resolution

This year I resolve to post something to this blog every day. If the past is any guide, the resolution will expire sometime after lunch on Jan. 27 -- about the same time the treadmills start emptying out at the Y. But until then, fasten your seatbelts: You thought my posts were windy and narcissistic before, wait until I start doing them like clockwork.

So far, 2009 has been a good year. I got back from Montana to find a contract from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the mail. They bought my story "Dead Black Cadillac," which I sent off six months ago. It takes forever for them to accept a story, and another forever for them to actually print it, but I love Ellery Queen. They buy almost everything I submit -- as long as I send them only one or two stories a year. Unfortunately, the pay scale hasn't changed much since the days of Dashiell Hammett. Let's just say I'm not planning on a new Lexus anytime soon. And I'm not sure about the readership, but I'm guessing it's gone the way of all print media: right down the toilet. Still, if there's a better market for short crime fiction, I'm not aware of it.

Speaking of crime fiction, I'm still working on that novel I mentioned on this blog about, oh, a year and a half ago. It's been tougher than I thought. Turns out any dummy can write a good beginning, and a passable middle, but a decent ending is what separates the true writer from the dilettante. I stand around at parties and tell people I'm a writer, but until I get this damn book done and sold I'm just a poseur. It's getting a little embarrassing. Kind of wish now I'd kept my mouth shut. But when people are bracing you about your work, it's such a buzzkill to mention you're unemployed.

So: a writer I remain. And now I'd best get to it.