Movie Extra 1 – Moneyball

Thanks to Hanspostcard for inviting me to be a part of this movie bonanza! I was most pleased to take part in a similar event Slicethelife ran last summer and fall, which dealt with record albums.

Now while that one was easy to me – I don’t want to be a big braggard, but I have been a pretty serious music fan since I was a child and think I’m probably a bit more knowledgeable about artists and their works than a casual radio listener – this one could be a little bit of a challenge. I’m no Siskel or Ebert or Hollywood insider. But, like most people I watch movies and know what I like and what I don’t. So I don’t start out by claiming my list will be the ultimate list of the ten or twelve finest films ever created. Instead, I’m just going to fill you in on a movie per category that appeals to me and that has stood up to repeated viewings for me.

As Hans has noted by now, he’s chosen a dozen genres or types of movies for us to pick from (one per category), and I decided to start with “Sports”. There was no hidden meaning in it being the first pick, by the way. I’m not trying to count down from my most favorite to least or vice versa. This one just came to mind since I watched it recently and it’s a great representative of the category.

Anyhow, I am a bit biased because I am a huge baseball fan (some of you might even read my MLB blog), but I always feel like there are more good movies about baseball than all the other major American sports combined. Perhaps because it’s a part of the nation’s heritage and the “national pastime”. But there’ve been a lot of good ones through the past three or four decades . Many of them look at the struggles of individual players, real (The Rookie, 42) or made up (Bull Durham), others look at historical teams (A League of their Own, Eight Men Out.) The one I chose was closer to the latter. So my first movie pick is – Moneyball. The 2011 movie was based, loosely, on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, and starred Brad Pitt (who was not a bad fit for Billy Beane, but was quite possibly picked to help sell the sports flick to female viewers).

In short, the movie follows the 2002 Oakland A’s, a team coming off a great season but forced to try and fill holes in their roster. They had several big stars leave and a small budget to work with, posing rather a dilemma. Oakland is located in a large, prosperous metro area, but have the misfortune of being across the bay from the more popular San Francisco Giants and their better stadium. Crowds and money are usually scarce for them compared to most other teams. So their General Manager, Billy Beane, has the task of trying to stay competitive without having enough money to replace his departed stars with equal-quality players. Which is where it gets interesting.

Beane knows he can’t outspend big market teams like New York or Boston, so he needs to be smarter than them. He brings in a young computer nerd to be his assistant and starts to buy into the theories of Bill James, a bean factory security guard who happens to have a mind for numbers and stats. James has come up with brand new statistics that he thinks better show which players are great, average or need dumping. One very basic example the film mentions is that walks are not counted in many “conventional” stats like batting average. But a player who walks a lot gets on base and has a lot of chances to score runs…which win games. Few teams at that point paid much attention to that; Beane does.

Now this sounds rather esoteric and probably dry as fun as watching paint dry to non-fans. That’s where the brilliance of screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zuillian come in. They were able to find the human part of the story, the drama, which in turn makes it into a film on a larger scale anyone can relate to – a tale of underdogs fighting jerks, a tale of perseverance paying off.

Beane’s approach rubs many in the team and its organization the wrong way. He has conflicts with old scouts who refuse to buy into stats, relying on their guts instead (in one of the more humorous bits, a scout tells Beane a young player isn’t worth having because his girlfriend is ugly. “Shows he lacks confidence,” the scout declares). They hate the young nerd, Peter, played well by Jonah Hill, who comes in in a tie with a computer spouting numbers that go over the oldtimers heads. Beane has to choose who to believe, and takes a chance on several underdog players dismissed by other clubs based on his assistant’s numerical take. And then there’s the bench coach, a surly, old veteran, Art Howe, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose initial response is to simply scoff and refuse to obey his boss’ (Beane) instructions.

Needless to say, Beane’s experiment seems ill-fated at first, but then the team suddenly “gels” and goes on a historic winning streak. In the end, the A’s make the playoffs, he’s validated and ends up changing the nature of the game. Within three or four years, most teams would copy Beane’s approach.

The movie was in general accurate, but the true baseball fan will find a few errors in it as well as oversights. For instance, while the film focuses on the success of his “pet” players, washed up or under-rated types like Scott Hatteburg and Dave Justice, it ignores a solid core of established stars that had stayed on from the 2001 team, like Miguel Tejada, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player award that year. This doesn’t diminish the overall effect and appreciation of the film though.

A classic David vs Goliath battle, with a likeable hero and a goofy but equally likeable sidekick. It’s a film for everyone, that shows sports is a lot more than just what goes on on the field. Moneyball was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Pitt and Best Supporting Actor for Hill.

I give it four fastballs out of five!

Stimulus Cheques Aren’t The Only Thing That Will Be Out There

Fox Mulder must be grinning because, it seems, within six months the truth will be out there, to paraphrase The X-files skeptic.

Seems like it’s good not to tempt fate by suggesting “well 2021 can’t get any weirder than the one we just went through”. Because lost in the news static about the pandemic, the election passed and the one which was coming up (which is to say the Georgia senate) and all the other things, lost in almost 5600 pages of government snooze-talk was a little item which might just vindicate Mulder. And the real life champions of his TV cause. Because in those 5000+ pages of the Pandemic “Stimulus” bill designed to extend unemployment benefits and give taxpayers those beloved $600 cheques, there’s a directive to the Pentagon and “spy agencies” to spill the beans about aliens.

Nope, I’m not making that up. News agencies from Fox News to Yahoo all have confirmed there’s a bit in there telling the military and the “spy agencies” as well as the Director of National Intelligence to report within 180 days to Congress and the Armed Services. They are to basically tell them everything you wanted to know about UFOs but were afraid to ask. It should contain “detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomenon”, the current preferred term for “UFOs” or “little green men.” Apparently it managed to do what nothing else in the public forum these days did – namely have full “bipartisan support.” Wait – they can’t agree on the wording for relief payments to out of work people they both agree should happen, but they are all now A-OK with the story behind Roswell, the Phoenix lights and other things like that being revealed? 2021 can’t get any weirder? “Hold my beer,” the government says.

This perhaps should come as little surprise. In the past few years, the U.S. military has verified some videos taken by fighter pilots of UFOs deftly out-manueovring them, albeit still declaring them inexplicable. And already this year a senior Harvard professor put out a paper stating that our galaxy was visited by alien life recently when a large object at first thought to be a comet went for a fly-by and defied gravity by zooming at, then speeding away from the sun. The old “weather balloon” or “drunk hicks seeing swamp gas” explanations are wearing thin even for the types more like Mulder’s partner, Scully, denying anything’s out there to the moment she’s beamed into one of the spaceships.

Will it happen? Who knows? The government is great at few things, but stonewalling is one of them. And even if it does issue some sort of report, there’s no saying it will be made available for public consumption…. although its equally true that these days, if hundreds of politicians have access to the papers, one might expect at least one will leak them to a friendly media type.

Personally, I’ve been fascinated by the subject for a long time. I think a lot of “UFOs” are actually identifable – high altitude planes, military tests, shooting stars and what have you. I also think some are very impossible to explain any way other than mechanical devices controlled by intelligent life. Probably more intelligent than ours as humans. I figure when you go out in the country and look up at a clear night sky, and see those thousands of stars, each one might have planets circling around it, just like our sun, and for each one of those that we see, thousands more are beyond our eyesight or telescope range. It actually seems like some pretty big amount of hubris to think that we are the one and only lifeform out there.

Expect the unexpected. That might be the best bet if you are looking for a 2021 slogan. And, “the truth is out there.”

After The Storm Of ’20, A Rainbow Ahead

Whew! We made it. 2020 is done and we have a new start, a new chance, simply called 2021. May it be one we’ll look back on as … “forgettable.” Seriously. When you think about it, the one thing that is undeniable about ’20 is that it was… “memorable”.

There’s a lot to say about 2020 and what may lie ahead. I have just a few thoughts on the topic. Off the top of my head, I’d say that yes, 2020 was a pretty terrible year… but it could end up being a useful, if not positive, one if we can learn from it down the road. Enough things have gone wrong in the past year to perhaps act as a global GPS for society at large, pointing the safe path ahead. And while almost everyone of us has had problems and losses in 2020, it would be remiss not to consider them and try to make some sense out of them. Find the hidden meaning; reassess.

Here in North America, the news has been pretty much dominated by two things for the past ten months – the pandemic and American politics, in particular the presidential election. Both should teach us a few things.

The pandemic has shown us that we’re part of a big, worldwide community for instance. It’s a message we were fortunate to have escaped earlier in the century when diseases like SARS, MERS and Ebola raged elsewhere. They largely stayed overseas, out of sight, out of mind. Covid has shown all too clearly that problems in China and in the Third World can quickly be our problems. Throw in a season with an unprecedented 30 hurricanes or tropical storms in the Atlantic and record-burning fires in the U.S. West and Australia and we should be reminded that as smart as our species is, we’re still at the mercy of God or Mother Nature, or whatever name you’d like to give to forces far beyond our control. So maybe we should start trying to live in better harmony with this little planet we call home.

It tells me that we need to take a moment and reconsider the importance of some things we took for granted before. If or when this virus is wrestled under control, imagine how wonderful it will be to hug a friend you hadn’t seen for months that you bump into in a store – while not having to wear a mask no less! A good time to consider how important those close to you are… and frankly, perhaps jettison some that clogged up your life before. Months or not seeing people can tell your heart if they are needing of more of future you, or less. I know for me, I will be glad to be able to pop into a store I drive by on a whim without worrying about if the risk is worth it, without putting on a mask and plastic gloves… but I’ll also probably do so a lot less thanI once did. Hey, if I went nine months without needing to go in there, I probably don’t need to go nine months from now just because i have a few minutes to spare.

When it comes to the politics, I don’t envy Joe Biden. He has his work cut out with the economy still tanked due to the virus and the nation practically divided in half. Forget Trump’s Mexican wall, he has managed to pop the last few bricks onto a virtual wall dividing the populace in half that had been forged over the past decade. Republican vs Democrat. Black vs White. Urban vs rural. Cable vs Netflix… these days it seems like no detail is too small to make people hate one another.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I do hope though that he, and the government, will look to ways to make future elections more fool-proof and avoid the kind of stupidity we’ve seen this time around. I’m an environmentalist, but I still have to say that there is something to be said for paper ballots, with a circle to be inked in beside the name of the candidate of your choice, dropped into a locked box, opened and counted with representatives of both parties right there to over-see. Hard for foreign operatives to fiddle with that. There’s zero evidence any of the recent elections were tampered with across the U.S., but with electronic balloting there is potential for it to happen. Why not eliminate the chance?

And rather than divide people more, I hope we’ll see some sort of unification happening in the coming year. Years. That will be a tough job. I dare say an impossible one to do completely, but there is hope the chasms can be lessened, wounds healed. While I don’t know precisely how to do that, I think it wouldn’t hurt to focus on the things most of us agree on still … in a land of 310 million people, many of them ill-informed and prejudiced, there may be no one thing everyone will agree on. But for starters I think most will agree in:

the American Dream. If you work hard and are honest, you should make a living wage, and have a chance to move ahead, make a better life.

Education for our kids. Certainly there are different definitions of what a good education is, or how to deliver it, but most of us know that our kids need as good an education to get them on their way in life as we can give them.

a Liveable Environment. We’re tired of masks, we generally agree we want fresh air to breathe without needing to wear a mask to go outside; we want clean water to drink. Similarly we want a safe neighborhood. Almost all of us want to feel safe stepping outside their door or going to work, to school.

Equal Opportunity. Quotas and the like are divisive, but most would agree that if you have the talent and are the best candidate, you should have the job, or the spot in the classroom or the show on TV.

Democracy itself. Lord knows, we have different interpretations of how it’s been functioning of late, but most all of us still believe in people picking the government that will rule them and steer our lives and our nation, which in turn should

make the U.S. a Role Model. Few Americans would disagree that it’s not desirable for the country to be despised around the world. There must be a better way to have “United Nations” than to have them united in hatred of the U.S. We should be a beacon, a showcase of what people can do when they have opportunity.

Yep, that’s not a complete guide for utopia. Figuring out how these beliefs can be best implemented will even be cause for arguments aplenty. But if we continue to use them as guides, we might have a better chance than by looking at all the things we disagree about!

That’s my hope for 2021’s world. The bar is set pretty low. But we think 2021 can clear it. Happy New Year to all of you … and thanks for checking in here.

Christmas 2020

A Barry Manilow Christmas song came on the radio in the car not long ago. “Seems strange,” someone commented to me, “for a Jew to be recording Christmas records.” It actually didn’t seem strange to me at all. Surely a large percentage of his fans would be Christmas-celebrating Christians, so why not try to please them? Besides, Jesus was a Jew anyway. Mostly though it got me thinking on the special day and its different meanings. It’s because of the multiplicity of meanings that it so important to us.

Obviously, to some, the day is a purely religious day, one picked to mark the birth of Jesus in that manger some 2000-odd years ago. There’s enough historical data and non-religious referencing of him to know he surely existed; if you’re devoutly Christian, you further believe he was God walking among us and hastened the transition between the angry Old Testament God and the more tolerant and loving New Testament one. Which of course is reason enough for a pretty big celebration and giving of thanks. Even some other religions like the Bahais acknowledge Jesus’ life and his role as a blessed and significant messenger of God. So there’s that.

Then there’s the modern, secular Christmas too, a day of a whole different species. The Christmas that lights up small kids’ faces with thoughts of Santa Claus coming to town. For adults, sure there is a downside to it all – the hustle and bustle, the new year’s credit card bills – but it’s a pretty special day of being with family, other loved ones. Of giving and getting gifts and smiles and laughs. And there’s the food…

For me, both are valid and both are reasons to celebrate and enjoy, Christian, Jew, aetheist or other persuasion. I’ve not much liked the shopping or the crowded malls historically, but I’ve always loved other aspects of it. The nighttime Christmas lights, the movies and specials, the getting together with family and friends (which some years ended up getting short shrift while I was working overtime and being too wrapped up in the …well, wrapping of the day.) My mom and I used to watch the old Alistair Sim A Christmas Carol annually for years, very often on Christmas Eve. The season still doesn’t seem complete without seeing the Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph, fond memories of my ’70s childhood that still persevere to this day. More recently, since having family of my own, Elf and A Christmas Story have been added to that list of must-sees. Those happy traditions mean more to me than most of the boxes I might open from underneath the tree, though I do quite like that too, as well as seeing the smiles of those opening the ones I placed there.

This year though, as so many have pointed out, will be a bit different. We’re still seeing the beloved shows and movies and hearing the festive songs. We’re still going to have a nice meal – ham or turkey hasn’t been decided yet – but there’ll be no big gathering of my sweetie’s extended family. We’ve been ordering a bit more online and going into stores a lot less. The pile underneath said tree may look modest this year compared to many. But that’s OK with me. I hate the reason for it – the pandemic obviously (which I must admit, back in March, I never really thought we’d still need to be talking about in December, let alone taking precautions against) – but I don’t mind the changes. As my mother-in-law said in her aged wisdom, “this isn’t the year to celebrate.”

She’s right, if that means not celebrating like most years. But I think perhaps the scaled back Christmas itself might be something worth celebrating, if we really look at it. It’s a day to really enjoy those still around us in our household and perhaps consider the importance of those who aren’t here to us; maybe appreciate them more when things go back to normal and we can once more enjoy their company. Maybe we can celebrate that having a little more time to relax at home and less time in crowds, pushing and shoving is a good tradeoff for one or two less boxes to rip open on the 25th (which in too many cases are stashed away in the closet by the 27th). A time to celebrate, those of us lucky enough to be feeling fit, enjoy our health and lives, and sad as it may be, to remember those who’ve left us this year , from Covid or any other unfortunate demise, and celebrate the time we had together.

So, yep, 2020’s been a trying year. But I raise a glass to it and its lessons, and raise a glass to all you dear readers hoping you’ll have a happy Christmas, no matter what that might mean to you.

Trebek Trekked Back In Book

Category : “The Answer Is…”

$100 – “Alex Trebek Biography” . A : What is The Answer is… A few weeks ago, I wrote about the sad death of Alex Trebek. So, being a fan of the show he put on the map, Jeopardy, and since he was Canadian like me, with only one degree of separation from me (we had a mutual acquaintance), I figured I’d get his recently-released autobiography and read it.

$200 – “North American Countries”. A: What are the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico. While Mexico doesn’t play much into the story, Trebek is a Canadian who found fame and fortune in the U.S., married an American (“someone who was going to complete me as a human being”) and eventually became an American citizen. The book contains a lot of interesting stories about his childhood and youth in Canada, from his parents – a beer-drinking, cursing father who taught himself English and became a respected cook and his church-going, teatotaller mom who coincidentally had family in the States, which began his love affair with the U.S. – his rather disreputable youth and iffy relationship with school and its authority figures, to a photo of him in a denim jacket and jeans …a “Canadian tuxedo” as he proudly calls it. And about his life in the more populous country to the South, and all the steps along the way to becoming the best-known and respected game show host on TV.

$300 – “Jeopardy” – A: What is the TV show Alex Trebek hosted for over three decades. Given that it was what made him famous, and conversely, a show he made famous and a ratings hit, it’s appropriate he spends a good chunk of the book talking about it. And also, the best-forgotten game shows he had to take part in along the way to get him the spot, which initially was low-paid and low-prestige by comparison. The saving grace of that was that creator Merv Griffin paid little attention to it, allowing Alex and a few writers to basically shape it as they saw fit. We get Trebek’s reflections on his favorite players, not something that happened overnight as he also tells us he really didn’t talk to them much outside of what we saw on the program. He wanted to avoid getting too close to them both to avoid allegations of favoritism, and to emotionally distance himself anyway so as not to be upset when they inevitably lost. However, he did gain a soft spot for contestants like all-time champ Ken Jennings (who is slated to replace Alex when the show resumes next year), Eddie Timanus, a blind contestant, and Cindy Stowell, a multi-game winner who always seemed awkward on camera and a tiny bit “off”… and died before her shows aired. Turns out she was suffering from terminal cancer and very ill while filming, but she kept going… something of a guide for Alex himself a few years later on.

$400 – “Content” – A : What was Alex in 2020. When he wrote the book, he already knew he had cancer and little chance to survive. He speaks poignantly about the ill effects of the cancer as well as the harrowing treatments and how he knew in the end, he was unlikely to prevail. Yet, we also see that at 80, he was fine with it. He felt he’d lived a good, long and blessed life, loved some fine people and been loved in returned. He was remarkably at peace with the idea of this being his last year on Earth, although the pandemic frustrated him. When your days are numbered down to triple digits at best, you want to do all that you can when you feel up to it… and simple joys like going to the movies with his wife and kids had been taken away by Covid.

$500 – “Honestly Fun” – A: What was Alex Trebek. He surprises in the book, largely with his candor. He sometimes swears, he has a fast and sometimes PG sort of sense of humor and he made mistakes along the way, as we all do. He doesn’t shy away from any of those in the book, nor from his political convictions. He says he’s voted for Democrats and Republicans at different times and isn’t partisan, but he also left little doubt whatsoever about his feelings of the White House at the time of his death “If you start off by saying ‘Here’s the way we’re gonna solve it’…and worse if that certainty has no basis in fact and is being pushed by someone who just doesn’t have the mental capacity to adjust, you’re in deep trouble. And that’s what we’re seeing today.”

All that plus his thoughts on sleeping nude, his favorite celebrity fan, comedy parodies of himself and of course, the moustache. The Answer Is… that Trebek’s book is worth reading.

Everydave Life Hero Of The Year 2020 : Dr. A. Fauci

Why wait for Time magazine? While they are collecting suggestions for their “Person of the Year”, here at Everydave Life, we’re ready to announce our winner. Ta-da! We’re happy to announce our First Annual Everydave Life Hero of the Year for 2020 is…

Dr. Anthony Fauci.

When we look back at 2020, two things will probably long be seared into our memories : the pandemic and Donald Trump/the presidential election. Fauci was a beacon of hope in both news stories.

In case you’ve been lucky enough to have hibernated through most of this year, Fauci is one of the country’s leading doctors who suddenly vaulted into the public eye this spring as a member of Trump’s Coronavirus advisory team. He grew up the son of a couple of pharmacy-owners in New York, loving sports and medicine. As we saw at a Washington baseball game this year, we’re all lucky he chose medicine, becoming a doctor in 1966.

Before long he’d worked his way up to the position of the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, around the time Ronald Reagan appointed him as a medical advisor to the White House, something he’s been with every president since, Democrat or Republican. The previous Republican president, George W. Bush, thought so much of him he gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Fauci is, in the words of the New York Times, “one of the world’s leading experts on diseases.” He was important in pioneering the understanding of, and treatment of AIDS in the ’80s, and the fight against Ebola in Africa more recently. Little wonder he was an obvious choice to stand beside the president and try to inform the public this year when we were faced with the worst pandemic in our lifetimes.

Fauci was an inspiration during the dark days when Corona was beginning to conjure up images of something other than beer in our minds. He relayed information on what we all needed to do in order to stay safe and curtail the raging disease. He did so with a brilliant sense of calm, good humoredness mixed with deadly seriousness. A mix of the two things we needed to get through one of the darkest times in the recent history of Western society. Grace under pressure, something we assuredly did not see from the president or many of the other elected officials. He was on the mark far more often than not – he was an early advocate of wearing masks in public and social distancing for example – and would speak up and tactfully correct Donald Trump or others who gave blatantly false advice or information, such as suggesting the ingestion of household cleaners to cure Covid 19. For this, many extremists came to despise him.

If there was any doubt in my mind about Fauci being the type of individual we needed in charge this year, that was erased this fall when former-Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon (a man out on bond while awaiting trial on federal charges for fraud) called for his beheading, saying his head (and that of the FBI director’s) should be stuck on a “pike” as an example of what happened to anyone who disagreed with the president. We presume he meant “spike”, since a large fish would be very odd with a doctor’s head on it. Many would have fired back or called the police on the provocateur. Fauci merely looked a little perplexed and said it was “really kind of unusual” and that having “a public figure calling for your beheading …that’s not the kind of thing you think about when you’re going through medical school.” Grace under pressure.

Fauci will turn 80 this month but has agreed to be Joe Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor when he takes office in January. For that we congratulate both Biden and Fauci.

Anthony Fauci. A voice of experience, a voice of calm in the chaos. A voice who reminded us that it’s usually best to listen to science, not mock it. The Everydave Hero of the Year for 2020.

Cabooses To Cabovers – Missin’ The 70s!

I needed a new heel for my shoe, so I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt which was the style at the time…” – Grandpa Simpson.

…and we liked it! Getting another year older makes one think back, and when I think back I think of random things that were better when I was a kid. Like tying onions on one’s belt. And I’m not talking about obvious things, like pop hit radio or being able to call a girl a girl without risking a long lecture about gender fluidity, I’m talking about the inobvious things that have faded away with time. Three examples…

Cabovers. When I was a little kid, I loved big trucks. And most tractor-trailers were headed up by a type of diesel truck that was called a “cabover”. They were called that because the cab sat over the engine. Big, square, flat-fronted trucks. Peterbilt, Kenworth, GM, International, you name it. These rigs moved everything everywhere. When I was about five, my dad and I went to a car show and they had a Chevy one on display… a Titan 90, I think it was called (much like the one illustrated above). I got to go up – way up – and sit in the cab. Cool, what! 10-4 good buddy, what could be cooler than driving around the country in one of these, I thought, looking down – way down – on the crowd below. Well, turns out many things could be, but the design still looks cool. But makes one turn around and stare these days on rare occasions you see one. Kind of like a Hummer with a Biden sticker on it.

As much as little guys like me thought they looked cool, and you got a good look at the road ahead with one, they lost their other advantages soon after my hop up into one. First, riding right over the engine apparently made for a real rough ride, even with the driver’s seat on shock absorbers. And, to access the engine… well, that was a bit of a chore. You had to flip the entire cab up at a 90-degree angle to get at it. This doubtlessly took some effort to do and wasn’t good for the cup of coffee you might have beside the seat in that cab. And, in a crash, there was no buffer between driver and wreck. The type of truck you see today has it all over the cabover design, with the long hood hosting the engine and keeping the driver a good ten feet away from danger. The real reason the trucks changed though was not so much safety or comfort as government red tape.

For many years, the U.S. and Canada had strict regulations on the maximum length of a truck they’d allow on highways. Many of those regulations were set in the growth period immediately following WWII, when 24-foot trailers were common. When the truck back suddenly grew to 40′, freight companies were strapped to get clearance to run them. Cabovers shaved a good few feet off the total length, and allowed them to use the new, more efficient longer-trailers. But by the Reagan era, many of those restrictions were relaxed or removed altogether. Witness today’s commonplace, behemoth 54′ trailers. Witness the chaos they cause trying to get around a tight corner designed in the 1940s when a 30′ long Sears delivery van was the biggest vehicle. With the lack of size limitations, there was no longer a need to sacrifice driver comfort and maintenance ease and the long hood style took over. Peterbilt last built a cabover design in 2009. Japan and much of the EU still have tight regulations on truck length mind you, so foreign markets still boast quite a few new models of the old cabover design.

If the stuff wasn’t being moved on the roads, it was on the rails. And a train had a caboose. Another thing I miss.

I always loved trains as a kid. I grew up near a very busy CP Rail line that took cars from a huge GM factory nearby to everywhere, and brought in the parts they needed, as well as moved along everything else that was on the go between Detroit and Montreal, via Toronto. I spent many an idle hour in the park near us watching trains scoot by. The caboose went by and it was the end of the train. Simple. Most across North America were painted red, but the CP painted theirs a bright yellow-orange (a few other companies used different colors too; Union Pacific had yellow ones, Burlington Northern green, for example.) There’d be people inside the caboose, and as one local columnist put it recently, it seemed like their only function was to look out and wave at kids.

They actually had other jobs too of course. As Trains magazine point out, at one time many trains had crews of upto five people. They couldn’t all fit in the locomotive cab, besides which there was an advantage to having people bringing up the rear. They could look out and watch for problems ahead in the train – potential derailing cars, hobos jumping aboard – and there’d be people to change a switch back once the train had passed. To change from one track to another, the train goes over a switch, which moves the wheels smoothly to an adjacent track. Much of the time, it needs to go back to its original position to let the next train sail on through. Having a guy (for seldom were the workers women) back there to do so saved time over having one walk all the way back from the engine up front, do it, then walk back. The cabooses often even had a bed and kitchenette, because it wasn’t uncommon for the crew to make the run from say St. Louis to Denver by themselves.

Technology and economics took over and by the ’80s, were making the caboose irrelevant. Many switches became remote-controlled. Electronics were able to detect problems with the brakes or slipping wheels better than a man looking hundreds of yards ahead could. More trains were unit trains, meaning they ran straight through with a long load, not stopping at individual industries to pick up one car here, drop off a boxcar there. That required less manpower. Unions got shorter shifts and more crew changes, reducing need for overnight accommodations. A little device called an EOT – End of Train device – became available that would take electronic readings and flash a tail light in place of a whole 40-foot long, metal caboose with staff inside. By the ’90s, cabooses were largely a thing of nostalgia films and toys… remarkably most children still seem to know what they are somehow and like them attached to their toy trains.

Toy trains perhaps played with in the living room. And that brings me to the third thing this Granpa Simpson is nagging about – mid-century modern, ’60s and ’70s furniture! Like the era, it was a mix of the old and the new; wood and velvet, metal and velour. Straight lines were fine for stereo cabinets or end tables but, I presume they figured, people weren’t rigid (except for ‘the man!’) so why should they sit on square furniture? When I was growing up, we had a great big plush yellow sofa, with rounded arms, and a rounded back. But the piece de resistance was “the lounge.” The lounge was the fave of my dad and I, a contoured, velour-covered mustard yellow soft chaise lounge with a built in pillow for one’s head. Yellow was big in furniture when I was a kid. I wish we had photos of us enjoying it; more I wish we still had it to enjoy!

This chair was the way to watch TV in comfort, not quite as lazy-seeming as lying around in bed, but all the comfort of a sunny day at poolside and then some! It was the perfect place to park one’s own “caboose” at the end of a long day carting an onion around on one’s belt!

Recent explorations by me have suggested the lounge was a product of a company called Pearsall which specialized in things of that sort. Unfortunately, recent explorations also suggest no one in the family know whatever happened to ours. Used ones still abound online… and cost an amount similar to the price of a new pickup that would be required to bring it home!

Scrublands Full Of A Lot More Than Just Snakes & ‘Roos

We’ve heard of “whodunnits”, but the most recent book I read is more like a “whydunnit”? Or so it would seem a couple of chapters in, but by the time we finish we’re not quite sure if it was a “whodunnit” mystery, a “why” one, a romance or a rural slice-of-life drama. Murder! Intrigue! Romance! Rural sociology! In the end, Scrublands turns out to be all of the above, making it quite a page-turner.

The 2019 novel was the fiction debut by Aussie journalist Chris Hammer, who seems to have learned how to tell a story well in his line of work. Like “lead with the hook.” He does that in Scrublands, where the most “action” happens in the prologue before chapter one begins. A small town priest gets ready for his Sunday mass and then, seemingly out of the blue, turns into a mass murderer, shooting people in front of his church for no apparent reason.

A year passes and a city newspaper sends middle-aged reporter Martin to look around the town and see how it’s coping. When he gets to Riverside, a small town that served as a stop on the highway and not a whole lot else, he finds it’s business as usual… as usual as business is going to be in a town of fewer than 1000 with few viable businesses surrounded by drought-stricken farms. But as he begins talking to the locals, he finds the more interesting story is trying to piece together the “why?”. Why did the relatively popular young priest turn murderous, why did some of his townsfolk get shot while others were spared? And of course, the “whats”. What did his rampage have to do with a couple of other murders nearby, if anything? What were members of a violent bike gang doing spending so much time riding through town? And most of all, what were townsfolk trying to cover up?

The answers to that fill the 300+ page book as Martin deals with the police, Australian feds cuiously interested in the goings-on and a number of local oddballs of questionable character. And, maybe, just maybe falls in love along the way.

It is a complex read at times, in that there are a lot of story arcs intersecting. Most of them eventually tie together satisfactorily and the whole story moves along at a brisk, entertaining pace.

An enjoyable book that resonates very well oceans away from ‘Down Under’… and seems to be begging for movie treatment!

What Is ‘A Sad Day For Television, Alex’?

“What is the passing away of Alex Trebek.” Correct for $600. Category is “2020 Bad News” .

I was sad but hardly surprised to hear of Trebek’s death yesterday. After all, he’d been publicly battling “aggressive” pancreatic cancer for almost two years and the survival rate for that disease is low, even for people much younger than Alex’s 80 years. But it was still a little shock and undeniably sad. He seemed to defy the odds and rebound so many times, both from this and the sickness the chemotherapy had caused, and from prior medical problems like blood clots and a heart attack. It seemed like it would be a Tuesday night we’d hear of Alex being in hospital and Wednesday morning he’d be on set, asking Judy, a nurse from Peoria, to name the Shakespeare play with MacDuff and Banquo, busy filming two weeks worth of Jeopardy.

Trebek was special to me for two big reasons. One, he was a fellow Canadian and one who showed some of the best qualities of our country, and two, because Jeopardy has for years been my favorite game show, and at times, a family ritual. He was synonymous with the show, and the show was a constant in ever-changing, often weird or unpredictable times.

Alex grew up in Sudbury, a mining city about a five hour drive north from where I grew up. It’s the nickel-mining center of the continent. My family took a trip up there when I was little. I don’t remember much of it other than the “Big Nickel”… which was, yes, a huge, over-sized sculpture of a five cent coin! A rough-and-ready, and at one time prosperous city, Alex outgrew it young nonetheless. He set off to Cincinnati to spend time with a girl, back to Canada to get a degree in philosophy and then to the CBC – the Canadian governmental national broadcasting network – to do everything from be a news correspondent to (briefly) rubbing shoulders with an older friend of mine on a music show, to most importantly, hosting a quiz show for Canadian high school students, Reach for the Top. Important because this in turn caught the attention of Hollywood, and soon he was recruited for a new version of a rather drab and at the time moribund game show, Jeopardy. Sure, Jeopardy had run on and off with hosts like Art Fleming and John Harlan on different channels and at different times through the late-’60s and into the ’70s, but it was far from a cultural hallmark … or even an ongoing entity when it was brought back in 1984, with Alex, big hair, moustache and all, at the helm. The rest, as they say, is history.

Week in,week out, for over 8000 episodes, Jeopardy tested our knowledge, and that of the three contestants a day, in topics ranging from “potent potables”, aka booze, to The Renaissance. River cities, men in black, famous last words, 1990s news, Shakespeare, shakes and spears… it was all in a day’s work for the show. Sometimes just guessing the topic the oft-mysterious categories were was half the fun! In an era when contest shows seem to rely on cheap laughs and ditzy contestants (a novel I’m reading neatly suggested “there’s a game show on. Martin can’t follow it; the rules seem too complex, there are too many flashing lights, too many glaring teeth.”) , Jeopardy stayed the course, steered clear of most flashy gimmicks (episode with IBM computer as a contestant notwithstanding) and rewarded often drab contestants with wide-ranging knowledge. At the center of it all, Alex Trebek. “Erudite” in the words of USA Today; “unflappable” in the opinion of NBC correspondent Harry Smith. Indeed, Trebek, who tested himself with all the questions before every game, seemed to suggest the types of qualities we Canadians generally admire. A quiet confidence and knowledge that mixes a slight detachment with a warm nature and a wry sense of humor. As Smith, who once took part in a celebrity edition of the show, noted, Trebek was “kind” and never overshadowed the game itself. The sense of humor? Months before his demise, Trebek was asked about a possible replacement as host. He answered “probably a woman. Somebody younger, somebody brighter, somebody personable. Somebody with a great sense of humor. So I nominate Betty White.” It’s said he laughed as much at the spoofing of him on TV variety shows and in Weird Al songs as we did.

I’ve not been a huge fan of game shows overall, though I’ve caught most of them along the way from The Price is Right to Family Feud to Ellen’s Show of Humiliating Contestants (I think it’s called). Mildly interested in a few, annoyed by many. Too many fools being showcased, too many rewards to whomever can scream the loudest and longest and jump up and down the most. Jeopardy though, has been a part of my life as many days as not for over thirty years. I watch along, test my knowledge against the contestants, roll my eyes when one thinks “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” is a line from Star Wars, cheer for the surprise comebacks for the underdog, the ones who stay home looking after parents with Alzheimers or volunteer at nature centers on weekends. I always figured I could do alright on Jeopardy, maybe win if the categories would come up good for me, and be steam-rollered over if Ken Jennings was back. I’d need to study up on Shakespeare, the U.S. Constitution and African nations beforehand, I’d decided. It was also one of the few shows that crossed my family’s great divides. Both my parents watched regularly, long after they divorced and had very little in common. If I was at my dad’s place, 7 o’clock was time to get to the basement and put on Jeopardy. “Did you see that woman on Jeopardy tonight?”, my mom would ask in our regular calls before she passed away. One time she called to tell me there was a guy on the show who looked like me.

Trebek himself perhaps summed up the reason for his popularity when asked about what legacy he hoped to have. He says he wanted to be remembered as the guy who “always seemed to be rooting for the contestants… (when they) perform at their best, that would make the show a success.”

A success it is, or was. As was Alex Trebek.

“What is Jeopardy in 2021?” Correct for $200, category “things that will forever be a little worse in the future.”

RIP, Alex. Reports today say the final episode he taped will air as a Christmas gift to people like me, this December 25th.

Big Dog In A Small Truck Take On The Huge Land

Recently I read and reviewed Our Towns, a contemporary book documenting a couple’s travels across the U.S. with their stops in a variety of cities and towns. I compared it to a modern Travels with Charley, which made me decide to read that John Steinbeck non-fiction classic. Actually I should say re-read, as I discovered that gem probably close to three decades back when I was going through a period of trying to read classic “literature” and found it a short hop from Steinbeck’s novels to his travelogue.

For those unfamiliar with it, Travels with Charley is an account of a trip around the perimeter (more or less) of the Lower 48 that the celebrated writer took some 60 years ago now. He drove the miles in a pickup with a camper back, with his big poodle, Charley along for companionship. It was eminently interesting and well-written and mixed a yearning look back from the aging writer with glimpses of a marvelous future. Now, it’s more a look back and a measure of how we’ve changed. And how we’ve not.

Some things are indeed changed, and for the better I’d say since 1960. Our idea of “men” has evolved, more in some areas than others, but 1960 Steinbeck was still of the generation that settled differences with fisticuffs, more often than not in a bar, and hunted because there was stuff to kill. He lamented only seeing two fights along the way and packed along a rifle and shotgun, more just to fit in than to utilize them. He seemed to lament that he was tired and didn’t feel like shooting coyotes he saw in the desert, all the while worrying about Charley while in New England, fearing his dog would be shot as soon as it exited his truck by over-zealous gunmen who’d think it a deer. He shares stories of old logs being full of lead and cows being shot by wonderful “outdoorsmen” who assumed them deer. Doubtless we still have deer hunters and hunting season, but it’s encouraging to me that we have somewhat more respect for wildlife – and dogs and livestock – than we did in that day and age.

Another thing John lamented was the disappearing regional dialect and accent. He said upon reaching Montana “here for the first time, I heard a definite regional accent, unaffected by TV-ese.” He feared that the telly would soon wipe out every regional variation in dialect and accent and we’d all be talking like Walter Cronkite or Lucille Ball before long. My sweetie works in Customer Service for a company that operates in about a quarter of the country; she can assure you that just hasn’t happened. Sometimes it’s difficult to know that Cajuns of the backwoods of Louisiana are even speaking English, and there’s no mistaking the Bostonians who drive their cars by turning on the “khakis” or the traditional Bronx cadence from just over a hundred miles away from there. Native Mississippians sound little like native Minnesotans although they’re bound together by one great river. Myself, I’ve been asked where I was from many times when in Atlanta (usually in a friendly but inquisitive manner) and in Texas had one woman suggest “You’re not from here – is that a Chicago accent?” I told her no but not far off… I was from another Great Lakes city. We southern Ontarians don’t think we have accents, but we sound different to those in the Lone Star State, even if we watch Friends and Masked Singer shows together. Steinbeck misread the future on that.

Another difference is not in the story, but the reaction. Steinbeck was amazed at the mobile home parks springing up everywhere, and was in awe of them. It was a new phenomenon which made eminent sense to him. “They are wonderfully-built homes, aluminum skins, double-walled, insulated…” and convenient, he figured. “If a plant or factory closes down, you’re not trapped with property you can’t sell…he rents a trucking service and moves on” to the next city with the next batch of jobs waiting. Now, I daresay Steinbeck wasn’t wrong in the convenience or affordability of them, but for better or worse, very few these days share his sunny take on them and the parks they are located in. Ugly it is, but true as well that a good chunk of the country automatically look at the residents not as smart, adaptable people but uneducated, dirty dolts. Why else do we all understand what someone means when they say “trailer trash.”

Some things never change though, one of the big examples in the U.S. being the Texas spirit. Steinbeck says “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is a mindset” and in fact, “a nation” even. He notes the huge state varies from flat farm fields covered in snow in winter in the Panhandle to sandy Gulf beaches and citrus orchards along the Rio Grande… nothing in common but for the energy and bravado of the residents. Not to get him wrong, he says he likes Texas, married a Texan and was treated with fantastic hospitality when in the Lone Star State. He points out at home, Texans tend to be friendly and welcoming, but as soon as they pass by Texarkana or El Paso they feel self-conscious and ill at ease and turn into the loud, boorish Texans of Hollywood stereotypes. Sentiments that seem about as apt today, as I write this from Fixer Upper-land, as they were to him back then.

Sadly some of the worst things Steinbeck documented are still among the truest. He lamented the bland highways, saying one could drive from New York to L.A. without seeing a thing, and that the cities they line are coming to all look the same, with the same chain stores and takeout restaurants. If he thought that then, imagine if he could see it now that McDonald’s have served “billions and billions” and Walmart isn’t just a small town five and dime in the hills of Arkansas!

Perhaps the most glaring example of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” though probably makes the book hit many book clubs and reading lists this year again, that being discrimination and racial unrest. He speaks of growing up in a town where there’d only been one Black family, and they were well-liked, hard-working people no one had any grudge against; spoke of being reluctant to even visit the “South” due to their attitudes and hearing time and time again speeches against desegregation and jokes about thinking Charley , his darkish dog, was a “N”word, time and time again before he even left Texas, let alone hit Mississippi and Alabama. He watched in horror as crowds gathered along the street to yell insults at one tiny Black girl being led into a “White” school in New Orleans by federal marshals. Certainly the circumstances have changed and progress has been made, but it’s discouraging so much of the national debate and daily news still revolves around racial problems in the land.

One universal Steinbeck uncovered unintentionally in his wanderings seems the same for any long distance voyager, be they astronauts, merchant marines, Ewan McGregor riding his motorbike across continents or even Dorothy in Oz: the trip that begins a happy adventure becomes a drudgery, a mere race to the finish line in its last miles. Visiting is great, it would seem, but really there is no place like home.