Everyone’s Friend Ellen Is Relatable…But Is She Still Funny?

So, I watched Ellen Degeneres’ new Netflix special, Relatable, a few nights back. Relatable is her highly-publicized return to her roots: the stage as a stand-up comedian. Ellen is such a huge part of our media and public consciousness, it may seem difficult to remember there ever was a time when she was an unknown face and voice struggling for both recognition and a career that would pay the bills.

But there indeed was such a time, and she revisits it rather touchingly in the special. The title itself stems from a question she was asked by a friend (and which makes up the basis of the start of her routine) when she told him she was going to do a stand-up show again. That being, “will people still find you relatable?” With her being a multi-millionaire, corporate spokesperson and internationally-recognized celebrity, could she still “relate” to ordinary peons? Could we still relate to her?

The answer, coming from the Netflix show recorded in Seattle, is yes. She is still relatable. However, that’s the good news. The bad : she’s not all that funny anymore. It doesn’t feel right to criticize Ellen. It’s like kicking a muppet or pouring a pail of water on a kitten. Nasty. Not right. Ellen Degeneres is nice. Everyone says so, and she seems to be one of the kindest-hearted people in the Hollywood establishment. But the fact is, that as comics go, Ellen may be nice but she’s not all that amusing these days.

Which isn’t to say the show was horrible. It had funny bits, and other parts were heart-warming or interesting… ((SPOILER!)) the part about her first girlfriends’ death and her move to a flea-infested apartment for example, are touching and tell us a good deal about her but don’t induce laughter. In general, think of it as being in the room with Ellen as she has a lengthy, meandering conversation on the phone with a good friend.

The problems with the show are well…numerous. The better bits run on too long. The opening bit, about the question of whether or not she is still “relatable”, for example could’ve been a truly funny, snappy little joke but gets dragged out to minutes of her beating the concept (she’s rich and lives in a big house now) into the ground. She says being gay isn’t anything much more important than the dry eyes Jennifer Aniston suffers from, and she might be right. But for a trait that’s not that important, she sure does go on at length about it.

Her observational humor is very relatable – everyone has a junk drawer that probably has some rubber bands and a random AA battery or two in it, for instance – but again, so what? It’s true but it’s kind of irrelevant. Nobody’s going to be falling off their chair, rolling around on the floor busting a gut from laughing “Oh my God, that’s so true…I have a dozen elastic bands in my kitchen drawer too, guffaw!” or “I never noticed there were a lot of side effects listed on medicine commercials before! What a hoot!”. And while for most of the show, she stays very clean and family-friendly, the few spots where she tries to be shocking or raunchy seem just inappropriate and forced. That’s not necessarily something lost on her, when after saying how she never really wanted to be typecast as a “dancer” and then having a lengthy skit of her dancing to a rap song with about half the lyrics being ones which would be censored by network TV, she shakes her head and says “I’m 60 and dancing to ‘Back that ass up.’” Someone thought that was a good idea; you don’t necessarily get the idea that Ellen herself was that person.

That said, she might not have had an enviable task going back to her roots. A quarter-century or so back she was unknown, now we feel like we know everything about her, so there’s less she can tell us that will take us by surprise. And while her first sitcom was being canceled because not everybody was ready for a lesbian on prime time, another comic was taking over the TV with his own, more cynical “observational humor” which produced a “show about nothing”- Seinfeld. Since then, we’ve had twenty years of comics talking about things like junk drawers and the frustration of getting out of the shower and having forgotten to have a towel ready. Last but not least, while people can be funny and nice too, it’s a challenge.

In this day and age, it seems it’s a lot easier to draw laughter, applause and fans by merely being loud, having expletives make up about half of your dialog and ranting about who you hate. And that goes for everything from the Twitterverse to Washington’s hallowed halls to the “Just For Laughs” floors. I applaud Ellen for trying to take the high road. Yet while she made me and my parents alike all laugh in the ’90s, now she had me looking at my watch to see if it had stopped 45 minutes in. Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe Ellen has. Maybe society has…well, no maybe about that one. Either way, I think I like those old days a little better.

May You Be Smarter Than Your Phone This Year

Hermits Don’t Have Any Peer Pressure” – Steven Wright

I finally gave into peer pressure this fall and got a smart phone. Kicking and screaming all the way to the discount store, I might add. Up until then I’d been the last kid on the block to still have a state-of-the-art – state of the 2003 art that is – celphone generally referred to as a “flip phone” although my particular model didn’t flip… it just looked like a very small, very basic “Blackberry” with fewer keys. It made phone calls. It received phone calls, from within this country at least, and with my choice of four ringtones. It sent and got texts. That is all. Which worked for me.

Until it didn’t. I would have likely kept going with that little device were it not for two things which happened more or less simultaneously. First, the actual phone worked less and less. The battery, which once was an endurance athlete of the power world, often lasting a week without charging, was holding its charge less and less until it had become a 50-yard dasher, sometimes running out of power during relatively short car trips.

Secondly, we moved in October. And even though we are still located in a large subdivision in a metropolitan area of a quarter million people or more, the move of about 8 miles across a city limit somehow befuddled the discount carrier I had. The phone got no reception at home anymore… I had to go about half way back to our previous address before it picked up. I’d know where reception began because I’d suddenly hear the chiming as I drove along and the phone suddenly pulled in a day or two’s worth of messages all at once. Obviously, having a celphone for a “home phone” didn’t work for me if it didn’t work at home!

So I had to go out into the big, bad confusing world of phones and get a new one, and a new carrier with reception to the outer limits of the large city at least, if not the outer limits of the continent. Quickly I came to realize that there really weren’t many “old school” phones out there to choose from and I’d need to make the leap to the “dark side”. The big clunky, messy touch-screen side of the phone world… otherwise known as “my precious baby” to most of the rest of the world.

I had resisted them for a number of reasons. That seems funny when you consider that I was actually an early adopter of celphones in the ’90s, when they were big,clunky and expensive. A combination of a car that was less than consistently reliable, a brief relationship with a girlfriend who lived in a really bad neighborhood and my love of nature – hence frequently going to some remote park areas – made it seem like having a way to call for help 24/7 no matter where I might be would be a smart splurge. So why didn’t I like the newest, best yet versions of them? There were reasons aplenty. Some of them to do with the phones themselves and some to do with the users.

When it comes to the phones themselves, I simply didn’t see a lot of personal advantage in spending extra money to get a bunch of features I wouldn’t make use of. Enthusiasts speak glowingly of the streaming video capability and audio, but I personally generally don’t want to see a movie on a two inch screen and am not so unimaginative or impatient that I can’t stand in a line at the grocery store without watching 10 minutes of the latest Robert Downey offering.

Likewise, the car I drive has a stereo and a CD player; there’s a little stereo in our house (only a pale imitation of the sound system I had when fresh out of college, but that’s a topic for another day) so I don’t need my phone to be my music delivery system. That they have web browsers isn’t a bad deal, but for the most part I like working on my laptop, going back and forth between office software and the ‘net, focusing on what I’m doing, so times when I’d want to be surfing while away from my computer seemed like they’d be few and far between. And they’re big. My old one could fit easily in almost any pants pocket. I-phones, Galaxys, current LGs, not so much. Especially when encased in Army-grade armored cases which of course becomes necessary when one looks at the cost vs fragility matrixes of the multi-purpose devices which make eggs seem sturdy by comparison. Continue reading “May You Be Smarter Than Your Phone This Year”

Romance Of The Rails

I like trains.

Like most little boys, I grew up loving trains. Unlike many adults, and unlike most of the childhood things which amused me, I never lost the love of them. I like taking train trips, even if only half hour commuter trips, like watching those pull up to the platform, only feet away, don’t mind the delay caused by having to stop at a road crossing and wait for them to pass through carrying their cargoes of oil. Potash. Coal. Grain. Imported dollar store crap from China. Autos. You name it.

I grew up in Canada, only a couple of blocks from the CP Rail mainline between Toronto and Montreal. We could hear every train pass by; from the yard of my public school, we could see them chugging by behind the houses across the street.The line hauled new cars and pickups from the GM factories nearby to dealers here, there and everywhere, and in turn pulled in boxcars full of parts by the hundred, day in, day out.  By junior high, I was at a school right along the same rail line; for gym we’d often run cross-country right alongside the tracks. When a Detroit via Toronto freight rumbled by, I was a bit slower than usual… not that that mattered, I usually was bringing up the rear anyhow!

My dad and I had model trains, and had a big table in the spare room in the ’70s, put some track on it. We never did quite get the layout complete, and we had differing ideas of the types of trains we wanted on it. My dad loved vintage steam engines and toyish cars. I wanted diesels like I saw on the rails by our house, and authentic freight cars. It mattered little. It brought him and I together when I was a youth and tween, something not a whole lot of things did.

The appeal, I can’t completely explain. The power of them is overwhelming. The mystery too. What’s in that boxcar? How about that tanker? And where’s it going? The multitude of railroads and colors , at least when I was young was fascinating as well. While I stood and watched CP trains and their bright red engines (with red and white striped noses and an odd, oh-so-’70s black and white logo on the end of the long hoods) they’d pull along freight cars from everywhere. The rusty red boxcars of Santa Fe, Southern, Missouri Pacific. Yellow Union Pacific ones. The orange Illinois Central and bold yellow and blue Chessie System ones were particular favorites of mine. And the appeal of being able to buy realistic little 1/87th size miniatures of all them to have go round in the bedroom made it so much cooler still.

I was reminded of that a few weeks back when President George H.W. Bush died. His body was taken to its final resting place, at his library in College Station, Texas, by a train led by a locomotive painted in his honor. Union Pacific #4141 (number picked because he was the 41st president) wound its way along the rails from Houston for several hours, while people lined the streets and tracks, paying their respects for one last time. It was said to be very appropriate, even though no president since Eisenhower nearly five decades earlier had been carried to his funeral on the rails, because George Sr. was said to love trains, and particularly the big, western carrier, Union Pacific. They said they were honored to have that privilege and painted up the huge, 210 ton EMD locomotive in blue and silver tones to mimic Air Force One. This was in contrast to their normal locomotives which are bright yellow with red lettering.

It looked surprising, even for non-railfans who live in the southwest and see the yellow UP trains rumble by daily, but it wasn’t the first time railroads did something unusual with their paint schemes to honor the country.

Back in 1976, the U,S. was abuzz with patriotic fever inspired by the Bicentennial. And railroads, so much a part of the country’s 200 year history, decided to share that enthusiasm. A couple of years before, the Seaboard Coast Line, a railroad that primarily served East Coast cities from Chesapeake Bay south to Florida, noticed it had a General Electric engine (as a sidebar, it might surprise many that GE is one of the world’s biggest producers of diesel fuel burning locomotives) numbered 1776 and decided to gussy up its paint. In place of the normal mainly black and white paint the company used, it painted #1776 in a bright red, white and blue scheme with stars on the red and blue stripes and a large presidential seal fastened to the side. Soon others followed suit- Illinois Central (which kept the corporate orange and black on the nose but also had blue and red stripes on an otherwise white engine numbered 1776), Grand Trunk, Santa Fe… soon over 20 different rail lines had engines honoring the country and flag. Boston and Maine, a relatively small rail line, painted 9 diesels patriotic colors! Erie-Lackawanna painted an engine #3638 in their normal design but with red white and blue replacing their normal mainly gray, with a dull maroon stripe. They did that in 1976… even though later that year they went out of business and were “enveloped” by Conrail.

I’ve never met George W. Bush, needless to say, but I always figured I could always have a good talk with him because we both love baseball. Likewise, I never met his father, George H.W. I didn’t agree with all his policies while he was president, but I bet I would’ve liked chatting with him. He did, after all, love trains.

Christmas With Pizza-zz

I heard this one come up on a radio morning show again last week. It’s no surprise since it is almost as routine a December topic as the “cost” of giving the gifts listed in the Twelve Days of Christmas. When the morning show hosts were debating turkey vs. ham, inevitably someone phoned in and said essentially, “turkey’s not that great, give me a pizza instead.” So the question becomes not so much “turkey vs. ham” as “big kitchen-made dinner vs. pizza delivered.”

Now, I quite like turkey and like ham a lot more. My sweetie makes a great green bean casserole (a side dish I only encountered when first having Christmas dinner in the southern states) which is great. She has some Mexican in her background, so it’s a family tradition for her to have tamales at Christmas-time, another food new to me that I find quite palatable although, lacking the history, not such a cherished part of the season. My Mom used to make some very good stuffing to go with the turkey when I was younger,so big, nap-inducing dinners at Christmas are a part of my background. Cranberry sauce is one of the few examples of a sweet that seems to “go” with meat or the main course particularly well.

But for all that, I say “make it pizza.” Maybe with a nice store-bought salad on the side. I mean, who doesn’t like pizza? If you have a large family or gathering of friends, you can always order up a veggie one or two, perhaps a Hawaiian, for those who don’t like pepperoni or “supreme” that much.

It’s not that pizza is inherently better than a turkey or a ham feast. Rather, it’s a lot easier. And when you add it up, even with a good tip thrown in – and I do advocate tipping the driver heavily and handsomely, for having to work on that special day – it’s likely going to come out cheaper than turkeysor spiral hams, all those side dishes, rolls and so on. Not to mention, does anybody really like eating dry turkey sandwiches on the 28th, microwaved turkey chunks and four-day old stuffing on the 29th or flakes of turkey for breakfast on the 30th? There’s the real point to me – those big meals leave far too many leftovers (of course, if you have a big family pooch, they may help out on that!) . More importantly, they take a lot of time and effort.

If you have a maid or personal chef, if you’re retired and independently wealthy, maybe the hours upon hours spent prepping, cooking, checking the temperatures, then washing up later are no big deal. But for the rest of us, where people are busy and perhaps have two or three days off to enjoy all the Christmas they can cram in, it’s a different story.

How many Christmases have you seen where half the family doesn’t see the others until the all-too-short meal because they’re cleaning turkeys, snoozing because they were up at 5 AM starting the dinner for that evening or running to the supermarket to get that can of cranberries they forgot? If you’re like me, the answer is “quite a few”.

This year I’m happy and fortunate to be spending the season again with my sweetie and much of her family. we had the big family “get-together” last night. The food was good, and plenty too. But the good stuff – the things we’ll remember – were watching one of her nephew’s girlfriend’s little ones playing with toys and a “walk on” piano and laughing it up, full of the wonder of Santa; us adults having a few drinks and laughing over bingo games, sharing stories of the year gone down and so on. Finally tonight we’re watching a handful of Christmas movies together, which is always one of the highlights of Christmas to me.

So again, I say “big kitchen-made dinner vs. pizza delivered?” Whichever your choice, I send you wishes for the best of dinners and moreover, the best of company for you through the day and the entire season. And as a PS, cheers to all of you who remember those who wouldn’t have much food or company at this time of year and take it upon themselves to help them out a little one way or another.

Merry Christmas All!

Christmas Movies Are Like… Beer?

It’s as predictable as the car blocking traffic in the mall parking lot waiting for the perfect spot to open up or the fruitcake under the tree from Aunt Madge – it’s the most wonderful time of the year for people to get hot under the collar debating movies. Or in particular, the best Christmas movies. Every year we seem to be inundated with a new horde of lists telling us what the “best” holiday movies are; every year people argue over said lists endlessly at the work water cooler and family dinners. 

A perfunctory google search quickly offered up Esquire magazine’s top 40 and Rotten Tomatoes list of the best 50. Each had its own quirks and things to get tongues wagging. Both for instance, included the 1974 slasher-horror flick Black Christmas (#38 on Rotten Tomatoes, #19 over at Esquire). Both had more than one version of “A Christmas Carol” – four on Rotten Tomatoes, which picked the 1951 Alistair Sim one as “the definitive”, and three on Esquire which agreed the ’51 B&W take on it is “still the finest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ legendary tale… yet rated The Muppet Christmas Carol higher. If only director Brian Hurst had thought to have Ebenezer Scrooge visited by Fozzie Bear in the night.

Both lists did agree on the top pick. Rotten Tomatoes call it “the holiday classic to define all holiday classics.” Esquire suggest “few films define Christmas like” it. Yet, surprisingly, when It’s A Wonderful Life came out in 1946, fans were indifferent to the now-classic Frank Capra ode to friendship and loyalty.

It’s hard to argue with the choice…particularly if like me, your sweetie’s hung a framed movie poster of it in the bedroom. But to me, asking my favorite Christmas movie is like asking me to pick a favorite color. Well, I like teal blue tones, but not if we’re talking about cuts of meat. Actually, it might be more akin to asking me what my favorite beer is. Sure I might prefer Blue Moon or Sam Adams to Bud Lite, but the answer is still “whichever is cold and in the fridge”! The favorite Christmas movie is often the one that we’re watching in the moment. The one that brings the whole family together sharing old memories and creating new ones.

That said, to me a season wouldn’t feel like Christmas without seeing most, if not all of the following ones from the Silver Screen and small screen: A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Love Actually and A Christmas Story.

The Grinch – the ’60s animated TV version, true to Dr. Seuss’ words and other-wordly visuals- was a family tradition for me growing up and even as I got to be reading adult novels and reference books, was a reminder of how much those Seuss books entertained me and made me want to read on my own. I still feel curiously happy when walking past a rack with hardcovers of it, Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop and the like. Subconsciously I guess it harkens me back to one of the happy times in my young childhood; consciously it pleases me to know that kids today are still learning to love reading and words through his rhymes just like I did.

I’ve seen many good adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but I go with the lists I mentioned in adhering to the ’51 version as the definitive one. Sure it’s B&W, the sound a little tinny and the special effects, Scrooge flying through the ghost-ridden air and so on, are cheesy but its tough to beat the charm of Sim as the changed man on Christmas morning or not to break out laughing at the frightened maid who encounters a freak of nature – a singing, cheerful Ebenezer Scrooge! Of course, the real reason it perhaps is my pick of the many is that it was for years a Christmas Eve tradition for my Mom and I to watch it. It would be quite a letdown if no station was running it!

It’s A Wonderful Life is wonderful, plain and simple. It never hurts to be reminded of how we impact those around us more than we know, or how doing the right thing will get noticed and eventually be returned to you. I don’t think I saw it until I was in my 20s, but now not a year goes by without watching it with loved ones.

Love Actually is a bit of a variation. I first saw it at a local library mid-summer, during a thunderstorm. And of course that’s not all together unreasonable. It’s more of a romcom than straight ahead Christmas flick; it just happens to revolve around all those intertwined stories happening at Yule time. Since it came out 15 years back, there’ve been a slew of movies which have imitated its entanglement of storylines, but none I’ve seen do it as well. As a music fan, I’ll forgive it for making Mariah Carey richer still by re-popularizing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” because, hey has there ever been a cuter kid than little Sam playing drums watching the love of his life, 12 year-old Joanna, belt it out on stage at the school pagent? Besides, it makes up for that “digression” with the knowing cynicism of Billie Mack and his laughably honest assessment of his “crass” Christmas single as being crap! There are a hundred things that make me laugh every time I see it, from the kids’ dismayed “We hate uncle Jamie!” when he takes off from the house without dropping off presents to the intentional juxtapositioning of the shy, bland conversation of John and Judy with the X-rated sex scene they’re supposed to be filming. Speaking of, it’s a classic you really want to have the DVD of… TV is prone to cut out their whole storyline and edit some other parts so much as to make it almost unrecognizable.

A Christmas Story likewise makes me laugh… the father’s joy at the Leg Lamp, his simmering hatred for the Bumpkuses’ hounds , the pink bunny pyjamas and of course the greatest Bad Santa ever… they never get old. Naysayers who’ve popped up this season complaining that it’s not politically correct (being nostalgic for a time when women stayed at home and cooked, making fun of people with accents, a kid who’s only interested in the gifts part of Christmas all rub them the wrong way ) miss the point, and maybe a funny bone. It’s funny because it’s nostalgic and relatable for so many of us. Like Rotten Tomatoes (ranking it #13) it’s “warmly nostalgic and darkly humorous.”

But back to the beer analogy. The one on hand is often the best one. As time goes by and my life changes, my personal list shifts too. I first saw the Family Stone (picked by Esquire as their 30th best) about three Christmas’ back. It was already a favorite of my sweetie. So seeing it with her has made it special to me now, and a newcomer to our joint “must see” list. That one by the way, was surprisingly under the radar for one with as Esquire term it, an “all star cast” headed by the likes of Rachel MacAdams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson and Diane Keaton. It blends humor and sorrow rather superbly studying one dysfunctional family”s – is there any other kind?- holiday. Likewise, last weekend we all watched Elf, a bigtime fave and annual tradition for her and her kiddo, which has elevated its status on my personal list considerably.

Some movies for you to consider over the next couple of weeks… but more importantly, a call for you to look back on your own happy holidays of years gone by and make your own, personal and meaningful list. Time flies by, so remember to take a moment or two to live in the present,not just the presents this December. And maybe grab me a beer if you’re going to the fridge!

Star Power Didn’t Have That Much Luster To It

I don’t have much musical talent. Rather a shame since I love music and it’s been a major force in keeping me relatively sane and grounded through a lot of difficult days in my early life. I did manage to learn to play keyboards when I was a high-schooler, just rather poorly. I bought a Casio electronic keyboard then a cheap, cheap used electric piano and some sort of basic synthesizer-type keyboard and lots of late-’70s, early-’80s sheet music and learned a few songs. Slowly. In fact I could play almost any hit single of that era, if I had the music and you wanted to listen to it in slow motion. My fingers don’t react all that quickly to the notes my mind is telling them to play! I did write though, lyrics. Lots of them in high school. As I look back it set the pattern for my life in later years.

As much as I loved pop and rock music, I never wanted to be a rock star. Weird, right? isn’t that every young guy’s dream?

Well, as much as when I was 17 or 18, the idea of having a crowd of young, hot gals lusting after me couldn’t help but excite, the answer is still “no.” I think that if I ever wanted to be in the music biz, I’d have wanted to be Robert Lamm not Robert Plant. Wait, you say, I know who Robert Plant is but Robert Lamm? Precisely my point.

Lamm was a keyboardist who wrote a number of early Chicago hits including “Saturday in the Park” and “25 or 6 to 4” and sang a few of them. Everyone knew his music, but hardly anyone heard his name. Fewer still, I would guess would have known him on the street. And that’s always been an ideal for me. I’d love to have people really connect and love what I create. I wouldn’t love them to all think they love me without knowing me, or that my life was theirs to be a part of without an invitation. As much as I’d like to have gold records on the wall or see my name on the Billboard charts, I wouldn’t want that “celebrity” that goes with. I would flat out hate to not be able to go into a restaurant and have a meal with friends without having people rush the table and ask for signatures or selfies with me; hate more not being able to go shopping or to a bar without having a gaggle of guys with 400mm lenses following me to capture anything embarassing I might happen to do. (Of course in this day and age, thanks to phone technology, everyone is a papparazi with a 400mm lens!) Ergo, the life of Robert Lamm, whose work is loved, probably earned a good living from it but walked down the road blending in with the crowd. I guess I just like my privacy, or lack some basic gene most seem to have that makes them crave attention and the spotlight. this may be a plus or a flaw, but it’s me.

It’s probably why I gravitate to writing. I love having people share in what I’m thinking or creating without being noticed personally. I mean, when you think about it, how many writers would you really recognize if you bumped into them in the mall or bleachers at a ball game? I’m guessing the list might begin and end with Stephen King, save for writers who are famous only for being movie stars, politicians or rock stars first.

That’s just me. It took a while for me to figure it out. And I hope it doesn’t sound cold or unwelcoming. I actually love connecting with people in forums like this and hope things I write can touch a chord with you.

It all came to mind today, as we mark the anniversary of John Lennon’s death – or murder actually. As almost all of you know, the famous musician and peace-advocate was murdered in front of his wife on the doorstep to his New York home… by a “fan” who was stalking him. Making the life of Robert Lamm seem suddenly more idyllic. The grass is always greener on the other side, as they say.

How about you, good reader? Is the spotlight right for you?

The Great Disappearing TV Show Trick

Illusionist David Copperfield once made the Statue of Liberty seem to disappear in front of a live audience. Perhaps I should give him a call and see if he could make a terrific TV show reappear.

In this day and age of bargain-priced DVD sets of just about everything ever to grace or disgrace the boob tube screen, cable networks galore and streaming services offering up even old chestnuts like Green Acres and Dad’s Army for insomniac subscribers, you’d think a hit show from this century would be easy to find. Hard to avoid even, perhaps. Particularly if it starred one of the leads in one of this decade’s most popular shows, was created by TV “royalty” and kicked off the careers of a couple of movie stars plus the star of the most popular sitcom going these days. Sadly you’d be wrong.

Despite having Modern Family‘s “Claire’ (Julie Bowen) as the female lead, being the first place anyone saw Jim Parsons (now Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory) or Justin Long on the screen, despite being a product of David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, and having the Foo Fighters do the theme song, Ed has become a ghost. TV’s equivalent of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – well-loved but known these days only through rumors, memories of old-timers and grainy photos. That bugged me back in 2005 after it ended; it bugs me more now.

Ed (not to be confused with the similarly-titled movie, Ed TV) was a rather brilliant but hard to define show that ran for 83 episodes from 2000 through early 2004 on NBC. It was a dramedy before that term – or genre- was well-known. A drama with a sense of humor; a comedy that at times could be heart-wrenching at times. Lovable, Relateable. Quirky like Seinfeld but a version where the characters weren’t obnoxiously self-absorbed and were dropped into a small town. It was also could be seen as something of a male bookkend to The Gilmore Girls which debuted the same autumn. Just like Ed , Lorelei and Rory, those  feisty Gilmore Girls had oddball small-towners to contend with, lots of music and main characters looking for love. Unlike Ed, however, The Gilmore Girls live on in Walmart discount video bins, Sunday afternoon reruns and most notably, in a limited 4-episode resurrection from Netflix. All accomplished while averaging only a little over half the number of viewers as Ed in its first run.

Ed was several shows in one really, a somewhat risky proposition for TV of the day. Romance, workplace dramas, lightweight legal eagles.Sounds messy, yet it worked. Wonderfully. Continue reading “The Great Disappearing TV Show Trick”

Mars? Meh.

I was just a tyke when Neil Armstrong got out of the lunar module and walked on the moon. If you believe. I don’t remember the actual event, but like most kids of my generation I was fascinated by space. My family visited the Kennedy Space Center when I was 8 or 9, I thought that huge rocket building was the coolest thing. For a number of years, I had a plastic model of a Saturn rocket similar to the Apollo ones in my bedroom on the dresser. And of course, I watched The Jetsons and perhaps thought that George and Judy’s life might be the one we’d all be rocketing into at some point.

But things happened and time went by. We watched the Space Shuttles go up, and come back. We watched one Space Shuttle blow up a mile or two off the ground, incinerating all the astronauts within. And one by one, as each Shuttle returned and smiling astronauts stepped out, it seemed like … there wasn’t much to show for it except a photo opp or two and a fancy-looking jet that goes up higher than your run-of-the-mill 747. I grew up. After a while there was no rocket on my dresser (railroad locomotive, perhaps, but that’s a story for another day.)

Which leads us to today as some sort of robot launced by NASA landed on – yawn – Mars. Headlines this morning said “Anxiety abounds at NASA as Mars landing day arrives.” It explained that the odds were decent but no sure thing that the spaceship was going to be able to decelerate through Mars’ atmosphere from 12 300 MPH to zero in all of six minutes, then land without destroying itself. But if it did, if it became the 8th successful American probe to land there (out of 9 attempts), we’d get photos of the “Red planet” . After about 8 minutes. That’s apparently how long it takes radio waves to travel the close to 300 million miles between our planets.

What’s more, it will pick up some rocks and run a probe to see if it feels “marsquakes”… presumably so if the rock is shaking, we know where to build a New San Francisco if we go frontier-a-making.

Which all makes me second Love It Or List It (an HGTV show) star David Visentin’s tweet : “one of our measuring tools is touching down on Mars…on Monday. Odd how I am so ‘meh’ about it. How did that happen?” Meh, Amen.

Do you really care if there are earthquakes on Mars? Do you really have a need to see some bare rocky ground millions of miles away? And if, to the surprise of everyone, the cameras found some E.T.s cavorting around and posing for space selfies, do you really believe the authorities would share that with us? My answer to all those is “I don’t.”

What actually bugs me about it though, is the cost. This InSight probe, today’s landing veseel, will cost us about $2.1 billion dollars. The scientists proudly point out that is some $400 million less than the similar one they sent back in 2011 – they perfected the technology a little and had a few spare parts clanking around in the garage.

To me, a few photos of a barren land years away for any of us and perhaps a bit of data about what the rocks are made of is hardly worth over two billion. In all, NASA has a budget of just a whisker under $20 billion this year, or about $65 for every adult and child in the U.S. Now, to be fair, they do accomplish more than send a few probes out into space. We all use satellites, many of which they launch, for things like our phones and TV service and the weather forecasts we rely on that in turn rely on satellite photos of our planet. Still, it seems like maybe we could trim that down a few pesos and not be any the worse for wear.

Perhaps the prevailing reason people want to get to Mars and beyond is uttered by Space X/Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The eccentric Texas billionaire is planning to offer space trips to ordinary people soon, and recently signed up the first candidate – a Japanese fashion executive who wants to go to the moon. Musk says “we should take action and become a multi-planetary civilization as soon as possible”, just in case some “event ends civilization.”

Well, this earthling likes Earth just fine. I don’t want to go and live on some distant, barren rocky planet. It seems like instead of fretting over how livable other (we’re told) entirely uninhabited, lifeless bodies out in space could be, we might do better doing what we can to make our planet better. More livable. Less succeptible to “an event” which would end civilization.

Two billion dollars could do a lot to help create renewable energy which wouldn’t despoil our planet. Or maybe buy and plant about 400 million trees, which could reforest about 6000 square miles, if my math is right. Which would go a long ways to adding oxygen to and cleaning our atmosphere. Or finance the top-quality university education of something like 20 000 smart kids. – kids who adults could probably solve a lot of problems if they concentrate on earth and humanity, not rocks hundreds of millions of miles away. And probably tell me in a second if my tree math was correct.

But that’s just “meh” talking.

I Am Canadian, Eh

I’m Canadian, eh?

I’m proud of my homeland and of course, puff up a little every time something Canadian appears on the world stage, be it a Mike Myers movie, Joey Votto winning an award in baseball, a Sarah McLachlan or Guess Who tune on the radio in Texas, a bag of cookies on a Florida grocery store shelf saying “Product of Canada.”

I find we Canucks are pretty well accepted wherever we go, which is nice. I think that’s largely because we just don’t create a real strong impression on foreigners. Rather a double-edged sword, that – we’re dull but we’re not unlikable therefore. That could be rather a function of both our typically mild-mannered nature and the fact that our national culture is… well, not terribly colorful or unique when looked at on the world stage. Not that we don’t have a culture, it’s rather that it is primarily a mix of America-lite with a tip of the cap (or toque) to our British heritage. People who visit Toronto from other countries often leave with the comments of “that’s a whole lot like Chicago or Atlanta with slightly less trash on the streets and a few more Depeche Mode songs on the radio.”

Of course, what little we do have to make us “special” is played up to death in the media. We don’t have bagpipes, or haggis or stinky cheese to define us, but we do have Tim Hortons, toques, hockey and beer. Which is fine by me. With the majority of us, I find. We laugh along with Robin (a character played by an actual Canadian actress, Colbie Smulders) in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother with her Vancouver hockey-logo bedecked t-shirts, jerseys, sleep pants and her patter – indecipherable to most Americans – about back home with its hydro poles, curling bonspiels and Mark Messier, all the while being mocked/pitied by her American friends who point out how tough it must have been growing up with “America right there!” . Barney in that show visits her in Toronto and makes fun of the brightly-colored paper money and just about everything else, but does begrudgingly admit upon return to New York, “the coffee was excellent.” Or with Hank Hill on King of the Hill, when confounded with new Canadian neighbors who use a lawn mower with a maple leaf design on it and ask him things like “How come America still can’t brew a decent ale, eh?” … to which he responds to the effect of “because we’re too busy making Hollywood blockbusters and sending men to the moon”.

Yes, we do have a Tim Hortons coffee shop on just about every other street corner and in half the country they serve as more or less the social club, point of reference, beginning point to journeys and daily mid-morning work break. We do, it seems to me, like beer a bit more than other Americans, cola a little less. We do say “eh”,although a lot less than most TV shows might have you think. We do call electricity “hydro” even if it comes straight from a nuclear plant or solar farm. And a toque with a plaid lumberjack coat is as close to a national outfit as we have. We do as a people love hockey more than Americans not from Boston or Detroit, and have an indifference for football, particularly of the amateur high school variety that’s inexplicable to our neighbors south of the Mason-Dixon Line at least. But we’re not that different.

What’s more, we laugh at ourselves and seem to have a lassez-faire attitude towards those who behave differently or have their own cultures when they come over. Which I believe makes us easy targets for those wanting to make jokes… but also more accepted than a number of other nationalities. It’s difficult to sweepingly dislike a group of people who don’t stand out and who laugh at their own foibles anyway.

I think there’s a message in there somewhere. Be proud of who you are, where you come from, but realize that others are just as proud of where they are from, what matters to them. Don’t get too bent out of shape by a little ribbing – it just means you’re no different really. Part of the crowd. Or when it comes to Tim Hortons coffee, that maybe they’re a bit jealous, eh!

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Some of you may already follow my thoughts on baseball, particularly the Toronto Blue Jays,  my day-to-day music trivia notes on Sound Day,  or even my periodic attempts to uplift you and make your day something to be grateful for at 101 Thanks… but at times, there’s still more on my mind. Random thoughts, movies or TV shows I’ve seen or books I’ve read you might just enjoy, memories of growing up Generation X – perhaps even a word or two from my forthcoming novel, Grace, Fully Living.   So here we are! That’s a few of the things I will be jotting down here and I hope you join me. And feel free to comment. I love hearing your thoughts and memories as well!

Cheers…and let the journey begin!

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