The Cat That Sold Train Tickets. It Was A Simpler Time.

The art and science of marketing fascinates me and I like visual arts as well. So corporate logos interest me; the things that go into making a public image that will sell a company’s products. Often there’s a lot more to them than first meets the eye. Many know for example, there’s an arrow in the Fed Ex logo in the negative space between the “E” and the “X”.

fedex

An arrow suggests moving quickly doesn’t it, and that’s what you want your package to do!

Cisco computer systems in based in San Francisco (as the name suggests) and if you look carefully at the lines above the name, they suggest the outline of the city’s most famous structure, the Golden Gate Bridge:

cisco

Toblerone chocolates are from Switzerland, so it’s no surprise they have a mountain in their logo. What is more surprising is that they are from Bern, Switzerland specifically and that means “bear.” And if you look closely at the mountain…

toblerone

Look at that bear walking in front of the mountain!

I like trains and cats too. Bet you think we’re getting near a Dr. Seuss story by now, don’t you. Actually we’re not. But there is an example of the three – trains, cats and corporate images – intersecting. No wonder I liked the Chessie System railroad so much.

Chessie was a 1970s railroad that resulted in the merger of two large railroads – the B&O and the C&O (yes, the same two you find in a Monopoly game) – and one short line, the Western Maryland RR. It ran freight trains all across the northeastern U.S. (and a single line cutting into southern Ontario in Canada for a few years) and while most of their competitors favored somewhat dull-looking black and white engines and brownish freight cars, Chessie sported lively navy blues and yellow. Their locomotives were neon yellow with an orange stripe and dark blue top, with the name in large, ever-so-’70s Bahama font on the side. They looked great running loads of coal through the Appalachians and even got a starring role in a music video, strangely enough (R.E.M.’s “Driver 8”).

chesloco

If you look closely though, the “C” in the Chessie System, you see the letter is sort of cut with a couple of points. Well, if you look closely and kind of squint, the “C” is holding the outline of a cat’s head and front paw. That cat is “Chessie.”

Chessie was a kitten that was used in the era when travel by train was the way to get around. Before air travel became cheap or readily available in most places, long trips were undertaken on the rails. And long before the government-sponsored Amtrak, various rail lines competed hard for the travel dollars and advertised extensively, using posters and ads showing the glamorous destinations mostly. The C&O were among the first railroads to get air conditioned cars, and somehow came across a picture by an Austrian artist. It showed a contented-looking kitten sleeping with its head partly covered in a pillow and one paw sticking out from the sheets. They bought the image for all of $5 and ran it in ads saying “sleep like a kitten and wake up fresh as a daisy” when traveling on their trains.

chessiekat

A picture of a sleeping kitty cat might not lure you into booking your next trip between New York and Chicago on a particular railroad, but it was a simpler time back in the 1930s. A couple of decades later, a sexy girl in a bikini might have been the ad attraction, now a multi-racial, multi-generational family laughing around a kitchen table together. But back then, people loved the ad and passenger numbers increased on the C&O after it was used. So popular was it they even published a calendar using the kitty the next year and sold thousands. Take that, Sports Illustrated models!

The mascot, or mas-cat, needed a name so they chose “Chessie”. After all, the “C” in C&O stood for Chesepeake, as in the bay. The O was Ohio, by the way. They ran more ads and, rather like some of our modern corporate spokespeople have (think Flo for Progressive) Chessie took on a life of her own. In time, she grew up, met a tomcat (“Peake”) and had her own kittens, “Nip” and “Tuck.” When WWII came up, Peake went off to war and Chessie stayed home selling War Bonds for the lads overseas. And cats overseas, as it were.

chessiewar

The cats remained popular mascots for years, but eventually passenger trains began to lose their lustre, and eventually were all taken over by one entity, Amtrak. C&O and the likes concentrated exclusively on freight traffic, which required less advertising in mainstream magazines. Chessie was more or less retired. Until the C&O and B&O, with their similar paint schemes and often parallel rail lines decided to merge. They formed the Chessie System railroad, and needing a new corporate image, they resurrected Chessie the cat, but only in the sillohuette superimposed on the large “C”.

chessie cab

The rail line was a favorite of photographers, model railroaders and apparently Michael Stipe of R.E.M., but as is the way with large corporations looking for efficiency, by the ’80s, they in turn had merged with another southeastern railroad, the Seaboard Coast Line to form a corporation unimaginatively called “CSX Transportation.” The company retains the Chessie colors but lacks the kitty design although they say officially Chessie the Cat is still their company mascot. However, repainting entire rosters of thousands of engines and boxcars isn’t always a transportation company’s top priority, if you keep your eyes open you might just spot ol’ Chessie rolling by at the level crossing now and then.

So there you have it – a time when a kitten was the “cat’s pyjamas” for a railroad. Not too important, but just an interesting little story of an America of days gone by.

Tiny Moments

I just took out the garbage from the kitchen, a heavy bag that I’m sure didn’t smell too fragrant to anyone else in the house. I couldn’t smell a thing, which is a common reaction I have, being a renowned Male of Exceptionally Poor Sense of Smell. Anyhow, I put on my flip-flops and hauled it out to the plastic bin beside the garage and stood there for a bit before coming back in.

It was about 10 minutes after sunset, the beautiful twilight photographers and poets alike adore. Still enough light in the sky to see the outline of trees and other things on the horizon clearly against the deepening blue, dark enough for it to be undeniably “night.” Some bright star shone bright in the northwestern sky. Probably a planet actually. For some reason, usually scientific me has little interest in knowing what body up in the sky I’m looking at. If I see a snake slither by, I want to know the species despite having little fear of them (I’m not one to think them bad or expect every one out there is deadly).After about half an hour of web searches yesterday, I figured the baby snake dashing horizontally across the lawn yesterday as I cut the grass was a tiny King snake.  I have written letters published in journals debating whether cute little chickadees are actually just one species of bird, or two. I took a course on being a severe storm reporter for the weather service. All about science. But when it comes to stars, constellations and planets, it’s just look up and “ooh, pretty!”.

Anyway, I stood there by the garbage can and looked at the sky, appreciated the one bright star and tiny little duller ones starting to show, and listened to some wrens and Mockingbirds singing late into the evening and just felt peaceful. Content in the moment. I listened for nighthawks, the plaintive little “beep” call of the nocturnal insect-eating bird of our cities, but didn’t hear one and noted to myself I’d never been in Texas this late in the year before without hearing one. I remembered a night about five, six months back when I took the garbage out similarly late in the evening and stood, listening to a hooting owl and eventually was able to make out its silohuette in a backyard tree, it viewing me with as much interest as I it, I think. So, I came back in and pulled the little bag out of the bedroom trash can and took it out too.

It reminded me of a short story I read not long ago – “A Map of Tiny Perfect Things” by Lev Grossman. In it, two kids get stuck in a sort of Groundhog Day-like time loop and end up mapping all sorts of tiny, perfect moments that happen around their town every day – a hawk swooping down to get a floating fish, a teen making the perfect skateboarding trick and riding down a handrail to finish it, seeing a B-list movie actor drive by. Taking out the garbage, seeing the bright star, anticipating a nasal little bird call, feeling a little bit of a cool breeze on my arms after a humid and briefly stormy day, all was nice.

Not fantastic. Not winning the lottery big. Not best sex of my life soul-quaking. Not seeing my favorite band take the stage or my baseball team win the World Series good, but nice. And the earth-shattering, life-changing moments come around rarely. Those little moments after taking out the garbage, seeing the stars, hearing an owl hoot…every day around us when we become aware.

It’s the tiny moments that make it all good. So, as much as our current situation with the pandemic and worry sucks, if you are aware, I bet you can find your tiny glorious moments today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And suddenly, life seems a whole lot more wonderful.

What are your “owl hooting when you take out the garbage” moments?

The Basketball Diary

I’m Canadian but baseball’s always been “my” sport. I love watching it, love reading about it, even liked playing it years ago. My teammates back when I played on a very amateur beer league company team many summers back probably didn’t love me playing as much. I could make contact at bat reasonably well, but had a hard time driving the ball out of the infield and I couldn’t catch a darn thing – not the eye of any cute female players let alone a pop fly.

Anyhow, being from the Great White North, people usually assume I’m obsessed with hockey. I’m not, but I am passably acquainted with it. I used to collect hockey cards as a kid and I don’t mind watching a game if I’m in a room and someone else is watching. American football doesn’t do much for me and it seems pathetically slow with all the whistles and time outs but at least I have a vague understanding of it and now and again might have an exciting touchdown run. And there is the prospect of cheerleaders in the down time! Soccer was fun enough to play when little but doesn’t do much for me as a spectator sport. And then there’s basketball.

Basketball has always been my least favorite of the “major” team sports over here. They used to try and get us to play it in high school gym; I couldn’t sink a basket standing still and had no clue who I was supposed to block or cover. Watching it to me would only have appeal if I was immobilized and there were no comedies, other sports, true crime dramas or real time documentaries about paint drying on rival channels.

That said, my old town’s team is doing alright for themselves this year and I can’t quite help but be a little excited at least. The Toronto Raptors are two games away from winning their first NBA Championship and the first one ever to be won by a team from outside of the USA. Although I’m not in Ontario this summer, I can tell from the wonderful invention that is “social media” that the city is going Hoops Crazy. A team that once was an afterthought to the local media and a source of derision if anything at all to most of the populace (when they had cartoon dinosaur logos and unconventional color palettes they were an easy target for jokes) is now the toast of the town. Good for them and good for Toronto! Go Raptors!

The finals have been “marred” by an incident during the last game in California when a “fan” shoved Raptors star Kyle Lowry a little and probably mouthed off to him.It  turns out the “fan” was a co-owner of the home team Golden State Warriors named Mark Stevens, and it’s fast becoming the shove heard ’round the world. The NBA quickly banned Stevens from all games for a year, fined him half a million dollars and are deciding whether or not he should be forced to sell his part of his club. The game’s biggest star, LeBron James has reacted loudly to the event saying “swift action” was needed to reprimand Stevens and there is “absolutely no place in our beautiful game for all that.”

To me it’s much ado about nothing. Almost at least. An overblown brouhaha… but one which raises questions nonetheless. Viewing the tape of the event, it shows Lowry chasing a ball falling (or diving into) the crowd as basketball players often do, with Stevens leaning over and pushing Lowry away, ostensibly mouthing off to him all the while. He didn’t deck the player in the face, didn’t kick him, didn’t grab his arm and twist it. It was a rather benign push. Nevertheless, Stevens was clearly out of line. He should have minded his own business and unless the player landed on top of him, left well enough alone and not leaned over to push. He deserves some sort of penalty, but not the scorn and wrath of an entire nation.

To me though it raises a much bigger question that no one is asking: why in the world does basketball have fans sitting essentially on the playing surface? It’s the only popular sport in North America that has fans in such close proximity to the players and action. Seats are lined up right along the very edge of the tiny 94′ long court, with no walls, nets or buffers to protect fans from players who lose sight of where they are and run like bulls into the crowd trying to get a ball or block an opponent. Such things happen routinely. In 2015 the New York Times ran an article about it after golf star Jason Day’s wife Ellie was hospitalized with a concussion after a similar mishap in Cleveland when LeBron crashed into her and knocked over her seat chasing a ball. I’m not saying it’s LeBron’s fault. He was merely playing the game as hard as he could, trying to win, like he should. But the star is 6 foot 8, weighs in around 260… and isn’t even the biggest man on the court most nights. Who wants a guy that size crashing on to them unexpectedly?

Granted, no one’s been killed yet from such an accident unlike baseball or hockey or worse yet, car racing with flying projectiles (frozen pucks, hard-hit foul balls, wrecked cars going over 100 MPH) careening into the stands. But hockey has boards to rein in the players and plexiglass above them to try and protect fans from errant pucks. Baseball stadiums usually have a wide area of “foul territory” between the diamond and the stands and has begun putting up fish netting close to the home plate to stop balls flying at high speed into fans’ heads too quickly for a person to react. It would be absurd to have chairs on the ice for fans in hockey or to let NASCAR fans stand on the edge of the pavement as cars speed by them at 180. Baseball, with fans sitting 80 feet or more away from the action and protective netting is taking flak again this month after a small girl got hit in the head by a fly ball off the bat of a visibly distraught Albert Amonte. Come on basketball – don’t wait until some little girl gets flattened by a 300 pound player running full out, or equally frightening, for a player to be attacked by an armed and disgruntled front row fan before it gets with the program. Fans are there to see the game, not be part of it.

Oh… and by the way… Go Raptors!

Book Suggests We Coddle Our Kids…And Minds A Bit Too Much

One of my resolutions this year is to read more than I read last year. Last year, I read 15 books by my count, so obviously the goal is 16 or better this year. I figure if Dec. 28th rolls around and I’m at 14, it’ll be time to break out Hop on Pop and Green Eggs and Ham. Seriously though, the actual reason isn’t to rack up a score (and if it was, 16 wouldn’t be all that glamorous albeit it could be a lot more than many people do these days), it’s about just reading. Exploring new ideas, be they fiction or non. I’ve always enjoyed reading since I was young; just as with so many of us the “busy-ness” of life makes it harder to put aside a chunk of time to do more than a magazine article at a time.

Anyway, I just finished my second book of ’19, a non-fiction current near-best-seller entitled The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle really caught my eye when browsing the new releases at the store a couple of months back : “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” And the basic premise is just that – that we (Gen X-ers primarily) are raising kids hopelessly incapable of dealing with the real world.

They speculate the problem arises from three great untruths we are somehow brainwashed into believing and teaching the young ones (especially the I-Generation as he calls it, the ones just hitting the colleges in the last year or three). One, that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you weak; two, that they should always trust their gut, so to speak and never, ever doubt what they feel is absolutely right, and three, that the world is a battle between pure good and pure evil. These of course fly in the face of everything science, psychology and what we used to call “good ol’ common sense” have taught us. We know that some problems and adversity will in fact help us think, be more creative and more resilient. We know that sometimes our feelings get in the way of what’s real, create biases and stop us from examining thoughts or people that might possibly conflict with what we want to believe. And we know that the vast majority of us are capable of both good and bad and that few people are purely evil demons out to “get” us. Why then, they wonder, don’t we teach our kids that?

They outline the effects including kids who are immature and have never had their opinions even questioned and feel anyone challenging their thoughts is akin to a physical assailant.

Although they try to cover a broad range of topics – arguably too many – discussing what is wrong with society these days, they do zero in well on some main themes. Our over-protectiveness of kids spurred on by Amber alerts and hysterical media reports about the rare cases of child abduction by a stranger, the pressure on kids to do well and get into prestigious schools, their overuse of computers and phones at expense of making real contacts and real friends. They also venture into the increasingly obvious terrain of how social media is only making us less social and more antagonistic towards anyone who thinks a bit differently than we do.

Their arguments are by and large convincing and their conclusions about the problems – hate speech abounding, colleges eliminating readings and speakers who might be even a wee bit provocative or unpopular from the curriculum, etc – are obvious but need repeating. They see hope for the future with changes coming; I’m not so sure we’ll wean kids off their phones or that social media is going to suddenly enable users to hear, and appreciate all kinds of differing political or social opinions. But I have hope in those who have hope!

The book is a bit dry… it’s in the genre of Malcolm Gladwell but not such a rivoting page turner, but it’s well worth the read. Particularly is you have kids of your own.

I grew up with a mom that I thought was over-protective. But even I spent many a happy afternoon on nice days riding my bike here there and everywhere with school pals, once in awhile played some road hockey in the street if it wasn’t too too cold and walked to school (or rode my bicycle if the weather was good.) Walking to high school was over a half hour each way, and that was cutting across a park and , yes, cutting across a railroad line surruptitiously. To have done it along the actual roadways would have added a good ten minutes or so to each trip,day in day out, snowy or sunny. I grew up fine.

Or at least, grew up physically ok, not obese and not averse to exercise, and although often a bit pissed-off by people whose thinking is quite different than mine, not feeling like I was in physical danger listening to them. And I grew up reading. Books, novels, bios, history and geography texts, magazines, daily newspapers. I still try to do that. So I bid you a good night and for me…

14 to go this year! Don’t be surprised if you see a Cat in the Hat review here come December…

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 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?

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!