News For Kids, But I Like It Too

Not many of us use all the things we were taught back in school. A few weeks ago I touched on things that perhaps should be taught in school but aren’t. However, for all the shortcomings in preparing our youth for everyday life it seems at least a decent portion of our schools do one thing right in stretching the boundaries of the kids’ education beyond prepping for SATS and learning geometry and Shakespeare. They let kids get a little look at “what’s going on” each day. Now, several decades after I last walked out of a high school, this bit of added curriculum has become a part of my daily Monday – Friday routine. I’m talking about CNN 10, which used to be known as CNN “Student News”. I’m not knocking memorizing Vice Presidents or learning sines and cosines, but to me this little daily video seems to be a very good use of kids’ time.

The Atlanta cable network bill it as “compact, on-demand news broadcasts ideal for explanation seekers.” The host, Carl Azuz, enthusiastic and the apparent Prince of Puns, describes it as “a right down the middle explanation of the day’s events”. Both seem accurate descriptions. Essentially, the daily ten minute clip looks at three or four stories, including some of the major news events, here and elsewhere, with explanations of what and why. As well they throw in scientific developments at times, and a few “Feel good” stories, be they just flat out funny or ones which are inspirational, like meeting Chris Stout. Stout spearheaded a project to provide little houses for formerly homeless vets in Kansas City. A few days back they showcased a cafe in Indiana that gives back to the community…and free coffee to those who do good around town. A new pilot project many large companies are getting behind to deliver their products (from Axe deoderant to Haagen Daaz ice cream) in returnable, reusable metal containers? Learned about it on the student news.

My first introduction to the news clips came about three years back when my sweetie decided her teen daughter should watch it to get a better idea of what was going on in the world. She no longer does that now that the kiddo is older and busier with a part-time job, but after a month or two, I found I missed the segments. Designed for teens or not, they are pretty decent little updates. I’ve learned more about Brexit from CNN10 than from all the newspapers and network news shows I’ve encountered, learned about the horribly bad economy in Venezuela and how it effects the people there a week or two before I saw any mention of it on TV news or in Time. When it comes to national events like the recent government “shutdown”, they inform about what’s happening while giving equal time to both sides – Democrat and Republican – without picking “right or wrong”.

Given the polarization of the public these days and the lack of in depth understanding of complicated problems on the world stage, I rather wish our adult workplaces might get on the bandwagon and have the staff take a look so that we all might be a bit better informed and understanding.Maybe have something more to talk about around the proverbial water cooler than if Kato or Tom Green will be booted out of the Big Brother house. 

I probably won’t soon be refreshing my memory on how to figure out sines and cosines, nor studying to be capable of naming the pre-Agnew VPs (pre-Agnew? Who am I kidding? I have no idea who was Vice President for Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.). But this is one piece of schoolwork I might never graduate from.

Grace, Fully Living… Sneak Preview

Pity poor Grace Tyler. She’s turned 30, she’s newly single, lives with a kitty who’s a real “fraidy cat” and she works putting ads for laxatives into magazine mockups. And of course, her younger brother is wildly successful in business and the apple of their mother’s eye. Her nerdy best friend from school is a blooming entrepreneur and the one man who seems to understand her is gay. The one man she’s wild about, she can’t seem to hook up with in the post-Y2K, pre-Iphone era and when she does, injuries and illnesses seem to follow along.

Can Grace find happiness? Or a good coffee shop to satisfy her caffeine-loving man of her dreams? In the manner of Bridget Jones Diary and He’s Just Not That Into You, we present the forthcoming novel GRACE, FULLY LIVING. A sneak peak… here!

 

 

The next morning, as per usual at 9:10, Labeth was leaning against Grace’s cubicle partition, travel mug in hand.

So the green soup is a go, along with the green bread, green cookies, top ten ways to make green beans and shamrock shakes recipes but I’ll be damned if we have room for the green rack of lamb. Figure I’m saving us a lawsuit dropping it anyway.”

Can hardly wait for the ‘Easter Eggs-citement’ issue.”

More green in my wallet, less in our magazine is my motto.” She sipped from her coffee and pulled a face. “That new chick at the coffee shop must be putting the shampoo she’s not using on her hair in my coffee.”

That’s the same one you called a ‘sloth’ the other morning?”

I said she moved like a sloth. And smelled like one too. But she shouldn’t have been listening in on my phone call…”

Everyone in the cafe has to listen in when you pull that thing out, Miss Moneybags!”

LaBeth grinned despite herself. “Cellphones are great! When are you going to join the 21st Century and get one?” Before Grace could answer, she added what had become her usual refrain since Royce had become history. “Or get a boyfriend. Or at least a guy to bump the headboard with and make you forget about that piece of turd whose name I refuse to speak?”

Bump the headboard with? God, I’d have a cast on my head- that thing’s solid oak! Besides,” she added perkily, “that guy I was telling you about from the ski store called me last night!”

Broken Jaw Bruce?”

Doug! Doug the Canadian.”

Canadian? Is he a hockey player? What’s he doing here?”

Looking for the girl of his dreams maybe.”

So are you going out for that coffee with him?”

Grace looked away. “Well, sometime…I told him I was real busy at work right now.”

Like you even think about ad spacing after 5 PM! Girl, I swear I don’t get you…”

I want to see him. I just don’t want him to see me like this. Crutches? Ain’t no way I’m getting my cute jeans on over this cast. How’s he even gonna see my butt if I’m in baggy trackpants?”

Put on ski pants and hope he buys into the ‘Sportsy You’ concept?”

The redhead rolled her eyes.

Say, my mother’s neighbor’s son just broke up with his wife. He’s a poker player or something. Maybe a cowpoke. Anyhow, he’s like 35 and not bad looking. Maybe you could come to dinner with me and Mom could invite…”

Did you not hear a word I just said?”

Have it your way, Four Legs!” With that she wandered away to her cubicle. Singing “One Is The Loneliest Number” all the way.

Grace turned back to her computer and began “March-ing Into Spring”. LaBeth’s section had been uploaded and she was able to fit a chewy antacid banner ad nicely beside a green Irish stew recipe like a hand in a glove. Next she flip-flopped the full page Campbell’s (Not green!) soup ad back and forth between recipes pages or between “Ask The Chef” and a feature on Ten Things To Do In Your Garden Now (To Be The Envy Of The Block Come July). She glanced at that article. “Prune those bushes” made her think again of beavers which led her mind back to Doug the Canadian. Should she have played her hand and been more effusive when he called? She sleepwalked through the ad placement for much of the rest of the morning until she came to an ad for a pet food brand that had the tagline “Feed Your Doggie With Style” which of course took her mind back to the Christmas party and the coatcheck room.

***

She’d been a bit self-conscious of her breath – well, a bit self-conscious, period…when was she not?- after the hors d’oeuvres that consisted of pearl onions and some sort of pate or spread she’d not encountered before but which seemed to be comprised largely of garlic and some sort of fish placed on a cracker. Ironic that her boyfriend played Metallica and schmoozed for a living while she helped women create the perfect meal, the perfect cocktail, the perfect home for the man to come home to, yet it was his company that put out the lavish, surely Emeril-approved spread. She recalled the year before her office party had a stack of pizzas delivered to go with the trough of icy Pepsis and Old Milwaukees.

The onions and odd meat-paste had made her as approachable as a dragon fresh from hibernation (she distinctly remembered thinking that and wondering if dragons hibernated) but she was sure she had a pack of gum in her coat pocket. She went to look for her coat, before trying to track down Royce, whom she’d not seen for what, fifteen? twenty-five minutes? Deftly maneouvring between a junior manager in a banana-colored suit and Jag the Sports Guy (a guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of Packers player stats through the decades, ego of a bear with a voice to match but the body of a junior high student who’d be bullied by guys like, well, adult Jag). Her college year working weekends as a waitress came in handy working through the crowd towards the coatcheck room.

She didn’t end up finding her gum. She did find Royce however, and understand why she’d not seen him for what, fifteen? twenty-five minutes? She didn’t spy her coat among the many hanging across the room right away but with that Harley Davidson tattoo just above it, there was no mistaking the ass gyrating in front of her nor the piglike squeals coming from its owner. It was less obvious to her who the shapely little ass underneath Royce belonged to; someone pert and short and pony-tailed. She was moaning for “daddy” to “drive it home” which was something Grace had never remotely considered asking despite Royce’s frequent utterance of “Who’s your daddy?” in the throes of passion.

As she played the scene over in her mind she came to realize she never did go back there later that night. Memo to self- go back to that club and see if they still have my coat. I loved that coat. And the gum was quite nice too, I think. The minty-fresh flavor lasted longer than most. Or than that bastard’s faithfulness for that matter.

The phone on her desk ringing snapped her back to the here and now and page 38 with its dog food ad. Dentyne had just changed the photo for their ad. Hello again Page 19, my old friend…

Does The Only Queen We Need Sing “Bohemian Rhapsody”…Not Live In A Palace?

I would have expected more of the royal family.” So said achy Emma Fairweather, complaining loud and wide to the British media about her broken wrist, which could have been much worse, after the car she was in was smashed into by the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip.

Fairweather was a passenger in a car driving along a British highway when it was broadsided at high speed by a Land Rover, driven by Prince Philip. 97 year old Prince Philip. Witnesses to the crash say that Fairweather’s car clearly had the right of way, and was traveling under the posted 60 mph limit, when the Land Rover sped out of the driveway from the royal Sandringham Estate and smashed into her without slowing. The dazed royal driver took about ten minutes to regain his wits, and said he was blinded by sunlight, which Fairweather doubts. It was, according to her ,“overcast”. Photos taken minutes later at the scene would suggest her weather report was more accurate than the prince’s. The same witness does say the prince eventually asked if everyone was OK and headed towards the other car before being stopped by guards or police. A mere 48 hours later, papparazi snapped him again behind the wheel, sans seat belt. The police say they gave him “advice” on safe driving but of course, no charges have been laid. Do you want to be the traffic cop writing out a warrant for the Queen’s hubby?

Fairweather says neither the Prince nor the Royal family have even said sorry. “What would it have taken for him and the queen to send me a card and a bunch of flowers,” she wonders.

Fair question and one which leads to a lot more questions. Like should any 97 year old be motoring around freely? Drunk driving is illegal because being impaired dulls your reflexes and cognitive powers. I hate to say it, but nature does exactly that to very old people. No 97 year old is going to be able to make quick snap judgments and react properly when motoring along at 60 clicks.

Moreover, it makes me wonder why the Prince is driving himself around anyway. The U.S. president, far younger and hopefully more mentally acute, is famously not allowed to drive himself (or herself should a woman ever gets there) around. That’s what the Secret Service is for.

Indeed, perhaps some would applaud Philip for being independent and driving himself where he wants, when he wants.Like an ordinary guy. Problem is, he is no ordinary guy – which leads us to the paradox which shows why royalty is outdated and pointless.

The royals whole point is that they aren’t the same as us. Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton are pretty and from most accounts, entirely lovely young women. But as princesses, if I was a Brit, I wouldn’t want to be standing in the checkout line behind them as they buy tampons. The young princes – William and Harry- both have done some fine charity work and might be very decent young men, but they aren’t ordinary dudes. I don’t want to have them in the neighborhood bar throwing darts and spilling Newcastle Brown Ale on their Levis with the locals who are coming off their shift in the coal mines. If the Queen is supposed to be something above the rest of us, then she should be sitting in some Disney castlein London, wearing a big crown, waving to commoners and adoring tourists, Monday to Friday. Not donning a frock and going shopping at Marks and Spencer’s. And her husband shouldn’t be driving an SUV recklessly around. He should be in some sort of golden pumpkin, being transported along by a team of white stallions.

It’s a paradox. The more the royals try to prove they’re just like us, the more they prove they’re irrelevant. If they’re ordinary average guys and gals, why does the country give them huge estates, riches and jewels to wear? If they are something of a privileged elite class born to rule over everyone else, they should act like they’re something special… and be prepared to answer a lot of questions as to why their DNA gives them some sort of birthright to rule over all the rest.

Prince Philip is 97. He’s said that badly made items “look like they were made by an Indian” and publicly worried that English students visiting Asia might come back “slanty-eyed.” He’s an anachronism from another age, one most of us would rather turn the page on. Which is kind of representative of the whole concept of “royalty”.

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”

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