Saturday, July 31, 2004

The wise choice is not to watch

Currently appearing on HBO: a dreadful little piece of business entitled Wisegirls, starring Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) and Mariah Carey, the songstress-turned-actress (and I'm using both those words with the broadest possible latitude) whose previous foray into film, the abominable Glitter, was so awful it may have been partly responsible for Mariah's nervous breakdown and subsequent hospitalization.

Hey, Mira: the Academy called, and they want Oscar to come home now. Seems there was this major accounting snafu at Price Waterhouse, and the statuette should have gone to someone who wasn't going to spend the rest of her career making meaningless, direct-to-Blockbuster dreck. Joan Allen or Kate Winslet, maybe.

Book him, Dan-O

This just in: Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was knocked out in the fourth round by a previously anonymous British fighter named Danny Williams.

That "pop" you heard was the little red plastic button that just erupted from Iron Mike's chest, signaling to the world that this Butterball is done.

In praise of the Character Actor

The actor who appears in my ever-burgeoning DVD collection more frequently than any other is Samuel L. Jackson. According to my inventory database at Guzzlefish, I own nine DVDs with Samuel L. Jackson in them. Though it might seem otherwise, I don't make it a point to shop specifically for DVDs in which Sam appears. It just happens that he appears often in the sorts of films I enjoy. When I purchase those films, there's old Sam with that wicked grin and that little chuckle he does.

My favorite Sam Jackson film of all time has to be The Long Kiss Goodnight, costarring Geena Davis and directed by one-time Mr. Geena Davis, Finnish film director Renny Harlin, of whose films I am not generally fond. (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, anyone? Cutthroat Island? That's what I thought, you cowards.) In Long Kiss Goodnight, Sam utters one of the greatest lines in the history of film: "I'm always frank and earnest with women. In New York, I'm Frank; in Chicago, I'm Ernest." Then he throws in that famous Sam Jackson chuckle, as though he's just spoken the wittiest line ever written. It's not the line so much as it's Sam's too-cool-for-school delivery.

There are several actors who each make eight appearances in my DVD collection: Steve Buscemi, Sir Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, and Danny Trejo. Yes, that last one shocked me too. I am 100% positive that I have never strolled into Best Buy thinking, "Man, I hope they have that new Danny Trejo picture in stock. He's The Man." (For those of you who remain baffled by this reference, Danny Trejo was (a) the sinister uncle named Machete in the Spy Kids movies; (b) the prisoner in Con Air who boasted about the number of women he had assaulted; (c) the unfortunate guy who gets eaten by the giant snake at the very beginning of Anaconda. If that doesn't help you, you need to watch more movies.)

McKellen and Weaving get a leg up in my collection because they both appear in film series of which I own several installments. McKellen is Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Magneto in the X-Men films; Weaving is the omnipresent Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy — a perfect example of a series that should have quit with one film while the concept was still innovative, instead of beating a dying horse with a superfluous pair of sequels that offered beaucoup sound and fury but signified nothing — and the wise elf Elrond in Lord of the Rings. Both are fine actors -- Weaving's Agent Smith is one of the all-time great movie villains -- but again, I'm not dashing out to buy films just because Ian McKellen and Hugo Weaving are in them.

Steve Buscemi is still another story. Like Danny Trejo, Buscemi turns up in a lot of films that you didn't even know he was in. I'd completely forgotten that he was in two of the three Spy Kids movies, or that he voiced animated characters in Monsters Inc. and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. And, like Trejo, he's a fascinating actor in that his physical appearance -- sleepy-eyed and weaselly, with a wide, full-lipped mouth harboring a fearsome array of crooked teeth -- limits the sort of roles he's going to be invited to play. So he makes the most of what he gets, transforming small character roles into memorable pieces of thespian craft.

The point of this discussion -- and yes, I do have one -- is that character actors make films work, whether they are character actors who have transcended the boundaries of that confining label to get their names over the title, as Samuel L. Jackson often does, or are simply the people who play those supporting characters that provide a film with richness and depth. You may forget their specific contributions to a particular movie, but you can be certain that without them, the movie would not have been what it was. It should be no surprise, then, to note how many excellent films are populated by these hardworking journeymen, and many others I could list: Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Bacon, Don Cheadle, Joe Pantoliano, Eric Stoltz, Robbie Coltrane, and dozens more. As a lover of cinema, I salute them.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Besides, I look cool in sunglasses

Someone sent me a link to this online survey. These things are usually silly. This one is no exception.

Interestingly, though, I expected to be either Agent Smith or Hans Gruber from Die Hard: "When they touch down, we'll blow the roof, they'll spend a month sifting through the rubble, and by the time they figure out what went wrong, we'll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent."

Party on, Mr. Crusher!

Here's a happy birthday shout-out to one of my blogging heroes. Enjoy your day, Wil Wheaton. Wesley was an annoying dweeb, but you're the man.

"The audacity of hope"

I hadn't written before now about Illinois State Senator Barack Obama's keynote address at the Democratic National Convention because I didn't see the speech live on Tuesday night, and am only now getting around to digesting the entire piece.

But wow.

First, it's amazing for the first time in my lifetime to see a prominent politician who "looks like me" — that is to say, a man of biracial heritage. Yes, I know to most of America it's as simple as "he's black" or "he's African American" if you want to get all trendy and culturally hip on me (though in Obama's case the appellation fits, given that his father was from Kenya). But to those growing millions of us who live the biracial (or even triracial -- thank you, Tiger Woods) life, there's more to our identity that that cut-and-dried, all-or-nothing designation.

That aside, I can't help but be impressed with the power of Obama's vision. Perhaps only those of us who know what it's like to have to meld widely disparate elements of subculture and self-image every day truly understand the vital importance of "a belief that we are connected as one people." As Obama pointed out, "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." I grok that: my family is a black family and a white family and a biracial family, but it's one family. My country should be that way too. It's wonderful — a mite scary, even — to hear someone saying that who surely must appreciate it as more than a mere political ideal or campaign rhetoric.

The phrase that leapt out of Obama's speech for me was "the audacity of hope." I don't tend to be hopeful about humankind in general because we are what we are and will never change, but at the individual level we must either hope or die. "Hope does not disappoint us," as the apostle wrote, because it impels us onward and gives us reason to face each new day. Sometimes we don't get all that we hope for, but if we never hope, we will never strive, and therefore will never get anything. And yes, it's an audacious concept -- as audacious as the day two bicycle mechanics launched their ungainly Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and said, "Hope this works." Maybe the Wrights' machine would have crashed and burned. But they'd have never known had they not hoped enough to try.

I'll forget practically everything that happened at this convention before the weekend. But I'll remember Barack Obama. I hope for his successful future in government — may his tribe increase. And if he's ever in a position to ask for my vote in a national election, I wouldn't be surprised if he got it. I might even have to break my "no bumper stickers" rule for that.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

What's Up With That? #2: Unclear on the natural concept

This morning I passed a Jack in the Box restaurant with a poster in its front window announcing the arrival of "bigger, thicker, natural cut fries."

"Bigger," I understand. "Thicker," no problem. But what in the name of Mr. Potato Head are "natural cut" fries?

The last time I checked with Messrs. Merriam and Webster (ironically, just about 30 seconds ago), the word "natural" as applied to food meant, "growing without human care; not cultivated; existing in or produced by nature; not artificial." Has Jack in the Box discovered a potato that exists in nature already cut into fries? A potato that grows in long, thin strips, ready-made for the deep fat fryer? What else could "natural cut" possibly mean?

Someone alert the media — this may be the greatest find in modern botanical history. And to think it was made by a man wearing a big plastic clown on his head.


Morning coffee

Curse the company for its ubiquity and pretentiousness if you will, but a vanilla latte from Starbucks sure does taste good first thing in the morning. Gooood.

And then there were three...

This was a sad, gut-wrenching night for the quartet.

On Sunday, I issued an e-mail to the other guys expressing my frustration with our glacial progress of late, and our lack of growth toward our previously stated musical goals. I stated that it was time we decided whether we want to be a serious musical ensemble, or just want to have fun singing together. If we decided the latter, I would need to find another outlet for my desire to perform and compete at a higher level.

Tonight I called the question. As a result of our conversation, three of us will be moving forward together, and looking for a new fourth to complete the ensemble. I feel like Beatrice Straight as the parapsychologist in Poltergeist, the morning after the first manifestation: "Marty won't be coming back."

This was not fun. In fact, it was extremely painful. Not nearly as painful as telling my daughter her mother had cancer, but agonizing nonetheless. I fully expected that the night would end with us either deciding to dissolve the quartet altogether, or with me making the unilateral determination not to continue. That it went in another direction is the right move for all concerned in the long run, but that doesn't make me feel any better about it tonight.

I had to watch a good friend walk away from something I know he loves, while knowing that I was largely responsible for pushing him to it. He did it with grace and good fellowship, and I applaud him for that. And I'm glad, I suppose, that if this is how it had to go, he made his own decision and no one was forced to the duty of asking him to resign. I still ache over it, though. It could have been worse — as I told the others, we could have achieved the same result with a lot more blood on the floor. I'm grateful that it didn't come to that.

The other three of us discussed our options and decided to move as swiftly as we can to identify a replacement. We came up with two possibilities that might work. We'll contact both men on Thursday to see whether they are interested in auditioning for the vacancy. If so, we'll set up the interviews for two weeks from tonight, and see what happens.

Meanwhile, I need to find a way to salvage a friendship. I have too few to cavalierly toss one away.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Are you going to eat that?

The lunatic fringe at PETA has published a list of the world's sexiest vegetarians. My first thought when I scan the list is how few of the women listed (sorry, I'm neither qualified nor predisposed to judge the men) I would consider attractive, at least among the names that I recognize.

It's probably more a subcultural bias than reality, but vegetarians — especially vegans — always look wan and ill to me. And when I think of the folks listed on the PETA profile, most of them fit that description. You just don't see a lot of robust, zaftig, healthy-appearing folks who describe themselves as vegetarians.

On the one hand, I look at it this way — the more vegetarians at the table, the more meat for the rest of us. (I actually prefer fish and seafood to red meat anyway. Except on the barbecue, where you need a good London broil or rack of ribs like Mr. Weber intended.) On the other hand, as long as you aren't harassing other people over their dietary predilections, it's all good. We can still share the table, and the love. "Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats...let each be fully convinced in his own mind."

The carnivore (omnivore, actually, but carnivore makes a stronger contrast) always has one key advantage over the vegetarian, though. If a carnivore and a vegetarian are stranded on a desert island with no food, the carnivore can always eat the vegetarian.

It's something to keep in mind.

As cold water to a weary soul

After several exchanges of voice and e-mail messages over the last few days, DL and I finally connected for a nice chat. To give you a sense of the significance of this event, I'll note that of all the people with whom I attended school — that's fourteen schools, including colleges, over sixteen academic years — DL is the only one with whom I keep in touch, or would wish to. For someone to hold my interest and attention after 27 years (and yes, I do feel ancient typing that number, thank you very much), she has to be remarkable. And DL is certainly that.

I don't retain images very well, but I have a mental picture of one of the first times I noticed DL in school. She, then a sophomore, was wearing a long coat (she always wore a long coat in those days) over an anachronistic dark green corduroy (I think?) dress — the latter of which wasn't all that common in high school even then. She carried herself with a commanding, almost forceful presence and sober demeanor that made her seem immediately older than everyone else in our peer group. She had this focused look that I always thought of as "intense intelligence," and a dark-edged, mature voice that reminded me at the time of Kate Jackson on Charlie's Angels. DL may not have been the smartest person in our school — though she was surely in the top five percent — but she had a way of conveying her intelligence in her face and body that wasn't "teenaged" in the least. Reminiscent of KJ but on a somewhat grander scale, she was an old soul from the beginning, never seeming like a "girl," but rather like a 35-year-old woman playing undercover at high school. A female Cameron Crowe.

DL was the first editor for whom I ever wrote. She managed the school newspaper, and I contributed a column that at the time seemed humorous. Were I to see it today I'd probably be appalled at its sophomoric bent. It meant a great deal to me then to be respected as a writer — not that it doesn't matter now, but these days I get plenty of recognition, some of it in the form of checks. DL was perhaps the first of my peers who not only appreciated that gift in me, but actually said so.

And, of course, I harbored a secret crush on her for the better part of two years. (She had…well…never mind. That’s a memory best left unrevisited.)

Remember the argument between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally about whether a man and woman can be friends without being lovers? DL is proof that Sally was right and Harry wrong. As attracted to DL as I was those last two years of high school, I valued her friendship more than I ever could have appreciated her as a girlfriend. (Of course, the fact that she — like every other female on the planet — wasn't attracted to me in the least made the question moot.) I was only then beginning to understand that there were people who were meant to be friends and people who were meant to be romantically involved, and that it was the rare individual with whom one could be both. By the time I graduated (DL was a year behind me), I'd figured out that "friends" was a plenty good thing to be, and that "my friend" was what DL was. Some time later, when we actually attempted something like a "date" once, it was insufferably awkward — I couldn't find the path back from "friend" to whatever I'd once hoped to become. (Ironically, DL was the person who, when my mother was on one of her customary tirades about my latest girlfriend, would often get mentioned in the conversation-slash-argument in the context of "Why can't you ever date someone more like her?" The always unspoken answer was, naturally, "Because she's my friend.")

I did learn, purely by happenstance, that DL was an excellent kisser — though we both probably wish neither of us remembered how I discovered that. (She may not, for all I know. We've never talked about it.) Finding out that interesting but purposeless fact was like l'esprit d'escalier — that "staircase wit" that inspires you to think of just the right thing to say after the other party leaves the room. When I could have used the information, I didn't have access to it; by the time I obtained it, it was too late for the knowledge to be useful.

Anyway, fast-forward a couple of decades and more, and here we are. DL moved to Maine — land of lobster and Stephen King — got married, had a family, developed a life. She and I communicated sporadically over the years — a letter here, a card there. A few years ago, we came to the mutual realization that we missed our friendship, and made a concerted effort to keep in more frequent contact. I'm glad we did. I'm now the proud godfather of her youngest, who was born on KJ's birthday a year and a half ago. (DL recently sent me a darling pair of photos of the baby eating her first ear of corn.)

Talking with DL on the phone today, she sounded as she ever did, with that spectral voice that seems as if it emanates from a body older than her own, and with the odd, almost mannered phrasing that makes her sound like an actor in a Mamet play, only without all the profanity. She still sounds far too serious and infinitely wise. She still makes me laugh without trying. And I'm very pleased she's still my good friend.

William J. and the Moral Imperative

I didn't see former President Bill Clinton's address before the Democratic National Convention Monday night, but I heard it on the radio on the way to chorus rehearsal. You've got to admit, the old dog still has the magic.

I routinely take flak, particularly from my conservative religious friends (who constitute, now that I think about it, the overwhelming majority of my religious friends), for my unabashed admission that I voted for Bill Clinton twice. In fact, the primary reason I didn't vote for him three times is the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits a President from running for the office more than twice. There are two reasons why I did vote for Clinton twice: (1) I happen to think he was a very good President; and (2) there's no way I'd have voted for any of the men who opposed him.

People ask me, "But how could you vote for someone who committed the immoral acts Clinton did?" Well, let's not get relativistic about this. Everyone I've ever voted for has committed immoral acts. So did everyone for whom I didn't vote. Were I running for office, and people voted for me, they would be voting for a man who has, at various weak moments in his life, committed acts that were immoral. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," the Scripture says. I've never done the specific deed Clinton did, and what wrongs I have done I try not to make a practice of repeating, but if I permit myself to vote only for a person who's never done anything immoral, my ballot's going to remain blank every Election Day.

That's neither justifying nor excusing what Clinton did in the Monica Lewinski matter, and the Gennifer Flowers matter before that, and any other similar matters there may have been. It's simply a recognition that moral perfection isn't a realistic criterion for the job under consideration. Jimmy Carter was probably as decent a resident as the White House has ever had, and the verdict on the ineptitude of his administration is resoundingly unanimous. I admire Carter a great deal for his post-Presidential career as a humanitarian, but I wouldn’t vote for him to be President again. Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton were scoundrels, but they both made pretty fair Presidents. Is that fair? No, but then, what is?

It doesn't devalue morality to acknowledge that it isn't a measure of suitability for most forms of secular work. It's a measure of something altogether different. In the best of all possible worlds, would it be better that the most competent people for every job were also the most morally upright? Of course it would. But we don't live in that world.

Given two candidates of equal competence, one of whom is a "good person" and the other of whom is...well...not, certainly any wise voter would choose the moral individual. But if the choice is between a supremely capable person with character weaknesses that perhaps only obliquely reflect upon his or her performance of the job, and a clean-living Boy or Girl Scout who's a hapless bungler, it seems obvious to me that one grits one's teeth and chooses the former. The fact of the matter is, we never get a choice like that anyway. Selecting between politicians is always a choice between two relative evils. The question then becomes, which evil is most likely to do the better job, or at least wreak the least havoc?

Maybe it will help to view this principle in a different context. When KJ was diagnosed with cancer and needed complex surgery, I didn't spend much time — okay, any time — reviewing the personal peccadilloes of the surgeon. What he did outside the operating room, while certainly of eternal consequence as far as his soul is concerned, had little, if anything, to do with his ability to save my wife’s life. All that mattered in that context was that he was one of the best surgeons in our area, and an expert in the procedure KJ needed. Now let's say it's your loved one on the operating table. Which surgeon do you choose: the exceptionally talented physician who's an expert in the required procedure, but who also chases the skirt of every nurse in the hospital, or the dedicated family man who never looks lustfully at any woman except his wife, but whose last three patients died as a result of his malpractice? There's only one answer to that question that makes any sense at all.

My point is that the President and the surgeon are no different. May God grant that both be morally pure and righteous. But if not, then may He at a minimum grant that both execute their respective jobs at a level that benefits the common (secular) good. In my opinion, Bill Clinton did that. He's been the only genuine centrist in the White House in my lifetime, and he presided over eight years of booming national economy and relative domestic tranquility. Not that everything that contributed to those factors was his doing, certainly, but the end result is the same.

I wouldn't want Bill Clinton serving as the preacher or an elder in my local church, and I wouldn't want my daughter to serve on his staff. But I don't regret that I voted for him. I didn’t tell him to grope the hired help, and it's not my fault that he did — if he’d asked me, I’d have said, “Don’t,” but he didn’t ask me. I only asked him to run the country competently, and he did that. Do I wish he hadn't also done stupid, ungodly stuff that embarrassed the nation, not to mention his family? Of course I do. But at least his stupid, ungodly stuff only destroyed his own reputation and one young woman's, not the lives of thousands of American men and women. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for his successor.

Monday, July 26, 2004

What's Up With That? #1: Do you swear to tell the truth?

KM was watching Judge Judy this afternoon (I know...educational television), and I found myself wondering aloud...

Why do courts — real as well as "reality" — still perpetuate the charade of "sworn testimony"? Has there ever, in any courtroom, been a witness who when asked, "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," replied, "No, Your Honor — I intend to lie like a bad toupee"? No perjurer is ever going to announce his or her fabrication in advance.

It seems to me, therefore, to make more sense to simply begin each witness's testimony with a caution from the judge, along these lines: "You are required to answer all questions truthfully, to the best of your knowledge. Giving false testimony is a felony, punishable by time in prison." The witness is then not put in the rather stupid position of lying about lying.

Then again, I'm not really a judge; I just play one on DVD Verdict.


Saturday, July 24, 2004

Bonds...Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds, the best player I've seen personally in 35 years of watching baseball, turned 40 today. He celebrated early by clouting a mammoth three-run blast last night. He had a single in four at-bats today.

At 40, an age at which most baseball superstars have retired or are thinking seriously about it -- Babe Ruth was out of the game by the time he turned 40, and Willie Mays was a shell of his former self by then -- here's what Bonds is doing right now:

• Batting average: .362 (1st in the National League; Sean Casey of the Reds is 2nd with .340)
• Home runs: 25 (5th)
• Runs scored: 75 (5th)
• On-base percentage: .615 (1st; Todd Helton of the Rockies is a distant #2 at .615)
• Slugging percentage: .773 (1st; Jim Thome of the Phillies is 2nd with .656)
• On-base plus slugging: 1.395 (1st; Thome is a flyspeck in the rearview mirror at 1.066)

There will probably always be those who will allege that Bonds's accomplishments of recent years were chemically aided. I don't know the truth of those allegations, and you don't either. But with the new majors-wide random testing program, no one can credibly say Bonds is on the juice this year. What he continues to do at an age when no one in baseball history has performed at this level is nothing short of astonishing.

Happy birthday, Barry. Long may you swing the big stick, and may every last swing be clad in the Orange and Black.

(Incidentally, the Giants beat the Cardinals today, 5-3 in 10 innings.)

Friday, July 23, 2004

Update: Sara and Nick Back on CSI — Universe Saved

This just in:

Jorja Fox and George Eads got their jobs on CSI back.

CBS network honcho Les Moonves should buy both actors T-shirts imprinted with the tagline, "Don't Mess With Les."

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Have a fish taco, brother...they're fresh.

If you don't have a Rubio's Mexican Grill in your town, you should spam their corporate offices until they build you one. And if you do have a Rubio's in your town, you should go there and eat fish tacos. Now. Tell them I sent you. We go way back.

The Mother of Twins

I met TMOT at Rubio's for lunch today. She's the same as ever: wide-eyed, effusively chatty, and as electric as a caged jaguar after two pots of industrial-strength coffee. TMOT at times makes me think she was recorded at 33-1/3 and is being played back at 78. It sounds scary, but I mean it in a good way. She's a really neat person.

TMOT and I talked (that, of course, is a charitable way of describing a conversation with TMOT — the journalistic way would be to say that she talked while I listened, smiled, nodded, and waited for her to breathe...which she rarely does, leading me to surmise that her mutant superpower is the ability to inhale through her eyelids) about our kids (her twins are age seven, doing well, and the proud new owners of my George of the Jungle 2 screener), our work (we have some remarkably similar projects going on, but her description of her office's political environment immediately drove from my mind any feeble throbs of nostalgia for Cubicleville), and, of course, JK. TMOT shared scoop about JK's mysterious new fiancé — none of it especially salacious, incriminating, or mirth-inducing, I regret to report. He sounds like a decent fellow. ("You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you." "You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die.")

I wondered whether TMOT herself has such a fellow in her life anywhere, but couldn't find it in myself to ask. It's always been the unasked question. As I've written before about TMOT, for as well as I know her, I really don't know her very well at all in many ways. I've never heard her mention a "someone" in all the time we've known each other. Obviously, somewhere in the past there was her boys' father — always referred to only as "the boys' father," never as "[Insert masculine given name here]" or as "my ex-[husband, boyfriend, lover, mailman, cabana boy, whatever]" or even "that lying, cheating, no-good son-of-a-sailor." I have no clue what his name is, or what he does for a living, or why he is "the boys' father" and not something more current. I don't even know whether TMOT and he were married, or in a euphemistic "committed relationship," or merely ships colliding in the night (all right, pipe down — I didn't mean it like that, you nasty-minded trolls). And I still don't think it's a question I have any right asking, curious though I may be. If she had ever thought it was important for me to know, she'd have addressed it. Since she never has, I presume it's off-limits territory, and I respect that.

Fascinating new observation: TMOT reminds me a little of my college girlfriend, hereafter to be identified as MJD. They are nothing alike physically or psychosocially — which is probably why the similarity never occurred to me before today — but they share some personality quirks. Like TMOT, MJD was highly intelligent (which makes one wonder what she ever saw in me) and driven to succeed (she graduated with honors and put in a year in a European study program, despite losing both her parents within a year of each other just as she began college). Also like TMOT, MJD was, to quote myself, "wide-eyed, effusively chatty, and as electric as a caged jaguar after two pots of industrial-strength coffee." She could be incredibly difficult to get a word in edgewise with once she got wound up. She wasn't that way 24-7 — and at the time, I'll confess, it seemed mostly cute — but it was enough that a lifetime of it would have earned me space in the Charlie Manson wing at Vacaville. Things go as they go for good reason. (I wonder what she's up to, after 23 years? I hope life turned out for her — she went through a lot of hell. Some of which was me.)

But I digress.

In all, TMOT seems well and happy, for which I am thankful. She is, as I noted, a really neat person, and deserves a nice life. Seeing her, though, reminded me how isolated I am in my little 19-inch monitor world all day, every day. Note to self: Get out more. Interface with real human beings once in a while. (Music rehearsals and church don't count.)

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

"You've gotta see this!"

Today over in the DVD Verdict forum, The Jury Room, someone asked the forum members to name obscure films they often recommend to others. I'll port my "you've gotta see this!" list over from the Jury Room, and expand a bit on each entry.

1. If you like quirky action flicks like Big Trouble in Little China, you've gotta see Streets of Fire: one of my ten all-time favorite films. See my previous spiel touting this undiscovered gem.

2. If you like the films of Quentin Tarantino, you've gotta see Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, maybe the best of the QT pastiches. It's dark, violent, and definitely not for the squeamish, but director Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls, Runaway Jury) and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (High Fidelity, Con Air) create a compelling underworld milieu with fascinating oddball characters and a culture and language uniquely its own.

3. If you liked Phone Booth but thought it could have been done better, it has been: you've gotta see Liberty Stands Still. Kari Skogland's barely-released hostage-in-the-open drama is laced with political rhetoric that will either outrage or excite you — depending on your views about the Second Amendment — and contains a perfectly balanced pair of tight, skillfully nuanced performances by Wesley Snipes and Linda Fiorentino (the "Liberty" of the title), two marvelous actors who rarely are hired for anything this challenging.

4. If the woman in your life has exhausted the list of chick flicks that will keep you awake and intrigued, you've gotta see Lovely and Amazing. Four fine actresses -- veteran Brenda Blethyn (Secrets and Lies), the underappreciated Catherine Keener (S1m0ne), the delightful Emily Mortimer (Scream 3), and nine-year-old newcomer Raven Goodwin (The Station Agent) -- combine to bring to life a seriously dysfunctional family of American women. Ms. Mortimer is called upon to play one of the most difficult scenes written for any actress since Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, and does so to perfection.

5. If you want to see talents like Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delany and Mary Beth Hurt strut their stuff in a superb film practically no one saw, you've gotta see Light Sleeper. It's the kind of film whose premise sounds so off-putting you're tempted to dismiss it out of hand: the tragic lives of an ex-junkie drug dealer (Dafoe) and his manipulative boss (Sarandon). That hasty dismissal would be a mistake. Writer/director Paul Schrader spins an intricate morality tale of decisions made and consequences rendered.

6. If you just want to stare at the screen goggle-eyed, you've gotta see Heavy Metal. Yes, it's juvenile, goofy, crude (both in content and style) at times, and a horribly dated relic of its era. It's also an amazing sampling of the state of animation art (outside the confines of the Disney fortress) in the early 1980s, by an incredible array of animators that would be impossible to duplicate today. If you were alive and listening to rock radio in the late '70s, the soundtrack alone -- featuring such classic artists as Blue Öyster Cult, Sammy Hagar, and Journey -- will leave you nostalgic for the days when electric guitars were king and sweaty men with shoulder-length hair and open shirts ruled the airwaves.

After I submitted my list, a Jury Room regular reminded me of a seventh worthy candidate: Lantana.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Next time, ask for Charmin

My only comment on the Sandy Berger fiasco: Berger's chosen "method of transport" (ahem) gives the lie to anything he might say in his own defense relative to the "innocent" intent of his actions.

I've lived a little bit, but I've never once innocently stuffed classified documents down my pants. And I'll bet you haven't either.

The Wilt Chamberlain of Big Macs

According to the Fond du Lac Reporter — SwanShadow's preferred source for southeastern Wisconsin news — a local resident yesterday consumed his 20,000th Big Mac. He allegedly began dining on the popular McDonald's concoction on May 17, 1972.

My question about this dubious achievement does not relate to the sheer volume of "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun" this fellow has consumed, though he'll be able to donate his coronary arteries to the Smithsonian any day now. (Do the math — that's roughly 1.7 Big Macs a day for 32 years. Yikes.) I don't wonder why he is so obsessed with this particular item of fast food fare — which I've never found especially appealing, and I'll eat almost anything.

No, my question is more quantitative: how in the name of Mayor McCheese does he know how many Big Macs he's eaten? Did he start counting the very first time he ate one? (And if so, why? How'd he know he'd still be eating them three decades later, or that anyone would care?) Or is this a rough estimate? Has he stockpiled all the receipts for documentation?

My fondness for the Filet-O-Fish at Mickey D's is the stuff of legend. (I wept when, some years back, McDonald's temporarily replaced the FOF on its menu with a gussied-up fishburger that, while larger and more expensive, paled in comparison with the golden-brown fishy goodness of the original product. That abomination had lettuce on it, for crying out loud. Who in his right mind puts lettuce on a fish sandwich? Kelp, maybe... Fortunately, the impassioned outcry of an inflamed citizenry compelled Ronald and Co. to ditch that zero and bring back our hero.) I've been known to go on runs where I'll have a couple of FOFs for lunch every day for a week or so. But there's no possible way on earth that I could even begin to calculate how many of the little round tartar sauce-smothered morsels I've eaten in my lifetime.

So how do we know this guy's story is legit? (For the record, I didn't buy Wilt's 20,000 "record" either. Everyone takes a day off sometime.) We demand proof. In the immortal words of Presidential administrations past, "trust, but verify."

One small step, then a stumble

Thirty-five years ago today, a Navy test pilot named Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another world. Armstrong's traveling companion, Air Force aviator Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, soon followed him to the lunar surface. I still remember sitting at the foot of my parents' bed in Bangor, Maine in the early morning hours, watching the telecast of this landmark event.

Over the next three and one-half years, a total of twelve astronauts would walk on the moon, including the first American in space, Alan Shepard, and geologist and future U.S. Senator Harrison "Jack" Schmitt.


If you had told almost any American in 1969 that, 35 years after Apollo 11, there would not have been a manned mission to the moon in more than three decades, he or she would have pronounced you daft. Most of us expected that, all these years hence, there would be a permanent human presence on the lunar surface -- a base of some kind -- and that flights to and from Luna would be almost as routine as air travel. Instead, the government suits elected to shut down NASA's lunar program in favor of the space shuttle, which would in turn enable the construction of a permanent orbiting space station.

We all know what happened then. The shuttle program became largely co-opted by the Department of Defense, and suffered a couple of tragic accidents that have doomed the future of that program. The space station project is now a shadow of what was originally envisioned, and while American resources remain committed to its completion, the existing policy essentially holds that once the station is completed -- which itself awaits the resumption of shuttle flights -- we will hand over the keys to an international space consortium and walk away.

To borrow a popular phrase, "Wha' happened?"

As with everything else in American life, it's all about the Benjamins. Too many special interests clamored for the money that was being used to fund the admittedly costly and inefficiently managed space effort, and the politicians caved. Instead of focusing on a boundary-stretching program that united all Americans in a common excitement, a window of opportunity was slammed shut, and we as a people are the worse for it. What a sad legacy that a nation with the proven capacity to aim for the moon has squandered its capital shooting at less important earthbound targets these past 32 years.

I believe President Bush's recent chatter about resuming an exploration-focused space program, with future missions to the moon and even to Mars, is little more than stump-speech happy talk. Nevertheless, I hope his successors -- whoever they are, and whenever they take office -- seize that football and run with it. Is there risk involved? Sure. Is there a financial burden to be carried? Absolutely. But we as human beings are always made better when we push ourselves to grow, and to step upward to the next level. That we can look to the stars together as a nation -- and as humanity -- elevates us all by driving our horizons higher than our petty squabbles among ourselves. That's a step well worth the price of its taking.

Neil Armstrong's "one small step" was indeed "one giant leap for mankind." It's a crying shame that we stopped leaping. Here's hoping we strap on our moon boots again in the decades to come, and realize the promise of that famous footprint in the cold gray lunar dust. It's time we again showed the world -- and ourselves -- that we're more than just the biggest bully on the block. We are a nation of people with, as Tom Wolfe put it in his legendary book about the beginnings of the space program, "the right stuff."

"Those who cannot remember the past..."

This just in from the Associated Press, by way of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was released from a hospital Monday, one day after he suffered second-degree burns in a fiery crash during practice.

The NASCAR star, son of the late Dale Earnhardt, was flown to the University of California-Davis Medical Center on Sunday after the car he was driving caught on fire at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma.

Earnhardt was treated for second-degree burns on the insides of both legs and on his chin, according to a statement from UC Davis Medical Center. The burns covered about 6 percent of his body.

The accident came at the beginning of a morning practice, when Earnhardt lost control of his Chevrolet Corvette C5-R. The car spun and slid into a concrete barrier.

The crash broke the fuel filler neck, where gas is poured into the fuel tank, and sparked the fire. Earnhardt was able to get out of the car on his own.

Earnhardt's father was killed in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.

Hey, Junior: when you have a spare moment, look up George Santayana in Bartlett's Quotations.

Monday, July 19, 2004

And they said it wouldn't last...

Today is our — KJ's and my — half-anniversary: 19-1/2 years. That's the "official" count, of course, which doesn't include the three-plus years before the license and ceremony.

Half-anniversaries originated with half-birthdays, which in turn stemmed from the fact that my birthday is so close to Christmas, and thus I got to celebrate a half-birthday in June (on a much smaller scale, of course, but still).

I love you, kid. Don't go changing.

Catwoman or Death?

I'm always loath to judge anything with complete information, but what I've seen of Catwoman thus far makes me reluctant to shell out for tickets. That's too bad, because I generally enjoy Halle Berry, and, yes, Sharon Stone too, bless her addled little brain. I'd just rather see them both in something reasonably competent that didn't look like it was based on a rejected script from Dr. Fetish's House of Video.

Every time I see a photo of poor Halle in that grotesque costume, I wonder, "What in the world is that monstrosity on her head?" It's one thing to wear a mask that looks like a panther; it's entirely another to wear the entire panther. And whose lame idea was it to slice the toes off her boots? One good stomp, and any villain will have her at his/her mercy.

And since we're on the subject, here's the official SwanShadow ranking of Catwomen past:

1. Julie Newmar. It's not hard to imagine what Wong Foo saw in her. You just knew she could whip Adam West's bat-tocks every way from Sunday, and have a royal time doing it. Look up statuesque in the dictionary, and there's a picture of Ms. Newmar. I understand she sports an equally towering IQ. Doesn't seem quite fair, does it?

2. Eartha Kitt. You might argue with the look, but you couldn't question the style. That voice was Catwoman. Even though neither has anything to do with this particular role, she earns bonus points for her voice work in one of my favorite Disney films, The Emperor's New Groove, and for her spectacularly sultry vocal jazz stylings. C'est si bon.

3. Michelle Pfeiffer. I loved her in The Fabulous Baker Boys — I'll never hear "Makin' Whoopee" again without thinking of her draped over Jeff Bridges' piano — but she seemed out of her element as a supervillain. Too blonde, too skinny, too porcelain, too lightweight. And that saddle-stitched leather outfit — blech. Like Frankenstein being played by a china doll.

4. Lee Meriwether. I'm sure she's a very nice woman, and she was a fine, upstanding Miss America. But she had all the acting talent of a rutabaga, with charisma to match. She was better, with less to do, standing around holding a clipboard and looking worried on Irwin Allen's The Time Tunnel, and toting Buddy Ebsen's oxygen tank and nitroglycerine on Barnaby Jones.

"They always hire bums like me for jobs like this."

My forum signature over at DVD Verdict includes the above-quoted line from one of my favorite films, Streets of Fire. One of my colleagues at the Verdict commented on this today, noting that Streets is one of his favorite films too. It's one of those movies that many people have never heard of, much less seen. But I rarely have met anyone who has seen Streets of Fire who doesn't consider it one of his or her favorite films, or at least a fondly regarded guilty pleasure.

Subtitled "A Rock and Roll Fable," Streets of Fire is set in some strange alternate universe that looks very much like 1950s urban America. A rock singer named Ellen Aim (the always marvelous Diane Lane, lip-synching power ballads penned and produced by Jim Steinman, the guy who made Meat Loaf a star) is kidnapped by a motorcycle gang led by the sinister Raven (Willem Dafoe, in his first big role, has one of the coolest moments ever by a movie villain -- he sounds an air horn and a bazillion bikers appear out of nowhere behind him). Ellen's ex-boyfriend, a mercenary named Tom Cody (Michael Paré of Eddie and the Cruisers fame, who should be a major star but for some reason isn't), arrives in town to rescue his old flame from the leather-clad mob. Cody is accompanied on his quest by Ellen's current fiancé and manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis in full-bore nerd mode), a tough little broad named McCoy (Amy Madigan, Ed Harris' wife) who's handy at the wheel and at the trigger, and a Motown-style vocal quartet called the Sorels (whose members include future stars Robert Townsend and Mykelti Williamson). Mayhem ensues.

That's basically it. It sounds deceptively like a thousand movies you've seen before, but in fact is like no film you've seen before. Streets of Fire has a style and a sensibility all its own, a bizarre yet subtle amalgam of rock film, biker movie, action flick, and Elvis picture. Its supporting cast teems with such tangentially familiar faces as Bill Paxton, Richard Lawson, E.G. Daily, Ed Begley Jr., Lee Ving, Rick Rossovich, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, and a dozen or so others who will make you say, "Oh yeah...him" or "Oh yeah...her." Marine Jahan, who doubled Jennifer Beals' dance scenes in Flashdance, boogies down to a couple of smokin' tunes by that great '80s retro-rock band, The Blasters (whose rip-roaring "Blue Shadows" is worth the price of a rental all by itself).

The interesting story behind Streets is its director, Walter Hill, who in the 1970s and '80s directed a string of outstanding films: the boxing drama Hard Times with Charles Bronson, the crime drama The Driver with Ryan O'Neal, the controversial street gang thriller The Warriors, the revisionist Western The Long Riders (the gimmick of which was Hill's casting of the real-life Carradine, Keach, Quaid, and Guest brothers to play the various brothers who made up the James-Younger gang), the seminal buddy cop film 48 HRS., the Richard Pryor comedy remake Brewster's Millions, the blues fantasy Crossroads, and yet another buddy cop flick featuring a certain future governor of California, Red Heat.

Then, mysteriously, Hill's career went south. After a string of lackluster flops throughout the late '80s and '90s -- including a tepid sequel to 48 HRS. -- Hill wound up directing movies so rotten he demanded that his credit be taken off one of them, the witless sci-fi epic Supernova. His latest film, the prison boxing movie Undisputed, barely sniffed the insides of theaters. It's hard to say what happened to a filmmaker with such incredible talent, but Hill is as puzzling a castle-to-outhouse story as any in Hollywood.

Anyway, in case you haven't yet stumbled across Streets of Fire, you should do so at the earliest opportunity (it occasionally turns up on the basic cable channels like USA and TNT, and is of course available on DVD). It's one of the great unheralded action films of the past 20 years -- fun, fast-moving, stylish, and eminently quotable. It's easily one of my all-time favorite movies.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Assigning blame

Everyone has a theory about who's responsible for the government intelligence (oxymoron alert) that led to the current mess in Iraq. I'm blaming Tom Bodett, the Motel 6 guy. If he would just quit leaving that darn light on, we wouldn't be so dependent on foreign oil.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

That's my first Duchess...

I don’t recall how I got on this track -- my nocturnal Internet explorations quite often find me bouncing haphazardly from site to site as ideas occur to me in the moment, with a logic that can be impossible to reconstruct afterward -- but tonight I stumbled on a site aimed at people who graduated from Wagner High School.

Wagner was the high school on Clark Air Base in the Philippines, once the United States’ largest overseas military facility before a blanket of volcanic ash from Mount Pinatubo ended its career in 1991. My family was stationed at Clark for two years in the mid-1970s, and as an incoming freshman I attended Wagner High for the last month and a half of our tour of duty, in the fall of 1975 -- one of fourteen schools I passed through during my military-brat youth.

One of the prominent features of the site I dropped into was a set of photoscans of old Wagner High yearbooks. Out of curiosity, I opened the yearbook for the 1975-76 school year, the freshmen in which would have been my classmates. I saw several names I still recognized almost 30 years later, and even though I have a poor memory for faces, putting the names and photos together helped me recall quite a few kids I’d known, less at Wagner High than during the two years I spent in junior high at Wagner Middle School.

With great trepidation, I sought out one picture in particular -- the picture of the first girl on whom I ever had a serious schoolboy crush. (I can still recall snippets of the mushy goodbye letter I wrote to her the day my family shipped out for the States. Ah, the impassioned scribe even then.) The trepidation came from the fact that, three decades later, I had no real memory of what the young lady looked like. I was, therefore, a little afraid I’d spot her picture and recoil in horror, wondering what beauty I ever might have attributed to such a vile creature. “Maybe she won’t even be in this yearbook,” I murmured almost hopefully to myself as I clicked through the pages.

But no, there she was -- on the last row of the last page of freshman snapshots -- Diana. (Like the Greek moon goddess. Or Wonder Woman.) I was relieved to see that, in fact, Diana was rather cute, as 13-year-old girls go -- with wavy, shoulder-length hair and a cheerful, cherubic face -- and that I’d possessed a reasonably accurate pulchritude barometer, even in those callow days of puberty. I also noted with an inward chuckle that Diana to varying degrees resembled at least three other girls I actually dated in later years. Tastes, I suppose, are acquired fairly early in life, but the similarities were striking nonetheless.

Surprisingly, Diana’s picture didn’t trigger a lightning bolt of recognition. The smiling teenager in the picture remained as anonymous to me as if I’d never known her, much less been in “puppy love” with her. From her picture, though, I would suppose my first “fantasy girl” grew up to be quite an attractive woman. I hope she’s well and happy wherever she is these days.

I was saddened, though, to see a notation indicating that another girl who had been a member of our social circle -- the three of us were not only schoolmates, but attended the same church and participated in Bible classes and youth group activities together -- died a few years ago. “A victim of random violence,” reads the sobering note, without further explanation. It’s always jarring to see the word “deceased” next to the name of someone you know -- and who is your own age -- even if that relationship ended many years ago. I remember Patty as a bright girl with a strong personality, and as one of the leaders of our little group. I’m sorry to know that her life ended so soon. The older I get, the more people I know who are dead.

Amazing, the old memories you run into on the ‘Net in the middle of the night.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Don't do the Crime (Scene Investigation) if you can't do the time

CBS canned two of the stars of one of my favorite programs, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, for not showing up for work this week in a salary holdout. I'll miss Jorja Fox and George Eads if they're not around this coming season -- okay, I'll miss Jorja; George's pretty-boy Nick Stokes was always the least interesting link in the CSI chain, IMHO -- but I hope they don't let the door smack them in the tuchus on the way out.

Both actors still have three years remaining on their seven-year, $100,000 per episode contracts. If that kind of money and security was good enough when they signed the deal, it should be good enough for the duration of the contract. I have zero respect for anyone who attempts to blackmail (strong word, but that's what it is, folks) his or her employer by withholding contracted services. If your word to the network doesn't mean anything, why should you expect theirs to you to be any different?

When CSI started, I was already quite familiar with Jorja Fox. She'd appeared as a regular some years back on a decent show called Missing Persons (an unsuccessful forerunner of the current smash hit, Without a Trace), did a stint as a Secret Service agent on The West Wing, and flashed briefly across the silver screen as Guy Pearce's ill-fated wife in Christopher Nolan's excellent Memento. I'd never seen George Eads before CSI that I can recall. But certainly, both of them owe their household-name status and considerable bankrolls to the success of CSI. I can appreciate the desire to make more money, but as Super Chicken used to say, "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred." Or more appropriately in this case, "You knew the job only paid a hundred grand a week when you took it, Jorja and George."

The bottom line is, do what you say you'll do. If you say you'll work for $100K a week, do the work. If you want to stick up the network for bigger coin when your next deal is due, have at it. Get all you can get. But if they're paying you today according to what the contract stipulates, then hold up your end of the bargain. And shut up about it.

That's not a good thing.

Martha Stewart was sentenced today to five months in federal prison. She'll spend an additional five months under house arrest (I've seen pictures of Martha's's not exactly Attica; I should be so cozily "confined") and pony up a $30,000 slap on the diamond-tennis-braceleted wrist.
I rejoice at no one's misfortune, and I suppose it's for the best that Martha got off with the lightest sentence the federal statute allows. She's not an ax murderer, just an inside trader (and yes, I know she skated on the insider trading charge) who lied to the authorities. I just hope this doesn't send a message to other fatcats that they can pull off their chicanery with a bare minimum of consequence.
I thought it was frightfully bold of Martha to stand on the courthouse steps, telling the world to rush out and subscribe to her magazine and stock up on Martha Stewart Living products. "Yes, I'm a convicted felon, but please keep fattening my wallet so that when I get out of the slammer, I can still party like it's 1999." Martha, just got sentenced to five months in prison -- some cushy Club Fed prison, yes, but prison is prison -- how about showing a little contrition? A little shame? If I'm one of those good people of whom you spoke who works for that magazine or helps manufacture those products, you're the last person on earth whose endorsement I covet right this minute.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

And the answer is...Jeopardy!

Ever since Ken Jennings began his million-dollar run on Jeopardy!, people who know of my history as a past champion have bombarded me with questions about the secret of Ken’s success. I hate to disillusion those who equate Jeopardy! with rocket science, but it’s no big secret: Ken obviously knows a lot more of the answers than the people he’s playing against, and he’s also faster with the signaling mechanism. End of story.

The defending champion on Jeopardy! always has a tremendous advantage over his or her challengers, because that little electronic signaling button is the key to the game. In my original run as champion, I played against several people who were very knowledgeable contestants, but who lost because I’d already played with the signaling mechanism and had the timing down pat. When I returned a couple of years later to play Super Jeopardy!, a different show staffer was assigned to operate the signal unlock, and several of us returning champions struggled to adjust to the new person’s rhythm, myself included. (For those who don’t pay close attention to such esoterica, the contestants’ signaling buttons are locked until host Alex Trebek finishes reading each answer. When Alex utters the final syllable, a Jeopardy! staff person manually enables the electronics, allowing the contestants to ring in.)

The toughest player I ever faced was a master of that signaling button. In 1998, I was invited, along with two other past champions, to play a Jeopardy! exhibition game at UC Berkeley, to coincide with the show’s College Tournament being taped there. Both of the other players, Leslie Frates and Dr. Beverly Spurs, were incredibly talented players who’d been very successful in their championship runs. They also had a decided advantage over me in that they’d both been on the show fairly recently, while my championship was by then ten years in the Wayback Machine. Leslie had a genuine knack for operating that crazy little button — demon fast. I could barely get a question in edgewise for the first round and a half. I managed to pull out the game in the end, but only because Leslie misplayed a couple of Daily Doubles and cost herself on the scoreboard. She was easily the better player on stage that night, despite the end result.

The other night, one of my chorus colleagues was giving me my daily Ken Jennings grilling, during which I answered for the umpteenth time the same battery of questions I’ve been answering for years about my Jeopardy! career. Just to settle the record so I never have to answer these questions again, I’m establishing the following FAQ.

When were you on the show? The five games I won aired the first week of June 1988. (We actually taped them on a Monday and Tuesday in March of that year, just as a major screenwriters’ strike hit Hollywood. Jeopardy! was unaffected, because the show’s writers didn’t belong to the writers’ union — they were classified instead as "researchers.") I also played in the 1988 Tournament of Champions, winning my quarterfinal game and losing in the semis. In 1990, I was one of 36 former champions who played in a special tournament called Super Jeopardy! that aired on Saturday nights throughout that summer. (I played miserably in my only SuperJ! game, thank you very much.) As I mentioned earlier, I also played in a one-game special event in 1998 called Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains, which only aired in the San Francisco Bay Area.

How much did you win? My five-game total was $52,098 — a pittance in the modern era in which the dollar values of the questions have been doubled from what they were when I played, and when a champion can continue to play an unlimited number of games instead of being forced into retirement after five consecutive victories. But back in the day, anything over 50 grand was considered stellar. The Jeopardy! Web site still lists all of the champions who won $50K or more, and there I am, down near the bottom of the list. (In anticipation of your next question — it was sixteen years ago, so yes, we’ve already spent all the money. Nice try.)

How did you prepare for the show? As shocking as this will sound, I didn’t. I watched the show every day for about two months and played along, but I didn’t wolf down encyclopedias and World Almanacs or anything. I figured that anything I didn’t know already, it was probably too late to learn.

What was your best category? I don’t really recall. I think the only category I ever ran from top to bottom was something obscure like "State Postal Abbreviations." Most of the subjects that would have been my theoretical areas of specialty — things like baseball, Bible, comics, and so on — never came up, and I only drew a rare movie or TV-related category. But Jeopardy! knowledge is really only half about what you know; the other half is being deft at unearthing the clues in the questions that will lead you to the correct response. I’m pretty good at solving word puzzles, so I often did well in categories that would have appeared to be outside my realm of expertise.

What was your worst category? I never did particularly well at fine arts material. I believe I had at least one "Ballet" category and one "Opera" category, and I’d be shocked if I answered one question between them.

Do you have your appearances on video? Yes, somewhere, though I couldn’t tell you for sure where in the house they are now. (Again, it’s been sixteen years.) The last time I watched any of them was before the 1998 show.

Do you keep in touch with the people you played with? You’re kidding, right? Here’s what I can tell you. The guy I unseated as champion is an actor named Jack Koenig; if you watch many TV shows that are based in New York (i.e., Sex and the City, the various iterations of Law & Order), you’ve probably seen Jack turn up in a supporting guest role now and again. The guy who won my TOC, Mark Lowenthal, later co-wrote a book about being a Jeopardy! contestant — I have a copy somewhere. Some friends of mine know another of my TOC classmates, a fellow named Ron Triguiero, and say he’s a nice guy – that corroborates my brief experience with him. That’s the extent of my Where Are They Now? for today.

What was that TV Guide article about? A few years back, Jeopardy! incurred some headlines when Dr. Maya Angelou said in an interview that she never watched Jeopardy! because they never had any people of color as contestants. When that quote hit the news wires, TV Guide — along with numerous other media outlets — pressed the show’s producers for comment. Somewhere in one of those conversations, someone on the Jeopardy! staff gave my name to TV Guide as the most successful past Jeopardy! champ who fit the "of color" designation. A very nice reporter from the magazine interviewed me by phone, and a couple of my remarks made it into print. (After the ruckus, the Jeopardy! folks bent over backwards to encourage more "people of color" — as opposed, I guess, to "people of transparency" — to apply to become contestants, taking out ads in various ethnic publications and conducting contestant searches at some of the historically black colleges in the Southeast. No, I have no idea whether Dr. Angelou watches the show now.)

Do you still watch Jeopardy!? Hey, I know who Ken Jennings is, don’t I?

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Stuck in the middle with you

I took Slate's online quiz that's intended to tell you whether you're a "red-stater" (more inclined to vote Republican, as the colors are usually used on TV news election maps) or a "blue-stater" (more inclined to vote Democratic).

Like most of these gimmicks, it's fairly easy to tell which answers will tilt the scale in which direction, so I don't know that this quiz accurately measures what it purports. (I shouldn't get tarred with the Republican brush just because I know which is the Eighth Commandment, or that Sam's Club is a Wal-Mart subsidiary -- I know plenty of stuff that has nothing to do with my political views. I'm an infomaniac.) But I answered every question honestly just to see how the result would fall.

Where did I land? Almost dead center. No surprise. Proving once again that when it comes to politics, I'm a man without a constituency.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Adam and Eves

I caught snippets of the Senate debate today prior to the vote on the proposed Constitutional amendment defining marriage. I have mixed emotions about the issue: I oppose homosexual marriage on Biblical grounds, but I don't believe it's the sort of matter the U.S. Constitution was intended to address -- or should address. While I'm not a states' rights advocate either, if the subject has to be debated on a civil basis, the state legislature seems to be the appropriate forum.

I did have to laugh, though, when Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah got up to offer his two cents in favor of the proposed amendment. Hatch pontificated about how marriage has always been defined as a relationship between a man and a woman. I suppose he forgot that in Utah, marriage used to be defined as a relationship between a man and a couple dozen women, and was so defined by the very religious body Senator Hatch represents. (And still is so defined in the hallowed halls of the LDS, though you won't find many Mormons who will openly admit it to "gentiles.")

Sometimes the worst part about being right is the people who agree with you.

Calling a sport a sport

I've been watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN off and on this week. Some of the games they play in the preliminary rounds are utterly foreign to me. All I know about poker is the traditional five-card draw and Texas hold'em, the latter of which I know entirely from television, because that's the game played in the final rounds of the WSOP. Last night they were playing something called Omaha, which looks like Texas hold'em only with more cards dealt to each player. Too complicated for me.

So let's settle this once and for all. Is poker a sport, just because it airs on ESPN?

Messrs. Merriam and Webster take the liberal view of the question, defining sport thus: "(1) Physical activity engaged in for pleasure; (2) a particular activity (as an athletic game) so engaged in." With that broad a definition, one could include all manner of "activity" in the realm of sport, including some "activities" you usually see late at night on cable channels not named ESPN, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

In the SwanShadow Dictionary of Sensible English, sport is more narrowly -- and I believe more logically -- defined: "A competitive athletic activity, the outcome of which is decided directly, and almost entirely, by the actions of the participants."

Break down the elements of this definition with me, if you will. Competitive means there is a contested outcome; someone (or a team of someones) wins and someone (or, again, a team of someones) loses. Athletic means a measure of physical exertion is involved beyond the scope of routine daily activity, and the nature of that exertion is at least to some degree evident in the physical characteristics of those engaged. Decided directly, and almost entirely, by the actions of the participants means that who wins and who loses is not determined by parties who are not themselves participants -- judges, for example. I inserted the word "almost" because every sport requires officials to arbitrate the rules of the contest, and the decisions of those officials necessarily have some level of influence on the outcome. However, in true sport as defined here, it is not the responsibility of the officials to evaluate the relative merits of the competitors' efforts and make a subjective and binding judgment about who wins or loses. Clear enough?

Now let's test our definition against real-world examples. Is football a sport? Sure -- that's an easy one. It satisfies all three criteria: it's competitive, it requires a high level of athleticism, and the outcome is determined by the actions of the players. Basketball? Sport. Baseball? Sport -- granted, you occasionally see a less-than-chiseled specimen playing first base or filling in at designated hitter, and the players do spend a considerable amount of time between pitches standing around idle or sitting on the bench awaiting turns at bat. But those are minor quibbles -- baseball's a sport. By the same standard, we can get pretty much all the prominent team sports into the shopping cart: soccer, hockey (ice or field, and you can include hockey variants lacrosse and water polo in there too), rugby, team handball, and so on. All of these are indisputably sports.

The individual activities make for tougher calls. Tennis is an easy call, despite the impact a nearsighted line judge can have on a match -- it's a sport. The various events we lump into the category of track and field all qualify as sports. Boxing is a borderline call, because many -- perhaps most -- boxing matches are, in fact, decided by the ringside judges. But since the judges only intervene with scores when neither of the two competitors has completed his assigned duty of pummeling the other clown into the canvas, and since the scores are only quantitative counts of observed blows struck rather than qualitative analysis, boxing passes muster. It's a sport.

Now here's where it gets tricky. Ski racing? Sport. Ski jumping? Not a sport, because it's more about style points than who jumps the farthest. Swimming? Sport. Diving? Not a sport, again because it's based on a subjective evaluation of performance. Speed skating? Sport. Figure skating? Not a sport. That's not to say that ski jumpers, divers, and figure skaters aren't athletes -- they are. But they participate in athletic exhibitions, not in true sport as I've defined it here.

What about auto racing? Please -- it's not a sport, people: it's competitive and participant-driven, but it's not athletic. I drive a car every day too, and often on a much more congested track than any NASCAR race, but I'm no athlete. Horse racing is a sport, if we consider that the horses are the participants and not the jockeys. It's just track and field with different species playing.

That leaves us with golf, bowling, and the like -- including poker, which prompted this whole discussion in the first place. These are all great games -- just not sports. Any activity in which you can engage while wearing polyester slacks and wingtips, or while guzzling brewskis and smoking like a house afire, is not sufficiently athletic to meet our requirements. And since people can do all of these while playing poker...I don't care what ESPN says. Poker's a fascinating game, but it's not a sport.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Seeing All-Stars

Roger Clemens, meet Atlee Hammaker. You two will have a great deal to talk about.


(It's okay. You'd have had to have been there.)

Today (actually yesterday -- Monday -- but I'm still up, so it's my "today" even if the calendar denotes otherwise) I swapped e-mails with TMOT and JK for the first time in a while.

Most days, I not only don't miss working in an office setting surrounded by other live bodies, but rather am glad for the solitude. Call it the curse of the only child -- I don't always play well with others. (No man is an island, but I tend to be a pretty narrow isthmus most of the time.) There are people, however, with whom I miss working on a day-to-day basis, and TMOT and JK are two of them. No, I can be more honest than that -- they're the only two. And the funny thing is, my working relationships with both of them originally got off to rocky starts.

I outraged JK her first week in the office -- might even have been her first day -- by saying that something "sucked" during a meeting. She clearly had not yet gotten "the loose cannon speech" about me yet -- the one that went, "You know, we just sort of wind him up and let him do his thing; try to stay out of his way, and don't pay attention to anything he says." (There really was such a speech, I'm told. Call it the curse of the company eccentric.)

It wasn't until we were assigned to the same workgroup that I think JK began to regard me as a functional human being, and as more than the unbalanced idiot savant everyone else in the office took me for. On the other side, I was one of the first people to recognize that there was a genuine person behind the brusque JK battle armor so many of our colleagues found off-putting. It was strange to watch the way people reacted to JK the first...well...year or so. In all my years in the work force, I had never before seen the kind of jealous enmity she attracted. Nor had I ever before found myself so frequently in the position of defending the character and credibility of someone I barely knew and who I, quite frankly, didn't think liked me very much.

Remember that scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where the Rat and Damone get into a scuffle over Stacy Hamilton? The Rat tells Damone about all of the times he's defended Damone to their peers who said, "That Damone's a [bleep]," and the Rat has said, "You just don't know Damone." I had numerous conversations with people about JK that went very much like that. The odd thing was that, at the time, I really didn't know JK either. But I admired her brilliance, and her prodigious talent, and her tornado-like ability to cut through the puffery and say what needed to be said (even when I might not have said it quite the same way). In 42 years, I have met very few people of whom I could admit they were smarter than I am about things I know I'm smart about. I knew that about JK the first day I met her. And, to the extremely limited degree that I've ever idolized anyone for anything, I idolized her for that.

(I was both totally shocked and, in a peculiar way, not at all surprised to learn that JK is engaged. He'd best invest in a Kevlar breastplate and asbestos underwear. If I were going to try and play matchmaker for JK, I'd despair that I'd ever find anyone with the necessary combination of smarts, toughness, and absolute cool.)

While JK and I came relatively quickly to a solid and mutually appreciative working relationship, I didn't think that TMOT and I could ever work together without someone getting hurt. I believed for the longest time that she flat-out despised me. I seemed to have a knack for irritating her without trying, and she seemed to find my quirks and eccentricities grating rather than endearing. (Go figure.) Eventually, I came to realize that I was to some degree guilty of misreading her surface characteristics in the same way others misread JK's. When I refreshed my perspective, I found that I liked TMOT very much, and that she, in her way, had grown to (at least sort of) like me.

I also came to appreciate that we had -- as unlikely as it appeared at first -- a good deal in common, and not just that we both spent some of our childhoods in Hawaii. TMOT is a wonderful parent to her twin boys (I'm trying to be a good dad to KM). We both studied journalism, and are persnickety about written language in all of the same ways. Although I know little about her religion, TMOT impresses me as a person of strong faith. And I suspect she uses the outward facets of herself at times to keep people at arm's length, as I've done all my life (there are few people I've known as long and worked with as closely about whom I know so little as I do of TMOT). Yes, she's wound tighter than Archimedes' screw, but she has -- for all her considerable intellect -- a certain (for lack of a better word) naïvete about her that is both genuine and charming.

I've always had numerous cordial acquaintances at work, at school, and socially, but I use the word "friend" guardedly. I've often said that friends are people you'd see or talk to if you really didn't have to. That I sent TMOT and JK a personal e-mail today, and that both of them responded (more than once), and that one of them is even going to meet me for lunch next week, tells me something. If they're not among the few real friends I have, they're something awfully close.

Monday, July 12, 2004

All you can do is what you can do

KJ didn't pass her license test. Many people don't, on the first attempt -- just as many would-be attorneys don't pass the bar exam the first time out of the box. But she studied very hard, and I'm proud of her for attempting to do something that pushed her outside her comfort zone. She'll ace it next time.

Show what you know

KJ is taking her insurance license exam today. Good luck, sweetheart!

Happy Birthday, Cos!

Today is Bill Cosby's birthday. Some of my greatest childhood laughs came from listening to Cosby's standup albums. No one ever told a story with more richness and humanity. Plus, I grew up loving I Spy.

Cosby was the first celebrity entertainer I ever saw perform live (at Charles Schulz's Redwood Empire Ice Arena, in the late '70s). And I respect his continued stance in favor of education, clean humor, and personal responsibility. (Except for that whole illegitimate daughter business...Fat Albert says, "Hey, hey, hey -- that's not okay.")

Thanks for the laughs, Cos. Hope you have a great day. Watch out for snowballs.

Superheroes on film

I just caught the special Superhero: The Blessing, The Curse on E! Which, of course, got me to thinking about superheroes on film -- those that have worked, those that haven't worked, and those someone should take a whack at.

Superhero Flicks That Really Worked

1. Spider-Man (I haven't yet seen Spidey 2 -- hey, I'm busy). Sam Raimi just gets it. Not perfect -- Kirsten Dunst is a terrific actress, but she's not the MJ of the comics, and the decision to use that bizarre fright mask for the Green Goblin robbed us of the chance to see Willem Dafoe in full-out villain mode to best advantage. But on the whole, it's everything a 35-year Spidey fan could have wanted, and more. The sequel is supposed to be even better. (Yes, I'll get around to seeing it.)

2. X-Men/X2. Amazingly well-done, especially considering that Bryan Singer wasn't a comics fan before starting the first film. X2 is about as good as a popcorn movie gets. If I had my druthers, I'd have seen more Cyclops (with a better actor playing the role) and a smidge less Wolverine, but you can't have everything.

3. Superman. I was never a fan of the big guy in blue -- too powerful to be interesting -- but it's hard to argue with the success of the first Christopher Reeve outing. The second one was all right too.

4. Hulk. Yes, the fanboys hated it because it was "too cerebral." Grow up, fanboys. Ang Lee made a beautiful, powerful, emotionally arresting film for adults. Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly were terrific, and Nick Nolte was more than worth the price of admission. And I thought the CGI worked just fine.

5. The Rocketeer. Fun, exciting, and perfectly cast with Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly (again). Why this wasn't a huge hit, I don't know.

Honorable mentions: The Blade movies are excellent (especially Blade II), but I think of them more as postmodern horror films than as superhero pictures. And even though it's more a pulp character than a true superhero, I enjoyed Alex Baldwin in The Shadow.

Superhero Flicks That Really Tanked

1. Captain America. For the superhero who's closest to our national symbol, Cap has been royally abused by Hollywood. First there were those two dreadful TV-flicks with Reb Brown playing Cap as Evel Knievel in superhero garb, then this monstrosity with Matt Salinger wearing rubber ears on the outside of his cowl. Yikes.

2. All the Batman films. The first two were ruined by too much Tim Burton, the last two were ruined by two much Akiva Goldsman and Joel Schumacher. I'll be interested to see whether Christopher Nolan comes up with a better plan for Batman Begins.

3. Daredevil. Love the character -- my mom made me a Daredevil costume for Halloween when I was 10 or 11 -- but the film...not so much. What were they thinking when they cast smirking Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock?

4. The Punisher. Awful character. Two awful movies. 'Nuff said.

5. Steel. You know, I can almost envision the pitch meeting on this one. "It's a superhero!" Umm...didn't anyone here see Kazaam? Plus, any film with Judd Nelson as the villain is, by definition, going to stink. (Annabeth Gish, however, is very cute in this, and turns in a spunky, charming performance against insurmountable odds.)

Dishonorable mentions: Supergirl -- poor Helen Slater's career would have been better off if she'd been plowed over by a Peterbilt. Spawn -- just because Todd McFarlane's name should always be mentioned in the company of the word "dishonorable."

Superhero Flicks Someone Should Make

1. The Spirit. Will Eisner's cinematic style was tailor-made for the movies. There was an abysmal TV pilot starring Sam "Flash Gordon" Jones in the '80s, but I mean a real, big-budget feature film this time.

2. The long-rumored Black Panther starring Wesley Snipes. T'Challa is The Man.

3. Ditto the long-rumored Iron Man with Tom Cruise.

4. Legion of Super-Heroes. At this stage, it would probably appear to be a lame X-Men ripoff, but it would be fun to see someone try.

5. Mister Miracle. Taking on the entirety of Jack Kirby's Fourth World cycle would be beyond the grasp of any filmmaker I could name, but this one piece of the mythos could make a very interesting movie. That, or Jimmy Olsen and the Newsboy Legion.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Welcome...I think.

So I started a weblog. Welcome to the 21st century, kid.

I'll use this space as an opportunity to record the random yammerings that stumble across my brain during the time I'm pounding away at the keyboard -- which, now that I think about it, is the majority of my waking hours.

I'm not certain that anything appearing here will be remotely interesting to the rest of the world. If I flash on some stunning insight I believe vital to your wellbeing, I'll alert the media.