Monday, April 06, 2009

10 films for the Aughts

Two of the film writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle and Peter Hartlaub, have published dueling "10 best films of the decade" lists.

To my way of thinking, it's a mite early for this. After all, the decade isn't over yet.

Then again, people get all squishy over lists, don't they? So, anytime is list time.

I use the word "dueling" above, not because Hartlaub and LaSalle hate each other (they may, but I don't think so — it's more an Ebert-Siskel rivalry), but because their lists have nothing in common. That's right: Two major film critics compiled lists of the best 10 films from the past decade, and not a single film appears on both lists.

(For your reference, here's Mick LaSalle's list, and then Peter Hartlaub's list.)

As a former professional film critic myself, I couldn't resist taking up this challenge, premature though it may be. I always preface these things with the caveat that "best" is a subjective and ultimately ridiculous concept when applied to the creative arts. So, let's call this...

My 10 Favorite Films from the "200x" Decade

1. Sideways

Funny, vulgar, touching, winsome, outrageous... I could keep stacking the adjectives, but none of them can completely express my affection for this film. Paul Giamatti's Miles is the person I would probably be if I drank. (Which is yet another good reason why I don't.) Virginia Madsen's soliloquy about the deeper meaning of wine may be the sexiest sequence in any film this decade — and she delivers it while vertical and fully dressed.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Peter Jackson's three-part cinematic thunderbolt may never be equaled, in terms of its sheer size, scope, and groundbreaking spectacle. As a longtime fan of Tolkien's magnum opus, I don't see how The Lord of the Rings could have been delivered to the screen any better or more faithfully — in spirit, if not in minute detail. (See: Bakshi, Ralph.) Perfect? Perhaps not. Seven levels of awesome? Heck, yeah.

3. Children of Men

No film I've seen in the past ten years moved me as powerfully as this darkly haunting slice of science fiction by Alfonso Cuarón. Children of Men strikes some of the same notes as Minority Report (another film I liked very much; surprising, since I'm not a fan of either director Steven Spielberg or star Tom Cruise), but it strikes them with more genuine emotion, and less hyperslick flash.

4. Memento

The first truly great film of the decade, Memento is noteworthy both as a dazzling achievement in cinematic storytelling (often imitated, but never approached) and as the revelation of one of the period's signature filmmakers: Christopher Nolan, who went on to direct Insomnia (an underrated flick, spoiled only by too hefty a dose of Robin Williams), Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight.

5. Spirited Away

Not only the best animated feature of the decade, but one of the finest animated films of all time. Hayao Miyazaki is sometimes referred to as "the Walt Disney of Japan," but this astounding, heart-wrenching film demonstrates just how inadequate that label is. It's not as much fun as many of Miyazaki's other pictures (it's hard to top Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, or the masterful Princess Mononoke in that department), but not every animated film has to be fun.

6. Best in Show

The funniest comedy of the decade, hands down. Will Christopher Guest ever make another movie this good?

7. Lost in Translation

I fully expected to hate this movie. I detested Sofia Coppola's pathetic attempts at acting, and her previous directing turn (The Virgin Suicides) left me cold. Plus, Bill Murray wore out his welcome with me way back around Ghostbusters. But its existential charm won me over.

8. Pan's Labyrinth

Like Jackson's LOTR, Guillermo del Toro's film sets a new high-water mark for technical achievement. More than that, however, it's an engaging and compelling journey into a world unlike any other. Many filmmakers are content to simply repeat the tried and true. Instead, del Toro chose to reinvent the fantasy film. Pan's Labyrinth defines the word "unforgettable."

9. Inside Man

I had a choice between two Spike Lee films here, Inside Man and 25th Hour. When in doubt, choose the movie with Denzel Washington in it. Especially if Jodie Foster and Clive Owen are in it, too.

10. Ocean's Eleven

Okay, okay. I'm allowed one low-brow selection. The true testament to Ocean's Eleven's greatness is that I've watched it more frequently than any other movie on this list, with the possible exception of Best in Show. I wish Steven Soderbergh hadn't followed it with two lackluster sequels (the middle film in the trilogy flat-out reeks), but that doesn't make the first one any less cool. Vegas, baby.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

My awards show has a first name...'s O-S-C-A-R.

A few notes from last night's 81st Academy Awards ceremonies:
  • Pleasantly innocuous hosting job by Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman. The producers tailored the show to his strengths — he's a song-and-dance man, not a stand-up comedian. Jackman's style seems a better fit for the Tony Awards, which he's hosted several times, than for the Oscars, which attract a larger, more diverse audience. I doubt that the Academy Powers That Be will invite Hugh to host again, but I'm equally sure they're not sorry that they invited him this time.

  • I almost liked the smaller, more intimate set design. Having all of the nominees seated together and close to the stage worked well, especially for reaction shots when the winners were announced. The set-up did, however, give the event a confined, cramped feel. The Oscars need to be larger than life, not smaller than a breadbox.

  • Jackman's opening number with the cheesy props and Anne Hathaway — who is not a cheesy prop, despite her unsettlingly gargantuan eyes — was kind of fun. Billy Crystal has done similar openings to better effect in previous years.

  • Memo to Ms. Hathaway: If you have a preternaturally pasty complexion, a white evening gown is not your friend.

  • Memo to Nicole Kidman: Borrow Anne's memo when she's done reading it.

  • Best idea of the night: Using previous winners of the major acting awards to introduce the nominees. Some of the intros meandered on for a bit too long, and some of the choices didn't work as well as others. Overall, however, this was a gimmick worthy of repeating in future years.

  • Second-best idea: Queen Latifah singing "I'll Be Seeing You" over the traditional "Folks Who Croaked" montage. It added a touch of human warmth to an exercise that often just feels creepy and maudlin.

  • Among the winners, I was happiest for Kate Winslet, who has deserved to win at least a couple of times previously and came up empty.

  • Man, those people from Slumdog Millionaire were genuinely happy to be there.

  • Eddie Murphy seemed an out-of-left-field choice to present Jerry Lewis with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. They're both comic actors, but was there any other connection? Usually, they get someone who's a close friend of the awardee to give these special honors away. Maybe this was a sign that Lewis doesn't have any friends left in Hollywood.

  • What was up with the preponderance of dresses that looked like wedding gowns? Was someone getting married, and I missed my invitation?

  • Joaquin Phoenix is still wondering why Ben Stiller — and everyone else on the planet — is making fun of him.

  • Didn't win, but looked terrific anyway: Best Supporting Actress nominees Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson. A couple of classy ladies right there.

  • Didn't win, but frightened small children anyway: Mickey Roarke and Tilda Swinton. At least Tilda comes by her looks naturally.

  • Hey, Amy Adams: Is that a necklace, or did you string together every bauble and bead at your local craft shop? You're lucky you didn't break a clavicle with that ginormous weight around your shoulders.

  • Speaking of ginormous: Angelina, please. The green stones. They are too large.

  • After seeing how much fun John Legend had singing "Down to Earth" surrounded by all of the Bollywood festivity of the two nominated songs from Slumdog, I'll bet Peter Gabriel feels like a moron for refusing to perform. And well he should.

  • I'll bet Bruce Springsteen would have enjoyed doing that bit too, had his song from The Wrestler been nominated, as it should have been.

  • Will Smith stumbled all over his TelePrompTer trying to give away the technical awards. Will, that Scientology foolishness is turning your brain into pudding.

  • Sean Penn, you are only about a third as cool as you think you are.

  • Am I the only one disappointed that Heath Ledger couldn't be bothered to show up to collect his Best Supporting Actor statuette? Hmm? He's what? Oh. Never mind.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Birth? Day.

I've commented before about the odd coincidence of nature that resulted in my wife KJ and my now six-year-old goddaughter in Maine sharing a birthday.

Well, it's time to mention it again.

Happy birthday, girls!

And, while we're at it, happy birthday to:

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me
LogoThere are
people with my name in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

So much for uniqueness.

To clarify this abominable situation just a smidge...

I'm not:
  • The mortgage broker. (Trust me — you don't want me handling your money.)

  • The insurance executive. (See above.)

  • The professional poker player. (I play, but only in online tournaments, and never for high stakes.)

  • The convicted felon with an Islamic alias. (When I need a pseudonym, I prefer to masquerade as a Zoroastrian.)

  • The college professor and gay rights activist. (I only swing from the opposite side of the plate.)

  • The guy at Veterans Affairs. (My adoptive father is a veteran. His affairs are his own business.)

  • The fraternity brother. (I lived in Greece, but I was never a Greek.)
I am:
  • The copywriter and editor.

  • The voiceover artist.

  • The comic art collector.

  • The movie reviewer.

  • The a cappella singer.

  • The preacher.

  • The Jeopardy! guy.

  • The blogger.
And I think I've got more Google hits than any of the other 86 versions. (Which is as it should be, in a just universe.) So most of the time, if you go looking for me, you'll probably find me.

The real, honest-to-Swan me.

I hope that's clear, now.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLIII commercial post-mortem

It's been something of an SSTOL tradition to recap the best commercials from the Super Bowl.

But a weird thing happened this year...

The game was actually better than the ads.

That is in part to the credit of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, who delivered a whale of a show (congrats to Coach Mike Tomlin and his crew for the last-minute, come-from-behind victory over a team no one — including your Uncle Swan — thought could even compete with them). It's also a sad commentary on this year's Super Bowl ad crop, which was, to put it politely, lacking.

In fact, before I sat down to review the spots online this morning, only one had insinuated itself into my memory — the truly bizarre ad featuring washed-up celebrities Ed McMahon and MC Hammer. That was memorable not for its persuasive power, but for its sheer breathless lunacy: Hammer and his "gold medallion showing me wearing a gold medallion!" and Big Ed with his gold-plated toilet.

Among the few other highlights:
  • I was entertained — and baffled — by Pepsi's testosterone-fueled spot showing manly men enduring all kinds of physical punishment with a casual "I'm good." (I confess that I don't understand the whole Pepsi Max concept: Diet cola for men? What, too much estrogen in Diet Pepsi?)

  • NBC gave us a clever house ad for its online video service, starring Alec Baldwin in a scenario inspired by Men in Black. (I always knew those Baldwin brothers were aliens.)

  • The most exciting ad of the bunch was Audi's slick, dialogue-free chase sequence with Jason Statham reprising his Transporter film role.

  • The "best storytelling" award goes to's documentary-style take on the life of a nerdy young man who succeeds at everything he attempts, but who can't buy a car without the aid of a certain Web site.

  • Doritos offered a couple of decent spots: the one involving the "magic" crystal ball was funny, and another in which the protagonist's fantasies become reality every time he crunches into a Dorito (a female pedestrian's clothes disappear; an ATM spews cash) was predictable, but well-orchestrated.

  • NBA star Carlos Boozer played Big Brother to a gaggle of cute kids for Not as splashy as most of the ad fodder, but warm, fuzzy, and authentically charming. Best of all, it made a solid selling point about the product — something too many of the high-ticket Super Bowl ads forget to accomplish.

  • And, though I'm not a Conan O'Brien fan, I did chuckle at the goofy Bud Light spot that featured Conan as the reluctant star of an absurd Swedish commercial.
As usual, the Budweiser Clydesdales wore out their welcome — one ad showcasing these handsome animals is fine, but four or five get old quickly. Also as usual, served up a pair of tasteless, sexist trifles designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator (arrested-adolescent males who've been swilling beer all afternoon) and rile up the feminist crusaders.

But enough about the commercials...

It's Boss Time.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cranked up the best Super Bowl halftime since Prince took the stage a few years back. The Boss and Company delivered a fun, upbeat, energetic set, weaving together a couple of classic favorites ("Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run") with the title track from his latest album. (Asked in a pregame interview why he had finally decided to accept the Super Bowl gig after more than a decade of refusing the NFL's invitation, Springsteen was characteristically forthright: "I've got a new record to promote.")

The production pulled out all the stops — fireworks, a five-piece horn section, and a gospel choir for the finale. All the fluff couldn't mask the raw power of Springsteen's music, nor the joy that he and his bandmates (including Clarence Clemons, who worked it out on saxophone and cowbell; guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, looking aged and road-worn; and Bruce's wife Patti Scialfa, who stepped forward for a backing vocal spotlight on the final number) still derive from their music after 35 years.

I'd have gladly ditched all of the fancy advertisements, and just let The Boss play during the commercial breaks.

That's why they don't let me run the show.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Marshaling my thoughts in the wake of President Obama's inauguration...
  • Ironic, in a way, that I was in my minivan returning home from taking my daughter to class at the local junior college (her car is still in the shop after she was rear-ended two weeks ago) as Obama took the oath of office. History is made... but everyday life goes on.

  • Memo to Chief Justice John Roberts: For pity's sake, man, memorize the Presidential oath. And if you can't memorize it, write it down.

  • As stately and majestic a President as Obama makes, Michelle is every inch as stately and majestic a First Lady. They both chose well.

  • Glad as I am to see Bush 43 leave office, it's a touching moment watching him and the former First Lady board that Marine helicopter for the final time. Bush was among our worst Presidents ever, but he was still our President.

  • I'd describe Obama's speech as soberingly electric. He clearly understands the gravity of his new office.

  • Obama also made clear the distinction between his incoming administration and that of his predecessor: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Cut to Bush squirming in his seat.

  • I love the fact that Obama didn't run from anything in his speech: not the challenges ahead, not the mistakes of the past, not the darkness of racism, not even his own middle name — which he used in taking the oath.

  • They should commission Maya Angelou to write the inaugural poem every four years. No disrespect to the writer who composed today's poem, but... she's no Maya Angelou.

  • I was surprised that Dianne Feinstein blew off the Constitutional deadline for the new President's swearing-in, in favor of Yo-Yo Ma and Yitzhak Perlman playing John Williams. But when in doubt, go to the arts.

  • How fitting that Dick Cheney gets trundled out of office in a wheelchair, given everything he's done to cripple the country while he's been Vice President.

  • I'm reminded of that old Peugeot commercial with tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis showing off his new car to his unimpressed father. "Is a nice Peugeot, Vitas," said the elder Gerulaitis after his son finished extolling the virtues of his ride. "Now when you are getting a haircut?" In that same spirit: It's a nice inauguration, Mr. President. Now it's time to get a haircut, metaphorically speaking.

  • Yet, at the same time... what a spectacular, enthralling, glorious moment for our nation, and indeed, for our planet. America is indeed ready to lead once more.

  • You go, 44.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Class of '08

I've always wanted to do one of those year-end retrospective posts that are so popular in this here blogosphere, but I'm too darned lazy to go back and read every post I wrote during the past twelve months, just to find the ones I liked the best.

That is, I used to be too darned lazy.

I made it easier on myself by not writing hardly at all during the entire month of July. In those times when I was keeping abreast of my bloggery duty, I spun the following gems.Happy New Year, friend reader. Thank you for hanging out here throughout 2008. Let's hope 2009 is a better year for all of us.

Well, except for that Obama thing.

Because that couldn't get much better, really.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reindeer on my rooftop

If I were jolly old Kris Kringle (and not just a guy shaped like him), and had a bottomless bag filled with infinite magic, I'd give everyone what they really want for Christmas...
  • For President-elect Obama: Wisdom and patience. And especially, the patience to wait for wisdom.

  • For Rhodester, Sean, and millions like them: New jobs.

  • For Damon: Completion and delivery of a certain long-overdue art commission.

  • For Bob Almond: Tired brushes.

  • For Alicia: A new lower 48.

  • For Shelby: Sunbeams and rainbows, and a lifetime to chase them.

  • For Donna: Italian dinner.

  • For Shelli: Peanut butter.

  • For Eugene: The head of Charles I.

  • For Bruce Bochy: Two young studs who can hit both for average and power, at least one of whom plays first base.

  • For Mike Singletary: A shredder for his "interim" tag.

  • For Don Nelson: A one-way ticket to Maui.

  • For Dr. Greg Lyne: Another gold medal before retirement. Maybe two.

  • For Chelle: A new dog.

  • For Janet: Anything but a new dog.

  • For Sank: A shot at being Supreme Bodacious Armadillo, or whatever it is that they call the head guy in his Masonic lodge.

  • For The Real Sam Johnson: A new kidney.

  • For Ferrett: A case of those disgusting Jones Sodas. For him, that's actually a good thing.

  • For all of my voiceover buds: A case of Throat Coat tea.

  • For KM: A real live horse of her own, and the wherewithal to feed, stable, and ride it for the next 20 years.

  • For KJ, and for Maria, and for Sonja, and for everyone else in the world who desperately needs it: A cure.
Sad to say, I am not Santa Claus. Nor was meant to be.

The only gift I can give you all is this...

I love you.

Merry Christmas.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Five questions

If you stop by here frequently, you may have noticed that I rarely do memes. In 1,600 posts over four and a half years, I think I've done maybe three.

Let's make it four.

Adam Avitable posted his version of "Five Questions" shortly before Thanksgiving. The idea of the meme is this: Someone asks you five questions of his or her choosing. As the participant, you agree to answer the five questions on your own blog (with a link back to your interviewer). In turn, you offer to create a unique five-part questionnaire for another volunteer or group of volunteers. Adam collected more than 50 willing interview subjects, of which I am one.

So, off we go.

1. Where did the name SwanShadow come from, and did anyone suggest that it's a bit of a feminine name?

That's really two questions, but in for a penny, in for a pound.

My official SwanShadow story goes like this: As a freelance copywriter and editor, I work in anonymity. When I write ad copy or sales letters or radio spots or any of the other folderol I'm paid to create, I rarely get a byline or credit. Indeed, I often work for clients who prefer that I don't acknowledge, even on my own site, that I'm the person who does their writing, or the writing for the companies they represent. Thus, I work in the shadows. It's my job to take other people's ugly-duckling brands, concepts, and sales prose, and transform them into beautiful swans.

The truth, however, is that I created the SwanShadow handle years before I hung out my freelance shingle. Its true significance is known only to me.

But the other thing's my official story, and as far as the public is concerned, I'm sticking to it.

As for the femininity angle, I get that on rare occasion — most often from other players at online poker tables. I must confess that it never occurred to me before I started using the name.

I don't think of swans as female, particularly, if I think of them in terms of gender at all. In Greek mythology, Zeus took the form of a swan when he impregnated Leda (whether by force or by seduction depends on whose version of the myth you believe). The title character in Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling — which inspired my "official" explanation — is also male. Then again, Odette in Swan Lake is a princess.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

2. Marvel or DC? Corollary: Who's your favorite artist?

Again with the two-fer! Curse you, Avitable!

When I was a comics-reading kid growing up, it was definitely Marvel. I read just about everything DC published, of course, when my friends weren't looking. But if I had to choose up sides, I was a Marvelite to the core. I belonged to both of Marvel's official fan clubs, the Merry Marvel Marching Society and its successor, FOOM (Friends of Ol' Marvel). Marvel's heroes were the ones I identified with most closely, and that I cared the most about.

These days, my reading list is much closer to 50-50. I think of it this way: I read Marvel for its connection to my history, and DC for its present reality.

My favorite artist depends on the period:
  • Golden Age: Matt Baker (Phantom Lady), Lou Fine (The Ray), Mac Raboy (Captain Marvel Jr.), and Lee Elias (The Black Cat).
  • Silver Age: John Buscema (Thor, Conan), John Romita Sr. (Amazing Spider-Man), and Jim Aparo (The Brave and the Bold).
  • Bronze Age: Barry Windsor-Smith (Conan) and Keith Pollard (pretty much everything at Marvel).
  • Modern Age: George Pérez (Wonder Woman), Adam Hughes (Wonder Woman, again), Mark Schultz (Xenozoic Tales, a.k.a. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs), and the recently departed Dave Stevens (The Rocketeer) and Mike Wieringo (Fantastic Four).
But if I had to pick one artist from all of comics history? That's easy — Will Eisner.

3. What's your favorite writing achievement?

I'm tempted to say this blog, because so much of my heart and soul lies bare on these virtual pages.

But instead, I'm going to point to the 146 film and television reviews I wrote for DVD Verdict during my five years as a staff member there. It was mentally and creatively challenging work, and I enjoyed it thoroughly — even when reviewing Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks that were so wretched, I could feel my brain cells decaying as I watched them.

If there were unlimited hours in the day and my body never required sleep, I'd still be writing for the Verdict.

4. Do you think that blogging is just lazy writing?

Perish the thought. No writing is lazy writing. Lazy writers don't write.

I will admit to being frustrated with writers — bloggers and otherwise — who don't take every opportunity to write as well as they can. If you're going to write at all, even if it's "just a blog," why not give it your best effort? Use and spell words correctly. Write coherently, and mostly in complete sentences. Share original thoughts, at least to the degree that any thought is "original," rather than simply parroting what you've read elsewhere.

Life's too short to write badly.

But it's especially too short not to write at all.

5. Is Alex Trebek really as obnoxious in person as he seems on TV?

If I had an FAQ on this blog, this question would be on it. Heck, if I had an FAQ for my life, this question would be on it.

Although I've played eleven games on Jeopardy! and its associated tournaments during the past 20 years, I don't really know Alex Trebek. With a single exception I will address in a moment, all of my interaction with Alex has been on the set of Jeopardy! during the course of game play or the post-program chat that takes place while the show's credits roll. Alex has always been polite and personable toward me in those circumstances. (Though he did call me by another contestant's name when I won my quarter-final game in the 1988 Tournament of Champions. I've long since forgiven him for that faux pas. Sort of.)

When I was first on the show in '88, Alex was not only the host of Jeopardy!, but was also the show's producer. Back then, he had numerous other responsibilities on taping days besides just running the game on camera. In the years since he gave up the producer's job (which has been assayed ever since by the guy who used to be Alex's assistant, a model of level-headed efficiency named Rocky Schmidt), Alex has appeared more relaxed, and less harried and abrupt, when I've been on the set.

Or maybe he's just matured as he's aged.

The one occasion I've been around Alex off-camera was in 1997, when I participated in a special one-game Jeopardy! event called Battle of the Bay Area Brains. My wife, daughter, and I were invited to a reception following the taping. Alex took time to be both congenial and kind to my then-eight-year-old daughter, and signed several autographs for her.

I guess the short answer (if it's not already too late for that) is that Alex has always been fine with me. Mrs. Trebek may tell an entirely different tale.

Those are my five questions. If you're a regular here — or even if you're just a-passin' through — and would like me to interview you, here's the official "Five Questions" boilerplate:
Want to be part of it? Follow these instructions:
1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I will respond by e-mailing you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.
In the spirit of Mr. Avitable, I'll interview as many of you as volunteer. (I can make that commitment safely, knowing that I'm nowhere near as popular as Adam is.)

Thanks to Avitable for the excellent questions!

Even if there really were seven.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Gratitude Times Five

I can scarcely believe this is the fifth edition of our annual alphabetical outpouring of TurkeyFest appreciation here at SSTOL. There were moments when we didn't think we'd live to see this day. But here we are, on the fourth Thursday of another cool, misty Wine Country November, celebrating the kindnesses that the good grace of the Almighty has brought us since last we tallied. Let's launch into this year's 26 nuggets of thankfulness, what say?

America's Test Kitchen
. Thanks to bow-tied Christopher Kimball and his charming, cheerful staff of foodies, I can pretend that I actually know how to cook.

Bombshells!, my gallery of Golden Age superheroines masquerading as vintage bomber nose art pinup girls. Thanks to all of the artists who created new Bombshells! for me this year: Dan Veesenmeyer, Gene Gonzales, Anthony Carpenter, Terry Beatty, Jeffrey Moy, and my friend Bob Almond.

ClubUBT, the online poker and blackjack room where I'm exercising my cardplaying muscles these days. It'll still be legal after the dimwits in Congress ban every other avenue.

Dr. Greg Lyne, the man who teaches me — and 90 of my close personal friends — how to make music every Tuesday night. You're the Man, Maestro.

Ethiopia Sidamo. That's some mighty fine coffee there, Starbucks.

Friday Night Stand-Up. There's no more hilarious way to kick off the weekend than with Comedy Central's mini-marathon of funny men and women shocking the microphone.

Girls — specifically mine, KJ and KM. They make the universe a better place just by being in it. That goes for my adopted niece Shelby, too.

My Heavenly Father, who daily provides more blessings than I can list.

International Orange, the color of the paint adorning my favorite man-made marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge. Driving across it is wicked cool, even after all these years.

Judge shows. Here's to the black-robed arbiters of justice who provide us with so much entertainment, sage wisdom, and gratis legal counsel: Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Marilyn Milian, Judge Alex, Judge Greg Mathis, Judge Hatchett (sorry you got canceled, Your Honor), Judge Christina, Judge Penny, Judge Karen, and Judge David Young. You all rock.

Kirkland, the house brand of Costco, the home of conspicuous consumption. I need twenty of something, and I need it right now.

LinCYcum. You're the baddest pitcher in the National League, Timmy. Don't go changing.

Meat Loaf. Because some days, nothing gets me through the madness like Marvin Lee Aday, roaring at maximum volume in all his sweaty, bombastic, Wagnerian, Jim Steinman-produced glory. What's for dinner? Meat Loaf.

Nashville, Tennessee, where Voices in Harmony and I spent a week enjoying Southern hospitality, and from which we brought home third place International bronze medals. Thanks, y'all.

Obama. That doesn't even need commentary.

Parker, Robert B. My favorite author. There's a new Spenser paperback on my desk, which I plan to dive into today.

Quantum of Solace. Not quite up to the incredible level of Casino Royale, but still pretty cool. Can it really be a bad year when we get a new Bond film?

Raley's, our local supermarket. We've shopped there for the past 20 years. We're on a first-name basis with most of the staff. We probably know the merchandise better than some of the employees.

Sushi. Tiny little rice-clouds of culinary heaven. My favorites: tako, unagi, ebi, hamachi, and good toro, when I can get it.

Time. I believe it was Augustine who said, "What is time? If no man asks me, I know; but if any man asks, clearly I know not."

United Health Care. As big a pain in the tuchus as they have been to deal with — and they have been a colossal pain — I'm glad they've paid for everything they've paid for. I don't know how we would have.

Voicetrax San Francisco (which is actually in Sausalito... but then, San Francisco International Airport is in San Bruno, so I guess it works), where I'm learning the fine art of voice acting from some of the most talented folks in the industry. Thanks to all of the coaches who hammered knowledge into my cranium this year: Chuck Kourouklis, Frank Coppola, Thom Pinto, Lisa Baney, and the amazing Samantha Paris. And a special thanks to Shirley the office manager, for figuring out why I belonged there.

Wonder Woman. Princess Diana of Themyscira rules.

Xander Berkeley, that fine American character actor who lends class to every film and TV show in which he appears. You may not recognize his name, but I guarantee that you know his face.

Yahoo! I'm glad I didn't own any of their stock, though.

Zorro. Johnston McCulley's masked hero resurfaced this year in a terrific comic book series from Dynamite Entertainment, written by Matt Wagner and drawn by Francesco Francavilla. Great read.

I'm thankful, friend reader, for your time, your attention, and your comments and e-mails throughout the year. May you and your loved ones — or someone else's loved ones if you don't have your own — find much for which to be grateful on this day of gratitude.

Slather an extra ladle of gravy on your turkey and stuffing. Tell your cardiologist that your Uncle Swan said it's okay.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Maverick, meet Iceman

The incoming First Family have received their official Secret Service callsigns.

President-elect Barack Obama is known to the boys with the black suits, buttons, and bad attitudes as "Renegade." Hopefully, that's not an indication that he's a Lorenzo Lamas fan.

First Lady-elect Michelle is "Renaissance." Perhaps she enjoys anachronistic cosplay. (She'd be the first First Lady since Jackie Kennedy who could make a peasant blouse and petticoat look good.)

First Daughters-elect Malia and Sasha are "Radiance" and "Rosebud." One's a little bit Charlotte's Web; the other's a little bit Citizen Kane.

The outgoing President and First Lady depart as "Trailblazer" and "Tempo." The car names make sense, given Bush 43's petroleum industry ties and the sorry state into which American automotive corporations have plummeted during his administration. (Yes, I know that the latter is not his fault. I just enjoy kicking the guy when he's down.)

Not that it would ever be pertinent, but I've given a bit of thought to the callsign I'd want were I ever to be elected Leader of the Free World. Here are a few options I came up with:
  • Earthquake. It's where I live, and it's what I do.
  • Midnight. I'm never in bed before then.
  • Flapjacks. Have you ever seen my feet?
  • Gutshot. I'm crazy enough to draw to one when I have too few outs.
  • Snickerdoodle. Mmmm... snickerdoodles.
  • Prowler. Hobie Brown should be President, doggone it.
  • Brainiac. Unless Ken Jennings gets elected first.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What's Up With That? #64: What, me read?

In an interview aired last evening on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin either couldn't or wouldn't give a specific answer to Couric's question about the news sources she reads. Here's the exchange:
Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?

Palin: I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.

Couric: What, specifically?

Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.

Can you name a few?

Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too. Alaska isn't a foreign country, where it's kind of suggested, "Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?" Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.
I'm guessing that the governor wasn't certain whether Field & Stream, Guns & Ammo, The Hockey News, and Pageantry qualified as "news sources."

In the interest of full disclosure — and in the event that I am ever called upon to serve as the Vice President of the United States — my campaign is releasing the following list of online news sources I check regularly. I don't read everything on these sites — who has that kind of time? — but I do scan all of the headlines, and read each article that seems pertinent to me.
  • SFGate, the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle, is the first site I review every day.

  • For world and national news, I read The New York Times and the network news sites, in order of preference: MSNBC, CBS News, CNN, ABC News, and FOX News.

  • For Sonoma County news, there's the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (which, continuing the full-disclosure theme, is owned by the New York Times) and our homegrown alternative weekly, the North Bay Bohemian.

  • For political updates, I'll check Politico. I don't read a lot of political blogs, but my daily review includes The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and yes, The Drudge Report, because everything's better with cheese.

  • For an aggregate sampling of everything — but mostly for entertainment, pop culture, and just plain bizarre news that I might never ferret out or stumble upon otherwise — I use TotalFARK, the expanded, subscription-only edition of
I'm SwanShadow, and I approve this message.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Behind blue eyes

I awakened this morning to the sad news that Paul Newman had passed away.

Almost immediately, I began thinking about my favorite Newman films. After considerable dithering, I narrowed the list to a baker's half-dozen.

1. The Sting. An easy selection, as it's one of my ten favorite films of all time. Newman is perfect as dissolute con artist Henry Gondorff, who teams up with tyro Johnny Hooker (about a decade too old for his youthful role) for one last big score. The scene in which a faux-drunk Gondorff fleeces mobster Doyle Lonegan (Robert Shaw) at the poker table is a classic.

2. Cool Hand Luke. One of the films of the 1960s that pioneered the antihero archetype that would become ubiquitous in the following decade. Newman's free-spirited convict with a knack for escape defined a generation of maverick leading men.

3. The Hustler / The Color of Money. Made 25 years apart, these two films chronicle the early and late stages in the career of a small-time pool shark. As "Fast Eddie" Felson, Newman compelled audiences to rethink their concept of the traditional sports hero. The return of an older, more settled, and mostly wiser Eddie won Newman his only Academy Award for acting. (He won a career retrospective Oscar in 1986, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994.)

4. The Verdict. Paul Newman speaking David Mamet dialogue — what could be better? Although I rate the preceding films more highly overall, Newman's portrayal of a morally conflicted boozehound attorney is, in my opinion, the finest performance of his career. Ironically, Mamet wrote the lead role for Newman's friend and collaborator Robert Redford, who ultimately turned the part down.

5. Harper / The Drowning Pool. This pair of detective dramas are more sentimental choices than anything else. I was an avid reader of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels when I was in high school, so I never missed an opportunity to catch either of these films — based on Macdonald books, albeit with the protagonist's surname changed to reflect Newman's success in films whose titles began with "H" (i.e., The Hustler, Hud, Hombre).

6. Torn Curtain. Neither Newman nor director Alfred Hitchcock liked the way this Cold War suspense thriller turned out. I personally think it's one of Hitch's better late-period films, and Newman gives an interesting, somewhat atypical performance opposite Julie Andrews.

Yes, I know — you were waiting for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Funny thing: As much as I love The Sting, I'm not a real fan of Newman, Redford, and director George Roy Hill's earlier team-up. My preferences in '60s Westerns run toward Sergio Leone — thus, like Roger Ebert, I find Butch and Sundance too flimsy and lightweight for my taste.

In addition to being a consummate actor, Paul Newman made his mark on the world as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, sportsman, and political and social activist. He and his wife, fellow Academy Award winner Joanne Woodward, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January of this year — an accomplishment as noteworthy as any in Newman's amazingly full life.

The world will be dimmer without Newman's crystal blue gaze.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wailing at the Wall of Fame

Earlier this week, the San Francisco Giants unveiled their new Wall of Fame, with plaques celebrating 43 players who have made significant contributions to the team's on-field success during its 50 years by the Bay.

As inevitably occurs with sporting honors, the Giants Wall of Fame touched off a firestorm of controversy. The criteria established by Giants management for including players on the wall were in themselves a target for debate: Only retired players who spent nine or more seasons with the Giants, or who played a minimum of five seasons in San Francisco, with at least one All-Star Game selection during that period, can be enshrined.

The retirement requirement (hey, I'm a poet!) excluded the Giants' biggest star of the last two decades, Barry Bonds, who though not playing anywhere at present is not officially retired. The Giants did, however, announce that wall space has already been reserved for Bonds and four other noteworthy current (infielder Rich Aurilia) and former (second baseman Jeff Kent and pitchers Jason Schmidt and Shawn Estes) Giants, whose plaques will be installed once they hang up their spikes.

The nine-year/five-with-an-All-Star criterion left behind such popular ex-Giants as shortstop Jose Uribe, linchpin of the San Francisco infield in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and pitcher Dave Dravecky, whose return to the mound following a bout with cancer helped inspire the pennant-winning team of 1989. Uribe, never an All-Star, left the Giants after eight years; Dravecky's fondly remembered tenure in orange and black spanned only parts of three seasons.

Most of the controversy surrounding the wall, though, points to the players who made the cut, rather than to those who missed it. Howls of dismay arose from Giants fans everywhere when Johnnie LeMaster, a light-hitting, weak-fielding shortstop so despised by the Candlestick Park faithful that he once took the field wearing a jersey with "BOO" stitched on the back, received a plaque. The Wall's creator, the Giants' soon-to-retire managing general partner Peter Magowan, shrugged and said of LeMaster, "He was here ten years. He must have done something right." Umm... what?

Given that I've been following the Giants for nearly 35 years — 70 percent of the club's San Francisco era — I feel eminently qualified to offer my own assessment of the 43 Wall-of-Famers. (I'd offer it even if I weren't so eminently qualified, because that's how I roll.) I'll break the group down into four categories, as you'll see below.

First, the No-Brainers. Without any of these, the Wall of Fame would be a travesty. Start with the five San Francisco Giants players currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame:
  • Willie Mays.
  • Willie McCovey.
  • Juan Marichal.
  • Orlando Cepeda.
  • Gaylord Perry.
'Nuff said, right? To these mortal locks, I'll add:
  • Third baseman Matt Williams (National League Most Valuable Player runner-up in 1994; three Silver Slugger Awards as a Giant).
  • 1989 NL MVP Kevin Mitchell.
  • The two clutch-hitting Clarks, Jack and Will "the Thrill."
  • 1967 Cy Young winner Mike McCormick.
Next up, the Solid Selections. All of these are choices whose worthiness no knowledgeable Giants fan should contest.
  • Bobby Bonds. At his peak in a Giants uniform.
  • Fan-favorite pitcher Vida Blue.
  • Third baseman Darrell Evans. Hard to argue with all those (mostly meaningless) home runs.
  • Felipe Alou, not a great manager but a vastly undervalued player.
  • Star relievers Robb Nen, Rod "Shooter" Beck, and Greg "Moon Man" Minton.
  • Kirk Rueter, who won more games as a southpaw than any other San Francisco pitcher.
  • J.T. Snow, one of the best defensive first basemen ever.
  • Second baseman Robby Thompson, a stalwart for a decade.
  • Third baseman Jim Ray Hart, who posted five creditable seasons before beginning a long, slow slide into mediocrity.
Then come the Questionable Calls. None of these inclusions either excites or outrages me. If I were compiling a Giants Wall of Fame, I'd probably pass on most of these, with a couple of exceptions that I'll note.
  • Infielder Jim Davenport. As manager, Davvy presided over the Giants' worst season, in 1985.
  • Starting pitchers John Burkett and Mike Krukow. Now a beloved broadcaster, Krukow had one 20-win season in a mostly mediocre Giants career. Burkett was a little better pitcher than Krukow, and also one heck of a bowler.
  • Relief pitcher Gary Lavelle, for years the Giants' bullpen stopper.
  • Catchers Tom Haller and Kirt Manwaring. I could make a good argument for Manwaring. He couldn't hit a lick, but he was widely regarded as one of the best defensive backstops of his day, as well as an expert handler of pitchers. Haller later served as the Giants' general manager.
  • Outfielders Chili Davis and Jeffrey "Hac-Man" Leonard. Chili was a better player than most people realize — he finished his career with 350 home runs. But he enjoyed most of his best seasons after he left the Giants. Hac-Man was never as good as his demeanor and reputation.
And now, the final category: What Are We, Kidding? (I believe that speaks for itself.)
  • Pitchers Jim Barr, Bob Bolin, Jeff Brantley, Scott Garrelts, Atlee Hammaker, Stu Miller, Randy Moffitt, John Montefusco, and Rick Reuschel. Most of these guys were middling pitchers who had a fair year or two amid careers of steaming nothingness. Hammaker wasn't even that good — Herb Caen, the long-time San Francisco Chronicle columnist, once theorized that the only reason Hammaker stayed on the Giants' roster was that he was then-manager Roger Craig's illegitimate son. (Herb was joshing. I think.) Reuschel was a terrific pitcher for years with the Chicago Cubs, but he was playing out the string by the time he arrived in San Francisco. He put up a couple of okay years here, but his career seasons were long behind him.
  • Infielders Chris Speier, Tito Fuentes, and the aforementioned Johnnie LeMaster. Speier was a serviceable, if thoroughly unremarkable, shortstop. Fuentes and LeMaster may have been the two worst defensive infielders ever to play for the Giants, with the notable exception of the Bob Brenly third base experiment.
  • Speaking of Brenly, slot him and fellow catcher Dick Dietz here. Brenly was a terrific leader in the clubhouse, but he was an average catcher at best, both on offense and defense. Dietz had one — count it, one — remarkable campaign, in 1970 (.300 average, 107 RBI).

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One question

Have you ever said to yourself, "If only I could ask [insert name of noteworthy individual here] one question..."?

So have I. (I mean, I've said it to myself. Not to yourself. Clear? Moving on...)

A few of my burning queries follow.
  • To Larry King: Marriage — any advice?

  • To Mel Gibson: Did you skip all of the pages in the Bible that mention that Jesus was a Jew?

  • To Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis: How far will you need to run your legacy into the sewer before you destroy it forever?

  • To Shia LaBeouf: Why not Target?

  • To Tom Cruise: You do know that L. Ron Hubbard was just a hack genre writer trying to hustle a buck, and not, like, some kind of spiritual visionary... don't you?

  • To Jerry Seinfeld: Can you tell a joke that might actually make me laugh?

  • To Eddie Izzard: Cake, or death?

  • To Ellen Degeneres: Did you really think anyone was surprised when you came out? (Because, Mr. Wrong? So not convincing.)

  • To Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris: Any thoughts on the question I just asked Ellen?

  • To Eddie Murphy: Who are you, and what did you do with the guy who was in 48HRS and the original Beverly Hills Cop?

  • To Donald Trump: Seriously... what's up with the hair?

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Olympic bling from Beijing

As the familiar five-ringed flag sinks slowly into the Beijing sunset, here are the sights, sounds, and random synapse-firings that I'll carry away from the Games of the XXIX Olympiad:
  • So, Michael Phelps... what are going to do for an encore? You could start by buying Jason Lezak a Porsche.

  • Baseball and softball are no longer worthy to be called Olympic sports, but synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics — or, as KJ calls it, "that Cirque du Soleil thing" — stay? Well, plug my nose with a rubber clip and tie me up with a ribbon.

  • Nothing against beach volleyball — and certainly nothing against our two gold medal-winning teams, Misty May-Treanor / Kerri Walsh and Phil Dalhausser / Todd Rogers — but... NBC sure aired a surfeit of beach volleyball, didn't they?

  • There's a reason why the two Americans competing in the modern pentathlon finished 19th and 21st: They're the only two people in the United States who know what the modern pentathlon is.

  • Congratulations to my former schoolmate — we were students at Pepperdine at the same time — Terry Schroeder for coaching the U.S. men's water polo team to a silver medal. I still think the game would be more fun with horses.

  • Call me crazy, but I believe the members of the Chinese diving team possess the mutant power to separate water molecules telepathically. That's the only way I can figure that they can make so little splash.

  • Speaking of diving, Laura Wilkinson reminds me of my friend Phil's wife. I don't know whether Jane dives, though.

  • Most appropriately named athlete: Usain Bolt. It's absolutely usain how fast that guy is.

  • I don't know what happens to rifleman Matthew Emmons during the Olympic three-positions rifle event, but he's gotta be seeking therapy after blowing a gold medal on his final shot in two consecutive Games.

  • Probably no competitor in the Games overcame more painful and immediate personal tragedy than U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose father-in-law was killed, and his mother-in-law seriously wounded, in a random act of violence while touring Beijing. I'm sure that a gold medal is small consolation, but I'm glad Hugh got one anyway.

  • Hey, Dara Torres: Way to represent for the over-40 crowd. Children of the '60s rule!

  • I hope that decathlon gold medalist and unofficial "World's Greatest Athlete" Bryan Clay doesn't go all crazy with the plastic surgery in later life, like a certain predecessor who shall go nameless here. (***cough***BruceJenner***cough***)

  • Needing a dose of graciousness: American speedster Jeremy Wariner. Who tinkled on your cornflakes, Jeremy?

  • Two words for the French 4x100 meter freestyle relay team: Crush this.

  • Happiest guy to win a bronze medal: David Neville, who dove across the finish line to place third in the men's 400 meters, and afterward beamed like a six-year-old at Christmas.

  • It's amazing — and more than a trifle tragic — to realize that, 20 years after she set them (and nearly a decade after her death), the late Florence Griffith-Joyner still holds the women's world records at both 100 and 200 meters.

  • Of course the Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the distance races. Those guys run farther than that just to find breakfast.

  • I thought the American gymnasts, women and men, showed beaucoup class throughout the competition. Shawn, Nastia, Alicia and the rest are welcome to come hang out with my daughter anytime.

  • Way to go, Redeem Team, for living up to the hype.

  • Our local hero, cyclist Levi Leipheimer, bagged a bronze medal in the men's time trial. You go, Levi!

  • My daughter KM, ever the horsewoman, was thrilled when the U.S. equestrians (including KM's heroine, Beezie Madden) won the team-jumping gold. This bugs me, however: Why do the riders get the medals when the horses do all the work?

  • Dunderhead of the Games: Cuban taekwondo competitor (I'm No) Angel Matos, who kicked a referee in the face after getting disqualified for overextending an injury timeout. Enjoy the lifetime ban, loser.

  • And of course, the Chinese gymnasts are all 16. In dog years.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

My dinner with Eugene

On Thursday, KJ and I drove the 530 miles from our sleepy Wine Country hamlet to Eugene, Oregon. (Okay, to be excruciatingly accurate, I drove while KJ alternated between navigating and napping.)

The trip was occasioned by the funeral of KJ's paternal grandmother, who passed away on Sunday. Due to lingering aftereffects of her first surgery for breast cancer eight years ago, KJ can't travel by air any longer, so we loaded up her parents' spiffy new Honda CR-V (they flew to Portland earlier in the week, and rode down to Eugene with relatives) and headed off.

I had been to Eugene once before -- a dozen or so years ago, I had a week-long speaking engagement there. On that trip, I had jetted directly to Eugene and back. This week's highway junket provided an opportunity to see several hundred miles of my adopted home state -- and our neighbor to the north -- that I had never visited previously. Which, of course, meant that I did more than a little thinking out loud about the sights I observed along the journey. My mental jottings follow.
  • Mount Shasta looks even more majestic in real life than in silhouette on the label of a soda can.

  • While I'm on the subject, why isn't the city of Mount Shasta -- or Mount Shasta itself, for that matter -- located in Shasta County?

  • KJ, an Oregon native, says she can't recall ever seeing the water level in Lake Shasta as low as it is right now. I'll have to take her word for it, because I've never seen Lake Shasta before.

  • No offense to the fine residents of Drain, Oregon intended, but seriously... Drain is a dreadful name for a town.

  • The taxpayers of the Beaver State are definitely getting their money's worth out of their freeway improvement program. And all this time I thought we were suffering through a boatload of highway renovation here in Sonoma County. I'll never complain again. (We'll see how long that lasts.)

  • Medford, Oregon is a lousy place to spend 40 minutes in stop-and-go traffic on a 100-degree day due to a motor vehicle accident on a construction-impacted freeway. I'm sure Medford's peachy on just about any other day, but dang, that sucked.

  • Just in case you ever decide to stay there, the wireless network at the Campus Inn in downtown Eugene blows swamp water. I had to stand in the parking lot pointing my laptop at the hotel office to access enough of a wi-fi connection to download my e-mail. Inside our room, even with the back of the computer pressed against the window glass, I couldn't get any signal. Lame.

  • Speaking of lame, we waited an ungodly amount of time for KJ's hibachi chicken dinner at the Sizzler near the Gateway Mall in Springfield. We were beginning to think someone in the kitchen was personally incubating eggs into chicks. The waitress was sweetly apologetic, but still... get a move on, people.

  • I'm not really an automotive aficionado, but that Honda CR-V is a sweet ride. If you're in the market for something more substantial than a shoebox but smaller than a traditional minivan, you could do worse.

  • The Willamette River makes a lovely turn through Eugene and the surrounding area. In 100-degree heat, one might be tempted to take a dip.

  • I'm sure that someone had what seemed at the time an excellent reason for building a city on the site of Red Bluff, California, but I'll be doggoned if I can figure out what it might have been. If Red Bluff isn't the armpit of the universe, you can smell it from there.

  • The dilapidated restroom at one gas station where we refueled had a sign on its wall reading, "This restroom is periodically inspected to ensure your comfort and convenience." From the look of the place, the "period" in question must have been the Jurassic.

  • If all the billboards and TV commercials are any indication, Abby's Legendary Pizza is one of the most popular franchise eateries in Oregon. I wasn't even aware that my dog owned a pizzeria chain. I'm going to have to start charging her rent.

  • I hope the chatty waitress at the Chevy's in Redding had a safe trip to Pensacola.

  • Things are alike all over: Just like back home, the Eugene/Springfield area has two shopping malls -- one upscale and apparently thriving (they call theirs Valley River Center, we call ours Santa Rosa Plaza), the other older and downmarket, with numerous empty storefronts (theirs is the Gateway Mall, ours is Coddingtown).

  • Southern Oregon is the tree capital of the known world. If you're shopping for evergreens, they can spare a couple.

  • One-word memo to the Saturday morning desk clerk at the Campus Inn: Decaf.

  • I was disappointed to discover that, despite the name, there are no tributes to the great Eugene Finerman anywhere in Eugene. Pity.

  • Both of the times I've been to Oregon, I've come home with nasty sinus infections. Perhaps I'm allergic to beavers.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hey, Hulk: Smash this

Yesterday, while basking in the glow of a rare break in my midday schedule, I saw The Incredible Hulk.

I was underwhelmed.

First, you have to understand that I was one of the few comics fans who actually enjoyed Ang Lee's Hulk film of five years ago. It wasn't a perfect film by any stretch — the grand climax of the story, while innovative, simply didn't work for me. Still, I found Lee's Hulk a well-crafted and thoughtful reimagining of the venerable Marvel Comics character.

I can also understand why hardcore Hulk fans didn't care for Lee's film. That's probably the reason why we part company in our evaluation of it. Although I've been reading Marvel comics for more than 40 years, I've never really been a Hulk fan. Even though the Hulk costarred in one of my favorite comic series of the 1970s, The Defenders, the book read better (in my opinion) after the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner — another character I was never all that crazy about — departed the team in favor of C-listers like the Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and Hellcat. The fact Lee tried to do something different with the character, therefore, helped it resonate with me more than if he'd simply followed the formula of the original comics, or — heaven forfend — the execrable TV series from the '70s.

Which brings me to Louis Leterrier's movie, which wants so desperately to be both of those things. Only louder, longer, and more expensive.

Let's try a point-by-point view.

Bruce Banner: Eric Bana vs. Edward Norton. Physically, Norton has the edge in replicating the Bruce Banner of the comic books — he's lean, wiry, all rabbity intensity and nervous energy. The brawny Bana, by comparison, is practically Hulkian, without any aid from the FX department. Norton is by far the superior thespian — Bana is no slouch, mind you, but Norton is one of the four or five best film actors of his generation. Oddly, though, Norton's performance sounds too many of the same notes again and again — as much as Bana's Banner (I love the sound of that) was criticized by some as being too flat in affect, Norton's spins too far in the opposite direction. I could believe Bana as a detached, self-absorbed, hyperbrilliant scientist. Norton just seemed like a computer nerd on a caffeine jag. Winner: Bana, by a nose.

Betty Ross: Jennifer Connelly vs. Liv Tyler. That pretty well sums it up, doesn't it? You simply can't replace Connelly's warmth and vulnerability — to say nothing of her Oscar-worthy acting chops — with Tyler's dewy-eyed, Bambi-in-headlights vapidness. As Stan Lee himself would put it, 'nuff said. Winner: Connelly, in a rout.

General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross: Sam Elliott vs. William Hurt. Neither Elliott nor Hurt much resembles, either in appearance or personality, the over-the-top Ross of the Silver Age comics. Which is a good thing, in both instances. Elliott, though, found a richness and multifaceted humanity in the role that is utterly lacking in Hurt's peculiarly downbeat take. Elliott's General Ross is perhaps too decent a man to make a compelling villain; Hurt's is just too boring to care about, one way or the other. Winner: Elliott.

Whacked-out bad guy: Nick Nolte vs. Tim Roth. Now, I like Roth's work a great deal. I believe that in his character's fleeting nanoseconds of thematic development, he does a nice job with his obsessive super-soldier turned Son of Godzilla. But the script doesn't give him anything at all to work with... much like the other actors involved. Nolte, on the other hand, took a similarly underwritten role and flat-out blew the roof off the sucker. People laughed when Nolte nabbed an Oscar nomination for his razor's edge turn in Hulk. I thought the man deserved... well, if not an Academy Award, then maybe a year in an outpatient clinic. Winner: Call this one a tie.

Director: Ang Lee vs. Louis Leterrier. Let's see... Sense and Sensibility; The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain. Or... Transporter 2. If you want a film with grace, sensitivity, and psychological depth, you hire the first guy. If you want stuff blowed up real good, you get the other guy. Leterrier's not a bad action director; as the "artistic director" on the first Transporter film (he settled for a lesser credit behind lead director Corey Yuen due to since-changed Directors Guild rules), he showed a flair for hyperkinetic violence. But comparing him to Ang Lee is like comparing a talented amateur to Rembrandt. Don't even try. Winner: What are you, kidding me? It's Ang "The Fang" Lee, baby.

Special effects: Excess vs. wretched excess. This is, after all, where the purple pants hit the street, correct? For all the advancements in CGI technology over the past five years, I thought the Hulk looked more Hulk-like — that is, more in line with the depiction of the character I most remember from my Marvel fanboy youth; the Herb Trimpe-Marie Severin Hulk — in the earlier movie. The new Hulk seems strangely proportioned, with a too-small head and too-sharp features. (I realize that the CGI animators in both cases used the lead actor's face as a model for their work. I'm just saying that Eric Bana's features made for a more realistic Hulk than Edward Norton's.) The FX in Incredible Hulk also suffer from Transformers syndrome: too much frenzied motion, too much splatter, too much too-muchness. At least in Ang Lee's film, the eye could always follow the action without the brain getting left three steps behind. Still, if you dig spectacle for spectacle's sake — and that appears to be what the teeming hordes who hated Lee's Hulk wanted — Leterrier delivers what you crave, in spades. Winner: The accounting department at Marvel.

Is the new Hulk film good or bad? That depends on your tastes. If all you want from your Hulk is sound and fury, signifying major league box office, The Incredible Hulk may be just your cup of gamma-irradiated tea. If you prefer a little more meat for the cerebellum with your Hulk-smashed potatoes, you'll probably leave the theater jonesing for earplugs and a hit of antinausea medication.

Either way, if you buy a ticket, you'll have the folks at Marvel seeing green.

Personal postscript: For me, the funniest moment in The Incredible Hulk was the scene in which Edward Norton's Bruce Banner encounters a security guard played by Lou Ferrigno, the champion bodybuilder who Hulked out in a fright wig and verdant makeup in the old TV series. (Ferrigno also provided the Hulk's vocalizations for the new film's soundtrack.) When Norton and Ferrigno shook hands, I half-expected Ferrigno's manager to leap into the frame and demand that Norton pony up a Jackson for the privilege of clasping Lou's giant mitt. Anyone who's ever seen Ferrigno shilling his photos and autographs at a comics convention has witnessed that sequence of events, and knows exactly what I'm talking about.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: The Next Food Network Star

Two seasons ago, local restaurant personality Guy Fieri took The Next Food Network Star by storm, winning his own cooking show — the hit Guy's Big Bite — and launching a TV career that soon made him ubiquitous on the cable channel.

Last season, a charisma-challenged field of contestants served up a tainted victor — San Diego soccer mom Amy Finley, who after being voted off returned to the show when another contestant (Joshua "JAG" Garcia) was dismissed for fabricating his culinary and military résumés. Amy's six-episode series, The Gourmet Next Star, boasted all the excitement of drying model cement, and swiftly vanished from the airwaves.

So what does this season's gang of ten tele-chef wannabes look like?
  • Aaron McCargo Jr. is the executive chef at a New Jersey hospital. I've eaten hospital food, and I've seen New Jersey. If either is any indication, I don't hold out much hope for Aaron.

  • Adam Gertler is an aspiring actor and waiter — as though that isn't redundant — who used to own a barbecue joint in Philadelphia. He strikes me as kind of goofy and annoying.

  • If Cory Kahaney's name sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because she's a stand-up comedian who made the finals of Last Comic Standing a few seasons ago. Cory's not laughing now, because she was the first contestant booted off in her latest competitive reality show challenge. Seeya, Cory.

  • Jeffrey Vaden is a caterer who, at 6'5", towers over his fellow contestants. For some reason, he reminds me a little of Geoffrey Holder, the actor from Trinidad who used to do those 7-Up commercials back in the day.

  • Jennifer Cochrane is the executive chef at a pair of restaurants in Rhode Island. Given the size of Rhode Island, those may be the only two restaurants in the entire state. She's working the "suffering single mom" angle way too hard for my taste.

  • Kelsey Nixon lost me the moment she referred to herself in her bio as "Mini Martha Stewart." She's blonde, cheerleader-chirpy, and from Utah, which I believe adds up to another redundancy. She's already had her own cooking show on local television. As far as I'm concerned, that was one Kelsey show too many. The world does not need a mini Martha Stewart. I'm not entirely sure we need the full-sized version.

  • Kevin Roberts, a chef and cookbook author from San Diego, is perhaps the most laid-back contestant in the group. Chalk at least some of that up to his experience as a culinary commentator for a radio station. I find him bland and unremarkable, but his background should help.

  • As far as I'm concerned, restaurateur and former pageant queen Lisa Garza can pack up her attitude and her Louise Brooks hairdo, and boogie on back to Dallas anytime now. She's smug, self-important, and insufferable — all of which helped land her in the bottom two. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Miss Thing.

  • Nipa Bhatt is one of the more interesting options — her specialty is Indian food, and Food Network tends to be lacking in the ethnic cuisine department. She's smart, focused, and confident to a fault, but she might come off as a mite too serious (even grim) for weekly TV.

  • Youngster Shane Lyons — he's only 20, and already a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America — is a former child actor who costarred on Nickelodeon's All That a few years ago. Now he's a caterer in Colorado Springs. Shane broke down in tears during the first evaluation session with the judges. ("There's no crying in cooking!") He's probably had more face time on camera than any contestant except the now-departed Cory, but he'll have to man up if he wants to stick around.
It's hard to pick a single early favorite after the first episode, but if I had to bet, I'd put my money on a Jennifer/Kelsey final. They both have the kind of telegenic, upbeat (read: gratingly perky) personalities that Food Network favors. Time, as the saying goes, will tell.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Time for your singout, America

Now that David Archuleta's father Jeff has been booted from the American Idol set due to his obsessive stage-motherish antics (not to mention his rearranging of one of the songs his son performed on the show, resulting in hefty royalties payouts by Idol's producers)...'s Uncle Swan's Top Five Additional People Who Need to Be Voted Off Idol, and Soon:

5. Randy "Not Michael's Little Brother" Jackson. I love Journey as much as the next '70s holdover, but seriously, it's time for Randy to hit the bricks. Even though "The Dawg" is the only Idol judge with legitimate musical credentials (you're not still clinging to the illusion that Paula actually sang "Straight Up" and "Cold Hearted Snake," are you?), his inane repetitions of the same tired clichés every week wore out their welcome at least three seasons ago. It ain't workin' for me any more, Dawg.

4. Ryan "I'm Too Sexy for My" Seacrest. Two words: Seacrest? Out. Get over yourself, Gel Boy.

3. The instigator of the weekly Ford Motor Company "pimpmercials." Look, I understand economics. I know that Ford blows a ginormous chunk of change every week to have the surviving Idols lip-synch and grimace to some stale pop tune. I realize that those funds are, in large measure, responsible for keeping the show on the air. But if I wanted to watch abysmal musical theater, I'd buy a ticket to a local high school production, or the nearest theme park. I don't need these camp comedies beamed into my living room. Oh, and Ford? Try making some cars you don't have to pimp.

2. Every celebrity mentor who hasn't had a Top Ten pop hit this millennium, or who can recall the Kennedy administration firsthand. Is it any wonder that young viewers are deserting Idol in droves, when the producers' idea of hip, happening musical guests includes Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, and Andrew Lloyd Webber? How did the show turn into AARP Idol all of a sudden?

1. Paula "Putting the Coca Back in Cola" Abdul. Enough already with the insipid, rambling, pharmaceutically fueled commentary, already. If I have to endure one more outburst of Paula's torturous Amy Winehouse imitation — or another cellophane-sheer denial by Seacrest of what every American with a television set or Internet connection can see and hear with his or her own God-installed sensory apparatus — I'm going to fly to Hollywood and sniff Paula's Coke tumbler myself.

Get to stepping, the lot of you.

And take Little Archie and his dad with you.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

For what it's worth

Five years.

3,990 American lives.

29,314 Americans wounded.

Over $512 billion (with a B) spent.

No end in sight.

"It's worth it." — George W. Bush

You be the judge.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLII commercials

At least the game was exciting.

Since the last vestiges of the 49ers dynasty are more than a decade in the rear-view mirror, in recent years I've mostly watched the Super Bowl to check out the commercials.

It's a good thing that Super Bowl Extra-Large Plus Two turned out to be a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire funfest, because this year's Super Bowl ads? Weaker than that Vitamin Water that Shaq the jockey was hawking.

These were the most memorable of a largely forgettable collection:
  • Bud Light: Man Breathes Fire. Any commercial that involves singeing a cat scores in my book. You know how I feel about cats.

  • Tide To Go: Job Interview. For my money, this one did everything an ad is supposed to do: it caught my attention; it stuck in my memory; and most important of all, it made me want to buy the product.

  • Budweiser: Rocky the Clydesdale. Yes, it was cute and hokey, but I loved the horse who finally made the Budweiser coach-pulling team after umpteen attempts, with a little help from his friend the Dalmatian.

  • Planters Nuts: A Dab of Cashew Will Do Ya. A homely woman rocks the pheromone boost she gets from rubbing cashews into her pulse points. This one was all kinds of creepy and weird, but it worked for me.

  • Coca-Cola: Macy's Parade. Three giant balloons get into a fight over a bottle of Coke. Charlie Brown wins. I'm not sure it made me want to slug down a Coke, but it was funny and unique. Plus, it's Charlie Brown, man. Charlie Brown rules.

  • SoBe Life Water: Thriller. Naomi Campbell zombie-dancing with animated lizards to the King of Pop's venerable classic. At least Michael didn't put in an appearance.

  • T-Mobile: Charles Barkley Out-Parties Dwyane Wade. The Round Mound of Rebound still has the magic. Comedy gold.
There were, of course, far more spots that I didn't find amusing or compelling:Wake me up in time for the next Super Bowl. Or better yet, for the Iron Man movie.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What were you doing New Year's Eve?

Happy New Year to every friend and associate of this fine blog. May 2008 bring you and your loved ones tremendous good, and none ill.

Whatever 2008 may deliver, we can be assured of one certainty: People will continue to behave in stupid ways. As proof of this assertion, we offer the following, all of which occurred within the final 24 hours of 2007:There's a brightness control on my computer monitor, but adjusting it doesn't make the people I read about on the Internet any brighter. I doubt that will change in 2008.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sweeping up the reindeer droppings

Another Christmas is fading into the annals of history. As usual, my family has been more gracious to me than I deserve. And as usual, I wish I'd had a few thousand dollars to toss around while I was shopping for them.

Well-fed and happy, however, I think we're all grateful for one more Christmas. We're more acutely aware than some that it's never a given.

Speaking of given... let's run the highlights.
  • For the sharp-dressed man in me: Several nice shirts and pairs of dress-casual trousers. I rarely — okay, never — buy clothing for myself, so such gifts are always welcome.

  • For the sharp-bladed objects freak in me: Two new pocketknives. The Smith & Wesson scrimshaw folder will mostly be a display item, but the Kershaw Needs Work has been busy on package-opening duty since I received it last night. I'll write more about the latter in a "What's in My Pocket?" post, coming soon.

  • For the comics geek in me: Matching copies of The Marvel Encyclopedia and The DC Comics Encyclopedia. Great reference works that will come in handy for future art commission projects and Comic Art Fridays. Santa also left a gift certificate for my friendly neighborhood comics shop.

  • For the gadget geek in me: A Sony digital voice recorder. Terrific for recording interviews, chorus rehearsals, and quick memos to my increasingly absent-minded self. Also, a projection clock that automatically sets itself to atomic time. I'll always be a little nervous when it hits midnight.

  • For the sports geek in me: Two electronic sports trivia games. Obsessed With Baseball has already been given ample opportunity to humiliate my knowledge of the national pastime.

  • For the infomaniac in me: The 19th edition of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. Always useful during those marathon sessions you-know-where.

  • For the cinemaniac in me: From my daughter, DVDs of The Terminal and Mystic River. Spielberg and Eastwood — how can you go wrong?

  • For the chef in me: A few handy kitchen gadgets, including a new battery-operated can opener and a sure-grip spatula.
I bought KJ some new clothes, including the outfit she wore to celebrate Christmas today. I also got her a pro-quality FoodSaver, which I've wanted to give her ever since I wrote copy for the manufacturer's Christmas catalog a few years back.

My personal gift to KM was a silver bracelet — ironically, her mom bought her a bracelet (albeit a very different one) also. Now what KM's officially an adult, it's time to indoctrinate her into every American woman's obsession: jewelry.

I hope you got something nifty from someone in your life, and that you shared some wonderful things with those around you as well.

Happy Christmas to all... and to all, a special two-hour edition of Deal or No Deal.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thursday's blog has far to go

Autumn has finally arrived here in Wine Country. As the rain pitter-patters on the roof overhead and a William Friedkin-directed episode of CSI blares from the idiot box, let's check out the happenings in the rest of the pop culture world.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Just another meme on Monday

The meme fairy must have been busy lately, because I got tagged with two today.

One I addressed privately (thanks, Donna; I'll have Santa drop a lump of coal in your stocking in exchange), but since the other came via MCF, and I owe him a solid for creating my spiffy new header graphic, I'll suck it up and deal.

Here's the premise: Take a list of characteristics that, according to some astrologer somewhere, are supposed to pertain to people born in your birth month, and evaluate which ones apply to you and which do not.

I was born in December — I'll be accepting gifts and well-wishes on the 19th — so here's my list. Bold text is "yes, that describes me," strike-through is "no, I'm nothing like that."
  • Loyal and generous. I can be either or both, when it suits me.
  • Sexy. Not according to People Magazine, but I think I've got skills.
  • Patriotic. Not especially. I think it's arrogant to be fanatical about something you didn't have anything to do with, such as the country where you were born.
  • Active in games and interactions. Does Jeopardy! count? Because otherwise, no.
  • Impatient and hasty. That's the ADD talking.
  • Ambitious. Not even remotely. I am the least career-driven, workaholic individual you're likely to encounter.
  • Influential in organizations. Usually beyond my desire. I'm a lousy team player. I prefer to control my area of expertise, and to be left alone to do it.
  • Fun to be with. With the right person, and when I feel like it.
  • Loves to socialize. I am the poster child for antisociality.
  • Loves praises. Sure, but who doesn't? Does anyone really enjoy criticism?
  • Loves attention. Ditto.
  • Loves to be loved. Triple ditto.
  • Honest and trustworthy. Far less than you'd think. Then again, if I'm being honest in admitting to being dishonest, what does that tell you? And how would you know, anyway?
  • Not pretending. All the world's a stage. And Uncle Swan, merely a player.
  • Short tempered. It takes quite a charge to make me angry. Which is good, because you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.
  • Changing personality. I've grown older and perhaps wiser, but I don't believe my personality has changed in any fundamental way since I was in grade school.
  • Not egotistic. I laugh at this one. I was raised an only child in an emotionally distant family. I am the very definition of self-importance. Why do you think I blog?
  • Take high pride in oneself. See above.
  • Hates restrictions. I'm pretty risk-averse for the most part. I like knowing where the boundaries are.
  • Loves to joke. A priest, a rabbi, and Tom Cruise walk into a bar...
  • Good sense of humor. I'll leave it to the reader to determine whether the adjective "good" applies.
  • Logical. I tend to think in circuitous patterns. It's often not the logic that others would understand or appreciate — which is why I tend to see angles and possibilities that most people don't — but it's internally logical.
So there you have it. Roughly 50/50.

For the record, I believe the astrology is the worst kind of scam — it's pseudoreligion, designed to Hoover money out of the pockets of the weak-brained and gullible.

A simple demonstration: I remember seeing this news story years ago on ABC. Investigative reporter John Stossel handed a roomful of people, all with differing birth dates, written personality profiles that were supposed to be based on their horoscopes. When Stossel asked the participants how many of their profiles reflected their true personalities, about 90 percent raised their hands. Stossel then instructed the participants to exchange profiles with the person seated next to them.

You guessed it: They all received the exact same profile.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Collector's Edition

We come once again, by the grace of the Almighty, to the fourth Thursday in yet another November. With the aroma of roast turkey and pumpkin pie wafting in the air, let's peruse our annual alphabetical analysis of the diverse things your Uncle Swan is thankful for today.

Acetylsalicylic acid — aspirin, if you please. Still one of the world's great wonder drugs after 150 years.

Back Issue, that spectacular bimonthly magazine edited by Michael Eury. It chronicles the comics of the 1970s and '80s, and the people who created them. It's like a mainline infusion of blissful nostalgia every eight weeks.

Coffee. Nothing's better — or more vital for survival — in the morning. Except maybe air.

Denzel Washington, the finest American actor working today. I'm watching Inside Man as I compose this post. Look up charisma in the cinematic dictionary, and there's Denzel's picture.

Exchange Bank. So far, they've managed never to lose a cent of my money. The drive-through tellers at the Rohnert Park branch always remember my name.

Fitz and Brooks, kicking sports talk old-school weekdays from noon until three on KNBR 680, "The Sports Leader." Bob Fitzgerald and Rod Brooks may well be brothers from different mothers. Only Rod is actually a brother, but you know what I mean.

God. He's the reason everything else exists.

Horses, my daughter's favorite animals, next to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.

Inkers, making comic book pencil art come alive. Thanks to Bob Almond, Joe Rubinstein, and Bob McLeod, who all did splendiferous inking commissions for me this year.

James Bond, MI6 Agent 007. Shaken, but never stirred. I'm still a Connery man after all these years, but that Daniel Craig fellow isn't half bad.

KJ and KM, my raisons d'etre.

Loco moco, the best in Hawaiian plate lunch. Sticky rice, hamburger patties, with fried eggs on top, smothered in brown gravy. I'd drive up to Ohana right now if they were open at this hour.

Mugs, chronicling the places I've been, the events I've witnessed, and things that just plain fascinate me. I need more wall space to hang them, at least until the next big quake.

Newsarama, bringing you all the comics industry news that's fit to download.

Ocean's Eleven, either the Sinatra-Dino-Sammy original or the Clooney-Pitt-Damon remake. It's Vegas, baby.

PokerStars. I'm SwanShadow. Come play with me.

Quizno's. They got a pepper bar! We love the subs, but we miss the spongmonkeys.

Reading glasses, my constant reminder that these old eyes ain't what they used to be, and they were never any great shakes to begin with.

Southwest Airlines, for not drilling me into the earth from 35,000 feet — or losing my luggage — on either of the trips I took with them this year.

Target. You need stuff, and they have it.

Underwear. I'm a briefs guy. Fruit of the Loom. Plain white. I know: Too much information. Sue me.

Voices in Harmony, my chorus. I love all 100-plus of you guys, in a strictly male bonding sort of way. We make magic every Tuesday night. Most weeks, I don't even mind the 200-mile round trip commute to rehearsal.

Wikipedia, not always accurate, but mighty handy.

Xenophilia, because I love strange things. Even you, if you're strange.

You Don't Know Jack, the funniest online trivia game ever. I look eagerly forward to a fresh dose every Monday.

Zombie Jamboree: Back to back, belly to belly; well, I don't give a damn, 'cause I'm stone dead already. Do it, Rockapella!

Enjoy your Turkey Day, friend reader. (Or your Tofurkey Day, if you happen to be a vegetarian. I think you're crazy, but that's on you.) Hug the people you love. Let them know how grateful you are for the blessings they bring to your life.

And don't make them wait until next November to hear it again.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Curse you, Matt Damon

Well, it's happened yet again.

I've been passed over by People Magazine for the annual Sexiest Man Alive honors. This year, Matt Damon got the nod.

I'm so much sexier than Matt Damon, it's not even funny. Matt Damon looks like the dweeby kid brother of your best friend from high school. He's Good Will Hunting, for pity's sake.

That's the problem with America: No one knows real masculine pulchritude when they see it.

Anyway, here are the rest of the girly-men People thought were sexier than I was this year:

2. Patrick Dempsey (McBoring)
3. Ryan Reynolds (sounds like a Marvel Comics secret identity)
4. Brad Pitt (he's so two years ago)
5. James McAvoy (the wimpy doctor from The Last King of Scotland? really?)
6. Johnny Depp (is weird sexy?)
7. Dave Annable (I'll confess — I had to Google him; I'd never heard of the guy)
8. Will Smith (he got Jada's vote)
9. Javier Bardem (not fair; he's got that Latin Lothario thing going)
10. Shemar Moore (okay, yeah — he could play me in the SwanShadow biopic)

Ah, well. There's always next year.

Unless Clooney resurfaces.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels

The raindrops should be hitting the roses at any moment now here in lovely Sonoma County (what the heck ever happened to our customary Native American summer?), so here are a few of my favorite things, at least for today:
  • Dead animal flesh cooked over charcoal. I grilled a tri-tip on the old Char-Broil tonight that was sublime — perfectly marinated and done to a turn. Too bad you weren't here to eat some. Then again, there wasn't enough for you anyway. And you weren't getting mine. Take that, PETA.

  • Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, for having the gumption to tell George Steinbrenner to stick his 33 percent pay cut and one-year lame-duckitude where the Times Square neon doesn't shine.

  • My new Dr. Scholl's everyday walking-around shoes. They're comfy.

  • The Highwaymen, the rollicking Wildstorm Comics miniseries cleverly written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and drawn with razor-edged gusto by Lee Garbett. Of course, because I love it, it didn't sell worth a tinker's dam, and the fifth issue of the cycle marks the last time we'll see engaging mercenaries Monroe and McQueen ("One drives; one shoots"). If Wildstorm publishes a trade collection (which I doubt they will, given the lackluster sales of the monthly), buy it.

  • Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill. The langostino "lobster" that earned the chain all that untoward publicity a while back is on the menu again for a limited time. Get 'em while they've got 'em.

  • My daughter KM, who's enjoying her first semester of college. She's also taking her driver's license test on Monday — wish her luck!

  • Christopher Walken, who demanded — and supervised the auditions for — a bare-butt double for his latest film, Five Dollars a Day. I have no idea who thought anyone wanted to see Walken's pasty, 64-year-old glutes writ large on the silver screen, but good on Crazy Chris for refusing to drop trou.

  • The matching "Phoenix" and "Arizona" pictorial mugs I brought back from my recent trip to the Valley of the Sun.

  • Costco. It's the only place in town at the moment where regular gasoline is still less than three bucks per gallon.

  • Guy Fieri, our culinary local boy made good. KM and I spotted him and his family walking north of his downtown Santa Rosa restaurant, Tex Wasabi's, one day last week. Nice to see that with all his Food Network fame, Guy still hasn't lost that hometown touch. (Or the board shorts and flip-flops.)

  • The daunting new charts my chorus is learning. Just today, I downloaded an eight-page holiday arrangement that I have to familiarize myself with between now and Tuesday, on top of two others we've received in the last couple of weeks. Fun, complex, challenging music to sing, but the memory stick in the musical corner of my brain is filling up fast. (Yes, I'll get over it.)

  • Good coffee. You can never get enough good coffee.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Doctor, my eyes!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the video store: There's a Britney Spears sex tape floating around.

The guy who allegedly costars in the alleged amateur porn romp with the alleged former Mouseketeer says he hooked up with the Britster at the Four Seasons resort on the Big Island's Kohala Coast back in June.

"It was just normal sex, we didn't do anything crazy,"
says the Ron Jeremy wannabe. Nothing crazy, except for the video camera, I suppose.

This incessant rash of celebrity porn needs to stop, before some innocent party's retinas incur irreparable damage from beholding the wrong person in flagrante delicto. (Actually, that occurred already, after the widespread release of Dustin "Screech" Diamond's videographed sexploits.)

To this end, we offer Uncle Swan's Top Ten Celebrities Who Must Never, Ever, In the Name of All That's Decent, Get Caught Making a Sex Video:

10. Richard Belzer.

9. Ellen DeGeneres. Even if she kept the camera trained on Portia de Rossi the entire time.

8. Ryan Seacrest, or any of his American Idol cohorts.

7. The Geico Cavemen.

6. Donald Trump. Especially if his costar is Rosie O'Donnell.

5. Ralphie May.

4. Any member of the Osmond family.

3. Greta Van Susteren.

2. Abe Vigoda.

1. Joan and/or Melissa Rivers. (Ow! My retinas hurt just imagining that.)

BONUS LIST! Uncle Swan's Top Ten Celebrities Who, In All Likelihood, Have Already Made a Sex Video That You Really, Really Don't Want to See:

10. Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

9. Roger Ebert. (Remember, he used to hang out with Russ Meyer.)

8. Sue Johanson, the Talk Sex host.

7. The Olsen twins, either separately (ugh!) or together (double ugh!).

6. Fred Thompson and his trophy wife.

5. Andy Dick.

4. Flavor Flav and Tiffany "New York" Pollard.

3. Clint Eastwood and either Sondra Locke or Frances Fisher. (Seriously, Clint: What were you thinking, man?)

2. Gallagher.

1. Vincent Gallo and Chloë Sevigny. (Oops... too late.)

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Monday, October 01, 2007

I was standing on a corner in Phoenix, Arizona

Notes from my weekend junket to the Valley of the Sun with my chorus, Voices in Harmony:
  • My first observation about Phoenix, from the air approaching Sky Harbor International Airport: Brown. Everything is brown. The land is brown. The buildings are mostly brown. Would it be too much to ask to broaden the color palette just a touch?

  • High marks for the Wyndham Phoenix Hotel. My 18th-floor room was nicely laid out and well appointed. I especially liked the bathroom, with its separated vanity and toilet/shower areas, full-length mirror (mighty handy when one is donning a tuxedo), and spacious closet with ample hangers. The bed may have been the most comfortable I've found in a hotel. All of the staff I dealt with were friendly and helpful. The one meal I ordered from room service arrived in a timely fashion, and was palatable to boot. My sole request: More (and faster) elevators to the guest rooms, please.

  • The Wyndham has a Starbucks right in the lobby — that's a gold star all by itself. In case you were curious, a vanilla latte at Starbucks tastes exactly the same no matter where in the world you drink it.

  • My hotel room window overlooked the Chase Tower, Arizona's tallest building, across the street. In its mirrored windows, I could watch jet aircraft landing and taking off.

  • I was surprised by the number of homeless people wandering the streets of downtown Phoenix. (Almost as many as in San Francisco. But not quite.) Although, after I thought about it, this made perfect sense. If you had to sleep outdoors, where would you rather do it: in Phoenix, where it's dry and warm (if not downright hot) most nights during the year, or, say, Minneapolis?

  • For a city relatively close to the border, I would have expected to find better Mexican cuisine in downtown Phoenix. Both of the meals I had in Mexican restaurants, however, were unimpressive. If I had a ballista in my backyard, I could hurl a boulder and hit three or four better Mexican joints.

  • Phoenix Symphony Hall makes an excellent venue both for performing and for enjoying a performance. Attractive environment, great acoustics, and surprisingly comfortable seats.

  • If you want to know what's really going on in a community, read the alternative weekly newspaper. Phoenix has a terrific one: Phoenix New Times. (So does Sonoma County, by the way. The folks at the North Bay Bohemian do an outstanding job.) Although I have to admit, I didn't know that a single locale could boast as many adult entertainment options as are advertised in the back pages of the Phoenix New Times. I suppose that when you live in a city where it's hot most of the year, it's easy to find people who are eager to get naked.

  • The best business to be in right now, apparently: Urban infrastructure. In both of the major cities I've visited in the past few months — Denver, and now Phoenix — half the streets in the downtown area are undergoing major construction. Somebody's making a killing in that racket.

  • The big story in Phoenix over the weekend: A would-be traveler wigged out at Sky Harbor Airport on Friday, after arriving late for her US Airways flight and being denied opportunity to board the already-departing plane. The 45-year-old woman from New York City later died while in police custody. I hereby affirm that I personally did nothing to provoke this incident.

  • On my flight coming home, I ran into the world's greatest vocal percussionist and live-looper — the astoundingly gifted Andrew Chaikin, better known these days as Kid Beyond. The Kid and I hadn't crossed paths since he was performing with San Francisco's a cappella pioneers, The House Jacks, a decade ago. (Frankly, I was stunned that he remembered who I was.) If Kid Beyond comes to your town, you owe it to yourself to buy a ducat and check out his act. In an era of talentless pretenders, this guy's is the real stone-cold deal. Drop by his Web site while you're thinking about it, and get a taste of his awesomeness.

  • I'd been saving a book for the plane trips to and from Phoenix, and it rocks like a house afire: Promise Me, the latest novel by Harlan Coben. It's Coben's first book in seven years to headline his favorite protagonist, former basketball star turned sports agent Myron Bolitar. If you enjoy a crackling suspense read in the modern style, hie thyself over to Amazon and pick up a few Cobens. You'll be glad you did.

  • As for the competition: Voices in Harmony came in second, as expected, with a score of 89.7%. That's a full two percentage points higher than our sixth-place score at International three months ago. (We'd have been fourth with these numbers.) Not bad for a contest set that included a ballad we began learning only eight weeks ago. Sweat equity pays off.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Marvel Comics: My Top Ten

Previously on Comic Art Friday, I presented my ten all-time favorite DC Comics characters, in response to a poll conducted by Brian Cronin at Comics Should Be Good! This week, I'm back with the other half of my ballot, this time featuring characters from the Marvel Comics pantheon.

Of the two lists, my Marvel Top Ten was easier to compile. When I started this project, I quickly jotted down my ten Marvel characters, right off the top of my head. This list, however, proved harder to rank in order of preference. As a young comics reader, I was a much more fervent fan of Marvel than I was of DC, so I've had a closer emotional relationship with most of my Marvel favorites. (Ironically, my current reading list contains almost equal quantities of comics from both major publishers.)

Even though I cogitated over the Marvel list for a couple of weeks, not a single new name worked its way in, although characters moved up and down quite a bit during the placement process. The choice between the first and second slots, in particular, required some serious internal argument. I'm still wrestling with myself over those two.

But here's the ballot I submitted: Uncle Swan's Ten Favorite Marvel Comics Characters.

10. The Prowler. Easily the most obscure selection on either list, but I absolutely love Hobie Brown. The Prowler could be Marvel's Batman, if someone would just give him a chance. And, although he quickly evolved into a heroic figure, the Prowler was the first African-American villain I recall seeing in a comic book. My fondness for the character is borne out by the fact that the only cover recreation in my collection is a redo of the cover to Amazing Spider-Man #78, the issue in which the Prowler first appeared. It's drawn by Jim Mooney, who inked the original cover art over John Romita Sr.'s pencils.

9. Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. Wanda would have placed higher, were it not for this lingering nasty taste in my mouth from Marvel's House of M crossover event of two years ago, in which she was portrayed as an insane villain. Wanda's another character with tremendous untapped potential — as House of M demonstrated, she's one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. Besides which (besides witch?), she was my first Marvel superheroine crush, in those thrilling days of puberty. (Sigh.)

8. Iron Fist. Being the avid martial arts film fanatic I was back in the day, I always thought Danny Rand was a terrific character concept. During his years as half the Power Man/Iron Fist team, he balanced the more stereotypical aspects of Luke Cage, making Cage a richer, more rounded character by association. The Immortal Iron Fist, the current series written by Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker and drawn by David Aja, is astonishingly good.

7. The Thing. Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew, Benjamin J. Grimm was Marvel's first great personality. He's really the character who made the Fantastic Four a hit, because — to be brutally frank — the other three members of Marvel's "first family" are each annoying in his or her own way. Benjy's ongoing struggle to retain the humanity within his hideous exterior — with great power comes great personal tragedy — may be the most human story comics have ever told.

6. The Valkyrie. What can I say? I dig strong women and sharp objects. Val gets this high on the list in part because she's also representing for my favorite super-team of the '70s, the Defenders (since, according to the rules of the poll, I can't put teams on the list), of which she was a key member. She's also standing in for that other she-devil with a sword, Red Sonja, who's no longer a Marvel property (her current adventures are published by Dynamite Entertainment).

5. Captain America. When I was a kid, Cap was second only to Spider-Man in my admiration. I'm sorry for the publicity stunt his recent "death" engendered. In today's dark, conflicted world, we need Captain America more than ever. I know that Marvel will resurrect him eventually. I just hope Cap returns with his dignity and decency intact.

4. Storm. When she debuted as part of the "all-new, all-different" X-Men in the early '70s, Ororo Munroe converted me from a casual X-fan (I always found the original quintet dull and tediously ordinary) to an avid reader of the new team's early adventures. Although she's had two very good -- and very different -- miniseries in recent years, and made headlines for her marriage to the Black Panther last summer, I don't believe Storm's full potential as a character has yet been mined.

3. Ms. Marvel. Marvel's first stand-alone superheroine. Marvelites didn't have a Wonder Woman until Carol Danvers, previously a non-super supporting character, got powered up. Now, can we please get her original costume back? The black (or is it blue?) swimsuit with the lightning slash (I think that's what it's supposed to be) is lame, lame, lame.

2. The Black Panther. This was a tough call. Over the years, T'Challa has essentially moved into #1A status for me. I treasure this character immensely for everything he represents: the first black superhero; one of comics' first non-stereotypical persons of color; one of the most brilliant (maybe third, after Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom) and talented men in the Marvel Universe. Not to mention the fact that he's just plain wicked awesome.

1. Spider-Man. You've gotta dance with the one who brought you to the party, and it was Spider-Man who made me a fan of comics. He was the first costumed do-gooder I fell in love with — in a platonic, hero-worshiping sort of way. Even now, if I could only read one comic book per month, it would still be The Amazing Spider-Man. (Which is why Marvel's publishing it three times a month now.) I don't always like The Powers That Be at Marvel have dragged Spidey through over the years — the Clone Saga, anyone? — but after 40 years together, he's still The Hero Who Could Be Me.

As for the near misses, Number 11 would have been Thundra. The Falcon, Kitty Pryde, and Luke Cage were the other close calls.

There was a time when Iron Man would have been near the top of this list. I so despise everything that's been done to demonize Tony Stark in the past couple of years, however, that I've lost all good feeling (including nostalgia) toward the character. (That trailer for the upcoming Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey Jr. looks awfully sweet, though.)

The same is true of Daredevil. Frank Miller ruined him for me forever by ripping him from his roots as a more mature Spider-Man and making him nasty, ugly, and mean-spirited. Sort of like what Miller did to Batman in the '80s, and will probably do to The Spirit in the film version he's helming.

Anyway, those are my picks, and I'm sticking to 'em.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

DC Comics: My Top Ten

As mentioned in this space three weeks ago, Brian Cronin over at Comics Should Be Good! (and yes, they should be, doggonit!) conducted a reader poll to find out who are fans' all-time favorite DC and Marvel Comics characters (not superheroes, necessarily — supporting cast count also). Participants submitted lists of their top 10 faves from each publisher's roster, ranked in order of preference. Beginning on Wednesday, Brian began counting down the top 50 characters in each poll.

Thinking — perhaps foolishly — that regular perusers of Comic Art Friday would be interested in knowing how I voted, I'll give you a sneak peek at my ballot. We'll start with my DC Top Ten this week, and come back with my Marvel list next Friday. Where I can, I'll include representations from my art collection.

So, in reverse order, here are Uncle Swan's Ten Favorite DC Comics Characters:

10. The Metal Men. The rules for Brian's poll specifically excluded groups as a single entry, with only a few exceptions permitted. The Metal Men were one of those exceptions, and thus landed a spot on my list. I can still remember the first Metal Men comic I ever purchased, at Snider's IGA Grocery in Poplar Bluff, Missouri way back when. Since I don't have any Metal Men commissions in my collection, here's the cover that first made me a fan of Dr. Will Magnus's motley crew of squabbling robots.

9. Mister Terrific II (Michael Holt). Mr. T. is a relatively new character that I've really grown to enjoy. He's Batman, only without all the dark psychosis and sexual innuendo. If I were the third-smartest man on Earth and as buff as all get-out, Mister Terrific is the hero I'd be.

8. Saturn Girl. Since I couldn't vote for the Silver Age Legion of Super-Heroes collectively, I chose my favorite original Legionnaire to stand in for the whole group. With their silly names and often sillier superpowers (Bouncing Boy? Matter-Eater Lad?), the 1960s Adventure Comics Legion represented all that was charming and fun about comics. Even when Lightning Lad died. (Or so we thought.)

7. Booster Gold. Self-possessed, semi-serious, and slyly antiheroic, Booster was my favorite "new" (as in, created since I was a kid) DC superhero, until he was bumped from that position quite recently. (See Number Five, below.) I'm glad Booster's back in his own monthly series now, with his creator Dan Jurgens writing his adventures.

6. Vixen. I *heart* Mari McCabe, and have since her Suicide Squad days. DC's first black superheroine, her true potential as a character remains untapped, although I'm thrilled to see her given newfound prominence on the current Justice League of America roster. DC needs to hire me to write a Vixen miniseries. And yes, I do have an awesome pitch for one.

5. Blue Beetle III (Jaime Reyes). The most intriguing new character to debut in mainstream comics so far this millennium is a Latino teen from El Paso who inherits incredible powers granted by a mysterious alien scarab. Blue Beetle, written by John Rogers and illustrated at the present moment by newcomer Rafael Albuquerque (after enjoyable stints by co-creator Cully Hamner and new Metal Men writer-artist Duncan Rouleau), is one of the best comic books almost no one is reading. (I don't have a Blue Beetle commission yet, so here's some concept art by Cully.)

4. Mary Marvel. Allow me to specify the pre-Countdown Mary Marvel, as opposed to the travesty now appearing in that DC series. Man, I hate what head writer Paul Dini and company are doing to my girl Mary. She's supposed to be the paragon of innocence and virtue, not a borderline wacko sexpot. But how I loved the way Jeff Smith handled her in his recent miniseries, Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil.

3. Green Arrow. This was the character who at last convinced this diehard Marvelite that DC could actually tell real, substantive stories, back in the Denny O'Neil-Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow days, through the era in which his adventures were chronicled by writer-artist Mike Grell. The recent Green Arrow: Year One miniseries by writer Andy Diggle and the artist known as Jock was awfully tasty, too.

2. Supergirl. I was never a Superman fan, but I always grokked Kara Zor-El. Yes, she had all of the Kryptonian powers that made Superman seem impossibly boring to me, but her stories back in the day were more about her as a character, and less about the fact that she could do practically anything.

1. Wonder Woman. Big surprise, right? If you've learned nothing else by reading Comic Art Friday every week — you have, haven't you? — you've learned that your Uncle Swan loves him some Princess Diana. The first great superheroine in comics, and still the greatest.

Who narrowly missed my DC Top Ten? Number 11 on my list would have been Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle. Other near misses: The Silver/Bronze Age Flash (Barry Allen); Adam Strange; Black Lightning.

Drop around next week, you'll discover who made the cut on my Marvel hot-list.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why do they call it Hump Day, when most people make love on the weekends?

So I'm rifling through the news on this sultry Wednesday morning, and here's what leaped off the screen at me...
  • Speaking of sultry, Raquel Welch is 67 today. You gentlemen of a certain age will understand what that means. You gentlemen younger than a certain age... well, you should have been there, is all I'm saying.

  • Again speaking of sultry, Halle Berry is expecting her first child at age 41. I might be going out on a limb here, but I'll bet that's going to be one good-looking baby.

  • Former FOX and MSNBC anchor Rita Cosby's new book, Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith's Death, alleges that Anna Nicole's baby-daddy Larry Birkhead and her attorney-slash-boyfriend Howard K. Stern were gay lovers. Lawsuits will ensue. Bill Cosby — no relation to Rita — recommended that all parties involved enjoy a Jell-O Pudding Pop and have a Coke and a smile.

  • Speaking of allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the distinguished gentleman from Idaho has decided that he may want to keep his Senate seat after all. That thud you just heard was the Republican National Committee fainting en masse.

  • Speaking of way-past-allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the Wachowski brother formerly known as Larry (as in the Wachowski Brothers of The Matrix fame) is now also formerly a Wachowski brother. He's now officially a Wachowski sister named Lana. I believe Matrix star Keanu Reeves said it best: Whoa.

  • Good to hear that Paula Cole is touring and recording again (with Mandy Moore, no less), after nearly a decade away from the music business. She's a terrific talent, and I hope her comeback brings her much success. That said, if I never had to hear "I Don't Want to Wait" again in this lifetime, that would be just dandy with me. It's tough being the father of a Dawson's Creek fanatic.

  • Not so good to hear that Kelly Clarkson is attempting to jump-start her aborted tour, previously canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of ticket-buying America, by playing smaller halls. You are so over, Miss Thing. Maybe you and Justin can still hang out.

  • They still love him in France: Jerry Lewis took another stumble down the long, dark road toward oblivion during his annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, when he dropped the f-pejorative in a joke about a cameraman's gay family member on live TV. This is the same Jerry who, in a televised interview following the death of entertainment icon Merv Griffin, opined that Merv "deserved to die" from prostate cancer, because he didn't seek earlier and more aggressive treatment. Can you arrange to let him keep the change for his kids?

  • A friend gave the following report about Mary-Kate Olsen's recent adventures at a trendy New York nightclub: "Mary-Kate was wearing a see-through green dress. She was completely wasted, she was humping and grinding against a column with another girl. Then she was flailing all over the dance floor. Later, Mary-Kate made out with various questionable men while friends took pictures. She then fell over onto a table and proceeded to break every glass on the table before toppling over onto everyone sitting behind her." See what happens when you don't eat properly, kids? Your brain turns into Cream of Wheat.

  • This couldn't possibly be a worse casting decision: Nicolas Cage as Magnum, P.I.?

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tuesday turkey trot

Uncle Swan here, blazing through a barrage of lightning-quick thoughts, observations, and emotional outbursts. Steady as she goes, Captain.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Everything I really need to know, I learned at the racetrack

KM and I enjoyed our annual father-daughter outing to the races at the Sonoma County fairgrounds today. Now that she's 18, I take it as an honor that KM still consents to go anywhere in public with me. But, given her singular obsession with all things equine, she'd never miss an opportunity to spend an afternoon admiring an endless parade of well-kept horses, even if it means hanging out for several hours with the old man.

Going to the track is always an educational experience. Permit me to share with you some of the life lessons I gleaned from today's excursion.
  • In between races, the track should perform a valuable public service by airing episodes of What Not to Wear.

  • A fish taco is a welcome taste treat in any surroundings.

  • Russell Baze is one of the greatest athletes of our time. He seems like a nice fellow, too.

  • Everyone is an expert at the racetrack. Often, the greater one's handicapping expertise, the fewer one's teeth.

  • The produce man from our supermarket is stalking me. I see him everywhere.

  • Operating a parimutuel betting window must be one of the suckiest jobs on the planet.

  • I could never be a track announcer, because (a) I'd get the names of the horses confused, and (b) I can't talk anywhere near that fast.

  • There really ought to be a law against micro-miniskirts on women within shouting distance of menopause. Or maybe just on women, period.

  • Describing gelded horses as "chopped off" is probably not the most effective means of communicating certain facts of animal husbandry to one's children.

  • Every time I see a jockey, I want to buy him a sandwich.

  • People who wouldn't dream on shoving their hands into a recently used toilet have little compunction about reaching out to capture droplets of the waste water being used to dampen the racing surface, even though it's pretty much the same thing.

  • The gray horse never wins. Except in the sixth race at Santa Rosa.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Musical Monday

It's a toasty July Monday here in Wine Country, and for whatever reason, everything in the news today reminds me of the lyrics of an old pop song. I'll show you what I mean...
  • Would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show? For the second time in two weeks, someone who figured prominently in a research paper I wrote in college has shuffled off this mortal coil: first porn magnate Jim Mitchell; now Tammy Faye Messner, once better known as Tammy Faye Bakker, co-ringleader of the disgraced (no pun intended) TV ministry The PTL Club. And no, it wasn't the same paper — I wrote my senior thesis on televangelism.

  • You probably think this song is about you — don't you? Lindsay Lohan is bragging to friends about how she "teased those boys" in rehab by walking around the facility stark naked. At the same time, she's seeking legal assistance to ensure that nude photos taken by a former flame never see the light of day, fearing the pics might "ruin her career." Hey, Linds: Get over yourself. Soon. It's your asinine behavior — on and off set — that's going to slam-dunk your career, not a few salty Polaroids. Oh, and before you imagine that the entire world is eager to behold your bony frame in the altogether, I have a word for you: Cheeseburger.

  • I just had to look, having read the book. Were you among the legions hanging out on your local bookseller's doorstep at midnight Saturday, eager to snatch up your copy of the final installment in the Harry Potter saga? If so, then you, friend reader, need a life. Or a significant other. Or both. Rumor has it that J.K. Rowling is scouring the list of potential Potter titles I posted in this space a couple of years ago, just in case she gets a future urge to score another several million pounds.

  • Oh, Mandy — you came and you gave without taking. No one should be surprised that Criminal Minds star Mandy Patinkin abruptly quit the hit crime series just as filming was about to begin for the show's third season. Teleholics will recall that Patinkin pulled a similar stunt a decade ago, when he walked off the set of the medical drama Chicago Hope. Thomas Gibson, who costarred with Patinkin on both Minds and Hope, has got to be wondering what he did to deserve this. (Two words, Thomas: Jenna Elfman.)

  • Hello, Daddy, hello, Mom; I'm your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb! Tony Award-winning stage actress Cherry Jones, probably most familiar to audiences as Matt Damon's mother in Ocean's Twelve, has signed to portray newly elected President Allison Taylor on the seventh season of 24. Let's hope she fares better as POTUS than Geena Davis did on the short-lived Commander in Chief. (Davis, incidentally, is rumored to be CBS's top choice to replace the aforementioned Mr. Patinkin.)

  • When you get that notion, put your backfield in motion. Speaking of POTUS, there was good news and bad news from the White House this past weekend. The good news: Doctors pronounced the polyps removed from President Bush's colon 100% cancer-free. The bad news: George W. will continue to be a cancer in everyone else's butt for another year and a half.

  • Well, I spent some time in the Mudville Nine, watchin' it from the bench. A truly sad story from minor league baseball: Mike Coolbaugh, first base coach for the Tulsa Drillers — the Colorado Rockies' AA affiliate — was struck in the head and killed yesterday by a line drive off the bat of teammate Tino Garcia. Coolbaugh played briefly in the majors earlier in this decade, with both the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. He had taken the coaching position with the Drillers only three weeks ago. He leaves behind a wife and two children, with another baby due in October. Tragic.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Let's all get Mile-High

In exactly seven days, I — along with the other 100 or so active members of my chorus, Voices in Harmony — will descend on Denver, Colorado to compete in the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Chorus Contest.

It's been six years since I last attended International. My previous chorus, from which Voices in Harmony evolved via a merger with another Bay Area men's chorus, made three consecutive appearances at International — Anaheim (1999), Kansas City (2000) and Nashville (2001) — finishing as high as 16th. VIH approaches its first-ever International ranked seventh, and we're working like mad to climb into the top five.

Obsessive soul that I am, I like to find out as much as I can about places to which I plan to travel. Thus, I've been combing the 'Net for the past several weeks, learning the ins and outs of Denver. My family and I passed through Denver once on a cross-country auto trip back in the 1970s, but this will be my first substantive visit to the Mile-High City. So far, here are some of the more intriguing infonuggets I've plowed up.
  • Denver was founded in 1858, and named after James William Denver, the governor of what was then the Kansas Territory. The idea was that naming the town after Governor Denver would predispose the bureaucrat to designate the newly populated burg as a county seat. By the time the news of his namesake reached the governor's mansion, however, Mr. Denver was already out of office.

  • At the turn of the 20th century, Denver was the third-largest city in the American West, after San Francisco and Los Angeles. Today, it ranks 27th in population among U.S. cities, although Denver International Airport is the fifth-busiest in the country and tenth overall in the world.

  • Denver's professional basketball (the Nuggets) and hockey (the Avalanche) teams play their home games in the Pepsi Center, the same venue where our International contests will be held. I am not certain whether there will be a blind taste test at the door.

  • The 2008 Democratic National Convention will also be held in the Pepsi Center. Apparently, Republicans prefer Coke.

  • The University of Denver boasts a number of prominent alumni, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Peter Morton, founder of the Hard Rock Café; Peter Coors, CEO of the brewing enterprise that bears his family name; and the comedian known as Sinbad (whose real name is David Adkins, and who, to the best of my knowledge, has never been a sailor).

  • The late country-pop singer John Denver was not actually a Denver at all. He was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. On the other hand, Robert Osbourne "Bob" Denver, the guy who played Gilligan, was a genuine Denver, although not from Denver (he was born in New Rochelle, New York).

  • In 2005, Denver became the first major American city to legalize the personal possession of less than an ounce of marijuana for personal use. But I believe it was known as the Mile-High City long before that.

  • I was shocked to discover that you do not get officially inducted into the Mile-High Club by having sex in Denver. Apparently, you have to do it on an airplane, many of which travel at altitudes far higher than a mile. I'm not clear on why that is, but I'm told that those are the rules.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

AFI's 100 Greatest American Films

I only caught the last hour of last night's American Film Institute special spotlighting the 100 greatest American moviesSo You Think You Can Dance being a summer staple around these parts — but I was intrigued this morning to review the entire list.

It's especially enlightening to compare this new list with the one AFI compiled 10 years ago (when the Institute started the whole "100 Greatest..." thing), to see which films have come and gone from the list during the past decade, as well as noting how certain pictures have either risen or fallen in stature, at least in the minds of film critics.

Citizen Kane remains, as well it should, at the top of the heap. Kane is one of the rare films that grows and changes every time one sees it. There's always more to be discovered within Orson Welles's cinematic masterpiece, which continues to set the standard of greatness more than 65 years after its release.

The big surprise in the updated Top 20 is Raging Bull, which leaped upward from 24th ten years ago to fourth today. It's hard to argue, though — there's not another film in the Top 20 that I'd say ought to be Number Four instead. I'm not as shocked that Chaplin's City Lights rocketed from 76th to 11th place — it's always been a favorite of film scholars — as I am to see The Searchers jump from 96th to 12th — as much as I enjoy Westerns and believe they don't always receive their critical due (although Eastwood's Unforgiven moved up 30 spots from 98 to 68, and deservedly so), I've always found The Searchers infuriatingly dense.

As a Hitchcock fan, I'm pleased to see that the Master of Suspense now has two works in the Top 20: Vertigo (9) and Psycho (14). Personally, I'd reverse the two, as I think Psycho is far and away Hitchcock's best film, but Vertigo certainly deserved a much higher placement than the 61st it received in 1998.

I'm glad that Do the Right Thing cracked the Top 100, though I'd have had it a few notches higher than 96th. Most definitely, it ought to rank higher than The Sixth Sense (89), whose very presence in the Top 100 makes the list suspect. M. Night Shyamalan is easily the second most overrated filmmaker of the past half-century. (The first? George Lucas, whose trite, tedious, and hammy Star Wars came up two spots, from 15th to 13th.)

For whatever reason, Fargo dropped off the list entirely, after placing 84th a decade previously (when it was still relatively fresh in voters' minds). I know that the Coen Brothers have delivered little of lasting interest since then (in fact, the CoBros' last few films have been outright stinkers), but Fargo is a singular achievement — a film sufficiently adept at melding opposing elements that it rates as both a great comedy and a classic thriller. I'd place it at least in the upper two-thirds of any Top 100 list.

Other observations:
  • AFI rightly ditched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 64th in 1998, from the Top 100. Although technically brilliant, especially for its time, Close Encounters is as stupidly written and as poorly acted as any blockbuster has ever been. Good riddance.

  • Another welcome omission: the stupor-inducing Doctor Zhivago, 39th a decade ago and nowhere to be found on the new list. A memorable, haunting theme song alone does not a great film make.

  • Toy Story (Number 99) joins Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (34, up from 49) to represent the animation arts. Too bad there wasn't room for Beauty and the Beast as well. (Personally, I think Toy Story 2 is a much better movie than its groundbreaking predecessor. But AFI didn't ask me.)

  • Aside from the undeserving Sixth Sense, only three other films released in the past 10 years cracked the Top 100. Titanic (yawn) arrives at Number 83; Saving Private Ryan comes aboard at Number 71 (higher than I would have it, but nonetheless worthy); and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring lands at Number 50 (in truth, a nod to the entire LOTR trilogy, as was the Best Picture Oscar awarded to the third film in the series, The Return of the King).

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tagline jungle

Back in 1990 — when we were still wrestling with the consequences of having one President named George Bush — Dudley Moore starred in a pretty funny comedy called Crazy People. Moore played an ad executive who suffers a breakdown and, while institutionalized, resurrects his career on Madison Avenue using outrageously blunt campaigns dreamed up by his fellow mental patients. (Example: "Metamucil: It helps you go to the toilet so you don't get cancer and die.")

I don't know what made me think of it, but last night as I was driving the 95 miles home from chorus rehearsal, I recalled this movie and decided that the time had come to revisit its concept. There are any number of companies who today could benefit from a dose of Crazy People-style promotion. Besides, insanity more or less summarizes my entire career to date as an advertising copywriter.

The product of my noodling thus far:
  • Denny's: At three a.m., nothing else is open.

  • Taco Bell: You can't handle real Mexican food.

  • Microsoft: There are still a few dollars that Bill Gates doesn't have.

  • Kellogg's: Creating hyperactive sugar addicts since 1906.

  • Wal-Mart: When you leave the trailer park, you have to go somewhere.

  • Costco: If one is good, twelve are better.

  • MasterCard: Because you're our slave, that's why.

  • Apple Computer: Revenge of the Nerds was nonfiction.

  • Spam: 1.2 million Hawaiians can't be wrong.

  • 7-11: Thank you for not shooting the clerk.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thirteen Black Aces

Yesterday at McAfee Coliseum, baseball's Oakland Athletics honored the four members of the Black Aces with historical connections to the A's: Dave Stewart, Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Vida Blue, and Mike Norris.

Who are the Black Aces? I'm delighted that you asked.

The Black Aces are the (to date) 13 pitchers of African American heritage (including one African Canadian, Ferguson Jenkins) who have won 20 or more games in a single major league season. The name "Black Aces" comes from a book written by Grant (with assistance by journalists Tom Sabellico and Pat O'Brien), examining the careers of these noteworthy athletes. Grant also immortalizes the accomplishments of several Negro League pitchers whom he believes would have been 20-game winners in the majors, had they not been barred by segregation.

I highly recommend Grant's book; it's one of the most heartfelt and eye-opening sports reads of the past decade. In hope that the more baseball-minded among you might be encouraged to check it out, allow me to provide this brief introduction to the 13 Black Aces, presented in order of the date upon which each entered this exclusive club.
  • Don Newcombe — Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1949-51, 1954-58), Cincinnati Reds (1958-60), Cleveland Indians (1960); three Black Ace seasons (1951, 20-9; 1955, 20-5; 1956, 27-7; all with the Dodgers). The major leagues' first great black pitcher, Newcombe remains the only player in baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Awards. (He was, in fact, the first recipient of the National League Cy Young, in 1956.) In addition to being a dominating pitcher, Newcombe was also accomplished at the plate — a fearsome slugger, he was probably the best-hitting pitcher since Babe Ruth.

  • Sam Jones — Cleveland Indians (1951-52), Chicago Cubs (1955-56); St. Louis Cardinals (1957-58, 1963), San Francisco Giants (1959-61), Detroit Tigers (1962), Baltimore Orioles (1964); one Black Ace season (1959, 21-15 with the Giants). The much-traveled Jones, nicknamed "Sad Sam" or "Toothpick Sam," led the National League in strikeouts three times. In his Black Ace season, he led the senior circuit in earned run average and was named National League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. Jones died in 1971 at the age of 45.

  • Bob Gibson — St. Louis Cardinals (1959-75); five Black Ace seasons (1965, 20-12; 1966, 21-12; 1968, 22-9; 1969, 20-13; 1970, 23-7; all with the Cardinals). Gibson was the most terrifying hurler ever to step onto a major league pitcher's mound. Famed as much for his intimidating demeanor as for his awe-inspiring fastball, Gibson made even great hitters' blood run cold. A talented all-around athlete — he won nine Gold Gloves as the National League's best fielding pitcher — Gibson played pro basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year before focusing on baseball. He was the National League Cy Young winner in 1968 and 1970, the league's Most Valuable Player in '68, and the MVP of the 1964 and 1967 World Series.

  • Jim "Mudcat" Grant — Cleveland Indians (1958-64), Minnesota Twins (1964-67), Los Angeles Dodgers (1968), Montreal Expos (1969), St. Louis Cardinals (1969), Oakland Athletics (1970, 1971), Pittsburgh Pirates (1970, 1971); one Black Ace season (1965, 21-7 with the Twins). The man who gave the Black Aces their name is probably better known today as a baseball broadcaster (for the Indians and the A's) and historian than he was as a journeyman pitcher. He enjoyed his best seasons in Minnesota during the mid-1960s.

  • Ferguson Jenkins — Philadelphia Phillies (1965-66), Chicago Cubs (1966-73, 1982-83), Texas Rangers (1974-75, 1978-81), Boston Red Sox (1976-77); seven Black Ace seasons (six with the Cubs: 1967, 20-13; 1968, 20-15; 1969, 21-15; 1970, 22-16; 1971, 24-13; 1972, 20-12; one with the Rangers: 1974, 25-12). Canada's best-known non-hockey sports export, Jenkins was the first player from the Great White North to gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He's arguably the most successful "finesse" pitcher in modern baseball history, along with another Cubs legend, Greg Maddux. Like fellow Black Ace Bob Gibson, Jenkins spent a season playing basketball with the Globetrotters. Fergie's entry into the Hall of Fame took a year or two longer than it should have, as several writers initially refused to vote for him due to a drug-related arrest in 1980 that resulted in his temporary suspension from the game.

  • Earl Wilson — Boston Red Sox (1959-66), Detroit Tigers (1966-70), San Diego Padres (1970); one Black Ace season (1967, 22-11 with the Tigers). Earl Wilson holds a special place in my baseball memories, as he was a star for Detroit in the years when I first became a Tigers fan. (I switched loyalties to the Giants in the mid-1970s when my family moved permanently to the Bay Area.) Wilson is probably best remembered by historians for two unique accomplishments: he was the first African American pitcher employed by the notoriously desegregation-resistant Red Sox (Boston was the last team in the majors to integrate, in 1959 — a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier); and he's one of only two pitchers (Rick Wise was the other) to hit a home run in a game in which he pitched a no-hitter (against the Los Angeles Angels, in 1962). A former catcher, Wilson maintained his power stroke throughout his career, hitting 33 home runs as a pitcher — only four other major league pitchers hit more.

  • Vida Blue — Oakland Athletics (1969-77), San Francisco Giants (1978-81, 1985-86), Kansas City Royals (1982-83); three Black Ace seasons (1971, 24-8; 1973, 20-9; 1975, 22-11; all with the A's). Vida is my all-time favorite pitcher, and ranks alongside Barry Bonds and Willie McCovey as one of my all-time favorite baseball players, period. It's sad to imagine the statistics he might have compiled, were it not for the drug habit that plagued him during the prime of his career. The American League MVP and Cy Young winner in his breakout 1971, Vida became the first pitcher to start All-Star Games for both leagues (1971, for the AL as an Athletic; 1978, for the NL as a Giant). It never ceases to strike me as bizarre that three of the pitchers most statistically similar to Vida — Catfish Hunter, Hal Newhouser, and Don Drysdale — are in the Hall of Fame, while Vida is not. (My argument would not be that Vida belongs in the Hall, but rather that Hunter, Newhouser, and especially Drysdale don't belong there.)

  • Al Downing — New York Yankees (1961-69), Oakland Athletics (1970), Milwaukee Brewers (1970), Los Angeles Dodgers (1971-77); one Black Ace season (1971, 20-9 with the Dodgers). Whatever else Al Downing might have done during his lengthy major league career will always be overshadowed by the fact that he was the pitcher who served up the ball that Henry Aaron belted to break Babe Ruth's career home run record. Downing was a solid journeyman whose best years, aside from his 1971 20-win campaign, came in the mid-'60s when he was a starter for the Yankees.

  • J. R. Richard — Houston Astros (1971-80); one Black Ace season (1976, 20-15 with the Astros). His career cut tragically short by a near-fatal stroke in 1980, Richard was on a path toward a Hall of Fame career. Standing six-foot-eight, he was one of the most physically impressive athletes I ever saw. Sadly, Richard fell on hard financial times after his baseball skills evaporated, and wound up homeless on the streets of Houston. I understand that he has recovered his life in recent years, as a minister and social advocate.

  • Mike Norris — Oakland Athletics (1975-83, 1990); one Black Ace season (1980, 22-9 with the A's). Of all of the Black Aces, Norris is the only one who can accurately be described as a flash in the pan. His stellar 1980 campaign established the high point of a brief and otherwise unremarkable major league career, marked mostly by arm injuries and off-field struggles related to drug abuse. He's had some health challenges in recent years, resulting in physical impairment — he was walking with a cane at yesterday's ceremony.

  • Dwight "Doc" Gooden — New York Mets (1984-94), New York Yankees (1996-97, 2000), Cleveland Indians (1998-99), Houston Astros (2000), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2000). The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'" I don't know whether Whittier was either a prophet or a baseball fan, but were he either, he might have been writing about Dwight Gooden. His career derailed prematurely by injuries — a derailment exacerbated by chronic problems of a pharmacological nature — "Dr. K." fell from future Hall of Famer to has-been (or, in the words of a memorable Sports Illustrated headline, "From Phenom to Phantom") throughout the 1990s. His drug and legal problems continue to this day — he spent several months in prison last year on a probation violation. At his mid-'80s peak, however, Gooden was as terrific a pitcher as I've ever seen. "It might have been."

  • Dave Stewart — Los Angeles Dodgers (1978, 1981-83), Texas Rangers (1983-85), Philadelphia Phillies (1985-86), Oakland Athletics (1986-92, 1995), Toronto Blue Jays (1993-94); four Black Ace seasons (1987, 20-13; 1988, 21-12; 1989, 21-9; 1990, 22-11; all with the A's). Of all the players I've seen in my 40 years of baseball fandom, Dave "Smoke" Stewart underwent perhaps the most dramatic and impressive career renaissance I've ever witnessed. A mediocre — at best — pitcher in his early years with the Dodgers (we San Francisco fans used to joke that his nickname came from the way Giants hitters smoked the ball around Candlestick Park whenever Stewart came into a game against us), Rangers, and Phillies, Stewart suddenly blossomed when he arrived in Oakland in 1986. Seemingly overnight, he transformed from a lackluster hurler to the best pitcher in baseball over a four-year stretch from 1987 through 1990. During those four years, Stewart dominated his league like no pitcher since the heyday of Sandy Koufax. He pitched well, if less overpoweringly, for another three seasons afterward. These days, the 1989 World Series MVP (against my Giants, no less) writes a superb baseball blog called Throwin' Heat. Fans of the nation's pastime will enjoy Dave's insights.

  • Dontrelle Willis — Florida Marlins (2003-present); one Black Ace season to date (2005, 22-10 with the Marlins). The only Black Ace currently active, Oakland-born "D-Train" reminds me somewhat of the young Doc Gooden. He's not quite as dominant, but he hopefully lacks some of Doc's unfortunate baggage. At this writing, Willis is putting together a solid 2007 season — he's 7-3 with a 3.96 ERA after two months. If that pattern holds, he could easily repeat his Black Ace record of two years ago. I wish him all the best... except when pitching against the Giants.
And now the sixty-four-thousand dollar question: Why have we seen only 13 African American 20-game winners in the 60 years since Jackie Robinson? That's a discussion for another time.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It's Hump Day, and I'm a little dromedary

It's that kind of Wednesday that has me scratching my head and asking myself rhetorical questions. (Yeah, like that's different.) Let's raise the pop culture periscope and peer around at the news of the week thus far.
  • Katie Holmes apparently has her knickers in a twist because some teenaged porn star wannabe is using the stage name Katee Holmes. As though Katie didn't forfeit her right to personal dignity when she married Mr. Scientology. Or maybe the TomKitten is just afraid someone's going to think she's related to the late John Holmes.

  • What? Arnold's getting a divorce? Oh... Tom Arnold. Color me not caring all of a sudden.

  • If you were wondering why Paula Abdul was sporting a fat lip on last night's penultimate episode of American Idol, it's because Paula recently tripped over her pet chihuahua and pulled a face-plant, breaking her nose in the process. At least, that's the version of the story that doesn't involve alcohol, drugs, or Corey Clark.

  • Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and his partner won this season's competition on Dancing with the Stars. Apolo's breathing a sigh of relief, as he'd never be able to show his face in an Olympic Village again if he lost a dance contest to a former boy-band wimp named Joey Fat One. What? It's Fatone? Ooops. My bad.

  • Britney Spears huffed her way off an airline flight this week because the plane didn't have leather seats. Given the Britster's much-publicized disdain for undergarments, I wouldn't want to be the next person using her leather seat unless I had a spray can of Lysol handy.

  • So far, that's two underwear references in this post. Can we pull off the trifecta?

  • These two events occurred within the same 24 hours: (1) Jerry Falwell, the televangelist founder of the Moral Majority who once blamed gays and feminists for the 9/11 terror attacks, was buried; (2) Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of ultraconservative Vice President Dick Cheney, gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Coincidence? I think not.

  • Speaking of Jerry Falwell, imagine how stunned I was to hear that he had died of a heart attack at the age of 73. I wasn't even aware that he had a heart.

  • Now there's gratitude for you: The girlfriend World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz handed a promotion and a raise — an action which resulted in Wolfowitz's being forced to resign amid allegations of cronyism — has dumped the erstwhile executive. Quoth Wolfowitz: "Women... can't live with 'em, can't do 'em a favor without public scandal and unemployment."

  • The feuding cohosts of The View, Rosie O'Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, pitched a fit at one another this morning on the air, as Rosie called Elisabeth a coward for not defending her against conservative misinformation. Are there two human beings I care less about than Rosie O'Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck? Oh, yeah... Tom Arnold and his soon-to-be-ex-wife.

  • New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced this week that he is officially running for the Democratic nomination for President. In related news, four out of five Americans surveyed identified "Bill Richardson" as the character who's married to Jessica Alba in the Fantastic Four movies. The fifth American identified New Mexico as "the place where Taco Bell food comes from."

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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Welcome to Fall Schedule Hell

In my next life, I'm going to be a television programming executive.

So far as I can determine, it's a job that requires no talent, no foresight, no sensitivity, and no ability to either predict or produce successful results.

In other words, it's right up my alley.

Should you doubt my assessment, friend reader, please consider that some television programming executive greenlighted each of the following series for the upcoming fall season. Now, granted, I haven't seen any of the pilots for these shows. But I'm a reasonably intelligent individual — with the Jeopardy! tapes to prove it — and I can tell you that not a single one of these series has any chance of being a hit. Much less, of being any good.

Just attempt to imagine, if you will, any sane and perceptive person wanting to impose this dreck on his or her fragile psyche:
  • Journeyman (NBC). It's billed as "a romantic mystery-drama" about a newspaper reporter who travels through time. They lost me at "romantic mystery-drama," which is a good thing, because otherwise I'd have been laughing hysterically at the point when they mentioned "travels through time." This must be about the guy who used to write the paper that showed up on Kyle Chandler's doorstep every week on Early Edition.

  • Cavemen (ABC). The hypersensitive Neanderthals from the Geico insurance commercials get their own situation comedy. Has everyone at ABC already forgotten the Max Headroom debacle? Oh, that's right — the people running ABC today were in kindergarten when Max Headroom was on.

  • Kid Nation (CBS). In this reality series, a motley collection of 40 preteen and early adolescent kids are turned loose to create their own miniature society in a New Mexico ghost town. I know what you're thinking — I read Lord of the Flies, too. I wouldn't want to be the fat kid with glasses in this show.

  • Moonlight (CBS). An immortal vampire plays detective. I didn't watch this when it was called Forever Knight or Angel, and I certainly won't be watching it now. Why don't TV vampires ever go into more logical professions — say, meatcutting, or vascular surgery?

  • Viva Laughlin (CBS). X-Men star Hugh Jackman is responsible for this bizarre bit of business. It's a "musical drama" about a casino in Laughlin, Nevada (what, you thought Biloxi, maybe?), in which the characters will frequently pause the action to lip-synch pop tunes. Two words: Cop Rock. Not even Wolverine has the power to save this one.

  • Chuck (NBC). Given that the Peacock Network is going all Heroes, all the time this fall (seriously — all but one of NBC's new series revolves around a science fiction or fantasy element), I should not be surprised that 30 Rock scheduled this red-headed step-child of WarGames and D.A.R.Y.L. It's about a youthful computer geek who gets a Super-Pentium processor lodged in his skull and turns into a one-man counterintelligence agency. Yeah, that'll be good.

  • Reaper (The CW). A guy discovers that his parents sold his soul to Satan, so he has to run around capturing escapees from Hell. (Some of whom, apparently, have taken up jobs in television programming.) Of course, it's on The CW, so no one will ever even know it was on.

  • The Return of Jezebel James (FOX). Two sisters who hate each other reconnect when one becomes a birth surrogate for the other. Aside from its seemingly limited premise — once the baby comes, where does the story go from there? — this offering does have two positive factors in its favor: costars Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose, who could make a knitting bee seem fun.

  • The Bionic Woman (NBC). Some jokes write themselves.
Now, I ask you: Don't you suppose you and I could devise better programming than this over a sushi lunch some afternoon? I think we ought at least to try.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007


To paraphrase the late Lewis Grizzard: Elvis is dead, and I'm feeling a bit scattered myself.

With everything that's going on around here — both the stuff you know about and the stuff you don't, for which you ought to be eternally grateful — my perpetually diffuse focus is even more fuzzy than usual. So let's go the quick-hit route.

Now watch the colortinis as they fly through the air:
  • Brickbats and boo-hisses to the moron who ruined my Tuesday evening commute to chorus rehearsal for the foreseeable future, by dumping 250 yards of molten steel, concrete, and asphalt on my section of the McArthur Maze. Nice going, ace.

  • Did I mention that he's a convicted criminal with a history of heroin abuse? Why am I not surprised?

  • Freeway disasters aside, it's a fine time for sports fans here by the Bay:

    • The Warriors, who haven't seen the NBA playoffs without satellite TV since the early days of the Clinton Administration, are poised to dump the Dallas Mavericks and advance to Round Two.

    • The offensively anemic Giants have turned their once-flagging fortunes around, behind the smoking bat of Barry "U.S." Bonds (742 career home runs, and counting) and the hottest starting rotation in the major leagues — the other Barry (Zito), the two Matts (Cain and Morris), my homie from Pepperdine (Noah Lowry), and the resurrected Russ "Lazarus" Ortiz.

    • The Sharks are threatening to make a run at the Stanley Cup. (Say it with me: It's soccer on ice, with sticks.)

    • The A's are... well, nobody cares.

  • While the universe spirals into entropy (why is it so hot? and why are we in this handbasket?), high school students in Charleston, West Virginia, are ticked off because their educational administrators won't allow them to simulate sexual intercourse on the dance floor. Says senior Crystal Lucas of the school board's ban on booty popping, grinding, bumping, humping, hunching, goosing, freaking, and dirty dancing: "It makes me not look forward to my senior prom." Oh, to be young and feckless. (Look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls.)

  • A sad note: Sax player and bandleader Tommy Newsom, for years the butt of Johnny Carson's ridicule on The Tonight Show, has passed away from liver cancer at the age of 78. After all those years of merely looking dead, Tommy now really is.

  • Britney Spears has canceled tonight's comeback performance, scheduled for L.A.'s Forty Deuce nightclub. According to reports, the concert's promoters determined that after several rehearsals, the Queen of Trailer Trash Pop "wasn't quite ready." (Translated: Not sober enough to remember lyrics, or to avoid an embarrassing tumble off the edge of the stage.)

  • Four years ago today, President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared the war in Iraq over. "Mission accomplished," remember? "The United States and our allies have prevailed." Funny how many brave men and women we keep losing, in a war that ended four years ago. Then again, it's really not funny at all.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sometimes I feel like a bullet in the gun of Cho Seung-hui

A few random thoughts about the incident that will forever be known as the Virginia Tech massacre:
  • A neighbor described the 23-year-old gunman, Cho Seung-hui, as "very quiet, always by himself." As KJ and I listened to the earliest news reports on the shootings — hours before the perpetrator was identified — I said to her, "Just wait: When they figure out who did this, someone will describe the guy as 'a quiet man... good neighbor... kept to himself.'" It's scary when I'm right.

  • Given that Cho was a card-carrying legal immigrant, I can hardly wait for the first salvos from the anti-immigration whack-jobs, saying, "This is why we gotta keep them [racist characterization deleted] outa our country."

  • That salvo will be followed shortly by another from the gun lobby whack-jobs, saying, "If every student at Va. Tech had been packing a TEC-9, this guy wouldn't have killed so many people."

  • Already, every would-be pop psychologist is breaking down the myriad reasons why Cho got up yesterday morning and murdered 32 people. What's wrong with the obvious answer: "The dude was a whack-job"?

  • Note to future suicidal mass murderers: Given that you're going to end the deal by killing yourself anyway, couldn't you just start there? I'm not advocating ritual seppuku as a valid means of resolving one's personal issues. I'm just thinking we might be able to get you the death you want anyway, without a bunch of other people losing their lives, who had absolutely nothing to do with your inner demons.

  • Right decent of El Presidente to pop over to Va. Tech for a platitude-laden photo op. Maybe the 33 deaths for which Cho was responsible will deflect at least a modicum of attention from the 3,300 American deaths for which Bush is responsible.

  • You just know that the delay in action on the part of the university administration and security personnel between the first and second shooting incidents is going to make a passel of lawyers extremely wealthy.

  • Small consolation, but the Va. Tech massacre outstripped the previous U.S. mass shooting deaths record-holder, Charles Whitman, by a factor of more than 100%. If you're going to go off, go off big, I suppose.

  • Probably a trivial query in the midst of this maelstrom, but you know how my twisted mind works: What's a Hokie, anyway?

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Serenity best? Joss say no!

The British movie magazine SFX has released the results of its recent poll to determine the best science fiction film in cinema history.

In a stunning upset (I've always wanted an opportunity to use that phrase), SFX readers chose Serenity as the all-time greatest sci-fi flick.


I mean, Serenity was indeed pretty darned good. I even wrote as much in this very space a while back. But the best science fiction film ever? Hmm.

In case you're curious, here's SFX's complete Top Ten:
  1. Serenity. Again, you can check out my previous post to see what I thought of this one.

  2. Star Wars. I've never been a fan, either of the original or its increasingly tedious sequels and prequels. When Star Wars debuted back in the day, I actually paid to see it twice, not because I was enamored with it, but because everyone I knew was so ecstatic about it that I figured I must have missed something the first time. I didn't.

  3. Blade Runner. I didn't care much for Blade Runner the first time I saw it, but it's grown on me through subsequent viewings over the years. Certainly, it's as influential a film, visually speaking, as has ever been made in the genre. More than Star Wars, even.

  4. Planet of the Apes. A sentimental fave. I was a huge Planet of the Apes fan as a kid. On at least two occasions that I can recall, I sat in a theater through marathon showings of all five of the original Apes films. The Tim Burton remake, however, stank on ice. Banana-flavored ice.

  5. The Matrix. Like Blade Runner, The Matrix influenced almost every genre film that followed it. The sequels got a little bit outré and self-indulgent for my taste, but the original still rocks.

  6. Alien. This would probably be number one on my personal list, even though it's really more of a horror film in a sci-fi setting than pure sci-fi. Sigourney Weaver's Ripley remains one of the most awe-inspiring heroines in the history of the movies, genre or no genre.

  7. Forbidden Planet. Incredibly influential for its time — there would have been no Star Trek without it — but it's embarrassingly dated if you watch it today. Still, this futuristic retooling of Shakespeare's The Tempest has earned its place among the classics.

  8. 2001: A Space Odyssey. I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I find 2001 — like the entirety of Stanley Kubrick's cinematic oeuvre — pretentious, ponderous, and worst of all, boring. I remember walking out of the theater as a kid and asking myself, "That was it?"

  9. The Terminator. James Cameron's breakout film isn't high art, but it's wicked cool nonetheless. Strictly in terms of quality, however, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a much better movie. Who'da thunk that hulking mass of humanity with the undecipherable accent would someday be running my home state?

  10. Back to the Future. Shouldn't really count, in my opinion. Back to the Future is a comedy with a fantasy (not science fiction) premise. It's a fun movie, but it doesn't belong on a list of great sci-fi films.
Now the important question: Why isn't Heavy Metal on this list?

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

They're dropping like flies

Death must be in the air these days, and I don't believe it's just the stench of human decomp wafting over from Abby Chapel of the Redwoods.

Let's pause for a moment to reflect on some of the passages we've noted recently...
  • When wine mogul Ernest Gallo, the 297th richest person in America, died last week at the ripe old vintage of 97, my thoughts turned to his younger brother Joseph, who passed away about three weeks earlier.

    Joseph Gallo owned a cheesemaking enterprise known today as Joseph Farms. (Good stuff, as stock American-made cheese goes. We buy Joseph Farms products quite often.) Originally, the company was called Joseph Gallo Cheese. Ernest and Julio Gallo, however, didn't like the fact that their junior brother was slapping the family name on his dairy output, so they sued Little Joe over the rights to the Gallo moniker... and won. Thus Joseph Gallo — despite being every bit the Gallo his elder siblings were, genetically speaking — was legally estopped from using his own name on his cheese.

    Blood may be thicker than water, but wine is thicker than either.

  • Wow... Richard Jeni. There's been any number of comedians whose lives played out like horror headlines waiting to be written — Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, Sam Kinison, and Mitch Hedberg are just a handful of the names that leap to mind — but Jeni didn't seem like that kind of guy.

    Jeni always seemed amazingly normal for a comic, and his wry observations about life were earnest and easily to identify with. Whatever his demons were, they didn't surface in his comedy to any pathological degree.

    Maybe that would have helped.

  • Most casual comic books readers likely never knew who writer Arnold Drake was. To the cognoscenti, Drake was a legend — an iconoclastic creative talent who specialized in unique ideas and good old-fashioned fun.

    In the realm of superhero comics, Drake's best-known creations reflected his wonky sensibility: Doom Patrol, which was kind of like the X-Men as seen through a funhouse mirror, and Deadman, the bizarre tale of a murdered circus acrobat who wandered the earth hunting his killer. But Drake was more than just a scribe of muscular, slam-bang fantasy — he also invented a clever comedy series called Stanley and His Monster that in many elements prefigured the later Calvin and Hobbes. Drake also wrote dozens of issues of Little Lulu.

    I sat in on Drake's delightful showcase panel at WonderCon two years ago. The man knew where all the industry's bodies were buried, and he knew how to tell a great story. I'm grateful now that I took the opportunity to see him in person while he was still among us. He was a genuine treasure.

  • I felt a twinge of sadness when I heard some time ago that the Stardust Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas had shuttered. That twinge hit again as I read the news this morning about the old joint being imploded to make room for a new megadevelopment. By the time of its demise, the Stardust wasn't the swankiest joint on the Strip, but it sure held a history.

    KJ and I enjoyed a terrific evening at the Stardust some years back. We dined at the 'Dust's resident outlet of Tony Roma's Ribs, then caught a pretty decent production show called Enter the Night. Of course, the show that made the Stardust famous, Lido de Paris, was long gone by then, its stars Siegfried and Roy having jumped ship for the Mirage several years earlier. But we had a nice time anyway.

    I'm told that the Stardust's legendary sign, at one time the largest display on the Strip, has been preserved by the Neon Museum in Vegas. As for the Stardust itself, the lights are out, and the party's over.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Departed: All hope of Oscar excitement

Was that the most boring Academy Awards telecast in history, or what?

I almost need a major jolt of cat poop coffee to wake up after that snoozefest. Great gravy, McGee. I had thought Oscar couldn't get any more dull than last year's low-energy ceremony, but last night's show was like mainlining Lunesta.

To the commentary, quickly, while we're all still reasonably coherent:
  • Ellen DeGeneres once again solidified her reputation in my mind as the least funny big-name comedian I've ever seen. Ellen seems like a charming person, and I'll bet she'd be a delightful best friend and boon companion, but she doesn't make me laugh. A show as big as the Academy Awards needs a huge, room-filling personality at its center. That's why Bob Hope and Johnny Carson were so terrific with the hosting duties. Next year, bring back Whoopi.

  • Oh, and Ellen? Lose the red velour tuxedo. You were just a bow tie away from a barbershop quartet in that getup.

  • Did Jack Nicholson and Britney Spears visit the same hairdresser?

  • I thought the opening film by Errol Morris was fun, but it sure could have used captions so that viewers could identify the participants without a scorecard.

  • What the heck was that huge red bow doing on Nicole Kidman's shoulder? Did she not learn from Charlize Theron's similarly ridiculous outfit last year?

  • When the annual "Dead People" montage concluded, my parting thought was, I'll bet the Academy is darn glad they didn't wait another year to give Robert Altman the Lifetime Achievement Award.

  • That, and — man, Jodie Foster looked smokin' awesome introducing that segment. She and her stunning blue gown deserved a cheerier slot in the program.

  • Speaking of Lifetime Achievement Awards — for pity's sake, people, if you're going to give (a well-deserved) one to Ennio Morricone, and you know that the man doesn't speak much English, hire a presentable interpreter. Don't embarrass him, or a two-time Best Director honoree, by leaving them both to flounder onstage, fishing for the grace note.

  • Good for Martin Scorsese, finally winning a Best Director Oscar. Scorsese is a masterful filmmaker who just happens to make movies that aren't generally to my taste. But as with a great opera singer, I can appreciate the artistry even if I'm not partial to the vehicle. Go back in time 25 years: Who then would have guessed that a quarter-century later, Clint Eastwood would own two Best Director Oscars to Scorsese's one?

  • For that matter, who'd have guessed that Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (who won her first for Raging Bull, Scorsese's breakthrough film), would own three Oscars to his one?

  • Although seeing Eddie Murphy — he of Velvet Jones, Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood, and "Buh-Weet" — win an Academy Award would have been a hoot of the first water, I was glad that Alan Arkin got one while he's still around to enjoy it. Thirty-seven years between nominations is a painfully long time.

  • Forest Whitaker should win something at every awards show, if only because his acceptance speeches this season always perfectly bridged the gap between thoroughly prepared and genuinely heartfelt. Nice guys should finish first more often.

  • Michael Arndt, the guy who wrote the screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine, gave a nice acceptance speech, too. Hopefully, that wasn't the only award-worthy script he had in him. Was he really Matthew Broderick's personal assistant?

  • Props to Jennifer Hudson for having the presence of mind not to thrust her Oscar at the camera and scream, "Suck THIS, Simon Cowell!"

  • Props also to Al Gore, for having the presence of mind not to snatch the Best Feature Documentary Oscar from producer Davis Guggenheim's hands and run off with it. You know, the way George W. did with Al's 2000 presidential election.

  • J-Hud has the pipes, and Beyoncé the publicity, but if you ask me, the hottest of the Dreamgirls is Anika Noni Rose. (Memo to J-Hud: Either get a red bra that matches the gown, or make 100% sure the off-white one you choose doesn't creep into your décolletage, girlfriend.)

  • I haven't yet seen Happy Feet, the winner for Best Animated Feature, but it's tough to imagine that it could be a better movie than the amazing Monster House.

  • Those little interludes where the shadow mimes formed themselves into visual references to the year's major films were weird, but at least they only lasted a few seconds each.

  • I can't help wondering how Helen Mirren's referring to the Queen as "Elizabeth Windsor" went over at Buckingham Palace.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Fat Tuesday, and I'm a bit fluffy myself

As I sit here sipping my Starbucks Kenya from my Mickey Mouse coffee mug ("It's really swell!"), I'm thinking.

You know what happens when I do that.

Get on your bikes and ride: The Tour of California bicycle race kicked off here yesterday. The first stage concluded with a 90-bike pileup in downtown Santa Rosa. At our house, we're rooting for local hero Levi Leipheimer, who's currently wearing the yellow jersey — which means that he's either leading the race, or knows where the urinals are located.

We figure Levi deserves a little applause, mostly to make up for what his parents did to his psyche by naming him Levi Leipheimer.

You really can find IT on eBay: For years, I've been hunting for a CD by an obscure '90s a cappella cover band from Washington, DC called Brock and the Rockets. The Rockets — four men, four women — performed at the very first Harmony Sweepstakes finals KJ and I attended, in 1993. In the years since, I've worn out my cassette tape of their sole album, entitled Out to Launch.

A couple of weeks ago, by sheer serendipity, I discovered a copy of the CD on eBay for just $3.99. I'm one happy Solid Rocket Booster. You haven't lived until you've heard Catherine Boland Hackett's hilarious rendition of Julie Brown's "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid."

Life begins on Opening Day: The Giants undergo their first full-squad workouts of spring training today. The wonderful thing about the first day of spring training is that every team is undefeated, every pitching staff looks like the second coming of Cy Young, every batting lineup looks like Murderers' Row, and every infield looks like Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Hope springs eternal in the spring.

Will this be the year Bonds breaks Aaron's record, if he's ever going to? Will Zito flourish in the National League? Will Durham prove he deserved the new contract? Anything seems possible. I loves me some Giants.

Our long national Monday nightmare is over: NBC has finally pulled the plug on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Starting next week, the oddly titled drama The Black Donnellys (odd because, from what I can tell from the previews, none of the characters are black; but then, if they were, the show would probably be called The African American Donnellys) slips into Studio 60's timeslot, by all accounts permanently.

As one of the few hardy souls who stuck it out with Aaron Sorkin and company until the end, allow me to offer three quick insights about what went wrong here:
  1. Studio 60 was a show about comedy writers and comedians, but almost no one in the cast was a comedy writer or comedian. The scripts never gave the one real-life comic in the crew (D.L. Hughley) anything funny to say or do. The actor playing the show's comedy star (Sarah Paulson) was the least funny person in the cast. Why didn't Sorkin stock the crew with genuinely funny people?

  2. The show wasted tons of airtime on relationship stories that lacked chemistry. The romance between the characters played by Paulson and Matthew Perry was doomed from the start — you never believed those two people felt anything for each other that was hotter than day-old oatmeal. The late-blooming love story between Bradley Whitford's producer and Amanda Peet's network executive seemed sillier and creepier every week. The one truly intriguing combination — Nathan Corddry's geeky comic and Lucy Davis's shy English writer — never got off the ground.

  3. The writing, to put it politely, sucked. I can't remember a show that loved to pontificate as much as Studio 60 — unless it was Sorkin's previous effort, The West Wing. There, at least, the White House setting gave the pontificating some gravitas. TV writers and comedians pontificating just came off as gratuitous and self-important.
Mrs. Butterworth, I think I love you: Today is National Pancake Day, which means that you can stop in at your friendly neighborhood International House of Pancakes before 10 p.m. today, and scarf down a free stack of three buttermilk pancakes. In exchange, the IHOP folks ask that you consider making a donation to the Children's Miracle Network, or another charity of your choice. So eat up, flapjack lovers.

(Not that I'm quibbling or anything, but I hardly believe that serving French toast, English muffins, and Belgian waffles qualifies a restaurant as "International." But maybe that's just me. I definitely would not bring up this point with your waitress, should you decide to go for the free stack.)

Happy Mardi Gras! Remember: For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl ads

For those of us mortals who look forward to the Super Bowl more eagerly for the commercials than for the game, Super Bowl Extra-Large-Plus-One came something of a cropper. This wasn't exactly a stellar year for the ad agencies, who annually bring out the big guns for the Big Game. I'd forgotten most of the spots already by the time I sat down to compose this post. Lucky for you, I took notes.

As an advertising copywriter, I tend to view the splashier commercials with a gimlet eye. A commercial should have as its primary aim two goals: (1) imbedding the sponsor's brand inescapably in the mind of the viewer, and (2) fostering an intense desire to purchase the sponsor's product or service. An ad that accomplishes either goal has earned its money. One that does both is golden.

Sad to say, most of the Super Bowl spots focus on a third objective: entertainment. The problem is that entertainment is the job of programming -- in this case, the football game. If all an ad does is entertain the audience, without selling either the brand or the product or both, it might as well be a show, and not an ad. Few things are a more pointless waste of money and creativity than a clever commercial that everyone in America talks about, but no one can recall who the advertiser was or what product they were selling. You might as well set three million dollars (production cost plus airtime) on fire.

So let's examine a random sampling of Super Bowl commercials using the SwanShadow Scale of Advertising Effectiveness (a maximum of ten tailfeathers possible):

Pizza Hut: Jessica Simpson bolts the red carpet for some Cheesy Bites.
I have no love for Jessica Simpson — an unattractive, talent-free bimbo, in my not-so-humble estimation — nor for Pizza Hut, which serves the nastiest pizza of any of the major chains. This ad, however, does a good job of reinforcing the brand, and making the product seem appealing. Seven tailfeathers.

Blockbuster: The Blockbuster bunny and gerbil attempt to order videos using a mouse. The furry kind.
One of the more memorable and effective spots of the day. The mouse gag makes a strong mental connection with the online service. More importantly, the spot breaks away from the humor to solidify the sales pitch, rather than trying to make the gimmick do all the heavy lifting. Nine tailfeathers.

Doritos: A guy and girl meet disastrously cute.
Clever idea — this was an amateur submission generated by a "make your own Doritos ad" contest. For me, though, as clever as the piece is, its value is ruined by all of the violent misfortune. Unless I'm selling insurance or auto body repairs, I don't want people associating my product with car crashes. Six tailfeathers.

Sierra Mist: When you can seize the soft drink from my hand, Grasshopper, you will be ready to leave. Most of the blogosphere is raving about the other Sierra Mist spot starring comedians Michael Ian Black and Jim Gaffigan, in which Black's middle manager fires Gaffigan's bizarrely coiffured employee. For me, that spot was more about the sight gags than the soda. This one, with Black playing a martial arts teacher and Gaffigan his hyperaggressive student, works better at selling the product, while still bringing the funny. Eight tailfeathers. (The "hair" ad only gets six.)

Snickers: Two macho men share an inadvertent kiss over a Snickers bar. This was probably the funniest ad of the day. It did not, however, make me want to eat a Snickers bar. Instead, it made me want to hurl. Not because of the implicit homoeroticism (borrowing heavily from a famous bit in the John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles), but because the idea of having food in my mouth that has been in someone else's (I don't care whose) turns my stomach. I can't imagine anyone viewing this ad and thinking, "I sure would like a Snickers right about now." Three tailfeathers.

Bud Light: Carlos Mencia turns an ESL class into a beer commercial.
Alcohol ads are always a valuable test for me, since I don't drink. This spot makes effective use of humor — and ethnic humor at that; tricky in any venue — in reinforcing the Bud Light brand. There's a reason why Anheuser-Busch, which I'm told by my beer-drinking associates makes a mediocre product at best, sells so much beer: Their ads consistently underscore their brand identity, to the degree that even a teetotaler such as myself knows who they are. (I always wonder: If Budweiser is the King of Beers, is Bud Light the Queen of Beers?) Eight feathers. (Another Bud Light spot starring Mencia lost the branding message in the punch line. Only four tailfeathers for that one.) Jungle lemmings.
Who thought this would be a good idea? A noisy, chaotic commercial featuring office workers in a jungle environment being attacked by unseen marauders, ending with the entire cast (or CGI versions of same) running off a gigantic cliff. I'm not sure from watching this ad what the product is, or what I'm supposed to think about it — other than that it has something to do with blowdarts and mass suicide. Yuck. One tailfeather... but just barely.

Emerald Nuts: Robert Goulet messes with your stuff.
Easily the most peculiar ad of Super Bowl Sunday — although less inflammatory than the Snickers spot — this one is just plain freaky. It didn't make me want to buy nuts, only to think that the creatives at Emerald's agency of record are nuts. Two tailfeathers, for sheer audacity.

Nationwide Insurance: "Federline! Fries!"
We rip on K-Fed quite frequently here at SSTOL, but this commercial is actually well done. I would have made the connection between the humorous body of the ad and the sales pitch more cohesive, but all in all, this was worth the money Nationwide spent on it, for the pop culture buzz alone. Seven tailfeathers — would have been eight, but KJ used to work for Nationwide, and she's still a mite peeved.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thinking Thursday

It's a nippy January Thursday, and as is often the case, I stand appalled by the activities of my fellow humans...
  • The Ford Motor Company reported today that they lost $12.7 billion — that's billion with a "b" — last year. How does that happen? How do you lose $12.7 billion? There are entire countries that don't have access to that level of cash flow.

    Ford says that about $9.9 billion of the loss can be attributed to its newly established company-wide cost-cutting program. Guys, I'm no Milton Friedman here, but I don't think that program is working.

  • Responding to questions about the White House's insistence on pursuing its intended troop increase in Iraq in the face of a Senate resolution against the idea, Vice President Dick Cheney said:
    The fact is, we can complete the task in Iraq. We're going to do it.
    What's the weather like on your planet, Dick?

  • Scandal is brewing Down Under, where the city council of Melbourne hired private investigators to gather evidence against illegal brothels by having sexual relations with the masseuses at government expense. Said one detective:
    The girl is naked. The investigator is naked. You receive an oil massage and, at the end of it, you receive hand relief and that's it.
    Sounds like they take the term "private investigator" literally down in Kangaroo Country.

  • Caucasian students at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas displayed the redness of their collective necks by throwing an MLK Day party featuring fried chicken and malt liquor, Afro wigs, and costumes imitating black rappers and Aunt Jemima. (You can check out the photo array over at The Smoking Gun.)

    Perhaps someone thought MLK meant Mindless Losers for the Klan instead of Martin Luther King.

  • At the Oakland Raiders' press conference introducing new head coach Lane Kiffin, owner Al Davis took offense when a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News referred to the Raiders as "a black hole for coaches." Darth Davis raged:
    This isn't a black hole for coaches. It's a great opportunity for coaches. We know how to win here.
    Hey, Al: Your team was 2-14 in the NFL season just concluded. If the Raiders know how to win, you're keeping that knowledge more secret than the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

  • Ellen DeGeneres's ex-squeeze Anne Heche is dumping her husband of five years in favor of her Men in Trees costar, James Tupper. I guess Anne's decided to give the old hetero thing one more whirl.

    In apparently unrelated developments, Heather Graham and Bridget Moynihan will play lesbian lovers in the upcoming film Gray Matters, while former Friends costars Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston get in a little girl-on-girl action in the March 27 episode of Cox's new series, Dirt. So maybe the old hetero thing just isn't for everyone.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Do you take one Golden Globe, or two?

Just for the record: My globes are not golden — they're frozen.

It's 24 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, here in what's supposed to be balmy northern California. Yes, I realize that those of you in the Midwest who have icicles dangling from your noses are thinking that 24 degrees sounds like a vacation in Jamaica. But for us warm-climate pantywaists, this is wicked cold.

Speaking of 24: Is there a compelling reason why the second half of the four-hour season premiere always gets scheduled opposite the Golden Globe Awards? Someone in Hollywood hates me. (Not you, Trebek. We have an understanding.)

At any rate, those funloving folks at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed out their annual Golden Globes last night. Among the highlights of the mutual admiration society banquet:
  • The easiest win of the night had to be Forest Whitaker's triumph for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama. When two of the other nominees in an acting category are Leonardo DiCaprio (for both Blood Diamond and The Departed), the third is Peter O'Toole in a movie no one heard of, much less saw, and the fourth is Will Smith — an underrated actor, but no Forest Whitaker — heck, I could have won if I'd made a movie last year.

  • From the What Were They Thinking? Department: Sacha Baron Cohen winning Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy for Borat. I'm guessing it was because Cohen was essentially playing a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

  • Is it just my imagination, or does Renée Zellweger always look as though she smells something nasty?

  • I know they've both won practically everything it's possible for an actress to win, but it still felt good to see Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren pull down the Best Actress awards for film comedy and drama, respectively. Nice to see that someone recognizes that talented women remain worthy of great film roles past the age of 35.

  • So how do you feel if you're the great Jack Nicholson, nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama, and you lose to Eddie Murphy? Knowing Jack, you're probably too blotto to care.

  • Speaking of saucy Jack, his daughter Lorraine served the honors as Miss Golden Globe. (Every year, the HFPA selects a second-generation starlet to hand the trophies to the presenters on stage. Such later luminaries as Laura Dern, Joely Fisher, and Melanie Griffith started their careers as Miss Golden Globe.) A word of advice to young Ms. Nicholson: No matter what Dad's ex-girlfriend Lara Flynn Boyle tells you, hon, a cheeseburger now and again ain't gonna kill you.

  • Congratulations to former American Idol also-ran Jennifer Hudson, who netted what will surely be the first of multiple awards for her performance in Dreamgirls. Take that, Simon Cowell!

  • Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima won as Best Foreign Language Film. Later, California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger hobbled out on crutches to display his award-winning form as Best Foreign Language Politician.

  • Warren Beatty received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Mr. Shampoo gave a ludicrous, rambling acceptance speech — I think he'd been chugging cocktails with Paula Abdul before the show — that seemed to last a lifetime, or at least as long as a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular.

  • House's Hugh Laurie capped his memorable acceptance speech from last year with yet another brilliant spiel when he returned for his second Best Actor, TV Drama trophy. They should let Laurie win every year, just to see whether he can keep topping himself. The guy should hire out to coach the other nominees on how to deliver a killer speech.

  • Nice to see both Kyra (One Degree from Kevin Bacon) Sedgwick and America (the Beautiful) Ferrera snag the TV Best Actress awards. Not only because they're talented performers who deserve the accolades, but also because it gave them the opportunity to step out of their plain-Jane TV roles and let the world see how gorgeous they really are. Both Sedgwick and Ferrera seemed genuinely excited and grateful to have won, and I, for one, was happy for them.

  • On the subject of America Ferrera, was I the only person in the audience not surprised that Ugly Betty scored the Best TV Comedy award? Remember who the voters in this venue are — foreign journalists. Ugly Betty is based on a telenovela that's been a huge hit in Latin America. It was probably the most easily relatable show in the category for many members of the HFPA.

  • Three of my favorite current TV series — Heroes, Big Love, and the aforementioned 24 — were nominated in the Best TV Drama category. All lost to the pretentious soap opera claptrap that is Grey's Anatomy. I told you Hollywood hates me.
And now, we present SSTOL's annual Golden Globe Fashion Awards:
  • What's Up With That Dress? Award: It's a tie! Our first honoree is Cameron Diaz, who not only dunked her head in a bucket of Shinola before the event, but also came disguised as either a Swiffer duster or a marine tube worm, I'm not sure which.

    Not to be outdone, nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Best Supporting Actress for Babel) appeared in a frock that looked as though she was preparing to stuff an truckload of pink aspirin bottles.

  • What's Up With That Suit? Award: Jeremy Irons, who apparently could not be bothered to change out of his bathrobe and pajamas to pick up his Golden Globe.

  • The "She's Not My Granddaughter, She's My Wife" Award: Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, proving yet again that a fat wallet and Viagra trump youth and good looks any day of the week, and especially on the red carpet. The hand that robs the cradle is the hand that rules the world.

  • Giving New Meaning to the Term "Golden Globes" (also known as the Drew Barrymore Award): We'll let the people decide. Dreamgirls' Beyoncé Knowles?

    Or Heroes' Ali Larter?

    Oh, what the hey — let's make it a two-fer.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Seven for the RockHall

Just in case we haven't had enough Hall of Fame chatter here this week, what with posts on the latest inductees into the Rock and Roll and Baseball Halls, someone asked me today what performers I believe ought to be in the RockHall, but aren't there yet. After all, I always mention the worthy players who fall short of election to Cooperstown every year.

The difficulty, of course, is that evaluating musical performance is infinitely more subjective than assessing athletic prowess — especially in a sport such as baseball, where statistics can be obtained for even the most obscure or minute aspect of the game.

On the other hand, I love a challenge.

Therefore, here's a brief, far from comprehensive list of bands and solo acts — seven in all — I believe should by now have been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I've limited the choices to acts who are already eligible under the Hall's criteria — basically, anyone whose first recording was released more than 25 years ago.

In alphabetical order:
  • Alice Cooper. I was actually surprised to see, when scanning the list of current enshrinees, that Alice isn't in the RockHall by now. Extremely influential even now (ask Marilyn Manson), and hugely popular back in the day.

  • The Doobie Brothers. On the scene forever, with more hits than you can shake your moneymaker at. Maybe the problem is the stylistic dichotomy — the rough-and-tumble biker bar band of their early hits, contrasted against the blue-eyed soul of the band's Michael McDonald period. Maybe it's the near-constant lineup changes (although that didn't keep out, say, Santana). But you can't argue with their level of success.

  • Genesis. Another group I thought was in the RockHall already, but for whatever reason isn't. Genesis, like the Doobies, enjoyed a bifurcated career: first, as a hardcore progressive rock band behind lead singer Peter Gabriel; then, as a more commercial hitmaking trio when drummer Phil Collins stepped to the forefront. The fact that Gabriel, guitarist Mike Rutherford (as leader of Mike + the Mechanics), and especially Collins went on to mammoth solo success doesn't alter the fact that the band itself is worthy of recognition.

  • Heart. Perhaps they're still struggling to overcome the old "Led Zeppelin with bosoms" stigma, but the talent of the Seattle powerhouse built around sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson deserves a place in the Hall. Easily the most storied and successful hard-rock act fronted by a female lead vocalist (Ann) and a female lead guitarist (Nancy) in the history of the genre. If Chrissie Hynde's Pretenders are in the Hall, Heart should be also.

  • Jethro Tull. Baffling again. I can only suppose that the Hall voters are still steamed about Tull winning the first-ever Grammy for heavy metal — which Tull is most assuredly not. A unique assemblage of talent, with one of the most inventive and distinctive frontmen in the business in Ian Anderson.

  • KISS. Go ahead and laugh, but just try and write a history of rock music in the '70s and '80s that doesn't feature them prominently. When a mainstream Hollywood feature film can be made about your fanbase (Detroit Rock City), you're big time, baby.

  • Donna Summer. I realize that some hardliners would be up in arms about the Queen of Disco finding a niche in the RockHall, but when you strip back the glitter-ball bias and concentrate on the talent — not to mention the star power — how do you keep her out? The woman sold in excess of 120 million records, for crying out loud. Somebody thought she was onto something.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Hey hey, my my — the Rock and Roll Hall will never die

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just announced a new gaggle of inductees. Here's how we assess the about-to-be-enshrined:
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The first hip-hop act to be inducted — mostly because the RockHall only considers performers eligible 25 years after their first recorded work — and there probably isn't a better place to begin acknowledging the genre. If DJ Grandmaster Flash (real name: Joseph Saddler) and his crew of MCs (Melle Mel, Kid Creole, Cowboy, Mr. Ness, and Raheim) didn't invent hip-hop, they certainly gave it the flavor that made it the juggernaut it became. I was a college radio DJ when "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," the group's first landmark single, was released, and we all knew then that this was the start of something mammoth. Turns out we were right. (Interestingly enough, Flash himself doesn't actually perform on the group's best-known track, "The Message.")

  • R.E.M. Okay, I'll confess: It took me a long time to grasp R.E.M.'s appeal. The first few records of theirs I heard were just a bit too weird for my (plainly unsophisticated) tastes. It wasn't until the band started cutting more accessible — and, yes, more commercial — fare along the lines of "Stand," "Losing My Religion," and my favorite R.E.M. tune, "Texarkana," that I began to appreciate their musicianship and phenomenal creativity.

  • The Ronettes. Three words: "Be My Baby." No less an authority than Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys once dubbed it "the most perfect pop record of all time." The Ronettes became Phil Spector's launching pad for his innovative, industry-changing Wall of Sound recording technique, which influenced artists from John Lennon to Bruce Springsteen. It'll be interesting to see what mention Spector gets at the induction ceremony. (In case you've forgotten, Spector is scheduled to begin trial next week for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.)

  • Patti Smith. Not a fan myself, but I can't argue with the selection. Frankly, I'm one of the people who often confuses her with Patty Smyth, the lead singer for the '80s band Scandal, and current wife of former tennis superstar John McEnroe. I always liked Patty-with-a-Y better than Patti-with-an-I, anyhow. She was way cuter, and could actually sing. Plus, she turned down the chance to replace David Lee Roth as lead singer of Van Halen. How cool is that? Oh yeah... this is supposed to be about Patti Smith. Umm... "Because the Night" was a good song.

  • Van Halen. Speaking of Eddie, Alex, and company, the chartbusting arena rockers round out this year's RockHall field. When I was in college in L.A. in the early '80s, regulars of the local club scene spoke about Van Halen in the reverential tones most of us reserve for Deity. I suppose now that's appropriate — when it comes to crank-it-up, decibel-busting American hard rock, VH is about as close as it gets. I'm in the minority who liked the band equally well whether Diamond Dave or Red Rocker Sammy stood out front. (It's interesting that the RockHall's official press release mentions both Dave and Sammy but excludes third lead vocalist Gary Cherone, who replaced Hagar in the late '90s. Man, it sucks being Gary Cherone.)

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Supergroups and Panthers we love

To usher in a brand new year of Comic Art Fridays, I thought I'd begin with a list of five currently ongoing comic series or miniseries that I'm especially enjoying right now. By coincidence, the five books share something in common — each features the adventures of a group of superheroes.
  • Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. I was skeptical when I bought the first issue of this eight-volume miniseries. After six issues, I'm already dreading the impending end of the storyline. The book features updated versions of several heroes with Golden Age pedigrees: The Ray, Phantom Lady, Doll Man, the Human Bomb, Black Condor, and of course, Uncle Sam. The writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti (or "Graymiotti," as they're sometimes known) has crafted a compelling plot featuring interesting twists on old character types. The distinctive, painterly art by Daniel Acuña complements the action perfectly.

  • Agents of Atlas. Another series resurrecting heroes from the distant past — in this case, the 1950s, when the company today known as Marvel Comics was known as Atlas (among other names), Agents brings together the most unlikely assemblage of superdoers since Marvel's 1970s Champions series. Ageless secret agent Jimmy Woo leads a reunited team consisting of a spaceman (Marvel Boy), a goddess (Venus), a simian (Gorilla Man), a robot (M-11), and a merwoman (Namora) through a series of scrapes narrated by a new character, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Derek Khanata. Writer Jeff Parker and artists Leonard Kirk and Kris Justice have taken a kooky concept and spun it into gold. As with Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, I'll be sorry when Agents of Atlas is over.

  • JSA Classified. Although a brand new Justice Society of America series recently hit the stands, I've grown fond of the more personal and intimate short-run stories being told in JSA Classified. The current story arc by writer Scott Beatty and artists Rags Morales and Michael Bair features an old favorite, Doctor Mid-Nite.

  • Heroes for Hire. I'd eagerly anticipated the start of this Graymiotti-scripted series, and I haven't been disappointed in the least. HFH throws together some sadly neglected Marvel characters from back in the day — including the Daughters of the Dragon (bionic-armed Misty Knight and katana-swinging Colleen Wing), the Black Cat, and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu — with such newer heroes as Tarantula and Humbug. Comic Art Friday perennial Al Rio takes over the penciling chores from Billy Tucci and Francis Portela effective next issue.

  • Avengers Next. I'm not a fan of Marvel's various alternate universe series, but I decided to sample this one because Ron Lim is providing the pencils. Am I ever glad I did! Former Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco is crafting a fun, fast-paced, cheerfully old-school superhero yarn, featuring a new generation of young heroes in a possible alternate future. It's everything comics used to be, and rarely are today. As expected, the art by Lim and inker Scott Koblish is energetic and awe-inspiring.
Of course, one thing I always love about comics, and have for some 35 years or so, is the Black Panther. Let's check out some BP art.

My always wonderful hometown comic shop offers frequent "Starving Artist Saturdays," where local comic artists drop in and sketch on-spot commissions for an afternoon. Last Saturday, I dropped by to visit with the artiste du jour, a fast-rising North Bay talent named Paul Boudreaux. Paul kindly drew this gorgeous, strikingly detailed, and huge — the actual image measures 14" x 16" — T'Challa scenario for me.

And, because one Black Panther is never sufficient to satisfy our craving for all things Wakandan, here's another snazzy sketch, drawn in Kirbyesque style by former Milestone Media artist Angel Gabriele.

Go read some comics, willya? Because that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Actors and actresses we miss

On New Year's Day — seems like an eternity ago, doesn't it? — Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle published an excellent article on the recent trend of actors who, having dropped off the face of the show business map, resurface to acclaim and applause.

Among Hartlaub's examples were Jackie Earle Haley, the former child star (Bad News Bears, Breaking Away) who'll probably be nominated for an Oscar for Little Children, and Thomas Haden Church, the former sitcom actor (Wings, Ned and Stacey) who had more or less retired before his costarring turns in Sideways (one of my favorite films of the current decade, incidentally) and the upcoming Spider-Man 3.

Actors vanish for lots of reasons. Child actors outgrow their cuteness — and their talent — or have difficulty gaining acceptance in adult roles. (Right, Wil Wheaton?) Female actors reach "that certain age" at which Hollywood stops creating good roles for women — although that's changing incrementally, especially as the Baby Boomers age — or leave the spotlight to raise families. Actors of every description simply find that their phones stop ringing, often for reasons that are entirely mysterious. Sometimes they don't get work just because it's been a while since they've had work. Out of sight, out of mind — it happens in show biz as in real life.

All of which got my brain to percolating. Who are some actors I haven't seen in a while, that I'd enjoy seeing making a splashy (or even drippy) return? I've spent random moments over the past few days jotting down a list. For some of these folks, I know why they disappeared — the reasons may appear in the preceding paragraph. For others, I haven't a clue. Some haven't ever completely evaporated, but don't seem to get choice roles anywhere near as often as I think they should, or as they would if I ruled the entertainment industry. (Which I don't. So if your name's on this list, don't call me. I can't help you.)

I did, just for safety's sake, check to make certain that no one I'm about to mention has died. Because that would be embarrassing. As well as a perfectly valid reason for not working.

Phoebe Cates. The stunning young starlet who made red bikinis famous in Fast Times at Ridgemont High married fellow actor Kevin Kline in 1989, and dropped out of acting in the early '90s to raise their kids.

Deborah Foreman. She made Valspeak chic in Valley Girl and limo driving fun in My Chauffeur. Didn't have Cates' range as an actress, but worked the cute perky thing pretty well.

Paul Zaloom. I used to watch his wacky science edutainment series for kids, Beakman's World, with my daughter when she was preschool age. Am I the only one who remembers this show? And whatever happened to Zaloom, who played the title character?

Pamela Sue Martin. Ah, Nancy Drew! (Or Fallon Colby Carrington, if your tastes run more to soaps than sleuthing.) I was reminded of her recently while watching one of those I Love the '70s flashback shows on VH1. Back in the day, I thought she was going to be a huge star. Never really happened, despite an infamous Playboy pictorial.

Michael Paré. A lanky, laconic actor in the young Clint Eastwood mold, he starred in one of my favorite films, Walter Hill's Streets of Fire, as well as the reasonably entertaining Eddie and the Cruisers. Another actor I thought would develop into a megastar, but he's spent most of his career toiling in wretched low-budget action and sci-fi dreck.

Michael Beck. Probably best remembered (not coincidentally, in my case) as Swan, the leader of the title gang in another Walter Hill classic, The Warriors, he costarred with Michael Paré in a decent mid-'80s TV buddy-cop drama called Houston Knights. Like Paré, he never totally vanished, but hasn't worked with the consistency or prominence his early roles suggested.

Jim Kelly. One of the major stars of early '70s blaxploitation, his best role came alongside Bruce Lee in the greatest martial arts film ever, Enter the Dragon. Not merely an actor, but also a genuine karate champion. I keep waiting for Quentin Tarantino to resurrect his career.

Karen Allen. The most amazing pair of blue eyes in the history of cinema, with talent far exceeding the requirements of most of her better-known roles (Katy in National Lampoon's Animal House, Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jenny Hayden in Starman).

Thomas Carter. Never left show biz, just moved into a different and more stable role. After costarring in the '70s TV series Szysznyk and The White Shadow, Carter became a successful director, first in television (Fame, Hill Street Blues, numerous other series), then in feature films (Save the Last Dance, Coach Carter). He was such a talented actor, though, it seems almost a shame to lose him in front of the camera.

Kim Richards. Grew from playing the cute kid in such Disney pictures as Escape to Witch Mountain and No Deposit, No Return to a starmaking turn as the streetwise adolescent in Tuff Turf. Then... nothing. Why didn't she evolve into the second Jodie Foster? Maybe being Paris Hilton's aunt had something to do with it.

Linda Fiorentino. Longtime SSTOL readers knew I'd get to my favorite actress eventually. Yes, I understand she's supposedly hell on wheels to work with. But how can someone with her prodigious talent — she would likely have won the Best Actress Oscar for 1994's The Last Seduction, had not a quirk in Academy rules prohibited the film from being nominated — have made only one film (Kari Skogland's little-seen, but compelling, Liberty Stands Still) in the past seven years?

Stacy Carroll. Her only feature film credit is the thankless role of Corbin Bernsen's scorned wife (who engineers a one-night stand with Charlie Sheen as vengeance on her philandering spouse) in the '80s baseball comedy Major League. She's also one of the most memorable aspects of that movie. I wonder whatever became of her. I hope Bob Uecker didn't scare her off.

Feel welcome to add your forgotten favorites to the comments section.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Comic Art Friday: The best of 2006

We've come to the final Comic Art Friday of this year, so you know what that means:

It's time for our Best of 2006 Awards. [cue fanfare]

We had, admittedly, a lighter year in comic art collecting in 2006 than we enjoyed the previous year. Money, as the old saying goes, doesn't grow on trees, nor does the art it can finance. But as I page through the portfolios, I'm pleasantly surprised at the number of truly stellar creations that entered my galleries over these past twelve months. So let's get started, shall we?

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroes Division:
"Night Warriors" — pencils by Darick Robertson
The Night Man and Night Thrasher

A special piece, both for its amazing technical brilliance, and because it's the only artwork in my Common Elements theme gallery that I actually observed in progress. Darick Robertson graciously allowed me to peer over his shoulder one Saturday afternoon as he drew this magnificent sketch, during a signing at my local comic shop.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroines Division:
"The Hat Squad" — pencils by Anthony Carpenter
Lady Luck and Zatanna

Anthony Carpenter's lush pencil treatment and inventive design make this piece a standout. The fact that Anthony draws gorgeous women doesn't hurt a bit, either.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Seconds Count" — pencils by Lan Medina
Spider-Woman II and Mr. Terrific II

Two heroes with striking appearances join forces in this drawing by Lan Medina. I love the propulsive forward energy of Lan's layout, and the athletic grace of his figures.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Reindeer Games" — pencils by Luke McDonnell
The Comet and Vixen

I had no idea what Luke McDonnell would do with this rather whimsical combination. When I saw the completed artwork, I was blown away. The detail, both in the design and execution of this scenario, is nothing short of amazing.

Favorite Wonder Woman:
James E. Lyle (pencils and inks) and Buzz Setzer (colors)

I own several other pieces by James E. "Doodle" Lyle, including another Wonder Woman artwork I personally commissioned from him. The moment I saw this classically styled pinup, however, I knew I had to have it. One of the very few color artworks in my collection.

Favorite Black Panther:
Ron Lim (pencils) and Bob Almond (finished inks)

A double winner, this. Ron Lim, whom I always look forward to seeing at local comics conventions, drew the central T'Challa figure at San Francisco's WonderCon in February. A few months later, Bob Almond — who loves the Panther as much as I do — inked Ron's drawing and added a jungle background of his own creation.

Favorite Mary Marvel:
Chad Spilker (pencils) and Bob Almond (finished inks)

A rough preliminary sketch by "good girl" specialist Chad Spilker transformed into this eye-catching pinup on the drawing table of inker Bob Almond.

Favorite Ms. Marvel:
Buzz (pencils and inks)

Buzz is another artist I always look forward to seeing at conventions. Buzz accepted the commission for this piece at WonderCon, and delivered both it and an equally stellar Black Panther at Super-Con later in the spring.

Favorite Scarlet Witch:
Michael Dooney (pencils)

One day as I was paging through my Scarlet Witch portfolio, I suddenly realized that I'd never commissioned a Wanda from Michael Dooney. Mike was kind enough to rectify this omission by creating this beautiful drawing.

Favorite Supergirl:
Ron Adrian (pencils) and Bob Almond (finished inks)

Start with a powerful pencil image by the talented Brazilian artist Ron Adrian, then add skillful embellishment by Bob Almond, and you end up with something truly spectacular, like this.

Favorite Storm:
Thomas Fleming (pencils)

Thomas Fleming is an artist whose work I would own much more of, if only I could afford it. His awe-inspiring, photorealistic tonal pencil work must be seen to be believed. I was thrilled to acquire this incredible portrait of my favorite X-Man from him.

Favorite Solo Hero:
Dynamo — pencils and inks by Dan Adkins

Dan Adkins may have been one of the most underrated artistic talents of the Silver Age. Best known as an inker, the former assistant to the great Wallace Wood is a marvelous draftsman as well. All of his skills come to bear on this evocative ink drawing of the star of Wood's classic '60s series, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.

Favorite Solo Heroine:
Amazon — pencils by Michael Dooney, finished inks by Bob Almond

Michael Dooney had never seen Amazon — a comingling of Wonder Woman and Storm who appeared in a one-shot Marvel/DC crossover book a decade ago — before I sent him a scan and asked him to draw her. From the looks of this piece, you'd think he'd been drawing her for years. Bob Almond contributed his typically flawless finish work.

Favorite Co-Ed Pinup:
"Blackbirds" — pencils by Rags Morales
Lady Blackhawk and The Falcon

Okay, so this is really just an excuse to squeeze in another peek at one of my Common Elements theme commissions. The great Rags Morales gives a solid presentation to a couple of my favorite heroes.

Favorite Inking Makeover
"Blind Man's Bluff" — pencils by Ron Wilson, finished inks by Bob Almond
Daredevil and Doctor Mid-Nite

Bronze Age star Ron Wilson created the original pencil art for this Common Elements commission in 2005. This year, Bob Almond kicked this already awesome artwork up a notch with a superlative inking job that displays the complete range of his skills. This one is hanging on my office wall at this very moment.

Which is one of the reasons for this acknowledgment:

Comic Art Friday's 2006 Artist of the Year:
Bob Almond

Bob Almond reminds me of those BASF commercials — he doesn't so much make art as he makes other people's art better. (That's Bob on the left in the photo above; the bearded gentleman is the late, great comic artist Dave Cockrum of X-Men fame, one of many legendary comic creators we lost in 2006.) As I've observed on other occasions, Bob's gift as an inker is his chameleonic ability to match and enhance any penciler's style. No matter who the original pencil artist is, I'm always confident that Bob will find a way to bring out the very best in that creator's work.

Bob delivered a number of terrific commission projects for me this year, several of which are featured above. Every one was a revelation. Bob's also a nice guy, and fun to work with. I look forward to utilizing his talents further in 2007.

Thanks to all of the creators whose artistry and imagination enlivened my collection — and my Comic Art Fridays — in 2006. I can hardly wait to see what wonders the new year will bring!

And that, dear reader, is Comic Art Friday's Best of '06.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Riding a Blazing Saddle to Fargo

Two of my favorite films in cinema history landed on this year's list of 25 inductees to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. By virtue of selection, these films are deemed national treasures, guaranteed to be preserved in perpetuity for future generations to appreciate.

Blazing Saddles is a long overdue choice, especially given that two other Mel Brooks films, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, are already in the Registry. For my money, Blazing Saddles is both the funniest comedy in film history (it's Number Six on the American Film Institute's list of great American comedies) and the cinema's most incisive satire on the subject of race. Originally, Richard Pryor — who cowrote the script — was supposed to star, but he was serendipitously replaced at the last moment by the brilliant Cleavon Little. When I was a kid, if I couldn't grow up to be Spider-Man, I wanted to be Sheriff Bart.

Fargo is an unusual film, in that it can be viewed either as a comedy punctuated by gruesome violence (it's #93 on AFI's list of funniest comedies), or as a neo-noir thriller with inescapable comedic overtones. However you choose to classify it, Fargo is terrific moviemaking by the Coen Brothers (whose films I don't always enjoy). The lead performances by Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota (no, the film doesn't take place in Fargo, except for the first few minutes), and William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman whose get-rich-quick scheme launches the story, have to be regarded as two of the most memorable of all time.

Other interesting picks among this year's Registry selections:
  • Red Dust, starring the all-but-forgotten sex goddess Jean Harlow. Harlow, who died of kidney failure at the tender age of 26 just as her career was taking off, was Marilyn Monroe before Marilyn even hit puberty. To see Harlow on screen is to fall in... well... desire with her. She was truly one of a kind.

  • Halloween, John Carpenter's horror classic that launched a thousand slasher flicks. Halloween isn't Carpenter's best film — Starman is — nor his most entertaining — that's a tie between Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China — but it's certainly his most iconic work. Is there a good reason why Rob Zombie is remaking it?

  • Groundhog Day. Not a favorite of mine, frankly, but a film that has pervaded popular culture in much the same way that Halloween has.

  • sex, lies and videotape, Steven Soderbergh's breakout film, is another peculiar if perfectly reasonable selection. In my estimation, Soderbergh is one of the four or five best directors working today, and this film illustrates most of the reasons why. A stellar performance by James Spader — a highly underrated actor — makes this odd material come together.

  • Notorious. One of Hitchcock's best — I was actually surprised to learn that it hadn't been chosen previously. You put Hitchcock together with his favorite leading man, Cary Grant; a sublime leading lady, Ingrid Bergman; one of cinema's great character actors, Claude Rains (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor); a slinky script by a legendary writer, Ben Hecht — how could it not be wonderful?

  • Rocky. Two words: "Yo, Adrian!"

  • The T.A.M.I. Show, which — by an ironic and altogether appropriate twist of timing — showcases a sensational performance by the recently departed Godfather of Soul, James Brown, among other music icons.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Yabba dabbo doo times

In memory of animation pioneer and producer Joseph Barbera, who passed away on Tuesday at the Methuselahesque age of 95 (some sources suggest he was actually 97), here are my fifteen all-time favorite Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. They're listed in alphabetical order, because it's just too difficult to rank them otherwise.

The Flintstones. They're the modern Stone Age family. The current generation may not remember Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners, on which The Flintstones was modeled, but everyone knows Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty. Yes, the incessant "rock" and "stone" puns and anachronistic sight gags wore a bit thin at times, but lest we forget, this was all fresh back in 1960 — an innocent era when you could sing, "We'll have a gay old time," and no one would snicker.

The Harlem Globetrotters. At the time (1970), a weekly animated cartoon with a largely black (and relatively stereotype-free) cast was unheard of. Heck, it's 36 years later, and there haven't been many since. I draw the line, though, at the spinoff in which the Globetrotters become superheroes. Don't mess with success.

The Herculoids. This show was awesome. A space-age Tarzan, Jane, and Boy (okay, their real names were Zandor, Tarna, and Dorno, but anyone could recognize the inspiration) living on a distant planet with their five pet monsters: Zokk, a flying dragon who fired laser beams from his eyes and tail; Igoo, a King Kong wannabe made of solid granite; Tundro, an eight-legged triceratops who spurted fireballs from his horn; and Gloop and Gleep, "the formless, fearless wonders" — essentially, bug-eyed blobs of sentient Jell-O. No one ever explained how all these creatures existed when there was only one of each kind (or two, in the case of Gloop and Gleep, but they could multiply by division at will), but the Herculoids were so cool, we didn't ask questions.

The Hillbilly Bears. This was my father's favorite television show during its original run. Essentially The Beverly Hillbillies, if the Clampetts had remained in the Ozarks, and were of the ursine persuasion. Paw Rugg muttered unintelligibly in a hilarious growl provided by an otherwise unknown actor named Henry Gordon. Hanna-Barbera never seemed to tire of characters who mumbled.

Hong Kong Phooey. Maybe the last really good idea for a series Hanna-Barbera delivered, before decades of repetitious decline. Designed to cash in on the martial arts craze, this 1974 show starred a humble police station custodian who was really a kung fu kickin' superhero. Made eminently watchable by the enthusiastic voice performance of veteran character actor Scatman Crothers in the title role.

The Jetsons. For all practical purposes, The Flintstones in outer space. Painfully dated now, but in the '60s, this was what most of us actually thought the future would look like. And you know you want to sing the song: "Meet George Jetson! His boy Elroy! Daughter Judy! Jane, his wife!" I always wondered why Jane came last. I'll wager that Jane wondered the very same thing.

Jonny Quest. Not only one of the great cartoon series, but also one of television's great adventure series, period. As I look back on it now, I suspect that Jonny's dad Professor Quest and his hunky sidekick Race Bannon might have practiced the love that dared not speak its name. Of course, in 1964, that would have been a whole other kind of show.

Josie and the Pussycats. Long tails, and ears for hats. The Runaways in leopard print leotards. They came in three flaovrs, so whatever your taste in pussycats, either Josie, Valerie, or Melody could be your dream girl.

Secret Squirrel. At the height of the James Bond craze of the '60s came this animated espionage caper comedy. Derivative, sure —' but then, so were I Spy, Get Smart! and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. If you're going to steal, steal from the best.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Often imitated, never equaled. Hanna-Barbera would spin off dozens of riffs and thinly disguised fascimiles of Scooby and the gang, but the original series of Scooby mysteries were classic television. (The live-action film version, however, was perhaps the worst big-budget, major-studio motion picture I have ever seen. That travesty cost me brain cells that I will never regenerate.)

Sinbad Jr. Not one of Hanna-Barbera's bigger hits, but this swashbuckling adventure series was one of my favorites as a kid. When Sinbad (who was the son, I think, of the Arabian Knights legend) tugged on his belt, he bulked up like a seagoing Adonis, and gained super-strength. A young Tim Matheson provided the protagonist's voice. Too bad H-B didn't produce more adventure series like this and Jonny Quest, because when they did, they usually did them well.

Space Ghost. If The Jetsons were The Flintstones in outer space, then Space Ghost was Batman in outer space. Best known to the current generation for his self-mocking "talk show," which came decades later. A masterwork of character design by the legendary comic artist and animator Alex Toth.

Top Cat. Largely forgotten today, but this Guys and Dolls-flavored gangster parody, like The Flintstones, originally ran in network primetime. Featuring memorable voice work by the great Arnold Stang in the lead role of T.C.

Wacky Races. A show that spawned legions of imitators — many of which came from Hanna-Barbera themselves — Wacky Races was a true classic. How could you not love all of those bizarre characters and their tricked-out race cars, and try to guess who would finish first, second, and third at the end of each episode? Being something of a science geek as a kid, I always rooted for Professor Pat Pending and his Convert-a-Car. (Both of the Wacky Races spinoffs, Dastardly and Muttley and Their Flying Machines and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, were good as well — something that can't be said for most Hanna-Barbera sequel series.)

Wait 'Til Your Father Gets Home. One of the few Hanna-Barbera series specifically targeted at adult audiences. At the time, an animated take on All in the Family (although cranky dad Harry Boyle, voiced by Tom Bosley of Happy Days fame, but in retrospect, a spiritual forerunner of The Simpsons and King of the Hill. I'm sure it would look and sound dated now, but it was surely the first TV cartoon to deal (albeit heavy-handedly) with issues like civil disobedience, pre- and postmarital sex, and workplace equality for women.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Too many candles

In case you were thinking that my birth on this date in 1961 was the most important event ever to occur on December 19...'d be correct.

At least from my perspective.

Because, for me, if I'm never born, the entirety of human existence on Planet Earth doesn't amount to a bucket of warm spit. Sucks for you, I know. But there it is.

Secondary to that auspicious occasion, however, it's interesting to note that some other stuff also happened on this date in history. A few choice examples:
  • December 19, 1606: The first colonial ships leave England for what would become Jamestown, Virginia. No wonder I never get a birthday card from any of my Native American friends.

  • December 19, 1776: Thomas Paine publishes his essay American Crisis, featuring the soon-to-be-famous line, "These are the times that try men's souls." Apparently, Paine's assessment of my life was only a couple of centuries premature.

  • December 19, 1777: General George Washington sets up camp at Valley Forge. My advice, George? Bring plenty of long underwear.

  • December 19, 1843: Charles Dickens publishes A Christmas Carol. Bah, humbug.

  • December 19, 1915: German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer dies. At least I think he does. I forget. What was I talking about?

  • December 19, 1916: The French win the Battle of Verdun. It would mark the last time the French would win at anything, ever. Or even put up a decent fight, for that matter.

  • December 19, 1963: Actress Jennifer Beals, the star of Flashdance, is born. What a feeling. Jennifer: Call me. We'll do birthday lunch. Wear that sweatshirt — you know the one.

  • December 19, 1967: Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, having gone missing while ocean swimming two days earlier, is presumed dead. Just between you and me, I think a stingray got him.

  • December 19, 1969: Actress Kristy Swanson, the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is born. Kristy: Call me. We'll do birthday dinner. I'll bring the garlic.

  • December 19, 1972: The crew of Apollo 17 — Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt — returns home safely from the moon. If you'd told me then that no human being would go to the moon within the next 34 years, I'd have said, "You don't know Jack Schmitt."

  • December 19, 1974: Nelson Rockefeller becomes the 41st Vice President of the United States, proving once again that money can't buy love or happiness, but it does a darned fine job of nailing down political offices.

  • December 19, 1984: The United Kingdom formally agrees to return Hong Kong to the Chinese, effective in 1997. In exchange, China agrees to return rampant colonialism and inedible cuisine to the British, effective immediately.

  • December 19, 1997: The movie Titanic is released. I should probably be offended by that. (See, Donna? We do have something in common.)

  • December 19, 1998: Articles of impeachment are filed against President Bill Clinton by the U.S. House of Representatives, even though he did not have sexual relations with... well, yeah, he did.

  • December 19, 2006: I guess that's up to us, isn't it?

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Burning off the tryptophan

Now that the turkey carcass has been decimated, the dressing and candied yam residue has been scraped from the baking dishes, and the pantry is down to one solitary can of cranberry sauce...

...let's see what's now and exciting (or at the very least, space-filling) in the pop culture universe.
  • Teri Hatcher is sorry that she appeared as a Bond girl in 1997's 007 flick, Tomorrow Never Dies.

    Not as sorry as we Bond fans are, Teri.

  • Last night, 60 Minutes presented a story about a new drug that may erase unpleasant memories.

    This is news? I know several people whose entire memory of the 1970s has been pharmaceutically eliminated.

  • Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock are divorcing after four stormy months of marriage.

    Who said it wouldn't last?

  • A Bruce Lee memorial park is being built on the site of Lee's ancestral home outside Hong Kong.

    At last — one place in the world where no one will look at me funny when I start rattling off dialogue from Enter the Dragon. "Boards don't hit back."

  • Tawny Kitaen is facing drug charges after sheriff's deputies discovered cocaine during a search of her home.

    Is Tawny still raking in enough residuals from Bachelor Party and that infamous Whitesnake video that she can actually afford cocaine? And aside from rabid fans of Bachelor Party and Whitesnake, does anyone still remember who Tawny Kitaen is?

  • An automobile engineer at Jaguar based his concept design for the new XK coupe on Kate Winslet's figure.

    This just in: Hummer debuts the Roseanne Barr SUV.

  • Here's irony for you: H. Donald Wilson, the man who founded LexisNexis, the pioneering online database that brought the legal profession into the electronic age, died earlier this month of a heart attack...

    ...while sitting at his computer.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Electric Boogaloo

As the sights and sounds of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade billow from the television, and as the enticing aromas of roast turkey and its various accoutrements filter in from the kitchen, I pause to honor a long-standing annual tradition here at SSTOL. Herewith, an alphabetical sampling of that for which I am grateful on this Thanksgiving Day 2006. (Yes, my Canadian friends, I'm aware that you all did this a month ago. Indulge your southern neighbors for a moment, won't you?)

A cappella. No instrument creates more expressive music than the unadulterated human voice. My chorus, Voices in Harmony, helps remind me of this every Tuesday night. (Incidentally, if you'd like a rousing dose of vocal excitement to kick your Christmas season into high gear, and you happen to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, join us for our holiday show at Flint Center in Cupertino on Saturday, December 2.)

Blogger Beta. As you may have noticed in recent days, I'm now able to categorize my posts. Of course, Blogger waited until I had written over 1,100 posts before they released this functionality. So far, I've categorized about one-third of the backlog. The benefit to you, friend reader, makes the effort worthwhile.

Commissioned art. Thanks to all of the talented artists who added custom creations to my comic art collection this year: Ron Lim, Ale Garza, Rags Morales, Charles Hall, Michael Dooney, Al Rio, Roy Cover, Ron Adrian, Anthony Carpenter, Buzz, James Taylor, Lan Medina, Darick Robertson, Luke McDonnell, and the redoubtable Bob Almond.

DVD Verdict. Still the Internet's finest resource for reviews of films and TV shows on DVD. Site owners Mike Jackson and Michael Stailey keep breathing new life into the venerable site.

eBay. Whatever "It" is, you'll find "It" on eBay.

52. DC Comics' weekly blockbuster is the highlight of my comic shop visit every Wednesday.

Google. Quite simply, the most valuable tool in cyberspace. Yes, they've gone all corporate now, but the important thing is -- the darn thing works.

Heavy Metal. The one movie I throw in my DVD player every few weeks, just to be reminded of how much fun it is.

Internet Movie Database. Next to Google, I love IMDb best. When you absolutely, positively need to know who appeared in or worked on a movie or TV show you're watching, and you need to know now.

Jeopardy! Still adding seconds to my fifteen minutes of fame, more than eighteen years later.

KJ and KM, my girls. A better wife and daughter, no man deserves.

Las Vegas Advisor. The definitive locus for all things Vegas, their Question of the Day teaches me something I didn't know about my second-favorite city every day of the week.

Michael the waiter at JK's. Whenever I walk into my favorite lunchtime hangout, Michael always has my Diet Coke ready.

Notepad. Perhaps the simplest program on my computer, yet one I rely on more than almost any other.

Olfactory sense. Smells evoke memories that life would be lessened without.

Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits. We finally got a franchise in my home town. Love that chicken! (The red beans and rice, and the fried crawfish with Boss Sauce, aren't half bad, either.)

Quarterflash. I heard "Harden My Heart" on the local classic rock station just the other day. I wonder what Rindy Ross is doing these days.

Rachael Ray. Because a woman who can prepare a complete repast in 30 minutes and eat three meals in any city in the world for under $40 is my kind of woman.

"Save the Cheerleader, Save the World." Until 24 returns in January, Heroes is consistently the most compelling hour on television.

TV with MeeVee. A fun and informative TV blog that helps me get in touch with my inner couch potato. Plus, they have a terrific copy editor... if I do say so myself.

United States Postal Service. Say what you will, it's still one of the world's great bargains. Donnie, the clerk in our local post office, greets every customer with a cheery "Good morning!" no matter what time of day it is.

Vixen. I was thrilled when Mari McCabe, one of comics' first African-American superheroines, made the revamped roster of Justice League of America this year. I predict she'll be making a special appearance for Comic Art Friday tomorrow.

World Series of Poker. One of these days, I'm going to play in the Main Event.

Xerographic technology. If we couldn't photocopy stuff, life would be a lot more complicated.

YouTube. The online repository of more funny, interesting, and just plain bizarre videos than you can shake a mouse at.

Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute. Because someone, somewhere, ought to be thankful for Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute. Today, I am that someone. You blow, Zamfir.

Whatever your blessings may include this day, friend reader, I hope you are genuinely and expressively grateful for each and every one. Thank you for stopping by here, and for continuing to open the Pandora's box of my mind. May you and yours have a pleasant, peaceful, and tryphophan-bombarded Thanksgiving.

(If you're interested in discovering what some of my fellow bloggers are thankful for, check out the sharefest at The Art of Getting By.)

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Monday, November 20, 2006

If I had blogged about O.J.'s book and TV special, this is how I'd have done it

I'm shocked — shocked, I say — that News Corp. has canceled O.J. Simpson's speculate-all book, If I Did It, and the accompanying television special due to be broadcast on FOX next week.

You'd think Rupert Murdoch woke up this morning with ethics in his cornflakes.

Although that might be expecting too much.

Setting aside the overwhelming ick factor in having a man describe in graphic detail how he murdered his wife and her paramour — hypothetically speaking, of course, I'm mostly relieved that any potential success on the part of News Corp.'s abortive O.J. project won't lead to a slew of like-minded self-exposes by other alleged celebrity malfeasants:
  • If I Knew It by President George W. Bush.

  • If We Sang It by Fab Morvan, the surviving half of Milli Vanilli.

  • If I'd Written It by Stephen Glass (who actually more or less did this number already, in his novel The Fabulist).

  • If I Did It, Then Had It Done to Me, in a Denver Motel by Pastor Ted Haggard.

  • If I Had Sexual Relations with That Woman, Whom I Did Not Have Sexual Relations With by former President Bill Clinton.

  • If I Took My Handgun to My Favorite Italian Restaurant by Robert Blake.

  • If I Made Home Movies, an anthology featuring the collected works of Rob Lowe, R. Kelly, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears.

  • If I Was Anti-Semitic by Mel Gibson.

  • If I Was a Racist by Michael Richards.

  • If I Were Gay by [insert the potential author of your choice here].

  • If I Were a Moron by [insert name of your Congressional representative here].
This whole O.J. confessional debacle is yet another entry in the ever-growing pop culture category, "Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?" — the same category that brought you Crystal Pepsi, mullets, and the Iraq War.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Next offer: Beachfront property in Kansas

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District — the governmental entity that oversees, among other things, San Francisco's most recognizable landmark — is seeking corporate sponsors for the world-famous suspension span.

Why not? Everything else has a corporate sponsor these days.

I think that sponsoring the Golden Gate Bridge could be a marketing boon for any of several dozen major corporations. Wouldn't you just know... I have a few examples in mind.
  • McDonald's. Paint the bridge yellow, and it'll look like inverted golden arches.

  • Coors Light. Because nothing goes better with the Golden Gate than the Silver Bullet.

  • Poligrip. Who has more experience in supporting bridges?

  • 20th Century Fox. This might help reassure people who didn't realize X-Men: The Last Stand was fiction that Magneto did not, in fact, relocate the Golden Gate to Alcatraz.

  • The Republican Party. The way to counteract "San Francisco values" — whatever the heck that means — might be to plaster the GOP all over San Francisco's greatest symbol.

  • Starbucks. Grab an espresso or a latte as you pay your toll.

  • Disney. They built a replica at the California Adventure amusement park. Why not have the real thing?

  • Dell. Dude, you're getting a bridge.

  • Microsoft. Bill Gates already owns everything else.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Linda Blair makes my head spin

Linda Blair, who first came to fame as Regan MacNeil, the bile-spewing, demon-possessed twelve-year-old in 1973's seminal horror film The Exorcist, is attempting to jump-start her dormant acting career. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Blair revealed nine interesting facts about herself that most of her fans (all three of them) probably didn't know.

Of course, Blair's revelations spawned random thoughts in the fertile mind of yours truly. The first of which is: Why did the LA Times headline this article "Linda Blair's 10 Biggest Secrets" when there are only nine? (Then again, maybe that's the secret.)

1. Linda Blair believes in angry spirits and dog angels. If you're imagining angels in the form of dogs, Linda, you've been hitting the angry spirits a little too hard.

2. She has enjoyed acting more as an adult than she did as a kid. Let's see... Before she exited her teenage years, Blair was:
  • Possessed by the devil (The Exorcist; The Exorcist II)
  • Raped with a broom handle while in juvenile detention (Born Innocent)
  • Terminally ill aboard an airliner that crashed into another plane (Airport 1975)
  • Addicted to demon whiskey (Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic)
  • Kidnapped and raped by an escaped mental patient (Sweet Hostage)
  • Terrorized by her cousin, who's a witch (Stranger in Our House).
Who wouldn't have enjoyed a childhood like that?

3. She'd rather do comedy than horror. Anyone who's seen any of Blair's films of the past 25 years can attest that the comedy in them is usually unintentional.

4. Despite her prominent role in "Roller Boogie" she no longer roller skates. But does she still boogie?

5. She went vegetarian in '88 and never looked back. Because tofu and mung bean sprouts are just so satisfying and tasty. Plus, Blair so clearly had a yen for split pea soup, even in her Exorcist days.

6. She begged out early on Halloween this year. Her revolving cranium was freaking out the trick-or-treaters.

7. She's only living in LA for the sake of the animals. Yeah, I've been in some of those LA neighborhoods, too.

8. She likes a simple breakfast in the mornings.
Nine-grain cereal, vanilla soy milk, and a vegan burrito? Aren't Krispy Kremes vegetarian?

9. A dog named Sunny changed her life. Mine too. But I promised Sunny that would remain our little secret.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

The pallid bust of Palance just above my chamber door

When I think of Jack Palance, who passed away yesterday at the age of 87, four disparate images come to mind:

1. Palance as the villainous gunslinger Jack Wilson, striding into town while leading his horse by the reins in the classic Western Shane. The film is almost an hour old by the time Palance makes his first appearance, and he has only twelve lines of dialogue. But he steals the movie from its titular star, Alan Ladd. (In the Clint Eastwood comedy, Any Which Way You Can, Eastwood's character Philo Beddoe engages in a climactic fistfight with another tough guy named Jack Wilson, played by frequent screen villain William Smith — who bore a remarkable resemblance to Palance and was usually cast in similar roles. Coincidence? I think not.)

2. Palance as the tough old codger doing one-handed pushups on stage at the 1991 Academy Awards, when he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in City Slickers. Personally, I thought the movie was no great shakes, but Palance was Palance, and that counted for something. (Interesting that two of City Slickers' key players, Palance and Bruno Kirby, have both died within the past three months. I wonder how Billy Crystal is feeling these days?)

3. Palance as the unlikely pitchman in an unforgettable TV commercial for Mennen Skin Bracer aftershave. After splashing the odiferous product onto his craggy mug, Palance leered into the camera and intoned in his trademark gravelly baritone, "Confidence is very sexy. Don't you think?" (You need Palance-like confidence to wear Skin Bracer. That stuff smells like my high school gym locker.)

4. Palance as Morbius, the Living Vampire, in Amazing Spider-Man comics. No, seriously. Legendary comic artist Gil Kane, who cocreated and designed the Morbius character while the regular Spider-Man penciler in the early 1970s, modeled the vampire's facial features after those of Palance. At least, that's the story Kane told, and I'm sticking to it. (Palance did, in fact, portray Count Dracula in the 1973 telefilm adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. The film was directed by Dan Curtis, best known as the creator of the '60s TV horror serial Dark Shadows. Curtis also passed away earlier this year. Hmmm.)

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

They stab it with their Steely Dan, but they just can't kill the beast

I've had a Steely Dan song running through my brain nonstop for the past several days.

This is not as unusual as it sounds. I've had one Steely Dan song or another running through my brain pretty much nonstop since 1972, when I first heard "Reelin' in the Years" on the radio and knew I had found my muse.

Thus, for the past 34 years, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — plus their supporting cast of crackerjack studio stalwarts — have been writing and performing the soundtrack of my life.

I'll show you what I mean, album by album, through the band's classic period (1972-80).

Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)
  • "Do It Again" — "You find you're back in Vegas with a handle in your hand." Anyone who knows me knows that I love Las Vegas. The handle in my hand isn't on a slot machine, though. It's the handle of a souvenir mug. I'm drinking from my Paris Las Vegas mug as I write this.

  • "Midnight Cruiser" — My wife drives a steel blue (as in Steely Dan) PT Cruiser. It's a shade lighter than midnight, but work with me here.

  • "Reelin' In the Years" — Am I really going to be 45 in two months? Egad.
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
  • "My Old School" — My daughter is currently a senior at the high school from which I graduated. Her graduating class will be roughly twice the size of mine.

  • "Razor Boy" — I never travel without a knife in my pocket. At this moment, it's a Spyderco Native. Manufactured in Golden, Colorado. Black fiber-reinforced nylon handle, embossed with a spiderweb pattern. 3.125 inch drop point blade in S30V stainless steel. Wicked sharp.

  • "Your Gold Teeth" — I have two; my rearmost upper molars. They went south in my early 20s, after my wisdom teeth were extracted.

  • "Show Biz Kids" — For two years, I attended Pepperdine University in Malibu. I sat next to Charlton Heston's daughter in a poli-sci class. I roomed downstairs from Jack LaLanne's son. I worked at the campus radio station with Joe Garagiola's daughter. I was in a couple of plays with a guy whose dad starred on some soap opera. Need I continue?
Pretzel Logic (1974)
  • "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" — I can't memorize numbers. Even phone numbers I call frequently, I have to write down or store in my computer or cell phone, or I'll forget them. It took me years to imprint my own phone number, which is why I retained it as my business number — I was afraid of learning a new one. I forget my home phone number all the time. I usually memorize phone numbers not by the digits, but by the pattern I punch to dial them.

  • "Night By Night" — I've always been a night owl. I rarely go to bed before midnight, and often not before 1 a.m.

  • "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" — "Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend; any minor world that breaks apart falls together again." Words to live by.

  • "Barrytown" — I've been a diehard San Francisco Giants fan (is there another kind?) since 1976. S.F. officially became Barrytown on December 8, 1992.

  • "Through With Buzz" — My comic art collection contains three original commissioned works by the artist known as Buzz: a Vixen, a Black Panther, and a Ms. Marvel.

  • "Pretzel Logic" — If you're a regular consumer of my contorted prose and wonky sensibility, this needs no explanation.
Katy Lied (1972)
  • "Bad Sneakers" — "You fella, you tearin' up the street; you wear that white tuxedo, how you gonna beat the heat?" I have sung in two barbershop choruses that at one time wore white tuxedo jackets as their performance costume. Wearing a white tux jacket, I somewhat resemble the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

  • "Dr. Wu" — My bachelor's degree from San Francisco State University is signed by the school's then-president, Dr. Chia-Wei Woo. He probably thought this song was about him.

  • "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" — I have written over 100 movie reviews for DVD Verdict. I still owe them a couple. I'll get to them, I promise.
The Royal Scam (1976)
  • "Kid Charlemagne" — "Did you realize you were a champion in their eyes?" Did you realize that I'm the 68th all-time money winner in Jeopardy! history? Of course you did.

  • "The Fez" — "That's what I am; please understand I wanna be your holy man." I've been the minister for our church for the past 19 years. I don't know that I always (often?) qualify as a holy man. But I try.

  • "Green Earrings" — "Greek medallion sparkles when you smile." I lived in Greece for two years — my fourth and fifth grade years — in the early 1970s. Specifically, on Crete. You could get two lamb shish kabobs and a mound of shoestring fries for the equivalent of 25 cents American. I bet you can't now.
Aja (1977)
  • "Aja" — I lived in Asia for two years — mostly my seventh and eighth grade years — in the mid-'70s. Specifically, in the Philippines. Did you know that a number of outstanding comic book artists either hail from or reside in the Philippines?

  • "Deacon Blues" — "This brother is free; I'll be what I want to be." If only I knew what I want to be.

  • "Josie" — One of my all-time favorite Saturday morning cartoons was Josie and the Pussycats. Long tails, and ears for hats.
Gaucho (1980)
  • "Hey Nineteen" — Nineteen has always been my lucky number, if indeed I have one. My birthday, my wife's birthday, and our anniversary all fall on the 19th of the month. (We planned the anniversary. The birthdays we didn't have much say about.) I used to have personalized license plates for my car that read "EY 9TEEN." I still have the plates, but I've never transferred them to my current vehicle.

  • "Babylon Sisters" — "Here come those Santa Ana winds again." I once fell in love with a girl on a warm Southern California evening when the Santa Anas were blowing. She was a terrific kid — smart and funny, with a heart the size of the Andromeda galaxy. We used to listen to Steely Dan together quite often, including this album. I wonder sometimes where she is, and how her life turned out. She'd had a rough go of things before I met her. I'm not sure I improved them any.

  • "Time Out of Mind" — This song contains one of the best backing vocal performances ever, by Michael McDonald. That doesn't have anything to do with anything. I'm just saying.

  • "My Rival" — "The wind was driving in my face, the smell of prickly pear..." When my family used to drive cross-country back in the day, I used to like to buy prickly pear candy from the roadside stands one used to encounter in the Southwest. Usually the stands were owned — or at least staffed — by Native American folks. Do you suppose anyone still sells prickly pear candy?
When I was a late-night DJ in my college radio days, Steely Dan's FM, from the soundtrack of the film of the same name, was my opening theme:
Worry the bottle, Mama, it's grapefruit wine
Kick off your high-heel sneakers, it's party time
The girls don't seem to care what's on
As long as it plays till dawn
Nothing but blues and Elvis
And somebody else's favorite song...
FM — no static at all.
I don't know about you, but I'm going to go put on a Steely Dan CD. After all, my entire life is in the lyrics.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sitting here eating my heart out waiting

As I stare into cyberspace on this sunny California autumn afternoon, a barrage of unanswered questions vexes me...
  • Whatever happened to Melissa Joan Hart? After seemingly infinite seasons of Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (or, as it should have been retitled by the end of its run, Sabrina the Pushing-Thirty Witch), she pretty well dropped off the face of the pop culture map.

  • Do those two women of ambiguous orientation in the Yoplait yogurt commercial who refer to the product as "dating-the-masseuse good" not realize that a masseuse is always female? Or is that the point?

  • Is it too much to ask that political TV spots tell me something — anything — about what concrete action the candidate would actually take on some matter of genuine importance?

  • Is there any living creature more ridiculous-looking than a Chinese crested dog?

  • Did we really need to know that Rod Stewart first thought about bedding Paris Hilton when she was only 14?

  • Did we really need the mental picture of Rod Stewart bedding, well, anyone?

  • Do kids still buy ice cream from the Good Humor man? And does he still sell those toasted almond bars that used to be my favorite?

  • Does Nicole Kidman's ability to choose husbands totally suck, or what?

  • Did anyone honestly predict that "Weird Al" Yankovic's career would last 25 years?

  • When Bob Seger sang "America the Beautiful" before Game One of the World Series, was I the only one surprised that he was still alive?

  • Does Seattle's new tourism tagline — Metronatural — mean that every guy in the Emerald City looks like Ryan Seacrest, and every woman has hairy underarms?

  • Which is worse: Wesley Snipes's tax problems, or any of the so-called "films" he's made in the last four years?

  • Could anything be less exciting than 330 West Virginians playing UNO?

  • Do androids dream of electric sheep?

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The death of glamour

Whatever happened to glamour in Hollywood?

I'm puzzling over this today because it's the shared birthday of two great female stars of yesteryear:

Jean Arthur, the comedic genius with the distinctive voice who shone in such classics as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The More the Merrier, and her best-remembered dramatic role, Shane...

...and Rita Hayworth, the sensuous screen queen who put the "B" in "bombshell" in such films as Gilda, Blood and Sand, You'll Never Get Rich, and one of my favorites, The Lady From Shanghai, directed by and costarring Hayworth's then-husband, Orson Welles.

As Madonna once sang:
They had style, they had grace
Rita Hayworth gave good face.
Where are the Jean Arthurs and Rita Hayworths of today? Where are the Marilyn Monroes? Or the Maureen O'Haras? Or, for that matter, the Veronica Lakes, the Claudette Colberts, the Betty Grables, the Lana Turners, the Jean Harlows, the Jane Russells, the Hedy Lamarrs? (All together now: "That's Hedley!")

When I think of many of the so-called sex symbols of today's Hollywood, I cringe. Jessica Simpson? Britney Spears? Brittany Murphy? Animated Barbie dolls, bereft of talent and class. Jessica Alba? Cameron Diaz? Yawn. Pamela Anderson? Puh-lease.

Who among the stars of 2006 has the true glamour of the legends of the past?
  • Angelina Jolie does, I suppose, though while I believe she's a decent actress, I find her screen persona cold and off-putting.
  • Scarlett Johannson is growing into it.
  • Halle Berry has a certain measure of it, even though to me she's more girl-next-door than icon.
  • Drew Barrymore: Ditto.
Am I missing anyone?

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Too much information

In our instant information age, I sometimes wonder whether we are not indeed privy to entirely too much scuttlebutt about our celebrity contingent.

For example, I could have lived quite peacefully for several more decades without knowing that...

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Something for everyone

To our readers of Italian descent: Happy Columbus Day.

To our friends in the Upper Midwest: Happy Leif Erikson Day (not to be confused with Leif Garrett Day).

To our Native American readers: Happy Not Having Been Discovered Yet Day.

To our Canadian friends: Happy Thanksgiving (also known as Not Having Been Absorbed By America Yet Day).

To Beatles fans: Happy John Lennon's Birthday.

To my fellow devotees of the film Streets of Fire, Happy Michael Paré's Birthday.

To the folks at the FOX Broadcasting Company: Happy 20th Anniversary, and thanks for all the 24.

To all those not previously included: Happy Monday, and if you happen not to like Mondays, please don't go shoot up a school or anything.

Finally, in honor of Columbus Day, here's my Top Five Favorite Films Directed by Chris Columbus:
  1. Adventures in Babysitting

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sunday in the park with Swan

It's a Native American summer Sunday afternoon, and the hapless 49ers are manhandling the equally inept Raiders. So much for the NFL. Instead, let's give the pop culture world a vigorous shake and see what tumbles out.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It's getting polyester up in here

I usually refrain from memes and the like, but today's "Tell It to Me Tuesday" over at The Art of Getting By was simply too close to my heart to pass up.

Janet asks her readers to list their Top Ten recording artists or bands of the 1970s. For someone whose musical tastes were shaped during that wild and crazy decade, that's pretty much like asking for my favorite recording artists or bands of all time.

As is typical for me, I had a tough time cutting the list to ten. To make the task at least somewhat manageable, I decided to stick to bands, and save the solo artists for another day. Even with that stricture, I ended up with an irreducible list of eleven. Sue me.

These appear in alphabetical order, because as challenging as it was narrowing the list, attempting to arrange it in order of preference, musical stature, or any other subjective quality would have melted my already fevered little brain into a limp puddle of protoplasm.
  1. Blue Öyster Cult. I was never a big heavy metal freak, but BÖC rarely left my turntable once I discovered them. Dazzling, often confounding lyrics, coupled with a melodic sense rare in the genre, elevated by the nonpareil guitar attack of Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser. No other band alive could have recorded songs like "(Don't Fear) the Reaper," "Godzilla," "R.U. Ready 2 Rock?" or the incredible power ballad "In Thee." Favorite '70s songs: See the preceding sentence.

  2. The Doobie Brothers. It really doesn't matter whether one prefers the hard-edged biker band boogie of their early hits or the R&B-tinged sound of the band's Michael McDonald period, the Doobies did it all with soul and style. Favorite '70s songs: "China Grove," "Long Train Runnin'," "Takin' It to the Streets," "It Keeps You Runnin'."

  3. The Eagles. People who know my flaming antipathy toward country music — which includes everyone who knows me, pretty much — are often surprised to discover that I'm an Eagles fan. They shouldn't be. I love stellar vocal harmonies, distinctive guitar playing, and songs with lyrics that are actually about something. That's the Eagles. Hotel California ranks as one of my five all-time favorite albums. Favorite '70s songs: "Desperado," "Take It to the Limit," "Hotel California," "Wasted Time."

  4. Earth, Wind and Fire. In the midst of the disco era, one band bridged the gap between the new-school production sound epitomized by the great disco artists and the old-school funk of bands like Parliament/Funkadelic. That band was Earth, Wind and Fire. If you can remain still in your seat when an EWF track pumps out of your radio, you're either terminally Caucasian or just terminal, period. Favorite '70s songs: "Shining Star," "September," "Serpentine Fire," "In the Stone."

  5. Heart. As I've written before, Heart may be the most underrated band in rock history. Seriously. On a scale measuring sheer talent and musicianship, you can't name five bands in all of rock who consistently outperformed Ann, Nancy, and the boys. With their unique blend of folk sensibility and heavy metal instrumentation, they truly were the American Led Zeppelin. Favorite '70s songs: "Magic Man," "Crazy On You," "Heartless," "Straight On."

  6. Journey. Go ahead, mock me. Favorite '70s songs: "Lights," "Wheel in the Sky," "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'," "Just the Same Way."

  7. Kansas. Not as well remembered today as some of their contemporaries — a lot of people still confuse them with Styx — but when it came to taking an American slant on British progressive rock, no one did it better than Kansas. Point of Know Return, the 1977 album that included the classic rock radio staple "Dust in the Wind," is one of the most innovative and technically brilliant records of the period. I spent my 19th birthday at a Kansas concert in San Francisco's Cow Palace. Those were the days, my friend. Favorite '70s songs: "Carry On Wayward Son," "Dust in the Wind," "Closet Chronicles," "Sparks of the Tempest."

  8. Meat Loaf. I know what you're thinking — I said no solo artists. It must be acknowledged, however, that the "Meat Loaf" who recorded the epic Bat Out of Hell is a perfect amalgamation of the vocal talents of the Loaf himself with the songwriting and production genius of Jim Steinman, plus the phenomenal combined talents of musical chameleon Todd Rundgren, several members of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band (including keyboardist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg), and Steinman's usual cast of backup vocalists (including Ellen Foley and Rory Dodd). Bat is therefore no more a solo effort than, say, a Steely Dan album of the same period. So there. Favorite '70s songs: "Heaven Can Wait," "For Crying Out Loud," "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," "Bat Out of Hell."

  9. Queen. Two words: Freddie. Mercury. I rest my case. Favorite '70s songs: Listed here.

  10. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. When rock critic Jon Landau wrote in 1974, "I saw rock and roll's future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen," he wasn't just tossing off hyperbole. The Boss and his band came to define American rock in the latter half of the '70s. Popular music would never be the same again. Favorite '70s songs: "Rosalita," "Born to Run," "Thunder Road," "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)."

  11. Steely Dan. I can summarize the impact the music of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker made on my life in a single sentence: Without Steely Dan albums, I would not have survived adolescence. Favorite '70s songs: "Pretzel Logic," "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," "My Old School," "Deacon Blues."

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Honorary pirates for a day

Avast there, ye scurvy seadogs and curvy wenches! Mind yer step, now — 'tis the good ship SwanShadow ye be boardin'. This here be yer ol' Cap'n Swan, welcomin' ye to this here International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Anyone found not obeyin' the rules will feel the point o' me cutlass, if ye be knowin' what I mean. Don't make me have to walk ye out to the end o' yonder plank... there be sharks in these waters!

So let's go huntin' fer booty. That's right, m'lads and m'lasses, 'tis booty I said. We be minin' the buried treasure from this day's tidings, to name oursel's the Honorary Pirates o' the Day. A salty job it be, but yer ol' Cap'n is just the salt fer the job!
  • Honorary Pirate: Lindsey Lohan. Ah, that Lohan wench took herself a spill, I see. Busted her wrist all to smithereens, she did. Perhaps they'll fittin' her fer a hook! Methinks if she ate her hardtack and squab like a good wench, she might'nt be so fragile.

  • Honorary Pirate: Willie Nelson. Willie, that scurvy son of a sailor, the constables caught him a'smokin' the herb, they did. A pound and a half of the evil weed they found on the scoundrel. And 'shrooms there were — of a kind that make a seafarin' man see mermaids, if he's of a mind to. That Willie, a pirate he ought to be!

  • Honorary Pirate: Nutcase to be named later. What be eatin' this scalawag who crashed his vehicle in front o' the U.S. Capitol and fled inside brandishin' a pistol? Said the demons were after him, he did. Yer daft, man — it be Congress; the demons are already inside the buildin', they are.

  • Honorary Pirates: Run-DMC. Aye, it appears those hornpipers in The Knack are suin' the suspenders off Run-DMC fer stealin' samples of their song "My Sharona." O'course, it be 20 years ago that the thievin' rappers pulled off the swipe for their hit "It's Tricky." Gettin' away with the crime for a score o' years... now that's piracy, lads!

  • Honorary Pirate: Christopher Tolkien. Purloined an ancient manuscript o' his pappy's, did Chris the knave, and scribbled himself upon it until a complete book he made, he did. Not enough talent to dream up a book o' his own, surmises Cap'n Swan.

  • Honorary Pirate: Scarlett Johannson. Manhandled on the red carpet she was, by that bilge rat Isaac Mizrahi, an' now the sharp-tongued wench be boastin' about her buxom frame, she be. "I feel lucky to have what I've got," says she. Aye, an' she be sportin' a pair o' ripe casabas from the Caribbee, it appears to these old eyes. Shiver me timbers!

  • Honorary Pirate: the late Mickey Hargitay. Alas, Mickey, we hardly knew ye. But for marryin' that consumately curvy wench Jayne Mansfield, and for fatherin' yet another of our favorite curvy wenches, Mariska Hargitay, we salute the departed swashbuckler with a tip o' the sailor's cap and a raisin' of the grog. Rest in peace, ye worthy pirate. Remember, dead men tell no tales.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

It's not the weekend yet, but I can see it from here

It's Post-Hump Day, so it's all downhill from this point. Your Uncle Swan's about to lead you on a madcap romp through the pop culture headlines of the week. Bring your sunscreen, and keep your autograph book and Sharpie at the ready.
  • Britney and K-Fed unleashed another baby boy on an unsuspecting world on Tuesday. Time to invest in that new double-wide... and maybe to Google "contraception."

  • Whitney Houston has filed for divorce from husband Bobby Brown. The course of true love, spousal abuse, and massive cocaine ingestion never did run smooth.

  • Speaking of splitsville, Christie Brinkley is dumping her architect hubby Peter Cook after discovering that he was tapping a teenaged employee at work. I guess now Christie understands how Ellen Griswold felt.

  • I'm not saying this is what happened — I wasn't anywhere near the Bahamas last weekend — but wouldn't it be bizarre if Anna Nicole Smith had her older son bumped off so that she wouldn't have to divide her brand-new baby's inheritance? I smell a Lifetime Movie brewing there. Or at least, a Law & Order "ripped from the headlines" episode.

  • An actual dead body was discovered on the set of CSI: New York on Tuesday. If this had happened on the set of the original CSI, Grissom and company would have solved the murder by now. If it had happened on the set of CSI: Miami, we'd have been treated to David Caruso muttering through his teeth and donning his sunglasses.

  • By the way, am I the only one who finds it hilarious that all three CSI shows, despite their varied locales, are shot in metropolitan Los Angeles? Yeah, probably.

  • Everyone's all up in Lindsay Lohan's grille lately. In the past month, she's been publically criticized by Jane Fonda, William H. Macy, and Rosie O'Donnell. If this pressure keeps building, I predict that L-Lo will be off the feedbag again soon.

  • Apparently not content with having bastardized one Dr. Seuss classic into a tedious exercise in self-indulgence, Jim "The Grinch" Carrey now plans to star in the animated film version of Horton Hears a Who.
    I will not watch it with a fox.
    I will not play it on my box.
    I'll not support this vexing ham.
    I do not like him, Sam-I-Am.

  • Sharon Osbourne is launching a line of cosmetic products. Says Mrs. Ozzfest: "I get asked all the time how I stay looking good and what makeup I wear." Yeah, but, Sharon... the people asking are planning their next Halloween party.

  • Alanis Morissette has signed to play Roma Maffia's lesbian lover on an upcoming episode of Nip/Tuck. In her previous appearance on series television, Alanis shared a kiss with Sarah Jessica Parker during a game of spin-the-bottle on Sex and the City. Man, she really is still smarting from the whole Dave Coulier thing, isn't she?

  • Thanks to a judge's ruling, Sean "Puffy / Puff Daddy / P. Diddy / Just Plain Diddy" Combs can't brand himself as Diddy in the United Kingdom, because a British hip-hop performer was using that name first. My suggestion? Sean should call himself by a handle that would represent the quality of his music. How about Doody?

  • Also on the stage name front, wrestling superstar turned actor (or is that redundant?) The Rock has apparently decided that, in order to be taken seriously as a thespian, he should bill himself by his real name, Dwayne Johnson. Because nothing says "serious" like a guy named Dwayne.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

When Barry Bonds leaves town, it's Bye-Bye, Baby

As Barry Bonds sent his 730th career home run (his 22nd this season) over the right-center field wall at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park this evening, I was reminded that even in as mediocre a campaign as this one has been, being a Giants fan is still pretty sweet as long as Bonds is around. And lately, he's been around quite a bit: six round-trippers in his last 12 games, during which time he's hitting .472 (17 hits in 36 at-bats), pumping his batting average from an anemic .235 to a no-longer-embarrassing .263.

Of course, we probably won't have Barry here next year. He'll either retire — now that he's only 25 home runs behind Henry Aaron's record-setting 755, that's looking increasingly improbable — or he'll move over to the American League (probably the Nowhere-Near-Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), where he can focus on chasing Hammerin' Hank without further demolishing his decrepit knees by playing left field five days a week.

Bonds' likely departure means that in 2007, the Giants' marketing department will actually have to sell the team for a change, something they haven't needed to do very much since Barry moved his Hall of Fame parade from the arctic confines of Candlestick Park to the spectacularly picturesque, constantly renamed ballpark at McCovey Cove. For those of us whose Giants obsession predates the arrival of Number 25, the prospect of a serious marketing push by the G-Men is fraught with terror, as we recall some of the lame slogans the team trotted onto the airwaves in years past.
  • "Giants Hang in There!" I believe this campaign from the early '80s was supposed to remind one of those infernal posters so popular once upon a time, which depicted a kitten dangling by its forepaws from some precarious perch. Why the Giants brain trust wanted the team to be viewed as kittenish, or why they didn't tumble to the defeatism inherent in this slogan ("We can't win, but we'll hang in there!" Yeah, I want to spend my hard-earned cash to see that), always escaped me. Nevertheless, this tepid tagline hung in there for a couple of seasons of mediocrity.

  • "Real Grass. Real Sunshine. Real Baseball." This was the Giants' tagline in that fateful 1985 season, when the Men in Orange lost 100 games and a significant portion of their fan base. Recalling that '85 season, I remember that the grass was indeed real. The sunshine was too, as the Giants scheduled a preponderance of day games in an effort to attract folks resistant to the notion of freezing their hindquarters off in the icy night winds of Candlestick. The baseball? Not so real. Not so real good, either, if you'll pardon the grammar.

  • "You Gotta Like These Kids." The 1986 Giants featured a major youth movement, led by rookie first baseman Will "The Thrill" Clark, second baseman Robby Thompson, shortstop Jose Uribe (often referred to as The Player to Be Named Later, because he changed his playing identity from Jose Gonzalez to Uribe Gonzalez to Jose Uribe, all within his first few days with the Giants), and third baseman Chris "The Tin Man" Brown. "You Gotta Like These Kids" didn't promise much on-field success, just a bunch of likeable kids. Sort of like Peanuts.

  • "Humm-Baby!" Then-manager Roger Craig's rallying cry carried the marketing flag for a couple of years. Trust me, as a Giants fan, I got sick of "Humm-Baby!" awfully darned quick. After a while, one just wanted to say, "Humm THIS, baby."

  • "I've Got a Giant Attitude." Cranky-pants baseball, accompanied by the glowering, lampblacked eyes of Will Clark, who did, in fact, have a giant attitude. And not always a good one.

  • "All of Us Are Created Equal. Some of Us Become Giants." Paraphrasing landmark historical documents is never a good marketing plan. This arrogant-sounding tagline from the '90s demonstrates the reason why. Great for political speechmaking, as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King proved. For selling tickets to sporting events, not so much.
In anticipation of the Giants possibly needing a dynamite slogan for a Bonds-less 2007 campaign, I've jotted down a few ideas:
  • "Now 99 and 44/100 Percent Steroid-Free!"

  • "If You Close Your Eyes, It's Like Barry Never Left!"

  • "You Gotta Like These Castoffs From Other Teams!"

  • "Enough of Those Pesky Splash Hits, Already!"

  • "Our Mascot Can Beat Up Their Mascot."

  • "We Got Your Clear and Cream Right Here."

  • "Hey, How About That Ballpark?"
Feel free to help yourselves, Magowan and Company. And if you need more ideas, drop me an e-mail. We'll do lunch.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Gimme an Emmy

Of the three major entertainment awards shows, the Emmy Awards are usually the least entertaining, behind both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. This year's show seemed like an improvement over previous Emmyfests — the pace was sprightlier (wonder of wonders, the show finished on time!), some of the humor bits were fresher — but it still lacked the warmth and charm of the Globes or the superstar punch of Oscar Night.

Some thoughts, nonetheless:
  • Conan O'Brien makes an enjoyable host. I generally prefer Conan the Barbarian to Conan the Comedian, but O'Brien's pleasantly wonky sensibility works well in the context of the Emmys. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (not coincidentally, its initials are "SATAN" backwards) should sign Conan up for a multiyear run.

  • Thank the stars that Ellen Burstyn's 14-second supposting role didn't win the category in which she was nominated. What was the Academy smoking the day that pick happened?

  • The bit about Bob Newhart being sealed in a glass box with only three hours of air to breathe make me chuckle. No one on the planet can generate more laughs with nothing more than a baleful expression than Newhart can.

  • Stupidest awards show tradition: Having people come to the microphone for no other purpose than to introduce other people who will come to the microphone. I know it's a way of giving a few more familiar faces their moment in the spotlight, but stop it. Stop it now.

  • Seeing Dick Clark on camera was only slightly less pitiful and sad than seeing him on New Year's Rockin' Eve. But then, hearing his impassioned words made the discomfort worthwhile. Almost.

  • What was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doing at the Emmys? Or was that copilot Roger Murdock?

  • The One-Liner of the Night Award goes to Stephen Colbert, who opened his and Jon Stewart's presentation assignment by greeting the audience with, "Good evening, godless sodomites." Even the uptight right-wingers in the crowd had to laugh at that.

  • Best presentation bit of the evening: Hugh Laurie translating Helen Mirren's remarks into French, until he exhausted his command of the language. Deftly played comedy by two excellent actors, and genuinely hilarious.

  • A presentation bit that didn't work: Howie Mandel playing Deal Or No Deal with Will and Grace's Megan Mullally.

  • Speaking of the latter, does that woman own an evening dress that doesn't expose decolletage to the navel? Every time Mullally's on an awards show, we see far two much of her, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. And no, that's not a typo.

  • Nice of Tom Selleck to sober up long enough to help Mariska Hargitay present an award.

  • Speaking of the latter, her mention of her father (bodybuilder and bit-part actor Mickey Hargitay, for those of you who've forgotten) during her own acceptance speech was touching. Although it would have been worth the price of admission to hear Mariska say something like, "I wish my mother were alive to see this — she'd be out of her head right now."

  • Andre Braugher seemed surprised to win for his role in Thief. You could almost see him thinking, "So why didn't any of you people actually watch the [expletive deleted] show?"

  • The fawning tribute to Aaron Spelling proved that if you put enough money in enough Hollywood pockets over the years, when you croak you can skip the whole List of People Who Died Since the Last Show and get an homage all to yourself.

  • One benefit of the Spelling tribute: I had forgotten that the guy started his entertainment career as a comic actor, and a pretty decent one, too.

  • Quite a coup to regroup the three original Charlie's Angels for the Spelling memorial. Kate Jackson was always my favorite, and still is — can you not be enchanted by that voice? But holy Toledo, time and excessive plastic surgery have not served Farrah Fawcett kindly. Kate and Jaclyn Smith remain radiant in their late 50s (Jaclyn is actually 60 already — where did the time go?), while Farrah resembles a concrete gargoyle.

  • Speaking of dead people, the prized positions in the List of People Who Died Since the Last Show went, rather surprisingly, to Dennis Weaver (first) and Richard Pryor (last). I had expected Don Knotts to get one of the showcase spots, beloved as he was. The most surprising omissions from the montage were Nipsey Russell — I was certain we'd see him deliver one of his famous poems — and Wendie Jo Sperber, less for her considerable comedic talents than for her anti-cancer activism.

  • It was a relief when Helen Mirren won for her starring role in Elizabeth I. She'd already received mention in so many of the other winners' acceptance speeches that it would have looked odd if she'd been passed over.

  • When was the last time Calista Flockhart ate something? Not before this show, apparently. The creepiest visual of the evening — after the cadaverous Farrah — was seeing Calista and her grandfather Harrison Ford canoodling in the audience. They looked they were enacting a love scene from Tales from the Crypt.

  • Vindication of the Night Award: Kiefer Sutherland and 24, both of which should have won their respective categories in previous years. You go, Jack.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Between rock and a hard place

In and around doing other things last night, I was checking out a replay of VH1's 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. Yes, I'm aware that the series is a few years old. But if you haven't seen it before, it's new to you, right?

I'm not going to run down the entire list here — you can go here to review it, if you're so inclined — but I jotted down a few random thoughts that wafted through my formerly hard-rock addled brain as I watched the program. You'll see that I dug out a few souvenirs to solidify my rocker cred.

96. Meat Loaf. I'd have had the Loaf much higher on my ballot. SSTOL regulars already know that I loves me some Meat Loaf. The singer, too.

90. Rainbow. One of the funniest bits in Cameron Crowe's book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (upon which Crowe based his screenplay for the seminal teenage comedy), involves a kid who skips school every April 14 to celebrate the birthday of Rainbow's lead guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore. That always strikes me as funny because one of my best friends' birthdays also falls on April 14, and when we were in high school together, I never got her birthday off.

89. Lita Ford. One of the great injustices of this list is that the Runaways, the all-girl band that spawned the careers of both Lita Ford and Joan Jett (#66), isn't included. The Runaways' eponymous first album, raw and undisciplined though it may be, rocks harder and is way more fun than anything Lita ever recorded as a solo artist.

86. Foreigner. I want to know what love is. I want Lou, Mick and the boys to show me. In a strictly musical, heterosexual way.

83. King's X. An amazing three-piece musical juggernaut that never got the credit its collective talents deserved for two reasons: (1) because its members had in their early careers been backup players with such "contemporary Christian music" acts as Petra and Phil Keaggy, and thus King's X was stigmatized as a religious act (though their music never fit the CCM mold); (2) because lead singer and bassist Doug Pinnick came out as gay, effectively cutting the band off from the fan base that had supported King's X when they were being marketed as a Christian band.

74. Pat Benatar. I seriously crushed on Pat Benatar back in the day. That was before I saw her live in concert, and discovered that she was this microscopic slip of a woman, maybe four-foot-ten and 85 pounds. How did such a mammoth voice emerge from such a petite frame?

72. Foo Fighters. The VH1 series failed to answer one of the great mysteries in music history: What is foo, and why are these guys fighting it?

67. The Rolling Stones. The Stones, way down at #67? You've gotta be kidding.

61. Jethro Tull. I still chuckle when I recall that Tull copped the first-ever Grammy Award for heavy metal performance. I see they snuck in here, too.

57. Heart. Maybe the most underrated band in rock, ever. The Wilson sisters (that's Ann and Nancy, not Carnie and Wendy) were, at the height of their powers, one of the most sensational songwriting and performing combinations in popular music. The cognoscenti sometimes referred to Heart as "Led Zeppelin with breasts," and they were right. About the Zeppelin comparison, I mean. And yeah, the other thing(s), too.

55. Blue Öyster Cult. I still own a complete collection of BÖC LPs, up through The Revolution By Night. A perfect fusion of science fiction sensibility and heavy metal thunder, led by one of rock's most distinctive guitarists in Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser. How can you not love a band that could create songs with titles like these: "I'm On The Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep," "She's As Beautiful as a Foot," "Seven Screaming Diz-Busters," "Baby Ice Dog," "Veteran of the Psychic Wars," "The Great Sun Jester," and "Shooting Shark," just to name a few. Seriously, what other band in rock history could have recorded scary songs about both Godzilla and Joan Crawford?

44. ZZ Top. Every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man. Especially one with a waist-length beard and a '34 Ford.

31. Def Leppard. The only band in rock history with a one-armed drummer, although he still had two when Leppard recorded their best album, Pyromania.

25. Cheap Trick. Back when I was a college radio DJ in Southern California in the early '80s, Rick Nielsen once telephoned me in the studio to thank me for playing a Cheap Trick tune. The song, in case you're interested, was "Southern Girls," from Trick's 1977 album, In Color. Hey, Rick, I'm still in the book, man, if you ever feel the urge to reconnect.

17. The Ramones. Riff Randall still fondly recalls the way Joey Ramone slithered pizza into his mouth.

13. Queen. Freddie Mercury was The Man.

8. The Who. Would be Numero Uno on my ballot, with Zeppelin (first on VH1's tally) a close second, and Queen — my personal favorite of the three — in third. No one ever sounded like The Who, then or now. Who's Next remains the greatest non-Beatles album in popular music history, hands down.

4. AC/DC. Dirty deeds. Done dirt cheap. Angus Young always looked like a doofus in the schoolboy shorts, though.

3. Jimi Hendrix. Well, yeah. Duh. 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky.

2. Black Sabbath. Not my thing, really, but they were half of one of the coolest rock concert films ever shot: Black and Blue, the audiovisual record of Sabbath's co-headline tour with Blue Öyster Cult.

1. Led Zeppelin. All of which reminds me... it's been a long time since I rock-and-rolled.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Only Weekend Warriors need apply

Here's your quote for today, courtesy of rock guitar legend and itinerant gun nut Ted Nugent:
"If you want to be in my band, you have to be a member of the NRA, and you have to love to kill stuff. That's why we're here."
Now, straight shooter that he is (no pun intended), The Nuge isn't sharing the full skinny on what it takes to become a full-fledged member of his performing ensemble. Yes, it's true that one must be a homicidal sociopath. That goes without saying. But other important criteria apply also.

Thanks to intensive research by the nonprofit (it's not how we planned it, things just worked out that way) SwanShadow Foundation for Truth in Rock, we herewith present the Top Ten Qualifications for Aspiring Motor City Madmen. Applicants must...
  1. Be able to articulate the difference between "Nugent" and "Nougat."

  2. Have proof of current immunization against cat scratch fever.

  3. Swear to stomp the everlovin' doody out of anyone who accidentally mistakes Ted for Sammy Hagar.

  4. Be prepared to say "You're absolutely right, Ted," a lot.

  5. Know that "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang" is not an orange-flavored breakfast drink.

  6. Possess experience in gutting whole venison carcasses.

  7. Call Derek St. Holmes on the phone and belt out a Tarzan yell in his ear.

  8. Write a 1,000-word essay on the reasons why Damn Yankees was the baddest supergroup in history.

  9. Enjoy the taste of Meat Loaf.

  10. Look totally smokin' in a leather loincloth.
All that, and of course, be an NRA member and love to kill stuff.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sunday afternoon stroll

Your Uncle Swan takes you on a whirlwind tour of the Sunday headlines. Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

This guy says the horse can do

Yesterday, my daughter KM and I spent the afternoon at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, watching the horse races.

You have to understand this about KM: She loves horses. (Even more than she loves Orlando Bloom, which is saying something.) Since taking on her first part-time summer job helping out at the pony ride concession in a local park a few years ago, KM has developed into quite the equestrian. As I type this, she's at a nearby boarding stable exercising and grooming a couple of horses for the resident trainer. Her bedroom wall is festooned with ribbons she has won in various competitive riding events.

Therefore, when I tell you that I spent the afternoon with my 17-year-old at the race track, don't look at me like I'm a nutcase. It's all about the equine.

The Sonoma County Fair hosts one of the most popular racing meets on the California fair circuit, so we had ample company as we wandered between the paddock and the finish line. In recent seasons, the track facilities have undergone a serious makeover, with giant TV screens everywhere and a new turf track between the dirt and the infield to attract the bettors.

Race tracks are like baseball games — every time you visit one, you see something you've never witnessed before. Among the sights yesterday:
  • One excitable animal bucked off her jockey — turning a complete aerial somersault in the process — in the paddock while waiting for her run to begin. I had no idea thoroughbreds had that kind of hops.

  • The gray horses had a good day yesterday. Warning: This is not actual handicapping advice.

  • Stacy London and Clinton Kelly could generate an entire season's worth of What Not to Wear in a single day at the track.

  • One little boy peering into the paddock fence wanted to ride one of the horses. His mother told him he couldn't. Then again, he wasn't much smaller than many of the jockeys. So maybe he could have.

  • At a concession stand, I purchased a bag of freshly made potato chips flavored with sea salt. Those chips were a better bet than any of the horses.

  • Mule races, which usually open the day's events, are hilarious to watch, but the animals are so erratic and unpredictable that only a fool or an addicted gambler would wager on them. One rider lost his mount in the first race when another mule veered crazily into his, tossing the jockey tail-over-teacup onto the dirt.

  • Most of the people giving one another (often unsolicited) betting advice have absolutely no clue what they're talking about.

  • The day's seventh race was sponsored by a local program for the developmentally disabled. Cool, I thought: Handicapping for the handicapped.

  • Taking wagers at the parimutuel windows must be one of the dullest jobs in sports. The ennui of the people doing the work reflects this likelihood.

  • I found myself wondering whether the other riders would tease you in the dressing room if you preferred Fruit of the Looms or BVDs to Jockeys.

  • A horse is only a horse, but a good cigar smells worse than one.

  • A $5 exacta paid off big-time for me in the tenth and final race of the day. Life is sweet.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

The true North, strong and free

Happy Canada Day to our Canadian readers!

While we have your attention, Canada...

Thanks for Rae Dawn Chong...

And Catherine Mary Stewart...

And Cobie Smulders...

And my close personal friend Alex Trebek.

I'm not sure that entirely makes up for your sticking us with the likes of Celine Dion, Shania Twain, William Shatner, and Jim Carrey.

But it helps.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Take me out to the Corporate Sponsorship Naming Rights ballpark

Being that yesterday was my half-birthday (43 and a half, Nosey Parker), KJ took me to AT&T (until recently SBC, née Pacific Bell) Park last evening to see my beloved San Francisco Giants take on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (easily the most ludicrous locational moniker since the local NBA franchise moved from San Francisco to Oakland and became the Golden State Warriors).

Thanks to Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain, it was a whale of a game. Cain held Los Angeles-slash-Anaheim hitless until two outs deep into the eighth inning, at which point the Angels' Chone Figgins (who inexplicably pronounces his given name "Shawn") smacked a single to left-center field to break up the no-hitter. Fortunately, the G-Men scored two runs in the first inning — thanks to an RBI double by Barry Bonds and a run-scoring groundout by Steve Finley — that held up for the victory.

Random goodness occasioned by our evening at the old ballyard...
  • Good to be here: For those of you living in parts of the world where you can't easily drive to take in a game at the Giants' gorgeous home field, now dubbed AT&T Park, I pity you. Don't move here, mind you — Lord knows the Bay Area is crowded enough. I'm just telling you what you're missing.

  • Good eats, San Francisco style: Gordon Biersch garlic fries are the eighth wonder of the culinary world, and moving up fast.

  • Good help is hard to find: On my journey to the concession stand to purchase my Louisiana hot links and Diet Coke, I waited several minutes for the counterpeople to finish yakking before a supervisor prodded them to take my order. That's not characteristic of AT&T Park, where the guest services are usually excellent. Both the links and I got a little steamed.

  • Good fun: The guy who plays the Giants' mascot, Lou Seal, deserves a pat on the flipper. I'm not a big costumed-mascot fan, but Lou (who goes by the name Joel Zimei when not dressed like an upright pinniped) gives the fans a great show without getting in the way of the main attraction.

  • Good grief, that's expensive: Paying $25 to park your car at the ballpark sucks. I'm just saying.

  • Good to know he's still alive: On our way to our seats, we saw veteran Giants broadcaster Lon Simmons heading for the press box. I think Lon called the first baseball game Abner Doubleday ever staged.

  • Good job on the mike: Renel Brooks-Moon, the Giants' public address announcer (one of the few women in the country so employed), always lends an air of freshness and class to the ballpark experience. You go, Renel.

  • Good hands: When Jose Vizcaino (second base), Omar Vizquel (shortstop), and Pedro Feliz (third base) are playing together, the Giants may have the most quietly brilliant defensive infield in baseball.

  • Good newz: When rookie catcher Eliezer Alfonzo joins three aforementioned gentlemen in the lineup, the Giants also field the highest quotient of "Guys Whose Names Include a Z" in baseball history.

  • Good advice: Alfonzo needs to stop trying to throw runners out at second base. His scattergun arm, which accounted for the Angels' only run of the game, sucks worse than $25 parking.

  • Good idea, well executed: The Giants' new online system that allows season ticketholders to sell their unused ducats on the team's Web site earns a gold star. KJ and I picked up spectacular seats for a reasonable cost just the day before the game. We were also able to avoid the lines at the Will Call window simply by downloading and printing our tickets at home. Sweet.

  • Good for the neighborhood: There's now a wonderfully appointed, clean and well-lighted Borders bookstore right across the street from AT&T Park, just in case you ever arrive at the yard early and have some time to occupy.

  • Good memories: The new statue of Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal outside the ballpark's south gate looks spectacular. And what a thrill it is to look out over the right field arcade and see the sweet swing of Willie "Big Stretch" McCovey across McCovey Cove.

  • Good that she has something to fall back on: The young Latina woman hawking Ben & Jerry's ice cream bars in our section had the least lucrative vendor assignment in the park. Selling frozen anything in the upper deck on a San Francisco evening is a lost cause. Not for nothing did Mark Twain once opine, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." At least this particular vendor was kind of cute. Not that I noticed. Or bought any ice cream as a result.

  • Good time: Was had by all. Including yours truly.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

My World Cup runneth over

FIFA World Cup 2006 begins play this weekend.

Please attempt to restrain your excitement.

For the benefit of our foreign-born readers (and we have a few) who can't understand why soccer isn't as big a draw in the United States as it is in most other parts of the globe, we present herewith...

SwanShadow's Top Ten Reasons Why Americans Don't Care About Soccer (and Never Will):
  1. It's hockey on grass, only without the sticks.

  2. It's mostly played by guys whose names we can't pronounce.

  3. We have a sport called "football," and soccer ain't it.

  4. Too much running around without anything happening. If we want to see guys running, we'll wait for the Olympics and watch track and field.

  5. The teams don't have cool nicknames.

  6. In America, soccer is a kids' game. By the time we're out of junior high, we've outgrown it.

  7. Short pants. Yes, they wear shorts in basketball, too, but at least that's played indoors.

  8. Not enough violence. At least, not on the field.

  9. If we needed an activity for brain-dead, drunken hooligans to slaver over, we already have NASCAR.

  10. Two words: Soccer moms.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"These are their stories..."

Law & Order holds a unique place in television history. It's one of the longest-running primetime dramas ever — only Gunsmoke and Bonanza, both of which hit the 20-year mark, hung around longer. It has also spawned a legion of spinoffs, some successful (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), others not so much (Law & Order: Trial By Jury, the just-cancelled Conviction).

But perhaps L&O's greatest feat has been its ability to maintain its popularity despite near-annual cast changes. It's been a rare season when the venerable detectives-and-district attorneys series hasn't swapped out at least one of its six continuing roles:
  • The Senior Cop: Originally George Dzundza as Max Greevey, followed briefly by Paul Sorvino as Phil Cerretta, then a lengthy stint by the late Jerry Orbach as the beloved Lennie Briscoe, and for the past two years Dennis Farina as Joe Fontana.

  • The Junior Cop: Chris Noth's Mike Logan (who currently is part of the L&O:CI team), then Benjamin Bratt as Reynaldo Curtis, and most recently Jesse L. Martin as Ed Green (plus a six-episode spotlight for The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli while Martin was away filming Rent).

  • The Boss Cop: Dann Florek's Don Cragen (now the Boss Cop on L&O:SVU) was replaced more than a dozen seasons ago by S. Epatha Merkerson's tough Anita Van Buren.

  • The Lead Prosecutor: One of the series' more stable roles, first held for five seasons by Michael Moriarty as Ben Stone (the same name, incidentally, as Michael J. Fox's character in Doc Hollywood), and ever since by Sam Waterston as the wily Jack McCoy.

  • The Assistant Prosecutor: A veritable revolving door, this role has experienced the highest degree of turnover since Richard Brooks (the only male actor to hold the spot thus far) was dismissed along with Florek in a gender-equity move by NBC after the show's third season. In the wake of Brooks's Paul Robinette came Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessey, now the star of Crossing Jordan), Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell, aka Mrs. Richard Gere), Abbie Carmichael (Angie Harmon, most recently in the short-lived Inconceivable), Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Rohm, whose character came out as a lesbian in her signoff episode), and the ill-fated Alexandra Borgia (Annie Parisse), who was killed off in the last episode of the season just concluded.

  • The District Attorney: Steven Hill's crusty Adam Schiff (does anyone else recall Hill as the original lead on Mission: Impossible, preceding Peter Graves?) gave way after a lengthy tenure to Dianne Wiest's pragmatic Nora Lewin, then to the former U.S. Senator from Tennessee, Fred Dalton Thompson, typecast as gruff conservative Arthur Branch.
Well, L&O fans, the wheels are spinning again. Dennis Farina won't be returning to the show next season, joining the aforementioned Annie Parisse in the unemployment line (albeit voluntarily in Farina's case — Parisse, whose character never seemed to develop a personality, was shown the door). In a first-ever move for the series, Jesse Martin's Ed Green will be promoted to Senior Cop, filling Farina's vacancy, with actress Milena Govich porting over from the late, unlamented Conviction as a new, as-yet-unnamed Junior Cop — the first female in that role in L&O history.

On L&O, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

An action plan for Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day. (At least, it's Monday Holiday Bill Memorial Day. The real thing is actually tomorrow. But you probably have to work then.)

To honor the contributions of the men and women who have sacrificed their lives to help ensure our continued freedom, go out and smack a Nazi.

It's what Captain America would do.

If you can't find a Nazi to smack in your neck of the woods, any of the following will suffice:
  • Donald Rumsfeld.
  • Jerry Falwell. Or Pat Robertson. (Unless they're the same guy. Which I think they might be.)
  • Rush Limbaugh. Or anyone who says "ditto."
  • Ann Coulter.
  • Any random member of the Fox News staff.
  • Pat Buchanan. Or Bay Buchanan. Or James Buchanan, except I think he's dead.
  • Ward Connerly.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Just be prepared to run. Remember what happened to James Earl Jones in the first Conan movie.)
  • Anyone with a Confederate flag on his truck. Or his belt buckle. Or his baseball cap. Or anywhere.
  • Charles Krauthammer, as long as you don't have a problem with smacking a guy in a wheelchair. If you do, I understand.
  • James Sensenbrenner.
  • Antonin Scalia. Or Clarence Thomas. (Unless they're the same guy, wearing different makeup.)
  • Anyone who quotes William F. Buckley, William Shockley, or Ayn Rand in casual conversation.
Mind you, I'm not implying that any of the people listed above are actually Nazis... just that they might benefit from a good smack, if you happen to run into them today.

It's what Captain America would do.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Another day, another 24...

All things considered, Day Five of 24 was pretty doggoned awesome.

Here's what I loved the best about this season:
  • Jack's back, baby. Day Five gave us plenty of vintage, hardcore Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). That's what we tune in every Monday night to see.

  • Chloe O'Brian: World's Hottest Super-Geek. Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) started the day getting jiggy with an honest-to-goodness boyfriend, and ended it arm-in-arm with an ex-husband we didn't even imagine she had. You go, nerd girl. (I'm still waiting for that Jack-Chloe hookup, though. Now that would be Must-See TV.)

  • The dead did not rise. The show where anything can happen did not find a way to resurrect either of its star villainesses from previous seasons, Nina Myers or Sherry Palmer. Let dead female dogs lie.

  • Laugh-a while you can, monkey-boy. Peter Weller, the erstwhile Buckaroo Banzai and Robocop, made a wicked cool turncoat bad guy. You just knew the moment would come when Jack would have to take him down, and he did. With extreme prejudice.

  • So long, Edgar. Chloe's perpetually pouty would-be suitor Edgar Stiles (Louis Lombardi) got the infamous silent countdown clock following his death. A fitting send-off for a character who had served his function.

  • No Kim, almost. The planet's most annoying offspring, Jack's daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), made only the briefest of appearances this season, and wasn't given the opportunity to make the usual nuisance of herself. If we never see that little bimbo again, it'll be too soon.

  • The ridiculous remained sublime. The show managed to avoid its usual penchant for stretching the boundaries of credulity beyond the breaking point. Almost every turn of events made sense (at least within the already fantastic context of the series) this year. Good job, writers.

  • New characters rock. Unlike last season, where several of the new additions to the primary cast wore out their welcome quickly, I enjoyed the character arcs of martyr-in-the-making Lynn McGill (Sean Astin), lead terrorist Vladimir Bierko (Julian Sands, who managed not to amputate anyone's limbs all season), Vice President Hal Gardner (Ray Wise), and especially Homeland Security honcho Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson) and her craven batman, the ambiguously gay Miles Papazian (Stephen Spinella). I really hope Karen returns next season, as I'd like to see how the relationship between her and CTU head Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) develops.

  • Cliffhangers! Nice way to wrap the season, with Bauer in the clutches of the Chinese secret service. "Tomorrow" should be a whale of a ride.
And now, for the handful of items that didn't work for me this season:
  • President Loser. Man, was Gregory Itzin's POTUS Charles Logan the most obnoxious character in the history of television, or what? And could we be any more obvious, casting department, in lining up an actor who is the spitting image of Richard Nixon? Thank goodness we won't have Logan to kick around next season.

  • First Lady sings the blues. Jean Smart is a talented actress, but I got nearly as sick of her drippy, mentally unbalanced Martha Logan as her husband did. And the seduction scene in the finale? Doctor, my eyes!

  • Jack's abominable taste in women. Either he goes for the hyperactive anorexic type (typified by Kim Raver's pointless Audrey Raines) or the hippie hausfrau type (typified by Connie Britton's Diane Huxley, the woman Jack lived with during his between-seasons disappearance). Can we hook the man up with a real woman, please? Fortunately, Raver is committed to another show in the fall (The Nine), so we won't be seeing much, if any, of her skinny butt around these parts next year.

  • Only the good die young. I was sorry to see three of my favorite regulars — former President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and husband-and-wife operatives Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) and Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth) go down in blazes of glory. Some smart producer should cast the fetching Aylesworth in another series, like, yesterday.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

One quarter of the Time 100

Time Magazine yesterday released its list of "100 people who shape our world." The list is divided into several subcategories: artists and entertainers, scientists and thinkers, leaders and revolutionaries, heroes and pioneers (several of whom, including Bono, Angelina Jolie, Wynton Marsalis, and Paul Simon, seem to be overflow from the "artists and entertainers" section), and something called "builders and titans," a catch-all that covers everyone from casino magnate Steve Wynn to the creators of the Web site

Since we here at SSTOL mostly deal in pop culture as our stock in trade, permit me to wax philosophical about Time's most influential artists and entertainers and the ways each of them has influenced me personally.
  1. J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias and Lost and director of Mission: Impossible III. I have to give the guy credit. Who thought he would ever amount to anything when he was bellowing "Dy-No-Mite!" on Good Times?

  2. George Clooney, actor and activist. Helped me forget the original Ocean's 11. Did not help me forget Adam West (or Michael Keaton, or even Val Kilmer) as Batman.

  3. Dixie Chicks, country music trio. Country singers may be the only adult women in America still referring to themselves as "chicks."

  4. Ellen DeGeneres, comedian and talk show host. The most overrated superstar of comedy since Jerry Lewis.

  5. Nicolas Ghesquiere, fashion designer. Is it possible for him to design clothing for women who actually eat once in a while?

  6. Wayne Gould, the New Zealander puzzle enthusiast who popularized sudoku. Once embarrassed me in my favorite Japanese restaurant, where I learned the hard way that sudoku does not mean "men's room."

  7. Philip Seymour Hoffman, film actor. Kept me awake nights, fearful that the ghost of Truman Capote would attack me in my sleep.

  8. Arianna Huffington, political blogger. What's she so huffy about?

  9. Ang Lee, film director. Had he gone for the gay cowboy angle one film earlier, Hulk would have been a very different — and potentially more entertaining — movie.

  10. Renzo Piano, architect. I didn't realize the guy who invented the instrument was still alive.

  11. Rain, Japanese pop star. Liked him better when he was a Beatles tribute band.

  12. Rachael Ray, cookbook author and Food Network star. Frustrates me, because I can't decide what I want to eat in 30 minutes, much less cook it.

  13. Jeff Skoll, motion picture producer and founding president of eBay. Indirectly responsible for a significant portion of my comic art collection.

  14. Kiki Smith, artist. I always confuse her with Kiki Dee. Or is it Kiki Vandeweghe?

  15. Will Smith, movie star and former hip-hop royalty. Old and busted: Fresh Prince of Bel Air. New hotness: Tonight, He Comes.

  16. Zadie Smith, novelist. You know what? There's too many doggoned Smiths on this list.

  17. Howard Stern, king of all media. Not as clever as he thinks he is. As though he cares what I think.

  18. Meryl Streep, film actor. A dingo ate her baby.

  19. Reese Witherspoon, movie star. Has the pointiest chin I've ever seen on a woman. Love her peanut better cups, though. And the little M&M things.

  20. Rob Pardo, creator of the video game World of Warcraft. What do I know? I could never keep my frog from getting run over by cars.

  21. Daddy Yankee, Latin music artist. Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. No, wait... that's Damn Yankees. Never mind.

  22. Tyra Banks, supermodel and reality show host. Easily the best-looking person on this list.

  23. Dane Cook, stand-up comic. He makes me laugh. These days, that's golden.

  24. Matt Drudge, cyberjournalist. As a former aspiring newshound myself, I both appreciate and abhor the Pandora's box he's opened. Appreciate that he makes the traditional media pursue tough stories they used to be able to conveniently ignore. Abhor that he does it with so little class, taste, or writing ability.

  25. Stephen Colbert, faux news anchor. I find him pretentious and irritating, but maybe that's just me. Any man who achieves success on television despite having the world's most lopsided head must be doing something right.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Reality TV: Who Wants to Be Elvira?

Actress Cassandra Peterson, who parlayed both her talents into a lengthy career as TV scream queen Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, is promoting a potential new reality series in which contestants would vie for the honor of assuming Elvira's mantle, along with her trademark fright wig and bosom-baring costume.

Prerequisites for future Elvira wannabes include:
  • A penchant for exhibitionism.
  • Access to a top-notch plastic surgeon.
  • Experience in the adult entertainment industry.
  • High tolerance for low-calorie American beer; i.e., Coors Light.
  • Willingness to spout endless horror film clichés.
  • A complete lack of shame.
Dennis Rodman need not apply.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Killer Queen

Having endured the indignity of listening to this season's American Idol cast butchering the songs of one of the greatest rock bands of all time — Queen, featuring the talents of guitar hero Brian May, percussionist extraordinaire Roger Taylor, bassist John Deacon, and the inimitable Freddie Mercury on lead vocals and piano — I feel the urgent need to compile my list of all-time favorites from the Queen catalogue.

Get on your bikes and ride...
  1. Fat Bottomed Girls. If I have to explain to you why I love this song, (a) you don't know me — or my predilections — very well, and (b) any explanation won't help.

  2. Keep Yourself Alive. Back in my disc jockey days, those words were my customary signoff. Queen's first single, and still one of their most enjoyable rockers. Fun, energetic vocals by Freddie.

  3. You're My Best Friend. One of several Queen hits written by bassist John Deacon, it's unusual in that it features Deacon on electric piano (an instrument keyboardist Freddie despised and refused to play).

  4. Don't Stop Me Now. If I ever got the chance to direct a motion picture about a superhero, this song would be on the soundtrack. It just has that anthemic feel.

  5. Another One Bites the Dust. The least Queen-like number in my Top Ten, but I like it anyway. Another John Deacon original. Remember Weird Al Yankovic's parody, "Another One Rides the Bus"? I thought of that before I ever heard of Weird Al.

  6. Bicycle Race. Freddie Mercury's paean to the Tour de France — only with hot naked chicks instead of Lance Armstrong. Maybe the only hit song in the history of rock to use a bicycle bell as a percussion instrument. On the single, it's the A-side to "Fat Bottomed Girls" — which strikes me as being entirely backwards.

  7. Somebody to Love. One of the most amazing choral arrangements in popular music — somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 vocal overdubs of Freddie, Brian, and Roger — as well as one of the greatest power ballads in rock history.

  8. Tie Your Mother Down. Built around one of Brian May's most distinctive guitar riffs, this was one of the highlights of Queen's live show. The title started as a joke — Brian intended to write a new lyric to replace it, but Freddie talked him into leaving it in.

  9. Seven Seas of Rhye. Queen's first UK hit, it stands as a monument to the band's straight-ahead early sound. Supposedly, Freddie wrote it about a fantasy land he made up when he was a child.

  10. I Want to Break Free. I'm not as much a fan of Queen's '80s material as I am of their songs from the '70s, but this 1984 number is as good as it gets. Even if it did end up as a Coke commercial.
I know what you're thinking: Where's "Bohemian Rhapsody"? You know me — I never take the road most traveled.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Stuff 'n' nonsense

Your Uncle Swan takes you around the pop culture world in 80 synapses, or something to that effect...
  • Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband Chris Martin named their new baby Moses. I'm predicting right now that the little tyke's first spoken words will be "Let my people go."

  • I know you'll be as heartbroken to hear this as I was, but rapper Bow Wow and singer Ciara have ended their year-long romance. According to Ciara's publicist, the breakup was not amicable. This should come as no surprise. Relationships never work out between men named after animal sounds and women named after Oldsmobiles.

  • Kiefer Sutherland signs a new contract for another three seasons of 24. There is apparently no truth to the rumor that Keifer will change the title of the series to $40 Million.

  • Speaking of stars making the long green, Teri Hatcher is about to become the most highly paid actress on television. I'm guessing she's not spending much of that money on sandwiches.

  • A woman who investigates child abuse complaints for Palm Beach County, Florida, is in hot water for stripping off — twice — as a guest on Howard Stern's radio program. Not sure what the big deal is: It's radio. Who can tell if she was really naked? If anything, fire her for having the poor taste to associate with Howard Stern.

  • Disney, which owns — in addition to half the planet — the ABC television network, is planning to make four ABC series (Desperate Housewives, Lost, Commander in Chief, and Alias) available for free download on the 'Net. Now if only there was something on ABC I actually wanted to watch.

  • According to the latest scuttlebutt on the Jeopardy! message board, the show's latest Tournament of Champions began taping today for airing in May. Best of luck to this year's participants.

  • Goodyear is sponsoring a contest to name its newest blimp. In case you were thinking about suggesting that they name it after yours truly: 'tain't funny, McGee.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

SwanShadow breaks it all down for you

Things are poppin' in the pop culture universe. Fortunately, you have your intrepid SSTOL reporter on the scene to chop up these momentous happenings into tender bite-size morsels for your noshing enjoyment. Fasten your seat belts — it's going to be a bumpy post:
  • Future porn star Melissa McGhee became the first member of this season's American Idol Top 12 to take the Singout of Shame after she forgot the lyrics to Stevie Wonder's "Lately," not just once, but twice — in her solo coaching session with the music legend, and again onstage Tuesday night. How do you not go back and study up after suffering the embarrassment of screwing up the words to a song in the presence of the man who wrote it? Don't let the doorknob hit you, M'liss.

  • The Federal Communications Commission smacked CBS with a record-shattering $3.6 million indecency fine for a December 2004 Without a Trace episode depicting "teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy." I'm thinking the chances of that epi showing up in the rerun package just disappeared... well, you complete the punch line.

  • Will Ferrell wants the world to know that, despite rumors floating around the Internet, he isn't dead. Those rumors were likely touched off by people who saw Ferrell and Steve Carell in that deadly unfunny makeup skit at the Oscars and figured the real Will Ferrell would never have stooped to that level.

  • CBS newsman Mike Wallace announced that he is retiring from his anchor position at 60 Minutes, on his 88th birthday in May. Unlike Will Ferrell, Mike Wallace actually passed away several years ago.

  • Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford have, at long last, approved a script for the fourth Indiana Jones film. Despite the 63-year-old star's advancing age, there is apparently no truth the the persistent reports that the new Indy flick will be titled either Indiana Jones and the Enlarged Prostate or Indiana Jones and the Search for Metamucil.

  • One of my alma maters, Pepperdine University, dumped its head basketball coach Paul Westphal after an abysmal 7-20 season. Good riddance — the program has foundered under Westphal's tepid leadership for the past five years. Personal angle: When I was a communications major at Pep, I was the primary engineer for the basketball team's radio broadcasts. Over two seasons, I heard every minute of every hoops contest as I sat alone in a dark, cramped studio, twiddling knobs and punching in commercials. And they say broadcasting is a glamour profession.

  • It's a nice day for a Black wedding: Jack Black and his girlfriend Tanya Haden dashed off to Big Sur and got married recently. I care about this only because (a) Tanya's sister Petra released an entertaining CD a while back featuring a cappella covers of songs from the classic rock album The Who Sell Out (thanks for my copy, Unca Phil!), and (b) Black's longtime and now ex-main squeeze Laura Kightlinger appeared on a live comedy jam KJ and I attended many years ago, and was easily the funniest performer of the evening. That's all I've got.

  • Speaking of weddings, looks like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are tying the knot this weekend at Lake Como in Italy. Seems your Uncle Swan's invitation got lost in the mail. Not a problem — I have already have plans.

  • Kevin Federline, aka Mr. Britney Spears, says he'll become a male stripper if his rap career tanks. Hope your other assets are better developed than your musical talents, K-Fed.

  • Sad to hear about the passing of roller derby queen Ann Calvello. The longtime star of the San Francisco Bay Bombers was one of a kind. They don't make tough broads — and I use that term with sincere respect — like "Banana Nose" anymore.

  • Jessica Simpson backed out of a joint appearance with President Bush at a Republican benefit for Operation Smile, a program that pays for plastic surgery for poor kids with facial deformities. I think Jess was afraid she might actually have to be present for the surgery, and she's a little uncomfortable around sharp instruments. You know, like intellects.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I'm ready for my sex scene, Mr. DeMille

Europe's leading DVD rental service, Lovefilm (think Netflix with an accent), has released the results of its latest poll, in which film fans were asked to choose the sexiest scenes in film history.

As a public service — because he's civic-minded that way — your Uncle Swan counts down the top 10, along with his expert opinion on each of the finalists. (Expert on film, of course. What did you think I was an expert in?)

10. The Hunger. Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in what most likely is the most famous lesbian vampire make-out sequence in the history of the movies. Sarandon may well be Hollywood's sexiest major actress, and Deneuve one of Europe's all-time beauty queens. Vampire women aren't my cup of aphrodesiac, especially — how turned on can you be by someone who wants to drain the blood from your body and transform you into one of the undead? But if that's your kink, you couldn't go far wrong with these two.

9. Mulholland Drive. Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring steam up the screen. I'm beginning to detect a pattern here. Must be something about seeing two beautiful women getting jiggy that really ignites viewers' fantasies. Male viewers, I presume, though I may be wrong about that. Personally, I thought the film was overrated, but Watts and Harring (she of Lambada: The Forbidden Dance) are definitely memorable.

8. The Fabulous Baker Boys. Michelle Pfeiffer sings "Makin' Whoopie" while crawling on her belly like a reptile all over a grand piano. This one would be at or near the top of my personal list, despite the fact that I don't find Michelle Pfeiffer all that attractive. She wrings every ounce of seduction out of that song, though. And that red dress should be in the Smithsonian.

7. Rear Window. James Stewart is awakened by a passionate kiss from Grace Kelly. You wouldn't necessarily think of Hitchcock and sexy in the same sentence, but this scene does the job. Hitchcock had a legendary fetish for icy blondes, but there's very little frigid about the future Princess Grace here.

6. Wild Things. The infamous car-washing scene featuring Denise Richards and Neve Campbell. In the words of Austin Powers, "Yeah, baby!" If Denise Richards could act, she'd be dangerous. She can't, of course. But what if?

5. Cruel Intentions. More girl-on-girl smooching, this time with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Selma Blair. Cruel Intentions — a latter-day Brat Pack retooling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses — is the kind of film that makes you want to shower before you watch it, while you're watching it, and after you've watched it. The characters are so thoroughly reprehensible that finding any of them sexy overextends my tolerance for ickiness. And this from someone who enjoyed both Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons, which are based on the same material. Adults behaving like sexual vultures is one thing. With teenagers, it's altogether different.

4. Betty Blue. A scene starring French actress Beatrice Dalle. I must confess that I haven't seen this one. But then, I'm not much for Francophilia.

3. Out of Sight. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez locked together in a trunk. Another that would be on my list. It's not even a sex scene — it's literally two people talking as they're locked in a trunk. The way Clooney and J-Lo play it, though, it's smokin'. Out of Sight is, incidentally, a terrific film, and remains my favorite of Clooney's screen roles despite my fondness for Ocean's Eleven.

2. Brokeback Mountain. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal give the expression "cowboy up" a whole new twist. I haven't seen this yet, but I've seen plenty of other films starring either Ledger (I'm one of the rare film snobs who actually likes A Knight's Tale) and Gyllenhaal (who will always be Donnie Darko to me). Nothing in any of those movies makes me long to see these two guys engrossed in a liplock. But then, I'm funny that way. Or not. Depending on how you look at it.

1. Secretary. Speaking of Gyllenhaals, Jake's sister Maggie takes top honors getting her fanny spanked by James Spader. Brilliantly written, acted, and directed though it is, Secretary may be the most disturbed mainstream film (if indeed it can be called such) I've ever witnessed. What does it say about modern society that the scene considered the sexiest in cinematic history depicts a pathologically submissive woman being physically abused — albeit willingly — by a dominant male authority figure with sadistic tendencies? Wait... don't answer that. I probably don't want to know.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Repairing Uncle Oscar

Over at The Watchtower of Destruction, that amazing blogging machine known as "The Ferrett" offers his suggestions for improving the Academy Awards telecast. I agree with a couple of Ferrett's ideas, such as expanding the Best Film category to include subgenres such as Best Drama and Best Comedy (as the Golden Globes does), and eliminating the film clip montages except for the "In Memoriam" segment.

Herewith, a few suggestions of my own for the Academy:
  • Find a decent host, and stick with him/her. I know Bob Hopes and Johnny Carsons are in severely limited supply these days, but there has to be a talented comic with world-class master of ceremonies skills who can pull off the Oscars. Identify that person, and give him or her a long-term contract to become the public face of the Oscarcast. Jon Stewart might even be that guy, if the Academy and the network would take the shackles off him and let him do his thing.

  • Spend more time on the nominees, and less on meaningless filler. Since the majority of people watching the show haven't seen most of the nominated films and performances, make more of an effort to showcase representative clips. Invite Roger Ebert and other top-level critics to record brief segments explaining why these films are significant, and why these achievements in acting, writing, directing, and so on are worthy of recognition.

  • Streamline the acceptances. This shouldn't be so hard. Seat all of the nominees where they can reach the stage quickly. (You can still put the big stars in the center, but have the other nominees close to the stage on the wings.) Limit the acceptors to one representative per award. Limit the speeches to a drop-dead 30 seconds, after which the microphone goes dead, the stage lights go down, the camera shuts off, and the director cues the host to keep the show rolling.

  • Only invite presenters who can do the job. That is to say, no one who can't read a cue card smoothly gives an award away. No matter how famous he or she might be.

  • Dispense with the presenter shtick. The presenters shouldn't have to do anything more elaborate than read the list of nominees and say, "The Oscar goes to..." Don't try to turn actors into stand-up comedians or narrators.

  • Make more extensive use of captions. Anytime someone is on camera, the audience should be told who he or she is. Not everyone reads People magazine. Pop-Up Video-style captions could also be employed to convey interesting facts about the nominees. And no film clip should ever be shown without (at the very least) identifying the motion picture from which it came.

  • Only award Best Song when there is a song worthy of the award. Only the winning song gets a production number — prerecorded and cued up for playback when the announcement is read.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

It's hard out here for an Oscar viewer

Was it just me, or were the 78th Academy Awards the most ennui-inducing award ceremonies in the history of Hollywood? Where was the excitement? The intrigue? The humor? The outrageous fashion? You know... everything that usually makes the Oscarcast must-see TV?

Being a dutiful pop culture blogger, I propped my eyelids open with broken toothpicks long enough to record the following thoughts. For your consideration:
  • Jon Stewart as host? Maybe a B-. It really felt as though Stewart, who cheerfully rips into anyone and everyone on The Daily Show, was on a suffocatingly tight leash for the Oscars — likely due in part to the beautiful people's adverse reaction to Chris Rock's freewheeling performance last year. That doesn't work, though. The whole reason to hire a guy like Stewart is so that he can deliver what he does best — caustic, incisive, topical comedy. Either unchain him and accept the risk that he might offend someone, or play it safe and bring back the deadly dull Steve Martin.

  • My favorite recent Oscar host is still Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi gets great jabs in, keeps the show going, is adept at making things up on the fly, and has the credibility of being an Oscar winner herself. I know she rubs some viewers the wrong way, but there's no accounting for other people's lack of taste.

  • Speaking of tight leashes, did the Academy issue a warning memo to the fashion community this year? I can't recall ever seeing so many stars wearing straitlaced, plain-vanilla formalwear, except for the ceremonies that most closely followed 9/11. Half the fun of Oscar Night is seeing what people wear, but this year, it looked as though everyone shopped out of the same conservative closet.

  • The one humongous fashion faux pas of the evening: Charlize Theron in a bizarrely constructed gown that made her look as if she had a Siamese twin growing out of her left shoulder. She looked like Ray Milland and Rosey Grier in The Thing With Two Heads. Runner-up: Naomi Watts wearing a dress that appeared to have been ground up in a garbage disposal before she put it on.

  • Nice to see George Clooney pick up an acting award (Best Supporting Actor, for Syriana). I didn't realize that he had never even been nominated before. I think the guy is one of the most underrated talents in the current crop of stars, in part because his acting style isn't flashy like a Sean Penn. Great comment, too: "I guess I'm not winning Director."

  • Would it have killed somebody (pun intended) to squeeze Don Knotts, Darren McGavin, and Dennis Weaver into the "Dead People" segment? I know they all passed away just a week ago, but how much extra work would that have taken?

  • Didn't dig the song itself much, but I had to love seeing the Oscar go to a number entitled, "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp." No community in America appreciates big pimping more than Hollywood.

  • I don't generally care much for Jennifer Garner, but I thought she recovered gracefully after tripping over her hem as she walked out to present an award: "I do all my own stunts."

  • Could we possibly have done without the endless film clip montages? The show is tedious enough, people.

  • I'll admit it: I don't understand the appeal of Reese Witherspoon.

  • Someone whose appeal I do understand: Rachel Weisz. Of the several pregnant and recently pregnant stars, she was the most luminous.

  • As usual, I haven't seen most of the nominated films yet, but I was glad to see Crash take the big prize. A lot of terrific and talented people were involved with that film, not the least of whom is writer-director Paul Haggis, who deserves to be known for something other than as the creator of Walker: Texas Ranger. When in doubt, I always root for the guy named after a boiled sheep's stomach stuffed with oatmeal and suet.

  • I'm sure there were some nervous Academy bigwigs in the crowd when Robert Altman accepted his Lifetime Achievement award. But they need not have been — Altman was both gracious and grateful for the recognition the Academy has long denied him. And who would have guessed that he'd had a heart transplant?

  • What was up with the concept of having the orchestra playing during the acceptance speeches? I hate as much as anyone listening to folks prattling on, but that was simply rude. Give people their 30 seconds of glory, then drum them off the stage.

  • I can't remember a year when so many of the supposedly comedic bits fell flat. Ben Stiller pretending to be working in front of a greenscreen? Will Ferrell and Steve Carell in atrocious makeup to present the makeup award? The filmed pieces about pre-Oscar lobbying? Who wrote that stuff? And why didn't anyone tell them it wasn't funny?

  • I dig Philip Seymour Hoffman, but dude — get someone to help you with your presentation skills before your next acceptance speech.

  • Speaking of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I was disappointed that Felicity Huffman didn't win, so that they could have had David Letterman introduce the two big acting winners at the afterparty: "Hoffman, Huffman. Huffman, Hoffman."

  • When will they learn? If you're going to ask Jack Nicholson to present an award, keep him away from the liquor cabinet before the show.

  • Two words: Stuffed penguins.

  • Now, please, for the love of Liberace... leave the "Brokeback" jokes alone.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Arrivederci, Torino: You can go back to being Turin now

Thoughts that continue to rattle through my skull as we bid the 20th Olympic Winter Games farewell:
  • Ever notice how the athletes with the most commercial face time — yes, I'm talking about you, Bode Miller and Lindsey Kildow — always seem to suck out in crunch time? Funny how that works.

  • If I was Sasha Cohen, I'd think the Flying Tomato was stalking me, too.

  • The skeleton contestants need their heads examined. Seriously. You're going head first down an ice slide at 90 miles an hour, you wackos.

  • Heartbreaker: Watching short track skater Kimberly Derrick skate the women's 1,000 meters with tears streaming down her face, after her grandfather died of a heart attack preparing to watch her compete in her first Olympic games.

  • Michelle Kwan, we didn't even miss you.

  • Nominated for the Get a Grip Medal: Chad Hedrick. Hey, Chad: You don't have to win every medal. And we don't care if you think you should.

  • Who would win in a fight — Apolo Anton Ohno or Apollo Creed? The winner could take on Apollonia Kotero.

  • Is it over yet? Biathlon. Is that the dullest event of the Winter Games or what? No, sorry — forgot about USA hockey. At least the biathletes can shoot.

  • Coolest name of the Games: Ted Ligety, who went Ligety-split to win gold in the men's Alpine Combined before tanking the rest of the Games.

  • With thighs like that, where do speed skaters buy pants?

  • Evgeni Plushenko: The Ivan Drago of figure skating.

  • Young, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son: Ask aerials skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, who was sent home from the Olympics after participating in a alcohol-fueled bar fight.

  • When it comes to luge, Austrian brothers Andreas and Wolfgang Linger don't.

  • Hey, Johnny Weir: Stop the charade, dude. You and a summer frock have a certain something in common. Just be out there with it. UBU.

  • You do not want to get on the wrong side of Italian ice dancer Barbara Fusar-Poli. You do not.

  • Do they have AARP in Canada? 39-year-old skeleton winner Duff Gibson is the oldest individual gold medalist in Winter Olympics history.

  • Way to go, Shani Davis. Try not to be so grumpy about it next time.

  • If I ever needed to be rescued on the ski slopes, I'd want Janica Kostelic carrying me down the mountain.

  • What, no Jamaican bobsled team?

  • A couple of class acts: Speed skaters Cindy Klassen of Canada and Joey Cheek of the U.S. Hey, Chad and Shani: Were you paying attention?

  • Welcome to America, Tanith Belbin. Are there any more back home like you?

  • Michaela Dorfmeister and Alexandra Meissnitzer. I just enjoy saying their names.

  • You go, Shizuka Arakawa. They're proud of you in Japan, and they should be.

  • Do you suppose Irina Slutskaya has any idea what her name sounds like in English?

  • We're all glad you won, Julia Mancuso. But get over yourself. You're only permitted to wear a tiara on the podium if you're the Queen of England, or Wonder Woman.

  • I think that ABC Sports just replaced the "agony of defeat" guy with Lindsey Jacobellis. No, wait — that's "the agony of hubris."

  • Ricky Martin and Avril Lavigne at the Closing Ceremonies? Whose idea was that?

  • And just because we can: Dick Button.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Merit badges of the Golden Age

I was never a Boy Scout.

For a few years, I was a Cub Scout. My parents were even Den Mother and Den Dad. But I quickly got tired of the charade — I wasn't a joiner, I hated camping, I despised having to accomplish meaningless tasks in order to advance in Scout rank, and I thought the uniforms were ridiculous. Plus, the Scoutmasters creeped me out — who are these guys whose whole agenda in life is hanging out in the woods with prepubescent boys?

So I bailed on the whole Scouting business a year or so before I was old enough to qualify for the Boy Scouts.

I was surfing the Web the other day when I stumbled upon a Wikipedia entry listing merit badges that have been discontinued by the Boy Scouts. For those of you not familiar with Scouting, merit badges are cloth patches Scouts earn by demonstrating proficiency in various areas of knowledge or activity. If you stockpile enough merit badges, you get promoted to a higher level of Scout. If you really get busy and amass practically every merit badge offered, you achieve the ultimate rank of Eagle Scout. Being an Eagle Scout puts you in the company of such outstanding Americans as serial killers John Edward Robinson and Arthur Gary Bishop, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Washington D.C.'s crackhead mayor Marion Barry, and John Tesh.

Imagine my surprise at discovering that the Boy Scouts once awarded merit badges in the following arts and sciences:
  • Blacksmithing. I presume that for this merit badge, you had to do a little more than merely stand beneath a spreading chestnut tree.

  • Small Grains and Cereal Foods. You ate a ton of Grape-Nuts and Cream of Wheat in pursuit of this coveted badge.

  • Seamanship. Think "In the Navy" by the Village People.

  • Cement Work. To earn this badge, you had to pour the Scoutmaster a new driveway.

  • Masonry. This involved building a brick garage at the end of the driveway you poured to earn the Cement Work badge.

  • Farm Arrangement. "Well, Buford, I think we oughta put the cows over yonder against that hillside, then maybe plant the cornfield next to 'em to kinda set 'em off."

  • Pathfinding. "Looks like trampled grass to me." "Found another one!"

  • Stalking. Replaced in 1952 by the Sexual Harassment badge.

  • Handicapped Awareness. "I never realized there were so many people in wheelchairs. I just wasn't aware, I guess."

  • Rabbit Raising. How difficult could this have been? Step One: Buy a male and a female rabbit. Step Two: Stand back.

  • Poultry Keeping. This was known in the Scouting trade as the Colonel Sanders badge.

  • Taxidermy. You earned this one automatically when you told the Scoutmaster to get stuffed.

  • Rock Lifting. Leave no stone unturned. There was persistent speculation for years as to whether God could create a rock so large that He could not earn this merit badge.

  • Signaling. Left arm straight out: Left turn. Left arm bent upward at elbow: Right turn. Left arm extended with fist clenched and middle finger upright: I believe you just crossed into my lane.

  • Fruit Culture and Nut Culture. Naaahhh, too easy.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the weekend?

Whoooooo doggies, that was one hell-for-leather weekend. And no, I'm not just talking about my outing to WonderCon, which I'll tell you all about on Comic Art Friday.

To catch up on everything that's been everything over this Lincoln's Birthday weekend, hop on the SwanShadow Express for a whirlwind tour of the headlines:
  • Hey, Dick Cheney: Harry Whittington was only joking when he said, "I told you there weren't any WMD in Iraq, you stupid putz."

  • That, or maybe Dick the Veep thought he was supposed to be shooting Dan Quayle.

  • Now shut up and stick to skiing, Bode Miller.

  • Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, passed away at the age of 65. You're gonna need a bigger coffin.

  • I'd feel sorrier for you, Michelle Kwan, if you hadn't weaseled your way into a slot on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team that didn't rightfully belong to you. You still owe Emily Hughes an apology.

  • Wouldn't you like to think that the Secretary of Transportation has more important things to do than worry about Britney Spears's driving habits?

  • Movin' on up: Franklin Cover, who played the white guy who married a black woman on The Jeffersons, died. In a parallel universe, he might have been Lenny Kravitz's dad.

  • I probably won't rush out to see Curious George anytime soon, but I'm thrilled to see a traditionally animated feature do well at the box office. Like many folks my age, I remember the Curious George books by H.A. Rey with a certain nostalgic fondness. More than those, though, I remember Rey's excellent guides for amateur astronomers, Find the Constellations and the more-in-depth The Stars. Those books were staples of my youthful library. I still imagine Rey's simple line drawings whenever I gaze up at the night sky.

  • I'm beginning to think there's a reason why they call that man Apolo Anton Oh, No!

  • Art Shell, meet Kim Mathers. I believe the two of you will have a lot to talk about.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: The Sequel

Continuing a tradition we began here at SSTOL last Thanksgiving, the following is a far-from-comprehensive, alphabetical sampling of things and people for which I'm grateful on this Gorge-Yourself-on-Poultry Day.

Art of the comic book variety, and the gifted people who draw it and write the stories behind it. Thanks especially to all the artists who created art on commission for me this year: Darryl Banks, TGK Sangalang, Jeff Moy, Buzz, Ron Lim, Brian Douglas "Briz" Ahern, James E. Lyle, Christopher Ivy, Bob McLeod, Scott "Shade" Jones, Scott Rosema, Herb Trimpe, Robert Q. Atkins, Trevor Von Eeden, Michael L. Peters, Michael Dooney, Ty Romsa, Kyle Hotz, Steve Mannion, Cully Hamner, Ernie Chan, Chris Rich-McKelvey, Jean-Paul Mavinga, Ron Adrian, Rich Buckler, Bob Almond, Josef Rubinstein, Anthony Carpenter, and Michael McDaniel. My fantasy life is richer for your talents. (My wallet is another story.)

Buttermilk pie. I baked one for Thanksgiving dessert. Yum.

Christ, my Lord. It's a cliché, but it's true: Without Him, I'm nothing.

Dell. They make a fine, dependable computer product. The upgrade to a Dell system this year was money well invested.

The Elements of Style, one of the most indispensible books ever written.

FARK, where weird news goes to be disseminated. Duke sucks. Your dog wants turkey.

Geof Isherwood. More than just an amazing artist — a friend I've never met. My sincere appreciation for all the incredible art you did for me this year, Geof.

Health. They say you don't know what you've got until you don't have it. So far, I have it, and I'm grateful for it.

Ice cream. Dreyer's Home Style Butter Pecan, especially.

Jerry Rice. I'm glad he finally retired. Thanks for all the wonderful memories, Flash 80.

KJ and KM, my girls. It goes without saying, but it needs to be said anyway. Often.

Law & Order. "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories."

Mazda, makers of quality automotive transportation. Zoom, zoom, zoom.

Natalie Cole. Unforgettable, that's what you are.

Online poker. I'm SwanShadow at Come play with me.

Penn and Teller. Seeing their show at the Rio in Las Vegas on our 20th wedding anniversary was the entertainment highlight of the year.

My quartet, Shades of Blue. Throw our ace vocal coach/designated alternate into the mix, and I couldn't ask for four nicer guys to sing with. Jim, Jeremy, Eddie, and Unca Phil: Thanks for putting up with the prima donna every Tuesday night.

Ronin, still my favorite film by the late John Frankenheimer, with marvelously terse and evocative dialogue scripted by the incomparable David Mamet (using the pseudonym Richard Weisz).

"Stormy," the 1960s hit by the Classics IV, covered with smooth style by Santana on their 1978 album Inner Secrets. Bring back my sunny day.

, the Black Panther. Nice to see the King of Wakanda back in a monthly book, even if I don't always like the paces writer Reginald Hudlin puts him through.

The Ultimate Tournament of Champions. What a thrill that was — meeting a cadre of Jeopardy! legends, renewing some long-ago acquaintances, and strapping on the Buzzer of Doom one more time! The $41K was pretty sweet, too. Thanks, Sony Pictures, for the opportunity to prove that the Cardiac Kid still had at least one more rabbit in his hat.

"Viva Las Vegas," the strains of which introduce each week's episode of American Casino. It's 60 minutes of the most curiously engaging reality soap opera on television. I'll miss it when the last of the episodes plays out soon on the Travel Channel.

World Talk Radio, which brings me a new installment of Vincent Zurzolo's interview program The Comic Zone every Tuesday afternoon. Vincent is the world's most inept interviewer — he imposes his (often inane and ill-informed) perspective on his guests, ignores their answers to his questions, mangles their names (how many times did Val Semeiks have to correct him before he got it right?), and basically does everything an interviewer shouldn't do — but he always lands marvelous guests.

Xena, also known as 2003 UB313, the planet-sized body in the Kuiper Belt outside the orbit of Pluto. Its existence reaffirms the truth that we never know all there is to know.

Yan Can Cook. Because if Yan can cook, so can you.

Zeppelins, as seen in the splendiferous double-page splash from Doc Savage, Man of Bronze: Monarch of Armageddon #1 that adorns our living room wall. Beautiful linework by Darryl Banks and Robert Lewis. What else do I appreciate about zeppelins? Spongmonkeys really like them.

And as always, I'm thankful for you, dear SSTOL reader. You make the constant scramble for new material worthwhile.

I hope that you and your loved ones are enjoying a blessed and joyful Thanksgiving. Be sincerely grateful for all that you have.

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Stating the painfully obvious

A hearty SSTOL "thank you" to Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel for saying out loud what most of us (at least, most of us not surnamed Bush) are thinking:
By any standard, when you analyze two and a half years in Iraq... we're not winning.
In a rare moment of transcendent lucidity for (a) a Republican, (b) a Nebraskan, and (c) a grown man who calls himself "Chuck," Hagel, appearing on this morning's broadcast of ABC's This Week, said concerning Iraq:
I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur.
Brilliant. But obvious.

Which reminds me...

Some things in life are so incredibly obvious that one wonders why everyone can't see them. Examples:
  • Adam Sandler is not funny.

  • He can't act, either.

  • Julia Roberts is not a pretty woman. That was just the name of a movie.

  • Comb-overs do not fool anyone, nor do they make the comber-over appear more virile.

  • No woman looks feminine with her hair pulled severely back from her face in the manner of a spinster librarian. Not even at the Oscars.

  • Liver is not food. Even with a French name.

  • Men over 45 dating women under 25 have maturity issues.

  • So, with few exceptions, do women over 45 dating men under 25.

  • Brown shoes with blue slacks don't make it.

  • White shoes with anything don't make it, unless the shoes in question are sneakers.

  • Men should not wear sandals, unless acting in a Biblical epic.

  • Lara Flynn Boyle needs a sandwich. Maybe her own Quizno's franchise.

  • Unless you're a burn victim, or have otherwise been disfigured congenitally, surgically, or accidentally, cosmetic surgery serves only to make public your desperate insecurity. It does not make you look better.

  • Yes, that includes breast implants.

  • Maybe especially breast implants.

  • There will never be another James Bond except Sean Connery.

  • White guys wearing do-rags or backward baseball caps look ridiculous.

  • Britney Spears cannot sing.

  • Neither can Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan, and both of them should stop trying.

  • The popular success of Paris Hilton is a crime against humanity.

  • No one who co-starred in either Seinfeld or Friends has any real talent. As their subsequent ventures attest.

  • Batman and Robin really are gay. No matter what DC Comics says.

  • People who poke holes in their anatomy where holes were never intended to go are seriously disturbed.

  • Reviving the fashions of the 1970s is a bad idea.

  • We're not winning in Iraq.

  • No one is.

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