Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It's getting Earthy up in here

In honor of Earth Day, I am committing to spending the entirety of today on Earth.

Furthermore, I vow to use only products that have been grown and/or manufactured on Earth.

I will also watch only those TV programs that originate on Earth.

I encourage all of my Earth-based readers to join me in this celebration.

Those of you from other celestial bodies, I'll check back with you tomorrow.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Selling Wolf tickets

Although I wasn't a regular customer, I'm still a little sad to see Wolf Coffee, a local chain of coffeehouses, go the way of the passenger pigeon.

At one time, Wolf Coffee — whose home office was here in Rohnert Park — had eight locations in Sonoma County. But they could never really compete with Starbucks, which has, at last count, 42 outlets in the county. (That's a lot of coffee, when you stop and think about it.) Wolf began trimming back its operations a couple of years ago, and recently sold its last remaining store in Coddingtown Mall.

It's unfortunate to see locally owned businesses fail, but there are a lot of factors to consider. Wolf's coffee was expensive, even more so than Starbucks — my cup of choice, a king-sized vanilla latte, cost about a quarter more at Wolf than at the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady. Wolf's locations were not, at least for me, as convenient as the plethora of Starbucks.

And, most frustratingly, Wolf's service, while unfailingly friendly, was often slower than molasses in Antarctica. I never dropped into a Wolf Coffee if I was in any kind of hurry. Or if I simply had plans for the rest of my day. Although the laid-back vibe was, for some customers, a selling point in Wolf's favor over the lickety-split corporate rush at the 'Bucks, when I want a cup of coffee, I want it now, not 15 minutes from now. I've got stuff to do.

To my taste, the coffee at Wolf wasn't significantly spectacular to offset these drawbacks. It was pretty good, but not better, than the java at the Green Monster across the street.

Here's where I lose patience with people who bemoan overmuch the passing of locally owned businesses. Ultimately, it's a business. If you can't compete, you'll get crushed. It's not my job to support a local outfit even if they charge me more for the same or similar product, send me out of my way to buy it, and keep me waiting longer than the big chain outfit. It's my money, my gasoline, my time.

All things being equal, then yes, I'd rather buy from a neighbor than some megacorporation in a distant land. But when all things aren't equal, I've got to serve Customer #1 first. That, or my neighbor has to deliver something sufficiently superior to the other guy that I'll spend a bit more, drive a bit farther, and wait a bit longer.

When it comes to a relatively generic commodity like coffee, that's a tough challenge. Sadly, it's a challenge that Wold Coffee couldn't — or, perhaps, wouldn't — meet.

Now, they've paid the ultimate price.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, April 20, 2009

Do I look like Buster Poindexter to you?

Today, we came within shouting distance of a new record temperature for this date.

The mercury climbed to 93 degrees (that's Fahrenheit, for the benefit of those in other localities not tethered to our arcane system of weights and measures) at its peak, just two degrees shy of a mark set in 1931.

It was hot all over the region. Even in perpetually cool San Francisco, they were looking at 92.

Ironically, exactly one year ago, we set a record for low temperatures on April 20, bottoming out at a chilly 32. The high that day was a still-brisk 58.

A lot can change in a single orbit around the sun.

The average high for this date is 70. We usually don't see weather this toasty until at least mid-May.

Stupid global warming.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Madden cruises

No news is bigger around these parts today than the surprise announcement that John Madden — a national pop culture figure, but a Bay Area icon — is retiring after 30 years as America's most recognizable pro football broadcaster.

I was just scratching the crust out of my eyelids as the story broke on KCBS, San Francisco's all-news radio station, where Madden contributes a live interview segment every weekday morning. And, like many fans around the Bay Area and nationally, I found myself stunned by Madden's announcement, broadcast live.

Although my affection for the NFL product begins and pretty much ends with the 49ers — I don't often watch a regular-season game on TV unless the Niners (or, on occasion, the Raiders) are playing — I can't help but acknowledge the impact that Madden has had on the popularity of football. Or, for that matter, on the popularity of football in general — witness the continued success of Madden NFL, by all accounts the best-selling video game ever created. The former Oakland coach's bombastic personality and easy-to-imitate shtick has become ubiquitous in American culture. (Don't you just know that Frank Caliendo is weeping into his Miller Lite today?)

Mostly, though, I've come to know Madden through his long-running daily spot on local radio. For years, Madden joined legendary morning man Frank Dill's show on KNBR — well before that station transmogrified into "The Sports Leader" — for a spot of chat, usually about sports but often just about whatever Madden felt moved to yak about. During the season, Madden would check in from wherever he happened to be, often from the famed Maddencruiser, the tricked-out bus in which the airplane-averse commentator traveled from game to game.

When Dill retired, Madden couldn't stand Steve McPartlin, the former happy-talk TV host who replaced Frank on KNBR's morning drive. So, Big John took his act across the dial to KCBS, where he interfaced with venerable news anchor Al Hart. Even after Hart stepped down from the daily grind, he'd still pop up every Wednesday to bat things around with his old pal "Coach," whose morning foils now are anchors Stan Bunger and Susan Leigh Taylor and sports reporter Steve Bitker.

The hot rumor now is that Madden will go back to work for Al Davis's Raiders, possibly as general manager or director of football operations. I'd like to think that Madden has too much sense to subject himself to Al's senile shenanigans, but the two have remained close over the years. Anything's possible.

For public consumption, Madden is saying that he just wants to spend more time with his family. He and his wife are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and Madden's five grandchildren are at the ages where, as the Hall of Fame coach noted, they know when he's gone.

After 42 years in the NFL, and at 73 years of age (his birthday was last Friday), I think the big guy's earned the right to do whatever he pleases.

Happy trails, Coach.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Happy Jackie Robinson Day!

Every player, manager, and coach in Major League Baseball will wear a uniform number 42 during today's games, in commemoration of the Brooklyn Dodgers' Hall of Fame infielder's breaking of baseball's racial barrier 62 years ago.

Robinson's number was permanently retired from active use by all MLB teams during the inaugural Jackie Robinson Day festivities in 2004.

For whatever reason, Jackie Robinson Day always reminds me of that classic episode of Sanford and Son, in which the always-scheming Rollo gives Fred a special birthday present: a baseball autographed by Jackie Robinson.

Upon examining his gift, Fred asks his friend, "Rollo, how do you spell 'Jackie'?"

replies a confident Rollo.

"That's right," says Fred. "That's how you spell 'Jackie.' But that's not how Jackie Robinson spelled 'Jackie...' you dummy."

The moral of this story: If someone gives you an autographed baseball for Jackie Robinson Day — or tries to sell you one on eBay — be sure you authenticate the signature.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, April 13, 2009

This Bird has flown

Another chunk of my childhood passed away today.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych has died this afternoon in an apparent accident, at the age of 54.

Fidrych was the wunderkind Detroit Tigers pitcher who took baseball by storm in the summer of 1976. Fidrych — nicknamed "The Bird" because of his striking resemblance to Big Bird, the towering Muppet from Sesame Street — became a household name as much for his antics on the mound as for his prodigious pitching prowess.

A frenetic bundle of nervous energy, Fidrych talked aloud to himself — and occasionally, to the baseball — while pitching. He would kneel on the mound between pitches and groom the dirt with his hands. He'd run over to his teammates and congratulate them with high-fives for making successful infield plays. His infectious enthusiasm made The Bird an overnight superstar.

After starting the year with a 7-1 record, the rookie phenom received the starting assignment for the American League in the 1976 All-Star Game. Fidrych finished the season with a 19-9 record and a 2.34 earned run average. Named the American League Rookie of the Year, he also came in second in the voting for the Cy Young Award.

He was never the same again.

Plagued by injuries beginning in his sophomore campaign, Fidrych would pitch sporadically with the Tigers over the next four seasons. He won only 10 more games after that legendary rookie year. He pitched his last game for the Tigers in 1980, and when Detroit released him at the end of the 1981 season, The Bird was out of the game.

He attempted an unsuccessful minor-league comeback in the Boston Red Sox organization in 1983, but he never got back to The Show.

I had the privilege of seeing The Bird best the Oakland Athletics in a game at the Coliseum during that shining Bicentennial summer. That memory remains one of my all-time favorite baseball moments.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was truly one of a kind.

Labels: , , ,

Super freak

I'm not sure why I'd be surprised by this revelation, but...

According to a recently published book by comics historian Craig Yoe, Joe Shuster — the artist half of the creative team who dreamed up Superman — spent a portion of his career in the 1950s drawing sadomasochistic fetish comics featuring characters who look suspiciously like Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

Apparently, it wasn't only kryptonite that made the Man of Steel weak in the knees. Whips and chains did the trick as well.

Yoe's book Secret Identity uncovers (no pun intended) the lurid art Shuster drew for an underground magazine entitled Nights of Horror. An article in USA Today quotes Yoe's observation:
Joe obviously had some very dark fantasies. There's a panel in an early Superman comic book where he has Lois over his knee and is spanking her. But certainly nothing of this depth or extremeness.
As I said, this really doesn't shock me. Plenty of artists from mainstream comics sidelined in erotica, especially back in the days when mainstream comics habitually paid their creators in chicken feed and shoeshines.

To cite a few examples:
  • Wally Wood — one of comics' most talented artists ever, in my (and many other knowledgeable people's) opinion — was a one-man cottage porn industry in his later years.
  • Will Elder, one of the artists who helped make MAD Magazine a household name, drew Little Annie Fanny for Playboy for more than a quarter-century.
  • Bill Ward, who started his career drawing Captain Marvel and Blackhawk before creating the classic "good girl" character Torchy, cranked out hundreds of sexy strips for men's magazines.
  • Adam Hughes, perhaps comics' preeminent present-day "good girl" artist, used to freelance for Penthouse.
I'm sure, though, that more than a few folks will find the blood draining from their faces when they see Superman (or a guy who could be his identical twin brother) letting his freak flag fly.

Great Caesar's ghost, indeed.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Fallen Angel

It's a gray and gloomy day for baseball here in the Golden State.

Appropriate, given the tragic news about the death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, killed last night in a hit-and-run accident caused by a suspected drunken driver.

Less than 24 hours ago, 22-year-old Adenhart had the world on a string. In his fourth major league start, he pitched six innings of shutout ball against the Oakland Athletics.

Today, he's gone.

I'll say here what I've said numerous times before: There is no punishment severe enough for drunk driving.

I believe that driving under the influence should receive mandatory prison time. No probation. No suspended license. No enforced rehab. No 36 hours in the county slammer. A minimum of one year hard time in the state penitentiary. No plea bargains, no questions asked.

Second-time offenders should be sentenced to a minimum of five years. Third-timers get twenty.

Drunk drivers who kill? Automatic life sentence.

And if someone wanted to argue for making the latter a capital crime, they'd get no protest from me.

Andrew Gallo, the knucklehead who snuffed out the lives of Nick Adenhart and his two friends, Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart — and who was himself uninjured in the crash — was driving under a suspended license due to a prior drunk driving conviction. If Gallo had been in San Quentin where he belonged — in my opinion, if not the State of California's — three young people with bright futures would be alive today.

My sincere condolences, as well as my deepest empathy as a father, go out to the families of the deceased.

I bear-hugged my daughter when she came home from her college classes today. She thought I was crazy. Perhaps I am.

But life is fragile.

Even when you're 22 years old, and have a million-dollar arm.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Let's play!

As Thomas Boswell, the legendary sports columnist for the Washington Post, once wrote...

Time begins on Opening Day.

At the moment that my fingers hit the keyboard, the San Francisco Giants are about to begin their first game of the 2009 baseball season, on a gray and stormy Tuesday here in the Bay Area.

The Giants are coming off their fourth consecutive sub-.500 season. The franchise has never endured five straight losing campaigns. Giants fans hope that history holds up, and the Orange and Black can get off the schneid this year.

Whether that will happen is anyone's guess.

San Francisco's brightest ray of sunshine is its pitching staff. The Giants' starting rotation boasts three — count 'em, three — pitchers who have won the Cy Young Award, including the National League incumbent, Tim "The Freak" Lincecum. Following Lincecum is baseball's leading active Cy Young winner, 45-year-old Randy "The Big Unit" Johnson, who has five of the awards in his trophy case. Barry Zito hopes to regain a flash of his former glory after a couple of difficult years. The rotation rounds out with two young pitchers with future Cy Young potential, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sánchez.

One of the game's premier closers, Brian Wilson, anchors the Giants' bullpen. The rest of the relief corps — an inconsistent mess in 2008 — should be bolstered by the additions of veterans Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry.

The G-Men fell shortest last year on offense, fielding the most impotent lineup seen in these parts since the miserable 100-loss 1985 Giants. Key to improvement at the plate will be the development of third baseman (and backup catcher) Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, who dazzled fans with his aggressive hitting in the closing months of the '08 season, and rookie first baseman Travis Ishikawa, one of the stars of the just-concluded spring training exercise.

The Giants' offense will also hinge on another big year from catcher Bengie "Big Money" Molina, San Francisco's RBI leader (and the top RBI man among all major league catchers) last season, and sustained production from the outfielders, veterans Randy Winn (a .306 hitter last year, seventh in the National League) and Aaron Rowand (disappointing both at the plate and in the field in his first campaign as a Giant), and speedy youngster Fred Lewis.

If everything comes together for the Gyros, they could contend in the National League West, given baseball's weakest division and the fact that neither of the top teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks, look any stronger than they were last season.

If the Giants hit the way they did in 2008... well, it'll be a long summer in San Francisco.

Here's wishing good health and good luck to manager Bruce Bochy and his boys.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, April 05, 2009

What's Up With That? #74: Why do you think they call it "dope"?

You could get more idiotic than this, but not much.

At the same time that this story is being reported:
Farrah Fawcett hospitalized; family gathers at bedside
This story is only one headline away:
Son of Ryan O'Neal arrested in LA on drug charge
In case you don't immediately tumble to the connection, Ryan O'Neal's son Redmond is also the son of Farrah Fawcett.

According to the Associated Press, the younger O'Neal — who just last week was kicked out of a rehab facility after failing a drug test — was visiting an incarcerated friend at a county jail in Castaic (northern Los Angeles County) when he admitted during a routine search that he was carrying methamphetamine. Redmond is currently being held on $25,000 bail.

Dude... your mom is in the hospital dying of cancer, and you're busted smuggling dope into a jail?

I believe Mr. T. said it best... I pity the fool.

And I hope that Ms. Fawcett, who's been battling the Big C for several years, survives this latest setback — at the very least, long enough for her son the moron to get out of the hoosegow to say goodbye.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No uvas for you!

Monday, March 23, 2009

You're 16, you're beautiful, and you're mine

For you Bracketology fanatics out there...

I accurately predicted 14 of the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.

My two misses:

West Regional: #5 Purdue vs. #1 UConn. I had picked #4 Washington over Purdue to face the Huskies.

East Regional: #4 Xavier vs. #1 Pitt. My bracket had #12 Wisconsin getting by Xavier and meeting Pittsburgh.

I nailed all of the other match-ups. Go me!

I'm especially proud of choosing Arizona, the #12 seed in the Midwest Regional, when a lot of prognosticators wrote the Wildcats off in the first round. Yes, Arizona played miserably the last month of the regular season, but I knew they'd ratchet up their skills for the tourney. The 'Cats are hungry to prove themselves in the wake of their quick (and often bizarre) succession of head coaching turnovers, launched by longtime guru Lute Olson's health problems.

Hope your brackets are shaping up as well.

Be sure to check out the North Carolina-Gonzaga game on Friday night. That one has the potential to be the most exciting game of the entire tournament. You heard it first from your Uncle Swan.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I'm never going back to my old school

Nothing like a little excitement.

A telephone call to the CHP sent our local high school into lockdown this morning, with a report that an unidentified male with a handgun was spotted in one of the restrooms.

Grim-faced officers descended on Rancho Cotate High School to conduct an intensive, room-by-room search, which turned up nothing suspicious. From our house about a half-mile away, I could hear law enforcement and news-gathering helicopters buzzing overhead.

After about two hours, police sounded the all-clear. Students and teachers were given a 15-minute break to collect themselves, and perhaps inhale some fresh outdoor air. Classes then resumed without incident, although an undetermined number of parents took their students out of school for the remainder of the day.

When I was a student at Rancho Cotate 30 years (jinkies!) ago, the most noteworthy item one ever encountered in the men's room was the sickly-sweet aroma of burning cannabis sativa.

How times change.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 16, 2009

What's Up With That? #72: Sci Fi? I thought you said Hi Fi

In what must surely be one of the most ludicrous marketing gambits of all time, the Sci Fi Channel announced today that it is rebranding itself as "Syfy."

Umm... what?

According to Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi's — excuse me, Syfy's — parent company, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, "We couldn't own Sci Fi; it's a genre. But we can own Syfy."

Gotcha, Bonnie. Glad you've got your priorities in order.

Fanboys, geeks, nerds, and other societal rejects will be relieved to learn that Syfy (the channel) will continue to present Sci Fi (the genre), and that most of it will suck swamp water, in keeping with the channel's long-standing tradition.

In related news, the Food Network revealed today that it, too, is changing its name, after network executives discovered that "food" is a generic term for "stuff you eat." Henceforth, the channel will be known as the Guy Fieri Network.

Said a spokesperson, "We can't own food. But we can and do own Guy."

Also, FOX is reported to be searching for a pithy, trademarkable brand, now that evidence has come to light that "fox" is actually a small, furry, dog-like animal that lives in the woods.

More on this development is forthcoming.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, March 02, 2009

25 years with the Razor

Today on "The Sports Leader" — San Francisco's KNBR 680 AM — afternoon drive host Ralph "The Razor" Barbieri is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the radio station.

If you know anything about the radio business, you know that 25 years in one location is a remarkable achievement.

At the risk of seriously dating myself, I recall when Ralph first joined KNBR as a commentator and host of the evening talk show, Sportsphone 68. (KNBR didn't add the terminal zero until just a few years ago.) In the beginning, I thought Ralph was an obnoxious, self-important, hypocritical jerk. That assessment hasn't changed much in the past quarter-century, but at least I've grown accustomed to him.

The late, legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen first hung the moniker "Razor Voice" on Barbieri shortly after Ralph came to KNBR. At that time, the station was still pursuing a general-interest format of which sports programming was but one component. Caen helped bring Barbieri to the attention of the masses by mocking the broadcaster's raspy, decidedly unappealing vocal quality.

Thus, a career was born.

Aside from Caen's column, the best thing that happened to Ralph occurred halfway through his KNBR tenure, when he was paired with former NBA journeyman Tom Tolbert to form "The Razor and Mr. T." At first, I couldn't imagine the partnership lasting more than a few months, given the cohosts' radically different styles (Ralph the raging pseudo-journalist; Tom the laid-back surfer dude) and perspectives (Ralph is a vegetarian with an MBA from the Wharton School; Tom is a retired pro athlete who loves McDonald's hamburgers). And yet, twelve and a half years later, their show remains KNBR's most popular talkfest. Go figure.

My chief frustration with Ralph has always been that he's a dreadful interviewer — although, to his credit, he's improved slightly over time. When Ralph conducts an interview, it's never about the interview subject — it's always about Ralph and his opinions. Ralph rarely asks a question. Instead, Ralph delivers speeches that may or may not end in questions. The interview subject frequently can't get a word in edgewise.

To test my anecdotal observation, I once took a stopwatch to an interview Ralph was conducting with a member of the Giants organization. Ralph posed one "question" that droned on for nearly three minutes, after which the interviewee got less than 30 seconds of response time before Ralph began interrupting. The rest of the interview proceeded in similar fashion.

Any regular KNBR listener knows that I'm not exaggerating.

Still, the guy has lasted this long for a reason. The banter between Ralph and his long-suffering foil Tolbert is entertaining and lively, and Ralph — despite his frustrating deficiencies as an interviewer — is exactly what sports-talk radio calls for: he's opinionated, he's polarizing, and he's never at a loss for words.

Congratulations to the Razor on his quarter-century celebration.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paperless San Francisco

The hot story around these parts is the Hearst Corporation's announcement of its intention to either sell or shut down the San Francisco Chronicle — the Bay Area's newspaper of record, and the second-largest paper (in terms of circulation) on the West Coast — within the next few weeks, unless a round of layoffs can stem the paper's tide of red ink.

This doesn't come as a total surprise, as newspapers all over the country are struggling against the ever-rising tide of the Internet.

Still, it's unsettling to imagine the newspaper of Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Matier and Ross, Scott Ostler, Pierre Salinger, Charles McCabe, Phil Frank, Ray Ratto, Joel Selvin, Tim Goodman, and "Dear Abby" going the way of the passenger pigeon and buck-a-gallon gasoline.

The Chron has never really been a bastion of cutting-edge journalism, outside of its legendary Sporting Green — 45 years ago, satirist Tom Lehrer joked concerning a major news story of the day, "It happened during baseball season, so the Chronicle didn't cover it." That reputation for fluff persisted into the modern Hearst era, which began in 2000 when Hearst sold its one-time flagship paper, the San Francisco Examiner, and bought the Chronicle outright from the DeYoung family.

Nevertheless, the Chron has always been staffed by brilliant writers, most notably its columnists (sports and otherwise). It remains, if not the most hard-hitting news entity on the planet, one of the most readable and entertaining.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't helped the situation any. I've picked up the actual newsprint Chronicle not more than a handful of times in the past decade or so. Its online presence, however, is an indispensable part of my daily info crawl. I'd miss it terribly if it went away.

Here's hoping that a streamlined Chronicle can find a way to survive.

The Bay Area would not be the same without it.

Labels: , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sign of the twin-tailed mermaid apocalypse

This is wrong in so many way that it's impossible to calculate:

Starbucks is now selling instant coffee.

Everyone into the bomb shelter. The end is near.

As the late Fred Sanford might have said...

"Hold on, Elizabeth! I'm comin' to join you, honey! With a venti nonfat decaf instant mocha latte in my hand!"

Labels: , , , , , ,

Old dog, new trick

Congratulations to Champion Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee — or, as he's known to his close personal friends, Stump — on his Best in Show victory at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show earlier this week.

Stump, a Sussex spaniel, made a particularly noteworthy champion due to his advanced age. Born December 1, 1998, Stump is ancient for a top-level show dog, especially at the "Super Bowl of dog shows."

When contacted for comment about his historic win, the 2009 Westminster champion reportedly flopped on his side and took a nap.

Several years ago, when my office assistant Abby was just a puppy, we took her to see some of her relations compete in a Pembroke Welsh Corgi breed show. One of the dogs in that show was still showing at the McCainesque age of 15. The wily veteran received a standing ovation from the Corgi crowd as he trotted around the ring.

Little-known fact: The Sussex spaniel was one of the original ten breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club when the AKC formed in 1884.

There is no validity to the rumor that Stump was already competing at that time.

Labels: , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jonesing for Obama

One further thought...

As I'm watching and reading the inauguration coverage, political bloggers and reporters keep referring to Obama as a "Baby Boomer." Although that's technically correct — the traditional cutoff for the post-World War II Baby Boom is 1964— as Obama's immediate peer (we both were born in 1961; he's a few months older than I), I don't think it's sociologically accurate.

Those of us born in the late 1950s and early 1960s better fit the description of "Generation Jones," as defined by pop culture savant Jonathan Pontell. We have far more in common with today's young adults, a.k.a. Generation X, than we do with the more conservative Boomers who arrived in the decade before us.

Like our younger colleagues, we Jonesers tend to be more liberal politically, more tolerant socially, and more savvy technologically than our Boomer elders. (Obama's infamous Blackberry is an excellent illustration of this latter point.)

We mark a striking transition between the children of WWII veterans — the generation that voted Ronald Reagan and both Bushes into office (as well as Bill Clinton, who ran as a conservative Democrat) — and the enthusiastic youth who helped sweep our new President into the White House.

It's an important distinction to make, I think.

Our generation elected Barack Obama. The Baby Boomers would have elected John McCain.

So let's call Obama, not the last President of the Baby Boom generation, but the first President born of Generation Jones.

Now, my fellow Jonesers, let's go change the world.

Labels: , , , ,


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.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Does this casket come with soft Corinthian leather?

Wow, bad day for aged celebrities.

No sooner did I complete my obit of Patrick McGoohan than word arrives of the passing of Ricardo Montalbán, who, depending on your viewing preferences, was either Khan Noonien Singh of the classic Star Trek episode "Space Seed" and its sequel motion picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or the dapper Mr. Roarke, the ice-cream-suited master manipulator of Fantasy Island.

We children of the '70s, of course, also recall Montalbán as the suave pitchman for the Chrysler Cordoba, famously upholstered in "soft Corinthian leather." The joke was that "Corinthian leather" was little more than some copywriter's snazzy buzzword for a product manufactured in Newark, New Jersey.

I often thought that Mr. Roarke had the most depressing job in the world. He spent all of his time and resources creating fantasies for other people — fantasies which never seemed to work out all that well for the recipients. Then, he'd cluck his tongue at the hard lessons learned when people got what they thought they wanted. Roarke was like a sadistic Santa Claus, albeit with bespoke tailoring and better weather.

To top it off, Mr. Roarke never seemed to get any of his own fantasies fulfilled. Unless his fantasies involved living on a tropical island with a lisping French dwarf. In which case, I guess he did.

My favorite episode of Fantasy Island was the one in which Mr. Roarke faced off with the devil (who, oddly enough, did not resemble Al Pacino) and emerged victorious. That storyline opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for Roarke, who prior to this had just seemed like a wealthier, more inventive Walt Disney. Was he really an angel? A sorcerer? A Highlander? (There can only be one, so probably not.)

Then again, the devil did tell Roarke at the end of the episode that he'd be back to fight again another day.

Perhaps that day was today.

Labels: , , ,

Be seeing you, Number Six

Don't tell Number Two, but Number Six has escaped.


Patrick McGoohan, a hero to a generation of genre TV cultists as the star of the classic espionage series Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent for American broadcast on CBS) and its even more famous "sequel" The Prisoner, has died at the age of 80.

For those of you who missed the 1960s, The Prisoner starred McGoohan (who cocreated the show with producer George Markstein) as a spy who, after submitting his resignation, is kidnapped and transported to an isolated seaside community known only as The Village. The protagonist, whose real name is never divulged, is referred to as Number Six. (Most fans suppose Number Six to be John Drake, the hero of Danger Man, even though McGoohan consistently denied this — most likely because someone else owned the rights to the earlier character.) Indeed, all residents of The Village are known only by numeric designations, including the sinister head honcho, Number Two (played by a different actor in almost every episode).

The 17-episode series revolves around Number Six's ongoing efforts to either escape — efforts often thwarted by an enormous, seemingly sentient balloon called Rover — or subvert Number Two's authority and control of The Village, or both. Number Two, in turn, engages in a constant stream of cat-and-mouse mind games, trying to learn why Number Six resigned his post (and, by implication, for whom Six might have been working).

In a memorable two-part finale, Number Six finally manages to break free of The Village's confines. Or does he?

I'm a member of that hardcore band of pop culture geeks who maintain that The Prisoner is one of the greatest series ever created for television. It's smartly written, thought-provoking, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending upon one's political perspective and psychosocial worldview. Its 17 episodes span a broad range of genres — mystery, action-suspense, comic satire, even Western (the episode "Living in Harmony").

Thanks in large part to McGoohan's rigid control, the show maintained a high quality level, even though it ran longer than McGoohan originally proposed. (CBS insisted on 17 episodes, to ensure an afterlife in syndication — McGoohan conceived the show as a seven-episode cycle.) The Prisoner frequently explored themes that were considered controversial for the time: conspiracy theories, government mind control, propaganda, psychedelic drugs, anti-authority rebellion, and anti-war sentiment.

When I was studying broadcast communications at San Francisco State University, I took a course in semiotics — the study of symbols and signs as facets of the communication process — taught by one of the world's leading experts in the field, Dr. Arthur Asa Berger. Episodes of The Prisoner were among Dr. Berger's favorite teaching tools.

Ironically, Patrick McGoohan's passing comes shortly before the debut of a modernized retelling of The Prisoner, which airs later this year on American Movie Classics. The new Prisoner stars Jim Caviezel as Number Six, and Ian McKellen as his adversary, Number Two.

McGoohan continued to be much sought after as a character actor for decades following The Prisoner. He gained critical acclaim as the villainous King Edward, a.k.a. Longshanks, in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, and as the father of Billy Zane's jungle superhero in The Phantom. My favorites among his post-Prisoner roles were his frequent turns as perpetrator on Columbo (McGoohan won two Emmy Awards for his Columbo appearances, several of which he also directed), and his starring turn in the short-lived 1970s medical series Rafferty, which foreshadowed House by about 25 years.

Despite his impressive body of work, McGoohan will always be Number Six in my imagination.

"I am not a number — I am a free man!"

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, January 12, 2009

One hot dog, with a side of Rice

As we predicted nearly a month and a half ago in this space, all-time steals leader Rickey Henderson was a first-ballot electee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame today.

Given Rickey's noted propensity for non sequitur interview commentary during his career, this should be an induction speech worth hearing.

Jim Rice finally made the Hall also, in his 15th and final year of ballot eligibility. I believe that's the correct call, and long overdue. Rice was the best all-around offensive player in the American League during his peak years. The fact that he was, in the estimation of some baseball writers who covered the Red Sox during Rice's tenure, an insufferable jerk, should not have kept Big Jim out of Cooperstown for as long as it did.

After all, the player who came the closest to being a unanimous selection for HOF glory, one Tyrus R. Cobb, was practically the definition of an insufferable jerk. If Cobb's well-documented jerkiness didn't disqualify him, Rice's shouldn't either.

I'm sorry that Andre Dawson — an even greater player than Rice, and possibly more likable — missed election again. Given his upward trend in the voting, however, I'm convinced that "The Hawk" will get in eventually. I say that even though this year, with only Henderson as a runaway first-ballot favorite, would have been an ideal time for the voters to show Dawson some love.

Every year, a handful of "what the heck?" votes turn up in the Hall of Fame tally. To the BBWAA's credit, there were remarkably few of these (even if I disagree, I understand the logic of the seven electors who cast a vote for Matt Williams, to cite one example) this year. Still, I'd like to know who were the two nutjobs who voted for Jay Bell.

Did Jay Bell's mom and dad get sent Hall of Fame ballots by mistake?

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, January 08, 2009

There's a new zombie in town

I'm not an especially sentimental sort — as regular visitors here will attest — but it makes me sad to see the icons of my youth fade from view.

Just moments ago, I received an e-mail announcing the passing of Bob Wilkins, the longtime host of KTVU's Creature Features. I spent many Friday and Saturday nights in the 1970s and early '80s enjoying cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks with the urbane, bespectacled Mr. Wilkins and his eventual successor in the host's rocking chair, John Stanley.

More than four years ago, I waxed nostalgic in this space about Creature Features and its profound impact on my adolescent years. Rather than reinventing the torture wheel, I'll simply invite you to check out that Halloween 2004 post.

I was privileged to meet Bob Wilkins in person a few years ago, when he made what I believe was his final guest appearance at WonderCon. Bob was obviously in ill health at that time, so I was glad that I took the opportunity to express to him my thanks for all the hours of entertainment. I'm even more glad now.

Keep that coffin lid tightly closed, Bob. You never know what might be trying to get in.

Or out.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

So long, Stacey's

Sad, but not shocking, news in today's Chronicle: Stacey's Bookstore, a landmark on downtown San Francisco's Market Street for 85 years, is closing its doors.

When I was an undergrad at San Francisco State a quarter-century (egads!) ago, my schedule often included large gaps between morning and late afternoon or evening classes, or between classes and my work shift at the campus convenience store. I would frequently hop the Muni Metro M-Line into downtown to pass the time. Stacey's was among my favorite hangouts. It's kind of depressing to see it go.

That leads me to another thought, however...

I don't understand how bookstores survive at all, these days.

Now, I say that as a person who's been a voracious reader for well over 40 years, and who loves books and the retailers who sell them. I've been known to while away hundreds of blissful hours merely browsing the stacks in bookstores.

But seriously, with the advent of Amazon and eBay, I rarely buy books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore anymore. Why would I, when I can get anything I can find in a local store — along with a limitless number of titles that I'd never find in a store — online, almost invariably at a price considerably less than I'd pay if I drove to the store to buy? Most of the time, I can combine a couple of purchases to get free shipping, and within a few days the books get delivered right to my door.

Does that suck for bookstores and the people who work in them? Yes, it does.

Is it my personal responsibility to keep bookstores in business? No, it isn't.

I know how that sounds, but it's economic reality. I have only so much money. Where I can save a buck or three, I have a fiscal responsibility to my family to do so. That's why I fill up at Costco instead of at a locally owned gas station that's a few blocks closer to my house, but that consistently charges about ten cents per gallon more than Costco does. Those dimes add up.

Someone may argue that there's a greater good in supporting local small businesses beyond shopping for price. That's as may be. If I had unlimited financial resources, I might be willing to shoulder that greater good. But I have a family to feed, and bills to pay, and my own small business to run. That's the only greater good about which I can afford to be concerned.

I mourn for brick-and-mortar bookstores. In any business, however — my own included — if you can't compete, you die.

If you're going to charge more for a product, you need a seductive reason — it's a talent-based product, say, and your talent is superior to (or merely better suited to the job than) someone else's. For example, a restaurant may get away with charging higher prices if its food is qualitatively better than the food at the joint down the street.

For a static commodity, the quality of which is irrelevant to the source — a book, to get back to our original point — the competition points are convenience and price. If Amazon will send it to my house, thus saving me time and fossil fuel, and simultaneously save me 20%, it's not even a question. Unless I absolutely have to read the book today, and I can't remember the last time that need arose.

It isn't pretty. But then, life rarely is.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It's hard in Oakland for a pimp

The Hughes Brothers speak the truth: "Oakland is a pimpin' town."

Apparently, the only people who won't acknowledge that truth are in Oakland city government.

Allen and Albert Hughes, most often referred to collectively as the Hughes Brothers (because their last name is Hughes, and they're... well... brothers), are fraternal twin filmmakers best known for their uncompromising depictions of urban street life, as portrayed in their dramatic films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp. (The Hughes Brothers also masterminded the comic book adaptation From Hell, starring Johnny Depp as a 19th-century London detective stalking Jack the Ripper.)

The latest Hughes project is an upcoming HBO drama series entitled Gentlemen of Leisure, about a middle-aged pimp struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood and family life. The series is set in Oakland, and the Hughes Brothers are eager, for the sake of verisimilitude, to film the show on location.

So far, Mayor Ron Dellums and the Oakland City Council are having none of it. The council has to date refused to approve the Hughes Brothers' permits to begin filming on the streets of Oakland. According to Mayor Dellums, a TV show about pimps doesn't fit his vision of what Oakland is.

Never mind the fact that the rest of the world — including a slew of big-name hip-hop artists from Oakland — sees the city exactly that way.

It's no secret to anyone who follows American popular culture that Oakland is one of the hubs of the hip-hop/rap scene, which has made a cottage industry out of "pimps and hos." (The hip-hop crew Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song four years ago, for the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.") Hyphy, an entire "brand" of hip-hop music and style, originated in Oakland and its surrounding communities. Rap pioneer Too Short, perhaps the biggest hip-hop star to arise from the East Bay scene, built his entire career explicitly proclaiming the glories of the pimping life in Oakland.

The Oakland city fathers may not like that image. It's disingenuous, however, to deny that it exists, or to stand in the way of legitimate artists documenting it.

For their part, the Hughes Brothers have stated that if the City Council won't grant them permits to lens Gentlemen of Leisure in Oakland, they'll move the production to another city, while leaving the show's fictional setting in Oakland. That means another community will benefit from the economic uplift and job creation that follows a major television production, while struggling Oakland will lose out, even as its likeness — for better or worse — is portrayed onscreen.

If you can't change perception, Mayor Dellums, you may as well pimp it out.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Westlake postscript

Well, this was a sad way to end a year...

Donald E. Westlake
, one of the great mystery novelists of our time, died yesterday.

Westlake was a prolific creator who wrote in a variety of styles, from the comic caper novels he wrote under his own name, including The Hot Rock (adapted into a 1972 film starring Robert Redford), to the gritty crime novels he wrote under the nom de plume Richard Stark, most featuring the brutal criminal mastermind known only as Parker. Westlake's first Stark/Parker novel, The Hunter, was filmed twice: as Point Blank (with Lee Marvin) in 1967, and as Payback (with Mel Gibson) in 1999.

My favorite Westlake books were a series of mysteries he wrote in the late 1960s and early '70s, about a self-loathing former cop named Mitch Tobin. Mitch was a fascinating character — his partner was killed when Mitch failed to provide him backup during a bust, because at the time of the incident, Mitch was in bed with the partner's wife. Consumed by guilt and depression, Mitch withdrew from everyday life, occupying his time by building a useless brick wall in his back yard. On occasion, he would get dragged into some circumstance that compelled him to exercise his detective skills.

I believe the five Mitch Tobin books, which Westlake wrote using the pseudonym Tucker Coe — Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death; Murder Among Children; Wax Apple; A Jade in Aries; and Don't Lie to Me — have all been out of print for years. But if you stumble across one of them at a used bookstore, a garage sale, or your local library, and if you enjoy a good mystery featuring a dark yet quirky protagonist, I recommend them.

My favorite Westlake-as-Westlake book was his 1976 novel Dancing Aztecs. Like many of his stories, it's a crime caper wrapped in comedic trappings, featuring a gang of hapless crooks who can't seem to do anything right. The title refers to the book's McGuffin, a set of 16 identical statues, only one of which is the real (and valuable) McCoy. Another must-read, if you get the opportunity.

When he wasn't writing books at a phenomenal rate, Westlake also dabbled in screenplays. He received an Academy Award nomination for The Grifters, a terrific caper flick directed by Stephen Frears, the screenplay for which Westlake adapted from a Jim Thompson novel. Westlake also wrote the 1987 horror classic The Stepfather, which made a cult star out of Terry O'Quinn nearly two decades before Lost.

In addition, Westlake created the legendary TV flop Supertrain, which almost bankrupted NBC in the fall of 1979. But then, to quote the title of a 1977 Westlake novel, Nobody's Perfect.

Somewhere on my bookshelves I have an old book entitled Murder Ink, containing all manner of interesting trivia about mysteries and their authors. In that book, Westlake conducts a hilarious and informative interview as himself as well as three of his literary alter egos: Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, and Timothy J. Culver, under which name Westlake penned a political thrilled called Ex Officio. I'll have to dig that out and reread it in Westlake's honor.

Thanks for all the unforgettable stories, and especially those wonderful characters, Don. I'll miss you.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, December 29, 2008

Frontier justice

I see on the news sites that Ellie Nesler died the other day.

If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it may help jog your memory if I point out that Ellie Nesler was the woman who in 1993 walked into a courtroom in the Gold Rush town of Sonora, California, and shot to death the man being tried for molesting her six-year-old son.

Ellie's initial conviction for voluntary manslaughter was overturned due to some jury shenanigans, but the pistol-packing mama later copped a plea and served three years in prison. Her sentence was actually longer than that, but she received a reduction because she was being treated for breast cancer. The whole episode was chronicled in a made-for-cable movie (USA Network, not Lifetime, but that shows you're thinking) in 1999.

The part of Ellie's story that didn't warrant a teleflick came in 2002, when she was convicted of selling methamphetamine and sent back to the slammer for another four years.

In 2004, while Ellie was cooling her heels at the women's prison in Chowchilla, her son William stomped a guy to death less than an hour after getting out of jail from a previous assault conviction. William is currently serving 25 years to life in the big house.

At the time of the incident that brought her national fame, Ellie Nesler was hailed by some as a heroine and vilified by others as a vigilante.

Now, we can just call her the late Ms. Nesler.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Catwoman's last groove

Not to rain a bummer down on your Yuletide or anything, but...

Eartha Kitt died today.

You young whippersnappers know Ms. Kitt as the voice of Yzma in The Emperor's New Groove, one of the best Disney animated films of the past decade, and its spin-off television series, The Emperor's New School.

Those of us with a few miles on our odometers knew that the multitalented Ms. Kitt possessed many facets. She was an actress; nominated for two Tony Awards, she was a favorite of actor-director Orson Welles (on and off the set, or so the whispers tell). She was a singer; ironically, given her death on Christmas Day, her best-known musical number was the original rendition of the pop-jazz carol "Santa Baby." She was a social activist; her scathing remarks condemning the Vietnam War at a White House function reportedly reduced Lady Bird Johnson, the then-incumbent First Lady, to tears.

Eartha Kitt broke barriers in a number of ways, perhaps most memorably in 1967, when she took over the role of Catwoman in the hit Batman after Julie Newmar left the show. "Color-blind" casting is relatively common today — think of Denzel Washington in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, to cite just one recent instance — but in the '60s, it was practically unheard of that an African-American actor would be cast in a role written for a Caucasian.

Kitt's turn as the Felonious Feline was all the more remarkable in that the character's race was never made an issue. No one on Batman ever seemed to notice that the new Catwoman was black. Again, unheard of in mid-20th century Hollywood.

Kitt's tradition-shattering portrayal opened possibilities for countless other actors to be chosen for roles for which they might never have been considered — such as Halle Berry in the title role in Catwoman.


Let me think of a better example.

How about Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin in Daredevil?

Yeah, that works.

Back to Eartha Kitt...

In addition to her work behind the Disney microphone (for which she earned her second Daytime Emmy just a couple of months ago), the legendary star spent her later years performing her popular cabaret act, acting in the occasional stage production (she toured as the Fairy Godmother in the national company of Cinderella a few years back), and battling colon cancer.

She died less than one month shy of her 82nd birthday.

As the great Ms. Kitt might have said herself... meow.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, December 19, 2008

Comic Art Friday: The Best of 2008

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the grande dame of the Star Trek universe, who passed away yesterday at the age of 76.

The widow of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Majel had a recurring role in the original 1960s series as Nurse Christine Chapel, whose most distinctive characteristic was her unrequited love for Mr. Spock. Majel also appeared as Lwaxana Troi, Deanna Troi's meddlesome mother, in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Off camera, the actress provided the voice of the Enterprise's computer system in both the original series and ST:TNG, as well as that of the feline Lt. M'Ress in Star Trek: The Animated Series.

A beloved fixture for years on the convention circuit, Majel will be missed by Trek's legions of fans.

In addition to it being Comic Art Friday, today is my 47th birthday. So I'm going to do whatever I darn well please. (I know, I know... I do that every Friday. Old habits die hard.)

What pleases me is getting an early start on our traditional look back at the year's best acquisitions. This way, we can spread the retrospective goodness over two consecutive Comic Art Fridays, and bask in the reflected glow of my favorite new pieces of 2008 for a week longer.

In the words of the late Heath Ledger: And here... we... go!

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroes Division:
"Force of Gravity" — pencils by Sal Velluto, inks by Bob Almond
Captain Gravity and Gravity

Sal and Bob, the longtime artistic team on Marvel's Black Panther, created two incredible additions to my Common Elements theme gallery in 2008. I loved the whimsy of Sal's design in this one, which featured another character from the Sal and Bob catalog — Penny-Farthing's Captain Gravity.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroines Division:
"Val to the Third Power" — pencils by Val Semeiks
Valkyrie (from Airboy) and Valkyrie (from The Defenders)

Val Semeiks's impeccable storytelling slams a home run with this concept, which was tailor-made (well, it would be, if I were a tailor) for him. Beautifully designed, and deftly drawn.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Celestial Domes" — pencils by Steve Carr, inks by Joe Rubinstein
Moondragon and the Martian Manhunter

As was the case last year, I had a tough time deciding this category. Thus, for the second year in a row, I split the difference to honor two outstanding artworks. The early leader here was this dazzling scenario imagined by Steve Carr, then splendidly finished by Joe Rubinstein.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Identity Theft" — pencils and inks by Mike Vosburg
Starfire and Steel

And then came this stellar entry from Bronze Age veteran Mike Vosburg. Mike pairs his creation Starfire with her fellow overlooked DC non-star, Steel. Mike still draws with the same muscular energy that made those '70s comics so much fun.

Favorite Storm:
Aaron Lopresti (pencils and inks)

Wonder Woman artist Lopresti rocked this image of the lightning-commanding X-Man at WonderCon back in February. Aaron really hustled to complete this one before the end of the day on Saturday.

Favorite Supergirl:
Matthew Clark (pencils)

Matthew is one of the most underappreciated talents in the comics industry. His name doesn't often surface when fans call out their current favorites. But man, oh man, can this guy sling a pencil.

Favorite Mary Marvel:
David Williams (mixed media)

David is perhaps best known for drawing "kids' comics" for the all-ages Marvel Adventures line. His work brims with boundless joy, clever design, and a sly sense of humor. All three qualities sparkle in this WonderCon commission.

Favorite Wonder Woman:
Daniel B. Veesenmeyer (pencils)

"DVeese" helped inaugurate my new Bombshells! theme gallery (about which, more next Friday) this year with several nicely rendered pieces. Here, he recalls the original appearance of the Amazing Amazon in classic nose art style.

Favorite Beauties With Blades:
Phil Noto (pencils and inks)

Alex Niño (pencils and inks)

Two more stunning components of a truly memorable WonderCon haul.

Next Friday, we'll review the best of Bombshells!, and announce our 2008 Artist of the Year.

If you want to send me a piece or two of original comic art for my birthday, I'll gladly accept it, even if it arrives later. Or you could drive over, hand me the art in person, and then take me out to birthday lunch. I promise not to order the lobster.

(No, I don't.)

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Now get off my lawn.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The L. Ron Hubbard School of Mathematics

Just in case anyone still needed proof that Scientology rots the brain:

In an interview published in the December 8 issue of Newsweek, Will Smith extols the virtues of his boon companion Tom Cruise, whom the Fresh Prince of All Media describes as "one of the most open, honest and helpful people I've met in Hollywood, or really anywhere."

Reporter Allison Samuels follows up: "No one else gave you that kind of support in all your years in the business?"

To which Will responds: "Well, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby reached out and really helped me back in the day, but they were older. Tom is my age..."

Umm, Will...

Tom Cruise is your age, but Eddie Murphy is "older"?

Will Smith was born September 25, 1968. Save the grab for your calculator: He's 40.

Eddie Murphy was born born April 3, 1961. He's 47. Okay, so he's older than Will — not as much as Bill Cosby, who's 71, but still, a few years older.

Tom Cruise was born July 3, 1962. That makes him 46... just one year younger than the apparently ancient Eddie Murphy.

Will: Put that copy of Dianetics down now, before your skull implodes.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What's Up With That? #69: No cake for Hitler

What kind of whack job does one have to be to name one's children "Adolf Hitler" and "Aryan Nation"?

If this (cross-)burning question has been plaguing you, friend reader, you now have a resource. Direct your inquiries to Heath and Deborah Campbell of Holland Township, Pennsylvania.

The Campbells made news this week when a ShopRite supermarket refused to inscribe "Happy Birthday, Adolf Hitler" on a cake intended for the Campbells' three-year-old son, Adolf Hitler Campbell. The same store previously refused to personalize a cake for the couple's two-year-old daughter, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell.

Go figure.

Fortunately for the Campbells, a Wal-Mart in nearby Lower Nazareth Township happily complied with their request. (Wal-Mart. Owned by Republicans from Arkansas. Draw your own conclusions.)

The Campbells, who display swastikas in each room of their home — which, before you ask, is not a double-wide on cinder blocks, at least not according to the Easton Express-Times — "say they aren't racists but believe races shouldn't mix."

Perhaps a dictionary is in order.

Although, looking at this photo of Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, I'm guessing that reading is not a family priority. Maybe not even a family capability.

I wonder whether Deborah Campbell knows that her own first name is the Hebrew word for "bee."


You know... Jewish.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Hot Rod in hot water

Before he was arrested this morning, I only knew three facts about Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich:
  1. He and I matriculated at the same institution of higher learning.
  2. He's the only sitting governor with a surname even more difficult to spell than "Schwarzenegger."
  3. Every time he made news that reached as far as California, it had something to do with allegations of corruption.
It doesn't appear as though that last fact is going to change anytime soon.

If Blagojevich is guilty of even a handful of the charges contained in the 78-page criminal complaint against him, he'll be enjoying the hospitality of the taxpaying public for many years to come... although not in the setting he had hoped.

Among the U.S. attorney's more startling accusations, Blagojevich:
  • Considered appointing himself to President-elect Obama's now-vacant U.S. Senate seat. Apparently, the much-maligned, much-investigated governor believed that a few years in the Senate would set him up for a White House run in 2016. (Dream on, Rod.)

  • Discussed attempting to bargain with Obama for either a Cabinet post (specifically, Health and Human Services Secretary) or an ambassadorship in exchange for choosing someone else (namely, Valerie Jarrett, co-chair of the Obama-Biden transition team) for the Senate seat. When his staff suggested that Blagojevich appoint Jarrett without expecting a quid pro quo from the President-elect, the governor was recorded as saying, "[Expletive deleted] him."

  • Reportedly had conversations with his advisers in which he suggested that at least two possible candidates for the Senate vacancy might be willing to "pay to play"; that is, contribute millions to Blagojevich and/or his pet causes in exchange for a ticket to Washington.
Don't these people ever learn? In this electronic age, anything indictable that a politician says is being captured in an audio file somewhere. Blagojevich, especially, should have been more circumspect — the FBI has been dogging his every step almost from the moment he took office. He practically dared federal prosecutors to uncover some dirt about him, much as Colorado Senator Gary Hart challenged reporters during the 1984 Presidential campaign. That challenge, you'll recall, resulted in that infamous photograph of Hart wearing his "Monkey Business" T-shirt as he dandled his mistress Donna Rice on his knee.

Blagojevich didn't even get the T-shirt.

Ironically, Blagojevich's predecessor in the Illinois state house, George Ryan, is currently serving a six-year term in federal prison following a corruption conviction.

At least Blagojevich will have someone to talk with.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's Up With That? #68: Unkempt afterwards

This struck me as a rather peculiar news item.

Sean Avery, a player with the National Hockey Association's Dallas Stars, made the following statement to a group of reporters covering the Stars' game earlier this week against the Calgary Flames:
I am really happy to be back in Calgary. I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about. Enjoy the game tonight.
As the sporting press dutifully acknowledged, Avery's ex-girlfriend, actress (and as an ardent fan of 24, I'm using that word with extreme accommodation) Elisha Cuthbert, is dating a Flames defenseman named Dion Phaneuf.

Apparently, Avery disapproves.

But perhaps not as much as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman disapproves of Avery's choice of metaphor. Bettman suspended Avery indefinitely for "inappropriate public comments."

Now, this seems weird to me on several levels. Allow me to elucidate.

When I first heard about Avery's indiscretion, the news account simply stated the charge, without publishing Avery's exact words. I presumed that he had used one of the two four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms for the female reproductive anatomy (let's call them the "C" word and the "T" word) in reference to Ms. Cuthbert. I was taken aback somewhat when I learned what term he'd actually used.

Is "sloppy seconds" profane? Crude, yes. Uncomplimentary, without question — though I think I may have used stronger terminology to critique Ms. Cuthbert's acting talents (or utter lack of same) on at least one or two occasions. (All right, you've got me — every week for the first three seasons of 24.)

But a chargeable offense? Seems extreme to me.

Unlike the "C" and "T" words, however, I'm fairly certain that you could use the expression "sloppy seconds" on primetime network television. (Not that you should. I'm just saying.) It was the title of a Dr. Hook album way back in 1972, for crying out loud. If you could put it on the cover of a pop album (not to mention the cover of the Rolling Stone) 36 years ago, I'm sure you could probably get away with it on Two and a Half Men today. (If anyone would know about "sloppy seconds," it would have to be Charlie Sheen.)

I was also puzzled by the fact that Avery tossed this remark off (no pun intended) in an interview with journalists in a locker room. (Do they call it a locker room in hockey, or is it a clubhouse? Not sure. Not caring. Moving on...) Was this really the first thing Sean could think of to say when confronted with a battery of microphones? Whatever happened to, "We've gotta play 'em one game at a time... the guys are really pulling together... that's the way the puck slides sometimes... sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes the Zamboni breaks down"? Did this man never see Bull Durham? Crash Davis to the Stars' locker room, please.

For that matter, why are there reporters in a hockey locker room, interviewing players? Does anyone care what hockey players have to say? I mean, the Sharks might be the best team in the NHL right now, and you don't hear Joe Thornton or Jonathan Cheechoo babbling inanities about their ex-girlfriends — or anything else — on the local sports talk station. We know how to keep our Canadians under control here in the Bay Area.

And one other odd thing...

There's an ice hockey team in Dallas?

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I'm the third monkey

I just received this bulletin from KCBS News Radio via Twitter:
BREAKING NEWS: School for the blind and deaf in Fremont is on lockdown right now while police search for armed suspects in the area.
My first reaction to this headline: I wonder whether the police are asking the students, "Did anyone see or hear anything?"

Does this make me a bad person?

Labels: , , ,

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Man of Steal

The 2009 Baseball Hall of Fame ballots were mailed today to all members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America with ten or more consecutive years of service. It's the smallest HOF ballot since the current election system was instituted, with only 23 players listed as eligible.

The most notable newcomer to the list is Rickey Henderson, the longtime outfielder who owns baseball's career records for runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases, and is second all-time in walks with 2,190. Henderson played with nine teams during his 25 years in the major leagues, but is best remembered as a member of the Oakland Athletics, with whom he began his career and served four discrete tours of duty.

Rickey's a dead-solid lock for first-ballot election to the Hall, and deservedly so. He hung around far longer than he should have — he really wasn't much of a player his last four seasons, though he had as good a year as a 40-year-old guy could ask while playing for the New York Mets in 1999. But for the first dozen years of his career, Henderson was one of baseball's marquee superstars, and he was still a quality player for seven or eight years after that.

None of the rest of the incoming class of eligibles seems likely to make the cut. Power-hitting Mo Vaughn might have been a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate had his career not been shortened by injuries. Matt Williams, the Giants' best third baseman during their San Francisco tenure, had some fine years, but not enough of them to earn a ticket to Cooperstown. Mark Grace and Ron Gant were pretty good players, and 1994 American League Cy Young Award winner David Cone was a pretty good pitcher, but we aren't talking about the Hall of the Pretty Good. The remaining newbies — Jay Bell, Jesse Orosco, Dan Plesac, and Mo's cousin Greg Vaughn — net a collective "meh."

Of the holdovers from last year's ballot, Boston Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice should score a long-overdue Cooperstown call in his final year of eligibility. Rice, the American League's best offensive player in the late 1970s and early , just missed the Hall by 16 votes last time. He deserves those last few check marks that would push him over the hump. Were I a ten-year member of the BBWAA, I'd also throw votes to slugging outfielder Andre "The Hawk" Dawson, starting pitcher Jack Morris, and reliever Lee Smith — all of whom, like Rice, should have been inducted years ago.

So, anyway, here's my funny Rickey Henderson story.

I was sitting down the left field line at an Oakland A's home game in the early '80s, when Rickey was the lone megastar on an Athletics club that didn't have much else going for it. Then, as is too often the case now, the A's didn't draw many fans, so the few of us in attendance didn't have any difficulty making our individual voices heard to the players on the field.

One loudmouth in the left field bleachers, who sounded as though he might have been keeping the beer concession in business all by himself, kept shouting, "Rickey Henderson! Rickey Henderson!" over Rickey's shoulder, at a decibel level that ensured that everyone in the Oakland Coliseum — including, I think, the security guards in the parking lot — could hear him.

Rickey studiously ignored the guy's incessant chatter for about three innings. At long last, he made the fatal error of sneaking a peek back to check out this character who seemed so enamored with his name. The instant Henderson turned around, the guy yelled, "You sissy!" and cackled like a drunken hyena.

Rickey, who always had a lively sense of humor, broke up laughing.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, November 24, 2008

What's Up With That? #67: That's why it's called the Big House

Because it's essential that Sonoma County continue to solidify its reputation as the pedophilia capital of North America...

A teacher at one of the local high schools was arrested this weekend, charged with allegedly engineering an illicit rendezvous with a teenage girl.

Scott Dietlin, a 34-year-old history and economics teacher at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, was arraigned today in San Mateo County on three felony counts.

According to Burlingame police, Dietlin made a connection with two underage female residents of that community via their MySpace page. When the girls reported Dietlin's untoward e-mails to local authorities, a police detective continued the conversations until Saturday's scheduled meeting.

I'm guessing that Mr. Dietlin was a tad surprised when his online dream date turned up wearing a badge and Police Special.

Ironically, Casa Grande High's nickname among local kids is "the Big House," a pun on its Spanish name. As my daughter KM said of Dietlin's misadventure...

"He'll be going from the Big House to the Big House."

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Six degrees of me

Yesterday, I was reading the obituaries on the local newspaper's Web site. (I check the funeral notices frequently, just to be sure I'm not listed in them.) Included was mention of the passing of a man whom I did not know personally, but whose younger sister and I were in the same high school graduating class 30 years ago.

When I pointed this out to my wife, KJ told me that this man's sister-in-law works in her office.

My daughter KM, hearing our conversation, observed that the man's son is her classmate at the junior college.

What are the odds that one random individual whom none of us ever met would have a different line of direct connection to each member of my family?

Four centuries ago — give or take a decade or so — John Donne wrote:
No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
As well as if promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were.
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Or, as Uncle Walt told us so many times...

It's a small world after all.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Another year, another injustice

Once again, People Magazine has stubbornly refused to acknowledge my animal magnetism by naming me the Sexiest Man Alive.

Apparently, animal magnetism counts, though, because this year's honoree is Wolverine.

Excuse me while I go sharpen my claws, and work on my Australian accent.

If the folks from Sexiest Middle-Aged Fat Guy Alive call while I'm out, take a message.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Thirty years ago today, a madman named Jim Jones led 909 of his disciples — known collectively as the Peoples Temple — to mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Nearly 300 of the dead were children.

The method of self-destruction chosen by the brainwashed masses (though not Jones himself, who put himself out of the world's misery with a bullet to the brain) lent an enduring new metaphor to the American vernacular: "Drinking the Kool-Aid."

Ironically, it wasn't Kool-Aid, but instead a similar powdered drink called Flavor-Aid, that delivered the fatal cyanide.

History makes mistakes like that sometimes.

The day before the mass suicide, Jones's personal security force, the self-styled Red Brigade, murdered U.S. Congressman Leo J. Ryan, two NBC News staff members, a photographer from the San Francisco Examiner, and a Peoples Temple member on the airstrip at Port Kaituma, Guyana. Ryan, representing California's 11th District, had led a delegation of journalists to Jonestown to investigate allegations of abuse within the Peoples Temple, whose followers had relocated from the Bay Area to Guyana in the summer of 1977. As Ryan and his party attempted to flee with 15 Peoples Temple defectors, the Red Brigade opened fire.

Ryan's assistant, 28-year-old Jackie Speier, survived the attack, along with about a dozen other members of the delegation. Speier suffered five gunshot wounds, including shattered bones in her right arm and leg. Today, Speier represents California's 12th District in Congress.

Jonestown was the biggest news story in the Bay Area since the 1906 earthquake — until ten days later, when Dan White, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in their offices at San Francisco City Hall.

I remember the events of what came to be known as the Jonestown massacre vividly. Because my family was both black and religious (the largest proportion of Peoples Temple members were African-American), relatives from all over the country called our house on the day the news broke, fearing that somehow we had been involved in the tragedy. Clearly, we were not.

909 other people — plus Leo Ryan and the four who died alongside him — were.

Until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the deaths at Jonestown represented the largest single-event loss of American lives resulting from human causes.

Three decades later, the massacre remains burned with laser-like intensity into the memories of those of us who lived in the Bay Area at the time. Jonestown stands as a permanent reminder of the seductive nature of power, as well as the dangers of blind faith.

At least the Kool-Aid company recovered.

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's Up With That? #66: Design on a Dyme

This apparently happened several months ago, but I first read about it yesterday over at Rocketship of the Mind (thanks, Sean!). So it's not really news, but if I'm just now hearing about it, it's news to me, right?

My wife KJ loves watching the endless array of home improvement programs on HGTV. One of her favorite shows there is Design on a Dime, in which teams of interior decorators reinvent rooms in people's homes using a maximum budget of $1,000. (I know, they should have entitled it Design on a Grand. Don't ask me why they didn't.)

At least, KJ used to enjoy that show until a year or two ago, when several of the featured designers were replaced with newer talent whom she didn't like as well.

Now, I've come to find out that one of Design on a Dime's former stars, one-time Disney Imagineer Lee Snijders, has embarked on a new career... a purveyor of Internet pornography.

Lee and his paramour, a porn star-turned-photographer who goes by the name Jett Angel (I say "goes by the name" because I'm making the not-too-audacious leap of logic that there isn't a Mr. and Mrs. Angel somewhere in the American heartland who named their offspring Jett, thereby predestining her to a future in adult entertainment) have launched a Web portal called Goth Rock Girls, which according to a published press release, is:
an 'all-girl' punk rock porn site shot in hi-definition with a high end 'reality' format that shows the two producers as a power couple who bring these girls to life as they hold their cameras and direct the action.
Which is probably more than you wanted to know.

One can only wonder what thought process would take a guy from successful ventures in amusement park design, domicile decor, and mainstream cable television to creating... well... whatever that description was in the preceding paragraph. Fortunately, Snijders hastens to explain:
I tried to continue my relationship with HGTV by pitching them show ideas, but unfortunately they were not interested and the company did not renew my contract. I found myself auditioning for design shows with models and actors posing as designers while my competitors got their own shows on HGTV. With the housing market crash and being stereotyped as a budget designer, I stayed flexible, open minded, and moved on.
That's quite a move, all right.

I'm hoping that Lee didn't intend "flexible" as a double entendre. Then again, perhaps he did.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The $9 million Danish

I wish I could steal the headline composed by Lance Bradley, writer for the poker magazine Bluff: "The Riches of Eastgate."

But I won't.

Congratulations to Peter Eastgate, who in the wee hours of this morning became the youngest-ever winner of the World Series of Poker's Main Event.

Eastgate dominated the so-called November Nine, routing the final table in convincing fashion. The 22-year-old from Odense, Denmark held off a worthy challenge from Russian pro Ivan Demidov to capture poker's highest prize, the gold World Champion bracelet and the $9 million cash that accompanies it.

You can catch the highlights of the final table, with scintillating commentary by Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, tonight on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. EST.

Labels: , , , ,

Lincecum, by landslide

Four long decades of waiting have come to an end. A San Francisco Giant has won the Cy Young Award.

Tim Lincecum, whose 265 strikeouts led the National League this past season, becomes the first Giant tabbed as the league's best pitcher since Mike McCormick won the honor in 1967 — a time when many Americans were still watching television in black and white, and when only a handful of current major leaguers had been born.

Lincecum grabbed 23 first-place votes from the panel of 32 baseball writers. He placed second on seven ballots. Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2006 winner, finished second behind Lincecum in the voting. Johan Santana of the New York Mets, who won the American League Cy Young in 2004 and 2006 while pitching for the Minnesota Twins, was third.

There was some question about whether Lincecum would garner the necessary votes to take down the Cy Young, given the fact that Webb won 22 games (Lincecum won 18) and Santana finished the year blazing hot, with a 9-0 streak. Luckily, the baseball writers saw what every hitter in the National League experienced this season — when Lincecum was on his game, as he was most of the time, he was nigh onto unhittable.

"Tiny Tim" may be the most unlikely pitcher ever to win the Cy Young. In an era when it's rare to see a major league pitcher under six feet tall, Lincecum stands somewhere in the neighborhood of 5'10" (the Giants officially — and generously — list him at 5'11"). If he weighs the 160 pounds noted on his baseball card, it's only in full uniform, and with a handful of lead sinkers in his pocket. With his boyish face, Tim could easily pass for a teenager (he's 24). He throws with a peculiar delivery that reminds me of a fake snake springing out of a can of peanuts. And yet, he consistently cranks out fastballs in the mid-90s, where his combination of speed and motion baffle hitters at an incredible rate.

And to think, 2008 was his first full season in the Show.

It seems odd that a team that has boasted some pretty fair pitchers over the course of its West Coast tenure — including Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry — should only have had two Cy Young winners. Perry did, in fact, win two Cy Young Awards — one in each league — but both came after he left San Francisco at the end of the 1971 season.

The Giants' best starting pitcher of the pre-Lincecum period, Jason Schmidt, came close to a Cy Young twice — he finished second to the Dodgers' Eric Gagne in 2003 (a year in which Gagne posted 55 saves, becoming one of only a few relief pitchers to taste Cy Young glory), and was fourth the following season.

Two of the Giants' most promising chances to post a Cy Young season both came in 1993, when John Burkett and Bill Swift each won more than 20 games. Ironically, their simultaneous accomplishments came in a year when, as good as both Giants were, Greg Maddux was even better. Swift finished second in the Cy Young vote, and Burkett fourth.

Here's hoping that Lincecum can stay healthy — and stay in San Francisco — for many more stellar seasons to come.

Way to go, Timmy!

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, November 09, 2008

If it's November, these must be the Nine

After a four-month break, the Main Event of the 2008 World Series of Poker is once again under way, its nine-man final table having reconvened earlier today at the Rio in Las Vegas.

Personally, I think the new format for the Main Event — which played from 6,844 entrants down to nine back in July, before taking a planned hiatus — is ludicrous. With everything that's happened in the sports world (the Summer Olympics, the World Series) as well as the real world (the plummeting economy, the Presidential election) during the past four months, you'd have to be a hardcore poker fanatic to even remember that the tournament was resuming today, much less still be interested.

Which tells you something about me, I guess.

As I compose this post, the November Nine have already been whittled down to the Magnificent Seven: Craig Marquis, a 23-year-old from the Dallas area, busted out in ninth place (Craig was eighth as play resumed), and Kelly Kim, a poker pro from southern California, departed in eighth place (Kelly had been the final table's short stack).

The remaining players, as they rank at this moment, are:
  • Ivan Demidov, a 27-year-old poker pro from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho), who last month finished third in the WSOP Europe Main Event in London.

  • Ylon Schwartz, a 38-year-old former chess prodigy from New York City.

  • Peter Eastgate, a 22-year-old pro from Denmark.

  • Scott Montgomery, a 27-year-old pro from Ontario, Canada.

  • Dennis Phillips, a 53-year-old trucking company executive from St. Louis. Dennis was the chip leader at the start of today's play.

  • Darus Suharto, a 39-year-old Indonesian-born Canadian accountant.

  • David "Chino" Rheem, a 28-year-old pro from Los Angeles, and probably the best known of the November Nine prior to July.
Tournament officials expect to have a winner sometime tomorrow night, or early Tuesday morning at the latest. A two-hour condensation of the final table play will air Tuesday night (and endlessly thereafter, if tradition holds) on ESPN.

Let's shuffle up and deal!

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Hoppin' John

I can't allow the moment to pass without saying this:

If John McCain had given on the campaign stump more speeches of the kind that he gave last evening in conceding defeat, he might well have won.

For what it's worth, I don't think McCain is a bad guy. I think he got a ton of bad advice from the extreme wingnuts in his party, and decided to take it.

Which tells us both why he didn't get elected, and why it's probably a very good thing that he didn't.

Labels: , ,

Dawn of a new day

Did Obama still win?

Yes, it appears that he did.

There may be a handful of folks surprised that the sun rose this morning, on the day after an African American man was elected the 44th President of the United States. But it did. And, I suspect, that handful is smaller than it ever would have been before today.

What still stuns me most is not so much the fact of Obama's victory — although, to be honest, I'm considerably stunned by that alone — but the nature of that victory. Just consider the popular vote: Obama's 52.4% (which may change by a tenth of a point either way, once all of the absentee and provisional ballots are tallied) is the highest mark for any President-elect in 20 years. By way of comparison, Ronald Reagan racked up only 50.7% in 1980, running against a hugely unpopular Jimmy Carter.

Obama won Florida. He won Virginia. He won Indiana, for crying out loud — I would not have believed that possible, based upon my brief personal experiences in that state. North Carolina's 15 electoral votes may yet fall into Obama's column — we're talking about the state that kept the virulently racist Jesse Helms gainfully employed for decades. Obama got 56% of the vote in New Mexico, and 54% in Iowa. He garnered 55% in Nevada, which, despite its proximity to California and its legendary embrace of casino gambling and legalized prostitution (only in counties with populations under 50,000, though — not in cities like Las Vegas or Reno), is a fairly conservative place with a sizable Mormon citizenry.

The overall popular vote favored Obama by roughly six percentage points, which is fairly close to the final pre-election aggregate of the major polls. The vaunted Bradley Effect didn't manifest itself to any significant degree — which, again, surprises me, but not as much as it might have a decade ago.

As ludicrous as it sounds, I think that popular culture helped pave the way for a President who just happens to be African American. Millions of people saw Morgan Freeman as President Tom Beck in the movie Deep Impact; who's not cool with Morgan Freeman? (Well, maybe his soon-to-be-ex-wife, but that's another issue.) Millions more watched Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer on the first three seasons of 24; Haysbert was so authoritative and reassuring that he's now the "you're in good hands with Allstate" guy. D.B. Woodside then followed Haysbert to the 24 White House as President Wayne Palmer, David's brother and indirect successor. (I was going to mention Chris Rock as President Mays Gilliam in Head of State... but that's probably not a good example.) Seeing these talented African American actors playing strong, capable, decisive Presidents may — even at a subconscious level — have planted the notion in people's minds that, yeah, okay, a black guy could be President. You've gotta name it before you can claim it, as the saying goes.

Certainly, for President-to-be Obama, the tough journey is only beginning. Getting elected is one thing; governing effectively enough to get re-elected is entirely another, as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush could relate. Everything we've seen of Obama gives me confidence that he's equal to the challenge. How great a President he will be, only time will tell. But he will be President, which in itself is something special.

The additional symbolism of Obama as our 44th President resonates with me, too. One of my favorite baseball players of all time is Willie "Stretch" McCovey, the long-time San Francisco Giant whose number 44 hangs in retired glory at AT&T Park. McCovey was a smooth, cool, easygoing man whose quiet authority made him a respected team leader, and ultimately, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. His 1959 selection as National League Rookie of the Year, 1969 National League Most Valuable Player Award, six All-Star appearances, and 521 home runs — including a National League record 18 grand slams — contributed also. The Giants' annual "most inspirational player" honor, the Willie Mac Award, bears McCovey's name.

Although he won't take office for another 76 days, Obama 44 is already in the running for that "most inspirational" tag.

Now, he'll have to earn it.

In local election news, I was glad to see that my neighbors passed Measure Q, which provides funding (via a quarter-cent sales tax increase) for the SMART passenger-rail system. SMART will run from Cloverdale, Sonoma County's northernmost outpost, to Larkspur in Marin County, where the Golden Gate Ferry terminal is located, with 14 stops in between. SMART has been on the ballot at least twice before, and has lost narrowly each time, mostly due to opposition from Marin County interests. (In 2006, SMART received 65.3% of the combined Sonoma-Marin vote, just short of the two-thirds majority required for a sales tax hike.)

In this era of high energy costs, and given the perennially impacted commute corridor on U.S. 101, SMART makes excellent sense. The railway easement, a now-dormant line formerly operated by Union Pacific, already exists. Now that funding is approved, SMART should be up and running by 2013.

On a related note, it looks as though California voters also approved Proposition 1A, a bond measure that will help fund a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with eventual extensions to San Diego in the south and Sacramento in the north. Again, this transportation solution is an idea whose time has long since come, and I hope that the measure is officially passed once all of the votes are counted.

All right, election over. Everybody back to work.

One more quick note: This morning on KCBS News Radio, I heard a psychologist talking about the effects of Post-Event Energy Deficiency, a condition many folks may be suffering in the aftermath of an intense and attention-commanding election. That's as may be... but that condition would benefit from a better acronym.

Labels: , , , , , ,

The Big O


349 electoral votes. That's with North Carolina (leaning blue) and Missouri (leaning red) still to be officially called at 2:45 a.m. PST.

I'm almost afraid to go to bed, for fear that by morning, the wingnuts will have engineered a way to snake the election, as they did in 2000.

But in the interest of good faith, I'll give it a shot.

Congratulations, Mr. President-Elect.

You too, Mr. Vice President-Elect. (Can I still call you Joe?)

America... you done good.

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 03, 2008

I vote for free coffee!

In our litigious world, no honorably intentioned deed goes unpunished.

Just ask the people at Starbucks.

Last week, Starbucks announced a promotion that would provide a free cup of coffee on Election Day to every customer who told the barista that he or she had voted. The company pitched the deal aggressively via viral marketing, as well as through a spot that aired on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

Then came the call from the government.

Federal law forbids offering people any form of incentive to vote. Apparently, "incentive" can be broadly construed to include a tall cup of Pike Place Roast.

Rather than incur the wrath of The Powers That Be, Starbucks has decided to make the offer of free coffee open to everyone, including nonvoters.

The good news is that now all Americans — including convicted felons on parole, and anyone too lazy, conflicted, or forgetful to have registered to vote — will be able to drop by the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady tomorrow and slug down a tasty snootful of gratis Joe.

Make mine Biden.

Not the plumber.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, October 24, 2008

If called by this Panther, don't anther

I've become convinced that at some point in my past, I have unknowingly offended Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada to the point that he has made it his life's work to ruin everything I have ever loved about Marvel Comics.

Under Joe Q.'s watch — and therefore, presumably, at his direction — Marvel has:
  • Retconned the 20-year marriage of Peter (Spider-Man) Parker and his precious Mary Jane out of existence, by having Spidey make a deal with the devil (or at least Marvel's version of the devil, namely Mephisto) to save the life of Peter's doddering, older-than-McCain Aunt May, who's already died a couple of times previously.

  • Murdered Captain America, the symbol of all that's good in these here United States.

  • Transformed Iron Man, formerly one of my favorite superheroes, into the world's most colossal jerk.

  • Killed off Dr. Bill Foster, a.k.a. Goliath, and dumped his body in a hole without even the dignity of a coffin.

  • Turned the mighty Thor into a murderous clone.

  • Devolved my beloved Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, the conscience of the Avengers, into a universe-altering whack job.
And that's just in the last couple of years.

The latest evidence that Joe Q. hates me? He and writer Reginald Hudlin are dumping T'Challa, the Black Panther — the first, greatest, and most prominent superhero of African heritage in mainstream comics — so they can replace him with a female Panther.

Now, I loves me some superheroines, as anyone who drops around these environs every Friday can attest. Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Storm, the Scarlet Witch, Mary Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Vixen, the Valkyrie, Isis... I'm all about the superheroines.

That said... the Black Panther does not need to be recast as a superheroine.

Why must you keep urinating on my boyhood companions, Joe Quesada? What atrocity did I ever commit to warrant such malice?

This is the Black Panther.

So is this.

And this.

Certainly this, too.

I don't know what this is...

...but it's not the Black Panther. Quesada and Hudlin are crazier than I already think they are if they believe that I'm paying a dime to read about it.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 20, 2008

Swapping out Mikes

The long-overdue shoe finally drops.

The San Francisco 49ers have fired head coach Mike Nolan, replacing him with legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, who has been serving as the Niners' assistant head coach since 2004.

No sports fan in the Bay Area — indeed, in the nation — will be surprised by this. The hapless 49ers, off to a 2-5 start thus far (they've lost their last four games), nearly dumped Nolan at the end of last season before offering him a tepid "win or else" reprieve.

Nolan, who came to San Francisco three and a half seasons ago, has displayed little ability to resuscitate the floundering franchise that his late father, Dick Nolan, coached in the late 1960s and early '70s. A good-looking guy, a smooth talker, and a snappy dresser, Nolan the Sequel proved to be all hat and no cattle when it came to both drafting talent — he was responsible for saddling the team with clueless quarterback Alex Smith — and winning football games. The erstwhile Team of the Eighties limped to an 18-37 record under Nolan's leadership. And I'm using that word accommodatively.

Hall of Famer Singletary has no head coaching experience, but has been a perennial candidate for top jobs around the league since joining the Niners as Nolan's second banana and linebacking coach. Known for his intensity on defense during his playing days, "Samurai Mike" will have his hands full guiding a football squad with no direction and precious little talent beyond star linebacker Patrick Willis — a Singletary protégé, ironically enough.

If only Singletary had the authority to fire the 49ers' inept owner, Dr. John York, he might actually be able to take the team somewhere.

Other than the cellar of the NFC West, that is.

Labels: , ,

Friday, October 17, 2008

Comic Art Friday? I can't help myself

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, the Four Tops.

Stubbs, whose inimitable baritone propelled such tracks as "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "Reach Out, I'll Be There", "It's the Same Old Song," and my all-time favorite Tops classic, "Standing in the Shadows of Love," died earlier today after nearly a decade of failing health. He was 72.

In addition to his contributions to American popular music, Stubbs will be remembered by film fanatics as the voice of Audrey II, the anthropomorphic man-eating plant in the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. If you were going to hire someone to belt out a tune entitled "I'm a Mean Green Mother From Outer Space," I can't think of anyone better than the bombastic Stubbs. Neither, apparently, could the producers of the movie.

Speaking of bombastic, here's a recent entry in my "Bombshells!" commission series. The beauty playing "Peek-A-Boo!" with danger is Miss Masque. The talent behind the pencil is pinup artist Anthony Carpenter.

Miss Masque debuted in Exciting Comics #51, published in September 1946 by Nedor Comics (later known as Standard Comics). Nedor, which started out in the pulp magazine field before branching into comics, was the brainchild of entrepreneur Ned Pines, who also founded the paperback original book imprint Popular Library. If you read genre fiction extensively anytime between the 1940s and the early 1980s, you probably perused some Popular Library titles.

Back to Miss Masque: Vivacious socialite Diana Adams donned a short, bright red dress, a rakish fedora, and a black domino mask (hence her code name — I guess 1946 was a mite early to call herself "Miss Miniskirt") to battle evildoers. With no superpowers to call upon, Miss Masque relied upon good old-fashioned firepower in the form of twin .45s to dispatch the bad guys.

During her three-year run, Miss Masque proved to be one of Nedor's more popular characters, making frequent cover appearances in artworks by such luminaries as Frank Frazetta and Alex Schomburg. Her enduring popularity has resulted in several revivals in recent years, most notably in AC Comics' Femforce, America's Best Comics' Tom Strong and Terra Obscura, and the current Project Superpowers series, created by writer Jim Kreuger and artist Alex Ross for Dynamite Entertainment. (She's known as "Masquerade" in the latter book.)

Artist Anthony Carpenter is one of the most unique stylists represented in my collection. Anthony's deft tonal pencil technique creates a spectacular sense of warmth and depth, and his whimsical, nostalgic sensibility made him an ideal choice to add to my "Bombshells!" series.

In addition to retro-flavored pinup art, often with a kitschy-cool "tiki" or "jungle girl" theme, Anthony specializes in pastiches of 1960s genre film posters. His creations in each of these areas embodies a singular, charming imagination unlike any other artist working today. If you like Anthony's stuff, I recommend a tour of his Comic Art Fans gallery or his Sketchville! blog.

I think even Levi Stubbs would have enjoyed Anthony's first contribution to my Common Elements commission series, in which Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, and Saturn Girl from the Legion of Super-Heroes find themselves facing a "mean, green mother from outer space." Could this be a cousin of Audrey II?

Time to reminisce with a few Four Tops sides. You might consider doing likewise, if you have any soul.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, October 16, 2008


This won't elicit much play beyond my immediate vicinity, but what the hey... I can be provincial when I choose to be.

The man who built much of my town died today.

Jimmie Rogers was an up-and-coming real estate salesman back in the early 1960s when he persuaded the namesake family on whose one-time seed farm the city of Rohnert Park now stands to hire him as their representative. Rogers parlayed that position — and a legendary silver tongue — into a lucrative political and development career.

Rogers's talent for negotiation led to the creation of most of the residential tracts in town, including the one where I live. He was also responsible for the local community center, golf course, numerous commercial projects, and a host of parks and schools. Rogers served for nearly a decade on the city council, and when his development connections drove him out of the political arena, he continued to control the council through his proxies for decades afterward.

Having lived in Rohnert Park for most of the past 30 years, I've heard plenty of stories about Jimmie Rogers, although I met him in person only once, when I was still in high school. I don't know how many of the stories are 100% true.

Without question, Rogers cut a colorful figure around town. He liked to dress like an extra from Urban Cowboy. His hands wormed their way into plenty of pockets and his fingers probed a lot of pies. Where there were palms to be greased, Rogers was the one who gave and got the grease. Where deals were being hammered out in smoke-filled back rooms, Rogers did most of the puffing.

Rogers was frequently accused of playing fast and loose with the legalities of city business, to the point that the FBI took a hard look at him on at least one occasion. But he had as many fans as he had detractors — a friend of mine in the real estate business can't say enough good about the guy.

This much I do know...

If it weren't for Jimmie Rogers, this would be a very different community. And I wouldn't be typing under this roof.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, October 13, 2008

What's Up With That? #65: Bring me the head of Drew Carey

Just when I think I've heard everything, my beloved San Francisco takes the insanity to another level.

The SFPD evacuated a Battery Street building this afternoon because a man walked into a law office with a make-believe bomb strapped to his waist.

The reason for this act of urban terrorism?

Apparently, the perpetrator was incensed because he had been turned down as a participant on The Price is Right.

No one knows what connection, if any, exists between the targeted law firm, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, and the popular CBS game show.

Upon hearing the news, TPIR host emeritus Bob Barker reportedly said, "This is why you should have all your rejected contestants spayed or neutered."

The yodeling mountain climber from the Cliff Hangers game could not be reached for comment.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ain't that a Mother's?

Tragic news today.

Mother's Cookies, the 94-year-old baking concern famed for its pink-and-white-frosted Circus Animal cookies, has ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy protection.

You'll have to excuse me...

I need a moment.

For all but the final two years of its existence, Mother's Cookies was based right here in the Bay Area — in Oakland, to be specific. In 2005, the company was sold to an East Coast investment firm, which the following year closed the Oakland facility that Mother's had occupied since 1949. The cookie-baking functions moved to Ohio, while the business office relocated to Battle Creek, Michigan. Some 230 local employees lost their jobs in the process.

In the corporate world, and especially in the current dicey economy, news like that of the Mother's Cookies bankruptcy doesn't come as a total shock. I lived through two company shutdowns myself, back when I was working for The Man every night and day. It's still sad, though, for the families who lost a paycheck. And it's sad for American culture, losing an icon that so many of us grew up with.

I sure am going to miss those Circus Animals.

Labels: , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , ,

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).

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wall Street wreck

Tempted though I am to post something perspicacious yet hilarious about the current Wall Street debacle and the government's ill-conceived attempt to (mis)manage it... friends Mark Evanier and Eugene Finerman have already the work for me.

Click over to Mark's repurposed "Uncle Scam" (Mark didn't write this, but he was savvy enough to pass it along) and Eugene's "The Bear Market of A.D. 455" and "Robbing Peter to Pay Paulson" to inject your recommended daily allowance of well-observed political humor.

We simply can't get this administration out of office soon enough... without replacing them with more of the McSame.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Haumea ya like me now?

This just in from the International Astronomical Union: We have a new dwarf planet, and its name is Haumea.

Okay, so it's not actually new: Haumea has been floating around out there in the Kuiper Belt since whenever the solar system began. (Let's not have that argument today.) What's new is its name, its official recognition by Earth's scientific community, and its status as the solar system's fifth (so far) dwarf planet.

Those of you who haven't been following the arcane inner workings of the IAU over the past few years may have missed the announcement that we have such entities as dwarf planets. On August 24, 2006, the IAU developed — for the first time — an official definition of the word planet. (You might suppose that one of the very first things that an astronomical society would come to grips with is the definition of planet, seeing that planets are among the primary objects that astronomers study. But you would be mistaken.)

That definition excluded the ninth and outermost of the traditionally accepted planets: Pluto, discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Arizona's Lowell Observatory. Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet under the IAU's nomenclatural system, along with Ceres — formerly called an asteroid — and Eris, the distant body identified in 2003.

Eris (originally designated 2003 UB313), being roughly one-fourth larger than Pluto, was at first viewed by some scientists as the Sun's tenth planet. Its discovery launched a debate within the astronomical community as to whether Pluto and Eris really ought to be considered planets at all. After much wrangling, the IAU adopted its new terminology, downgrading Pluto from planet to dwarf planet, along with Eris and the aforementioned Ceres.

Makemake, discovered in 2005, joined the ranks of the dwarf planets in July of this year. Like Pluto and Haumea, the diminutive Makemake (smaller even than Pluto) is located in the Kuiper Belt, a vast expanse beyond the orbit of Neptune that is home to thousands of gigantic chunks of space debris. Astronomers conjecture that the Kuiper Belt may contain between 30 and 40 additional dwarf planets — they're still looking, and will keep the rest of us posted.

As for Haumea, our newest dwarf planet boasts several features that make it unusual. It's believed to be ovoid or elliptical in shape — think of a humongous chicken egg — unlike the other known planets and dwarf planets, all of which are spherical (more or less). Haumea rotates at high speed, leading scientists to theorize that it and its two known moons, Hi'iaka and Namaka, are leftovers from a collision involving a larger object. Haumea and its moons travel a sharply inclined orbit outside the plane of the larger planets' orbits, helping to explain why an object of its size wasn't discovered earlier.

Following its discovery in December 2004, the body now called Haumea was nicknamed "Santa" by the cheeky skywatchers at Caltech who first identified it. (Its moons, in turn, were referred to in early reports as "Rudolph" and "Blitzen.") Of course, snugger sphincters at the IAU prevailed, resulting in the little celestial family being officially named after the Hawaiian fertility goddess and two of her daughters. Like bureaucrats in other fields, the IAU top-kicks demonstrate a frustrating lack of humor.

Haumea is far too small and distant to be seen with the unaided eye, so don't strain your optic nerve trying to spot it in the night sky. Just take comfort in knowing that a friendly dwarf planet and her moons are up there, somewhere, smiling down on us all.

Astrologers, on the other hand, are infuriated.

Labels: , ,

Monday, September 08, 2008

Now that's a GRAND slam!

Congratulations to Gary Sheffield of the Detroit Tigers, who tonight hit the 250,000th home run in Major League Baseball history — a base-loaded shot off Gio Gonzalez of the Oakland Athletics.

How fitting, that the quarter-millionth homer should be a grand slam. And how equally fitting that it was struck by Sheffield, a player with more than a soupçon of flair for the dramatic. (Not always in a good way.)

Considering how long baseball has been the national pastime, it seems odd to me that it's taken until almost the end of the 2008 season to reach this milestone. Then again, baseball's current love affair with the long ball is still only a few decades old. When I was watching the game as a kid, a guy who hit 20 home runs a year was viewed as a power hitter. That same slugger would be a lightweight today, in an era when 40- and 50-homer seasons are not unusual.

Wonder whether the game will survive to reach the half-million mark.

I'm pretty sure that I won't.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Hero of the Day: The real Crash Davis

If you've seen the movie Bull Durham, you'll remember Crash Davis, the character played by Kevin Costner. Crash is a grizzled veteran catcher who, during the course of the film, sets the career record for home runs in baseball's minor leagues... largely due to the fact that he's spent all but three weeks of his lengthy career in the minors.

Yesterday, after more than 7,300 professional at-bats, baseball's real-life Crash Davis hit his first major league home run for the San Francisco Giants.

And in the Church of Baseball, there was much rejoicing.

Unlike the cinemythical Crash, Scott McClain is not a catcher; he's a utility infielder who can play either third or first base. And, also unlike Crash, Scott doesn't hold the career minor league home run record. (According to San Jose Mercury News columnist Andrew Baggarly, that honor goes to the sadly unheralded Russell "Buzz" Arlett, who hit 432 home runs in the minors back in the 1920s and '30s.)

McClain does, however, rank first among active players with 291 minor-league taters, not including the 71 he smacked during a four-year stint in Japan.

Yesterday, after a roster-expansion call-up by San Francisco, the 36-year-old McClain crushed a 2-2 slider from Colorado Rockies pitcher Steven Register over the left-field wall at Denver's Coors Field for his first round-tripper in The Show.

McClain has had brief stints in the majors before. He played in nine games for the Tampa Bay Don't-Call-Them-Devil Rays back in 1998, and 13 more with the Chicago Cubs three seasons ago. Last year, during his previous cup-o'-coffee with the Giants, Scott got into eight games, in which he logged a grand total of two base hits, both singles.

So far this week, since returning to the G-Men from the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, McClain is three-for-five with three runs batted in and, of course, his first major league homer.

You've gotta love a guy who, at age 36 and with any realistic shot at a long-term major league career about a half-decade back in the rear-view mirror of life, just keeps plugging away out of sheer determination and passion for the game.

Atta boy, Crash!

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In a world without the Movie Trailer Guy...

Shocked, stunned, and saddened I am this morning to learn of the death of voiceover superstar Don LaFontaine, better known to millions of television viewers and movie attendees as "the Movie Trailer Guy." He was 68 years old.

LaFontaine's booming, gravelly, sonorous-yet-compelling voice graced literally hundreds of motion picture trailers and advertisements during his lengthy and lucrative career. And when I say "lucrative," I'm not just tossing around random adjectives. LaFontaine was recognized by the Screen Actors Guild as the single busiest actor in the history of the union, meaning that he fulfilled more contracts for acting work — and yes, voiceovers are acting — than any other member of SAG, an organization whose membership is 90 to 95 percent unemployed at any given moment.

The guy was so huge in the industry that he was driven in a chauffeured limousine to his voiceover jobs. Now that's stardom.

LaFontaine's celebrity grew to the point that Geico Insurance recently featured him on camera in one of its quirky commercials, in which he stood at a microphone in a woman's kitchen, providing his trademark commentary behind her tale of "Geico to the rescue." It was a fitting affirmation of the ubiquity LaFontaine had achieved in 21st century American popular culture.

Around our house, we often referred to LaFontaine as "the 'In a world...' guy," because so many of his trailers began with that trademark phrase... "In a world where evil triumphs..." "In a world where man fights for survival..." "In a world where life is cheap and death is expensive..."

The irony of LaFontaine's passing at this particular moment in time is that I've been listening to his work extensively in recent months. I haven't discussed this here much (if at all), but I'm currently studying voice acting, with a view toward a new career as a voiceover artist. Because LaFontaine resided at the pinnacle of the profession, I've been reviewing his demo reels (along with those of dozens of other voice actors) to learn the subtleties of his inflection, expression, and timing.

What I soon learned is that while LaFontaine was blessed with a magnificent natural instrument — you can't just pop over to Wal-Mart or Target and buy a voice like that — it was his skills as an actor that gave him transcendence. He understood how to turn a phrase perfectly, how to lean into (or back away from) a word to enhance its meaning, how to add character or clarity to his tone at just the right time and in just the right way. At the end of a Don LaFontaine trailer, you wanted to see that movie — and getting you to buy tickets was, after all, the man's job.

A few years ago, LaFontaine teamed up with four other voiceover artists who specialize in film trailers (John Leader, Nick Tate, Al Chalk, and Mark Elliott) for a fun bit of business entitled "Five Guys in a Limo." This hilarious short film offers both a clever slice of self-parody by LaFontaine and his colleagues, and a dramatic testimonial to the evocative power of the human voice. If you've never seen it, dash over to YouTube this very second and check it out.

In a world where true talent often struggles to be heard over the cacaphony of mediocrity, Don LaFontaine was The Voice. I admired his work. And I'll miss him.

(This post is not yet rated.)

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Item #101: Don't die before you finish the list

Irony doesn't get more bitter than this.

Dave Freeman, the co-author of the popular travel book 100 Things to Do Before You Die, has died.

He had only done about half of the things on his famous list.

Freeman was 47.

Labels: , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lord Bowler's final frame

I was sorry to read just now that actor Julius Carry passed away yesterday, reportedly from pancreatic cancer.

Fans of genre cinema will remember Carry as Sho'Nuff, the self-styled "Shogun of Harlem" in Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, the cult classic action flick that swirled together martial arts, hip-hop, and one-time Prince main squeeze Vanity. Sho'Nuff's shtick was asking the members of his criminal posse such questions as "Am I the prettiest?" or "Am I the meanest?" so the gang could holler back, "Sho'Nuff!"

My favorite Carry role, though, was the colorful bounty hunter Lord Bowler (so dubbed because he always wore a bowler hat) in the all-too-short-lived science fiction Western The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (Think The Wild, Wild West with a '90s sensibility and no Will Smith.)

Carry appeared opposite the legendary Bruce Campbell — veteran of numerous Sam Raimi films (including the Evil Dead trilogy, in which he played wisecracking antihero Ash Williams) and currently the costar of USA Network's outstanding spy series Burn Notice — as the title character's skeptical sometime-partner in his search for the outlaws who murdered Brisco's U.S. Marshal father. Brisco was also obsessed with finding "the coming thing," the discovery he believed would usher in the modern age.

If you missed Brisco County during its original run in the nascent days of FOX, it's well worth checking out on DVD. Both Campbell and Carry are excellent in the series, which also featured TV veteran John Astin (the original Gomez in The Addams Family). It's a unique blend of genres, and one heck of a lot of fun.

Hope you found the coming thing, Lord Bowler.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bobby Murcer (1946-2008)

I note in this evening's news that Bobby Murcer has passed away from a brain tumor.

To most baseball fans, Murcer was most closely associated with the New York Yankees, first as a player, then as a broadcaster for more than 20 years. For me, however, Murcer was part of my earliest experience as a San Francisco Giants fan.

Bobby Murcer played two years for the Giants -- the 1975 and 1976 seasons, which (purely coincidentally) happened to be the first two seasons that I followed the Giants on a regular basis.

Murcer, who came to the Giants after four All-Star seasons in New York, was still a pretty good player when he arrived at Candlestick Park. In fact, Murcer was the Giants' representative in the '75 All-Star game. He never really seemed to catch on, though, with Bay Area fans, who still thought of him mostly as a Yankee. (Murcer also had the misfortune to have been received in exchange for the popular Bobby Bonds.)

Despite two pretty good seasons wearing orange and black -- he was the Giants' MVP in 1976, when he hit 23 home runs -- not too many fans here mourned when Murcer took flight for the greener pastures of Wrigley Field, having been traded for second baseman Bill Madlock.

Ironically, the player whose career is most similar statistically to Bobby Murcer's is a guy who will long be thought of as a Giant -- Dusty Baker, who played a single season in the twilight of his career with San Francisco, and later returned to the club as a longtime coach and manager.

Murcer posted a lifetime batting average of .277, with 252 home runs and 1,043 RBI in 17 major league seasons. He led the American League in slugging percentage in 1971, and won a Gold Glove the following year.

So long, Bobby. Remember to hit 'em where they ain't.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Smoke gets in your eyes

With all due respect to my many friends in the Los Angeles basin, air should not be visible.

But it certainly is here, these past few days.

Thanks to a raging wildfire next door in Napa County, we're experiencing a reversal of the opening lyrics to "California Dreamin'":
All the leaves are gray (with soot and ash)
And the sky is brown...
You can smell the smoke the instant you step outdoors or open a window. The particulate matter in the air is denser than discarded fliers on the Vegas strip.

Even though the fire has been contained as of this morning, it won't be thoroughly extinguished for some time. That means we won't be returning to our customary fresh air and crystal-blue skies in the immediate future.

I feel for my asthmatic neighbors.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 23, 2008

The class clown goes down

This paean to the late, legendary George Carlin will not include any words that you can't say on television.

(Although, to be accurate, two of Carlin's infamous Seven Words are now spoken on television with relative frequency, and as august a personality as Jane Fonda pitched out the four-letter word beginning with "C" on the Today Show just a few months ago.)

The immediate irony of the news about George Carlin's death (Carlin would mock me from the grave for using a euphemism like "passing") was that Cranky George videotaped his final HBO comedy special, It's Bad for Ya, here in Santa Rosa the first weekend in March. Even though the show was being taped locally, I settled for the live cablecast, since I already pay for the subscription. Now, I'm a little sad that I didn't go and pay homage to the great humorist while he was still with us.

I first became hooked on Carlin's comedy in my junior high school days. I still have my original vinyl copies of all of his classic albums from the '70s — Class Clown; FM & AM; Occupation: Foole; Toledo Window Box; An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo; On the Road; plus 1981's A Place for My Stuff. Even now, I can rattle off many of those outrageous routines and rants verbatim. (I tend to bowdlerize them a trifle when I repeat them, but still.)

Carlin is often mentioned in the same breath with such fellow comics as Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, and Carlin's contemporary Richard Pryor because they all employed an abundance of profanity and risque subject matter. That is, in my view, a shallow evaluation of all four performers. Foxx's bawdy routines were "inside baseball," targeted at a specific audience that had few resources for uncensored comedy. Pryor used scatological language as a framework for sociopolitical commentary — as his two network television series demonstrated (especially the award-winning Pryor's Place, a Saturday morning kid's show), Pryor could be equally effective when he wasn't working blue. Bruce — who, in my plain-spoken opinion, wasn't the comedic equal of the others, despite his reputation as an innovator — threw out F-bombs as a way of needling the Establishment and giving voice his internal demons.

Carlin, though, liked to play with language. Profanities were his Lincoln logs, his Legos, his alphabet blocks. His "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" riff (from Class Clown), and its sequel, "Filthy Words" (from Occupation: Foole), were less about the words themselves than the concepts and mores that cause us to judge certain words as socially acceptable while deeming others taboo. A lot of Carlin's comedy was like that — a window into the mind of a man who thought a lot about why the world was the way it was, then found funny ways to talk about it. He was as brilliant an observational humorist as Mark Twain and Will Rogers were in their eras. As a stand-up comedian, he was second only to the nonpareil Pryor.

For me, George lost some of his mojo once he qualified for AARP membership. From the early '80s on, Carlin embraced his newfound persona as the angry old man a mite too fully, and his rancorous bitterness (especially on the topics of religion and politics) often overwhelmed the charming, albeit scathing, bemusement that marked his prime years.

That said, whenever he allowed himself to transcend his curmudgeonly stage character and simply wax poetic about the absurdities of modern life, Carlin was hilarious to the end. I had tears rolling down my cheeks at one point during his final special.

Today, I might shed one or two more, realizing that old George is gone.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Primary post-mortem

Rubbing the sleep gunk from my eyes and reflecting upon yesterday's electoral events...

You go, Obama.

This is, without question, the funniest thing I've read all week. Mark Evanier said it, over at his excellent blog, News from ME:
Going into this election, McCain has certain advantages and Obama has certain advantages. Obama's biggest one may be that there are no photos of him hugging George Bush.
The funniest thing I've heard aloud all week was spoken last night by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, asked about the historic nature of Obama's now-certain nomination:
It's certainly a historic moment in our history.
Which is where historic moments occur, historically speaking.

Back to McCain: Was that the most agonizingly dull political speech any Presidential candidate ever delivered, or what? I was driving to rehearsal as McCain was speaking, and I darn near dozed off at the wheel. And he wants to go face-to-face with Obama in ten town hall meetings this summer? Egad. Someone in his campaign needs to talk him out of that idea, pronto. It'll be JFK vs. Nixon all over again.

What does Hillary want? For the entire planet to kiss her pantsuited little butt, apparently. Memo to Hil-Rod: The fat lady hasn't just sung; she's recorded an entire soundtrack album, packed up her microphone and Viking helmet, and headed for a nice leisurely vacation in Hawaii. Let it go, already.

By the way, is Hillary taking oratorical lessons from John McCain? Yikes, that was dreadful. If you're going to be irritatingly ubiquitous, at least be entertaining.

I can't believe that Obama would seriously consider Hillary for the second slot on the ticket, given the way she's dragged this mess along. I think he might roll the dice with Kathleen Sibelius, the governor of Kansas, a savvy manager (Time Magazine named her one of the country's five best governors a couple of years back) who's popular with the electorate in an generally Republican state. Obama still, however, seems more likely to choose a seasoned veteran with foreign policy experience — a Sam Nunn or Chris Dodd type. Bill Richardson wouldn't be a bad choice, either, and could help Obama draw in some Latino voters.

In local politics, not such a good night for me. The candidates for whom I voted in both our State Senate primary (Joe Nation) and the county supervisor race (Tim Smith) lost by wide margins. I'm better at picking racehorses than politicians.

Ah, well. There's always Obama.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Now go do that voodoo that you do so well

At the risk of alienating SSTOL regular Scott, who was just chiding me about all the talk of death around here...

The great Harvey Korman has passed on.

It would be impossible to discuss Harvey Korman's contributions to comedy without starting with The Carol Burnett Show, where he shone as the leading sketch comic in Burnett's repertory company. Korman paired especially well with Tim Conway — almost every week, a sketch on the Burnett show would devolve into barely restrained hilarity as the two veteran comedians cracked one another up in front of a live audience. Korman won four Emmys — and was nominated for an additional three — for his work on Carol Burnett.

For me, though, Korman will live forever as Hedy Lamarr — "That's HEDLEY!" — okay, Hedley Lamarr, the scheming villain of Mel Brooks's nonpareil Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. Korman steals pretty much every scene in which he appears, breathing joy into his over-the-top portrayal of a conniving government official hell-bent on stealing a tiny frontier hamlet out from under its residents so that he can make a killing building a railroad through the site.

As Lamarr, Korman is at turns pompous, vain, agitated, simpering, serpentine, and pure evil, but he is never not funny, not for even a millisecond of screen time. It's not the kind of acting that wins Academy Award nominations — despite Korman's plea for same during the film's denouement — but I guarantee that no one who's ever seen Blazing Saddles can hear the name "Hedy Lamarr" without hearing Korman's exasperated "That's HEDLEY!" from deep within the cerebral cortex.

Korman delivered numerous other hysterical performances, especially in Brooks-directed films. He was a masochistic psychiatrist in High Anxiety; a slick French politician, the Count de Monet, in History of the World, Part I; an asylum superintendent who becomes a reluctant vampire hunter in Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Given that Blazing Saddles is my favorite cinematic comedy, and one of my five favorite movies of any genre, it's his role in that film that will keep Harvey Korman fondly etched in my memories.

Rest in peace, Hedy Lamarr.

"That's HEDLEY!"

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whistle stop

The name Earle Hagen may not ring a bell when first you hear it. But if you were watching television in the 1960s and '70s — or if you're a fan of TV Land or Nick at Nite — you're familiar with his work.

The composer of numerous TV theme songs and scores, Hagen died yesterday at the age of 88.

Hagen's theme music résumé reads like a list of Nielsen ratings all-stars from back in the day: I Spy (for which Hagen won an Emmy), That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mod Squad, Eight is Enough, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and most memorably, The Andy Griffith Show, which featured Hagen whistling a happy tune as Andy and Opie head off to the ol' fishin' hole.

In addition to his extensive television work — it's estimated that his music appears in more than 3,000 episodes — Hagen also wrote scores for dozens of motion pictures, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He and cowriter Lionel Newman were nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 for scoring another Marilyn Monroe classic, Let's Make Love.

Even if he had never composed a note for the screen, either large or small, Hagen's place in musical history was secured when he wrote (with bandleader Ray Noble) the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" in 1939. Practically every jazz musician active in the past seven decades has covered Hagen's soulful, Ellingtonesque riff.

Earle Hagen's passing gets me to thinking...

Whatever happened to TV theme songs?

At one time, you couldn't have a successful TV show without a catchy theme. Sometimes, the theme music was infinitely better than the show it introduced. Everyone remembers Henry Mancini's theme from the '50s detective drama Peter Gunn, which still pops up in movie and TV show soundtracks to this day. Anyone recall the show itself? That's what I thought. (Another example: T.H.E. Cat, an otherwise forgettable mid-'60s show starring Robert Loggia as a reformed — yet conveniently named — cat burglar, had a wicked cool jazz theme by Lalo Schifrin that I can hear reverberating in my skull even now.)

When I was but a wee lad, I used to collect TV themes on my little reel-to-reel tape recorder — you whippersnappers will have to look that one up — and a cheap microphone I would hold in front of the speaker of our Zenith console set. In between songs, I'd throw in introductory patter in the mold of the AM disc jockeys I idolized — Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack. (Look, I was an only child in a military family that moved every year or two. I learned self-entertainment skills early in life.) Who knew then that TV theme songs would one day go the way of... well... reel-to-reel audio tape?

Of course, there's a reason for the decline in the art of TV themes: It's called money. Those precious 15 or 30 seconds that would otherwise be wasted on a throwaway musical trifle can be sold to the highest-bidding advertiser, instead of offering attention-deficient viewers an opportunity to grab a snack or relieve themselves. When TV shows use themes these days, they're usually established pop hits (the CSI franchise's obsession with classics by The Who, to cite but three), not custom ditties designed to establish the program's unique mood.

Earle Hagen may have died only yesterday, but, sad to tell, the TV theme songs he loved died long before.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Say "Good night," Dick

Dick Martin, the goofier half of the '60s comedy team Rowan and Martin, has said his last "Good night, Dick."

For those of you too young to remember the Summer of Love, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In broke many of television's most hallowed taboos when it debuted on NBC in January 1968.

Laugh-In was the first primetime network series to leap full-bore into the world of cutting-edge political humor and sexual double entendre, and it did it all with a loosey-goosey formlessness that owed more to the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and psychedelia than any traditional variety or comedy program that preceded it.

At the center of the insanity stood straight man Dan Rowan and his happy-go-lucky foil Dick Martin, standing about looking dapper in their tuxedos, tossing off urbane one-liners while Goldie Hawn gyrated in a bikini.

Those were the days.

After Laugh-In played out the string in the early '70s, Rowan and Martin went their separate ways. Dick Martin showed up frequently as a celebrity panelist on game shows like Hollywood Squares and Match Game — TV programs that capitalized on the new openness in bawdy humor that Laugh-In pioneered.

At the same time, Martin was building a second, less visible but no less creative, career behind the camera as a director. He helmed dozens of episodes of situation comedies, from Newhart to Sledge Hammer! and everything in between.

Early in Laugh-In's run, Rowan and Martin seized their blossoming fame and rushed out a theatrical comedy called The Maltese Bippy (after one of the innumerable catchphrases Laugh-In spawned, "You bet your sweet bippy"). Modeled on the Universal Studios horror-comedies of Abbott and Costello, the film featured Dan and Dick matching half-wits with vampires and werewolves, and chasing busty young women. (Martin eventually caught one — he married former Playboy centerfold Dolly Read.) I remember sitting with friends in the base theater at Iraklion Air Station on the Greek island of Crete one Saturday afternoon, watching the duo cavort.

Fans will recall that at the conclusion of every Laugh-In episode, Rowan (who died of cancer in 1987) would turn to his partner — who, in typical fashion, had usually just spouted some inane commentary — and utter the magic words, "Say 'Good night,' Dick." To which Martin would respond, grinning with daffy glee into the camera, "Good night, Dick."

Good night, Dick.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Like Grant took Richmond

The Dean of Bay Area newscasters has hung up his TelePrompTer.

Last night, Dennis Richmond — the longtime anchor of KTVU-2's Ten O'Clock News — signed off for the final time. Dennis spent 40 years at KTVU (the Bay Area's FOX affiliate, and a major independent station for decades before FOX), the last 32 of which saw him anchoring the area's lone "early" newscast with gravitas and aplomb.

As news anchors go, Dennis was solidly old-school. He rarely cracked wise, offered political commentary, or indulged in tabloid fluff from the anchor chair. In the immortal words of Jack Webb, Dennis stuck with "just the facts, ma'am."

His female co-anchors — and they were always female, beginning with Barbara Simpson in the late '70s, who gave way to Elaine Corral in the mid-'80s, who in turn stepped aside for Leslie Griffith in the late '90s, before perky Julie Haener snatched the job two years ago — came and went (mostly as they crept toward middle age, because that's how the broadcasting business goes), but Dennis remained constant, every night offering his sober and elegant delivery of the day's critical stories.

I would never hope to switch on the television and hear that World War Three had erupted. But if it had, I'd have wanted Dennis Richmond to be there to break the news, in his rich, reassuring baritone.

Now, when the Big One drops, I'll have to settle for Frank Somerville. Not that there's anything wrong with Frank — he's a fine reporter and anchor in his own right. But no one is Dennis Richmond.

Heck, they already named an East Bay city after the man.

Bon chance, Mr. Richmond. Thanks for all the news, good and bad. May your retirement be long, healthy, and fulfilling.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

See Wolves, be Wolves

Congratulations to our hometown scholar-athletes, the Sonoma State University Seawolves, whose baseball squad won the NCAA Division II West Regional this past weekend.

On Saturday, the Seawolves will make their first appearance in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championships, taking place this year at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, Illinois — home of the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League.

That Sonoma State has become something of a small-school athletic powerhouse is no small source of amusement to me. I can recall when, in my long-ago high school days, the university barely dabbled a toe in the competitive waters, in keeping with its bohemian, "Berkeley North" atmosphere. Back then, SSU was derisively known throughout the California State University system as "Granola State," a refuge for aging hippies and their college-age progeny. The primary campus sports in that era were Frisbee and spliff-rolling, not necessarily in that order.

Over the years, as SSU gained more traditionally focused administrative leadership, its sports programs expanded and improved. Longtime NFL star lineman Larry Allen garnered national attention while playing at SSU (the school dropped football after Allen's departure, to focus on baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, and tennis), and the Sonoma State women's basketball team is a perennial contender in the NCAA Division II tournament.

The SSU team mascot also underwent a transformation. Originally, the university's athletic teams were nicknamed Cossacks — a nod to Sonoma County's Russian heritage, still in evidence today via such local landmarks as the Russian River and the town of Sebastopol.

Eight years ago, someone at long last picked up a history textbook, only to discover that the real-life Cossacks were bloodthirsty invaders who raped and murdered the female citizens of the communities they ransacked, and who collaborated with the Nazis in their anti-Semitic reign of terror during World War II.


After much public sturm und drang, the SSU administration changed the team nickname to Seawolves, in honor of Jack London's novel The Sea-Wolf, whose author lived out his final years in nearby Glen Ellen. Anyone who's ever read London's book knows that its title character is a vicious, brutal individual not unlike those Cossacks of old, but in this illiterate age, progress is progress.

Best of luck to our young Seawolves as they contend for collegiate baseball glory. Jack London would be proud.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, May 19, 2008

R.I.P., Rory Root

I'm saddened to hear about the sudden passing of comics retailer Rory Root earlier today.

Rory was the owner of Comic Relief, an exceptional comics shop in Berkeley. I had occasion to drop in at Rory's store a few times over the years, and was always impressed with both the merchandise selection and the congenial staff.

My more frequent interactions with Comic Relief, though, came at local comic conventions. A browse at Rory's beautifully merchandised booth was always an essential part of my con experience.

As previously mentioned in this space, this past February at WonderCon, Comic Relief was the only retailer selling copies of Mark Evanier's eagerly anticipated new book, Kirby: King of Comics, which had been published that very week. Through what I understand were herculean efforts on his part, Rory managed to score 80 copies of Mark's book, and arranged with Mark to sign the book for those who purchased it.

I'm thrilled to own one of those 80 copies. Rory personally dug it out of the shipping box in order to sell it to me, whereupon Mark graciously affixed his autograph to the flyleaf. Kirby's favorite inker, Mike Royer, likewise signed my book as we were waiting together to attend a panel discussion about the book.

I'll cherish my autographed copy of Kirby: King of Comics always... and I won't forget the gentle bear of a guy who made it possible for me to own it.

My thoughts and prayers are with Rory's family, friends, and staff.

Labels: , , ,

Sign of the Apocalypse: Blackbyrd

This morning, West Virginia's senior U.S. Senator, 91-year-old Robert C. Byrd, formally endorsed Barack Obama for President.

Robert Byrd... who six decades ago was the Exalted Cyclops of his friendly neighborhood klavern of the Ku Klux Klan.

Robert Byrd... who in the 1940s opposed the integration of the U.S. military, saying, "I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side."

Robert Byrd... who actively campaigned against civil rights legislation throughout the 1960s.

Robert Byrd... whose state handed the all-over-but-the-shouting Hillary Clinton campaign a 41-point victory in its Democratic primary just a week ago.

That Robert Byrd.

In announcing that his superdelegate vote will be cast for the junior Senator from Illinois, Byrd said:
I believe that Barack Obama is a shining young statesman, who possesses the personal temperament and courage necessary to extricate our country from this costly misadventure in Iraq, and to lead our nation at this challenging time in history. Barack Obama is a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian, and he has my full faith and support.
Robert Byrd said that?


This settles the reality — if all of the other overwhelming evidence fails — that when Obama speaks of himself as the candidate of change...

...he's not just whistling "Dixie."

Labels: , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Death by Frigidaire

I nearly dropped my cup of Butter Pecan when I read this...

Irv Robbins, cofounder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain
, has departed for that giant freezer in the sky.

Robbins launched his tongue-chilling empire in 1945, when he opened his first ice cream parlor in Glendale, California. A few years later, he teamed up with his brother-in-law Burton Baskin to start the company that bears their names. (They flipped a coin to determine whose name came first.)

Baskin-Robbins quickly became the pioneering frozen dessert franchise operation, paving the way for franchising efforts in other areas of fast-food service. That "golden arches" thing, to name but one.

When his partner Baskin died in 1967, Robbins sold the company to United Fruit Co., although he continued on the payroll for another decade or so. These days, Baskin-Robbins belongs to the parent corporation of Dunkin' Donuts — is that a match made in hypoglycemic heaven, or what? — and boasts more than 5,800 shops internationally.

Although Baskin-Robbins' trademark is "31 Flavors," they've offered over a thousand varieties of ice cream at one time or another, from the perennial vanilla and chocolate to seasonal specialties (for example, our household favorite, Baseball Nut, a vanilla-raspberry-cashew concoction that resurfaces every spring) to such promotional gimmicks as Shrek'd Out Chocolate Mint and Casper's Red, White and Boo.

Here's a sweet irony: Robbins's son John, the author of such books as Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution, and Healthy at 100, is one of the world's most prominent advocates of veganism and natural, plant-based foods.

That's right, Junior: Dad paid for three squares a day, plus clothing, shelter, and college education, by selling frozen sugar and butterfat. And the man lived to be 90. Meanwhile, you're jumping on camera with Morgan Spurlock to bad-mouth your father's legacy.

King Lear said it best: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

I'll raise a double scoop of Nutty Coconut to that.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Babbling about Brooke

This caught my attention on a slow news May Day...

In an interview scheduled to air next Tuesday, television legend Barbara Walters reveals to Oprah Winfrey that, back in the 1970s, she engaged in a long-running affair with Edward Brooke, who at the time was (a) a Republican U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, (b) married, and (c) African-American.

Brooke hasn't been (a) since 1978. I believe he's now (b) to a different woman than the one to whom he was (b) at the time that he was getting jiggy with the ABC newswoman. So far as I know, he is still (c).

When I first heard about this, my first reaction was probably the same as yours: Barbara Walters?

Senator Brooke: You were one of the 200 or so most powerful men in the United States government. You could probably have shacked up with any woman you chose — notwithstanding the far less enlightened racial climate of 30-odd years ago. And you picked Barbara Walters?

Dude, what were you thinking?

Then again, as a quick survey of the couples strolling your local shopping mall will confirm, there's no accounting for taste.

And here all this time, I just thought Ed Brooke was goofy because he was a Republican.

Setting his questionable preferences in women aside for the moment, Ed Brooke's an interesting guy, from a historical perspective. The first African-American to be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate — and the only black Senator elected for more than a quarter-century after he took office in 1967 — Brooke was a black Republican in an era when pretty much the only black Republicans anyone could name were Pearl Bailey and Ed Brooke.

As one might expect from a Massachusetts Republican, Brooke occupied the liberal wing of the GOP, to the degree that such exists. (In fact, the citizens of Massachusetts haven't elected another Republican to the Senate since Brooke was defeated for a third term by future Democratic Presidential candidate Paul Tsongas.) Brooke often butted heads with fellow elephant Richard Nixon, leading the rejection of a trio of Nixon nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, including that of racial segregationist (and closeted homosexual, not that either Nixon or Brooke knew at the time) G. Harrold Carswell in 1970. To his credit, Brooke was one of the first Senators to publicly call for Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Earlier in this decade, Brooke was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy. He has since campaigned actively in support of breast cancer awareness, among men in particular. Bush 43 awarded Brooke the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

At the time of his defeat in 1978, many political observers blamed Brooke's loss on the nasty and highly publicized divorce he and his then-wife underwent during his second Senatorial term. Now that Barbara Walters has 'fessed up to Oprah, maybe we know what all the fuss at the Brooke house was about.

Although we may never know how Baba Wawa hooked up with a man whose surname she couldn't pronounce.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

CSI: Can't Sleep Intoxicated

CSI star Gary Dourdan got up close and personal with real-life law enforcement this morning in sunny Palm Springs.

Dourdan — recently reported to be exiting his role as crime scene investigator Warrick Brown at the end of the current season — was napping in his car when rousted by the Palm Springs gendarmerie. A search of Dourdan's vehicle turned up heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy, and various prescription drugs.

Way to go out on a high note, Gary. (Heh... "high note.")

I was sorry to hear that Dourdan was departing CSI, even though his character's screen time has been dwindling rapidly over the past few seasons. And I'm certainly sorry to hear about his current troubles, and hope the guy gets himself straightened out. He's a talented actor.

But seriously... he couldn't afford a hotel room? I know Palm Springs is a high-rent district, but Dourdan's gotta be making a chunk of change after eight years on television's top-rated drama.

I remember the first time I noticed Dourdan — costarring alongside James McCaffrey (in between stints on that classic '90s Knight Rider rip-off, Viper) in a short-lived series called Swift Justice. McCaffrey played Mac Swift, your stereotypical ex-cop, ex-Navy Seal hardcase turned private eye, while Dourdan tagged along as Mac's stereotypical streetwise police detective associate, Randall Patterson. It sounds exactly like a few dozen other shows you've seen before, but Swift Justice was a reasonably entertaining example of this well-traveled genre. McCaffrey and Dourdan shared a cool, intense Crockett-and-Tubbs sort of chemistry that made the show's handful of episodes worth watching.

Another smattering of Gary Dourdan trivia: Dourdan and his CSI costar Marg Helgenberger previously paired up in an unsold series pilot entitled Keys. The 1994 TV movie (it still turns up on cable now and again) was produced and directed by John Sacret Young, for whom Helgenberger had worked in her breakout television role, in the Vietnam drama China Beach.

Not to be confused with china white, Mr. Dourdan.

Labels: , , ,

What's Up With That? #63: So that's what they mean by "Down Under"

And we Americans think our politicians are insane.

Troy Buswell, a member of the Australian Parliament and the leader of Western Australia's Liberal Party, tearfully admitted the veracity of rumors that he smelled the chair of a female staffer shortly after she vacated it.

Apparently, Mr. Buswell did inhale.

According to The Australian, in 2005:
Mr. Buswell allegedly lifted the woman's chair and started sniffing it in front of her, and later repeated the act in front of several staff members.
The paper further notes that last year, Buswell snapped a staff member's bra strap during a "drunken escapade," and frequently made "inappropriate comments" to female colleagues.

In an emotional public statement, Buswell acknowledged that his behavior was "unacceptable." He had no ready explanation for the white cotton underpants seen dangling from his hip pocket.

So far, there is no confirmation of the report that Buswell's favorite '70s radio hit was "Driver's Seat" by Sniff 'n' the Tears.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the still of the night

I just read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News, that Ronnie I has passed on.

Ronnie I (his last name was Italiano, but I never heard anyone refer to him as anything but Ronnie I) was a legend in a cappella music circles as the world's leading proponent of old-school, 1950s-style R&B vocal harmony — the kind of music you might call doo-wop.

You didn't call it that in front of Ronnie I.

Ronnie I didn't just love vocal harmony, he actively promoted it with his heart and soul. He owned a record store in New Jersey called Clifton Music, where he sold both old and new vocal harmony recordings. Clifton Music also recorded artists who might otherwise have remained unknown and unheralded, and provided an outlet for aficionados of the style to hear them. For many years, Ronnie hosted radio shows featuring his beloved music on several New York area stations. He founded the United in Group Harmony Association (UGHA), an organization joining vintage-style vocal groups and their fans. Ronnie I and UGHA hosted frequent concerts that brought these musicians together.

I never met Ronnie I, but from all the stories I heard about him from within the a cappella community, I felt as though I knew him. He had a reputation for being crusty, hard-nosed, and single-minded. But no one doubted his passion for the music he championed.

Back in the '90s, Ronnie I was the director of the New York regional of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championship. If I recall correctly, he judged the finals, which are held at the Marin Civic Center on the first Saturday in May, on at least one occasion. (KJ and I had a 14-year streak of attending the finals broken two years ago, when she was too ill to go. I missed last year, and will miss again next Saturday, because my chorus now schedules its annual retreat on that weekend.)

My a cappella library boasts at least a couple of Clifton Music CDs, including a magnificent recording by a long-defunct quintet called Charm, whom Ronnie I considered one of the greatest R&B vocal groups in the history of the style. I'll have to dig that one out and give it a spin in Ronnie's memory.

Ronnie I succumbed following a long fight with liver cancer. His legacy will live on... because the music he loved will never die.

On a cheerier note, I understand from John Neal's blog that Sony Entertainment — my old friends via Jeopardy! — just purchased the rights to develop a reality show centered around the Harmony Sweepstakes, for which John — who has owned the Sweeps for the past dozen years or so — will be serving as a consultant. Congratulations, John!

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My stone gas tank runs dry

The final Train has left the station.

The 22nd Annual Soul Train Music Awards, scheduled for later this year, have been canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of both the public and the potential honorees.

Which should come as no surprise — Soul Train, that venerable television dance party, itself vanished from the airwaves two years ago.

Back in the day, Soul Train was, in its own hyberbolic words, "the hippest trip on television." It was a Saturday institution — impossibly limber dancers shaking what their mamas gave 'em to the latest R&B hits.

But what seemed ineffably cool in the swinging '70s had pretty much worn out its trendiness by the early '90s, even though the program chugged along on fumes for another decade or so. Train's creator and longtime host, Don Cornelius, bailed out a few years back, rendering the enterprise almost completely pointless.

In its time, though, Soul Train delivered a weekly dose of unstudied funkiness to TV sets across America. Everyone who was anyone in rhythm and blues — and its temporal offshoots soul, disco, and hip-hop — appeared on the Soul Train stage to lip-synch their latest releases. And was there a cool kid anywhere who didn't secretly long to take just one booty-swiveling boogie down the Soul Train line? Come on — you know you did.

Those days, alas, are forever gone.

Just the other day, as I was loading music onto my new mp3 player, I dug out my copy of Soul Train Hall of Fame, a three-CD box set released in 1994, encompassing 59 legendary R&B cuts made popular during the first 20 years of Soul Train's run.

A few of the track selections are questionable: Why, for example, was the Commodores' sappy ballad "Three Times a Lady" chosen, instead of the funk classic "Brick House"? Why is Prince's early career represented by the fun but lightweight "I Wanna Be Your Lover," instead of, say, any of the singles from the Purple One's most influential album, 1999? In the main, however, the collection provides a vivid, mostly danceable snapshot of the music that Soul Train pioneered.

From this abundance of musical treasures, the following are the ten that most make me want to get up off'a that thang.

1. "Cold Sweat" — James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business gets busy.

2. "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)" — Parliament. Could we get George Clinton to run for President, instead of the other one?

3. "Jungle Love" — Morris Day and the Time. In a word: O-E-O-E-O.

4. "Bad Girls" — Donna Summer. Say what you will about the Queen of Disco, but she could rock a groove like nobody's business.

5. "(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again" — L.T.D. One of the hottest jams ever recorded by a band named after a Ford sedan.

6. "I'm Every Woman" — Chaka Khan. Maybe not every woman, but woman enough.

7. "What's Love Got To Do With It?" — Tina Turner. Come on, Ike, answer that question.

8. "Word Up" — Cameo. Try to stand still when this one comes on. I dare you.

9. "O.P.P." — Naughty By Nature. Yeah, you know me.

10. "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" — Lou Rawls. Forget side one of Led Zeppelin 4, guys. This is the track you put on when you want to impress the ladies.

Somewhere out there, Don "No Soul" Simmons is smiling.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Welcome to Matzo Search 2008

If you thought Where's Waldo was challenging, try finding matzo this Passover season.

There's a nationwide dearth of matzo — the unleavened bread that forms the foundation of the Jewish Passover observance — and it's especially critical here in the Bay Area. Thousands of our Jewish neighbors have been hitting local supermarkets and specialty stores in search of the dry, flat, cracker-like substance, and are coming up empty.

That's a problem, because matzo is the only bread that observant Jews can eat during the Passover season, which began at sundown on Saturday and continues throughout this week.

By all reports, a combination of factors contributed to the matzo shortage. Manischewitz, one of the largest U.S. suppliers of kosher products, recently shut down production of certain matzo varieties at its New Jersey plant due to problems with a new oven. At least two major retailers, Costco and Trader Joe's, decided not to carry matzo for Passover this year. Many other markets, including some that target the Jewish community specifically, simply underestimated the demand, and didn't stock up in time.

According to this morning's New York Times, the shortage is being felt all over the country. The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that the Bay Area, which is home to more than a quarter of a million Jews, has been affected most acutely.

The supermarket where we shop regularly had a scant two boxes of matzo remaining on an endcap of Passover staples yesterday morning. I wouldn't be surprised if both have been snapped up by now.

For what it's worth, our church uses matzo for communion service every Sunday, so we always have a few boxes on hand. (We buy a huge case at a time — because it contains no yeast, matzo keeps pretty much indefinitely if left in the package.) Not all matzo, however, meets the particularly stringent kosher requirements for Passover. Since we don't purchase our matzo with those criteria in mind — we're only concerned that it's unleavened, which all matzo by definition is — I'd have to check the label to see whether the stock we have is Passover-worthy. (If it were, and you really needed a box, I could probably hook you up.)

If you're keeping Passover this week, I hope you've got all the matzo you need. And if you've got any to spare, my friend Neilochka over at Citizen of the Month has a terrific recipe for matzoh brei, an omelette-style dish made with eggs and matzo.

Hag Pesach Sameach!

Labels: , , ,

Monday, April 21, 2008

Poker's candle in the wind

Brandi Rose Hawbaker, the Britney Spears of poker, has folded her hand. Permanently.

She was only 26 years old.

Or somewhere in that vicinity.

The tragic act occurred more than a week ago, apparently, but news is only now getting around on the poker blog circuit. Brandi's suicide draws the curtain on a roller-coaster ride that seemed bizarre and outlandish even within a milieu that attracts — and thrives on — the bizarre and outlandish.

Like most poker aficionados, I first became aware of Brandi when she led the field for the first several days of Festa al Lago V, a 2006 World Poker Tour event. Although she ended up finishing a respectable 35th in the tournament (two places ahead of Jennifer Harman, widely considered the best female poker player in the world), Brandi's run as chip leader — coupled with her photogenic appeal and exhibitionist personality — sealed her date with demi-celebrity.

Attractive young women with actual talent come along in professional poker about as often as vegans dine at the Outback Steakhouse, so Brandi's advent on the scene set testosterone-fueled tongues wagging across the Internet. Sad to tell, Brandi's newfound fame came packaged with tales of self-destructive and antisocial behavior that rivaled those of Hollywood's tabloid darlings. These stories spawned persistent whispers about untreated mental illness, supported by online testimony from people close to Brandi.

The whispers, it seems, spoke at least a modicum of truth.

Neil Young once sang, "It's better to burn out than it is to rust." I'm not certain that I agree with him. Brandi Hawbaker, whether by conscious choice or karmic twist, apparently did.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore"

Sad news for the Famous Monsters of Filmland crowd: Hazel Court has died.

Yes, for real this time.

Hazel Court was an English actress who enjoyed a lengthy, if largely unspectacular, career in motion pictures and television. In the early 1950s, Court discovered her true calling, acting in low-budget horror films. She appeared as the female half of a young couple who move into a haunted house in 1952's Ghost Ship. This led to her legendary turn in the 1954 classic Devil Girl from Mars — Court played the ingenue, not the title character, in case you were confused. She was again cast as the innocent young heroine in Hammer Films' seminal The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, and a scream-screen star was born.

In the early 1960s, Court costarred in several films produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures, based on the twisted works of Edgar Allan Poe: The Premature Burial, in which Court played the duplicitous lover of scholarly Ray Milland; The Raven, which paired Court with a callow Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) opposite terror titans Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre; and The Masque of the Red Death, perhaps Corman's most memorably Poe-etic opus, and almost certainly the best picture in Court's filmography.

Although she wasn't, to be brutally frank, an accomplished thespian, Court was attractive in that stereotypically wan, upper-crust English sort of way. Her porcelain beauty — and impressive displays of quivering cleavage — lent a certain austere charm to the films in which she starred. Without question, her performances garnered her a minuscule yet dedicated coterie of devotees, as this comprehensive fansite demonstrates.

Some years ago, when I was writing reviews for DVD Verdict, I brandished my critical pencil at an MGM double-feature disk showcasing The Premature Burial and The Masque of the Red Death. You can check out my review of these two Roger Corman masterworks (*ahem*) here.

In an odd touch of irony, just as I sat down to memorialize Ms. Court this afternoon, this T-shirt arrived in my mailbox, courtesy of the good folks at Woot!

I can't imagine a more fitting tribute.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, April 14, 2008

What's Up With That? #62: Ain't no party like an Uncle Sam party

Pop diva Alicia Keys opines that gangsta rap was created by the United States government as "a ploy to convince black people to kill each other."

Umm... what?

I'm trying to envision a collection of Caucasian policy wonks holed up in a bunker in Washington, D.C. writing the material for N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. The imagery just isn't working for me.

Even if we assume, for the sake of ludicrous argument, that shadowy figures at the Justice Department did in fact concoct the idea of gangsta rap, there's an element that I still don't comprehend:

How did the government persuade the performers who ostensibly began the gangsta rap phenomenon to begin recording this stuff?

Maybe the conversation went something like this...

FBI Guy: Hello, Mr. Ice-T. Thank you for meeting with us.

Ice-T: Whatever.

FBI Guy: Mr. Ice-T — may I call you Mr. T.?

Ice-T: Naw, man, that's the brother with the Mohawk and the bling. Just call me Ice.

FBI Guy: All right, Ice. Recognizing that you are a loyal American and a decent, law-abiding citizen, your federal government would like to make you the point man on a unique public relations project.

Ice-T: I'm listening.

FBI Guy: Your government is taking note of this hip-hop — do I have the term correct? — business that's all the rage with the young African-Americans these days. We believe there's a wonderful opportunity here to accomplish something very special for this country, and for the black community in particular, utilizing this exciting medium. And we would like for you to take a leading role.

Ice-T: What do I have to do?

FBI Guy: Our crack staff — no pun intended, Ice — has been composing some funky-fresh — did I say that properly? — lyrical material for the hip-hop genre, which we want you to record. We believe that if you were to make this material popular with the African-American youth, other performers would follow suit.

Ice-T: A'ight. Lemme see what you got. (Pause.) "Six in the mornin', police at my door..." Are you kidding me, man? (Another pause.) "Cop Killer"? What the [expletive deleted] is this?

FBI Guy: We realize that some of this material may seem — how should I put it? — extreme. However, it's our position that...

Ice-T: This crap has me advocating the murder of police officers! Man, some of my best friends are cops!

FBI Guy: I know, it sounds somewhat counterintuitive. But...

Ice-T: I can't record this. It'll incite people to violence. I'm a lover, not a "cop killer."

FBI Guy: Ice, are you familiar with the concept of reverse psychology? That's what we're going for here.

Ice-T: I don't know, man. This seems like crazy talk.

FBI Guy: This isn't crazy, Ice. It's your federal government at work. Some of the brightest minds in Washington are hard at work on this project.

Ice-T: Whatever. So what's in all this for me, man?

FBI Guy: International fame and a multimillion-dollar recording career, for starters.

Ice-T: You gotta give me more than that. I'll lose all my friends in the 'hood once they find out I'm working for The Man.

FBI Guy: How would you feel about a permanent costarring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?

Ice-T: Dick Wolf? I'm down.

FBI Guy: You're a true patriot, Ice.

Ice-T: Whatever.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 07, 2008

Astronaut of the year (literally)

Just a few hours ago, NASA astronaut and biochemist Peggy Whitson achieved a noteworthy milestone:

She became the first woman in history to spend the equivalent of one full year in space.

Dr. Whitson — currently the commander of the International Space Station and its resident mission team, Expedition 16 — is nearing the conclusion of her second extended tour aboard the ISS. At this writing, she has logged slightly more than 180 days in space on her present assignment. Combining this mission with the 184 days, 22 hours, and 15 minutes Whitson spent aloft six years ago as flight engineer of ISS Expedition 5 (June 5 to December 7, 2002) gives the groundbreaking astronaut a grand spaceflight total of 365 days and change.

Whitson also holds the record for most spacewalks (Extra-Vehicular Activities, if you want to get all technical about it) by a female space traveler: six EVAs totaling 39 hours.

Last fall, when Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-120 team, under the command of U.S. Air Force Colonel Pam Melroy, visited the ISS, Dr. Whitson and Col. Melroy became the first two women to command active space missions simultaneously.

Dr. Whitson and her colleague, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, are scheduled to return to terra firma aboard Soyuz TMA-11 — the same craft that carried them to the ISS last October — on April 19.

We bid them a safe journey home.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Go down, Moses

Now that the man has shuffled off this mortal coil, I can admit this:

I'm a huge Charlton Heston fan.

Not the rhetoric-spewing, rifle-waving reactionary Heston of his later years in public life. And not even so much the more rational, compassionate Heston of earlier times, who marched alongside Dr. King and was an ardent, vocal supporter of civil rights long before it was socially acceptable. Although I did kind of admire that guy.

No, I mean the Heston of all of those classic Hollywood films. The man who stepped in front of a camera with those chiseled features, that piercing gaze, and that booming baritone, and wrestled the silver screen to the ground.

I loved that Charlton Heston.

The man had such intense, compelling presence that he, with his blond-haired, blue-eyed self, could play an endless string of Hebrews (Moses in The Ten Commandments; Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur; John the Baptist in The Grestest Story Ever Told), Latins (Mexican narco agent Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil; Spanish conqueror Rodrigo Diaz in El Cid), and Italians (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy; Marc Antony in both the 1970 edition of Julius Caesar and the Heston-directed Antony and Cleopatra in 1972), and make you believe in them.

Heston's charisma was so palpable that he could remain concrete and genuine in the midst of the most embarrassingly hackneyed disaster film (Skyjacked, Airport '75, Earthquake, the submarine-sinking Gray Lady Down) or kitschy science fiction knock-off (The Omega Man — based on the same source material as the recent Will Smith epic, I Am Legend — or the insanely off-kilter consumerism-as-cannibalism future shocker, Soylent Green), and made you believe in those, too.

I mean, the man starred in an Aaron Spelling-produced soap opera so cheesy that it was actually named after cheese — the mid-'80s Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys — and he was even imposing and awe-inspiring in that. If you can shine in an Aaron Spelling production, you've got serious chops, my friend.

Of course, my favorite Heston turn was his role as time-warped astronaut George Taylor in the first two films in what eventually became the Planet of the Apes franchise. If Heston had never done anything in his cinematic career other than break into bitter tears before the ruined shell of the Statue of Liberty — one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the movies — or blow up the entire world with his bloody hand on the detonator of a doomsday bomb, his place in popular culture would be forever sealed. But of course, he did those things, plus all of the aforementioned as well.

What a monumental career.

It would be a shame if all that people remembered about Chuck Heston was the ultra-conservative political animal he became late in life. (Unless you're a rebel-yelling, monster-truck-driving, pistol-packing gun nut yourself — in which case, I guess that will be what you remember. And to that, you're entitled. Different strokes for different folks, as Sly Stone and Gary Coleman used to say.) The man left behind a treasure trove of unforgettable screen performances, to be savored for generations. Keep your paws off my DVDs, you d--n dirty ape! (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to tell Mr. Heston how much I enjoyed his cinematic oeuvre. I did, however, sit next to his daughter Holly during a course in American Political Humor at Pepperdine University one semester. (Nice girl. I lent her a ballpoint pen once. She returned it. I didn't use it again for at least a week afterward.)

Mr. Heston was 84, and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past several years. I share the sorrow of his family, his friends, and his well-earned legion of fans.

(Pssst... Soylent Green is people. Pass it on.)

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, April 05, 2008

A real-life episode of Big Love

Here's an interesting juxtaposition of stories, headlined cheek-to-jowl on the front page at MSNBC:
"Mormons affirm new church leader"
right underneath...
"Standoff emerges at polygamist ranch"
Sort of goes from Brigham Young to dig 'em young, doesn't it?

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Arranger, unlimited

I was saddened to read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News blog, that Gene Puerling, the legendary vocal artist, composer, and arranger, passed away last week.

Anyone who loves vocal jazz knows Gene Puerling's work. He first came to renown in the 1950s as founder, arranger, and musical director of the seminal vocal group, the Hi-Lo's. The Hi-Lo's (named for the group's top-to-bottom vocal ranges, as well as the strikingly disparate heights of its members) enjoyed enduring popularity until they parted company in the 1960s, though they reunited to record from time to time as late as the 1990s.

In 1967, Puerling formed one of the most amazing singing ensembles ever created: the Singers Unlimited. Using only four vocalists — tenor and former Hi-Lo Don Shelton, bass Len Dresslar, Puerling himself at baritone, and the incredible Bonnie Herman singing all of the female parts, sometimes as many as 30 in a single recording — pioneered multitracking at a time when almost no one in the recording industry outside of four guys from Liverpool was making music in that way. Puerling brought the Singers Unlimited together to record advertising jingles and commercials; however, the foursome also recorded a series of magnificent albums that stand as classics of vocal jazz.

The Singers Unlimited's A Cappella and Christmas are two of my favorite albums ever. You haven't fully appreciate all of the ways that human voices can be combined until you've heard the amazing harmonies of Puerling, Shelton, Dresslar, and Herman layered together on the Beatles' Michelle and Fool on the Hill.

Perhaps no other musician in the contemporary idiom lent as much to the art of vocal arranging as did Gene Puerling. Groups such as the Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices, and Take 6 owe their intricate approach to harmony to the work Puerling created for the Hi-Lo's and Singers Unlimited, as well as numerous other artists. His spectacular a cappella arrangement of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," written for and recorded by the Manhattan Transfer, won a Grammy in 1981. Puerling received a total of 14 Grammy nominations during his five-decade career.

I had an opportunity to meet Gene Puerling a few years ago, during one of his appearances as a judge at the finals of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championships. It was just a fleeting moment — we actually passed one another at the entrance to the men's room. (No, we did not shake hands.)

For fans of vocal music, Puerling leaves behind a tremendous legacy. It's fair to say that the contemporary a cappella movement would not exist without his influence — not, at least, in its present form and style.

You'll find an excellent interview with Puerling here. (Scroll about halfway down the page.)

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

I watched the news today, oh boy

Television news continues to spiral down the toilet.

Yesterday, CBS initiated a cost-cutting move by firing news reporters, producers, and editors at its owned-and-operated stations nationwide. At KPIX-5 in San Francisco, the cuts involved some of the Bay Area's most honored and most respected broadcast journalists: Emmy-winning reporters Bill Schechner, Manuel Ramos, John Lobertini, and Tony Russomanno, and veteran anchor Barbara Rodgers.

All five of these newspeople built impressive careers. Schechner has worked at several Bay Area stations since arriving here in 1972; he also enjoyed national prominence for several years in the 1980s as Linda Ellerbee's coanchor on NBC News Overnight, and as a correspondent and feature reporter for NBC Nightly News. Ramos and Rodgers have each been reporting local stories at KPIX for 28 years.

Within the broadcast industry, the complaint often raised today is that people — particularly tech-savvy younger people — no longer turn to TV for news, thus making news staffs expendable. What the bean-counters fail to comprehend is that TV news, especially in local markets, has become so fluff-filled and tabloid-oriented that it's ceased to be a credible source for journalism. A couple of years ago, our in-town station, Santa Rosa's KFTY, turned its news operation entirely over to amateurs from the community. The experiment devolved into a national joke.

KPIX used to respresent a bastion of solid, dependable journalism against the piffle floated by the Bay Area's NBC and ABC affiliates. I'm sad to see that philosophy dying an agonizing death at the hands of accountants and media consultants.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, March 31, 2008

Another year, another 162 games

In the immortal words of baseball scribe Thomas Boswell, time begins on Opening Day.

For the 50th Anniversary edition of the San Francisco Giants, it might not be long before fans begin wishing that time had stopped.

More than any team in recent memory, the 2008 Giants resemble the 1985 "Real Grass, Real Sunshine, Real Baseball" squad — an assortment of has-beens (aging hurlers Vida Blue and Mike Krukow, second baseman Manny Trillo), never-weres (St. Louis-import first baseman David Green, starting pitcher Atlee Hammaker), and untested rookies (oft-injured third baseman Chris "The Tin Man" Brown) that posted the first (and to date, only) 100-loss season in San Francisco history. (In 2007, the Giants went 71-91.)

With the departure-slash-forced retirement of 43-year-old home run king, perennial All-Star, and federal indictee Barry Bonds during the offseason, the Giants lost their one legitimate superstar. In the Bondsman's absence, the focus will be directed to the Giants' starting rotation — with the $127 Million Man, former Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito, leading a gang of young guns — and the Giants' new center fielder, Aaron Rowand, a free agent addition from Philadelphia.

Beyond that? Well, there's not much "there" there at AT&T Park.

Let's review the 25-man roster with which the Giants begin the 2008 campaign today.

Starting pitching

Without question, the strength of the team, at least three-fifths of the time. The Giants' winningest pitcher from last year, Pepperdine alumnus Noah Lowry (14-8, 3.92 ERA), will miss at least the first two weeks as he recovers from surgery. That still leaves the G-Men with three solid starters: Matt Cain, who's ready to explode into All-Star status any second now; Tim Lincecum, the surprise find of 2007; and the aforementioned Zito, who weathered a rocky first year in the National League, but was impressive during the last month of the season and seems primed to return to form this year.

After the Big Three, the rotation will round out with Kevin Correia, who has seen major league time with the Giants in each of the last five seasons but has yet to establish himself, and Jonathan Sanchez, a hard-throwing kid (62 strikeouts in only 52 innings) with serious potential. (Potential = "He hasn't done anything yet.") Correia and Sanchez will duke it out in the early season to see who'll remain in the starting five once Lowry returns.

Relief pitching

In a word: Egad.

The Giants practiced bullpen-by-committee in 2007, and this season promises more of the same. The team is high on Brian "Beach Boy" Wilson, who beat out Brad Hennessey for the closer role late last season. Beyond Wilson, though, the San Francisco relief corps is a motley crew: holdovers Hennessey, Jack Taschner, and Tyler Walker — mediocre journeymen all — and a slew of newcomers ranging from one-time minor league phenom Merkin "Don't Call It a Pubic Wig" Valdez to 39-year-old Japan League import Keiichi Yabu, whose only major league experience came with the Oakland A's four years ago, and who pitched in the Mexican League last season.

Put it this way: Anything after the fifth inning could be a real adventure.


Bengie Molina — possibly the slowest runner in baseball — was the Giants' unlikely offensive hero in 2007, driving home a team-high 81 RBI. Molina will be called upon to replace Bonds as the Giants' cleanup hitter this year. Behind the plate, Bengie's a defensive liability, but an exceptional signal-caller who works effectively with the pitching staff.

Backing up Molina is career minor leaguer Steve Holm, who outplayed the incumbent second-stringer, Eliezer Alfonzo, in the Cactus League.


This will be interesting.

The Giants have no experienced first baseman (Dan Ortmeier will get a shot at winning the full-time job), an over-the-hill second baseman (Ray Durham, who hit a pathetic .218 last year, but has been on fire this spring), a shortstop who has never played at a level above Single-A (Brian Bocock, filling in for the disabled veteran Omar Vizquel), and who knows what at third base (incumbent Pedro "Pete Happy" Feliz was shown the door in the offseason, leaving the Giants with aging journeyman Rich Aurilia and switch-hitting prospect Eugenio Velez as the available options).

Whoever ends up playing around the horn, I'm not seeing much — if any — offensive muscle here. And defense at the corners, especially if converted outfielders Ortmeier and Velez get most of the starts, could be horrific.


If the Giants are going to score runs, they'll have to get most of them from this group.

Newcomer Aaron Rowand comes to the Giants off a Gold Glove-winning, career-best season, and will be counted on to provide a spark both at the plate (.309, 27 HR, 89 RBI, .515 slugging percentage) and in center field, where he'll be the best defensive player the Giants have boasted at that position since the days of Brett Butler.

Flanking Rowand are right fielder Randy Winn, probably the Giants' best all-around hitter, and the dilapidated Dave Roberts in left. Manager Bruce Bochy will want to spread the playing time around to youngsters Fred Lewis (.287 in 58 games) and Rajai Davis (.282 in 51 games), both of whom showed intriguing potential (see definition above) in limited 2007 action.


First in your hearts, last in the National League West.

Let's just hope they avoid passing the century mark in the loss column.

Last word

The Giants' marketing department continues its history of embarrassingly dreadful advertising taglines (i.e., "Hang In There!") with this season's laugher, "All Out, All Season."

Considering the anemic offense with which Bochy will be completing his lineup card, those words could prove frighteningly prophetic by the campaign's end.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nothin' says lovin' like a McMuffin in the oven

Let's all raise a glass to the late, great Herb Peterson, who changed the course of American cuisine forever.

Who's Herb Peterson?
you ask.

Why, the inventor of the Egg McMuffin, of course.

Peterson was a McDonalds franchise owner in Santa Barbara (and a former VP of the advertising firm that held the McDonalds account). In the early 1970s, Peterson, who was partial to eggs Benedict, decided to create a sandwich based on his favorite breakfast fare. His moment of genius: slap a fried egg, a slab of Canadian bacon, and a slice of good old American cheese between the buttered halves of an English muffin, and viola! A handheld simulation of eggs Benedict, perfect for dining on the go.

The Egg McMuffin spawned an entire menu of breakfast items at Mickey D's, including its close cousin, the Sausage McMuffin (like an Egg McMuffin, only with a sausage patty instead of Canadian bacon); the similar McGriddle (like a McMuffin, only with a maple-flavored, waffle-like pancake in place of the English muffin); Breakfast Burritos; and a host of scrambled egg and hotcake combination plates.

Other fast food chains quickly followed suit, leading to such quizzical creations as Jack-in-the-Box's Breakfast Jack (like an Egg McMuffin, only served on a hamburger bun instead of a muffin) and Burger King's Croissan'Wich (like an Egg McMuffin, only... well, you figure it out). Even Starbucks eventually got into the act, although the company recently decided to phase out its line of breakfast sandwiches because baristas complained that they were "too smelly." (The sandwiches, not the baristas. Although I imagine that some of the more bohemian espresso-slingers occasionally get a mite funky also.)

Peterson's brainchild also led to one of the funniest bits of scripted comedy ever produced. On National Lampoon's 1977 album That's Not Funny, That's Sick, a Mister Rogers spoof character named Mr. Roberts (played by future mockumentarian and Mr. Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Guest) interviews a fuzzy-brained bass player (played by future Not Ready for Prime Time Player and Scarlett Johansen costar Bill Murray) in typically inane Fred Rogers style:
Mr. Roberts: Can you say, "Egg McMuffin"?
Bassist: Eggamuffin.
Mr. Roberts: I like the way you say that.
At the time of his passing on Tuesday, Herb Peterson was 89 years old. I once ate an Egg McMuffin that had been desiccating under a heat lamp at least that long.

Labels: , , , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , ,

They've killed Kinch!

Ivan Dixon, the talented actor-director best known to teleholics of a certain age as Sgt. James "Kinch" Kinchloe, the technical wizard POW on Hogan's Heroes, has died at age 76.

Dixon's Hollywood career began in the 1950s, when he served as Sidney Poitier's double and stand-in on such films as The Defiant Ones, and later as Poitier's costar in Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. He became one of the first black actors to appear in a regular, nonstereotypical role on an American TV series when he was cast in Hogan's Heroes in 1965.

Dixon mostly set acting aside after leaving Hogan's at the end of the show's fifth season. (It remains one of TV's enduring mysteries that Hogan's Heroes stayed on the air for six years.) His two notable roles in post-Stalag 13 life were as Lonnie, the tough-yet-compassionate ex-con straw boss in the classic '70s film comedy Car Wash ("I got to have more money, Mr. B.!"), and as courageous Dr. Alan Drummond, a leader of the resistance movement in the Cold War drama Amerika.

Instead, Dixon refocused his career behind the camera, becoming one of TV's busiest directors throughout the '70s and '80s. He helmed the canvas chair for dozens of episodes of series television, most frequently on The Rockford Files (nine episodes) and Magnum P.I. (13 episodes), but also on shows as diverse as The Waltons, The Greatest American Hero, and Quantum Leap.

After retiring from directing, Dixon owned a radio station in Hawaii for a number of years. (I guess all those years as Colonel Hogan's communications guy finally paid off.)

His career honors included one Emmy nomination (Best Lead Actor in a Drama for the 1967 CBS Playhouse presentation The Final War of Olly Winter), four NAACP Image Awards, the National Black Theatre Award, and the Black American Cinema Society's Paul Robeson Pioneer Award.

As résumés go, that's a pretty darned good one.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rockets away, Dave Stevens

Most of the time, I relegate my comics-focused commentary to our Comic Art Friday feature. This week, however, so as not to cast a pall over the second half of our interview with Inkwell Awards founder Bob Almond — which you can enjoy in this space beginning tomorrow — I'm going to bend the rule just a touch, in a worthy cause.

Comic book and pinup artist Dave Stevens passed away from leukemia earlier this week, at the far-too-young age of 52.

Stevens was best known to the public and within the comics industry for two significant — and in an odd way, related — accomplishments.

First, he was the writer, artist, and creative visionary behind The Rocketeer, a groundbreaking yet wistfully nostalgic series that spawned a delightful live-action Disney film in 1991. (I understand that Stevens wasn't particularly pleased with the movie, and I respect his reasons. But I enjoyed it anyway.)

Second, Stevens was responsible for introducing 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page to a new legion of fans when he used Page's likeness as the model for the Rocketeer's girlfriend. Stevens also personally sought out and befriended Page herself, who had withdrawn from public life to the degree that many fans believed that she had died. The renewed interest in Page's career, prompted by Stevens's impeccable depiction of her in his numerous artworks, helped the former model gain some financial stability in addition to fresh admirers.

As an artist, Stevens was notorious for his meticulous approach to his work — an obsessiveness that severely limited his output. The work he did produce, though, was nothing short of incredible. No one in the business drew more flawlessly beautiful women or more lushly detailed settings. Every artist creating "good girl" art today owes a debt of influence and inspiration to Stevens, both for his synthesis of the great masters of the form and for his own technical brilliance.

Stevens also earned a well-founded reputation as an intensely private individual — although he had battled leukemia for several years, many of his fans (myself included) remained unaware of his illness until the news of his death arrived.

It's unfortunate that the relative scantiness (no pun intended) of Stevens's production volume will prevent his work from being more widely known and appreciated outside the circle of comics fans and pinup art collectors. He was as enormous a talent as this generation of artists has produced.

A few years back, I commissioned Heavy Metal artist Michael L. Peters to create a piece for my Common Elements series featuring the Rocketeer and DC Comics' interplanetary adventurer, Adam Strange. It's as close to a Stevens original as I'm ever likely to own.

Michael's drawing is the only Common Elements artwork on permanent display in my home — it hangs on the north wall of our living room. I will treasure it always as a loving homage to Stevens's creation.

For fans who wish to pay their respects in a tangible way, Stevens's family asks that donations in Dave Stevens's name be made to the Hairy Cell Leukemia Research Foundation.

Keep 'em flying, Dave.

Labels: , ,