Monday, September 29, 2008

Cool Hand Luke is gone

Cool Hand Luke is the quintessential Paul Newman movie for me. It brought together all those qualities that he portrayed in his best characters - strong but damaged, sly but true, the blazing smile that floats up out of a deep well of sadness. And always cool, always cool. Newman had one of those attributes you cannot teach in acting class - charisma - and he had a trainload of it.

A list of his best reads like somebody's top 20 films. My faves after Cool Hand Luke would be The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sometimes a Great Notion, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Hustler, Hombre, and Slap Shot, which was a gross comedy but Newman brought dignity to it. And you can't hardly find a real stinker in his filmography. He had a real sense of what he did and didn't want to do with his acting, and with his life. In his era you made your bones on the stage, New York was the only destination for the legit actor, and he was the first to play some characters that are now staples on the American stage.

And on top of being somebody you'd think must be a really nice guy, he apparently was a really nice guy. His Newman's Own line has generated $220 million for charity so far. That's in the "above and beyond the call of duty" category.

I never met a person who said they did not like Paul Newman. They don't make many men like him and I am sad to see the end of his era.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Seriously, I am confused. I mean it.

I know a person could be writing today about Obama and the Tom Bradley effect, Palin's "pay for your own abortion, rape victims" policy, the ramifications of a nuclear Iran, parallels between the crash of '29 and the crash of '08, and other urgent stories du jour. But I have a nagging question that trumps them all:

What the hell am I supposed to do with Facebook?

I understand that it's a social networking site. I understand it used to be called "MySpace for college kids." I get all that, but now what? I mean, what am I supposed to DO with it? (BTW, since I am communicating on a young person's topic here, it is necessary that I use terms like "I mean" regularly, and also use abbreviations like BTW, by the way.) No one ever sends me an instruction book for these new things. I am supposed to figure our for myself about "writing on the wall," and "poking" people. What do I look like, Stanley Einstein or something? I suppose one option would be to ignore it, but since I have been getting friend requests from people equally fuddy-duddy to myself (and you can't prove yourself to be more fuddy-duddy than by using the phrase "fuddy-duddy") it would make me feel left out. I mean, OMG!

I went right to the source for an answer to this question. Click on "About" at Facebook and you get:

Facebook gives people the power to share and makes the world more open and connected.

Millions of people use Facebook everyday to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet.
OK. Ironically, almost all the people who are my friends on Facebook are people I already know pretty well, and I see them in person pretty regularly, and all the other people that I encounter on there that I don't know are - well...strangers. Why do I want to talk to strangers?

And besides, I already "make the world more open and connected" with email and with this blog. I've got my photos place, and my videos place, and subscriptions to three of four list servs. Now and then, I even speak to someone face-to-face. Now what?

If you have any advice for me on this question, I'd sure be glad to hear it. I mean, seriously.

Right now I need to go chase some kids off my lawn. Damn kids.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Awake in the vast wasteland

An observation: people who have car alarms that go off at 4:30 in the morning two days in a row and cause certain people to be awake way earlier than they should be, especially when certain people can never get back to sleep once they're awake, should be rounded up and exiled to Las Vegas.

What's the deal with car alarms anyway? (The previous sentence brought to you by Jerry Seinfeld.) There was a time when the car alarm was a novel thing and if you heard one going off you reacted to it. Now you just walk on by, close the window (which doesn't help certain people sleep), turn up the TV. Rather pointless. The Presidential candidate who promises to do away with car alarms gets my vote. Ban leaf blowers, too, and I will vote for you twice.

AT&T is promoting their new U-Verse service in my town these days. One of the things they offer is TV (not really cable, but that's the idea) and their pitch includes the promise that you can "record up to 4 programs at once." The world has discovered DVRs, even to the point where people are as likely to use the term DVR now as they are to say "Tivo," which is sort of a breakthrough. And God knows I love my DVR. But who has time to watch half of the shows they record, let alone watching them all when you are recording them four at a time? And besides, I defy you to show me a single moment in the history of television when there were four things running simultaneously that were worth watching in the first place. Talk about technology getting ahead of human needs. Seems to me that there are so many TV channels that need to be fed programming like hungry little birds, there's not enough quality food to go around, and some of those birds are starving. It's not like there is an endless supply of talented people out there, to dream up and produce worthwhile television shows, or radio shows, or movies. If you ever doubt that, and flipping through channels doesn't prove it for you, just spend a little time on YouTube and you will see how shallow the talent pool really is.

In fact, I repeatedly have this thought that goes like "what ever happened to the good TV shows?" Seems like when the fall would roll around there would always be some new series that gave me the "That looks good" reaction - but lately, for the last - oh, 20 years? - it's been kind of drab. Feeling a little left behind here people. Everything that people think is funny, or good drama, doesn't do it for me. True, I've become an HBO snob, and I guess I expect that quality level (and that lack of commercials) all the time now. And those top HBO shows don't just grow on trees - they are a little too scarce for comfort. My old friend TV is letting me down.

Other than the sleep deprivation and knowing I will yawn my way through the afternoon, I like being up before the sun. It's like bonus time - there is nothing that my silly mind could have planned for me to do at 5am, so I can do whatever the heck I want for a little while. Maybe I should go watch some of those recorded shows. I'm sure there was a really good reason I recorded them in the first place.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven years ago this morning

Seven years ago this morning everything changed.

Seven years ago this morning my son was just a goofy high school junior, and my daughter was only 12. Seven years ago this morning I could still run three miles in 27 minutes. Motivated by what happened seven years ago this morning, my son became a Marine, learned to run three miles in 20 minutes, and prepared for his time in Iraq. I can recall, if not still feel, the anger I felt seven years ago this morning. I might have joined up myself but I was already too old. Now I am too old plus seven years, and have had my anger refreshed.

The anger infusion came courtesy of a documentary on the 9-11 conspiracy theories. Discovery Channel? History Channel? Conspiracy Channel? Can't remember which. I think it first aired in 2007. Two hours of a well-balanced look at the claims the "truthers" make, juxtaposed with actual truth.

It's amazing that these conspiracy buffs can make some of their claims with a straight face. For example, to claim that it was not an airliner that hit the Pentagon seven years ago this morning, when hundreds of people personally witnessed it. I know people myself who were in DC that day and saw the plane flying low right over them, seconds before the impact. But the wingnuts can't accept that reality.

Several years ago, Popular Mechanics took on the task of evaluating at all the claims. The lead to their story says:
Go to, type in the search phrase "World Trade Center conspiracy" and you'll get links to an estimated 628,000 Web sites.
The analysis by Popular Mechanics makes a lot more sense than the gibberish from nimrods like the Loose Change people. The documentary I watched earlier this week even mentioned that the Loose Change boys have re-edited their movie (they call it the "final cut" - clever) to remove their blatant errors. Kind of facile, don't you think, to claim you have the real truth, but when someone refutes it, you modify your story and say, "Wait, that wasn't the real truth, THIS is the real truth." Standard operating procedure for the conspiracy crowd - when new evidence shows your theory is wrong, make a new theory. Of course, the Loose Change boys got their comeuppance from Screw Loose Change (now that actually is clever) and you can read a ton of refutation there if you so choose. But it doesn't matter much what you say or so with the conspiracy crowd. If you tell them they're full of shit, they accuse you of being part of the conspiracy, so credit is due to the magazine for wading into it.

I have always been drawn to the great conspiracy theories and the people who spin them. I think we all have some level of curiosity when anyone claims to be lifting up the curtain to show us what's happening behind the scenes. It's a genre all its own - a fiction genre. In my talk radio days, I did hours of interviews with JFK assassination theorists, read a bunch of their books. It used to be a lot easier to believe in conspiracies until I grew up enough to realize how truly random life is, how the most improbable things happen sometimes.

Conspiracy theories serve the same purpose as belief in life after death. It is more comforting to think that all things happen for a reason, that there is a guiding hand, than to accept the chaos of reality. Chaos is lonely. Conspiracy nuts think they are brave for their beliefs. To be truly brave is to stand on the edge of the abyss and not to reason why things don't make sense.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The unbearable whiteness of being

Let me make it crystal clear at the outset, I've got nothing against white people. Many of my friends are white, in fact, and I am married to a white woman and we have white children together. As a reader here, you may be surprised to learn that I, myself, am white as well.

But when it comes to whiteness, there's nothing that can compare with a Republican National Convention.

If you have been a campaign follower for the last few months, you will have seen many staged candidate appearances, the type that result in eight seconds on the evening news. In these events you can typically see a carefully selected group of people in the background, behind the stumping candidate. If the polls show weakness with women voters, behold, there will be women in the background. If the Hispanic vote is weak for Joe Candidate, the bleachers will be chock-a-block with brown faces. But when it comes convention time, you can't dictate who gets seen, and the last few nights have revealed just how relentlessly white is the GOP. As Time mentions in this article:

"(The Republican conventioners were) an overwhelmingly Caucasian group of people — 93% of the delegates were white..."

But who cares? We should live color blind and not evaluate people by their skin tone, right? I don't think being white means you necessarily have a pre-determined set of values or beliefs, or that you love the taste of mayonnaise on Wonder Bread. I don't believe in white stereotypes anymore than I believe in black or Hispanic or Asian stereotypes, by which I mean I believe them all equally.

The point is this: if politics is about representation, how does a 93% white convention represent us as a whole? Living in California you are accustomed to an array of epidermis and a mixing of cultures - but it's not just a left coast phenomenon. As reported here for example:

"By the year 2055 at current fertility and immigration rates, white European Americans will be a minority for the first time since they came to outnumber the Native Americans in the 18th century," said Joe Feagin, a UF sociologist and expert on race relations. "And none of our white leaders are paying any attention to desegregating our society in meaningful ways."

In just 35 years -- 2030 -- the majority of young people in the United States, those ages 18 and younger, will not be white, said Feagin, co-editor of a new book of essays about race, ethnicity and the urban crisis titled "The Bubbling Cauldron."

Here are two photos, one from this week's GOP shingdig, and the other from 1940. The real world has changed a lot in that time - in terms of whiteness, the look of the Republican Convention has not.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Big Pander and who's got a bun in what oven?

And so the grand three-day weekend winds down and I return to work today refreshed, relaxed and rejuvenated. This feeling will last until about 10:30am, but I will enjoy it while I have it.

I will have the pleasure of looking back on an eventful Labor Day, when we wondered whether it was VP nominee Sarah Palin or her teen daughter who had recently been in it. Labor, that is. (Hahahaha, funny joke on two meanings of word "labor"! I kill me!) For those who aren't keeping score, blog postings on Daily Kos on Saturday (which seem to have been taken down now?) claimed it was Palin's 17 year-old daughter who gave birth to the 5 month-0ld in the family, not Sarah herself, claiming a coverup. Within a news cycle or two, we got the official word from Palin that the teen is in fact preggers in the present tense if not in the past tense. I imagine they worked overtime at the celebrity gossip magazines this holiday weekend, with a newly famous teen mom who might overshadow the antics of the Spears family.

Going into day three of the "pregnancy controversy," we find ourselves in a version of "Where's Waldo" - who's pregnant? Who's been pregnant lately? Who might get pregnant next? These Alaskans are certainly fecund, that much we can say with confidence. If the GOPs goal was to bring attention to their ticket, they have succeeded, but I am not sure this is the type of attention they were looking for.

In any case, the larger story of choosing a woman for the VP slot has been rapidly eclipsed by these fertility announcements. We barely had time to kick around the question of whether this pick helps or hurts the McCain campaign. On the face of it, there's no denying the blatant attempt to attract women who felt cut out by Obama's choice of Biden. But are women (or any bloc of likely voters) really that shallow? So shallow they will vote for any human being who has the same genitalia? I think not. There may be a Republican woman who could draw the Hillary fans to the other party, but I don't think Sarah Palin is the one. Susan Reimer from the Baltimore Sun gets it right:

So. This is what being pandered to feels like. John McCain picked Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska and mother of five, to be his running mate to woo women like me. He seems to think that my girlfriends and I are so disappointed that an utterly qualified woman is not going to be president that we will jump at the chance to vote for an utterly unqualified woman for vice president. ...Does McCain think we will be so grateful for a skirt on the ticket that we won't notice that she's anti-abortion, a member of the NRA and thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution? His selection of Sarah Palin is insulting on so many levels that I am starting to feel like the Geico caveman...

If you are going to pick a woman for the sake of picking a woman, can you at least make it a credible choice?
Can you at least make a choice that doesn't give the gag writers for Jay Leno and Jon Stewart the month off?
(The jokes started immediately: She won't be able to hold her own against Joe Biden in a vice presidential debate. But wait until the swimsuit portion of the competition.)

Hahahahaha! Good one! Swimsuit competition!

Fair enough to say that this history-making but mostly boring Presidential campaign just got more interesting, and just at the right time when people are starting to pay attention. It would be good for democracy if everyone sees the election as an engaging, multi-faceted reality show, and as such, deserving of some time.

As far as how we decide to vote, I think we all know that Americans are not that simple. We don't vote based on gender. We use much more sophisticated evaluations, such as who's taller, and who has the better hair.