January 2, 2017

#122) Language court 2017: the D-Theory verdicts on the LSSU 42nd annual list of banished words

on-fleek

(Well, are you?)

New Years Day means different things to different people. For some folks, it’s the first day without alcohol, tobacco or child pornography. For others, it’s the day they have to start remembering to write a new number in the “date” field on their personal checks. For nerds such as the court, by which I mean myself, it’s the release of Lake Superior State University’s eagerly awaited list of words and expressions that are “banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse and general uselessness.” I often find vindication in seeing phrases that annoy the estrogen out of me singled out on these lists (surely I can’t be the only one who wants to sack-tap anyone who says ‘curated’ – from the 2015 list – or ‘break the internet’ from 2016) and I’ve even gone so far as to make my own (after the response I got, I decided it would be better to let LSSU do the dirty work).

In that spirit, I ask that you dock your selfie drone and focus on this historic town hall meeting in the echo chamber as we guesstimate how many of the 831 items on Lake Superior State University’s 42nd annual listicle of banished words are true bete noires and how many are mere simply post-truths.

YOU, SIR

Charges: “Hails from a far more civilized era when duels were the likely outcome of disagreements.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The court has found that while those who use this expression tend to think they are more droll than they actually are, it is not ubiquitous enough to warrant punishment.

FOCUS

Charges: “Overused when concentrate and look at would be fine.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The court finds that when looked at in the context of….ooh, shiny!

BETE NOIRE

Charges: Being a pretentious synonym for “pet peeve.”

Verdict: Not guilty; the prosecution didn’t even seem to care that much about this one. Note: the court apologizes for not being able to figure out how to create the accent circumflex that goes over the first “e” in “bete” in the WordPress platform.

TOWN HALL MEETING

Charges: Being a misnomer (“Candidates seldom debate in town halls anymore.”)

Verdict: Not guilty; given the election cycle we just witnessed, what we call our debates is the least of our problems.

POST-TRUTH

Charges: Being a trendy way of describing how politicians and others have been able to get people to ignore facts.

Verdict: Guilty. Just as Capone’s tax evasion and O.J.’s memorabilia hijinks stood in for more significant crimes, we are happy to set up “post-truth” as a fall guy for all of the other annoying “post-” expressions that inundate pop culture: “post-punk”, “post-hardcore”, “post-Sasha Fierce”, “post-Freddy Got Fingered” et. al.

GUESSTIMATE

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty. The court finds that prosecuting this chronic low-level offender will be more trouble than it’s worth.

831

Charges: Shorthand for “I love you” – 8 letters, 3 words, 1 meaning. “Never encrypt or abbreviate one’s  love.”

Verdict: Not guilty. If this one survives until 2018, it will only be from hipsters using it ironically, which may prompt the case to be reopened.

HISTORIC

Charges: Being “thrown around far too much.”

Verdict: Guilty. The court hopes that this verdict serves to inspire those in attendance to avoid hyperbole and find more creative adjectives.

MANICURED

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty. The word does have a sort of real-estate-salesman-y feel to it but has not been overused to the point of being divorced from its original meaning.

ECHO CHAMBER

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty (for now). Like its accomplice “confirmation bias” this is a reasonably concise way of describing a clearly valid concept.

ON FLEEK

Charges: “Needs to return to its genesis: perfectly groomed eyebrows.”

Verdict: Guilty. The fact that as a society we find eyebrows important enough to nickname is bad enough; worse is that this phrase is already on track to become inescapable and will cause adults to embarrass themselves when using it in the name of hipness, such as Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol.

BIGLY

Charges: Being used by Donald Trump

Verdict: Not guilty. This is the aspect of the pending Trump presidency that we’re going to get upset about?

GHOST

Charges: Being slang for abruptly ending communication, especially on social media

Verdict: Not guilty. Even the prosecution has its doubt: “Is it rejection angst, or is this word really as overused as word-banishment nominators contend?”

DADBOD

Charges: “Empowering dads to pursue a sedentary lifestyle.”

Verdict: Guilty. This word (“the flabby opposite of a chiseled male ideal”) isn’t the one who actually robbed the bank; it was just slower than the ring leader (“dad joke”) in running to escape the word police after the alarm was tripped.

LISTICLE

Charges: A portmanteau of “list” and “article.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The problem is the item itself, not what we call it.

“GET YOUR DANDRUFF UP…”

Charges: Unknown.

Verdict: Not guilty.

SELFIE DRONE

Charges: Breaking new ground in selfies by tasking a drone to enable new angles (“How can this end badly?”)

Verdict: Not guilty. As with “Listicle” there is a difference between a truly annoying, overused expression and simply naming something that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

FRANKENFRUIT

Charges: Being “another food group co-opted by ‘frankenfood’.”

Verdict: Guilty. People have a right to get their dandruff up about genetically modified organisms, but words such as “frankenfruit” that are intended to scare people into ortheorexia nervosa instead might scare some of them straight to McDonald’s.

DISRUPTION

Charges: This classic Van Halen guitar solo is charged with inspiring would-be guitarists at music stores across the country to butcher it while trying out instruments, thus making a…oh, sorry, I thought you said “Eruption.” “Disruption” is charged with “bumping into other over-used synonyms for change.”

Verdict: Not guilty. There can never be enough synonyms for “change.”

As for “that/those/dat ____, tho”, “I’m just going to leave this here” and “[no words]”: consider this a warning.

What say you, sir?

November 30, 2016

#121) Book review: “The Sex Lives of Cannibals”

It’s hard not to have one’s interest piqued by a book with a title such as “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” but it also begs the question of whether the rest of the book will live up to that promise. Thankfully in the case of J. Maarten Troost’s travelogue of two years on Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced KEER-uh-bahss), the answer is yes.

“Sex Lives” combines two related themes – fish out of water; American attempts to “civilize” the savages but ends up learning from them – and throws in a welcome shot of self-deprecation. Granted, the effectiveness of self-deprecation depends on how deeply the self is willing to deprecate, but Troost’s humor is believable. While he occasionally makes his writing skill and deep insights part of the story, for the most part he keeps it real. In the mid 1990s, before his Tarawa odyssey, Troost, having recently completed graduate school, finds himself professionally and emotionally adrift. “Job offers were not forthcoming, most likely because I didn’t apply for any jobs…Instead I went to Cuba….One may wonder how an unemployed ex-graduate student…could afford a trip to Cuba…in an act of colossal misjudgement, American Express had agreed to give me a credit card.” En route to Tarawa, Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia stop at Johnson Atoll, a desert island with a long and infamous history of U.S. nuclear testing. “It is tempting to dash off a page or two and expound upon the philosophical implications of Johnson Atoll….for writers more ambitious than I this would be like catnip,” Troost notes. “However….I was not struck by any profound ruminations. My thoughts were more along the lines of Could someone please close the fucking door before we all turn into mutants?”

The dichotomy of lofty ideals and mundane reality is an ongoing theme of “Sex Lives.” Many well meaning white Europeans and Americans have had big plans for Kiribati, including Sylvia, who is hired as a country director for the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific-Kiribati Office. Her job is to educate the natives; one way she does so is to produce “message oriented plays on the importance of green, leafy vegetables and the proper treatment of diarrhea, among other topics not typically explored on Broadway.” Meanwhile, the islanders, with their “if it ain’t broke” attitude view these outsiders (I-Matangs) with a mix of amusement and resentment. It doesn’t take Troost long to understand their perspective. While he’s shocked at how complacent the I-Kiribati are about rampant disease, an infant mortality rate of almost 10% and an average life expectancy of 52 (men) and 55 (women) he also notes that “the greatest beneficiaries of I-Matang aid were the I-Matangs themselves.” On editing a feasibility study about farming on the island, he says, “It must have looked like a sensible thing to do over an espresso in Rome. Of course, how one transports perishable vegetables from an island that lacks electricity and refrigerators was never quite addressed…” When a team of anti-smoking specialists try to educate the I-Kiribati about the tobacco industry’s evil plans: “The moment these sullen but healthy Western people departed [the I-Kiribati] opened up their tins of Irish tobacco and rolled their cigarettes with pandanus leaves and had a good laugh as they began an evening of serious drinking…the 1996 figures on causes of morbidity in Kiribati…included 99,000 cases of influenza…15,000 cases of diarrhea…and 44 new cases of leprosy…no one lived long enough to be mortally embraced by lung cancer or emphysema.”

Another dichotomy is the two faces of life on Kiribati: “[a] visceral form of bipolar disorder. There is the ecstatic high, when you find yourself swept away in a lagoonside maneaba [meeting house] rumbling to the frenzied singing and dancing of hundreds of rapturous islanders. And there are the crushing lows, when you succumb to a listless depression, brought about by the unyielding heat, sporadic sickness, pitiless isolation, food shortages…” For a Westerner used to modern comforts and conveniences, Kiribati is a culture shock, but as Maarten and Sylvia adjust to life on Tarawa, their perspective about necessity and priorities change.  As Sylvia’s contract ends, they consider staying longer. “Once I aspired to be a foreign correspondent for the New York Times,” Troost muses. “Now I aspired to open a coconut with the same panache as the I-Kiribati.”

Lessons not withstanding, Troost isn’t out to make us pick between the simplicity of island life and the complexity of the modern world as much as he is to find comedy in the differences between the two. When he decides that he simply must get a hold of the New Yorker to read about the Monica Lewinsky scandal (“I often found myself approaching other I-Matangs. ‘I’ll trade you my December 1978 Scientific American – it’s about this new thing called computers – for your March 1986 Newsweek’“) the resulting phone call is on par with Peter Sellers’ conversation with the Russian premier in “Dr. Strangelove.” “There are no street names, there’s only one street here,” Troost tries to explain to the befuddled woman in the New Yorker’s international subscriptions department.

As for the literal promise of the title, there’s not much in the way of sex or cannibalism, but “Sex Lives” provides consistent mental stimulation and entertainment nonetheless. It’s the type of book of which I wish Bill Bryson and his ilk would write more: intellectually engaging without being ponderous; dryly humorous without being too arch. No, this book didn’t make me want to vacation in Kiribati any time soon but that’s not Troost’s goal. His goal is to find life, culture and humor in a place that many will go their whole lives without ever realizing exists and he succeeds.

November 10, 2016

#120) What do we tell the children: why Harry Edwards matters

Like many I’m still grappling with my feelings about the presidential election; in my case disappointment that Gary Johnson didn’t reach the threshold of votes necessary to secure federal funding for the Libertarian party (despite having more than three times as many votes as last time) and a sense that America, while justifiably weary of the status quo, has committed to a massive roll of the dice. Also like many, I’ve been staring at my social media feed (note to self: disabling the Facebook app on your cell phone doesn’t have any net effect when you can’t stop looking at the damn thing in your browser) and simultaneously absorbing the interesting insights folks have about our unique situation and the shit show. (I believe there’s a place for both in life.) Several common themes pop up: screen shots of the crashed Canadian immigration website; pictures of Katniss; memes with clever variations on the theme “Orange is the new black” and articles addressing the question, “What do we tell the children?”

Well, if there’s one thing that parents love, it’s getting advice from people without kids, so here goes. What do we tell the children? We tell them about Dr. Harry Edwards. Nearly 30 years ago Edwards made a move that had minimal impact outside of its immediate context but nevertheless provides an example of a way to move forward in these contentious times.

In April of 1987, to mark the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball color barrier, Los Angeles Dodgers vice president Al Campanis, a former teammate of Robinson, was interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline. Koppel asked Campanis why there were still so few minorities in upper level positions across baseball. Campanis, then age 70, who by various accounts had recently suffered a stroke and was exhausted from traveling said, “I don’t believe it’s prejudice. I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.” A surprised Koppel tried to give Campanis a chance to walk it back, to which Campanis rambled about his former black teammates who were “[O]utstanding athletes, very God-gifted, and they’re wonderful people, and that’s all that I can tell you about them.”

Within 48 hours, Campanis was gone by firing or resignation; sources vary. By the summer, he was back. Campanis’s replacement was African-American sociology professor Harry Edwards, who re-hired Campanis. “We are going to have to deal with the Campanises in baseball and it’s good to have one in-house who knows how they think,” he said. Another Edwards comment has been echoed in analyses of Trump’s campaign. “[Campanis] represents millions of Americans in terms of the views he articulated. We can’t just consign him to the trash can without consigning millions of our fellow citizens to the trash can as well.”

What do Edwards and Campanis have to do with what we tell the children? Depending on the age of the children in question, the message may be articulated differently – never argue with a fool because bystanders might not be able to tell the difference; play nicely with the other kids in the sandbox, even the one who defecates in it – but it still boils down to basically the same thing. Many people will do and say things that will cause you to scratch your head, but avoiding them or pretending they don’t exist is like trying to hide your lousy report card (not that I would know anything about that.) Living in a society where everyone agrees all the time is at best boring, at worst dangerous.

Will Edwards’s reaching across enemy lines be a model? Like everything else with the pending Trump presidency, we’ll just have to wait and see, but at least it’s an idea for one of many things that we can tell the children.

September 18, 2016

#119) Classic at a crossroads: the 20th anniversary of 20 strikeouts (v 2.0)

There wasn’t much reason to attend the Detroit Tigers baseball game on Wednesday, September 18th, 1996. The Tigers had not had a winning season in three years and were currently mired in a 10-game losing streak, a whopping 36 games out of first place in their division. Yet whether it was to catch Alan Trammell in the final days of his illustrious Tigers career, to celebrate making it through “Hump Day” or maybe just due to pure boredom, 8,779 fans showed up to Tiger Stadium that night as their team took the field against the visiting Boston Red Sox.

The Sox season had been disappointing as well. They sputtered into Detroit all but mathematically eliminated from the pennant race, 8 games behind their rivals the New York Yankees, a team led by rookie all-star Derek Jeter and new manager Joe Torre. Pitcher Roger Clemens took the mound for Boston, in danger of posting the second losing season of his career with a record of 9 wins, 11 losses. Clemens was in the final year of his contract. Sox general manager Dan Duquette commented that he hoped to “keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.” Perhaps some of the fans in attendance wanted a chance to see the 34-year old fastballer before he hung it up, but like Trammell, it would have been hard to watch Clemens without any sense of loss for the glory days. For Sox fans, Clemens’ three Cy Young awards must have seemed forever ago, as was the night just over a decade earlier that he set a major league record by striking out 20 Seattle Mariners.

My 1996 was about as uplifting as those of the Sox and Tigers. I’d just retreated to my parents’ house following a dramatic breakup. One of my best friends had just moved out of town and I’d been downsized from my band, which decided to have the rhythm guitar player take over on bass.  Like the fans in Detroit, I had little else to do that night. The game would distract me for at least a couple of hours so I plopped in front of the TV in the living room where I’d grown up, tuned to NESN and let announcers Bob Kurtz and Jerry Remy do their thing.

Jeff Frye popped up to start the game. The second Sox batter had a long name that I didn’t recognize and didn’t appear on the TV screen long enough for me to figure out how to pronounce. Like most people watching the game, I had no idea that Nomar Garciaparra, a shortstop who’d made his debut three weeks earlier, would become the first Red Sox Rookie of the Year since 1975 the following season. “No-Maah”, as he would soon become known, walked and stole second but was left on base when Jose Canseco grounded out to end the inning. The novelty of seeing the former Sox nemesis in a Boston uniform had long since worn off for me; I almost felt bad for the poor bastard. In Oakland he had been Rookie of the Year and become the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same year. Since then his off-field shenanigans seemed to overshadow his play on the diamond, which included injuring himself during an ill-advised pitching stint and letting a fly ball bounce off his head into the stands for a home run.

In the bottom of the first, Trammell gave the fans a taste of the past with a base hit, but it was all for nought as Clemens struck out the next two batters. He struck out the side in the second inning and picked up two more in the third.

In the top of the fourth, Mike Greenwell got a hit and scored a run. “Gator” had been an all-star back in ’88 and ’89, but would play only 77 games in 1996, his last season. He and Clemens were the only veterans of Boston’s 1986 American League champion team still with the club. The Sox posted three runs before No-Maah struck out to end the inning.

Clemens remained strong, striking out five consecutive batters over the next two innings. After allowing a leadoff single in the sixth, he struck out the side, good for an impressive total of 15 as the game headed into the seventh. The hometown fans were starting to applaud each strikeout, the drudgery of the lame-duck season forgotten.

The Sox added an insurance run to make it 4-0 and Clemens picked up two more strikeouts each in the seventh and eighth innings. After Canseco struck out to end the top of the 9th, Kurtz told the TV audience, “Don’t go away, folks.”

I wasn’t going away. It had been a while since a Red Sox game had held me captive like this. I’d been too young to remember anything much of Clemens’ first 20-strikeout game. The last Red Sox no-hitter had happened in 1965. The last Red Sox World Series win…well, the less said about that the better. But tonight, in an otherwise lackluster season, Clemens was knocking on history’s door. I felt a wave of excitement and stood up, shaking myself loose before sitting back down. My recent  break-up and other tribulations suddenly didn’t matter; I had a chance to watch the most notable positive Red Sox moment in recent memory.

Trammell popped up to start the inning, drawing a smattering of boos from the crowd. After allowing a base hit to Ruben Sierra, Clemens got two strikes on Tony Clark but the Detroit batter kept fouling off pitches before finally sending a fly ball to Greenwell, deep in left field. As more boos rained from the stands from fans who now knew that no record would be broken tonight, Remy commented, “Well, it looks like the record is safe.”

I too was disappointed to know that I would not get to watch a record get broken, but at least the game had distracted me for two hours. I still had a chance to see Clemens match his record – a feat that might well be even more impressive and meaningful than the first time he did it.

Clemens, baseball and myself had all grown older. His record-setting game and Cy Young awards had electrified Boston but hadn’t been able to bring the city the one thing it wanted more than anything else. Now Clemens and Boston were a couple together for too long; for the last few years he’d made the news more for running his mouth at umps and reporters than for strikeouts.

Travis Fryman took the first two pitches for balls. Perhaps he was wary of being a part of history. Some of the fans who had been standing sat back down.

We often look back at the past with rose-colored glasses, but in 1996, it was hard not  to feel as if Clemens’ 20-strikeout game of 1986 was an event of a bygone era. The strike of 1994 was still a sore memory for many fans. Pete Rose was now known more for his gambling and tax scandals than for his record-setting career. Players’ salaries were already raising eyebrows in 1986, but by 1996, they had nearly tripled. Baseball’s new playoff format and division re-alignment had met with a response that was mixed at best; traditionalists were also upset about the onset of inter-league play, scheduled to start the following season.

Clemens’ 149th and 150th pitches of the night were strikes, bringing the count to 2-2 and once again sparking the interest of the fans. For the moment, the recent strike, inflated salaries, Clemens’ looming departure from Boston were forgotten. Clemens was one strike away from proving that even in complicated times, the game of baseball still has the power to thrill. No matter how disappointing the season may be, you can still go to the ball park and have a chance to see history. Even when a relationship had run its course, there could still be one last shot at glory. Even when a local hero’s best days seemed long gone, he could still add one last chapter to his legacy.

Clemens got the sign from catcher Bill Haselman. Peering in at Fryman, he set, wound up and delivered one last pitch.

September 3, 2016

#118) How not to complain #6: Friends in low places

Let’s start with the standard disclaimer: I agree with much of what is said in David Hopkins’ article for Medium in which he blames the TV show “Friends” for triggering “the downfall of Western Civilization.” I have no problem whatsoever with the phrases “American Idol” and “Reign of Terror” being used in the same sentence. I have endless sympathy for middle school chess club members who get bullied. As with other complaint deconstructions, however, the issue  is whether Hopkins will sway others to his side. Sure, the geeks who despised the ubiquity of “Friends” and its good-looking cast will nod until their coke-bottle glasses slip off their nose, but will he be able to give the beautiful people pause? Given the article’s descent from promising tongue-in-cheek to lecture, I’d say probably not.

The premise: David Schwimmer’s character, Ross, was set up as the program’s “fall guy” – portrayed in the beginning as a lovable misfit but later as an elitist nag who was too smart for the room. As Hopkins points out, “[A]ny time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas…one of his ‘friends’ was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares.” According to Hopkins, Ross’s rejection, both by the other characters and the show’s wide audience, was “the moment when much of America groaned, mid-sentence, at the voice of reason.”

The two main downfalls of Hopkins’ argument are themes that come up regularly among ineffective complaints: lack of historical context and lack of empathy/humor.

Hopkins points out that in 2004, the year the show ended, George W. Bush was elected to a second term,  Paris Hilton ruled supreme and Green Day’s Grammy winning album “American Idiot” was released. It was the year “when we completely gave up and embraced stupidity as a value.” Hopkins himself was a middle school teacher at the time, a self-appointed protector of the nerdy kids under his tutelage in the chess club: “Maybe intellectuals have always been persecuted and shoved in lockers, but something in my gut tells me we’re at a low point …”

Well, 2004 might not have been the cultural and political pinnacle of Western civilization, but given selected information, any year can be made to look like pure idiocy. Would Hopkins have preferred to have lived in 1965 so he could watch first-run episodes of “My Mother, The Car”? Or in ’72 so he could attend the premier of John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos”?* Let the record show that in 1991, four years before “Friends” and thirteen before Hopkins’ “year that reality television became a dominant force in pop culture” former Cincinnati mayor Gerald N. Springer first took to the airwaves with his perennial Emmy winner. As for persecution of nerds, it’s been happening at least as far back as the 17th century when Galileo was convicted of heresy due to his crazy idea of a heliocentric universe and has continued through Mercury Records telling a certain power trio from Canada that their songs were too long and their lyrics had too many big words. And take it from me–nerds have been shoved into middle school lockers since at least the late ’80s, just like, uh, my, uh, friend…Joey…Jim Bob…uh, Schwartz. Yeah, that’s it, Schwartz.

One could also argue that since 2004, nerd culture has been increasingly embraced, even if superficially–twee, Silverlake, Zooey Deschanel. A case can also be made that, Kardashians notwithstanding, since “Friends” television has upped its game – “Mad Men”, “Sons of Anarchy”, “Walking Dead”, “The Voice” and many other shows that people tell me are awesome.

History aside, Hopkins’ admonishment to “read a fucking book” probably won’t send folks on a beeline to the library any more than “stop buying so much shit” will keep them away from WalMart. Hopkins concludes with a positive note, asking us to “protect the nerds”: “Nerds create vaccines. Nerds engineer bridges and roadways…we need these obnoxiously smart people, because they make the world a better place.” His sympathy for nerds is admirable, but to be a more effective complainer, he also needs to sympathize – or at least empathize – with the quarterbacks and cheerleaders behind enemy lines.

*The only movie I have ever had to turn off

July 19, 2016

#117) Book review: “Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park” by Matthew Gilbert

I had three purposes in reading this book. First, having recently become a dog parent, I was curious about the author’s experiences with and observations of dog park culture. Second, the park in question is Amory Park in my hometown of Brookline, MA, a spot where I spent many youthful summer evenings playing catch, listening to bands and not having sex. Third, I’m intrigued by new angles on old formulas and I wanted to see how “Off the Leash” did with “Dog Teaches Human To Open Up And Embrace Life.”

As a non-dog person growing up, Matthew Gilbert never expected himself to be the parent of Toby, a yellow lab. Having often felt socially inept, he usually avoided interactions. As an adult, it was easy for him to hide behind work or his cell phone instead of connecting with strangers. However, at the dog park, all bets are off. On regular trips to the park, Gilbert learns to let go of his inhibitions, both by watching Toby play with reckless abandon and by finding himself in close proximity to people whose paths he never otherwise would have crossed.

There’s an old joke about a baseball game being fifteen minutes of action crammed into three hours. “Off the Leash” is an essay crammed into a memoir. Gilbert has points that he believes are important (and maybe they are) but he repeats them to the extent that they lose their meaning. His prose, laden with flowery similes and deep insights, seems to be aimed more toward scoring points with editors and reviewers than entertaining the general public. Gilbert spends four pages analyzing how throwing a ball to Toby brings back childhood memories of gym class ineptitude but then aborts on story lines that have potential. One regular is described as an author of terrible puns; we never hear any of them. A woman with rectangular glasses and crazy hair has never heard of Britney Spears or Madonna but there’s no backstory to explain her avoidance of popular culture. Sure, readers don’t always need their hand held, but while Gilbert is busy with minutiae, he doesn’t give us enough reason to care about the dog park regulars or even his own journeys from outcast to social butterfly; from being afraid of dogs, dirt and chaos to embracing them. It’s both disappointing and surprising that Gilbert, a TV critic for the Boston Globe, hasn’t created more memorable characters.

I found myself comparing this book (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) to “Marley and Me.” Granted, Gilbert’s going for a more subdued, observational humor than the belly laughs caused by Marley’s antics, but still, “Marley and Me” spoke to me more when I read it as a non dog person than “Off the Leash” did when I read it as a dog person. John Grogan was able to sell me on Marley as a projection of himself–awkward and unruly but ultimately loyal beyond measure. Gilbert’s attempts to do so both with himself and Toby and with other dogs and their humans seem forced; he describes the bond between dogs and owners as a “caravan” and then proceeds to use that word more often than Bill Bryson uses the word “arresting” in “In A Sunburned Country.” Grogan also makes the locales part of the story, particularly in how Marley’s unrefined energy terrorizes the beautiful people of Boca Raton and their chihuahuas. By contrast, there’s nothing particularly special about Gilbert’s Amory Park. I frequently had to remind myself, “Dude, you should be more interested in this…it takes place in Brookline.”

That’s not to say that “Leash” doesn’t have its merits. Gilbert has a nice eye for detail, in particular how he captures the nuances of the changing seasons during the year he chronicles. One of the few well developed characters is an old man who has no dog but comes to the park for the company, providing a touch of melancholy that rings bittersweet without being preachy. Some of Gilbert’s observations hit the mark in spite of themselves: “We were at the Cheers bar and the dogs were the booze that loosened us up.” Others are poignant without being too sentimental: “Sometimes someone you liked just vanished…and you knew you’d never see that person again in the same casual way. You’d run into them in the market and awkwardly ask after each others’ dogs. You’d had a special daily bond that you couldn’t easily conjure up or recreate on a cell phone.”

“Off the Leash” is weighty at times but ultimately doesn’t ask too much of its readers. It’s short, often piquant and when it waxes literary at a level beyond appropriate for the subject matter (“The wooden picnic tables continued their distinguished aging process…”) it’s easy to tune out. Airplane, at the beach, before bed: these are a few of the contexts where “Off the Leash” can best give what it gives: an essay’s worth of mildly amusing, occasionally interesting observations on life disguised as a 220-page memoir.

July 6, 2016

#116) Learning from ketchup

“Would you like to upgrade to medium or large?” she asked.

“No thanks.”

“Any dessert for you today?”

“No thanks.”

“Thank you, pull up for your total.”

At the drive through window, she asked, “Would you like any ketchup for the fries?”

“No thanks.”

“Anything else I can get you?”

“No thanks.”

“Have a nice day.”

“No th…sorry, I mean, you too.”

I parked beneath the shade of a nearby tree and hungrily pulled out my feast. As I put the three packets of ketchup back in the bag, I found myself  wondering how much revenue businesses lose by being so busy focusing on sales that they don’t see the inventory walking out the door.

July 3, 2016

#115) Remembering Cimino

No animals were harmed during the writing of this blog post.

Late 1970s. A movement that recently dominated has shown signs of fading from public favor. In these uncertain times, a young rising star becomes the darling of the industry. Seen as infallible, he is given unlimited power to create the masterpiece that will bring glory, fame and influence to all involved.

Result: disaster.

No, we’re not talking about Howard Scott Warshaw and the “E.T.” video game, but a man whose life had some interesting parallels to that of the Atari software engineer. Oscar-winning film director Michael Cimino has become the latest unfortunate addition to the Class of 2016 at age 77.

You don’t have to have seen “The Sicilian” or “Year of the Dragon”(I haven’t) to find the life of Cimino intriguing; indeed it’s at least as compelling a movie subject as, oh, I don’t know, say the Johnson County War. There are one-hit wonders (If they can make a movie about Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, why not one about Cimino?) There are those who are remembered only for one unfortunate moment, such as Miss Teen South Carolina and that guy who didn’t catch the ground ball Mookie Wilson hit. It’s unusual, however, for a person to be associated equally with a brilliant achievement and a dumpster fire. Yet Cimino’s story also has familiar elements of hubris and the American tendency to build something up, start resenting its power and then tear it down (not unlike the Son of Beast roller coaster.)

After his first film, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), starring and produced by Clint Eastwood, Cimino swung for the fences with a $15 million Vietnam War epic. His studio, EMI, was wary. Just a few years removed from “The Godfather”, director-oriented movies were starting to seem like financial risks. A cerebral thriller called “Sorcerer” from director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) was badly beaten at the box office by another movie released the same weekend: “Star Wars.” How would audiences respond to a film with a “gruesome storyline and a barely known director?”

“The Deer Hunter” brought in $49 million at the box office and won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. New Hollywood was still alive. Now signed with United Artists, Cimino was given full creative control over his next project, a film with an estimated $7.5 million price tag. The director and his crew headed up to the Montana wilderness in the spring of 1979 to start filming with the goal of finishing in time for the year’s Oscar season.

By the time “Heaven’s Gate” was released in November of 1980, its budged had exploded to $44 million and it had already been the subject of many tabloid stories. The film–cut from its original five hours to three and a half–was pulled after only one week of release. A two and a half hour re-release in 1981 also tanked. When the dust settled, “Heaven’s Gate” had made $1.5 million and was blamed for the demise of United Artists Studios. With Francis Coppola’s “One From The Heart” ($26 million budget, $636,000 box office), “Heaven’s Gate” also effectively ended the era of director-oriented pictures. Cimino directed four more films but his career never lived up to its promise.

Yet the years have been kind to “Heaven’s Gate.” Re-releases of the film have met with acclaim; while its flaws are not overlooked its virtues are also given light. Perhaps Cimino’s ultimate vindication came from general understanding that the post-New Hollywood way hasn’t resulted in better films. As Coppola said in 2000, “Directors don’t have much power anymore, the executives make unheard of amounts of money, and budgets are more out of control than they ever were. And there hasn’t been a classic in ten years.” In the 2004 documentary “Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate” former UA exec Steven Bach states, “The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

Now that Cimino has joined “Heaven’s Gate” cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016), how will he be remembered?  This article from the Guardian might provide a clue: “…[Y]ou don’t always have to think of the terms ‘catastrophe’ and ‘classic’ as incompatible. Just this once, you’re permitted both.”

 

June 30, 2016

#114) Movie review: “Atari: Game Over”

It’s the stuff of geek legend, especially among geeks who grew up in the 1980s. In the summer of 1982, Atari is seeing its domination of the home video game market faltering. The U.S. economy is slow and stores are being flooded with low-quality games. Atari has already taken lumps over the 2600 console’s poorly received version of the arcade mega-hit PacMan, so they need to come up with something big. Feeding on the success of the Raiders of the Lost Ark game, they opt to license another movie for a tie-in: the blockbuster “E.T.” Negotiations for the rights take longer than expected. With the deadline for a holiday season release approaching, game designer Howard Warshaw has only five weeks to complete “E.T.” – compared to a typical time frame of six months. The result is a product that is not only disappointing but also cited as the cause for the subsequent collapse in the video game market. In the wake of the “E.T.” disaster, millions of the unsold and returned cartridges are buried in the New Mexico desert.

Or are they?

“Atari: Game Over” (currently streaming on Netflix and available on Youtube) examines this rumor, weaving two narratives: a flashback of the rise and fall of Atari and indeed all video games between Pong and Nintendo and a present-day (2014) account of geek pilgrims lobbying the city of Alamogordo for permission to excavate the land fill and vet out the legend.

In judging such a specialized film the key question is: will it appeal to those who don’t have particular interest in the subject? In this case…probably. “Atari: Game Over” is short  (66 minutes) and engaging enough that almost anyone can find it appealing. Long story short: you shouldn’t have to beg your girlfriend to watch it with you, especially if you’ve recently sat through a romcom with her.

Director Zak Penn, noted for writing several scripts for Marvel superhero movies and for a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster, clearly has affection for the subject matter and the film plays more as a nonfiction feature than as a documentary. While there ultimately is a little more cheerleading and back-patting than necessary, the film moves at a good pace, providing engaging detail without getting too bogged down in particulars. Howard Warshaw could be seen as the protagonist. As a 25-year old he achieved acclaim with “Yar’s Revenge”, one of Atari’s most popular and well-received games. He also designed the successful “Raiders” but “E.T.” not only hurt his beloved company but sullied his reputation as well. After the demise of Atari, Warshaw moved from one industry to another, never finding the same excitement and purpose, never able to shake his attachment to the doomed game. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and xBox co-creator Seamus Blackley are among those who provide commentary and historical context. Robert Rentschler and Susie Galea (respectively the former and current mayors of Alamogordo) and waste disposal expert Joe Lewandowski are among the players in the present-day excavation.

The two storylines build to a climax on April 26th, 2014. In what has been described as “geek Woodstock”, gamers from far and wide come to witness the dig. One shows up in a deLorean; many are wearing T-shirts of classic Atari games such as “Pitfall!” and “Space Invaders.” The shovels start digging. Will the games be found? Will they be intact? What if the chemicals from the cartridges begat a bunch of radioactive pigs? Will the gathering of gamers mean redemption for Warshaw?

We love to build up and tear down and when something survives that process, be it a movie, book, song or game, it earns a special place in geek culture. Not only did “E.T.” not deserve its reputation but it also brought people together in  way that a game that was simply mediocre wouldn’t have. Ultimately, Penn is no more concerned with the results of the dig as he is with showing how the game became a touchstone for a generation and telling a story of redemption and affection for the past. As Raiford Guins, a professor of culture and technology says in the film, “I would still rather play Atari’s E.T. than any Call of Duty.”

June 23, 2016

#113) You can’t give it away: #3 (The heartless bastard who wouldn’t let Amazon make a charitable donation for him)

“Would you like to make a donation to your favorite charity (at no cost to you?)” Amazon wanted to know. It turned out that some of the products in my cart were eligible for “AmazonSmile”, the online retailer’s charitable contributions program. Win-win, right? I mean, what kind of heartless bastard wouldn’t want to donate at no cost to themselves?

This guy. (Did I mention? I am the titular heartless bastard.)

In this edition of “You Can’t Give It Away” we will look at my motivation (or lack thereof) in not making a mouse click in the name of philanthropy. If making someone’s donation for them doesn’t do the trick, how are nonprofits supposed to raise a buck?

Whether it’s buying a product, ordering a service or even making a donation, “free” isn’t always the goal. Donors may have any number of motivations, be it emotional satisfaction, belief in the cause or Jewish guilt. According to this article on Philanthropy News Digest, “[P]ersonal connections — not trending topics, gimmicks, or social media engagement itself — are the key driver of charitable giving.” A prompt for a mouse click does not a personal connection make. Indeed, blogger John Kenyon articulates a skepticism many feel about donating through a corporation: “Unfortunately, for years I have seen nonprofits waste time, energy and hope on similar online charity malls…My issues with them – and with AmazonSmile – are…that they only benefit nonprofits with a large supporter base and they usually have a negative overall ROI for organizations that participate.”

Ease of donation can also mean a less rewarding experience for the donor–and makes it less likely that the donor will contribute more in the future. As this article about Amazon Smile notes, “Without a cost there is no actual exchange with the charity. Yet the charitable reward exists. So the question is if you’ve already received a reward, at no cost to you, are you more or less likely to give to a charity when the time comes?”

Let’s face it: when every other social media post in your feed is a Kickstarter or a Go Fund Me and  Rite-Aid asks you if you want to round up your change for charity,  you don’t have to be a heartless bastard to feel saturated by solicitations. Yes, we want to give but sometimes we just want to buy crap online and be done with it. When I am in that mood, vaguely altruistic ideas and omnipotent click buttons just don’t do the job the way a well thought-out invitation and the creation of a personal connection to the story can.

Well, that wraps up this edition of You Can’t Give It Away. I realize this post begs the question, “How can I find time to work on my blog but I can’t be bothered to click a button for the benefit of mankind?”

Told you I was a heartless bastard.