February 3, 2017

#124) Movie review: “The Founder”

founder1It’s almost too easy, right? A ruthless tycoon screws two honest, hard-working brothers out of their idea and makes billions selling food that causes obesity and other health problems. I mean, come on, this guy makes Vader look like an Eagle Scout. The script practically writes itself!

Not so fast.  “The Founder”, directed by John Lee Hancock, written by Robert Siegel and starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, isn’t a character assassination. Nor does it present its subject as a charismatic anti-hero a la “The Social Network.” The film’s restraint – criticized by some as “wishy-washy” and “as bland as the burgers the businessman hawked” – is in fact its strength.

We already know what happens and there are few surprises en route. The trusting, values-driven McDonald brothers (John Carroll Lynch as Mac and Nick Offerman as Dick) don’t have any more of chance against Kroc than Kroc’s loyal but sullen wife Ethel (Laura Dern) has against Joan (Linda Cardellini), the young, forward-thinking blonde whom he meets on a business trip. The film’s ending seems abrupt but it’s only because ultimately there’s not much to add: Kroc died uneventfully in 1984, never having experienced consequences for his business tactics.

“The Founder” works by staying out of the audience’s way, resisting the urge to score obvious points. There is no blistering indictment of Kroc’s actions, the unhealthy product he sold or employee wages. The period details are accurate without calling attention to themselves. The recognizable but not ubiquitous cast don’t treat their roles as platforms to make statements. The script is not too witty for the subject matter (sorry, Aaron Sorkin) and the dialogue is realistic. There is one clever exchange between the brothers but it’s subtle enough that most viewers will miss it and those who catch it will smile knowingly and appreciate that this touch of symbolism remains just that: a touch.

What it adds up to is that the viewers are given a clean slate on which to draw their own conclusions. Was Kroc an opportunist who wasn’t able to contain his excitement when he saw a chance to escape years of mediocrity or was he a true villain? Did Kroc actually want to give the McDonald Brothers a fair shake in the beginning but acted selfishly and impulsively when his vision outgrew theirs, or was he out to swindle them all along? Was he a genius or simply in the right place at the right time? Some film goers won’t want to give Kroc the benefit of the doubt, but Hancock and Keaton make sure he receives a fair trial. We see Kroc drinking regularly but not excessively. His late night talks with Joan appear illicit at first but are strictly corporate. He hides his financial difficulties from Ethel, but the film knows better than to expect pearl clutching: no, not everyone is 100% transparent about money with their spouse.

Some may see the movie’s lack of an obvious moral stance as an attempt to pander both to Middle America and the coasts; others may be disappointed that more heads don’t roll. On the other hand, among blockbusters and issue-oriented pictures, a no-frills $7 million film that allows the audience to ask and answer their own questions also just might have a place.

 

 

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January 6, 2017

#123) Learning from idiots 6: The Cherry Sisters

cherry-sisters-adIf Donald Trump had won the 1896 Presidential Election, he would have found suitable performers for his inauguration in the Cherry Sisters. At first glance, the four sisters from Marion, Iowa and their infamous vaudeville act might seem an ancestor to the “so bad, it’s good” oeuvre of Ed Wood or the car-crash-you-can’t-take-your-eyes-off appeal of the Kardashians. However, close examination shows that the story of the Cherry Sisters just might share some unlikely parallels to that of our president elect.

In 1893, Addie, Effie, Ella (the oldest, who only appeared during the early years), Jessie and Lizzie Cherry decided to put together a performance act to raise money to attend the Chicago World’s Fair. The sisters had recently been orphaned and their brother Nathan had disappeared under unknown circumstances. Although their friends in Marion were supportive, on the road, the reception wasn’t quite so warm. As one reviewer wrote, “Their long skinny arms equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and soon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. Their mouths opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom.” The dumpster fire drew the attention of struggling New York producer Willie Hammerstein, father of famed librettist Oscar II. Hammerstein’s rationale in bringing the sisters to Broadway might be compared to that of recent voters: “I’ve been putting on the best talent, and it hasn’t gone over…I’m going to try the worst.” His investment paid off as Cherry Sisters sold out his Olympia Theater, saving it from bankruptcy.

The Cherry Sisters often played the delusional victim (“Although we have the best act in vaudeville and are the best drawing card on the stage, we have no swelled head, as some others have…We have had more knocking since we went into the theatrical business than any act in the history of the world”) and described their modus operandi in a, shall we say, somewhat circuitous manner (“I have recitations and readings; recite and read in costume. Sometimes I have worn men’s clothes. I never dance. I recite essays and events that have happened, I have written up of my own.”) On the other hand, they may have been shrewder than they let on. Author Jack El-Hai argues, “Though undoubtedly lacking in artistry, they exploited badness to stay in the public eye. It was their brand.”

Another parallel-if not directly between the sisters and Trump, between their time and ours-can be seen in the the girls’ relationship with the press. It was darkly symbiotic: terrible performance = scathing reviews = newspapers sold to bloodthirsty readers = publicity for the act = new audiences for more terrible performances. As this NPR article notes, “The journalistic jabbing, which rivaled some of today’s most caustic comments sections, became part of the strange, interactive audience participation that surrounded the sisters.” An early review rings eerily familiar today: “Such unlimited gall as was exhibited last night…is past the understanding of ordinary mortals.” The critic went on to point out, “At one minute the scene was like the incurable ward in an insane asylum, the next it was like a camp meeting.”

A non-symbiotic episode between the sisters and the media was their 1901 libel lawsuit, Cherry vs. Des Moines Leader. The Iowa Supreme Court found in favor of the defendant: “One who goes upon the stage to exhibit himself to the public…may be freely criticised. He may be held up to ridicule, and entire freedom of expression is guarantied dramatic critics, provided they are not actuated by malice….Unless this be true, liberty of speech and of the press guarantied by the constitution is nothing more than a name. If there ever was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm–aye, even gross exaggeration–it is the one now before us.” (Though, as the Strange Company blog notes, “The popular suspicion that both sides in the dispute were staging a mutually advantageous publicity stunt was probably not unfounded.”)

Whether they were too dumb to know better, gluttons for punishment or secretly enjoyed the debacle, the Cherry Sisters persevered in the face of unrelenting adversity from critics and audiences until the youngest, Jessie, died from typhoid at age 31 in 1903. The older sisters then retired the act and returned to Iowa. In one last parallel, Effie ran for mayor of Marion in 1924 on a platform of “early curfews, efficient garbage collection, and the prohibition of profanity.” Here, her story takes a decidedly different turn from Trump’s; she received 805 out of 10,000 votes.

Effie was the last surviving sister when she died in 1944. Her New York Times obituary noted, “Maybe the laugh was on their side. Maybe the Cherry Sisters knew better than the public what was really going on. Be this as it may, they left behind an imperishable memory. And they gave more pleasure to their audiences than did many a performer who was merely almost good.” It may be a stretch to speculate that Trump will be remembered in a similar manner, but while we’re waiting to find out, we just might be able to look to the Cherry Sisters for some context on the unusual election cycle we just witnessed.

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.”