We all watched the same shows, for one thing. Leave It to Beaver, The Flintstones, Gilligan's Island, Flipper, Gunsmoke--whatever was the hottest show on a given night, chosen from one of the three networks we had available on our dial: everybody knew the characters, even if they didn't always tune in. Most of us still know the words to the dippy theme songs, like the amazing saga of Jed Clampett. "Up from the ground came a bubblin' crude--oil, that is..." I could stop most any forty-something on the street tomorrow and quiz him or her about Gilligan's Island, and they'd know all the answers. "Oh, yeah, it was a three-hour tour." And so on. We can all look back now at the crap we watched every week, (even during the horrid summer re-run season!), and laugh about it now. We took our shows pretty seriously, though. What else did we have for free entertainment?
We played cards, that's for sure! And Monopoly, and even the game of Life. When we were kids, and feeling creative, we built amazing stuff with Lego bricks and pieces. Stuff we made up on our own, without following step-by-step instructions. All the boys stuck used playing cards to their bicycles with clothespins. Then we'd roar around the neighborhood and thrill to the realistic motor-sound that made. We worried that the cards might wear out our spokes and make the wheels collapse. On a warm summer Saturday night we'd grab flashlights and play flashlight tag, unless there was a really good Gunsmoke re-run on TV, of course.
Our parents took us to the Drive-In. We brought pillows, since we were sure to fall fast asleep during the second feature (the boring "grown-up" movie was always the later show). We never stopped at McDonald's for dinner before the movies; there weren't any McDonalds anywhere near us. Or Burger Kings, or Wendy's, or anything even close. Well, yeah, we did have Drive-In's--the other kind of drive-in, where you could order food right from your car. You could have a burger or a hot dog, a big basket of fries, and a root beer to drink. We weren't allowed to get dinner from the concession stands at the movie drive-ins, 'cause the prices in there were "sky-high," according to my dad. Last movie I saw with my kids, we paid five bucks for a medium-size soft drink. Dad was right!
As kids, the big special was to stop at "The Book Store" for a cherry Coke. Oh, man...cherry Coke--when it was mixed right there in front of you! The Book Store was a lot more than a place to buy books. Keep in mind, this is a two-aisle store with wooden floors and a glass humidor at the register. The Book Store had a slot on Main Street, conveniently on the way to school when we walked. To the right of the entrance was the kid-trap: thirty feet of candy racks. This was before every supermarket sold candy at the registers. We bought the big Smarties by the roll. I think they had things written on them, like "be mine," maybe inside a heart-shoped outline. Everything was a nickle, until it all went up to a dime. Then a quarter. That must have been over the whole course of my schooling, since I don't recall any big shock at the price increases. Seeing a little bag of M&M's selling now for damn near a dollar makes my head hurt.
Anyway, The Book Store had one of those wonderful stainless-steel fountain set-ups. You could order up a big old ice cream sundae or a rootbeer float, if you weren't in the mood for a cherry Coke. The stools were heavy, banded in steel and covered with hard red vinyl (of course? were all soda fountain stools like that? maybe.). It's tough to find a cooler memory from childhood than those few times Dad took us there for a sit-down soda. This place had cool toys, too. You know, the ones you don't want to buy for your kids today 'cause they'll break before the weekend. It was a big deal back then--capguns and those stupid paddles with the little red ball on a rubber band. There were lots of magazines, too. We kids didn't care about those, and we had no idea there were completely naked women pictures hidden in the top rows. I'll bet my Dad knew!
I do remember the big round clear-plastic display case of Matchbox cars that sat to the left of the cash register. You picked out the car you wanted by number, then Dick or Jim (the owners) would get you your Matchbox from under the counter. It came in a funny little cardboard box with no fancy graphics or window to show off what was inside. Before I had any idea about how much things cost, I thought the numbers in the display case were the prices of each model car. How weird is that? It's not like I was stupid or anything; I just had it figured wrong, I guess. Each car was sixty-nine cents, whatever the number of it. I bought one of each, over a period of years. Still got 'em around here somewhere, or my kids have 'em. Bet they'd be worth more than sixty-nine cents if I'd kept the crappy cardboard box and never took them out for play!
Thoughts for next time, or when I update this one: Fran's IGA, and Ogden Drug
No Wal-Marts or fast food restaurants
TV vs cable
Monday night: In the middle of ESPN's still-rough football event, I've carved out a chunk of time to surf over to watch Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I believe the entire crew from the recently-retired West Wing steers this wonderful Aaron Sorkin drama. On a ten-scale, it's a ten. What would I change? Very little. I'd lighten-up some of the low-light scenes. I mentioned this current fascination with darkness in my long review of Jericho. Maybe I'm getting old, but I do like to see who's doing what to whom. My only other nit-pick with Studio 60 concerns the busted love affair between Matthew Perry's character (head writer Matt) and his leading lady, Harriet (Sarah Paulsen). I know you gotta have conflict; that's a given. Let's not dwell, though-- 's all I'm saying.
Tuesday night: I'm a football fan. No shame in admitting that. So I'm psyched about Friday Night Lights. Loved the movie. I'll have to read the book, too. For the TV version, I've got the same small criticism about the over-use of ambient lighting (or the lack there-of). One big question in my mind: why, tell me why, didn't the network schedule this show on Friday nights?? No, that's not a stupid question! This show ain't knocking the ratings dead, by any means. Any little help-us-find-it might matter! Other than that, this is an eleven out of ten.
Special mention goes to Boston Legal. This delightful/devilish show is in a league of its own. Might even have to give it a twelve on that scale of ten. What a fine and surprising save for a series that started out as the sappy and forgettable The Practice. Outstanding.
Wednesday night: Getting past Jericho brings me to Lost. Probably the most creative show on network television. Deserves its own review, too. Everybody talks about this show, especially on the net. Personally, however, I'm getting lost trying to track the hundreds of unanswered questions in Lost. The cast keeps shrinking, as well; and most of the cuts appear to be more contractually-forced than plot-driven. I love reading mysteries, so I should enjoy the endless twists presented by this exceptional drama. I need some answers here, and soon. Otherwise, I'm simply gonna lose interest. In the late slot, I really like what little I've seen of The Nine. Looks like a dynamite premise, very well executed. I'll have to watch a couple more episodes and revisit that one.
Thursday night: I have to put Survivor on my list of shows I can't live without. The cast changes every year, of course; but the set-up and host remain the same. What other show could last this long (is it ten seasons? nine? I'm not sure, off-hand), without making wholesale changes? Even the music has held up over time. You can speculate about producers interfering and creative/deceptive editing and so on. I still love this concept. No other so-called reality show offers Survivor's intriguing blend of social interaction, team-building, and awesome sight-seeing. The only beef I can think of is actually a compliment: why not show reruns during the summer, like every other successful network show does? Then I could miss a few episodes on first-run.
More Thursday night: Obviously, this is THE night for the networks. I can't explain it, but I can accept it. Suddenly, Grey's Anatomy is number one--even pitted directly against the mighty (yawn...) CSI. I've only watched sporadically, so I'll offer this impression: title character Meredith Grey--played by the wispy, weepy Ellen Pompeo--bothers me. She makes me nervous. She's lovely, in an edgy LeAnn Rimes kind of way (it's in the eyes, I think). But she always appears to be on the verge of tears. I can't stand the preachy synopsis she has to deliver every week, either. That's just me, though, folks. How can you argue with Number One?
We watch ER, despite its advanced age. Almost no one from the original cast remains, and the current newcomers often have little new ground available to them. I miss Carter. I even miss the old Carrie Weaver. I hardly ever find myself emotionally involved anymore, either. But we still watch, waiting for those ever-rarer magic moments. We don't get to watch My Name is Earl, or The Office, however. Those are two of the funniest shows on network TV, but they run opposite Survivor. Since Survivor never shows re-runs, we're forced to wait for the summer season to catch up with Earl and Office. They're still all-out hilarious all those months later, though. I'm not nearly smart enough to offer any suggestions for improving either one.
Friday night: After Thursday's must-see schedule, we're stuck with Friday's who-cares offerings. Since my wife and I are boring old married people who don't regularly drink, dance, or gamble, we find ourselves looking for something to see on this dead-zone night. Fortunately, the dead-zone has ghosts! We love Ghost Whisperer, and not just because we can watch it with the kids without being embarrassed. Jennifer Love-Hewitt always looks spectacular, of course. (Will she ever look older than nineteen? Could she show any more cleavage and still be shown on camera?) I'd ease off on the outrageous eye make-up, if only so JLH can hold her eyes all the way open more easily. This show suffers from the dreaded dark-scene syndrome, too. I know: it's scarier that way. I get it. Still bugs me, though. Other than the ghost show, I have to admit that my wife loves Men in Trees. Good for her; hope she enjoys it right up to the time they cancel it. Maybe the WB or TBS will option this one. Otherwise, it's doomed. That's just my opinion.
The weekend brings blessed relief, especially in the fall. No matter what else might be on, I can always find a great football game or NASCAR event. Who needs dramatic plot twists when you can have option roll-outs or botched pitstops? As long as colleges play on Saturday and SuperBowl Sunday remains in the future, then life is good. All the rest may come and go, but football and racing just keep going and going. That's what keeps me sane. Until next time...
My wife and I saw the long trailer for CBS's hot new television show at the movie theater. I'm not sure how many TV properties get that level of promotion, but it certainly indicates strong network support for this one. Jericho looks like a high-quality drama with solid writing and a big budget. Let's face it: this is a major undertaking, on the level of the old mini-series. Huge cast, lots of potential sub-plots, expensive location shots--this kind of show requires a serious commitment. That also means this show needs a big audience, and it needs to attract and retain that audience right out of the gate.
Tall order for executive producers Jon Turteltaub, Stephen Chbosky, and Carol Barbee: find and keep a big enough following to justify the big investment. I'm sure they know we're out here. By "we" I mean those of us who cannot stomach even one more iteration of CSI: Wherever or Law & Order: XYZ. "We" are the ones who've faithfully watched the better shows that TV Guide inevitably labels "the best show you're not watching". Which is, of course, nearly always the kiss of death. Those programs have large ensemble casts, talented writing teams, stories that evolve from week to week--and big budgets. Much bigger than the paltry sums required to stage so-called reality shows, but not larger than the costs involved in the legal and medical dramas. These other, non-formula dramas are always riskier than the copycat groups. There's no existing audience ready and waiting for a "something different" offering. The investors have to woo this elusive viewership with aggressive marketing campaigns, like running promo's among the trailers for upcoming theatrical releases. Then they have to convince us to stay. That's the tricky part.
What do "we" really want? That's the question guys like Turteltaub hope they can answer. Based on some of the elements I've seen in alternative-premise shows, here's a sampling of answers to "what we want":
- Stories that aren't about lawyers or doctors or forensics. (Lost, for example)
- Intriguing sub-plots that span several episodes. (As in the amazing Alias)
- Multi-cultural ensemble casts. (Lost, again)
- Mysterious circumstances and un-answered questions. (Lost and, especially, Alias. Whatever happened with those Rimbaldie manuscripts, anyway?)
- Hesitant romances slowly kindled between unlikely, but appealing, partners. (Every successful drama in existence. And when the two cast members finally hook-up, start the count-down to the "unforgettable final episode of...")
- Unfamiliar and interesting locales. (well, there's Lost, for example!)
- The constant threat of impending doom. (Same example shows...)
Now let's consider what else these same successful producers seem to think "we" want:
- Protagonists with assorted problems and issues.
- Female leads who are so hot they should be models, not small-town characters.
- Ditto for secondary male leads, who all apparently forget to shave every other day.
- Unlikely developments that keep things interesting, whether believable or not.
- More hot women in very tight clothing.
- Adorable kids doing precocious things, despite their issues or problems.
- Darkness, dark rooms, low light. (Saving electricity? Film noir?)
- Characters with mysterious pasts and enigmatic responses to inquiries from old friends.
- Very hot women who are sort-of interested in above mysterious menfolk, or vice-versa.
Ok, maybe I'm being a bit too cynical here. The above-listed items can be worthy conflicts and valuable eye-candy for even the most serious, high-class shows. But--big but: let's not focus on these trivial adornments. Let's make a show about something. (Yup, opposite of Seinfeld. As in: drama is the opposite of sit-com.) Jericho offers a wonderful premise on which to build a nearly endless procession of sub-plots beneath the main story-line. Friends, Americans, countrymen--can you even imagine what the hell you'd do if you saw a mushroom cloud on the horizon?? Who needs silly, trivial elements when you have 'nukuler' explosions nearby?? Seriously.
I watched Jericho, episode one with huge anticipation. I wasn't entirely disappointed. This could be a great show, a blockbuster hit. But do we need a bumbling mayor and an incompetent sheriff to make it work? Did a schoolbus full of kids on some weird field trip have to crash? Did a freakin' prison bus have to crash, too? And why is it always dark? (Sure, the lights are off; but the sun isn't broken.) Why does the mayor's son have to be a mystery-boy? Could "where-have-you-been?"-boy's former girlfriend be any hotter? Do we really need a nerdy and troubled teenager, and the hot-girls who hate him? This isn't a daytime soap, after all. Jericho can, and should, be a riveting drama. Simply pose the question--what would you do??--and answer it, one week at a time.
We're up to episode three now. The citizens of small-town Jericho are figuring out how to cope, and alliances are emerging. There's surely trouble a-brewing: Who else is out there? What will these people eat when the food runs out? How will they all keep the peace, despite their natural differences? Is the government gone? Is the air safe to breath? Some of these questions have already emerged, as expected. Some may even get answered. Mingle a few smaller mysteries into the main plot. Feature a couple of fine-looking lasses, among the normal mix of real and regular females. Allow the mayor and the sheriff an occasional triumph. Maybe an ordinary working guy can help solve a problem or two; he could even be a few pounds overweight and recently-shaved. Let the sun shine for at least half the show's sixty minutes. Draw the eager audience into the authentic terror of a post-apocalyptic America. No condescending distractions required. The story would speak for itself, and the ratings would be huge.
Fans of Lawrence Block have waited a long time for a new, stand-alone novel. None of Block's series characters--Bernie Rhodenbarr,Matthew Scudder, or Keller--appear anywhere in the pages of Small Town [2003, Harper Torch-HarperCollins Publishers, NY,NY]. No witty buglarish comedy, then, no alcoholic (post- or otherwise) sleuthing, and no murders-for-hire awaits readers here. Instead, we are rewarded with an intriguing mixture of boldly-drawn characters who eventually disturb each other's orbits in the vast solar-system of the Big Apple. Fans of Lawrence Block know to expect the unexpected from his fully-fleshed villains and heroes. This novel's motley crew of flawed good-guys and sympathetic bad-guys certainly will not disappoint faithful readers. Might shock them, though. Small Town won't be featured anytime soon in the local library's Books Read Out Loud program. This one's strictly for mature adults.
Small Town builds its post-9-11 story one piece at a time, as Block introduces each character with revealing morsels and a smidgen of background. First we meet Jerry Pankow, an unassuming gay man who pays the rent by cleaning two bars and a brothel. He also picks up spare cash by tidying-up for a few clients he's acquired by word-of-mouth. One of them, lovely Marilyn Fairchild, turns up dead. Her death leads us to an acquaintance of the deceased: Susan Pomerance. She's the owner of a successful folk-art gallery, and she's looking for love in a whole lot of places. Perhaps the death of her one-time friend compels her to live life with a bit more gusto. Susan introduces us to her favorite attorney and some-time lover, Maury Winters. More on Maury shortly.
We're drawn, next, deep into the lives of two very dissimilar heroes: a struggling writer and a "retired" top-cop. The writer, John Blair Creighton, might have murdered the bar-cleaner's client--even he isn't completely certain of his own innocence. Fortunately for Creighton, his lawyer is the afore-mentioned Maury Winters, one very capable defense attorney. Meanwhile, the cop, former NYC Police Commissioner Francis Buckram, finds himself intrigued with the circumstances surrounding the first murder. (Oh, yes, there are many more murders along the way!) He finds himself even more intrigued with the gallery owner, Susan, who's busy discovering the power of love. Susan immerses herself in the lives of an entire collage of characters, some of them central to the story--some not. It's all fun to watch, at any rate.
As more people die, the circumstances seem to implicate the cleaning guy, Pankow. We know he didn't do it, since we know who the real killer is, and we know why. (No, I won't tell you his name here.) We can even sympathize to an extent, although this poor fellow's methods are rather disturbing. Meanwhile, the writer and his attorney must fend off an over-eager pair of detectives who, at first, feel sure the writer is the killer. Murder charges lead to amazing developments for John Creighton, the struggling novelist. The writer's notoriety ropes in Miss Susan, who knows the policeman, who's pretty sure the author is innocent. One of Susan's other "friends" tells her a story that eventually exposes the true killer, after a few more gruesome twists in the plot. And I haven't told you the half of it all!
I'm sure there have been hundreds of novels written since the fall of the Twin Towers. With nearly three thousand souls lost among four related disasters, there is an endless supply of stories to tell. Small Town is entirely fictional, however. This isn't Readers' Digest "Drama in Real Life." Instead, Block treats us to a mostly irreverent human drama. Don't read this tale expecting heart-wrenching descriptions of selfless heroism. Read it for the joy of a rambling and ambitious plot piloted by a wild and unlikely crew. If, in the end, the whole concoction offends your sensibilities--well, there's always next month's Readers' Digest. For all the rest of us, we can only wait for Block's next endeavor. We might be surprised, but we won't be disappointed.
--Highly recommended: 4 stars (of five).
Summer's nearly over now, though; and the camper sits lonely in the driveway waiting for the day when I'll admit there will be no more camping this year. I'll move the trailer off the pavement and into its winter spot by the garage, to make room for the inevitable snowplowing piles. There remain fewer than a handful of official summer days, by the calendar. Tonight, however, just happens to be a perfect camping night. This, despite the fact that the weather since Labor Day has been just a nuance short of dismal. I made a point to notice the quality of this nearly-fall evening--even though I stopped keeping score a couple weeks ago. I had to say the incantation aloud: "It's a perfect camping night."
How can you tell the perfect ones from the not-so-perfect? There's more to it than a lack of rain, of course. For one thing, the temperature has to be over sixty. Even though the camper has its nifty little furnace, I really hate the need to turn the thing on. A perfect camping night, in order to be included in the tally, has to be that quintessential summer evening. Not even a whisper of a breeze in the air. No lingering mist of rain or drizzle. At least a slice of the moon. But most of all, you have to have the sound of uncountable tiny night critters. That's the clincher. When all the conditions are just right, the symphony of the nighttime insects is so pure that you'd swear it was straight off the soundtrack of a movie. It's a sound that tells you, without any other clues at all, that this is one of those nights.
For the final half of summer, however, we've endured a strange intrusion on those otherwise impeccable evenings. We've had a visitor: a creature so vocal that it drowns out the sweet melodies produced by all the rest of the nocturnal orchestra. He's a cicada--what some folks would label a "locust." ("Locusts" are actually giant, swarming grasshoppers. Different critter all-together.) You won't often see one up close, except when you find an abandoned husk of crispy shell left behind in shedding. Alive and well, a cicada stays out of sight high in a tree. His grayish body (nearly as large as your little finger!) blends beautifully with tree bark. I haven't seen our border, but he's kept to the same tree for weeks now. He talks to us whenever the night is right.
He's capable of making a sustained sound louder than anything you or I could produce from our ordinary vocal chords. There's nothing musical about his song, either. It's similar to the sound you hear when you pass too close to an electrical substation. Usually, there would be at least two or three of these insects singing. When they perform together their shrill buzzing becomes an almost super-sonic background for the rest of the bugs. But when one of these screeching beasts decides to go solo he overwhelms the whole show. Our personal cicada has been auditioning every night for at least the past month.
I mentioned he talks to us, and that's exactly how it seems. His sentence is three identical words, sounding a bit like reeeet reeeet reeeet. The pitch and cadence is always the same; but he sometimes drops the third word. Mostly, though, it's three beats-pause, three beats-pause. For hours. He never tires. And the longer he talks, the less often he inserts the two-beat version. He's never disturbed or discouraged by anything we do: lights on or off, clapping or whistling. Doesn't matter; it's reeeet reeeet reeeet all evening and well past bedtime. He's a pest, and he spoils the idyllic sounds from all the rest of the nightime singers.
I'm done complaining, though. Listening to my invisible bug-friend carrying-on from his treetop hiding place, I'm reassured that summer is still with us. It's another perfect camping night; not the last, I hope. Soon enough the air will turn cooler and our personal evening soloist will go wherever big bugs go for the winter. Gone, too, will be the rest of the band: the crickets, grasshoppers, frogs, toads, and whatever else lives out there making summer music. After a brief, brilliant display of crystal-clear chilly nights and dazzling daylight leaf displays the only sound in the ever-earlier darkness will come from the north wind moving in. I'll sure miss that reeeet reeeet reeeet when that time comes--until spring returns and the cicada with it. I'm sure he'll be back.
I haven't decided yet what approach I'll take to this section of my Blog-world. I have some many new avenues to explore here. We have broadband now: like jumping off an old steam locomotive and into a first-class seat on the new Airbus! I've discovered the amazing world of instant access to brand new music and videos. (Yup, I even have rubber tires on my steam tractor, too!) I left the crowded land of Amazon.com (temporarily) to the bright green pastures of Paperback Swap--five stars and my complete endorsement there. I liked to talk about music before, and I've been reading since I could talk (just about, anyway); so those are two interests I'm sure to continue writing about here.
I'd like to include some more "comedy," or musings? I do enjoy spouting off my personal opinions, too. (Who doesn't?) So I'll probably keep that going, as well. The most important part of writing, be it Blog or whatever medium, is just to DO IT! (Thanks for that, Nike ad guys and girls!) So I'll do it. One way or another. As my friend John pointed out, just the other day, our minds are always thinking about stuff. It's good to write any of that "stuff" down sometimes. Before our aging, seive-like minds forget. And so I will. Write. Stuff, down. It's good for the soul. And bloody good exercise for the fingers, too!
Onward from there... --Jim, Sept 14, 2006.
The rest can go, however. With-in reason. I'm using Amazon.com's Marketplace system, which is reasonably friendly for small, independent sellers. Plus, with nine years' experience there, it seems a trustworthy place. Now, all I have to do is prove that I am trustworthy, too! (Building a background of Buyer Feedback takes time, like all good things.) I have no intention of competing with the Penny Merchants (high-volume sellers who may or may not be dependable). What I do intend is to provide the best personal service I can offer. I love my books, and want everyone who ends up with one of them to be happy with his or her purchase. That's reasonable, isn't it?
If you have come here from one of my listings, please feel free to stay awhile. This is me, here, on this Blog. Read my Profile, leave me a Comment, or send me an email. Or simply browse my posts for the fun of it. Then go back, and see if I have a book you like. Please! And always, always remember to leave Feedback when you buy at Amazon--from me, or any of the other reputable sellers there. We all rely on your goodwill. Thanks for stopping by! Oh, yeah, just disregard the date shown for this Post: it's simply a method to keep this article at the top of the page! [Jim Bessey, Spencerport NY, 10 Jan 2006]
The result is that I've let my cozy blog-space sit mostly idle lately. Makes me feel a bit like I'm neglecting a friend (of which I'm also guilty lately). The nice thing about words, though, is that they "keep." I'm not a news-hound; this isn't some op-ed current events blog. Mostly, this is a place for me to muse. I've written at length about some of my cherished opinions regarding the world around me. I'm sure I'll have more to say in the future, too. I do enjoy posting to my two weekly "features"--Tuesday Trivia and the Friday Song. I miss doing those, and will get back to them soon. I also enjoy writing about the exploits of my wonderful kids--they like to read about themselves, too!
Perhaps my neglect of this blog is simply a symptom of "winter blahs." The big holidays are passed, and the weather has settled into a typical cold/dreary mid-winter tedium. My internal batteries do seem to pretty flat by March. It' s been sunny lately, though, and spring is now firmly on the horizon. There's hope for me, after all. I'll be back in form soon enough. Why, just look how much I've been able to write today, while saying very little in the process! Enough said, for today anyway.
As I said, the job went very well. Mike and I work well together, and there were no glitches or product defects. This was our very first job for T. McKenna Plumbing, Inc.--so the fact that it went more than OK was wonderful. The real treat came while we were packing up. I noticed that Jack was on the phone. Then I realized he was calling our new employer. (This almost never happens, except in the case of unresolvable problems.) Jack made his call in front of us, without fanfare, but in such a way that we couldn't help but overhear. He was calling to say what a fine job we had done, and to compliment our employer and us. He also mentioned several times how nice the job turned out: it was a specialty, all-custom shower door in gleaming bright brass. Any tiny error would have been glaring.
I've had compliments before, even received some very nice tips. Every now and then, a customer will send a note to the office expressing his pleasure. Anyone in any service industry knows how much we treasure these beyond-price rewards. This was, however, the first time I'd ever actually been privy to a customer's "I'm so happy" telephone call. What a great feeling!
This got us talking. Jack was well aware of the effect his call had on Mike and me. We are all familiar with the opposite phenomenon. A displeased customer makes no bones about his feelings. You can be sure his displeasure will be aired, one way or another. It's all part of the squeaky wheel syndrome, and the fact that it's much easier to be negative than positive in life. How often have you seen signs planted in someone's yard protesting this or that, with the big red circle-slash over the disliked event? It takes someone with self-confidence, awareness, and empathy to offer up unsolicited positive feedback. Of course, the very rarity of compliments in everyday life also reinforces their value to us all. If everybody was thoughtful and nice, would we even notice?
Wrapping this thought up--think about this for a moment: how do you say nice things to other drivers? We have all sorts of gestures for various road infractions. The most popular, of course, is the flipping of the bird. Translate as appropriate to the offense. We can say "what the heck?!!?" by flaring both hands in the air. Several other more specific gestures are available, depending on the occasion. Anyone who drives busy roads has seen them all, and even sent some out to other drivers, I'm sure. On the other hand, unless you want to wave someone ahead ("you go first" or the like), we lack the means to communicate friendly or helpful thoughts car-to-car.
How would you tell another driver he has a headlight out? Or that his left turn-signal isn't working? Can you think of a way to say "nice car!" with your hands? Maybe a thumbs-up would do it, though I doubt the recipient would be sure of your intent. I once spent nearly ten miles trying to communicate this thought with another motorist: "all your personal belongings are flying out of your boat and landing in the road." It wasn't until we pulled alongside him, and my son rolled down the window to yell across to him, that we finally gave him the news he really needed to have. I still laugh about that one; I'm sure it wasn't the least bit funny to him! He probably thought I was trying to get by his truck and boat--that I was in some big hurry and wanted him to move over--right up until he finally got the message.
Years ago, some enterprising entrepreneur came up with what probably seemed to be a very good idea. He or she devised a simple system of signs with messages for other drivers. It was a cute little flip-chart on a stick, with various printed blurbs: "you're hot!" or "nice car!" or "wanna race?". Stuff like that. I thought it was a great idea at the time; but I never bought one. I doubt I ever saw one for sale. Those are probably worth a few bucks now. I'm sure you can't buy them new. I think most people are happy with the current system. You always have that one particular finger handy, whenever you need to tell another motorist he's "number one." And it's free, too. Maybe someday someone will conceive a brilliant solution to this whole communication breakdown. (My youngest says we should all have electronic signs in the back window that would display assorted messages--a cool idea, but expensive and unwieldy, IMO.) Until such time, I'll continue to work on the hand signal for "your back tire is almost flat, have a nice day!" How does that one go, again?
By the way, Happy Valentine's Day!
We've had a strange winter here. That's my excuse. My whole system is discombobulated. It's been warm, the grass has been growing, then it got cold, then warm again, then bitter and icy. Sheesh. Welcome to New York. My old job is ending, a new one beginning. Another excuse. Birthdays, Christmas, unexpected trips to plan...more excuses. Maybe I have nothing to say. (That'll be the day!) Maybe I have too much to say, and simply can't make up my mind. That's more likely. Life is mostly good here in Upstate NY, though. I can't complain, and nobody will listen anyway. So here I am, doing my pennance by keyboard. Exercising my fingers. I promise to do better. I really do. Next time.
I'll see you here then. Thanks for listening. Have a nice day. Please come again. Your call is important to us: please continue to hold. We're from the government, and we're here to help. Oh, nevermind! Do come back, and bring a friend. (Who was that masked man, anyway??)
Country music has taken an interesting turn in the last few weeks. Well, maybe it's been longer than that. As usual, we have to point first blame in the direction of my favorite groundbreaker, Gretchen Wilson. You know Gretchen; she's the one who made it cool to be trailer-trash. Rich trailer trash, now. She's also the same artist who followed up Redneck Woman with When I Think About Cheatin'. The second song was actually about deciding against cheating, but Gretchen started something none-the-less. There was a time when every country singer sang about cheating, but things got all military and patriotic there for a while and pushed the whole subject aside. Not for long, though. A whole slew of artists have returned to the fold; and they're talkin' about cheatin' again.
Time was, all the cheating songs dwelled on sadness and broken hearts. Times have changed. The focus has shifted to what I'll call "she'll be just fine without that jerk" compositions. I've even written here in the past about one or two of these. George Straight's brilliant She Let Herself Go (currently number 3 on the charts) comes to mind. Canada's sweetheart, Terri Clark, was Mad for Awhile; but things got worse from there. Clark's latest release tells the story of a young mom who's bum of a partner walks away. She Didn't Have Time, with the help of a well-crafted video, shows us good things happen to she who waits. This song's single mom struggles to raise her very young daughter alone, through ballet class and tee-ball, while working full-time. Only a flat tire and luck finally hooks mom up with a studly guy to brighten her world. I wasn't worried, though; I knew the mom would triumph in the end.
That's the new trend, and it's definitely a positive one. For years we heard about scummy men who left their women lost and alone. We even heard about heartless women who left their men behind. (The guys always wanted the walk-away girls to come back. The reverse was rarely true.) That just ain't the way things work no more! Now the lovely songstress, Sara Evans, has joined the party. Evans, happily married and mother of three, has released a powerful single called (surprise!) Cheatin'. The refrain says it all: "You should have thought about that, when you were Cheatin'."
Her companion video clarifies any misconceptions we might have had about the dirtbag ex-husband described in the lyrics. He's a dirtbag, and he got what he deserved! More to the point, story-wise, the woman got the best end of the deal. She's driving his slick pick-up truck, living in his house, and generally lovin' life. He, meanwhile, is driving a clunker, living in a rented trailer, and eating pork and beans. Dirtbag. You have to see the video to enjoy this guy-basher. I'm a guy; and I'm man enough to enjoy it, I think.
Two other artists' current releases deserve mention here, as well. Miranda Lambert's hot new Kerosene reveals a lot of bitterness, but hints at better days ahead. (This one will probably get more discussion as a full-fledged Friday Song.) Nashville newcomer, Danielle Peck, offers up (Jesus Loves You) I Don't. You don't have to be a musical genius to figure out the message in that one. I Don't doesn't clearly say the girl gets the best of the break-up; but she certainly knows her mind. And she's not taking his calls, either, I'll bet!
You might think I'm being sarcastic here, but I assure I'm not. Lots of guys really are scumbags, and lots of women end up as single moms. That's reality, every day of the week. It's not funny, and there's enough pain to go around for everyone involved. (Yeah, I'm speaking from experience here.) The guys have had their say in the past, over and over again. So I'm happy to see the perspective shift to "her side." I think it's best for all concerned when things work out well for women who've suffered bad relationships. When there are kids involved, especially little kids, it becomes even more important. And, finally, like anything else involving important life issues, it's good to talk about it. That's one of the beautiful things about popular music: we listen, we consider, and then we talk about the message. That's a win-win, in my book.
[Artists' links, and some source material, courtesy of CMT.com.]
Now, then, I'll mention three interesting things I learned while perusing this month's Discover magazine (which I'm pretty sure is a primary source for Jeopardy questions each month). I discovered this magazine originally at my chiropractor's office; it was good reading while waiting for my turn. The articles are short but very well written and cover a broad range of topics under the heading of Science. Here are three snapshots from this month:
Astrophysicists have detected information from a star (or quasar, maybe) which dates back to the supposed beginning of the universe. They place its age at about three and a half billion years (less than our planet), but its light began the journey to here ten billion years ago. In other words, this stellar object is roughly ten billion light years from Earth. That is, to me at least, an incomprehensible number. Even using the fictional 'warp speeds' used to drive the plots of Star Trek, no one can imagine ever traversing distances that outrageous. If you had some really good pot, maybe you could make some sense of it, but I doubt it.
Dolphins have really bad dandruff! According to an article discussing the incredible speeds that these mammals can reach, dolphins shed their entire outer layer of skin at the rate of once every two hours. Marine biologists believe that all that skin-flaking serves an important purpose for the porpoises (ouch!). Studies using fluid-dynamics test methods (using glitter to represent dolphin-dandruff) appear to demonstrate an advantage: the flakes change typical drag-inducing patterns of turbulence somehow, reducing the drag. Scientists have pondered dolphins' apparently inexplicable swimming speeds (they can sprint at nearly twenty-five knots!) for most of the past hundred years. How cool is it that dandruff may be an important component of the answer? This could be huge for NASCAR--how about glitter-covered racecars? Hey, it could work!
Last for tonight, there was an intriguing new investigation into an old topic: did the Spanish conquerors in the New World really wipe out millions of Aztec natives? When Hernando Cortés and his band of military adventurers first reached what is now Mexico, they entered a land populated by at least twenty million natives. In the decades following their invasion, that number was reduced to about two million. Guns and steel only account for a fraction of those horrific losses; the rest have traditionally been attributed to disease, especially smallpox, thought to have been introduced to the defenseless natives by the invading Spanish.
However, new translations of well-regarded historical documents from that period tell a different story. King Phillip II had sent a Surgeon General of sorts to the New World, a man with impeccable credentials (for that era). The doctor interviewed hundreds of victims and performed dozens of autopsies. He diligently recorded his observations in Latin, but those extensive records remained lost from modern awareness for over four hundred years. Brought to the light of contemporary review, and subjected to new scrutiny, those descriptions don't support the smallpox hypothesis. So what was the disease which (apparently) decimated the Aztecs? Hemorrhagic fever--like Ebola and Hantavirus, which is spread by rodents (not Spaniards). Enlightening, and scary. There is neither cure nor treatment for this sort of plague, not then and not now.
A few days ago, Larry King asked Carrie Underwood where she got her big break. I'm pretty sure she mentioned the thirty-million-plus audience who saw her win American Idol somewhere in her answer. Kelly Clarkson has ridden her first place to huge success; and country singer/ex-Marine Josh Gracin (fourth-place winner) is now an established chart-topper. I can't vouch for Rubin and Clay (who basically tied the year they won), but if you win the Idol competition you have at least an excellent shot at stardom.
The difference with Carrie U. is that she is doing it her way. Her first big single is driving up the charts now, and it's a surprising winner. Idol fans expect a lot of Whitney Houston from their darlings. They'll have a long wait from Underwood. Her idol, vocally, is obviously Martina McBride. And Martina is all Country. Based on Carrie's first release, she's all Country, too. The big guns behind the Idol machine may be a bit miffed, but music is music in the end. And a gold record is the same color in all formats.
Underwood's single, Jesus Take the Wheel, rolls right down the middle of the Country road (if you'll pardon the obvious metaphor). Strict three-verse structure, strong hook, and soothing chords run the show. Lyrically, this song rings a strong Christian ballad bell. Wheel is an inspirational story about a young, single Mom whose car (and life) is out of control. (Read the title again now.) Underwood, however, takes these staid standards and loads in her stunning vocal power. You don't have to be a Sunday-steady or a Country die-hard to love this record. You will fall in love with Carrie, though, if you listen for just a couple refrains. She is the real deal, regardless of where her big break came from.
Jesus Take the Wheel will do well despite its potentially narrow audience. The enormous exposure provided by the glittering American Idol stage makes Carrie Underwood's name familiar and opens all the right doors. The rest is up to Ms. Underwood. She is young, strong, appealing, and oh-so talented. No reason for comparisons of Carrie to Martina to be embarrassing to Ms. McBride at all. Carrie may not be exactly what Idol had in its pop-oriented mind, but I believe that she will do them proud. She'll do it her way, and you will like it, even if you don't like American Idol. Carrie can take that to the bank.
I wanted to talk about peanut-brittle, however. With the boys here for the holidays we did some serious shopping, and one store featured boxes of peanut-brittle for, um, peanuts! Sorry, bad pun. I grabbed a box because I hadn't had that kind of candy in years. I cracked the box and poured a bowl to munch on during one of the fifty or so college "bowl" games that played during our week of vacation. (Maybe it was the Piggly-Wiggly/Toro Snowblower Bowl; I really can't recall.) I slipped the first super-sweet bite into my mouth and felt a whole flood of childhood memories rush in. Peanut-brittle was a rare treat when we were growing up. I think it was the type of goodie that my dad would bring home from a business trip, but maybe that's just my faulty recollection. I'll say this--the stuff stills sticks to your teeth just the way it used to!
We were four kids plus Mom and Dad squeezed into a small ranch house in a one-light village. My mom didn't work until we were all in high school. We drank powdered milk with dinner (hated it) and had a regular rotation of traditional Irish meals (we never went hungry!). Candy, however, was not a cupboard staple. Candy came home with Dad in a paper bag, rarely as part of the regular grocery run. Sometimes he'd bring us one of those (seemingly) enormous bags of plain M&M's. I have vivid memories of the four of us dividing that treasure on the dining room table. We counted by fives or tens until the very last few. We fought over the "good" colors, as if they tasted any different. There were always more brown ones than red, orange, green, or yellow. We also had lighter-brown ones (tan?) that were few and far between. No blue or purple, at that time; at least I don't remember any blue ones. We boys ate ours the first night. The girls, however, managed to savor their stash. Days later my sister Kay would still have at least half of her original share. I don't know how she resisted the temptation, but it sure was torture for me.
The only other big-deal treat that I remember is Ho-Ho's. They were bigger then, and more chocolatey. I'm pretty sure there were at least ten to the box, too, not the eight they give you today. Ho-Ho's were truly special. They came in a wonderful shiny metal-foil wrapper, which we would smooth out and use for origami. But that was only the beginning! In the same way that every kid had a certain way of eating Oreo's, we cherished our Ho-Ho's. If you were careful, you could peel all the hard-chocolate outside off, and eat that first. That left the devil's-food cake middle with two delicious chocolate ends. Those ends were usually bitten off one at a time. Then you had to make a choice: do you go ahead and eat the yummy outside first, or could you take the time to unroll the rest of the cake center to reveal the creamy filling? Eating one Ho-Ho could take as long as fifteen minutes, back then. Now, if I get some for myself I get the cheap imitation ones and just wolf them down. Those were simpler times, and we didn't have much for entertainment, did we?
My kids won't have any of those silly food-memories. Their bellies are full, and we spoil them with too many treats of too many kinds. (Their dentist sends us Christmas cards.) They are bombarded with entertainment and fast-food choices. I'm not sure they even liked the peanut-brittle. Who knows what funny bits of memory will occur to them during a Christmas break twenty or thirty years from now? Ah well, as long as they have someone special to share those thoughts with, it'll all be good.
So let's get back to the whole dog thing. Dogs are wonderful; that's a known fact. (Is that redundant? hmm...) My first dog died before he was six months old. That was Scotty. My second dog was a treasure, but he was killed by a motorist, too. We didn't have leash-laws back then. That was Brownie, a lovely and brilliant border collie. If you own a border collie, you know how incredible that breed is. Gary Paulsen's final chapter in My Life in Dog Years is devoted to his BC, "Josh," who is alive and well (unlike most of the other dogs he writes about in that book). I mentioned my third dog last night, too: Champ. He was a regular collie. I learned the hard way that big collies like Champ need acres of room to roam. By the time we lost Champ I was pretty much at three strikes. I was seventeen.
I'm sure there are thousands of people who feel they could not live without a dog in their life, especially people who have no children. I'm just not one of them, and I have kids. My boys have a dog, at their mother's house. Her name is Zelda (as in The Legend of...); she's a shepard-mutt with the strength of a bulldog and the disposition of a pussycat. I'm sure the boys would be devastated if anything were to happen to Zellie. She nearly drowned last winter when the ice gave way beneath her on a family-owned pond. My oldest thought about diving in after her but wisely decided in favor of the local volunteer fire department. Thank God. I'm also sure that Zelda would gladly sacrifice her own life to save one of my boys, if it were possible and necessary for her to do so. She likes me, despite my casual indifference.
I haven't had a dog of my own for about ten years now. The most recent one was banished after she bit the afore-mentioned eldest son--bit his nose in anger. That just ain't acceptable behavior. That dog had skin problems, which may have contributed to her unpleasant attitude. I'm trying to remember her name and hitting one of those annoying mental walls that will bother me a great deal more when I'm much older; I'll worry that dementia is creeping in. (So far, I almost never misplace my car-keys or forget where I was headed before I get there. Knock on wood.) I think if I was going to miss having a dog, then I would miss it by now. Certainly, owning a cat is no substitute for a proper dog. But I don't yearn for doggy companionship much these days. Please don't hate me for that.
Would I get another dog someday? Probably, if I lived somewhere rural. I think all dogs (at least the ones you can't carry around) deserve room to run. I feel sorry for big dogs who are cooped up in suburban homes on a quarter-acre. Plus you have to walk them on leashes and pick up their poop with a baggie. I'll bet they hate that. I'd hate the plastic-poop-bag duty. (Minor pun intended, there.) I used to take my last living-with-my-parents dog running with me. He loved it, and he kept me moving right along. I don't think I had to use a leash for that, then, either. Seems to me he used to keep left without a tether. It's been a few years, so my memory on that issue is a bit hazy. (No, that doesn't bother me, either. Yet.) Anyway, we're looking for a place in suburbia right now. I'm definitely not getting a pooch with "miniature" in his breed name. On the other hand, I wonder if the cat will be moving with us? Hmm. If it were strictly up to me, well, um. I'd better leave it at that, for tonight anyway.
I finished a sweet little book last week, My Life in Dog Years, by Gary Paulsen. My younger son, Nick, recognized the author's name immediately. Paulsen writes for school-age readers, but his style is fine for adult reading and his content is amazing. This guy has lived a very interesting life. In the final chapter he mentions that he's had "hundreds" of dogs. The book highlights the more entertaining and intelligent of those. Nicky read it in about two hours flat. Sadly, I've never had a dog worth writing about. I will anyway, though--write about my dogs. (Wow, just call me "Mr. Language Guy"!)
You hear the phrase, a boy and his dog, now and then. Meaning, I suppose, a boy needs a dog. Or dogs go with boys. Something to that effect. I never really got that concept. Don't get me wrong--I loved my dogs, and even mourned their passing. But I don't miss them. Maybe I'm missing an important dog-gene. Or maybe I need a bigger yard. I do miss having someone around to pick up the table scraps I drop. We have a cat for now. She acts like a dog--around me, at least. Cats aren't as much fun as dogs; but they're not nearly as needy, either. I can take them or leave them, too. See, I haven't actually written about my dogs, after all, have I? That's probably for the best. I promise next week's Tuesday Trivia will be posted on a Tuesday. Maybe it won't be quite as trivial as this week's piece. Then again...
Happy New Year, one last time!