Monday, March 31, 2008

Twelve Years and a Lifetime Ago

I get a lot of mileage out of the fact that I was born an orphan – it gets me into most of the best parties – but I rarely mention the people who rescued me from a life of ignominy and despair.

Tonight marks the twelfth year since my father died. We don’t call him my adoptive father, never did. He was always just Dad, the same way mom is still just Mom.

The clip at the bottom of this post cannot be attributed by artist or song title or agents of the artist or his heirs (or his music publishers or somebody) will land on me like a ton of bricks, demanding that the clip be removed and shaking their lawyerly fists at me. At least that was what happened when I posted it to YouTube a little ways back. If you do a search for this regrettably nameless, lesser-known artist on YouTube, you won’t find anything. It’s as if he never existed. Now there’s keeping an eye on an artist’s legacy, and there’s consigning said artist to an obscurity which he doesn’t deserve – and the zeal with which someone is trying to keep his stuff offline definitely falls into the latter category. So please don’t mention him or his song by name in the Comments section or I shall be forced to delete it. If you’d like more info on him, email me and I’ll fill you in privately.

Anyhow, my dad, like the fellow described in the clip below, was also born early in the 20th century, surviving both the Great Depression and a stint in the U.S. armed services that spanned the length of WWII. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, my dad was already in the military – where else was the son of a man of modest means going to learn to fly in the first half of the last century?

And like most of his generation, the part that made it back from WWII in one piece anyway, he returned to the U.S. afterwards and got married, took a job and set about starting a family. Never did a get a straight answer out of him (or Mom) about who was shooting blanks, maybe they never even knew, but eventually the decision was made to adopt. They always just said that God didn’t want them to have kids of their own (in retrospect, I think maybe God just didn’t want my Mom to be raising any children personally).

Lucky for them American orphans were much easier to come by then than they apparently are now. They adopted my older brother and sister nine years and six years earlier than me; by the time they came and got me, Dad was already pushing 50, and that’s back in the 1960s, when 50 was pretty fucking old. I had my first kid at 43 and it damned near killed my ass, and they didn’t even stop with me; they picked up my little sister about six months after they took me home.

For that if nothing else, I take my hat off to the man. Kids are hard work, and the older you get, the harder the work is. He must have known that by the time they decided to give me a name.

I can’t really do his biography justice here. For one thing, he lived 80-some years and no blog post, no matter how brutally edited, can take the full measure of a man in such a short forum. More to the point, though, there was an unknowability about the man that seems to be specific to his generation; The Greatest Generation, to borrow a phrase. I think maybe a less hyperbolic description would be The Most Stoic Generation.

They didn’t come back from war and wear their PTSD on their sleeves, they rolled them up and got to work and rarely ever talked about their wartime experiences. My dad had one friend, a cousin, who loved to tell war stories. Everybody else pretty much just got behind the mule and plowed from sunup till sundown and in doing so, created what became the great American middle-class. A legacy I inherited and casually took for granted until I began to study world history in high school.

Well, my dad’s been gone for 12 years now, and I still regret not making better efforts to draw him out while I had the chance. All I have are flashes of his generosity (he brought cake and ice cream for my whole class on my birthday in third grade, and later when I was a dope-smoking hippie with no education and no prospects, he took me on as a partner in his hauling business, paying me my salary out of his own meager wages); his frustration and disappointment at raising two sons who ungratefully failed to be the athletes that any proper American man would want their son to be; and his miserable final years, spent fighting off various cancers and strokes in front of the TV in the living room, smoldering cigarette clenched firmly between middle- and forefinger. In fact, it wasn’t until the doctors took his cigarettes away that he finally gave up the ghost. He survived everything a tumultuous century could throw at him, everything but the indignity of not being allowed to smoke. There’s probably more people like him than we know about, people who smoking didn’t kill, but the lack of smoking did.

Anyhow, I miss him when I think of him. I probably give myself more credit than I deserve when I think that I could have drawn him out if I had tried harder, but the fact that I didn’t make the effort when I had the chance haunts me to this day.

I hope he’s at peace now. I hope he’s hanging out with Johnny Cash and Bing Crosby (his favorite crooner) and all his old war buddies; that they’re smoking unfiltered cigarettes and knocking back Canadian-Club-and-Cokes and not talking about the war at all.

This song’s for you, Daddy.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stupid TV Decisions (this week’s edition)

I have a couple of bones to pick with network TV (and a closing “kudos” to leaven the criticism in between).

First, the bones of my contention: This week, two really stupid things happened. And they really kind of compliment each other: The powers-that-be at CBS saw fit to cancel “Jericho” (again) while the brain trust at Fox inexplicably opted to renew the execrable “Prison Break.”

First a word about “Prison Break.”

“Prison Break,” which I started watching on Netflix after its inaugural season had ended, had a pretty good first year. Fast-paced action, intricately-plotted storyline – its only real weak points were its principal actors, a couple of slabs of bald beefcake who just plain can’t act. After three seasons, that’s the only conclusion I can come to. One of them, Wentworth Miller, is skinny and buff and specializes in the “intense” glare. You know the one, soap opera actors use it every time there’s a cut to commercial. I call it the “Oh shit, did I leave the oven on?” look. He furrows his little brow, his eyes go even beadier… and they cut to commercial.

Sadly, that’s more range than his castmate Dominic Purcell demonstrates. Playing the other non-thespian’s bigger, buffer brother, his bag of tricks runs the gamut from “I’m angry and I want to hit someone” all the way to “I’m angry and confused and I want to hit someone.”

So season one was passable fair in spite of leaden lead performances. A lot of the supporting players picked up the slack pretty well, especially William Fitcher as a nasty-piece-of-work government agent (is there any other kind?) and a genuine star turn by Robert Knepper as a child-molesting Southern psychopath. Wade Williams as the sadistic head warden (again, is there any other kind?) also brought some real brio to his performance.

Season one ended with the titular jail break, and I figured, well this show’s jumped its designated shark. Still, for whatever reason, when season two came out on DVD I decided to Netflix it anyway and I’ll be damned if it didn’t improve on season one in a big way.

All the escapees – including the two good-looking fellows who can’t act – are out of jail and on the lam. The story spread out and took its characters in some pretty interesting directions. The episodes flew by, altogether entertainingly, until the last few, when it was clear they were laying the groundwork for season number three. As a hobby-writer myself, I can spot foreshadowing a mile away, and the last couple/few eps of season two were all about that. I decided: next season, I’m gonna watch the show weekly, instead of waiting for the season’s end DVD release.

All I can say is, thank god for the writers’ strike. It limited my misery from 20-something episodes to the approximately half-season’s worth of shows before it mercifully went off the air a few weeks ago. What a piece of shit this season was. All the best actors’ characters were either killed off in season two, or given nothing to do in season three. Knepper, especially, was cheated this year. His storyline, and performance, was one of season two’s highlights, and this year he was lucky if he got in a couple lines an episode, playing the gofer to the new prison’s top con.

It’s like the show just imploded. It was like the Bush administration and Iraq. Every creative decision was a bad one. It’s like they wanted to be cancelled. Alas, to no avail. “They’ll be back,” as Arnold once promised to similarly devastating effect.

On the other hand, “Jericho,” a near-future post-apocalyptic yarn about a massive conspiracy to destroy the United States government from within, was not without its faults, but grew more engrossing with every episode of its sadly truncated run. Uniformly strong lead performances distinguished the show above its genre roots, from Pamela Reed, Esai Morales (formerly of “NYPD Blue”); a breakout performance by one Lennie James; the poor man’s Johnny Depp, Skeet Ulrich; even the former Major Dad/Mr. Delta Burke, Gerald McRaney – all acquitted themselves honorably in the show’s unfolding storyline of the fall of the American empire.

The second season, like all this year’s shows, was hobbled by the writers’ strike, but managed to cram a full season’s worth of plot-developing paranoia into its brief seven-episode run. This show examined issues that, while not ripped from today’s headlines ala the “Law & Order” mega-franchise, shone a fearless light on the issues that have been tearing America apart since our ill-advised adventure in Iraq began without ever openly prostheletizing. And lest you think it sounds like it was all left-wing propagandizing, one of the first things the corrupt new government did was strike down the Second Amendment. This was a show of ideas as well as action and adventure, but not enough people in the era of the endless war in Iraq (John McCain again this week touted a potential 100-year engagement there) and post-9/11 weariness wanted to spend an hour every week watching the slow, fictional demise of the country when they could get the real thing every night on the six o’clock news.

Anyhow, season one is available on DVD already, and season two probably isn’t far behind. Not a perfect show, but a good one, and potentially an important one, if more people had given it a chance. With its anemic Neilson numbers, I don’t even blame the Suits at CBS for scuttling it, but I do regret it. It’s definitely a future contender for the “Cancelled In Its Prime” hall of fame. Unlike the Bush administration policies which it reflects, it will grow more respected with the passage of time.

Finally, an “up” note to end on, because I’m just a glass-half-full kinda guy – always have been.

“Smallville,” over on the struggling CW network, is hitting another strong patch of episodes as it closes out its season. The story of Clark Kent before he became Superman (check out this cool news story about the creators of Superman here), it looks like it’s finally abandoning its initial “no flights, no tights” rule, thanks in no small part to the success of the first season of “Heroes.” Lex Luthor is at long last turning once and for all to The Dark Side after straddling the fence between good and evil for the length of the show’s run; Clark is just thiiiis close to learning how to fly; this week Jimmie Olsen got caught sneaking a peek at Lois Lane (Erica Durance)’s more-than-ample bosom (a show staple among its female cast), and network teasers promise the death of a major character on the April 24 show (my guess – sayonara, Lex Luthor’s dad). It’s time for the show’s producers to take a page from the “Lost” handbook and schedule an end-date to the series, and write toward it. If they do that, the show’s final season could rank among genre-television’s finest. Superman is the ultimate superhero archetype – Truth, justice and the American way, baby – and the show deserves a send-off that respects the character’s history and legacy. And this latest run of episodes suggests that may actually be in the offing.

My advice: Watch “Smallville” while you can, mourn “Jericho” (and pick it up on DVD – last time I checked, season one was only $20 at the Big Box stores) and next fall, avoid “Prison Break” like the plague.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chelsea knocks one out of the park

I’m on vacation, so I’ll be brief.

On Chelsea Clinton’s college tour flogging her mom’s dwindling presidential candidacy, yesterday some impertinent creep asked her about the Monica Lewinski affair, and she said, “Wow, in the 70 or so campuses I’ve visited, this is the first time anyone’s asked me that question.” Then, without equivocation, she said, “That’s none of your business.”

Nailed it! My hat’s off to you, pretty young Clinton spawn. Good job done well. Suddenly, I have respect for somebody named Clinton again.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bush/Cheney sneer their way to another grisly milestone

This just in from the AP: American deaths in Iraq reach 4,000.

The answer to the question, “How many people have to die to settle W’s Daddy Issues?” is now 4,000 and counting, and that’s only because we have the good taste not to count the Iraqi dead. Which is only reasonable, considering how foolish they were to be born in the wrong place. It’s called survival of the fittest for a reason, folks. In this case, it means “choose your parents well.” And for all his faults, you can’t throw that one at W’s feet. Third base is an excellent place to be born.

Leave it to Dick Cheney to summarize the loss of life and limb in Iraq for the administration with his trademark light touch. Some snooty TV reporter had the temerity to point out to him last week, “2/3 of Americans say it [the Iraq War]’s not worth fighting.” And to give credit where it is due, Cheney did not blow smoke up her pantsuit with his succinct reply, “So?” Just for good measure, he delivered his monosyllabic response with a characteristic smirk. Bush used to be the Smirker of note, but now that his tenure is winding down he’s abdicated even that responsibility to his eager Rasputin-In-Chief.

And the Grimmer Twins’ putative GOP successor, John McCain, has been out in front of the cameras all week repeatedly conflating the Iraq War – already the result of nonsensical conflation – with the regime in Iraq, long-since on the neo-cons’ to-do list. I suppose the thinking is, if the American people no longer have the stones to enter into another unwinnable confrontation half-way around the world with religious zealots at the behest of the current pair of drunk-driving draft-dodgers occupying Pennsylvania Avenue, maybe they’ll offer up the next generation of American youth to the middle-east meat-grinder for a genuine war hero like Sen. McCain.

Of course, being a genuine war hero isn’t the political slam-dunk it used to be in Ike’s day – just ask John Kerry.

I guess now that George W Bush has killed 1,000 more Americans than Osama bin Laden did on 9/11, his tiny penis must feel four inches long and fully engorged.

Emission accomplished? Not hardly.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Man Cub does Easter

What a great kid. Even in his “terrible twos” (which in his case means a contrary answer for every proposition expressed, from “Let’s take a bath” to “Hey, how about changing that droopy diaper”), he’s a blast.

Woke up early and watched almost an hour of “The Johnny Cash Show” together before getting Mommy up to enjoy the holiday largesse she lovingly crafted for her two boys. Hunted for eggs, played with the dog, did some yard work, homemade pizza for lunch, spent an hour in church if my mom is reading this, family napped while I made newspapers, watched Leonard Cohen inducted into the R&RHOF on the TiVo (sorry, Professor, I thought Lou Reed totally dropped the ball), then played some more (one game which involved the boy repeatedly hiding my Steve Martin autobiography in the other room then returning it) topped by his need for attention knee-capping a family viewing of this week’s “John Adams”…

He makes parenting fun. However, you may want to ask me again after I solo-parent him for a few days this week while visiting my mom’s tin can in the desert. But for now, it’s all gravy, man. I am a lucky guy.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Michigan and Florida

Fang here. Still here, still a bit queer. Not like that, just odd, out of place.

My buddy The Nutty Professor wrote me tonight, asking me if I’m okay, due, I assume, to my lack of recent online activity.

I wrote him back, because that’s just the way I roll. I said something like, “Thanks for asking. Been spending all my free time on projects unrelated to The Forum. Everything is good. Going to take the Man Cub to visit my Mom for 3 days next week.”

In addition to my [redacted] endeavors, I'm going through scores of old home videos, looking for stuff to extract before the tapes disintegrate. And processing movies is fucking time-consuming, even on my lickety-split new computer, and takes all its computing power when I do it. I can’t even surf the web without my browser quitting on me. Just this morning, while I was messing with video files, Michael Stipe became gay and according to The Last Boy Scout (my mole within the Republican party), “The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Clarence Thomas, just ruled against the Washington State Republican Party and in favor of a commie-lib plan for conducting primaries.”

Miss a morning, miss a lot.

Plus I’ve been re-watching the last season of “The Wire,” a bittersweet experience. And watching “John Adams” on HBO. The second episode was all about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which is old news to me because I have seen “1776” at least that many times. I’m disappointed that HBO’s version omits all the singing and dancing, but gratified that otherwise it hews closely to the historical record.

Also, because I am becoming an old man, my lower back has been killing me, and sitting at my desk is torture. So I’ve been limiting my computer time to the compulsories. Plus I think my eyeglass prescription needs updating (appt. tomorrow) and have been dealing with headache issues. So the big picture (family, dog, job) is fine, but the day-to-day has literally been a pain recently.

Haven’t even been watching the news much. It’s all too depressing. Six weeks of in-fighting between Hillary and Barack before the next big-ticket state primary is not a spectacle I care to witness. Liked his speech about race, but think he could’ve tightened it up some. And for all his glowing press, I’m still just not that impressed with his alleged oratorical prowess. It’s a simple formula. Start quiet and slow and build inexorably to an emotional crescendo. Applause, applause, the end. Hitler was good at it. Louis Farrakhan has it down. I’ll bet even Barack’s now-former pastor has it going on. But Barack just speaks haltingly in a flat monotone, with little peaks and valleys sprinkled throughout. His speeches read better than they play, which is not my definition of great oratory.

At least Tucker Carlson got canceled again. So I got that going for me.

Bush’s approval numbers are in the toilet again, which is always welcome news. Means people are paying attention. Do you suppose it was all the dancing on the portico, or maybe the singing at the Gridiron dinner, laughing about Katrina and pardoning Scooter Libby?

Whatever, I’m just glad that everybody isn’t buying his tired old bullshit anymore.

Strangely enough, what pulls me out of my blog semi-retirement tonight is an issue that actually seems to promote my vested interests (getting Obama elected), but appears all fucked up to me anyhow. How is it two of our 50 states are going to be denied participation in the primary process?

I get it that Michigan and Florida (Oh gawd, not Florida again) played fast & loose with the Democratic party rules by moving their primaries up and that the Dem leadership felt it had to punish the wayward political bodies involved, but stripping two American states of their votes in a presidential primary seems fucked up and wrong to me. It was the party muckety-mucks who flouted the rules, but it’s the states’ citizens who are being denied their opportunity to vote. Why are the Dems punishing John and Jane Q. Sixpack for skullduggery perpetrated by party leaders? It seems downright un-American to me to refuse to let citizens participate in the electoral process because a few well-placed party buttheads shitcanned a set of rules that sounded awfully arbitrary to me in the first place.

I know the conventional wisdom is that bringing those two states back into play would advantage Hillary, but that’s not the issue. It’s bad enough we don’t have a one-person-one-vote system in this country, but for the Dems to disenfranchise their own voters in two entire states just flies in the face of what I reckon democracy ought to be about.

I say let everyone vote, and let the chips fall where they may. Right now, all the Dems are doing is giving McCain a free ride while they tear themselves to pieces internally. Why hand the White House to another Republican president?

Oh yeah, that’s right. Because that’s what the Democratic party does in election years.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Requiem for The Best Show On TV That Nobody Watched

I could be talking about “Breaking Bad” over on AMC, and another day I might, but tonight I lament the passing of the most intricately written, involving hour of television on pay cable, “The Wire.”

Remember how everybody was required to love “The Sopranos,” even when it had some dud episodes and whole seasons that didn’t rise above the quality of a really good soap opera melodrama, like the season where Tony and Carmella spent all 10 or so episodes yelling and throwing things at each other?

“The Wire” has never had a bad episode, much less a sub-par season. For five parsimonious HBO-length seasons (ie: individual runs of 10-12 episodes each), “The Wire” has been TV’s best-kept secret, in spite of the histrionic protestations of TV critics and pop culture nerds like me. We’d bleat endlessly to anyone who would listen about its tight plotting, its stellar acting, its deep, rich characterizations… the problem is, no one was listening — or watching. Fortunately, it was on HBO, a network that commits to quality even when the Nielson ratings don’t support the wisdom of their decision-making process.

Usually I don’t care much for art in any form, and my TV viewing habits trend toward the pulpy. Love “Lost.” “Breaking Bad.” “Battlestar Galactica.” Well-written, carefully thought-out TV franchises that serve up a Gotcha! moment every ten minutes or so, usually just before cutting to a commercial. Shit, I even watched “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” while it was on. Nothin’ wrong with that.

Where “The Wire” failed to grab a Sopranos-size audience, I believe, was in the show’s failure to follow the set-’em-up, knock-’em-down rhythm of the standard hour-long cop drama it mimics on the surface level. Audiences apparently found it off-putting to have to sit through a whole couple episodes of character development and intricate, inter-woven set-up to get to the Gotcha! moments that started occurring about mid-season. The thing is, in structuring the show that way, by the time it started bumping characters off, you were fully invested in them. Even the bad guys, the ones you waited seasons to get whacked, when it came their time to go, you had a genuine emotional involvement when they got what was coming to them.

Anther thing the show did was, in season one, it introduced a cast of characters and a plotline about drug-dealing in the run-down areas of Baltimore. When season two premiered, it focused on corruption at the city docks, but still followed the survivors of the previous season’s storyline. Third season, same thing; new storyline and characters, but previous seasons’ plotlines and characters were woven brilliantly into the new story they were telling.

The dialogue also made this show remarkable. Every character spoke in their own specific patois, some of whom it took three or four episodes for me to even begin to follow what they were saying. That’s why it’s so great on DVD. While I’m enjoying the fifth and final season (which wraps this Sunday with a 90-minute episode), I’ve watched season one again and am beginning a re-watching of season two. Now, in retrospect, I realize how necessary every short scene was, how indispensable every line of mumbled dialogue was in building the story each season had to tell.

It’s like reading a fine novel, where maybe the first hundred pages or so are a little slow, but once the time, place and plot are set up, it’s riveting till the last line of the last page. It reminds me of reading the novel “Ragtime,” which first few chapters took me forever to get through because of what I considered the leaden pace, but the payoff of which turned out to be well worth the investment of my time.

And the actors! I’ve never seen hardly any of them anywhere else, but with only one notable exception, every performance not only shines, they sparkle. Mostly east coast, African-American thespians, some of them holdovers from previous gritty HBO series like “Oz,” every performance is note perfect. Even the kids featured heavily in season four all drew subtle, distinct characterizations. (The only sour note, acting-wise, is singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s self-conscious performance as a drug-rehab worker. Don’t give up your day job, Mr. Earle.)

And like real life, the show was merciless when it came to punching its players’ tickets. Just last week, they off-handedly killed one of the most distinct, unstereotypical characters ever to grace a TV screen, played by one Michael K. Williams – a stone-cold killer who scared the crap out of everyone from the drug lords in their ivory towers all the way down to the street-level “hoppers” who sell the dealers’ deadly poison to the local dope fiends; a character who also just happened to be gay and observed a strict, self-imposed “no innocent bystanders” policy when it came to his profligate bloodletting, and not one second of his performance ever came off as anything less than genuinely authentic. I still can’t believe he’s dead…

This final season also deals with a subject near and dear to my heart, the sounding death knell of the traditional big city newspaper.

I’ve not seen its like before, nor do I expect to again any time soon.

My earnest advice is, start with season one (rent or Net-Flix it; HBO prices their DVD product like it was pressed on baby seal pelts) and work your way through chronologically; by the time you get to this season, season five, it’ll probably be out on DVD too. I’ve TiVo’d every episode this season, and can’t wait for Sunday night’s finale so I can start back at the first episode and see what I missed the first time.

I fear my exhortation is probably falling on deaf ears, but I suppose it’s appropriate for a show whose singular merits met the same unjust fate. Like Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, “The Honeymoon Killers” and too many more first-rate entertainers and entertainments to list here, it looks like this series is doomed to remain a cult favorite of the truly discriminating, and nothing more.

Usually I kinda like being among the few, the proud, the cultural hoi polloi, but it’s damned frustrating not having anyone to share this show with other than the strangers raving about it on pop-culture websites.

Hey, smart people – Terry Gross is doing an interview with the show’s creator today on NPR – if it’s on NPR it has to be good for you, right?

I’ll close with an anecdote from an episode from the series’ second season. Two street-level dealers are driving to Philadelphia to pick up a “package” (a large quantity of drugs). The farther from Baltimore they get, the harder it is for them to keep their radio station tuned in. One of them asks the other, “Say, what the fuck is wrong with the radio?” The other explains that different cities have different radio stations. “Huh,” says the first. He continues to twist the dial until he comes across the unmistakably urbane, dulcet tones of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” He listens for a moment, then asks his comrade, “Is this a Philadelphia station?” “Fucked if I know, nigga,” comes the irritated response. And for the rest of the episode, their drug-run-gone-bad is completed to the hilarious-in-context accompaniment of “Prairie Home Companion” in the background.

It was just that kind of show.