Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Working For His Family

A little over a year ago, I had the misfortune of writing about the passing of my grandmother. It was, as these things always are, incredibly sad, and I debated whether or not it was even worth bringing up. But I'm a talker, and I wanted to take a moment to say how wonderful she was, so I did. And that was that.

Then, a month later, my wife's maternal grandmother died. I never had the chance to meet her, so I didn't have any personal stories I could relate. But family's important, and I felt compelled to mention it. Plus, I was a little spooked about two grandparents dying a month apart, so I wrote with the great hope that I wouldn't have to do that again for a while.

Clair's paternal grandfather died at the beginning of last week. He was a month shy of his 96th birthday, and had been in poor health for quite some time, so this certainly didn't come as a surprise. If anything, knowing he was ailing was a bit of a blessing, because it allowed Clair to take time to be with him in his final days.

Happily, I did meet Ted Clairmont, and while he initially came across as very quiet and a little sullen, I found that if you could engage him in conversation, he had a wealth of stories. He was an educator, teaching science and band. (When I googled him last week, I was surprised and delighted to discover that he was a charter member of the North Dakota Music Educators Association Hall of Fame.) If I understood him correctly, he also served as the rough equivalent of school district superintendent. The twist was that Ted Clairmont was a Catholic, and the community's Catholics and Lutherans were always at odds over who was in charge. So the deal was struck: A Catholic would be in charge one year, then a Lutheran would be in charge the next. I was dumbfounded: Palestine. Northern Ireland. Sarajevo. Walhalla, North Dakota.

Clair's grandparents were not well enough to come to our wedding, so we went to them. Up in Alexandria, Minnesota, we had a short ceremony where a priest blessed our marriage, and then Ted and Hazel did the same. At the time, I thought it was very sweet. Upon reflection, I see that it was very profound. Two people with lifetimes of love and experience bestowing upon us their hopes and their confidence in our ability to live up to them. Kinda humbling. It's the kind of thing we didn't get to do with my grandmother, and while I have no doubt that she would have approved, it's nice that we don't have to assume with Clair's family.

Evidently, it's starting to come out that Ted did a lot of work in his lifetime to provide for his family. In addition to teaching (because there has never been a time when teaching paid all the bills, apparently, he sold shoes. He sold gumball machines. He inspected wheat. As you might expect from a man who came of age during the Great Depression, he never stopped working. So it's perfectly in keeping that he spent his last years caring for his wife, who lost her vision and couldn't get around on her own anymore.

Working for his family. That's what Ted Clairmont did, and he never stopped in 95 years. I'm honored to call him family, and awfully glad I met him.

Theodore "Ted" Clairmont

Thursday, February 22, 2007

An Open Letter to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, Executive Producers of Lost

Hi, guys. How's Hawaii? Carlton, I loved Brisco County.

So, I watched your most recent episode last night. Among the highlights were a man being savagely beaten on a beach, that same man being locked in a cage for no apparent reason, and a woman being terribly scarred in what was evidently a ritual form of punishment. It was exactly as fun as it sounds.

Look, I want to cut you guys a lot of slack here. For example, I’m not going to hold you for the lies told by the ABC promotions department. “All your questions will be answered,” they said. Well, of course they weren’t. None of them were, and they were never going to be, and ABC lies like a dog, so I won’t hold you responsible for that.

Also, I understand your predicament. You’re telling a mystery story, and that requires you to keep information hidden from the audience. Mystery is a large source of the appeal of your show. I get that. So I’m not going to get bitter over not knowing every single thing about the island and the Others and all that stuff.

But you guys are perilously close to pissing me off. Your show is not fun to watch, and I spend most of the hour rolling my eyes at the television set, and I think you might be responsible for the most irritating programming currently available. And I say that as someone who has seen episodes of Men in Trees. There are some very serious problems with your show, and they are all your fault.

1. Lost is ugly and violent.
If I could sum up this season of Lost so far in one word, that word would be “torture”. People in cages, people being shocked with electricity, people being ordered to remove their clothes, people nearly being drowned, people being shot, people strapped to chairs and forced to watch films just like Billy Joel in the video for “Pressure”…that’s what the most intense show on television has had to offer us so far. You know, there’s a reason I don’t go to see movies like Saw, and why I think Seven is one of the greatest travesties ever foisted upon the American moviegoing public: unrelenting misery mixed with physical abuse is not my idea of a good time. I’m ready for Lost to figure that out.

2. Lost is focused on the most annoying characters.
Season 3 of Lost has provided us with nine episodes thus far. Six of those episodes have been devoted to the angstiest love triangle ever, and the way its participants suffer at the hands of mysterious forces. Two of those other episodes were devoted to characters introduced in Season 2, and in one of those, the character was killed. There are about a dozen other people, introduced to us at the very beginning of the show, who have received less screen time all season than the average guest star on Boston Public receives in a single episode. You guys have gotten way off track, and the tracks you’ve gotten onto are not fruitful.

3. Lost is unbearably, deliberately obtuse.

From Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary
Pronunciation: äb-'tüs, &b-, -'tyüs
Function: adjective
Inflected Form(s): ob·tus·er; -est
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin obtusus blunt, dull, from past participle of obtundere to beat against, blunt, from ob- against + tundere to beat -- more at OB-, CONTUSION
1 a : not pointed or acute : BLUNT b (1) of an angle : exceeding 90 degrees but less than 180 degrees (2) : having an obtuse angle -- see TRIANGLE illustration c of a leaf : rounded at the free end
2 a : lacking sharpness or quickness of sensibility or intellect : INSENSITIVE, STUPID b : difficult to comprehend : not clear or precise in thought or expression
synonym see DULL

Here’s a typical conversation on Lost:
Mysterious Island Denizen: You have to do what I say.
Survivor of Recent Plane Crash: I don’t understand. Why?
Mysterious Island Denizen: I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you that.
Survivor of Recent Plane Crash: Then I won’t help you.
Mysterious Island Denizen: I don’t know why you’re so difficult.

48 minutes of this crap every week. Look, you don’t get to be purposefully mysterious and then complain that nobody understands you. You have to explain yourself. Doesn’t that spoil the mystery? No, it doesn’t. Look at how you handled Locke, the man who seems to have been healed by this weird island. We know something about his past that no one in the show knows, so we understand why he does a lot of what he does, but he’s still a mysterious fellow. Not so with the Others. We don’t know a damn thing about them, but then they have the gall to get offended. And that’s no good. Damon, Carlton, you have reached the point in this show where the only reason people don’t communicate with each other like normal human beings is because it will ruin your surprise. The problem is, once everyone stops acting like normal human beings, you’ve got no show.

Look, I’ve read the interviews. You want it to be very clear that you know where you’re going with all this. You have a plan. You’re not The X-Files. But I’m having a hard time believing you anymore, because you’re just running in place, adding things that are supposed to be mysterious (“We’re here to watch.”) but are really only annoying. Plus, your fellow producer J. J. Abrams has said all these same things before…about his show Alias, which was also supposed to have a plan, but was instead allowed to collapse into a confusing, pathetic mess. In short, I’m losing confidence. And judging from the ratings, a lot of people have given up long before me.

I know you guys listen to the complaints. Last year, there were too many repeats and breaks in the season. So this year, we get 16 episodes in a row. "No repeats," according to ABC promotions. That's all good. So since you're listening, listen to this: at the end of last night’s episode, I turned to my wife and said, “I’m getting a Season 7 of The X-Files vibe.” It was not a compliment. Your show is on the edge, gentlemen. Be very, very afraid.

You know what they say. The truth is out there.

UPDATED: Someone found a way to say everything I tried to say, only more clearly and eloquently than I. Wanna see? Click here and watch the video.

Monday, February 19, 2007


Over a year ago, back when this enterprise was still being spawned, I wrote a foolishly hopeful post about my plans for future writings. Oh, I was gonna become my very own New Yorker, from the looks of things. In particular, I made a bold promise about future projects:

...including two that I'm particularly looking forward to starting, but can't just yet. I'm going to be a tease and save a discussion of them for later. When they're ready to go.

Unlike our president, I'm haunted by the stupid things I've said in the past. There's something about your word being your bond that resonates with me. Plus, that comment led to responses like, "Consider me teased," which means that in addition to just failing to keep promises, I'm letting people down. Blogging is great for self-esteem.

I'm not entirely sure, but I think one of the two secret ideas was my much-ballyhooed, now-horribly-embarrassing mystery serial. I'm not embarrassed by the story, mind you. I'm embarrassed by the fact that it just sits there, unfinished, unremembered, unloved. Even worse, I've said more than once that I would be returning to it, and that hasn't happened. So that fits in with the overall blog track record.

But the other one -- and it's taking me way too long to get to this -- I'm sure about, and that's a little something called "The Hitchcock Project". Welcome to it.

The genesis for this idea came in Christmas of 2004. That's when my mother gave me, as a present, a copy of Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan. It is, as you might imagine, a biography of the great film director, and it's huge. It's something like 800 pages, so if you choose to read it, you definitely want to settle in to the notion that it's gonna take you a while to get to the end.

So I put it off for a while, but eventually, I got started, and I soon found there was a much bigger obstacle than the length of the book. What was far more interesting was that, as I was reading, I found that I wanted to see the films I was reading about. I own about 10 Hitchcock movies, and I've seen probably a dozen more. But Alfred Hitchcock made 53 feature films, so I haven't even seen half of his career. So as McGilligan was talking about all these films I haven't seen, the urge to see them just got stronger and stronger.

It was just as Hitchcock was preparing to make his first sound movie that I fully committed to The Hitchcock Project. I set the book aside and loaded up my Netflix queue with every one of his films. Of course, that proved to be an early sticking point, since one of them -- The Mountain Eagle -- is apparently lost to history. And several of his early silent films are hard to come by. Particularly his very first movie, The Pleasure Garden. So I bided my time, figuring it would eventually come out. Everything comes out on DVD eventually. I own Krull, for crying out loud.

That was at least two years ago.

By gum, I am going to finish some of the things I set out to do before I leave this earth. And The Hitchcock Project is going to be one of them. Between March 1, 2007 and March 1, 2008, I will read this Alfred Hitchcock biography, and I will watch the available 52 movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock (and I will look at the surviving still frames from the 53rd). I may even watch a couple of the TV episodes he directed. And I will tell you all about it. This can be done; I've checked, and the Chicago Public Library has a copy of The Pleasure Garden. No more excuses; this can be done. I'm staking my dubious honor on this.

And if nothing else, you can be sure I'll be quoting this a year from now to show what a liar I am.

LATER THIS WEEK: Young Alfred's father throws him in jail to prove a point, and the seeds of his affinity for the wrongfully accused take root.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Let Slip the War of Dogs

It's important that you understand that I'm a fan of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Back when we got cable, in the mid-70s, the options were few. WTBS had Atlanta Braves baseball and Ozzie & Harriet reruns. HBO had two movies, which they played twice, and the rest of the day showed a scroll listing the two movies they'd be playing that night. And USA had some weird show called Night Flight.

Oh, and they had the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. We had never seen anything like it. Two nights of nothing but dogs, with each breed's complete history (usually dating back to Scotland or Egypt) recited in the mellifluous tones of Roger Caras. It was the best thing on television, and it reached an all-time high in 1980, when the top prize when to a beautiful Siberian Husky. It became the ultimate appointment television. It's not unusual for January phone conversations with my parents to include the phrase, "So, are you gonna watch the dog show?"

They've tried to wreck it. They brought on David Frei to provide color commentary, which is a disaster, since he seems to think the show is about the dog handlers. They stuck us with Joe Garagiola for a while, which is like having Jeremy Irons narrate a Black History Month documentary. Worst of all, they tried to talk over Roger Caras, which was utterly unacceptable. And I'm not the only one who thought that, because he was eventually restored to his rightful place, which his successor still holds today.

Since I moved to Chicago, it's been harder and harder to catch the dog show. I have frequently had classes or shows or something that got in the way. I've taped it, but you can't watch the dog show on tape, any more than you can skip out on the World Series and expect it to have the same impact weeks later. But this year, my schedule has finally permitted me to watch the entire contest. And it's important you know this, because of the ugly truth I must relate to you.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is fixed.

No, I can't prove it with evidence or anything. But look at the Day 1 results and tell me the fix isn't in:

Working: The Akita - a precious dog forever ruined for me by Rent
Terrier: The Dandie Dinmont Terrier - with a topknot that resembles a makeup brush, and owned by Bill Cosby, a fact we've been force-fed for years
Toy: The Toy Poodle - because judges seem to love that stupid little eggbeater dog
Non-Sporting: The Standard Poodle

Let's just stop right there. Both poodles? BOTH? Look, the poodle is emblematic of everything that is wrong with dog shows. They shave the dog in weird ways, they stick the dog's hair in bows, and they call that the "breed standard". It would be like requiring Miss America contestants to get breast implants. (As opposed to it being optional like it is now.) And when they walk, they look like eggbeaters. It's a joke. Hundreds of beautiful dogs to choose from, and they consistently select the dog that has been intentionally altered to look like something it's not.

You think I just hate poodles. Not true. I do hate poodles, but I'm not wrong. There is a freaking plot.

You still don't believe me. Fine. Here's a fact. You can look it up: since 1924, either the Standard Poodle or the Miniature Poodle has won the Non-Sporting group 43 times. That's roughly half. The New York Yankees don't have this kind of success. Here's more: know how many Best-In-Shows poodles have won? Six. Know how many have been won by the Labrador Retriever, far and away the most popular dog in America? None. Zero. Zilch. Big fat goose egg.

Someone is trying to warp the taste of America. And not in a good way. Worse than the McGriddle.

I'm telling you, these judges are insular, and they're crazy, and I'm convinced they're being paid off by some coalition to make dogs look stupid. And you think I'm nuts, but I'm okay with that. Because this is important stuff.

As I write this, the prospects aren't getting any better. Our winners tonight include the English Springer Spaniel, which is the kind of dog that supposedly dictated a book to Barbara Bush, and something called a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, which is a hound in name only, and somewhat resembles former UN ambassador John Bolton. Only the Herding group can save us now (Go, Border Collie!), and they're the last of the night, so they always get screwed in Best-in-Show.

Fixed, I'm telling you.

Damn poodles.

UPDATE: Well, the powers of evil pushed their luck, handing the Herding group to the Bouvier des Flandres. Awful lot of French in this final 7. But in the end, they had to give the top prize to the English Springer Spaniel. Which was the best we could do. At least it wasn't a poodle.

Damn poodles.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Extreme Makeover: Blog Edition

Welcome to the new look. For now, anyway. This font is kind of painful to read. It's all compressed, and I haven't yet found the mechanism to fix it. So we're gonna call this a work-in-progress.

Since the last time I made radical changes to my blog, the Blogger people have made all kinds of changes. They've made it a little easier to customize, with color changes and different fonts and whatnot. It was kind of a kick trying out different looks. Of course, I shouldn't be decorating a cake, let alone a piece of HTML. So, if this looks like some kind of color swatch train wreck, that's because I was given free reign.

Something Blogger hasn't changed is the choice of available templates. There still aren't very many of them, they still don't look all that different from each other, and they're all immediately recognizable as Blogger. I wonder if that's something they sit around arguing about. The web is based very heavily on inidividuality, but there's a desperate need to establish brand identity, and look has everything to do with that. As Jay Leno, in his last funny joke, said when he heard a radio commercial inviting people to the new McDonald's in El Segundo, "Gee, I wonder what it's like?"

Am I even allowed to talk about this? I feel like the Blogger police are going to throw me in blog prison for committing blog thoughtcrime.

Most of the blogs I've linked to (and you'll notice that's been updated, as promised) are Brothers in Blogspot, and I guess they show the range of designs available. I mean, in the end, it's a lot of text, and it'll either be a light font on a dark background or vice versa. No one complains about books all looking the same. Of course, since no one reads anymore...

Anyway, I'm still tinkering. I'll stick with the basic design, but colors and fonts will likely change over the next few weeks. Hope that doesn't bug you.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Dead Links Walking

The last time I let an enormous chunk of time go by without updating the blog, I celebrated the relaunch by picking a different page design. It seems only right that I do that again, especially since I've quickly developed a dislike for this one. I'm not sure what I'm going to go with, since most of Blogger's options are pretty boring. For all I know, I'll end up with the same design I started with. But a change is gonna come. Oh yes, it is.

Another of the things I'm going to be updating is that "Recommended Links" section over there on the right. It's nice to give a shout-out to friends, acquaintances, or blogs you just plain like. However, mine looks like I'm keeping a record of people who are worse at maintaining my blog than I am. Which is kind of amusing, actually, but suggests I'm a member of the Abandoned Blog Web Ring. So I'm going to do a
little housecleaning. If I have any hope of staying current with this thing, I figure I should keep current links, too.

Still, I hate to just send them away, like they're being exiled. They deserve some sort of commemoration, as well as a word of explanation as to how they ended up here in the first place. So I'm linking to them one more time. That way, the links will always live on in this entry. And hey, if any of these folks decides to resume their blogging ways, they're going right back on the list. It's the least I can do.

On Your Mark…Get Set…
By John P. Glynn
Last (and only) Post: April 26, 2006
Around the time this began – and ended – John and I were in a writers group. Now, this entry has the appearance of fiction, so I can theorize that he was dabbling in a number of writings, and this was going to be one of them. Well, okay, I don't have to theorize; I could just ask him. But I'm not planning to work that hard on this. The main point is, after one installment, John's blog petered out, giving painful irony to its title. The writers group also evaporated, so he may have just been demoralized.

Film Treats
By Paul Winston
Last Post: December 29, 2005
Paul (not his real name) was following my lead, so I suppose this is all my fault. He blazed through a week's worth of posts, and then flamed out. Which is a shame, since I was enjoying his take on the Roger Ebert Great Movies column. I know for a fact that he doesn't think it's a shame, since I called him out on it on this blog, and got a response that essentially said, "I regret nothing." He's since had a baby, so I shan't be waiting for his analysis of JFK anytime soon.

Heavy Petting
By Emily & Brian Wilson
Last Post: October 25, 2006
Emily was one of the great discoveries of my tenure editing the late, tragically-unlamented online magazine, The Greenroom. She wrote excruciatingly funny stories of adolescence which would probably make her the next Judy Blume if she would just collect them and get a publisher. So when I saw that she and her husband were writing about their marriage, I was excited. I gather, though, that they've
discovered that writing about a marriage takes away valuable time from being in the marriage. Totally understand. So we can let that fade away gently. Besides, what the world really needs is more Emily Wilson's Weird, Weird World. Maybe I could become an agent…

A Year in Pictures Following the Breakup
By Arnie Niekamp
Last Post: August 2, 2006 (with a follow-up on the 23rd)
Including this here is woefully inaccurate on my part. After all, this blog actually came to an intentional, self-declared end. What's more, Arnie is responsible for an entirely new blog, on which I have made a number of cameo appearances, and which is continuing to solidify his status as the best blogger ever. Really, I'm just updating. Finally acknowledging a change-of-address form, if you will. But let's hear it for the original: often imitated, never duplicated. And now removed.

By Brandi Larsen
Last Post: June 3, 2006 (with a follow-up on January 7, 2007)
This is possibly the most unfair cut. I mean, look: there's an entry from this year. How can that be out of date? Well, since I work with Brandi now, I know that her attentions are focused elsewhere. In fact, I happen to know that this last entry is intended to help assuage the guilt that comes from everyone failing to figure out that she had quit the blog. Which is not so surprising, when you consider that the last line of what she thought would be understood as her valedictory was, "BookADay will be right back." The confusion is, perhaps, understandable. But if she meant goodbye, then who am I to argue? And anyway, this isn't so much a goodbye as it is an au revoir, since she has another blog to occupy her. So since she's shifted her efforts, I will, too. Like Arnie, she'll be getting a new link momentarily.

There are a couple that could easily have been dismissed for delinquency. Charlotte Nieburg's A Few Words hasn't been updated since September. But I'm such a big fan of her writing, I still click the link regularly in hopes that she's awoken from her slumber. And the Whirled News Tonight site is so outdated, it's actually been taken down for upgrading. But I have reasonable assurances that it'll be back soon, so I'm holding out.

Well, that's a load off my mind. So, I'll just update the links, change this layout, and this blog'll be back in business. Yes, sir.

Hmm, three postings, and I haven't actually written about anything. I think I've got the blogging mojo back.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Hmm. Sunday Afternoon. Wonder What's on TV.

I won't be dwelling on the subject of the Super Bowl for very long, primarily because:
(a) it's depressing, and
(b) it's football.

Suffice it to say, the first 14 seconds of the game were just transcendentally wonderful, with the crowd at the party we attended on its feet and positively reveling in the glories of life. And that was about as good as it got.

I do want to point out that Peyton Manning had no more business being MVP than I did. The man was competent. Which, admittedly, was all we hoped Rex Grossman would be, so it's not like "competent" is that easily achieved, I guess. It was just the final element in the NFL's conspiracy to shove Peyton Manning down our collective throats. I'm reminded of many years ago, when I was working in the library at DeWitt Perry Jr. High. This particular year, Sports Illustrated had named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar their Sportsman of the Year. Shortly after putting out the magazine, I was fortunate enough to overhear this conversation:
GUY #1: Who's the man of the year?
GUY #2: Kareem.
GUY #1: What for?
GUY #2: (brief pause for reflection, then:) Being Kareem.
That, to me, sums up this year's Super Bowl MVP.

I also want to take a moment to congratulate the most evil family in all of sports on their victory. I'm talking about the Irsays, who were once the owners of a proud football franchise called the Baltimore Colts. Then, back in 1984, the Irsays hired a bunch of Mayflower trucks, backed them up to the Colts offices, packed up everything and moved the entire franchise to Indianapolis. Oh, I almost forgot to mention -- they did all this in the middle of the night. Under cover of darkness. It's possibly the most cowardly, despicable act in the history of American sports, and it's why I wouldn't care if the Colts fell into a tar pit, let alone win the Super Bowl. Even Art Modell, who is his own brand of puppy killer, at least had the courtesy to stick around and listen to the boos before he hauled his team out of Cleveland. (To Baltimore, charmingly enough.) So congratulations, Irsays. You won the Vince Lombardi trophy. See if they let you take it with you to hell.

What I really want to talk about is the commercials, and this notion that the ads are the real reason to tune in to the game. Let's just stop that nonsense, because the ads were atrocious. Among the delightful treats that came our way:
- Two men kissing each other, then yanking out their chest hair to prove that they're not luv-ahs.
- An unattractive stripper being sprayed with water to promote a website.
- A person throwing a rock at a friend.
- Talking lions, talking gorillas, and a cult of crabs.
- My personal favorite, an auto assembly line robot -- who presumably put several humans out of work -- becoming depressed because the car it made is too good, and hurling itself off a bridge. I think this was supposed to be "sad".
- Norbit.

The best commercial of the entire day was a ten-second spot involving David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey pretending to be a couple watching the game. It was funny. It was clever. And it was ten seconds long. It had everything going for it.

People, the commercials aren't good. Stop tuning in for the ads. If you're at home, don't watch. If you're at a party, have a conversation. If you're at a bar, call the Doritos ad people something vulgar. Whatever it takes. If we keep encouraging them like this, they're never going to learn. We can do this. We got rid of Bud Bowl. Let's keep it going.

I know, there's a lot of anger in here. But that's okay. It's all gonna go away. You know why? Because of the very best thing about the Super Bowl. My favorite thing of all.

Now it's time for baseball season.