Abraham Lincoln: In Fine Voice

Lincoln Movie PosterBecause I object to Black Friday’s commercialism — and the media-fueled, undignified behavior it provokes each day-after-Thanksgiving — I avoid the annual retail hoopla at all costs.  I usually hide out at the movies… along with thousands of other agoraphobic Bay Area residents.

Amazed that we’d all forego spending Thanksgiving night on the sidewalk, just for the remote (pun intended) chance of buying a 52” HDTV at a steep discount on Friday morning?  Speaking for myself, I’ll pass. I prefer holiday cocktails in a glass not a thermos, and generally avoid turkey and stuffing that has been stored in a beer cooler.

So, I spent Thanksgiving with friends. And on this Black Friday, I squeezed into my yoga pants with the elastic waistband (damn you, pumpkin bread pudding!) and drove to the ‘burbs to see Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Lincoln.

Everything you’ve heard and read about the film is true; Daniel Day-Lewis is an incredible Abraham Lincoln.  He is tall and gangly, with a beard and worried wrinkles.  He IS Lincoln — so much so that for the rest of my life his will be the face I see when I picture America’s 16th president.

(Sally Field is also a very convincing, overwrought Mary Todd Lincoln, and one of my favorite actors — Joseph Gordon-Levitt — plays eldest Lincoln son Robert Todd.)

It is a great film, and I found it extremely engrossing despite its two-and-a-half hour run time.  Yet, I was a little distracted by Lincoln’s voice.  Knowing the President’s physical stature and tremendous accomplishments, one might assume that he had a deep, booming, commanding voice.  No so, apparently.  Filmmakers did their homework, and based on historical records Day-Lewis went with a soft, reedy voice for Lincoln.

Much has been made of this in the press, so I was practically expecting to hear Pee-wee Herman.  It wasn’t that extreme. Besides, the deepness of Day-Lewis’s voice wasn’t the distraction.  It just reminded me of someone.  But who?  It took nearly an hour for it to hit me.

Grandpa SimpsonDaniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln voice sounds just like… Grandpa Simpson.  ABRAHAM Simpson, that is.  You know, from The Simpsons?  I kid you not; His name is Abe.  (Is he honest? Wikipedia doesn’t say.) And just like President Lincoln, Grandpa Simpson tells stories and anecdotes that others sometimes find tedious and/or pointless.  Coincidence?

Click the link.  See the film.  Judge for yourself.  Am I wrong?

11/22/63: It’s About Time

11-22-63 coverI put off tackling Stephen King’s 11/22/63 for almost a year, because – let’s face it — it’s a tome.  What’s more, I bought it in hardback while browsing through Books Inc., presumably in some kind of vulnerable, hypnotic state.  That’s right, I bought an 842-page hardback.  Thankfully, I wo-manned up recently and read it, because it’s a fascinating, absorbing book.

(An ancillary benefit: Since it weighs as much as a small dumbbell, I was able to tone my biceps just by lugging it around.)

I’m not a Stephen King enthusiast, despite my conviction that The Shining is one of the best, scariest novels of its genre.  But 11/22/63 is not a horror story; it’s a suspenseful tale of time travel, with some history and romance thrown in.  Never a sci-fi fan, I was nonetheless drawn in as Jake (the hero of our story) travels back in time, to the era of southern segregation, black and white console televisions, and the Cold War.

There are no flying cars or alien overlords in this story.

Jake makes several trips to the Land of Ago, as he calls 1958 – 1963, hoping to prevent specific acts of violence that devastated individuals, families and in one case an entire nation.  But he discovers that the past is obdurate (a $10 word that I’ve discovered means stubborn), and changing fate does not come easy, or cheap.

It’s a novel packed with thrills and plot twists.  It’s also thought-provoking, as Jake unwittingly tests the theory of the “butterfly effect” – the concept that seemingly insignificant, well-meaning actions can have profound, unintended ripple effects.

Midway through 11/22/63, I was reminded of a popular 1990’s television series, Early Edition.  In it, Kyle Chandler’s character gets “tomorrow’s news today”, in the form of an advance copy of the following day’s Chicago Sun-Times.  Rather than use the magical newspaper for personal gain – betting on sports or buying lotto tickets – he rushes around Chicago each day, thwarting the occasional crime and preventing accidents.

If he reads that careless piano movers will drop a Steinway on an unsuspecting pedestrian out walking on tomorrow’s lunch hour, Kyle will be there just in time to push the guy out of the way.  It’s pretty harmless stuff, because Kyle is essentially traveling forward in time… and by only one day.  There is no way to see downstream, to the long-term impacts of his heroics.  He can’t see the butterfly effect, if there is one.

But imagine that you could travel back 60 years or so in time, and hang out in that Time of Ago.  You would make friends, forge relationships, buy and sell things, and touch lives in ways large and small.  Now suppose you decided to change the fate of someone you care about.  Maybe save the life of your grandfather who was killed in Korea.  His children wouldn’t lose their father, and your grandmother would never become a widow.

But could you be certain that if he were spared, he and his family would live a long and healthy life?   What if he returned from the war a changed man, and his marriage to your grandmother ultimately failed?

What about the man your grandma would have married, after your grandfather’s death in the war?  How would his life be changed?  What kind of hole would be left in the world, because the children he would have had with your grandmother were never born?

You couldn’t be sure, because of the butterfly effect.

11/22/63.  It’s not a sitcom.  It’s a really long book, and it will leave you thinking about fate, and destiny, and butterflies long after you reach page 842.

Did anyone else love this book, as much as I did?

Paterno: A Review Of The Book… and The Man

Joe Paterno Statue RemovalI am not a college football fan.  I never have been, although heaven knows I’ve tried for the sake of others who live-and-die by it every fall Saturday.  The only thing I really like about college football is the marching bands.  The NFL needs more marching bands.

Prior to 2011, if you had told me that Joe Paterno was the head coach at Notre Dame I would have nodded sheepishly.  I had no idea, despite having relatives who went to Penn State and still live in State College, Pennsylvania.  Likewise, if the Jerry Sandusky/PSU scandal hadn’t happened, there isn’t a snowball’s chance I’d have ever read the new biography Paterno, by Joe Posnanski.  (As noted in previous blogs, I am a big fan of Posnanski’s blogging, though.)

Of course, the scandal did happen, and so I read the book.  I’d like to say it was illuminating, and that it made sense of the madness.  I’d like to tell you that it clearly established Joe Paterno’s innocence, or culpability.  Unfortunately, it did none of that.

Posnanski had already decided to write his biography of ‘Joe Pa’ long before the allegations of former defensive coordinator Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children surfaced.  By that point, he’d already spent nearly a year in State College, with unprecedented access to Paterno, his family and colleagues, and more than five decades of hand scribbled notes about football, and life.  I think it’s safe to say, if Sandusky’s criminal acts had not been discovered, the book would have been a glowing, reverential account of Paterno’s life.

But in early 2011, the scandal broke.  In November of that year, Sandusky was indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys.  Paterno was vilified, fired, and diagnosed with terminal cancer all in short order.  On January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno died.  To no one’s surprise, these events sped up the launch of Posnanski’s book by nearly one year.

And so the first thing I noticed about Paterno was, it felt rushed.  Most biographers linger over the details of their subjects’ early years.  They interview friends and teachers to help readers understand what makes their subjects tick.  Posnanski covers little of Paterno’s upbringing in Brooklyn, aside from the fact that his parents were driven and demanding and expected great things from their son.  They wanted him to be a lawyer.  His father (who as sparingly described, seemed to be a kind, principled man) thought Joe could be president.

His military service is presented primarily through overly cheerful letters home that revealed next-to-nothing, and his college years at Brown University are covered in just a handful of pages.   At the point Paterno joins the coaching staff at PSU, he’s still pretty much an enigma.

The rest of the book lays out his football successes and failures chronologically, with occasional references to the future when (dah-DUM) everything would go terribly wrong.  Those interjections felt like teases. Sort of, “If you are reading this book to find out what Joe Pa knew about Sandusky’s shenanigans, stay tuned.”

Paterno didn’t meet my expectations, but I’m glad I read it.  For someone who knew nothing of Joe Paterno before he – and PSU – became infamous, it provides clues to how such heinous acts could have been committed, right under the nose of the architect of the “Grand Experiment”.  And the weird thing is, it’s not really complicated.

Joe Paterno was a smart guy, who liked to think of himself as intellectual because he read the classics sometimes.  But he wasn’t an intellectual.  He was utterly two-dimensional.  He cared about football.  (So did school administrators, and the Board of Directors by the way.)  He wasn’t focused on wealth or pedigree, but you can bet he cared deeply about winning, success and achievement.  His life was football, and everything – EVERYTHING – else took a backseat including his family, his friends (of which he had precious few), his health… and in the end, I believe, the welfare of vulnerable children.

Do I think Joe Paterno was aware that Jerry Sandusky had victimized children on the PSU campus?  Absolutely.  He later admitted that when then-graduate assistant Mike McCreary reported seeing Sandusky and a boy in the locker room showers, he knew “something sexual” was probably going on.  But as Posnanski hammers home throughout the book, Paterno did not believe in distractions of any kind.  Football was The Thing.  He did what was required of him; he reported the incident… and then he returned his focus to coaching, and preserving his job in the face of growing demands that he retire.

Posnanski makes much of Joe Paterno’s dedication to the intellectual growth of young men in his care.  Many players are quoted, looking back wistfully at all that Joe Pa taught them.  He fought like hell to instill important life lessons, and give players the tools for an adult life of prosperity, fulfillment and public service.

This was all great, commendable stuff.  But Joe Pa loved a winner, especially a diamond in the rough.  He reveled in telling stories about the raw talents he helped hone and buff, who succeeded on the field… and later in business, or law.  (Was it coincidental that Paterno’s parents wanted him to be a lawyer or politician, and that he seemed to hand-pick players to push very aggressively toward law school, followed by political office?)

Posnanski suggests that Paterno snubbed Jerry Sandusky’s Second Mile charity because he and Sandusky had a strained relationship.  In fact, they openly disliked one another.  Apparently, the at-risk kids Sandusky brought on the PSU campus drove Paterno nuts.   I think Joe Pa had no time for these kids because they were damaged, well beyond anything he’d encounter when recruiting high school football prodigies.  These kids probably showed little athletic prowess, and had no interest in discussing the classics.

After reading Paterno, I can’t help but suspect that if Sandusky’s shower victim had been a poor-but-motivated Pop Warner standout – a modern-day Horatio Alger character in cleats – Joe Paterno would not only have reported the suspected crime, he would have followed up, and pressed, bullied and badgered… like only Joe Pa could.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Americans can be quite loyal to their morning news programs, and as such can take great offense when an anchor or other on-air personality is replaced.

I mock the Today Show, but have watched it for years.  I have yet to make a clean break from it — not because I am so attached to the personalities who supply me with the news, but because I have grown accustomed to the show’s pattern.  I don’t need to watch the clock; I know that I can usually wait until Natalie Morales finishes up at the news desk before I must jump in the shower.  If I linger to catch Al Roker, I know I’m pushing it.

I am also a big fan of several NBC political correspondents, particularly Chuck Todd for White House and election coverage.

All that said, I am now officially auditioning morning news programs.  This week, it’s been the recently retooled CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose, Erica Hill and Gayle King.  I’m not sure what to make of the triumvirate approach at the anchor desk.  No offense to Ms. King, but Charlie Rose is a heavy-hitting interviewer and journalist who, at times, can make her seem a little out of her depth.

The show is seriously low-key, and mercifully unlike Today in that no one seems to be going for the big belly laughs from the crew.  No jovial weatherman, no brotherly/sisterly teasing between anchors.  And so far, nothing remotely tabloid-ish.  Everyone sits around a big table, where the average IQ is at least 150, talking about real news.  Even – hang on to your hats, here – international news that does NOT involve what Kate Middleton wore to buy groceries last week.  It’s all very… PBS.

Perhaps best of all, there are no screaming crowds outside the studio.  No tourists captivated enough by the prospect of being on TV that they lug signs from Minnesota to New York City.  “Duluth Loves Al Roker!”

Next week I will give Good Morning America a shot, although after the cerebral CBS This Morning I think it may throw me into a fit from overstimulation.  The backdrop is Time Square, everything is a bright color, and there are two anchors, one news guy and one weatherperson crammed behind a teeny anchor desk — for easier banter, presumably.

No matter which network I settle on, it will be an improvement over Today.

Today showThe Ann Curry fiasco represents everything that’s wrong with NBC News; Today Show ratings drop over the past year, and since veteran reporter Ann Curry is the newest add to the anchor desk… she must be to blame. Fire her. Never mind that Today is hands-down the fluffiest, most vacuous of all the morning news shows. Forget that Matt Lauer seems bored and disinterested, and editorializes his way through just about every segment, especially those that involve a debate over good vs. bad parenting.  (What about objective journalism?)

Some recent Today lowlights?

  • iPhone video of a girl and her screaming dad on a death-drop roller coaster, rerun several days in a row.
  • Multiple-morning check-ins with an alleged “soccer mom madam”, who has finally been released from jail. NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!
  • A long, drawn out series about Madonna Badger, who lost her entire family in a tragic Christmas day house fire.  The promo clips of Matt Lauer asking whether she could see her children through the window of her home as they perished were both shameless and tasteless.
  • An unhealthy obsession with a bullied school bus monitor from New York state.  Yes, it started out as an important story.  One of those “teachable moments”.  But by day five, the kindly old lady herself seemed confused about why Today kept inviting her to appear.
  • “Really Hot” ambush summer makeovers.
  • Segments featuring Kathy Lee Gifford.

I will miss Today for political coverage, though. Following this morning’s Supreme Court ruling on President Obama’s healthcare legislation, NBC worked like a well-oiled machine.

As a CBS reporter tried to digest the ruling on camera as we all watched — and CNN and Fox News went one step further by misunderstanding it, and declaring it a White House defeat – Today had one veteran reporter on camera, and several seated off camera, to quickly parse and digest the complex ruling and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Best of luck Savannah Guthrie – Magna Cum Laude Georgetown Law graduate, former criminal defense attorney, and newest co-anchor of Today.  Wonder how many cute videos of puppies you’ll report on, before you want to knock yourself in the head with a judge’s mallet?

Fatal Encounters

Let’s face it, most TV that isn’t live sports, Modern Family or Parks and Recreation is bad.  Really terrible.  Cue the new show “Fatal Encounters” on Investigation Discovery TV.  Spoiler alert!

Fatal Encounters tells the story of two people whose lives intersect … setting in motion a series of events that lead inexorably to murder. An on-screen clock counts down the final hours before the crime, so viewers can understand the critical decisions and twists of fate that lead to tragedy. The series also explores the forces, both psychological and environmental, that contributed to a senseless loss of a cherished life.

Murder by environmental forces?  What, like global warming?

So, to be crystal clear it’s not a feel-good show about down-on-their-luck people who triumph over adversity.   Viewers know going in that their protagonists will get whacked in just under 60 minutes, either because they make one or two bonehead decisions, or just because they are the unluckiest so-and-sos who ever lived.

Case in point, an upcoming episode called Deadly Deeds:

Genore Guillory has been helping out her struggling neighbors, the Skippers …even naming them as beneficiaries on her life insurance policy. But Phillip Skipper is actually in a white supremacist gang with plans to unload its racist fury on Genore.

Or this one, titled Wicked:

They couldn’t have been more different from one another.  Joel Leyva — 52-year-old family man; devout Christian. And Angela Sanford — 30-year-old social outcast; practicing Wiccan. Joel and Angela meet at a horse race track. They develop an unlikely friendship that ends in a mysterious murder.

Why on earth do we need a show like this?  What’s the point, to make the viewer feel powerless and terrified to leave the house?  I already feel that way, I don’t need a TV show to validate it.

I let loose my fair share of schadenfreude from time to time, when I see really bad people get what they deserve.  I mean, people like Kim Kardashian or José Canseco.   But why would I curl up on my sofa to watch a story about some poor, unsuspecting sucker stumbling blindly to his death, while a stopwatch runs in the corner of the screen?

There’s not even any suspense!  No, “Wait! Stop! Don’t charter that fishing boat/make your shady neighbors your life insurance beneficiaries/go to the horse track with that Wiccan!”  Save your voice.  If you are watching the show, you know the poor guy is toast.

I’m no Pollyanna, but I think I’ll pass on guaranteed death and destruction.  I’d rather channel surf for a possible no-hitter (MattCainMattCainMattCain), or follow the political escapades of Claire “I want my stop sign” Dunphy, or Pawnee’s waffle-loving Leslie Knope.  And then there’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep!  That one looks promising enough to re-subscribe to HBO!

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World

Today I’m suffering from PMMS – Post Mad Men Syndrome.   Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 17 months, you know that last night was the Mad Men season five premier.  Two hours!  As one clever Twitter user noted, Don Draper and Tiger Woods made their comebacks on the same day… which could be a coincidence.  Or maybe not.

Some questions were answered right off the bat:  Don did indeed marry Megan the receptionist.  He seems to be suppressing his hound-dog ways, channeling a happy 1960s husband and father.  The fact that Megan has been promoted to the position of copywriter, despite her lack of applicable experience, may have something to do with this.  Don can now chase her around his desk, and order her to flash her bra, at will.  With Don, as we know, where there’s a will…

Megan’s probably thinking “if he must stare at cleavage at work, at least I can make sure it’s MY cleavage.”

There are other advantages to having your husband as your boss.  When he waltzes out the door at 5 p.m., leaving a pile of work for his subordinates, you get to leave too while casting a long, sad glance back at the rest of “the team” (i.e. Peggy) that says, “Hey, what can I do?  He’s my ride home!”

Megan is going to be a lot of fun, because it’s evident that Don’s narcissism and manipulative tendencies are already making her a little unbalanced.  When angry at Don, she cleans their apartment in her sexy black bra and panties while he watches.  You know, to PUNISH him.   This occurs the morning after she shimmied and serenaded him, Brigitte Bardot-style, in front of their colleagues.

Roger Sterling is still a womanizing lush, with a vicious wit.  When Joan arrives at the office to show off her (a.k.a. Roger’s) newborn son he shouts, “Where’s my baby?” before cheek-kissing Joan, who looks like she might faint at the prospect of her baby’s paternity being revealed.   He also skillfully talks Harry Crane into trading offices with Pete, for a mere $1,100.  Poor Harry never knew what hit him.

Aside from Megan’s promotion – and the fact that she still hasn’t had her teeth fixed — the biggest surprise may have been the fact that she knows Don’s true identify.  It was subtle.  During his post birthday party sulk he reminds her that, unbeknownst to the world, he’s actually been 40 for several months.  And later, she references Dick Whitman, which REALLY pisses him off.   This means there are now three women who know about Don’s sordid past – Faye, Betty and Megan.   All are, or will be (sorry, Megan!) women scorned.  Sneaky Pete Campbell also knows the score.

A few questions were left unanswered:

  • Where’s Mom of the Year, Betty Draper Francis?  Little mention is made of her, and I’m curious to see the state of her marriage after two years.
  • How are the Draper kids faring, post divorce?  Viewers got a quick snippet of Sally Draper as she smiled sweetly at Megan over breakfast.   Still waters run deep with that kid, so it’s hard to tell if she likes her pretty new stepmom… or if she’s planning to kill her in her sleep.
  • “Is it just me, or is the lobby filled with Negroes?” asks Roger Sterling.  Is it just me, or have we not heard the last of Civil Rights encroaching on Madison Avenue this season?  There was something very poignant about those graceful, earnest black women handing over their resumes for a job that didn’t exist.  It was hard to tell if any of the partners felt a twinge of… anything… at that moment.  But we all know Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce will not integrate voluntarily, unless it helps sell cigarettes or baked beans.

We shall see.

Turn On. Tune In. Hit Play.

I am not a slave to television.  I do not plan my life based on the TV schedule… but having a DVR may have something to do with that.  With it I can extend my multitasking even to television watching, and thereby avoid tough trade offs like which baseball game to watch on a given day.  Line ‘em up; I’ll watch them all!

A friend and I recently compared notes on TV shows that horrify us – but that we surreptitiously watch anyway.  We cannot look away.  Of course, I would never, ever record any of these shows because that would be sad and wrong.  But if I were channel surfing and happened to come across one of these…

Hoarding: Buried Alive.  For a neatnik like me, this show is scarier than any death drop roller coaster out there.  The unfortunate hoarders profiled tend to be lonely and isolated, and many just seem bat-shit crazy.   The presence of cameras is usually precipitated by some catastrophic event, like a child has developed asthma due to conditions in the home, and the authorities are now threatening removal and/or to condemn the property.

It’s always amazing to me that hoarders are so deathly attached to their stuff.  (Queue sound of hand-slapping-forehead here.)  I know I know, hoarders gonna hoard.  But it’s like someone with emphysema, who needs an oxygen tank to breath, but still refuses to give up smoking.  So… your kitchen sink is clogged and filled with filthy stagnant water.  Your fridge is crawling with cockroaches.  And you sleep on a funked-up mattress next to a mountain of QVC Christmas ornaments that will smother you in your sleep if they fall on you.  Yet, you insist that nothing is wrong?

Will Mary Jo let the biohazard team clean out her house, or will she lose her marbles and lock herself in her basement with her collection of newspapers dating back to the Eisenhower administration?  Those are the scenes that really get my adrenaline pumping!

What Not To Wear.  OK, I lied.  I have been known to record this one, because really… what’s not to love, starting with Clinton Kelly?  (Or as his makeovers from New Jersey often refer to him, “Cli-hun”.)  I highly recommend his book Freakin’ Fabulous: How to Dress, Speak, Behave, Eat, Drink, Entertain, Decorate, and Generally Be Better Than Everyone Else.

The show can be inspiring when a hard-working single mom finally sees herself as beautiful.  But the real guilty pleasure part of WNTW is the clothing choices that got these women nominated for the show in the first place.  “You wore THAT to your husband’s boss’s wedding?  Afterwards he was FIRED, right?”

No matter what fashion faux pas is committed, you’ll find a plus-sized woman shopping in the junior’s department at its core.

The make-up segment is almost always benign.  When there’s a professional make-up artist at work, there’s nothing but upside.  But the hairstyle segment?  Yikes, hang on to your extensions people!   A 55 year-old woman with a middle part and no bangs, two-inch roots and only five hairs on her entire head that aren’t split will plop down in the stylist’s chair and say, “You can do whatever you want, but I want to keep it long.”  The stylist will explain that her cut is a bit “dated” and it ages her, so he wants to cut off FOUR INCHES.  This will leave her with hair only down to (gasp!) her shoulders.  The hair segment usually ends in tears, and a mediation team must be called in.

At the end of the show, the makeover unveils her new look at a cocktail party for family and friends.  Her boss announces that she can use the front door when entering the office from now on.  Her husband is speechless and gives her a big, sloppy smooch.  Her kids cry, and say they have never seen her look so pretty.  (That’s the part that always gets to me.)

Decision 2012.  This is the guilty TV pleasure that cracked up my friend Jenni, once I assured her that I wasn’t being sarcastic.  I am a registered Democrat who watches the Republic primary debates (sometimes twice!) and takes notes in case something happens worth blogging about.  I also watched the Super Tuesday results come in with my guy Chuck Todd.  He is adorable and objective, and he doesn’t yell or interrupt. (That’s right, I’m looking at YOU Chris Matthews!)  And he can do math really fast.  IN HIS HEAD!

I do not consider Who Do You Think You Are? a guilty pleasure.  There’s nothing to feel guilty about – it’s educational, damn it!  My devotion to it stems from my love of history, genealogy and Ancestry.com… and my determination to prove that I am related to a really good U.S. President.  Not a Warren G. Harding or William Henry Harrison.   I want a founding father, Honest Abe or some sort of Roosevelt (even Eleanor!).

Once I uncover my link to the White House… consider it blogged!

What are your guilty TV pleasures?