Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sorry, Virginia

There is a time in our lives when we are told about a wonderful man, a man who gives you things you don't even have to pay for. 

The people who are in charge of things tell you amazing tales about him,  tales of his compassion and astonishing abilities, qualities that seem like magic.  

Despite his powers, details of his youth and young adulthood are mysterious, assuming the quality of myth.

He lives in a very special home and is attended by large numbers of smaller people who carry out his wishes and who construct the bright toys he gives.   

He keeps lists of people he thinks are good and bad.  Brother, you do not want to be on that bad list. 

He's on television all the time, and you can even go see him in person when he comes to your town.

You love this man.  He's a dream come true.  No one has ever seen anything like him. 

As the years go by, though, you begin to observe that many things in real life are not consistent with the stories of him and  his mission.  But you are told to keep believing, and you do. 

For awhile; then, one day, the evidence of your own eyes and your common sense overwhelm your craving to believe in this man. Without anyone telling you, you can see for yourself that the stories about him are not true. The man is not who he pretended to be.  Even though you saw him with your own eyes, it turns out he never really existed as he portrayed himself and as others sang of him. (Yes, people wrote songs about him, and small children were made to sing them.)   He and his helpers knowingly misled you -- you and millions of others -- going to incredible lengths to sustain the illusion of the man's greatness. 

In fact, that man you saw, he's just a guy in a fancy suit who isn't special and has no particular fondness for you. 
Even those presents you got -- someone had to pay for them after all.  It dawns on you that sooner or later, you yourself will be expected to pay for gifts others receive. 

When the truth becomes apparent, you protest the deception.  But the people in charge say they did it for your own good. 

You're sad for a little while, but not long. You understand, finally, that some things really are too good to be true.   Some of your friends continue to believe in the man, but they don't advertise it, and many of them know in their hearts they've been had.  Others cling fiercely to the myths, fearful that if they do not the free presents will stop.  

You remember with fondness the excitement of those early years when you believed.  But with your eyes finally open to what is really going on, you put that man in the fancy suit behind you as you make your way in the real world.

Monday, November 18, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: "Enough Said," or, You Can Say That Again

SPOILER NOTICE:  Most people will come to this movie knowing the basic plot outline, which is revealed in almost all reviews of it.  I will mention it here.  There is a plot twist in the middle of the movie that I will not reveal.

*     *     *

The Memsahib and I should see more movies.  If we did, maybe I'd get to see more monster shows and violent revenge movies and jaw-dropping special effects stuff and naughty frat-boy comedies and possibly even naked women on the big screen.  (With the get-all-the-movies option on DirectTV, those kind of movies are eventually beamed into our home -- gathered in from outer space by our dish, which I actually have never seen, somewhere on our roof they tell me -- where I don't watch them, either.)   Instead, our movie choices tend to be dominated by the kind of things that the Mem will enjoy, since I'm very likely to enjoy them, too, and she is not going to enjoy the monster/frat/naked movies.  I am a loving and prudent husband, and I play the percentages.

The Mem is interested in seeing what we refer to as "relationship movies."  These are dramas or comedies that explore the relationships between family members or men and women.  Sometimes they are not slow and long.

"Enough Said" was an enjoyable relationship movie.  It was, however, slow and long.  I checked my watch twice.  (The current recordholder is "Amour," where I was checking my watch almost constantly, partly to attempt to determine when that particular torture might conclude, and partly because what was happening on my watch face was more interesting than what was happening on the screen.)   I recommend it.  I didn't love it, it won't make any of my personal top-twenty lists, but it was a pleasant night at the flicks with some very agreeable people.

Those agreeable people are mostly Eva, a divorced freelance masseuse(Julia Louis-Dreyfus); Albert , a TV archivist with whom she has an affair (James Gandolfini in his final feature role); and Marianne, a famous and weirdly well-off poet  who becomes Eva's client and eventually a friend and confidant (Catherine Keener).  

Left to right:  James Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

The good things about this movie are:  The general agreeability of the two people who get the most screen time.  Their familiarity to us from popular TV shows.  The fact that they get together.  The fact that, since we know this is a romantic comedy, they will probably end up together.  There are some amusing scenes.  There are some amusing lines.  There is a plot twist that adds some interest.

But -- you knew there had to be a "but" -- I did end up looking at my watch:

This was a talk movie.  Very little happens.  I'm not looking for car chases or monsters or even those naked women (although there is a lot of suggested James-on-Julia coupling, an image that somewhat compromises the romantic halo of this particular pairing), but it's pretty much a bunch of set pieces where people talk.  The big plot point doesn't occur near on to the beginning, where it might have propelled some interesting situations for the balance of the movie, but some ways into the show, where it doesn't.

There were some very odd subplots.   They did not seem to serve any larger message or illuminate the main plot; they felt like they belonged in another movie.  The strangest -- almost creepy -- was the relationship between Eva and her high-school daughter's friend.  Eva more-or-less adopted this girl into her household, much to her daughter's discomfiture and the well-deserved scorn of the girl's mother.   No apparent point.

Then there was the obligatory married-couple-who-observe-and-comment-on-their-friend's-romance-while-modeling-"love-is-difficult"-behavior-of-their-own subplot featuring Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone).  And they had their own sub-subplot relating to a maid who was either either indispensable or intolerable, who seemed to put objects away in inappropriate places, or maybe she didn't.  Point indiscernible.

Catherine Keener's famous rich poet Marianne was the finest performance in the film, her words sounding like she was making them up as she went along, a beautiful natural reading.   But her character couldn't exist:   poets do not publish serial best-sellers unless it's some kind of pop-culture stuff (not even then -- can you think of even one?), and we're asked to believe that she is a famous serious poet, an artist, yet recognized on the street by stout giggling women.   Nah:  Even the most famous poets today don't make a living from selling their poetry; even the best of them supplement their meager residuals by teaching somewhere, or perhaps lecturing.  But not Marianne -- she lives a life of exquisitely tasteful leisure while being recognized on the street for her books of poetry by stout women.  And able to afford a masseuse on a regular basis.  I can't think of a single poet in America who lives a life like that.

Catherine Keener in Artistic Poet Hat
But the main problem with this movie is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is in every single scene.  This may not be a problem for some people, maybe most people who go to this movie to see her.  She's as appealing as you remember from "Seinfeld" and "New Adventures of Old Christine," but her bag of tricks is limited and she uses those tricks many times in the course of this movie.  Interestingly, director Nicole Holofcener  does nothing to glam her up.  (I guessed a woman director and writer before I learned her identity -- this is not a movie interested in the male point of view, which is a legitimate artistic choice and not particularly offensive, but just so you know going in.)  Her makeup is minimal, she's dark, a middle-aged woman presented as attractive, no longer "cute" in the young-chick sense, not trying too hard to be beautiful.  But one might think a woman of her years and presumed experience would be smarter than she seems to be, and more interesting.  And as funny as the story presents her as being, which she isn't.

That reminds me.  This pair is supposed to be attracted to one another because each finds the other amusing.  Here's the capstone example for this script, repeated several times:

      --  Albert says something about his life.
      --  Eva says: "Really?"
      --  Albert smiles and says:  "No."
      --  Eva convulses in laughter (see photo above).

Neither one of these people is very funny, certainly not as clever or as amusing as Ms. Holofcener seems to think.  It's not a very funny script.  "Light," I think the word is; "light comedy."  It's that.

We see much less of James Gandolfini than of Ms. Louis-Dreyfus, but still a lot.  When he's onscreen, the movie warms up considerably, although he is presented as unattractive in many ways.  He underplays his big scenes to excellent effect.

I can't discuss the unsatisfactory ending of the movie without giving away the plot point.  I'll only say that the movie doesn't give us any reason for the characters to do what they finally do.  They just do it, plot resolved, screen goes black.  

But having grumbled, I have to say that I enjoyed the movie because we actually do like these characters, ordinary though they may be.  We want them to be happy, and they pretty much are, most of the time and ultimately, so our expectations are fed.   The Mem liked it too (although her first words as the credits began to roll were:  "Well, it was slow.")  So there you go.

Two thumbs at about ten o'clock -- nah, make it 10:30.

   *     *     *

Monday, August 26, 2013

Why Don't Airports Routinely Film Takeoffs and Landings?

The crash of Asiana Flight 214 at San Francisco International airport on July 6, 2013, brings to mind a thought I've had since coming into the age of airplane-crash awareness.  I don't know when that was, but it was a long time ago.

There it is, there, in the title.

Plane crashes take place overwhelmingly on takeoffs and landings.  I just made that up, but I believe it strongly. Planes tend not to fall out of the air, although sometimes they do run into mountains or depressurize or collide or stray into fatally bad weather.  If something is going to go wrong on a flight, usually the craft either doesn't make it too far off the runway, or it come upon it the wrong way. Wait, here you go -- Airplane Crash Frequency by Stage of Flight -- only 8% of accidents take place while the plane is "cruising," that is, not taxiing, taking off, climbing, descending, or landing.  But, oh those cruising problems -- no fender-benders up there.

But thankfully few of them, so let's concentrate on a more useful datum, which is that most airplane crashes happen at and very nearby identifiable, limited areas known as airports. 

It would be relatively easy to capture clear images of each flight's taxi, takeoff, early climb, late descent, landing, and final taxi.  The concept would not be to capture a single aircraft on a single dedicated recording, but to install enough  fixed high-def cameras to cover all the runways, and some of the airspace nearby either end.  The day goes by without incident, no reason to hang on to the recording.  If there's a problem, the images are preserved and assembled from the various fixed cameras that recorded the plane's path.

It wouldn't matter how busy the airport is.  O'Hare in Chicago has about 2400 takeoffs and landings every day.   But since we're not trying to track every plane's path with a single dedicated camera but only asking each camera to keep a steady eye on one particular scene day in and day out, flights could come and go with any frequency with no greater burden on the system of recording.  Just turn them on and let them run.

I don't know how many cameras it would take to cover every open runway.  On some, you might even want more than one angle.   What if it took, oh, 200 cameras at a particular airport?  Some may be mounted on buildings or the low-slung signage along the runways.   Some may be peering out from the tarmac.   The plane comes into the frame, travels through the scene, and exits the other side -- at which time, another camera's field of view has already picked it up, and camera number one has already recorded the next aircraft to pass the scene where it's aimed.   Each camera records merrily away until it's determined that the recording was unneeded, and you start all over.

Issues:  Darkness; bad weather; expense of acquisition and maintenance; vibration from the engines and rolling on the runway.

Of course, this plan probably has some drawbacks or difficulties that I can't imagine.   But I'm thinking that  technology has reached the point that high-quality video may be acquired from small, efficient, optically sophisticated devices and that images can be manipulated and blended to show all those thousands of dramas when those gigantic vessels rise into the sky or float to the ground.  Amateurs film plane crashes on their cell phones, and those images are coveted for what they tell us about why an aircraft failed to thrive.  It would seem to me to be a simple, if perhaps costly, matter to institutionalize the practice.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Roadside Shoe

When I'm out on my bike, I stop for turtles.

I've only stopped for one live one, a big old slider.  It was at the curb just west of Preston on Eldorado.  It looked like maybe it was trying to climb the curb, and it wasn't going to make it.  Sooner or later it was going to make a break across the open road and that would likely be its end.  I took it by the edge of its shell and somehow held it balanced on my handlebars until I could pedal over to the pond at nearby Warren Park.

But most of the turtles I stop for are less fortunate, and more characterized by flatness.   And most of them I pass by on the bike until something registers, and I think what was that and I go back and look.  I see more dead turtles on the byways here in Frisco than I do dead armadillos.

When I was out for my ride this morning, something caught my eye near a curb drain.  It was too smooth to be a turtle; I doubted it was a smooth soft-shelled turtle so far from water so I pedaled on for another few dozen yards or so, until I knew I had to turn around.

It was a shoe.

It was this shoe:

A woman's shoe with a smashed high heel.  I turned it over but its topside was crusted with dirt.  The little plastic sticker with what I assumed to be the size was still on it -- you can see it there.  It's either a W6 or a 9M, I think the latter.  

I wondered if it was ever a nice shoe.  The Memsahib could have told me, but I imagined the looks I would have gotten if I had brought the filthy thing home and asked her.  It looked to be worn through at the toe and there by the arch, and worn and stained on the sole, injuries probably caused by overwear and not the trauma of exposure.  It was probably a cheap shoe that just wore out and was thrown away.

But still I wondered about it.  Wondered at its story, at the story of the woman who wore it to pieces and eventually discarded it.  Who may have really loved that pair of shoes, must have, because she wore them until this one, at least, fell apart.  

And what about that heel, the tip broken off ?  Maybe it had been run over.  If not, though  .  .  . what violence brought it to that state?

And maybe I was wrong about those holes.  Maybe those holes weren't there when this shoe lost its way, and it has been in the elements for so long that rot or colllision or some other influence has brought it to that state.

Surely it had been a lot of places, with that tread worn smooth like that.  A woman wouldn't just wear heels like that around the house, would she?

And how did it get there?  Not such a mysterious question -- all kind of junk ends up next to roadways (but then, I wonder how that junk gets there, too).  Someone hauling garbage, and it fell out.  Someone littered.  

Where is its mate?

I imagined that a woman who wears holes in her shoes is not well off, or is otherwise unable to replace worn apparel.  Perhaps elderly -- but no, not with that heel, and not a shoe that strappy.  

I thought further back, to where the pair was made, and how, and by whom.  Where it was purchased.  Tried on, admired, just the ticket, I'll take them.

The only certain conclusion I reached was that no one who had ever encountered this shoe would have imagined that it would come to rest on the northbound Dallas Parkway just south of Panther Creek next to a curb drain.

But that's wrong -- it hasn't come to rest.  The next time I pedal by there, it will be gone.  Perhaps down the drain, perhaps scooped up by road cleaners, perhaps carried off by a critter.  

I got back on the bike and pedaled off, into my own unimaginable story.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Annette: Two Degrees of Separation, and Two Great Ladies Take a Certain Style With Them

Many years ago, especially MANY years before the Memsahib Era, when I had more hair and less of the rest of me, I was at P.J. Clarke’s in Chicago with my chum Doug, when a woman approached me.   Her name, as I recall, was Jackie.  Despite the dim light, I could see that she was well within tolerances – she had a scruffy Princess Di look about her, kind of a sexy little piece of brass.

I believe the word for what she did to me was “accosted,” and she said: “I’ll bet you wouldn't accept if I called and asked you to lunch.” (That's how you know how many years and pounds ago this was.)   She did, and I did.

I don’t remember much about the lunch, except that to her, Annette Funicello was “Aunt Annette.” Her uncle, Jack Gilardi, was Annette’s first husband, with whom she had three children. 

So Jackie, wherever you are, my condolences.

*     *     *
 Annette, Annette.  You didn’t rescue England or shame the Soviet Union like Margaret Thatcher, whose day of death you shared, but you moved a lot of movie tickets and a lot of adolescent trousers.  More than Baroness Thatcher, anyway.  (Although how could anyone fantasize about Annette?) 

As I considered the interesting coincidence of the simultaneous passing of two such different ladies, I was struck by one element of their individual styles that they shared.  One doesn't see women much choose it these days.  But I loved the look and still do.

Annette Funicello, Margaret Thatcher, RIP.  

We all pass, and the permanent is impermanent. 

Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter

Sunday, April 14, 2013

You Cannot Trust Ladybugs

So I’m at Callahan’s yesterday buying some flowers for some pots I keep in our backyard.  At the checkout stand my attention is drawn to some movement off to one side.  It was a display of translucent sleeves of live ladybugs, 1500 per sleeve, it said, scrabbling uncomfortably over one another.   There was a sponge in there to keep things  moist, and because the market for sleeves of hundreds of dead ladybugs is negligible.   

The card said that they were buddies of the backyard, voracious consumers of aphids and fungus because they reproduced prodigiously – not such ladies after all! -- and would keep the landscaping blight-free all season long.   

Now I had never seen any aphids or fungus in our lushly landscaped postage-stamp backyard, but ‘phids – well, you know how they are.  And fungi!  You never know when their population might explode – their morals are also notoriously suspect – and attack the house.  

I was seized with the passion to liberate these little pals of innocent greenery and I bought two sleeves.  (By the way, ladybugs are not true bugs; they are beetles, and your entomologist would prefer that you refer to them as “ladybird beetles.”)  

I followed the directions with care, refrigerating them for an hour before release into the cool of the early evening onto pre-moistened plants, so they would have something to drink after escaping from that rancid little sponge.  I slit opened the sleeves and placed them on a couple of bushes.  They escaped with alacrity and began exploring the bushes.  Some took to the air as I spent some time removing a few of the more adventuresome ones from my person.  (I really need to throw out that “Eau de Maggot” aftershave.)  

I went inside and over the next two hours discovered a few that had hitched a ride in the folds of my ladybug-releasing outfit (loose fitting camo and a “BigButt Cigar” promotional cap I was gifted at a local smoke shop where I used to trade).   

Huh.  “48 Hours” fans, I guess.  

I went out this morning expecting to encounter a riotous banquet of Coccinellidae  munching merrily on landscape pests.  In my tour of the backyard, I saw precisely one ladybug.  


Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Speedfinger Gods, RIP

We lost two musicians of very different stripes within the last two weeks.  Both were known for their astounding technique.

The first, you have heard about.  Van Cliburn single-handedly -- perhaps two-handedly -- reawakened classical music in the United States with his stunning performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958.  In Moscow – at the height of the Cold War – he received an eight-minute standing ovation. 

This put the Russian judges in a terrible quandary.  Could they award the first prize in this inaugural quadrennial competition to an American?  The call went out, all the way to Nikita Khrushchev.   Khrushchev was the Great Satan of my childhood, but the years since have been somewhat kinder to him as we have tasted the brutality of his successors and learned the crimes of his predecessor Stalin, a murderer of civilians of Hitlerian proportions.   And when the judges’ tremulous inquiry reached him, Khrushchev is reported to have asked:  “Is he the best?” When told that he was, Khrushchev answered:  “Then give him the prize!”  And they did.

In 1962, I was ten years old and had little awareness of Van Cliburn other than thinking that it may have been the coolest name ever.  Then one day my sainted Aunt Geneva came to visit.  A lovely woman, and the kindest soul ever, who loved her niece Susan and nephew Steve.  She was a piano teacher in Wichita at the time, and worked for a company called Underground Vaults and Storage, which sold storage space in the abandoned Carey salt mines in Kansas.  Those deep caverns were dry, tornado-proof, and perfect for preserving stuff like the original prints of the movie “Gone With the Wind” and many other important things, but none more important to Aunt Geneva than the childhood scribblings of Sue and me.  The storage space was said to be able withstand a nuclear blast, an important consideration in those more jittery times.   I have since wondered if archaeologists who survived Armageddon would ever encounter Aunt Geneva’s treasures down there and wonder whether Steve Lawson’s first grade poem “The Sun” was an exemplar of pre-apocalyptic literature.

During her visit, she gave me a program from a concert she had recently attended in Wichita:

She opened it to an inside page, and there was Van Cliburn's autograph.  I didn't have any autographs of anyone; I don't know what my reaction was, but I hope for Aunt Geneva's tender sake I at least feigned excitement.  I saved it, of course, and on the occasion of Cliburn's death I hit the Steve attic archives to track it down.  As an Internet search revealed, Van Cliburn was very generous with autographs, and they may be had on eBay fairly cheaply. 

But I wonder how many people have Van Cliburn’s and his mother’s autograph on the same page?

The autographs appear to be in pencil – apparently a rather hard graphite, since they are faint.  Cliburn’s signature is the vertical one on the right-hand page.  Also appearing is the signature of the conductor, James P. Robertson, and, at the top right:  “With best of wishes, Rildia Bee Cliburn.”  Cliburn lived with her, his first piano teacher (she was trained by a student of Franz Liszt and was very accomplished in her own right) in Fort Worth until she died in 1994 at 97.

In this way I came to know better who Van Cliburn was.

The years passed.   Then one day when I was in high school, something possessed me to get interested in classical music.  What should I start with?  Well, sure, Van Cliburn.  I bought a cassette of his massive best-seller “My Favorite Chopin.”  I would play it over and over, along with “The Best of Peter Nero,”while tending the miniature golf shack at Bronco’s in Bellevue.  I was taking piano lessons at the time, and I could not understand how a human being’s fingers could move so quickly and so accurately across the keyboard and actually have to play the black keys sometimes while doing so.   That album also opened my eyes to Chopin, who sounded quite modern to me, and still does.  In later years, I learned the Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1.  (Three sharps!  It was surely someone else playing that, and it should have been because I  played it badly.  I had better luck with the Prelude in E Minor, much more my speed.)

He retired from performing in 1978 at 44, but in 1994 he went on a 16-city tour with the Moscow Symphony, and I was fortunate to see him in San Diego.  He performed the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos.  It was thrilling, but I thought his performance was just a bit off.  I heard some missed notes, not that I was intimately familiar with the scores, and in some passages he hit two notes intending to hit one.  But his charisma and charm flowed over the footlights and he could have been playing “Heart and Soul” for all anyone cared.

*     *     *

I never lost my interest in classical music, but like all males of college age, and as my tinnitus now attests, my attention turned to rock-and-roll.  Thanks to Yale roommate Alan Ringel, I received a fine education in that most invigorating of art forms, and I was especially drawn to the technicians of the guitar. 

In those days, before any of us had developed any real taste in music, the question was – who was fastest?   My first guitar-hero crush was Johnny Winter, the albino guitar slinger from Beaumont, Texas.  His beautiful and scorching solos on B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” off of “Johnny Winter And – Live” blazed out of the JBL speakers every room seemed to have.  We would listen to it during our bridge sessions after dinner almost every night, and I can still whistle passages of his incredible fretwork from that song.

But no one was faster than Alvin Lee.

These days speedy guitar players are all over the place.  Many quickly learned the two-hand hammer-tap popularized by Edward Van Halen, and there are many amazing guitarists out there these days who spent their afternoons up in their bedrooms with their Stratocasters dreaming of the chicks they were going to get after they dazzled the crowd with their jaw-dropping fretwork.  (Edward himself married Valerie Bertinelli.)  

But Alvin Lee, the front man for Ten Years After who died last week at 68, did it all the old-fashioned way, firing away on his signature red hollow-body Gibson 335.  He and the band vaulted to stardom with their performance at Woodstock.   They sold a lot of records but their dedication to British blues, in turn based on good-old-red-blooded Chicago blues, instead of hummable pop, kept them from breaking through to the really big time.   The first time I heard “Spider in My Web” off of "Undead" I could not believe what I was hearing.  Here it is, a slow blues, it does go on a bit -- but about six minutes in, hold on to your chapeau:    "Spider in My Web" -- Ten Years After, Live

Now, as I learned over the years, velocity like Lee’s was not unknown to jazz fans.  Players like Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin were also incredibly fast players.  McLaughlin in particular stunned rock fans when he crossed over to space-rock-jazz-fusion with The Mahavishnu Orchestra (saw them in New York on a bill with my all-time guitar hero Jeff Beck), and I still love “The Inner Mounting Flame” and "Birds of Fire."

But there is something about those old blues-influenced players – Lee, Winter, Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Roy Buchanan, many others – that make those Gibsons and Fenders stand on their hind legs and bite.

But the only thing I was ever fast on was a typewriter.  A skill not of much interest to chicks.  

Van, Alvin – RIP.

Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I Refuse to Concede that the Judgment in This Post Has Anything to Do With the Age of Its Author

No; its truth is universal.  Believe it.

I'm no big fan of Barbra Streisand, and not just because of her politics. But I will tell you this -- I would rather listen to her heartfelt, musical version of "The Way We Were" from this year's Oscars twenty times than to Jennifer Hudson's overwrought, insincere, look-at-me-how-'bout-them-pipes? version of "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" from the same broadcast ever again.  When she'd finally, finally concluded her whooping finish, I had to look away.  I was embarrassed at her lack of musicianship, and even more embarrassed that Hollywood royalty felt they had to stand up and cheer for that mess.  Surely there were some talents in that audience who knew the essential fraudulence of that performance.

I've had it with bellowing fake-emotion divas. They've got talent, but their taste and sincerity has been Whitney'd right out of them.

Knowing how to sing is one thing.  Today's divas know how to do that.  Their talent is undeniable.

They would be doing themselves, listeners, and music a big favor if they would concentrate on learning to sing songs.

And their yowling has infected American Idol and its imitators.  The Memsahib turned to it tonight, a show we used to watch, and after 47 seconds of a montage of the current crop of shrieking hopefuls, she switched the channel to something more musical, i.e., Bill O'Reilly.

You may not want Babs as Secretary of Health & Human Services, but the woman knows her way around a song. For all her immense gifts, Jennifer Hudson needs to calm down, put on a Julie London album, and have a sandwich or something.

Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


How did Ovaltine, makers of chocolate malty milk powder reputedly beloved of small children who repeatedly demand it, become so popular by selling a product THAT IS NOT SOLUBLE IN MILK? I put Ovaltine in the glass of milk, stir the thing frantically for MINUTES like the spoon is attached to a MerCruiser until I freakin' PRAY for carpal tunnel, and when I stop and remove the spoon I am presented with a surface of congealed islands of milk-resistant Ovaltine slowly swirling in the glass, and the sides of the glass looking like a windshield after an encounter with a flock of diseased sea gulls. 
Doesn't matter if I put the Ovaltine in first, or after I pour the milk. 
Doesn't even matter if I've warmed the milk. 
The thing invariably ends up looking like Willy Wonka's septic tank.  
I'm sure it's drinkable if you're a baleen whale straining that sludge out of the barely-flavored milk underneath, but otherwise it's like trying to drink something they found at Pompeii.
Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter

Friday, February 8, 2013

If I Were a Clay Pigeon, I'd Head to Camp David -- Or, The Left-Handed Gun

I have a question of the sort that is usually answered somewhere on the Interwebs.  But I can't find the question asked anywhere, nor evidence that would allow me to answer it.

So maybe it is not a good question.

But it's my website, and I'm going to ask it anyway.

It's about that photograph of President Barack Obama released by the White House reportedly showing him skeet shooting.  Maybe it's legit.  I don't know.

But before I get to my question, let me ask you this:

Do any of you remember Michael Dukakis?

Children, he ran for President against George H.W. Bush -- the first Bush -- in 1988.   He was the governor of Massachusetts.   In July 1988, he was leading Bush in the polls 55%-38%.   ("Dukakis Widens Lead, According to New Poll")

He lost.

Lost pretty bad.  Back in those days, the Republican states were blue.

Part of the reason he lost was because he, or his handlers, thought the public was stupid, and the public figured it out.

I'm not sure if he was one of the closest things to a pacifist we've ever had asking people to vote for him to have charge of defending the country.   But it is not unfair to say that, as these things were judged back then, he was, uh, soft on defense.

Everybody knew this.  Didn't seem to hurt him in the polls.  But his handlers were worried.

To fight back against the Bush campaign's charges of excessive doveishness, his handlers had what they thought was a bright idea.

They suited him up in tank-corps duds, plopped him into an M1 Abrams tank, and turned the camera on as he tootled around, grinning and waving.  Believing that this exhibition would, if not demonstrate, at least symbolize, his deep devotion to national defense.

Didn't work.


He looked like a Westminster poodle sniffing for IED's on a Kabul backroad.

The Republicans converted that footage into a campaign ad that ran the clip of his tanky perambulations under a text purporting to describe his positions opposing various defense initiatives.  (Dukakis Tank Commercial)

Dukakis lost for lots of other reasons.   He took enormous heat for his unbelievable record of commuting the sentences of murderers -- 21 first-degree murderers, and 23 second-degree murderers -- dramatized by the Republicans in the famous "Willie Horton" ads.

Also, in those more enlightened times, my children, it was actually possible to be too left-of-center to be elected.

(And, my Republican pals, let's not forget G.H.W. Bush's "read-my-lips-no-new-taxes" fib.)  

But looking absolutely ridiculous, not to mention hypocritical, in that tank and combat getup could not have helped the governor.

Yes, folks, I thought of those warlike images of Dukakis when I saw the picture of POTUS firing the shotgun at the Camp David skeet range, offered by the White House in support of his earlier boast that "we do skeet shooting all the time," the WH apparently hoping to deflect the anger of his gun-owning constituents (a constituency that has grown dramatically in recent weeks) over what they had heard about his position on this part of their personal property.

The first thing I thought was:  Would someone who engaged in this activity "all time time" refer to it as "doing skeet shooting?"

But when I saw the photograph, I thought something else.

To make sure I wasn't being unfair to our President, since I do not do skeet shooting, I did some due diligence, which consisted of entering the phrase "skeet shooting" into the friendly Google pane, and clicking "Images."  Here are some of the first photos that popped up:

So as I understand matters, you get your gun ready, put the thing up to your shoulder, yell "pull" or belch or something, and the clay pigeon -- I guess it's not called a "skeet" -- launches up into the air and you shoot the gun at it hoping to strike it with some portion of your shotgun pellets.

The key phrase there, supported by the admittedly anecdotal evidence of my Google investigation, is "up into the air."

Now look at the photograph released by the White House:

There are some obvious problems with this portrait.  The dark glasses; no shoulder pad; an oddness in the form.  And only one photograph?  No proud pose next to the shattered clay pigeon?

But my question is:

What the heck is he shooting at?

For certain, despite a very slight upward angle to the barrel, nothing that is very far off the ground.

Perhaps he prefers to slay his clay pigeons when they're not moving and was launching a preemptive strike on the trap.

Perhaps he was exercising extreme deliberation, or extreme indecisiveness, and did not pull the trigger until the clay pigeon was approaching the earth.

Perhaps a drone -- or, better, a SEAL team -- had already taken out the clay pigeon followed by a hastily-arranged burial at sea observing all clay-pigeon post-mortem spiritual requirements -- and POTUS was just firing the gun for the photo op.

Perhaps there was no clay pigeon; no trap; no nothing.

Look, maybe he was firing at a duly launched clay pigeon.  I don't know.  But this photograph not only does his bona fides on gun ownership no good, its facial inauthenticity undermines the boast it was released to support.  And, as Governor Dukakis discovered with his own machismo initiative, it makes him look preposterous.

It's a freeze-frame parable of this man -- a lot of noise and smoke, looks good in jeans and shades, but, upon examination, nothing there.  The picture, the story, out knowledge of him, is incomplete.  Not what he says he is.  Not what others claim him to be.

As I say, I don't know the result of the President's assault on the clay pigeon, if any.

But I know that he's being rightly ridiculed for that mysterious photograph and his glib claim of firearms use that required its production.  (Google "obama skeet dukakis tank" and see what you get.)  

And his approval rating is starting to sink.  (I really wanted to write "starting to tank," but  .  .  .  no.)

Now that probably has something to do with people getting a look at their paychecks, come this new year.  And there's the inevitable buyer's remorse that follows any election.

But it may, just may, have a little something to do with people beginning to understand that their intelligence is being insulted.

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Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter

Friday, January 4, 2013

Prime Numbers Are Funny -- Further Potent Support

Awhile back, this site expressed the view, backed by little other than a priori reasoning, that prime numbers are the funniest subset of numbers -- if not intrinsically funny, at least funnier than non-prime numbers.  I expressed the view that if you need a number to make a funny point or illustrate a joke, you are better off with a prime than with numbers that are the products of primes.  I urge you to check out my essay here:  Prime Numbers Are Funny.

Now comes the news that the Farrelly Brothers are about to issue a new comedy.  The name?

"Movie 43."    (You can read about it here.)

Oh, it's a comedy all right, and you would know that even if you don't know that that's the kind of movies that the Farrelly Komedy Factory generate.  Here's a poster for it:

"Comedy exposed."  "The most outrageous comedy ever made."   If a movie like this is going to be designated by a numeral, there is only one possible choice -- a prime, which 43 is.
It's catching on, folks.  If you want the latest in pointeless pop culture theorizing you have got, just got, to come to The Cool Hot Center.

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Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter

Thursday, January 3, 2013

I Return to the Scene of the Crime, Craving the Original

On Wednesday, June 10, 2010, I experienced one of the most astonishing catastrophes in the history of fast-food service at the Preston-Rolater KFC.  I recorded it for your benefit on the very same evening.  It remains one of the most frequently hit articles on this site.  You can find it here:

and you might want to revisit that sad tale before you read any further.

I am here to report on a second example of appalling service at this establishment that took place on Sunday, December 2, 2012.

In fairness, I must report that I have made successful chicken and side-order purchases in the months since then.  It’s always dicey – order-fillers sometimes disappear into the bowels of the store to go looking for vendable chicken to fill the order, and order-takers seem to be in a constant state of unsupervised training.  (See below.)  But in most of these visits, excruciating clarity in ordering, followed up by a stern cross-examination of the server as to the contetns of the bags when he or she finally, breathlessly, delivers them, will usually result in an order approximating the one you issued before the body starts consuming itself with hunger.

The Dallas Cowboys were on TV that evening.  One might think that the store would have prepared for this, although, when I arrived at 5:15 – that's right, prime chicken-acquiring time – the store was not crowded nor was there a line of cars with inhabitants demanding the instant vending of chicken.  There was one woman in front of me.  A few customers in the dining room, including one family with two small children.

And I must point out that KFC is currently airing commercials advertising their "Gameday Bucket" showing sports-watching consumers with multiple buckets of fried chicken on the coffe table before them -- urging the public to travel to KFC to order these large quantities of chicken to enjoy while football games of interest are on during this season of interesting football games.  And there is no metro more concentrated on the viewing on the teevee of its team than DFW.

Point:  KFC strategic planning anticipates major chicken orders before big games, especially big games of intense local interest.

Tactical planning on the ground -- a different story.

The counter lad was the latest in an unending string of the undertrained.   He was almost inaudible and had a look of concerned puzzlement on his face.  The woman in front of me, a nicely dressed, literate human, was having a terrible time getting her order across to this guy, who stared mutely at the panel of selections before him on the cash register, and a colleague had to come and reach around him to poke at the proper buttons.

Suddenly, at the edge of my vision, I saw the mother of the family group in the dining room approach the counter.  She had brought with her the entire large platter of their dinner.  She spoke to someone who went to get someone else.  The someone else was a gentleman of around 50, dressed in a way that more-or-less conveyed the impression that he was the manager of the place.  It is the only time I can ever remember seeing anything resembling a mature adult officer at this establishment.  I wondered what he had been doing before he was summoned to deal with this dissatisfied client.  Hint -- not making chicken .

The woman was shaking her head and had a look of disgust on her face.  I could not hear her precise complaint.  I don't know if the order was wrong or the food was unsatisfactory.  I only know the family had barely touched it and they were submitting it for a refund.  The manager complied and the family left, taking their drinks with them.  (I did not interpret this dining strategy as being implement just to get free drinks.)

The woman ahead of me had completed giving her order and it was my turn.  I ordered my usual eight-piece all-dark Original – four drumsticks and four thighs, with cole slaw as my side order.

That order proved troublesome for the Yum! Foods/KFC Organization.

At 5:15 p.m. on a not-so-busy Sunday before an evening Cowboy game, this KFC was out of cole slaw.

I said OK, no  problem, skip the cole slaw.

I paid for my bucket.

A few moments later, I heard some mumbling going on behind the racks that held the chicken.  It was the counter guy and a couple of chicken-making guys.  I heard the word "drumstick."  There is only one reason for the counter guy to be discussing drumsticks in clandestine tones with guys in charge of preparing them, that being that this KFC did not have any to sell.  I was so certain of this interpretation that I spoke loudly enough to be heard through the chicken racks:  "That's OK, I'll just take all thighs." 

They looked up.  I had been correct.  That's right – no Original drumsticks at this time, a time when most properly-run restaurants would be ready to sell what has got to be one of single most iconic food items it offers, the Original drumstick.

Oh, Cool Hot Centrists, if it had ended there I would not be writing this.  

After a brief wait, another guy came out with the bad news – they did not have enough Original thighs to make up my order – would I like other Original pieces?

At this point, I was shaking my head and smiling.  No, I said – just fill out the order with Crispy thighs.

("Crispy thighs" – now there's an image to kill a romantic evening.)

I don't much care for the KFC Crispy preparation.  It has a faintly medicinal bouquet. 

But I took it.  I thanked them.
When I left the woman in front of me was still standing there.
Bucket of Original Dark,
ambrosial tasty skin falling off  the delectable grease-infused meat
 -- image available online,if  not at the Preston-Rolater KFC

I wondered as I got into the car whether the order the disgruntled family had returned might possibly have had as one of its constituents some un-nibbled Original thighs.
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Twitter:  @CoolHotCenter