Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Killing the Mockingbird: A publishing industry lament


I’ve had a number of people ask me if I’m going to read Harper Lee’s newly released 1957 novel “Go Set a Watchman.”

I will not.

Reading belatedly that Atticus Finch hates blacks would have the same effect on me as watching a newly released “Lone Ranger” program and seeing the Masked Man say his horse Silver sucks.

Lee, 89, is now the author of books that will be remembered for defining two American epochs.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960, is the story of how one strong man can make a difference in a town crushed by racial hatreds.

“Go Set a Watchman,” published this month, is ostensibly the story of Scout’s return to Macomb to find the father consorting with Klansmen and bereft of the moral honor she so idealized.

In fact, “Go Set a Watchman,” is a tale of how greed and slimy corporate manipulation can supersede the wishes of a once-vital 89-year-old woman to manufacture a phony literary event in order to enrich Rupert Murdoch.

Ain’t that America?

If Harper Lee had wanted “Go Set a Watchman” published, she’d have done it decades before she wound up in a nursing home with a security guard at her door charged with admitting only those on the pre-approved “trusted” list.

She’d have taken steps to do so while her caretaker sister was still alive, not suspiciously two months after she’d died.

She’d have done it, surely, before she became wheelchair-bound, partially deaf and blind and suffering from acute memory loss.

And here I’ve always thought the publishing industry was only ruthlessly cruel to those of us who hadn’t published one of America’s greatest novels.

What’s next?

Will HarperCollins exhume Twain’s corpse, squirt it with perfume, and prop it up for a Times Square book signing?

“To Kill a Mockingbird” has been a beloved novel for most Americans for more than 50 years.

It’s been that way for me for two.

The admission, I understand, makes me a bit a literary Lilliputian. But I just skipped that assignment and never picked it up.

In fact, you could say I inadvertently came to Harper Lee through Alistair MacLean.

As literary titans go he’s not in Lee’s class, but he was pivotal to my early love of books. MacLean was the old WWII Royal Navy torpedo man who wrote the stories that thrilled my youth.

Anyone remember these titles?

“Where Eagles Dare,” “Ice Station Zebra,” “Breakheart Pass.” MacLean authored more than 30 novels — take that Harper Lee — and all were riveting tales of evil Nazis, crooked despots or maniacal terrorists.

Many of these were made into blockbuster movies. Clint Eastwood’s role in “Where Eagles Dare” remains his highest body count.

Then there is maybe the best of them all, “The Guns of Navarone,” starring the peerless Gregory Peck.

To this day if I see it on, I’ll record it just so I can see Peck brandish a pistol and shout at pasty David Niven, “Now, you’ve got me in the mood to use this thing and, by God, if you don’t think of something I’ll use it on you! I mean it. Now, go on.”

It led me to want to see everything Peck’s filmed.

Bob Dylan understood this when in 1986 he made Gregory Peck the focus of his sprawling, 11:05 epic, “Brownsville Girl.”


“Yeah, I’m standing in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck
But you know it’s not the one I had in mind.
He’s got a new one out now.
I don’t even know what it’s about.
But I’ll see him in anything so I’ll stand in line!”


Of course, I eventually saw Peck in his greatest role, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” playing the character he loved above all others.

And, finally, I read the book. It is magnificent.

Peck became close friends with the author. His son Stephen told reporters he wishes his father was still alive so he could have protected her from the Murdoch greedmeisters desecrating her legacy.

“He so deeply felt the words he said in ‘Mockingbird’ you could barely separate the two,” Stephen said. “That was his best self. Those were his deepest, most closely held ideals. He was thankful everyday he got that part.”

Would Peck have played Finch in the new book?

“I’m not at all sure my dad would have played that one.”

So, no, I won’t be reading “Go Set a Watchman.”

I’ll instead re-read again and again and again “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

I’ll do so until I become competent to write a fitting sequel to the prequel, one that will again elevate one of America’s greatest characters to his rightful pedestal.

That will obviously leave one task to restore Lee’s legacy.

Resurrect Peck!



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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Our summer of aliens & Earth's future


I tend to judge all illegal immigrants by how their being here will improve my culinary options so I’m fine with Mexicans.

And Thai, Japanese, French, Chinese, Italian and some of the South American nations I have trouble telling apart.

Really, I’d be fine if we’d slam the door shut on the English, Swedes and Germans — all lands of my ancestors —  because they bring nothing to the table.

I enjoy fish & chips but, really, none of us is ever that far from a Long John Silver’s drive-thru and the duplication would be unnecessary.

I have a lot of Swedish blood in me, but that doesn’t mean I need any Swedish food in my belly. I’m proud of my Swedish heritage — and that can be summed up in two words: ABBA and Ikea — but the only time I’ll reach for Swedish meatballs is when they stop making them the way the Italians do.

I’ve had some fine German meals, but I often wind up inadvertently spitting all over the poor waitress when I say, “And I’ll have the Knusprige Schveinehaxen!”

This has been the summer of aliens.

It seems like they’re all over the news.

Half the news is about keeping illegal aliens from coming into America and the rest is about Americans blithely weighing our extra-terrestrial options that could lead us to become illegal aliens in a universal sense.

Stephen Hawking is proposing we spend $100 million to detect alien life. NASA is near daily announcing the discovery of new Earth-like planets.

I suspect alien life is already here. I see so many people behaving with so little civility I have to wonder if they were raised on another planet.

They talk during movies, viciously disparage opposing viewpoints on Facebook, and wear wildly inappropriate clothes to the wave pools.

No way these people could have been raised by Earthlings.

I keep having this recurring nightmare that technologically advanced aliens from outer space will land in some remote part of America and say, “Take me to your leader!” and the greeting yahoo will introduce them to Trump.

He’d be so insulting annihilation procedures would be imminent.

Imagine the repercussions for humanity. 

For Trump’s haircut.

NASA announced it has found 8.8 billion planets that could sustain life.

That’s, so far, enough for all 7 billion of us to each have planets of our very own. That’s not counting moons.

Talk about needing some space.

They say these planets have atmosphere, water, similar suns, calendar years and topography — all the comforts of home, that is if Comcast doesn’t run short on cable.

I feel like some really slick real estate agent is trying to sell me a home in New Zealand when I’m perfectly content way over here on the sensible side of the planet.

I don’t want to leave Earth to have to enjoy what I have right here on Earth.

It’s the same rationale Homer Simpson invoked when he weighed in against vacationing in Canada, a land he referred to as “America Jr.”

And I wonder if we’re hurting Earth’s feelings.

Because what it looks like is we’re fixing to leave the old girl.

If I read it right, what we’re acknowledging is that the human race are just a bunch of parasites with personalities.

So look out universe, here come the Earthlings.

I’m sure the universal word will get around pretty quick and the rap on us will sound familiar.

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

All will be well if we can just make one thing clear that will ease the alarm of any occupying ETs.

We’re also bringing pizza.



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Monday, July 27, 2015

Conspiracy theories about Kecksburg UFO & parade


In a week where Stephen Hawking vowed to spend $100 million to detect aliens and Donald Trump counter-vowed to spend twice that much preventing them from crossing our Southern border, Val and I marched in a parade celebrating the little green kind that make Trump’s border jumpers look like simple pikers.

It was the 50th anniversary celebration of the Kecksburg UFO incident!

Kecksburg is a tiny rural community about 20 minutes from our home.

On Dec. 9, 1965, at 4:47 p.m., locals as far as Pittsburgh were startled by a sonic boom. An inexplicable crash was reported in a wooded area near Kecksburg.

Investigating witnesses said they saw an acorn-shaped craft about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle in a smoldering pit. Its base had what one witness described as hieroglyphics etched into the sides. Soon shadowy government officials emerged and brusquely ordered everyone to scram.

Next, an empty flatbed truck approached the site. It left shortly afterwards, but with an acorn-shaped cargo about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle beneath a concealing tarp.

Add that one investigating witness, local radio reporter John Murphy, became despondent and abruptly stopped all his inquiries after being visited by two mysterious men in black suits, and that Murphy was four years later killed in a still-unsolved hit-and-run while vacationing California, and you’ve got all the makings for a dandy conspiracy theory.

The good people of Kecksburg took this all in 2005 came one rationale conclusion . . .

We can capitalize on this!

Thus, a typical local volunteer firefighter fair was turned into a three-day UFO extravaganza, complete with parade and expert speakers like my friend Stan Gordon, author and producer of the award-winning documentary, “Kecksburg: The Untold Story.”

Our friends Marty and Sue are avid attendees. They’ve never had a close encounter, nor are they wacko conspiracy buffs — at least they weren’t before Saturday.

They just like to party.

Marty, it should be noted, was essential in helping me construct the giant slingshot that became the centerpiece of one of the world’s best parties (link below).

Marty spent the past six months divining a plan to win the Kecksburg parade float trophy.

You have your bucket list, Marty has his.

We showed up Saturday morning in his basement for a strategic briefing. There were chalkboards, maps, discussion of pivotal roles, etc.

So it was like Gen. Eisenhower and the day before the D-Day invasion only with an open bar.

Everyone had a role.

Some were costumed aliens, some where military, some were civilians. Val and I were tasked with the relatively lame duty of carrying the sponsoring sign — “Neon Moon Saloon,” (Marty and Sue’s basement bar) — and bringing the entire parade to a complete and sudden 2-minute halt in front of the judges’ station.

That Marty was bringing an “Animal House” aspect to a community parade appealed to the anarchist in Val and I.

We non-aliens were all issued ET-themed shirts. My favorite showed a stereotypical alien and the slogan, “Keep Calm and Enjoy The Probing.”

Our float — a pick-up truck carrying two laundry baskets taped together and concealed with a tarp to appear like an acorn-shaped UFO — was third in a parade of about 50 elements, about 40 of them, this being Western Pennsylvania, being shiny firetrucks.

Things got off to a rocky start when the first two elements raced through the parade route like they were in a hurry to get good Kecksburg VFD bar seats.

It was unfair, because that was our goal, too, but most of us were on foot and by then stumbling.

So the interminable lag made it appear to confused parade attendees our float was the start of an entirely new parade.

Honestly, we were worth the wait.

Despite temperatures in the 90s, high humidity and varying stages of inebriation, none of our aliens passed out, which would have been unfortunate, but may have won us points for authenticity.

Less a float, and more like a rolling skit, the aliens were hassled the entire way by our uniformed military who herded the aliens with supersoaker squirt guns and shouted at the hapless civilians, “You didn’t see anything! This never happened!”

It was a great time, and the crowd loved us.

That’s why we were all stunned we didn’t win even a third place trophy.

I don’t know who won, but bar-stool conspiracy theorists are saying it was all fixed.

I’d call for a probe but in Kecksburg during the UFO Festival you just don’t know what calling for a probe’ll get you, so I’ll just stick with the company line.

I didn’t see a thing. It never happened.



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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Re-run Sunday: Happy Birthday, Mick Jagger!


Happy 72nd Birthday, Mick Jagger! I wrote this in ’12 after he’d appeared on SNL. He was, of course, mesmerizing. We’ve never had a more compelling performer. Here are some of the justifying reasons . . .

This is bound to be controversial, but I’d rather watch Mick Jagger stand still and read “The Cat and The Hat” than look at most supermodels naked.

The calculus changes if the supermodels are in motion on a trampoline or if Jagger is singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” something I’ve heard him sing  about 1,000 times.

He is the most mesmerizing performer in recorded history.

I realized this after watching for a second time him host “Saturday Night Live,” a show that’s been so uneven for the past 15 or so years I usually find it unwatchable.

It’s all there in the opening monologue. His every gesture, his phrasing, his posture, his winking acknowledgement of his scandalous history -- it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.

Hoover Dam is less electrifying.

I love both Elvis and Frank Sinatra, but we’ve never seen anything like Jagger, a singer/songwriter of some of pop culture’s most indelible hits and the frontman for the band that’s performed live for more people around the world than anyone in history.

Biographer Laura Jackson wrote, “It is impossible to imagine current culture without the unique influence of Mick Jagger.”

Hollywood will be unable to make a credible movie about Jagger or the Stones until the minds of anyone who’s ever seen them have gone mushy. Because no actor can play Jagger.

Only Jagger can be Jagger. He cannot be duplicated

I thought about saving this for July 23 when Jagger will turn 68, but he could be dead by then. So could I.

Heck, we all could.

Well, all but Keith.

But here are some performances and essential Jagger references, trying to avoid the obvious, that never fail to start me up:

• “American Pie,” by Don McLean, 1971 -- Jagger, at the time a self-described anarchist, dominates this classic, one in which he’s never mentioned by name. 

So, c’mon, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
 Jack Flash sat on a candle stick, ‘cause fire is the devil’s only friend

And as I watched him on the stage, my hands were clenched in fisted rage.
No angle born in hell could break that Satan’s spell

And as the flames climbed high into the night
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The Day the Music Died

This is prophetic allegory. Forty years later, nothing has broken Jagger’s spell and a recent chart topper is Maroon 5’s hit “Moves Like Jagger.”

• “You’re So Vain,” by Carly Simon, 1972 -- Throw out all the speculation about who the subject of the song is, the star of the song itself is Jagger. He’s the background singer that really kicks it into a higher gear and steals the song -- and I’m always surprised how few people realize it’s Jagger so distinctively singing background.

I love how Carly has maintained the mystery of the song’s subject, and has often denied it was Mick. Of course, she, too, denied she and Mick were ever lovers while she was married to James Taylor, a lie that’s since been acknowledged. So he did sleep with Carly -- the rascal -- and is rumored to have modeled the “Hannah Honey” character after her in the sublime, “Memory Motel” from 1976.

• “Ned Kelly,” 1970 -- One of the most fascinating aspects of Jagger is his utter inability to convincingly act like anyone other than himself. No where is this more apparent than in this, one of the worst movies ever made. It’s about the Robin Hood-like antics of the historic Australian bushwhacker and features a soundtrack by Waylon Jennings. So it’s 20th century movie about a 19th century Australian starring an English rock singer featuring songs by an American country outlaw. It’s proof drugs were prevalent in Hollywood long before shows like “The Flying Nun.” Yet, I always tune in for even a little bit whenever it’s on. It’s Jagger.

• “Don’t Tear Me Up,” Mick Jagger on SNL, 1993

The only thing derided more than Jagger’s acting are his solo albums. I don’t find them as objectionable as most but, like Keith’s solo efforts, each seems like something is missing -- and that would be the other Glimmer Twin.

But in 1993 Jagger released the credible and entertaining, “Wandering Spirit,” which bats a little better than .500 in catchy tunes, the best of which might be “Don’t Tear Me Up.” He performed it live on SNL with what Keith Richards later described as “some little jerk-off band.” But his performance is fantastic. The song starts off slow and then, like so many great Stones songs, explodes in exuberant fury.

This show also features a hilarious skit where Mick pretends he’s Keith and Mike Myers plays Mick as the two feud over street cred: Best line: “Keith” argues one point by starting, “Mick, you ignorant slut.”

• “Champagne & Reefer,” The Rolling Stones, “Shine a Light,” 2008 -- This is the kind of song that convinces me the Stones will be playing the blues in dive bars if the crowds at the arenas stop showing up. It features the harmonica-wielding Jagger trading riffs and vocals with the great Buddy Guy. Two giants playing the blues.

• “Tattoo You,” music videos, 1981 -- Music videos were in their infancy when the Stones filmed these stark videos of “Start Me Up,” “Hang Fire,” and “Worried About You.” Done in one take, they barely bother to lip sync the vocals. It’s gloriously haphazard with just the band pretending to play instruments in a barren room. It shows just how dominant Jagger can be without even the slightest of props. The best is the often-overlooked gem, “Worried About You,” a song that starts out sweet as Motown and ends up being a massive musical monster. It remains to me among their most compelling videos, second only to the playfully sexy “She Was Hot.”


And, in conclusion, some of my favorite Mick vocals on Stones classics, again hoping to avoid the obvious:

• “The Storm,” b-side from Voodoo Lounge, 1994 -- The gritty kind of song that makes me wish they’d huddle in the studio for 10 days and bang out nothing but blues. With apologies to Carly Simon, nobody does it better.

• “Rough Justice,” A Bigger Bang, 2005 -- One of my favorite Stones lines:

One time you were my baby chicken, now you’ve grown into a foxxxxxx . . .

One time I was yer little rooster, now am I just one of yer cockssssss . . .

• “No Spare Parts,” Some Girls, 1978/2011 -- I almost had to pull the car over when I first heard this on satellite radio last year. It’s a country leftover re-release snagged from the “Some Girls” sessions. Jagger re-recorded the vocals to this and others like the equally great “Do You Think I Really Care?” He’s never sounded better. It’s taken more than 40 years, but he’s actually learned how to sing. 

• “Monkey Man,” Let It Bleed, 1969 -- If for no other reason other than to hear him sing the incendiary line, “Well, I hope we’re not too messianic or a trifle too Satanic . . .”

• “Star Star,” Goat’s Head Soup, 1973 -- Hard core gangsta rappers have never managed to be as reliably filthy as every line in this song. The profane title’s sanitized so they could include it on the album. Like “You’re So Vain,” only with dozens of obscene references, this one debases Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Ali McGraw, Polaroids and tricks with fruit. It’s Chuck Berry’s music, but it’s Mick Jagger’s life.


We should all be glad we’ve been able to see so much of it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Computers ruining simple cash transactions


Momentarily forgetting where I was, I wondered if the man staring so intently at the computer screen was coordinating a manned space flight to the distant Red Planet.

His furrowed-brow calculations seemed so painstaking.

Or maybe he was immersed in his daily hardcore.

Then it hit me, I wasn’t in Mission Control. I was in one of the local tire stores waiting for the store manager to present me with $3.17 in change from the $20 I’d given him for $16.83 worth of routine maintenance.

I’d been standing there three minutes. Seemed more like thirty.

And every second of it was just dead time. I couldn’t read my book or return phone calls. I couldn’t even make small talk about things like the weather or if he thought the tires Fred Flintstone once used would have made his job easier or more difficult.

It was just me staring at him as he stared at the computer.

He’d move the mouse and click, move and click, move and click. The mouse seemed destined to move more than I would.

To what multiple prompts could he have been responding for a simple tire rotation and oil change?

I raise the point because this is becoming a common frustration in our daily lives. People who used to run routine cash transactions out of beat-up old cigar boxes are now being tasked with uploading information like we were at the garage to have our gallbladders removed.

They want to know where we live, our e-mail addresses and if we’ll please like them on Facebook.

I imagine security and theft-prevention is the stated impetus for computerized cash registers to be showing up even in places like tire shops and Mom & Pop pizza joints.

Because everyone knows it’s impossible to defeat the security presented by a competent computer system. 

For goodness sake, these things have passwords! 

I thought for a moment I’d just tell him to keep the change. It would be worth $3.17 just to get on with my life.

But I persisted. So did he.

I was struck by the irony we were in a room full of radials and the man in charge was incapable of getting on any kind of roll.

I was reminded how just days earlier we’d been marooned at our table at a Pittsburgh restaurant when it took forever to get the bill, which is more human than computer error.

And, gee, that almost never happens either!

It was at Jerome Bettis’s restaurant in Pittsburgh. Me and the family enjoyed a wonderful lunch. Friendly, attentive service. Relaxed atmosphere.

Plus, I love being anyplace where there’s an increased chance of seeing Bettis, who for my money might be the most cuddly looking Steeler ever.

I’m not saying I’d cuddle #36 if we saw him, but I can guarantee I’d nuzzle in for a picture and hold the pose for so long it’d awkward.

So the waitress asked if there was anything else. We said, no, just the check, please.

She disappeared. And I mean disappeared.

She was gone long enough to have a child. And I don’t mean just conceive one. I mean conceive and carry one to full term. Even a Bettis-sized baby.

It felt like nine months.

“You know,” I said, “maybe they enjoyed our patronage so much they’re giving us the meal for free.”

I suggested we get up and slowly start for the door. The dine and dash seemed like an invigorating solution.

I say to hell with the Iran peace treaty. I’d like to see Congress agree on set times when a consumer could legally get out of having to pay for services rendered.

If the tire guy takes more than three minutes to make change, it’s free.

If the waitress doesn’t bring the check in five minutes, you can split.

Think of how it’ll improve efficiency. Think of the fun of watching the big clock behind the register tick down as they frantically try and figure out what the damned computer wants.

Computers are ruining in the world.

We need to reduce their usage in any instance where tried-n-true, less complicated methods got the job done.

I think I’m going to start writing my blog in long hand and just reading it aloud to passing strangers.

We’ll see how that works.



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