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Thursday, December 30, 2010

True Grit and no-grit De Niro: A Hollywood two-fer



I just saw one of the most talked about and critically praised movies of the year this week, and am mystified that one of the year’s most critically panned movies did smashing box office business.
Each is worthy of thoughtful commentary.
If that’s what you’re after, please look elsewhere.
This is a holiday week, a time when people with paychecks relax.
But that has nothing to do with blogging, which is sort of like a hobby in that it earns no money and distracts from actual wage-earning endeavors. Combine those factors with someone like me, a blogger who cherishes laziness, and you’re not  going to get something thoughtful or structured.
I’m not going to labor to form tedious transitions, mine wit or seek deeper meaning from popcorn matinees.
Instead, I’m going to take the lazy way out and write about them in two distinct sections.
I don’t think anyone’s going to mind. I apologize if you feel cheated and promise to come back next week with more cerebral stuff and maybe with a new blog motto for 2011:
“Now nearly three years without a price increase!”
• “True Grit” is more dud than Dude. The Coen Brothers have done so much marvelous work that herd critics are reluctant to say when they miss the mark, which is becoming more common.
I was disappointed. Worse, I was bored.
As I mentioned, I saw this with five buddies earlier this week. We sat in three different rows, two to a row, spread out with buffer seats between each of us. We were so intent on ensuring no one in the theater mistook us for the chipper gang from the Bravo show “Queer Eye for that Straight Guy” that Ronnie kept saying very loudly, “Gee, when do you think the girls will get here?”

I was really looking forward to this and, as with the last three or four Coen brother movies, I felt let down. It was a decent western and that’s something I always appreciate, but I expected more.
It must be nice making a movie about an obscure book and remaining faithful to its intent. That lets viewers and critics say of flaws, well, it’s just like that in the flawed book. 
C’mon. “True Grit” isn’t heirloom Americana. This isn’t grandpa’s old fire house chili recipe. If the book needs spice, throw in some cumin, dice up a pepper, add some Tabasco. Breath some fire into the old beast.
That’s what they did with the John Wayne version and it was great campy fun.
I just kept waiting for “True Grit” to kick into a higher gear that was never engaged. Jeff Bridges is becoming one of our best actors, and he was as  entertaining as expected. But the role wasn’t broad enough.
Much is being made of the sassy and opinionated 14-year-old star, Hailee Steinfeld, and her mouthy composure.
From what I understand, mouthy sass is something every 14 year-old girl who’s ever tuned into Disney shows like “iCarly” can instinctually summon.
The movie could have used a little literary license from the Coens who made things like “Fargo,” a movie that begins with an on-screen deception proclaiming what viewers are about to see really happened.
Why the lie? Here’s what Joel said.
"We weren't interested in that kind of storytelling fidelity,” he said. “If an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.”
Well, nothing in “True Grit” ever really happened.
And that’s how I felt about the afternoon walking out of the theater.
• What on earth can we as a concerned nation do about Robert De Niro? With the release of “Little Fockers,” I think we’ve reached a crisis situation.
He’s become on of those rarest of actors whose career trajectory has reversed. His best work was 30 years ago and he’s becoming increasingly unwatchable.
How the man who played Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Michael Vronksy in “The Deer Hunter” and Vito Corleone in two monumental Godfather epics could allow his prestige to be diminished in not one but two Focker sequels is appalling.
It’s as if Paul Newman starred as Butch Cassidy and Cool Hand Luke in his 20s and concluded his career flirting on the Lido Deck with cruise director Julie McCoy on the “Love Boat.”
De Niro, 67, hasn’t made an important movie since “Casino” in 1995. He turned down great roles opposite Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire” (the John Malkovich role) and again in “The Departed” (the role that went to splendid Martin Sheen).
Critics panned the fock out of this version and some even took unkind shots at the original “Meet The Parents,” a movie I find hilarious.
But everyone involved in these sequels has disgraced themselves, none worse than the once-great De Niro.
He’s capable of great comedy, as he’s shown in the uproarious 1988 film “Midnight Run.”
Tom Hanks understands his popularity is based more on his likeability than his acting ability. He’s very wise and selective in the roles he plays and he stays below the radar.
De Niro is ubiquitous for all the wrong reasons. He’s in too many bad movies and seems intent on ridiculing all that made him great (“Analyze This/That,” “Shark Tale” and the “GodFocker” bits in the current nonsense).
Isn’t anybody offering Robert De Niro good roles?
Unless he does something good -- and it better be good and bloody -- he might as well go off and toil in unpaid obscurity doing something he enjoys doing for free.
I’d urge him to consider blogging.
• Happy New Year! Resolve in 2011 to overcome your fear of being lazy.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Home alone: A Christmas wrap-up


Kids are sad because it's 363 days till next Christmas. I’m sad because I know it'll only be about 153 days until I hear the first Christmas song of 2011.
We’re nearing the Sprawl-a-Days finish line. Only six more days until the most cluttered and chaotic time of the year is behind us.
For me, January 2 is becoming the best de facto holiday of the year. It’s the day after what has become a nearly 10-week stretch where nothing is demanded of me.
I won’t have to be anywhere on time. I won’t have to arrive there cheerful. I won’t have to be there wearing pants.
Really, right up until near the end I’ve made it this far without being too grouchy, a fair achievement considering I’ve been sober for much of it.
But it got to me on Christmas Day when our guests were inlaws and people inlaws date. It was just too much.
I can’t discuss inlaw phenomena without mentioning the great line I heard from my twice-married brother: “The only difference between inlaws and outlaws are that outlaws are at least wanted by someone.”
Amen, brother.
The next four days should be among the most peaceful of the entire year. Maybe for people who work and take time off from gainful employment.
Not for the chronically unemployed or those of us who try and earn our livings stringing words together and selling them -- the only difference being the latter are expected to smell nice in public.
This week’s calendar’s already crowded with social obligations. Tomorrow, my friend John from New York is coming to visit. 
As always, it promises to be splendid drunken fun. Plus, it’s coinciding with plans for me and a group of local drunkards to saddle up and see “True Grit.”
Ever since the 2003 release of “Seabiscuit,” we always try to get together over the holidays and watch a movie involving men riding horses.
It’s a very manly thing to do. In fact, it’s so manly we feel compelled to scatter so many seats between each other it’s like we’re all seeing the movie all by ourselves.
If it goes off without a hitch tomorrow will be only the second time it’s happened since the 2003 release of “Seabiscuit.”
There’s not a one of us adept at organizing such an outing and we usually end up drinking through the matinee and arguing over the simple math involved in splitting a three-hour lunch bill five ways.
Then the aforementioned brother and his boys come for a visit. I can’t wait.
But they’re bringing their dog. Decorum dictates I invite the dog to stay with us during the visit while they stay at Mom’s no-pets apartment.
I already have one dog I don’t like, that would be the six-month old sleep bandit the girls call Snickers, a dog that’s never snickered. If they’d have been finicky about accuracy they’ d have named him Yippers or something involving crude bodily functions he’s still sprinkling about the carpets.
So now I’ll have two dogs to clean up after, at least one of which reflexively howls at things like the sound of landing snowflakes as I’m about to reach REM sleep.
I guess the best part of the holiday was wrapping presents with Val in the basement in front of a warm fire as we watched “We’re No Angels.” It’s a 1955 Humphrey Bogart/Peter Ustinov/Aldo Ray comedy about three escaped convicts who save a family from an evil inlaw.
And is there any other kind?
It was all so peaceful and pleasant, as was the result. Christmas morning was magnificent. It’s likely next year the 10-year-old will have succumbed to the glum skeptics who doubt Santa’s existence and that will be a pity.
Kids have a right to expect Christmas to be one of the best days of the year and this was just so.
Today, may be one of the best days of the year for me. It’s one of just four where my wife takes the kids to visit my Mom and I have the home to myself.
That’s just one of four days out of 365.
Had it dawned on me that marriage and family would involve spending more time with inlaws than time home alone I’d have consulted a cheap attorney for pre-nuptial protection.
So tonight’s a time for quiet reflection about all I have, the friendships, the revelry and all that rowdy love that comes with being the only male in a house with three females and a male dog that looks perfectly asexual when he’s trying to act tough.
I’m going to spend the night being thankful for all I have.
And thankful that all I have is for one night about 55 miles away.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry JesusChristmas to all! (even you sinners)


I’m such a superior Christian I will no longer limit my holy culture warfare to just heathens who say “Happy Holidays!”
For me, even “Merry Christmas!” insults my savior.
So let me to be the first to wish you a most politically incorrect, “Merry JesusChristmas!”
Wishing someone a mere Merry Christmas and not including His first name is, to me, as insulting as calling the Messiah, “Dude.”
At one time I may have been like you. I said what I thought was an innocuous “Happy Holidays!” to everyone I met during the two-month-long mirth march that is the sprawl-i-days. I did this because people got bored and walked away as I stood there and gushed about just how much happiness I wished to bestow.
I wanted them to have a Happy Halloween, a Happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. B-list holidays like Groundhog Day were merely implied.
But I have Jewish friends, too. I want them to have a Happy Hanukah and all the other days, too. 
In my travels I meet blacks who celebrate Kwanza, agnostics who are devout in celebrating nothing and people of every religious stripe. It’s a big ol’ world out there, full of Buddhists, Hindus and celebrity Scientologists who swear their sacred beliefs are key to looking fabulous and getting invited to star in movies made by successful Jews like Stephen Spielberg.
I recently read of a California inmate who persuaded the court to let him celebrate Festivus, the Frank Costanza-orchestrated anti-Christmas.
Now, I may have disagreed with the beliefs of many of these individuals, but I didn’t want to crusade against them, especially during the holidays.
That would be rude.
Really, I just want everyone to have one hell of a good time. Life’s short and full of pain. Dance whenever you hear the music.
I wish everyone had the time to hear my most heartfelt and colorful wishes.
I hope you’re sitting down for this. It’s a mouthful. Here goes:
“May tonight you sleep soundly and enjoy the world’s greatest dreams and may tomorrow you awaken to a golden sunshiny day when all those dreams begin to magically come true. May it be the best day of your life and may every day after that only get better and better and better until your whole happy existence is complicated by a fantastic Powerball jackpot victory.”
Despite is earnest intentions, that one cost me friends who were either too busy to stick around for the full incantation or thought having things like man caves full of worshipful harems would distract from watching the football games.
Everyone -- Jews, African-Americans, Celtic Druids and imprisoned Festivusians -- seemed to prefer the snappy omnibus “Happy Holidays!”
All but the Christians.
If you didn’t say “Merry Christmas!” you were in league with Satan -- and I wonder is there is a Satanic equivalent to Christmas? Do they exchange gifts?
If it involves orgies, and I suspect it must, they aren’t publicizing it enough during membership drives.
In a season when many of us somehow manage to squeeze in a little worship, I want to reference The King who wore around his neck a cross, the Hebrew letter chai, and a star of David because he said didn’t want to be excluded from heaven on a technicality.
That’s The King all right. The gospel according to Elvis.
It’s my second favorite Elvis quote right behind, “Milk makes ya sexy!”
Like Elvis, I wouldn’t want to be excluded from a posh afterlife for not being Christmasy Christian enough. That’s why I’m one-upping even holiday busybodies like the American Family Association.
Again this year, the  organization issued a McCarthy-like list of companies that insist their employees greet customers with a cheerful, yet secular, “Happy Holidays!”
Well, they’re now subversive in my eyes for abbreviating “Merry Christmas” at the expense of the birthday boy.
That’s all for now. I’m off to find more ways to save Christmas for us poor beleaguered Christians and warn everyone that Santa is just Satan to a careless typist.
So, to all my devout Christian friends, Merry JesusChristmas!
And to those insufficiently sacred and, in the spirit of the season, I wish for you the previously referenced bit that starts with a good night’s sleep and ends with the Powerball winner.
Either way, may you all hit jackpots, spiritual and otherwise, on this holy, happy day.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My 2010 office party: Canceled!

Cancel your plane reservations. Unpack your suitcase. Tell the dog sitter never mind.
The world’s last, best office Christmas party is being canceled.
Why? It was a victim of its own success.
So who’s the Scrooge?
That would be me.
Those of you who were checking in last year have probably had Dec. 23 circled in red on your calendars for nearly a year. That’s the day I told readers from around the world they’d be welcome to jet into Latrobe to enjoy an old-fashioned Christmas office party with me in my shabby little one-man office above the town’s best bar.
In this recap of last year’s soiree, I admit to having been nervous about holding an office party.
After all, a traditional office party is supposed to involve just the people from the office. It’s an opportunity to unwind in an unrestrained environment where booze-loosened inhibitions are free to ramble.
This neatly describes every single day of my life, so I thought my gift would be to share it with the world.
And that’s just what I did. I printed up an invitation to friends and all honest strangers to come, smoke, swear, get loaded and enjoy my new haircut.
The ground rules were clear: there would be no rules.
The world is just so rife with rules -- even lousy party rules. You can’t smoke, drink too much or wantonly flirt without fear of getting slapped with a sexual harassment suit.
I was offering the last lawless Christmas party.
Here’s what I hoped would happen: I hoped everyone who entered would have one shot of high-test liquor and immediately start removing their clothes. Then, emboldened, they’d ask me to pour them another shot.
Nudity and drunkenness are still essential elements to any good time for me -- and I was eager to share those values with all my close friends.
Here’s what happened: Everyone came in and removed one item of clothing -- their winter coats (it was about 4 degrees that night). Then everyone began making polite small talk. Everyone seemed to be having a really nice time.
It was a crushing development.
I could have suggested we all hold hands and say a prayer for the less fortunate and it would have gone over well.
I know this is a contrary opinion, but I believe Christmas is the one time of year that could use a whole lot less peace on earth and goodwill toward men.
It just doesn’t rock like it used to.
As someone who’s only had three steady jobs his entire adult life (two newspapers/one Pizza Hut), I feel like I’ve missed out on so much.
I see people going to office parties and think, damn, they must be having so much fun. I miss the camaraderie, the shared mission and the reckless opportunity to cut loose on the boss’s tab.
Maybe I’m just conjuring visits from the Ghost of Christmases That Never Were.
Maybe the Christmas parties where wives were swapped, stupid bosses were told off and everyone spent the rest of the year pretending nothing happened are as illusory as Marley’s old ghost.
If that’s so, then it’s a shame.
We spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our spouses. People who endure the cauldron of trying to stay employed in a business that’s fighting just to stay above water ought to be entitled to cut loose at least once a year.
It’s only human.
Last year’s party ended with the refrigerator still full of beer, the ashtrays mostly empty and everyone’s underwear all in place and accounted for.
Only one noble soldier stayed too late, got too drunk and joined me in making complete asses of ourselves later on downstairs in the bar.
Of course, that was Paul, and we’ve been doing that about three nights a week since 1989 so it wasn’t really Christmas special.
Maybe next year I’ll try again. Maybe people will be more in the mood to celebrate the true meaning of an old-fashioned Christmas party -- getting drunk and having fun!
But I can’t do it myself.
I’m only human.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Man up!" Never a good idea


Can we all agree from now on the only people allowed to say, “Man up!” are those directing pornographic films?
We live in a world historically awash in testosterone and it’s led to a world of trouble. Manned up men are already starting and fighting wars galore around the globe, running roughshod on Wall Street and the manly men who run the NFL are bent on boosting the regular season schedule from 16 to 18 games.
That’s so much testosterone coursing through our culture it’s surprising we don’t need hip waders to keep from staining our (speaking of guys who really ought to man down), Bret Favre-promoted Wrangler jeans! 
We need men to man down because men are good at causing problems, but not fixing them.
This is a tricky topic for me because I’m staunchly pro-man. All my best friends are men -- and I mean that in the manly sense and not in the gooey, “I married my best friend” sense you read about in things like RedBook, which I browse whenever I’m feeling my manliness is about to bust loose from the sanity corral.
I’m one of those men who’s spent most of his life way, way up, and I don’t mean that strictly in the four-hour Cialis side effect sense of “up.”
I mean boisterous fun.
My whole life I’ve been accepting crazy dares, raising hell and being goaded into so many bone-headed misadventures it’s amazing I’m still upright approaching 50.
I’ve wrestled alligators, jumped out of perfectly sky-worthy airplanes at 3,500 feet and had 50-pounds of concrete smashed on my chest with a sledgehammer as I lay on a bed of nails. I’ve eaten bugs for bucks, guzzled moonshine ‘til midnight and been the last man standing at raucous parties around the planet.
And some people think all writers are sissies.
To be fair, only half of those feats were “man-up” inspired challenges; the rest resulted from some National Enquirer editor asking, “Which of our brain-dead freelance writers is in most desperate need of $1,000?”
“Man up” to me implies reacting without thinking. It means to stomp on the accelerator and blow through the red light, collateral damage be damned.
Manning up inevitably leads to dumbing down. It leaves no room for tact or subtlety.
Three of the most consequential men to ever roam the earth -- Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandi and Martin Luther King Jr. -- resisted repeated calls to man up.
They loved their fellow man. They turned the other cheek.
I don’t think someone like Gandhi ever felt the need to defend his masculinity when his drunken buddies said, “Mahatma, man, don’t be a sissy. Man up and have another shot of Wild Turkey!”
Oh, would if I had Gandhi-like restraint at that challenge every time it’s been issued since I was in the fifth grade!
That all three died horrific and brutal deaths at the bloody hands of really manned up men only exalts the examples.
Contrast their accomplishments of these three historic giants to say, well, me.
I have a happy little family, in a happy little house, a bank account near zero and professional accomplishments that won’t earn any historic comparisons to the mentioned immortals.
Yet, in many traditionally manly endeavors, I could kick all three of their non-violent asses. I could out drink ‘em, out race ‘em and in a barroom rasslin’ match I could have the Son of God yelling “Uncle!”
Would that make me the better man?
No, in fact, it would probably earn me global condemnation, not to mention an express elevator straight to hell.
That and a few shots of Wild Turkey from all the manned up men who’d be impressed by my wrestling prowess over the Prince of Peace.
And I guess that would be fine with me because, alas, I’m da man.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Random thoughts on tears, guns and middle names


I’ve had this National Parks Service press release sitting on my desk since October 6. It says “Harry S Truman National Historic Site” to be profiled by the National Parks Getaway series.
Careful readers will notice what looks a typo. There is no period after the “S” in Harry S Truman.”
In fact, there is no period after the “S” in Harry S Truman.”
His middle name is S.
Er, I mean his middle name is S
It’s the kind of thing I keep on my desk for a long time hoping one day -- Eureeka! -- inspiration will strike and I’ll be able to write about why Harry Truman has a middle initial but not a middle name. Turns out it was not uncommon for people of Scotch-Irish descent, a race known, not coincidentally, for thrift.
Alas, inspiration is proving evasive. The only thing I that leaps to my mind anytime I see Harry S Truman is that it must sound like, well, hairy ass Truman.
“Here comes that hairy ass Truman.”
So since I can’t come up with a whole idea based on presidential middle names that must mean it’s time to clean up the desk of the little idea scraps that aren’t growing into anything more substantial.
Yes, it’s time for a Lazy S Blog . . .
• My wife and I just enjoyed the delightful 2009 movie “500 Days of Summer,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of our favorite young actors. We’ve loved him ever since he played Tommy in “Third Rock from the Sun,” the 1996-2001 absurdist sitcom starring John Lithgow.
The romantic comedy has a fantasy scene about how he feels the day after he and Summer, played by the winsome Zooey Deschanel, finally have at it. To the tune of the bouncy 1984 Hall & Oates song, “You Make My Dreams Come True,” it shows him sauntering down the street to increasingly exuberant greetings. Strangers smile at him, shake his hand, chest bump, boogie down, and lift him atop their shoulders as a marching band appears to accompany the spontaneous good feeling fest. Finally, an animated blue bird lands on his shoulder and tweets a happy hello to a young man enraptured by love. We showed the clip to our 10-year-old and said, “This is what love feels like.” Can’t wait to show her the whole movie with all the dirty talk and innuendo when she’s old enough to understand it. The daddy in me hopes that won’t be until the year 2024.
• As a young reporter, I’d nearly died of boredom in thousands of school board meetings, but never of multiple gun shot wounds. The video of the scene in Florida is breathtaking. What a story. Of course, I’m waiting for the inevitable arguments about how a guy that violent, that crazy, had easy access to a semi-automatic weapon, and how it was a good thing a security guard had his lethal ventilator concealed under his jacket. I’m glad the NRA will be available to explain it all to me.
• I could write a lot about John Boehner’s blubbering, but that’s been done to death. Me, I shed a lot of tears for a lot of odd reasons, but I’d never blubber on 60 Minutes where decorum calls us all to be as stoic as Clint Eastwood at an outlaw’s hanging. Still, we should all be galled by the double standard exposed by Boehner’s maudlin tears. Nancy Pelosi would be pilloried for weeping, and any male Democrat who acted like Boehner would be lambasted by Fox as a posy-sniffing pansy.
• In the interests of healing bi-partisanship, I hope in 2011 some legislation involving abandoned puppies moves Boehner so deeply he runs to the ample lap of colleague Barney Frank and cuddles in for a good, long cry.
• This may surprise readers familiar with my lefty politics, but I like John Boehner, tears and all. He smokes and was raised by a man who ran a tavern. He strikes me as a practical, reasonable man who looks at morality crusaders like Sarah Palin and thinks, WTF? Unlike Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, Rick Santorum, etc., if Boehner called me to play golf and then spend the night getting loaded and talking about the great movies that make us both cry, I’d accept.
• Clay Duke, the Florida school board shooter, is being described as a troubled, broke, ex-con with bi-polar disorder and an interest in anarchy. And I’ll bet that’s exactly what he put on the gun permit application.
 • It would be fun to see what outlandish and violent intentions you could include on a gun permit application and -- hey! here you go! -- still get a gun.
• I remain tickled by the information revealed on the stats page at my home blog. It fascinates me how many people from all over the world read my blog. After the homeland (USA! USA!), the second most readers are still in Denmark -- and I’m becoming daily more fond of the Danes. They are followed by Canada, U.K., Brazil, Russia, France and readers in more than 43 countries. Amazing. Thanks! 
• My favorite fact from the stats page? On Thanksgiving Day, four people from Turkey woke up and started reading www.EightDaysToAmish.com. If linking a day when Americans consume millions of turkeys to people who live in a country named Turkey is insulting, I apologize.
• My most faithful reader, however, may be a South Korean. The instant I post this, the page shows that someone in South Korea will start reading it with the way someone races to the mailbox for money. I know nothing about this person, but I think about them just about every time I sit down to write one of these. Thank you, my distant friend.
• I cry at the end of “Big Fish,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Mister Roberts” and during the scene where Rocky makes up with the Mick to heal his breaking heart. I’m not sure why, but I sometimes cry at the end of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” Please don’t tell Leslie Stahl.
• I’m in the middle of a really nice run of stories for msnbc.com. None have been more gratifying than the reaction to the one about the Jimmy Stewart Museum needing a George Bailey moment. I don’t know how much money has been raised, but it’s likely to be enough to make a difference. Following up on my story, NBC Nightly News sent a reporter to do a nice segment that ran last week. Things like that make me feel like one day I might earn my wings.
• Maybe my fascination with middle names stems from envy. Neither my brother nor I have them. It’s true, our parents hated their middle names (Russell/Mae) so much they didn’t want to burden us with them. It’s maybe the only way these two loving people with odd aversions to perfectly normal middle names ever neglected their sons. Oh, well. It’s nothing worth crying about.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sarah & the zombies


People lean in confidentially when they ask my opinion of the bloodthirsty monster dividing the public and causing millions of Americans to lose sleep at night.
And I’m not talking about Sarah Palin.
Yet.
Oh, I’ll get to her.
I’m talking about zombies. They are everywhere.
They are to this holiday season what Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmos were to gentler days gone by. They are red hot.
What do I think of them? I adore them. Can’t get enough of them.
It surprises even me.
One of my favorite comedies of the past five years is the uproarious “Zombieland.” The Woody Harrelson/Jesse Eisenberg movie is a bloody riot, and I mean that in both the literal and the British sense.
My wife and I have already watched it three times. It has cartoon violence, over-the-top giggles and the best Bill Murray cameo ever.
Then there is the exact reverse of that jolly satire. It’s AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
The story is one of utter dread. There are no laughs, no sly lines. Just a horrific tale of urban survival and gore galore. Its slim six-episode run just concluded last Sunday. The skimpiness of its first run meant AMC had little faith in its potential.
Guaranteed producers have in their rush to capitalize on the sensation become like zombies themselves, albeit ones who feast on sushi and not careless humans.
So, yes, I’m currently infatuated with zombies. I find myself wondering about them and how I can differentiate one from, say, my friends at the bar.
Zombies have blank expressions. Check.
They aren’t picky about their looks. Check.
They have nothing to do all day. Check.
They eat with their fingers and are confused by things like silverware. Check.
If you think I’m being unduly judgmental about the boys in the bar, you are mistaken.
I was checking on myself.
I don’t think I’m a zombie, but apparently that’ll be an option if the kitchen ever runs low on chicken wings.
So with “The Walking Dead” in production, our TV is event free on Sunday evenings.
God help me, I decided to fill an hour of programming about the walking dead with an hour of TV featuring a woman who is just so, golly gee, full of life it’s surprising someone hasn’t jammed moose entrails down her throat to get her to shut the hell up.
Honest, I was just about to write a post congratulating myself for not having mentioned Sarah Palin all year.
The stinging Aaron Sorkin blast about her killing a caribou to show her bona fides to voters who think Ted Nugent an agile-minded man of reason was, I guess, what got to me.
But the real reason I had to watch was the same reason I used to watch a professional wrestling match when two titanic villains were set to grapple.
Yes, last night it was Sarah Palin vs. Kate Gosselin.
And, let me tell you, it was better than a cage match between George “The Animal” Steel and Rowdy Roddy Piper.
The show started with Sarah shopping for guns, talking about how much she loves guns, about the many problems guns can solve and why guns give her the kind of feelings the rest of us get from watching things like E.T.
I’ve never heard her in any interview gush as much about husband Todd, although guns, even unloaded ones, certainly have more to say than he does. 
The show wound up with the Palins camping with the Gosselins. It couldn’t have been more awkward. Sarah spent the entire time rhapsodizing about the joys of Alaska and Kate kept saying, in essence, gee, I hate Alaska.
Kate looked like I must look when a Jehovah’s Witness is eager to proselytize to me during a Steeler game, only with a snazzier haircut.
Sarah’s father rudely said of mega-mom, “She did nothing but bitch as soon as she got off the plane.”
It was fascinating. Here were the two stars of second tier network doing their best to sabotage each other.
News today is that Sarah is in Haiti on what’s being called a humanitarian mission. I heard some rah-rah sound bites and can only imagine they’d edited out the part where she says the solution to all Haiti’s godforsaken problems is to relocate the entire island to suburban Wasilla.
Coincidentally, Haiti is where zombie folklore originated in 1937. You can look it up.
So it makes perfect sense to cynics like me.
She wasn’t on a mercy mission. She was campaigning.
The only people who can see her in a position of leadership any more are truly brain dead.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My new $295 dictionary


I can generally gauge the foolhardiness of any impulsive purchase by the sound my wife makes when I tell her about it.
It’s the same involuntary gasp she makes when a deer jumps out in front of her car.
When I tell her I just spent $295 for a dictionary I can’t hold, can’t own and will only be able to access for 12 months, it’ll sound like a 14-point buck just appeared three-car lengths from her front bumper.
The color will drain from her face and she’ll swear I’ve made a grave mistake, one in a long line that’ll continue to ensure my poverty.
She already considers me something of a dictionary polygamist. Besides computer spell checkers and myriad on-line freebies, I already own three dog-eared dictionaries. 
So why did I need to spend nearly $300 on a subscription to the on-line version of the Oxford English Dictionary? 
As I’ve mentioned before, my sole professional ambition is now to get one of my 58 (and counting) coined words in a reputable dictionary. 
My theory is that writing one really good word that will last an eternity will be more gratifying than writing a 75,000-word bestseller that will be yanked from the shelves in time for next summer’s beach reads.
And, geez, just do the lazy man’s math: one word versus 75,000 words.
It’s a no brainer.
There are 1,803 books that fit the description “dictionary” in the august Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.
There are bartender dictionaries for mixologists, medical dictionaries for physicians, plant dictionaries for those with botanical bents. There’s even an “Equine Dictionary.”
Who knew horses had vocabularies so advanced they’d find themselves stumped in pastoral conversation? I imagine it would be great fun to watch frustrated ponies trying to turn pages.
But what is known as the OED is the Mt. Everest of them all. The elegant 20-volume hard cover weighs 137.72 pounds and sells for a whopping $1,165. It’s the granddaddy of all dictionaries containing the definitions to more than 600,000 words (the average person knows and uses just 5,000 words).
In just a few days it’s become the cerebral staple of my web surfing. I love sleuthing the history of unusual words, when they were formed and how their meaning has shifted over the years.
For instance, “pussyfoot” is a word that tips its hat to prohibition. Who knew? It was the nickname of W.E. “Pussyfoot” Johnson (1862-1945). He was a staunch prohibitionist who used underhanded -- maybe underpawed -- and behind-the-scenes methods to further his truculent and, I say, brain-dead opposition to Demon Rum. For reasons of taste, I’ll withhold comment that a man named Johnson was the inspiration for a word featuring what is now an anatomical vulgarity.
There are browse features galore, timelines and, sure, you can randomly jump to any point in the entry field. It’s web surfing for savants. I can search the 2,304 Mark Twain quotes the OED used to illustrate the meaning of words. Give it a freebie test drive at www.oed.com.
I’ve learned the word “puck” definition involving hockey is but the fourth most common historical definition listed behind “an evil, malicious or mischievous spirit or demon of popular belief” and “a cattle disease.”
Yes, the vulcanized rubber disc that is the focus of a popular winter game had four previous incarnations centuries before Don Rickles made it a catchphrase insult. 
And I can predict almost exactly what my friends in the bar will say next time I try and foist that fact on them during a break in the action.
“WTP?”
Already I’ve learned fascinating and previously unknown things about many of my favorite swear words I’ve been using since the fourth grade.
You can search the exact year words first appeared in the OED. I like that the word “boink” first appeared in 1963, the same year as I was born. But you won’t hear me  bragging that my birth year also coincided with the evident need for the word “dipshit” to be saluted with OED recognition.
I feel like I’m wading into a vast lexicographical ocean. It’s exciting. I feel enriched every time I log in with my secret handshake of a password and only hope I can retain a fraction of all I’ll learn with each fascinating search.
So, no, paying $295 to subscribe wasn’t a mistake.
Telling my wife about it, now that’ll be a mistake.