Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking back at my year in reading...

I'm proud of myself, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

I set a goal to read 40 books in 2013, and I not only reached that goal, but exceeded it by one book. I also read in excess of 15,000 pages in completed books this year, which was also over my goal. I really read a lot more than that, but I did a lot of partial reading of books that had information I wanted for research purposes without having to read the full book.

Now it's the last day of the year, which means it's time for my reading year in review. It was a good year, if only because there is not one book on the list this year that I would have to recommend against reading it. Certainly, I liked some more than others, but I don't regret the time I spent on any of them.

I read more non-fiction than I do fiction, and this year was no exception, although I only read three more non-fiction than fiction books. This was kind of a surprise to me, since it seemed like I was always reading things as research for the book I'm writing. I stuck mostly to favorite authors for my fiction reading this year. I did discover Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, and liked the first one I read enough to read another. I continued my love/hate relationship with Patricia Cornwell's writing - I don't know what it is, other than probably her penchant for experimenting with person and tense. First person present, which she uses in some of her Kay Scarpetta novels, makes me want to scream. I spent a lot of time reading the Kellermans, both Faye and Jonathan, because their books are comfort reading for me. I found a Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel that I hadn't read, and that was a good thing, as was finding that Faye Kellerman had a new Decker/Lazarus novel out (that was "The Beast").

I only read a couple of science fiction novels this year, "Redshirts" by John Scalzi and "Inception", by W. A. Harbinson. The Harbinson book, though, is really only tangentially science fiction, postulating that UFO sightings can be explained by advanced aeronautics design by Nazi scientists and engineers during World War II. It's not a bad book, really (although the end of it seemed to be a little bit of cheat), but it isn't really science fiction, either. On the other hand, "Redshirts" was superior science fiction (and won the Hugo Award this year for Best Novel), not to mention funny and a kick to read. It was my favorite fiction read all year.

I've just started reading through the Harry Potter series. I'd read the first book years ago, and reread it at the end of this year. I'm reading the second one, which I had started right after reading the first volume the first time but got sidetracked from, now, and I intend to get through the series this time. Yeah, they're for a YA audience, but like many other adults, I really like the story Rowling tells (I've seen all the movies) and want to get an insight into the characters that isn't available in the films. So, look for more of these on my fiction list next year.

So here is the list of fiction I read this year:

Grievous Sin, by Faye Kellerman
Scarpetta, by Patricia Cornwell
Cross Bones, by Kathy Reichs
Bones, by Jonathan Kellerman
The Conspiracy Club, by Jonathan Kellerman
Private Eyes, by Jonathan Kellerman
The Hard Way, by Lee Child
Terminal Freeze, by Lincoln Child
Bare Bones, by Kathy Reichs
A Wanted Man, by Lee Child
Deception, by Jonathan Kellerman
The Drop, by Michael Connelly
Redshirts, by John Scalzi
The Beast, by Faye Kellerman
Inception, by W. A. Harbinson
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J. K. Rowling

And now for the non-fiction.

A lot of the non-fiction I read this year had something to do with the book I'm writing about the Baby Boom generation and the world we live in (being a Baby Boomer myself and all). The rest of my non-fiction reading was either stuff I found at the library that just looked interesting - the Cavett book; the book about the art thefts after the fall of Baghdad; "Anarchy Evolution" which was written by Greg Graffin, who is a punk rock musician and college professor in zoology, with special interest in evolutionary theory; "Hands Through Stone", which is about some local crimes here where I live; and the book about Scientology - or were things that I'm particularly interested in. These included the Coelacanth book, the books on religion and religious belief, and the UFO book. I've been reading about UFOs since I was about 8 or 9 years old, and I find the subject fascinating although I'm certainly not a "true believer". The UFO book was also part of my research for the book I'm writing, since the modern era of UFO sightings began not long after the Baby Boom started.

One of the biggest surprises in my non-fiction reading this year was "Life With Mother Superior", by Jane Trahey. It's the book that inspired the film "The Trouble with Angels" (1966), which stars Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, and was directed by Ida Lupino - and is one of my favorite movies of all time. The thing that surprised me about the book, a memoir which takes place in the 1930s and was published in 1962, is that the movie was so true to the book, and that some of the adventures in the movie were actually toned down from the events that inspired them.

Seven of the non-fiction books were re-reads: The O'Neill book about the Sixties; both books about the Manson Family (the Sanders and Bugliosi books); "Kingdom Coming"; the Al Franken book; the Stephen Book, which is one of the best books on both writing and on the horror genre that I've ever read; and "Leaving the Saints", which is a very controversial book both among Mormons and ex-Mormons, but a good book worth re-reading nevertheless.

I can't say I have a favorite among the non-fiction I've read this year. Each of the books was good and worthwhile in one way or another, or I wouldn't have finished them. There are too many good books in the world to spend time finishing the ones that aren't good or aren't interesting or don't have valuable information in them - and even those in the last category can be mined for the information I need sometimes without having to be read straight through.


Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, by Dick Cavett
Thieves of Baghdad, by Matthew Bogdanos with William Patrick
Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell
What They Didn't Teach You About the 60s, by Mike Wright
Boom!: Voices of the Sixties, by Tom Brokaw
When F. D. R. Died, by Bernard Asbell
On the Trail of the Assassins, by Jim Garrison
Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s, by William L. O'Neill
The Family, by Ed Sanders
Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg
Anarchy Evolution, by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson
Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them), by Al Franken
Danse Macabre, by Stephen King
Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth, by Keith Steward Thompson
Prophet's Prey, by Sam Brower
UFO Hunters, by William J. Birnes
Life With Mother Superior, by Jane Trahey
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright
Hands Through Stone, by James A. Ardaiz
Leaving the Saints, by Martha Beck
Weird Arizona, by Wesley Treat
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

So, there you have it...41 books read over the course of the year, some of them long (the longest was "Boom! Voices of the Sixties", at 662 pages) and some of them much shorter (the two shortest were "Life With Mother Superior" at 210 pages and "When F. D. R. Died" at 211 pages). Some of them easy reads, others not so much. But all of them, depending on what you're interested in, worth the time and effort to sit down and do the reading.

As I've said before around here, go read a book. Does one of the books on my list this year sound interesting? Go find that and read it. Or go to the library or your local bookstore and browse the shelves until you find something that sounds like you'd like it. Or, put something new on your Nook or Kindle or whatever newfangled thing you've got to read on. Me? I'm old fashioned and I like paper books, but whatever format you prefer is fine.

And if you find something you really like? Come back and tell us all about it, so we can enjoy it too.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Movie Monday: The "The Movies Love Musicians" Edition

"Rhapsody in Blue" is one of my favorite pieces of music. It is also the title of a film that purports to tell the life story of George Gershwin, the composer of that piece of music and many others, who died way too young (at age 38) of a brain tumor. What the film is, unfortunately, is a highly fictionalized account of Gershwin's life, including the addition of two romances that never actually happened. The film, which was made in 1943 but not released until 1945, stars Robert Alda (yes, that would be Alan Alda's father) as George Gershwin, in his first screen role after a career in vaudeville. While it takes huge liberties with the story of Gershwin's life, it also has several of the people Gershwin knew and worked with playing themselves. These folks include Oscar Levant and Al Jolson, who - equally unfortunately - reprises his blackface rendition of "Swannee", as you can see in the trailer from the time of the film's original release:

One of these days we'll have to discuss all the ramifications of performing in blackface, but today is not that day. "Rhapsody in Blue" actually got two Academy Award nominations, for Best Musical Score and for Best Sound, and while it did not win either award, it was also nominated for the Grand Prize at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival.

Well, Hollywood has a tendency to make shit up, and it also likes to make movies about musicians. This means that the films that result can be very good, but can also go very wrong. So, I think, you can't go into a film biography of a performer and expect to get the full, unadulterated, true story from Hollywood. But you might still get a good film. Maybe even an award-winning film.

Certainly that's what we get with "Amadeus" (1984), which starred Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri. The story is actually framed as Salieri telling the story of Mozart and his own rivalry with the more famous composer. Originally a stage play, "Amadeus" is a really good movie that was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 8 of them, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Abraham's portrayal of Salieri. It also won, among others, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction.

Now, I have to confess that when I first saw "Amadeus", my response was that its thesis was that if Mozart was alive today, he would be David Lee Roth. And who knows how close the film is to the truth of Mozart's personality. I don't know enough about the composer's life to be able to say. In this clip, where Mozart meets with the Emperor and with Salieri, who is the court composer, Mozart is shown as supremely talented and equally tactless:

My favorite scene though, is when Mozart is told by the Emperor that one of his compositions has "too many notes":

Really? How do you tell someone as talented as Mozart that there are too many notes in his work? Well, apparently, easily if you're the Emperor. This is one of those scenes that, if it didn't really happen, should have, just to make history more interesting.

"Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980) is another one of those great movies that, even if it does take some liberties with reality, is still a great, great movie. The story of country singer Loretta Lynn, it was nominated for but did not win Best Picture. However, Sissy Spacek, who portrayed Lynn, did win Best Actress in a Leading Role. I suspect that, along with her usual wonderful performance, the fact that Spacek did her own singing in the film helped her win the award. Tommy Lee Jones played Lynn's husband, Doolittle, and Levon Helm made his acting debut as Loretta's father. Also in the film and playing themselves were several country entertainers, including Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, and the wonderful Minnie Pearl. If you don't know Pearl's country comedy, you really need to explore that.

Here are a couple of short scenes from near the beginning of the film:

And here is Sissy Spacek singing "Coal Miner's Daughter" on "The Midnight Special" in 1980, with Levon Helm on drums. You'll notice that the song references one of the scenes in the clip above:

But then there are film biographies of musicians that, well, aren't so great. Take Oliver Stone's film "The Doors", for example. No, really. Please, take it. Although two of the three members of the band surviving at the time the film was made, made cameo appearances, all three later criticized the film for showing a one-dimensional portrait of Jim Morrison, with the remaining band members agreeing that the Morrison on the screen was not the man they knew. On the other hand, all three said that they had difficulty distinguishing Kilmer's voice (he did part of his own singing, which was blended with recordings of Morrison) from Morrison's in the final product. I think the problem here is that Oliver Stone has his view of the world and he has a tendency sometimes to not let the facts get in the way of what he sees as a good story. At any rate, here are some scenes from the opening of the film:

At any rate, despite mixed reviews for the film itself, Val Kilmer got rave reviews for his portrayal of Morrison. And he does manage to capture the physicality of the man, based on films and photos I've seen of Morrison. Still, it would have been nice if Stone had made a movie about the band and about what people who knew him said was the real Morrison, rather than playing up the legend and the myths about him that have grown up since the singer's death in 1971.

Which brings us to the end of Movie Monday's for 2013. Please tune in next week to see what 2014 will bring.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Music Sunday: The "One-Hit Wonders of the 1980s" Edition, probably Part I

After writing recently about one-hit wonders from the 1960s and 1970s, I got really curious about the one-hit wonders of the 1980s. And so I did a little research.

Turns out that I've never heard of a lot of the songs on the 1980s list. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that by the 1980s I had mostly quit listening to Top 40 radio, to the extent that it still existed. I could be wrong, but it seems that by that time music radio had splintered into stations that mostly only played specific genres of music - New Wave or Hard Rock or Classic Rock or whatever. Still, I managed to find a good list of music I knew and liked in the 1980s on the list.

Just to review, a one-hit wonder is an artist or group that has just one hit that reached the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States just once in their career in that formulation. An artist can have had other Top 40 hits with a group, for example, and still be a one-hit wonder as a solo act. Other charts in other countries also produce one-hit wonders, but as with my other surveys of one-hit wonders, I'm sticking to hits in the US.

The first thing that struck me on this list was that 1985 was the year of the charity (or consciousness-raising) one-hit wonder. There were three of those that hit the Top 40 that year.

The first of those, in chronological order, was "Do They Know It's Christmas?", by Band Aid. The song was written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, and was released in late 1984 as a way to raise money for famine victims in Ethiopia. The record quickly went to number one on the UK charts, staying there for five weeks, but in the US it made it to number 13 on the Hot 100 in January 1985. As you can see in the video made of the recording session, Geldof managed to convince a number of the top UK recording artists of the time to participate:

Following in April, "We Are The World" by USA for Africa went to number 1 in the United States on April 13. It also went to number on Billboard's Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks chart, and Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles chart, and it reached 27 on the industry magazine's Hot Mainstream Rock tracks chart and number 76 on it's Country Singles chart. The idea for the single was proposed by singer and activist Harry Belafonte and was taken up by producer Quincy Jones and by Michael Jackson, who co-wrote the song with Lionel Richie. Again, a long list of top recording artists was recruited. The resulting record won three Grammy Awards and by some estimates sold over 20 million copies worldwide. It also managed to raise over $63 million for humanitarian relief:

And then the consciousness-raising turned specifically political as a group called Artists United Against Apartheid got together and recorded "Sun City", written by Steven Van Zandt. The point of the exercise was to call down artists who had performed at Sun City, a resort within Bophuthatswana, one of several supposedly independent states within South Africa, which had been created by the South African government for the forcible relocation of the black population of that country. Again, a list of internationally recognized artists participated. The song did not get nearly as much airplay in the United States as had "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are The World" because as many as half of the radio stations in the US would not play the single because the management did not like that some of the lyrics were explicitly critical of then-president Ronald Reagan's South Africa policy of "constructive engagement" rather than boycott of the white government South Africa. In addition, the song was banned in South Africa itself. In consequence, "Sun City" only reached #38 on the Hot 100 in December of 1985. The record was more successful in other parts of the world, including reaching number 21 in the UK and number 4 in Australia:

"Sun City" was not the only politically-tinged one-hit wonder in the 1980s. In 1988, Australian band Midnight Oil released "Beds are Burning", which took up the subject of returning lands to back to the Pintupi people, one of the last native Australian peoples to be contacted by westerners and who were forcibly relocated from their native lands during the 1950s and 1960s. It shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone that Midnight Oil would release such a political song, considering that the band's lead singer, Peter Garret was a lawyer and activist, who subsequently held several ministerial positions in the Australian government and was a Member of Parliament there from 2004 to 2013. The song reached number 17 on the Hot 100 in the US:

Another much less political song from another Australian band became a one-hit wonder in the United States in 1988. This was "Under the Milky Way", by The Church:

I want to end today's post with a very American band, and a very well-known band, who had their only Top 40 hit in 1987. The closest the Grateful Dead had come previously to the Top 40 was in 1970 with "Truckin'", which got to number 64 on the Hot 100. But in 1987 the by-then aging band recorded and released "Touch of Grey", which made it all the way to number 9:

There's quite a few other songs I had hoped to share today, but if I do, I won't get anything else done today. Sharing more would also leave fewer good songs to share next year here on Music Sunday.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Movie Extra: The "Back to the Beginning" Edition

We all do it at least once in a while. We go to the theater, put down our ten bucks (or whatever it is these days; I haven't been in much too long), go inside, and sit and watch moving pictures projected onto a screen. The pictures, and the sound that goes with them, makes us laugh or cry, or both; make us cheer or boo and hiss; at any rate, if they're done right, those moving pictures (which, of course, don't move at all but simply create the illusion of motion) entertain us.

We don't generally stop to think, though, that there was a first time - the first time that people put their money down and went inside and watched pictures projected on a wall move. But there was such a day, in Paris, on December 28, 1895. That was the day the Lumiere brothers showed ten snippets of film, none over 50 seconds long. Each clip was a simple "slice of life" scene - workers leaving a factory, two blacksmiths at work, one horseback rider showing another how to do trick riding, a baby fishing for goldfish in a fishbowl, a man sneaking up behind a gardener and stepping on the hose he was using to water plants, several people playing in the ocean:

Seeing those short clips, it's sort of amazing to think that this new form of entertainment ever went anywhere. The Lumiere brothers - Auguste and Louis - weren't trying to tell a story with these clips, but had just been playing with materials from the family business; their father ran a photographic business. The next year, the brothers took their show on the road to London, Montreal, New York, Buenos Aires, and Bombay.

One of those present at the first showing in Paris was Georges Melies, an illusionist, who saw past the specific content of those ten short films to the possibilities for creating illusions and telling stories. One of his first films, made in 1896, was "The Haunted Castle", which was first shown on Christmas Eve of that year, just a few days short of a year since he had been present at the Lumiere brothers' first showing. And there Melies was, already trying to tell a story and producing special effects:

True, the film was only just over three minutes long, but the moving pictures were already beginning to show their potential. And also already starting to explore genres that still entertain audiences today: the horror film (although this one wasn't very frightening) and the vampire film. As with so many early films, "The Haunted Castle" was presumed to be lost for many years until a copy was found in the New Zealand Film Archive in 1988. Melies made 531 films between 1896 and 1913, including the landmark "A Trip to the Moon" in 1902.

Others also took up the challenge, and the art of filmmaking advanced to where it is today. Yes, there are probably way too many slasher films and chase films and sparkly vampire films. But there are also surpassing works of art, and it all started on that evening in 1895. Yes, there were others who were working at the same time, and even earlier, but the Lumiere brothers were the first to solicit a paying audience to look at the films they had made, thus setting the template for the movie-going experience we all enjoy to this day, 118 years later.

Friday, December 27, 2013

What's worth arguing about - and, more importantly, what probably isn't...

Today is the anniversary of the return to earth of Apollo 8. The return successfully ended the mission during which the first humans left earth orbit, traveled to and orbited the moon, and returned to earth safely.

This was a very big deal. It paved the way for further missions to the moon, including the mission, a few months later, in which humans first set foot on another world. It also enabled humans, for the first time, to watch the Earth rise over the Moon. A photo of Earthrise taken during the mission has become iconic and, I think, should be installed on the wall of every leader of every nation and every religion in the world. It is graphic proof that we're all in this together, here on Earth, and maybe it would be a good idea if we quit squabbling so much.

See? That's all of us down there. Most of us are stuck here. We need to get along.

Which makes it all the more notable that one of the things the astronauts - Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders - did during the mission, while they were orbiting the Moon - caused quite a stir back here on Earth. On Christmas Eve, during a live television broadcast from their spacecraft, the three took turns reading the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis. This is what it sounded like, on Christmas Eve, 1968:

As Bible readings go, that was pretty innocuous. They didn't say anything about time frames, didn't insist that what they were reading was literally true, didn't force anyone to accept what they were reading as true. They just read it and said "Merry Christmas". At the time - I remember well seeing the broadcast - I thought it was a nice thing to do at Christmas. And now, looking back, I can understand how the astronauts would have wanted to turn to a shared cultural touchstone like that at the time. It was Christmas Eve and they were as far away from home as any humans had ever been. But, apparently, not everyone felt that way.

In the wake of the mission, Madalyn Murray O'Hare, who made a career out of being an atheist, sued NASA for allowing the reading. She asked the courts to ban astronauts from praying publicly in space on the basis, apparently, that because they were public employees, doing that was a violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court refused to hear her case because, they said, the lacked jurisdiction. As far as I can see, O'Hare, who as I recall never let a fact get in the way of her proselytizing for her cause, lacked in this case the fact that the astronauts were not praying, but reading.

I'm not a religious person. I don't appreciate people throwing their religious beliefs - or their lack of them - in my face. But I still don't see anything wrong with that particular reading of those particular verses from scriptures that are shared by both Christians and Jews, in that particular situation. O'Hare, as far as I can see, was arguing for the sake of argument. No one was forcing anyone to listen to the broadcast, much less to believe in what was being read or to say they believed in it.

Which brings me back to the Earthrise photo and the idea that we're all in this together. If we keep getting all argumentative over minor things like this, we're sure not going to be able to come to accommodation over the bigger, more important things. And if we keep insisting, each from our little corner of the world, that we're right and everybody else is wrong and deserves to die because of it, there aren't going to be many of us left on this insignificant little rock floating in space. And that would be unfortunate, because we - as a species - have done some good and worthy things while we've been here, and I propose that we should do everything possible to be able to do more of those wonderful things in the future.

I know. I'm letting my naïve little Pollyanna side out again. People are going to keep arguing about things that don't really mean anything in the long run, and they're going to keep fighting over them, insisting that their belief is more important than the other person's right to have his or her belief as well. And people are going to keep on killing each other over that.

But, really? Do we really have to persist in this childish effort to get rid of everything we don't personally believe in? Even when it isn't really hurting us at all? I'm not saying that there aren't important things worth fighting for. I am saying that a lot of things - most things - don't rise to that threshold of needing to take up rhetorical or literal arms. And one of those things that does not rise to that level is someone simply reading from the scriptures they happen to believe in, with no coercive intent or effect.

And now, this is me getting off my soapbox. At least until the next time I feel the need to climb back up on top of it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Guest Post: Another Part of the Country...Indiana, to be specific...is heard from

Here's a new guest post from Gloria, over at EdgeofGloria. Hope you like it. I did.

I decided to write a guest post about my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is located in what coastal people call “flyover country.” I complain a lot about Fort Wayne, but it isn't bad. It just depends on what you are looking for.

Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in the state of Indiana, with Indianapolis being our capital, and largest city. There's about 250,000 in the city, perhaps a bit more if you factor in the surrounding small towns. We have a professional hockey team, basketball team and baseball team. The Fort Wayne Komets have been operating continually in Fort Wayne since 1952. Hockey was the first spectator sport I ever enjoyed. My dad would take me to the games, and I liked to say I liked hockey before it got popular in the 1990s.

People on the coast sometimes think a lot of people who live in the Midwest do a lot of farming. We don't all live on farms. One of my co-workers at a local retail store lives on a farm, and the gentleman she lives with hasn't had a vacation in 13 years. My co-worker helps out on the farm, and also works full time at the store and refinishes wood in her spare time. So chances are if we live on a farm, we are also working another job as well.

If we don't farm, then what do we do for a living? Depends on who you talk to, but we have people who own small businesses, we have doctors, lawyers, dentists, vets, office workers, factory workers, mechanics, educators, writers and even filmmakers. We do have people who are active in the arts, but they usually have full-time jobs, and act in small local productions.

And speaking of actors and actresses, Fort Wayne was home to a few you might have heard of. Carole Lombard grew up here, and her former house is a bed and breakfast at 704 Rockhill Street. Shelley Long was from here; she was a graduate of South Side High School. Are you a fan of “Frasier”? Bulldog Briscoe, also known as Dan Butler, graduated from Northrop, my high school. He's in town directing a production of Our Town. Are you a fan of The Office? Jenna “Pam Beesly Halpert” Fischer was born in Fort Wayne.

Like Bill Blass's clothes? He was a Fort Wayne homeboy before he moved to New York City.

One thing that makes Fort Wayne great is the cheap real estate. Seriously, if you are single, it IS possible to own a house here. That doesn't mean you'll be able to afford to live in Sycamore Hills, or Devil's Hollow, but it is possible to own a place of your own.

We are not too far away from Indianapolis, if you want to catch a Colts game. Chicago is about three and a half to four hours away, depending on the traffic, and if you want to leave the country, Windsor, Ontario, is about three and a half hours away. We are also three and a half hours away from the best amusement park in the world (IMHO), which is Cedar Point. If you love roller coasters, this is the place to be.

We have some cool places and events here in town. A group called the Downtown Improvement District is organizing events to bring people back downtown, before the malls brought everyone out to the neighborhoods surrounding the city center. Fright Night happens near Halloween, and the Zombie Walk brings thousands of people downtown, dressed up as Zombies, or in other costumes to lurk around. The night before Thanksgiving, several lighting displays are ceremoniously lit downtown, with the biggest crowds coming to see Santa and his Reindeer. This display goes way back, when it was featured on the side of the Wolf and Dessauer building, which used to house a well-known local department store that had amazing window displays (I am too young to remember this). There's also the Festival of Trees at the Embassy Theater, a beautiful Art-Deco movie palace that was saved by the wrecking ball by a concerned group of people in the mid 1970s. Now, the theater hosts Broadway shows and concerts.

In the summer, we have a series of festivals. Greekfest, German Fest Food Fest, Rib Fest, and the granddaddy of the downtown events, the Three Rivers Festival. I never fail to see someone I know at the festival, which goes on for eight days, ending in a fireworks display shot off one of the buildings downtown.

Fort Wayne. I don't like it, but it has some things going for it, that's for sure.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Birthday, Mom...Miss You A Lot

My mother was a Christmas Eve baby, born on this day in 1924. It was the day that Albania became a republic, and just six days before astronomer Edwin Hubble announced that the Andromeda nebula was really a galaxy separate from our own Milky Way galaxy and that there are many such galaxies in the universe. She was born just one day before writer Rod Serling, who gave us, among other things, "The Twillight Zone", and she was just a month and two days older than actor Paul Newman, who was born on January 26, 1925.

So, today, I wanted to commemorate my mother's birth, 89 years ago today. She wasn't always an easy person. She came from a spectacularly dysfunctional extended family - this was the family that, when they had family reunions, every family group within the extended family sat together, apart from the rest, and some branches of the family barely talked to the other branches during the gathering. And, for years, we lived in the same mobile home park as one of her cousins, our houses a minute or two's walk apart, but we sometimes never saw that person for a year or year and a half at a time. The same with other members of her family that lived in the same town for those years. Often, we only saw them on Christmas Eve, and wouldn't have seen them then if we hadn't made a practice of delivering Christmas cookies and candy every Christmas Eve.

That was one of our Christmas Eve rituals - we played Fattening Fairies and spread calories all over town, and we always had fun doing it. That came after breakfast out for Mom's birthday. I'd always take her birthday present along and make her open it in the restaurant so that she'd get that as far away from her Christmas presents as possible. And then, on Christmas Eve evening, we'd do Christmas presents - that had become the family tradition around the time I was eleven or twelve, when it got to where I would wake up at 4 or 4:30 a.m. on Christmas morning and insist that it was time for presents. Mom and Daddy decided that since I had long since figured out that they were Santa Claus, we'd just do presents on Christmas Eve so that they could sleep in on Christmas morning.

Mom was an extremely shy person, and very quiet until she got to know you. After the got to know you, though, she was bright and articulate and very, very funny. She could also be snarky before snark was a thing. And she was the only sixty-something-year old mom I knew who would go to rock concerts. She always acted, beforehand, like she really didn't want to go, but then she'd get there and have a great time. It was interesting, watching her get older. Most people get more conservative as they get older. Not my mom. She got more open, more liberal, more accepting of people different from herself. That was quite an accomplishment, coming as she did from a family that was from the South (ish - she was born in Oklahoma and lived until she was about 9 years old in Arkansas) and had the usual prejudices so common in that part of the country at the time she was growing up.

I think she didn't really know sometimes how to take me, her Alien Child, who was the reader she wasn't, who loved science fiction and science and school and learning. We used to have these arguments when I was a child. I'd be in my room, or in the living room in front of the television, reading a book. She'd come in and tell me, "Go do something." I'd say, "But, Mom, I am doing something. I'm reading." Her reply was, "Go do something." And we'd go around and around about whether reading was "doing something." If it was nice weather, and it usually was since we lived in Southern California, I'd usually solve the problem by taking my book and going outside to read for a while.

But, she was also the only mom on the block who would come out and play with the neighbor kids, who all always seemed to be in our front yard - even when I would have rather been hiding somewhere reading a book. She'd play hopscotch with us, and jump rope, and badminton. Well, she'd play badminton with us until she killed the net one day with the lawn mower. She thought she could mow around the poles holding the net up. Except, not so much, and she knocked over one of the poles and the next thing she knew, the mower had eaten the entire net. After that, it was netless badminton for us, which wasn't nearly as much fun.

Mom and I actually didn't have all that much in common; I grew up much closer to my father than I was to her, but after Daddy died, it was just the two of us, and we had lots of good times together. Even after we left Southern California, we'd go to Disneyland at least once a year. It was her favorite place in the world. Even in the last stages of her dementia, when she didn't even know who I was half the time and when she was in no shape to go, she'd still ask on a regular basis when we could go to Disneyland again. We also went on epic trips to Las Vegas, where she would always win at the slots, and I got to where I wouldn't even play them because I'd always lose.

And, sometimes, we would take impromptu road trips just for the hell of it. The best one was the time I got up one morning, during a time when I wasn't going to school and happened not to have a job at the time, and I felt like doing something. So, I asked Mom if she felt like taking a little trip. She asked where to? I said, "I don't know. We could just see where we end up." This was about 10 a.m. The problem facing us was that we needed new brakes on the car. I called the mechanic we always went to and explained the situation, and he said he had time to do it if we could get the car to him right away. And so we did, and by around 2:30 that afternoon we had new brakes on the car, had packed, and were on the road. We spent that night in Sacramento, drove as far as Crescent City the next day, stayed the night there, and turned around and headed home the next day, spending a night somewhere north of San Francisco before making it back home. It was a great trip. Other times, we'd just head out to the coast for the day.

I miss Mom a lot, and even after her being gone for five years, will still catch myself seeing or hearing or reading something and thinking, "I can't wait to tell Mom about that." And I miss her most of all on her birthday, when it was always so much fun to make sure she got a birthday that was separate from all the Christmas stuff going on.

So, Happy Birthday, Mom. Love you. Miss you. I'm still your Alien Child, after all these years. You'd think I was nuts for dressing up in medieval garb and going camping and pretending like it's the Middle Ages, and for sitting and watching Doctor Who marathons. But I'll bet you'd have gotten into the spirit of both, just like how Daddy and I used to have to sneak off into my room to watch Star Trek when it was first on, but how, later on, when the movies started coming out, you were the one who always talked me into going to see them in the theater rather than waiting until they came out on video.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Movie Monday: The "Not Your Normal Christmas Movie" Edition

Yes, I know. It's almost Christmas. I wasn't going to do this, because I mostly don't like Christmas movies. But, you know, I was in a store earlier today (no, not Christmas shopping - I needed toilet paper), and found myself singing along to the Christmas music they were playing. So, here are a few movies that have something to do with Christmas. Maybe not much, but you get what you get, and I despise movies like "It's a Wonderful Life".

I wasn't aware of the existence of "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" (1947) until I saw it a few weeks ago on The Hallmark Channel (I think) as part of a package of Christmas-themed movies they began showing in November. I don't even know that I would really call it a Christmas movie, except that it extolls extending all those Christmas-like good things like reaching out and helping one another, and that the story resolves around the Christmas holiday. The story revolves around a hobo who takes up residence in a boarded-up mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City and ends up taking in several people who have nowhere else to go (including, it turns out, the rebellious daughter of the rich man who owns the home). After the usual convolutions, which I will not describe here because I don't want to spoil the film for any of you who might decide to watch it, a happy ending ensues for all.

It's kind of a sappy movie as only a 1940s movie can be, but it kept me watching. The film stars Don DeFore, Charles Ruggles, Ann Harding, Gale Storm, and Victor Moore. This clip contains a scene from the beginning of the movie and shows how one of the less-than-legal residents of the mansion ends up homeless before meeting the man who has made a habit of squatting in the mansion:

Another movie that isn't really, exactly an Christmas movie but takes place around the holiday season is "Bachelor Mother" (1939), which stars Ginger Rogers as a department-store salesgirl who loses her job at the end of the Christmas rush. She rescues an abandoned baby, is mistakenly assumed to be the baby's mother, after which a whole series of mistaken identities and the complications that arise lead to an eventual happy ending. The film also stars David Niven and Charles Coburn, and is a sweet little comedy with a Christmas connection, making it perfect for viewing this time of year. Here's the trailer from the film's original release:

"Bachelor Mother" was remade as "Bundle of Joy" in 1956, starring Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. With those two in the film, of course they made it into a musical, which I don't really think served the story that well, but that might just be me. Otherwise, you can see from the trailer, the story from the 1939 movie, and even some of the lines, were kept pretty much intact:

A more recent movie that, while not a Christmas movie takes place during the Christmas season and takes advantage of that, is 1987's "Lethal Weapon". Yeah, I know. Mel Gibson. But this film was made before the extent of his...issues...were known. It's a good action movie, though. And, hey, how often do you find a good Christmas-connected action flick? It also stars Danny Glover, which is a good thing.

Another movie that really has nothing to do with Christmas, although a child's Christmas gift provides the central mystery of the film's story, is the 1941 classic "Citizen Kane" which, of course, starred Orson Welles. I'm not going to argue, as some do, that this is the best movie ever made, because I don't really think it is. However, it is very, very good, and if you haven't seen it, you should. In case you haven't, I won't clue you in about the gift. Here's the trailer from the time of the film's original release. It really doesn't tell you much about the movie, but I think that was the whole point:

And here's a scene from the movie, to give a little bit of a better hint about it:

I wrote a little bit about "The Lion In Winter" last week, in connection with the death of Peter O'Toole, one of its stars. What I didn't mention is that the movie takes place during the holiday season and shows the holiday reunion of a dysfunctional family in the 1100s probably wasn't all that different than Christmas with your own dysfunctional family today, except that the father of that dysfunctional family was the king, and so the dysfunction assumes a whole other level of consequence. Again, "The Lion in Winter" is a good movie, and if you haven't seen it you should.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Music Sunday: The "My How Things Have Changed" Edition

I've been doing some research into popular music recently in connection with the book I'm writing about the Baby Boom generation, and I'm finding it interesting to watch how music changed from the beginning of the Boom in 1946 through the 1950s and 1960s and then on. It is especially interesting to look at the biggest hit singles from each year, not only to see what those songs were but how widely music was distributed. For example, in 1946, the first year of the Boom, popular music in the United States more or less stayed in the United States. By 1956, the reach of US popular music had extended to Europe, by the evidence of the charts that are reported. By 1966, not only had American pop extended its reach, the British Invasion had made more overseas groups popular in the United States.

Basically, the list of top five biggest hit singles in 1946 doesn't look anything like the list in 1956, which doesn't look anything like the list in 1966. Well, with one exception: in 1946, Frank Sinatra had the second biggest hit of the year with something called "Five Minutes More". Fast forward to 1966, when Sinatra had the biggest hit of the year with "Strangers in the Night".

I can't recall ever hearing "Five Minutes More", and on the chance that you haven't heard it either, here it is. It isn't a bad song at all:

And, because "Strangers in the Night" is a classic:

The lists of top singles for 1956 and 1966 have one thing in common - dominance by one artist or group. In 1956 this artist was Elvis Presley, who had three of the top five hits of the year, Besides those three songs - "Hound Dog" in third place, "Heartbreak Hotel" in fourth place, and "Don't Be Cruel" in fifth place - Elvis had two other songs go to number one in '56: "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" and "Love Me Tender". In 1966 the dominant group was, of course, The Beatles, also with three of the top five singles '66. Only they topped Elvis in one way, having all three places taken with singles that were two-sided hits. The took second place with "We Can Work It Out" and "Day Tripper", third place with "Yellow Submarine" and "Eleanor Rigby" and fifth place with "Paperback Writer" and "Rain".

I've already revealed what the biggest hit was in 1966, but what was the top hit single of the year in 1956, even more popular than Elvis's songs? Well, that spot was taken by Doris Day, with "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" from, of all places, the Alfred Hitchcock film "The Man Who Knew Too Much", which starred Day and James Stewart. Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, the song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year, so it isn't surprising that it became very popular. Here is how it appears in the film:

Now, that's how you integrate a song into a non-musical movie.

The thing that's interesting to me about the comparison of the top hits in 1946, 1956, and 1966 is that in 1946 there is little sign of the rock and roll revolution yet to come. Besides Sinatra, the artists producing the biggest hits of the year were Perry Como, Vaughn Monroe, Nat King Cole, and The Ink Spots. The only glimmer of what is to come, musically speaking, is the presence of The Ink Spots, a vocal group that is considered to be a precursor of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. The Ink Spots were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Still, their song "To Each His Own", which was the fifth biggest single in 1946, is still very much in the mainstream of traditional popular music:

By 1956, though, rock and roll (or at least rockabilly, depending on who is classifying Presley's music) had arrived. My favorite of the three Presley songs among the top five hits of the year is "Heartbreak Hotel", which not only made number one on the pop chart but also scored on the R&B and country-western charts. This performance is from the Milton Berle television show on April 3, 1956, and is the TV performance that got him in trouble (not the Ed Sullivan appearance that has gone down in legend as the one that was so disturbing to some viewers):

Besides the Sinatra song and the three Presley songs among the top five hits of 1956, Fats Domino's version of "Blueberry Hill" was ranked the second most popular song of that year:

In 1966, besides Sinatra and The Beatles, The Beach Boys also ranked one of their songs, "Good Vibrations" among the top five hits of '66, which was the fourth biggest single of the year. This video includes not only the song itself, but footage of the band in the studio recording the song:

But, The Beatles did dominate the top hits in 1966, I've always been fond of "Paperback Writer", which was the fifth biggest single that year:

"Eleanor Rigby" was, along with "Yellow Submarine", the third biggest single of 1966. "Eleanor Rigby is, simply, a lovely song:

I'd like to share all the songs that I've written about in this post, but this has already gotten awfully long and we've covered an awful lot of territory, and so I'll leave it at this for this week, although I was very tempted to get into the changes between 1966 and 1976, when popular music had gone through yet another revolution. Maybe another time.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

In which I bake cookies - and you can, too...

So, today is cookie day.

I'm still not exactly happy about the holiday season, but I'm at least in the mood to make my favorite Christmas cookies. That's a good thing, right? I mean, this is the first time in years that I've even considered doing this, so it's a step forward, at least for the day.

I'm making Jubilee Jumbles. It's an old recipe, and available in all sorts of permutations on the Internet, but I'm making them the way my grandma taught me when I was about three years old. These are my favorite cookies in the world (peanut butter comes second, and there's always shortbread, but I don't really consider shortbread to be cookies), so it's no surprise that these are the ones I'd choose to make.

I've already mixed the dough, and it's in the refrigerator chilling. While I'm waiting for it, I thought I'd share my recipe with you. They sound kind of involved to make when you read the recipe and instructions, but they really aren't, and they're more than worth the effort if you like a light, cake-like drop cookie with a tasty frosting.

You start out with the shortening, sugars, and eggs:

1/2 cup shortening - I learned to make them using Crisco shortening, but I've also made them with butter and margarine; all three will work. I'm using Crisco today.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar, packed in the cup - either golden brown or dark brown will work
2 eggs - I recommend letting them sit on the counter for about 20 minutes before you start mixing

You beat those together until well-blended. Then you add:

1 cup evaporated milk - note: this is not sweetened, condensed milk, which will not work. Make sure you put the rest of the can of milk in the refrigerator; you'll need it for the frosting for the cookies.
1 teaspoon vanilla extract - I usually use a teaspoon and a half, but I really like vanilla flavoring

Mix these into the sugars/shortening/eggs mixture until well-blended. The mixture will be very thin when you finish this step; don't worry about it, it will thicken up when you add the rest of the ingredients. If you are using an electric mixer, you need to be careful at this step that you don't put the mixer on too high a speed. The goal is to keep the mixture in the bowl, not send it all over the kitchen, which can happen - I've done that before when not paying enough attention to what I was doing.

After the milk and vanilla is mixed into the rest of the ingredients, gradually add:

2 3/4 cups flour- the recipe says to sift the flower, but I don't usually do that and the cookies still turn out just fine
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda - not baking powder; that won't work.

The way I do this is, I add the first cup of the flour and the salt, then mix; then I add the second cup of the flour and the baking soda and mix again; then I add the remaining 3/4 cup of flour and mix again.

If you don't have nut allergies, you can add 1 cup of chopped walnuts to the dough and blend thoroughly. I would recommend this; unfortunately, right now walnuts are so expensive that I wasn't able to do that. The cookies are still very, very good without the walnuts, but I love walnuts so I always add them when I can.

Now that you've finished mixing the dough, cover the bowl and put it in the refrigerator to chill for a minimum of one hour. I always let it chill for at least two or three hours, and even overnight will work.

When it's time to bake the cookies, you first need to make the Burnt Butter Frosting for the cookies. No, really. Don't skip this; the cookies are immeasurably better when frosted. You can be preheating the oven to 375 degrees F while you're making the frosting. To make the frosting, you first:

Melt 2 tablespoons butter. This MUST be real butter, because it must be browned/slightly burnt for the frosting to taste the way it should.

When the butter is browned, add it to:

2 cups powdered sugar and
1/4 cup evaporated milk

Blend the butter, sugar, and milk until the mixture is smooth. Set this aside.

To bake the cookies, use a spoon to drop the dough on a greased cookie sheet. Use a regular spoon, not a large spoon. The cookies will spread a bit while baking, so leave a good inch and a half or so between the cookies on the sheet. Bake the cookies in a 375 degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the bottoms of the cookies are golden brown and feel light when you pick one up (on a pancake turner, please; you don't want to burn your hand in testing the cookies). Different ovens run differently, so you should start testing the first batch at about 10 or 11 minutes to make sure you don't over-bake the cookies. My experience is that 11 or 12 minutes is usually long enough unless you've made your cookies very large. Still, just remember that golden brown on the bottom and light and cake-like when you heft a cookie is the key to doneness.

Frost the cookies while they are still warm and while the frosting is still unset, sprinkle those colorful Christmas sprinkles on the frosting. Then, let the frosting set well before packing the cookies up. If you don't let the frosting set long enough, the cookies could stick together. Once you can package the cookies, they should last for at least a week in a closed container as long as they're kept in a cool place.

As I said, there are lots of different variations of this recipe on the Internet. Today, I saw one that substitutes sour cream for the evaporated milk. I'm going to have to try that one someday.

If you do decide to try these cookies, drop a comment and let me know how they came out and how you like them.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sometimes, somebody else says it better than I ever could...

I'm not really going to say much today. I'm just going to leave this link with you (it's from buzzfeed.com), get out of the way, and let you go read that. Because I can't say this stuff any better than they do over there.

I will say, before I go, that I was raised by parents who did not insist that there are "girl" things and "boy" things, and did not teach me that the world will end if girls do things that are considered "boy" things or if boys do things that are considered "girl" things. And I am grateful for that every day of my life. Especially at times when I remember when I was told that I should not be interested in science - and specifically in geology, which I find fascinating - because being interested in those is not "ladylike".


I'm getting out of the way now. Go read.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bah humbug?

The closer it gets to Christmas, the worse my mood gets.

For some reason, this year this is truer than usual.

Part of it is the enforced cheerfulness. "It's Christmas," people say, "You should be happy. It's the most wonderful time of the year." (Stupid Christmas propaganda, erm, songs.)

A lot of it is all the Christmas ads on television, that keep up the constant drumbeat of, "It's Christmas, spend lots of money" along with the moans from retailers that "People aren't spending enough money, spend more money or we'll go broke."

And then there are the "War Against Christmas" folks who get pissed off if you wish them Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, and who insist that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." Which, if they've read their history, they would know clearly isn't true. But I won't bore you with why this year is a time for celebration, historically speaking. Jesus was born in the spring, if you take the time to read the Bible and it's descriptions of his birth. Never mind, I said I wouldn't belabor this point.

In my family, sure we had presents and dinner with the family and a tree and Christmas cards and all the rest. I was in the church Christmas play when I was five years old...and, oh, what a night that was. It was so foggy out when it was time to go to the church...This church, in fact, which is now a theater...

Well, the porticoes weren't there, then, and the blue paint wasn't there, but otherwise the building looks very much the same. Anyway, it was so foggy that we could barely find the building. When we stopped to pick my grandmother up, my dad parked out on the shoulder by the street rather than going down her long driveway and walked her out to the car. As they got in the car, he made the offhand remark, "Wouldn't it be interesting if it was clear by the time we get out of the program?" Yeah, right, Dad. We all laughed. But, while we were in the basement of the church having the program (which I barely remember), the East Wind had come up and it was cold and clear as a bell. And so, that nearly Christmas night entered the family legend regarding Christmas.

Later on, after my mother got tired of nearly always having to have the family Christmas dinner at our house, we instituted a new tradition: Just the immediate family - my mom and dad and me - would get up on Christmas morning, have breakfast (by that time, we had started doing presents on Christmas Eve) and then go for a long (and by long, I mean all day) drive, and eat Christmas dinner at a restaurant along the way. That usually ended up being Denny's, but that was fine. The family was spending time together. Or, we wouldn't go on as long a drive, we'd eat out anyway, and go to a movie. Which was also fun.

But then my dad died, and we moved away from Southern California, and Christmas wasn't so much fun any more. There was still my mom's birthday, which was on Christmas Eve, and we always did something special for that. But Christmas just wasn't the event it used to be.

And then five years ago, at the beginning of December, my mother died. And now, I start feeling sad around the anniversary of that, and there's no family to do Christmas with (and no money to do it with, either, since I lost my job two years ago, again, just before Christmas), and its just no fun at all.

Because that's what Christmas is about according to how I was raised - family. Not buying increasingly expensive gifts. Not being ideologically religious. Just, spending family time and enjoying each other's company, and doing something fun, and being nice to others...for years after my dad died, the most fun of Christmas was Mom and me being the fattening fairies and spreading calories in the form of Christmas cookies and candy all over the place. Yeah, being nice to others even if everyone else was out there elbowing you out of the way to get that last Christmas bargain before the shops closed on Christmas Eve.

So...I'm sorry for being such a downer so close to Christmas. It's just a hard time of year for me these days. But, could you do me a favor? Try to do something nice for somebody, just once every day until Christmas. Let that car into traffic, even though they wanted until the last minute to merge when their lane ended. Say please and thank you to some poor overworked retail employee (who is very possibly only temporary, making minimum wage, has had ten or twelve people yell at them already since they got out of bed this morning, and is looking at the prospect of having to look for another job as soon as the holiday rush is over). Let the other person have the gift item that you both put your hands on at the same time and is the last of its kind on the shelf. Because, you know, the other thing Christmas is about, besides family, is giving...but giving isn't just overpaying for a gift and putting it in fancy paper that is just going to get ripped off the box and thrown away on Christmas morning.

The best gift you can give, I think, is making someone's day a little more pleasant. And the beautiful thing about that? It doesn't cost a thing besides a little effort and the determination to be a little nicer. It's something you can do every day, all year long.

And that is the gift that keeps on giving.

I'll try to be in a better mood tomorrow. I promise.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Accolades all around...

This is the time of year when organizations start handing out recognitions for achievement in the arts. A few days ago, the Kennedy Center Honors were handed out for the year, recognizing the careers and achievements of actress Shirley MacLaine, singer and songwriter Billy Joel, musician Carlos Santana, composer and performer Herbie Hancock, and opera singer Martina Arroyo. Earlier this week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that next April it will induct a new class, to include Nirvana, Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, and Kiss. Also recently, the Golden Globe nominations for film and television were announced.

And, today, the Library of Congress announced the addition of 25 more films to the National Film Registry. The new list, which brings the total number of films listed on the registry to 625, contains some familiar titles as well as some you've probably never heard of - certainly I've never heard of some of them. The Registry was created in 1989 by Congress to make sure that culturally important films are preserved for the future. It includes not only "movies" - feature-length films that you and I go to the theater to see or rent at Red Box or watch on cable or Netflix - but also other films. For example, the Zapruder film that documents the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 is on the Registry. So is Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.

Part of the point of the registry is to make sure that important films are preserved. This is especially important when you consider that a recent study showed that around 70 percent of all feature-length silent-era films have already been lost. But it isn't just those very old films that are deteriorating. Not long ago, film-maker Michael Moore, whose "Roger and Me" is one of the films selected for inclusion on this year's list, discovered when a film festival requested a print to show, that no viewable original prints of the film were available because all of them have faded so badly.

The full list of films chosen this year includes:

"Bless Their Little Hearts" (1984)
"Brandy in the Wilderness" (1969)
"Cicero March" (1966)
"Daughter of Dawn" (1920)
"Decasia" (2002)
"Ella Cinders" (1926)
"Forbidden Planet" (1956)
"Gilda" (1946)
"The Hole" (1962)
"Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961)
"King of Jazz" (1930)
"The Lunch Date" (1989)
"The Magnificent Seven" (1960)
"Martha Graham Dance films (1944)
"Mary Poppins" (1964)
"Men & Dust" (1940)
"Midnight" (1939)
"Notes on the Port of St. Francis" (1951)
"Pulp Fiction" (1994)
"The Quiet Man" (1952)
"The Right Stuff" (1983)
"Roger & Me" (1989)
"A Virtuous Vamp" (1919)
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)
"Wild Boys of the Road" (1933)

For a short description of each film on this year's list, here's a link to the Library of Congress press release announcing this year's class of included films.

Films must be at least 10 years old to be included on the Registry. Anyone can suggest a film for inclusion on the list, but the final decision of which films will be included is made by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington from a shortlist compiled from the thousands of suggestions that are made online each year.

Personally, I'm glad to see "The Right Stuff" and "Mary Poppins" added to the Registry, as they are both favorites of mine. It's also good to see some science fiction included with the addition of "Forbidden Planet" to the registry. I've never actually seen "Forbidden Planet" all the way through, or at least if I have I don't recall it; I guess this means that I need to do that. I'm sure that some people are going to complain about one of Michael Moore's films being included, just on their ideological opposition to him, but "Roger & Me" really is a good movie. So are "The Quiet Man" and "The Magnificent Seven".

But I'm also glad to see films like "Cicero March", a documentation of a civil rights march held in Cicero, Illinois on September 4, 1966, included. Available on YouTube, this 8 minute film is not pleasant to watch, but it documents how contentious the drive for civil rights for all Americans was, not just in the South, but in the Northern states as well. This is something that, as a nation, we should never forget, lest we go back those times and those attitudes in regard to ethnicity, which was the issue then, or in regard to other groups based on other criteria.

But, I'll get off my soap box now, and just say that it's a good day to see a movie.

Monday, December 16, 2013

In Threes?...

There's this thing that is sometimes called the "Rule of Three", which states that celebrities die in groups of three. People are always pointing this out, and sometimes it seems to really be a thing. But is it, really?

I've always figured that this mostly has to do with the human habit of finding patterns in things, and to impose them even when they aren't really there. There are lots of examples of this; constellations of stars and seeing images in places like tree bark and grilled cheese sandwiches are only two of many.

In Western culture, the number three has assumed a certain significance, and so we tend to see patterns of three. We list things in threes - morning, noon, and night, for example. We've got "The Three Bears" in fairy tales, "Three Blind Mice" in children's rhymes, and the Triple Crown in horse racing. In the Christian religion, there is the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Among Wiccans, there is the Threefold Law that states that whatever you put out to the universe, good or bad, will come back to you three times. I could go on. "Three" is a really big thing, culturally speaking, and that probably has transferred to the Rule of Three.

But, there are problems with the rule of three. How do you define who counts as a celebrity? Does the person have to have actually done something to earn their celebrity, or do you count people who are famous for being famous? Can the person be someone who has been famous for Warhol's fifteen minutes, or do they have to have been famous over a particular period of time? How long does that have to be? Do you only count entertainers, and are athletes considered entertainers or not? Or, do people like politicians and famous scientists and people famous in other fields count as well?

What about time frame? Do the three celebrities have to have died on the same day? Within a few days? If so, how many? Is three days too long? Is a week too long?

As you can see, it can be complicated to analyze whether the Rule of Three is valid, and if it is in operation in any particular circumstance.

And what in the world brought this up, you might be thinking right about now.

In reading the news from the past few days, it seems as if the Rule of Three - if you believe in it - has been in operation once again, specifically in the film community. In the past few days, three actors have died: Peter O'Toole, Joan Fontaine, and Tom Laughlin. Depending on how old you are and what kinds of films you watch, you might or might not be asking "Who?" about one or more of these names. All of them have made a mark, however, of some kind in film. Fontaine was an Academy Award-winning actress, the only person to have won an acting Academy Award for work in an Alfred Hitchcock film, and also one-half of the only sisters to have both won Academy Awards (her sister is Olivia de Haviland). Peter O'Toole holds the record for the number of times he was nominated for an Academy Award without winning one (he was nominated eight times in his career), but he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2003 for his body of work. And Tom Laughlin...well, his film work never won any awards; his films generally didn't even get that many positive reviews, but how he marketed some of them are credited for changing the way films are marketed and one of his films, "Billy Jack" was, as of 2007 at least, the highest-grossing independent film in history.

So, do these deaths count as fulfilling the Rule of Three? All three have clearly made their mark in the film industry. But their deaths came over four days, with Laughlin passing first, on December 12 at age 82, followed by O'Toole on December 14 at age 81, and Fontaine on December 15 at age 96. Or are we once again, just creating a pattern where there really isn't one?

Here is a trailer for Suspicion (1941) which starred Fontaine and Cary Grant and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock:

Although she continued to do television until the mid 1990s, one of Fontaine's last film roles came in the science fiction film "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" (1961), in which she played a doctor studying stress on the crew of the nuclear submarine Seaview. Here is the trailer:

One of O'Toole's Academy Award nominations came for 1968's "The Lion in Winter", a brilliant film with brilliant performances from both O'Toole and his co-star, Katharine Hepburn.

In "A Lion in Winter", O'Toole plays Henry II, the same role he had played four years earlier in "Becket" (1964). Since "The Lion in Winter" is one of my favorite historical dramas, here is another scene:

O'Toole also played the title role in the 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia", which is considered by many to be one of the most influential films ever made. It was one of O'Toole's first film roles, and it brought him his first Academy Award nomination, although he lost the award to Gregory Peck, who won for his role as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird":

In "Billy Jack", Laughlin played a half-Native American Vietnam veteran who has taken on the task of protecting an alternative school that the local powers-that-be want closed. Although the school is all about love and peace and non-violence, Billy Jack isn't shy about using violence to defend the students and the school's headmistress, played by his real-life wife, Delores Taylor. This scene shows some of that violence, which came in for a lot of criticism from critics at the time the film was released in 1971:

Made for a budget of just $800,000, "Billy Jack" had earned $32.5 million as of 2005, largely due to Laughlin's innovative marketing of the film after he won back the rights to the film after Warner Brothers' marketing of it didn't please him on it's first release, which had come after American International Pictures had reneged on its agreement to distribute it because Laughlin wouldn't de-politicize the film.

Looking back now, "Billy Jack" was a naïve film in many ways, a product of its times. It probably wasn't a "good" film, however one assess and defines that. But, I have to admit that when I saw it as the second feature with another film that I can't even recall now, when I was in high school, I went back to see it twice more in the week before it moved on to the next theater, back in the days when most films only played for a week in any one theater.

So, I guess the question of the day is, what do you think? Is the "Rule of Three" a thing, or is it an artifact of our culture and our human need to impose patters, and meaning, on the universe?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Music Sunday: The One-Hit Wonders of the 1970s Edition

Last month, I shared some one-hit wonders from the 1960s. So, I thought it was only fair to give the 1970s equal time this month.

What seem to be novelty songs tend to make up more than a few songs on the list of one-hit wonders, which, if you didn't see the post last month, are songs by an artist or group that are the only one by that person or group in that configuration to crack the Top 40, in this case in the United States. This does not mean that the group in another configuration, or someone from the group, or a solo artist with others, did not have other hits. In fact, as I noted in that previous post, there are often some very familiar names on the list of one-hit wonders. Janis Joplin, for example, or Jimi Hendrix. Others score that one hit and are never heard from again.

For example, there is Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Yeah, the band produced a list of albums and more than a few singles, but only "Hot Rod Lincoln" his the Top 40, rising to number 9 in 1972. Other than that, the band never had a single go higher than number 56 on the charts. The highest any of the band's albums ever reached on the US charts was number 82 on the main charts, although one of their albums managed to hit number 47 on the US country charts. Still, "Hot Rod Lincoln" is a staple on classic rock radio stations (or at least the ones I listen to). It's a silly song about a guy and his car. The thing that endears the song to me so much is it's line about "Grapevine Hill", which is a real stretch of road between Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley in California, one that I've driven too many times to count:

And speaking of novelty songs, Loudon Wainwright III had a hit with "Dead Skunk" in 1973. The song was actually released in late 1972, but didn't manage to catch on until spring 1973, when it reached number 16 on the US charts. Some say that the song was actually aimed at then-president Richard Nixon, whose administration many people thought "stunk to high heaven", but Wainwright has apparently never either confirmed or denied that rumor. On the literal level, it is a song about a skunk that gets hit by a station wagon, and it is an odd little song:

Despite his lack of chart success aside from this song, Wainwright remains active in the music industry. He's released 22 studio albums and three live albums. He's also an actor, having appeared in a number of films. For those of you who are fans of Rufus Wainwright, Loudon is his father.

John Sebastian had early success as a member of The Lovin' Spoonful, but has had only one Top 40 hit as a solo artist. In 1976, he had a number 1 hit with "Welcome Back", the theme song to the TV series "Welcome Back, Kotter":

Sometimes, artists with only one hit are quite well-respected among fans and other musicians despite their dearth of commercial success. Warren Zevon, for example, only had one Top 40 hit, but is widely known and was quite influential in the industry. That hit was "Werewolves of London", released in 1978, and it only went to number 21 on the US charts, although the album it was on, "Excitable Boy", managed to go to number 8 on US album charts. He only ever had one other single that charted, and it only went to number 57 in the US. "Werewolves of London" showcases Zevon's dark sense of humor, which I like to think he developed at least in part as a reaction to the period of time he spent living in Fresno, California:

And then there's "Spirit in the Sky", by Norman Greenbaum. The song was released in late 1969, but reached number 3 on the US charts in 1970. It is kind of an enigmatic song. At the time it was released (and still today, probably) it was taken as a statement of religious devotion, although Greenbaum is a Jew who describes himself as "never real religious". Greenbaum himself has been quoted as saying that his inspiration for writing the song was the Western films he watched as a child and that the Christian component to the song was just the vehicle he used to get at the spirituality he saw in the films, because he saw the films' characters' desire to "die with their boots on" as a spiritual thing. Whatever, I love the guitar in this song:

Maybe next month, I'll share some one-hit wonders from the 1980s.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Getting away with it...

Okay, here's a word for you: Affluenza.

Apparently this word has been around for a while, but it's new to me, based on a case in Texas that I've been reading about. It seems that back in June, a sixteen-year old boy and his buddies went to their local Wal-Mart, stole some beer, and got drunk. Way drunk, in fact. CNN reports that his blood alcohol level was at 0.24, three times the legal limit if he had even been old enough to drink. We know his blood alcohol level because the kid proceeded to drive while drunk, caused an accident, and left four people in the other vehicle dead. Additionally, two people riding in the bed of the pickup the kid was driving were seriously injured.

The case, of course, went to court, where the kid's lawyers proceeded to claim that he was not legally responsible for his actions because his privileged, wealthy parents had never set boundaries for him. And that "affluenza defense" was apparently enough for the judge, because she sentenced him to 10 years probation but no jail time. Needless to say, the families of those killed are not happy about this outcome.

My first reaction to this is to question why it would matter whether or not his parents set limits on him. At 16 years old, surely the kid has been exposed to the idea that some things are wrong, if not actually illegal, and that there are consequences for doing them. But then I remembered the stories I've heard from teachers I know who talk about the "not my child" parents who don't believe their kid could ever do anything wrong and who fight against any punishment being given out when their little darlings get into trouble at school. So, yeah, I get that the kid might not realize that there are consequences for him. Which would make him a budding little sociopath in my book, but whatever.

The bigger problem is that there are kids of all socioeconomic levels who, for whatever reason, don't get good parenting, including that they don't have any effective limits placed on their behavior. But, by and large, when a wealthy or upper-middle-class kid gets in legal trouble, the reaction is often, "oh, poor baby" (essentially the judge's reaction in the current case) and the kid gets off with a slap on the wrist and a warning not to do it again. But if it is a poor kid who does the same thing, if you try to point out that the kid had a horrible childhood, bad parents, and a deprived living environment (because I'd call a kid that had no limits at all set on them by their parents deprived, but that might just be me), the judge would most likely say, "Too bad, so sad" and hand down a stiff sentence - maybe even try the kid as an adult and send him (or her) to real prison rather than juvenile detention or probation.

So, the fine American tradition of the double standard is alive and well in juvenile justice. And, oh, how difficult it was for me to not put quotation marks around the word "justice" in that last sentence, because there is no justice there.

Now, before you go off thinking that I just don't like rich kids, let me be clear: I'm not trying to say that the kid in this case should have gotten a stiffer sentence because he comes from a family that is better-off. But I think I am saying that maybe there should be some kind of consequences for the parents of kids who get in trouble essentially because they've taught their kids either through their parental behavior or by straight-out telling them that they're special, that they won't have to suffer the same consequences as other people when they do something stupid. You know, like steal beer, drink underage, and then drive drunk. I think this should be the case for all parents - rich, poor, and in-between.

Maybe I just don't understand because I had parents who set up limits on my behavior. These weren't especially strict limits, to be honest. Once I got to the age where I could go places on my own or with friends, I pretty much could go where I wanted and stay out as late as I wanted...with the provision that I let my parents know where I was going and who I was going to be with. Oh, and that if I got caught lying about were I was or who I was with, I would be on restriction for pretty much the rest of my life. They also taught me how to behave - you know, don't do anything illegal, treat others like you want to be treated, and don't mouth off to authority. And really, that's all it took to keep me out of trouble when I was a kid. And now that I'm an adult, as well.

The potential for trouble when I was a kid was there, believe me - I had some friends in junior high and high school who were in trouble a lot. But just that little bit of guidance, along with the understanding that I was going to be in deep shit if I did misbehave, did the trick. How hard would it be for parents to put forth just that little effort? Incredibly difficult, apparently.

But, yeah. I don't buy the affluenza defense, just like I never bought the "Twinkie defense". That's from the 1970s, so if you don't know what that is, go look it up.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Where I've been, and a movie recommendation...

Yeah. It's been very busy around here for the past few days.

Which is why I haven't posted since, oh, Monday or so.

I've written posts in my head every day, but I've not been in the house much to sit down and write them. And when I've had time to sit down, I've been so tired that anything I would have written would have probably been incoherent.

However...I did want to mention a movie I watched this evening while I was sitting and trying to get up the energy to fix some dinner. It was a documentary from 2004 called "Riding Giants", that focuses on surfers that started "riding the big waves" in the 1950s and those who followed them.

I have never surfed, despite having grown up in Southern California. I've never even really had the desire to surf. But I love a good surfing documentary (and I think I've written about my love for "The Endless Summer" and it's sequel here before). This is a great surfing documentary. The photography is amazing, but not as amazing as seeing surfers riding the huge waves - mostly in Hawaii and off Northern California (where it was thought for a long time that there were no big waves).

Be aware - this is not a film of all fun and games. Surfing is a dangerous sport, and surfing the big waves is especially so. People have died doing this, and one of the points the film makes is that it takes a special kind of person to do so. Yeah, these men (and women) might be crazy. But they also love what they do. The world would be a lot better off if more people loved what they do, I think.

Here's the trailer. Really, I recommend this film:

Monday, December 09, 2013

Movie Monday: The "Calendar Girls" Edition

Because I've got a migraine, today's Movie Monday is going to be short and sweet.

If you haven't seen "Calendar Girls" (2003) yet, do so at your earliest opportunity. No,, really. It might look like a chick flick. It might actually be a chick flick. But, even if you don't particularly like chick flicks (I don't much like them myself, actually), you still need to see this movie.

The performances, from the likes of Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton, and a whole lot of other British actors, are fabulous. The story is moving without being cloying. It's also very, very funny.

"Calendar Girls" is based on the true story of what happened when a group of middle-aged women from a village in England decided that they would produce a pin-up girl calendar, with themselves as the models, to raise money for a sofa for the visitors' room at their local hospital after one of the women's husbands died of leukemia. That's all. Just enough to buy a sofa. Except that their project kind of got away from them, they found fame if not personal fortune, and learned, just like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz", that there's no place like home, family, and friends.

Here's the trailer for the film:

I hadn't seen "Calendar Girls" until the past weekend, when my roommate turned it on, on OnDemand, sat me down, and told me that I had to see it. I was skeptical, but I sat and watched and I'm so glad I did. So, my whole purpose today is to pass this forward. Go. Sit down. Watch the movie. It's very, very good.

And, oh, yeah. From the research I've been able to do, the calendar the women produced did raise the money to buy the sofa. In fact, it turned into calendars for several years, all still dedicated to raising money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Research, a UK charity dedicated to funding research into blood cancers. To date, the calendars have raised over three million pounds toward the goal of eradicating those cancers.

Just goes to show, great things can come from initially modest ambitions.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Music Sunday: The "The Day the Music Died" Edition

Back in 1971, Don McLean wrote and recorded "American Pie", the centerpiece of which was "the day the music died", the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (aka "The Big Bopper") in a plane crash in Iowa on February 3, 1959. The three were on their way from one show to another and died in a way all too many rockers have passed too soon.

But, for many in my generation, the day the music died came on December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was gunned down in front of his apartment building in New York City, the city Lennon had loved and had fought to remain in when Richard Nixon tried to have him thrown out of the country a few years earlier. Nixon was afraid that Lennon's anti-war activism could cost him the election in 1972, and so sought to have Lennon deported on the basis of a misdemeanor marijuana conviction in London in 1968. For an examination of this attempted deportation, go watch the documentary film "The U. S. vs. John Lennon". It is an interesting and thorough look at the whole campaign against Lennon by the government.

But I'm not here to be all political today. What I want to do is to just share some of the music that John Lennon made in his short lifetime - he was just 40 when he was murdered - that so influenced the world that the most powerful government in the United States (mistakenly, I think) was afraid his fans would try to overthrow the government, just on his say-so. By all accounts, that wasn't even really on Lennon's radar. He just had this revolutionary idea that, after all the wars, it might be a good idea to give peace a chance and try loving one another a little bit more and hating each other a little bit less.

Of course, some of Lennon's detractors have made a point of insisting that he was not that nice a person and, indeed, various accounts have shown that he could be mean and petty and pretty damn snarky. You know, like most humans can be from time to time. As far as I can tell, John Lennon never claimed to be a saint. But he did work harder to get a little peace, personally and for the world, than most people do, and I don't think that pointing out that he wasn't nice all the time should minimize that at all.

At any rate, Lennon wasn't just a musician. He was also a writer, a film-maker, an actor, and a graphic artist. His first book, "In His Own Write", was published in 1964, and his second, "A Spaniard in the Works", was released the next year, when the world was still in the first blush of Beatlemania. Both of those books were largely made up of drawings, short stories, and nonsense verse that nevertheless showed that he was a genius at wordplay and at surrealism.

I'm only leaving three songs here. The first is "Help", the song when John Lennon first started getting real, as far as I can tell. This, of course, was still when The Beatles were going strong, from their second film. But in it, Lennon departed from the band's signature love songs to write this. I like this performance of the song, a live performance in Blackpool at the time the song first came out. They way you can tell that it really was a live performance is that there are a couple of points where Lennon loses his words. Even so, it remains a good performance that I like a lot:

The second song I'm leaving here is "Working Class Hero", which I've shared on this blog before. It is, I thing, another song in which Lennon gets real, addressing his childhood and adolescence, the class system in the UK, and how difficult it is for some people to fit in - and that perhaps it isn't always worth the trying. Or, at least, that's my interpretation of this song, that means a whole lot to me:

And I'm leaving "Watching the Wheels", from Lennon's final album, "Double Fantasy". In this song, Lennon addresses the issue of his years out of the limelight and away from the music industry before he went back into the studio to record "Double Fantasy". It seems written by the Lennon of "Working Class Hero", only several years on and a bit more mature in his outlook, but still going his own way:

It's been 33 years now. If he had lived, John Lennon would be 73 years old now. Who knows if he would still be making music, or what he would be doing. But, honestly, it pisses me off greatly that one lone nut decided that he would take it upon himself to remove Lennon from the world. This still, 33 years later, irritates the hell out of me.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Catherine Tate is a very funny woman...

And here's proof, in the form of two bits she did for Comic Relief in the UK.

The first clip plays off her role as Donna Noble in Doctor Who:

The second clip makes fun of both computer dating and celebrity:

As an extra added attraction - who knew Daniel Craig was funny. Because he really is.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Reading: Mary Roach and "Bonk"

Have you ever read anything by Mary Roach?

Yeah, neither had I, until the past few days. Based on the book I read, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008, W. W. Norton & Company; 319 pages), I would suggest you run, not walk, to the nearest library or book store and find one of her books and read it. Don't worry; if reading about sex is not your cuppa, she's also written about cadavers (dead bodies), in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003, W. W. Norton & Company); what happens to your body after you're dead, in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005, W. W. Norton & Company); spaceflight and what will be necessary to keep humans alive and happy on the way to Mars and back, in Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010, W. W Norton & Company); and the human gastrointestinal tract, in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal(2013, W. W. Norton & Company).

Really. Don't be put off by her subject matter. Roach will make it fun, educational, and worth your while to read her books. She has been called "the funniest science writer in the country" (in The New Yorker), and after reading Bonk, I'm more than willing to believe that. She has a wonderful, if sometimes slightly twisted, sense of humor. The also is a great writer and, from the evidence of this book, knows her way around a research library. In other words, she is funny, but she is also accurate and writes in a way that keeps you interested in her subject even when her subject is something you might not necessarily be completely comfortable with.

In Bonk, Roach looks at the things that scientists have discovered about sex and some of the lengths that scientists have gone to, to find out what they know. And, she doesn't just write about humans, although we're in there, too. But, because sex is such a sensitive subject, and because there are experiments you just can't do on human subjects (although, you'd be surprised at some of the experiments researchers have done with the cooperation of humans), there's also rabbit sex, pig sex, and monkey sex in the quest to discover why animals and people do what they do in regard to sex. It really is fascinating stuff.

I didn't necessarily go out looking for Roach's "sex book". Honest, I didn't. But I've been wanting to read something she had written ever since I saw an extended interview with her on Book TV a few months ago. Unlike some writers, who can be boring interviews (I can say that, since I am a writer), Roach is engaging, as funny speaking as she is writing, and seems dedicated to write good science for the layperson - and you wouldn't believe how difficult it is to find writers like that. Anyway, I would have picked up any of her books; it just happens that the one I found on the shelf at my local library was "the sex book", and so that was the one I read first. Reading Bonk has made me even more determined to get my hands on her other books.

Although, I'm not really sure about the one about the digestive system. Some people are squeamish about reading about sex; I find myself a little less than enthusiastic to read about stomachs and digestion and all that the topic implies. Still, I'll probably read it, too. And you should, too...or at least you should introduce yourself to Mary Roach's writing through one of her books.


And, on a related note, I'm just one book away from meeting my reading goal for the year, which I've written about before around here. It is a modest goal: 40 books in the year. Bonk was my 39th. I'm not quite sure what my 40th will be yet. I'm actually reading a couple of books at the moment, and it will just be a matter of which one I finish first.