Saturday, December 31, 2011


"Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever."

~Mark Twain

“I want to give a really BAD party. I mean it. I want to give a party where there’s a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passed out in the cabinet de toilette. You wait and see.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

"Beer is the cause and solution to all of life's problems."

~Homer Simpson

'The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.'

~G.K. Chesterton

Friday, December 30, 2011


Just finished Marry Karr's memoir, "Lit," a scrappy, hilarious, excruciating journey through literature, hard drinking, madness and the meaning of life. Boy howdy, that's a big portion, you might say. That's a chicken fried steak smothered with gravy. And it is. You may remember Karr from the piss-poor West Texas childhood she chronicled with wicked wit in "Liar's Club," the bestselling book in the nineties that started off this memoir craze (forgive her for that maudlin trend). A bright, wounded kid, she survived poverty, rape, alcoholism and a crazy mother who set fire to her toys and tried to kill her. In "Lit," she strips and kneels and begs for mercy. She stares into the darkness. At the same time, she offers no sepia-toned homilies, no easy answers, no simple 12-step program for redemption. Just life in all its infuriating complexity. Boy, howdy. A great book.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I love this little girl. Smarter than plenty of adults, she rails against gender stereotypes. Revolution is brewing in a million pink bedrooms. Right on, lil sister!

Some people just don't get it. Adults, I mean. I just read an entire string of conversation on FB between a couple people who keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Like goldfish, they grow to the size of their fishbowl and never even imagine they're shaped by the bowl, or that there is a bowl to begin with.

This kid is wise beyond her years. Some people never develop such an awareness.


Now you tell me! After writing 105,000 words the hard way, this chump comes along and suggests the money is in short paragraphs. Okay.

There is plenty of advice out there for writers, from the man on the street with a great story idea to the professional novelist running a workshop. Some of the best advice can be found in John Gardner's books on writing (Gardner, a novelist, taught for many years) and Oakley Hall's book is also quite good. Nothing, however, beats writing itself. Like playing the piano or driving a car, reading about it just isn't enough. One must practice it, on a daily basis if possible, until it becomes second nature. Imagine thinking you can drive a car simply because you've read the driver's manual!

All agree that clarity is vital, as well as a love of language (without going overboard into flowery, distracting purple prose), and that, essentially, something must happen to someone who wants something. That's simplifying it, but that's the nut. Oh, and read a lot. Don't waste your time reinventing the wheel when familiarity with good writing will place you further along your creative path.

Advice comes from a variety of places. Playwright and TV writer David Mamet had some advice for his writers in an infamous, leaked memo. Mamet shouts in caps, EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE. Of course, he's right.

Interviews with writers can be helpful, and the Paris Review collections are the very best. They date back to the 1950s and are all conveniently online. From Mailer to Franzen, these chats are indispensable.

Now write.

Friday, December 23, 2011


A rare holiday treat: Bob Dylan's "Renaldo & Clara" in its entirety. You may not like it. It's pretty strange, after all, being somewhat chaotic and hard to define. It's an avant-garde art film, a mythical hero's journey, part poetic puzzle, part Commedia del-Arte, interwoven with excellent concert performances, all filmed during the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975. Maybe you had to be there.

Bob Dylan dreamed up the Rolling Thunder Revue after "Blood on the Tracks." He'd just finished a king hell tour backed by The Band in 1974, but this would be different. He was working on a new album, what would become "Desire," and all summer long he'd been showing up in the old folk clubs in the Village, unannounced, to play a few songs just like in the old days. He wanted to bring back some of that spirit. Why not bring this on the road? Just gather up some old friends and play a string of small venues? If the '74 tour was a supersonic jetliner, Rolling Thunder would be a ramshackle gypsy wagon, part Commedia del'Arte and part sixties last hurrah, a raggedy collection of troubadours in masks and facepaint who magically appeared, played, and then disappeared like thieves in the night. Why not? Expect the impossible! So they painted an old-fashioned circus banner and made some phone calls. Dylan asked Joan Baez to come along, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, poet Allen Ginsberg, playwright Sam Shepard and Mick Ronson from Bowie's band. At one point or another Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen tagged along.

It was different from the big stadium rock tours of the day, and Dylan's enthusiasm was contagious. For the first time in years, lucky crowds heard songs that hadn't been released, strange new songs. So far, the only song that had been heard from the upcoming album was "Hurricane," which was rush-released to help raise awareness of Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, a black boxer unjustly imprisoned. Live, the song was red hot and featured the wild gypsy violin playing of Scarlet Rivera. There was passion and poetry and wild new music. Spirits were high.

As luck would have it, I caught the Rolling Thunder Revue in Providence. During a cross-country road trip in a van, we picked up a longhaired hitcher outside Boston who was wild-eyed with excitement. "You going to see Dylan?" He frantically explained Dylan was playing in a few hours in Providence--it had just been announced on the radio--and since we were outside Boston we had to skedaddle. At that point, we only had two playable eight-tracks (yes, eight tracks), one of Clapton live, and the other Dylan's latest record, "Blood on the Tracks." We made it somehow. The place was jammed. Met David Blue, who was milling around inside chatting up some girls. Allen Ginsberg was there, too, old graybeard in a brown suit and sneakers looking like Whitman in the supermarket, a lonely old grubber eying the grocery boys. Which way did his beard point tonight? I shook his hand and muttered something about "Howl," and he wanted to explain, but I got out of there and found my seat, high in the bleachers, a last minute perch. We didn't stay there long, but drifted down to the floor, where someone saw me snapping pictures and let me sit in his third row seat for a few songs. The old circus curtain came up on Dylan and Baez singing a duet. Dylan was wearing that old hat that would later show up on his next album, "Desire," and its hatband was stuck with flowers and autumn leaves.

In this free, chaotic spirit, "Renaldo & Clara" was filmed. It came out a couple years later and puzzled theater-goers but delighted Dylan fans. By 1978, when the film was released, the world had already moved on, but it's all captured here, a ramshackle dream, an unlikely mosquito set in prehistoric amber. Tell the grandkids about this bygone era. Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Mario Batali explains the Italian tradition of having seven fish on Christmas Eve. Like Batali, I grew up in an Italian-American home on the west coast--no, not all Italians live in New York City--and interwoven with typical American Christmas festivities were ancient traditions going back to the Old Country, such as the Feast of Seven Fishes. The night before Christmas, we lit the tree and sang carols and gathered at the dining room table for la festa dei sette pesci, which generally took the form of a hearty cioppino, a stew of fish, crab, shrimp, clams, squid and more--a total of seven varieties of seafood in a delicious tomato-based broth. We'd dip crusty garlic bread into the stew and count the fish. Seven, always seven. The number is ancient and derived from some Southern Italian numerology that is biblical and symbolic and--for me, that kid waiting for Santa Claus--shrouded in Old Country mystery. Don't ask questions. Although my parents are learned, progressive people (Dad has a PhD and Mom is extremely well-read) we held on to this tradition. We were raised to appreciate our history and ethnicity and wanted to keep the old traditions alive. As far as we were concerned, there was no need to lose these colorful customs and assimilate completely into the homogenized mainstream culture. Of course, we were full-fledged Americans and saw no disconnect between the two (even if some people believed "American" meant WASP, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), and even if in some quarters retaining any ethnicity whatsoever made one a lesser, hyphenated American. Not us. Food was a wonderful way to enjoy our background, and why should we give up this delicious seafood for green bean casserole out of a Campbell's soup can? No thanks.

Nowadays the average American is more sophisticated about food. Farmers' markets and specialty stores provide easy access to fresh vegetables and fruit and good bread, but back in those days of bland Betty Crocker preparations, canned peas and fish sticks and Wonder Bread, keeping ethnic traditions alive was more than mere affection for the past, it was a matter of survival. And taste. Maybe the mainstream is finally catching up. Nowadays people consider themselves foodies, and everyone knows Italian food is more than just spaghetti and meatballs. Some even make brave attempts to pronounce the names of dishes correctly, including these commonly mispronounced ones: gnocchi (nyoh-kee), bruschetta (broo-sket-ah), ricotta (ree-koh-tah) , scampi (skahm-pee, not scamp-ee). (Eventually, after a few glasses of chianti (kyawn-tee) classico, they might attempt schiacciatina and cicerchia decorticata or the word for chickpeas, which was once used to ferret out foreign spies who simply could not pronounce it correctly).

For some people, bruschetta is tough enough. A reader wrote in to Steve Barnes in the Times Union:

I thought bruschetta was pronounced with a hard “ch,” yet servers persist in pronouncing it “sh.” Maybe I should just accept it like the local propensity for saying “fazool” instead of fagiole.

To which Barnes replied, "It seems fairly well settled that the word is pronounced 'broo-SKET-ah,' because in Italian, with the exception of perhaps a few regional/local dialects, “ch” is pronounced like 'k.' Anyone who lives in the Capital Region shouldn’t have difficulty with this even if their ignorance of Italian is absolute — just look at the word Schenectady."

In the meantime, start collecting your seven varieties of seafood for your cioppino (cho-pee-no) and get the rest of your Christmas shopping done! Bon natale!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


"This it the official OWS video to thank our supporters. This video was passed by consensus through the New York City GA on Tuesday, December 20." It was directed by David Sauvage.

Spirit, heart, idealism, courage.


The data* is in, and the scientists at Science Friday have given us another good reason to spike the egg nog. We've always known that nothing livens up a frothy nog like a splash of spirits (we've conducted our own independent experiments), but now the scientific community backs us up. And who are we to argue? If you're one of those people concerned about the raw eggs in homemade egg nog, you want to watch this video.

Egg nog is a traditional Christmas drink. People have been spiking it with their favorite alcohol for ages. How long exactly?

"By the mid-1760s patrons were drinking eggnog, juleps, sling and sanger in addition to the punch and toddy already available."
---"Taverns and Tavern Culture in the Southern Colonial Frontier: Rowan County, North Carolina, 1753-1776"

Egg nog is first mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1825 as "A drink in which the white and yolk of eggs are stirred up with hot beer, wine, or spirits."

That's the one. Some like to add bourbon, some prefer run or brandy. Some will drink a virgin nog, and that's fine, too. Some like it goopy yellow and storebought, and some prefer it homemade. A little grated nutmeg adds to the flavor, and, some claim, also acts as a mild hallucinogen but you would probably have to ingest a kilo or two to get the sugarplums really dancing. Here, as in all things, moderation is key.

*By the way, according to Grammarist, "data" was originally the plural form of datum, a Latin noun meaning a thing given. "Both words were relatively rare in English until modern times, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that English-speakers, especially scientists, began using data in the sense in which it’s used today.For as long as data/datum has been used in this sense, there have been some writers who use data as a plural count noun, and some who use it as a mass noun. In general, fighting to preserve proper Latin grammar in modern English is a lost cause. There will always be exceptions, but data is one of those words that is clearly changing to conform to modern English conventions."

So which is proper?

The Grammarist says: "It comes down to preference, and you can’t be faulted for using the one that sounds better to you. In general, data is still treated as plural in scientific and academic contexts, while it’s usually treated as singular in nonscientific contexts. In fact, using data as a plural (or using the word datum at all) can come across as pretentious in informal writing."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


A couple weeks ago, Bruce Springsteen rocked Asbury Park with some Jersey upstarts, the Gaslight Anthem. December 9, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011


To hell with Bing Crosby--this is the best version of "White Christmas." Performed by the Drifters, it features Bill Pinkney on lead bass and Clyde McPhatter on tenor. The Drifters were a doo-wop and R&B vocal group in the 1950s that had many hits. They were "the least stable vocal group" of the era, according to Rolling Stone, due to being low-paid, hired musicians. In other words, some people got very rich off the Drifters, but not the Drifters. Typical capitalist crap, you might say. Those money men are now long forgotten, yet we still have this wonderful version of "White Christmas," and many other vocal classics. This cartoon by Joshua Held is pretty cool, too. Added trivia: this song was included in the Special Features section of "A Christmas Carol," a short film I directed many years ago starring the Hoyt Street Players.

The Drifters

Sunday, December 18, 2011


The lavish spreads of some Christmas parties can be overwhelming, with food and drink and sufficient holiday cheer to win over the most misanthropic Scrooge, yet in spite of such abundance and apparent bonhomie there are troubles to be avoided the way mariners might navigate treacherous waters, those dark patches on the map that once warned sailors "there will be monsters."

The most treacherous passage runs between Scylla and Charybdis, otherwise known as "booze and food," a particularly narrow squeeze between two points that sinks many a sailor. There are dire straits of mulled port--a wine-dark sea in which clove-studded oranges float like mines--and here one might become awash in drink or dashed upon the rocks. Even experienced mariners have capsized here and the shore is strewn with shipwrecks. One might become misty-eyed after a few good glasses, feel a warm glow and love for all mankind, but it will pass. To the untrained eye, after this port the sea seems calm, but things will take a turn. More cups, this time bourbon, beer, red wine, or some nog of egg, and storms brew on the horizon. Sirens sing carols on the rocks, and colored lights--blinking, blinking, always blinking--lure the unwary deeper into the drink. The wheel spins freely, the rudder has broken free, ballast sloshes dangerously in the belly, and masts snap like pipestems.

Some make it through this passage only to be driven mad by the experience, and one finds them dancing a jig or succumbing to nonsense and glossolalia, speaking in tongues, gibbering like mad hatters as gulls wheel overhead like whirlybirds. Emboldened by drink, they flirt or flatter, sing loudly and off-key, or cleverly extoll their own virtues--cleverly, they think--and the poor, trapped party-goer is assailed with tales of their abundant fortune, their exceedingly good taste, their commendable charity work, their morally superior exercise routine, their finely-tuned knowledge of wine, say, or coffee, or the political sphere, or the state of the union. With a dull head and the excuse of drink, they never show the least bit of curiosity about anyone else, unless, of course, they have pegged that person as somehow important, well-set in the hierarchy, and then they will flatter to beat the band, batting eyelashes like silent movie actresses. Don't blame them; they're lost. They have become simple. They will extend their hand as they squeeze past you to buttonhole their intended social conquest. You may feel sad to block their route, but it's nothing personal, for they carry a detailed system of stratification as elaborate as their mum's Social Register.

Recently I watched a minor celebrity at a party peppered with pointed questions, softball questions, much in the same way, at the same party, some clueless millennials competed for the attention of a young lady in a velour tracksuit with the subtlety of ranch dogs. Despite a lot of enlightenment talk, the pecking order is alive and well. Snob are snobs, and we will always have them, but drunk they are more insufferable, so expect to encounter this breed during the holidays when drinks are flowing.

Karaoke. If singing is involved, watch out. The most inhibited people in the world--who have every reason in the world to be inhibited--lose all decency after a couple hot toddies and start thinking they're Michael Buble. God forbid. Suddenly freed by John Barleycorn, they start warbling. It never fails. As we all know, the only thing worse than an extrovert is an introvert playing an extrovert after a couple drinks. We may sympathize with these unfortunates living quiet lives of desperation, folks who quake in their boots on a daily basis, but can't they just shut up?

Some simply drink up all the liquor and move on to more booze somewhere else, leaving your house in shambles as they bar-hop across town like egrets hopping from island to island in an alcoholic archipelago. They imagine themselves soaring like eagles but they are flightless birds at heart and they barely get off the ground, and what glitters at the next stop is mostly likely guano.

There are common sense rules to partying, but--to paraphrase Voltaire--common sense ain't too common. Here are a couple: Bring something to the party. I don't mean just food and drink--though the millennials who seem to know everything, don't seem to know this. Bring something of yourself. Bring a willingness to talk and listen, or a general curiosity about others. Shut up about yourself. Nobody wants to hear you prattle on endlessly about anything and everything, so be generous with airspace. Don't drink up all the liquor and leave without thanking the host. Don't just talk to those you think are important, the celebrity you made a beeline for, the chick you want to seduce, the bartender. This looks skeezy. Be filled with holiday cheer but not so filled you blow chips on the front lawn on the way to your car. Leave with who "brung" you. If someone should give you a gift, reciprocate at some point. Don't scoop up the cookies you brought. If that's all you brought--and the host provided plentiful food and booze--it looks cheap. No, it is cheap. Leave your meager contribution, for Godsakes. Don't be an asshole. This may be your default position, the stance you fall into easily like a snowman statue weighted on the bottom. Try to be a better person than you are. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is actually good tactical advice, since you wouldn't want to stuck at a party next to a carbon copy of your worst self. Shut up and listen. Watch your weight, but don't talk about it incessantly--especially not while making excuses for all the Christmas cookies you're wolfing down. Be kind. And have a Merry Goddamn Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Time Magazine's Person of the Year: The Protester. This has been quite a busy year for the Protester, with uprisings all over the world. The cover mentions the game-changing movements of Arab spring, the demonstrations in Greece and the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has nurtured opposition offspring across the USA and even the world. Not that it takes Time Magazine to legitimize such a revolution, but it sure beats the hell out of last year's Person of the Year, Facebook CEO and billionaire Marc Zuckerberg. Still, it's undeniable that these movements for social and economic justice have spread like a prairie fire. Even Time gets it:

It's remarkable how much the protest vanguards share. Everywhere they are disproportionately young, middle class and educated. Almost all the protests this year began as independent affairs, without much encouragement from or endorsement by existing political parties or opposition bigwigs. All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries' political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt — sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change. They are fervent small-d democrats.

-from Time's cover story, by Kurt Andersen

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Lupe Fiasco has written and recorded the unofficial anthem of the Occupy Wall Street movement, "The End of the World." Fiasco is an outspoken American rapper, and one of the pioneers of the conscious hip hop movement focusing on social issues. He made his first splash in 2006 with the award-winning Food & Liquor.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Where were you? I was painting a big blue canvas when a cousin called to say they'd interrupted the football game to announce that John Lennon had been shot and killed. I immediately called a radio station to confirm the news and spoke with the equally distraught deejay. It was true. We spoke for a while and I suggested he play some happier Beatles, and maybe a Christmas message from the old fan club flexi-discs--which he didn't have. I ended up coming down to the station with some rare vinyl and recording tape carts to use on the air. The phones were ringing. My sister Bekki was with me, and we sat listening to their happy voices in the dim studio. We grew up with those boys, and this would take a while to sink in. This wasn't like some old musician dying of old age in a retirement home. We'd had music heroes die before, but this was different from losing Jim Morrison, Jim Hendrix and Janis Joplin. This was murder. John was gunned down in the streets of New York. And this was John Lennon. Nobody had shown us as much, from rock and roll to peace activism, from catchy radio tunes to avant garde art projects. He'd spoken out against the war, he'd fought with Nixon, he'd taken heat for being too far-out for even some Beatles fans. And now he was dead. On the way home from the radio station, the park blocks were already filled with people holding candles, listening to Beatles and singing along, some in tears. We stopped and sang along. It was thirty one years ago today.

From the fan club flexi-disc

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Manu Chao sings in French, Spanish, English, Italian, Galician, and Portuguese. He is one of the most influential and politically active musicians in the world today, the Woody Guthrie of his time, and you probably never heard of him. Too bad. Here he sings "Clandestino" at a protest in Arizona. The song tells of the plight of immigrants crossing the border searching for work. Manu Chao was drawn to participate in this protest by the human rights and migrant issues raised by the backward laws of Arizona (specifically Senate Bill 1070) and the tent cities created to house all the prisoners those laws have created.

You've heard of Bruce Springsteen. He sings in English. He, too, can be a political songwriter. Here he sings about the plight of migrants in "The Ghost of Tom Joad," a character you may remember from The Grapes of Wrath. In the book, and in the movie (where he is played by Henry Fonda), Tom Joad and his family are uprooted Okies hounded by poverty, injustice, rigged laws, crooked employers, company goons and violent cops. Some things never change.

These songs are more timely than ever. Unless you're Native American, your people came from somewhere else. Don't let all that Mayflower pilgrim jazz fool you, people have been escaping hunger and oppression to find America since the first "Indian" said "There goes the old neighborhood." Think about that next time you hear the word immigrant--or next time some Republican asshole tries to drum up votes by stirring up hate against the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the illegal, the clandestino.


Writers Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith discuss fact and fiction The New Yorker Festival in 2010.

From the press release:
Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and a Hugo Award for his novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." His other books include the novel "Wonder Boys," the story collections "A Model World" and "Werewolves in Their Youth," and the essay collection "Manhood for Amateurs." His stories have appeared in The New Yorker since 1987.

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels "White Teeth," which won the 2000 Whitbread First Novel Award; "The Autograph Man," which won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize; and "On Beauty," which won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction. Last year, she published "Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays," parts of which first appeared in The New Yorker. She has been contributing to the magazine since 1999.

Monday, December 5, 2011


The average American watches six hours of television a day. Of course, the average American fosters the illusion that he or she is somehow immune to its senseless churn, that he or she is somehow above it, too intelligent to fall for its gambits, well aware of its insidious ability to promote passivity and turn the viewer into a receptive ogler, an empty vessel for advertisers and the lowest common denominator. The viewers know better, and snicker to themselves as they surrender, and--according to David Foster Wallace, novelist, media observer, TV watcher, suicide--television has learned to absorb this ironic distance, to co-opt it, and present it to the viewer with a wink and a nudge. The couch potato is now a rebel, through some circuitous logic kindly provided by the medium to which we've surrendered, and "we get it." With this license, the viewer is free to partake in an embarrassing amount of TV while remaining satisfied in the conceit that he or she is in on the joke, while a hundred clones of David Letterman mock the viewer and the medium and anything earnest with a sly irony that somehow includes the couch potato. This is TV about TV, a "meta-television" whose solipsism is hermetically sealed, an airtight Moebius strip McLuhan understood instinctively many years ago that has moved beyond his classroom musings. This is an addictive drug that contains its own antidote, but just enough to keep you sufficiently healthy to take more of the drug.

The thing is, we know this. Of course we do. Television is dumb as a bag of chips, and just as enticing and "bad" for us, and you can't just eat one chip without struggling with the entire bag. We can only blame ourselves, and TV will wag it's finger at us about monitoring our intake and making good choices, all the while offering us another chip.

This is old news. What is new is how completely our reality has been distorted by television, how this piece of furniture affects our social world, our wind-down from work, our passive expectation to be entertained, our simplified view of people, ethics, politics, life itself. TV presents life as simple stories, with attractive people playing simple archetypes: the angry chef, the angry judge, the angry detective, and so on. It offers a clarity and simplicity real life is lacking, and while one feels "plugged in" to the culture at large, it prepares us for nothing--nothing, that is, but watching more TV. You know that. So does TV. Like any good narcotic, television runs the show while the addict believes he can quit any time he wants to. Don't get me wrong. I don 't recommend people quit TV any more than I recommend people quit eating potato chips. As the advertisers say, you have a choice.

I do recommend people supplement their "televisual reality" with real life, and challenge its hegemony with a walk outside, a good book, an actual conversation free from the hysterical emphasis of the sit-com rhythm w/laugh track. Wow--real people in real situations are unpredictable, illogical, needy, and not nearly as attractive as TV actors and news anchors--and if that doesn't have you running for the comfort of your remote, try adding real human problems, the kind that can't always be neatly solved by the last commercial break. Now you want your bottle and your blanket, now you want your TV world, that comfy place where you know exactly what is happening at all times, and you know good will prevail, and you know the killer will be caught, and you know the comedian will get a laugh, and you know the sometimes funny, sometimes scary real world will be kept at bay at least until the drug wears off.

What's the cure? Well, we left the comfy entertainment center and saw a play yesterday. An actual play. There were strangers to contend with. People rustling in their jackets, an old lady yawning, an uncomfortable chair. With the umbilical cord stretched this far, there is a mild unease, a tremulous feeling in the muscles that might preclude full-on panic, but one learns to adjust. The house lights dim. The actors begin their trickery, but the exit light is still lit, the chair is still...then something magical happens, an emotion, light as a mote of dust whirling in a beam of light is coaxed to the stage. The actor has studied hard, and he might forget his lines (an embarrassing moment that never occurs on television), and he may miss his cue. He holds a candle and it flickers, but what if the candle goes out? How will he continue his many, many memorized lines and relight the candle? The other actor is good, too, but he's not nearly as handsome as Pierce Brosnan...and the actress is pretty, certainly, but the actors do their job and one is willing to suspend disbelief and ignore the loud-breathing woman sitting directly behind ones chair, then this experience of drama in a dark, half-empty theater becomes absolutely magical as a shaman's spell and something that has gone on since the ancient Greeks at the very least comes alive in this small, dark room. The character is crying, ringing his hands, and the actor is crying, ringing his hands, so exposed to the gods and demons and embarrassments of a public experience, and we glimpse something the slick, polished, over-produced, dumbed down mini-dramas and comedies and dramedies of television can't even come close to presenting, but you would miss it if you didn't avail yourself to it. Of course, it's a great inconvenience. One can't control its elements as one can in the living room--changing the channel, raising the volume, controlling this tiny approximation of reality like an armchair god, even turning it off to go make a sandwich. There are strangers here. There is a risk. This hasn't been tested on some target demographic. This hasn't been concocted in a lab, filmed on some studio lot, approved by some advertiser selling his products. This is real, too real for most of us, and I recommend it highly.

Friday, December 2, 2011


If you've been paying any attention at all, you know we have a not-so-secret love/hate relationship going with the cheesy and ironic televisual reality that sparkles before our eyes and holds us passive and docile before our screens. At the same time, nothing tickles our ganglia like a trip down memory lane to revisit the broadcasts we were weaned upon. Christmastime on TV evokes both the treacly nostalgia of Christmas candy and the singular nausea of having eaten too much of it. These holiday specials are cloying and commercial, manipulative and sickeningly sweet, yet they can often pluck a string deep in our hearts though we'd be loathe to admit it. Surrender to the feeling, you old grinch. This first clip is from a Christmas special before my time, and it features Frank and Bing bumbling through a few carols like a couple drunken uncles home for the holidays. Hope you can enjoy this earnestly, and if not, well, here's a winking toast of vintage nog to make you chuckle in a post-ironic way, you cold-hearted bastard.

TV Christmastime was a very special time of year. And of course, the television Christmas season didn't officially begin until Santa Claus came floating over the hill on his triple-header Norelco electric shaver. This was a wonderful advertisement, a classic that played for decades, and with the smooth, clean shave Santa provided nobody would ever call him St. "Nick" again.