Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Official Response to Mr. Keillor

My friend John, a proud Angeleno who lives in Long Beach, offers this reply to Mr. Keillor's estimation of folks in L.A.

Dear  Mr. Keillor,

I have been in Colorado in the winter at 30 below and the faces of the people were far from happy and healthy.  If their bloodshot eyes could have spoken they would have said, “get me the hell outta here!”  Methinks that you may have spent too much time with Hollywood-types if the only faces you have seen are brooding screenwriters.  I’ve always wondered why people stuck in geographic areas with “seasons” are so bent on looking down on those in temperate climates.  It can’t be jealousy . . . can it?


A 71-year-old beach boy

Happy Thanksgiving!

With All The Trimmings by Garrison Keillor

It is a wicked world in which the power of any individual to cause suffering is so great and the power to do good is so slight; but here we are, the week of our beloved national feast, our annual homecoming, and signs of loving Providence are everywhere around us.

I am thankful to be alive. In Minnesota the lakes are freezing over in late November, and some men who envision a leadership role for themselves take their snowmobiles out onto the thin ice and fall through and drown in the cold water--their last thought in this life: "Boy, was this dumb or what?"--and so far I have not been one of them. Caution was bred into me: I never played with guns or made a hobby of pharmaceuticals or flung myself off a cliff while clinging to a kite. I read books instead. I read books in which men hearken to wild imperatives, and that is enough for me.

I am thankful for living in a place where winter gets good and cold and you need to build a fire in a stove and wrap a blanket around you. Cold draws people closer together. Crime drops. Acts of kindness proliferate between strangers. I have been in Los Angeles on a balmy day in January and seen the glum faces of people poking at their salads in outdoor restaurants, brooding over their unproduced screenplays. People in Minnesota are much cheerier, lurching across the ice, leaning into the wind as sheets of snow swirl up in their faces. Because they feel needed and because cold weather takes the place of personal guilt. Maybe you haven't been the shining star you should have been, but now is not the time to worry about it.

I am thankful for E-mail, which allows us to keep in touch with our children, and for the ubiquity of fresh coffee, the persistence of good newspapers, the bravery of artists, the small talk of sales clerks, the general competence and good humor I encounter every day. None of us is self-sufficient, despite what some politicians claim. Every good thing, every morsel of food comes directly from God, who expects us to pay attention and be joyful, a large task for people from the Midwest, where our idea of a compliment is, "It could have been worse."

I am thankful, of course, for Thanksgiving, a joyful and simple day that never suffered commercial exploitation and so is the same day as when I was a boy and we played touch football on the frozen turf and came to the table sweaty and in high spirits and kept our eyes open for flying food. My sister had good moves; you'd look away for an instant, and she'd flip her knife and park a pat of butter on your forehead. Nobody throws food at our table now, but in the giddiness of the festive moment, I have held a spoonful of cranberry for a moment and measured the distance to Uncle Earl, his gleaming head, like El Capitan, bent over the plate.

As I grew up, Thanksgiving evolved perfectly. It used to be that men had the hard work, which is to sit in the living room and make conversation about gas mileage and lower back pain, and women got the good job, which is cooking. Women owned the franchise, and men milled around the trough mooing, and if any man dared enter the kitchen, he was watched closely lest he touch something and damage it permanently.

But I bided my time, and the aunts who ran the show grew old, and young, liberated lady relatives came along who were proud of their inability to cook, and one year I revolted and took over the kitchen--and now I am It. The Big Turkey. Mr. Masher. The Pie Man. Except for gravy and pie crust, which take patience and practice, Thanksgiving dinner is as easy to make as it is to eat. You're a right-handed batter in a park that's 150 feet down the left-field line—it doesn't take a genius to poke it out.

Years of selective breeding have produced turkeys that are nothing but cooking pouches with legs. You rub the bird's inside with lemon, stuff it with bread dressing seasoned with sage and tarragon and jazzed up with chunks of sausage and nuts and wild rice, shove it in a hot oven; meanwhile, you whomp up yams and spuds and bake your pies.

The dirty little secret of the dinner is melted animal fats: in all the recipes, somewhere it says, "Melt a quarter-pound of butter." Think of the fancy dishes you slaved over that became disasters, big dishes that were lost in the late innings. Here's roast turkey, which tastes great, and all you do is baste. You melt butter, you nip at the wine, and when the turkey is done, you seat everyone, carve the bird, sing the doxology and pass the food.

The candles are lit in the winter dusk, and we look at one another, the old faces and some new ones, and silently toast the Good Life, which is here before us. Enjoy the animal fats and to hell with apologies. No need to defend our opinions or pretend to be young and brilliant. We still have our faculties, and the food still tastes good to us.

Walt Whitman said, "I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name." Thanksgiving is one of those signed letters. Anyone can open it and see what it says.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Echoes of Crows

I inadvertently left one album off of my late fall roundup, the latest from the erstwhile Counting Crows.

The Crows are a band that seems to be disliked by many, not to mention made fun of - SNL did just that a couple of weeks ago, including a pretty good sendup of Adam Duritz in a sketch about the worst cover songs of all time.  And hey, I'm not here to defend their version of "Big Yellow Taxi," but at the same time have to wonder how many people listened to last year's "Underwater Sunshine," comprised entirely of covers, including several by lesser-known bands who probably appreciated the attention.  It was a great album, quite possibly their best since the famous debut 20 years ago (!).

The new one is a live effort, and it's probably not going to win the band a lot of new fans, but for those who have been around since the beginning, it's well worth seeking out.  The Crows are a great live band, and on "Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow" they cover most of the various eras of their long career, from "Round Here" (their all-time best song, and with a version that can only be described as epic) and "Rain King" at the beginning to "I Wish I Was A Girl" and "Up All Night" in the middle, and a couple of songs from last year's LP thrown in for good measure.  There are also some new covers, "Girl From the North Country" and "Friend of the Devil."

It's a good mix, from what obviously was a good show.  Adam keeps his histrionic tendencies in check, and the band sounds great.  Here's hoping the next one is just as good.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Fall Albums, Part 2

"Shangri La," Jake Bugg.  Jake Bugg doesn't turn 20 until next February, but with the release of "Shangri La," he's already got two outstanding albums under his belt.  There probably isn't a single track on the new album that equals the amazing "Lightning Bolt," but there are definitely subtle advances, which shouldn't come as a surprise given that Rick Rubin handled the production duties.  The album is more consistent, with the biggest advance coming on the slow to mid-tempo tunes.  The best song on the album just might be "Simple Pleasures," and it's a song I'm not sure he was capable of writing a year ago.  On the debut the slower songs came across as earnest if a bit sappy, while on Shangri La they have as much verve as the fast tunes (of which there are plenty).  In fact, there isn't a weak track on the entire album, and Bugg is beginning to sound like one of those artists who comes across once in a generation.  Right now, the sky is the limit, not unlike a rookie of the year in baseball whose second season is even more impressive than the first.
"Reflektor," Arcade Fire.  Right now I'm still having trouble getting my arms around this one.  There's no question that at it's best (the title track, "Normal Person" and "Joan of Arc," for example) this is the most exciting music released all year; however, it's not entirely clear yet whether the entire album meets that lofty standard.  The band deserves a lot of credit for pushing itself out of its comfort zone (although after four albums, it's a little hard to tell exactly what that comfort zone is), but there's something about the entire enterprise that feels a little cold, a little calculated.  The last two Arcade Fire albums were my favorites in the years that they were released, and this one still has a chance, but I'm not quite ready to make that claim yet for "Reflektor."
"Lightning Bolt," Pearl Jam.  Solid and dependable, a perfectly fine Pearl Jam album that will satisfy longtime fans but which is unlikely to reach a crossover audience.  A good example of a veteran band doing its job well.
"Days Are Gone," Haim.  As they made pretty clear on Saturday Night Live last weekend, Haim is more than a slick pop band, although being a slick pop band would be just fine with me.  Songs like "Falling," "If I Could Change Your Mind" and "Don't Save Me" are about as good and hard-edged as great pop gets.  And this is great pop, catchy and intricate in a way that never comes across as overly sappy.  At times, reminiscent of someone like Todd Rundgren at his best.
"Magpie and the Dandelion," The Avett Brothers.  It always worries me when I read that an impending album is comprised of songs that were recorded at the same time as the previous album.  That really worried me in this case, because I was a little disappointed in the "The Carpenter," especially on the heels of the brilliant "I and Love and You."  Fortunately, my worries were unfounded, because "Magpie and the Dandelion" is definitely a return to form, with songs that are true to the "Avett sound" but without the slickness that marred a good part of "Carpenter."  Opening the album with "Open Ended Life" was a masterstroke, because starting off with a fast song reminds people right off the bat that the brothers are about more than just ballads.  And there are plenty of the latter, as well.  Good show.

Friday, November 22, 2013

President John F. Kennedy

The number of remembrances - on television, in print, and on other forms of media - of President John F. Kennedy's assassination has resulted in an almost equal number of media pieces expressing a combination of disbelief and disdain that the nation (and in particular, the baby boomer generation) can't seem to get over that traumatic day, now 50 years ago.

I have no problem categorically rejecting that level of cynicism, which to me says more about the persons writing such hit pieces than it does about the ongoing level of interest (and in some cases, despair) over that awful day.  Essentially, those pieces are saying that the feelings of those who still mourn the events of that day are invalid, that those feelings represent nothing more than misguided nostalgia for an era that never really existed, except in the minds of Madison Ave. marketing gurus, in the first place.

I was 3 years old on that day, and it is my first conscious memory.  When your mother cries all day and can't explain why in terms that a 3-year old would understand, that tends to stick with you.  And stick with me it has.  I look at the old papers my parents saved, I read the issues of LIFE Magazine, I look at the photos of that day, I see the Zapruder film - and even now, a sense of what I can only describe as dread comes over me, almost overwhelming in its power.  I can only imagine how much stronger it feels for someone who was old enough to understand and appreciate the gravity of what was occurring.

One's opinion of President Kennedy, either as a President or as a man, is irrelevant.  That was an awful day, one that I'm confident in saying scarred the psyche of an entire nation.  To discount that is simply not right.


"First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man made; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."

"For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."

- American University Commencement Address, President John F. Kennedy, June 1963

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Long live the Kings

Last weekend, Pops Racer and I attended our first Kings game in almost two years, and it was like old times - mostly because they played about as poorly as they did in the final few years of the [Family Name That Shall Not Be Mentioned] era.

It was their second game in the span of 24 hours against Portland, which is always a tough gig.  But then again, Portland faced the same challenge, and certainly looked fresher and better organized on the court than the men in purple and black.

I absolutely agree that building the team around DeMarcus Cousins was the right move, but he still does a lot of dumb things on the court.  In the first five minutes of the game, he picked up a stupid loose ball foul, and then a second foul by moving into the lane at the last second on a shot that he had absolutely no chance of impacting, much less blocking.  Bam, bench time.  Grab some pine, meat!

All of which is to say that it will be a long road back, and from the early returns, a return to respectability is the absolute best we can hope for this year.

But on a bright note, we did see a fan make the half-court shot to win a car...only the second time we've seen that, and we've been to close to 200 games.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Stanford toughness

OK, now there's a blog post title that I never thought I'd write.

With their second consecutive drubbing of Oregon in the books (although the Ducks, to their credit, made it interesting at the end), there can be no doubting that the Stanford Cardinal are officially the best college football team in the west, and perhaps the toughest team in the country.  And remember, it was not so long ago that the Cal Bears had beaten them in The Big Game for the 7th time in 8 years.  Ah, the good old days.

If you were a fan of Stanford, you could not have scripted last night's game any better.  How does one beat Oregon?  Keep the ball out of their hands.  OK, how does about 42 minutes of possession time sound?  Sounds like you're going to win the game.  And I know that Marcus Mariotta (looks like that Heisman may have to wait another season) was not up to par last night, but given the way the Stanford defense played, it might not have made any difference.

So now the sports world is left to ponder exactly how Stanford lost to Utah a month ago, the only blemish on their record, and one that is likely to keep them out of the BCS Championship game.  They've got three games left, against a somewhat rejuvenated USC squad, a disastrous Cal team (but hey - I was there when the 1-9 Bears beat the 8-2 Cards back in 1986, so anything could happen), and then a Notre Dame team that seems to play better on the road than it does at home.  Will running the table be enough?  Not likely, especially when you consider that among the remaining undefeated teams, Alabama is probably the most likely to lose.

But a once-beaten Stanford squad against an undefeated Ohio State team in the Rose Bowl?  It would be like 1971 and 1972 all over again.  I'd certainly be watching.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The NFL column I've been waiting for

And it's probably not surprising that it appears on Grantland, which over the past year become the one web site that I have to read on a daily basis.  I mean, seriously - it's like this site was invented just for me.  One day the lead story will be on sports, the next day it will be about a movie, and then the day after that you'll read a great piece about music.  I know that some people think Bill Simmons is too clever for his own good, but I'm not one them - for me, he's close to genius (we'll give him a little room to improve).

Titled "Man Up," the column is by Brian Phillips, and it does a fantastic job of eviscerating the mindset that I decried in the piece that I wrote yesterday - the mindset that defends "the code" within the NFL that is apparently more important to some than actually abiding by the law and the standards of human decency.

Please read the whole thing, but in the meantime, here is an excerpt:

There will always be locker-room assholes. They should be curtailed. And when a player says he needs time off for mental reasons — again: in a sport with a suicide problem — it shouldn't spark a national conversation on whether he's soft.

I am here to hurt you, so I'll also say this: You're a warrior, cool. What the hell are you a warrior for? I'm sorry if this makes it sound like I have emotions other than anger — I assure you that I don't — but tell me this: What's the point of being strong if all you stand for is abusing a suffering teammate? Those guys who taught me that when you see a problem, you step up and solve it, all those anonymous sources foaming on about how to be a man — is that what they think "being a man" is? I mean, nothing about protecting someone who's struggling in your big gender equation, then? Nothing about, like, knowing right from wrong?

Here's what I can't stop thinking: There were so many tough men in that Dolphins locker room. The unwritten code of football is that you handle your business in-house. Any one of these men could have said something to stop Incognito and help Martin. Any one of them could have handled it. They're warriors, right? They're paragons of strength. And yeah, there are complex reasons why they didn't. But they didn't.

I know I'm repeating myself, but please go read the whole thing.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Martin, Incognito and...WTF?

The two biggest stories in the NFL this past weekend focused not on the games being played, but rather on two coaches who suffered possibly life-threatening episodes, and the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin harassment case in Miami.  I'll comment on the former in a future post, but focus today on the latter.

I've read a ton of material on this case in the past few days - tweets, AP reports, columns, articles, comments from current and former players, comments from readers and fans of the NFL, and so on.  It's bothered me a great deal to see so many players, personnel men and fans lay the blame on Martin, generally for not "manning up," for "not standing up for himself with Incognito," and for the cardinal sin of taking a team issue outside of the locker room.  Andrew Sharp has a well-organized and well-written piece up on Grantland, and I want to focus on a couple of things that he writes because I think they're reasonable assertions, albeit ones that I think are dead wrong.  Writes Sharp, in two separate paragraphs:
Cheering hypercompetitve testosterone junkies on the field and then expecting civility everywhere else seems pretty naive, and judging the actions of Martin and Incognito as if they were two normal civilians is just as big a stretch. Cruelty isn't that unusual in Incognito's workplace, and most professional athletes respond differently than Martin. The guys who say we wouldn't understand are definitely right.
And then, later in the same piece:
There's a disconnect between people who play professional sports and people who watch them, and that gulf is probably a lot wider than we realize. Even if a world full of all-access shows and instant information allows us to know more about athletes and locker rooms than ever before, we may never actually understand any of this. 
Focusing on the first paragraph - yes, I've read my share of stories about how some players (sport doesn't matter) have used fear and harassment to "motivate" their teammates to achieve at a higher level. With some, it has worked, and in some of those cases, it's involved the player being harassed standing up to the bully and telling him, essentially, to go f*ck himself.  The problem I have with this argument is that it strikes me as nonsensical to treat Martin and Incognito as anything except "normal civilians," especially when the matter at hand is one of law.  I don't think you're going to find many football fans clamoring for legislation to set different standards of public behavior for professional athletes.

And here's the problem I have with the second paragraph.  To some degree, I agree that I'm never going to fully understand everything that takes place behind closed doors in a locker room.  I'm sure that there are many things said and done in the spirit of camaraderie that don't pass the smell test of how one is generally expected to behave around and act towards fellow human beings.  But I'm not certain that the professional sports locker room is unique in that regard, and I've yet to hear a reasonable explanation for why locker rooms should be above the law when it comes to workplace harassment.

And in the end, that's what this case is about - workplace harassment - though I understand why it's difficult for people understand why such protections are necessary for grown men who basically have the ability to kick the crap out of 98 or so percent of the general population.  And in a workplace setting, the supervisors, workers and offenders don't get to define what constitutes "harassment" - the victim does. 

It strikes me as odd that - unless I've just missed it - the commissioner has yet to comment on this matter, although given the ongoing investigation I suppose it makes sense.  This is going to be a tough one, but there's a lot at stake here.  It seems to me that the NFL needs to make a clear statement that they're encouraging their players to behave and act as responsible human beings, and not simply like brute force giants trained for combat on the field.

We shall see.