Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Christmas (weather) in July

I know this: our hot pepper plants aren't enjoying the cool summer we're having in Metro Detroit.

But fie on them.

The mercury hasn't scraped much past the mid-80s so far, and we're in mid-July.

I couldn't be happier.

I don't do well with the heat. The pepper plants do, however, and ours have been struggling to bear fruit, but like I said, fie on them. I can buy hot peppers at the market, although there is a charm to growing your own.

But if that's the trade off---store-bought hot peppers in exchange for summer days in which I can breathe without an oxygen mask, then I'll take it and run.

Normally by now, we would have suffered through oppressive heat, with temps in the high-80s and low-90s, with enough humidity to curl you from hair to toe.

But this year?

So far, so good.

Cool evenings, enabling you to sleep with the windows open, and is there anything better than breathing in fresh night air as you slumber?

Pleasant daytime temps, which don't mandate the use of air conditioning 24 hours a day. I love A/C---I think it was a great invention. But being in it too much makes me feel like I'm living in a plastic bubble and the world outside is so close yet so far.

Now, I do feel for the swimming pool owners out there.

We don't own a pool anymore, but the year we bought ours, in 1998, we were swimming in it (comfortably) in mid-May, shortly after it was installed.

My, has the climate changed.

Despite the aforementioned oppressive heat, those days haven't really started until well into June in recent years, so the pool owners' swimming season has been shrinking steadily.

I saw some pools with their winter covers still on, as recently as two weeks ago!

So you own a pool nowadays and you're spending God knows how much money on electricity for the pump and chemicals for the water, and you can't even dip your toes in the stinking thing---until Independence Day.

I also haven't heard the ice cream truck very much this summer.

But that's still collateral damage in my book.

I'm enjoying the heck out of daytime temps in the mid-to-high 70s and evening lows in the upper-50s.

I'm basking in the low humidity and the ability to take in a deep breath of air without nearly passing out.

I have no idea how much longer this can last. I keep bracing myself for a heat wave.

And despite the lack of heat thus far, I'm sure I'll still grumble and bitch the first day the thermometer scrapes 90 degrees.

But until then, I'm enjoying Christmas in July.

How about you?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Many Degrees of DVP

Which Dick Van Patten would you like to remember and mourn today?

Is it the actor Van Patten, who most famously seeped into our consciousness as Tom Bradford, the patriarch of the TV family on ABC's "Eight is Enough" from 1977-81?

Is it the tennis player Van Patten, whose sons got some of the old man's genes and did pretty good on the court as well?

Is it the animal activist Van Patten, who worked tirelessly for our furried and feathered friends, including founding National Guide Dog Month in 2008?

Is it the entrepreneur Van Patten, who co-founded Natural Balance Pet Foods in 1989?

Take your pick---or take them all, if you'd like.

Van Patten passed away on Tuesday at age 86. Some reports blame the cause of death on complications related to diabetes.

There was some juice to the Van Patten name in the entertainment industry. There was Dick, of course, and there was his younger sister Joyce, a fellow actor. There were the Van Patten boys---Vincent, Nels and Jimmy---who were all actors.

It's so fitting that Dick Van Patten made his most pop culture hay as family man Tom Bradford on "Eight is Enough" because his own family tree is pretty interesting and runs like an artery through show business.

In addition to the aforementioned, check this out.

Van Patten's sister Joyce married actor Martin Balsam, and the couple had a child---actress Talia Balsam.

Talia Balsam's first husband was George Clooney. You may have heard of him.

Talia Balsam is now married to "Mad Men" actor John Slattery.

Van Patten's son Vince is married to soap star and current reality TV personality Eileen Davidson.

Dick's other son Nels is married to former "Baywatch" regular Nancy Valen.

For some, it may seem like "Eight is Enough" lasted longer than just four seasons, but that's a testament to the show's impact. It hit the small screen four years after "The Brady Bunch" filmed its last episode, and American TV viewers were ready for a family show featuring a large brood that was a little more grown up.

With "EiE," entire episodes weren't spent on trying to find the family dog or teaching kids lessons about humility. The show was about (mostly) grown-up kids who had more convoluted issues.

Of course, by the end of the hour, all the loose ends were tied up, but not before some laughter, some crying and some reflection.

Real-life tragedy was dealt with, as well.

Actress Diana Hyland was originally cast as Tom Bradford's wife but she succumbed to cancer four episodes into season two. Her untimely death wasn't ignored, like the shows from the 1950s and 1960s would have done---replacing the passed away actor with someone else playing the same character.

Instead, the producers of "EiE" dealt with Hyland's death head on, writing it into the show, and the cast's mourning on the screen was real.

Betty Buckley was brought in to play Tom's new love interest (and eventual second wife), Abby, for seasons two through four.

Leading it all was Dick Van Patten, whose character was based on real-life newspaper columnist Tom Braden, who chronicled his large family with an autobiographical book also titled Eight is Enough---a reference to Braden's (and Bradford's) eight children.



Dick Van Patten was hardly the leading man type---thin-haired, slightly paunchy and with a round face. He looked more like your neighbor---which was likely why Tom Bradford resonated on the screen. Van Patten looked like a guy who had eight kids and who worked for a newspaper.

Van Patten's Tom Bradford was also unlike other TV dads in the sense that he wasn't written as a buffoon who somehow got a pretty, smart girl to marry him. The kids didn't zing witty one-liners at dad's expense; rather, Tom Bradford was a true patriarch who had his kids' respect.

Van Patten was acting on stage and screen for some 28 years before he got the "EiE" gig, but he was treated by many viewers as a virtual unknown until 1977. Such is the power of being a lead actor on a successful TV show.

Van Patten was also a favorite of comedian/director Mel Brooks, who cast Dick in a number of films.

Such was Dick Van Patten's varied interests that he even served as a TV commentator for the World Series of Poker from 1993-95.

Trivia: Van Patten named his son Nels after the character that Dick played in his first TV job, a series called "Mama" (1949-57).

Dick Van Patten didn't light up the screen. He wasn't that type of actor. But you were always aware of his presence.

Unlike some of his brethren who felt typecast and button-holed by roles they played on television, Dick Van Patten embraced Tom Bradford.

"I appreciate 'Eight is Enough'," he once said. "It made me recognizable."

But he was influential in so many other ways, and for that so many are grateful.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Spock Would Be Proud

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm 51 years old.

I only tell you this because, when she was my age, Jeralean Talley was living in the year 1950.

And she continued to live, some 65 more years, until passing peacefully the other day in her home in Inkster.

Jeralean was 116 years, 25 days old when she slipped away, ending her two-month reign as the world's oldest living person.

I wonder what it would have been like to be my age now, in 1950.

Harry S. Truman was president. Television was still a relatively new thing and lots of folks didn't even own one. And if they did. it broadcast everything in beautiful, gorgeous, vivid...black and white.

The NHL had six teams. Major League Baseball had all of 16. The NFL was still finding its audience as teams were experimenting with something called the forward pass. The NBA was four years old.

The only phones we had were mounted on our kitchen walls. You had to actually read the hands of a clock or wristwatch to tell time. Shoes had laces, not Velcro.

If you wanted to know what was going on, you bought a newspaper. If you needed more, you bought a Late edition on the street.

Cars were as big as tanks and the only things that weren't metal were the seats and the dashboard.

If you wanted to know how to get where you were going, you bought a map.

You didn't send e-mails, you wrote letters. If you wanted to pay a bill, you licked a stamp.

We were just five years removed from the second World War and on our way into another conflict in Korea.

That's just when Jeralean Talley was 51.

She graduated from high school during World War I. When she was old enough to vote, she couldn't.

She saw the invention of the telephone, the airplane, radio, air conditioning, modern refrigeration and instant coffee.

For starters.


Jeralean Talley (1899-2015)


But Jeralean is gone now, and according to daughter Thelma Holloway, who's a youngster at age 77, her mother "was ready to go home and rest."

"She asked the Lord to take her peacefully, and he did," Holloway told the Detroit News.


According to the News story, the California-based Gerontology Research Group, which keeps track of the world’s oldest people, declared Talley in early April to be the oldest human on the planet.

The previous record-holder, Arkansas resident Gertrude Weaver, died April 6 at 116 years old, according to the group.

Mrs. Talley is succeeded as the world’s oldest person by New Yorker Susannah Mushatt Jones, who turns 116 on July 6.

Jeralean Talley moved to Detroit from Georgia in 1935, right smack in the middle of the Great Depression. Her husband, Alfred, has been gone since 1988 after 52 years of marriage to Jeralean.

Jeralean was an avid bowler, continuing to roll games until she was 104. Her last game rolled produced an astounding score of 200.

Despite the number of people around the world who have lived well past their 100th birthday, there continues to not be any succinct reason why they were able to eclipse normal life expectancy by such a wide margin.

They all had their "secrets" to longevity, and some of those secrets wouldn't necessarily lead you to believe that they would have anything to do with living past 50, let alone 100.

So maybe it's just a crapshoot.

Regardless, it won't be long before these centenarians no longer have 19th century dates on their birth certificates. To be born in 1899 and still be alive today is a marvel.

Jeralean Talley's longtime friend and fellow churchgoer, Christonna Campbell, spoke for so many of those who knew Mrs. Talley.

"We just thought she was going to live forever," Campbell said.

But didn't she, in a way?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Meara, Meara

Comedians/actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were married for 61 years, but had they not heeded warning signs, the marriage might have ended some 44 years ago.

The comedy team of Stiller & Meara was seemingly cruising along in 1970, having just enjoyed a nice run of 36 appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the 1960s, when both members of the team/marriage sensed that something was amiss.

With an act based largely on their real-life domestic trials and tribulations, Stiller and Meara found that despite their success---or maybe because of it---the line between life at home and life on stage was getting further blurred as the years went on.

"I didn't know where the act ended and our marriage began," Meara told People magazine in 1977.

"We were like two guys," Stiller said in the same article.

With Meara questioning things and Stiller worried that he might lose his wife, the act was disbanded in 1970.

But they never stopped working together for very long at any given time; they just didn't do so as the stage act Stiller & Meara.

The couple had been teaming up on a web series in recent years before Anne Meara passed away over the weekend. She was 85.

On television, Stiller and Meara were most recently seen sharing some scenes together on "The King of Queens," with Stiller playing Carrie Heffernan's widowed father Arthur Spooner and Meara playing the part of Veronica Olchin, the widowed mother of Doug Heffernan's friend Spence Olchin.

Ironically, that series ended with Stiller and Meara's characters getting married.

Stiller and Meara's actor/producer/director son, Ben Stiller, produced the web series for Red Hour Digital, which Ben owns.



Anne Meara met Jerry Stiller in New York after a failed audition in 1953, and the couple was married a year later. But it took much prodding and several years of convincing before Meara agreed to join her husband on stage as a comedy team, whose only rival at the time in the male/female duo category was the team of Elaine May and Mike Nichols, who weren't married.

Thus, Stiller & Meara would eventually become the entertainment industry's longest-running, most successful husband and wife comedy duo, surpassing that of George Burns and Gracie Allen.

After the stage "breakup" in 1970, Stiller and Meara hardly disappeared from view or from listeners' ears.

They did radio ads for Blue Nun wine, and appeared in television commercials together. They also teamed up in 1977-78 for "Take Five with Stiller & Meara," which was a series consisting of humorous blackouts about everyday life.

Meara was no Gracie Allen, and that's hardly a knock. Where Allen was George Burns' ditzy foil, Anne Meara was Jerry Stiller's equal, and then some---both physically and in terms of material. She was a tall, Irish, Brooklyn redhead whose height caused her to loom large on stage next to her husband, literally and figuratively.

Meara was a four-time Emmy Award nominee and she was nominated for a Tony Award once.

There was so much more to Anne Meara than being Jerry Stiller's comedy partner---and Ben Stiller's mother. There was the acting and the writing and the teaching and the trailblazing aspect to her career for other female comics.

Not bad for a woman whose own mother committed suicide when she was 11 years old.

Meara once gave a glimpse into what the secret was to staying married to a co-worker for over six decades, practically unheard of in show business.

"Was it love at first sight? It wasn't then---but it sure is now."

Friday, May 8, 2015

Who Among Us?

The only thing that is certain in the road rage trial of Martin Zale is that it was tragic.

A wife widowed. Children growing up father-less.

After that, it gets tricky.

Zale is the motorist who is accused of murder in the fatal shooting of Derek Flemming last September 2 in Genoa Township, at Grand River Avenue and Chilson Road.

Zale was allegedly driving recklessly and Flemming, on a beautiful afternoon after having lunch with his wife, didn't appreciate it.

The vehicles stopped at a red light---Zale's in front of Flemming's---and Flemming got out of his vehicle to confront Zale. Witnesses say that Flemming looked very angry and had both fists clenched as he approached Zale's truck.

Moments later, Flemming was dead---shot once in the face. He died instantly.

Zale didn't flee; rather, he pulled off to the side of the road and called his lawyer.

Those are the basic facts. Zale's trial is happening now, and I think it's going to be fascinating to follow.

Of course, there's a lot more to it than what I have chronicled. But that's what makes it so fascinating.

Who among us has never been enraged by another motorist?

635666718283062463-Martin-Zale
Martin Zale at his trial


That's what enthralls me about the Zale trial. So many criminal trials are difficult to relate to, because they involve actions or circumstances in which a vast majority of us would never find ourselves.

But Martin Zale and Derek Flemming? We've all been the latter and some of us, whether we choose to admit it or not, have been the former.

It's just that in this case, Flemming took that extra step that many of us have fantasized about but have still managed to avoid actually doing---probably because of the fear of the fate that befell Flemming.

It's a trial that so many of can relate to. And I believe that its verdict could have a ripple effect in several ways.

It's also a trial where there will be no shortage of opinion or water cooler talk at the office.

As I said, the only non-debatable aspect here is that what happened was a tragedy. It always is, when something bad happens that was avoidable.

But there's that word: avoidable.

It's a sort of chicken and egg thing going on here.

You can say that Flemming initiated, in essence, his own death by climbing out of his vehicle to confront Zale.

You can also say that Zale initiated everything because of his allegedly reckless driving to begin with.

Then there are the backgrounds of the two men.

Zale, according to co-workers at least, was notorious for crazy driving. He also has another documented road rage confrontation from his past in which police were called.

Flemming, for his part, also--according to those who knew him---had exhibited behavior in the past that aligns with possible anger issues.

So there we have it---two known hotheads coming together to form a perfect storm of rage and reaction.

The easy thing to do---and I am among those who have done it---is to wag a finger and hold up Flemming as the poster boy for why you should never confront, and why you should call 911 instead.

But that doesn't let Zale off the hook, of course. Flemming's actions may have been ill-advised, but did they deserve the death penalty?

Maybe something like this was bound to happen, involving Martin Zale.

Perhaps the same could be said of Derek Flemming.

Still, tragic.

They'll be talking about this one for years.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Another Untimely, Tragic Wrap

As if suicide isn't rotten enough, it invariably raises more questions than it answers. That's because suicide often doesn't answer any questions at all.

Even a note left behind won't necessarily satisfy all the curiosity. In fact, suicide notes are likely to create more questions than they answer, as well.

A suicide note is like a press conference where a statement is issued and the issuer scrambles away, without taking any queries.

Sawyer Sweeten is dead. Apparently it's suicide.

Sawyer, on the verge of turning 20, was one-half of the identical twin actors who played Ray and Debra Barone's twin boys on "Everybody Loves Raymond" (1996-2005). Sawyer played Geoffrey and Sullivan Sweeten played Michael. The twins' older sister Madylin played older sister Ally on the TV show.

According to reports, Sawyer was visiting family in Texas when he apparently shot himself on the front porch of the house where he was staying.

In the early years of "Raymond," star Ray Romano would say in the open that the show "is not really about the kids," and he was right. The Barone children were often not seen at all in episodes. Not making kids foils or smart alecks was one of many ways in which "Raymond" was refreshing.

The Sweeten kids weren't fed rapid fire one-liners by the writers. Their characters rarely acted out, and only on occasion was a "Raymond" storyline built around the children.

But today, it IS about the kids. One, in particular.

No word yet if Sawyer left a note. Not that it helps if he did.

Throughout entertainment history, the travails of the child actor after he/she is no longer an adolescent have been widely documented. I don't know if studies have been made, so it's anyone's guess as to whether former child stars are, statistically, prone to big people-type problems more than "normal" kids. But certainly their issues are higher in profile.

I would imagine that some of the emotional/psychological problems that child actors face start with a question that we have all asked about said stars, either to ourselves or of others.

"Whatever happened to...?"

That may be the crux of a lot of this stuff.

Whatever happened to the kid actors after they grew up and their shows ended up in syndication?

But maybe the kid actors are asking themselves, "What do I do now, now that the spotlights have been turned off and the acting jobs have dried up?"


Sawyer and Madylin Sweeten


Some of the kid stars turned to drugs. Some turned to alcohol. Some turned to both. Others followed their lives on set with a life of crime, almost immediately.

With or without a suicide note, the questions surrounding Sawyer Sweeten's apparent suicide will never truly be answered, because the only person who possesses the answers and who can expound is gone.

And it might be that Sawyer's demise had absolutely nothing to do with his having been a child actor.

Romano, who reminded us back in the day that his show wasn't about the kids, reversed that course upon learning of Sawyer's tragic death.

"I'm shocked, and terribly saddened, by the news about Sawyer," Romano said in a statement.
"(Sawyer) was a wonderful and sweet kid to be around. Just a great energy whenever he was there. My heart breaks for him, his family, and his friends during this very difficult time."

Big sister Madylin Sweeten told us to do something that shouldn't take an untimely death to get us to do.

"At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love," she wrote on her Facebook page. "Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you."


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ebb and Flo

They were television advertising icons who resided on the banks of our cultural consciousness.

Mr. Whipple (Charmin bathroom tissue). Madge the manicurist (Palmolive dish detergent). The Maytag Repair Man. Even the Qantas koala bear.

Those were just a few commercial characters who invaded our living rooms in the 1970s and '80s. Their ads---usually 60 seconds in length or even longer---were rarely the same. The format might have been nearly identical, and of course the tag lines were ("DON'T squeeze the Charmin!"), but each appearance by Mr. Whipple or Madge usually had them interacting with different customers.

The actors behind the characters were often nameless, as it should have been, but I'm sure their paychecks weren't nameless---or paltry.

The pitchman on TV these days is usually a local litigator or a voice-over hawking prescription meds.

There isn't really any character that is iconic---no one who, when they appear on the screen, instantly lets us know what product is being advertised.

Except for Flo, the Progressive Insurance Girl.

Played by Stephanie Courtney (we only know that because this is the Internet age), Flo first started appearing on TV in the late-2000s. Her cheery attitude, dark hair, blood red lipstick and ridiculously long eyelashes, all packaged in an all-white uniform, screams insurance at the moment of seeing her.

To Progressive's credit, the Flo ads are kept fresher than most other TV spots, which can gag you with their repetitiveness and lack of variety (i.e. those same three Liberty Mutual Insurance ads that are rotated).

Progressive has put Flo in all sorts of situations, from riding motorcycles to consoling a man in a locker room to being tied to a stake (in an ad that puts Flo in different eras in world history).

But unlike the advertising characters from days gone by, who were mostly universally liked (or, at the very least, tolerated rather easily), Flo, for whatever reason, is a polarizing sort.

My mother, for example, can't stand Flo. I, on the other hand, find Flo attractive in an odd way.

Trolling the Internet, this polarization is acute.

There are Flo-hating websites and forums, as well as those that are visited by men who make no bones that they would like to do some things (sexually) to Flo that are unfit to print here. Other comments on Facebook et al have been from females who like Flo just because they think she's likable.

Courtney, for her part, has never understood the allure of Flo, sexually.

"The GEICO gecko puts out more sexual vibes than Flo does," Courtney has been quoted as saying.



Regardless of where you stand on the Flo issue, one thing can't be disputed: She's a throwback to a time when TV advertising was flush with identifiable characters and mascots. Back when TV hawked more than just insurance, beer, cars and drugs.

Flo's Facebook page has nearly 5 million likes, though that number has been dipping in recent years from its peak of 5.4 million.

Like them or not, the Flo spots at least are freshened up rather frequently. Her character, these days, is seen less in that all-white, fantasy Progressive Insurance "store" and more in various situations and venues.

And, no doubt, Flo has made Stephanie Courtney's wallet fatter than it likely would have been had she been forced to stick to more traditional bit parts on TV and in the movies, as she was doing prior to Flo.

You pretty much love Flo or you hate her; it's hard to be on the fence with her. She's the Howard Cosell of modern television that way.

The GEICO gecko, by the way, should get props for its popularity and freshness of new spots.

Who would have thought that the world of insurance would take over TV advertising?