Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sugar Over Vinegar

It's a debate as to what is being judged more closely and harshly on the new season of "American Idol": the would-be idols, or the new judges.

First impressions after Week One and last night: the contestants are still a mixed bag of talent and bozos.

The new judges are a breath of fresh air.

If this sounds like an indictment against the sour-pussed Simon Cowell, so be it.

The new twosome, former Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler and singer/dancer/actress Jennifer Lopez, have shown the ability to render judgment without quarts of vinegar. It comes out in teaspoonfuls from Tyler and Lopez.

The third judge, Randy Jackson, seems to be at times trying to compensate for the loss of Cowell by going overboard with mean-spirited comments---even when they're obviously undeserved.

They fall flat coming out of Jackson's mouth.

But the trio of judges makes for a nice blend.

Tyler is funny, Lopez is adorable and has empathy, and Jackson is the returning vet who feels the need to remind his colleagues that not all of these singers can, you know, SING.

Speaking of which, what possesses some of these folks to show up, wait hours and hours, and then belt out sounds that defy description?

On national TV, no less.

Dreams are great. But doesn't reality ever sink in?

What's more, it's odd that the most unlistenable contestants are often the most defiant and angry ones, after they're shown the door.

"I can sing better than half the people here!" one woman shrieked after her audition went over like a lead balloon.

"Is it because I'm not SKINNY?!" she pressed on.

"This has nothing to do with looks," Jackson calmly explained. "It's about talent."

The not-skinny-one would have none of it; she stormed off, declaring that she didn't want to be on camera anymore. When a hand-held camera followed her out of the room, she glared at it.

Clearly, the producers of "Idol" choose to show us the bottom feeders for effect, but I wonder how many of them there really are. Surely there can't be THAT many delusional people, can there be?

Tyler and Lopez: a breath of fresh "Idol" air

But back to Tyler and Lopez.

I like how the newbies let the untalented contestants down gently. I like how they are truly captivated by the good voices. And I like how it seems to truly bother them when they have to squash someone's "Idol" dream.

Jackson is OK, but he's old news. Tyler and Lopez are all the rage.

Critics are already out on Tyler and Lopez, saying that they said "yes" to too many contestants.


After years of Cowell's snide remarks, it's refreshing to see that people can be rejected without being humiliated.

After all, they often do that pretty well all by themselves.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Crazy Talk

Jared Loughner is, without question, off his rocker. A total nut job. The elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor---all that stuff.

But what he's not, is insane.

At least not in the "I had no idea what the HELL I was doing" kind of way.

Loughner, the alleged gunman---not that we have to really use "alleged," but there you go---in the shootings of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and several others, made his first appearance in court yesterday. And he's just plain nuts.

Loughner was seen smiling in court as charges were read against him. But not in the "I'm just a happy-go-lucky guy" way---in the "he knows something we don't" way.

Charlie Manson smiled a lot, you know. And you remember what atrocities he was responsible for.

Loughner is only 22, yet his mind is already filled with hate and paranoia and he's just too young to be so terribly jaded.

Unless he's bonkers---which he is.

But he's not insane.

What's the difference? Plenty.

The insanity defense is rarely successful, and that's as it should be. To be not guilty by reasons of insanity means that the perpetrator committed a violent crime with little capability to stop himself. Maybe he snapped. Maybe he was in some sort of trance-like state.

Loughner was no more insane at the time he started pulling the trigger and pumping people full of bullets as you are going to the store to buy eggs and milk.

Both acts---Loughner driving to the shopping center where Giffords was appearing, you going to the market---require pre-meditated thoughts, a degree of planning, and a mission that needs to be accomplished.

Loughner: Crazy but not insane

Loughner's was not the act of an insane person, in the judicial sense.

Deranged? Disturbed? Addled?

Absolutely. But not insane.

Loughner pleaded "not guilty" yesterday, and it makes me wonder if the old insanity plea is up his sleeve.

Let's hope not, for Loughner isn't insane.

He knew exactly what he wanted to do on that fateful Saturday. His aim was to murder Rep. Giffords, plain and simple. If that meant that others would have to die, like a nine-year-old girl, then so be it.

Collateral damage, you know.

"Not guilty by reason of insanity" is an antiquated defense whose success rate has fallen dramatically over the years as the courts have gotten smarter.

Jared Loughner is crazier than a box of hammers.

But he's not insane.

Not even close.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Outside the Bun, Inside the Tortilla

You've got to hand it to Taco Bell. They keep pumping out new menu items using the same five ingredients.

They're thinking "outside the bun" all the time, they are.

First, this isn't an anti-Taco Bell rant. Quite the contrary; I find T-Bell to be the best "bang for your buck" among the fast food competitors. I like all the menu items whose costs are measured in cents, not dollars. I like that you can take as many sauce packets as you want, sans rationing.

And it truly is "fast"---much more so than the burger joints.

Taco Bell does more with five ingredients than some places do with twice that many.

The folks at T-Bell have been saddled with tortillas, beans, beef or chicken, tomatoes and onions for decades, yet they keep coming up with new menu items including just those ingredients, with few exceptions.

Everything is self-wrapped in its own casing, for the most part, except for the tacos, which are the roofless convertibles to the rest of the menu's sedans.

I'm not going to bother to list the plethora of items that the Head of Cooks has come up with over the years, but they are amazing in their diversity, considering they all contain the same stuff, for the most part.

Yet another Taco Bell menu item utilizing the usual suspects

But that's how Mexican food is, similar to Italian cuisine, which is mostly pasta, cheese, and sauce.

Did you laugh scornfully when I called Taco Bell, Mexican food?

Well, what ELSE would you call it?

I know the menu items at your local T-Bell aren't exactly what a Mexican mother from south of the border would serve her family, so I'll compromise and call it Mexican-American food. Or, more accurately, Meximerican.

Call it whatever you like, you can't deny that Taco Bell gets awfully creative with the same five things.

They have a new item now, one that imports Frito's corn chips into its makeup. But the rest of it is still a flour tortilla and the usual suspects inside.

McDonald's, Burger King and the rest are constantly falling all over themselves trying to put together an eclectic menu, one that dares to be different. They use lots of different ingredients---way more than Taco Bell.

But Taco Bell keeps its menu items on the cheap side, and they keep coming up with new takes on old ingredients.

It's like one of those word puzzles, where you have to come up with 25 different words using one with five letters.

Taco Bell prides itself on thinking "outside the bun." I keep waiting for the time when they'll have to think "outside the tortilla."

More than 40 years after arriving on the food scene, that time hasn't come yet. It may never.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oh, Reeg!

If you wanted to launch a nearly-50-year career in television, invading people's homes and gabbing their ears off, you could have done better than to be Joey Bishop's sidekick, of all things.

Yet that's the path that Regis Philbin took, and it worked.

Philbin was the quintessential second banana---kind of a poor man's Ed McMahon, if you can imagine such a thing---for four years in the mid-to-late 1960s, working under the shadow of talk show host and former Rat Packer Bishop, late nights on ABC.

For many, that might have been the end of the resume.

But Regis kept finding work, kept managing to horn his way into folks' living rooms.

Now, about 50 years after it started, Philbin's career is about to come to an end. He's leaving "Live with Regis and Kelly" at the end of the year, a year in which he'll turn 80 years old.

Whenever a celebrity can leave his or her medium on his or her own terms, that's a feather in the old cap. For every Carson or Letterman or Philbin who leaves/will leave voluntarily, there are hundreds of actors/hosts/emcees who get kicked to the curb in one way or another.

Like so many second bananas, Regis Philbin had no discernible talent. Still doesn't, really, except for one, and it's a big one: the ability to be likable.

Don't underestimate the power of this particular "talent."

Philbin doesn't act, doesn't really sing. Isn't all that good of an interviewer. But he's self-effacing and seems like a guy you'd like to hang around with---if for no other reason than he would appear to be someone who'd defer the spotlight to you, if that's what you wanted.

He's the second banana who stayed that way, even when he was hosting the game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" on ABC in the late 1990s, early 2000s.

In that role, Regis played second banana to the contestants and to the game itself. He was even the sidekick to the dramatic lights and sound effects.

He was the host, but he wasn't the star. And that's kind of what his entire career has been like.

There's no question that Philbin, after over 20 years in television, finally found his milieu when he teamed with Kathie Lee Gifford for a daytime gabfest. The chemistry between he and Gifford, and then later with current co-host Kelly Ripa, was plain as the nose on your face.

Theirs were softball interviews, but that was OK, because "Live" didn't purport to be anything other than a relaxed conversation, either between co-hosts or between co-hosts and guest. The audience was overwhelmingly female, and older than most targeted demographics. There was a lot of homemaker to everything.

The very likable (if not talented) Regis Philbin

Philbin was along for the ride when "Millionaire" exploded onto the scene in 1999, giving rebirth to the game show genre, which had been moribund for years. He wasn't so much of a host as he was a maitre'd, directing you to your seat and letting the contestants, the lights, and the electronic music provide the bulk of the entertainment.

Regis, during "Millionaire," would essentially stop by your table every so often and ask you how things were going, but then he'd fade back into the shadows, as he was so used to doing.

"Millionaire" was a victim of its own success, and overexposure, but Regis was fine; he had a steady day job, after all.

Regis Philbin may go down as one of the best-liked TV personalities of all time.

Which is why he's been in our living rooms for half a century.

Sometimes the best talents are the ones you can't teach.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cycle-logical Violence

In the days leading up to President John Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas in November, 1963, it would seem that, by today's standards, all the wrong things were done---if you wanted to keep a president alive, that is.

Maps of Kennedy's motorcade route through the city were published on the front page of the local newspapers. The "bubble top" of his limousine was removed, so people could more easily see him---and shoot him.

All this in a part of the country where he wasn't exactly a native son.

Can you imagine such egregious decisions being made today?

Of course not. Today, presidents can bug in and out of town in almost stealth-like fashion, compared to JFK's Texas trip in 1963. Often, news of the president's impending visit doesn't hit the papers until the day before or even the day of the visit. And those stories certainly wouldn't publish the president's planned route from stop to stop.

But it wasn't as if Kennedy's peril didn't have some precedent.

In 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists tried to kill President Truman while he was staying at Blair House, across the street from the White House. And in the 1930s, President Roosevelt was in grave danger in Miami, as his motorcade was shot at, leaving the mayor of Chicago dead.

Presidents McKinley (1901), Garfield (1881), and Lincoln (1865) had been assassinated, so it wasn't like Kennedy's safety should have been considered guaranteed, no matter the missteps.

Since the JFK murder, presidents don't ride in open-roofed cars in motorcades. And newspapers don't publish routes and other information helpful to a would-be assassin.

But you can't protect 100% against crazy.

Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D) is fighting for her life, having been shot in the head by 22-year-old, mentally disturbed Jared Loughner, who killed six and wounded 14. It was at a meet and greet at a Tucson shopping center where the carnage occurred.

In the hours after the shootings, lawmakers were speaking of putting an end to such public gatherings.

I can understand that knee jerk reaction, but it's misguided. How many such occurrences are there every day in this country---where an elected official appears in public to meet constituents?

Multiply that by 365 days in a year, and that's a LOT of appearances by a LOT of electeds.

I'm not downplaying Giffords's shooting---not at all. But let's keep it in context and perspective. The Secret Service can't protect every member of Congress at all times. And even if they could, a wacko like Loughner could still inflict damage.

Loughner seized an oppportunity that any determined nut job with a gun could have seized: a low-profile visit to a shopping center on a Saturday afternoon by the local Congresswoman---with low security and even lower perceived threat.

Loughner got to within three or four feet of Rep. Giffords, according to witnesses. Of course he did---everyone's guard was down.

Sadly, violence against politicians in this country has been on a fairly consistent cycle ever since Lincoln was killed in 1865. You had Garfield 16 years later, McKinley 20 years after that, the attempt on FDR about 30 years after that, the try on Truman 15 years or so after that, the murder of JFK 13 years later, and the killing of Bobby Kennedy less than five years after that.

Then it was Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, gunned down at a Maryland shopping center in 1972 as he ran for president, leaving him wheelchair-bound.

Arthur Bremer is subdued after shooting Alabama Gov. George Wallace at a presidential campaign stop at a Maryland shopping center, May 1972

Two years after Wallace, President Ford's life was in peril---twice within several weeks, both in California, and both by women.

John Hinckley tried to kill President Reagan less than seven years after the Ford attempts.

Now, not quite 30 years after Reagan, here comes Jared Loughner.

The cycle continues.

I'm sure that the Giffords shooting will have lawmakers on edge, at all levels---local, state and federal. That's totally understandable. But the reality is that 100% protection is impossible. All you can do is be on the lookout.

What should give the elected officials more pause is how a mentally ill guy like Jared Loughner came into possession of a firearm in the first place.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Take THAT! (but none of mine)

Good for Elizabeth Edwards. Better for her children.

It was reported by CNN this morning that Edwards, who died on December 7, 2010 from complications due to cancer, left her estranged, philandering husband, former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, out of her will.

Completely out.

CNN said that Elizabeth Edwards, in a will dated December 1, wrote, "All of my furniture, furnishings, household goods, jewelry, china, silverware and personal effects and any automobiles ... to be divided among them ...," meaning her three remaining children---Catharine, Emma and John. Another son, Wade, died in a car crash in 1996.

The will names 28-year-old Catharine as the executor.

Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after her husband's failed bid for the vice presidency in November 2004.

John Edwards eventually admitted to an affair with former campaign videographer Rielle Hunter, which took place, he said, in 2006 when his wife's cancer was in remission---as if that makes a difference.

John Edwards would also later admit to fathering a child with Hunter---an allegation he initially denied even after conceding the affair.

Edwards pulled out of the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate race when it was evident the choice was going to boil down to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Edwards, had he stayed in the race and captured the nomination, would have done untold damage to the party once news of the affair leaked, which it certainly would have.

So, from the grave, Elizabeth gets the final, parting shot by leaving nothing to her straying hubby. If there's anything worse than having an extramarital affair, it's having it when a spouse is battling serious health problems.

Elizabeth Edwards, of course, came out of the whole mess with a much more positive image than John; she said the incident helped her focus on resuming her role as an advocate for the poor and for health care reform. She also said it pushed her to refocus on her role as a mother.

In other words, John's hurtful act only made Elizabeth Edwards a stronger woman.

That strength, it turns out, culminated in her final days as she constructed a most just will, her final "gotcha."

Not that she didn't have class beforehand.

Asked about John last September, she said, "I see the father of my children, and that's very important to me. Particularly since I have a terminal disease, this is the person who at some point will take over the primary parenting, and it's important to me that he heal, if he needs to."

He just won't be doing it with any of her stuff.

Good for her.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fat Chance

I started eating on Thanksgiving Day and I haven't stopped.

Correction: I did stop---to go to the bathroom, and to breathe---barely.

I remember having a routine physical seven or eight years ago, sometime in mid-November. My doctor said everything was fine, but that I could drop a few pounds.

Sure, who couldn't stand to lose some weight?

But notice the first sentence, two paragraphs above. The checkup took place in mid-November.

You think I'm losing weight from mid-November through the New Year?


My wife won't agree with me, but I put partial blame on her. She's an Italian-Polish woman who can cook circles around you, which means that her dishes aren't exactly to be confused with anything Lean Cuisine would come out with.

So yeah, I blame her, a little. I mean, she cooks so GOOD.

So we started eating on Thanksgiving Day at our house, like the rest of the country. But we pressed on, long after the leftover hot turkey sandwiches and my traditional turkey soup had been consumed. It seems like we've been on a slippery slope into a vat of lard ever since.

Right after the turkey was gone, here came the hectic holiday season, with its shopping and LOTS of ordering takeout.

Takeout was a main option because my wife was either too darn tired to cook, or was inside a mall right around dinner time.

We did it all---subs, chicken, Taco Bell, burgers, Chinese, pizza, you name it. It got to the point that it was literally impossible to say, "You know, I could really go for _________, because we haven't had it in a while."

Then it was time for holiday baking---cookies and the like. And, don't you know, someone had to eat that stuff up, too.

Before you knew it, Christmas Eve was here, and that meant Honeybaked Ham. Christmas dinner was a beef tenderloin (cooked by my mother), and then it was right back to the leftover ham, and its sides: Italian mushrooms cooked in water and oil; green bean casserole; potato salad (my wife makes the best, hands down); yams; and rolls. Dessert was pecan pie and lemon meringue pie.

It was Thanksgiving, Part II.

The ham bone was used to make my wife's delicious Pasta Fagioli, a vat of which was made, and that I'm still eating, but I don't care because I love it.

Just when we got rid of the ham, it was time for New Year's Eve, and that meant a trip to Antonio's Italian Market at 17 Mile and Ryan for a slew of lunchmeats, cheeses, olives, and breads. Oh, and later that night---shrimp with cocktail sauce, and two spreads for crackers: crab and clam.

Pasta Fagioli, a.k.a Beans and Macaroni

Followed, naturally, by our traditional New Year's Day feast of homemade lasagna---with cheesecake for dessert.

The lasagna is just about gone. The Pasta Fagioli is still hanging around, stubbornly.

So it's a new year and I can finally stop eating---or at least come up for air.

And remind me never to schedule a physical in November again. It's just a waste of doc's time, and breath.