Thursday, June 28, 2012

I'll Have What She Had

The trick to Nora Ephron's work was that it was written from a woman's perspective but it didn't make fools of the men.

Ephron, the screenwriter/director/producer who passed away on Tuesday (age 71) after a bout with leukemia, wrote some of the best romantic comedies of her generation. She wrote them as a woman, for women, but the male characters were some of the best on screen as well.

An Ephron film, at its best, drew gobs of men to the theater, and not just as polite dates.

But for all of Ephron's notoriety as a master of the rom-com, it was a decidedly different type of story that opened up doors for her.

That would be Silkwood (1983), the adaptation of the true story of Karen Silkwood, the whistle-blowing worker for a plutonium plant who died in a mysterious car accident. Ephron wrote the screenplay and turned the directing over to no less than Mike Nichols. A writer could do worse.

After the success of Silkwood, things got less serious and more funny in Ephron's words and screen direction.

There was 1986's Heartburn, which, like Silkwood, starred Meryl Streep, who paired with Jack Nicholson. Again, Ephron wrote and Nichols directed.

But Ephron will probably forever be tied to When Harry Met Sally.., a smash hit starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. The pairing of Crystal and Ryan, who had on-screen chemistry to the nth degree, plus Ephron's writing and Rob Reiner's direction, was a lethal box office combination.

Among the most famous scenes in cinematic history has Ryan faking an orgasm in a diner, after which an older woman (Reiner's mother in real life) deadpans to her waiter, "I'll have what she's having."

One of the funniest lines ever, right? But someone had to write it. That would be Nora Ephron.

Ryan popped up in another Ephron vehicle (this one she directed as well), Sleepless in Seattle, in which Ryan shared billing, but precious little screen time, with Tom Hanks.

That lack of shared screen time would be more than rectified in 1998's You've Got Mail, among one of the first movies to acknowledge the power of the burgeoning Internet. Ryan and Hanks demonstrated the same sparks together as Ryan and Crystal did nine years earlier in Harry.

Ephron, by this time, was done being just a writer; she was now producing and directing everything she wrote, and thus became one of the few female filmmakers who wielded some genuine power in Hollywood.


Nora Ephron: 1941-2012


Her most recent work was 2009's Julie and Julia, a foodie rom-com in which the Julia in the title was famed chef Julia Child.

But the common thread that ran through her romantic comedies, and I can't emphasize this enough, was Ephron's ability, as both writer and director, to prop up women without downgrading men. Yes, there were some muted villains in some of Ephron's films (Old man Fox in You've Got Mail, who revels in putting other bookstores out of business), but for the most part, the men in her movies weren't dunderheads with bubbles coming out of the seat of their pants.

She wrote and directed movies that got both sexes to the theater willingly and with something for both genders. An Ephron film could be laughed at by the women without making their male dates squirm with shame.

Ephron once wrote a six-word biography for herself thusly, "Secret to life: marry an Italian."

But on a more serious level, she made no secret of her support for the female cause.

"Maybe young women don't wonder whether they can have it all any longer," she once said, "but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all."

Takes one to know one.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Water Boy

It's said that, ideally, you'd take your weight, cut it in half, and the resulting number is how many ounces of water you should drink per day.

I'm secure enough to tell you that my number is approximately 100.

I'm not afraid to indirectly tell you my weight, because for the past several months, water has been my beverage of choice, by far.

I have a 20-oz plastic tumbler that has been seemingly attached to my left hand with invisible string, always filled with ice and frequently being drained of its clear H20.

I like Aquafina when it comes to bottled water, but I can subsist on tap water, too. I don't know how many times a day I am drawing more water into the tumbler from the refrigerator dispenser, but it's enough to give my thumb a nice workout.

At work, we have an unending supply of bottled water (Ice Mountain, but it's fine), and I kill about two of those 16.9-oz bottles per day. So that's 34 ounces right there, plus all the tumblers during the evening. So I figure I'm pretty darn close to the magic number of 100 ounces, if not above it.


The new official beverage of the author
 

I used to be a pop drinker, as did my wife and daughter. We were always in search of the best deal on 12-pack cans of Coke or Pepsi products---at Meijer, Target, etc. Three for $12 was dismissed. Three for $11 was sometimes acceptable. But usually we would only purchase three for $9 or $10---and our loyalties went with Coke or Pepsi based on what was on sale.

But then the pop started going slower and slower as my water consumption increased. Before long I had the rest of the family on board with the whole water thing. Now, we only purchase two liter bottles of pop, and Towne Club at that. Why? Because we found them for 79 cents a bottle at a local market.

The 12-packs of pop in the basement fridge have been replaced by cases of Aquafina or Dasani. But I pretty much let the ladies have the bottles while I draw my tumblers from the fridge's tap.

I love my water. An ice cold tumbler goes down so nice. I don't miss pop. I have an occasional cola with some popcorn or pizza, but that's it. I'm on my third tumbler of water as I write this blog entry.

Between the water consumption and the 2-3 walks per day of the family dog, I at least have the illusion that I'm doing something healthy for my body.

Late night snacking continues to be a problem, however. I wonder how many ounces of leftovers and salty snacks are appropriate for a 200-lb man? And, after midnight?

I have a feeling that number is way below 100.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Hurry-Up Artist

The world according to LeRoy Neiman could be captured very efficiently.

The painting artist Neiman, famous for his bushy handlebar mustache and his ability to create art on the fly, died Wednesday in New York at age 91.

Neiman painted people in action; Neiman's art was what the world would look like if a still camera could snap impressionism.

There was no such thing as a Neiman "still life." He painted people doing something---playing poker, boxing each other, engaging on the gridiron. And he did it rapidly.

It wasn't unusual for the TV networks to commission Neiman, especially during Super Bowls, to produce "on the spot" works---the prior action as Neiman saw it. Then the cameras would show Neiman at work, producing yet another work of color, ambience and activity.

Neiman painted life like a photographer shot it, but with the editorializing that the painter gets to do, that the photographer can't. Neiman's works had the ability to capture the human condition with brush strokes instead of a lens.




Neiman, foreground, and Muhammad Ali, background, as the artist saw him
 

You could even call Neiman a journalist, for that's how vividly he was able to tell a story with his paints.

Sportswriter Nick Seitz, in a story at CNN.com, said Neiman had "the journalistic talent, as well as the artistic ability, to convey the essence of a game or contestant with great impact, from the Kentucky Derby to Wilt Chamberlain, from the America's Cup to Muhammad Ali, from the Super Bowl to Bobby Hull."

You can thank Hugh Hefner, of all people, for hooking Neiman up with the world.

It was Hefner who hired Neiman to produce a series of paintings called "Man at His Leisure" for Playboy magazine. Neiman did it, for 15 years, beginning in the 1950s. The world took notice of the way Neiman would so succinctly and efficiently capture the essence of such iconic events as the Grand Prix in Monaco and the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

Neiman was as colorful as his paintings. The handlebar 'stache was just the tip of his iceberg.

To hear the artist tell it, the creation of Neiman was every bit as important as the creation of his art.

"I guess I created LeRoy Neiman," he once said, according to the biography on his website. "Nobody else told me how to do it. Well, I'm a believer in the theory that the artist is as important as his work."

As big as LeRoy Neiman was, however, his work is still bigger. And, obviously, it will live forever, unlike the mortal artist who created it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What's So "Real," Anyway?

I think the problem I have with "reality TV" is that the producers/networks and I have drastic differences of opinion as to what constitutes "reality."

To me, reality isn't following the life of a B-list celebrity who is clearly signing on for the show because he/she can't get a job in the business anymore.

To me, reality isn't watching a guy (or girl) trying to find love in a forced environment that is about as unnatural and unconducive to finding love as you can get.

To me, reality isn't the exploits of people who do very unusual things to make their bucks, i.e. the pawn shop people, the tattoo people and the storage people.

No.

Reality, to me, is the single mom who is trying to decide whether to pay the light bill or buy food for her babies.

Reality, to me, is the caregiver of an elderly, infirm, or terminally ill family member, and all the emotions and angst that go with such an arduous task.

Reality,to me, is the challenged high school student who is trying to overcome calculus in the morning and bullies in the afternoon.


One of the latest "reality TV" entries is upon us


Reality, to me, is the unemployed father who has to look his family in the face every morning and tell them that everything is going to be OK---even if he isn't sure about that, deep down.

Reality, to me, is the rescuing of uncared for or injured domestic animals and trying to find them loving homes ahead of the needle that will put those animals down forever.

But do you think we'll ever see a series about any of it?
What is so "real" about the reality dreck that is being shoved down our throats? And it seems to be getting worse.

Look, I know there is an audience for this junk---or else the junk wouldn't be cranked out at break neck speed.

But can we please stop calling it "reality"?

The great irony is that there is very little that is "real" about any of these so-called reality shows.

These shows are like controlled lab experiments with the partipants playing the roles of the rats who run through their mazes and ring their bells.

I'm not saying don't watch, because who the hell am I?

But enough with calling this genre "reality TV."

Because there really ain't nothing real about any of it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Flag on the Play!

It was a ritual I remember pretty clearly, though I took part in it some 37 years ago.

I was an 11-year-old safety boy---remember those?---and part of my duty included taking care of the school's U.S. flag.

And I do mean "taking care of."

I remember that there was much reverence, as much as a youngster can show, every time a partner and I lowered, folded, unfolded and raised Old Glory.

Every morning I was part of the tandem that was responsible for getting the flag up the pole before the school day. Sometimes I was part of the pair who lowered it at the end of the day and folded it, properly.

In both instances, the flag was sacred. I remember being told to don't dare allow the flag to touch the ground, even for a second. And it had to be folded a particular way---a  way that I really didn't understand because it seemed clunky, but I did it. Because that's how I was taught.

As I grew older, I learned of other unwritten---and written---rules of how the U.S. flag ought to be treated.

Shining a light on it at night, for example. Lowering it at the end of the day, if there is to be no light source.

A neighbor of ours, a couple years ago, installed a flag pole and hoisted the stars and stripes up it. Terrific.

He hasn't paid attention to the flag since. He certainly hasn't shined a light on it at night. It wasn't long before his flag, once brand new, started to look tattered and torn and something straight out of a Revolutionary War painting.

So the question on this Flag Day 2012 is simply, "Do we as Americans know how to treat our flag anymore?"



This is a nifty gadget for individuals who wish to fly the U.S. flag at night


There's something called protocol, and I don't think we're following it.

I don't know how many times I've seen U.S. flags flying at night---in the dark.

The U.S. flag, should one choose to display it, ought to be done so properly. I think we're losing that.

For those wondering why I haven't called my neighbor out about his ham handed attempt at flying Old Glory, I can tell you that he's not the type to take such advice---at all. His intentions might have been good, but his execution is sorely lacking. And always will be.

There's been much consternation over the past several decades about flag burning. I can see why that's a hot button issue.

But daily displays of the U.S. flag that are at once derelict, lazy and disrespectful ought to be paid attention to, as well.

Fly it. Display it. Do it proudly.

But do it right, or don't do it at all.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bacon---The OTHER Dessert

Burger King knows America all too well.

When in doubt, offer us bacon.

Despite all the saber rattling about eating healthier in this country, the struggling hamburger chain is turning to bacon---fat, salty, calorie-filled bacon---to attract customers this summer.

But here's the best part: the bacon is being sprinkled and laid on...an ice cream sundae.

You heard me.

The salty-sweet dessert clocks in at 510 calories, 18 grams of fat and 61 grams of sugar.
So what does a bacon sundae consist of? Vanilla soft serve with fudge, caramel, bacon crumbles and a piece of bacon.

It was the comedian Jim Gaffigan who said that "EVERYTHING tastes better with bacon. Foods wrap themselves with bacon in order to taste better."

But this is a little ridiculous, don't you think?

No. 2 BK has been scuffling, trying to keep up with No. 1 McDonald's for quite some time. Burger King's menu items just haven't landed as well as they would have liked.

So now they turn to bacon, that old standby.

Early returns, in my highly unscientific poll, aren't encouraging.

My polling sample consisted of my wife, daughter, and a co-worker.

The responses I got ranged from "That sounds awful" to "That sounds disgusting."


Yes, that's a strip of bacon sticking out from that sundae


The new item has already begun to be offered, in Nashville, TN---which should come as little surprise. If anyone likes their fat, it's the Southerners. The rest of the country will be rolled out starting on Thursday.

The bacon sundae is part of a slew of limited time items which include several pork, beef and chicken sandwiches.

BK has changed its tag line to "Taste is King," a departure from "Have it Your Way."

Makes sense. I can't imagine that a bacon sundae is having it anyone's way.

But this is the country that has introduced such items as fried dough (Elephant Ears), corn dogs, hush puppies and chicken fried steak to the world.

Who knows? Maybe bacon sundaes will take off.

I mean, it's a breakfast AND a dessert. If we can't be healthy, at least we can be efficient.

Friday, June 8, 2012

2012's Suicide Watch

Seems that 2012 has turned into the year of the suicide.

It's claimed the lives of former athletes, celebrities and even children this year---and at a rate that feels higher than normal.

The latest victim is Bob Welch, former guitarist, singer and one of the founding members of Fleetwood Mac. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest yesterday.

Welch was 65 and apparently had a back injury that wasn't getting better and might have left him in an invalid state. A suicide note was apparently found at the scene. Welch's wife discovered his body, poor woman.

I'm not just saying this now in the wake of the news, but Welch's solo hit, "Sentimental Lady" (1977) remains one of my favorite tunes and one that I turn up really loud whenever I catch it on the radio, which isn't so much anymore, though I suspect over the next few days my chances of hearing it have increased.

What I didn't know was that when Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Welch wasn't invited to the party. That doesn't seem right.

"It basically comes down to the fact that they don't like me anymore," he told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland at the time. "I guess they can do what they want. I could understand it if I had been a sideman for a year. But I was an integral part of that band ... I put more of myself into that band than anything else I've ever done."

Often there are few more tempestuous relationships in life than the ones between pop music band members. In-fighting has destroyed some of the best. Just look at what happened to The Beatles.

So many personalities. So many temptations---some acted upon, some not. So many directions in which the band is pulled. Agents and managers with hidden agendas. Varying maturity with which fame is handled. Different paths taken by each member's creativity.

All those, and more, can drive wedges and wreck the cohesivenss of a music group.

Welch wasn't with Mac when the band hit its zenith in the mid-to-late 1970s. He was gone by the time "Rumours" dominated record sales in 1977-78.

But there might not have been a Fleetwood Mac, at least not in the manner that it was, without Bob Welch and his guitar.

As a songwriter, Welch had his songs recorded by Kenny Rogers, Sammy Hagar, the Pointer Sisters and others.

Early reports suggest that Welch took his own life to save his wife from having to take care of him as an invalid, due to his spinal situation. However honorable that might appear on the surface, it's too bad that Welch didn't give her a chance to do so. Maybe she would have been a great provider and wouldn't have been dissuaded by such a challenge.

But we'll never know.


Welch's solo album, "French Kiss," had one of the most iconic covers of the 1970s


Suicide, obviously, is an irreversible decision, once successfully carried out. I've always believed it to be a selfish act, relieving the victim but leaving the burden of pain and questions of why to those left behind. It's jumping ship and leaving the women and children behind.

In the other high profile suicide case of 2012---that of former NFL star Junior Seau---the violence of football and post-concussion syndrome has been blamed for contributing to Seau's frame of mind at the time of his self-inflicted gunshot wound.

As for Welch? He hadn't had any occurences of mental illness, that we know of. More questions of "Why?" are forthcoming, of course.'

In a 2003 interview, Welch summed up his expectations when he got into music.

"I just wanted to play guitar in a good band," he said. "I wanted to make the music I love. I wanted to travel the world and have adventures."

Mission accomplished.

Then real life got in the way, apparently.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Signs of the Times

Ever wonder what happened to Winkelman's? Jacobson's? Uniroyal?

What about Farmer Jack? Great Scott? A&P?

Stroh's? Twin Pines? Pants Galore?

Fretter Appliance? Belvedere and Bond-Bilt? New York Carpet World?

Highland Appliance? Sanders? Kresge?

Cunningham's? Red Barn? Burger Chef?

To name a few.

And that's just a percentage of the businesses, mostly local, that no longer exist but which I remember in my days growing up in Livonia in the 1970s.

I remember the commercials for many of the aforementioned as well.

Ollie Fretter promised us a five pound bag of coffee if he couldn't beat our best deal. Mr. Belvedere's phone number was TYler 8-7100.

TV newscaster Marilyn Turner did commercials for Carpet Center, flashing her gams. The Highland Appliance spots were legendary, often featuring local (and sometimes national) celebrities.

Irving Nussbaum proudly said that New York Carpet World was "the better carpet people."

Mel Farr flew through the sky with a cape, promising a "Farr better deal."

Remember listening to the radio and suddenly it was "Farmer Jack savings time"?

The Twin Pines man, I have written about before. I can still see the bright green trucks.

There was a Kresge in Universal Mall in Warren, back when it wasn't unusual to find drugstores and "five and dimes" in malls.

I also fondly recall the outdoor signs of the retailers and restaurants back in the day.

One word comes to mind---two, actually: BIG and garish. And they often rotated on an axis.

Think about the Arby's signs of the day: the HUGE 10 gallon hat with ARBY'S ROAST BEEF SANDWICH IS DELICIOUS spelled on it.



Now THAT'S a sign!


Little Caesars had its namesake rotating above the pizzeria, a pie impaled on his spear.

Kentucky Fried Chicken joints had the big, rotating buckets. Union 76 gas stations had that round, orange ball with 76 on it, twice. It rotated, too.

If they weren't rotating or spinning, the signs were lit like the Vegas Strip.

The '60s and '70s signs were big on lightning bolt-like arrows and anything that flashed or changed colors intermittently.

I swear the signs of those times must have weighed several tons.

Look at a Holiday Inn sign now and then compare it to those of 35-40 years ago. The older versions were, again, big and garish with the script "Holiday Inn" brightly lit with sparkling lights.

There was nothing compact about those days.

Today, as those companies have long ago withered away, we're mostly stuck with "big box retailers" and franchises that I don't really trust.

And their commercials stink. And their signs are too small. And they don't light up right.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hero Turned Kissing Bandit

I know I'm in the minority, but when I think of Richard Dawson, the scrapbook in my head calls up images from his days as Corporal Peter Newkirk in the hit show "Hogan's Heroes."

That's not normal, I know. Most people remember Dawson, who died yesterday at age 72 from complications of esophageal cancer, as the cheery, kissy-face host of the game show, "The Family Feud."

But "Heroes" was one of my favorite shows growing up. I loved the theme song, the opening credits, and the fact that it aired on Friday nights. As a kid, anything associated with Friday was a good thing.

And I liked Dawson as Cpl. Newkirk, who was the sheister among Hogan's "heroes." Dawson's character picked locks, lifted wallets, practiced sleight of hand and was the group's bookie, among other nefarious things.

Dawson was a Brit, the son of an American mother and a British father. His birth name was Colin Lionel Emm. He ran away from home at age 14 to join the Merchant Marines, but abandoned that as well to pursue a career in comedy---under the name Dickie Dawson, of which he would change the first name to Richard.

In "Hogan's Heroes," Dawson displayed the cool, mellow persona that he would tap into later on as arguably the most popular panelist on "Match Game" and as the host of "Family Feud."

In both game shows, Dawson became a Kissing Bandit.

For whatever reason, Dawson had a fetish for kissing female contestants---young and old; big and small; pretty and plain. And the women loved kissing him back. The kissy face stuff started on "Match Game," when Dawson (famously occupying the middle seat on the bottom row) doled out smooches to female contestants after their game ended.

But it was on "Feud" where Dawson's kissing fetish became most famous. As host, Dawson and his counterpart on "The Price is Right," Bob Barker, were frequently hugged, attacked and, in Dawson's case, kissed by exuberant women who appeared to be more excited to meet the male hosts than to actually win cash and prizes.

A TV host today couldn't get away with the kissing that Dawson did as "Feud" host (1976-85). His kisses were on the lips, after all. Frankly, watching it today, on reruns, is a little uncomfortable. though it wasn't like Dawson French kissed the contestants.

But back to "Hogan's Heroes."


Dawson as Cpl. Newkirk in "Hogan's Heroes" (1965-71)


 
Dawson was part of a rich ensemble that bobbed at or near the top of the ratings from 1965-71. Set during WWII, Colonel Hogan and his group of American, French and British POWs made a mockery of the likes of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz on a weekly basis. It was sort of like "Gilligan's Island"---ensemble cast is stuck in a place from which it will never escape, yet manages to engage in hijinks and get involved in mild intrigue and danger every week.

Sadly, Dawson's involvement with "Heroes" and star Bob Crane has a dark footnote.

It was Dawson who introduced Crane to John Henry Carpenter, who worked with the video department at Sony Electronics and who had access to early video tape recorders. In later years, Carpenter, who photographed some of Crane's sexual escapades with various women, would be implicated (and acquitted) in Crane's murder (still unsolved).

On "Match Game," Dawson was almost always picked by the contestants (male and female) to match them in each game's finale. I don't know what the official statistics show, but it seemed that Dawson had some sort of ESP with the contestants; his winning percentage, I bet, was over .500.

I won't digress into a history of  Dawson and "Feud" here; chances are I won't be telling you anything that you don't already know.

Anyhow, this is more about Dawson on "Hogan's Heroes," a show that was groundbreaking, in that it was the first one that made fun of WWII, or war in general. The ensemble cast became a group of friends that we invited into our living rooms every week, much like other famous casts ("M*A*S*H"; "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"; etc).

And Dawson played no minor role in the show's success. Before his lips became more famous than the rest of him.