Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Last Movies I Saw

I saw two films in the last couple of days, and much like my previous post under this heading, the two had something in common. The movies were Cadillac Records directed by Darnell Martin and starring Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, and Beyonce Knowles; and Valkyrie directed by Bryan Singer and starring Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh. Both are pretty good but could have been better save for I see as a shared flaw (that manifests itself in slightly different ways), namely that they are undermined by their biggest stars.

Both movies are based on true stories, the first an account of the birth and development of the seminal Chicago blues record label, Chess Records in the late 1940s through the 1960s, and the second a retelling of the story of how a group of German military leaders tried to assasinate Hitler in 1944. The raw material in each case is strong, and most of what you see in each film is pretty compelling. I know a bit about the first story, having researched the record industry extensively (it was the subject of my doctoral dissertation). Like most "Hollywood-ized" true stories, there are some fairly jarring lapses in historical accuracy. For example-- where the heck was Phil Chess? The movie centers on brother Leonard, for good reason, but no mention of his business partner at all seemed a bit extreme. The film also suggests that dj Alan Freed had a role in breaking the Rolling Stones in the US (at WINS in New York City, no less), which is a pretty bizarre stretch given that he'd basically been run out of radio some years earlier. The movie also plays loose with the chronology of Chuck Berry's career, having him arrested in Chicago (for a crime committed in Missouri) while listening to a Beach Boys record that wouldn't come out until he was released from prison three years after his arrest. But that kind 0f stuff is to be expected. What really interrupts the narrative flow of the film is the switch in emphasis away from Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf to Etta James (played by Beyonce) at which point the film takes a pronounced melodramatic turn. It seemed that the filmmaker fell prey to Beyonce's star power and as a consequence lost the rhythm and I think the heart of the film. That really isn't a criticism of Beyonce's performance, it's just that it seemed like an appendage to a different movie that had been developing up to that point, with the more subtle portrayals by Jeffrey Wright as Waters and Eamonn Walker as Wolf sacrificed to play up the more conventional star power of Knowles. It didn't exactly ruin the movie, but it made me wish for a follow through to the narrative tension that was as a result left largely unexplored.

The shortcoming in Valkyrie was that its pre-eminent star, Tom Cruise, came across as incredibly lightweight, especially compared to those who surrounded him in this cast. I'm not one of those people who automatically discounts anything Cruise does, but he is hardly at his best in a role that requires a dose of emotional heft. He comes across as an earnest boy scout, while Wilkinson and Nighy create characters of real psychological depth. Again, this isn't a severe handicap, as the inherent drama of the story effectively moves it forward anyway; but I can't help but think it would have been elevated beyond the mere thriller category if the central figure were a bit more interesting to watch (as a comparison, I might cite George Clooney in Michael Clayton).

I'm probably sounding way more critical than I need to be in relation to the films I've written about recently, since I've actually enjoyed them all to some degree (I sure don't feel that I've wasted any money on any of them). It's partly that I'm waiting for something to knock my socks off this holiday season, and so far all the likely candidates have been somewhat pedestrian. I'll keep looking for a knockout and let you know when (being optomistic) I find one.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reliable to the End

In what can only be described as a quintessential "duh" story, George W. Bush decides that his vacation (with what, 2o odd days left in his administration?) is more important than dealing with the escalating violence in Palestine. Granted, there's little good he's likely to do with regard to the situation, but doesn't his attitude convey a message (as has been the case so many times in the last eight years) that we shouldn't care about these things either? Kind of reminds one of Buchanan racing back to his farm prior to Lincoln's inaguration, as the southern states debated secession. What a putz!

Buffalo At Night (Hometown Quiz)

I was downtown last night to see a show, and took a couple of night shots of the city streets near the Market Arcade. Here's one with three major downtown landmarks lit up in the skyline-- can you identify them all?

Here's another shot, of the corner of Franklin and Chippewa. This place is really hopping in the summertime, but on a chilly Monday night in December, not so much. But I think it's still a nice picture:

Maybe the Last Christmas Picture

Nick, Eileen & Raechelle were visiting over the weekend, so here's a picture of Rae under Gramma's Christmas tree. I know the Washington branch of the family doesn't get to see her very often, so here's a little chance to check out how much she's changed (or not).

Oh yeah, Hershey came too-- my nomination for the best dog in the family (sorry Abby!)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

(Belated) Friday Family Blogging Quiz

Okay, here's a picture that was taken sometime in the last six months. I had inadvertantly switched a setting on my camera, and then got bumped as I hit the shutter button (those two factors accounting for the swirly effect). Who do you think it is?

Put your answers into the comments section, and the winner will be announced at the end of the week.

The Last Movies I Saw

Earlier this week I caught two films within 24 hours of each other that had some intersting points of comparison. The first was Gus Van Zant's Milk, about the first openly gay person to win elective office in the US and starring Sean Penn in the title role. The other was the documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden. The first is an intense and virtually flawless in terms of performance, narrative power, and core message and deserves to stand with other earnest civil rights dramas produced over the years that compelled audiences (especially American audiences) to recognize that the basic values of freedom and democracy are meaningless without a true commitment to equality as well. In other words, it is a noble and even "important" film that deserves all the accolades it has received, and likely will continue to receive throught he awards season. But I liked the Anita O'Day picture much more, not least because it makes many of the same points (from a much less obvious starting point) as Milk, and does so in a more invigorating way (at least to me).

As a documentary, Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, might lead most viewers to expect something akin to the usual PBS American Masters special-- lots of archival footage intercut with talking heads, laying out a pretty straightforward account of the subject's life. But that is not the way the movie is set up, although it certainly contains those elements. The filmmakers decided to convey something critical about O'Day's story through the design and editing of their shots in a manner that I don't recall seing before. There is a visual rhythm that approximates O'Day's unique style of phrasing when she sings (which is commented on by a number of the aforementioned talking heads). The interviews with O'Day herself, which span the entirety of her long career reveal an artist totally at ease with herself and self-deprecating about her talent, and again, the visual style of the film seems to reinforce that easygoing attitude. It creates the appearance of swinging breeziness; but, if you stop to think about it, you realize how much thought and craft have gone into achieving the effect. That quality only fades in a couple of instances, when the film portrays a full song performance (as opposed to the much more numerous clips) by Miss O'Day, with the climax coming with her rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown" as it appeared in the 1960 concert documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day. At that point, there's no mistaking the artistry of this performer.

I mentioned that the film also shares some thematic qualities with Milk, which it does in segments on O'Day's relationships with black musicians and in tracking the expectaions on a "girl" singer in a predominately male milieu. But it does so in a much more subtle way than Milk, and while I really don't mean this as any kind of criticism of the Van Zant picture, I think it allows for Anita O'Day to present a much more well-rounded portrait of its subject. But I'm splitting hairs here-- try to see both and I doubt either will disappoint.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday Family Blogging

I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas yesterday over at the Rosieks (sister Sally & clan), and have a lot of great pictures to share. Unfortunately, I'm working on such a slow connection that I think I'll wait until tomorrow to put up some more pix (including a quiz). But in the meantime, here's one to tide you over: a multigenerational peek-a-boo:

Remember, more to come tomorrow, so check back then.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

To all readers of this blog, I hope you have a great day, full of good fellowship, good cheer, good times, good food, etc. etc. and follow through with a wonderful, peaceful new year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How the Mighty Have Fallen

One of the highlights of coming home for the holidays is partaking of the local gastronomic delights. A sub from DeBellos, pizza from Bocce's, hot dogs from Ted's, chicken wings at Duff's... and, once upon a time, almost anything on the menu at local fast food institution Mighty Taco. Unfortunately, I'm sad to report that there has been a change at the last named, and in particular, the once spectacular bean burrito (spectacular in price, heartiness, and overall satisfaction) has been reduced to a fairly ordinary snack. I don't know exactly what happened (I'll have to inquire the next time I visit), but I suspect they have changed the cheese they use (it used to be monterey jack) and altered the recipe for the beans to make them vegetarian (whereas in the past they had a slight hint of bacon added). Mighty Taco remains fast, cheap and convenient (open later than most other such establishments), but the sad fact remains that they no longer are the special treat I once anticipated for weeks prior to a visit to Western New York. I guess nothing lasts forever. [sigh]

The Lubitsch Touch

It's the perfect season to stay up late to watch old movies on TV. Last night I caught The Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan (loosely remade a few years ago as You've Got Mail). It's a fantastic movie, one of many directed by the German emigre Ernst Lubitsch which reflected his unparalleled ability to mix humanistic comedy with engaging romance. One of the seemingly simple features of this kind of movie is that directors like Lubitsch allowed their actors to play off one another, something that seems very rare in the quick-cutting, short-attention-span-assuming work of contemporary filmmakers (I know there are exceptions-- to be fair Lubitsch was something of an exception in his own time-- but they generally are not found in mainstream Hollywood product, a category that included Lubitsch films sixty years ago). Watching Stewart's reactions as Sullivan unknowingly breaks his heart is moving in a way that I can't remember experiencing in any recent movie. But the real highlight of the film for me was watching the great character actor Frank Morgan in the role of the cuckolded shop owner, Mr. Matuschek. Morgan builds a persona that is by turns comic and tragic, but in all cases conveying a fully believable decency and grace in his relations with the other characters of the film. Near the end of the film, when he invites the new delivery boy Rudy to join him in dinner, the scene unfolds in a manner that is entirely consistent with the character's development through the story, representing both the positive elements that comprise his basic character and the lessons learned from his terrible mistakes. It's a thing of beauty that has virtually nothing to do with the plot, but everything to do with embodying the spirit that makes the movie so special. It's a great example of what has come to be known as the "Lubitsch touch."

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Little Holiday Cheer

You may have already seen this, especially if you check out the "Blogs I Like" on a regular basis (since I got it from Mark Evanier's blog). But if not, it's worth a peek if you some help getting intot he Christmas spirit. Just click on this link.

Happy Birthday Natalie & Gerik!

Today is niece Natalie's birthday, and I hope it turns out to be a great one (I think that her school closed on account of bad weather, so it's off to a good start). I won't mention how old she is because she may be getting close to that point where you're not supposed to ask or tell ;-) Here's a picture of Natalie with Ben & Helen:

And also a slightly belated happy birthday to nephew Gerik as well. I don't have a recent picture handy, but imagine the little kid in this photo about twice as big. Many happy returns Gerik, and I hope you got a snow day too!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Seems I Was Wrong

Leave it to the Rosieks (Tom, Natalie & Ben) to take up the implicit challenge in my earlier post and prove me wrong. This afternoon we battled gale force winds, and constant flurries of snow to plow through three innings of kickball:

Unfortunately, the conditions were not conducive to the usual offensive fireworks when we square off for some playful punting, and the match ended in a weather shortened scoreless draw (though we did last through three innings!). As I thought, a green field really does seem a prerequisite for such a game, not that we didn't have some fun this afternoon.

By the way, the winner of last week's Friday Family Blogging quiz was Lil Sis, who correctly identified the baby on Grampa's knee as Ben Rosiek (yes, the same strapping lad preparing to pummel his papa's pitch in the above photo). Congrats to Lil Sis, and thanks to all those who guessed. I'll try to get another quiz up as soon as possible.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Family Blogging

Hot off the presses (taken not three hours ago), here's the latest picture of Emma:

Such a jolly baby, and it isn't even Christmas yet! More to come....

Remember Last Summer Redux

Well, I'm back in WNY for the holidays and I couldn't resist revisiting the scenes of my post of a few days ago. Now, the only thing on the front porch is snow (which I've already cleared three times today!):

And I'm not anticipating any kickball games on this pitch in the near future:

I know some of you suggested outdoor winter activities, but I still plan to pine for the sunshine and warmth of summer.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Political Comment

I just read that Caroline Kennedy will be visiting my hometown of Tonawanda, NY today as she solicits support for her campaign to be named to fill the soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat of Hillary Clinton. Since this is the first time I have ever heard of a candidate for such a prestigious post actually looking for support in Tonawanda (that is, by actually visiting the place), I just want to say that I hope it helps net her the appointment. I have no idea what her other qualifications may be (aside from her name, obviously), but if she is perceptive enough to recognize Tonawanda as a critical place where one can understand the needs and priorities of the state, that's good enough for me! [smile]

Reality and Reality

I've never been able to watch a so-called reality TV show for more than about five minutes without getting really irritated. All those shows that throw a group of people together in some kind of convoluted attempt to spark drama hardly qualifies as "reality" in any valid definition of the term. A couple months ago Harper's magazine had an interesting article addressing the issue of how we have collectively abrogated our supposed right to privacy, as so many of us give that up if it means getting onto the tube for our alloted fifteen minutes of fame (or infamy) Even those who only watch are implicated in the process-- unwittingly perhaps, they too are tacitly signaling that the value of privacy is determined by a rate of exchange in the currency of entertainment. No wonder that the Bush administration felt little hesitation to launch its program of monitoring our phone calls and other communications-- we'd basically signaled our acceptance of the premise that nothing should be secret. Even as responsible civil liberties advocates complained about the breach of privacy, most Americans yawned.

But as much as I dislike Reality TV, I have to admit that I love reality comics, pioneered by Harvey Pekar's American Splendor (that's Harvey above; you can find a nice interview with him here). The difference is, I think, immense, with the comics actually more closely aligned with literary memoirs. They tend not to exaggerate circumstances (that's the domain of the action and super-hero genres), but rather to present the life of the protagonist as both ordinary and, often, universal. Pekar's work certainly speaks to a core element of humanity, acknowledging the struggles-- physical, mental, and emotional-- with which we all deal. He certainly reveals things about himself, many unflattering, that most would keep secret, but his story seems designed to spark a degree of identification, and ultimately a kind of camaraderie as we face life's endless challenges, big and small (and not of the type thought up by some overpriced producer who thinks it might be funny to watch people eat bugs).

You can have your Survivors, Big Brothers, et. al. I'll take Harvey Pekar, Chester Brown, Keith Knight, Lynda Barry, Joe Sacco and others of their ilk if I'm looking for a true dose of reality.

Remember Last Summer?

All this snow and cold makes me very nostalgic for last summer, when the days were long, the grass was green, and you could sit on the front stoop and wonder if that iguana was ever going to come down.

Boy, could I go for a good old-fashioned game of kickball in the backyard!

Is there a winter equivalent for this kind of leisurely activity?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another Christmas Comment

My earlier post about the lack of Christmas classics produced in the past twenty or so years prompted more comment than anything else I've written to date. Correspondent Lil Sis has nominated a couple of possibilities for entry into the canon (the song "All I Want For Christmas is You" and the films Nightmare Before Christmas and The Santa Claus) which don't resonate with me, but maybe I'm being stubborn. However, I stumbled across this post at the Turner Classics Movies web-site, and although it's not exactly on the same topic, it's closely related. I didn't realize just how many bad Christmas movies there were (even from the classic period), but they sure were fun to read about. Check it out, and let me know if you think any of the movies mentioned rate consideration in our discussion.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Snowy in Dillon

We finally got our first snow in Dillon, and I imagine that we'll have it for quite awhile, as the temperatures have dropped below zero for the past few days. Here's a picture of the snow-covered pine trees on the University of Montana western campus (Basically the view from my office window):

It's definitely starting to feel a little Christmasy around here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The State of Film Criticism

Actually I'm not going to tackle the breadth of the issue suggested by that heading-- I mainly want to talk about the program that has replaced the old Ebert-Roeper clip show on TV (if you want something more in-depth, let me recommend recent issues of Film Comment and Cineaste, both of which have covered the evolution of the craft as the internet has supplanted newspapers as the primary source of movie criticism).

I remember when Siskel and Ebert launched the show Sneak Previews on PBS way back in the early 80s. From the start it was obvious that Ebert knew something about films and film history and Siskel was a reporter who somehow fell into movie reviewing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and he was occasionally an astute commentator on the films under discussion. But it was quite clear which of the two spoke with more authority. That trend continued once Siskel passed away and was eventually replaced by the even more lightweight Richard Roeper (at a time when the likes of Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum were plying their craft in Chicage, home of the series-- it made me shake my head in wonder).

When Siskel & Ebert took their show to syndication, they were replaced on PBS by a similar pair, Jeffrey Lyons and Neal Gabler, wherein Gabler had some substance and Lyons was a bit of a goof (I remember someone once counting up the number of times he called a film "one of the year's ten best" and it totalled somewhere in the thirties-- some critical acumen, huh?). Maybe the attitude of producers was that the public wasn't ready for really solid, thoughtful discussion about movies?

If so, evidently that's still the case. When Ebert's health caused the recent cancellation of his program with Roeper, it was replaced by a new version of the show called At the Movies, hosted by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz has a Hollywood pedigree (he's related somehow to Joseph who wrote and directed such classics as All About Eve and Herman who, among other things, co-wrote Citizen Kane). He's pretty sharp, and approaches the job with a certain amount of intelligence and wit. Lyons, on the other hand, seems to speak in movie ad blurbs (even when he doesn't like something). He seems to think glibness is a substitute for thoughtfulness, and I kind of get the impression that he expresses opinions following a set of templates he's laid out to service any occasion. In other words, opinions without any insight.

I know that the point of these shows is really to serve as advertising for Hollywood product, but it's disappointing that that cannot happen in the context of some really well-reasoned criticism. Oh well, I guess this is one of those areas where I'm nothing but an old curmudgeon.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Art Appreciation

Vittorio Corcos - Sogni - 1896
One of the highlights of my recent trip to Italy was my visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. I probably mentioned in an earlier post that my interest in checking out that particular museum was their collection of Futurist art from the period after World War I. But I was quite impressed with much of the collection, including the above picture (which I believe I've mentioned to a couple of the regular readings of this blog). Sogni translates into English as "Dreams." There's something quite striking about this painting (that is somewhat diminished by the reproduction, both in size and brilliance of the color and detail) and though it is hung in a corner of a gallery with some other, much larger images, this is the one that drew my attention. I generally go for the more experimental stuff (I'll post some later to give you an idea of what I mean), but of all the artwork I saw on the trip, this is the one that stuck in my memory. In fact I'm kicking myself for not picking up the Gallery catalog that had this image on the cover. I guess I didn't realize how much it was going to stick in my head-- and what higher praise can one give to a painting?

Historical Comment

This is something of a follow up to the political comment I made earlier about Blagojevich, alluding to machine politics in Illinois. We like to think of our leaders (at whatever level) as having our collective, as opposed to their individual, best interests at heart. But the reality is that our system is set up to promote more of the latter, and has been like that for a very long time. The irony is that it largely resulted for making the country even more democratic.

If you look at the first six presidents, they provide a good example of what we might characterize as leaders motivated by a powerful sense of public responsibility, true statesmen as opposed to politicians. They were all men of accomplishment and wealth, and certainly did not need to pursue a career in elective office to secure economic well-being nor even to insure a positive legacy in the history books. But something changed in the 1820s, with the expansion of what was called universal manhood suffrage (basically eliminating property qualifications as a condition for voting), and we saw public office transformed from a calling to public service to a path to personal gain. This didn't have to happen, but by swelling the rolls of voters with large numbers who could easily be manipulated to turn over their vote to a charlatan was just too bif a temptation, and the political machines that emerged to take advantage of the situation soon figured out just what buttons to push. Over the next few decades, if anything it became easier to "buy" votes, and once in office by virtue of such purchases, the professional pols rarely felt any compunction about taking advantage of their office to line their own pockets. Heck, they were proud of their efforts (see for example George Washington Plunkitt's memoir). When the muckraker Lincoln Steffens began a series of investigations into the widespread municipal graft across the country at the dawn of the 20th century, machine leaders welcomed him with open arms, believing that even his damning stories would have no impact on the power they wielded. Eventually, their corruption was just too brazen, and a backlash began, but in some places (like Kansas City and Chicago), elements of the machine lasted well past the second world war.

The strongest remaining element of what the machines represented-- the professional politician-- remains today, and every now and then one of them seeks to press their advantages to an extreme (as seems to be the case with Blagojevich). Most pols are satisfied to exercise their authority in ways that indirectly benefit them, but I guess the old-time shakedown is still part of the play book too (anyone remember Abscam?).

I suggested above that this all became possible because of the expansion of voting rights, and I think that's a fair observation, but I would not want to imply that we should go back to the tighter limits on who gets to vote. I just think it speaks to the responsibility of voters to really find out about who is running and make responsible informed choices. Perhaps we can't expect the politicians to be honest, but that just means we need to do a better job of vetting them and then holding them fully accountable for their actions. Otherwise, we're just the poor saps who have to foot the bill.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Family Blogging Quiz

I'm sure you all recognize Dad (or Granddad as the case may be), but who's the little munchkin on his lap? Post your guesses in comments.

Winner of last week's quiz was.... Richard, who correctly guessed that the picture of me was taken at the Santa Monica Pier in California. As it happens, even if Richard had not nailed it (he could have guessed Timbuctu), he still would've won for coming closest because HE WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO GUESSED! Come on everybody, can't you at least make a contest of it?

Friday Family Blogging

I'm not sure why this is, but most of the musical talent in the family has flowered in the west coast branch. Everyone knows about Marenka and Gerik, but now the Bannings are jumping on the bandwagon:

And the talent even extends to the related field of dance! Check out this short video:

video

Next week I'll be heading back to Buffalo for the holidays, so I should have some new photos to share from that side of the country in the next edition of Friday Family Blogging!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Comment

I'm in the process of putting together my Christmas radio show and something occurred to me. While new Christmas related songs and movies and TV shows are released every year, it seems like a really long time since something entered the "canon" of true perennial classics. Most of the holiday fare that I look forward to revisiting every year goes back at least thirty or forty years or more. Movies like It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street or White Christmas were released before I was born; TV shows like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer all go back to the 1960s. All of the best Christmas songs (or at least the versions I most want to hear again) seem to have come out back then (or earlier) too. The only exception to this is A Christmas Story (you know, Ralphie and the Red Rider BB Gun), which itself is now more than 20 years old.

Is this just a generational thing? Will youngsters today trot out dvds of Christmas With the Kranks or Four Christmases once they hit middle age? It just doesn't seem like the more recent holiday offerings have the same timeless qualities of those mentioned in the paragraph above. I'd be happy to be disproved on this point. Is there something I'm forgetting, or does anyone want to make the case for any Christmas movies, TV specials or songs from the past ten or so years? Surely our society hasn't lost the capacity to produce uplifting Christmas stories or music, has it?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Political Comment

Looks like Gov. Blagojevich of Illinois is going down for the count. What is it about Illinois' statehouse? I think he's the fourth governor of the last five (two Democrats and two Republicans) who will spend some time in jail. Maybe this is the surest sign that the old Daley style machine has finally collapsed, since no one seems to get away with anything anymore.

Which reminds me of my favorite political joke, told by former Minnesota Senator (and one-time presidential hopeful) Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy said that when he died, he wanted to be buried in Chicago-- so that he could remain politically active. Think about it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Christmas List

I don't know but maybe someone reading this may be thinking of getting me a Christmas present. If so, I thought I'd mention a few books that I'd like to read and, if they should find their way underneath the Christmas tree, I'd be very grateful. Here's the list:

Peter Doggett, There's a Riot Going On [music]
Dean Wareham, Black Postcards [music]
Dan Kennedy, Rock On: An Office Power Ballad [music]
Jim Walsh, The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting [music]
Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century [history]
John Burrow, A History of Histories [history]
Martin Cohen, Philosophical Tales [philosophy]
Kitty Ferguson, The Music of Pythagorus [history/philosophy]
Richard T. Kelly, 10 Bad Dates With DeNiro [film]
Mike Edison, I Have Fun Wherever I Go [media]
Neil Harris, The Chicagoan: A Lost magazine of the Jazz Age [history/media]
Jon Clinch, Finn: A Novel
Robert Bolano, The Savage Detectives [novel]
Gary W. Moore, Playing With the Enemy:A Baseball Prodigy, World War II, and the Long Journey Home [sports]
Mark Steel, Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution [humor]

Feel free to leave your lists in comments too-- I've still got some shopping to do myself.

A Class Act

It's been announced that tomorrow Greg Maddux will retire after a 20+ year major league career. Since the heart of that career was spent as an Atlanta Brave (my favorite team) during their glory years of the 1990's and early 2000's, Maddux's retirement carries special weight for me. Although he was not homegrown talent, like Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones or David Justice (other mainstays of the dynasty), coming to the team as a high-priced free agent after establishing himself with the Cubs, Maddux quickly became one of my favorite players, and not just because of all the victories and awards he racked up for his accomplishments. Maddux was the epitome of humility and grace at a time when professional sports too often devolved into selfishness, arrogance, and the kind of hubris that made many applaud when various touted athletes eventually met some comeuppance (think Barry Bonds, for one real clear example). Never once, in all the interviews I read or heard after another amazing Maddux performance on the mound, did he take his abilities or success for granted. He was more inclined to credit his teammates, luck or preparation than native skill, and always-- always-- noted that on another day, the other side might have the advantage. After awhile, it was hard to take such comments seriously, but Maddux never came across as anything but sincere.

My favorite Maddux memory is of his performance in game two of the 1996 World Series, when he spun a typical gem that made it appear inevitable that the team would take the series (though they then proceeded to lose four straight). My favorite story about Maddux was that when he had a comfortable lead, he would purposely make mistakes and give the opposition pitches to hit so that, in the future (when the game was closer), they'd be anticipating similar treatment only to have him shift his pitch selection to something completely different. Who knows if its true? It certainly gave some weight to his nickname: "The Professor."

Maddux was such an admirable and likable guy that even after he left the Braves, I always cheered for his success, and it gave me great pleasure that in his last game of last season (now the last,apparently of his fantastic career), he pitched another gem to move past Roger Clemons on the all-time victories list by one. Many would argue that Clemons was the superior pitcher of the two, whose careers mirrored one another in many ways. But Clemons was also one of those boors who seemed to take his success as a birthright, and often seemed motivated by purely mercenary impulses, often treating fans with something close to contempt (was anyone really surprised that he became implicated in the steroid scandal, which in turn led to other revelations about his character?). Maddux, along with his long-time teammate on the Braves John Smoltz (who, at this writing, appears ready to take the hill again in the upcoming season, after battling injuries last year), to me represents all the qualities we like to claim are central to sports' relevance, but often get lost in the "win-at-all-costs" atmosphere of contemporary culture: teamwork, hard-earned success, professionalism, and respect for the game, its traditions, and its fans.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Italy Trip 25

Okay, I've worked out the bugs (actually, just figured out another way to get the pictures up), so here is the summary of my last evening in Italy. I had some time to kill before meeting the rest of the group for dinner, so headed down to take a look at the Piazza della Repubblica, which turned out to be a pretty impressive spot, maybe especially at night. There was a lot of traffic around the central circle, partially ringed by these two massive curved and columned buildings. Here's one of them:

There were shops on the street level, and I imagine offices and what not above that. Here's a closer look at the fountain in the center of the Piazza:

Across from those curved buildings was another complex of buildings (I think mostly government offices), built around another old Roman ruin that had been converted to a church and I think a monastery. Here's the entrance to the Basilica, which you can see was nowhere near as fancy or ornate as most of the others we saw across Italy. The inside was kind of dark, but nonetheless impressive too:

Walking away from the Piazza towards the restaurant where I would meet the rest of the group, I passed this book-stall right out in the middle of the street. I wish we had something like this in Dillon:

When I got to the restaurant, the party was already started (last night and all), our group had a back room all to ourselves, and in addition to some first rate culinary fare, we were entertained by a couple of the waiters who periodically picked up guitars and flutes to serenade us with Dean Martin songs. It was kind of funny, but entertaining.

And that's it for the highlights of my Italy trip. I hope you enjoyed the recounting. I may post the odd picture now and then as I go back and review all the photos I took (and may have missed posting) but otherwise will be moving on to other subjects. If there was something you wondered if I encountered but did not mention (or would like to see more pictures of one or another of the spots I featured), let me know-- I won't need much prompting to keep revisiting this wonderful trip.

Friday Family Blogging Quiz

I'll assume that everyone recognizes me in this shot. But do you know where the picture was taken? You can blow the picture up by clicking on it, and that may reveal some clues.

Whoever comes closest (try to be as specific as possible) wins the prize-- leave your guesses in the comments.

Friday Family Blogging

Things are kind of busy today, and for some reason I'm having trouble getting more Italy pictures posted (some technical glitch that I hope will straighten itself out). But, since its Friday, here's a picture of Helen recently sent to me by Theresa:

I think what is particularly striking about this picture is that Helen seems to be completely at rest-- a state that generally seems alien to her nature [smile].

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Italy Trip 24

I believe this is the penultimate Italy post-- just one more set of pics and then I'll have to find something else to fill the space. But in the meantime, here's some more from my last evening in Rome. First up is a picture of teh US Embassy on Via Vittorio Veneto. It's a pretty elaborate palace, and I wondered if my snapping a photo was going to prompt the guards to come out and see what I was doing (after all, it happened at the HSBC Building in Buffalo, so who knows?). Anyway, no one seemed bothered:

This is a shot a little further along the street. It's a very ritzy shopping area, with a lot of nice restaurants and street cafes, trees (as you can see) and still pretty busy on a Sunday night:

And here's another fountain. I don't know anything about it except that it looked kind of cool:

Next up will be some shots of the Piazza della Repubblica at night, the last "tourist" stop of my trip.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Political Comment

Has anyone noticed that in the past six presidential elections, the candidate with less military experience has won each time? In most, the difference in such experience was not even close, with all those who actually saw combat coming out on the losing end. I don't know what to make of this, since so much emphasis in each campaign has been on the question of who will keep us most secure, but I do hope that it leads to one change that is long overdue: stop using the term "commander-in-chief" as a synonym for the president. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, not the entire nation or its civilian citizens, and it kind of bugs me when I see it used that way. I don't know when that practice started, but it seems to have become pronounced under Bush, and it works to inflate the status of the executive at the expense of the other branches of government (which makes me think Dick Cheney may have had a hand in promoting its usage), and also promotes a militaristic conception of our society that is not supported by recent selection of leaders (even if Bush, for one, seemed to push that connection).

Italy Trip 23

Here's the last set of pictures from the park surrounding the Villa de Borghese. The first is of a random (that is, no other rides around it) bumper car pit. I mostly liked how the low sunlight cast the nice shadows on the colorful scene:

The trees and shrubbery in the park were particularly interesting. They must have been chosen and arranged to enhance the atmosphere of the park, and in the sunlight, they made for a somewhat enchanted setting:

The southeast corner of the park borders on the old city boundaries, marked by the wall in the following photo. This side is known as the Piazza le Brasile, and the wall goes back to the middle ages (I think):

Here's a view from the other side of the wall. The neighborhood is a kind of swank shopping district, but I found the wall much more interesting than the stores. It extends for about 7 or 8 blocks now, but at one time apparently encompassed the entire city:

Walking along the wall, I was stopped by an Italian man who asked me (me!) for directions. As it happened, he was looking for the street I was heading for, so I was able to tell him where it was (just a couple blocks away). He asked me where I was from, and when I told him America, he responded by asking if things there were going to be better with Obama, and I told him I thought they were. He agreed and said he was glad that I thought so too. I kind of got the feeling that was what everyone over in Italy thought (except maybe Berlusconi).

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Last Great Record Store?

I had the opportunity, on my way back home from Washington, to stop in Missoula and visit the Ear Candy record store. Over the years, I have traveled all over this country, and being something of a compulsive consumer of music, I'm always on the lookout for places where I can find something new or different. I have even made trans-continental trips laid out to allow me to check out some new source that I have heard about on-line or in an article in the popular music press. Unfortunately, such places are becoming more and more rare, as on-line shopping and music downloading have undercut the old-fashioned walk-in trade. Even where the stores have remained open, they have largely done so by reducing their music stock in favor of gifts and novelties that keep the doors open but make a visit by such an inveterate record consumer as myself almost always disappointing. The key to a great record store, for me, is that I can walk in and find something unexpected that I want to hear just by browsing the collection, or that I can find something I've had on my shopping list for months that just does not pop up in the usual places (meaning stores that sell music, but only stock new releases or popular hits).

This is where Ear Candy really shines-- they qualify as a great store on both counts. I went in on Saturday hoping I might find one or two things, and walked out with six. All of them were items that I had not seen elsewhere, a couple from my list, and four surprises (the latter including a new release by the proprietor John's band, Secret Powers, which I put on in the car and enjoyed all the way to Drummond). In case you're interested, here's what else I picked up: the new releases by the All Girl Summer Fun Band and Andre Williams; a compilation by the Dirtbombs; a Real Kids album of outtakes from the early 90s; and a collection of garage rock rarities from the 60s. I don't get to Missoula often enough, but when I do, I'm glad there's still a place like Ear Candy around to make the trip worthwhile.

Italy Trip 22

Still in the park here. There were a lot of people riding around on what I assume are rented two and four person bicycles. Unlike the usual tandem-type cycles I've seen before, these are set up so the riders are side-by-side (2x2 in the four person rig). I was walking behind two Americans in one of these things, and they kept crashing into curbs, poles, trees, etc. One of them said this was the most fun they had in Italy, which seemed a really low standard.

Here is a fountain supported by some neat horse statues:

This gazebo looks like it goes back a few years too. Looks just like the one in Clinton Park, doesn't it?

I really enjoyed spending much of the afternoon on the park. My feet were blistered and sore from a week's worth of walking, and this was a nice place to stop and take a lot of rests and just watch what was going on, or to drink in the atmosphere. But as the time grew later, there were a couple of other things I wanted to check out before I had to meet the group for dinner. Those sites will be the subject of the next couple of posts.

Italy Trip 21

Here are some more pictures from the park surrounding the Villa de Borghese in Rome. The first is of a building which I gather was a guest cottage on the estate. Note the cool trees, which really gave the park an exotic quality:

Here are some arches, which may be ancient ruins, or a re-creation (I'm not sure which, but suspect the latter). I guess if I could only read Italian I'd know for sure.

And here's a train that was ferrying folks around the park. I suppose the engineer would know about the history of the arch above, but since I didn't take a ride, I may never know.

I've probably got two more posts with Italy pictures to come. For some reason. I'm having some difficulty posting pictures, so no guarantees on when they might appear (though I'm going to try another right away). In the meantime, I may have some other things to comment on, so check back again soon.