The Benefits of Slow TV Watching

Last Saturday night, I settled in to watch a very old-school horror movie, all by myself. “Son of Frankenstein” is not fancy in its storytelling, or even very coherent. Somehow the monster had been struck by lightning and fell into a coma, yet while in that coma Igor had sent the monster off to murder the burgomeisters who’d condemned him to the gallows. Now the son of the original doctor revives the monster, filled with excitement yet horrified by what he’s done. The police chief, who’s arm had been wrenched out of his body as a child by the monster, suspects the doctor but protects him from the mob. In the end, in a presaging of the end of “Terminator 2”, the monster is pushed into an 800-degree liquid sulphur pit and burned alive.

Yeah, how can anything go wrong when your laboratory is built over the bubbling miasma of an 800-degree liquid sulphur pit?

So, not as creepy as the original, and not as stylized and surprising as “Bride of Frankenstein.” But Boris Karloff gets to wear the fur vest later made popular by Sonny Bono, and many scenes inspired terrific material in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein”. More like a Transylvanian pot roast than a fancy meal, yet, it satisfies. Every Halloween, I promise myself to watch an old Universal horror film, for old times’ sake–where would Halloween be without those characters? Sometimes the kids will join me, but this year the movie scared my 10-year-old, and my 13-year-old was too busy with parties.

Watching old, mediocre horror movies is not just an exercise in nostalgia (though don’t knock that–it’s the only exercise I get). There’s something enjoyable about watching bad movies with outlandish sets and dialog, something ephemeral yet instructive. In the age of Netflix and cable TV and Tivo, we could watch quality programming any time we flip on the boob tube. Yet we don’t. We save and watch episodes of America’s Top Model and Jim Belushi sitcoms and everything the vast wasteland offers. Perhaps it’s a fear that too much quality can kill a person, or at least turn him into an NPR host.

I watch old movies looking for surprises, like strange interior architecture (lots of suspended staircases in “Son of Frankenstein”, for some reason), stilted dialog, and actors who may have been given all of 30 seconds of screen time in their lives. I also use them to slow myself down, to get away from clips and fast-forwards and every other time convenience that has speeded up our lives so much. (Why does it feel that we are saving time yet always short of it? Is it another manifestation of human greed? Can you ever have enough time, especially when the time you save is spent on learning new ways to save time?) It used to be that entertainment on television was limited and started and stopped at certain times. Now that offerings are “on-demand” more and more, there’s a certain pressure to suck more of it up.

A familiar scenario: It’s 11:30 and I should be in bed, but I’ve saved “Seven Samurai”, “The Hustler” and a bunch of NatGeo specials on Tivo. I ask myself, “Shouldn’t I watch at least some of each of them, just as a signal that I’ll get to them eventually?” And an unsatisfying hour is spent managing the TV workload, depriving me of the sleep I need the next day. Shouldn’t entertainment be relaxing and not an exercise in multitasking and time-wrangling? Maybe I like mediocre movies just for the fact that, if I don’t make it to the end, I don’t have to feel guilty about not finishing it.

Dear Red States:

This email has probably made the rounds already, but I still find it funny and appropriate:

An open letter from the Blue States to the Red States:

Dear Red States:

If you manage to steal this election too we’ve decided we’re leaving. We intend to form our own country, and we’re taking the other Blue States with us. That includes California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and all the Northeast. We believe this split will be beneficial to the nation, and especially to the people of the new country of New California.

To sum up briefly: You get Texas, Oklahoma and all the slave states.

We get stem cell research and the best beaches. We get the Statue of Liberty. You get Dollywood.

We get Intel and Microsoft. You get WorldCom.

We get Harvard. You get Ole’ Miss.

We get 85% of America’s venture capital and entrepreneurs. You get Alabama.

We get two-thirds of the tax revenue, you get to make the red states pay their fair share.

Since our aggregate divorce rate is 22% lower than the Christian Coalition’s, we get a bunch of happy families. You get a bunch of single moms.

Please be aware that Nuevo California will be pro-choice and anti-war, and we’re going to want all our citizens back from Iraq at once. If you need people to fight, ask your evangelicals. They have kids they’re apparently willing to send to their deaths for no purpose, and they don’t care if you don’t show pictures of their children’s caskets coming home. We do wish you success in Iraq, and hope that the WMDs do turn up, but we’re not willing to spend our resources in Bush’s Quagmire.

With the Blue States in hand, we will have firm control of 80% of the country’s fresh water, more than 90% of the pineapple and lettuce, 92% of the nation’s fresh fruit, 95% of America’s quality wines, 90% of all cheese, 90% of the high tech industry, 95% of the corn and soybeans (thanks Iowa!), most of the U.S. low-sulfur coal, all living redwoods, sequoias and condors, all the Ivy and Seven Sister schools plus Stanford, Cal Tech and MIT.

With the Red States, on the other hand, you will have to cope with 88% of all obese Americans (and their projected health care costs), 92% of all U.S. mosquitoes, nearly 100% of the tornadoes, 90% of the hurricanes, 99% of all Southern Baptists, virtually 100% of all televangelists, Rush Limbaugh, Bob Jones University, Clemson and the University of Georgia. We get Hollywood and Yosemite, thank you.

38% of those in the Red states believe the earth is only 6,000 years old and Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale; 62% believe life is sacred unless we’re discussing the war, the death penalty or gun laws; 44% say that evolution is only a theory; 53% that Saddam was involved in 9/11, and 61% of you crazy bastards believe you are people with higher morals than us lefties.

Finally, we’re taking the good pot, too. You can have that dirt weed they grow in Mexico.

Peace out,

–the Blue States

The Nairobi Pumpkin Trio

Our front step guardians for this Halloween season:

Liam’s at left is a giant Manga-style eye, though the back of the pumpkin being visible makes this picture rather weird. Liesel’s is in the middle, with chocolate marshmallows for eyes. I especially chose my raw material (at right) because of the big scar running across the surface. My first idea for it actually became my final choice, though I don’t know if I pulled it off: everyone’s favorite zombie-fighting comic anti-hero, The Goon!

The cap wasn’t very easy to recreate, as you can tell.

Only a Week Left? Say It Ain’t So!

Last week Larry David and other commentators on the Huffington Post lamented how long this campaign was taking, and how they wanted the election over with. I’m sympathetic to the adverse health effects that anxiety, anticipation and Sarah Palin’s voice may be having on people. I can also commiserate that my own work output has been reduced to a trickle trying to keep up with the latest news and polls. The productivity gains the internet has given us, the internet shall taketh away.

But do I want this campaign over next week? Hell no. Have you taken a moment to consider how much free entertainment has been contained in the daily news cycle since the end of August? Do you realize that just last week, from Monday through Friday, we got enjoy stories about:

• Minnesota’s Senator Bachman trying to explain away her out-of-body channeling of Joe McCarthy;
• Sarah Palin’s $150,000 shopping spree, which was only revealed last Wednesday (think how far that kind of money would go in a consignment shop!)
• Ashley Todd’s self-assault at the ATM (Oh, how much longer the lie could’ve been strung along if she’d only learned how to write backwards!)

That’s just from the everyday news. It doesn’t include the backbiting and Dr. Scholl salads that the conservative talking heads endured on the cable chat shows. That has been entertainment of a rare caliber. As fewer and fewer commentators will defend the McCain-Palin campaign, the news shows have had to move further and further down the pecking order for Republican “strategists” and “observers” to interview. If this campaign went on for another month, we’d get to see a tattoo-parlor owner from Idaho wired up and telling “Fox & Friends” all he knows about socialism.

If these stories give a person too much agita, I suggest they cowboy up and deal with it. Take to drinking if you have to. Because these developments are necessary, vital, even healthful. The Republican Party has spent the past 25 years getting elected by mixing race, religion and class consciousness into a fear cocktail to keep their faithful out and voting. While the Republicans have spouted about lower taxes, smaller government, and a “humble” foreign policy stance, they’ve done their best to ignore all three. Now they are reaping the results of the lies they’ve sown and the stupid ideas they’ve espoused. Such a process takes time.

Maybe I’m ODing on the schadenfreude, but I say, keep it coming. A couple more months, at least, so that we can see every hypocrisy and dirty deal exposed in the open air. I want to hear more filth about everything: John McCain’s secret deals with al-Qaeda, Sarah Palin’s plastic surgeries (which she will promise to undo or auction to charity later), Todd Palin’s clandestine Inuit love igloo that he visited on long snow-machine races.

I want to see Nancy Pfotenhauer snap on camera and take a bite out of someone’s neck. I want to watch William Kristol melt into a puddle of blame-dodging ooze. I want to learn about a Robo-call accusing Obama of laughing in the past at Flip Wilson’s “Rev. Leroy and the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now” routine. I want to hear Limbaugh actually use a phrase like “Hide your women” or “the sanctity of our precious bodily fluids”.

I want to see all of this for the same reason Van Helsing wanted to be the one to drive the stake through Dracula’s heart, because it’s the only way I’ll be certain that the reputations of these people and the policies of unbridled conservatism are dead. Deader than dead. Dead and buried under Yucca Mountain with radioactive garlic strung around their necks dead.

Because you know when this is over, the news for at least the next ten weeks is going to be about plant closings, foreclosures, and how no one will be able to afford to buy holiday presents this year. That’s the harsh truth, beyond any paranoid fantasies about October surprises or the GOP stealing the election again.

Mark Nutter’s Baby Shredder Song

While I never got to see Mark Nutter in his heyday with Friends of the Zoo in the 1980s, the review of his songs from their shows–“Oh My–NUTS!”–was beyond a doubt the single funniest show I’ve ever seen. Painfully funny, gasping for breath with headache funny.

Now Mark has been recording and performing more. And Western Civilization is the better for it.

He’s right about those baby lovers, you know.

Page Proofs Are In

Some months ago, a friend told me about a reading series in Wrigleyville called the Lovable Losers Literary Revue. Looking to expand the audience for Bardball, I went to one of the readings and got friendly with the organizer, Don Evans. He asked me to do a reading. Cool, I did one in September. He wanted to include my stuff in an anthology he was putting together with a local publisher. Fine, great. I was just looking for exposure, to be honest, and didn’t know what to expect from the project, if anything.

Last Friday, I got an email from Don, containing the pdf file of the page proofs for that anthology, Cubbie Blues. And I have to say, I got an electric charge of excitement from them. For one thing, the book looks very good, with terrific illustrations, from Tim Souers of Cubby-Blue and Margie Lawrence, among others.

For another, I’m with some very good company. Big name writers like Rick Kogan, Jonathan Eig (perzunalfrenofmine), Stu Shea (alzoperzunalfrenofmine), WXRT’s Lin Brehmer, Don DeGrazia, Scott Simon. Also writers I don’t know yet, but hope to meet in the future. It’s a fun grab bag of people united by an enduring love for the Cubs, and therefore attuned to the futility of hope and human existence.

But mainly, it’s incredibly exhilarating to receive a copy of nice clean pages, all laid out with printers crop marks, and realize that this is the last stage before the book actually making it into people’s hands. Privileged information, “eyes only,” a secret stash between me and the other writers, the editor and the publisher. It’s like having a good poker hand, and the feeling of anticipation before laying the cards down. I get to enjoy it all to myself (sort of) until signing off on it. (That’s another feeling entirely, as it goes to press, mostly a flickering hope with a heaping helping of dread, and the urge to start reading the Jobs section.)

This also gives me the chance to put on my editor’s cap, albeit in a small way. I won’t change any copy, since it’s already gone through other people’s hands. Besides, it’s an anthology, and Don has already done the heavy lifting of soliciting and stroking the writers, and psychological surgery of getting them to agree to changes. I only have to check for style and punctuation. It sounds nerdy, but I like doing it. I like to help make the thing perfect, or as close as we can come. One error I already found in the MS was a little thing, a hyphen inserted where an em-dash was clearly needed. Minor? Not really. With an em-dash, the sentence reads “hard job for which I have no stomach–finding readers.” A hyphen creates the adjective “stomach-finding”, which has a lot of grisly resonance at Halloween time.

My first publishing job was working on journals for a professional association of real estate appraisers. It was less exciting than it sounds, if you can believe that. My boss there was a great editor, though, and his boss was even better. They taught me a lot about clear writing, clear punctuation, clear structure–because when you need to edit an article about how to calculate the market value of an empty slaughterhouse, you need to find some way to make it read well. And that’s the feeling I get when I receive page proofs. I’m just disappointed it’s a pdf file and not paper. I’ve got a lot of big fat blue pencils just dying of loneliness.

Palin on SNL: Sadder than Porn?

So, honestly, which is more degrading, Sarah Palin’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live” or the fact that a porn movie entitled “Nailin’ Palin” has already been produced?

Having only seen one of them, I’d vote for the former. At least there is no subtext in the porno, no attempt at ingratiation, no fake grins, only fake grimaces of unbelievable physical ecstasy. And it is apparent who’s screwing who, at least as far as I know, never having seen the spanking vid, I promise.

Palin’s keepers, apparently, believe that any exposure SHORT of a porno is a good thing. Except of course, holding a press conference or something like that. Who wants to see THAT? A far better idea would be to have her appear on a show that routinely savages her and her “core constituents” (Somehow that sounds like a good porn title too, if esoteric). Put her on the show, have a leering Alec Baldwin turn her into a sex object, let Tina Fey scoot offstage unscathed after spending a month mocking her, and sit at the Weekend Update desk trying to look “down widdit” as Amy Poehler chanted a mundane rap making fun of every bit of Palin’s “real America” biography.

Yep, a great plan. Apparently there’s no such thing as bad exposure.

Or wait. Was she slyly entering the den of the smarty-pants elite, enduring their slings and arrows, and emerging more statesman-like than ever before?

Yeah, THAT must’ve been the master plan. Now the red-meaters can really scream about how she gets no respect, and how NYC isn’t the real America! Watch this week, as Palin turns around and announces that she had a lousy time making fun of her image, that she couldn’t wait to get out of that liberal hell-hole and get back with people who know right from wrong and don’t make jokes about things!! People who have no sense of humor at all! Yew makin’ some kinda joke, boy? Well, that aint the way we do things round here.

Nostalgia for a Wonderful Campaign

For two weeks now, my laptop has been acting like it belongs in a retirement community. Slow moving, unresponsive, can’t stand to play videos or music (“It’s all just NOISE.”). So I was faced with the prospect of buying a new one, having to run Windows Vista and replacing what has become an extension of myself (I know there are geekier people out there who can say Amen.) with something either flashy and expensive, or shabbily assembled. (An aside to Toshiba: Whoever thought of making every surface of your laptops glossy, including the keyboard, should be out of a job. My thoughts are dirty enough; I don’t need to work on a laptop that shows every smudge and fingerprint.)

Luckily, we still have a retail computer store in Chicago, and one of the salesman casually mentioned that my problem sounded like a defective hard drive. If I wanted to get all Handy Andy, I could buy a new one for $80, and if it didn’t work, I could apply that cost to a new computer.

Hey, you don’t have to ask me twice. It took me more time to watch a handheld video of a teenager replacing the HD in his VAIO with one hand than it did to install. How’s that for DIY geekery? Small potatoes, I realize, but it’s the kind of thing our thrifty forefathers would’ve appreciated.

Now I’ve regained the power to waste half my day watching videos and browsing websites about the election. Can it really be only 19 days away?? Say it ain’t so! What will we do without it? Where else can we find so much self-generating entertainment? The desperation, the slander, the anger, the schadenfreude–it’s going to be a long, lonely winter when Obama wins and we have nothing left to look forward to except rebuilding the economy of the world (let alone Iraq and Afghanistan).

I’ll accept that outcome, of course, even though I predict it will be slim pickins for comedians and satirists in an Obama administration. Sober, thoughtful and level-headed–looks like a arid wasteland to me. Better start working on comic light verse. Oh wait, I already am. Oh well, the local political scene is a complete dog’s breakfast, so there’s that consolation.

I don’t put much credence in polls, especially this year. I’m certain more people have been saying they’ll vote for Obama than actually will, but not enough to tip things toward McCain. My guess is Obama will take 55-60% of the vote, and will have a momentous victory in the Electoral College. I have never thought of attending a party for election night coverage, but this year, it’s tempting. It will be as close to a landslide as I’ll probably see in my lifetime. And justifiably so. After eight years of the Bush Administration (don’t think back to it–it will boggle your mind), we need to purge our systems of the fear, the hate, the culture warfare, the dessication of the economy, the complete and utter failure of everything W and his henchmen have touched. Remember Ford’s phrase, “Our long national nightmare is over”? Well, almost, Gerry, but October’s only half over. Still plenty of time for Bush to declare martial law because Iceland’s attacking.

But the campaign? I’ll miss it. It’s been such a joy to watch the Republicans and the conservative movement flail and sputter and wallow in the shit they’ve been cultivating for so long. Obama has actually turned into a colossal bore, but how could he keep up with the McCain-Palin Show? Come January, the right-wing screeds will have all the substance of sea foam. Truthiness will recede, but not disappear. Obama’s plans will be derided as socialism, as if the economic bailout endorsed by both parties isn’t. We won’t have the money to enact most of his plans anyway. Expect dim job growth, melting ice caps, deteriorating infrastructure–and from the right, a lot of screaming about gay test tube babies and marauding Mexican zombies.

Comic high notes like the Couric-Palin interview? We’ll have to savor them like a Frank Sinatra song, because we won’t see the likes of them again.

Garage Sale

Some few, last, rambling observations on the Cubs and White Sox:

–It remains a mystery to me why the Cubs had a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkle the dugout with holy water before the playoff series. Was it because the Billy Goat curse was laid on the team by a Greek tavern owner, Sam Sianis? Were they chosen in a round robin, like having different clerics open council meetings with prayer? My good friend U-Boat, the West Coast’s go-to atheist, suggested that

Wouldn’t it be funny if, after years of systematically sprinkling holy something-or-others from all the world’s great religions, some really obscure religion turned it around for the Cubs?

Jainists Claim World Series for Cubs!

Or, they could just swing the bats once in a while…

U-Boat doesn’t want to entertain the idea that, if the Cubs do eventually win it, the sprinkling denomination will have bragging rights, if not complete legitimization as the one true voice of the Almighty. Great PR.

–Speaking of things spiritual, it occurred to me that this year’s White Sox team may have gotten where they are by selling their souls to the devil. However, the devil repackaged those deeds and sold them on the secondary market, where they’ve infected the balance sheets of many large lenders. The Sox, meanwhile, are left with no championship and a mighty tenuous story come judgment day.

–I loved the effect of the Sox blackout. Let’s hope the fans aren’t asked to overdo it and wear all black, say, in a Cubs midseason series. Much more effective to keep it in reserve for post-season play. Not that marketing depts. have much use for showing any reserve.

–it was good to see some young kids in attendance at both Comiskey Park and Tropicana Field, because marketers tell us that kids have lots more disposable income these days, so their spending decisions could have importance for the teams’ futures. Quite a different picture than I saw at the closing game at Yankee Stadium. Who’s going to waste their $500 ticket on a kid when they have to bring a client? The television cameras found one or two kids at the end and lingered over them as if they were the witnesses to the end of an era, when really they just wanted to go home and go to bed.

–As far-fetched as it might’ve been, I was really pulling for a Subway Series here in Chicago. The stories of carnage and mayhem, of families and marriages ripped apart, of class warfare and new lifelong hatreds, would’ve made for wonderful reading. New York has had a number of crosstown series, and the Giants and A’s played one back in 1989. Maybe one will happen during my lifetime.

–One trouble with TIVOing the games and zipping through them later is not being able to listen to the regular radio announcers call the game. They are infinitely more knowledgeable than the national broadcasters (well, three out of four are, while Santo grunts like a caveman). One friend of mine will only watch Bears games with the sound off while listening to the play-by-play announcers, which I think is a fine idea.

–One good point about the Cubs losing is that they retain their loveability. That’s one thing the Red Sox lost when they finally won the World Series, as Boston native Pat Borelli explains in today’s Tribune.

And if John Cheever really believed “All men of letters are Red Sox fans,” then it’s one more good reason to stay away from New England in the winter. They drink too much up there, apparently.

–And Alphonso Soriano (zip for bupkus in the last two post-season series) weighs in with an opinion that no one wants to hear, as it comes from him:

“We’re a very good team for [162] games, but we don’t do nothing after that,” he said. “That’s the difference. We’re not put together for [a short series].”

Boy, that must be the secret of baseball, right? Ignore most of the season and build a team that can win in a short series.

That only works for basketball, Fonzie.

Oh, BTW, you suck.

Eyeball Strain

I didn’t know watching TV could be so exhausting until this morning. I guess watching the Sox lose, the Veep Debate, and the Cubs lose can really take it out of a couch potato.

Diminished expectations were the theme running through these three events. I thought the Sox played better than the Cubs, and the fact that no one believes the Sox are going far in to the playoffs makes watching them play a little sweeter. The Cubs, as presumptive World Series participants, were exasperating with their errors and their whiffs. With their wide swings in the dirt, the heavy hitters (D-Lee in particular) looked like they were hoeing a garden. We are expecting a lot more from the Cubs, and watching them play like Little Leaguers is a new level of depression.

The expectations were low for Sarah Palin going into the debate, so the fact that she could pronounce Achmedinajad (but not “nuclear”) made her this year’s Stephen Douglas, at least among right-wingers. I was disappointed but not surprised it wasn’t a bloodbath. Ya, you betcha I was. But her answers were so vacuous, she seemed like a customer service supervisor who could spout all kinds of nonsense but still not get me what I want. Biden in contrast was sober, smart, and experienced, but what does that count against charisma?

I watched the CNN broadcast, and so got to watch the little EKG meter at the bottom which bumped up and down from the reactions of undecided Ohio voters twisting little knobs somewhere in Chillicothe. As much as we mocked the gimmick, throughout the night, my wife and I couldn’t take our eyes off it. The blips actually revealed a few interesting things, like everyone agreed with Biden’s comment that Dick Cheney is the most dangerous elected official in America (big spikes there), the govt needs to have more diplomacy and engagement, and the country should lead UN troops into Darfur. Toward the end of the debate, when Biden was explicit in his foreign policy opinions and Palin sounded like the Chamber of Commerce booster she is, her nonanswers failed to get the EKG to move beyond tepid. But that and $3.95 will get you a cup of coffee.

I hope the Cubs, Sox and Palin can hang on just long enough to keep us entertained this month. For one thing, we’ve got a lot of poems in the queue at Bardball. Today we posted a video from Tom Latourette, which is funny, cruel and timely:

These Die-Hards Would Make Bruce Willis Puke

So Ryan Dempster got a case of the jumps last night and couldn’t keep the ball anywhere near the strike zone, and the Cubs lost to the Dodgers. Hey, it happens. That’s why it’s called a sport. It was a lackluster showing, but the Cubs have too much talent to go quietly (knock wood). I’m looking forward to Dempster pitching again and kicking ass (don’t ask me about Ted Lilly).

But what pissed me off so much more than the loss was watching the po-faced Cub fans in the stands. My gosh, people, you were a disgrace! Watching it on TV was like watching a class in macroeconomics–I expect more catcalling at tonight’s veep debate!

In the fourth, when Dempster was getting behind the batters, you all got on your feet, but did any of you cheer your support? No, you held your breath and crossed your fingers like a bunch of third graders! Don’t you think Dempster would’ve like a little encouragement? He had Manny Ramirez down 0-2, and none of you made a peep! And don’t say it was because the network didn’t have enough mikes on the crowd. We could see you behind home plate, with worried looks on your faces, waiting for yet another smack in the face from Destiny.

Do you think the Sox fans would have been so quiet? Do you? They made a hell of a lot of noise during their do-or-die games this week, screaming and waving those black towels. They WANT the Sox to win. They don’t feel like the Sox OWE them anything except to play their best and give them a few thrills.

You Cub fans looked like a bunch of ninnies, like kids praying for Santa but worried he’s going to come home drunk again and start peeing on the Christmas tree. You were a disgrace to the city. A spineless, superstitious, crybaby disgrace.

The next time someone brings out the old cliche that fans on the South Side are more knowledgeable about baseball, and that North Siders just want a good time at the park, I’m going to point to last night’s game and agree wholeheartedly.