Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thanks ( 2 years of blogging)

Like most folk, I’ve had my share of things that I’ve done and a certain number of disappointments. As a writer, I’ve had a lot more of the latter than the former. For many years, I’ve probably gotten along on the too common fantasy that someday someone in a position to help would “find my writing”. I’d then be rescued from the embarrassment of telling people that I write then having to explain that I’ve never been published by any publication that any normal person would recognize. Even worse, it turns out that everyone writes or thinks they can write and basically I’ve never had anything that separates what I do from what they do.

Over time, I’ve told fewer people in my regular life that I write creatively. Also, most of the people in my life who know that I do write ask less and less about it these days nor do they show any interest whatsoever if the topic does happen to come up. It’s been one of those things in my life that most people around me treat as a “tacit” failure. I’m pretty sure they think they’re being polite by not asking me about it. In the meantime, we talk about their kids, jobs, vacations, home woes, etc. and sad to say I have no idea what they may be dreaming about or yearning for either. Perhaps that’s the nature of middle-aged friendship or now that I’m well into middle-age I’m just a crummy friend.

Anyway, I had planned to post about the fact that this blog is now two years old, but I didn’t get the chance because I had too many other things to write about. For someone who battled “writer’s block” for many years, that’s an accomplishment. I also set a goal early this year of getting to a hundred thousand visitors by the end of 2007. I crossed that in Mid-May and am currently closing in on a hundred and twenty thousand.

Of course, this has come at a price. My family thinks I’m nuts and my wife has probably rightly not been happy with the way I obsessively check my hit counts. She’s repeatedly counseled me that it’s more important to write something that I’m proud of and have absolutely no readers than it is to spending so much of my time counting and analyzing my hits. There’s a logic to what she says. Most everything my wife does tell me makes sense. It’s just that I’ve internalized this belief that if no one reads what I write, it’s not real. Anyway, crossing a hundred thousand visitors is a big deal to me.

I know that doesn’t make my blog commercial. In fact, my dreams of any editors, publishers, agents, better known writers finding me here have never materialized. Well, one writer did find me here, but none of her e-mail addresses worked or she never responded to the e-mails that I sent to the three different addresses I found for her. Otherwise, I might as well just be sitting here on my URL and talking to a volleyball.

There are a lot of blogs that get a hundred thousand hits in a day. I also suspect that several thousand of my hits are me looking at or revising my site. Still, beyond the fact that I’m sort of obsessive-compulsive about numbers of any kind, I feel good to have gotten to my goal. Now I can say, “Yes, I write and my blog has had a hundred thousand visitors.”

Most people don’t know that this is very different from having a hundred thousand actual readers. It sounds like a big number though. I also don’t tell them that if I posted winning Lotto numbers or were offering pictures of Julianne Hough, I’d get that many hits in a couple days.

I learned very early in this process that blogging is a kind of virtual community in which people who may never meet in person or even directly e-mail one another find ways to support one another. Often that takes the form of an occasional comment on one another’s blogs, something that assures me and I assume them that someone else actually reads the posts. Other times, it goes well beyond that. The life of a blog can be spectacularly short. I’ve added then removed a lot more people on my blog roll in two years than I ever expected. Still, it seems like every couple weeks I have a new person to thank for supporting this blog and by extension my writing. The great thing is that these are friends who read what one writes almost by definition.

I want to acknowledge and thank the following people,

We don’t have a lot of contact, but Bella Rossa, a rising Chicago comedy writer, helped bring me one of the things I craved, regular commenters. Many months ago, Bella asked me to be one of her subjects for her Interviews with Bloggers project. While hardly anyone has ever read that interview, Dale and Atul (two of Bella’s other interviewees) began commenting on my blog.

Even though he’s Canadian, Dale’s one of the funnier people in blogland. Okay, that may be like being the tallest person in a six foot and under basketball league, but it’s still something. He mixes off-center observations from his daily life, odd often touching stories from his past , with occasional entertainment reviews. In addition, a couple of Dale’s regulars have wandered over here. These include Tanya Espanya, an endearingly goofy very-pregnant Canadian woman , Beckeye a very funny music writer from Brooklyn, and Pink Fluffy Slippers a woman who alternates between talking about her attempts to master the cello and discussions of her dietary habits.

A lot of my writing is about being Chinese-American and Atul’s perspective is especially interesting to me because he’s Indian-American, into cars, aphorisms, and, for lack of a better phrase, the ironies of daily life.

Benny is apparently actually a cat, but I met his alter-ego when I was blogging about the emergence of Cindy Sheehan. Ironically Cindy Sheehan has “retired” from public activism. Benny and Iddybud have slowly been converting me to supporting John Edwards candidacy for the presidency. Among other things, Edwards may be the most consistently pro-peace in all its senses of the major candidates.

Charles Lambert is a very fine fiction writer who lives in Italy but who happens to be British. While his fiction career looks like it’s beginning to get the attention it deserves (he won an O’henry this year and his first novel will be in print soon), his blog is very funny and far too often reminds me that America is not the only crazy place in the world. and that the Vatican has plenty of closet space.

Teriyaki Donuts
/All the Wrong Faces keeps one blog about odd examples of cross-cultural bedfellows in California, e.g. the many Asian-owned doughnut shops that often also sell items like kung pao chicken or teriyaki beef sticks. All the Wrong Faces is a frank reprise of the big frustrations and little joys of being a single man navigating a major course correction in the middle of his life. I just wish he had the time to post a little more often.

Parklife found my blog through a post I made about the return of Don Nelson to the Golden State Warriors. Interestingly, we've hardly ever exchanged comments about sports since. He covers political-cultural matters with a very sharp eye. That same eye has especially interesting taste in photography. As someone who knows very little about photographers or art-photography, I find that Parklife constantly expands my cultural-political horizons.

Sunny was perhpas America's biggest supporter of Sanjaya Malakar, she had the patience to follow both my seasons of blogging about American Idol.

Lastly, I want to mention Mr. Pogblog whose blog is also two years old. Pogblog is both a real life friend and has been probably the most stalwart supporter of my writing I’ve known over the last twenty five years. Pogblog, the site, is a gem of the internet and likely the only Druidic site I’ll ever recommend here. The writing there is intricate, hilarious, exasperating, and fully original. It jumps from being a series of metaphysical puzzles about the seeming paradox of full consciousness or awareness to a somewhat disturbing obsession both with cats and Clive Owen. It’s often not easy reading, but I find that it’s always worth the effort.

One of the pleasures of keeping a blog has been having surprise guests drop in like the Grameen Foundation, the composer David Hykes, Polly Whitney the novelist, Ron Franscell, true crime writer (Fall), editor, and NPR contributor, and rather surprisingly I was even linked to the American Idol wing of Freepublic. I also want to mention that the single biggest source of readers has come from my reality tv reviews and I owe much of that to the very kind folk at Sirlinksalot, the leading link aggregator of reality tv articles on the web. I also want to thank my many volleyball readers.

In any case, support and encouragement are rare gifts in this life. Any time someone takes the time to read posts here or comment,it’s added to my reserve of both. My next goal is to get published conventionally. All those visits have helped me to think that next goal might be possible after all.


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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Secret Recipes (fiction)

Secret Recipes

I may be the only person who knows the real origin of General Mo’s chicken. Even though I’m not much of a cook, I may also be the only person who knows the proper recipe for the popular dish that combines boneless balls of chicken with a hot sweet sauce. While far too many people claim to know the original recipe, none of them really know the story behind the origins of the dish. If they had the real recipe , they would have to know the story that goes with it. It just doesn’t occur to most people that the lost history of the original River Empire is written in its food.

In my life, I have found General Mo’s chicken in Chinese restaurants all over the world. Sometimes the balls of chicken are deep fried in batter. In many places, they are simply stir fried, but it’s not uncommon to find versions where the chicken is either steamed or baked. There’s even a version of the dish in a restaurant outside Chattanooga in which the meat is left almost bloody. It happens that this version is closer to the original dish in spirit. Americans, of course, generally won’t eat this Tennessee version of General Mo’s legacy. The dish stays on the menu there because there are a handful of Chinese families there who like it that way and order it regularly. If you ask where their variant on the recipe came from, they will insist both that theirs is the only original version of General Mo’s chicken and that they’ve been making it that way for generations.

The sauce for General Mo’s chicken varies even more. In most restaurants, particularly in the corridor from New York to Boston, it is orange-colored and includes maple syrup, an ingredient that couldn’t possibly have existed in China. On the west coast of the United States, the sauce is brown and slightly opaque. Most versions there have flecks of ginger floating in the sauce. In the Midwest, you find both colors, but they always top it with chopped bits of cilantro. In Budapest, Hungary of all places, the General Miao’s chicken has a bright red sauce. The owners claim that their recipe was brought west by the Mongols. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that they too insist that they have the only authentic version of General Miao’s legacy to the modern world. Of course, this doesn’t explain why General Miao’s chicken in Budapest includes paprika as a major ingredient. For that matter, it doesn’t explain how a restaurant in Mumbai has General Mung’s chicken soaked in a sweet curry with bits of pineapple in the sauce. This one was supposedly brought south by the Mughals.

Not only am I the only person in the world who might know the origin and real recipe for General Mo’s chicken, that fact is tied to a sublime bit of irony - my father’s restaurant may have been the only Chinese restaurant in the world that didn’t offer some version of General Mo’s chicken. My grandmother, who happened to be an extraordinarily creative cook herself, forbade it. Even on those occasions when she would consent to go out to a restaurant in Sacramento or San Francisco, my Grandmother wouldn’t let any member of the family or their guests order General Mo’s chicken.
“Brown sauce, orange sauce, it doesn’t matter. This family will never eat General Mo’s chicken,” she would tell us.

She would then redirect us to items like paper-wrapped chicken, sweet and sour chicken, gold coin chicken, steamed chicken with oyster sauce and scallions.

“Here’s these taste better and they’re better for you.”

If we tried to ask why, Aunt Cheryl would warn us “Listen to your yin-yin. We do not eat General Mo’s chicken. You don’t have to ask why before you listen to your grandparents. ”

“Does that mean that you don’t know why either Aunt Cheryl?”
She would then stare us down and tell us, “We’ll do the ordering. You don’t seem to be ready to do it by yourselves.”

My Uncle Leon’s wife was always a bit too easy of a target and she could be vindictive when she wound up having to supervise us away form the other adults, so we didn’t do this as often as we would have liked. Still, the running game with my cousins was to get either our younger cousins or whatever other kids we brought along to try to order General Mo’s chicken in my grandmother’s presence.

Once the innocent would ask “Could we maybe try the General Mo’s chicken,” my Grandmother’s eyes would widen, she’s turn her head without moving her shoulders like some character in a horror movie, and she would hiss through her teeth.

“No, no you try something else. This is better. Next time you go somewhere with your family, you have General Mo’s chicken if it’s okay with your parents, but our family does not eat that dish.”

This meant that I had to try General Mo’s chicken. My first chance came when I was nine years old and I had an overnight visit with Jeff Feinstein, a classmate from my private school in Sacramento. Dr. Feinstein had to work late that night, so Mrs. Feinstein packed us into their Ford Country Squire station wagon with the wood paneling on the sides and the tailgate that opened in three different ways to go meet him at Sammy’s , the much more popular Chinese downtown restaurant that my father liked to consider his major competitor.

I still don’t know whether the Feinsteins had any idea that my father owned a competing downtown restaurant before that night. For non-Chinese, Sammy’s was the Chinese restaurant to go to because the legislators went there. Dr. Feinstein wasn’t a medical doctor, he was a public health administrator working for a state agency so his grants depended on his contacts with the members of the health and science committee of the state senate. If the Feinsteins wanted Chinese, it only made sense for them to go to Sammy’s instead of my Dad’s restaurant, the Lost Province.

The story was that the politicals figured they could talk business there safely because none of the waiters at Sammy’s understood English well enough. At least a dozen of Sammy’s waiters and a couple of the busboys retired or put children through college on stock tips or property buys they’d picked up on just from pretending not to understand English well.

The running complaint in the Chinese community was that the food at Sammy’s was just never all that good. Most of Sammy’s menu wasn’t Chinese at all. It was chicken and pork cubes in sweet and sour sauce, chow mein with fried noodles that came out of a can, mock chicken drumsticks, and chop suey that mixed won ton with noodles and what appeared to be the stock from Campbell’s chicken soup. About the only thing edible to a Chinese palate at Sammy’s was the fortune cookie at the end of the meal.

However busy the restaurant happened to be with its Fan Yin clientele, no self-respecting Chinese family would ever book their own wedding, funeral banquet, or six week baby celebration at Sammy Wong’s restaurant. Sammy didn’t care whether his fellow valley Chinse ate his food or what they said about his restaurant. He was too busy making money. My father’s favorite complaint was, “How can you have a restaurant and not care about the food. What kind of country is this?”
For years, he would take pains to demonstrate the many dozen reasons that the food at the Lost Province was better. He, however, never did the math. The Chinese population of Sacramento in 1965 was about ten thousand. The other hundred thousand people living in city limits knew little to nothing about real Chinese food. Like Willy Tang’s supermarket business, Sammy Wong just had a better sense of when to be Chinese and when not to be Chinese when it came to business than most members of my Grandfather’s family.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the most popular dish at Sammy Wong’s was General Mo’s chicken, though now that I know the story behind General Mo’s chicken, it does shed some light on why California lawmakers do what they do sometimes.

Before that dinner with the Feinsteins, I’d never been inside Sammy’s. I was relieved to discover that Sammy’s, like most other downtown restaurants was dark and windowless. This meant that I couldn’t look out and see my Dad’s much less busy restaurant just a block away and no one could see me inside. My sense of duty to my family and my father’s restaurant told me that I should say something to the Feinsteins. I chose not to because I had convinced myself that either God or Buddha had allowed me this glimpse of the forbidden through the Feinstein family.

Our fifth grade teacher had explained Karma to us a few weeks earlier. Jeff had spent the night at our house in Strawberry Creek the previous Saturday. My dad made Sunday breakfast and Jeff had consumed five pieces of bacon before my dad had remembered to offer to make him pancakes instead. Afterwards, my Dad had laughed about it. That was the first time that I learned that most Jewish families didn’t eat pork. Actually, it was also the first time that I’d found out that bacon came from pigs. It wasn’t that I was stupid, I was always squeamish when I learned where certain things came from, so my parents seldom talked about it.

It appeared to be the Feinstein’s custom at Chinese restaurants to each order a dish. When we went out, my father usually ordered the meal and he would make sure that one of the choices was one of my favorites. I had heard that white families sometimes each ordered a dish at Chinese restaurants and each one would then drop a scoop of rice on the plate then eat only that particular dish. The Feinstein’s, though, were more advanced than that. Before we started ordering, Mrs. Feinstein turned to me and said,
”Lucky, when your family goes to a Chinese restaurant, what dishes do they order?”
Dr. Feinstein then jumped in, “Yes, we always see Chinese families eating in restaurants and I can never figure out where those dishes are on the menu.”

“That’s because they’re eating cats,” Jeff’s older sister jumped in.
Jeff and his sister started giggling.
Mrs. Feinstein scowled and quickly pulled Jeff’s sister away from the table. They both returned a minute later.
“I’m sorry Lucky. I know you don’t eat cats,” Jeff’s sister apologized to me.
“It’s okay,” I whispered.
While they were gone, I’d glanced around Sammy’s restaurant. I was the only Chinese person sitting at a table.
Mrs. Feinstein then picked up where she had left off, “Lucky, really, what sort of dishes does your family like?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know. I never know what they’re called. Sometimes, I’m not even sure what they are. All I know is my parents always make me try at least a little bit of everything.”

The conversation with Jeff’s parents naturally reminded me of the time I’d had to take a taste of something at the upstairs apartment of some old woman who sold medicinal herbs. The broth she was giving me was supposed to help with whatever had been bothering my stomach after I’d found out that I’d happily had three bowls of octopus soup at a banquet.
“What is it?” I asked before I had to take my sip of whatever the old lady had prepared.
“Never mind. Just taste it, it’s good for you. It’ll make you feel better,” my mother told me.
Just before we left, I got a glimpse of the old woman’s kitchen only to see three wire cages stacked on top of one another. A very unhappy looking cat sat in each cage.
I was certain that I’d actually eaten cat that day, but it wasn’t something that I shared with the Feinsteins. I’m not sure why my mother would have had me eat cat if I’d gotten sick from eating octopus, but I suspect that she had convinced herself that I’d gotten sick from something in the octopus, not from finding out that the rubbery meat in my soup had tentacles and looked like a talking cartoon character from the Diver Dan show on Saturday mornings.

Probably because of Jeff’s sister’s cat comment, Mrs. Feinstein didn’t press me any further about what my family ate at Chinese restaurants. When my turn to order at Sammy’s came up, Jeff’s parents both looked at me with interest to see what I was going to order. I turned to the waiter and said in my most polite voice, “Could I have a hamburger please?”
Dr. Feinstein looked over at his wife when I ordered it and neither of them could shake off a bout of laughter.
“I like hamburgers,” I told them.
“You’re sure that’s what you want?”
I nodded. The red-vested waiter gave me a knowing look of approval as he took my order.
“It’s what I order here,” he told the Feinsteins who still hadn’t stopped laughing.
Jeff’s parents then broke up completely. They were laughing so hard that the tables around us were staring at us, trying to figure out just what was so funny.
“We’re sorry Lucky. We’re not laughing at you. We just never expected you to order a hamburger here.”
Dr. Feinstein then shared a story about a sister in law in San Jose who let her kids talk her into bringing home a Christmas tree one year. They brought it home and she tried to make it okay by putting a Star of David on the top. The story made the Feinsteins laugh even harder, but I didn’t get it.

As he left for the kitchen after the sizzling rice soup, the Sammy’s waiter managed to pick up my bowl just so and he whispered in my ear, “You very good boy, very smart. Tell you grandfather, Tang Sae Woo he say hi.”

It was Jeff who offered me my first taste of General Mo’s chicken that evening at Sammy’s in exchange for a handful of potato chips and the pickle that came along with my hamburger. I had tricked him into ordering it by whispering to him that General Mo’s chicken was made with bacon, a secret they never tell non-Chinese.

I offered some of my hamburger and chips to the other members of the Feinstein family, but they all declined. The General Mo’s chicken at Sammy’s was deep-fried and it came soaked in a transluscent brown sauce that was far sweeter than it was hot.
“How do you like their General Mo’s chicken?” Doctor Feinstein asked me in a way that made it clear that he actually cared about my answer.
“It’s fine,” I murmured. “The hamburger’s better, but it’s okay.”
I doubt that any member of the Feinstein family realized that this was the first time I’d ever tasted General Mo’s chicken. Even if Sammy’s version was about as bad as the hundreds of variations on General Mo’s chicken ever get, I thought it was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. From that day forward, I understood that I’d always have a taste for forbidden food.
I saw my Grandmother a week later when we made the drive to Paperson for Saturday dinner. As soon as I walked in the door, she began clucking her tongue and making her General Mo’s chicken face.
“Hai La! How did this happen?”
She looked accusingly at my mother then started yelling at my parents in Chinese. In the meantime, I stood in the entry room of my Grandparent’s house as I tried to figure out what was so obviously different about me from the Saturday before.
A few minutes later, my Grandmother had rushed into her kitchen and I could hear the clatter of metal pots and chopping. My mother and father responded by pulling me into my Grandfather’s office off the main downstairs hallway.
“Lucky, when you stayed at Jeff Feinstein’s last weekend, did you go out to eat?”
“I told you, we went to a restaurant.”
“What restaurant?”
I lied.
“I don’t know, it was some Jewish restaurant downtown.”
“Lucky, they don’t have Jewish restauarants downtown. If they do, no one calls them the “Big Jew’s Steakhouse ” “
“Well, I thought that was the name. You don’t expect me to remember everything.”
For whatever reason, it struck me that Jewish people would name their restaurants the way Chinese restaurants sometimes got named in California.
My father broke in.
“Lucky, it’s okay. You can tell us. We’re not mad at you.”
“How come Yin-Yin is so mad?”
“She says you must have eaten General Mo’s chicken.”
I felt the blood run to my face.
“You didn’t go to Sammy’s with them by any chance? It’s all right with us if you did. I know Dr. Feinstein’s a regular there.”
I started crying.
“It’s just chicken. I just wanted to try it.”
My mother hugged me and my father’s voice dropped to it’s gentlest pitch, “It’s okay Lucky. It’s just that your Grandmother has some of these old superstitions.”
“What’s supposed to happen to me?”
“Your Grandmother thinks that if anyone in our family eats too much General Mo’s chicken, that person will be cursed.”
“What’s the curse?”
“If you eat General Mo’s chicken, you’ll never be able to go back to China.”
“Well, it tasted terrible anyway,” I lied again.
From that point on, if I ever wound up at a Chinese restaurant away from any members of my family, I always ordered General Mo’s chicken.

“Bring Lucky in here. Hurry!” My grandmother yelled.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting at the oval table in the breakfast room and my Grandmother was motioning for me to sit in front of a porcelain bowl containing a single steamed chicken’s foot, something I actually liked even though I knew where it came from. I sat down at what was usually my grandfather’s seat on the side of the table near his “Man Soda” cabinet, my Grandfather’s American name for whiskey.

I sat down. My grandmother reached into the bowl in front of me, grabbed the chicken’s foot and dipped it into a shallow porcelain dish that held a gray powder.
“Eat this right away. Don’t chew any longer than you have to.”
“What is it, Yin Yin.”
“It’s chicken.”
“Not the chicken, what’s the powder?”
“You eat it first, I tell you afterwards.”
I knew I had no choice. I took the powder-dipped chickens foot, tore the skin and meat away with my upper teeth and swallowed as quickly as I could. The salty powder sat on my tongue and then suddenly seemed to break into tiny explosions. It was delicious.
“Yin yin. That was really good. Thankyou. Can I have some more?”
She shook her head and responded by grabbing the bowl and the dish of powder, but not before I had the chance to slip my finger into the powder for one more taste.
“No more. It’s bad for you to have too much. You won’t want to stay here.”
“You promised to tell me what it was.”
My grandmother was both tiny and unusually beautiful. When she was younger, family legend had it that she and her sisters could not walk down the block in San Francisco Chinatown without half a dozen young men following them.
My Grandmother stood over me and she said “I can only tell you this once, so if you want to know, you have to listen. It’s called General Fa’s dipping salt.”

When I was away from Paperson, I always took a special pride in telling people that my Grandmother had been born in San Francisco. I was almost an adult before it ever struck me as strange that she spoke English with a Chinese accent nonetheless. For some odd reason now that I’d had a taste of General Fa’s dipping salt, I couldn’t notice her accent.

No Chinese restaurant in the world offers General Fa’s dipping salt either on or off its menu, yet the few times in my life I have had it, it is the most incredible tasting sensation, the apex of the greatest cuisine in the world. If you have a pinch of General Fa’s dipping salt, all other food tastes better for days, because of the way it seems to bring your senses back to life.
I began to move the bit of gray powder on my finger towards my tongue, but my Grandmother stopped me. I still smelled it though and realized right then that it smelled just like the gunpowder that came out when you unrolled a firecracker.

The real story of General Mo’s Chicken and General Fa’s dipping salt are stories that must forever be joined. The only thing most people remember about General Mo today is that his name became a recipe for chicken. The only way General Fa is remembered is as Fa Mu Lan, known in the West and through Disney as the Woman Warrior.
I asked my Grandmother, “Yin Yin what’s in that powder.”
I never forgot her answer, “Eleven secret herbs and spices. “
I looked at her with my puzzled stare and she started laughing.
“See, it’s just like Colonel Sanders. Cantonese Fried Chicken. Don’t you watch tv?”
My Grandfather and my parents began laughing too. I eventually heard two versions of the story one from my Grandmother and one from my father.


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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Jordin Rules (American Idol 6 finale)

I better start with a confession here. I only saw about ten minutes of the Tuesday show. Part of it was that the Bachelor After the Rose show was on at exactly the same time and I’d committed to blogging that instead. A bigger part of it was that this final didn’t feel right. Unlike many others, I think the argument can be made that Jordin Sparks is a plausible winner. She’s even the one of the twelve finalists who makes sense as the winner in the show’s terms (more about that later). In retrospect, once Stephanie Edwards bit the Dusty on British Invasion night way back in the round of eleven, Jordin actually was the most logical winner.

At least in Idol terms, every other finalist had some fatal flaw. Even though there were two better singers, Jordin Sparks was the only one who could sing, could project a poised yet exuberant personality, had an appealing look that played well to the camera, and who could perform the kind of pop drek that the show uses to coronate its winner without cringing.

Idol owes at least some of its success to its capacity, conscious or not, to pick up on undercurrents in American pop culture. In the last twenty years, one of those trends has been the way we’ve come to fetishize the notion of generic self-actualization. In movies, books, celebrity, etc. it isn’t important that you stand for anything in particular whether it’s God, country, peace, social justice, a set of principles, or just want to write songs and stop working at Coyote Ugly. It’s much more critical that you

1. Believe in yourself (have a dream)
2. Work hard for it (be a survivor)
3. Be emotive once you get there

I tend to think of it as Oprah America (actually Lakisha Jones may have had the best line on the show this year when she said she knew Bon Jovi because he’d been on Oprah). As long as you overcome a couple obstacles and believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter if the dream is simply to run your own business, find a lost relative, win some ridiculous endurance test, learn to read as an adult, get a real estate license, or sing in front of 60 million television sets.

Consider the following Idol valedictories,

A Moment Like This
Flying Without Wings
I Believe
Inside Your Heaven
Do I Make You Proud
This is My Now

Are any of them about anything other than some generic personal triumph? Other than comprising a ptoential nightmare medley, does anyone else notice how self-absorbed the Idol anthems tend to be collectively? In a sense, the show is the apotheosis of what the intellectuals refer to as “American Exceptionalism,” the doctrine that America is a “chosen nation” that somehow defines both what’s good and necessary for anyone else. What’s more American Idol like than to believe that you were chosen for your own dream?

It strikes me that Jordin Sparks was the perfect slate on which to reprint Idol’s annual message of “Yes it’s me and I made it. I’m the chosen one.”

This is incidental, but it’s also fascinating that the show subtly responded to last year’s most tabloid-like storyline- Katharine Mcphee’s emergence from being self-conscious about her body image to being the finalist in the tight-revealing clothing to coming out as someone who had worked through an eating disorder. This year, the winner just happens to be a big-boned but very attractive teen girl who won a national big and beautiful modeling contest before auditioning for the show. Does anyone else remember that the Arizona native also auditioned in Seattle? America votes, but who they ultimately get to vote for isn’t necessarily an accident.

Part of the reason, I didn’t watch the Tuesday show though was that I simply felt cheated.

This season’s semif-finals started with an implied promise. In the year when Jennifer Hudson won an academy award, it looked like the show was going to make a mid-course correction. Lakisha Jones opened the semi-finals with her version of “I’m Staying”, the song that broke Jennifer Hudson out of being that really good singer who didn’t look good enough for Idol voters. When Simon declared Jones the frontrunner that night, there were so many subtexts it made my head spin. It was dissing Hudson and honoring her at the same time. Instead of talking about “fitting the mold”, maybe the show was ready to consider the possibility of letting America actually decide what it liked?

After all, hadn’t they done that two years running when Bo Bice, a rock singer, broke into the finals without having to make like some third-rate version of Bryan Adams singing about Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. Then last year, Taylor Hicks whom Simon had openly dissed as not commercial enough, won the whole thing. As the show has continued to grow in popularity and confidence, the line between the show’s making America’s pop music taste and reflecting it has gotten hazier. With its growing cultural power, should Idol pander or lead?

As things do with Idol, it got twisted from there. Both Bo and Taylor’s post-idol careers haven’t compared favorably in the sales column to Carrie and Kelly, the two winners the producers had found a way to market. Nonetheless, for several weeks this was going to be the year of the real singers. While America seemed to be enjoying Sanjaya, most people insisted that Melinda Doolittle, the other great singer who one would never expect to date Dallas Cowboys’ quarterbacks post-Idol, was repeatedly being given the message by the judges that she was the clear favorite.

I don’t know how much anyone should trust the numbers from Dial Idol, but she also topped that measure for several weeks while Jordin Sparks, the eventual winner, apparently got close to elimination in the early rounds. One week, Simon gave a signal by telling Jordin after “Broken Wing” that he actually thought she might win. Suddenly Jordin Sparks started doing better in the Dial Idol standings and Melinda faded. What was that about?

Clive Davis may have explained it best when the show pulled him from his crypt to present an award to Carrie Underwood as the embodiment of everything the show wants. Their criteria was simple enough. The Oklahoma native sold six million records with songs written and produced by the show’s stable of writers etc. Idol doesn’t want an artist, it wants somebody to front the machine. Clive’s speech about what it meant to be a truly successful Idol left no doubt about who or what runs that machine. A hint- it’s not whoever happens to get to sing that cheesy ballad at the end of the finale and it’s probably not even the guy with the British accent and the man boobs.

Of course Kelly eventually bucked against that brand of Idol taming. After all, she was rocking out in near scream mode at the beginning of the finale. Yes, they clearly also love Chris Daughtry who they now unsubtly tell America was the real winner of season 5 and whose song they played every Wednesday this season….but the basic idea is that it’s not really about the singing, regardless of what the judges say, it’s about the money.

Thoughts on the Finale

What was up with Gwen Stefani on the show this year? Not only did they keep pimping her appearances, she always seemed to do the bare minimum including the singing part. When they showed her live-remote performance or whatever it was, I turned to my wife and said, “You know as much as people criticize the Idols, at least half the time the guest stars don’t have voices that are nearly as good.”

Almost as mysterious as Gwen’s Madonna Version 2.0 thing, what was going on with the sudden surfeit of Beatles’ songs on the finale. Did they get the rights for two days and get scared that Paul was going to change his mind? The Jordin-Blake duet on “She was Just Seventeen” wasn’t exactly convincing unless you really like high school musicals. Incidentally, am I the only one who thinks that Blake comes off as younger than Jordin? The Idols singing half of Sergeant Pepper just made me miss the days when new Beatles albums were actual cultural events. Where was this material when they did British Invasion night?

Idol now separates into three distinct seasons. There’s the “let’s make fun of the clueless and those who pretend to be clueless just to get on tv” of the increasingly long audition season. There’s the actual competition. There’s this kind of odd variety show extravaganza that plays out on Wednesday, this year’s dual finale of Idol Cares and the coronation show, and the judges+Ryan byplay that mostly consists of outing Ryan Seacrest or letting Paula do her take on the Peter Finch role from the movie “Network.”
Where it once seemed to be a chance to reprise the finalists and actually name the winner, the Finale now seems to pay homage to all three of those seasons.

Even though the whole crown a winner business with the faux fireworks, confetti, and synthesizer plastic ballad playing in the background still happened, the single oddest thing was that this year’s finale just wasn’t much about the contestants or even the two finalists. Sanjaya got a whole song to himself though with considerable assistance from Joe Perry and Melinda got maybe the best musical moment of the show. She was very much in her element singing as a peer of the Winans’s instead of as one of their backup singers. It truly was a sweet moment and it also said something else pretty interesting. That was Melinda Doolittle’s music. She might do other genres well, but Christian gospel pop is who she is and she’s great at it.

The rest of the non-finalist finalists basically got to play backup singer. Notably, Brandon Rogers, the other professional backup singer, suddenly seemed more comfortable singing behind Smokey Robinson than in front of him. Chris Sligh actually sounded good, but if he wants a serious career the guy needs to stop putting his keyboard in his mouth with his blog. Chris Richardson, Stephanie Edwards, Gina Glocksen, and Haley Scarnato though were barely in evidence on the finale.

I did think the girls sounded much better behind Gladys Knight than the guys did with their Beach Boys’ style chorus for Smokey. Gladys Knight started her career on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, so her appearance was a nice touch. Both were two of the better singing elderly performers to have appeared on Idol. If you remember last year’s finale and Meat Loaf et. al., a lot of this year’s guest performers did a much better job singing with the Idol finalists.

The other notable thing was that the ex-Idol winners got much more face time than any of this year’s finalists. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this level of inbreeding, but it was nice to learn that Taylor Hicks actually is alive.

Capsules on the other guest artists:

1) Bette Midler- yikes…..who was that lounge singer? What happened to the energy, the arch sense of humor, the whacky tasteless performing values? Where were the Harlettes?

2) Tony Bennett- one of the odd things is now that he’s one of the last crooners still going, it’s common to consider him “mainstream”…I’d forgotten how much of a shouter he is and how blunt instrument can be with some of his songs. Bill Evans brought out the best in Tony Bennett. Ricky Minor did not.

3) Green Day- I like Green Day, but I think Idol thought they were going really punk/alternative by putting them on the show. These guys looked like they could be doing “tribute” concerts in maybe five years. I know that their cover of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" was supposed to raise a bunch of social issues not normally discussed on the show, but they felt about as edgy as a ball of silly putty.

4) Doug E-Fresh….I thought he might expose Blake Lewis in that duet. Instead, they gave Blake Lewis the bulk of the solo space. Would you pay to see Robin Williams sing? I also find myself thinking Vanilla Ice more than Eminem here.

5) Reuben Studdard – there’s a part of me that wonders if they brought him in to sing the duet with Jordin because he’s one of the few singers who’s actually taller and bigger than she is? He’s a good singer. I do like Clay Aiken okay, but I think America got it right. He’s less affected and more musical.

6) The African Children’s Choir- I did’t miss Josh Groban. It was fun just to see a different kind of act on the show.

The Golden Idols

1) I’m sorry but that older black woman dressed as Big Bird made me think Stepin Fetchit. The loud, overwrought singer guy too. It felt like Blackface for the Tivo age.

2) Jonathan and Kenneth Briggs, Simon’s Bush Baby reminded me of the show’s tendency to try to have it all ways. The show was telling us that Simon crossed the line, but by doing so he’d actually done these two young-disabled men a favor by turning them into celebrities.

They name a Bush Baby for Simon in the Milwaukee zoo and he gives the two “good sports” a standing ovation and all is supposed to be forgiven. You know what ever happened to just having the producers or Ryan say, “We’re really sorry for having been deeply offensive” ?

Going overt with the whole Simon-Ryan homo-erotic subtext also seemed to be their way of saying “See it was okay, we make fun of ourselves too.”

3) I still feel bad for Antonella Barba and think she got a raw deal. Why wasn’t BFF, Amanda at least in the audience?

Last year’s finale was monumentally tasteless-clever and mysteriously right-on. It caught everything that’s serendipitously mesmerizing about the show. Simply put, this year’s finale was tired. I thought Jordin sounded good enough on “This is My Now.” I do actually hope she makes it.

My friend Pogblog who doesn’t watch the show but who has done a lot of tv production mentioned to me once that she saw a shot of Jordin once and knew she was the winner because she has the kind of face that can fill a closeup frame on the television set. Merv Griffin, in his enormously successful television producer phase, once articulated it as his “big head” theory. Something about big heads and big bright eyes together has an expressive quality on a tv screen.

It does happen though that Jordin Sparks really can sing, though not always consistently. I was just hoping that this would be the season when the producers took the formula to the next level instead of falling back on the old one. I still worry that Jordin Sparks' real now would have been five years from now.

To quote Blake Lewis…ah-budda-budda-gudda- uh That’s All Folks!

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

Sir Linksalot American Idol articles

SirLinksalot MelindaDoolittle American Idol


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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bache To the Future (Bachelor 10 final)

The Baldwin twins are getting ready for their first junior triathlon. After years of having to greet Dad at the finish line of what have always been excruciatingly boring days when the only talk is about hydration, salt levels, and time splits, the twins are excited to have their own chance to bore everyone they meet to tears with constant talk about their training regimen and all their personal bests. Blueberry Baldwin, the boy, is helping to set the table for dinner. All the rooms in the Baldwin house have lit candles scattered everywhere at all times. This is actually their fifth home. The first three went in fires. They sold the fourth because blondes kept falling off the roof and knocking on the bedroom window to ask directions on their way down.

A guitar player sits on a stool in the kitchen as Mom Tessa prepares the family’s favorite meal of raw fish and bananas. The synthesizer player is in the living room watching television for the moment while Dad Andy recovers from a rough day of diving.

“What’s the matter with Dad. He’s sitting on the living room couch with his shirt off again?”

“Blueberry, you should know by now. Every time Dad has to think, he takes his shirt off and slumps his head forward.”

“Must be kind of strange when he’s seeing patients though.”

“Your Dad is like a very thoughtful and like sensitive man. That’s why we like had a connection.”

Blueberry shrugs and goes back to cutting up bananas. In the meantime, Blueberry’s twin sister, Banana Nut comes in through the kitchen door while still talking on her cell phone.

BN: Yeah, you wouldn’t believe it. There was this Doctor lady who came by the other day who claimed to be an old friend of mom and dad’s. We’re like all having lunch together and like Dad is about to say something and this lady tells him he has something in his teeth. And like you won’t believe what she did. She leans forward and like takes it out of his mouth.

Tessa: Banana Nut, don’t be talking to your friends about stuff like that. Aunt Tina’s very nice.

BB: Aunt Tina started singing the National Anthem when she walked into the living room. She might be nice, but that only happens in those weird houses over on American Idol Dr. They audition all their house guests over there.

Tess: Blueberry, your father and I looked a long time. We love Realityville. It has great schools, parks, and every time something dramatic happens they play music in the background.

BN: Mom, is that why every time you and Dad say something to each other in private, the guitar player and the synthesizer guy follow you around?

Tessa nods.

Tess: Blueberry, that doesn’t mean I want you playing with those boys on Fear Factor Way any more. They’re way too rough. The zip line there is okay, but never stay for dinner. You always come home like sick.

BB: No problem mom, you think I want to eat a bucket of cockroaches. But, the kids over on Wopner and Judy Court are so boring. They get into these stupid arguments and then expect us to watch while their parents wind up talking sense to everyone. It’s like Springer Street, but maybe without all those ladies who sort of look like men who talk about how they used to be in the Klan.

Tessa: Once in a while, Springer Street is okay but stay away from that psycho on the corner of Political Theater Avenue and Being There Drive, the one who's always clearing brush and dressing up like an air force pilot. I'm pretty sure he's a serial killer or a child molester or something like that. You can tell by that fake smile and those beady eyes. Aunt Tina says he got caught spying on his neighbors once and tried to convince them that he was doing it to protect them. Talk about a sick little man!

BN: Mom, how did we wind up living in Realityville anyway. How did you and Dad meet. Was it incredible? Did you have a connection right away? Was it like Amazing?

Tess: Andy, could you come in here a minute? I need to talk to you about something.

The synthesizer player moves to the kitchen and the guitar player suddenly sits up.

Andy: Hi Dear. You look so amazing. You’re such a gem.

Tess: Kids, could you go upstairs for a moment. Your Dad and I need to have a little one on one time here.

BB: Like when Uncle Chris came over with those fantasy suite cards?

Andy: Blueberry…..I told you not to talk about that in front of mom.

Tess: No Blueberry, it’s not like that. Your Dad and I just need to talk.

Andy sighs.

Andy: Most days, I’m so glad we decided to settle in Realityville instead of trying to build our relationship in the real world. Look what happened to Dr. Travis, my Duke buddy. And I knew this day would come. Blueberry and Banana Nut are awfully smart. They started talking at nine months. One day, they were going to ask.

Tess: It’s time. It’s a little earlier than we thought, but it’s time to tell them about the Birds and the Bachelors.

Andy: Oh , before I forget. Tessa, will you please take this rose?

Tessa kisses him.

Tess: Oh Andy, you’re so romantic. Every night for the last 11 years, you’ve given me a rose.

A few hours later, the family is in the living room. Andy goes to the bookshelf and pulls out a Lisa Blank personal day planner which turns out to have a hidden agenda compartment inside. He pulls a set of DVDs out of the hidden agenda compartment. Kids, it’s time that you saw this.

BB: Dad, what’s going on here? I thought you only gave mom roses.

BN: Whoa, that lady from South Carolina with the transplanted organs! Why are you kissing her instead of mom. And Mom, if I meet a boy am I supposed to exchange foot rubs with him fifteen minutes after meeting him?

Tessa: Andy, I didn’t think this would be a good idea. You have to like talk to them.

Andy presses the pause button.

Andy: Kids you have to understand, I was in this for the right reasons. I had to explore my feelings with all of these women before I knew if your mom had it in her heart to commit.

Tessa nods approvingly.

BB: You should have kept Lindsay and Blakeney. You know Doctor Rotting Eggs who lives at the end of Bachelor Terrace? She says that there’s this lady Erica Rose who used to live in the trailer park at the end of the road, she worked on tv for like a year just from being outrageous like that.

Andy: They were both lovely and classy ladies. I just didn’t feel a connection with them.

BN: Yeah, but they seem a lot more fun than some of those ladies you did choose?

BB: Oh my God! Dad’s kissing some lady with these big honking tattoos.

BN: I don’t think he’s ever kissed mom like that.

Tess: Andy, there is something called a fast forward button.

BB: Geez, why is Dad leering at all those women on the mechanical bull. He looks like some sort of perv.

Tess: Yes, that’s when I pretended to hurt my ankle while I was playing hard to get.

BN: Who is this Samantha lady who claims to be your best friend and why is she asking Dad all those weird questions?

Tess: Banana Nut, we really used to be friends, but sometimes people just change.

BB: Oh my God! That dog peed on the rug! I don’t believe this that’s Ms. Al Chalabi, the principal. Wow, she wasn’t always mean and old.

Tess: I’d forgotten about there being a vacancy at her school after she came home.

BN: I hate her. All she ever does is tell us how much she loves kids. No wonder she never found the right guy. She totally hates Dad too. Every time he shows up at school she says things like “Speaking of leading people on….”

BB: There’s Dad making out with that crying-tatoo lady. Dad, what the heck were you thinking?

BN: Mom, that’s the collage in the bedroom upstairs.

BB: Dad, isn’t that lady with the dead boyfriend, the palm reader on Survivor Boulevard?

Andy nods.

Tess: She’s not just a professional psychic. She started her own charity too and her Father plays the drums.

BB and BN all at once: Mom Dad, I can’t believe that mom wrote you that note. She didn’t even say “like” in it once. And Dad, you were much more charming on that After the final rose part. I just hope we find an amazing connection some day too. You think we can be on the show someday? Like the Bachelor, the Next Generation?

Tess: Andy, I knew this wasn’t a good idea.

The room darkens as the living room is bathed in candlelight and rose petals. The guitar player strums a single soft chord. As the camera pulls away from the Baldwin’s living room and then jump cuts to the city limits sign “Realityville USA, population constantly growing. Escape is our only Industry.”

Closing thoughts:

Bevin: Wow, talk about a terrific rescue job. They spend 5 weeks making the woman out to be an emotional train wreck, then they rehabilitate her like this. She was classy, gracious, and dare I say that she came off as genuine and sane. Still the rhinestones on the pink cast have got to go and why was Andy still so touchy feely with the woman? I mean you’re engaged to someone and you’re putting your hand on Bevin’s bare leg on national tv after she invites you to play doctor again? They even gave her better camera angles over the last two episodes.

Erica Rose: Please make her go away.

Andy’s Family: There were some subtle things that I really liked about this season. This was the first inter-racial romance on the Bachelor and yet the issue never came up. My daughter is more or less the same mix as Tessa, though Mrs. Chancelucky is Norwegian instead of German. Andy just quietly dated Tina Wu, Amber Al Chalabi, and gave the final rose to Tessa. I haven’t even mentioned that Bevin’s family being Bah’ai was barely mentioned except when Bevin had to explain that Bah’ai’s actually believe in universal brotherhood. What a strange concept. In the meantime, I wonder if they'll ever address the biggest source of discrimination in Realityville and have a few women or men in the pool who are either overweight or "less" attractive.

I also loved how Middle-America traditional Andy’s family appeared to be, yet they weren’t necessarily all that judgmental. Confronted with the tattooed, divorced, sex therapy project, Bah’ai, Bevin, they were much more open to her simply being someone who “loved Andy” than say Travis’s family turned out to be with Moana who by the way was also part-Polynesian (I think). It was as good a tv message of acceptance and toleration as I ever saw on Wife Swap, one of the stranger neighborhoods in Realityville.

Tessa: You know. She wasn’t all that articulate and I sometimes worry that she wound up being into Andy less because of the who than the what (big muscled, doctor, humanitarian, athlete, officer), but I liked her and started rooting for her in the end. The strategy thing was really interesting to see on tv. In a situation where so many women were chasing, Tessa let it be known that Andy would have to push her to “come out”. He did and she responded in a fashion that seemed very genuine.

I do have to say that what she had them write on the dog tags made me cringe though. The sleuthers did turn out to be right though about the dog tags being a big sign. The romance this time around seemed very genuine. As cheesy and manipulative as the show can be, the producers had the sense not to get in the way of the story. I think one reason they integrated the Ladies Tell All (very muted this time around) with After the Final Rose was that it just wasn’t that sort of season. The romance and what appeared to be a real decision actually cut through the snark.

Bottom line, Tessa played the game, but she never came off as a skank or a psycho, roles that the producers have encouraged the ladies to play in the past. She got a little dramatic with “I’m not sure I should be on this show,” but bottom line, I think America liked watching her fall in love.

“Tessa Horst” is the single most popular search topic I’ve ever had on this blog.

Andy Baldwin: After 6 episodes of speaking nothing but Bachelorese, Andy was quite charming and even witty on the After the Final Rose show. Very funny bit where he asked Bevin’s question of “Why didin’t I get a rose” for her then answered it with vacuous sincerity about his deeper connection with Tessa that seemed appropriate to the situation. The pregnancy quip with Tess was also almost laugh out loud funny. He may have been coached, just had time to prepare, but maybe the show was a growth experience for the guy.

It turned out that I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Andy Baldwin and I was told two things. One that he had actually myspaced a woman in the Northeast while the show was filming. One of my message board friends, a woman, says that’s perfectly okay unless you are engaged or married. I was more skeptical. The other bit the foaf of a foaf claimed was that Andy Baldwin was one of these individuals who looks perfect on paper, but that he had limited interpersonal skills in social situations. It might have been the edit and just an increasing comfort level on camera, but Andy Baldwin may have actually grown a little from being on the Bachelor. I’d say that’s to his credit. Of course, it’s also possible that the foaf was full of it.

Byron and Andy were probably two of the better Bachelors. ABC left no doubt that they thought Andy had saved the franchise. The one thing they had in common was that they took the romance part very seriously. Yes, huddling up with the family and doing the group shout for “Operation Find a Mate” or whatever he called it did cross the geek line, but it was also sort of endearing.

I wish them well and hope things work out for them. Finally, I did want to thank the many Bachelor fans and various boards who took the time to read my write ups from this season. One of the biggest compliments though for any Reality Blogger happens when people stop watching the show and just read the posts. Apparently that happened in a few instances, thanks for letting me know you’re out there.

Sirlinksalot bachelor stories

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mayor Villaraigosa's Excellent School Adventure(poltics)

Antonio Villaraigosa is the current mayor of Los Angeles. He is frequently mentioned as a very likely candidate to succeed Arnold as the governor of California in 2010 and he is widely thought to be the rising Hispanic star in the Democratic party. As part of his campaign for mayor, Villaraigosa promised to fix the Los Angeles schools. Shortly after his election, the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial that challenged the mayor to make good on his education campaign promise.

In national politics, it’s common to either blame or praise the President for whatever happens with the economy. While its widely assumed in the rhetoric, the President actually has very little power over the state of the economy. Mostly, he or she proposes a budget each year that congress either then passes, rejects, or changes dramatically. While the budget, tariffs, and the actions of the Federal Reserve certainly do affect the economy over time, whatever the President does in a given year has little immediate impact.

In urban politics, schools and crime play a similar role in the rhetoric. Mayors routinely make pledges like Villaraigosa’s, but as a practical matter the school board and the superintendent make the real decisions. School boards themselves are fascinating democratic institutions. In many ways they are the smallest unit of democracy. Very small towns have them. Many cities contain multiple districts. Bottom line though, your vote for school board is likely the most-concentrated vote you make in that it takes the lowest number of votes to get someone elected.

Los Angeles is a little unusual in this respect. It’s one of the few big city school districts in the United States that’s actually bigger than the city itself. LA Unified covers territory that includes some 32 different incorporated cities. Not all of the district is contiguous and the logistical nightmares can be legendary. In traffic, it’s impossible to get from one end of the District to the other in a single day. Within the District, the cultures and needs of the communities are wildly different.

Several years ago, I dealt with LA Unified in a variety of capacities. I met with African-American parents about a Westside high school that had once been mostly white and very high-achieving. I met with individuals trying to work with schools in South Central where the administrators wouldn’t let outsiders visit the campuses. I worked with Belmont High School, an almost entirely Hispanic school downtown. I also dealt briefly with people from a gifted and talented program at Hollywood High which had multiple students who took and passed six and seven advanced placement exams. In addition, I visited after school programs in the San Fernando Valley.

While there are pockets of excellence in most cities, there are few ambitious parents who would really want to send their own children to what would be an “average” public school in any of our major cities. It may sound like damnation with faint praise, but LA Unified schools certainly weren’t the worst on the big city spectrum. Washington D.C., Detroit, and Philadelphia were places where you would visit high schools or hear stories from members of the community and you’d want to start crying. In Los Angeles, I consistently met people of good will and some talent who were dealing with logistical nightmares. At that time, the high schools there were so crowded in places that students attended in a morning and an afternoon track. The facility was essentially a factory on a double shift. Administrators were turning over so fast that it wasn’t uncommon to hear about individuals who were literally being assigned to principalships without ever having met any of the staff or even having visited the school.

Mayor Villaraigosa, nonetheless, had gotten into office with a pledge to turn around LA Unified. So if the mayor doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with public education, what do you do? In the last fifteen years, one popular answer has been to stage a coup. You take authority away from the school board and move it either to the state department of education or to the mayor’s office. Something most people don’t realize is that District Takeovers don’t have an especially good history either. Nonetheless, New York and Chicago have both experienced Mayoral educational coups.

When I started working urban school reform many years ago, one of the running themes for big city districts was that schools needed to be fixed by non-educators. Experience and expertise in education were considered less critical than success in some other field. At that time, two former military men John Stanford in Seattle and Julius Becton in D.C. became superintendents. There was a lawyer in San Diego. While Paul Valas in Chicago came from inside the District, he was on the accounting side and decided to treat test scores like ledger sheets. While Stanford enjoyed some success, the vogue of non-school people running school systems met with mixed results. One thing about education though, actual results have surprisingly little to do with perception.

If you want to seem like an action mayor, you take over the schools. Villaraigosa, by the way, went to law school but failed the bar four times (it’s quite common for politicians who happen to be lawyers to fail the bar, Pete Wilson and Jerry Brown also failed the California Bar at least once). During his attempts to pass the bar, Villaraigosa worked as a field representative for the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Unlike, other mayors who have carried out educational coups, Villaragosa has this fascinating background of not being very good with the law, but also knowing schools.

Villaraigosa then pushed forward AB1381, a measure that gave the Mayor of Los Angeles, technically it was a council of mayors, the power to hire and fire the superintendent of LA Unified, a function that has always belonged to the school board. The measure got muscled through the assembly and senate in unusually efficient fashion. There are even stories that prominent politicians endorsed the measure without actually having read it then engaged in some serious arm-twisting to make sure it passed. The governor backed the measure. All this happened despite the fact that the legislative analysts had already given their considered opinion that AB 1381 was unconstitutional. You see, there was this small matter. Many residents of LA Unified don’t get to vote for the mayor of Los Angeles because they don’t live in LA.

After much acclaim and considerable press for Villaraigosa that he was an action mayor who is both committed and prepared to “fix” L.A. unified, AB 1381 bogged down in the courts. I don’t know how much city money went into paying the firm of Munger and Toles to defend the measure, but Villaraigosa recently indicated that he would not take the most recent appeal to the State Supreme Court.

Think about this. You have an ambitious big city mayor who needs to show that he wants to fix the schools. He goes so far as to get a law enacted to give himself the power to do something about it. It then just happens that the mayor, who went to law school himself, doesn’t pick up on the fact that the bill was likely to be found unconstitutional.
At a legal level, the move is a disaster. At a political level, it’s brilliant.

1) I told the city I was serious about school reform.
2) I happen to know first hand how difficult that task really is. (btw my take on big city school reform is that it has less to do with leadership than it does with the culture of cities. For example middle class and upper middle class families in most cities have pulled out of the public secondary system almost completely in cities like Los Angeles)
3) I tried to get a law passed to give me the power to do something about it.
4) The courts stopped me. You know how judges interfere with the will of the people and how all those educational bureaucrats will fight you tooth and nail.
5) If only I had a better platform to fix these problems.
6) I also get national and statewide publicity for the effort.

It strikes me that Mayor Villaraigosa or his strategists expected and even wanted to lose the law suit the whole time. As an education reformer, the guy just bought himself a free ride. Whatever happens to LA Unified in the next couple years, it’s not his fault. Best of all, he's not in the position of taking responsibility for the state of LA schools.

Villaraigosa was quoted as saying “He just didn’t understand the court of appeal’s decision legally.” Because the guy failed the bar so many time, the attorneys like to joke about the statement, but I’m reminded that he’s the mayor and the attorneys aren’t. Where Phil Angelides was quite able, bright, and technically proficient, Villaraigosa may have proven through his most recent adventure in LA Unified School reform that he’s the far more formidable political candidate.

My problem is that I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. If I remember, there was a certain Texas governor who staked his bid for national office on his accomplishments in school reform. I'm not saying that the Mayor of LA is anything like W. Their politics are in fact very different, but I suspect both have strategists who run some of the same plays.

KCET life and times blog article on the issue.


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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Doolittle Doo Late (American Idol 6 final 3)

At the end of her singout, Melinda Doolittle brought on the Idol backup singers to finish the chorus of I’m a Woman with her. It was the sort of sweet moment that characterized maybe the best technical singer to have ever made the finals on the show. It seems as if she was letting the world know, “This is where I came from and I’m proud of it.”

Various folk are now coming up with any number of reasons why Doolittle who appeared to be a lock for the final fell short. That’s not really the issue though. A final without Melinda Doolittle just doesn’t seem quite as legitimate. I don’t disagree with those who wondered if she was “contemporary” or “sexy” enough to sell CD’s, but my question is "Does anyone consider Blake Lewis or Jordin Sparks a better singer than Melinda Doolittle in an absolute sense?" There are reasons Doolittle might have gotten voted off, but there’s a part of me that asks “Okay, but look who they voted for instead.”

I suspect that there were very few folk that didn’t like Melinda at least second best of the three. Of course, that’s not how the system works.

Yes, the Belmont College grad might be better off as the Idol who got robbed than with all the restrictions that come with being the actual winner. Still, the show is suddenly facing a credibility problem.

1. Sanjaya Malakar, maybe the weakest technical singer to make the semi-finals, finished sixth. Melinda Doolittle, maybe the best, finished third.

2. The mysterious power of the judges to sway the voters faltered. Simon Cowell worked very hard on Doolittle’s behalf on Tuesday night. Last week, the judges panned Blake Lewis.

3. Interest in the show appeared high this year, but once Sanjaya got voted off, actual interest in any of the individual singers was surprisingly low. In previous years, I’d seen any number of Bo Bice, Taylor Hicks, Yaminions, John Stevens, Jasmine Trias web pages and fanatics appear. I even came across an Anthony Federov board that still appeared to be active this year.

This year, I got more hits for Kellie Pickler than for either finalist. It may have had something to do with my comparing Kellie to Anna Nicole Smith. Still, consider this one. I got more hits for Sherman Pore, the elderly man who got to sing for his sweetheart during this year’s Los Angeles auditions, than I did for Lakisha Jones or Phil Stacy. The only finalist who had more searches on my site than Kellie Pickler was Sanjaya. Obviously, the google math is more complicated than that, but it was pretty telling. How’s this for telling?

Quick, come up with a name for a Melinda Doolittle fan. How about a Jordin or a Blake fan?

Idol’s cultural power is tied to two oddly different things. There’s the number of people who talk about and watch the show. Nielsen Idol remains very high. The second factor is the show’s capacity to create stars. It’s hard to say which is cause and which is effect, but this season ran into a problem. I don’t think any finalist caught the public’s imagination as someone they’d be interested in after next Wednesday.

In the meantime, I’ve yet to hear anyone say “I can’t wait to buy a Jordin Sparks or Blake Lewis CD.”

I wasn’t wowed by Maroon 5. In fact part of the Wednesday filler this year has been to expose more “today” acts to the Idol audience. There’s no nice way for me to say this and I confess I’m an old guy, but I honestly don’t remember anything Akon, Pink, Robin Thicke, and Maroon 5 sang. In fact, seeing them on the show made me think “bathroom break” and in the case of Robin Thicke, I thought it without necessarily visualizing the porcelain facility at the end of the hall. That said, the scary thing to me is that Maroon 5’s Adam Levine still has so much more stage presence than Blake Lewis, even with his dad, that I can’t really imagine Blake getting there.

Probably the highlight of the Wednesday show was learning that being a finalist on last year’s Idol came with what appeared to be terrific dental insurance. If Melinda comes back to sing some Wednesday next year, will she reappear with Audrey Hepburn’s neck? There was something reassuring about seeing Elliot Yamin. He sounded good, even if it seemed like he had to sing for an extra two minutes, and that reminded me how weak this year’s male contestants had been. He also got to say about five minutes worth of thank yous and good lucks in about two and a half minutes.

Elliot managed to be grateful, exuberant, diplomatic, generous, and genuinely thrilled to be there in a way that seemed entirely natural. It’s a gift, one that none of this year’s finalists had. Jordin is very poised, but it’s a bit stagier. I don’t mean to imply that she’s fake. It’s more that she’s aware of the camera. Take for instance, her moment of rebellion when she stage whispered to Ryan that Simon made her sing a 30 year old song and now he’s telling me I shouldn’t sing a 40 year old song. Jordin was still facing the audience as she did it and every syllable was perfectly articulated.

I do think she has potential. After all, I can’t remember how old she is, Randy never seems to mention it, but I’m pretty sure she’s still pretty young. Still, moments like that make me think Little Miss Sunshine where the girls in the pageant had been genetically engineered to be robotic in a way that appears completely spontaneous.

Blake does bits of what Elliot does in his non-singing persona, but he too appears to self-consciously play the audience. Do you honestly believe that Chris Richardson is going to be Blake’s best friend a year from now? It didn’t help that his Mariner’s game version of the National Anthem made me think Tina Wu of the Bachelor. Unlike Elliot Yamin, I wonder where the center is with Blake both personally and artistically. Is it because so little emotion comes across when he tries to sing straight? Just Imagine that.

Melinda Doolittle - I’m not a big fan of the three song format for the show. All the extra time makes it too easy to see the flaws and limitations of the performers. The old show biz adage is to always leave the audience wanting more. With all the extra hours of programming this year and the hype for Idol Cares, I’m not sure I’m feeling a compelling need to hear more of anyone from this year. Maybe it was because she started good, but Melinda Doolittle lost the ability to surprise me some six weeks into the show. If there’s one artistic criticism, it’s that she was so reluctant to leave her wheelhouse. It seemed to start with British Invasion week when she did a ballad from Oliver. While she did very well with Bon Jovi’s “Have a Nice Day”, she also opted to act kind of Disney goofy about being a rocker instead of taking the challenge on straight.

Randy Jackson’s choice of Whitney Houston for her was a fascinating sort of curve ball. Melinda handled it well enough musically, but she didn’t seize the stage, something that Jordin does a bit better. She was fine with Tina Turner, but “I’m a Woman” was just a reminder that she had an older style. If it were a presidential debate, it was like a candidate who needs the youth vote spending the last five minutes of her time talking about social security reform. Also, the attempt to be sexy just doesn’t work with her.

It was fascinating to see Melinda at home. Belmont College, her all black church, the little Tuesday night parody of Randy Jackson (Johnson) spelled homey, hardworking, talented, self-effacing, supremely competent. I used this line about AJ Tabaldo back in the semi-finals, but those are the things America secretly hates in its entertainers. We want someone who’s going to be in rehab three years from now.

Blake Lewis- I confess. Even when Sting was singing it, I always found Roxanne one of these weird songs like Bobby Gentry’s Fancy. I thought he did well with Maroon 5 and Robin Thicke. I just think he has this “jester” quality in his performing that gets in the way. It’s about “fun”, but it never penetrates to the heart.

Idol now has its finalist with a full-on “contemporary” sound. Good luck with that guys.

I do think that Blake comes across as a very likeable individual who really is enjoying his time in the public eye. Would I expect people to listen to him without video? I don’t know.

Jordin Sparks- Virtually everyone seems to be conceding this to the some time anti-choice activist, “big-girl” model, with the exuberant personality. More than anyone, Jordin Sparks, the performer, continued to grow while on the show. To be clear, I mean artistically, though some of the camera angles make Jordin look like a remake of "Attack of the 50 Foot Idol". While it’s easy to see the potential of the Jordin of “I Who Have Nothing”, you can also see the potential downside with “Wish Upon a Star”and “Hard for the Money.” At her best, Jordin really does grab the stage and hints at emotional depth that would seem impossible for a performer so young. At her worst, she shrieks, glows, and yodels as she strays surprisingly off pitch at points and as if her sustain pedal won’t lift up. You remember Nuke Lalouche from Bull Durham? There is such a thing as bringing brought to the big leagues too early, even if you have major league stuff.

Should she win, I just hope the producers have the sense to handle her carefully rather than insist that she go Super Nova immediately. I have my doubts. The show worked very hard to promote Jordin as the “potential” winner. It very well may backfire over the long haul. I don’t think she’ll be back singing at anti-choice rallies by the Winter of 2008, but I’m just not sensing a huge hunger to hear her music yet.

Final question- Have you heard anyone say “I just can’t wait for that final with Jordin and Blake!”

We may be seeing Sanjaya and Melinda get an awful lot of time in that finale extravaganza. It’s like one of those years when the Florida Marlins win the world series. It clearly happened, but no one outside of Miami is going to remember it all that well.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

John Batiste,Paul Wolfowitz, and Conflicts of Interest (politics)

There are two recent concurrent events that have me really confused about this whole business of “conflict of interests.” First CBS parted ways with news consultant John Batiste, a retired Army General who led the first army in Iraq and who helped plan the invasion. Batiste retired from the army in 2005 to protest Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of the war. He was one of several generals who felt that the Pentagon was not looking out for its own soldiers and had been ignoring the advice of those in the field for too long. CBS hired Batiste, a registered Republican, to be a talking head on military matters. A few weeks ago appeared in a Vote ad. CBS then asked General Batiste to resign because they considered his participation in the ad, a conflict of interest.

Linda Mason from CBS’s standards and practices had the following comment on the decision,
“When we hire someone as a consultant, we want them to share their expertise with our viewers,” she said. “By putting himself front and center in an anti-Bush ad, the viewer might have the feeling everything he says is anti-Bush. And that doesn’t seem like an analytical approach to the issues we want to discuss.”

Of course, there are any number of commentators on CBS who have been quite openly pro-war.

CBS’s stance appears to be that you can have an opinion, but you can’t act on it or advocate for it outside your appearances on the network.

Compare CBS’s lofty and idealistic standard of impartiality to the administration’s stance on the matter of Paul Wolfowitz and the World Bank. Mr. Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Iraq War and former Deputy Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld was appointed to run the World Bank, essentially an organization that “loans” money from the G7 to developing countries. Unlike regular banks, the world bank does not expect to make money on its loans. Ironically, Robert Macnamara, the Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ, was also appointed head of the World Bank after the failure of the War in Vietnam. (kill several thousand people then get job to end world hunger?)

Wolfowitz’s tenure at the World Bank has been marked by two things, a tendency to appoint individuals who appear to have a partisan agenda to positions of influence within the bank and of all things, an insistence that the Bank’s loans to developing, particularly Sub-Saharan African, countries be tied to the elimination of “corruption” in those countries. I had to look up “corruption” and it appears to be the business of having private motives for public decisions. As a result, he has not been a universally popular director of the organization.

Wolfowitz’s actual problem though is far simpler than that. Despite the fact that he works for a pro-family political administration, Wolfowitz was divorced in the last few years and began dating a World Bank employee, Shaha Riza. Early on, the ethics committee of the bank informed Wolfowitz that he could not simultaneously supervise and be in a relationship with Ms. Riza. Wolfowitz then arranged for a transfer of Ms. Riza to the State Department in a position supervised by Liz Cheney (think about that one) but which was paid by the world bank. The new position amounted to a promotion and a sixty thousand dollar/year pay raise for Ms. Riza. Wolfowitz informed the ethics committee of the change, but neglected to mention the extent of either the raise or the promotion.

Critics of Mr. Wolfowitz point out that whatever the motives, Ms. Riza’s promotion and transfer look like a textbook example of corruption. They also point out that Mr. Wolfowitz’s actions undercut his own very public stated policy objectives. Put simply, if I make my brother in law the individual who disperses development money in my small African country, then how can Paul Wolfowitz of all people tell me that there’s anything wrong with all that? What next? The brother of one of the candidates in a national election deciding to resolve the dispute in his brother’s favor? How about a defense Secretary promoting universal swine flu vaccines when he own stock in the company that makes the vaccine? Fortunately, the U.S. doesn’t have such problems, so I think it’s been hard for the Bush administration to get its mind around the idea of why Wolfowitz’s possible conflict of interest might jeopardize the bank’s credibility.

Long ago, a friend of mine suggested a simple plan for success in any endeavor. “You make sure that good people stay and bad people go. If the bad people are staying too long, then that means you’re rewarding the wrong things and it doesn’t matter what you tell your employees.”

This administration wants Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz to stay. It even admits that Wolfowitz probably broke World Bank policy, but it insists that it believes in the man who played a critical role in getting us into the Iraq War and failing to plan the occupation. John Batiste left.

After accomplishing his part of "mission accomplished", Batiste took issue with Rumsfeld for recognizing that Iraq was not just a military matter, but a political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural challenge. Wolfowitz simply disappeared from the Departmet of Defense and reappeared at the World Bank.

Now CBS says John Batiste has too much of a conflict of interest to serve as one of their commentators. It does happen that CBS is owned by General Electric, one of the major defense contractors for the war, but of course a conflict of interest at the corporate level is not the same thing. Now the Bush Administration tells the world that Gonzales and Wolfowitz need to stay regardless of possible conflicts of interests between partisanship and the actual responsibilities of their jobs. Could someone please explain to me why conflicts of interest matter some times but not others?

Does conflict of interest only matter when it conflicts with the administration's or CBS's interests?

In the meantime, we have two individuals who once worked together on the war who have now parted ways on the matter. One failed miserably and got himself a better job. He currently refuses to comment about his old job at the Department of Defense. The other did his bit, then quit to speak out on behalf of his troops. CBS says he can't work as a paid consultant because he has a conflict of interest.
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Second Hand Rose vs. My Girlfriend, Tessa (Bachelor Ten final three review)

"Bah'ai symbol that represents man's universal connection to God. I'm trying to figure out if it looks familiar."

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,

“Never take romantic advice from anyone named “Gatsby””

It was, after all, Jay Gatsby, who obsessed over Daisy Buchanan and basically got himself killed. So what were the chances that our officer-doctor-triathlete would have a best friend named for a major fictional character who looks vaguely like Byron Velvick?
I do think it would have been far more fun if Andy’s friend had turned out to be named “Yossarian.”

“You have to be crazy to look for love on a tv reality show. So, if you find love on the Bachelor, then you’re obviously too crazy to be someone who can manage a stable relationship. That’s Fleiss 22, it’s in your contract right next to the Jen Schett clause.”

Andy, woud then say, “Darn, I knew that if I’d taken more English lit classes at Duke, I wouldn’t be calling all the women “incredible” and “amazing” and this might be a much more interesting conversation.

Let me share something for a moment here. My wife and I were both once married to other people. We met when we were a little older than Andy is now. At no time did I label my wife “Liberal or a wild child” because she’d once married the wrong guy when she was younger. In fact, I married into two children as well, neither of whom I refer to as “major life mistakes”, unless I’m really mad at them :}.

This Gatsby’s sage advice turns out to be “Which one of the three do you see there at the end of a triathlon waiting there with your kid?”

Instead of sending Gatsby back to 1927, though that actual era was a bit more modern than this Gatsby in his cameo on the Bachelor, Andy thinks his friend, Mitch Thrower (Gatsby)'s, advice through, but the producers don’t let us see him verbalize anything that would remotely spoil the rose ceremony. Am I the only one who thinks that training twenty hours and dragging your wife and kids to the triathlon isn't nearly as manly or romantic as spending that time with your wife and kids doing what they love to do?

Oddly, Gatsby’s advice got foreshadowed during Danielle’s home visit when between drum concerts her dad was sharing a framed photo of the finish line at the New York City marathon. Andy said “Now, that’s my idea of a family photo.” Given that Tessa runs triathlons herself and Bevin also appears to be a competitive athlete, Danielle appeared to be the one bachelorette who was totally down with Andy and Gatsby’s concept of wife as pit crew for triathlon. It’s fascinating that he didn’t choose her.

Many years ago, I lived next door to a gay couple who looked like Andy and Gatsby and acted around one another a lot like the two training buddies. Oh geez! Better not go there. That would make the Bachelor some version of Desperate Housewives.

I was sorry to see Danielle go and my wife was rooting for her to the end. I do agree with her. Given what Andy says he wants, Danielle might have been the best fit to share “his” life as opposed to making a life together. I did hear that as consolation, the producers gave Danielle 10,000 free minutes on the Psychic Friends network. I am a little worried that Andy brings in a psychic to help him do medical diagnoses, but it was very good tv. I believe the big tell though was the way Andy frolicked in the water with Danielle. When Tessa does the zipline, Andy shouts “I think you’re wonderful!” When Bevin pushes him underwater in the waterfall, they’re grabbing one another and it’s full on mouth to mouth resuscitation. When he was scuba diving with Danielle, it looked like teenagers flirting.

I am left with a bit of a mystery re: Danielle. We certainly heard enough about the sad history of the first boyfriend, but Andy was supposed to be third. Why didn’t they ever show him asking the obvious question, “Well, what happened with number two?”

On one of the boards, someone came on to suggest that number two might have been a married guy. I have no reason to believe that, but it kind of jumped out at me that there was this interim relationship that always got glossed over. Andy was not the first guy Danielle dated post-Bethel boyfriend, yet they kept making it sound that way.

I did appreciate the way Andy and Danielle found a way for her to leave the show, dignity intact. That line about Andy being her new measuring stick for what she wants in a guy may have gone a bit far, but not everyone survives this show with his/her dignity intact. Danielle left without a rose, but also without a dive into the psycho end of the bachelorette pool.

Ever since Bevin told the camera a few episodes back that she’d really be upset if Tessa got a rose instead of her, she’d….(I honestly can’t remember what she threatened), I’ve expected this to become a Tessa-Bevin showdown. I’ve also thought, based on the Moana edit she’s gotten, that Bevin always had a much better chance to make the final than she did to get a proposal.

The scene with Tessa at the Pearl Harbor Memorial at the beginning of the show tended to confirm that. As Andy and Tessa toss petals from a lei towards the remnants of the either 1,100 or 900 sailors who went down with the USS Arizona a little girl comes up next to them. Andy immediately starts thinking “Wow, this could be like us with our kid,” then introduces Tessa as his “girlfriend.” Had it been Bevin would he have said, “This is my friend Bevin, who made a terrible mistake with her life once, but I’m glad she told me about it”?

Much later in the show, we get to see Bevin’s second much larger tattoo just above her bikini line. Not only is this very Moana like, I’m also thinking that it’s the sailor who’s supposed to have the tattoos not the other way around. This is reinforced further when they break out a pot-bellied- Samoan-fire-eating-male dancer who also happens to have tattoos. In the meantime, Andy and Bevin join in the pagan ritual which is followed less than fifteen minutes later with previews back in Amish country of Andy’s parents going, “Bahai, is that some sort of cult?”

In the meantime, we learn that Tessa is now finally ready to open up to Andy. When Tessa and Andy hit the fantasy suite (was that a lousy teaser or what? She didn’t hesitate for a second), I was expecting her best friend Sam to burst out of the closet to ask Andy a bunch more questions. Instead, we got a bunch of shots of makeout bliss. Thankfully, Andy was not shown bringing any sushi to the suite to use as sexual accoutrement. First it was bananas with Danielle. Now it’s raw fish with Tessa. Perhaps we shouldn’t discuss the not so hidden meaning of both scenes?

Even more telling though, Andy had a bit in episode one where he claimed to be looking for a woman who could be both a tomboy and a lady at just the right times. Apparently he discreetly left out the force-feeding fetish. Now in Hawaii, Andy directly applies the description to Tessa. At this point, it’s probably not fair to mention that I got this wedding invite with talking muffins on it.

It was somewhere around this point in the show that Mrs. Chancelucky took me by surprise by saying, “You know, they didn’t exactly get the best looking women for this guy, followed by a disparaging remark aimed at Bevin.”

Totally caught off guard, I said “They don’t look anything like the Smitten Kitten from Travis’s show.”

This was greeted with a full minute of icy silence. Clearly, I shouldn’t have used that Grind TV clip as my screensaver last month. Indulge my segue here, but someone actually did interview Chris Harrison and asked him why the Bachelorettes don't seem to be quite as "hot" as they once were. Instead of the romantic answer, Chris tells the guy that some 25% of Bachelor applicants can't pass the show's combination drug and STD screen, which seemed to imply that better looking people do more drugs and have more STDS, but maybe I'm being too analytical.

This installment of the Bachelor has revived the show's ratings. My very informal measure is that I’m getting about five times the site traffic for Andy and his harem than I did for my Prince Lorenzo recaps. Having been treated to no less than four clips of the same bit where Andy strips off his shirt to go jogging and meditate on his “amazing” women, I’ve had some thoughts on the matter.

It’s women who watch this show. I’d never admit to any of my basketball friends that I’ve ever seen the Bachelor much less watch it every week and write a blog about it. Anyway, they’ve got a Bachelor who likes taking his shirt off for the camera and on top of that he actually is looking for romance and commitment. The genius of this installment is that they didn’t match him with a bunch of swimwear models. The women are certainly attractive enough, but all of the final three are also accessible. Most regular woman have some friend or relative who looks that good or they look that good themselves. This installment of the bachelor actually gets the fantasy right. Lieutenant Beefcake not only proposes, he’s proposing to the girl or divorcee next door instead of some super model. Just to be clear, real women are often actually much more attractive than super models.

Before I get into this, I should say that I whiffed on Lorenzo. I was sure that edit was going to lead to his choosing Sadie, but ignored the fact that they didn’t appear to have much in common. I can also see a kind of scenario where Tessa gets exposed as a kind of Daisy Buchanan, the embodiment of Andy’s notion of success but not necessarily right for him. There could also be this terrific Lifetime TV plot where Bevin comes out as the underdog who fights for and gets her second chance at love. They foreshadowed it with her “I’ve never been lucky in love” line. Even more so, the physical chemistry between Bevin and Andy looks very real. Bevin seemed the only one of the ladies who could be in that Splendor in the Grass scene with Andy at the waterfall, though we need to remember what happened to Warren Beattie and Natalie Wood at the end of that movie. Interestingly, Tessa and Andy apparently get to do From Here to Eternity next week. Still, I’m thinking the Fleiss line will be that Andy the true romantic will triumph over Andy the horn dog. (I suppose we can overlook Tessa's post-modern view that romance makes her like herself better. That wasn't exactly up there with "You complete me" or "You make me a better man" but it is a similar sentiment)) Bevin’s probably got the steepest odds of any finalist since Krisily Kennedy.

From the little girl at the Pearl Harbor memorial (I’ve promised myself not to go into a rant about the Navy recruitment video aspect of this installment. They came this close to “After Saddam bombed Pearl Harbor, this is why I enlisted…) to the shot of Andy and Tessa making it across the gorge on that flimsy suspension bridge, to Tessa finally letting her Andy feelings roam free in the fantasy suite, the case is pretty strong. Even Andy’s “Please accept this rose” bit that he only does with Tessa seems to make it inevitable. That is unless Lakisha Jones makes a surprise appearance on the last installment of the Bachelor and steals Andy’s heart while Simon is forced to watch them kiss. Do you think they send best friend Samantha an invitation to the wedding?

Okay, Okay….let me repeat. I’ve certainly been wrong before about the final rose.

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