Friday, January 30, 2009

A Vengeful Longing by R.N. Morris (book review)

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is not just literary fiction. Many argue that it’s also the first great detective novel. Porfiry Petrovich, the St. Petersburg magistrate who “catches” Raskolnikov doesn’t jump out of windows, get in chases on horseback, or fight anyone. He’s as much psychologist as policeman and takes as much of an interest in rescuing Raskolnikov’s soul as he does in arresting and punishing the young man. I’m not sure why it took a hundred and forty years for any writer to take on the task of extending the detective Porfiry’s log of investigations beyond Crime and Punishment, but I’m glad that R.N. Morris did.

Morris’s first Porfiry adventure, The Gentle Axe, was so successful that the publisher has authorized two sequels. Now that I’ve finished Morris’s second installment, A Vengeful Longing, I was happy to hear the other day that he’s completed his first draft of the third, A Razor Wrapped in Silk. If you’re a follower of detective fiction, you probably know that the measure of any series is generally not the first book. I shouldn’t say that anyone can write a single crime novel. Most of us can’t. Still it’s really the second that signals readers that the author has managed to create a detective character and a world rich enough to sustain multiple adventures.

I don’t think there’s any question that Dostoyevsky’s Porfiry, really a much more minor character mesasured by scene space in Crime and Punishment than most people realize, had that potential. It’s more a matter of “Who would have the guts to invoke Dostoyevsky?” in a crime series. In Gentle Axe, Morris did so with refreshing brio. He started with a geometric puzzle: a prostitute wanders into a park and finds a large man hanging from a tree next to a suitcase that turns out to contain the mutilated corpse of a dwarf. Porfiry follows a lead to a starving student and there’s a touching scene in which the Magistrate gets Virginsky a bowl of soup from the exploitative landlady. The reader quickly realizes that the geometric puzzle that opens the story works on several levels. Morris is also transposing the elements of Crime and Punishment. Prostitute, axe, and student on the verge of either redemption or oblivion all get rearranged in such a way that Morris’s Porfiry both homages Dostoyevsky’s version and creates enough space for the author to bring the touches necessary to let Porfiry move forward on his own. Not surprisingly, Gentle Axe amounts to a second chance for Porfiry to rescue rather than convict the potential represented in Raskolnikov.

In A Vengeful Longing, Virginsky becomes Robin to Porfiry’s Batman. In the process, Morris moves out of the territory of being a Dostoyevsky “impressionist” to developing something with more of an energy of its own. For one, he liberates Porfiry the character from Dostoyevsky the writer. Where Dostoyevsky grew increasingly anti-western and conservative politically and religiously after 1867, Morris stays with Porfiry’s humanism. As Porfiry works his way through a series of seemingly unrelated murders (a doctor’s wife and her autistic child are poisoned with French chocolates, an army officer is killed with a dueling pistol, a tailor is stabbed) he insists on understanding the psychology of both the victims and the most likely suspects. In each case, he works his way through a guilt racked tour of the demons haunting educated Russian society but refuses to believe that every individual with demons is necessarily a murderer. In the meantime, he teaches the idealistic and gentle Virginsky the toughness necessary to be a detective, a source of order and moral rectitude in a Russian society that appears capable of neither.

One of the things that Morris brings to 19th Century St. Petersburg that Dostoyevsky could not is the building sense of the coming revolution. With surprisingly few details, Morris paints a haunting portrait of a doomed city and culture. He artfully uses the image of the Neva river, polluted by the dumping of human waste directly into its waters, to show how the indifference of an immobile bureaucracy and a dissipated ruling class will inevitably flow back to them. The reader readily sees how the injustices of 19th century St. Petersburg where a man loses six daughters to the cholera passed by the river’s pollution and winds up in an insane asylum for writing a letter to the Court about it will never be containable. Symbolically, the pollution of the river runs through the plot in significant ways as Porfiry repeatedly sends letters about the stench from the river to bureaucrats who never seem to answer.

At points, Morris also stirs in bits of Gogol with allusions to a civil servant paying to put a fur collar on an overcoat and an oddly modern scene where a pack of anonymous bureaucrats get their revenge and escape punishment via their own facelessness, personal dignity being a significant plot element. Porfiry though remains the star of the show. There is something compelling about his simultaneous awareness that Russia is supposed to be a better place and his recognition that he must both survive and keep his own soul as a decent man in a culture doomed by its own corruption. Early in the book, he dances around his own sympathies for the radicals while trying to protect a young bakery employee caught with anarchist pamphlets. Later, he traps flies with trays of honey laced with alcohol. Virginsky asks the magistrate “Why don’t you just poison them?” and Porfiry replies “What would be the fun in that?”

Porfiry thus establishes himself as a classic existential detective, an individual dedicated to the redemption of the individual in a society so rife with corruption and indifference that collapse is inevitable. At some point, the reader realizes that Morris isn’t simply talking about 19th century St. Petersburg, but may instead be pointing forward to dilemmas faced in modern culture that may have more parallels to Porfiry’s world than we care to admit.

I would mention that there is a passing resemblance between Morris's premise and Caleb Carr's The Alienest in that Carr built a series around a 19th century crime solving psychologist in Gilded Age New York City instead of St. Petersburg. Carr tends to focus more on period detail while Morris stays with character and I think in the long run that pays off.

There is a moment with any detective series, when the reader realizes that he or she may well be reading every book in the series. With a Vengeful Longing, that may have happened for me and Porfiry Petrovich. I guess that makes me one of those flies now drawn to R.N. Morris’s honey and left to his mercies as Porfiry’s new keeper.

Fwiw, I should mention that I was drawn to the Gentle Axe and Vengeful Longing because I’ve known Roger Morris via the internet for a couple years. One measure of what a nice fellow he is that we started exchanging e-mails because he read one of my stories and sent me an e-mail about it. It’s rare for a well known/or rising writer to extend such an unbidden kindness to one of far more modest accomplishments. I do hope we meet someday in person and not as part of a police investigation.


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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Kissing the Dog (Bachelor 13 Round of 9)

A lot happened on the Bachelor last night, but all I can remember is having this nightmare where my dog brushed her teeth with my electric toothbrush then started French kissing me. If the edit during Brad Womack’s made Hillary Reisinger appear far crazier than she actually was, Shannon Bair’s re-set the bar.

She started with the fake teeth, moved on to knowing every detail of Jason and Ty Mesnick’s life, threw up in the bathroom mid-rose ceremony, and ended with talk of re-rehearsing for General Hospital with her dog. The whole bit made me think of the Molly Shannon movie Year of the Dog (yes, I know it’s really obscure) where the main character wasn’t wired like the rest of us, but turned out to be oddly sympathetic. Believe it or not, I liked Shannon Bair.

I got the impression that she was out of her league in Bachelor terms. In the regular world, Shannon Bair is more attractive than average, funny, and sensitive. In other words, she’s probably the sort of person Jason Mesnick, the insurance salesman, single Dad, who really doesn’t have that much to say might date had he never appeared on the Bachelor.

Such is the power of tv, that asking Deanna Pappas about her mom turned Jason Mesnick into the sort of guy that actual Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders not only are willing to chase, but they turn possessive and insecure? Okay, I had a look at all those bikini shots that came with Melissa Rycroft’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader calendar shoot. As long as a woman who photographs like that doesn’t have the personality of Dick Cheney, a guy like Jason (real Jason) won’t be able to say “no.”

Anyway, here was Shannon Bair in this land of the makeup, sparkly dresses, and cleavage wandering the set with less than stellar makeup and not so flattering dress. How could she expect to compete for attention with the Pageant girls, cheerleaders, and popular types? It occurred to me that if I were a single female in my twenties, I’d be way more like Shannon Bair than her competition. When she went into “I just want to meet Ty” bit, something went all Rudy (keep in mind that Rudy is basically a Notre Dame football stalker) inside me. Okay, regular people aren’t this quirky and if they are this desperate they manage not to break down crying repeatedly on national television (if you remember Sanjaya Malakar on Idol and the crying girl, Shannon was sort of the Bachelor version), but if you’re Shannon, how do you get the guy’s attention? So she flailed around, wore the dress her mom helped her pick out for the pre-rose parties, and maybe got tongue tied during her camera time. (If you follow Chris Harrison’s blog, there was a hint or two that Shannon’s better moments involving suntan lotion had to be edited) I still say there was something compelling even touching about Shannon Bair’s awkwardness. I also thought her rap was much better than Jason’s. She lasted four episodes, got to kiss the Bachelor on the mouth (even if it was acting), and he even said nice stuff to her at the end. It was a victory for those of us who can’t dress, happen to be a little odd, can’t smooth talk, etc. in the dating show world.

Even though she is one of the pageant queens, there was a similar thing with Nikki Kaapke. She was stiff and maybe didn’t have tv charm, but her whole exit was so gracious that I’m rooting for her in real life. Eleven years is an awful long time to figure out that a relationship’s maybe not headed for marriage, but that’s not actually my business. I think Melissa Rycroft had an eight year relationship so I suspect Nikki and Melissa couldn’t occupy the same reality tv continuum for more than three episodes. That’s the sad thing, I have this feeling that Nikki or even Shannon might be the actual match for Jason Mesnick outside of reality tv.

After I managed to get that dog kissing image out of my head, I have to say that this was more the Jason I had hoped to see. The first three episodes had Jason pulling his shirt off almost as much as Brad Womack then trying to see if he could kiss more girls than Bob Guiney and Matt Grant combined (brilliant). This time, he had the judgment to apply the make-out brakes. Maybe the sheer excess of all those General Hospital kissing scenes did it, but Jason proved to be something of a romantic gymnast diverting kisses, exchanging hugs, and reassuring various ladies not named Melissa that he thought they were “great and special.”

Jason did not get America rooting for him because he was Mr. Eligible. He’s an attractive man, but he’s not “the sexiest bachelor ever” a la Brad Womack. He’s not wealthy or glamorous. With Deanna, part of his charm came from the fact that he was so nervous about revealing the Ty thing. Bachelor America got sold Jason Mesnick because he was so sincere both as a Dad and as a contestant. I’d mention that that’s exactly what good salesman do, but there was a palpable sense of decency that jumped off Jason that created a different kind of charisma for him. The fact that he handled the “failed” proposal and its aftermath just multiplied the Jason mojo. Jason was the guy who had bothered to ask Deanna about her mother. He was the guy who had been at the house consoling her after she dumped Fred and Robert. It was a kind of tv charm that got revealed and proven rather than the bright-shiny that normally fuels dating shows.

The point of Bachelor Jason should never have been to admire the guy’s six pack or to watch him dazzle the ladies. The idea was to find him the woman/happiness, Ty seemed to deserve. It’s not that Bachelor Jason did anything all that wrong the first three episodes. It was more that he didn’t get the chance to be the guy Bachelor America fell for. The one notable exception was his going to look after Shannon in the bathroom. This episode, the Jason we craved took the lead (ballroom dance lessons are good for something). He wasn’t going to kiss anyone who didn’t have a serious chance (the Lauren Wanger kiss thing wasn’t really his doing) and he made the point that he’s serious about what many consider the show’s most questionable premise, I really expect to find a wife in this Fleiss-addled mess.

He wasn’t especially smooth, didn’t always have exactly the right thing to say to Megan or Shannon as they locked in the make-out target. Nonetheless, the whole nice guy thing just sort of jumped off the screen again. It struck me that Jason isn’t on the show to be “famous” and that he really doesn’t take any pleasure in hurting women’s feelings. He really does just want to get down with that Cheerleader woman while she’s still buying and he doesn’t want extended footage of himself with someone else messing up the aftermath. Most couples have some sort of romantic past. It’s just that even in the age of the cellphone camera, very few of us have our pasts on Tivo or the equivalent.

I do think the producers were wise to let some of the chemistry with Melissa Rycroft come through the edit this week. It wasn’t necessarily the kissing, it was little moments like the extra touches and glances when he walked by her during the General Hospital date. By the way, for a show that stocks up on actress-model-whatevers, how come none of them can act? Lauren Wanger actually could sing a little, not at the I would pay to download her music level, but I do agree with her that her Jason song was actually surprisingly passable compared to the singer/songwriter wannabe on Matt Grant’s installment. While her post credits song about “I wanna be famous” was revealing, I still say that Jason totally jobbed her for the camping date rose. Am I the only one who finds it weird that they did both American Idol and Dancing with the Stars in the same Bachelor episode. If you throw in the oysters, they've also done Fear Factor.

My take on Lauren Wanger is that she more or less saw the way this was going and just decided to have some fun. “Let me see if Jason will respond to my dominating him! Give me a rose, boy. Bark like a dog! Kiss Shannon on the mouth!”
It looked like she started playing to the camera by calling him her “future husband” and all that. I mean if someone chose Molly’s song over mine, I’d have pretty much gotten the message too and decided to wreak a little reality havoc.

I honestly didn’t see much chemistry with Molly. At this point, I’ve gotten a little tired of seeing Jason ask a lady “What do you want in life?” and having her answer “I’m ready….I’m ready. I want marriage. I want children. I love Ty already because he’s part of you.” Don’t any of these women have anything else serious in their lives? I wouldn’t mind seeing someone say, “I want to solve the sub-prime mortgage problem or I want to take care of my younger sister who’s on the autism spectrum.” As a group, it’s pretty noticeable that none of Jason’s choices have careers or hobbies worth mentioning. No one paints, plays music, writes, or even blogs about the Bachelor. Let me drop a hint here. Jason was the guy who loved to travel. Maybe say something about how much you want to explore the world. Anyway, the only thing memorable about the camping date was that the show did its darndest to make America wonder if Jason and Molly had done the nasty in that tent. My guess is that those sound effects were dubbed fwiw.

I’m not sure what to make of Aunt Stephanie. First she keeps comparing being widowed in a plane crash to Jason getting divorced.Ty still sees his mom. Ty’s mom even appears to be remarried and might have another kid. Stephanie Hogan seems like a very nice lady and I know they have to let Ty have a play date with someone’s kid. Still the Yma Sumac singing thing, the Arthur Murray dancing, and the whole “I’m dying to kiss Jason” bit, I’m ready for Jason to send her back to 1954 so she can hook up with Marty Macfly. May I point out that Aunt Stephanie is the last of the Mommy Talkers still standing. Jason’s made his actual taste in women pretty clear and I just don’t get the vibe that he’s looking forward to doing the fantasy suite with Aunt Stephanie.

In the meantime, it looks like Jason goes flying with Naomi Crespo, kind of an odd date for a stewardess unless she gets to spill things on him. My guess is that Jillian gets to find out what Jason puts on his hot dog (if they do that and the show keeps going there or at least keeps implying it, I do hope he does put something on it) a couple weeks from now….There is the whole Deanna thing coming up some time soon, but what I really want to see is why Melissa, or anyone else, is actually suitable for Jason the Mensch. Melissa’s funny. She shares her feelings and the details of her mammary history. I would just like to see the eventual winner (no I don’t know who it is) show the heart and decency that make her a match for the Jason Mesnick we imagined when this installment started. It started to get there when she began analyzing the holes in his ears, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Chris Harrison's blog

Buddy TV Bachelor page


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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Red Rose Cafe (Obama as icon)

I’ve been stopping for lunch lately at a place called the Red Rose café. I used to go there for breakfast from time to time, but they’ve changed owners at least twice. Piner Road in Santa Rosa has always been a mixed industrial commercial section which now consists of a series of strip malls punctuated by power tool and tire stores from back when it was mostly auto repair places. One of the clearer signs of the recession is that each strip mall has at least one vacancy or one store that’s in the midst of going out of business. I’ve also noticed that “Grand Openings” seem to last for more than a year these days. Simply put, it’s getting scary.

The Red Rose café’s new specialty is soul food. My county’s always had a relatively small African-American population. Every few years there’s some place like Soul Brother’s kitchen or Oklahoma Barbeque that appears then disappears. The food at the new version of the Red Rose is quite good. Two days a week they have a buffet that includes red beans and rice, fried chicken (really good), greens, etc. that’s probably one of the better deals going at eight fifty all you can eat. The young woman who waits tables there is very friendly and professional. Children are often there playing near the counter, so I assume it’s a family operation.

The most notable thing about the décor is that the restaurant has two life-sized cutouts of President Obama. The front window has a portrait painted on the glass. There are at least two posters on the wall of Obama and Martin Luther King side by side. There’s also a series of portraits of black historical figures that includes Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington. It’s not the usual restaurant décor. More than anything, it reminds me of the way families and businesses frequently put up pictures of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King when I was a child. My insurance agent used to have a picture of Ronald Reagan in his office, but it was personally signed. I’ve never seen photos of George W. Bush hung in anyone’s living room or place of business. Of course, this may be a function of the company I keep. I’d also mention that I’ve never seen Bill Clinton photos.

If we had an Asian president, I’d be excited too. I don’t know that I’d put photos up in my office, but it would be a pretty important symbol of inclusion. It was even a pretty big deal to me when Tiger Woods (think about it, they don’t have Tigers in Africa) started winning golf tournaments. I do think it goes beyond ethnic identification though. Fwiw, my guess is that there are easily as many people in my county who are mixed to the extent that they are as much white as they are black (like Obama). I think a lot of it is that they see Obama as someone who cares about the “little folk” (for all I know the owners of the Red Rose are actually millionaires several times over, but I’ll assume they’re not). Back in the sixties that was the point of the JFK and MLK portraits. Obama iconography is clearly a big business these days.

The newish mom and pop businesses I see in these strip malls all feel very fragile right now. I keep telling my wife that I can’t imagine a worse time to have put your life savings into a business like that. For instance, all the non-chain video stores in my county have pretty much disappeared. With supermarkets now open 24-7, convenience markets have disappeared as well. The mom and pop storefront is unquestionably an endangered species. They are what the entrepreneurial spirit, that we talked about so much for the last twenty plus years, looks like, yet I now drive by them shake my head and wonder what’s going to happen to the people inside in nine months.

The mom and pop business and the “Garage”, that place where people once went to tinker and invent, stand for “the dreamer” aspect of the American economy. For years, Thomas Edison was the saint of the garage until his image gave way to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. A generation ago, big businesses used to routinely post pictures of the little hamburger stands or storefronts that had once been their roots. We owe much of what we’ve achieved as a country to these two traditions. As much as John McCain talked about helping these folk out, I never saw a single one of these places that put up a portrait of John McCain (though I don’t personally know Joe the Plumber). Instead, Obama is the one they trust and believe in. My guess is that the success of the Obama administration might be measured in the number these places that open and flourish in the next four years. They may be the best single barometer we have of how much faith regular people have in our economy.

If you’re ever in Santa Rosa and not too diet conscious, I’d also suggest that you check out the Red Rose Café.


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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Airbama (Inaugural thoughts)

I got to work yesterday and there was hardly anyone there. Most of the office had gone to watch President Obama’s Inaugural speech. I decided to watch on my work computer over the Internet. It seemed fitting. I have vague memories of watching JFK’s inauguration. To be honest, I can’t say if they’re live memories or I’ve seen so much tape of it over the years that I think I actually saw the “Ask not what your country can do for you” a speech that eventually played in every elementary school in America. JFK was the first American President to master the television and his speech with its 19th century locution was perhaps JFK truly great tv moment. Obama is the first successful Presidential candidate to mobilized his campaign through the internet. It only made sense to usher in the new age this presidency represents by watching via T1 connection instead of through rabbit ears.

To many, yesterday’s highlight was Chief Justice Roberts’s flubbing of the lines for the oath of office and what it meant. I figured that he’d be demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate. He was maybe anticipating how to handle pronouncing the “Hussein” part of our President’s formal name for maximum effect to get back at Senator Obama for voting against his confirmation as Chief Justice. Anyway, when they strangled the word “faithfully”, a really sharp camera crew would have cut immediately to soon to be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

I think a lot of people were surprised by President Obama’s relatively short and in some ways low key inaugural speech. He delivered it well and it had several fine lines in it, but I don’t anticipate it being played endlessly in every elementary school in America. It’s more important that we actually improve our public schools (something this administration is claiming to be serious about) than it is to play speeches in them. It’s clear to me that our new basketball playing President didn’t take the opening tip and go in for the spinning-double-pumping- oratorical slam dunk.

Since one of my goals in the next, hopefully, eight years is to play basketball with the President (his brother in law is the head coach at Oregon State), I’m going to indulge in a couple basketball stories. While he’s mostly known for mountain biking and trumping up weapons of mass destruction evidence, George W. Bush also played basketball at one time. Ron Suskind tells a story that ex-President (I love the sound of that) Bush played on an intra-mural team while he was at Harvard Business School (as I understand it one of the few things he showed up for regularly there) and wound up guarding the other team’s best player. Recognizing that he was outmatched, the young future oil entrepreneur took to simply slugging his opponent. This being Harvard and a vaguely gentlemanly place even on the basketball court, they didn’t throw George W. Bush out of the game and more to the point the other guy just didn’t have it in him to slug back (one of those two wrongs don’t make a right just a right winger things). As they say, sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Naturally, Bush’s team won the game and the championship.

When Barack Obama started dating Michelle Robinson, her brother Craig (twice Ivy league player of the year at Princeton) decided to check her sister’s boyfriend out on the basketball court. Although Obama apparently is pretty good, I suspect that he didn’t have much of a chance to outplay Craig Robinson who’s 6’6 and was recruited by Purdue and the University of Washington in his time and who’s clearly damn good. I think it’s worth noting that this future President didn’t resort to simply hitting Craig Robinson just to win a pickup game. He apparently kept his eye on the real reason the two of them were out playing and won the bigger prize of getting Michelle Robinson’s big brother’s approval as an okay player and a good guy.

I can’t tell a Chicago basketball story without finding some way to invoke his Airness? Back when Michael Jordan was post-baseball and on his second tour of duty with the Bulls, his team came to Oakland to play the Warriors. Thanks to a work friend I barely knew, I got the opportunity to see Jordan play live. This was the year that the Bulls set an NBA record for games won in a season. The Bulls were in the middle of a long road trip. In fact, they were playing their third road game in three days. Jordan and the Bulls came out in the first three quarters looking pretty much like any NBA team. They were just good enough to keep it a game while the Warriors led by the immortal Latrell Sprewell were looking great. I did notice that every time the Bulls were in danger of falling too far off the pace, Jordan would just happen to make a play. I turned to my friend at one point and said, “I don’t know about this whole Jordan thing, he’s good but I don’t see special.”

The friend said, “NBA games have four quarters. Whatever happens in the first three don’t matter as long as you can stay close into the last five minutes.”

Sure enough, the Warriors had a three point lead going into the middle of the fourth quarter when Jordan started making a series of spectacular plays. It came down to Jordan making an unbelievable twisting layup to put the Bulls ahead. Sprewell came back and missed a short jumper. Jordan then hit more or less the same short jumper in the lane to make it a two basket lead. Once I saw all four quarters of the game, I understood a whole lot better. Jordan was Jordan because he basically willed his team to win that game. It wasn’t so much that he carried the team at the end. It was more that he forced the other Bulls to keep the team in the game with minimal contributions from their star so that he’d have the energy to show up at the moment that mattered.

President Obama’s call for an America built on fairness and an America that faces and takes on challenges feels a lot like that Bulls game. The presidency is a four year office. You don’t win the game in the first quarter of an NBA game, but you can lose it. Just as he handled the debates, he did not go for the knockout punch so much as he appeared to be making sure that he’ll be around and in a position to win when it’s all on the line. In addition, if a guy in a basketball game hits four three pointers and makes three dunks in the first quarter it often results in his team relaxing and expecting their star to do it all. By toning it down, I suspect the President was trying to remind us that our ultimate success depends on us as much as it depends on anything he does or doesn’t do as President.

The various crises facing America are serious and President Obama is telling us pretty clearly that the war on terror, the economic crisis, the environment are “team sports”. The last thing he wants is to send the message that he’s the star or the saviour.

I believe it takes a certain amount of wisdom to make a move like this. He’s not claiming to have a singular brilliant idea or move to the basket that’s going to rescue America and the world. I believe he’s carving out the necessary space to fail a little before he has the chance to engineer a genuinely successful Presidency. My guess is that he’s been studying FDR pretty carefully. People forget that the New Deal wasn’t a runaway success straight out of the gate (see Schechter vs. the United States). What was a success almost immediately, was FDR’s capacity to use the radio as a medium for letting Americans know that everyone in America mattered to the New Deal and that everyone was expected to contribute and sacrifice.

Anyway, my current identified dream is to get on the court with President Obama. In order to do that, my take is that this captain expects me to show my commitment and willingess to work for the team. He’s not going to magically grant me playing time say the way Alberto Gonzales got on team Bush. It’s the way it should be. I’d even take an oath to faithfully uphold that proposition.


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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

As the Jason Turns (Bachelor 13 round of 12)

Somewhere in the middle of Natalie Getz’s failed Las Vegas date with Jason Mesnick, it struck me that she’d been cast on the wrong installment of the Bachelor. The shopping-obsessed life of the party would have given Shayne a serious run for her shoe money during Matt Grant’s season. She also was blonde enough to have lasted a while with Jesse Palmer. Can you imagine the Ah Ha moment we could have had when Jesse confessed that he’d gotten tired of waking up next to strangers and Natalie revealed that she was ready for marriage and children because she was tired of partying every night? After Jason failed to offer the rose, it seemed more like Natalie was really the other cast member for True Beauty and simply showed up two hours too early. “Whatever! I can’t believe I swallowed oysters for that loser.”

Even as Jason tried to explain that maybe “People might be surprised that a hottie like me with perfect taste in outfits actually loves children” might have not have made the most persuasive case for being Ty’s step mom, Natalie seemed determined to throw the rest of the house under the limo of shame with her. I wish they hadn’t edited the bit about Ty making a much cuter accessory than a Chihuaha. It’s just not fair the way people misjudge Paris Hilton wannabes. In the meantime, it seems like the odds on the Pretty Woman date are even worse than getting the first impression rose.

Yes, Jason figures out that Natalie may be “not ready” and possibly just a tad shallow, so naturally he gives her judgment about the other ladies the deference it’s due by essentially going all Ken Starr. In the course of the longest pre-rose cocktail party in history (46 minutes?), Jason expertly grills the ladies on who the b*#$*#s are in the house while finding time to make out with about five of them in succession. Here are examples of Jason’s probing questions, “Molly, I know for sure you’re not one of the problems in the house, but….” Since Lauren was the only one who named names (the House UnBachelorlike Activties committee this is not), I’m pretty sure that Jason’s basic test was did he make out with the lady at least as long he talked with her about the emotional turmoil in the house. If he kissed her long enough, he would then slap one of those Chiquita banana stickers on her and hand her a rose at the end of the night.

Fascinatingly, he does talk to Erica DEsimone but the edit only shows her claiming that she caught Jason looking at her boobs. Classy lady that she is, Erica goes on about it for a while. It was great tv. Even if she hadn’t played a lead role in the cattiest rose ceremony ever, I never thought Erica was much more than opening cocktail party fodder. A couple of those shots of her from behind were decidedly unflattering. More significant, it was hard for me to imagine Erica as a stepmother except as the kind who might be in the Grimm’s Brothers fairy tales.

After six hours of Jason as lead, I have to say that Jason himself just isn’t all that interesting. He appears to know four words, “Amazing”, “Ty”, “Great”, and “Special”. To make up for it, Fleiss keeps making him take his shirt off. I’m noticing that it wasn’t just Nikki who hit a dead spot conversationally with Jason. He really doesn’t have all that much to say, so they do things like use Stephanie to throw Jason’s corniest lines from Deanna’s season right back at him, like “Now I know I can love again.”

Faced with his own line a couple times, Jason looked profoundly uncomfortable. Part of the problem is that Stephanie seems fun, though very southern, but there’s this creepy vibe of her being Jason’s mom’s barely age appropriate friend who’s gotten this crush on Jason while still playing bridge and organizing the charity functions every week with Jason’s mom. Yes, their kids are the same age and Stephanie’s only a few calendar years older than Jason, but she feels about ten years older than Jason. If Natalie Getz is on the wrong season of the Bachelor, Stephanie appears to be the perfect contestant for “Who Wants to Date my Dad.”

I also have to say that was maybe the most awkward four year old’s birthday party ever. I don’t think it’s any little kid’s fantasy to run around a deserted Lego Land (which would be cool), while Mom puts the make on some total stranger after spending the last couple years telling you that Dad’s flying around somewhere in heaven. I kept waiting for little Sophia to say “If this is my birthday party, where the heck are the other kids?” or “Mom, they flew me out here on that long-assed plane flight which given the way Daddy died scared the shit out of me to be flying without you and you’re telling me we don’t get any alone time? You’ve got to be kidding!”

I figure in ten years, they’ll have Jerry Springer shows like “I was used as a prop on reality tv”. A now sixteen year old Sophie will be sitting there with nose ring, purple hair, and black-dyed fairy dress watching clips of her mother tackling her on the beach and yelling “Roll Tide” then screaming at Jerry about how embarrassing it was having to watch her mother by the fireplace trying to get Jason Mesnick to kiss her on the lips after he’s kissed five other women. Ty Mesnick would follow and he’d talk about how he spent three months trying to track down Deanna Pappas to convince her to fulfill her TV destiny and be his “Mom”. Ty then stuns the audience by breaking out a blue golf ball that he’s kept in his pocket since 2008 and proclaims, “You named a star for me. I wanted to be your little star.” Jerry then explains that Ty was arrested a few months earlier for throwing golf balls at unsuspecting snowboarders.

Btw, Jason’s Ex aka Ty’s real mom must have gotten one heck of a contract. She has no name, we never see her, and we’re often left with the impression that Jason’s a widower.

This is what I see. Jason came to our living rooms as Ward Cleaver 2 or maybe Courtship of Ty’s Father. He’s supposed to be all about family values, loves his son, (did we say he loves his son?), and he’s just looking for the right woman to complete the picture. Since a significant percentage of past Bachelors have been (there’s no gentler way to put it) “Players”, the Bachelor public has looked to Jason Mesnick to be the guy to break the show’s find ‘em, fantasy suite’em, forget ‘em slump. I do think he’s very sincere about the “Completing his family” mission, but I’m not sure the powers that be expected the horn dog side of Jason Mesnick to come out so quickly.

Currently, the house seems to be split into camps. There’s the I wanna be a “mommy” group that includes Megan Parris, Stephanie, Nikki, and Shannon Bair the stalker. There’s the hot-fun girls who are barely on the wholesome side of the Natalie Getz line. That would be Lauren Wanger (pageant girl), Naomi Crespo (exotic-looking stewardess), and Molly Malaney (professional kisser). Then there are Jillian and Melissa who manage to feel girlish like group two, yet also show hints of being grounded without the repeated proclamations that the Mommy and Me group does in lieu of actual conversation. There are only two actual moms left, Stephanie and Megan.

I do find it interesting that the Law and Order BIU ( Bachelor Investigations Unit) that relies on DNA samples from Facebook/Myspace and an extensive network of people who went to college, worked with, or sold a slurpee to various contestants at some point in the last twenty five years seem convinced that Jillian and Melissa stay around for quite a long time. In fact, some charter boat company in New Zealand seems to have confirmed that Melissa is at least in the final two. Most of the sleuthers seem convinced that Melissa gets the ring and that last 34FF rose.

I suspect the charity date captured Jason’s dual nature almost perfectly (yeah, I know he doesn’t really plan any of this stuff. Here were all these women saying “This is such a good cause, sure I’m willing to get naked on national television for breast cancer.”

In the meantime, Jason helps them apply plaster to the body parts that are not flat smooth surfaces. Megan paints a fetus on her cast because women with mastectomies can’t breast feed. Now there’s a potential winner’s edit for you :} Melissa Rycroft in the most intimate one on one confession yet reveals that she had breast reduction surgery as a teenager, “I could have been a pole dancer, a porn star, on a show with Brett Michaels, or I could do something truly meaningful with my life. I decided to have the breast reduction procedure and now I’m proud to say that I became a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader who wants to be a mom.”

I wonder if she asked Megan if the breast reduction thing will still let her breast feed? In the meantime, Naomi reveals that hers are lopsided and Shannon panics because she hasn’t gotten one on one time with Jason then hugs him just for saying hello to her. Yeah, this one is emotionally secure enough to be a stepmother. After all, being a step parent is just a matter of spending the next twelve years being compared negatively to the various biological parents who are either around or absent and subliminally blaming you for their absence. Jillian Harris, of course, solves the problem by deftly jumping on the bedroom set actually used in the Super Fly movies with Jason and snagging a rose. I have no idea where it came from. I’m just pretty sure that Jason has that scene in “Big” where Tom Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins jump on the bedroom trampoline freeze-framed on his home entertainment center.

I actually thought the most touching moment belonged to Nikki. Having talked about her love of kids and being there for the right reasons a couple dozen times too many, the former pageant winner doesn’t know how to be spontaneous. She doesn’t exactly relax in a later one on one, but she does yet again present Jason with her two biggest reasons for keeping her around and they exchange an extended kiss. Somewhere in there, Kari got her thirty seconds of camera time to let the camera know that she actually has a sister who had breast cancer. This, of course, justified the whole peep show cop a feel for charity bit. I understand that this segment was so successful that they’re planning a topless carwash for the homeless and a give a lapdance for lupus for future Bachelor seasons. It’s too bad they cut out the visit from rock and roll legend Cynthia Plaster Caster from this one.

I do think that they’ve made two good decisions this season. It’s better to leave a couple of the ladies without a date during the week. It clearly brings out the “Crazy” in the house. Second, they seem to be spending less time on the trappings of the “dates” and more on actual one to one conversations between Jason and his various choices though this episode might have gone a bit too far in that direction. I can’t remember which conversations were at the plaster caster date and which were pre-rose ceremony. Oddly, despite all this intimacy and kissing, there haven’t been any serious romantic vibes yet. That may be a good thing and they may be saving that part of the edit for the last few episodes. Hopefully, they won’t turn this season into three card monte a la Deanna and Brad’s seasons.

Perhaps the one truly great reality moments came when Shannon broke down during the insinuation fest of the pre-rose ceremony, ran off to the bathroom, and muttered, “I hate it here.”

Shortly thereafter, you hear her throwing up and then they cut to commercial with the sound of a flushing toilet (Fleiss once again reminds us that his productions are the epitome of television class and that he’s a cut above the bikini girl trying to make out with Ryan on American Idol). After three episodes of True Beauty, I was waiting for Cheryl Tiegs to come out and show us the one Bachelorette who had the inner beauty to come comfort Shannon. Instead, none of these ladies even turn in Shannon’s direction. It’s Jason who comes to her rescue. Perhaps, it’s because Shannon’s not really upset, it’s just morning sickness from carrying Jason’s cloned baby after she got the lock of his chest hair from an E-Bay auction. She genuinely did look ill. Not only that, Jason gives her a rose and he gives Megan a rose too for her insights into the real tragedy of breast cancer. Is it just me or did they play a commercial for “He’s Just Not that Into You” every time Megan or Stephanie got screen time?

Anyway, I can’t believe they didn’t save all this fun for next week’s real soap opera tie in, I mean segment. In the meantime, Mrs. Chancelucky has demanded that I bring her a dozen lego roses after I come home from work tonight. If I don’t, she’s threatening to lock me in a room alone with Erica and Megan.
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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mr. Congeniality (Bachelor 13 Round of 15)

If you were to analyze the Bachelor’s ToV genome, it’s clear that the Dating Game was one of its direct ancestors. Another major part of the show’s television genetic code comes from the Miss America Pageant. Instead of Bert Parks, you get Chris Harrison. The show starts with a long parade of mostly forgettable contestants in weird gowns who’ve come from all over the United States. There’s a bathing suit competition (in this installment Fleiss went there twice last night). One of the big moments comes when the various contestants have to answer some open-ended question for the tv audience. Instead of “World Peace”, Bachelor contestants are expected to do some variation on “I really want to get married and raise children” aka the right reasons. There’s also some informal version of Miss Congeniality, some individual everyone likes who has no serious chance at the final rose. Btw, Given the way things always seem to turn out, wouldn’t it be better to get scholarship money instead of an engagement ring from some guy you’re going to stay with for all of six weeks beyond the show?

Anyway, Bob Guiney was probably the first Miss Congeniality on the show. Just off the top of my head, there was also Katie, the woman Jesse Palmer gave a rose to by accident who took it with such good humor, Fred (Ellen’s choice) from Deanna’s show (though word is that he started dating Noelle Drake, one of my favorite contestants from Matt’s show making Fred the actual winner of Deanna’s descent from Bachelor version of Scarlet O'hara to “Hey Dude, Where’s my Rose?” ) , and Sheena Stewart from Brad’s season. I’m certain that Erica from Connecticut is not going to be the Miss Congeniality for Jason’s season.

During the rose ceremony, Mrs. Chancelucky started yelling at the television set when Erica got her rose. If you remember Erica Rose from Lorenzo’s season, you too are probably wondering if “Erica” is the code name for “Drama Queen” on the Bachelor. Of course, if you are identified as a drama queen, I’m pretty sure the producers make sure you get a minimum of three or four roses. Otherwise I can’t think of any reason Jason would have given this Erica a rose. Megan seemed perfectly within her rights to call Erica on being two-faced. When Erica took the thing public, it had this “I’m going to crush you” edge that seemed genuinely mean rather than Fleiss-staged mean. Erica catching the boyfriend with the 52 year old was definitely TMI, but at this point does anyone blame the guy?

The whole “if you already have a rose, you shouldn’t steal cocktail party time from the ladies who don’t” rule makes sense to me. I just wish someone would codify all these rules, so the contestants wouldn’t have to spend so much time reviewing the protocols with one another. Racquel, for instance, could have looked up footage of Blaine Twilley’s hide in the bushes moment and learned that “stalking” doesn’t work that well either on the show or in real life. Fwiw, Jason’s body language in that moment was terrific. She might as well have said, “I really love snowboarding and hope we can go to Breck sometime.”

Actually, this might be the most stalkery installment of the show yet. In addition to our Brazilian Med student, who was really trying out for a bit part as intern who keeps bumping into Patrick Dempsey on the Seattle Grace elevator (mmmm…come to think of it there are some real crossover possibilities there), there’s Shannon Bair, the world’s leading authority on all things Jason Mesnick. There was the recently departed Sharon from New York who quit her job just to be on the show. There’s also the scary smooth, Molly Malaney of the “I’m a really good kisser” in front of a tv camera and seven other ladies. Seriously, what real golfer breaks his/her hands when demonstrating the purity of her swing?

I do rather like the idea of not giving everyone a date during a given week, the whole insecurity thing made for good tv. Speaking of insecurity, how much do you think Robin Thicke paid Mike Fleiss to get himself featured on the date at Disney Hall. I know if Suzanne Somers was once sort of your stepmother that excuses most anything, but I’m not sure the guy would make it out of the semi-finals of American Idol especially when he does the falsetto. Btw, What’s with all these women claiming they haven’t dated or kissed anyone since before Trista met Ryan? Is there some convent filled with pro sports cheerleaders and former pageant girls where they stash future Bachelorettes? I honestly don’t get it. These women who go on tv in these tiny bikinis and jump on Jason’s shoulders, kiss the guy after maybe talking to him twenty minutes after he’s kissed maybe three other ladies in the last ten minutes, wear evening gowns from Victoria’s Secret at the cocktail parties, then happily go off to the fantasy suite with the bachelor, all claim that they haven’t gone on a date or kissed a guy in three years.

I really wasn’t all that convinced about chemistry between Jason and Jillian Harris. While it was certainly better than that really iffy kiss with Naomi Crespo, the stewardess and philanthropist, it didn’t compare to whatever was going on with Melissa Rycroft. Later in the show, Jason makes his little speech about Lauren Wanger, the civics teacher, who tells Jason that she’s clearly uncomfortable because she’s not getting constant attention and reassurance from him. Jason, the psychology major, rationalizes that’s she’s used to being the center of attention. He later gives her a rose anyway. Let me translate, this is guy code for Jason’s into hot chicks. Whatever he says about a mom for Ty and the rigors of true compatibility, this guy’s real taste is for the ladies all the other guys notice.
You notice the pageant girls keep getting roses and the whole Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader thing is a total no-brainer. Was I the only one hoping that he’d ask Melissa if she knew Jenni Croft?

Oysters on the beach? What was that business with Jason watching her swallow the oyster followed by a giant talking blimp (do you want mustard or relish on your blimp). These producers sure are subtle! Okay, here’s another thing I don’t get. Why do the women always give the Bachelor all this credit for planning these elaborate dates? Like this is the most romantic date, I’ve ever been on repeated five times a show whether they’re on a blimp over Los Angeles or just atop some bank building with seven other women in bikinis all fighting for time with Jason. Did anyone send them the memo that it’s not the Bachelor who plans this stuff or who paid for all those outfits btw ladies, most guys don't like hearing that your fantasy is to have some guy pay for you to shop to your heart's content? Believe me, men do not get together and say that's exactly the sort of woman I want. If this is what’s really getting them off, they should be falling in love with Mike Fleiss or whatever underling talks some company into comping the resort, hall, whatever.

When Jason gets all excited because Melissa wants to be a first grade teacher, it did occur to me that there are like three other Bachelorettes who are already real teachers. I think about poor Sharon who quit her teaching job only to get dumped in the round of 15. Apparently, it’s not commutative. Cheerleader first then teacher equals smitten Jason. Teacher first then whatever equals who knows with this guy? As my friend Magic Bunny Slippers points out, do any of them notice that the guy’s an insurance salesman who lives with his brother and his three year old son. Do you really want to marry into some real life version of Two and a Half Men? Mmmmm….is Jason Mesnick secretly Charley Sheen? That’s not that far off, what are the odds that if Denise Richards came on the show and talked about her kids that Jason would give her at least enough roses to get to the fantasy suite date?

I really did like what happened with Lisa, the one who chose her sick grandmother over Jason. If you remember, Meredith Phillips had a similar choice to make during Bob Guiney’s season and she chose Bob over Nana’s funeral. Meredith then made up for it by taking Bob on her home visit to see Nana’s grave. Ever sensitive, Bob then used the occasion to stick his tongue down Meredith’s throat. When Lisa left, I went “What the hell? How manipulative can they get? They stuck a real person on this show.”

Of course, the producers quickly made up for it by using the occasion to let the ladies do their “One less rose to worry about” routine. I was further reassured that Fleiss hadn’t lost his touch for fake sentimentality when Megan asked Stephanie what happened to her husband and Stephanie then gets to do some scene written by Nicholas Sparks. The women tear up, hold hands, as Stephanie segues into how she has been through this tragic loss and now deserves Jason. Did I miss something there? I’m so devoted to my daughter, that I skipped her birthday (we learn that the producers help out on the next installment and likely fed her that line so they can introduce the little girl to Jason at a completely inappropriate time). I also spent all of my husband’s life insurance money on thousands of pieces of costume jewelry. Anyone here know any Bachelors with connections to the Home Shopping Network?

I am enjoying this whole “mom” strategy. Nikki, Megan, Stephanie, and Melissa pretty much spend all their Jason time talking about how much they like driving kids to soccer practice and helping with homework. Away from Jason, they tell one another how the other ladies have no idea how hard it is to really be a mom. Somehow, it doesn’t compute for Nikki or Melissa that they don’t have kids themselves. One, I’m not sure that’s what Jason’s really into. Two, the mom thing is not something you talk about loving, it’s something you show. Don’t any of you remember the whole Deanna story arc? She kept talking about getting married and raising a family, but when she was actually around Ty how comfortable did she actually look? Not that Jason noticed or even cared btw.

Circling back, I am curious to see what the “talent” portion of Bachelor Jason will be like (no I don't count the synchronized swimming). We did learn Molly’s talent. I do wonder if we’ll see Natalie’s when she goes on the Pretty Woman date (I still say it’s weird), and I’m still not quite sure who Kari is. In the past, we learned that Jeremy Anderson hit baseballs while his dead father watched over his stroke Angels in the Outfield style. We got to see Jenni Croft dance with dolphins. Tessa Horst faked a sprained ankle. Something tells me that this group won’t be outdone. Next week, they do the body cast thing so maybe we’ll see some “talents” there. Are they sharing writers with the Girls Next Door this season?

Btw, I do think they’ve found an excellent follow show to the Bachelor. True Beauty appears to provide a refreshing open snarkiness about its contestants that contrasts nicely with the Bachelor’s faux romanticism.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Vista Point

My wife gave me a gym membership at Christmas. My doctor is threatening to put me on high blood pressure medication In addition, I'm dealing with various other quirks of middle age. So, I started going to the gym semi-regularly again. I'd been doing basketball twice a week, but they keep cancelling. The guys in the group are just getting too old, I suspect. A few years ago, I was riding my bike very regularly, but stopped because I was having trouble with a strained neck muscle and I kept getting flats.

The exercise bike at the gym has one of those screens that shows a cartoon version of some bike trail. If you go too slowly, animated bikers leave you in pixellated dust. On Saturday morning I had this urge to ride a real bike. Before I left the house, I made my usual fateful decision, “It's just a short ride, I don't need the patch kit, wallet, or cell phone.” I did take my MP3 player and spent two hours listening to a book called the Fruit Hunters which consists of endless descriptions of exotic fruit and the wonders of taste. I usually go seven miles out and then back home. Naturally, I go the flat at the seven mile mark.

I walked the bike to a shopping center, found a payphone (they do still have them), and tried to make a collect call to my wife. Everything's automated now and I'm not sure what happens when you make collect calls to a cell phone. Bottom line, the payphone company kept reporting that my wife wasn't accepting my collect call. Virtually no one in the shopping center spoke English. Most of the businesses were Hispanic, the doughnut shop was Cantonese, and the abandoned restaurant was Filipino (I never got to try it). As I pushed my bicycle around the center, I kept listening to the fruit book and discovered that every other store front had one of those outdoor barbeque things filling the air with the smell of grilled chicken. I waited for my wife for about 45 minutes, hoping that she understood my cryptic message “flat tire Dutton plaza”... I later learned that the message from the payphone company was getting to her as “flat tire duh”...She's lectured me a few times about flat tires being inevitable.. Naturally, I only get flats when I forget or refuse to take my patch kit and pump.

I was then about five miles from home and there was the small matter that we were taking our daughter to the airport that night. I walked another half mile, found a gas station, and the guy behind the counter there actually let me use the phone. My wife answered and said “Where the hell are you? I've been driving around Santa Rosa looking for you for the last forty five minutes.”

We got home, I collapsed, took about a forty five minute nap, helped pack the car, and we then headed to the city. For most of the last twenty years, we've treated our trips to San Francisco Airport as get there as fast as possible then drive home. For some reason, we've lately taken to going out to dinner (Cafe Pelligrini this time), staying in a hotel near the airport, dropping family member off at airport for early morning flight, going back to hotel near airport to go back to sleep and other stuff, stopping again on the way home, etc. You might say we're turning these excursions into a mini-vacation.

The one difference this time was that we unsuccessfully tried to see Norm McDonald at Cobb's Comedy Club (sold out) and only had fifteen minutes worth of patience for the standby line. Our daughter wanted to get her ears pierced. Since it was near nine, the only things nearby that might pierce ears were various North Beach tatoo parlors. My daughter then announced that she would not ask for a car (her current obsession) if I would get a giant tattoo. I didn't do it and the tatoo parlor people seemed horrified that we'd asked them if they did piercings. We wound up at the Stonestown Mall just before closing time and my wife (who's very ingenious about these things) actually found a jewelry store willing to pierce ears ten minutes before the custodians and security guards closed up the mall.

On the way back, we stopped at the Vista Point on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. For the last twenty years, we've insisted that that's what the tourists do, but this was a gorgeous day and we were reminded just why the tourists go there. I think we heard at least five different languages as various people took photos with digital cameras and posed in front of the statue of the lone sailor that sits atop the Vista Point.

Once we got home, we realized that it's fairly simple. Our daughter was home for Christmas Break and at the end of three weeks, she was actually looking forward to getting back to school, her friends, and maybe even her classes. For the first twenty years, we've spent all this time trying to get our kids to various places. Suddenly, we have all this time and we're not exactly sure what you do when you actually plan your days off around each other instead of the kids.


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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ty Goes to the Winner (Bachelor 13 Round of 25)

It’s Bachelor time again and the news has been mixed for prior Bachelor couples. The big news was that Deanna Pappas dropped Jesse Csincsak about five months into their “engagement” possibly because he didn’t want a televised wedding. Deanna may now be the only person in America with a lower approval rating than George W. Bush and Bernard Madoff. There have been rumors that the soon to be ex-president and Laura Bush might divorce. Deanna did fall for at least one other guy who spent time in Austin. George W. Bush on a home visit would be a ratings bonanza. I can see him waterboarding would be Bachelorettes to make sure they're on his show for the “right reasons”, maybe having Dick Cheney come on the show for duck hunting and helpful advice about the ladies, and maybe doing a fantasy date in New Orleans as part of his journey. Condi, will you take this rose?

In the meantime, Matt Grant and Shayne Llamas broke up officially although they were so fake on Where Are They Now hardly anyone seriously believed they were still together. Mary Delgado got arrested again. On the positive end, Charley O’connell and Sarah Brice got back together (something to do with his dealing with the drinking issue) and Trista (Rehn) and Ryan Sutter (the franchise) are expecting another baby. Travis Stork also appears to have taken the lead in the “Ex- Bachelor how famous are they still” sweepstakes by getting his own medical advice show and dating American Idol’s Carrie Underwood. Andy Baldwin from the Bachelor installment Officer and a Celebrity got stationed somewhere in the Pacific.

Jason Mesnick was one of the most popular “losers” in Bachelor/Bachelorette history. Part of that is that has to do with the show’s cliché “Being there for the right reasons”. I don’t know that anyone made it clearer that he was there for “the right reasons” than this guy and he acted accordingly. Second, there’s a widespread belief that Deanna Pappas mistreated him or at least made a mistake. First she spent 2 full installments of the show telling America how much she was ready for marriage and family, then chose a professional snowboarder. Second, she let Jason get on his knee and propose when she already knew that her answer was “No”.

Second timers on the Bachelor have been about fifty-fifty. Bob Guiney, Jen Schett, and Deanna Pappas definitely should have quit while they were ahead. Trista obviously did very well. Meredith Phillips certainly fared well and Mary Delgado did very well her second time through, it was the real life relationship that tripped her up. Jason faces two challenges. Is his head going to be turned by all the attention and will the situation transform him from Bachelor-Dad into Bachelor-Cad? More significant, Jason’s taste in women doesn’t really match what he says he wants either. His first wife started doing music videos. Deanna turned out to be “All about the fun”. Maybe there’s a pattern there?

Going in, we know that Jason claims that he’s engaged to someone from his Bachelor experience. At the end of last night’s premiere, we also learned that Deanna returned in some capacity. There also seem to be a lot of posters who insist that Melissa Rycroft (the former Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader) is an uncanny combination of Deanna Pappas and Jenni Croft. She’s not only considered one of the favorites by the screencapistas, her resume doesn’t exactly send off “motherly” vibes. Okay, yeah I got burned last time because I trusted both Deanna and the producers to deliver what the edit seemed to be promising. I didn’t like feeling manipulated. If I wanted that, I’d start recapping Ashton Kutcher’s “True Beauty” instead (I might anyway). Anyway, I’m going into project “Find Ty Mesnick a Stepmom” even more skeptical than usual.

So lets’ begin! One agenda this year appears to be to establish Jason as “gorgeous”. I counted at least 5 occasions when some Bachelorette was moved to proclaim this for the camera last night. They’ve also thrown several single mothers into the mix possibly to test Jason’s intentions at a “good for the goose, good for the gander” level. Fwiw, Mrs. Chancelucky had two children when we met. Twenty years later (yikes) we have one more. Even though she had kids, she admits that she liked the fact that I didn’t.

I’d say that they didn’t exactly go to central casting to find tv moms, even though many of the ladies really are moms. Anyway, none of them exactly screamed June Cleaver or even Janine Turner as June Cleaver. One of the problems with letting the contestants do their own makeup and wardrobe is that they didn’t get the memo that Ty’s mom wasn’t likely to dress like Lyndsay Lohan or Jessica Simpson even if that’s been the custom in earlier Bachelor installments. My wife also had her usual complaint, “They didn’t stick Jason with the most attractive choices there.”

To be clear, she was referring to some of the behavior as well. So, I know it was a joke, but someone wearing the tiara and her Miss Illinois banner while holding her niece doesn’t necessarily strike me as Ty’s mom material nor does that level of cleavage exactly scream “Stepmom” now that Ty’s too old to breast feed (though if anyone remembers that wet nurse scene in the Last Emperor, I suppose it’s possible). The fact that she scored Jason's first impression rose maybe should be taken with a grain of milk in terms of where this installment may go.

Of course, Nikki’s not a mom, and I’d say that the new Morticia Addams, Stephanie, the widow from Alabama, probably set off the most alarms with her backyard shrine to her husband who “tragically died in a plane crash”… there are non-tragic ways to die in plane crashes. Anyway, the shrine takes the form of a giant cross and Stephanie tells her daughter that Dad went on a flight to heaven. There’s one little problem here. The last time I checked, Jason Mesnick was Jewish. While to a fundamentalist Christian having your wife run off with a rock band (I know that’s not really what happened to Jason) might be the same thing as having Dad die tragically in a plane crash, I don’t know that those are comparable events to Jason. He gives her a pity rose anyway a la Danielle from Andy’s season.

Stephanie should clearly have checked in with Sharon the stalker beforehand. Not only would she have gotten free dental floss for life, she would have known beforehand to downplay the cross thing, though maybe she’s assuming that Jason will convert once she gets him in the fantasy suite. As for Sharon, I would say that she should have watched Travis’s journey. The last lady to do the fake fangs thing got about ten more seconds of air time before the mystery suitcase movers showed up.

Fascinatingly, Jason consciously or not, cut several of the single moms. The second most notable mom got a rose the hard way. After confessing about the kid before she ever stepped into the house, Megan, the lacrosse coach, had the honor of being voted off by the other women. She was about to start arguing about hanging chads and apparently called the other women “bitches” when Chris Harrison reversed the field by telling her she got a rose instead of the door. We then got to see Jason mutter something about being concerned about anyone who couldn’t get along with the other ladies (I suspect that’s why Jeremy Anderson didn’t get to be one of his choices). Perhaps the most fascinating thing was that the ladies supposedly singled Megan out because she has a 14 month old and shouldn’t be leaving her child for that long just to be on the Bachelor. Think about this, they’re all hot for Jason who left a two year old son back in Seattle to meet a woman who ran off with a snowboard guy and who once wanted to marry a guy who owned a bunch of bars. Megan, somehow, is an unfit mother because she does more or less what Jason did. At least she didn’t quit her teaching job just to be on the show, talk about stalkers.

I was very glad that they stopped the whole bit with stupid Bachelorette tricks during the opening cocktail party. This time no pushup contests, no biting beer cans in half, no one sang or played a musical instrument, and no panties thrust into Jason's pocket. The weirdness got limited to the innuendo-filled “Let's see what Jason puts on his wiener” with Jillian, a civics test that I'm not sure Deanna would have passed, and one slightly drunk wedding planner, Jackie, admitting something about a former fiance and that she'd tried out twice to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and never made it (I'm not sure which was more embarrassing).

The drama seemed to come from more natural situations like Racquel, the Brazilian med student, getting Jason to samba,having Molly cut in on her, then fighting back by cutting back in on Molly. The Bachelor has had more than its share of bad rhymed poetry and Kari's was right down there, but this time Nicole got to comment about how awkward and impliedly stupid it is to sitting on the same couch in the midst of a poetry slam er....crush. Perhaps the best moment of unforced drama came when Lauren, the birthday girl, was led to believe that Jason was about to give her the first rose. Instead, he shows up with a cake (how many birthdays have they happened to have during those cocktail parties?), eventually leaves, and the camera cuts to the uneaten cake and Lauren's look of disappointment.

After 11 installments of the Bachelor, I've given up on worrying about any of the ladies who don't get roses after show one I did notice that of the ladies who did get roses, it may have had less to do with who offered proof of being great “mom” material than with who happened to look good in the bathing suits in the previews (great "mam" material). Funny thing about that... The previews seem to promise lots of drama in the house and Jason kissing a bunch of different women in addition to an appearance by Deanna that the viewer is led to believe leads to Jason crying on some balcony in agony (it's my hope that that's because he threw her off the thing moments earlier).

I had said that I might not recap this season. My wife tells me that Bachelor season is one of the times when I really seem to be having fun (talk about the truth being really scary!) I did have fun with this mostly brunette installment of the show. So far, Jason Mesnick is staying pretty likeable. Right now, I wish they'd given him better choices, but I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised. Part of that may be due to a suggestion made in True Beauty (yeah I watched it) where one of the judges suggests to a contestant that she's in need of a Make Under instead of a Make Over. It might be fun to see a few of the women look normal, act normal, and actually just try to get to know the guy. I know that's a strange concept, but I'm mostly rooting for a season where I actually like most of the principals at the end.

Buddy TV Bachelor page
Sirlinksalot Bachelorette


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Friday, January 02, 2009

Marley and Me (movie review 2009)

Want a measure of how much America craves a sense of comfort heading into 2009? Marley and Me was number one at the box office for Christmas week. I’d mention that the most famous dog in movie history, Rin Tin Tin was a huge star during the depression. Lassie (first a movie in 1943) was originally a story very much rooted in the British depression. Okay, here’s my pet (heh heh) theory, depressions are about a generalized failure of trust in society. Dog movies are about an irreducible trust between a dog and its family. If you can’t trust the government, your bank, or your employer, you can at least trust your dog to love you no matter what the world does to you. The release of Marley and Me couldn’t have been timed any better.

I had no choice about seeing the movie. I happen to like dog movies. My wife absolutely loves dog movies (we have two dogs). Our daughter who's home from college also happens to love dogs and she has watched her DVD collection of every Friends episode ever broadcast a minimum of four times each. We’re also huge fans of the movie Meet the Parents (it helps that Jay Roach the director lived two doors down from me in college). When we decided to go to a movie together on New Year’s Day, I knew we’d agree to Marley and Me. Besides, I’d recently resoundingly lost a family argument about watching the DVD of Sweeney Todd (I love Sondheim, I didn’t like the movie).

With the possible exception of Fluke with Matthew Modine, an exploration of the Hindu view of reincarnation narrated by a dog, all modern dog movies adhere to a common formula. There’s a dog in some form who is somehow irresistibly adorable. (Even Turner and Hooch ultimately goes there). There’s a family. There’s usually a cute kid. At some point, the dog’s status with the family gets jeopardized either physically (see Bingo, a personal favorite) or because those who run the family fail to see said dog’s virtues (the most recent remake of Lassie). Ultimately, the entire family comes to appreciate the dog and in the process they come closer together between dozens of cute dog shots.

Anyway, whether it’s Because of Winn Dixie, My Dog Skip, Beethoven installment 27, Benji Sells Junk Bonds, Air Bud and the WWF, dog movies are reassuringly predictable. Marley and Me, based on columns and a book by John Grogan (now the editor of an organic gardening magazine) does not stray from the recipe except that this one is seen from Dad’s point of view instead of one of the kids. I agree with most of the critics. As these things go, Marley and Me was done pretty well at least partly because they didn’t over indulge the clichés of the genre. Marley, the world’s mot rambunctious Labrador Retrieiver, is actually more or less believable. He’s not magically smart, doesn’t get involved in too many Rube Goldberg-like situations though there’s a scene where Marley mostly gets out of a very small car on the expressway, and the plot is generally free of anthropomorphic miracles. In addition, there are remarkably few diabetes inducing lines in the script until the end.

From a marketing standpoint, probably the most ingenious thing the producers did was to cast Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as “mom and dad”. Up to now, Owen Wilson has played goofballs. In this one, he’s a reformed goofball turned family man. Jennifer Aniston’s basic role since Friends has been to be someone’s would be hot/cute girlfriend. These were Aniston’s last five theatrically released movies 1) The Breakup 2) Rumor Has It 3) Friends With Money 4) Derailed 5) Along Came Polly. These were Owen Wilson’s last five 1) Drillbit Taylor 2) Darjeeling Unlimited 3) Night at the Museum (believe it or not they’ve made a sequel) 4) You and Me and Dupree 5) Wedding Crashers. Yeah, Wedding Crashers was a huge hit, but the two were a collective one for ten with their most recent movie efforts.

Fascinatingly, both Wilson and Aniston have stayed on the “A” list largely because of who they’ve dated or married in the last few years. Wilson’s had a tumultuous relationship with Kate Hudson (more or less the same thing as Jennifer Aniston only a better actress and a more famous Hollywood parent than Aniston’s soap opera dad). In particular, there’s been a lot in the tabloids about Wilson’s capacity to handle fame which naturally encourages more articles and photos that make him even more famous.

Aniston’s played Debbie Reynolds in this generation’s version of the Eddie Fisher-Elizabeth Taylor-Debbie Reynolds triangle. The one difference this time is that Brad and Angelina are the ones who appear to be into having all the kids. In addition, Aniston’s had a series of high-profile rebound relationships that include Vince Vaughn, Wilson’s co-star from Wedding Crashers.

One of the adult pleasures of watching Marley and Me is that it’s your basic dog movie, but there’s this whole subtext of tabloid fodder to watch for in the movie. The chemistry between Aniston and Wilson is quite good. They may seem believable as a couple because they’ve been half a couple in a long run of more or less interchangeable comedies so there’s something irresistibly iconic about the pairing. I was disappointed that Eric Dane (Grey’s Anatomy) who gets cast as (can you believe this?) a good looking- womanizing guy who happens to be so good at what he does he can’t settle down romantically didn’t get an opportunity to make a pass at Aniston in the plot, but I suppose that sort of thing doesn’t happen much in dog movies. Basically dog movies consist of an endless series of dog pratfalls, something which provides the bulk of the script here since the premise is that Marley is the world’s least controllable dog.

Part of the problem for me was that while Wilson has convincing chemistry with the dog, I didn’t think that Aniston did. Most of her scenes with Marley felt like someone had dropped Shiloh Pitt in her arms and told her to pretend to be his mom. In addition, there’s my concern that the upper half of her face didn’t move for the first 80 minutes of the movie which may be a sign of too much cosmetic surgery. In the Angelina vs. Jennifer war, there’s been a running rumor that Aniston’s personality isn’t all sunshine and light when she’s not pretending to be Rachel Green. Fascinatingly, her best acting in this movie comes when she’s doing an extended take on post-partum depression.

The rest of the movie, I kept feeling as if Aniston was in some sort of contest to be the hottest mom yet in a Dog Movie. In fact, this is the only dog movie I can remember with an actual nude scene. I have my prejudices about these things and imo she loses to Diane Lane from My Dog Skip and Nancy Travis in Fluke should they ever have such a category in the People’s Choice Awards. I would say that she gets to wear any number of fetching (I couldn’t resist) outfits that play on her talent for projecting wholesome and sexy at the same time. More seriously, I don’t think she had the necessary humility to do what the role required which was to carry off a convincing transformation/progression from hot bride in the bathtub scene that opens the movie to motherly and loving it towards the end. I have to say the jury is still out on her ability to crpss from ingenue to ingenaulder.

I do believe that Jennifer Aniston’s quite a good actress in her range, but her range is relatively narrow and it’s time-limited. While she’s certainly competent in Marley, you can feel the tension of her trying to look 20 while playing 40. Anyway, she’s not alone in this dilemma if you’ve ever seen Searching for Deborah Winger and I think there’s a very strong argument that she’s making the right choice in terms of the viability of her career. Anyway, I’ve yet to see a movie where I was persuaded that anyone should cast Jennifer Aniston in a movie that called for her to be something other than “cute”. Older women in the movies can be quite beautiful a la Isabella Rosselini, but I’m not sure “cute” is going to work in the next ten years of Aniston’s career. Again, I distinguish between a career as an actress and a career as a celebrity. In today’s culture, the latter may be far more important and I think she’s actually well aware of that.

Wilson, on the other hand, has suffered from problems with “discipline” as a performer. He’s good at goofy, but he’s kind of like a movie version of Kobe Bryant. Kobe’s much better when he doesn’t dominate the ball, works to make his teammates better, and listens to Phil Jackson. Wilson tends to be better when he keeps the goofiness within the white lines and lets the movie have a plot, scenes, and a director. Marley and Me indulges Wilson just enough and it’s genuinely fun watching him play dad and husband. Of course, male actors don’t have to deal with the whole “look young and boyish” thing as they make the switchover to middle-aged roles. It also occurs to me that if you were to do an animated version of this movie, Owen Wilson would be a perfect voice for Marley. In fact, it's part of the genius of this movie. Wilson stays on track because the dog is playing his usual role.

Anyway, Wilson’s scenes with the dog make you feel like Marley really is his dog. There’s a scene near the end with the vet where Wilson’s chemistry with Marley is especially evident. Wilson feels Marley’s stomach and bends his head down to the dog’s chest with remarkable naturalness.

In the meantime, Alan Arkin plays a curmudgeonly boss pretty much the way one might imagine Alan Arkin would handle the role. Kathleen Turner, last in a Florida-based movie as the femme fatale in Body Heat, plays against type as a dog trainer who meets her match in Marley. Usually, these kinds of movies are filled with terrific character actors. Both Arkin, Turner, and others are okay, but hardly memorable unless you’re into being horrified by Turner’s transformation.

One of the themes of Marley and Me is that life is more of a journey than a plan. It’s done a bit self-consciously, but they do bring it off. This too appears to be a perfectly timed message for a movie going public whose career and other plans have drastically changed in the last few months. In addition, the movie is filled with bits of lifestyle porn, great houses, nice clothes, etc. Somehow journalists in movies always manage lives and lifestyles that seem impossible in real life. You’d never know that one of the biggest victims in this recession has been the daily newspaper. Marley and Me pulls off a subtle anachronistic feel of a time when Americans didn’t have to worry about all that without making the viewer self-conscious of the sub-text. That was also the "whitest" take on modern day Miami I think I've ever seen.

Bottom line, dog movies generally don’t win Academy Awards except for Babe which after all was really a pig movie with a co-star dog who talked like Clint Eastwood. I’ve seen both movies and Marley and Me is no Babe. At a time though when hardly anything about American society is living up to its hype, Marley and Me meets its own modest expectations. It’s diverting, heartwarming, and I can see Owen Wilson making the jump to suburban dad roles if he wants to go that route. Anyway, if dogs sometimes form the basis of your interaction as a family, it’s worth seeing.


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Jump Start Yet Again

My office has a few company vehicles that we can use when we need to drive somewhere for work matters. The newest of those vehicles is a Toyota Camry hybrid and that tends to be the hardest one to “get”. I’m also very absent-minded, so I’ve done things like left the car keys inside office cars. Most recently, I was going to put gas in one and get it washed so I still had the keys. The problem was that I’d forgotten that I had the keys and realized it while we were on our way to the airport for a nine day vacation to the other coast. On the other end, the cars aren’t perfect. One of them had a brake problem and I got to find out once as I was driving towards a red light in the middle of town. I couldn’t get the car stopped until I was well across the intersection. They fixed it, but I still refuse to drive that particular vehicle.

Despite that, I decided to take the Camry to an appointment that was well out of town and in a remote part of the state. The town itself was so small that the courthouse and the police station were in the same small building. I had assumed my appointment would be very brief. It wound up being close to four hours. I left the headlights on (mountain roads, etc.) when I parked the car. I found myself having to jump start a car that had some seventy batteries in it.

My client was very helpful. He stayed and offered me his jumper cables. A woman who worked at the courthouse there who drove an old version of the Prius was very helpful as was a man who had nothing to do with any of this. The big question was why would anyone have to jump start a hybrid car?

Anyway, I opened up the hood and the car had a big fat battery in the engine compartment with carefully sealed cables and leads. I wiggled them a little bit and it occurred to me that if it was this hard to figure out how to get the seal off I probably shouldn’t be messing with them. I called the office. Everyone there, even the Prius owners laughed at me. We talked about the virtues of Triple A which I’ve never joined. Besides, this place was very isolated.

The lady who worked at the courthouse had the bright idea of looking at the owner’s manual. The Camry hybrid has a battery in the trunk for its “12 volt system”. I take it that means it’s separate from all the batteries used to help power the vehicle. You take off the cover over the wheel well and it looks like a conventional car battery. We hooked it up to my client’s pickup truck and the vehicle started right up.

Other than the fact that my client may now think I’m an absent-minded idiot, I’m not sure what I learned from yet another experience with automotive batteries. Okay, people are surprisingly nice, it sure doesn’t hurt to read the owner’s manual, and virtually anything can happen if you let Chancelucky drive your vehicle somewhere.

So, yes indeed one does sometimes have to jump start a hybrid car and yes it’s not that hard as long as you know what you’re supposed to do.


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