Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Little Bit of History (and don't forget the shopping)...

Spent some time yesterday in St. Augustine, FL, the oldest city in the nation. As I walked around Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, I glimpsed at where the larger crowds were—the hundreds of shops lining the side streets of St. Augustine, which dominated the historical buildings.

Now these weren't the "traditional" type shops you might find in Colonial Williamsburg or other historic sites. These shops sold chocolate, crafts, clothes (including that historic brand, Harley-Davidson), chili pepper products and outdoor banners featuring your favorite sports teams. And yet the crowds poured in and out of these stores like they sold rarities they had never seen.

I'm not a snob. I understand that retail sales is often one of the only ways to keep sites like these alive and accessible to the public. But when I think about St. Augustine, and places like Gettysburg, where the approach to the battlefield is loaded with fast food restaurants, tchotchke shops and convenience stores, I wonder if this is really the only way we can get people to spend some time exploring our nation's history. Is a visit to Gettysburg only palatable with the spoonful of sugar of a lunch at McDonald's or Hardee's?

Again, I know I should be happy that families are still traveling to these sites instead of heading straight to the beach or the outlet malls. But at the same time, I can't help but imagine that all of those who died during the Battle of Gettysburg did so for freedoms far beyond three t-shirts for $12.

Or maybe that is precisely what they fought for...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Maybe It's Just Me...

...but can someone tell me why Southwest decided its new ad campaign featuring a bunch of shirtless, middle-aged, overweight guys with the letters spelling out "BAGS FLY FREE" on their chests would make you want to fly Southwest??

Book Review: "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

It is the future, and the nation of Panem has arisen out of what was once North America. Panem is represented by a glorious Capitol, and the world Panem rules is divided into 12 Districts, each focused on a particular industry, like agriculture or coal mining. Those in power remind the citizens of Panem just how insignificant they are once a year, by forcing each District to choose one boy and one girl to represent it in the Hunger Games, a battle of survival televised to all citizens. The contestant who wins the Hunger Games spends the rest of their life as a celebrity to their District and all of Panem, while the other contestants meet their fate at the hands of one another.

Katniss Everdeen is a 16-year-old resident of District 12. She steps forward to take her younger sister's place in the Hunger Games, and although she expects it to be a quick death sentence, she realizes she actually wants to survive, and win. But what she faces in the Games—both physically and emotionally—is far beyond anything she could imagine, because much like our own reality shows, the Capitol manipulates the circumstances of the Games.

This book hooked me from the very start. While the creation of a new world out of the one we know isn't new, Collins' depiction of Katniss' life and the description of the circumstances around the Hunger Games is tremendously compelling. Having watched more than my share of reality shows and knowing how "real" they are, I still was captivated by the Games themselves. And while I had suspicions of how the story would unfold, I still was excited to finish the book, and plan to read the next two books in the series. If I had any criticism of the book, it's that its main character was a 16-year-old girl, so some of the rationale behind Katniss' actions, and her reactions to situations, were a little childish, but this didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book. But I am drawing the line at this YA series...

Friday, March 19, 2010

My Favorite Kind of Madness...

It's March Madness time again, one of the most wonderful times of the year—a time when productivity in the American workplace reduces by as much as 15 percent, a time when in order to succeed in your office pool, people resort to everything from internet research to blind guesses to choosing by mascot.

It's funny—I never was a gigantic sports fan growing up, but if there was one sporting event that completely captured me, it was March Madness. I love college basketball, much like other college sports, because the athletes give their heart and soul. They haven't yet become jaded by big salaries and thoughts of trading up to a better city as the players do in professional sports. And of course, the potential of the Cinderella team is one of the biggest draws every year.

There's something to be said for getting completely engrossed in game after game, watching as the network switches back and forth as scores get closer and fall further apart. And this year, we went to Jacksonville to catch some first- and second-round games live, which has helped my excitement grow even stronger, although watching four games live within 10 hours is more exhausting than you'd think. But we saw two really exciting games today, with Cornell a surprise victor over Temple, and Wofford, in its first tournament appearance ever, nearly beating Wisconsin.

Do I have a favorite? Honestly, as long as Duke doesn't win, I'm fine. (You may recall a previous blog post when I mentioned I don't like athletic dynasties; I'd much rather see a new team win than the same one time after time.) Of course, W would want me to say I want Maryland to win it all, so, go Terps!!

All I know is, this is the best kind of madness there is.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"The Heights" by Peter Hedges

It's amazing how quickly things can change, and how one random occurrence can have a ripple effect that touches many things in your life. For Tim and Kate Welch, a married couple living in Brooklyn Heights with their two young children, things seem fairly typical—Tim has a successful teaching career at a private school while he dreams of someday finishing his doctoral dissertation, and Kate is raising the children, immersing herself in their lives. And then into their lives comes Anna Brody, the mysterious and beautiful new neighbor whose arrival throws the entire neighborhood—as well as Tim and Kate—into a tailspin.

The Heights is Peter Hedges' first novel in 12 years, and it comes 19 years after he wrote What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Although the book treads on familiar territory—struggling within the confines of marriage and child-rearing, temptation, fear of becoming one's parents, life under the social microscope—Hedges unfolds the story so it seems almost unique. While I read this book very quickly, I found myself getting heavily invested in the characters (although I didn't always like them) and I worried about what trouble they might find themselves in. This story didn't seem too outlandish; it seemed as if it could happen to any couple you might know.

The emotions Hedges imbues his characters with feel authentic. I definitely could see this book adapted into a film slightly less dysfunctional than Little Children, but I didn't feel anything was too pat, or too predictable. This is a well-written book that may not break new ground, but the story it tells is a compelling one. Well done!

Gone to the Dogs...

As many of you may know, just before Christmas I had to put my dog, Zeke, to sleep. Since I had Zeke for more than 15 years, this was a tremendously difficult decision, but the right one given how he was suffering at the end of his life.

It has been a difficult three months without Zeke. It's taken a tremendous amount of time to get used to coming home in the evenings or after a trip and not be greeted by his wagging tail and his barking. It's even still a little bizarre to eat a meal in the house and not have him begging, or to have to pick food up off the floor when we drop it instead of waiting for Zeke to eat it.

After Zeke died, I didn't think I'd want another dog, because I couldn't bear the thought of having to go through again what we did with him. And of course, no one can replace him. But as time went on, I realized how much love we have to give, and while there never will be another Zeke, it would be wonderful to care for another dog and give it the kind of love and affection we gave him.

Yesterday we went to an adoption fair sponsored by A Forever-Home Rescue Foundation, a non-profit animal rescue group that operates in the Northern Virginia/Washington area which strives to make quality dogs available for adoption. We looked around a bit and came upon a litter of puppies. We picked one up and petted her for a bit. Then we picked up another. She immediately started licking my face and nestling in my arms, while other puppies were struggling. I felt a certain connection I hadn't felt since October 1994 at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria.

So...we put in an adoption application for a 10-week-old golden/lab retriever mix puppy. She's absolutely beautiful, although she'll be a lot bigger than Zeke was, and a bigger dog than we had anticipated getting. We have a home visit scheduled for Wednesday night, and after that, hopefully we can bring her home the following week. We're nervous and excited, and although we know training a puppy will be a lot of work, we're so looking forward to watching her grow and thrive.

Details and pictures to follow...don't want to jinx it. But I know Zeke will be looking down and protecting his "sister," and that makes me happier than I could imagine...

Book Review: "Big City, Bad Blood" by Sean Chercover

Here's a tip from me to you: if you love books with private investigators, a good amount of action, some twists and turns and great character development, go out and get yourself a copy of Big City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover. This is a great book in one of the genres I love, and I'm excited to have found a relatively new author with some great storytelling skills.

Ray Dudgeon is a former journalist who left the newspaper world after realizing he couldn't really solve the problems of the world, and now he works as a private investigator. He is hired by a movie executive to protect a locations manager, who has run afoul of the Mafia (or in Chicago, "the Outfit") and faces a death threat because of his plan to testify in court. And as Dudgeon gets more involved, the killers set their sights on him as well. As he finds himself getting deeper and deeper into what seemed like a simple protection case, Dudgeon is also struggling with the pull of a romantic relationship and his own personal demons.

Chercover did a terrific job creating the characters in this book. Even those in "the Outfit" don't fall under your typical Mafioso stereotypes. And Dudgeon is more than just a thinking man's private investigator— he's principled (although not too much so), stubborn and a little too idealistic for his own good. You may be able to see some of the twists coming, but that didn't impact my enjoyment of the book. I raced through the entire thing in about a day, and I'll definitely be picking up Chercover's second book very soon.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Book Review: "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" by Wells Tower

I try not to fall prey to hype, I really do. But when you see a book makes numerous year-end "best of" lists, you can't help but expect the book to be fantastic. And truthfully, nearly 95 percent of the time when I read a book on a "best-of" list of someone I respect, I usually agree.

Wells Tower's short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, fell a bit short of its hype, in my opinion. Family and relationships—in all their glorious dysfunction—are the focus of this story collection, which was recognized by the New York Times and Amazon as one of 2009's best books. Yet while I found each of Tower's stories intriguing and readable, I kept waiting for something more, something to unleash and amaze me.

The characters in Tower's stories are all struggling with something, whether it's being banished to a rundown house after infidelity is discovered, a father suffering from dementia, having to drive your ex-wife's lover home from an ashram or even just teenage angst. Nearly all of the issues are relatable and the characters are appealing. But something is missing in every story. It's like he revved up the motor of every story and instead of a big finish, each one ended with a whimper. So instead of fully enjoying each story, I wondered what could have been. Bummer.

Things That Make You Go, WTF??

Oh, life is just so crazy sometimes. But the beauty of it all is that you can never truly know what's coming next. Because craziness will keep on coming, in so many forms.

Here are just a few examples of crazy sweeping the nation:

  • Figure Skating—The Next Bastion of Conservatives? Apparently Johnny Weir is excluded from the "Stars on Ice" tour because he was allegedly deemed "not family friendly" by the tour's sponsors, including Smucker's. So, did I miss the R-rated portion of his routine in Vancouver? Was openly gay Rudy Galindo more conservative than Weir? I guess you have to set limits in a sport when men spin around wearing gloves and spandex, no?

  • Imagine Their Next Parent-Teacher Conference: All is not rosy at Enka Middle School in Buncome, NC. Apparently, a sixth-grade teacher "relates" to some of his students by writing "loser" on their papers. One girl, who apparently gets related to quite often, even got a deduction of "-20 for being a loser" on a paper. But the folks in Buncome County say it's a personnel matter they don't want to deal with. Middle school: where the biggest bullies are your teachers.

  • Oklahoma Isn't Quite So OK...: Apparently the Oklahoma State Senate thinks the state's new tourism slogan should be "Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, and hate crimes are just another fun activity!" State Senator Steve Russell recently introduced a bill that would exempt the state from having to abide by the recently passed Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act on the basis of the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution. The bill, which would allow only local law enforcement officials to investigate possible hate crimes instead of federal law enforcement, will, according to Russell, "protect speech of all kinds." Especially speech punctuated by violence, eh?

  • If You Admit You Were Wrong, All is Forgiven...: The conservative political establishment in Utah was shocked March 11 when the state's House Majority Leader, Kevin Garn, admitted to sitting nude in a hot tub with a minor 25 years ago, and paid her $150,000 to keep quiet in 2002 when he unsuccessfully ran for Congress. But, since he admitted he was wrong, at the current time there are no calls for Garn to resign. Ain't politics grand?

Really makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book Review: "Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter" by Michael J. White

Seventeen-year-old George Flynn and his family move to Des Moines, IA, just before the start of his junior year in high school. He finds it difficult to fit in but almost immediately falls for Emily Schell, a bewitching and mercurial aspiring actress who weaves her charms through the school. As George's unrequited crush on Emily grows stronger and he longs to move beyond friendship, he also falls under the spell of Emily's immensely precocious younger sister, Katie, who has multiple sclerosis. George's relationships with both Schell sisters greatly infuse the first half of the book, until tragedy strikes and everything goes awry. The second half of the book switches between flashbacks to George and Emily's high school and post-high school days, and George's mostly-unsatisfying adulthood.

I was intrigued by everything about this book—the title, Michael J. White's writing style, the way he developed his characters. But ultimately, I found it disappointing. First of all, I found Emily's character more annoying than intriguing, and I found George to be one of those characters who is always too afraid to say or do what they really want to. And once the book moved beyond high school, the story took too many circuitous routes to get to its conclusion. White is a very good writer; it's just the characters he created weren't nearly as appealing as they thought they were.

Dream a Little Dream, Corey...

Sad news came from the entertainment world today with the announcement that Corey Haim was found dead of an apparent drug overdose. He was 38 years old.

In recent years Haim was known more for his struggles with drug addiction than anything else, never able to regain the kind of fame like he had in his teens. But to me, he'll always be one of the "two Coreys" (along with longtime friend Corey Feldman, who certainly has had his own share of demons to battle). He'll always be the heartbroken, sensitive Lucas and of course, one of the brothers confronting a fairly menacing (but cool) band of vampires in The Lost Boys.

It's sad to see another former child/teen actor lose his life to a drug overdose. It really makes me wonder what the price of fame truly is. Fame is so fleeting for so many, and turning to drugs and alcohol to fill the void that notoriety left behind often ends tragically.

While Corey Haim might not have had the life he dreamed of, I hope he had some satisfaction in knowing how meaningful some of his early movies continue to be for so many. And while no one should die to teach a lesson, I hope Haim's death provides a wake-up call for others facing the same challenges with addiction: it is not shameful to admit you need help. But you have to get help before it's too late.

RIP, Corey...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Scott Fujita is My Hero...

So many professional athletes exemplify the "less" in "classless." (Gilbert Arenas? Plaxico Burress? Or how about my personal favorite thug, Allen Iverson?) While children all over the world look up to these multi-million dollar men as role models, many rarely live up to that part.

But then someone like Scott Fujita comes along. Fujita, a former linebacker for the New Orleans Saints who recently signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns, has proven himself an exemplary man before. Several times he has spoken out about homophobia and equal rights, not understanding why whom a person chooses to love should be anyone's business, and why anyone should be deserving of less-than-equal rights.

While that already endeared him to me, his parting gesture as he left New Orleans for Cleveland really sealed the deal:

He gave half of his Super Bowl check to charity, half of that going to relief efforts in Haiti, and the other half going to coastal restoration in New Orleans.

Now, it's one thing for an athlete with the earning potential of say, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, to make a sizeable donation to charity. But when someone like Scott Fujita does it? To me, it's more than a gesture—it's a true act of class.

I wish more athletes would prove themselves worthy of being admired, or at least the ones deserving of admiration would get the recognition they deserve, instead of publicity for, let's say, alleged sexual assault, bringing guns to a locker room or just being an all-around thug.

But if that happened, what would I have to complain about then?

Oscar Moments...

Another year's Academy Awards ceremony has come and gone. As with most years, I was generally pleased with what transpired, although there certainly were winners I disagreed with here and there. But when you allow countless people to vote based on their opinions and throw politics into the mix, who knows what can happen?

Here are the things I most enjoyed about this year's Oscar telecast:

  1. The hosts: I think Steve Martin has done a great job hosting the show before, and adding Alec Baldwin was truly an inspired choice. So many of their jokes left me hysterical, from Martin's mentioning that he and Gabourey Sidibe both "played poor black children in their first films" (referring to The Jerk) to their baiting of George Clooney and Meryl Streep (and "that damn Helen Mirren..." "that's Dame Helen Mirren") and, most hysterically, their introduction of Tom Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker by saying "He directed A Single Man and she weighs a single pound." (Yes, I know eating disorder jokes aren't funny, but this one was.) Hope to see both back next year!

  2. The John Hughes tribute: Despite the fact that Judd Nelson's appearance scared me a bit, this was one of the most moving moments of the evening. To have Molly Ringwald, Matthew Broderick, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy and Nelson on one stage (along with Macaulay Culkin) was terrific and their recognition of the man who made them stars was truly heartfelt. Especially Ally Sheedy's line from The Breakfast Club, "When you get older, your heart dies."

  3. The intros for Best Actor and Best Actress: Last year when the nominees for the four acting awards were introduced by former winners I found it odd. This year, when the nominees for Best Actor and Best Actress were introduced by people connected to them in some way, I found it emotional and satisfying. Heck, I didn't even realize Jeremy Renner and Colin Farrell knew each other, much less spooned in a bed in Mexico! My favorite moment, however, was Tim Robbins' recounting of a conversation he had with nominee Morgan Freeman on the set of The Shawshank Redemption:

    "He said 'the thing about friendship is sometimes friends get coffee for one another, so how about a cup of coffee, Ted? It is Ted, isn't it?'"

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Oscars: What Will Happen and What I Want...

Tomorrow night, the 82nd annual Academy Awards will be handed out. Of course, there will be the requisite sleep-inducing montages, the tearful acceptance speech and a handful of appalling wardrobe choices.

But for someone who loves the movies—and movie awards—as much as I do, I always get excited for the Oscars. However, almost every year I find myself hoping that everyone I think should win emerges victorious, although that never happens. (Not that I am the ultimate movie judge or anything, but heck, I can hope, can't I?)

So, in preparation for the big night tomorrow, here is a list of the big categories along with who I think will win (and if, different, who I think should).

A Blast from the Past, 90s Style...

I'm definitely a product of the 80s, but for some reason I was a big fan of Saturday morning post-cartoons TV in the 90s. Specifically Saturday morning programming on NBC.

Of course, that means...Saved by the Bell. Don't know why I found the adventures of Zack Morris, Kelly Kapowski, AC Slater, Jessie Spano, Lisa Turtle, Screech and Mr. Belding so, well, entertaining, but that's one of those mysteries of my life in the 90s I'll never quite understand.

Heck, I even watched the 19 episodes of Saved by the Bell: The College Years. And that may be the first time I've admitted that publically.

Equally as entertaining as Saved by the Bell (entertaining to me, at least) was the show that followed it, California Dreams. Similar in some ways to its predecessor, this show followed the adventures of a group of high school kids in school and with their band, The Dreams.

If you haven't been watching Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, he spent his first year on the air obsessed with trying to reunite the cast of Saved by the Bell. He was able to get many of the cast members on the show individually, but not manage the reunion.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Ashburn...

Meet Roy Ashburn.

Roy is a conservative Republican state senator from southern California.

Roy is a divorced father of four.

Roy has a history of opposing gay rights.

On March 3, Roy was arrested for allegedly driving drunk.

Allegedly driving drunk after leaving a gay bar.

Allegedly driving drunk after leaving a gay bar with another man.

I believe everyone is entitled to live their lives the way they want. No one should have the right to force them into disclosing facts about their sexuality. If a person wants to keep their personal life private, it should be their right.

However, when you publicly support the discrimination of a group of people because of their sexual orientation—an orientation you clearly share, whether all the time or occasionally—you are a self-loathing hypocrite. If you have trouble accepting your sexuality, I am sympathetic; when you use your position of power to deprive others of their equal rights, I am not.

Of course, all of this wouldn't be an issue if all people, regardless of sexual orientation, could be treated equally. But as long as there is discrimination, there will be hypocrites like Senator Ashburn, talking out of one side of their mouth while, well...

Perhaps Mark Foley, Ted Haggard or Larry Craig can give Senator Ashburn some advice?

Monday, March 1, 2010

"Terrified" x 3

Thanks to for pointing me toward this.

I've been watching American Idol since the middle of the first season, and although I seem to have a serious love-hate relationship with the show and the way the judges embrace people I don't always think are the most talented, I can't seem to get enough of all things Idol.

One of my favorites in this relatively young ninth season is Didi Benami. For one of her performances during "Hollywood Week" she sang "Terrified," written by judge Kara DioGuardi and Jason Reeves. And she was fantastic. See for yourself: