Friday, December 19, 2008

The Aggressive Ministerial Practices of One Parson Brown

People frequently misunderstand song lyrics, often with comedic results. I never misunderstood the lyrics to Winter Wonderland. I just misunderstood what they meant. Not knowing what a parson was, in my youth I believed "parson brown" meant a particular shade of brown, as with royal blue or hunter green.

What shade of brown might "parson" be? To my young ears, it sounded as if it were derived from the same root as the word "parched." Something parched, as you probably know, is dried out. So if you image a solid brown color, and then imagine what it would look like dried out and drained of its color, you'd have a pale, light brown. A pale, light brown that might describe the skin color of your average caucasian. Makes sense, doesn't it? Build a snowman in the meadow and pretend he's the color of a real dude!

When I was a kid, I took a lot of flack for that interpretation of the lyrics. I now believe I actually deserve a little credit for it. That's an intelligent, well-reasoned interpretation of what otherwise sounded like nonsense.

Yes, nonsense! When you're eight years old and you don't know what a parson is, that entire run of the song makes no sense at all. I now know a parson is a Protestant minister. With that knowledge, let's take a look at what's going on in this song...
"In the meadow we can build a snowman..."
Okay, so we're going to head on over to the meadow and build a snowman. I'm with you so far.
"Then pretend that he is Parson Brown..."
Stop! Right there, we're not making sense anymore. That is way too specific.

When you're a kid the whole point of building a snowman is to pretend it's a human. But unless you've got mad snow sculpting skills, you're never going to pretend it's someone you know. That's why you name him something stupid, like Frosty or Senor Gringoface. You may want to pretend that he can laugh and play just the same as you or myself, but you don't pretend he's a traveling minister.
"He'll say, 'Are you married?' We'll say, 'No, man.'
'But you can do the job when you're in town.'"
So Artificial Parson Brown proceeds to ask if you're married. That's a problem. Are these playful children who have built this snowman, or is it an infatuated young couple? Because if it's children, then things just got really lame, and this is why boys don't let girls play with them.

If it's the young couple, then things just got really awkward. They're flirting, giggling, playfully lobbing snowballs at each other. Then they build a snowman.

WOMAN
Let's pretend that this is Parson Brown.

MAN
Uhh... yeah, okay. That's a little strange, but sure.

Woman gets into character as the snowman.

WOMAN
(affected male voice)
Hey, you two. Are you married?

MAN
Oh, Jesus.

As herself...

WOMAN
(exaggerated gasp)
Why no, man, we're not.

MAN
Don't... don't do this.

WOMAN
(still exaggerated)
But if you wanted to perform a marriage
ceremony for us right now, I'm sure my
loving, adoring, committed boyfriend would
love to make me the happiest woman
on Earth right now. Wouldn't you, honey?

MAN
Why are you doing this? We were
having a good time.

... A fight ensues, and Christmas is ruined for everyone.

So, was there a real Parson Brown? If so, am I supposed to know who this guy was? If not, why is the song so specific about naming this character?


There was, in fact, a Parson Brown who lived in Florida in the 19th century. And as all people who live in Florida are required to do, he developed his own breed of orange. The Parson Brown orange has little fruit and a lot of seed, making it a less popular variety.

Was this the same Parson Brown who saw fit to accost and coerce into marriage random strangers in fields? It's unlikely. Winter Wonderland was written in 1934. Parson Brown was middle-aged and growing oranges in 1856, and was unlikely to be on the radar of song composers Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith.

If this was a fictional character invented for the sake of the song, why is he given such a specific name? He's the only character in the entire song with a name, which makes him more prominent than even the song's narrator.

As Occam would have us believe, the simplest solution is probably the best. And also the most boring. The reason is...

Because it rhymes.

Well, that's a really unsatisfying explanation for something so perplexing to eight-year-olds. This holiday season, when singing Winter Wonderland in the presence of children, I recommend skipping the part about our dear friend Parson Brown and replacing it with the part about the circus clown.

...Notice that no one felt the need to name the clown?
"In the meadow we can build a snowman
"And pretend that he is George the Clown..."
"Who the hell is George?!"

Happy holidays, everyone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jury Duty II: The Secret of the Ooze

For the second time in my life, I received a jury summons by mail. And for the second time, they sent it to the wrong address. If Big Brother is watching, he's easily confused and distracted. Fortunately for him, I've instructed the post office where to forward my mislabeled mail. Unfortunately for me, that's one less excuse for trying to get out of service.

It had been precisely three and a half years since I was last called for jury duty. One might suppose that means it takes three and a half years to cycle through every able citizen in Los Angeles County. One would suppose wrong, since roughly zero of my friends have ever had to serve. Thanks to my prior service, I'm on the radar and no doubt doomed to be called back with some regularity. One of these days, I'm going to move to a new address and "forget" to set mail forwarding at the post office.

Three and a half years ago, my jury summons told me to show up on X day, at Y time. This time around, I was told that I was "on call" for a week. For a one week period, they would decide on a day-to-day basis if they needed me to come in, and would give me a call if I were selected. In a brilliant stroke of luck, my service period was the week of Thanksgiving. That would mean on one of the days, maybe two, court would not be in session. Everything was coming up Milhouse.

Or so I thought. As it turns out, I can't read jury summons forms. This actually makes a lot of sense, as I've always found it difficult to read the dry, deliberately wordy and coded language of legal forms. The form mentioned something about calling to register, and also said I should call the weekend before my service period was set to begin. I did as I thought I was instructed, and called to register the Sunday before my week. What I got was a pre-recorded message from a lady with a soothing voice who told me, essentially, I done screwed up. I was supposed to register the moment I received the form -- six weeks prior -- and then call again to find out if they needed me on Monday. So I was forced to reschedule.

Eager to serve my time and be done with it, I rescheduled for the very next week. I quadruple checked to make sure I was officially registered. Done deal. As my work week began, I kept my cell phone on me at all times in case they called me in. Monday passed; I was safe. Tuesday passed; I was safe. On Wednesday, a coworker saw my jury summons sitting on my desk and told me he had recently been on call as well. I told him how relieved I was that they hadn't called me yet. He looked puzzled.

"Have you been calling in every night?" he asked. Gulp!

Apparently, when you're "on call," the court does not call you; you call the court. It's your responsibility to call in every night after 5pm and find out if they want you to come in the next morning.

Okay, that is NOT what "on call" means. When a medical doctor is on call, he doesn't ring up the hospital every hour to see if they want him to come in. The hospital calls him as his services are required.

So I called up, talked to an operator and found out, sure enough, I was supposed to have shown up right on Monday. So I rescheduled again for the next week. This time, the operator told me specifically what number to call, what time to call it, and what I should expect to hear. Finally, I was going to do things right.

I called Sunday night, and learned I did not have to show up on Monday. Called Monday; got a no for Tuesday. At this point, I was pretty well convinced that the court system had deemed me unreliable and unfit for service. Awesome! Wednesday - no! Thursday - no! If I could survive one more day, my service will have been fulfilled for at least a year.

But what kind of story would this be if I didn't get called in on Friday?
I was instructed to be at the court house at 7:45am. It's a 45 minute drive. I left my apartment at around 7:35. Oh yeah, I'm a total rebel.

No, I'm not a total rebel. Previous experience had confirmed that the show gets started pretty late. You can either show up promptly and wait for the late people, or you can be a late person and not waste so much of your precious time.

I'd printed up directions from Google Maps. It's a similar course as my route to work; just a different exit. The 10 East, to the 110 North. Take the exit for San Bernardino/Santa Ana. As I approached the exit, things got slow. Real slow. Frustrating slow. Heartbreakingly slow. But finally, I arrived at the exit. It was coned off! Completely closed!

What you need to understand is, when it comes to driving to a new place, I need EXACT directions, and I cannot deviate from them. I get lost easily. I have a good general sense of placement -- "west is that way; Hollywood is over there; San Francisco is way up there" -- but that doesn't help you at the street level. I was not only being forced away from my exit, I was being ushered onto a whole different freeway -- the 101 -- and being aimed exactly away from the direction I needed to go ("downtown is back there").

I would later find out that my exit was closed down because a guy was randomly shot there the previous night. Back in the '80s, freeway shootings used to be a favorite sport in L.A. (This is why we need a football team.)

The long line of people spurned by the closed exit all seemed to be taking the first exit on the 101. I followed suit. Now on a surface street, traffic became even more painfully slow. We inched along, then stopped. Inched, then stopped. Soon, I realized that traffic wasn't going slow simply because of all the freeway spill-off. It turned out, we were in the middle of another crime scene. What are the odds?! I know people think L.A. is a crime ridden cesspool, but we usually don't have one crime scene detouring you into another crime scene. I swear.

Remarkably, I was able to navigate this detour easily and found my way right back to Temple Street. That is, after 45 additional minutes of traffic. Around 9:30, I pulled into juror parking at the Disney Concert Hall.


(no roof parking)

Close to two hours late, I was expecting this day to be a total loss. They would tell me I had to reschedule and make this journey again. But I continued on.

According to my paperwork, I had to go to room 302. So I went through security, got to the elevators, and hurried to the third floor. Jurors and police officers lined the hallways, waiting for various court sessions to begin. This was all very familiar to me from my previous jury experience... until I got to room 302. The door looked different than I remembered. And it was closed; no welcome mat for prospective jurors. And it had a judge's name plate on the door. I grabbed the attention of a nearby policeman.

"Is court in session in this room?" I asked.

He fiddled with the doorknob. It was locked. "Not yet," he goofed, then walked off.

Now rejected by the system, I figured I had time to take a long overdue bathroom break. (Did I mention I'd been drinking coffee on that two hour commute to the courthouse?) Then I went back down to the entrance. I approached a guy behind a desk who was either police or building security. He looked at my summons form.

"Okay," he said. "You need to go to the 11th floor and find room 302."

Let me run that by you again: I needed to go NOT to the third floor to find room 302. I had to go to the 11th floor, and find a room marked 302 there.

I tend to think of myself as not particularly stupid, but maybe I am. When told to report to room 302, doesn't one usually presume this will be on the third floor? Apparently every floor in this building has a 302. This implies that the building is so large that there are over 300 rooms on every floor. The building didn't appear that large to me. But again, maybe I'm not as smart as I think I am.

I finally arrived at the appropriate room. It was after 10 o'clock. I prepared myself for a stern look and a "we'll see you again soon" at the check-in. To my surprise, the lady at the desk said they were desperate for jurors and that I could still earn my service credit that day. She scanned me in and handed me some paperwork. I read the paperwork 20 times because, at that point, I didn't trust my comprehension of the things the court system writes on paper.
If you are in the jury assembly room at the conclusion of the first day and not assigned to a jury selection of trial, staff will complete your service and provide you with a jury verification form for your employer.
I read this line 40 times. It sounded like if I didn't get selected for a trial, then I'd still officially fulfilled my obligation and did not have to drag this process out any further. I turned to the guy a couple seats away from me.

"Excuse me. Are we in the jury assembly room right now?"

"Yeah, we are," he said. Three minutes later, he got up and found a seat on the other side of the room from me. Because smart people don't like sitting next to stupid people. Who cares? Only one thing mattered to me at that point: if I managed to stay in this room until the end of the day, then my service would be fulfilled.

And to my surprise, that's exactly what happened. Despite the fact that they were "desperate for jurors," I was never called in for selection. I was able to serve my community by sitting in a room reading magazines and listening to podcasts for six hours.

You're welcome, Los Angeles. Now let's not go through this again, huh?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Thirteen Annoyed Persons

[This is a repost of a story I originally posted on May 19, 2005, about the first time I served jury duty. Tomorrow, a new post about my second time around with jury duty. Enjoy - ]

Thirteen Annoyed Persons

The vacation I had been anticipating had to be postponed when Rob, my former co-apartment-renting-guy, brought me some misdirected mail back in April. Included was a jury summons. For the first time in my life, I had been called to jury duty.

This is what I get for voting. My candidates never win, and I have to take an hour and a half commute to the downtown courthouse.

It could have been worse. My first stroke of luck was that, with "The Amazing Race" on hiatus, I didn't have to take any time off from work... work was already taking time off from me. And not a moment too soon; I was to report to the courthouse the very first Monday after my last Friday of work. So, no chance of lost wages. Still... I had been looking forward to this vacation time. Oh well. Duty calls.

So I plugged the address, 210 Temple Street, into Mapquest for directions. They estimated it would take me a half hour to get to the courthouse. Mapquest does not know how to figure L.A. traffic into the equation.

I was instructed to be at the courthouse at 8am. Figuring in the morning traffic jam, I would have to be on the road by around 6:30. But then, it occured to me. I didn't WANT to be on time. How many times had I been called to any sort of gathering of people, only to find that the REAL start time would be 15 minutes to an hour after the requested time? I've played the fool too many times in situations like that. This time, I would be one of the late people whom the on-timers would have to sit around and wait for.

And what if I were wrong? What if they started right at 8 o'clock? What then? The worst they could do was fine me. But I was taking the gamble that they probably wouldn't do that. On the contrary, this could work to my advantage. "Your honor, I would request that the court dismiss the late, unreliable gentleman whose tardiness renders him unfit for duty." Motion granted. I go home.

To increase my odds of being quickly dismissed, I premeditated a few other ideas to make myself undesirable to a judge or lawyer. I would stop trimming my beard for four days in advance. I would shower that morning, but I would not use any deorderant or cologne, and I would leave my hair to fall as it may. I would wear a t-shirt and jeans. And I would be openly hostile with everyone I encountered. Indeed, I would be so passive-aggressive, they'd never know how passive-aggressive I was.

I've only ventured into downtown L.A. on two previous occassions. One of those times, I wasn't driving. The other time, I got lost. And so it was that this time as well, I got lost. Well, not "lost" so much. I knew I had made it to the right area, and I knew which direction would get me home; so I wouldn't say I was lost. But it was impossible to find the jurors-free parking lot. Downtown L.A. is nothing BUT parking lots. I turned into several, only to be told I was in the wrong place. I drove around in circles (well, rectangles) trying to find the proper lot. At one point, I glanced a sign that said "Police and Juror." I turned into that lot only to discover, on closer look, that the sign said "No Police and Juror Parking."

I finally parked, and immediately began walking in the wrong direction, toward a building that looked like a courthouse. In fact, it WAS a courthouse. It just wasn't the correct courthouse.

See, here I was thinking that I had to go to "THE" courthouse. Apparently, there are numerous courthouses in downtown L.A. I found at least five. And they're all right next to each other. I knew that L.A. had a Fashion District and Jewelry District (not as pretty as they sound), but not a Courthouse District. This begs the question: why not just make one big courthouse building?

I eventually asked someone to point me to Temple Street, which he did. Once on Temple, I proceeded to walk in the wrong direction. Again. The 300 block gave way to the 400 block, and I needed to be at 210.



By the time I got to the right building, and the right floor, and the right room, it was close to 9 o'clock. And I was right on time. Moments after I showed up, a woman appeared on a closed-circuit television to give instructions to jurors throughout the building. If I had been there on time, I would have spent an extra hour waiting. And believe me... there was already plenty of waiting to look forward to that day.



If you were ever wondering why there is no such TV show as "Law & Order: Jury Selection" (or "J.S." as it would eventually come to be known), I am going to tell you. Jury selection is a boring process. By 9:30, the woman with the gentle voice on the TV had finished explaining the way things would work. All day, they would call out about 30 names at a time, as needed, for each jury panel. Since there were three or four floors full of aspiring jurors, with each floor holding what I estimate to be 150 civilians, there would be long periods of waiting between panels. And so, our floor waited.

10 o'clock. 11 o'clock.

11:30, a panel was called. Only 20 people. I was not one of them. It was announced that these people were in contention for a trial that was projected to last 14 days. 14 days! Things were looking grim.

In the matter of money, the pay for jury duty is as shitty as rumored. The woman on the TV had informed us that the first day of service is complimentary on our behalf. That is to say, we get nothing. If we are called back for any additional days, we will be paid $15 a day. In addition to the 15, they will pay you $.34 per mile driven... but they only pay the mileage one way. In other words, they only care that you arrive. Whether or not you get home is of no concern.

More waiting. And then lunch. Lunch lasted an hour and a half. It can be said that the judicial system, at least in L.A., is very liberal with time. They started the day an hour late, they had us waiting around for 2 1/2 hours, they gave us 1 1/2 for lunch, and they call it quits at 4:30.

About an hour after we returned from lunch, another panel was called. This time, they called about 35 people. And I was one of them.

If I were to be excused from this panel, I would not be dismissed from service. I would have to return to the room on the fifth floor and await the possibility of being selected for another panel. If I were not selected for another panel that day, I would be required to return to the courthouse the next day, at no pay, and make myself available for panel selection until noon. At noon, they would declare that I had put in 24 hours worth of service, and I would be excused.

No matter what, I would be required to return to the courthouse the next day. That's why I consider it my second stroke of luck that I landed on this particular panel. We were informed that this trial was estimated to last until Wednesday. Great! Perfect! I'll take it! With this, I could avoid possible 14-day trials, and I would receive at least SOME compensation to make up for the cost of driving downtown and buying my own lunches. What did I do to deserve such a blessing?

***

The courtroom bugged my eyes. The ceiling was about 20 feet up. The four walls were all wood paneled -- a really deep-brown color of wood that refused to cooperate with the fluorescent lighting. Halfway between the floor and the ceiling, the walls ceased to be simple wood panels and turned into a picket-fence pattern -- wood, black, wood, black -- which could easily suggest prison bars to a conscience-stricken defendent. The carpet was tan, worn down everywhere except directly in front of the judge's bench, which I gather is some sort of sacred ground. All of the court officials made special efforts to avoid walking there.

The lawyers stood and faced the panel every time we entered or exited the room. I was very put off by this. I understand that it's meant to be some sort of sign of respect, but was it really necessary? The courtroom was small, so there was not much room to walk. No matter how close I tried to hug the wall, it felt like the lawyers were right on top of me. They were staring me down, defying me not to rule in their favor.

The judge was rather long-winded. (Not to say this is the shortest thing I've ever written.) It wasn't enough for him to tell us what to expect or what was expected of us. He was giving us an entire remedial history of the judicial system, and he described every step of the process in thorough detail before that process would begin. Honestly, law school cannot be more comprehensive than this guy was.

We began the process of describing ourselves to the court. There were four basic questions to answer. Which section of L.A. were we from? What is our occupation? What is the occupation of anyone we live with over the age of 18? Have we ever served on a jury before? Based on our answers, the judge would ask some follow-up questions. I was asked no additional questions, but was ridiculed for working on "reality TV", which the judge said was an oxymoron of a term. He later apologized.

By the time each of us went through our questions, it was past 4:30. We were to come back tomorrow. This meant I wouldn't have to worry about being on any other panel. I would either be on the jury for this trial, or I would be excused. Either way, I was done by Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the questioning continued. Their were yes-or-no questions asked to the entire group. Anyone whose answer conflicted with the rest of the group's would be asked some follow-up questions.

At this point, I felt like I was on "Jury Idol." I had to perform the right way, or be sent home. But I knew I wasn't going anywhere. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be on this jury. And why is that? Because, ladies and gentlemen... I. Am. Perfect.

I'm sorry, but it's true. I am the ideal American citizen. I do my work, I pay my taxes, and I spend my disposable income on entertainment. I'm college-educated. I complain about the government neither too much nor too little. I have a pleasant disposition. I am neither too attractive nor too repulsive. I am open-minded, objective and fair. I am young.

But, above everything else, I am a sucker. I didn't try to pull any stunts to get myself excused. I didn't lie in any way to try to make myself unappealing to the lawyers. And one of the other guys beat me to the "I'm angry at the world, and therefore too biased to serve as a juror" card. You can't have two people trying to do that on the same panel. It won't work. So that guy was excused, and I was left in.

When it got to the point where the lawyers were allowed to ask any questions they wanted of the panel, no one had any questions for me. Why would they? I'm perfect. If it were at all possible, every lawyer in the country would want twelve of me on every single trial. I'm not saying this to boast or brag. Not at all. I hate the fact that I'm the perfect juror. But, so be it. At least I was on the fast trial. I imagine I would have fought harder to be excused if I had been on that 14-day trial. For this trial, I had given up all hope of being excused, accepted my fate, and started looking toward getting this thing finished as quickly as possible.

By noon, they had found their twelve, plus one alternate. I was juror number eight. After lunch, the trial began.

***

So... selecting the jury is the long part. The trial breezed by in half an afternoon. The prosecution had four witnesses. There was no physical evidence, just testimony. The defense had nothing except the cross-examinations.

What was the trial about? Ha! I can't believe you actually think you would care. The charges were tresspassing and loitering. Seems a young man had had some run-ins with campus security at USC. USC is, apparently, a private college. Who knew? So the campus is private property. The young man had been told to keep off the property before. So, one night, when he was discovered lingering around a bike rack, security believed he was looking to steal, and used his previous warnings as a way to bring him up on charges.

If I missed any testimony, it was for two reasons: 1) I am easily bored when people start talking about uninteresting things, which leaves my mind wandering off in any number of other directions. And 2) the court stenographer was much more compelling than anything else happening in that room. I could barely stop myself from staring at her efforts the whole time.

The court stenographer was a busy, focused woman who looked not unlike Judith Light. She had this specialty keyboard hooked up to a laptop. This keyboard made not the slightest sound. That fact was all the more incredible because of her methods. She was pounding the keys harder than a jackhammer hitting cement. And it looked so sloppy that I couldn't believe she was creating actual words. Her hands flapped carelessly up and down, like a dog struggling to propel itself through the water. And yet, from my vantage point, I could see complete sentences appearing on her monitor, while fold after fold of narrow paper would glide through the equally silent printer and rest gently in a perfectly sized box. Watching this woman work was amazing. I'm sure the specialty keyboard has some sort of trick buttons that stand for entire words, like "the" and "testimony", or something like that. Still... that's some hardcore typing.

Before the day was up, we were able to begin deliberating. I felt bad for the defendent. He had no case at all. His story was that he had a friend that lived near the USC campus, and he would cut through as a shortcut. So, why didn't the friend testify that this was true? Why didn't the friend talk about what they were doing that night? Why didn't the friend just show up in the courtroom for support? Why wasn't there any family there for support? The poor guy had nothing. He was all alone in that courtroom. He is probably all alone, always.

As 4:30 rolled around, we knew we had to wrap things up. God forbid we keep court in session past the witching hour of 4:30pm.

So we were back the next morning at 9am. And let me just say... ker-ching ker-ching! My earnings were now up to $30, plus 30 paid miles! I was raking it in with this trial!

Anyway, deliberations were a lot of laughs. I'm not being sarcastic. This was a funny group of people, and we were getting our zingers in at every opportunity. Which makes me hate myself. That poor guy is sitting out there, waiting for us to determine his fate. This wasn't a life-or-death trial by any stretch of the imagination, but still. Guilty or not guilty will make a significant difference in his life. And here we are, laughing it up. I also enjoy laughing at the disabled and the infirmed, thank you.

For a while, it seemed like we were going to pronounce him guilty on one charge and not guilty on the other. In order to be guilty of loitering, you have to linger in an area and presume to commit a crime if the opportunity presents itself. In other words, he didn't steal a bike, but he probably would have if he'd had the chance. True. As for trespassing, you can only be pronounced guilty of that if the prosecution has shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was your INTENTION to commit a crime. To me, it didn't seem like he went to USC with the specific purpose of stealing a bike.

But here's the thing... the way the law is written, trespassing is the intent to harm or damage property or property RIGHTS. And since USC is private property, and this guy was told not to set foot on campus again, we had to find him guilty of intentionally violating those rights. So, after a couple hours of deliberating, we found him guilty on both charges.

And that was it. We were done. They sent us home. Who knows what the punishment was? The thing is, we think this guy is on parole from a previous crime. So, he'll probably get more than just a slap on the wrist for this. But the judge reminded us -- multiple times and in lengthy detail -- that it's not our job to worry about that. We have to ignore the consequences and objectively determine guilt.

As promised, the trial was over on Wednesday. I was home by noon, and my vacation was officially allowed to begin. First order of business for my vacation: a midnight screening of the new "Star Wars."

And now, all I have to do is kick back and wait for my $30 check to roll in. How much do you want to bet it's taxed?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My First Oktoberfest

(And basically my only one.)


The wall was a brittle swamp of orange. Like a kindergarten room after Arts & Crafts, little construction paper pumpkins were tacked over the seafoam green paint. Unique jack-o-lantern faces had been drawn on each one in black Sharpie.

A sign at the counter read, "Want to design a pumpkin? Ask your server for supplies." I didn't even have to ask.

"I'll bring you a pumpkin in just a minute," a waitress said brightly as she rushed past.

I drew the typical triangle eyes and jagged mouth. I gave it an extra dimension by drawing curved ridge lines. I also filled in the stem to look more twig-like. As the waitress hung my creation, I noticed some designs I hadn't seen before. Many people, not content with the standard jack-o-lantern face, had drawn sideways faces, using the stem as a nose. Some had eschewed realism, drawing faces with human characteristics such as acne and hair. Some had done away with faces altogether, using the space to draw scary scenery. Some had made drawings that had nothing to do with Halloween at all.

I felt very unimaginative, and nearly requested a fresh canvas from my waitress. But I decided against it. I'd made my bed, and I was going to force myself to lie in it. Besides, there's something to be said for typical, iconic Halloween imagery. So maybe my pumpkin wouldn't be a standout; it was still worthy.

That was my first impression of Cafe 50's, and it won me over immediately. Any restaurant which devotes that much wall space to Halloween decorations -- and encourages customer involvement in said decorating -- is a winner in my book.

"Wait, you haven't seen the best one," said Rob.

He led me to the managers' office -- a walk-in closet with a computer -- and directed my attention to the ceiling. On a pumpkin above me was a drawing of a smiling Homer Simpson. A dialogue bubble had him saying, "Happy Halloween and hamburgers." At the bottom was the recognizably childlike scrawl of Matt Groening's signature.

Rob answered the unasked question: "It's real. He's eaten here a few times. Pretty sweet, huh?"
I was just getting to know Los Angeles. I flew out in the middle of October the year I graduated college, staying with my old high school friend Rob. Rob had been living there a few years already and was helping me get oriented. At the time, I couldn't have told you left from right. My only reference was the Pacific Ocean which, for those of you not familiar, is generally West. Fortunately for me, Rob was living close enough to the ocean that I could figure out where I was a great deal of the time.

Rob was a manager at Cafe 50's. I was fresh out of college, unemployed, and new in town. Rob's apartment was my home away from home; his job was my chance to get away from my home away from home. I was the guy sitting at the end of the counter going through the job listings in the newspaper. I could use the authentic '50s-style wooden phone booth to follow up on promising leads (or change into Superman). And with Rob on duty, I could eat at a tremendous discount, or sometimes even for free. (I say this now, hoping that the statute of limitations for the owners' wrath is long since up.) When it became apparent that job prospects were limited for me, Rob arranged to have me work part time at the restaurant. That's when I met Kreg.

Kreg was a big guy, latitudinally if not longitudinally. He had smoker's hair - stiff and dehydrated as straw. Hard brows cast a permanent shadow over his sunken, wild eyes. His habitually pursed lips gave the impression that he was always sizing you up (negatively). His belly was forged of beer and pretzels. This imposing image was undermined, though, by a thin, light voice. His short-and-fast speech pattern implied a lack of confidence.

His name, it should be noted, is actually spelled the way you'd expect: C-R-A-I-G. But whether out of boredom or some passive-aggressive rebellion, he fashioned a name tag for himself with the spelling I now prefer.

With Rob's recommendation, Kreg gave me about 10 hours a week. My job was to sit in the cramped office with the door closed and enter numbers into the computer. Compensation was minimum wage (in cash, directly out of Kreg's pocket), and a free meal per shift. To help pass the time, there was a TV locked onto the Fox News channel. And, of course, there was the Homer Simpson pumpkin.

Before I arrived in L.A., Kreg and Rob had made plans to go to an Oktoberfest celebration. Now that I was part of the family, I was invited along.

I'm not much of a beer drinker. I'd never found the flavor particularly enjoyable, and the scent brought back bad childhood memories of outdoor picnics with gooey piss-mud under the keg, and amber-breathed elders belly laughing as they pulled the epidermis off my cheeks. But given his physique and what was implied to be a birthplace of somewhere in Germany, Oktoberfest was clearly of importance to Kreg. It would have been rude to decline the invitation, particularly since everyone knew I had nothing else going on.

The night of the event, Rob and I were to meet Kreg at the restaurant. Joining us was Tom the Austrian.

The story of Tom the Austrian went something like this: Rob was living in a three bedroom, two bathroom apartment with Adam and James. James was employed at a restaurant (not Cafe 50's) where, one night, he got to talking to a down-on-his-luck foreigner who had just been kicked out of his temporary residence. That residence, I'm told, was a guest house on the property of director Brett Ratner. (If that sounds made up, I assure you it was not made up by me; I'm only telling you what I heard.) Playing the role of the Benevolent American, James offered Tom the Austrian a couch to sleep on. As it turned out, Rob and Tom got along great. By the time Oktoberfest rolled around, Rob insisted that Tom come along.

It's worth mentioning that Tom the Austrian's accent bore only marginal resemblance to that of the most famous Austrian-American, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Tom was able, for instance, to correctly pronounce the name of the state he occupied. This fact has left me with lingering suspicions about Mr. Schwarzenegger.

Kreg had no discernible accent. If he was in fact born in Germany, he must have left when he was quite young. Or maybe not; what do I know? However much time he'd spent away from his homeland didn't prevent him from dressing in full lederhosen, vest and suspenders for the festivities. After a quick laugh, we all squeezed into his shiny BMW, and we were off.

To this day, I can't tell you where we went. If memory serves, we were on the road for 45 minutes to an hour. And not the "stuck in traffic" version of being on the road; we were mobile. It didn't take long before we turned and veered enough that I had no idea which way the ocean was, rendering me officially lost. Through the window, I noticed the city buildings thinning out, and the pavement giving way to dirt. Were we even in Los Angeles anymore? In my lifetime, I'll never be able to find that place again. A Bavarian Brigadoon.

While on the road, Kreg made a call from his car phone (how old school!), which he put on speaker for all to hear. His business partner Joey was already at the fest, and Kreg was letting him know we were close. Joey, audibly drunk, answered the call in stilted yet functional German. Kreg responded in a more fluent German. Joey replied, again in German. Kreg laughed. Tom the Austrian did too. Rob and I exchanged a glance and a shrug. We would never find out what they said.

We arrived at the grounds and, after security gave a suspicious glare to my out-of-state driver's license, met up with Joey and his people. After that, I must admit I don't remember much about that night. And no, it's not because I drank to the point of blacking out. (My meager budget coupled with the availability of only beer and white wine saw to that.) It's just that, in my memory, the entire night is one blurred mass of oom-pah music, port-o-potties, sauerkraut and bratwurst. And picnic tables. And spilled beer on dirt, forming the wretched molding clay I'd detested in my youth.

Except I didn't find it so unpleasant this time around. In fact, I found it strangely reassuring. When you uproot yourself from the life you'd spent 22 years living and move 3000 miles away, you expect things to be weird and different - culture shock. Instead, these early experiences in L.A. told me that it was remarkably similar to the life I'd been living back east. I knew that I'd be just fine out here.


It doesn't seem like we stayed very long at Oktoberfest, but I know we got back to Cafe 50's just before it closed for the night. Kreg let each of us order a free breakfast from the restaurant to take home for the next morning. I got blintzes.

Rob, himself of German ancestry, bought a beer stein from the festival as a Christmas gift for his dad. He ended up forgetting to pack it when he traveled back east that December, so it became a pen holder on our kitchen counter. Tom the Austrian returned to Europe shortly after the new year. Rob and I both quit Cafe 50's within six months of that night, and neither of us has worked a restaurant job since. But Cafe 50's is still a winner in my book. I make sure to get over there a couple times a year. One of those times is always in October, so I can see the new pumpkin designs on the wall.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In Memory...


Do doctors congratulate themselves when they correctly guess how long a person has to live? You and your family are in a funeral home mourning, while in a fancy house on the other side of town a doctor pops a bottle of champagne. "Nailed it!"

*****

I wasn't there when the doctor gave my grandmother six months to live. But I'm told that her reaction was, "Well that's not so bad. I thought he'd give me 'til the end of the week." She was sharp-witted like that, and remained so 'til the end. That's what distinguished this death from most of the others I've experienced in my life...

Her husband, my grandfather, developed alzheimer's in his old age. That was the beginning of his decline - a slow deterioration that would be drawn out over several years. This was while I was still very young, and it left me with an impression about how death was supposed to happen: first your mind begins to go, then your body catches up with it, and eventually you're left a vacant shell. By the time grandpa actually died, I had already accepted his departure. His heart may have kept beating through 1992, but the person he had been was long gone.

*****

After grandpa was moved to a rest home, grandma took up his former routine of picking me up after school several times a week. This wasn't something my parents requested of her (or him); I lived close enough to school to walk home. This was something she enjoyed doing. She'd drive clear across town, just so she could spend an extra ten minutes with her grandchild as she drove him home from school. After dropping me off, she'd usually sit in her car in the driveway for another half hour or so, keeping watch over the house, making sure everything was going to be okay.

During the summer school breaks, grandma would spend extra time with me. She enjoyed going on drives out in the country, and she liked having me along as company. We'd visit old friends of hers, or relatives. Some of her favorite memories of me were from these times -- like when I saw a sharpee for the first time and I asked her why it was so sad; or when I noticed an infestation of silk worms dangling down from a tree and couldn't believe that worms could spin webs.


I know that these are her favorite memories of me because these are the ones she would bring up nearly every time I called her in recent years. Having moved so far away from home, I wasn't around to create such new memories. The best I could do for her was listen patiently and respond enthusiastically as she recounted these memories, guilty for not being able to spend more time with her.

In her final two months, grandma was no longer able to hold the phone to her ear. I could send her letters or cards, but she was unable to respond.

*****

The last time we spoke on the phone, grandma asked if I would be home for Christmas this year. I was confused. Was her condition improving? Was she going to outlast the doctor's prediction, throw it in his face? Was she expecting to make it to another Christmas?

Was she in denial?

I've had plenty of time to think about it now. I think the answer is that she was just genuinely curious about my upcoming plans. I think she'd removed her ego from the situation, and accepted that life would be going on without her. She wasn't asking if I was going to be in town to visit her; she was asking if I was going to be in town for me. To be with my family and friends during the holidays.

Just keeping watch over the house. Making sure everything was going to be okay.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The "Song of the South" Problem

One family-oriented day at Disneyland, Helen and I were trying to convince my parents to ride Splash Mountain with us. My dad was game, but my mom wasn't interested. Not that my mom is one of those moms who avoids rides while telling everyone else to have a good time. She'd done plenty of rides with us. I guess she was just looking for a break.

"But it's based on your movie, mom," I pleaded with her. No sale. So it ended up being me, my dad, and Helen taking the plunge.


As you stand in line for Splash Mountain, signs hung throughout the cave facade introduce you to the storyline that the ride will complete. "It was one of those zip-a-dee doo-da days..." says the first sign. While you're floating along on the ride, the story continues, acted out by animatronic puppets. It's difficult to actually follow the story while you're on the ride; too much echo from the character voices, too much splashing water sounds. But apparently, Helen was taking note.

After the ride, we rejoined my mom and proceeded to the next attraction (probably Haunted Mansion). Helen was reviewing the Splash Mountain story in her head, and noticed a gap.

"You've seen the movie, right?" she asked my mom. "How do Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear catch Br'er Rabbit in the first place?"

Casually, my mom answered, "They make a tar baby."

Helen and I reacted visibly and audibly. Woah! Holy crap! You can't just say that. Did anybody hear that? Don't look!

*****

"I thought your mom was cool. And not racist," said my friend Paul.

I was on the phone with him about trying to track down a copy of Song of the South as a birthday gift for my mom. Paul, a fervent film aficionado, possesses the well-honed skill of tracking down foreign, obscure and rare films, and so was the only person I would turn to in this situation.

Song of the South is many things. It's the very first movie to integrate (so to speak) live-action actors with animated characters (with the possible exceptions of the Alice Comedies and The Three Caballeros). It's a movie that's unavailable on all home video formats in the United States. And yes, it's racist.

It's also an effective entertainment.

For the record, my mom is cool, and is not racist. It just so happens that she saw Song of the South when she was young, and it made an impression on her. Because it's an amusing bit of filmmaking. Watch this first clip, and see if you don't want to know how it ends in the second clip:

As you can tell, the voices are caricatured, the dialect is caricatured, and Uncle Remus acts the happy little slave with not a care in the world. And that just scratches the surface of the film's embedded racism.
From "folklorist" Patricia A. Turner:
The days on the plantation located in "the United States of Georgia" begin and end with unsupervised Blacks singing songs about their wonderful home as they march to and from the fields. Disney and company made no attempt to to render the music in the style of the spirituals and work songs that would have been sung during this era. They provided no indication regarding the status of the Blacks on the plantation.
And there's plenty more. At every turn, the black characters in the film present an image of gleeful subservience to the white characters. They are stripped of dignity and culture, when they aren't being flat out ignored.
Disney no doubt wishes this movie didn't exist. But it does, and it puts them in a delicate situation. On the one hand, they have a classic film, highly regarded in many respects, but equally (and rightly) condemned for others. And there's no way to cut the movie to remove the racist elements from it, so thoroughly is it saturated with racism. Disney knows that any further profit from this movie is ill-gotten. They've strip-mined it for all its useable elements (the song "Zip-a-dee-do-da," the Splash Mountain ride), and have otherwise kept the film proper locked in their vaults since 1986. And while I understand Disney's reasoning for keeping the movie hidden and essentially denied, it's my opinion that they're making a mistake by denying the public access to it. Ironically, they're stuck in a tar baby themselves.
According to various sources on the internet, the film has been released on VHS and laserdisc in various European regions. But so far I have not been able to secure a copy for my mom. Disney's practice of keeping the movie unreleased is essentially their way of implying that they know what's best for my mom. And when my sweet, innocent mom blurts out phrases like "tar baby" in one of their parks, you can understand their concern. It's exactly that kind of subtle programming in movies and TV shows that can skew a person's vocabulary toward the inadvertently racist. Just ask John McCain.
But does that mean the movie should be tossed down the Memory Hole, forgotten for all time, erased from history? On the contrary, I think keeping the movie in the collective conscious, making it available for study and critical examination, is the way to keep people educated about its technical highs and cultural lows. Once contextualized, it's a brilliant jumping off point for exploring the times in which a movie like this could get made, and how far we have or haven't come since then. It's a landmark film, and it's worth discussing. You don't bury something like that, you pore through it.
Song of the South deserves a place next to Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will as a tremendously good mistake. (Consider for a moment that some of the most progressive achievements in technical filmmaking have been in the service of some of the most regressive and destructive movements in human history.) Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will have not been buried. They are readily available, and are analyzed by film students, history students and social science students every semester. Of course, Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will were not produced by studios with an image of family entertainment to uphold.
Which is why I think the solution for Disney lies in disowning the movie altogether. Literally disowning it; as in, relinquishing ownership. Put it in the public domain. Refuse to make any further profit from it. Allow film societies and academics to care for it. Put it in a museum. Make it available for those who wish to explore it.
*****
In defense of my mom (and John McCain), there doesn't seem to be a universal agreement on whether or not "tar baby" is a racial epithet. The term doesn't seem to exist previous to the publication of the Uncle Remus stories, and was therefor likely originated by author Joel Chandler Harris for specific use in his own stories. Taken at face value, it is nothing more than the figure of a young human made out of tar, for the purposes of trapping someone.
That being said, it's awful damn similar to other racial epithets, and you'd be a fool not to understand how. Furthermore, when placed in the context of an overtly racist movie, and an overtly racist book (penned by a white author), one should realize that using the term is likely to put you in, well, a sticky situation.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Tar Pits


Recently, I was watching a movie called The Hammer. With a story by Adam Carolla, starring Adam Carolla, and obviously informed by the biography of Adam Carolla, you may think this movie is strictly for fans of Adam Carolla. It's actually a really good movie; well worth checking out. I recommend adding it to your Netflix queue.

At one point in the movie, Carolla's character, Jerry, takes a date to the La Brea Tar Pits. If you haven't heard of the tar pits, you're not alone. Based on my experience, I'm the only person on the planet who ever heard of the tar pits before seeing them in person.

Here's the way it plays out almost every single time I drive a visitor past the tar pits:


I heard of the La Brea Tar Pits when I was really young. Maybe it's just because I was one of those boys who was really into prehistoric creatures. I thought everybody knew what the La Brea Tar Pits were. I thought they were a big deal. I thought they were a major geographical landmark that everyone was familiar with, like Old Faithful or Monument Valley. Alley? Valley.

I was still pretty new to L.A. when I was driven past the tar pits for the first time. I was excited. Wow! There they were! At long last!



How disappointing.

No, seriously, it's just a bunch of tar seeping out of the ground. It's ugly. And it smells. Like tar! And some genius got the idea to stick model statues of mammoths and saber tooth tigers in there, in case your imagination isn't strong enough to picture an elephant drowning in tar in the middle of nowhere.

Except it's not in the middle of nowhere. It's in the middle of L.A. Right in the middle of L.A. On a busy street, surrounded by department stores and businesses. There's a Staples next
door, for God's sake!

The tar pits are on Wilshire Blvd, on a strip of road called The Miracle Mile. I love the Miracle Mile. As someone who's paid close attention to the entertainment industry, the Miracle Mile is loaded with landmarks. The E! Entertainment Network is there. (The Soup, bitches!) Variety's offices are there. There's an art museum; and directly across the street is an automotive museum. Biggie Smalls was killed there. And at the entrance of the Miracle Mile, at the Fairfax intersection, there's a fake restaurant called Johnie's. You can't actually get food there. It's used strictly as a filming location. And even though you've never realized it, you've seen that restaurant in dozens of movies, TV shows and commercials.

And then, there's those tar pits. So exciting, and then so disappointing. But, as it turns out, most people don't share my experience of excitement followed by disappointment. They can't get excited about something they've never heard of.

Which is why I've become the biggest champion of the La Brea Tar Pits you'll ever meet. They're the ultimate underdog. They're this thing that everyone should hear about, and be interested in. But no one has heard of them, and no one is interested in them. They may have been disappointing to me for a short time, but now I'm rooting for them. They're interesting, and exciting, and important. And you don't have to go out of your way to see them - they're right in the middle of all the action.

For your consideration, ladies and gentlemen: The La Brea Tar Pits.

Monday, August 4, 2008

On Ten years

"I just can't wait for my ten year reunion
I'm gonna bust down the double doors
And when I stand on these tables before you
You'll know what all this time was for"
- No Such Thing, John Mayer

I'm not a good liar.  That's just one of those things about me.  So when Renee asked me what I'd been up to since I moved to L.A. -- a question I didn't really want to answer -- all I could do was try to change the subject.  When that tactic failed, I was stuck with the truth.

It was December 2005, and I was back in my hometown of Erie, PA for the holidays.  I try to make this an annual trip, but had been forced to skip the previous year due to financial concerns after a recent move.  Consequently, I wanted to squeeze in as many visits with as many friends and family as possible.  One night, Jane invited a bunch of our high school classmates over to her parents' place.  While I was merely an acquaintance of most of her invitees, I'd been friends with Jane since childhood and wanted to visit with her.

After Jane and I got caught up, I was mingling with former classmates and soon found myself confronted with Renee's question.  She was already impressed to hear that I had moved to L.A. and was doing well, so I knew she'd find it all the more impressive when I told her I was working in TV.  I didn't want her to be impressed.  But when you tell people that you're the post production coordinator on "The Amazing Race," it sounds like it's a big deal.  And it's difficult to convince people that it's really not.

Post production coordinators don't win Emmys, don't go to dinner parties with famous people, aren't rich, and don't have any clout whatsoever.  Post production coordinators are one rung higher than the lowest rung on the Hollywood ladder.  You take the job with the hope that it won't be long before you're promoted above it.

But Renee was impressed, bless her.

I'm not going to lie - I want people to be impressed with me.  It makes you feel good about yourself.  Anyone who says otherwise is a liar, and not to be trusted.  But when you're a post production coordinator, you know you're a long way from actually being impressive.  So when people act impressed by it, you can either deliver the buzz-killing monologue about how unimpressive your job actually is, or you can accept the praise and feel like a fraud.  (I guess the third option is that you can believe your own hype, which makes you a fraud in denial.  That's not the type of fraud I choose to be.)

This past weekend, my high school class held its ten year reunion.

"Ten years, huh?" said my (younger) friend May over chat recently.  "How's that make you feel?"  I told her that I'm not all that worried about getting older.  I'm just worried about accomplishing goals as I age.

Also, I want younger chicks to think I'm hot.

I didn't go to the reunion, and I have plenty of excuses for that:  I'm busy with work.  The flight would be an expense I'd rather avoid.  I've already kept in touch with most of my friends from high school.

These are all legitimate points.  But they're also a cover for the biggest reason of all: I don't want to feel like a fraud.

If the point of a high school reunion is to get caught up with old friends and see how much we've changed over the years, then the simple news is that I really haven't changed much at all.  I don't have kids, I don't have a house (although I recently moved into the best dwelling of my adult life), and I'm still a few maneuvers shy of the career goals I've set for myself.  Getting closer, but not quite there yet.

But maybe I'm mistaken about what the point of a high school reunion actually is.  Maybe it's not about busting down the double doors.  (In fact, it almost certainly isn't.)  Maybe it's just about saying "Hi, how are ya" to a group of people who, even if you weren't friends with them, were an important part of your life back in the day.

Maybe we've changed a lot, or maybe we've stayed almost exactly the same.  Whatever the case, I've come to an important realization that I never would have imagined back when I was 18:  ten years is simply not that much time.  It's insane, but it's true.  You know me; I'm not a good liar.

Catch you at the 15?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

We Still Need Discs

At the 2008 E3 trade show, Microsoft made a lot of exciting announcements regarding the new directions it plans to go with the XBox 360.  One particular announcement stood out - that the XBox 360 will begin streaming Netflix Watch Instantly movies to your TV.  The talk of movies resurrected flagging rumors that XBox 360 would incorporate Blu Ray disc drives in future models.

Back when the current generation of video game consoles (Playstation 3, Wii, XBox 360) was being unveiled, Toshiba and Sony were unveiling the new generation of home video formats - HD-DVD and Blu Ray.  Playstation 3, being a Sony product, incorporated Blu Ray playability into its system.  XBox 360, being contrarian, sided with HD-DVD.  As history now records, HD-DVD died a painful death in the marketplace.

The moment Toshiba announced that it would discontinue the HD-DVD format, rumors began to fly that the XBox 360 would be modified to support Blu Ray.  On at least two occasions, Microsoft made loud public statements that these rumors were false.  Now they've made their third.

In an article on Forbes.com, Microsoft Interactive vice president Shane Kim claimed the company had no interest in adding Blu Ray functionality to its console.  According to Kim, the company is focused on digital distribution.  No more hard discs; just the electronic zapping of games and videos to your 360's hard drive.  Disappointing news, if you ask me.

Folks, I love the internet.  I love everything it's done for me.  It's the ultimate alternative.  I read more articles online than I do in magazines.  I send more e-mail than I ever did postal mail.  I don't need to go to the bank to handle my finances.  It even allowed me to cut my phone bill in half and get free long distance.  In short, I'm one of the people who's most looking forward to the day when I can ditch my satellite company in favor of getting all my TV and movies online.  But, I'm sorry, we're just not there yet.

The two big issues delaying the all-internet-all-the-time future are quality and cost.  Let me get quality out of the way first, since most people care less about that than they do about their bank accounts, which is where I'm going to hit you next.

QUALITY.

Online video looks like crap.  Simple enough?  In order to download or stream video files quickly, sacrifices have to be made in quality.  In an age when we're all preoccupied with pimping out our living rooms with 60" HDTVs and demanding higher quality video resolution to fill out the screen, online distributors are asking us to take a step backwards in quality.  Netflix tries to underplay the fact that their streaming Watch Instantly movies are lower in quality than DVDs.

When all is said and done, most people (myself included) are probably willing to sacrifice a little bit of quality to get movies for free.  That's certainly the case when you're browsing YouTube.  And if you already subscribe to Netflix, you have access to all their streaming movies at no additional cost.  But what happens when you have to pay for lower quality?  Now we find ourselves in the lower pits of hell known as the iTunes Store and XBox Live.

COST.

The iTunes Store and XBox Live both sell TV shows for $2 apiece.  (XBox Live has this childish points system.  But if you do the math, it's $2 per episode.)  At a glance, $2 may not seem like much money for a TV show.  But let's do the math.

After a bit of web browsing to remind myself what I was watching in the Fall 2007 TV season, here's what I tuned into on a weekly basis (to the best of my memory):

Chuck
Heroes
Reaper
Pushing Daisies
Kid Nation (yeah, I watched that crap)
Ugly Betty
My Name is Earl
30 Rock
Scrubs
The Office
The Simpsons
Family Guy
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Dexter
Weeds
Californication
The Amazing Race
South Park
The Sarah Silverman Program
Mad Men
Best Week Ever
The Soup
Real Time with Bill Maher
Code Monkeys

That may look like a lot, but I actually remember it as being a light schedule.  In my younger years, I was watching twice that (thank you, Fox Kids Afternoon).  Moving on.

That's 24 shows I was watching on a weekly basis.  That does not include specials and annuals, like the Emmys, The World Series of Pop Culture, G4's coverage of ComiCon, etc.  It also doesn't include the many movies I'd watch on HBO, Showtime, and other off-brand movie channels in the 9000s on Dish Network.

Now, let's say I pay about $100 per month for my satellite TV service.  (We'll say that because it's true.)  At two dollars a pop to download each of those shows from Apple or Microsoft, I would have a monthly allowance of 50 shows.  That means I could only watch two weeks worth of the shows listed above.  Half a month.  And again, that doesn't take into account any of the other random stuff I sometimes like to check in on, like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, nor all the Animal Planet and Food Network shows my girlfriend likes to keep on in the background.

Two weeks worth of programming per month... and at much lower quality than all that high definition I get from my satellite company.

Now, let's say I fall behind on my TV watching because I recently moved and I'm having problems getting my dish installed in my new apartment after a recent move.  (We'll say that because it's true.)  All the shows I'm missing right now will be available on DVD in a few months.  I'll get caught up on everything I missed by renting them using Netflix, which costs a measly $15 a month for unlimited rentals.

And if XBox 360 came equipped with a Blu Ray player, I could rent those shows in high definition.  But since XBox is "focused on digital distribution," that won't be happening.  Since XBox is focused on digital distribution, they expect me to pay double the cost of my satellite bill to get a third of the video quality.

Making matters even worse is the burgeoning practice of metered internet.  As consumer demand for bandwidth grows due to, well, all this downloading I've been talking about, internet providers are finding it difficult to keep up.  If metered internet becomes the standard for internet providers, then quality video will remain an undesired goal for digital distribution.

So, despite the fact that companies like Apple and Microsoft think they can facilitate all our entertainment needs using the internet, those of us who know how to count money can see that Blu Ray drives have their place as a more economical way to get the highest possible video quality into our homes.  I hope these companies wise up and start making their equipment Blu Ray capable.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What I Learned from the "Doogie Howser" Pilot

...that the world is unfair.

Due to complications with getting my satellite set up in my new residence after recently moving, I've been relying on web sites like Hulu to provide me with interim viewing pleasure. (I didn't intend for that to sound kinky, but I don't mind that it did.) I was delighted to discover Doogie Howser, M.D. seasons 1 and 2 available there. Doogie Howser was a show that people of my generation grew up watching and tend to remember fondly. So I cued up episode one and started watching.

Right off the bat, I was struck with disappointment.
The premise-establishing tease was too obvious. See, he's learning how to drive -- ergo, he's 16 -- and he happens upon a medical emergency... all the better to establish his doctoritudism. The execution of this scene is so by-the-book. Literally by the book; as in, pick up any book on TV writing, and they'll tell you that the first scene of your pilot needs to be instantly engaging (shouldn't every piece of entertainment?) and establish premise, character, or ideally both. But what the books maybe don't emphasize quite so much is subtlety. The audience shouldn't be aware that they're essentially seeing the entire series in a nutshell. You don't need to be well studied in the art of screenwriting to realize that the opening scene of Doogie Howser is batting you over the head with its premise. But just in case you didn't get it, the scene ends with the mom saying, "That's my son... the doctor." Really? Why didn't they just go ahead and have her say, "That's my son, the teenage doctor"? Or how about, "That's my 16-year-old son, Douglas 'Doogie' Howser, M.D."?
I'm too young to remember what the original marketing was like for Doogie Howser before it premiered, but I'm guessing it was focused on: hey, here's a teenager who's a doctor. To make up an arbitrary number, I'd estimate that roughly 95% of the audience tuning into the series on its debut night were probably going into it knowing that they were watching a show that was about, hey, a teenager who's a doctor. The point being, maybe the opening scene didn't have to loudly proclaim, hey, here's a teenager who's a doctor.
Compare this with, for example, the opening scene of a show I love that isn't nearly as popular as it ought to be, 30 Rock. 30 Rock began with Tina Fey's Liz Lemon in line at a hot dog stand. Another customer cuts in line, riling Liz's sense of moral outrage. To her bewilderment, no one else in line seems to care. To teach them all a lesson, Liz buys out every hot dog at the stand.
Without raising the audience's awareness, this scene efficiently and amusingly tells you everything you need to know about Liz Lemon. She's the type of person who overreacts to small injustices, and will take disproportionate measures at personal financial loss to satisfy her own sense of justice. (The scene also tells you a little bit about Liz's compulsive eating habits, a character trait which is never too explicit throughout the series, but is nonetheless a consistent presence.)
And you know what that scene doesn't do? It doesn't loudly proclaim, hey, this is a behind-the-scenes look at a TV sketch comedy show. You know why they didn't need to establish that premise? Because the marketing for the show before it debuted was all about, hey, this is a behind-the-scenes look at a TV sketch comedy show. In fact, I'd arbitrarily estimate that roughly 95% of the people tuning into the debut night of the series knew that they were watching a TV show that was about, hey, behind the scenes at a sketch comedy show.
The Doogie Howser pilot goes on to mostly be about Doogie seeking respect. A fine theme. As you might guess, it's tough for a 16-year-old genius medical doctor to get respect from his adult contemporaries. So there's a mean old doctor who complains about having a kid around, there's a mean old patient who complains about having a kid working on him, there's his dad - also a doctor - who treats his son more like a son than a colleague (God forbid!), and there's his fellow doctors emasculating him. In the latter case, their excuse is that he's such an awesome doctor, they forget that he's a minor and that it's completely inappropriate to approach him sexually, untie his scrubs and drop his pants. But hey, those were simpler times.
Beyond the legal ramifications of the sexual prank on Doogie, the problem, story-wise, is that we have absolutely zero sense of these characters. They're nothing more than Female Nurse Buddy and Male Doctor Buddy. We only know that they're Doogie's friends because they specifically say that they're his friends. We have no sense of the nature of their friendships, so we have no sense of how, exactly, we should perceive this prank, nor can we contrast our perspective on it with how Doogie is reacting to it.
Then there's the completely tacked-on story of the young cancer-stricken kid to whom Doogie makes the promise that everything will be fine. Predictably, the kid ends up dying. It's a cheap, unearned emotional moment. There was nothing else in the episode striking an emotional chord and, this being a medical show, it's easy to just throw in a child -- innocent, not deserving of this unfortunate lot in life -- whom we will automatically feel sorry for and become sad when he dies. Now the thing is, it's a pretty good idea to contrast Doogie's birthday -- a life-affirming event -- against the death of a young child -- the first patient Doogie has ever lost. Could have been excellent if that had been the focus of the episode, instead of just a lazy cry device.
Instead, we follow Doogie to the homecoming dance, where we meet his eternal pine, Wanda. Wouldn't you know it, his pager goes off just when he's in the middle of making out with Wanda. How will Doogie balance his adult responsibilities with his teenage experience curve? Keep tuning in to find out.
Basically, they took an interesting premise and gave it the most obvious treatment imaginable. Now, perhaps this is due to over-meddling from network and production company executives. After all, the makers of this show are two titans of American television - Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley. Even though their careers were twenty years younger back then, these dudes still knew how to tell a story. They had to be aware of all the unchallenging elements in the Doogie Howser pilot.
So, why does it bother me so much? Two reasons.
One, because to my memory, Doogie Howser went on to be a much better show than this. When I have time, I'll have to continue on with the series in Hulu's archives. Perhaps, with the perspective of time, I'll discover that the show really wasn't as good as I remember it being. But I'm pretty sure it was good. It's always amazing to see how much a show can grow from a lackadaisical pilot. (I'm looking at you, Seinfeld.) So few shows are given that chance these days.
But more importantly, reason two: I would NEVER be able to sell that script. Or even win a contest with it. For the reason stated above, and probably for many other bullshit reasons that only make sense to studio readers, I'd never get that script through to anyone who would be willing to produce it. Yet it somehow went to series.
If there's one thing I've heard over and over again from the pros, it's that Hollywood is not a meritocracy. You don't necessarily get ahead just because you're good at what you do. It's not even "who you know." It's who you have access to, and who would be willing to put their reputation on the line for you.
Jane Espenson, a writer who's worked on such critically acclaimed series such as Buffy and Battlestar Galactica, says it all the time - in order to win a writing contest, you have to be better than the best show you've ever seen on TV. The ironic implication of that is, you can go ahead and loosen your standards once you've gotten your foot in the door.
Assuming my memory is correct, and that Doogie got better as the series progressed, then the fact of the matter is this show should be held up as the standard of how a TV series should develop. A show should get better as it goes along, seeing as how the makers will learn what works best for the show they're making, and have more opportunities to implement what they've learned. (Isn't that how everything in life should be?) Unfortunately, most shows get cancelled before they have that chance.
Here's to more shows having the opportunity to grow and get better!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My Favorite "Austin Powers"

Mike Myers' latest movie, The Love Guru, recently came out to negative reviews and a shrug from the general audience.  It's a shame, because I really like Mike Myers.

As critics and cynics started logging their negative reactions to Love Guru, I began noticing this trend of people carelessly stating that Mike Myers hasn't made a good live-action film since the first Austin Powers movie.  That's a surprise, since my favorite Austin Powers movie is the second one, The Spy Who Shagged Me.

While I've been told that the first Austin Powers (International Man of Mystery) gets better with repeat viewings, it never hooked me enough in my two viewings of it to get me to a third.  I've never been much of an Elizabeth Hurley fan.  Nor much of a Mimi Rogers fan.  And since I'm not much of a James Bond aficionado, a British spy spoof doesn't carry much weight for me.
Which is exactly why I consider the second one more successful.  When they did the second movie, they weren't thinking "we're making a British spy movie spoof," they were thinking "we're making an Austin Powers movie."  And that was much funnier to me.
Timing also probably had something to do with it.  The first movie came out when I was in high school.  The second one came out while I was in college.  Austin Powers is better when you're in college than when you're in high school.
The second movie had Mini-Me, who was hilarious from concept through execution.  It wasn't enough to just have a miniaturized clone of Dr. Evil; they took it the extra step and made him a hormonal, aggressive freak.  Although some people seem to think Mini-Me was inspired by Nick Nack from The Man With the Golden Gun, he was clearly based more on Marlon Brando's sidekick in 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau -- a bold move, considering few people saw that movie and even fewer liked it.  Almost ten years later, people still refer to smaller versions of a thing as its Mini-Me; a trend that shows no signs of going away.
And, of course, there was Fat Bastard.  Out of all of Mike Myers' Scottish characters, this one is easily the best.  I'm not big on gross-out humor, but Fat Bastard hits all the right notes.  This is, after all, the man who intends to eat Mini-Me ("I'm bigger than you; I'm higher on the food chain.  Get.  In.  My.  Belly!")  Excellent idea to put a man who weighs one metric ton in the same movie as the clone that "fits easily into most overhead storage bins."
A big improvement in the second movie was Rob Lowe as Number Two.  No offense to Robert Wagner, who originated the role, but he was pretty much just being Robert Wagner.  Everyone in Dr. Evil's criminal organization is a caricature, an exaggeration.  Even Mr. Bigglesworth couldn't get away with just being a cat; it had to be one of those freaky hairless cats.  In the second movie, Number Two successfully becomes an exaggeration due to the fact that it's Rob Lowe impersonating Robert Wagner playing Number Two.  Perhaps Number Two would have been a better character in International Man of Mystery if Robert Wagner had played him as an impersonation of Rob Lowe.  As it stands, Number Two as played by Robert Wagner doesn't seem to fit into the movie for me.  Sorry, the eye patch is not enough to make him an eccentric.
That being said, Robert Wagner still gets a good laugh out of me in his description of how he made the company rich by investing in Starbucks.  It's not even a particularly funny moment.  There's just something about the way he does it that amuses me.
Heather Graham was great.  "Just the Two of Us" as performed by Dr. Evil was great.  "Mini-Me, stop humping the laser."  The cameos by Will Farrell and Kristin Johnston were great.  "Why won't you die?!"  Elvis Costello and Bert Bacharach were great.  "The moon unit will be divided into to teams: Moon Unit Alpha and Moon Unit Zappa."  Tim Robbins was great.  "Beautiful Stranger" was great.  You get the idea.  They hit this one out of the park.
So why are critics saying that International Man of Mystery was the only good Austin Powers movie?  Residual contempt bleeding over from Goldmember.  Goldmember sucked.
If the first Austin Powers movie was thought of as "let's make a Bond spoof," and the second was "let's make an Austin Powers movie," then the third must have been thought of as "let's make an Austin Powers sequel."  And that's exactly what they did.  They asked themselves what people liked about the previous movies, and they did it all again without adding anything fresh or new, without even seeming to enjoy themselves much.
That was another key to the second movie.  The fun, the energy.  They knew that they were lucky they got to make a second movie.  Although the first movie is now thought of as a modern comedy classic, don't forget that in its original theatrical release, it made just a few dollars more than "bomb."  It found its second life of home video.  They not only dodged the bullet of completely tanking, but now they were thrilled that they actually had the chance to do these characters again.  You can feel that excitement in Spy.  By the time they were making Goldmember, it was pretty much a forgone conclusion that it would rake in a ton of money.  They had the smug confidence of success.  I'm not exactly saying they phoned it in.  I'm just saying it was another day at the office, as opposed to a passion project.
Here are the things I remember finding amusing in Goldmember: Steven Spielberg doing backflips in the opening dance sequence, and Fat Bastard saying his neck looked like a vagina after he lost weight.  Other than that, I remember lesser retreads of jokes from the previous two movies.
Here's where things get a little complicated.  Many devotees of International Man of Mystery have leveled the same accusation against The Spy Who Shagged Me.  It's definitely true that some of the jokes from the first movie were reworked in the second one.  But not to the degree that they were straight up replicated for the third movie.  Identical, and less funny.  (The same thing happened with the two Wayne's World movies.)
You might think that the awfulness of Goldmember would shine a better light on Spy for those people who were on the fence about it.  Instead, it seems to have worked in reverse.  The awfulness of Goldmember has cast a pall on Spy, causing people to group all Austin Powers sequels into the "bad" category and keeping the original exclusively in the "good" category.
This is wrong.  I encourage everybody to go back and take another look.  Not to take anything away from people who loved International Man of Mystery, but The Spy Who Shagged Me is the most effortlessly enjoyable of the Austin Powers movies.  If nothing else, let us all agree that Goldmember was an unfortunate misfire.
As for The Love Guru, I'll be waiting till it comes out on video.  But I will watch it.  And I will be rooting for Mike Myers.