Friday, July 25, 2014

No Reason To Panic

You may remember the Westboro Baptist Church. They are the ones who routinely show up to picket funerals for fallen soldiers, insisting that God killed them. They're a pretty radical group, in a rabble-rousing sort of way. They're also a pretty whacked-out nutjob kind of group in a crazy insane kind of way. Most recently, members of their congregation got together to let the world know that the downing of the Malaysian Airlines jet was also all a part of God's plan. Their reasoning being that there were more than one hundred AIDS researchers on board that flight, and if it wasn't a Russian rocket that knocked that jet out of the sky, it was most surely a bolt out of the blue.
My guess is that a truck running over a dozen of Westboro's faithful would also be spun into some sort of gift from the Big Guy. It's all a part of God's Will. It could be that flying so high in the sky could be disrespecting Him. Or it could be that the only way to keep getting their faces and signs in newspapers and TV and all over Al Gore's Internet is to keep saying the most vile and ridiculous junk imaginable. They are especially fond of picketing at funerals. Dead soldiers are good, but dead rock stars are even better.
Of course, they don't have to be dead, either. Panic At The Disco recently got the Westboro treatment, mostly on account of lead singer Brandon Urie's open discussion of his bisexual experiences. And maybe he once thought about joining the Marines. It's hard to say just what the "minds" behind the WBC had in mind, but Urie and his band decided to take matters into their own hands by declaring that they would contribute twenty dollars to the Human Rights Campaign for each pinhead who showed up with a sign. The more the merrier, after all. When only thirteen protesters showed up, two hundred and sixty dollars didn't seem sufficient, so they rolled it up to an even one thousand dollars. A good day's work, or like that old joke about the bus full of lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, maybe it's just a good start.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Black Dog

I don't run past this particular house every single day. With the vagaries of my schedule,  would imagine that I only pass by two or three times a week. That might explain the reaction of the dog in the front yard. This black dog has made it her personal mission to let me know when I am a few feet from approaching her line of sight and will keep barking at me until I am once again out of her view. Sometimes, when I am lost in a thought or enjoying whatever song has come up on the shuffle of my iPod, I forget that I am about to enter the doggie danger zone and I am surprised by the somewhat ferocious attention I receive. Just enough to knock me slightly off my normal stride, but mostly I just keep going. After years of making this same loop, I have become accustomed to this interaction. It has even spread down the block just a bit, as a new yard full of puppies now take up black dog's complaint as I run past their fence. They aren't nearly as concerned or vicious, but they seem to want some of the same attention as black dog. Or maybe it's part of the neighborhood alert system.
That's what I used to believe when our dog, Maddie, used to make a fuss about strangers walking past our house. She would get her back up and rush back and forth on her side of the wooden slats that kept her from being any more involved in the security of her home. "Hey," she would yelp, "the mailman is outside the gate for the three thousandth time and I want everyone within the sound of my voice to know it!" Like the ubiquitous car alarm, her alert became part of the sound tapestry of our lives. If one of us was nearby, we might admonish her and tell her that the mail carrier was our friend and we should treat him or her as a guest and not an interloper. Of course, living in our urban setting, having a dog that would let us know when there was a stranger in our midst or a fire in the barn was essentially a good thing. She was the Neighborhood Watch Dog.
Of course, I also knew her secret. I knew that once someone was inside the fence, she was everyone's friend. Not that the U.S. Post Office wanted to find out. We were once warned to keep our dog under control or we might stop getting home delivery. Our UPS guy got it. He and Maddie became close over the years, and there weren't many deliveries when he didn't stop and have a little fetch or tug of war with his puppy pal. This is what went through my mind as I rounded the corner a few days back. I heard the black dog bark before I saw her. She started to run along her side of the fence, making ferocious sounds. Until I stopped. She stopped in her tracks and blinked. This was not part of our rhythm. I waited. I hoped that she might even come back to the fence to take a sniff of this confounding new reality, but she kept her distance. "Okay then," I told her, "I'll see you again in a few days." No barking.
Not until I got down the block and the little watch dogs to be started in. I stopped at their pen, and waited for their leader to put his nose up to the back of my hand. No fear. Just a welcome. I looked back up the street to see if black dog was watching. She wasn't. She had, no doubt, retreated to her spot on the porch where she would wait for my return. Maybe next time I'll bring Snausages.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Making It Look Easy

If I were to pick a guy to look into how and where Casey Kasem's body disappeared, I believe I would have picked Jim Rockford. Alas, Jim is busy with other matters of a more metaphysical nature currently, having just passed on himself. James Garner rang down the curtain this past weekend at the age of eighty-six. A good solid lifetime, but still not nearly enough for some of us who grew up with his assured demeanor and wizened smirk. If all Mister Garner had ever done was to help get one of the coolest TV theme songs on the air, that would have been sufficient.
For me, James Garner was an action star who acted like he had stumbled into the job after he had been turned away from romantic comedies. Which is about right. Of course, he got his start on the back of a horse, that's what his Oklahoma home gave him. I didn't discover Bret Maverick for some time, but it was the double feature of "Support Your Local Sheriff" and "Support Your Local Gunfighter" that first captured my attention. This was a guy who defined "easy-going" for me. Staring down a bunch of desperadoes was simple enough when you appeared so unimpressed with them. Jim just waited around for one of them to do something dumb, and if he's the sheriff, he just walks them over to the jail. A jail without bars, I should hasten to add. It looked so easy.
Watching him with Doris Day took a little more patience. His job here was to be confounded by the zaniness that being involved with Doris Day entails. I was much happier to have James Garner roll his eyes and look impatient with the goings-on. Many years later, that's what he got to do in "Murphy's Romance." A leading man at fifty-seven, not that he made a big deal about it. Not a lot of guys got to woo both Doris Day and Sally Field. Not Burt Reynolds.
Mostly I recall how relaxed James Garner always seemed. Nowhere was this more evident than the commercials he did with Mariette Hartley for Polaroid. They were acting, but a whole lot of people believed these two were married in real life. It was just that natural. And that's what I'll miss the most about James Garner. Naturally relaxed easy-going movie star. Nice work, if you can get it. Aloha, James. You stomped on the Terra.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Six million dollars is a lot of money. Six hundred million dollars is a lot more money. That's lottery type money. Super Lotto type money. Powerball type money. Now go ahead and drop twenty-three billion dollars on top of that. Twenty-three billion and six hundred million. Dollars. Now we're talking about government type money. That's the kind of money a Florida jury wants R.J. Reynolds to pay in damages to the widow of a longtime smoker who died in 1996. Cynthia Robinson received this award in addition to the sixteen million dollars she received in compensatory damages. On that scale, that might seem like chump change, but it isn't. It's part of a much bigger picture.
Ms. Robinson is the first in a series of individual lawsuits brought against big tobacco after a class action suit for one hundred forty-five billion dollars was tossed out by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. So now, instead of one trial for a hundred billion dollars, there are thousands of individuals lined up for the opportunity to get themselves a chunk of change. In order to participate, one need only prove addiction and that smoking caused the illness or death.
Some things that may need to be mentioned here: As late as 1994, R.J. Reynolds' CEO testified under oath in front of Congress that he didn't believe tobacco was addictive. Even now, their web site insists that "Nicotine in tobacco products is addictive but is not considered a significant threat to health." That comes right after the assertion that "Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States." So, follow their logic: Nicotine, which is found in cigarettes, is not a threat to health, even though it is found in cigarettes which are the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. It's the same brain trust that had to fork over fifteen million dollars in fines for handing out cigarettes at events attended by children.
And now, just a little more math: The average price per pack of cigarettes is five dollars. A pack-a-day habit will run you about eighteen hundred dollars a year. There's forty-two million of you, so all of a sudden the numbers start to add up. Billions of dollars are out there to be had, and if you really want to get a piece of that action, just get yourself addicted and if you can afford those chest x-rays, you're on the fast track to big money! Good luck with that.

Monday, July 21, 2014

To A Muse

Most of the time, my wife and I agree about the movies that we see together. Sometimes we don't. I was reminded of this the other night when we passed by Albert Brooks' "The Muse." First of all, I understand that Albert Brooks is an acquired taste and I had already made up my mind years ago, when I was a single guy watching those early short films on Saturday Night Live and even before that with his very quirky standup appearances on variety shows. By the time he started showing up in George Clooney movies and voicing animated fish, my wife was won over, but not with The Muse.
Maybe it has to do with the comment she made early on during our repeat viewing: "I would like that job," she said in reference to Sharon Stone's role as Muse to Albert's struggling screenwriter. She went on from there to comment on how she would rework details from set design to key story elements in order to bring her vision of a real and true Muse to life. Nothing corny or roller disco about this one. I listened to her go on for a few more minutes, and after Jeff Bridges' scene was over, we decided more or less mutually, to turn it off.
That's when I started thinking about the nature of the Muse, and how this story was really quite accurate. The idea that you could simply invite a Muse into your life and expect that things would proceed in an orderly and predictable pace seems ridiculous from the start. This is where the comedy starts. Albert Brooks knew this, and mined that vein. If you expect to have a loving and supportive relationship at all times with your Muse, you should probably stick with Xanadu. Even Olivia Newton John had her moments of instability. Gene Kelly got it.
Meanwhile, back to that late night where my wife and I were disagreeing about this movie. We have both stayed up late or woken up early to wrestle with an idea that has come to us and we just couldn't shake it. We have both sat in front of blank pages, waiting for that spark and nothing comes. It is a stroke of genius on my wife's part to choose as her next career option to be that spark. And, of course, it was long after she had fallen asleep that it occurred to me that she had done just that for me. Here I was, wrestling with this notion that would eventually become this blog, and there she was, resting peacefully. Clever girl.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Ultimate Price Deferred

In Missouri, the "Show Me State," there was an execution last week. John Middleton was put to death for the murders of three people nearly twenty years ago. Middleton claimed that he was innocent. He and his lawyers also claimed that he was mentally incompetent. Neither of these assertions were enough to keep him from from receiving a lethal injection on Wednesday night. In the big book of eye-for-an-eye accounting, he only had to die once for the three murders. Maybe this will make up for the occasional "oops" when the occasional innocent gets executed for the occasional bad evidence or occasional mishandled defense.
That's the way these things work, you know. We have to make examples of those we want to teach that killing is wrong. So wrong, in fact, that we will kill them just to prove that point. Unless that killing turns out to be arbitrary and plagued by delays. That is what is happening in California, according to a federal judge. That Californians might have been doing something unconstitutional like cruel and unusual punishment comes as something of a revelation. Even though it has been eight years since the last execution in the Golden State, it's not like we've been out of the game. There are currently seven hundred and forty-eight prisoners scheduled to die on the obviously named Death Row in California. Forty percent of those inmates have been awaiting their ultimate penalty for more than nineteen years.
That's about how long it took to get John Middleton killed. The irony being that if the California ruling had come a few days earlier, it might have been used by clever lawyers to create a new appeal for this former methamphetamine dealer. It probably will be used by clever lawyers for other Death Row inmates across the country now. They won't have to die. They'll get to spend a lot more time in courtrooms, or at least their lawyers will. Which is kind of like getting away with murder. Except for that whole life in prison thing.
Here's what Judge Carney wrote about the promise of a death penalty: “for too long now, the promise has been an empty one,” and the result is “a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed.” Arbitrary death sounds like a bad idea. Like it should be against the law. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Kids Will Be Kids

So if your friend told you to jump off the Empire State Building, would you? If your friend told you to walk across the desert and into a foreign country to get a chance a better life, would you? What if it was your parents and family doing the daring? All the kids crossing our southern border took that dare. Fifty-two thousand of them since October. Our president has called this "an urgent humanitarian crisis." When I think about urgent humanitarian crisis, I don't tend to think about this continent. I think about places like Syria. Or Somalia. Texas? California? Land of the free, home of the brave? Wouldn't we expect the United Nations to set up shop in Granjeno, Texas?
In a word: No. We're stuck trying to figure out how to save children while maintaining border security. Ours is a nation of immigrants, after all, and we can't just turn our backs on the plight of kids pouring over our border, can we? Maybe we can. Our president would like to step up the deportation process, seeing as how those clever little nippers figured out a loophole in our immigration policy: it says that kids from Mexico have to go back immediately, but those from countries farther south like Honduras, and El Salvador require a court hearing. Fifty-two thousand of them? While the powers that be scramble about trying to get those scheduled, what happens to all those kids?
Many of them are turned over to family who have already crossed the border and are living in the United States. Many of them will stay right where they are, on Air Force bases and converted shelters, until America figures out what to do. But why should we? "Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death," that's what (according to Lou Reed) the Statue of Bigotry says. That may sound a little rough, but compared to the voices of many of our countrymen, it's not so bad. Something everyone seems to agree on: It's our president's fault. He is, after all, the guy in charge. Not the guy who signed the legislation back in 2008 that "enforces our laws and upholds our highest ideals." That guy really ought to be run out of town.
Oh wait, we already did that.