Friday, February 24, 2012
I was born in late 1970. Like many of my friends, in the mid to late 70's I loved me some Sesame Street. I was a sucker for their simple yet catchy songs, puppets of all sizes, and educational, yet still amusing story lines. But there was one aspect of the show that I didn't like, about a certain wooly mammoth named Snuffleupagus.
"Snuffy" was a good friend of Big Bird's, and together they had various fun adventures. But there was just one problem. Only Big Bird actually met Snuffy--through a series of plot contrivances no other characters saw him. Big Bird was constantly accused of making up an imaginary friend by the others (including the human adults), especially when he appeared to be blaming mistakes on the missing mammoth. Being a small child, I didn't realize that this was the character's trademark, that it was supposed to be funny and his "thing." And it really bothered me. Every episode I was frustrated again, and I would exclaim something like, "Snuffy went around the corner just before everyone else showed up to see him. I can't believe it happened again!"
Well, I grew up, of course, and graduated to other shows, such as "Three's Company." (I realize that Three's Company was actually less sophisticated than Sesame Street, but in my defense 1) 12-14 year olds have proven, time and again, that they have crappy taste in television shows, music, movies, etc. and 2) This was long before the Internet, and we didn't have cable TV. Pubescent boys had to make do with whatever they could get for even PG type jiggling.)
Flash forward to 1992 or so. I'm in college, and, on a whim, feeling nostalgic, I sat down and watched an episode of Sesame Street for the first time in well over a decade. I noticed that they included some nods to the parents watching along with their kids, such as a how-to-cross-the-street safety sketch modeled after "The Twilight Zone," called, obviously, "The Crossing Zone." And then what happens? I learn that EVERYONE SEES SNUFFLEUPAGUS NOW. It's completely mundane, and not a big deal at all. So I got pretty pissed--"Screw you, Sesame Street!" I yelled. "Where were you back when I needed you, back when I was a five year old almost giving himself an ulcer?!" I resolved never to watch again.
Now we do have the Internet, as I've mentioned, so I did a little checking up on ol' Snuffy. I learned (or relearned? Can't recall) some facts about him. First off, his full name is actually Aloysius Snuffleupagus, and he's very close in age to me--first shown in Nov., 1971 (Like many TV characters he doesn't seem to age, evidenty, as he still attends "Snufflegarten."). He also has a younger sister named Alice.
Then I got to a discussion of what infuriated me so, when everyone on the show started seeing him, which happened in 1985. His performer at the time, Martin P. Robinson, during an interview gave a disturbing yet valid reason for changing the usual plot. At that time, there had been several high-profile pedophile cases. Sesame Street was concerned that if adults were shown never believing Big Bird about Snuffy, even though he was telling the truth, that kids might think that adults wouldn't believe them if they revealed that they'd been molested, that they would accuse them of making things up. Clearly, I'm not about to mock this, this seems like sound reasoning. Once again Sesame Street used their delightfully absurd puppets to help teach kids important lessons.
But shit, Sesame Street, for one kid's stress and frustration levels, you were a little too late!
Monday, February 20, 2012
I'm notorious amongst my friends and family for my lack of culinary skills. I haven't used an oven in twenty years, and in that same time I've used the rangetop (burners) probably about five times. I've made burgers on a grill perhaps three or four times, used a steamer once, and cooked via fondue pots twice. One of the major reasons for this is a lack of patience--I've never understood how people can spend fifteen minutes, a half hour, an hour, or more to prepare dinner. I'd rather do almost anything else--the thought of it bores me nearly to tears. Fortunately, my job as a field archaeologist means I don't need to cook--we get per diem, meaning a daily food allowance. The amounts vary, but about $25-30 a day is a good average, meaning I can eat out/take out/get delivery very frequently. I do use a microwave, but even with that I'm impatient. Friends joke that I pace around, angry that my meal is taking all minute, and it's not much of an exaggeration. So you won't see many tidbits of food preparation advice from me, and if you do, it'll be something like, "Open sardine tin. Find a fork. Enjoy."
However, I do like an alcoholic libation every so often, usually beer, but occasionally a shot or a mixed drink. Here's one that's probably not that well known. I learned this in college.
"Flaming Dr. Pepper" (not affiliated with the real soda company, registered trademark, please don't sue)
You'll need: A mug or wide-mouthed cup (a glass mug is best).
A shot glass.
12-16 ounces of beer. Should be a regular lager. A strong-flavored beer like a Guinness
or an IPA probably won't work too well.
Amaretto. Disaronna seems to be the best brand choice.
An extremely high-alcohol content liquor. Bacardi 151 Rum is the standard, but similar
strength alcohols or grain alcohol should do as well.
Matches or a lighter.
Directions: Pour beer into mug. Pour out an almost full (at least 75%) shot of amaretto. Top off the shot glass with the 151 or other strong liquor. Carefully light shot. Drop into beer, which will obviously extinquish the flame. Drink fairly quickly--you don't have to chug it necessarily, but don't nurse it either. Somehow (magic?) the resulting concoction tastes amazingly like the soda. Also, the 151/strong liquor element is only for the flame effect--just the beer and amaretto are required for the correct taste.
I've always been curious about how mixed drinks are developed. Nerds in labs? Bored bartenders? Not to mention, I wonder what the ratio of good mix discoveries is to the horrible, affronts to Nature mashups. 1:100? 1:1000? Even higher? However long it takes, when it works, it's incredible, like the Long Island Iced Tea--so strong, yet still so mild-tasting and awesome.
Years ago, again back in college, a friend and roommate of mine was inspired by the "Flaming Moe" episode of the Simpsons to try something similar--we didn't have cough syrup, and the results weren't strong enough to be flammable, but he mixed small portions of every liquor in our cabinet together in a blender and then drank some. Some of the liquors were vodka, rum, tequila, Frangelica (!), and various other liquors I can't recall. Unlike the cartoon, the resulting cocktail was literally nauseating. But, the important thing is he tried. And I'm sure even Edison, Tesla, George Washington Carver, and Marco Polo puked every once in a while in their pursuits.
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Even casual sports fans are usually familiar with multi-talented athletes like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson. For good reason--both these guys were skilled enough to play two major sports professionally, and play both of them well (both were clearly better at football than baseball, but each had their moments at their lesser sport). Today I'd like to focus on some lesser known multi-talented athletes. In some cases the second talent is actually non-athletic. And in a couple of examples the people aren't really that obscure, but due to the passage of years I think the extent of their accomplisments aren't well remembered. Finally, the "Some" that starts the title of this piece is there for a reason--this isn't meant to be a comprehensive list.
1) Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrickson Zaharias. The Texan born Babe was by far the best female athlete of the first half of the 20th century, perhaps the entire century. All this in a time when women were often strongly discouraged and criticized for playing sports in the first place, when major sportswriters such as Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram wrote, "It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up, and waited for the phone to ring." Babe excelled at baseball, softball, basketball, track and field, golf, diving, and bowling, among others. She won three medals at the 1932 Olympics--silver in the high jump, gold in the 80 meter hurdles and the javelin. Next she turned to golf, and despite taking up the game at a late age she quickly dominated. She had 41 pro wins, won the Grand Slam of the time in 1950 (3 events at this time, but still), and 10 majors all told. Babe was also the only woman to make the cut in a PGA event, over 50 years before Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie, etc., and not via a sponsor's exemption (she played a 36 hole qualifier). Alas cancer took her at a young age, although not without a fight. She won the last of her majors after being fitted with a colostomy bag.
2) Toshiyuki "Harold" Sakata. Harold is easily best known for being arguably the best enemy's side kick/muscle in arguably the best Jame Bond movie, "Goldfinger." His role as "Oddjob," despite his being mute, was both intimidating and strangely endearing. But fewer people recall that before Oddjob he was a fairly popular pro wrestler billed as "Tosh Togo," and before that, an Olympic athlete. He won a silver medal for the U.S. (he was born in Hawaii) in weightlifting at the 1948 Games.
3) Bob Hayes. Bob won two gold medals for the U.S. at the 1964 Olympics, in the 100 meter dash and the 4X100 meter relay. He then decided to try out the NFL, as an offensive end (wide receiver) for the Dallas Cowboys, and quickly proved that the lightning-fast sprinter could also catch the ball and take a hit. He became the premier deep threat of the NFL. He also is the only man to both win an Olympic gold and a Super Bowl, with the 1971 season Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl played in early 1972). Bob finally made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, a long time after he retired, almost certainly due to his personal life mistakes (he did 10 months in prison for delivery of drugs to an undercover police officer, and he struggled for years with alcohol and drug addictions) rather than his play on the field.
4) Hugo Bezdek. A bit of a stretch, since his accomplishments were as a coach rather than as a player. Hugo coached college baseball, basketball, and football teams. As a pro, he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1917-1919 (and did a fairly mediocre job). Then, in 1937, he became head coach of the Cleveland Rams (and they did miserably, going 1-13.) Thus, he became the only man to both head coach a modern NFL team and manage a MLB team. (I say "modern NFL team" as longtime (50 years!) manager/owner Cornelius McGillicuddy (known as Connie Mack) of the Philadelphia Athletics also coached a football team (using some of his moonlighting baseball players) in 1902 in an early pro league which was also called the National Football League, but wasn't the one which became the eventual, modern NFL.)
5) Marion Jones. Also a stretch, since Ms. Jones is fairly famous, or more accurately, infamous, for winning five medals at the 2000 Olympics on the U.S. team (Gold in the 100 meter dash, 200 meter dash, and 1600 meter relay, bronze in the long jump and 400 meter relay) and then having them stripped for testing positive for and later admitting to doing banned performance-enhancing substances. She also did a six month prison sentence for lying to grand juries about both the steroids and her knowledge of her then husband's check fraud scheme. What's not as well known is that Marion was also an excellent college basketball player, and after she got out of jail she was good enough to make the WNBA's Tulsa Shock squad in 2010-2011, albeit as a reserve player (at guard). I imagine she had to take scores of tests, too, hopefully piss, blood, hair, etc.
6) Pat McInnally. Pat was a good punter, and occasional wide receiver for 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals in the 70's and 80's. He was also the first Harvard grad to both be a Pro Bowler, and play in a Super Bowl. His other talent, not surprisingly, was intellectual. Since the early 1970's the NFL has prospective players take the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test (as do, apparently, tens of thousands of other companies, but it's best known with the NFL.) Obviously, standardized tests are controversial, with some believing that they can be biased, or at the least that they're not effective predictors of success. But, these qualifiers out of the way, Pat is the only person to have gotten a perfect score (50 out of 50 questions right.) All scores mentioned are reported, by the way--evidently the Wonderlic test is a (poorly guarded) secret. The average score for the general population is listed as 21, and the NFL prospect average is 19. The highest position average is for offensive linemen, at 26, the lowest being halfbacks, at 16. The lowest NFL player is Oakland Raider kicker Sebastian Janikowski, with 9. Vince Young is alleged to have scored a 6 but his "official" (second?) score was 16. The lowest reported score was 4, by Darren Davis, an Iowa St. running back who played in the CFL. To support the contention that the Wonderlic is bullshit, or at least not foolproof, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino supposedly got a 16.
7) Gene Conley. Gene was a fairly pedestrian pitcher with several MLB teams in the 1950's and 60's, finishing his 12 year career with a record of 91-96, and a 3.82 ERA. However, he also played in the NBA for seven seasons. In doing so he did something that no one else ever did, namely win championships in two different major sports (i.e. baseball, football, basketball, hockey). Gene was on the 1957 World Series champion Milwaukee Braves team, and won three rings as a Boston Celtics reserve center in 1959-1961.
8) Bud Grant. Bud had an eventful sporting life. After college, he was drafted by the Minneappolis Lakers and played two seasons as a reserve forward, and was on the 1950 NBA Championship team. Next he switched to football, joining the Philadelphia Eagles and playing as a defensive end in his first season, and at wide receiver in his second. Embroiled in a salary dispute, he abruptly left to play in the Canadian Football Leaue. After playing several seasons he was promoted to head coach, and took his Winnipeg Blue Bombers to six championship Grey Cups (winning four.) Next, he went back to the NFL as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. He spent a total of 18 seasons there, and finished with a record of 158-96-5. Unfortunately for him, a la Marv Levy, he never won the Super Bowl, in four tries.
9) Byron "Whizzer" White. White, of course, is best remembered as being a Supreme Court Justice from 1962-93. helping to judge many groundbreaking legal cases. However, in his youth he was an outstanding football player. He had a three year NFL career--in 1938 with the Pittsburgh Pirates (later changed to the Steelers), and in 1940-41 with the Detroit Lions. He led the NFL in rushing in 1938 and 1940. He cut off his football career to join the Navy when World War II broke out. After the War he went to law school, and abandoned pro athletics.
10) Jim Thorpe. I think most people are familiar with Okahoma born, American Indian Jim Thorpe's name, and status as a legendary athlete, but I believe most don't remember just how phenomenal an athlete he was. In the 1912 Olympics he became the only person to ever win the pentathalon and decathalon in the same year. His medals were stripped, of course, because of the rules of the time banning professionals, as he had played some pro baseball (don't get me started on this classist nonsense, that's a rant for another day). Next he played major league baseball for six years (not spectacularly, it's true, but still) and then nine years in the NFL. He even played pro basketball, although the records of this are skanty at best. Happily, his medals were eventually restored, and his records reinstated, but unhappily this was done in 1983, or 30 years after his death. Few people with any sense of history would dispute he was the best athlete of the 20th century (if not ever).
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
I've never been into reading poetry, other than Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein when I was a kid. Not surprisingly, then, with extremely rare exceptions, I also didn't write it--I've always been more of a prose kind of guy. But today I was going through some old things, and remembered about one of the few poems that I did write, back in 6th grade. I can't recall exactly, but I suspect we were all probably forced to write one, rather than it being voluntary. Whatever the setup, they chose the best ones for each grade (this was middle school, so grades 6-8) and the winners read them in an assembly, or as it was titled, "The Eighth Annual Poetry Festival." Shockingly, my entry took second place (it was a small school, bear in mind.) So here it is.
One thing that isn't very nice,
Is to have a head that's full of lice.
A shower or bath will not kill,
'Cause swimming they consider a thrill.
A comb will sometimes get them out,
But only if they're slightly stout.
And if they're quite well off indeed,
They might bring home more mouths to feed.
It's also true that they jump well,
(But only onto heads that smell.)
And if they leave, you may start to cheer,
But then you'll probably shed a tear.
Even though that they're not there,
Your head may still be the lair,
Of something that is still hard to bare.
For little eggs, from the louse's mom,
Are as dangerous as an atom bomb!
More lice! More lice! You're sure to yell.
You know these beasts are going to dwell,
On your head for a long time,
And you hate them about as much as slime!
A gypsy will tell you when your palm is read,
A sure-fire solution----shave your head!
Also very surprising, mine was the only poem in the whole program about parasites. In the interest of accuracy, I should mention that the poem is wrong--lice don't jump, they crawl. Don't remember if I just didn't know that, or if I did it to fit my rhyme scheme, or something. And my accusation that they jump only onto "heads that smell" is unfounded, and a little snotty--lice will crawl onto any person's head, regardless of how clean or dirty they are, as countless parents have discovered.
So there it is, one of my few, and definitely most acclaimed, poems. The prize was a small sculpture of a lion--still have it somewhere. But I think Shakespeare is safe.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
When people talk about movies made from books, it seems like they always claim that the book was so much better. For good reason, the books usually are. Part of this stems from the practical limitations of movies, chiefly, they typically have to cut significant parts of the story so they're not three or four hours long. Also, of course, books often have us in the character's heads, which is often difficult to do in movies, short of using narration, which is frequently awkward and doesn't really work well. Alas, in many cases the movie creators deserve to be faulted, since they've changed the story to please fickle preview audiences, or they've watered down controversial issues so it can still get a PG-13 rating, and thus more customers in the form of children.
However, every so often, the reverse is true, and I'd like to discuss some of these examples. Bear in mind, these are only my opinions--many readers will disagree with some (or maybe all) of them. Also, there are spoilers for both the movies and the books, so probably don't read these if you still want to read/watch the example in question. All these examples are for books written separately and before the movie--novelizations (written using the movie script) don't count.
1) Misery: Novel written by Stephen King (1987), movie made in 1990. This is an example of a book that was very good, but its movie was simply more effective. A picture being worth a thousand words, as the expression goes. Nothing wrong with what King wrote, it was just more compelling to see it on the screen. Kathy Bates owned this role, and it was refreshing that the Academy got it right and gave her the Best Actress Oscar. Although he's mostly known for his comedies, director Rob Reiner really did an great job here. The comic relief of the local sheriff and his wife was also a nice tension breaker, and not, if memory serves, in the book.
2) Any James Bond story: Books written by Ian Fleming in the 1950's and 60's, movies made in 1962 to present. I'm maybe cheating a little here, as I read "Dr. No," "The Man With the Golden Gun," and one other ("Thunderball"? I can't remember). I'm also partially relying on the opinions of my father for the other novels. But anyway, the movies have certainly had their ups and downs, but overall they're much more entertaining than the books. I give Fleming credit for creating a great character, and drafting many of the plots, but his writing didn't impress me. His Bond seemed too grim, and the stories more dull, somehow. Granted, the movies were often unrealistic, sometimes absurd and cartoony, but sometimes this makes for more enjoyable viewing. Fleming's racial views (often expressed in the Bond books) were messed up, too, and unsettling.
3) Fight Club: Novel written by Chuck Palahnuik in 1996, movie made in 1999. I didn't expect to enjoy this movie. Initially I heard only about the fight club itself, and thought it would be kind of a mindless action flick. However, to my pleasant surprise, I found the movie to be wickedly funny, and the split personality plotline was very interesting, and disturbing. Like Misery, and many of the examples here, the book wasn't bad. It just didn't seem to have much more that the movie didn't cover.
4) Cape Fear: Novel written by John D. MacDonald (with the original title of "The Executioners"), movies made in 1962 and 1991. I'm referring to the '91 remake directed by Martin Scorsese. The book, and the '62 movie version, were decent, but were more run-of-the-mill revenge stories. Max Cady gets out of prison and goes after the man (and his family) who stopped him and testified against him in his rape case. The '91 remake is much darker, and the characters more ambiguous. In the remake, Cady has a legitimate complaint--Sam Bowden was his lawyer, and he unethically buried a file that could have helped Cady avoid prison. Unlike the book, and the earlier movie version, Bowden and his family are a mess--he has a verging-on-inappropriate relationship with a female colleague, his marriage is extremely shaky (largely due to his previous infidelity), and his daughter is in summer school for being caught smoking pot. DeNiro's Cady is much more dangerous, too--smart, articulate, even charming at times. Yet, at the same time, he's violent, vicious, and psychopathic, with an almost slasher movie villian's near supernatural ability to track people and withstand injury. So, to sum up, it was in my view more sophisticated, nuanced, and yes, fucked-up. (To be fair, the time period when the book and first movie were made were probably factors in their being less intense and nasty.)
5) Requiem For a Dream: Novel written by Hubert Selby, Jr., in 1978, movie made in 2000. I think it's Selby's writing style that causes this opinion. I don't tend to like stream-of-consciousness type writing, when you're not always sure what's really happening, what's being said, and what is just character's thoughts. His story was compelling, but I didn't care for the way he wrote it. Plus, the movie was so riveting--shot in such an innovative way, had great acting (nice to see Ellen Burstyn again). All of it was painful and horrifically depressing--it's not a fun movie, it's more a harrowing endurance. Yet, to me, still definitely worth watching.
6) Goodfellas: Book written by Nicholas Pileggi in 1985 (titled "Wiseguy") based on Henry Hill's account, movie made in 1990. This is a nonfiction book, so I can't fault the author for plot choices, of course. But, to me, the written account wasn't nearly as entertaining. Scorsese's movie was top notch, up there with the first two "Godfather"s and "The Sopranos" as the best mob adaptations. I think the film eliminated some of the slightly tedious detail and concentrated on the more interesting storylines.
7) Jaws: Novel written by Peter Benchley in 1974, movie made in 1975. One of my frequent criticisms is that movies often minimize or eliminate controversial characters or situations to become family friendly. Here is an example of a time when I thought doing this was better. The characters in Benchley's book are pretty repellent--Ellen Brody is unhappy and has an affair with Hooper (!), Martin is much less sympathetic, and there's a weird subplot where the mayor is in debt to the mafia. Despite all of this, the book is still decent reading, but the movie is much more enjoyable. Even if Mythbusters proved the movie ending is bullshit--I can overlook that considering the rest of the film is so spectacular.
8) Naked Lunch: Novel written by William Burroughs in 1959, movie made in 1991. I hear Burroughs used to write out a manuscript, cut it up with scissors, and rearrange the pieces to make a new story. I can only assume he did this for Naked Lunch. I find the book absolutely unreadable. The words were English, but they were strung together in a way that was incomprehensible. Meanwhile the movie had its moments. Bizarre and disgusting images abound (like the lusty, lobster/insectoid shape changing typewriter and the reptillian Mugwumps with their phallic like horns that dripped hallucinagenic drugs) and the plot is weird and dreamlike, but it passes the time in an interesting way.
9) The Thing: Short story written in 1938 by John W. Campbell, Jr. (as "Who Goes There?"), movie versions in 1951 and 1982. Kind of a Cape Fear situation once more. The short story is good, the '51 film is okay, but the '82 movie is great. The 50's version doesn't follow the story's plot when it comes to The Thing's attributes--excusable, given the special effects limitations of the time. But it certainly makes for a less frightening tale--a tough, regenerating vegetable man/giant doesn't compare to a creature which replicates other life forms, so you don't know who your friends are! Most of the short story's elements are in the movie, but seeing it on the screen is much more powerful. A lot of this is due to the brilliant special effects by Rob Bottin--seeing The Thing absorb people and dogs, change into other hideous mishmashes of creatures is disturbing, gross and terrifying.
10) Trainspotting: Novel written by Irvine Welsh in 1993, movie made in 1996. Like with Requiem for a Dream, I wasn't crazy about Welsh's stream-of-consciousness type writing style. Nevertheless it still was a good read, if difficult at times. I liked the movie better because it was more linear. Also, I think the film streamlined the story nicely, dropping a lot of the extraneous subplots, and boiling it down to the basic framework. Both book and film were delightfully dark and disturbing.
11) The French Connection: Book written in 1969 by Robin Moore, movie made in 1971. Another non-fiction book. In this I found the truth to be more boring than the fiction. Overall the book's story was interesting, but the writing was tedious. The movie was anything but tedious. Fast paced, great acting (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider especially), and one of the best car chase scenes ever (if you're into that sort of thing.)
12) Soylent Green: Novel written by Harry Harrison in 1966, movie made in 1973. The movie only follows the basic setup of the book, then does its own glorious thing. It makes the story even darker, with its sexism (expensive apartments come with live in female concubines, called "furniture" (really!)), euthanasia centers (perhaps justifiable in the horribly poor, starving, overcrowded America they portray, but still disturbing), and, of course, the movie's secret, the cannibalism. The book is a decent read, but it's almost another story, and in this case, over-the-top and maybe even absurd wins, to me. Plus I have a soft spot for Charlton Heston 60's and 70's sci-fi fare, like Planet of the Apes and even The Omega Man.
13) L.A. Confidential: Novel written by James Ellroy in 1990, movie made in 1997. As with Trainspotting, sometimes a shorter, simpler story is more effective. The book is good, but extremely dense and complicated, and was sometimes difficult to get through. Ellroy's "telegraphic" prose style isn't my favorite. The movie concentrated on fewer characters and the more basic plot, to its credit. Also, the direction and acting were excellent, which is always a benefit.