Tuesday, December 29, 2015

One Last Family Update for 2015

I haven't discussed my family or their various health situations recently, mostly because things have been relatively stable these past few months.

On Friday the 18th, my father collapsed in our kitchen. He was eating some cherry cheesecake, and as he was adjusting his chair he fell out, landed on his stomach, and bruised his knee. I found him with his right arm wrapped around his walker, and after untangling him I was able to move him to his side. He was still too heavy to pick up, so I asked him to press his Life Alert button. (He had just received his necklace earlier that day, and it never occurred to him to press the button with his good arm.) About 10 minutes later the paramedics arrived, lifted him from the floor to the chair to a stretcher, and wheeled him out to Good Samaritan Hospital.

The good news is, he suffered no real physical injury as a result of the fall. The bad news is, a brain scan determined that the tumor that was removed in June 2013 had reemerged, and a biopsy revealed that the cancer had spread to his liver and kidneys. He entered a nursing home on Christmas Eve, and he'll start hospice care sometime in January. Sadly, the cancer wasn't caught until it was almost terminal and at my father's age, chemotherapy would serve only to rush the inevitable. That's all I can say at the moment, and as trite as it all sounds, please keep my family in your thoughts.

Next week, I'll make my picks for the best TV of 2015.

(502)

Friday, December 25, 2015

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2015



It seems hard to believe that 2015 is almost over, and even though the year went by fairly fast, it left behind some killer tunes.


All in all, this might have been the strongest year for music since 2010, maybe the best of the last decade. One guy had his hand in not only the best hip-hop album of the year, but the magnum opus jazz recording of his generation. Then the man who was front and center on said hip-hop album appeared in four of the most memorable music videos of the last 12 months. No-brainer picks and aligning stars aside, there was no way I could assemble an all-encompassing top 20 list; there were a lot of quality albums, songs, and clips that came out in '15, and there are still a few that I haven't heard all the way through yet (sorry, Adele) and after being overwhelmed by the surplus of options I broke everything down the way I always do: by ranking the very best in descending order.



BEST ALBUMS


  1. To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar. It was clear three years ago (on his breakthrough, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City) that this prodigal child of Compton was not content with recording music so much as making statements. Butterfly sets the bar high; hardly any social issue is left unscathed, and where Good Kid could be accused of over-explaining, Lamar makes you connect the dots. Lamar clearly idolizes Tupac Shakur, and on the epic closing track the two men have a simulated conversation. His final question is left unanswered, a fitting ending to an album that offers no easy answers.
  2. No Cities to Love, Sleater-Kinney. As AV Club stated recently, “It’s no surprise that (their) first record since returning from their extended hiatus is as good as everything else in their catalog.” This reunion was not based in commerce, but rather in unfinished business; the long, long-awaited follow-up to 2005’s The Woods takes the sonic explorations even further, and in doing so became even more empowered.
  3. Art Angels, Grimes. Following 2012’s sublime Visions, where was speculation over whether Vancouver-bred flibbertigibbet Claire Boucher would ever record or release more music. Despite all that drama with her music label (among other things), it is both borderline miraculous that Grimes recorded not only a fourth album, but one that nearly eclipsed Visions in ambition and scope.
  4. Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens
  5. I Love You Honeybear, Father John Misty
  6. Short Movie, Laura Marling
  7. Star Wars, Wilco
  8. Vulnicura, Bjork
  9. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Barnett*
  10. Goon, Tobias Jesso Jr. One of the best debut albums of 2015 was also as a low-key, under the radar gem. The musical motifs float from one track to another, but the themes are weighty; the aftermath of a nasty breakup haunts Jesso, and his mother is battling cancer. Put together, it’s a haunting record with a sparse sound, at times evokes the likes of Randy Newman and early Elton John. The world is conspiring against Jesso, and the piano is his best weapon.
  11. Ivy Tripp, Waxahatchee
  12. In Colour, Jamie XX
  13. Depression Cherry, Beach House
  14. Return to the Moon, El-Vy -
  15. FFS, Franz Ferdinand & Sparks. This unlikely collaboration raised a few eyebrows in 2015 but really shouldn’t have; the Mael brothers and the “Take Me Out” guys have been friends and conspirators for years. In some ways, Alex Kapranos and company were the crackerjack backing band the Maels haven’t had in nearly three decades. In this thrilling co-dependency, Franz Ferdinand was lifted from a creative mini-slump, and Sparks recorded their most interesting work in some time. Like triple-sec vodka chased by Mountain Dew, FFS should have been weird and gross but worked almost effortlessly.
  16. Viet Cong, Viet Cong
  17. Panda Bear Vs. the Grim Reaper, Panda Bear
  18. New Bermuda, Sunbather
  19. Momentary Masters, Albert Hammond Jr.
  20. Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass. Let me begin with my sole complaint about this Nashville singer-songwriter’s debut solo album: it’s too short. At nine tracks and 39 minutes, Prass is tight and concise yet charming in a sultry sort of way. A former member of Jenny Lewis’ backing band, Prass set out to create a thoroughly American, 1970s throwback of a country-rock record, right down to the somewhat abbreviated running time. In the end, she left everyone clamoring for more.


Honorable Mention, EP Division: Another One, Mac DeMarco.


*Remember my 2014 list? I told you so.


Best Metal Album: Luminiferous, High on Fire. Matt Pike is a very paranoid fellow. Long regarded (or chided) as a man of esoteric hobbies, Pike’s beliefs have mutated into full-blown conspiracy theories. That yen for tinfoil hats fuels Luminiferous, HOF’s most focused album in some time. The rhythm section is unpredictable and complex, and even if you can’t stand Pike’s prattling on about huffing chemtrails or how 9/11 was an inside job, his focus and anger are pinpoint.
Honorable Mention: Sol Invictus, Faith No More.


Best Jazz Album: The Epic, Kamasi Washington. I just couldn't ignore the elephant in the room. In this case, it was the sprawling, ambitious 3-CD set that Washington dropped in the early summer. It’s impossible to digest in one sitting, and that’s fine; Washington did not record this with “binge-listening” in mind. This triptych is accessible yet thoroughgoing, so rich with ideas that almost don’t even notice him reinterpreting Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on disc three.
Honorable Mentions: Sylva, Snarky Puppy with Metropole Orkest; Plus Joshua Redman, The Bad Plus.


BEST SINGLES


"All Day," Kanye West
"Don't Wanna Fight," Alabama Shakes
"Things Happen,” Dawes
"Sedona," Houndmouth
"Simple Machine," Guster
“Outta My Mind,” The Arcs
"To Die in L.A." Lower Dens
"74 is the New 24," Giorgio Moroder
"S.O.B." Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats
"Smooth Sailin'," Leon Bridges
"Dreams," Beck
"Nightlight," Silversun Pickups
"Sister of Pearl," Baio
“The Party Line,” Belle and Sebastian
“Falling from the Sky,” Calexico


BEST VIDEOS


  1. “Bad Blood,” Taylor Swift. I’m sure you’re giving me a weird look right now, but “event” videos like this don’t really come around that often anymore. It’s a well-edited action-adventure movie in miniature, with a plethora of cameos by the likes of Lena Dunham, Ronda Rousey, and Cindy Crawford. The “squad” mindset of the video also became a cultural sensation while Swifty --er, “Catastrophe”-- toured the world in the Summer of 2015. Also, hi Kendrick Lamar!
  2. "For Free (Interlude)," Kendrick Lamar. Why Kendrick had a killer year, part two. “This. Dick. Ain't. Freeeeeee…”
  3. "Alright," Kendrick Lamar. Why Kendrick had a killer year, part three. Where "For Free" is both pointed and lighthearted, "Alright" is gritty with absurdist flourishes. It’s almost hard to believe that this clip was helmed by Colin Tilley, who also directed Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.”
  4. "King Kunta," Kendrick Lamar. Why Kendrick had a killer year, part four. This is a deconstruction of the generic hip-hop “good life” video, with the slick cars and the bodacious, scantily-clad women. I have arrived, Kendrick declares, but never take anything for granted. Also, bring the yams.
  5. "A New Wave," Sleater-Kinney. The Belcher brood from "Bob's Burgers" wig out to Carrie Brownstein and company on a standout track from the above-mentioned No Cities to Love.
  6. "Pedestrian at Best," Courtney Barnett. Old awards or not, some of us just aren't meant to be clowns for the long term.
  7. "Pendulum," FKA twigs. "Hey FKA, what's new?" "Oh, just hangin'."
  8. “Anna” (Emma Stone version), Will Butler. The first clip produced for the Arcade Fire bassist’s first solo single was fine enough; it was a relatively basic “lyric video” of him shuffling his feet in a dimly lit field. The second video was more viral-friendly; Stone dances Ernst Lubitsch-style on a cruise ship with several beefcake sailors in what Rolling Stone perceived as an update of Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.”
  9. "Make You Better," The Decemberists. Anything that has a lovelorn Nick Offerman feigning a German accent on a Rockpalest-type music program is a contender in my book.
  10. "Let It Happen," Tame Impala. Does a heart attack really feel like that?


Honorable Mentions: "Ghosts," Ibeyi; “Norf Norf,” Vince Staples; "Johnny Delusional," FFS (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks); "Hello," Adele.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Weekly Update #500

This is my 500th blog post. Holy crap.

If I were still posting every week --which I did, until late 2012-- I would have achieved this milestone about a year ago. However, I never found weekly blogging to be that sustainable, especially after college, and after seven years I finally cried uncle. In the past three years, however I've made an effort to put quality over quantity and write longer, more substantial posts when the inspiration strikes me. To the 20-odd people that read my missives on a regular basis, I thank you. It's a far cry from the dialogue that I could stir up on TV.com, but quite frankly I'm grateful that anyone is reading this. Also, I don't want to repeat myself, especially after I acknowledged my 10th anniversary of blogging less than six months ago, so I'll just get back to business.

+ Just because Donald Trump is still leading in most polls does not mean the GOP is moving in lockstep with the political neophyte. There are still 14 candidates vying for the GOP nomination and in some right-wing circles, Trump is outright hated. I'm liberal, but even I'm starting to sympathize with the likes of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. The soul and identity of the Republican Party is increasingly at stake.

+ What can I say about the San Bernadino massacre? I would send my thoughts and prayers, but that accomplishes very little. I would be more vocal about gun control, but we all know that's treading water. I could try to process the "how" and "why," but you can't fight the logic of a crazed mind. All I can do is just sit here and hope the violence stops.

Next Week: the year in music, 2015.

(500)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

My 11th Annual Thanks/No Thanks List

It's that time of year again. The airports are packed, the Butterball hotline is swamped, and Vegas is taking over/under bets for the Cowboys-Panthers game. Thanksgiving looms near, and as tradition indicates I will share what I'm thankful (and not thankful for). For better or worse, this year has given me plenty to think about:

Thanks: steady temp work, marriage equality, a "Peanuts" movie that was surprisingly charming, fewer stores open on Thanksgiving and/or Black Friday, the health and well-being of my family, and above all a Royals World Series championship.

No Thanks: ISIS/ISIL, xenophobia, incessant and wrongheaded debates about gun control, the Illinois fiscal budget crisis, possible sleep deprivation, and people that never answer their e-mails and messages.

Enjoy the holiday! If you'll excuse me, I need to figure what I'll write about for my milestone blog next month.

(499)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Random Notes, November 2015

The election is now less than a year away, but the chaos is only slightly beginning to subside. Where the Democratic primary has weeded out some of the weaker candidates --I forgot Larry Lessig was running until, well, he quit-- the Republican primary is still an insane dogfight. You have at least three candidates (Dr. Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum) that are all fighting for the same Christian-conservative demographic. You also have Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and George Pataki struggling to make any leeway against one another for the more moderate sector of the GOP. I don't know Rand Paul is aiming for, because he keeps flip-flopping. It is sort of amusing to see that the GOP prides itself in unity, but couldn't be more splintered on the national stage.

At the same time, the Democrats can be like herding cats, yet their strategy for 2016 is actually inching toward coelescing. For obvious reasons, Saturday's Democratic debate was dominated by domestic security and foreign policy. With limited extra effort, Sec. Clinton more or less proved why she was the most electable of the three candidates; Sen. Sanders seemed wishy-washy about gun control, and his comment about how the Middle East should defend itself against ISIS was a tad naive. Martin O'Malley made some valid points, but he's not a strong debater. In spite of her many flaws, Hillary Clinton is the Democrats' best shot in 2016; with the growing populist movement within the party --a Bizarro Tea Party, one might say-- she needs to shake off some of her establishment ticks and roll up her sleeves. Her extensive history with foreign affairs resulted in a crucial KO last night, but Clinton still has a long way to go.

Other notes:

+ I'm very reluctant to air out my dirty laundry, but I felt like this was sort of worth sharing. For the past two years, I've been manhandled by crippling credit card debt. In the summer and fall of 2013, in quick procession I had to deal with multiple car repairs, on top of producing a show that did not turn a profit. I put nearly everything on my Visa, then relied upon on my Mastercard for future purchases. Then I went through an extended period where I wasn't working a regular basis, so then I ended up maxing out both cards nearly every month. I'm proud to say, however that after some shrewed budgeting most of that debt has now cleared. I'm still living on modest means, but I don't quite feel as handcuffed as before.

+ I have no words for what has transpired in France this weekend. This was a massive act of cowardice, one that cannot be justified or quickly forgotten. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Paris.

Next Week: My annual thanks/no thanks list.

(498)

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

An Epilogue from a Kansas City Royals Fan Upon Their 2015 Championship


It's Tuesday, but Sunday night is still fresh in my mind. I feel a need to articulate everything I've processed during these wonderfully surreal 24 hours. Additionally, I want to assure anyone who is growing annoyed by the near-constant baseball posts that this will be the last one for awhile. (Someone unfriended me on Facebook during the 12th inning last night, so clearly I rankled at least one person.)

First of all, my thanks to everyone who was pulling for me these last couple of years. The vast majority of the people that have commented on my status updates were high school and college buddies, a group of mostly White Sox fans that gave me significant grief during the Royals' wilderness years in the late '90s and throughout the 2000s. It took it all in stride, and even though I don't miss the losing, I will miss telling people that the Royals are "last in the AL Central, first in your hearts."

I didn't really know a whole lot of other Royals fans in person --my Dad, who lived in Overland Park, KS in the late '40s, is a Cards fan-- but upon immersing myself into the Chicago improv community, I met a number of Missouri and Kansas natives that bleed Royals blue. Even though we all kind of did our own thing on Sunday night, I'm glad we were able to watch last year's Game 7 letdown as a proud, united front.

This is for Salvador Perez, who was on a season-long quest for redemption. After getting completely stymied by the Giants' pitching in last year's Fall Classic --a WAR around 1.0, incidentally-- our faithful catcher was a man with a mission. Even if two RBIs and two runs in five games may look pedestrian, his .348 average in the series was more than enough to justify winning Most Valuable Player. When Drew Butera caught the 12th inning, I knew Salvy had earned his rest.

This is for Gordo, Moose, and Hos, three top prospects that initially struggled upon first playing the majors and were nearly written off as busts. Alex was moved from third to left, Moose went back to Ohama to learn how to hit through an infield shift, and Hosmer just needed to figure out major league pitching. Patience and perseverence pays off.

This is for Edinson Volquez, who pitched twice in the series with a heavy heart. I don't know if he knew his father passed away before Game 1, and it doesn't matter now, but Eddie didn't let tragedy get in the way of his goals.

This is for manager Ned Yost, who finally shook off the "idiot" label. For now, anyway.

This is for the Kane County Cougars, the single-A team that was KC's minor league affiliate in 2011 and 2012. Getting to see the Royals' stars of tomorrow (including that one-hit wonder, Christian Colon) 45 minutes from where I grew up was a delight and a pleasure.

This is for Matt Harvey, who insisted on pitching the 9th inning, and is now assuring Terry Collins that he can finish nine Bud Light pitchers in one sitting.

This is for Addison Reed and Bartolo Colon, because quite frankly, no matter where we are Royals are always going to feast on White Sox pitching. (Maybe I should be thanking Don Cooper instead.)

This is for Howser, Quiz, and Splitt, the Royals greats that weren't alive to see this.

Above all, this is for my dad's side of the family, and especially my great-aunt Bea Stewart, who would regale visiting relatives with inappropriate comments about George Brett's butt.

It feels so redeeming to say this, and it still feels a little heterodox, but dreams have become reality. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2015 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. #Crowned

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

With Glowing Hearts, We See Thee Rise...

After nearly a decade of conservative rule, Canada finally got the "hope and change" memo. The dramatic takeover by the Labour Party following the October 19th election was a long time coming; the conservative stronghold in flyover provinces like Manitoba and Alberta was perceived as too out of touch with the rest of the country. No one was more alienated by the status quo than the Maritimes, who already felt marginalized and because of federal budget cuts, even more so. As a result, the minority party rode the wave of dissatisfaction and garnered 184 seats --er, "ridings"-- for a new majority government.

Amidst the hoopla was the birth of the Great White North's first political dynasty. Justin Trudeau, son of progressive demigod Pierre Trudeau and actress/bon vivant Margaret Trudeau, is the face of modern liberal Canadian politics and the youngest prime minister in recent memory. (Only right-wing placeholder Joe Clark was younger.) In his victory speech, Trudeau the Younger said: "We beat fear with hope, we beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together." If that's not from the Obama 2008 playbook, I don't know what is.

So what happens to our northerly neighbor now? Even though Canada is perceived as generally being more liberal than the US, politically they're just as polarized as we are. Outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper kept a steady hand for nine years, his greatest achievement being his navigation of the Canadian economy after the worldwide crisis of late 2008/early 2009. Unfortunately, Harper overstayed his welcome --scandals dogged his political party, and he was utterly feckless with commodity markets-- and a new voice was needed. Harper was painted as paranoid and xenophobic (not inaccurate) in the wake of a terrorist attack in Ottawa, but to call him a tyrant was a bit much. Here's hoping the young, optimistic Mr. Trudeau will offer more levelheaded leadership.

(496)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Watching Them Squabble

Another melange of political opinions:

Even with considerably fewer candidates, the first Democratic primary debate was not without its high points. The winner --by decision, not TKO-- was Sec. Clinton, who looked poised and comfortable throughout. Sen. Bernie Sanders was a good sparring partner, but his limited stance on the issues was his one big fallback; he seemed naive about foreign policy (especially on the Putin question) but positively nailed questions about the economy. Martin O'Malley pulled punches, Lincoln Chafee completely tanked (see the Patriot Act question), and I almost forgot Jim Webb was there. In situations like this less is more, and the 2016 Democratic nomination is now without dispute a two-horse race.

On the other side, the GOP primary race is both benefiting and being hindered by a lack of a Mitt Romney-like presence. I'm not talking about the man himself per se, but the one perceived "safe" candidate that consistently finishes second in the polls when another candidate surges. You may recall all the front-runners that soared and ultimately crashed and burned in 2011-12, leaving Romney as the party's choice; his opponents were favored by those who thought Mitt was too safe or too moderate. You would think that honor would go to Jeb Bush, but after an early lead he has gradually slipped away in the polls; it's getting harder to imagine him surpassing Donald Trump or Dr. Ben Carson, as deeply flawed as both candidates are.

(495)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

I, Blockhead

In the past few days, I've noticed a new meme on Facebook. In conjunction with the new "Peanuts" movie coming out in two months, you can create a likeness of yourself in the universe of Snoopy and Charlie Brown. Its a fun but inconsequential way to remind people that even if the comic strip ended over 15 years ago, the Peanuts brand never went away. Though the shelves of Hallmark are still crowded with Snoopy tchtotckes, the movie is a capital way to bring badly-needed fresh blood into the franchise. The brand has lied fallow for so long, there are now high school kids that weren't alive yet when Charles Schulz died; it's never been a cultural touchstone, just a bunch of cute toys.

That's not to say, however that I didn't have the cute toys. As a kid, I had at least one Snoopy doll, a few videotapes of the early '80s Saturday morning cartoon, and a handful of books. My kindergarten teacher was also really into Peanuts, and we bonded over that.  (For a time, I even made my own comic strip collections, cut and pasted from the Chicago Tribune, and gave them to her as gifts. Hey, I was eight.) Even though I don't think we owned a copy, "Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown" was one of my all-time favorite movies. By grade school, I had transitioned from picture books to the comic strip collections.

For a strip that was drawn by the same guy with minimal assistance for nearly 50 years, "Peanuts" was the first time I noticed how an artist's work can change and progress with time. A shy farmboy from Minnesota, Charles Schulz was dead set on being a cartoonist at an early age. In 1947, he landed his first opportunity to draw professionally with "Li'l Folks," a single-panel strip that ran weekly in his hometown Minneapolis Tribune and later the St. Paul Pioneer Press. After 2 1/2 years, Schulz felt stifled by the local papers and approached United Feature Syndicate with "Li'l Folks." He agreed to change the strip's name to "Peanuts" (a reference to Howdy Doody's Peanut Gallery) and the rest is history.

Besides expanding from one panel to four, "Li'l Folks" was very much a rough draft of what "Peanuts" would become. The humor was cute but utterly pedestrian. The name Charlie Brown first appeared in the Minnesota strip, but it was applied to several different boys. The anonymous children in the strip were occasionally accompanied by a silent but knowing dog that was the prototype for Snoopy. Schulz submitted a handful of strips to The Saturday Evening Post, which sometimes featured (gasp!) adults. In adopting a four-panel format and leaping head first at a potential national audience, Schulz set certain rules, including limiting the perspective to children and dogs. Woodstock, the loquacious canary that Schulz introduced in the mid-60s, would forever have Snoopy as his confidant and translator. Miss Othmar, heard but never seen, would always have a voice not unlike a muffled trombone.

So why am I so transfixed on the idiosyncrasies of the universe that Charles Schulz created? Not only is "Peanuts" one of the few things I enjoyed in my childhood that holds up, it might actually be more enjoyable in adulthood. When I was younger, I gravitated toward the '70s and '80s strips, which were more gag- and plot-oriented. As an adult, you grow to appreciate the "classic era" (1956 to about 1971 or so) even more. It was sarcastic in an era of sincerity and earnestness, honest in a time of mincing words. Unrequited love and unattainable goals play heavily. In the 1990s, with the strip's dimensions altered to adjust for the dwindling size of the comics page, Schulz had built enough leverage to finally experiment within his strip. Sometimes he reminisced about World War II, discussed faith and philosophy on a more regular basis, and he even dwelled upon his own looming mortality. And yet, it was still extremely personal to the very end, a daily look into Schulz' tormented psyche.

When I do see "The Peanuts Movie" in a few weeks, it will be an intensely personal experience. I can't get through most of the old TV specials without crying, and I haven't seen "Race For Your Life" (despite being a light, slapstick-heavy kids movie) for fear of doing the same thing. I'll probably go the multiplex by myself, buy a ticket, sit in the back row and hope I don't use up all my paper tissue. I want to see this movie in a theater, partially to see if children can still relate to Schulz' little crew of underdogs and eccentrics, but also for closure.

(494)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sweet Resignation

In a weird sort of way, I sympathize with Rep. John Boehner. Like a right-wing Icarus, Boehner saw opportunity in the Tea Party takeover of Congress following the 2010 midterm elections. Ultimately, he didn't realize that the position of Speaker of the House requires more pragmatism than his far-right allies anticipated. The group of congressman that he caucused with were accused (somewhat unfairly) of caving to President Obama and house Democrats, especially during the disastrous government shutdown two years ago. John Boehner was the adult in a room of children, the one level-headed voice in a clown car of crazies. He was loathed by Democrats for pushing a rigid agenda, and disdained by some Republicans for being too wishy-washy. In the end, you almost can't blame him for resigning.

My primary concern, however is whether the remedy will be worse than the malady. The assumed short list of possible candidates to succeed Boehner is a mix of establishment and Tea Party Republicans, and overall not that inspiring. Whether or not this person serves beyond the next 15 months isn't dependent upon the Democrats making any gains in the 2016 election (a long shot at this point) but the various fissures within the GOP. This person will have the Sisyphean task of forming a united front for two large and disparate factions of the party, one louder than the other, an area where Rep. Boehner tried many times and ultimately failed. In short, the GOP parents are going out to dinner, and they need a new babysitter.

(493)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Random Notes, September 2015

What's going on?

+ The second GOP presidential debate was not the eye-opening train wreck that the first one was. However, at over three hours in length it was an unprecedented marathon of bloviating, one that even I couldn't sit all the way through. Donald Trump did not apologize for remarks made about Carly Fiorina (remorse is not his thing) but the Hewlett-Packard CEO's steely, silent response was golden. The night was about all-or-nothing agendas; there will be no pragmatism for Planned Parenthood or illegal immigrants, but rather the same swift and close-minded platform that most social conservatives have held dear for decades. In the end, this was an 11-way dogfight and the democratic process lost.

+ Go Royals! I am really, truly hoping that our overworked bullpen has just enough left in the tank to make a second straight World Series appearance. The Bears' season is already over, Blackhawks training camp is being overshadowed by the Patrick Kane sexual assault case, and Bulls training camp is two weeks away, so at least I have something to root for.

+ Family Update: My mother is not undergoing surgery for her aortic aneurysm... yet. Apparently, only a handful of doctors are able to perform this type of surgery, but it is treatable and requires certain lifestyle changes (staying active, eating healthy, etc.). Worst-case scenario is, she would have heart surgery twice in one year, and it could be at the Cleveland Clinic two states over. However, at the moment she's taking the doctors' orders and doing just fine.

(492)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

First Responder

This has been, at least on a personal level, a lousy summer.

From March until early August, I held down a temp position at a company that does billing for ambulance services. In the five months I was there, I witnessed a 90% turnover by the staff, near-constant drama (both within the workspace and pre-existing) from certain co-workers, unprecedented managerial incompetence, and a general dearth of "book smarts" in a situation where "street smarts" didn't always suffice. From a personal perspective it was consistent work and challenging without being overwhelming, but the office environment uniquely chaotic.

I'm not sure if I could pinpoint an exact low point in this ocean of drama. Within two weeks of when I started, I had to take a personal day for my father's doctor's appointment. On the day I was gone, there was a catfight in the break room, the woman who trained me on a profanity-laced tirade, the ladies' restroom was trashed, and another woman went into false labor. I came back that next day to see 10% of the desks in the office vacated and a thick air of tension. The manager warned repeatedly before and after "The St. Patrick's Day Massacre" that the drama stays outside the office, but the revolving door of personnel never made that possible.

After about three months in the office, I was put on a special project. I had been working on billing, but they were shifting more people into processing insurance claims. There was a group of 12 or 13 of us assigned to work on three agencies in the Atlanta metro area; about a third of us had to be trained on how to do insurance. There were some growing pains, but in general the people who were transferred into this project were doing okay. The corporate office in Phoenix wasn't impressed, so we were summoned into a conference call meeting one Friday afternoon. They pointed out one mistake after another, some obvious and others that were close calls. One member of the team took an error personally and after the call ended she nearly started crying. Then another member of the team started talking about her troubled teenage son, and the whole thing turned into a therapy session. Suffice to say, it was uncomfortable and preposterous.

Then, on August 4th, it abruptly end. I was sitting in the parking lot checking my messages when I received a phone call from my temp agency. The fact that they were calling when they did was not a good sign, and my suspicions were confirmed soon after. Initially the company claimed that I had nodded off at my desk --a false and damning allegation-- but they reiterated I wasn't a good fit. I was now a free agent again, forced to budget my money while I was stuck at home with two sick parents. I had hoped to take a road trip or some kind of mini-vacation, but circumstances quashed that quickly. I adore warm weather, but this was one summer where the heat did me no favors.

(491)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

32 Teams, 32 Haiku, My 2015 NFL Preview



If the ringing of school bells and an unusual late August cold snap haven't made it obvious, summer is more or less over. That also means football season is right around the corner. Here is my annual forecast, 17 syllables at a time:

AFC NORTH
1. Bengals (10-6). Dalton, Green, and crew/have the experience to/leave playoffs early.
2. Ravens (9-7). Defensive upgrades/were a plus; tough road matchups/are the X-factor.
3. Steelers (8-8). Young and dangerous/Big Ben is on the clock now/solid dark horse pick.
4. Browns (5-11). Weakest among weak/the Manziel drama distracts/great O-line squandered.

AFC EAST
1. Patriots (11-5). Deflated footballs/a temporary setback/playoffs are a lock.
2. Dolphins* (10-6). A sleeper, perhaps/a scary passing attack/might usurp the Pats.
3. Bills (7-9). Knowing Rex Ryan/the defense will do its job/but who's the QB?
4. Jets (4-12). New coach, more drama/after big moves, disarray/is Gang Green diseased?

AFC SOUTH
1. Colts (13-3). Luck? More like fortune/in weak division, triumph/and maybe a ring.
2. Texans (8-8). Foster and Hopkins/carry the O; JJ Watt/carries Lone Star dreams.
3. Titans (5-11). Mariota? STUD/but there's little else to gloat/about in Nashville.
4. Jaguars (3-13). Offseason chaos/for an already bad team/makes great comedy.

AFC WEST
1. Broncos (12-4). Weary old Peyton/is surrounded by enough/to contend once more.
2. Chiefs* (10-6). The talent's there, but/the receivers need touchdowns/playmakers, step up!
3. Chargers (8-8). A potent offense/has many Rivers to cross/if playoffs are goal.
4. Raiders (4-12). Last year in Oakland?/Question marks abound, although/the youth shows promise.

NFC NORTH
1. Packers (11-5). Losing Jordy hurts/but Rodgers will persevere/in the land of cheese.
2. Vikings (9-7). Teddy and All Day/on paper, a lethal pair/but unknowns linger.
3. Lions (8-8). A boy named Suh, gone/in comes Haloti Ngata/a small step backwards.
4. Bears (6-10). Adieu, weak Trestman/sly Fox picks up the pieces/but Jay doesn't care.

NFC EAST
1. Eagles (11-5). Uh... hi, Tim Tebow/you and Bradford might tag-team/Kelly, mad genius?
2. Cowboys* (10-6). Besides running back/there's less uncertainty here/Randle might break out.
3. Giants (7-9). Odell's theatrics/will be a fun distraction/on a middling team.
4. Redskins (5-11). Gruden and Griffin/squabble; if you thought Congress/couldn't get work done...

NFC SOUTH
1. Panthers (9-7). Victors by default/a stingy defense beclouds/a suspect run game.
2. Falcons (8-8). Matty Ice is fine/but the D needs work A-SAP/will guru Quinn help?
3. Saints (6-10). Age and attrition/an overhaul looms, but don't/undervalue Brees.
4. Buccaneers (4-12). Winston is smokin'/...or so he thinks; growing pains/for jejune pirates.

NFC WEST
1. Seahawks (12-4). The 12th man matters/mostly unchanged, they'll conquer/Big Russ won't back down.
2. Cardinals* (10-6). Overachievers?/I disagree; these Redbirds/have many weapons.
3. 49ers (7-9). A mass exodus/an empire in tatters/but they might compete.
4. Rams (5-11). A healthy QB/is a godsend, but playoffs/would be a surprise.

OTHER PICKS:
NFL MVP: JJ Watt, Texans
Offensive ROY: Amari Cooper, Raiders
Defensive ROY: Landon Collins, Giants
First Head Coach Fired: Gus Bradley, Jaguars
Super Bowl L: Seahawks 24, Colts 19

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Random Notes, August 2015

What's on my mind:

+ If your political beliefs lean to the left (or even from somewhere in the center) last week's Republican presidential debate was low-hanging fruit. It was a special kind of train wreck, the kind that was both scary and unintentionally hilarious at the same time. At the center ring of the circus was Donald Trump, whose toxic presence dominated the proceedings. Between Mike Huckabee over-simplifying the purpose of our armed forces and Jeb Bush's awful "Veto Corleone" pun, the alleged debate was more attention grab than exchange on pressing issues. Ohio Governor John Kasich might have been the secret winner for hardly saying anything at all (random gay friend aside). Maybe these children can explain what was going on.

+ Jimmy Kimmel is "mean," Jay? Have you ever wondered if you're the shitheel?

+ Now that I'm between jobs again, I'm attempting to write a novella. I tried the snowflake method (Google it) but now I'm just writing particular passages and sequences, then piecing it together. Any advice is welcome.

+ Family Update: if it's not one thing, it's the other. My father spent two nights in the hospital in late July with what could best be described as stroke-like symptoms, but not a full-fledged stroke. Earlier this week, my mother had a severe case of nausea, the possible result of food poisoning, which ended up being a urinary tract infection.

Next Week: my 2015 NFL preview.

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

The World Through a Monocle

In late July, I discovered by accident that I had complete access to the archives of The New Yorker. I was aware that the magazine, which I'd read since I was a precocious grade-schooler, had past articles on display on their web site. I assumed incorrectly that you needed to pay a fee (my mail subscription sufficed) and that the articles were available were available only by searching by topic. So rarely am I ever so glad to be dead wrong.

The New Yorker was another one of those quick reads that molded my malleable mindset as I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I have always been a voracious reader, and even in second grade was I aware of this magazine's status as a brass ring of intellectual savvy. Of course, upon first reading The New Yorker about 90% of my interest was in the cartoons; they were never knee-slapping funny, but witty and urbane enough to draw the attention of a bookish tween. Eventually my attention veered to Shouts & Murmurs, the short humor piece that ended each issue in the '90s and early 2000s. Then I was reading the film and theater reviews, then "Talk of the Town," then pretty much reading the whole damn thing cover to cover, rather than skimming half of the articles.

When I wrote about Playboy and MAD magazine a couple of years ago, I commented on how that particular magazine had progressed over the years. What was astonishing about reading vintage issues of The New Yorker was how little it changed. The layout of the magazine, beginning with "Goings On About Town" and a tiny table of contents on page 2 or 4, was set in late 1925... and didn't change until 1988 or so, when the contents got its own page. It was black and white and rather staid, yet straight to the point. Of course, substance came before anything else; the quality of writing, from the short fiction to profiles to literary criticism, hardly wavered. How it was presented was irrelevant.

Additionally, the sophisticated aesthetic of the magazine, especially in the early years of the magazine both gave the magazine character and proved at times a hindrance. Reading the "Talk of the Town" in any issue from the 1920s well into the 1950s has the feel of an inside joke, isolated in time even though the only people that found it funny are long dead. In short, it was the anti-MAD magazine nearly 30 years before Bill Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman joined forces. As the famed "Hiroshima" issue from 1946 proved, the editors weren't afraid to be deadly serious, either.

Alas, nothing can stop the slow train of progress, and that's where Tina Brown enters. Her arrival as editor-in-chief in 1992 shook up the stodgy, aristocratic air of the magazine's Times Square offices: "Talk of The Town" was less anecdotal and more op-ed, the page-to-page layout was tweaked, color images graced the editorial content, legendary photographer Richard Avedon was brought aboard to contribute those aforementioned images. Acknowledging the graphic novel as an art form, Brown also tapped "Maus" creator Art Speigelman to draw original essays for the magazine. Even the contents page, a weird little afterthought for so long, became more detailed. The WASP bluebloods were dying or fading into irrelevance, Brown assumed correctly; the left-leaning intellectual was the anchor was now the magazine's present and future. The old lady in Dubuque will still be on the outside looking in.

Compared to the other periodicals that I read regularly, The New Yorker can be the most time-consuming, the most challenging, and sometimes the most rewarding. I had outgrown young adult literature before anyone else I knew, and even if the leap was a little too big, I don't regret it. Access to 90 years of world class writing is more than just bridging the gap; it's providing further nourishment.

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Friday, July 31, 2015

Banking on Nothing

For the past five months, I've held down a temp position with a company that handles insurance claims for an ambulance company. What I'm doing is essentially data entry; I started out doing the first stage of billing for ambulance claims, and I've parlayed that into doing the insurance aspect as well. I'm not selling insurance, just crunching numbers and accumulating personal information, but this position offers some parallels to a near-miss situation I had half a decade ago.

I tried to downplay it on this blog, but the Summer of 2010 was pretty rough for me. Between being unemployed, the first round of family health issues (culminating in my mom having a stroke) and feeling increasingly isolated from my old social circles, it was a struggle to maintain a positive mindset. Some of that was fate, but my own naivete was also in play.

I lucked out insofar that I found work right after college. I worked 20 hours a week at my uncle's insurance office, then applied to a substitute teacher for extra money. I had my mind set on a career in the radio industry (which I've discussed before), so after my uncle's death and my abrupt dismissal from Salem Communications, I had nothing to fall back on. It was too late in the school year to apply anywhere to sub, so I applied for unemployment benefits and began my first real extensive job search online.

Within a week of losing my job, I set up accounts on CareerBuilder and Monster.com, two sites that I still occasionally glance at five years later. I posted my resume and hoped for the best, while also maintaining a goal of finishing at least one job application a day. Within a day or two of posting my resume, I began to get offers from local insurance agencies. I had never worked in sales before, but the form letter was convincing enough to at least consider the possibility.

Once such company was Bankers Life. They were holding an open house at their regional office in Palos Heights, a town 35 minutes of east of my parents' house. I put on the only suit I owned at the time and made the long drive, where a group of about 20 were seated in the center of the office. We listened to a 40-minute presentation by the branch's managers, which was followed by a Q&A session. It was a sales position with a 100% commission, some door-to-door soliciting, no upfront base salary, and obviously there would be a long commute, but I was simply happy to have my foot in the door.

The day after the group interview, Bankers Life called back to ask how everything went, and if I would be interested in going to a second presentation. I said yes, and a few days later I made the trek back to Palos Heights to watch a Powerpoint presentation. We were now in a shared conference room in another part of the building, with about a dozen people from the original group attending. The day after that, I was asked if I was still interested; I said yes, and a one-on-one interview with one of the managers was arranged.

The interview turned out to be quite an experience. I found out shortly after my arrival that I was the only person in the whole group to agree to get interviewed. The man who interviewed me was a piece of work. Norm was a self-made man with a beautiful wife and a time-share in the Bahamas, with awards adorning one full wall of his office and a few more on a nearby end-table. He exuded self-confidence, but his idea of persuasion bordered into bullying. When he asked me if I agreed about something, I said "yes" as if my life depended upon his mercy. Next thing I know, I agreed to pay for training courses and for the exam for a state license, all in advance.

The next two weeks were an epic cram session. I was given two textbooks to study the ins and outs of selling life insurance, but I wasn't absorbing anything. My ability to take the exam I had already paid for depended upon whether I could pass an online practice test; where 70% was a passing grade, the best I could muster on a dozen tries was 58%. The pre-exam was timed, so flipping through notes would've run out the clock. I drove to Schaumberg for a two-day training program held at a La Quinta, which clarified some things but couldn't quite get me over the hump. When Norm called to ask how things were going, I grinned insincerely and said I was making progress.

The exam was scheduled for 8 AM on a Saturday morning. I brought all my materials with me, even though you couldn't use notes on the test. As I walked into the state testing office, I explained to the receptionist that I did not get the needed 70% on the practice test. They told me that under no circumstances I could take the test now, but I could reschedule and pay another fee to do so. I left the testing office in defeat, walked back to my car in the misty rain, and left a voice mail for the pre-test company to demand a refund (they eventually said no). I also e-mailed Norm to explain my situation, but he never replied. For all intents and purposes, my "career" at Bankers Life was over.

In spite of getting cajoled out of $300, Bankers Life sent me another form e-mail six months later, and I responded tersely that I wanted to be excluded from any other correspondence. As recently as earlier this year, whenever I would update my resume on CareerBuilder or Monster I would get similar e-mails hyping the benefits of a career as a "senior marketing executive" with AFLAC, Farmers Insurance Group, and the such. I would respond by asking the representative if the position was 100% commission and if I would have to pay for training and a license. About 80% of the time they would get dodgy and ask me to attend their informational session, and the conversation would die right there. The other 20% or so would say admit that you need to pay for a state sales license (which is true) but they offered a base salary for the first six months. In that case, correspondence would halt because I simply wasn't interested.

I write this as a cautionary tale of what happens when an opportunity turns out to be too good to be true. As tempting as it may be at times, I have sworn off insurance sales and its ilk; I had a temp position in the records room at a now-shuttered Farmers Insurance corporate office, and that was about as close to repeating fate that I was comfortable with. If you're struggling to find work or are underemployed, as I've been for parts of the last five years, don't jump on the first possible opportunity unless you know you're absolutely qualified. My condolences to the other people in the world who were suckered into such an allegedly lucrative career.

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

By a Hair

Every now and then, I like to post an assortment of quick dispatches:

+ It scares me a little to see Donald Trump in second place in the latest GOP presidential polls. If it were any other dark horse candidate I'd be amused at the slightest, but Trump's campaign announcement --a hopelessly clueless diatribe where he vilified Mexican day workers-- has corralled together the staunchest hardliners on immigration. It's essentially a delicately assembled alliance of bigots and reactionary, middle-aged white males, rallying around the maypole for an out of touch, camera-hungry multi-millionaire. At this rate, Trump can't be ignored; it will only enable him further. For now, we'll just have to wait until his campaign inevitably falls apart.

+ There is no question about Hillary Clinton's frontrunner status, but at least the hodgepodge of other Democratic candidates is at least making the race look interesting. The far left has found an unlikely savior in Bernie Sanders, moderates have found some interest in former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and the few remaining conservative Democrats are placing their bets on Sen. Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee is... here, I guess. Maybe the sudden return of Bloom County will help make sense of all this.

+ Am I imaging things, or are people downplaying what an embarrassment it was for the Mexican government to let "El Chapo" escape? Heads must be rolling at every level.

+ Finally, this month marks the second anniversary of Stu News, my satire-based Facebook page. I'm still posting six jokes a week for your comedy pleasure. Check it out if you haven't done so already (or recently).

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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Goin' to the Chapel

The judicial branch of the U.S. government is usually taken for granted. It doesn't command the hype and bloviating that the legislative and executive branches demand, especially in this day and age. The Supreme Court exists in a shroud of mystery, their discussions and arguments sealed airtight in their cozy Washington chamber. We don't think much of it, except when the judiciary season ends every late June and any political wonk worth their salt is scrutinizing the court's latest round of decisions.

For a Supreme Court that supposedly leans 5-4 in favor of conservatives, this year's round of decisions was an unexpected boost for a decidedly liberal president. Any conservative's hope of a lame duck presidency was quashed: the president's ambitious overhaul of our nation's health care system --er, "Obamacare"-- was kept intact in a narrow vote, and another slim decision legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. The impact of Obamacare still remains to be seen, and kinks clearly still need to be worked out, but the opposition has been forced to surrender.

As for Obergefell v. Hodges, the president might attempt to take credit but this was a populist court decision. Barack Obama's legacy will be filled with milestones in social progress (mostly for LGBTQ rights) but the fight for gay marriage first gained momentum about ten years ago, when the president was still a freshman U.S. senator. He championed the cause, albeit belatedly, but he never led the fight. Like many Americans, President Obama will have to sit down, kick back, and be amused the sheer novelty of two men getting married in deep-red locales like Mississippi and Arizona.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

The New Titletown

I'm not tired of the winning yet.

Last week, the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 on home ice to clinch their third Stanley Cup title in recent memory. They have not only won just as many championships in six years then they did in the previous eight decades, but they've become the closest thing the NHL has to a dynasty in the post-lockout, salary cap era. In a city largely associated with sports mediocrity, "Da Hawks" have become a bright beacon of hope in a coalmine of futility. There was hardly anything to indicate ten years ago that this could ever happen to these perennial cellar-dwellers. (Of the "Original Six" NHL teams, only the Rangers have won fewer Stanley Cups.)

Unlike the deciding game in 2010 and 2013, I stayed home. I was wary of driving into the city when the nearest interstate drives right up to the stadium, especially in rush hour. It was also raining heavily, and any other plans simply never materialized. After leaving work, I ran a quick errand, took a power nap, than convened with my family to watch game 6 in our living room. It was a rare occasion for all four of us to be watching the same thing on TV, let alone the same TV. Both of my parents were on the mend --Mom had a staph infection, Dad's dizzy spells forced him to go to physical rehab-- and living at home has become more of an obligation than anything else.

Amid a growing mountain of stress, the Blackhawks have become a weird kind of constant in my life. I couldn't care less about the Cubs or White Sox, the Bears are rebuilding, the Bulls are a good team that hit a plateau before ever finding greatness, and the Fire (the soccer team, not the TV show) are all but irrelevant. This city has its problems, but the hockey team almost everyone forgot about a decade ago is not one of them. It's one thing when something once assumed impossible happens, let alone three times. May the good times roll while they last.

GO HAWKS!!!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Speaker Goes Silent

An Illinois politician turned out to be corrupt? You don't say!

In my home state, anytime anyone is elected you almost have to assume they're guilty until proven innocent. It's jaded and cynical, and both the Democratic and Republican parties have hogtied opposing candidates to their alleged crimes (with mixed success) but corruption in the Land of Lincoln transcends parties and political beliefs. Everyone assumes the whole system is tainted, and we're not without reason. You start wondering about people who have no perceived history of wrongdoing, the Bruce Rauners and Jesse Whites of our upside-down little state.

Rep. Dennis Hastert, the homegrown congressman who was second in line to the Oval Office in the early and mid-2000s, is no exception. The two major charges against him seem par for the course in Illinois: he violated federal banking law and lied to the FBI. Unlike a certain attention-hog imbecile that spent six years as our governor, the reasoning behind these two charges are so sordid, you can't blame Hastert for avoiding the media.

Apparently, Hastert had relations with a teenage boy some 35-odd years ago. To cover up the sexual abuse, the small-town teacher gave this student a handsome sum of hush money. Hastert continued to pay off his victim until he apparently committed suicide in the 1990s. In the meantime, Hastert ran for public office and rose through the Republican ranks. I'd go more into detail, but certain details are being kept from the media. To make matters worse, Hastert's alleged lies to the FBI is in direct violation of the Patriot Act... which Hastert helped pass in the Autumn of 2001.

Illinois has seen its share of controversies, but never a sex scandal. In a perverse way, it brings the GOP's late '90s witch hunt of Bill Clinton full circle. As a puritanical section of the Republican Party nearly got the president kicked out of office for perjury, Speaker New Gingrich was forced to step down for past indiscretions. His immediate successor, Rep. Bob Livingston, lasted a week or so before he was caught in his own sexual imbroglio. The baton was then passed to Hastert, a square-jawed former wrestling coach who went on to become the longest-serving Speaker of the House in GOP history.

Rep. Hastert has plead not guilty, and there's a good possibility there will be a plea bargain before the former SOTHOR ever stands trail. This is more than just a fall from grace; this is a fall from decency. He wanted to protect the children, yet couldn't protect them from himself. Hastert was never the humble man without airs that was he hyped to be; he was a politician through and through. The long line of corrupt lemmings in Illinois politics just got a little bit longer, one by one jumping off a cliff of reprobate oblivion.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

My 10th Anniversary Blog

Ten damn years.

When I wrote my first blog entry on the then-nascent TV.com in June 2005, I really wasn't sure what was the point. I was curious about the concept of having a blog, especially on a site where I was a prolific contributor yet also somewhat anonymous. I had my niche --SNL, classic sitcoms, late night TV-- and I made some acquaintances through that. The double-edged sword of CNet buying out TV Tome (and its forgetten sister site, Movie Tome) and the perception of selling out was what actually allowed the new site to become more of a community. We weren't just screen names and post totals on a lo-fi episode guide site, but human faces with human feelings. That layer of anonymity was gone, though some chose to hide behind some kind of veneer. These were halycon days, a period of unabashed nerdiness that lasted about five, maybe six years.

Of everyone that made TV.com hum in the later part of the 2000s, I'm one of the last remaining. I still enjoy the luxuries of being an editor --well, what's left of them, anyway-- though the forums and actual community has atrophied. Most of the people I knew on the site have become friends on other outlets of social media, and the Facebook group Return to TV.com has maintained the conversation in exile. It's not the same, but at least most of us have stayed in touch. The temptation to quit TV.com altogether ebbs and flows in my mind.

If this 10th anniversary blog doesn't sound that celebratory, I have two reasons why. First, I consider my anniversary with the site to be February 1st, 2003, when I launched my TV Tome account. Even though I've been the editor of the SNL episode guide almost immediately after the conversion, it was my contributions in the 2 1/2 years prior that earned that position. I built my status by being prolific in the SNL forum as well as the now-defunct sports discussion board, then submitting info to fill the gaps in Late Night and Late Show with David Letterman. I rose through the ranks at astonishing speed, making the leap from Level 1 to Level 7 within my first two weeks on the new site. Before the level-up system was more or less abandoned last year, I was on the cusp of Level 64, not anywhere near the all-time submission champ but still comfortably in the top 25.

My second reason is that I struggle to seperate my personal life from the half-assed veneer I created. This blog (which I "similcast" with TV.com from 2008 to 2012) became an outlet for me to discuss anything I wanted. My weekly updates are and always will be ramshackle; I'll talk politics one week, music the next, then those two plus my family the week after that. It goes without saying that my life is significantly different than when I was 20: I'm slogging through another temp job, both of my parents still have recurring health issues, I've been living at home a lot longer than planned, and overall I'm just forcing myself through the peaks and valleys of adulthood. On the other hand, I'm far less introverted than I was 10 years ago, my dabbles in writing, comedy and improv have become almost a part-time job onto itself, and I've finally come to terms with the fact that my radio aspirations were never meant to be. (I haven't totally ruled out voiceover work.)

Navel-gazing aside, I want to thank anyone and everyone who has ever read my blog for commenting and interacting over the past decade. I am grateful for the support of my friends and family, including the people I've never met in person that have taken a foothold in my universe. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think anyone was interested, and you've been vigilant and then some.

Ten damn years.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My 10th Annual Fantasy Emmy Ballot

Technically, the 2014-15 TV season doesn't officially end until June 1st. With scripted programming now running more or less year-round, early June is the thin red line for Emmy contention. It has been both a transitional and bountiful year, with longstanding Emmy favorites either bowing out and fading into old age, which a bumper crop of quality programming ready to gobble up some hardware. The nominees won't be announced for another six weeks, but I've never been afraid to jump the gun.

Supporting Actress, Comedy: Mayam Bialik, The Big Bang Theory; Julie Bowen, Modern Family; Anna Chlumsky, Veep; Allison Janney, Mom; Judith Light, Transparent; Kate McKinnon, SNL.
Supporting Actor, Comedy: Andre Braugher, Brooklyn Nine-Nine; Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; Ty Burrell, Modern Family; Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family; Tony Hale, Veep; Steve Zissis, Togetherness.
Supporting Actress, Drama: Christine Baranski, The Good Wife; Christina Hendricks, Mad Men; Kate Mulgrew, Orange is the New Black; Dame Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey; Sissy Spacek, Bloodline; Cecily Tyson, How to Get Away With Murder.
Supporting Actor, Drama: Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul; Jim Carter, Downton Abbey; Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones; Vincent Kartheiser, Mad Men; Mandy Patinkin, Homeland; John Slattery, Mad Men.

Lead Actress, Comedy: Lena Dunham, Girls; Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie; Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep; Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly; Amy Poehler, Parks & Recreation.
Lead Actor, Comedy: Louie C.K. Louie; Don Cheadle, House of Lies; Matt LeBlanc, Episodes; William H. Macy, Shameless; Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory; Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent.
Lead Actress, Drama: Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder; Taraji P. Henson, Empire; Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife; Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men; Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin; Kerry Washington, Scandal.
Lead Actor, Drama: Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom; Jon Hamm, Mad Men; Terrence Howard, Empire; Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul; Kevin Spacey, House of Cards; Dominic West, The Affair.

Best Limited Series*: "American Crime," ABC; "American Horror Story: Freak Show," FX; "The Honorable Woman," BBC/PBS; "Olive Kitteridge," HBO; "Texas Rising," The History Channel.
Best Comedy Series: "Louie," FX; "Modern Family," ABC; "Silicon Valley," HBO; "Transparent," Amazon Prime; "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Netflix; "Veep," HBO.
Best Drama Series: "Downton Abbey," BBC/PBS; "Game of Thrones," HBO; "House of Cards," Netflix; "Mad Men," AMC; "Masters of Sex," Showtime; "Orange is the New Black," Netflix.

*new category for miniseries and limited-run shows

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Close the Door, Have a Seat

This Sunday is the series finale of "Mad Men," a show that I've been watching somewhat religiously since its third season. (I caught up with the first two in repeats.) I don't watch a lot of dramas, but the few that I do enjoy have a larger ensemble cast and an exquisite attention to detail.

What fascinates me most about "Mad Men" is the survival-of-the-fittest mentality that drives most of the action. When the series began, the setting was the Spring of 1960, and the partners of Sterling Cooper were the kings of their respective world. As the series progresses, however circumstances both within and beyond their control force them to adjust to a world that is making leaps and bounds of social progress. To an extent, the show is bifurcated between these two scenarios. The first three seasons finds the ad agency at the height of Madison Avenue's power; after getting bought out by a British firm, then find themselves on the verge of being sold again, they break off into their own independent agency again. This sets up the second half of the series, when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (later SCDP plus Cutler Gleason Chaough, then Sterling Cooper & Partners) is more or less a fledgling upstart with heightened competition.

Setting a TV show in the '60s also opens up the action to a feast of historical irony. Look at the clients that seek SCDP's prowess throughout the show's run: a dog food company that refuses to switch from horse meat. A swimsuit manufacturer that won't make bikinis. A southern-based chain of auto body shops expanding northward... that refuses to hire blacks. Jai alai. The agency's success is scoring major, familiar clients like Kodak or Chevrolet pales next to this imaginary graveyard of businesses that wouldn't adapt to the times. (Granted, Burger Chef lands somewhere in between...)

Above all, I'll miss the characters. Don Draper was an enigma for the ages, a man who put up the most labyrinth con in existence, but failed to maintain that double life and nearly lost everything. "Mad Men" was also about the journey of Peggy Olson, from naive secretary to jaded, savvy proto-feminist copy editor. Pete Campbell was the smug beneficiary of nepotism and old money, his greatest asset becoming his greatest character weakness. Joan Holloway Harris, who used her feminine wiles to her advantage, would eventually be trapped in the role of a sex object. Media guru Harry Crane went from office punching bag to Machiavellian tool. One of my favorite characters of all was Roger Sterling, son of the agency's co-founder and man of many vices. It wasn't until SC&P was bought out by McCann Erickson that Roger realized he basically whored himself out of being an advertising power player.

"Mad Men" was AMC's first scripted series when it bowed in the summer of 2007, and in quality and consistency it has been eclipsed only by its network neighbor "Breaking Bad." It was the tentpole of the third (maybe fourth) great era of American television, and the countless essays written about the show in recent weeks have been both insightful in substance and deserved in magnitude. (Also, thank you for "The Suitcase," the show's center point and arguably the best hour of television in the last five years.) I can't do justice to the layered performances and attention to minutiae that enthralled me over seven seasons, other than it totally enthralled me.

Next Week: my tenth annual fantasy Emmy ballot.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Through a Fifth Freshman's Eyes

May already? Where did the first third of the year go?

It's already prom season at most of the local high schools, which means graduation is in a few weeks. As I've done in past years, I've written a list that offers the world perspective of the average American high school senior, most of whom were born in either 1996 or 1997. This was inspired (or ripped off, depending on your perspective) by the "mindset list" that Beloit College releases every year. Here goes:

If you're a graduating senior...

...Hong Kong has always been part of China.
...you're used to a woman being U.S. Secretary of State.
...divorce has always been legal in Ireland.
...scientists have always been cloning farm animals.
...NASA has always been able to explore Mars.
...there has always been at least one electric car on American highways.
...there have always been Asian long-horned beetles on American soil.
...Ellen Degeneres has always been openly gay.
...you've never had a combo meal at Burger Chef.
...you've never shopped at Venture, Woolworth's, Handy Andy, Thrift Drug, or Omni Superstore.
...Steve Jobs was never been associated with any company besides Apple.
...the Freedom of Information Act has always been in effect.
...the Dow Jones Industrial Average has never been below 6,000.
...there has never been a hotel in Las Vegas called the Hacienda.
...you don't understand why '90s kids much such a big deal out of "The Simpsons."
..."South Park" and Toonami have always been on TV.
...TV has always had parental guidance ratings.
...TV has always had those little watermarks on the lower corner of the screen that tells you which network you're watching.
...Bryant Gumbel has never hosted "Today," and Bob Saget has never hosted "America's Funniest Home Videos."
...The Disney Channel has always been a basic cable channel (as opposed to, say, HBO or Showtime).
...Kobe Bryant has always played in the NBA.
...Gregg Popovich has always been head coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
...you have likely never attended a Hartford Whalers game, and there has always been an NHL team in North Carolina.
...the Florida --er, Miami-- Marlins have a tendency to win championships, then completely disembowel the team shortly after.
...Tupac Shakur, Spiro Agnew, Morey Amsterdam, Eva Cassidy, Tiny Tim, Pete Rozelle, Carl Sagan, JonBenet Ramsey, Townes Van Zandt, Deng Xiaoping, Biggie Smalls, Willem de Kooning, Allen Ginsberg, Laura Nyro, Blackstone the magician, Gianni Versace, Robert Mitchum, Jimmy Stewart, Charles Kuralt, Fela Kuti, William S. Burroughs, Brandon Tartikoff, Princess Diana, and Mother Teresa have always been dead.

Am I missing anything? I'm asking in earnest, but I understand if you don't want to add to this blighted nostalgia trip.

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