Friday, November 30, 2007

Holiday movie favorites: An Unscientifc Survey

Whilst sojourning at our home a week ago, Older Daughter's Boyfriend claimed not to have seen "Miracle on 34th Street". I immediately undertook to remedy this, although we were interrupted by the start of the Thanksgiving Day football schedule. Now that she knows, however, I'm certain that Older Daughter will take up the cause and make certain that he sees it all the way through.

And if he knows what's good for him, he'd better like it, too.

I know "Miracle" has been remade at least twice, but the original, with Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood, stands head and shoulders above the latter day imitations. In fact, I have arbitrarily assigned it the No. 1 position in my own Top 5 Christmas Movie list.

What a great movie: The lawyer's the good guy! Even opposing counsel (the prosecutor) is a good guy -- and so, too, the judge. (Hard to believe I'd like this, then, isn't it?) If you, like the Boyfriend, for some reason (perhaps you were raised by wolves?) haven't seen this movie, buy or rent it now.

The judge, by the way, was played by Gene Lockhart. He was June Lockhart's father. That would make him... Lassie's grandfather? (I wonder how young you can be and still get that joke. I probably wouldn't like the answer.)

Any Top 5 List like this is completely arbitrary and I'll probably disagree with it by next Christmas -- and maybe even this one -- but, if it serves as a starting spot for a stimulating discussion, why the heck not play along?

For no. 2 on the list, I recommend the original version of "Christmas in Connecticut" starring Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan.

The plot twists and turns agreeably until the principals get together, as they must, in any good comedy.

But, for me, the movie succeeds because of the performances of the wonderful character actors, such as S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall and Sydney Greenstreet. Yes, they were both in "Casablanca" as well (my nominee for greatest movie of all time), Sakall as Carl, the German headwaiter, and Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari. And Greenstreet was Kasper Gutman -- the Fat Man -- in "The Maltese Falcon". It's Sakall who steals the show in "Christmas in Connecticut" as Uncle Felix, who isn't Barbara Stanwyck's uncle at all.

If you buy or rent this movie, I'm pretty certain you'll agree it's "hunky-dunky."

No. 3 on my list is "The Bishop's Wife", with David Niven, Loretta Young, and Cary Grant.

Our kids were confused by this one, when they were younger, since they knew that Catholic bishops do not marry. They got over it.

It's hard to imagine, but David Niven is actually ruffled in this movie, even a tad flustered, as an overstressed bishop who prays for help in erecting a new cathedral and receives instead Cary Grant -- who seems to have a very un-angelic interest in Loretta Young. This may be Long Suffering Spouse's favorite Christmas movie. (Another of her favorites would be "My Favorite Wife," with Cary Grant, Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne. There's a great role for a judge in that movie, too -- played by Granville Bates -- as well as a Christmas ending... although it doesn't end on Christmas....)

The principals can't be upstaged in "The Bishop's Wife," but the supporting cast sure tries. I particularly like Monty Woolley as the old professor and James Gleason as Sylvester, the cab driver. Gleason you may remember as Max Corkle in "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (later remade as "Heaven Can Wait") or for his parts in two great Frank Capra movies, "Aresenic and Old Lace" and "Meet John Doe".

"Meet John Doe," by the way, is a very dark movie, especially by comparison to Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" -- which isn't on this list, but only because it's been done to death. "John Doe" seems to have slipped into the public domain, just as "Wonderful Life" did a few years back. That's when it was on one TV station or another all night long on Christmas Eve.

And just to contradict myself, I'll nominate as no. 4 on my list, a movie that is shown continuously every Christmas Day -- all day long -- "A Christmas Story".

Consistency, I remind you, is the hobgoblin of little minds.

I admit, however, that it wears on me by Christmas afternoon... when the kids are watching it for the sixth time. But still -- the first three or four times you see it every year -- it's great.

There are so many other wonderful Christmas movies, but I may have overstayed my welcome in the Golden Age of Hollywood... so for No. 5 I'll go with Bill Murray in "Scrooged".

That's Carol Kane here with Bill Murray. Kane plays a most unorthodox Ghost of Christmas Present.

I think of "Scrooged" as a cross between "Newtwork" and "A Christmas Carol." And no antlers were actually stapled on any mice during the course of the filming of this movie.

Now I turn it to you: What unforgivable omissions have I made? What are your top 5?

Note: The still from "The Bishop's Wife" was taken from this site which offers stills for sale... presumably without the '' overlay.

Back after a brief intermission

(Non Sequitur comic from this site.)

No, I didn't really miss posting the last couple of days because I was acting in solidarity with the striking Writers Guild -- I've actually been doing other things.

Actually, I have it on good authority that it's perfectly permissible to post to one's own blog during the strike -- I mean, if Ken Levine can do it, then surely I can as well.

If you're interested in Levine's hot-off-the-picket-line posts on the strike, click here, or here, here, or here. There are more strike posts on Mr. Levine's blog... but if you've clicked all these you can find the rest yourselves, can't you?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Heads or Tails #16 (Mark)

I suspected that Barb, Chairman and CEO of Heads or Tails, Inc., might have dipped into the old random word generator for this week's Heads or Tails topic -- "mark."

Mark what? Mark ye well? Mark Twain? Matthew, _______, Luke and John? I've read Barb's post this morning (
I don't think that's cheating) and I'm somewhat mollified. And relieved.

And in the meantime, I had an idea....

A lot of people are in the starting blocks now -- at least -- for the Christmas season. Maybe some of you are already in the race -- buying presents, decorating your homes, baking.

There is no season that brings out the Curmudgeon in me more than this one.

I'm never ready for it.

Money's extremely tight in the Curmudgeon home this year; there was no way that Long Suffering Spouse and I could go out shopping on "Black Friday." (There's something intimidating about giving your charge card to a 20-something cashier, watching her run it through the machine for approval, and then watching her try and stifle a horse laugh.... *Sigh*)

But Older Daughter and her Boyfriend were going to go shopping early Friday morning, they said. Then they stayed up until who knows when on Thanksgiving night.

I was unsurprised, therefore, when I came down in search of coffee Friday morning, that Long Suffering Spouse and I were the only ones up and moving. And we'd been listening to the news and traffic reports on the radio for awhile -- about stores that opened at 4:00 or 4:30 a.m., stampedes, long lines, traffic helicopters swooping low over suburban malls counting (on the fingers of one hand) the available parking spaces....

By 11:00 a.m., though, Older Daughter had returned to consciousness and come downstairs. She went in the den to try and rouse the Boyfriend. By 11:30, though still groggy, they were ready to leave. "Where will you go?" I asked, incredulous. "The last mall parking place vanished, like the dodo, long, long ago."

"Oh, we've got that all figured out," Older Daughter assured me. She always has it all figured out. Then reality intrudes. But, this time, the plan seemed sound: "We'll take the train downtown; then we don't have to worry about parking."

Hmmmmm, I thought. But Youngest Son was invited to join them and he agreed. No ring shopping today, I thought -- strictly to myself, of course.

And, I guess, they're at least in the starting blocks for Christmas.

Long Suffering Spouse suggested that we put the tree up on Friday or Saturday, while most of the kids were still home. "No!" I protested, "It's still November." She didn't really think the kids would actually help. So she shrugged and started her Christmas baking instead. She's at least in the starting blocks for Christmas.

For the last several days, I've been transcribing a document -- typing it out word by word. It's a document that started out life as an HTML printout. Since then, it's been faxed, photocopied, scanned, and reduced in size to the point where the type is, on first glance at least, a series of indecipherable marks -- smears, really. My magnifying glass (with the teeny little light bulb) is getting a workout on this project.

The bad part is that I actually have to read this document -- worse, I have to understand it -- and, worst of all, I will have to quote from and cite extensively to this document in another document I'm supposed to be preparing. So I'm transcribing. I can't go for more than an hour at a time without getting a queasy stomach and pounding head. Then I must recoup. This does not make me feel festive. But the client paid my first bill promptly and I am therefore highly motivated to complete this task, hoping all the while that I do not actually go blind. And I have other projects backing up as well, while this one takes far longer than projected.

So I'm not yet in the starting blocks for Christmas. I may be in the locker room. I probably have not even yet donned my uniform.

But Christmas is coming anyway.

On your mark, get set....

Monday, November 26, 2007

Wherein the Curmudgeon advises whether we got a Christmas picture done this year

Shelby inquired in a recent comment whether we would be able to do our annual Curmudgeon Family Christmas picture this year.

Well, almost annual: We didn't get one last year. Last year the problem at Thanksgiving (when we had traditionally taken the picture) was the comings and goings of our older children: Older Daughter didn't make it up from Indianapolis until after midnight, by which point Oldest Son had gone out for the evening. And Oldest Son left at 6:00 a.m. next morning (with eight friends, who'd stayed at our house overnight) on a flight to California. And then, at Christmas, when the family was entirely assembled, we discovered (too late) that Younger Daughter had lost the camera case to our digital camera... along with the spare battery and recharger. Which, presumably, was why she hadn't recharged the battery in the camera. (Follow the links if you're interested.)

This year, however, the entire family was scheduled to be under my roof all at the same time on Thanksgiving Day itself. We even had a photographer, since Older Daughter's Boyfriend was in attendance this year. (No, nothing to report yet on that front.) And, to increase our odds even more, Abuela had given Younger Daughter her very own digital camera for her recent birthday.

Long Suffering Spouse and I got up early and, since we had company, got dressed before coming downstairs, she to dress the turkey, me in search of coffee. I put on my festive Grinch tie. What a Curmudgeon should wear for a Christmas picture, of course.

Other people began moving within a few short hours. Oldest Son arrived (he has his own accommodations these days, you may remember), noticed that no football was on TV, and immediately changed the channel.

"I thought you were ready to take the picture," he told me.

"I am," I said. But Middle Son was not yet out of bed and Older and Younger Daughters had not yet gotten dressed. That got Oldest Son upset: It seems that somewhere around 10:30 or so Older Daughter, at Younger Daughter's urging, had texted Oldest Son, inquiring as to his whereabouts. He was asleep at the time. But, figuring that he was the only reason the picture was not yet taken, he rushed through his morning ablutions and drove out to our house.

Abuela called in the midst of this: She did not ask Long Suffering Spouse what time she should come by or when the turkey would be done. No, she only wanted to know if the picture had been taken. No? "I'll call back later," she said, and hung up.

Older Daughter and Younger Daughter then undertook to ready themselves. Older Daughter required only four or five outfit changes before she pronounced herself ready.

It was, however, still Thursday.

With Older Daughter's announcement, Middle Son roused himself and joined the family. But Long Suffering Spouse had to be pried from the kitchen. I decided that, this year, as in most years, I would sit in the middle of the couch. So I got out of my chair in the den and sat on the couch in the living room. It had been pulled forward from the wall in anticipation of a number of people standing behind.

And soon thereafter, it was all over. Younger Daughter did her best to ruin every picture by laughing too hard or looking the wrong way but -- I'm told -- we have one which may be acceptable. Neither Long Suffering Spouse nor I have had the heart to look at it yet. But it's on Younger Daughter's Facebook page, of course.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

And on a lighter note: Dancing chimps. Riverdancing chimps.

Not all the world's scientists, it seems, are working on the great issues of the day.

Take those in this lab, for instance.

Stem cell research breakthroughs and dancing chimps: You never know what you'll get at Second Effort.

Stem cell research breakthrough: Something to be thankful for

This report yesterday on Yahoo! News suggests that stem cells for medical research can be made now without creating or destroying human embryos.

AP Science Writer Malcolm Ritter reports, "Research teams in the United States and Japan showed that a simple lab technique can rival the complex and highly controversial idea of extracting stem cells from cloned embryos."

Ritter's article quotes the Rev. Thomas Berg of the Westchester Institute, a Roman Catholic think tank: "It's a win-win for everyone involved.... We have a way to move forward which ... brings the kind of painful national debate over this controversial research to very much a peaceful and promising resolution."

Who knows if the initial promise of this new method will be realized in further lab testing? But, for now, anyway, I hope Dr. Robert Lanza is right.

Lanza, according to Ritter's story, is involved with Advanced Cell Technology, a company that has been trying to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos. Ritter quotes Dr. Lanza as saying, "This work represents a tremendous scientific milestone — the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers' first airplane."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Early Sesame Street: Not suitable for younger or more sensitive viewers?

And I know what you're thinking: Some smear has been launched against a beloved children's show by some right-wing fundamentalist a la the late Jerry Falwell vs. Tinky Winky Teletubby.

But no! No right wing conspiracy is involved, at least not according to this article from the New York Times Magazine (genuflection optional). According to the linked article, the warning about early "Sesame Street" episodes comes direct from the very people who produce and market "Sesame Street" today!

Virginia Heffernan's story for the magazine quotes the warning label on the new release of the first two volumes of the show: "These early 'Sesame Street' episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child."

And there are some who claim that today's children aren't wrapped in cotton wool.

But surely they must be protected from Cookie Monster... eating cookies. In one scene (a parody of the old "Masterpiece Theater") he eats a pipe.

(Oh the humanity!)

Heffernan says that "Sesame Street" executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente cited the pipe bit as a particular example of why these old shows are "unsuitable for toddlers in 2007." And, of course, there's Oscar the Grouch. "On the first episode," Heffernan writes, "Oscar seems irredeemably miserable — hypersensitive, sarcastic, misanthropic. (Bert, too, is described as grouchy; none of the characters, in fact, is especially sunshiney except maybe Ernie, who also seems slow.)" Heffernan quotes Parente's assessment: "We might not be able to create a character like Oscar now."

And I checked. Honest. I made sure this was really on the New York Times website -- because -- I thought (and you make think also if you read the linked article) -- that this was something that really belongs in The Onion.

Heads or Tails #15 (Never Say Never)

In today's "Heads or Tails," Barb wants us to answer this question: "What is something you thought you'd never do or say, but now you do?"

How about, "I'm blogging?"

Who among us -- at least who among us who's old enough to remember Captain Kangaroo -- could even have imagined blogging when we were young? ("Counting flowers on the wall/ That don't bother me at all/ Playing Solitaire 'til dawn/ With a deck of 51/ Smokin' cigarettes and watchin' Captain Kangaroo....)

Computers were something vaguely threatening; sometimes they had to be talked to death like James T. Kirk seemed to do so often on "Star Trek." At the very least, they were giant, intimidating things. (They might even be deadly: Open the pod bay doors, HAL....) Oh, sure, they could be made fun of, as in "Desk Set," but we often try to make light of things that scare us. (See, Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein.) But who in the early '60's really imagined home computers as our toys and companions?

No. In the future, we were going to have robots. (The more sophisticated among us hoped these robots would obey Asimov's Three Laws.)

And we thought for sure there would be jetpacks.

C'mon -- admit it. You thought there'd be jetpacks, too.

We had nightmares about nuclear war ("Wooden Ships on the shoreline, sailing free and easy....) -- but who dreamed of Islamofascism? (Thus, in 1965, Frank Herbert's Dune, set in a distant future out among the stars, the author could use strange, exotic words few readers would have ever heard before: Jihad, for instance.)

We didn't predict the future very well -- not our own futures or the world's.

I suppose we might have imagined cell phones -- we did have Dick Tracy talking to his two-way wrist communicator every Sunday in the Comics -- but did we imagine that nearly everyone would one day walk down the street looking like they were talking to themselves?

So, let me venture out on a limb here and say we can never be sure what the future will hold.

But I'm still hoping for jetpacks.
For more about Heads or Tails, including the rules and graphics, click here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

You're not going anywhere, bub

(Found at this site.)

I guess you're supposed to stand still until someone changes the sign?

Note to Democratic Presidential Candidates, continued -- the other side of the coin

And I do mean coin.

Here's another Prickly City comic, this one from November 17, also taken from Yahoo! Comics. (Click to enlarge.)

My blogfriend Hilda responded to the preceding post, also illustrated with a Prickly City comic strip, in which I asked why we shouldn't be afraid of national health care in America. She said, "Because many other industrialized nations have socialized medicine and manage just fine. Despite recent election results and the fact that 'The Bachelor' is still on the air we're not dumber than they are, so we should be able to do it right."

But Jean-Luc Picard (who seems very well acquainted with conditions in 21st Century Britain for one piloting a starship in the 24th Century) responded, "The NHS isn't that good here in Britain."

But that's just an opinion. My blogfriend Claire has been writing about the trials and tribulations of her mother, the cupboard monster, and her on-again, off-again surgery and attendant complications. She wasn't being political -- she wrote as a concerned -- if almost completely irreverent -- daughter. I would not want necessary surgery for someone in my family set and canceled and set and canceled again because of someone else's priorities....

But, Hilda says, "[M]ost of the Democratic plans as I understand them will give you the option to maintain a private plan if you and/or your employer choose to BUT those who don't have that option will at least get some degree of health care so they don't die in the street like animals."

Point 1 first: Wal-Mart can't wait for national health care. Do you think any major American employer is going to continue to offer private health insurance (except maybe as a perk for top executives) once we get our own national health system? One of the big excuses for the decline of the American auto industry is that too much is paid into health and pension plans and not enough into coming up with cars that best the foreign competition.

Well, private pensions are already just about history. Do you think American auto manufacturers will offer private health insurance on day one after national health comes into effect?

Then Point 2: At least in Chicago, people don't die in the street from lack of health care. They may die waiting in line....

I had the uncomfortable experience of trying to get public health service for my brother a little more than a year ago. The lines before the clinic opened were horrific and the people waiting seemed listless and sullen and there was (it seemed to me) an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. We have great emergency care for the poor -- we have a number of public hospitals and all hospitals that accept public money -- and that's all of them -- are obliged to take a certain percentage of charity cases of lose that privilege. (There has been a modest scandal here about how few charity cases some of the Catholic hospitals really take. About all I can say for certain is that my brother had to be admitted recently -- and he was diagnosed with an "anxiety attack." The cynic in me says this is what hospitals call heart attacks when patients have no insurance; because of the minimal diagnosis, he could be, and was, released in only a day or two.)

Long lines and short staffing in clinics prompts people to overburden emergency services, even where there is no emergency. I have heard stories of expectant mothers calling 911 for rides to clinics for well-baby care. (In the stories I've heard and read the callers don't state the real reason in the call; they claim 'difficulty breathing.') Sometimes these stories come out when someone dies waiting for an ambulance in a real emergency (because, for example, someone didn't believe a real difficulty breathing call).

But I can't help but think that part of the problem with delivery of health services to our poorest people here is the fact that it is already politicized. It is already a patronage haven. There may be less than generous funding that has come into our system from Washington -- dominated as it was for several years recently by right-wing Republicans. But it isn't Republicans who allocate where the money is spent here. And it isn't Republicans who provide the local component of our public health care funding. Nor is it Republicans who are cutting nursing jobs and sparing management positions in Cook County.

So... I'm not reassured. But I'm not thrilled with our current system either. I wrote just last month about abuses I've witnessed in our current system. But I'd like another option, please.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Note to Democratic Presidential Candidates: This is what I'm afraid of

Prickly City from November 15. Obtained at Yahoo! Comics. (Click to enlarge.)

Now: Why shouldn't I be afraid?

Younger Daughter and Long Suffering Spouse have gone to the grocery today

But will they both return?

These mother-daughter bonding moments go so much better in the movies than in real life.

And they're recently reconfigured the Jewel (in Chicagoese, "Jewels") so that Long Suffering Spouse was frustrated in advance, knowing that she will have difficulty finding anything she's looking for.

Oh -- and they got a late start because Long Suffering Spouse and I got hooked on a movie while having our coffee this morning. So the crowds will be enormous. It being the weekend before Thanksgiving and all.

Grounds for apprehension indeed.

And, to cap it all, it's cold and rainy and just plain icky out.

I believe "icky" is the appropriate technical term.

On the other hand... I get to listen to my music really loud because they're all out of the house now. (Now playing... "Bernadette" by the Four Tops....)

But this too shall pass.

Wait... is that the door?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Landlords always take out the garbage -- and other tall tales I've learned

The landlord was trained as a doctor in his native South Korea; he never qualified to practice medicine in this country, though. His English was never quite good enough; when he was deposed we had a Korean-English translator.

The tenants were recent Iranian immigrants (this is a story of a case I handled many years ago); when family members were deposed we needed a Farsi-English translator.

How, I asked, did you communicate with one another? "In English," said the landlords. "In English," said the tenants.

Although all parties in the case were foreign-born, they fell readily into all-American roles.

My clients, the landlords, Dr. and Mrs., were deeply hurt by the tenants' suit. After all, did they not help Mrs. Tenant bring in her groceries when they saw her coming back from the store? Did Dr. Landlord not always take down the garbage from the back porch when the tenants left it there? They were always around the place, they said, tending it, fixing it, maintaining it in pristine condition. I think there's a secret school somewhere where landlords -- from every background -- are taught to say the same things. If anyone had asked, I was quite sure that Mrs. Landlord would have claimed to have brought homemade chicken soup to the tenants' apartment whenever anyone had the sniffles.

Fortunately no one asked about the chicken soup.

And the tenants, too, had all the clichés down pat: They only saw the landlord on the first of the month, when the rent was due. He was impossible to miss on that day -- and impossible to find on any other day of the month, particularly when repairs were needed. And repairs were frequently needed because the landlords didn't maintain the building at all: Wasn't it the leaking bathroom radiator that was the cause of their daughter's injuries?

Well, that certainly was the allegation: Daughter Tenant, 21, had an epileptic seizure and fell while exiting the shower into a scalding hot pool of water on the bathroom floor. She suffered facial scarring as a result of this event and her family charged that it was the leaky bathroom radiator that had caused the pool of hot water.

Radiators are supposed to be hot -- especially in January when this accident occurred -- but they're not supposed to leak pools of scalding water. And each of the tenants testified how they'd complained about the problem every time they saw the landlord -- you know, on rent day -- and he never fixed anything.

The family heard a loud noise when the incident happened, forced open the bathroom door and rescued the girl from further injury.

There was a scar.

So I arranged for the girl to be seen by a plastic surgeon to evaluate the scar. The plaintiff's attorney couldn't complain: I was going to have the scar evaluated. Could it be reduced? Could it be removed? But I also asked the surgeon to evaluate how the scar was formed.

What he told me -- and what he told the court in an Affidavit -- was that the scar was consistent with one caused by contact with a heat source -- falling against the radiator -- as opposed to one caused by scalding. The girl couldn't contradict any of this: She was unconscious. And the family members found her on the floor, but that was not inconsistent with her slumping there after being burned. As for the water on the floor? The shower was still running.

The court granted us summary judgment: That means there was no trial. The court decided the case as a matter of law, that the girl could not hope to prove her case against the landlord. An appeal was filed, but it was not pursued.

I suppose this is a good story to illustrate how a little medical or scientific analysis can help find the truth in a lawsuit -- but this case just says "America" to me.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

An anniversary approaches and a dilemma also

Three weeks from tomorrow, if it and I both survive that far, this blog will observe its second Blogiversary.

Entirely by coincidence, the Chicago Tribune ran a feature this week on blogging, an email interview of Derek Gordon, vice president for marketing of Technorati by Tribune reporter Patrick T. Reardon.

The transcribed interview is entitled "Welcome to obscurity: Blogs and the real world," which pretty much sums up the interview's theme.

According to the interview, Technorati is tracking 109.2 million blogs at this point (up from 94 million just this past August) -- but, according to Gordon, "just over 99 percent" of these blogs get no hits in the course of a year. "The vast majority of blogs," Gordon says, "exist in a state of total or near-total obscurity."

Makes you feel pretty good about spending so much time in the Blogosphere, doesn't it? And, to pile on, Gordon adds that 3-7,000 new "splogs" -- spam blogs -- are created every single day. These, Gordon says, "are mostly link farms with various nefarious ends designed to both game ranking systems and to get unsuspecting folks to click into sites that have dubious/illegal monetization schemes."

At least this blog has climbed out of the state of total and near-total obscurity... and into a state of semi-total obscurity.

Moreover, on many days at least, Second Effort is doing better than Rudy Giuliani's campaign blog. This sounds pretty impressive... until you look at yesterday's High 5 column by the Tribune's Steve Johnson. Johnson wrote that, "Nobody seems to be reading Rudy Giuliani's official campaign blog, says Slate, citing the blog's own statistics counting fewer than 40 views per day of a key feature. Yet he's still the Republican front-runner, which proves something about Republicans, political blogs, front-runners months before the primaries or all three."

I enjoy writing this blog. I've enjoyed it even more since actual people began reading it.

However, this blog has no clear focus: Miscellany doesn't count as a theme. Maybe this blog could advance from semi-total obscurity to merely partial obscurity if it had a theme.

The making of a giant rubberband ball is probably too narrow.... "My life and varied interests" is apparently too broad. So I guess I'm open for suggestions?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Thanksgiving is allegedly a week from tomorrow

I say "allegedly" because I find it hard to believe it might actually be the case. In fact, I devoutly hope it isn't so.

But I'm afraid I'm going to be disappointed once again.

When the kids are little, where Thanksgiving will take place is often a battlefield: Do we go to your parents' house? Do we go to my parents' house? In my family there was no issue... my mother and father had a big extravaganza at their home; my wife's family had a quiet dinner. My wife and I went to my parents for as long as my parents were able.

The last couple of years my wife cooked for them, too, and then we went over the river and through the woods with the food in the car.

I was always pretty hungry when we arrived.

Now we're on the other side of the line.

Will Older Daughter's Boyfriend really come up on Thursday, as he says he will -- or will his plans change, as they changed last year? Will Oldest Son be in town... or will he be out of town at the home of his girlfriend's parents? Or -- gulp -- is there some danger he might bring her to our home?

The answers to these questions will determine how stressed my Long Suffering Spouse will get in the next several days -- and we won't know the answers to all of them until (probably) Thursday morning.


A new quotations website...

That I stumbled upon. It's called Brainy Quote and it looks interesting. I may start leading off posts with epigrams, like Linda used to do....

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Heads or Tails #14 (Road)

Today's challenge: "Road." If I'd been looking ahead, I could have turned last Friday's post into a perfectly good entry for this week's Heads or Tails assignment.... Ah, well, I shall have to come up with something new then....

Or, perhaps, I will come up with something old.

That's Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, and Bob Hope in Road to Morrocco, as innocent a bit of cinematic fluff as was ever made and still very funny.

It would probably spark rioting in several countries if it were remade today.

Anthony Quinn played the bad guy -- just as he did in the first "Road" picture, Road to Singapore.

After Singapore, Hope and Crosby next went on the Road to Zanzibar. If you can believe IMDb, Fred MacMurray was offered leads in both Singapore and Zanzibar.

Fortunately for us, he turned it down. Fortunately for Chip and Ernie and Uncle Charlie, too, presumably.

After a time-out for World War II, Bob and Bing went on the Road to Utopia.

If nothing else, this movie illustrates why it is prudent to believe in Santa Claus....

And then there's Robert Benchley's narration. And the talking fish. And the surprise ending -- how did they get that one past the censors?

The fifth "Road" movie, Road to Rio, features a cameo by long-time Hope sideman Jerry Colonna. He was in "Singapore" too. He was more than just a moustache....

Road to Bali was the only "Road" picture made in color.

This movie must have slipped into the public domain, at least briefly, because it was everywhere, at one time, in the DVD racks for $2.99. This was one of the movies played in "heavy rotation" on "Family Classics" -- the Sunday afternoon movie program on WGN in Chicago.

At some point, no matter how many times I've seen the movie since, I am reminded of Sunday dinner at my grandmother's apartment.

There is one "Road" picture that I haven't seen, Road to Hong Kong, the seventh and last of the series, in which Joan Collins subbed for Dorothy Lamour. (IMDb says Lamour had a cameo in the film, as herself.) And Lamour did a parody of her "Road" character in Donovan's Reef, a South Pacific vehicle for John Wayne, directed by John Ford, which was released around the same time as "Hong Kong." "Donovan's Reef" is appropriate for Christmas viewing when you've tired of all the usual holiday fare, if only for its very unusual Christmas pageant.

So -- you may well ask -- why am I touting you on all these old movies, aside from their arguable connection to today's "Heads or Tails" theme?

Well, if you've stayed with me all the way through this, you deserve an answer: I went to Blockbuster over the weekend, hoping to rent Ratatouille. And it was out.

So I'm hoping this will inspire you to rent something else this weekend, so I can see what I want....

Clever, eh?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Younger Daughter goes to the bank

Younger Daughter is 18, you know. She reminds us of this periodically. About once an hour.

Over the weekend Younger Daughter decided that -- inasmuch as she's 18 -- have I mentioned that? -- she could go to the bank by herself and withdraw money from her account. She had a plausible reason for wishing to do this.

For most of our marriage the kids' banking has been exclusively my chore. This was another of those tasks in the fine print of the marriage contract that I never saw.

Somehow or other, though, Long Suffering Spouse was the designated guardian on the kids' various accounts. The thing is, when a parent is on the account as a guardian, the child is not permitted to withdraw money without the parent's consent. This hasn't been a problem for us because we only put money in -- until the kids go to college... and then it evaporates overnight. But, when it is required, that consent must be given live and in person.

Parental consent was not always such a big deal. Back in the day I could buy cigarettes for my parents without even a note. And a generation earlier, kids would "rush the growler" -- taking a pail to the saloon to get it filled with beer -- and, no, I don't know where the expression came from, or even if I'm remembering it correctly.

Long Suffering Spouse was on a roll Saturday morning, grading test papers. The current marking period is almost over and she had a lot of papers to get through. She was uninterested in going to the bank.

But Younger Daughter had a plan: She would go by herself and, if she got any guff, she would tell them that she's 18 and can do as she pleases. Because -- maybe you haven't heard -- she is 18.

"Do you even know where the bank is?" Long Suffering Spouse asked.

It was not a facetious question: When Younger Daughter has made deposits -- always reluctantly -- it is because I have gotten the cash from her when she cashed her paycheck and taken it to the bank myself.

(The banks are never so choosy about who deposits money.)

Younger Daughter rattled off a location.

It was wrong.

Eventually, however, we thought Younger Daughter knew where she was going. And off she went.

She wasn't happy when she got back.

"They wouldn't let me," she wailed. "I told them I was 18 but they still said I need a parent to change the account." And then she railed about the unfairness of it all. Teenagers are the ultimate arbiters of fairness.

Younger Daughter tried to persuade Long Suffering Spouse give up her pile of papers and accompany her back to the bank, but my wife would not be moved. Eventually the matter became academic -- the bank closed at noon.

Last night, cleaning up a bit, I found Younger Daughter's passbook. And, I think, I may have found the reason why she was unable to complete her transaction -- even though she is 18: Her account is at Bank A. In the passbook is a business card that Younger Daughter picked up at the bank she visited.

Bank B.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The most dangerous place to drive? An Unscientific Survey

I drove this morning. I had to pick up a transcript at a suburban courthouse.

It occurred to me, as I was trying to exit the parking garage, while people were coming in for hearings on their traffic tickets -- driving every which way, mind you, cheerfully disregarding all posted signs -- that this might not be the safest place to be driving the family van.

I did exit safely, however, and jumped on the expressway to join the rush hour parade into the City.

This picture wasn't taken this morning, but it gives you an idea. That terrible traffic on the left is outbound from the City -- some days there's as much coming out as going in.

Anyway, I know some people blanch at the prospect of even entering an expressway, much less navigating through the rush hour. It doesn't bother me. I don't even mind driving downtown. True, the bicycle messengers typically ignore all traffic signals, but they are (generally speaking) proceeding in the same direction as the rest of the traffic in a given spot. If you don't count the weaving in and out, at least. And you almost can't hit one, even if you try -- and, if you did, well, sad to say but pedestrians on the street might cheer for you.

Cabs and buses and delivery trucks do pose substantial hazards -- but you can get used to them. I will admit to being taken slightly aback this morning by someone on a razor scooter, in the street, in the gloom under the elevated tracks, going against traffic as I turned into the parking garage. This, however, was because he and I arrived at the entrance at almost the same moment.

"Almost" being the critically important word here.

But, again, I was not afraid. I can handle this.

What I can't handle are shopping malls. Particularly large shopping malls around the holidays.

These terrify me. On those few occasions where circumstances compel me to go to a mall, I let Long Suffering Spouse drive. I just sit and cringe. Well, I probably curl up in a ball and cringe.

And moan softly.

Which brings us to today's Unscientific Survey: Is there any particular place where you hate to drive? Why?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Jail turned into luxury hotel

Yesterday evening, former Illinois Governor George Ryan checked into the Crossbar Motel in Oxford, Wisconsin. (If you don't get the reference, but you want to know the story, click here.)

This morning I read on Yahoo! News that an infamous Boston prison has been turned into a luxury hotel, the "Liberty Hotel."

Denise Lavoie's story for the AP says "the old Charles Street jail is now a luxury hotel for guests who can afford to pay anywhere from $319 a night for the lowest-priced room to $5,500 for the presidential suite."

I'm thinking that no current or former President is going to want to stay in a prison, even one converted, according to Lavoie's story, over five years and at a cost of $150 million. On the other hand, Lavoie says that the hotel's guests (it opened in September) have included Mick Jagger, Annette Bening, Meg Ryan and Eva Mendes.

(And I know who three out of those four are. Two for sure.)

The property features a couple of restaurants, Scampo (Italian for 'escape') and Clink (self-explanatory, I hope). And the hotel bar, Alibi, is situated in the former drunk tank.

I wonder if bar patrons have tried to stay the night... either out of habit or suggestion.

Lavoie's article discloses that, "When the jail opened in 1851, it was hailed as an international model for prison architecture." But the prison was anything but luxurious when it ceased operations. According to Lavoie's article, "In the 1970s, the inmates sued over the squalid conditions. After spending a night at the jail to see things for himself, a federal judge in 1973 ordered the place closed. But it took until 1990 for a new jail to be built and the last inmates to be moved."

There are no plans, so far as I know, to remodel the Federal Correctional Institution in Oxford. But Gov. Ryan will have plenty of time, now, to dream about it.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Dona Nobis Pacem

Today is the third time Mimi has launched a "Blogblast for Peace."

Who knows?

Third time could be the charm.

Let us pray.

And, while we're praying, this close to Veteran's Day, let us also pray for all American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in harm's way. May they return to us uninjured. And, for those who are injured, let us pray that their wounds, physical, emotional, and spiritual alike, will be adequately and successfully treated.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Ah, if only this could be done....

Stumbled upon at this site. (Click to enlarge.)

Heads or Tails #13 (Vote)

A year from today we will elect a new President here in the United States. One fearless prediction: It won't be George W. Bush. Say what you will about his apparent disregard for constitutional niceties, Mr. Bush will lay down the burden of office in January 2009 -- right on schedule.

Are you listening Hugo Chavez? Vladimir Putin? Pervez Musharraf?

American policy is criticized in every corner of the globe -- and we can argue about policies -- but the near-inevitability of a peaceful transfer of power makes America very unusual in the history of the world. And that should make all Americans proud -- whether they are eager they are to see Mr. Bush leave or hoping that his policies will be continued by someone else.

Remember what George III said of George Washington was retiring as Commander in Chief of the Army in 1783: "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

Well, he did retire. And he did it again in 1797, when he made way for John Adams.

Washington was keenly aware that he was setting the tone for all the others who would come after him, whether they would be judged lesser or greater by the wise men of History. He said, "I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."

And the most important precedent he set was stepping aside. "I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world," he said. And he followed through. His attitude, thankfully, became embedded in the American psyche.

Washington and the other Founders were students of the Roman Republic, the longest lasting and largest scale precedent for the experiment they were launching in North America. Ironically, Washington seems to have been most taken with Cato and the other boni who -- in the traditional view -- resisted Julius Caesar's efforts to make himself king.

I've seen a different lesson in the incessant political trials of the late Republic: The incentive to return to the plow is greatly diminished if prosecution is part of the pension plan for retiring politicians. Caesar faced certain prosecution, likely exile, and possibly even execution at the hands of his political enemies. Why would he surrender his imperium?

Just because I'm from Chicago, please don't assume that I am suggesting tolerance for corruption in office. But there is a disturbing trend in our politics now to try and criminalize policy decisions. This has been a truly bipartisan concept, flourishing in the last days of the Clinton administration, and flourishing certainly in the dying days of the Bush presidency. And it's so terribly dangerous.

Don't prosecute the rascals -- whoever you think the rascals are. Vote 'em out of office.

Oh -- and one more fearless prediction -- I think the 2012 primaries will start by April 2008....

Monday, November 05, 2007

Baseball free agency as Greek tragedy

The hero in Greek tragedy was always possessed of a "tragic flaw" -- something that prevented him from achieving his goal. A typical flaw was "hubris" -- excessive, destructive pride.

English majors are free to expand on that basic outline, but this rudimentary understanding came back to me this weekend as I thought of the modern tragic hero, Alex Rodriguez.

A-Rod has talent in abundance. And he has put up numbers in his career that are amazing and outstanding and free from any whisper regarding his chemical balance.

Of course, he hasn't shone as brightly during the post-season -- but that's not his tragic flaw.

A-Rod's tragic flaw is his agent, Scott Boras.

A-Rod reportedly walked away from the Yankees, one of the few teams that could conceivably afford his outrageous salary demands, when the Yankees balked at Boras' asking price for A-Rod's continued service: $350 million.

There are teams in Major League Baseball -- whole entire teams -- that aren't worth $350 million.

And Scott Boorish, er, Boras, chose Game 4 of the World Series to announce that A-Rod would be walking away from the Pinstripes.

I understand why every professional athlete would want the most aggressive representation possible: Careers are short and there's always some other hugely talented youngster looking to take your place. A freak injury... plain old bad luck... a poorly timed slump... there are so many ways for the genie to escape the bottle.

But Boras seems so far over the top. I never realized, until I looked recently, that Boras was himself a talented baseball player who never made it to "the Show". Perhaps this explains his hypercompetitive excess on behalf of his clients.

I understand -- but I do not sympathize. A-Rod should be one of the best compensated players in the game. But he already is a millionaire many times over -- is squeezing the last million out of an overeager owner really necessary?

I want to see Boras fail here.

Which means I want A-Rod to sit by the phone for a long, long time.

And I'd like Joe Crede to fire Boras, too. Maybe then -- if his back has really healed -- the White Sox can keep him.

What this means is that I am agreeing on something with Jerry Reinsdorf.

I am deeply conflicted by this.

What's next? Will I agree with Jay Mariotti on something?


Friday, November 02, 2007

Word verification on -- for now anyway

Barb and Bee and maybe a few others will be miffed at me -- but I had to activate word verification on the comments after a dozen or so spam comments today.

Two came in the early morning... it may have been a test. I deleted the comments without realizing that I had to exercise the "remove forever" option because the HTML in the "name" of the "commenter" was what the spammer wanted to plant in the first place. Then, when I logged on now, there were 10 more. I suspect an escalation.

Why it would be to a spammer's advantage to plant spam comments in a July or, worse, a March post is beyond me; one of the more technically-minded among you may be able to explain.

But spammers are no different from everyone else in one respect -- at least these weren't -- the spammers only left their comments on short posts.


And memo to the Blogger people, should you be looking in: Is there some way to remove the HTML "name" (Xanax forever, that sort of thing) and leave the text of the comments? I mean, well, they all said things like "nice blog" or "wonderful." I'd have liked to keep those parts....

Two favorites coincide

Today is my favorite Feast Day on the Church calendar -- the Feast of All Souls. It's the most, shall we say, democratic.

You're not likely to be a Saint; chances are you'll never even meet one. But... we've all got souls. Today, therefore, is for all of us.

Cue Sam and Dave....

And my other favorite?

Daylight savings time ends this weekend in the United States. It's not that I'm happy to see that end, it's just that -- this weekend -- we get an extra hour.

I only wish we got bonus hours more often.

How will you use yours?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Lives of the Saints remembered

We could read about sex and violence in the Catholic schools when I was a boy. We could read such stuff right under the nuns' noses and they wouldn't mind. Indeed, they would encourage it... because we were reading the Lives of the Saints.

Yesterday was Halloween -- All Hallows Eve. Today is the Feast of All Hallows: All Saints Day.

And on All Saints Day I can't help but remember those vigorous tales designed to form our character and give us courage against the temptations of puberty or rock-and-roll music.

The sex part came from the early lives of the saints -- We learned that St. Francis of Assisi led quite a life before he saw the light, with parties and singing and dancing.... St. Augustine also lived a pretty wild life before his conversion -- but these stories were always unfortunately vague about the lurid details. We did learn that Augustine's mother prayed for him and never stopped encouraging him to become a Christian. She did such a good job of it that she became St. Monica, an inspiration to mothers' ambitions ever since.

But if the sex stuff in these stories wasn't altogether satisfying, the violence part more than made up for it: The writers of these Lives were forever recounting how this saint was torn apart by lions in the Coliseum without ever uttering a sound, or how this other one was hacked limb from limb by gladiators, or how still others were put in cages and burned alive as human torches to light the way for one crazy Emperor or another. This was bracing stuff indeed... and, thus inspired, how could we complain about the far lesser trials of times tables or long division?

We didn't get much about the pagan gods who were re-cast as Christian saints. St. Brigid of Ireland, for example, might have been a reinvention of the Celtic sun goddess... or she might have been a nun converted by St. Patrick himself... or she might be a conflation of the two.

Pagan gods and goddesses reimagined as Christian saints were no doubt troubling to leaders of the Reformation. Surely Christianity may have been only a veneer, even in the late Middle Ages, in some peasant regions... a necessary cover for traditional, long-remembered pagan beliefs. This is why some Protestants sneer at us Fish-Eaters still for our devotion to the saints.

But long memories are not common today, among Westerners generally or Americans in particular. We don't remember Pearl Harbor, much less the Maine... thus the iffy pedigrees of certain saints aren't much of a problem for us.

And you might think we're a secular culture, too.

But not when push comes to shove: The recent downturn in the housing market has spurred renewed devotion to St. Joseph. Burying a statue of St. Joseph in your yard is supposed to help you home sell faster. Here's a link to a story in the Albany Times-Union by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist on this very topic.

(Jordan Carleo-Evangelist? Quite a name for the writer of a story about St. Joseph, eh?)

There was another story about St. Joseph statues posted yesterday morning on Yahoo! News... but, of course, I've lost the link.

Perhaps I should offer a prayer to St. Anthony....

Happy All Saints Day.

A sigh of relief -- no Halloween drama to report

In the last vignette in my Heads or Tails entry this week, I related how our house has been "egged" on or near several of the last Halloweens.

I left the office early yesterday so that I could be 'on the scene'... just in case.

I am relieved to report that nothing happened.

One of my wife's teaching colleagues, whose home has also been "egged" several times in recent years, did stop by: She'd persuaded two of her neighbors, who happen to be Chicago police detectives, to keep an eye on her home yesterday. Feeling thus reinforced, she dropped by our home to see how we were faring. "The neighborhood watch is here," I told my Long Suffering Spouse when I opened the door.

Between phone calls and visits and things on the stove, I got to answer the door several times last evening. I stayed in character.....

*shimmer* *shimmer* *dissolve*
Ding dong!

Curmudgeon opens the door to find a crowd of urchins on his doorstep, some with pillowcases, some with bags, some with elaborate costumes, some not.

Urchins (all together): Trick or treat!

Curmudgeon: What? Is it Halloween?

Urchins (all together): Yes!

Curmudgeon: Hmmmmph. I suppose that's why I have this bowl of candy here, then. Well, alright then, here you go....

*shimmer* *shimmer* *dissolve*
Ding dong!

Curmudgeon opens the door to find a another crowd of urchins. These may be a little older than the last. Older kids are less likely to have elaborate costumes; indeed, many have no costumes at all. They merely beg because, on this one day, they can.

Urchins (in unison): Trick or treat!

Curmudgeon: Do you have a permit for this?

Urchins blink in confusion.

Curmudgeon: I'm pretty sure you need a permit for this.

Urchins still blinking.

Curmudgeon: Well, never mind.... (pulls out candy bowl and begins distributing)

*shimmer* *shimmer* *dissolve*
One junior high kid had on a White Sox jersey, so I asked if he was supposed to be a particular player. "No," he said, turning around to show that the back of the jersey was blank. A girl who was with him sniffed something, sotto voce, about White Sox fans. I was just about to drop candy into her bag, but I paused. "I'm a White Sox fan," I said.

The look I got was priceless: It communicated -- in a millisecond -- something would take up this many words: I'm sorry, Mister. I didn't mean anything by it. Can I still have some candy? I dropped the candy into her bag.

It was interesting that we had a lot of junior high kids -- but a lot of them were not from my wife's school. I could tell which ones were hers; they all said "¡Hola!" (Long Suffering Spouse teaches Spanish.) When my wife's colleague was visiting, I tried to persuade them to answer the door together once, on the chance it might be their students.

Imagine being a junior high kid, trick or treating at a teacher's house -- and then not one, but two teachers answer the door!

But I could not persuade them.

Long Suffering Spouse and I sat in the living room, with the blinds open, being very visible to passersby, for some time. Eventually, my wife excused me.

But she remained a couple hours longer.

Just to be sure.

Now we just have to get through this weekend.....