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» 2009 » July

Monthly ArchiveJuly 2009

Commentary 31 Jul 2009 10:34 am

How travel undid Gates

Here is this week’s (July 30, 2009) print column. Now that Obama has hosted Gates and Crowley at the White House, my last paragraph is slightly out of date. But enjoy!

With all the talk about Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., one factor that hasn’t received enough attention is that the man had just returned from traveling.

With all due respect to the learned minds who have chewed and regurgitated Gates’ run-in with the police endlessly, especially since President Obama thrust it on the national stage by saying that Cambridge police acted “stupidly” in their treatment of the Harvard scholar, this situation has less to do with race and profiling and more to do with Gates having just returned from China.

See, when you travel, you get stressed. And the longer the distance, the more stressed you are. And if you come home to any pressure or hassle, the chance of a nuclear meltdown in your brain increases exponentially. Any police officer worth his salt would recognize this when dealing with Mr. Gates, or anybody, and give a little extra breathing room.

Because when you mess with a man who is road weary, you’ve got a tiger by the tail. The question isn’t if he will rip your face off, the question is when.
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Commentary & Family life 24 Jul 2009 08:51 am

A hot case for modern-day sleuth

Here is my print column from July 23. It’s not the “director’s cut” version I published below (called Skunk Summer), which included photos of my dog. In this one, I try to hide the culprit until later in the piece, so if you already know it from the earlier post, pretend you don’t.

It was a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

My wife and I woke up a few weeks ago to the smell of something like burning wires and smoldering tires. Not pleasant.

I focused on the worst-case scenario: Something in the walls was on fire. This was followed by my second-worst-case scenario: An appliance was committing hara-kiri. The worst-case scenario is my version of the Power of Positive Thinking. If I think the worst, then I am pleasantly surprised by a happier outcome. It makes me feel better, but it drives my wife crazy.

Anyway, I put the dog outside so she would stay out of my way, and then pulled out the refrigerator, sniffed around the computer and dishwasher, and looked for smoke. Nothing.
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Commentary & Family life 23 Jul 2009 09:26 am

Skunk summer

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Welcome to readers who came here from my print column in today’s Alliance Review, where I wrote about my dog’s encounter with a skunk. Above left is Molly, pre-shave, with my daughter, Malori. At right is post-skunk, post-shaving Molly.

What you’re getting below is similar to a director’s cut on a DVD. It’s an entirely different version of my printed column, abandoned when I realized it wasn’t working. I haven’t revised it at all — what you see is what you get. (I’ll post the official column later, giving you enough time to purchase Thursday’s Review, thereby keeping me employed.) More comments from me at the end.

Tomato juice, hydrogen peroxide, dish soap, baking soda, carbonated beverages, orange peels, and time.


These are ingredients to de-skunk a dog, a topic I didn’t care about until – you guessed it. Then suddenly, nothing was more fascinating than any recipe, no matter how hair-brained.


Let me back up a bit: This has been the Summer of Skunk on my end of Arch Avenue. For a few weeks, we smelled skunk morning, noon and night, with one blast so thick it was like something out of a horror film: a noxious, fog-like reek that circled the neighborhood like a greedy serial killer who intends to take out everybody at once.
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Movies 20 Jul 2009 07:50 am

A ‘Harry Potter’ virgin


That’s what I am — a “Harry Potter” virgin. I tried to read the first book in the series but couldn’t get through it. Then I tried to see the first film but fell asleep about 20 minutes in. Despite being the sort of material that I should like, I have no affinity for all things Potter. Keep that in mind when I tell you about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I saw this weekend.

First of all, the movie is interminably long. (I did stay awake this time.) The British accents make everybody difficult to understand, or maybe it was the crappy speakers in my car, since I saw it at a drive-in. The plot is built on one contrivance and convenience after another: When somebody needs to know something, he or she learns it by listening at keyholes or through some goofy magical memory stick. When magic is involved, it’s awfully tempting to use it as a cheat to get your characters out of a tough scrape; all they has to do is utter a spell that we haven’t heard about before to make everything OK. That happens a few times here, although in the case of a luck potion, at least the screenwriter (and I assume Rowling, who probably put it in the original book) foreshadowed it.
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Books 19 Jul 2009 10:26 pm

The Mourner


The Mourner is book four in the Parker series by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake). Like the first three, this one is a hard-as-nails crime thriller. Unlike the others, it is a homage to the classic Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, the originator of the hardboiled school of detective fiction. Since Falcon is one of my favorite books (and the film version with Humphrey Bogart is one of my favorite movies), I felt a special affinity for this one, especially the character of Auguste Menlo, a stand-in for fat man Kasper Gutman from Hammett’s book. Menlo defects from Mother Russia to revel in the joys of American capitalism and sex, only to find that neither is all it’s cracked up to be.

Movies 17 Jul 2009 03:09 pm

Panic in Year Zero


Panic in Year Zero (1962) is an earnest attempt to show what might happen to a family struggling to stay alive in the days after a nuclear attack, but it becomes unintentionally funny when director/star Ray Milland’s Ward Cleaver-type father starts going all Charles Bronson. By the time the film ends, he’s held a gun on half a dozen people, sucker punched a few, and shot two dead. All this between making dire speeches about the crumbling of civilization, flight-or-fight survival tactics, and the general corruption of humankind.

After the bomb drops, Milland and his family try to drive back to L.A. to check on his mother-in-law, despite the fact that she was at ground zero. When he realizes that the trip is impossible (because he’s the only car headed into the blast zone), he takes his brood into the mountains, where they live in a cave with the groceries and supplies he buys and/or extorts from small-town hicks who haven’t figured out the bombs are flying. (You’d think that big mushroom cloud in the sky would be a hint.)
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Commentary 16 Jul 2009 08:02 am

A different kind of moonwalk

Here is my weekly column from The Alliance Review, dated July 16, 2009.

Go to a beach — any beach — and look around: Five will get you ten that somebody has a shovel and is busy digging a hole.

Not a metal shovel, but a cheap plastic model whose only purpose is to bury kids in sand up to their necks — or dig worthless holes to twist the ankles of unsuspecting sunbathers. But beach excavators aren’t digging holes to trap the unwary. They’re digging because it’s human nature.

What is so compelling about a hole? Flat fields seldom attract crowds; we don’t often pass one and see people standing around, gawking. But dig a hole in that same field and you’ll have to put a fence around it to keep out the curious, because people will be drawn there by a force as primal as magnetism. And they always look the same, too — hands in pockets, slightly bent at the waist, bottom lip protruding and eyebrows scrunched as they peer into the abyss.
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Books 14 Jul 2009 10:09 pm

The Outfit


I just finished The Outfit, the third book in the Parker series. Another violent story about the arch-thief, this time exacting revenge on the Mob for daring to take money that he feels is his. Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) uses  non-linear storytelling, apparently a trick on display in almost all the Parker books, to good effect here. Parker is starting to show additional depth as a series character, but he’s not softening at all. A great discussion about how low-level mobsters don’t consider themselves criminals; they believe they are working for companies that are sometimes less than honest, and that all businesses are that way. Not a very optimistic outlook on American commerce, but likely right on the money. Again, the book is so well written it makes me jealous — and puts other crime fiction to shame.

Comic books 13 Jul 2009 01:12 pm

Wednesday Comics #1


I wanted to like Wednesday Comics a lot more than I did.

The concept and format are appealing: An homage to the days of big Sunday comics supplements in newspapers, but featuring DC characters and today’s top creators. And some of the individual strips are very good. My favorites were Kamandi, Strange Adventures, Metamorpho, and Hawkman. The rest ranged from intriguing (The Demon and Catwoman team-up, Batman, and Green Lantern) to flat-out terrible (Teen Titans and Wonder Woman).

In almost all cases, the stories were too slight. This is the first issue, so I can forgive the writers for needing to set-up plots and provide background on characters, but really, only a few felt capable of going the 12-issue distance. If anything, it points out that the writing of these Sunday (now Wednesday) pages was a specialized art, and that today’s creators aren’t quite in synch with it yet. 

From an art standpoint, Kyle Baker’s Hawkman wowed me, Joe Kubert is still an incredible talent on Sgt. Rock (even if the story was nonexistent), Ryan Sook is channeling Hal Foster on Kamandi, and Mike Allred was appealingly retro on Metamorpho. Again, though, with art reproduced this large, I was expecting the artists to pull out all the stops and provide really show-stopping designs and details, and I didn’t see enough of it here.

I’ll keep buying. The $3.99 price was still a good value for what was here, and I still love the concept enough to support it. I just wanted more.

Books 12 Jul 2009 10:06 pm

Beach reads

We made it home from North Myrtle Beach at 3 a.m. Saturday after a marathon 12-hour car ride. It was a fairly uneventful vacation, which is how I like them. Lots of time for summer reading with my feet in the sand and the roar of the surf in my ears.

This year, I read the first two novels in Richard Stark’s Parker series: The Hunter and The Man with the Getaway Face. The only reason I didn’t read even more is that these were the only two I grabbed from the library before heading out. I enjoyed them so much I got online and reserved book three, The Outfit, so it was waiting for me when I returned.

My interest in Parker was spurred by two things: Next week’s release of the graphic novel version of the first novel by Darwyn Cooke, one of my favorite artists, and that Frank Miller, another comic-book favorite of mine, seemed to use Parker as the template for Marv, the anti-social killer in the Sin City series.
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