Monthly ArchiveJanuary 2011



Commentary 28 Jan 2011 07:47 am

No lumps with hot cereal specialist

This week’s column:

We are living, they tell me, in the era of specialization.

“They” used to be the first 100 people in the telephone book, but since we don’t have telephone books anymore (which makes it really hard for circus strongmen, who now must resort to ripping phone listings on the Internet in half), “they” have become the amorphous, anonymous audience that watches and reacts to everything we little people do and say.

So whoever “they” are, they say that the age of the generalist — that jack-of-all-trades person who could tear apart a car engine, splint a broken finger, recite from memory Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (”Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and play the bass line from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” — is over. Today, we must dedicate ourselves to knowing how to do one thing, or part of one thing, exceedingly well, so that we may be paid exceedingly well for doing that one thing, or part of that one thing, that nobody else can do as exceedingly well as we.

Following me? Good.

Take brain surgery, that catch-all profession against which all others are judged. “Think (insert odious task here) is hard?” somebody will ask. “Well, at least it’s not brain surgery.”

But there are brain surgeons and then there are brain surgeons. Exhaustive research on my part — which means a quick Google check between Facebook visits — tells me there are pediatric neurosurgeons, open vascular neurosurgeons, microneurosurgeons, endovascular neurosurgeons (I’m cut-and-pasting these directly from the Internet) and even academic neurosurgeons who teach all these other neurosurgeons how to become neurosurgeons.

That’s a lot of brain power expended on the brain (and spinal cord), and thank goodness for that. It proves that even in a highly specialized field, further specialization occurs. So if you’re looking forward to a career in brain surgery, the good news is that your profession will still be the gold standard against which all others are judged.

The bad news, for the rest of us generalists, is that it will be hard to find an area of expertise that matches up, and that we could spend years studying some esoteric field only to find the demand for that profession is lacking, or that we have been replaced by a microchip.

Take, for example, my area of expertise: oatmeal.

I recognize there are thousands of people who have enough of an understanding to carry them through most situations involving this hot breakfast cereal. But my area of specialization involves the preparation of instant oatmeal, or more exactly, Quaker Oats Lower Sugar maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal in a Magic Chef microwave oven with a glass turntable.

This is an area I have studied exhaustively, learning the minute differences between lower sugar and regular varieties, especially where application of water (the latter takes two-thirds of a cup; the former, three-fourths) and heat are concerned.

Lately, I’ve had to factor in the difference in bowl size and material with the addition of a new dish set from my in-laws for Christmas, which has added 15 seconds to the usual one-minute nuke time required to make the perfect serving, a lesson learned only through laborious trial and error and $6 worth of oatmeal packets.

Yet each morning, I wait by my phone in vain (which is better than waiting by it in artery) for anybody in an oatmeal jam to call for advice. Obviously, most people believe they can get by with the directions on the box. That’s OK, because I doubt anybody would be willing to give me a credit card number for billing purposes, even though I prorate by the hour.

All of which means that my years of oatmeal investigations have been for nothing, except that they have made me healthier than the days when breakfast was two Pop Tarts and a can of Coca-Cola.

At this stage in my life, I can’t spare 14 years to study neurosurgery, but I can do the next best thing: My copy of “Brain Surgery for Dummies” should be here any day, and I have plenty of oatmeal in the cupboard to practice on.

If some people can get their driver’s licenses from Cheerios boxes, I can surely get my medical license from a box of Quaker Oats. Or so “they” tell me.

Movies & Television 25 Jan 2011 12:42 am

Re-imagining Macbeth

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One day after watching Patrick Stewart play the lead in this newly released Macbeth on DVD, and I can’t get the adaptation out of my head.

While remaining mostly true to the Bard’s language, everything else about this brilliantly re-imagined version of the Scottish Play is brand new. Director Rupert Goold drags the tragedy out of the distant past and into some cryptic, World War II-era hospital netherworld, with the Wyrd Sisters serving as nurses who are as likely to kill their patients as save them. (More likely, actually.)

Stewart is brilliant as Macbeth, and Kate Fleetwood seductively evil as his “fiend-like queen.”  Half the fun is watching how the familiar parts of the play — the dagger of the mind, the witches’ cauldron scenes, the forest coming to Dunsinane — are given a fresh coat of paint. Despite being Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, this lasts 180 minutes, the runtime bloated with shocking imagery and avant garde camera angles. Nevertheless, the lines themselves are perfectly clear, and when things get too gory, all one needs to do is close the eyes to experience the grandeur of Shakespeare’s language.

A few caveats: The Porter, the only piece of comic relief in the original, is here made cutting edge and dangerous. Following a scene where he urinates in a sink (which Macbeth later uses to wash his hands) and mimics sodomizing a little girl, he pops up like Rambo in the closing scenes, fighting alongside Stewart with a belt of bullets slung over his shoulder. The climax itself is too action-movie like for my tastes, although the shot of Lord and Lady Macbeth descending to hitherto unreachable depths of their underworld home via elevator is the perfect closing scene. Call it a suitable coda to this dark exploration of ambition unchecked by morality.

The DVD has no extras, but purchase does support the Public Broadcasting Service, always a plus.

Commentary & Media 22 Jan 2011 10:54 am

My stars are not aligned

This week’s column, for those not already sick to death of stories about changing zodiac signs:

When is a twin not a twin? When he or she is really a ram.

Like many people, my astrological sign underwent a change recently because a shimmy in the Earth’s axis has, over time, shifted the planet’s alignment, not unlike what happens whenever I drive my 2003 Dodge Neon above 55 mph.

As a result (of the Earth’s realignment, not my accelerating Neon), astrological signs are no longer accurate, so that some people who were once identified as Aries have now become Pisces, some Scorpios have become Libras, some Geminis (like me) have become Tauruses, and so on. And those poor souls born between Nov. 29 and Dec. 17 have now become Ophiuchus, a mysterious 13th sign sprinkled into the heavenly brew.

In most respects, this is the world’s oldest news story — stop the stone-and-chisel press! New astrological signs to report! — because this realignment has been going on for 2,000 years or more. This is even longer than my last dinner with my mother-in-law felt.

Nevertheless, it has thrown into a tizzy the millions of people who believe that their fates are tied to the fuzzy generalities printed in newspapers next to equally fuzzy drawings of stellar totems — a fish, a ram, a crab, an archer, a ficus bush (just checking if you’re paying attention), etc.

I’m so out of the loop when it comes to horoscopes that I didn’t even know if papers still printed them, so I checked a recent edition and, yes, there they were, right next to the further adventures of Beetle Bailey, Garfield, and Blondie. The advice/forecast/fortune is attributed to nobody (sort of an astrological Wikipedia) and is so vague that it could apply equally to people or grazing cattle.

Take the Jan. 15 Gemini reading: “If you get the chance to go somewhere out of the ordinary over the next 48 hours, you must not hesitate. As Mars moves into the area of your chart that governs long-distance travel, you won’t be happy if you stay at home.”

The most out-of-the-ordinary place I went on Jan. 15 was the optometrist with my daughter. I played with a View-Master in the waiting room while she got new glasses. Afterward, we went to lunch at a restaurant I don’t regularly frequent, but it was hardly exotic or long-distance. I didn’t feel any happier or unhappier than usual, except our waitress was so bad that I pared down the tip, saving me a couple bucks, which gave me a warm feeling in the pit of my wallet.

Honestly, all of the forecasts could have applied to my situation. Leos were to give partners and loved ones their space, which I gladly did because my wife had the 24-hour flu (which defied the odds by hanging around for 48 hours), meaning that I stood outside our bedroom and slid her glasses of 7-Up and plates of crackers, all the while holding a towel over my face and gargling with liquid antiseptic soap.

Capricorns were advised that a windfall of some kind would cheer them up. I saved $54.87 when I realized the car renewal form I was filling out was for a vehicle I no longer owned, meaning no new tags are necessary. I suppose that’s a windfall.

Tauruses were supposed to receive a challenge by somebody in authority. That didn’t happen to me, unless you count the FBI warning at the beginning of a movie I watched that day.

I don’t really buy the horoscope thing, anyway. I do believe our bodies are affected by the phases of the moon, because the moon affects the tides, which are water, so it seems reasonable that it also affects our bodies, which are mostly water. But astrology? Not so much.

So whether I’m a Gemini or a Taurus is hardly worth having a zodiac panic attack over. If anything, the whole fracas reveals how easy it is to distract Americans from substantial news — like if Ted Williams, the Formerly Homeless Man with the Golden Voice, can survive rehab.

Williams, by the way, is a Virgo under the new and old zodiacs. His Jan. 15 horoscope says, “No matter how irritating certain people may be, you must not let them get under your skin.”

For somebody in rehab, that’s a pretty good reading. Maybe there’s something to this astrology thing, after all.

Movies 17 Jan 2011 10:58 pm

The Adventures of Robin Hood

robin-hood

I had a fun Saturday night watching The Adventures of Robin Hood, the classic 1938 film that was just a few months shy of being released in 1939, often considered the greatest year of Hollywood’s golden age. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland do a great job on the side of the angels, while Basil Rathbone (best known to Universal horror fans for his starring turn in Son of Frankenstein) and Claude Rains (Casablanca, The Invisible Man) are perfectly despicable villains.

If you’re thinking this isn’t a movie with shades of gray, you’d be right. The simple, oppressed Saxons are universally good, while the snooty, overbearing Normans are universally bad — and mostly stupid, to boot. Flynn makes a point of showing up Guy of Gisbourne and the usurping Prince John at every turn, easily escaping from situations where he’s outnumbered 100 to 1 without ever losing his trademark smile or coming up short with a well-placed quip. His Merry Men are cut from the same happy-go-lucky cloth.

Maybe the only downside is that the movie is very episodic, but that has more to do with the nature of the original Robin Hood legends than any shortcoming of this piece. Audiences weaned on more cynical, violent fare might find this too naïve and idealistic, but that’s their loss.

A bonus feature on the DVD, “Warner Night at the Movies 1938,” provides a newsreel and an animated short, and the disc is absolutely loaded with trailers for Flynn’s other films, including a 1950s adaptation of The Master of Ballantrae, a movie I didn’t even know existed, based on a book by Robert Louis Stevenson that I’ve never read. (But I plan to — even have a nice hardcover I picked up used a few years back.)

Anyway, Mr. Easy Grader gives The Adventures of Robin Hood a solid A.

Comic books 15 Jan 2011 10:39 am

Comics I have read …

From this month’s Things From Another World delivery …

thor-7

Thor the Mighty Avenger takes its first misstep in this second-to-last issue by hinting (however obliquely) that Thor and Jane Foster sleep together. It sours the sweet, innocent way their relationship has been progressing, at least to this reader. I’m still a big fan of the work Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee are doing on this title, however, so long as the last panel of issue #8 doesn’t show Jane holding her stomach and smiling knowingly …

DTC_Cv872_ds.indd

Scott Snyder takes the Dick Grayson Batman directly to Hell, in the form of an underground auction house of super-villain ephemera, in Detective Comics #872. The story is genuinely disturbing, on par with anything Snyder has done so far with his creator-owned American Vampire (see below), and it makes Detective a must-read. Jock’s artwork is the perfect complement. Can’t wait to see how Batman gets out of this one.

doc-savage-9

Confusing story and confusing artwork make Doc Savage #9 a disappointing entry in a story arc that was supposed to show us how good a modern Doc Savage story could be. The Justice Inc. back-up feature was better, closing out the strongest story so far for Richard Benson and company (although given the generally tepid nature of the feature, that’s not saying much).

life-with-arch-6

It should be no surprise to regular readers that Miss Grundy, recently married to Principal Weatherbee, succumbs to cancer in this issue, nor will it surprise them to find how sensitively writer Paul Kupperberg and artist Norm Breyfogle handle the subject.  The encomiums offered about Grundy’s life and character should buoy the spirits of teachers everywhere. I know they did mine. Because of this, the Archie Loves Betty feature outshines the usually superior Archie Loves Veronica for the first time, although the book as a whole continues to be one of the strongest, most consistent monthly titles available. The Jinx preview stories this issue, however, weren’t nearly as compelling. Nix Jinx, says I.

am-vamp-10

I wasn’t sure how much I would like American Vampire without artist Rafael Albuquerque, but guest illustrator Mateus Santoluco did a fantastic job with Scott Snyder’s script in this tenth issue. The story is a juxtaposition of the lives of former friends (and current American vampires) Pearl Jones and Hattie Hargrove. The former is living an idyllic rural life with her guitar-playing lover, while the latter is being experimented on by an emissary of old-school European vampires to learn the new breed’s weaknesses. Maybe it’s my imagination, but old-school Euro guy looks a lot like Gene Colan’s Van Helsing from Marvel’s classic Tomb of Dracula. A nice homage, if indeed that’s what it is, and another stellar issue.

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Incognito: Bad Influences has plenty of action and snappy dialogue, which is par for the course from an Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips collaboration, but it still isn’t doing enough to distinguish itself from the superior Sleeper series by the same duo. Brubaker acknowledges on a text page that the story “is really just starting to get boiling,” and I hope he’s right. The book’s in no danger of losing me as a reader — the exemplary track record of the creators will keep me to the end — but I had hoped to be enjoying it more.

Commentary 13 Jan 2011 07:25 pm

Hit it on the head (pin)

This week’s column:

A bowling alley has an odor all its own.

Once upon a time, it was the smell of stale cigarette smoke wafting across the lanes, unsuccessfully vacuumed by overworked exhaust fans in the ceiling. But nobody smokes publicly anymore — probably the best state law ever enacted — so the other pungent aromas of ten-pin emporiums come to the fore, like the smell of greasy burgers sizzling on the grill; the delicate bouquet of plump, pink hot dogs made from parts of animals that people don’t talk about in polite society rotating behind a greasy glass picture window; and the faintly antiseptic odor of Lysol sprayed into dozens of shoes.

I experienced all of these last weekend when I made my second visit in about five years to a bowling alley, part of an extended get-together on my wife’s side of the family, which means lots of nieces dragging boyfriends to meet strangers that they’ll likely never see again. Maybe your family is like that, too.

Anyway, I have a perfectly good bowling ball somewhere in the attic, where it’s been stored since my wife and I quit league play after a few years of sacrificing every Saturday night to an activity that, like any regular plans made on a Saturday, was only enjoyable about half the time. The fun half was when we won the league two seasons in a row, not because we were any good but because we were so bad. Bowling, like golf, is a handicapped sport: To allow inexperienced schmucks like us to compete with real bowlers (real bowler defined as anybody with an average above 150), schmucks get spotted major points, so every 128 I rolled was added to the 70 points I was given to level the playing field. Because my wife was just as bad, we were basically unbeatable, unless we played a team that was even worse.

It gulled those wannabe pro-bowlers to see us sitting at the head of the banquet table. Even though they smiled politely and congratulated us, I can’t help but believe a few of them shook my hand a little too firmly, as if trying to crush all the bones before the next season, just as I’m fairly sure at least one couple was sticking pins into a voodoo fetish doll made from my stolen bowling towel.

(Even beginners know that a towel is de rigueur on the alleys. If you don’t have some dingy white rag embroidered with your name, you just haven’t arrived on the bowling scene.)

But back to that perfectly good ball in the attic. I didn’t take it. Instead, I selected from among the infamous house balls, a motley collection of cast-offs that looked like the urethane, resin and plastic equivalent of the kids from “The Breakfast Club.”

I went with an old war-horse that had a huge chip below the thumb hole. The ball weighed as much as my entire right arm, which not coincidentally went numb somewhere after the second frame. Following the teachings of Bowling for Dummies and years of watching professionals on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” I pointed my toes carefully toward the pins and hurled the ball with as much speed and force as I could muster. If I knocked down all the pins, I did the same thing again on my next turn. If I didn’t, I moved to the left or right and hurled it again. (Subtlety and finesse have no place in my bowling vocabulary.)

True to my reputation, I rolled one lackluster game (125), one lucky game (190) and one tour through the sewers (110 or thereabouts). That makes my average 142, comparable to what it was when I bowled 32 weeks a year and proving that practice, in my case, definitely didn’t make perfect.

At the end of the night, I was glad that I had bowled, if only to experience the fun of family and meet a lot of nieces’ boyfriends whom I’m fairly confident I won’t be seeing again. But I wasn’t inspired to sign up for a league or anything, perfectly content to leave the smells of the alley behind.

Except for the one that came home with me, the pungent aroma that “Wide World of Sports” termed “the agony of de feet.”

Comic books 09 Jan 2011 10:14 pm

Great Expectations

great-expectations1

One of the books I read over winter break was Great Expectations, which I somehow missed during my formative years. As soon as I finished, I recalled having a copy of the Rick Geary Classics Illustrated adaptation, which I similarly had never read. Apparently, it was my vacation for catching up.

What I like about the Geary version is that it stands on its own as a comic book story, albeit a very wordy one. So many of these adaptations are so slavish to the originals — seeing that their main reason to exist is to give students who have never read the original a fighting chance to pass a book report — that they don’t function well as comics.

Geary sidesteps this by streamlining Dickens’ novel, keeping the major story (the misadventures of young Pip as he strives to become a gentleman) and jettisoning some of the lesser bits. His pages are busy — nine-panels and hundreds of words are the norm — but somehow still work visually. Part of the appeal is Geary’s cartoonish artwork, all rounded edges and simplified facial expressions. On the rare occasions when Geary breaks free of the grid pattern and uses larger panels, such as Miss Havisham’s igniting wedding gown, they mark turning points in the narrative and in Pip’s life.

All in all, this was/is an effective adaptation. Originally published by Berkley in 1991, it was reprinted in a slightly smaller size in 2008 by Papercutz and is still in print. I don’t know if the smaller size affects the readability — it likely does — as I’ve never seen a copy of this later edition.

Commentary & Family life 06 Jan 2011 10:18 pm

A doggone-accurate forecast

This week’s column:

Northeast Ohio TV stations are waging weather wars again.

It always happens this time of year: Every station worth its (road) salt has some kind of fancy doodad to predict if tomorrow will bring snow, sleet, black ice, toxic rain or that Holy Grail of rarities, sunshine. Viewers are inundated with Doppler radar, Power of Five radar, Dual-Doppler XL radar; forecasts beamed from Michigan, from fishing trawlers on the shores of Lake Erie, live from the far side of Uranus (”Hey, Beavis, he said Uranus”); and information from local weather watchers who do little more than stick a ruler into snow on windowsills as an official gauge of precipitation.

All this before TV roosters start crowing about closings and delays, available on air in scrolling bars (one bar for alphabetical lists by county, another for “breaking news” cancellations), online and via text messages straight from the weather gods to our cell phones.

In the days of old when knights were bold, we sat next to a little transistor radio in the kitchen, its one speaker crackling musty hits by Linda Ronstadt, Frank Sinatra and The Turtles, waiting breathlessly for an announcer to intone our school’s name. Sometimes, we received news that school had been canceled only after we had suited up in thermal underwear, boots and coats and waited glumly by the door for the bus. When word came, Mom stuck spoons in our mouths to keep us from swallowing our tongues during this communications convulsion.

Last month, I received school closing news by automated phone call from my district, a text message from Channel 3, postings from teacher friends on Facebook, and on the TV, all within 30 seconds — from the superintendent’s lips to God’s ears, as they say.

My wife still had to stick a spoon in my mouth, but at least I didn’t have to put on long johns and wait by the door.

As nice as all this instantaneous news is, it’s usually TMI. Where the weather is concerned, I’m not too worried about what’s coming tomorrow or later in the week, but with what’s going on right now.

To that end, my preferred form of weather communication is not Doppler radar, but Doggler radar, information gleaned from sending my faithful hound, Molly, into the back yard well before dawn every morning.

If she comes back wet, it’s raining. If she comes back white, it’s snowing. When she’s so white I have to sweep the snow off her back, it’s serious accumulation. On those rare occasions when I hear her toenails scrabbling for purchase on the back porch, it’s icy.

When she doesn’t come back at all, I’ve either forgotten to latch the back gate or it’s so temperate that she’s sunning herself on the lawn. (When it’s the former, a long-suffering neighbor drags her by the collar to the front door. If the latter, prodigious coaxing with biscuits is necessary.)

Forecasting has come a long way in the last few decades, and early warnings have no doubt saved many lives that might otherwise have been lost in tornadoes, floods and other extreme weather situations, but for run-of-the-mill weather, it’s generally more than we need.

Most of the time, TV weather turns the audience into a pack of Pavlov’s dogs: when some handsome or pretty face tells us to stay tuned to learn if the latest storm is going to wreak havoc with our commute, we practically salivate on cue and stay glued through another set of moronic commercials, only to learn that the weather pattern du jour has veered south somewhere over Pennsylvania and skies will be clear.

Or it hasn’t, and they won’t.

Either way, the sun will come up tomorrow — even if we don’t see it — and I’ll send my four-legged Dick Goddard doggedly into battle, reading her communiques from the front without corporate sponsorship, network chest-thumping and pesky ads.