Monday, February 28, 2011

Reading, instead, on Oscar night

So I skipped most of the Oscars in favor of a good book.

What can I say? Most of my favorite movies were filmed before 1980 anyway.

Reclining in a chair, alternating ice and heat on my aching back, I read instead. The book is "The Lady Upstairs," about former New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff.

I learned all about the great newspaper strike of the '60s, about how the Post came out of it as the No. 1 P.M. newspaper in New York. I learned how Dolly, as she was known, became fascinated by Jackie O. I learned that she liked to ride the elevator alone to the Post's penthouse office in part because she was afraid she'd forget someone's name.

Page after page tells a familiar tale. Schiff bothers over the bottom line, lamenting losses, doing this and that to get the paper to turn a profit. (It eventually did, by the way.)

I haven't reached the grand finale, in which the liberal crusader sells her beloved Post to an Aussie who promptly flips its editorial pages 180 degrees. Only in America, right?

Reading about the Post's declining readership way back when makes me ponder over the present. I worry that we do not read anymore. Sound bites and social networks have all but obliterated our attention spans. The day may soon arrive in which metropolitan areas might not have even one daily paper.

But a sentence from the book stands out. Musing over why the Post endured, someone said it was because the paper had a POV, a strong, uncensored voice, one that stood for something, shouting from the figurative rooftops, even, when it was needed.

Seems like there's a lesson in that somewhere.

Oh, and yeah, I finally turned on the Oscars. I do wanna see "The King's Speech."

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bredesen gives Haslam some advice...

In today's New York Times, Phil Bredesen gives some advice to his successor, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

'The American Sphinx'

Forgive my absence for a few days.

Low back pain. Doctor. Please don't let it be a kidney stone. Good news. Inflamed sciatic nerve. Really? At (almost) 33? Oh, well. It's not a stone. Thank God.

Watched for the first time since its 1997 premiere the Ken Burns Thomas Jefferson biography. Our third president is an enigma, indeed.

One can't help but admire Jefferson. One also can't help but marvel at his contradictions. The author of the American Scripture, the Declaration of Independence, who never freed his slaves. The man with an organized mind and cluttered, chaotic personal habits.

Joseph J. Ellis calls Jefferson the American Sphinx. That's as apt a description as any.

I am always moved by the story of Jefferson's reconciliation with John Adams during the last decade of their lives. Their letters are elegiac -- moving and monumental.

Perhaps this spring or summer I can return to Virginia, to Monticello, to the house Jefferson never quite finished. I would love to stroll the campus of the university he designed and dream again of living the scholarly life.

I stand in awe of his intellect and am frustrated by his public (that terrible embargo) and private acts. And, yet, I forgive him somewhat, too. Even the great Jefferson was a product of his time.

Of all the great moments in the American experience, surely Jefferson's and Adams' deaths on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of our Declaration, soar among the stars.

If Washington is the father and Lincoln is the savior, Jefferson, then, is the soul -- encompassing both the light and the darkness, the good and the bad, the great American dilemma between ideals and reality.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A portable garden; let it grow!

I guess the whole thing started with "Danny and the Dinosaur."

My parents read it to me again and again. I can still see the pictures, still see the words on the page. I remember the dinosaur hiding in the museum. I remember thinking that was funny. Clever, even.

I don't know if you could call me a precocious child -- that seems pretentious -- but I could read before I ever stepped into a classroom. I loved it, yes, I did.

Somewhere in the second or third grade, neighbor Marilyn Johnson gave me a copy of her son Ben's Hardy Boys mystery, "While the Clocked Ticked." And I was a goner.

Thus the dominoes began to fall -- more Hardy Boys and "Where the Red Fern Grows," when the boy falls on the axe. Joyce Hill showed us the movie; my pictures were better than Hollywood's. Then came Encyclopedia Brown. Books on meteorology and football and politics.

By 9 or 10, maybe before, I was reading the papers -- the stories, the comics, the Mini Page, the TV guide.

Looking back, it seems inevitable that I would one day herd words. I was writing stories by the third or fourth grade. I can remember sitting on the playground at the old Brickey school, looking, learning, lamenting. When I got to Virginia Rains's fifth grade class, she would have me write one story a week to share with my chums. It continued that next year, Roy Andrews and the "Snood" mysteries. He put them up on a board at the front of the class. Jon Wright drew the cover.

These memories floated out of the mist of time last night while I was reading Roger Rosenblatt's "Unless it Moves the Human Heart," about the craft of writing. He says that all good writers are readers. I agree.

I would worry, fret even, over a writer who doesn't read. The late, great Wilma Dykeman once gave me great advice. To be a writer, she typed in an old-fashioned letter, write, write, write and read, read, read.

And so I did. Whenever I was happy or sad or lonely or fulfilled, I would write. And read.

I stayed with mysteries for a long time. Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle and Nero Wolfe. A bit later came Ian Fleming and Dorothy Gilman. I tried to read Spillane but didn't much care for him.

The summer between my eighth and ninth grade years I read Harper Lee. "To Kill A Mockingbird." Brilliant in its simplicity, that little girl's story.

Still later came Hemingway and Faulkner, Larry McMurtry and John Grisham. And Charles Dickens, the best and worst of times, and the New York Times. I can still recall the absolute thrill, the shiver that ran up my spine, when I first held a Sunday Times in my excited little fingers. Sunday afternoons were never the same.

I was assigned John Updike in college, the one about that boy at the A&P, and knew I'd stumbled onto something special. I could see the ringleader and her two sidekicks. I was there, in the store with them. I could see it, dammit. I could see it!

Then Sandra Clark introduced me to Pete Hamill. For the first time I became cognizant of language as rhythm, music keeping time with the metronome. I read "A Drinking Life," the perfect memoir with not a wasted word, and I knew. Yes. This was writing.

Other discoveries have been gold nuggets sifted out of the soil. Shiny. Sublime.

Pat Conroy and the broken sand dollars. Jay Gatsby and the blinking green light.

"In Cold Blood." That awful, awful night in Kansas.

A bit later I read Capote's novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's," evidence, if you need it, that even the cinema can't top a super scribe.

I remember the night I read "The Old Man and the Sea," in one sitting, a can of Coors hidden behind the chair. I could smell the saltwater and the sea air and see the look of grief on the old man's weathered face. I could see it, dammit. I could see it!

Reading is such a pleasure. It isn't passive, for one thing. The author sets the stage. You get to be the casting director. The pictures are in your head. And what's wonderful about it is your pictures are different from mine.

Someone once said that a good book is a garden carried around in one's pocket. Let it grow, I say. Let it grow!

Monday, February 21, 2011

My regards still belong to Broadway

Manhattan is but a memory, yet my regards still belong to Broadway.

Our trip to New York was oh so short. Up and back. One and done. Blink. It's over.

But well worth it. I'd forgotten how much I love The City, with its busy sidewalks and blinking lights and big skyscrapers and bustling cacophony.

My mind drifts back there. I make it a point to read the New York section of the Times on my Kindle. Surfing the web means stops at the Daily News and New York Magazine websites. I sneak in a page or two of Pete Hamill while taking a break from Roger Rosenblatt's book on writing.

I tell everyone how much we loved Radio City and Rockfeller Center. I think back to the marquee advertising "Driving Miss Daisy," and wish for the 100th time I could have stayed one more day to see James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave play opposite one another.

Scrolling through the DVR list, I'm tickled to see I recorded an old favorite, "Sunday in New York," a few weeks ago. I'll give it a look later in the week.

Home is happy but my heart remains in Herald Square.

Now, it seems, I need a little give and take. The New York Times; the Daily News...

Friday, February 18, 2011

In a New York state of mind...

Hi gang.

Sorry I haven't ducked in this week. Took a quick jaunt to Manhattan to see "Elvis in Concert" at Radio City Music Hall. Great trip. Great time. More on that in an upcoming Shopper-News.

Weather is wonderful, isn't it? False spring has sprung. I only wish it would last, which you know it won't.

The fun had even hit Herald Square. A blustery 30-degree Tuesday gave way to a warm 50-degree Wednesday.

"Enjoy this weather while it lasts," said our server at Heartland Brewing Company, located at the base of the Empire State Building. I didn't even need the warm overcoat.

Manhattan is fun, feisty, forever alive and flashing. Too bad Jenn and I didn't have another day in the Big Apple. Saw the theater at which James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave are appearing in "Driving Miss Daisy." Spotted a sign for another show devoted to the "Million Dollar Quartet" -- Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl (as in Perkins) and Cash (as in Johnny). If only, if only.

Took the train from Penn Station back to Newark, back to reality. Woke up in Times Square, went to sleep in Tennessee.

I don't have any reasons, to quote Billy Joel. I've left them all behind.

I'm in a New York state of mind...

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

'Nixon in China': An opera, an experience

So I watched "Nixon in China," the stunning, curious opera by John Adams, seen the way it should be -- in living HD -- on a big screen at Regal Cinema West Town Mall yesterday. (The only thing better, of course, would be experiencing it at the Met itself.)

And this is an opera to be experienced. I still don't know what I think about it. One thing is certain. Adams and that whirling dervish of a director Peter Sellars, who has the most colorful coif since Don King, have produced the most important American opera since "Porgy and Bess."

In the current Met production, James Maddalena sings Nixon in the role that he created in the opera's 1987 debut in Houston. Janis Kelly plays a sympathetic Pat Nixon, Russell Baun is Chou En-lai, Robert Brubaker is Mao Tse-tung, Kathleen Kim is Chiang Ch'ing (Madame Mao) and Richard Paul Fink is Henry Kissinger. Composer Adams also conducts.

The best scene is the rather faithfully adapted meeting between Nixon and Mao. Nixon tries to talk pragmatic politics; Mao mumbles in generalities. The worst scene is the opera-within-an-opera in which Kissinger is reduced to a strutting buffoon. It isn't Fink's fault; he does a superb job with what is scripted. For some reason, Adams decided that Kissinger would provide the comic relief and it doesn't work.

"Nixon in China" made me think of the work of composer Philip Glass. Maybe it's its minimalism. Maybe it's because I downloaded and listened to Glass's "Violin Concerto No. 2" last week. I don't know. I do know that I'm glad I saw it.

The second act is the weakest link, but the third act, also surreal, nearly redeems the mistake, as the main characters muse on mortality, reality and what-might-have-beens.

Read about the current Met production and other related material here.

The New York Times review is here.

Gay Talese gathers former Kissinger aide Winston Lord's reaction to the opera in a "Talk of the Town" piece for the current anniversary edition (2/14 and 2/21/11) of The New Yorker.

The best book on Nixon's 1972 China trip to date is "Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World" by Margaret MacMillan.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Chet, Don, "Vincent"

Submitted for your approval here is Chet Atkins and Don McLean performing McLean's perfectly poetic song "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)."

"They would not listen, they're not listening still; perhaps they never will..."

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bon voyage to the best show on TV

So, I have watched the final episode of "Friday Night Lights," the best show on television, the one most of you don't watch.

That is a shame, but it's a story for another day. Today is time to say so long, farewell, thanks for the memories, adios. For five improbable years, "FNL" has treated viewers to smart, realistic, funny, touching television. We've witnessed superb acting, even better writing, a gritty sense of realism and a rare sight in modern network television -- realistic, deeply realized character arcs.

Other than one major exception -- the silly "murder" plot in the second season -- this show has held true to itself, felt more like a documentary than drama, and offered fans wonderful moments in American television.

Oh, how I can brag -- about Kyle Chandler's Coach Eric Taylor, about Connie Britton's Tami Taylor, about their perfectly portrayed marriage; about Taylor Kitsch, and Zach Gilford, and Jesse Plemons and Minka Kelly and Michael B. Jordan and Gaius Charles and so many other fine young actors.

But, I have to brag about the best -- Brad Leland as Buddy Garrity, the most honest and perfectly played character on the program. Every community in America has a Buddy Garrity hovering around its high school football program. You know who they are. Watching Brad's Buddy, week after week, season after season, has been a true treat.

It was a show about high school football, but then again, it wasn't. It was about life, loving your family, growing up, overcoming adversity, making choices and learning to live with them. It was good, darn good, something to be savored.

I won't give away anything about the series finale in a nod to you poor souls who have to wait for the NBC spring broadcast or the final season DVD release. Don't want to spoil it. (I saw it on DirecTV's exclusive fall broadcast.)

This show has been so awesome, so authentic, so apt for this chapter of the American experience. In case you missed it, surf now over to Netflix or Amazon or somewhere to get the DVDs, or hold tight until the NBC airing of season five starts soon.

Forgive the trite analogy, but "Friday Night Lights" has been five years worth of forward passes, all thrown for touchdowns, proof positive that terrific television isn't a thing of the past.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

What if they wrote a blog and nobody read it?

A friend and former colleague has written an excellent piece here centering around the topic "why blog if nobody reads it?"

Fair question. Since I began blogging in August 2004, I've often wondered from time to time why I bother. I am no Huffington Post, Instapundit or Swampland. At least I'm not killing trees, right?

But like Lindsey says on SuLu Blog, part of the point is the extra practice. To improve at writing, like any other task, one must do it -- again and again and again.

Writing for a weekly newspaper, it is easy to slide into a manic-depressive way of working -- save everything until the last possible moment, composing it all in one big burst of energy, filing the last story moments before the final deadline. It works. But it isn't the best way.

Marvin West, one of the best, once told me to treat each day as if I had a deadline. Perfect. Not only are the facts fresh on your mind, such an MO usually allows you to review your writing a day or two later, after the dust has settled, when you're more apt to spot errors. It also makes the proofreader and the composition department very, very happy.

So, bravo, SuLu Blog! And, bravo, bloggers everywhere! Keep it up. Create for creation's sake. Do it for the love of language. Do it for the fun of it.

But, by all means, do it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Davy Crockett tells it like it is...

A faithful reader of this blog, who is affectionately known to friend and foe alike as the Giant Rat of Knoxville, called today and suggested I post this famous quote from one of our most famous Tennesseans, Colonel David "Davy" Crockett.

"You can go to hell, and I am going to Texas."

A quick Google search traces the quote to an account by a man from Nacogdoches, Texas, which was printed in the Niles Weekly Register (Baltimore, Maryland) for its April 9, 1836 edition. He apparently met Crockett when the colonel headed out for Texas on what became his heroic and ill-fated rendezvous at The Alamo. It is quoted below:

"A gentleman from Nacogdoches, in Texas, informs us, that, whilst there, he dined in public with Col. Crockett, who had just arrived from Tennessee. The old bear-hunter, on being toasted, made a speech to the Texians [sic], replete with his usual dry humor. He began nearly in this style: 'I am told, gentlemen, that, when a stranger, like myself, arrives among you, the first inquiry is - what brought you here? To satisfy your curiosity at once to myself, I will tell you all about it. I was, for some years, a member of congress. In my last canvass, I told the people of my district, that, if they saw fit to re-elect me, I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but, if not, they might go to h(ell), and I would go to Texas. I was beaten, gentlemen, and here I am.'

"The roar of applause was like a thunder-burst."

Incidentally, for those interested in reading about the real Davy Crockett, I wholeheartedly recommend Buddy Levy's excellent 2005 biography, "American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett." For those who wish to learn more about the 1950s Fess Parker/Davy Crockett craze, the best study to date is Paul F. Anderson's 1996 book, "The Davy Crockett Craze."

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Monday, February 07, 2011

Quote of the day

"Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on them." -- President Abraham Lincoln


Sunday, February 06, 2011

Happy birthday, Gipper!

Happy 100th birthday to the best president during my lifetime and one of America's 10 best, Ronald Wilson Reagan!

Take note of Norman Rockwell's four renderings of the Gipper's image.

is a link to CBS News coverage of Reagan's January 1981 inauguration.

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Saturday, February 05, 2011

'The Interrogator' vs. 'The Great Communicator'

Just in time for the Gipper's 100th birthday tomorrow, here are classic clips from "60 Minutes" interviews Mike Wallace conducted with Ronald Reagan in 1975, 1976, 1980 and 1989.

Oh, to have a president like this again...

As an added bonus, here is a clip of an interview Jim Lehrer conducted with the Gipper in 1989, in which Reagan discusses debating Jimmy Carter during the 1980 campaign.

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Friday, February 04, 2011

'We are all Egyptians'

More fine work from Nicholas Kristof, who is risking his life to report what may become the story of the decade.

His latest dispatch, for the New York Times, can be found here.

Ronald Reagan, who would have turned 100 this Sunday, would have loved this democratic display in Cairo. He taught us to always strive to be the Shining City on the Hill, promoting democracy throughout the world, forever looking forward to a better tomorrow.

Iran-Contra notwithstanding, I believe that Mr. Reagan believed in the cause of freedom more strongly than anything else save the inherent goodness of ordinary Americans. Don't forget that the Gipper was once an FDR Democrat. Although he became disillusioned with the Democratic Party, he never lost his idealism.

Another popular president, John F. Kennedy, stood in the shadow of the Berlin Wall during his final summer and declared, "Ich bin ein Berliner," -- "I, too, am a Berliner."

We wait for the smoke to clear in Cairo, yes. Free and legitimate elections must be allowed to happen or else this becomes one big mess.

But reading the accounts of those on the scene, observing Hosni Mubarak's heavy-handed response to the anti-government protesters during the past couple of days, learning, if you bother to do so, that the Muslim Brotherhood appears at best to be a bumbling fringe element in Egypt, it's difficult not to yell "Innaharda, ehna kullina Misryeen!" at the top of one's lungs.

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

The day the music died

Feb. 3, 1959

In memory of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson.

A fantastic live version of Don McLean's "American Pie" can be found here.

On our own for much longer than 10 years now...

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Egypt and the Spirit of '76

Points to ponder here, from the pen of columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, for anyone who still believes in the Spirit of '76.

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Manned mission to Mars?

A 2009 episode of the highly entertaining latest incarnation of "Dr. Who" that aired Monday on BBC America centered around the first humans to colonize Mars.

In the "Who" universe, anyway, this happened in the year 2059. According to a story here, NASA hopes to get astronauts to the Red Planet by 2030.

One catch, though. They won't be coming back.

As early as 2009, Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State and author of "The Physics of 'Star Trek,'" was advocating for a one-way mission to Mars. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Krauss points to the Pilgrims as an example. They didn't count on coming home, either.

Krauss writes that the biggest impediment to sending humans to Mars involves shielding them from solar radiation, before one even bothers with funding and logistics. He argues convincingly that a one-way trip is not only feasible, it's preferable.

"To boldly go where no one has gone before does not require coming home again," he writes.

Common sense tells you we're years away from even entertaining the possibility. NASA doesn't even go to the moon anymore (President Obama canceled the George W. Bush-backed Constellation Project, which called for a moon landing by 2020). The space shuttle is being scrapped in favor of a new heavy load vehicle, which is scheduled to debut four years from now.

When Neil and Buzz landed on the moon in 1969, Vice President Spiro Agnew boldly predicted that manned missions to Mars were right around the corner, guaranteed to happen before the year 2000. We know now that didn't happen. Challenger, Columbia and budget cuts certainly didn't help.

If you'd wandered into my 2nd grade classroom a quarter-century ago, I'd have told you humans would haunt Mars before I turned 40. Call me cynical, but I'm starting to think that seeing it on "Dr. Who" will be as close as I'll ever get.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

'An ax for the frozen sea within us'

For all you budding authors out there, words of wisdom and inspiration from Roger Rosenblatt here, from PBS NewsHour.

"Making Toast," Rosenblatt's fine piece for the New Yorker written after his daughter's death (which was later expanded into a book) can be found here.

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