Thursday, June 27, 2013

Going off the grid

Could July possibly be around the corner? Am I reading the calendar correctly?

The truest cliche I've ever been told is that time flies the older one gets. I don't know where the first half of the year went. Somebody once said life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. I guess that's about right.

Hey, hope you're having a good week. Sorry I haven't posted since Saturday. Stomach bug put the blahs on me the first of the week and yesterday was migraine mania. You gotta love it. Good news is it disappeared with the weather front that weaved its way into East Tennessee yesterday.

I'm going off the grid next week. No telephone, no television, no Internet, no deadlines, no commitments. Just me, books, music, a few DVDs, peace, quiet, and special guest appearances by Jenn. I can't wait. Time to detox.

Wherever you are next Thursday, don't forget that the holiday, in the United States, is called Independence Day for a reason. Let freedom ring! At least until the drone passes by... (couldn't resist).

Not much news to tell you other than I'm happy to be alive, ready to head up to Camp David (inside joke) tomorrow afternoon and forget all my troubles for awhile.

Don't take any wooden nickels and I'll see you in the funny papers.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

'Don't fake it'

Get this.

You're down in Georgia, there to meet not just a movie star, but an American icon. He walks up to you in combat fatigues, looking every bit as big as his 6 foot, 4 inch frame. Although he's known to millions around the world, he sticks out his hand and smiles.

"John Wayne," he says by way of introduction, as if you didn't know.

Such was Roger Ebert's life.

Don't feel too well tonight. I think I've caught some kind of stomach bug. So, instead of making medicine with my buddy Matt Shelton -- I'm sure we would have screened yet another good bad movie -- I'm at home, finishing up Ebert's autobiography, "Life Itself."

Sometimes you don't realize just how much a person means to you until they're gone. That's how I feel about Ebert.

He was always there, on TV, bickering with Gene Siskel and, later and less successfully, with Richard Roeper; guesting on Carson or Letterman; ubiquitous with those two thumbs up (or down!). His movie reviews showed up in my email inbox about 9 a.m. every Friday, like clockwork.

Even after surgery silenced his voice, he was still there, tweeting and blogging away. I thought he'd live to be a hundred.

And then he died.

That weekend -- I'm sure I told you about it -- I watched "Citizen Kane" complemented by Ebert's commentary. And, you know what? A movie I've seen at least 20 times, discussed, enjoyed, mused over, loved, hated, taught to a high school class, learned about from UT professor Chuck Maland -- despite all that, Ebert taught me things I'd never noticed. Such was his gift.

Shelton has a collection of reviews of movies Ebert despised. One night, prompted by peer pressure and potent potables, I read a few of them in William Shatner's cadence. They are classics. Especially the one about a doomsday movie. Is it "Armageddon"? Bruce Willis on an asteroid? Anyway, it's a masterpiece.

In "Life Itself," Ebert writes about his Midwest childhood, about losing it at the movies, about newspapering in Chicago with Mike Royko and a true cast of characters, about drinking too much and sobering up, chatting on film shoots with Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum, musing on mortality with Martin Scorsese.

As usual, I've collected a list of films to watch. Scorsese's first picture. Ebert's infamous attempt at a screenplay, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Bergman's "Face to Face."

And you know what? He taught me something about writing that I've always believed but never heard verbalized.

"Focus on what you saw and how it affected you. Don't fake it."

I've always tried to write conversationally, sharing a story, telling the truth. I don't think readers are dumb. I think they can spot phony a mile away. But nothing sells like sincerity.

Leave it to Roger Ebert to say it best. He always did. 

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

'Celebrate what's right with the world'

Deadline day is done and I'm eased back on the couch, enjoying a Coke and the Tigers/Red Sox game on the TV. Jennifer's superb spaghetti is resting comfortably in my stomach.

Summertime, and the livin' is easy.

It's going down so well I didn't even mind the leadership training class I had to attend today. Actually, it was pretty neat.

Steve, our leader, showed us a clip from a "CBS Sunday Morning" segment about a guy who decided to clean up the Mississippi River. Couches, cans, bowling balls, he hauls it all out in his boat. His enthusiasm is so infectious he's recruited hundreds of volunteers.

Steve also screened a segment by a National Geographic photographer. In addition to showing us scenery that makes you thankful to be living on the third planet from the sun, the photographer imparted some words of wisdom.

My favorite:

"Celebrate what's right with the world and not wallow in what's wrong with it."

So true on a number of levels. It reminds me of the story of the guy who's rescued at sea and asks why the boat didn't get there sooner.

Don't let the daily headlines fool you. There's plenty right with the world.

I think about Doug Kose, the guy about whom I'm writing for the newspaper column next week. Doug decided to leave his dream job in marketing at UT to become chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee. Now, he's helping kids who didn't have much hope.

I think about the three-year-old child I saw on the news tonight. Thanks to cutting-edge technology he recently heard his father's voice for the first time. You should have seen the look on his face. But don't take my word for it. Watch the video.

I think about Catfish Dave, a firefighter who was forced to retire after suffering a heart attack. Rather than sit and stew about it, Dave came home to Halls, a fishing pole in one hand and a banjo in the other. He told me that his biggest decision each day is deciding which one to pick up. You know how he chooses?

"I flip a coin."

The best part is I've managed to get paid for nearly 13 years now to tell such tales. My dream was to making a living herding words. Darned if I didn't figure out how to do it.

Sometimes you have to write a column you don't want to write. Sometimes you have to make people mad. But my heart lies with something I heard Charles Kuralt say once.

"It does no harm, every once in awhile, to acknowledge that the whole world isn't in flames, that there are people in this country besides politicians, entertainers and criminals."

Celebrate what's right with the world. Life's too short to wallow in what's wrong with it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Music is the best medicine

Spent much of last week in the hospital.

But it's all right now. New meds didn't take. Needed a rest.  Needed time to try something else.

As usual, music has proven to be the best medicine in the aftermath.

John Denver is "Looking For Space." Elvis Presley asks "Let Me Be There." Kenny Rogers is seeking "Love or Something Like It." Francis Albert, as always, is doing it his way.

I try to listen to Jonathan Schwartz as much as I can. His daily program on Sirius/XM's '40s on 4 is worth the subscription price alone. I especially enjoy "The Sunday Show," easing onto the couch and scanning the newspapers while Schwartz spins Sinatra, Ella, The Velvet Fog and Nat Cole. 

I guess I'm a member of the last generation that remembers disc jockeys as personalities. Back before the corporate takeovers. Jonathan and I have corresponded a few times via email, but have never met. And yet he feels like an old friend. His voice, comfortable and calm, has broadened my musical horizons, made me feel a little less alone on rainy days.

I often feel like a person born out of my time, adrift in the early years of a century I don't much like. I'm not a voyeur. I couldn't care less about "The Real Housewives" of whatever county or "Honey Boo Boo" or those morons that are in desperate need of a bath and a shave. (Take your pick.)

I think the civil war in Syria and the NSA leaks constitute real news, not Kim Kardashian's baby and Amanda Bynes' latest antics. (I've yet to figure out just exactly who the hell she is, by the way.)

If classless schmucks like Kanye West and Justin Bieber are the soundtracks of the moment, I want my money back.

As for me, I'll prop back in the recliner, Dorsey and Sinatra on the turntable, or Elvis on the iPod, or maybe even The Band on the 8-track. That's my music. That is the soundtrack of my life.

Country music isn't being made by all these models who need autotune to stay on pitch. It was defined by George Jones and Hank Williams Sr. and The Hag and Jimmie Rodgers. You can have your two-bit toads in cowboy hats. As for me, like the soda commercial once said, "You can't beat the real thing."

Television is by and large a cultural wasteland, exceptions provided to a few shows on PBS, "60 Minutes" and "The Big Bang Theory." You know what airs in the time slot once held by "M*A*S*H" Monday nights at 9 on CBS? A worse-than-a-bad-joke miserable excuse for a sitcom called "Two Broke Girls." Even the Science Channel is now airing shows about aliens.

You can't make this stuff up.

And don't even get me started on movies. Everything has to be two hours of CGI explosions. That's one reason why I can't wait to see "Before Midnight." I hear this new "Superman" is so bad it makes "Captain Nice" look like a bona fide sequel.

At least I have modern medicine, the Internet, interstates and the local library. I have DVDs and YouTube, radio reminders and what's left of my memory.

And, when the Black Dog barks the loudest, I can slip on an LP, or flip on the Sirius/XM, or turn on the iPod and seek solace in the sweet sounds of song.

It's cheaper than a Hawaiian vacation and more effective than even the best antidepressant. 

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

'Once Upon a Summertime'

There we were, together again, me and Mike Finn, The Square Room, downtown, Robinella, Jazz Lunch.

Mike and I spent most Sunday nights together for several years, listening to Robin sing, back in the good ol' days. Mike is celebrating his 70th birthday and invited some friends and coworkers out for lunch. It felt good.

Robin performed a tribute to Blossom Dearie, the dearly departed jazz singer and pianist, one of the last of the great New York supper club singers. She opened with "Once Upon a Summertime," and weaved her magic web around everything from Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" to Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Surrey with the Fringe on Top."

I floated away, to that place I go whenever my buddy Robin makes her music, a destination I like to call "stop-time." Because time stops. And for an hour or so the whole darn world makes perfect sense. The colors faded to glorious monochrome and all we needed was a slow-moving ceiling fan and a wisp of cigarette smoke.

Her band today included the fantastic Justin Haynes on piano, trumpeter Vance Thompson, bassist Clint Mullican, percussionist Nolan Nevels and a great guitarist whose name I didn't catch. She closed with "Moonlight Saving Time" and I floated out the door.

Robin has a new CD coming out this month, one she recorded with jazz guitarist Frank Vignola in New York. Stay tuned.

One thing I noticed as I walked back to the car was the hustling, bustling scene on Market Square. Vendors were selling their wares. Kids were playing in a splash pad. If you haven't heard the news, y'all, downtown Knox Vegas is filled with life.

And so was I this afternoon, my belly full of food and my mind mad with music, sweet and simple and sad, once upon a summertime.

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

'If the phone doesn't ring, it's me'

Harry Orwell is giving Thomas Magnum a run for his money as my favorite TV detective.

(Yeah, Jim Rockford is up there, too.)

Harry lives on the beach. He takes the bus everywhere because he says it gives him time to think. He's debating on whether to get his vehicle's transmission repaired on principle. And, as soon as he finishes fixing up his boat (named The Answer), he's sailing out to sea. Because, as he says, "there aren't any phones there."

Well, this was the 1970s, before cellphones became ubiquitous. But I get his point.

If it were up to me, or if I were in another line of work, I wouldn't answer the darn things. These people who walk around with a phone stuck to their ear as if it were an appendage look ridiculous. Casual conversation in a restaurant is an endangered species.

I told you the other day about "Harry O." It was an underrated show starring the underrated David Janssen. I'm working my way through the two pilot movies and the first season of episodes. You don't see TV like this anymore.

I've always wanted to live near the water. I guess Norris Lake would be more realistic than either the Gulf Coast of Florida or Lahaina, Maui. But one can dream.

The interns have returned to the Shopper News for the summer. We call them that. It's actually a six-week summer camp, if you will, in which we tour various businesses around town and try to teach them a thing or two about herding words. I joined them for lunch today at Litton's. They are all in middle or high school and have their lives ahead of them. It makes me almost envious.

I told them if they find a job they love, they will never work a day in their lives. That's mostly true.

Speaking of which, I've got to head out to an interview in a few minutes. Hope you all are having a good afternoon.

Meanwhile, I'll be dreaming about a little cottage by the coast, the surf splashing onto shore, no deadlines, no commitments. Chances are I'll be humming that Jimmy Buffett tune.

"If the phone doesn't ring, it's me." 

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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Those were the daaaaaaays...

No show changed television quite like "All in the Family."

The landmark sitcom about working-class stiff Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) and his brood at 704 Hauser Street in Queens, N.Y. erased the inanity of most '50s and '60s TV comedies and delved right into issues such as biogtry, race and racism, rape, menopause, the Vietnam War, inflation and Watergate.

Sounds like a riot, huh?

Well, it was, and in no small part because of Jean Stapleton, who died Friday at age 90. Stapleton played Archie's long-suffering wife Edith. She was given the most difficult role on the show and handled it with aplomb. Her comic timing was impeccable. Edith's big heart, her genuine love for others, contrasted well with Archie's bombast.

As Ken Levine says in his excellent tribute, we accepted Archie because Edith did. Give some credit to the writers, too, who made Archie multifaceted. Yes, he ranted about "spics" and "spades" (his words), but as Levine says, he was a dock worker worried about the changing world around him and how he would find his place in it. Deep down, he was a softie hiding behind all that ranting.

Edith kept him honest, occasionally zinged him the way Gracie Allen did George Burns, and lived up to her Christian beliefs, treating others the way she wanted to be treated. In that sense, Edith Bunker may be the most sincere Christian ever portrayed in an American sitcom.

Stapleton was an accomplished actor, appearing on Broadway, and later playing Eleanor Roosevelt on screen and on the stage.

Her death is a time to remember her talent and to mourn the state of modern TV. "All in the Family," a funny show that taught us important life lessons, couldn't make it onto the broadcast networks today.

We are a worse nation for it.

Rest in peace, Ms. Stapleton.

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Saturday, June 01, 2013

Meeting Lee and Bill and other fun tales

So, I met "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "The Greatest American Hero" in the same day. I can now die a happy man.

You have to understand that I have been a Lee Majors fan since childhood. He was Col. Steve Austin. AND Colt "The Fall Guy" Seivers. AND Heath on "The Big Valley." AND Roy Tate on "The Men from Shiloh" (aka "The Virginian").

AND he grew up admiring former Tennessee football player and (later) coach John Majors, who is another favorite. Lee had changed his last name from Yeary to Majors in honor of his hero when he became an actor.

Class act, couldn't have been nicer.

I showed him my 1977 booklet "Majors of Tennessee," distributed by The Tennessean when John Majors returned to UT that year. On one page, Lee Majors is shown (sporting a Pitt jacket) on the sidelines during the '76 Pitt/Penn State game.

He perked up when he saw the book. And he thumbed through it, remembering when he attended the Pitt national championship game.

I got so caught up in the moment, I almost forgot to pay for his autograph. He joked, "(You'd better), or else I'm keeping that!", pointing to the book. 

When I was a boy, Lee Majors and his then-wife Farrah Fawcett knew a couple who lived in Emory Estates in Halls. They'd sometimes visit. During the mid '80s, my dad and I would watch "The Fall Guy" on Wednesday nights together. I still have the "Fall Guy" lunchbox I carried throughout elementary school.

I've been waiting 35 years to meet Lee Majors. That moment happened today at the FanBoy Expo at the Jacob Building.

Also appearing at the event was William "The Greatest American Hero" Katt. I LOVED this show when I was a kid. I can remember watching it on Friday nights during the final months of its original ABC run.
When the FX cable network debuted in 1994, "The Greatest American Hero" was part of its original lineup. Dean Harned and I held a viewing party at his house. When the DVDs were released in 2005, I hunted all over Knoxville for a copy of Season 1.

Bill Katt was kind, gracious, unpretentious and serious in the good sense of the word. He confirmed that show creator Stephen J. Cannell fought the network to try to keep it fun but serious. He, Katt and co-star Robert Culp wanted the show to deal with humanistic and existential themes amid Ralph crashing into buildings, best evidenced in the first season episode "The Best Desk Scenario." The network wanted the show to be cartoonish and feature episodes in which Ralph saves the world week after week.  Tragically, Cannell's son died unexpectedly that year. Katt says some of the fight went out of Steve Cannell.

"That's when you started seeing lizards crawling out of the sewer," Katt said. "Steve Cannell came up and personally apologized to me for that. I think if (the change) hadn't happened, the show would have had a longer run."

(If the name Stephen J. Cannell doesn't at first ring a bell, perhaps this will jog your memory.)

He told us that NBC offered him a guaranteed two-year contract at double his ABC salary in the mid-1980s to revive the show after it became a hit in syndication. He turned it down, he said, shaking his head.

Katt says he performs in at least one stage play a year and would make a living doing it if he didn't have to relocate from Los Angeles to New York. His mother, by the way, is Barbara Hale, best known for playing Della Street on "Perry Mason." She's doing well at age 94, he says.

I have a migraine tonight, but that matters not. Today was a day to be a kid again. I took home three autographs (two from Katt) and a lifetime of memories.

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