Wednesday, December 31, 2008

No Fate But What We Make?

The other day, my mom was telling me about a man she had talked to in her housing community in South Carolina. They had just met each other so they did the requisite exchange of background facts and personal history details. Naturally, this involved talking about kids so Mom mentioned that I worked for AAA in Virginia. He wondered which office it was and what I did, so when she told him I was the office manager at the Alexandria office, he started describing me to her. Apparently, he had been into my office when he lived in the area, and had enough dealings with me that he remembered who I was and what I looked like. I thought that was an odd bit of happenstance. As a manager, I’m mostly behind the scenes but I do interact with customers here often enough that some of them may remember who I am. What are the odds though that one of them would happen to move into my mom’s community, two states away, and strike up a conversation with her?

That got me thinking about other random coincidences that have happened. About four years ago, I got back in touch with someone I went to high school with because she happened to see my name on a school website called Her name was Carla and she was one of the five or six people from high school that I was interested in hearing from. There are a few other people I wanted to hear ABOUT, like which cheerleader became an alcoholic stripper, which geek was an Internet start-up millionaire, which teacher was a pedophile or frustrated novelist, who married whom and which jock now worked as a “sanitation engineer”. There weren’t many people I wanted to hear FROM though. I emailed back and forth with her for a year or two but I haven’t seen her in person since she lives in Decatur, Georgia. This year, I happened to be contacted by Cat, another one of the people I wanted to hear from. She saw my name on Facebook and wondered if I was the Richard Goodman. Of course I was him- there is only one of us who went to Thomas Dale High School in Virginia in the mid-1980s (and likely the only one there ever.) Besides, I always think of myself as the Richard Goodman regardless. I don’t think there is much competition out there either, unlike my friend Adam Rifkin who sometimes gets confused with Adam Rifkin, the B-list movie director.

So Cat and I have been talking lately and I ended up sending her a CD of songs. When I got her address, it turns out that she lives (you can see where this is going) in Decatur, Georgia too. Her job has no correlation to Carla’s job, she has no relatives in the area and she had no contact with Carla since high school, yet here were two of my former friends from high school living in the same city. Once this tidbit emerged, Cat realized that both her and Carla had some involvement with the Wiccan community in that same area so they likely know some of the same people even though they hadn’t ever bumped into each other. This seems to stretch the concept of coincidence pretty thin. I know the saying about it being “a small world” but the reality is that there are 6 billion people in the world and we live in the third largest country in the world and have the third largest population in the world. When people move out of state, there are thousands of possible cities for them to settle in. Nor are Decatur, Georgia and Ft. Mill, South Carolina such big cities or developing hot spots that everyone is moving there. Also, my circle of friends and acquaintances isn’t exactly vast. With a high school population of maybe 400 people, a college of 5,000 people (most of which I never met), neighbors tallying fifty perhaps, and 300 people in the course of various jobs, that means all the people I have known somewhat well probably number under three thousand people. That’s less than .0000098 % of the population of the United States. You’d have to talk to more than one hundred thousand people to come across one I know and that would only happen if you lined everyone up and talked to them. If you sprinkled them around the third largest country in the world, then that makes it even more unlikely you’d stumble across a familiar face once they left the same general part of the state as you.

Now that is just two examples that popped up this past month. When I gave it some more thought, there were even more oddities that came to me. In the back of my mind, I’d been pondering the concept of coincidences, happenstance, serendipity and flukes since November. What got me thinking back then was the news that Michael Crichton had died. When I saw that headline on the morning paper, I was on my Danube River cruise at the time, drifting past Serbia while relaxing in the lounge with a book. It was a paperback book that I had brought with me and of course it was a Michael Crichton book, the first one of his I had read in the last two years. What made me bring along that book when I had 130 others to choose from? Why was I reading that one at that exact moment when I had three other books and twenty magazines I had brought along as well? When I saw the news, why did I happen to be reading a book instead of eating breakfast or taking pictures at a tourist spot? It just struck me as odd, but I was also thrilled with the synchronicity of the moment. If it happened in a movie, you’d be thinking “Yeah, right. Deus ex machina.” It just seemed so preposterously apt that it got me thinking about things like fate, God, intelligent design and chaos theory. What constitutes a random occurrence, a convergence of chance events versus intelligent design, a divine force guiding the universe towards some desired outcome unknown to its’ participants? At what point can you realistically say that the mathematical odds of such a situation happening are basically impossible? And if it happens a second or third time, does that prove the existence of some higher power?

Such deep and abstract thoughts invariably led me to Ian Fleming’s book Goldfinger, just like so many philosophers and religious scholars before me. Okay, so maybe no one else but me has ever made such a connection but I did pull out the book because I remembered a quote in there about chance and circumstance. Granted, having just seen Quantum Of Solace that week, the new James Bond movie, also helped bring Bond books to the top of my brain since the new movie’s title came from a short story in the For Your Eyes Only collection. The quote though, right at the top of the table of contents page, read as follows: “Goldfinger said, ‘Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence and the third time it’s enemy action.’” So according to Goldfinger, once the improbable happens three times, it isn’t random. It is a deliberate action.

Although I’m not Goldfinger and don’t have to worry about secret agents stopping me from destroying the gold supply of Fort Knox or encrusting beautiful women in gold paint, I did start listing more of the recent coincidences that have occurred to me and I quickly came up with way more than three of them. Some are admittedly just “Huh, that’s unusual” situations but others are more along the lines of “Mathematically, that should be impossible and yet it happened. You need to go play the lottery right away.” For instance, here are some that are not that far-fetched. When my parents moved away from the Richmond, Virginia area, they settled in a town called Denver, North Carolina which was near where my sister lived. A couple years later, my sister’s job required her to move to another state. She now lives in Denver, Colorado. I have to pretty careful now when addressing letters to my parents or sister so that I don’t inadvertently write down the wrong state for their Denver. My friend Steve Bondi used to live in New York City before work required him to move to Seattle. After a little while there, he moved again, to Manhattan. Manhattan, Kansas that is. Two examples that are interesting but not unlikely although how many of you have ever heard of Denver, North Carolina or Manhattan, Kansas? Anyone? My high school chum John (I love using the word “chum”- it is so Hardy Boys) moved to northern Virginia for his last two years of high school. He hated his new school so he finished both his junior and senior classes in one year and went off to college. I finished in real time and went off to college too, ending up in William & Mary just like John. Not earth-shattering, I know, because there are only about four schools in Virginia that either of us would have considered attending but John’s family pushed a bit for him to go to school in Boston, so selecting a Virginia school was not a given. Where did I end up living my freshman year? In the freshman complex of Botetourt, in Faquier Hall which is right next to the German House where John was living as a sophomore. I did not know this before I was assigned to that dorm.

The other day, I got a “friend request” online from Mike Gunnels, a kid I knew back in elementary school, when I lived in Fort Lee, Virginia. He was one of my three friends from that neighborhood. I thought of him occasionally throughout the years, but I didn’t think he would remember me, much less look me up 30 years later and be able to find me based on the information I have posted on my profile. Okay, one last location-based item. Three years ago, Elizabeth and I went to eat at an Italian place near her house in the Springfield. We hadn’t been there in at least a year, so we decided to try it for dinner. During the meal, she looks over at another table and says “There’s Julie Meloro!” Sure enough, someone we had both worked with was sitting at a table across the room. They liked the place even though it was far away from them- they lived in Herndon- but they decided to come for their anniversary dinner that night. We hadn’t been there in a year, nor had the Meloros, yet we both decided to go there on the same day. Maybe it is just a small world after all, as the theme park ride says, and I can chalk up these examples squarely to the coincidence category. A little unusual but nothing that couldn’t happen under certain circumstances, right?

Let’s move on to the improbable situations. One day at work this year, I am answering calls on the membership phone line. It’s not part of my normal job but I do this every now and then when we are short-staffed and I want to be sure we don’t lose any sales calls to other offices or the call center. The phone rings, I pick up and I recognize the caller even before his name pops up on screen. His voice sounded like someone I play poker with at one of the neighborhood bars and once his name does appear on my computer, it confirms my suspicion. I proceed to blow his mind by saying “Is this the John Van Brocklin that plays poker at Pepi’s Pizza Box”? He says “Is this the Richard who plays poker at Pepi’s?” Yes he is and yes I am. Yeah, I know that we both live in the same general area and if I work for AAA and he is an AAA member, it is possible we will cross paths at some point. Still, how did I happen to answer the phone when he called? More to the point, we have 3.2 million members in the AAA MidAtlantic club with about 1.5 million of them in the Washington DC metro area. What is the likelihood that I will know any given caller even vaguely, much less personally?

Speaking of AAA, that brings up another example. In the course of catching up with Carla, she mentioned that her sister who still lives in the Richmond area was dating someone who worked at AAA. Upon asking several tough, probing, journalistic type questions (“What’s his name? Which office does he work at?”) I realized that he was our membership contact in the Richmond Headquarters, someone I would talk to a semi-regular basis. Another random thread in life’s tapestry turns out to be connected to me. Here’s another improbable example. In senior year of college, several friends and I decided to “take over” part of one floor of a dorm. We were able to get good lottery numbers for the room selection process so we got three adjacent rooms in a decent dorm. Adam Rifkin and I were in one room, Steve Fridella & Steve Bondi were on one side and Bondi’s friend Phil was on the other side, along with Phil’s roommate Mike Huffman. We all got to know Mike a bit better that year as we would all hang out in each other’s rooms or go do things together. Turns out Mike even dated John’s “friend” Melanie at one point. Stuff like that happens though on a campus where there are a finite number of people in a centralized area.

Eventually we all graduated (with eventually being the operative word for a couple of us) and moved away. Mike moved back to northern Virginia and I ended up in the same vicinity, oddly enough sharing a house with Adam’s girlfriend Michelle (Which was a great experience. She’s terrific.) Mike and I stayed in touch and maintained our friendship. Mike went to work for AAA and I worked for a music store. We were both really maximizing our degrees as you can see. Eventually Mike realized that he hated people so he went to night school and got an accounting degree. I still liked people, in theory, so I stayed in retail and customer service fields in managerial positions at the music store and later a video chain. I made some good friends there especially Elizabeth, a bright, amusing fellow cynic. We would periodically do things together and in the course of that, I got to know her sister Leona as well. Gradually, I got sick of not having any sort of regular schedule to my life at the video store chain because as the store manager, I regularly worked till midnight and later as a district manager I was technically on-call any time of day one of my stores needed me. So I answered an ad in the paper and got a job at AAA, a few months before Mike left to get an accounting job elsewhere.

Okay, in these last two paragraphs, I’ve casually mentioned several more connections and you are wondering if that was the point I was trying to make. Nope. Let’s cut to the chase on this one. Mike got a job with an accounting firm, of which there are hundreds in the Washington DC area. I have only five friends who live in the area, one of whom has a sister Leona that works for an accounting firm. Does Mike end up at the same firm as Leona? Of course he does. How could he not? It’s the same way the odds work when I am playing poker. If someone has a near impossible chance of beating my hand at poker, they will do so. They will get their “3-outer”, one of the three possible cards remaining out of fifty-two that will beat me. Yeah, you might think 3 chances in 52 isn’t improbable and neither do I but when the same person does it two or three times in a night, over a long period of time, you start to reconsider the concept of odds. If I have pocket kings, an ace comes out on the board. I never hit my “four flush” if I go all in but my opponent will always hit his to beat my straight. It’s almost a guarantee. I think I live in a world of reverse probability.

Sometimes, I don’t mind living in this zone though. Like when an movie actress I adore decides to do a television show, it is often I show I watch. Considering my track record with supporting shows destined to quickly depart the airwaves this has to be a fluke. I watched Sliders most of the 4 seasons it was on and the last two seasons featured Kari Wuhrer, one of my celebrity crushes (that no one has heard of though.) When that show was cancelled and her film career didn’t re-start, she went on a daytime soap opera. Of course it was General Hospital, the only one I’ve ever watched. When Marisa Tomei did guest shots on TV she appeared on Seinfeld, which I watched along with everyone else, and Rescue Me, which I watched along with 12 other people (It’s on the FX Channel. Which you’ve probably never heard of either.) Now that I’ve digressed a bit to gush about my celebrity crushes, here’s another example of the interconnectedness of things that has nothing to do with me. It’s just a “You don’t say. Really?” type of thing. Christmas day, Harold Pinter died, as did Eartha Kitt whom you may remember from the Batman television show. She was also a singer and in checking my facts on, it says that “She was perhaps best known for her 1953 Christmas song ‘Santa Baby’.” In other words, the originator of the Christmas song ‘Santa Baby’ died on Christmas Day. Things that make you go hmm, as C&C Music Factory might say if this was 1990.

I’ve shown you all kinds of examples, from the unlikely to the improbable. Let’s move on to the impossible though. In the interests of your potential lack of interest, I’ll just give you one example before wrapping up here. While in high school, I decided to volunteer for a 4-H summer camp. I have no idea why. I didn’t get paid even though I had responsibilities. Heck, I wasn’t even in 4-H! Still, for 10 days one summer I could tell people “I’ll be your counselor for this summer.” Some of the campers flirted with the counselors and vice versa which wasn’t too creepy in the case of fifteen year old campers flirting with the seventeen year old counselors. The ten year old campers were destined for heartbreak though. In one group of campers- not mine unfortunately- there were two really cool chicks. Stacy and Julie were the two campers all the counselors wanted to flirt with. They quickly picked their summer romances which is why it was odd when Julie told me Stacy had a crush on me. Um, she already picked someone and it wasn’t me. Still, I was flattered to be crushed so I plotted with Julie about how to sway Stacy away. During all the “accidental” meetings Julie helped engineer, I realized how cool Julie was though and wished she was the one who had a crush on me. At the end of the ten days, all the counselors and campers climbed back on our different buses to return home. Julie wanted a hug before we got on our separate buses. Of course I obliged. As the buses pulled out, someone commented on the big goofy grin on my face. Another person asked who Julie was and why her name was on my back. Huh? I reached around and pulled a sticker off my back. When we hugged, Julie slapped a sticker with her name on it on my back. It said “Property Of Julie”. She was claiming me. She did like me! That’s why I wasn’t surprised when she later appeared at the end-of-summer camp for just the counselors and older campers. It wasn’t fate- it was mutual attraction. We hit it off so well then that we became pen pals afterwards. (Tween translation: Being pen pals is kind of like chatting online, only with paper and pens instead of a computer. And it’s not instant. And you can’t include songs or photos. And it costs more to send a message that it does to text one on your phone. Still, it was the thing back then. In the 1800’s. Then again, I’ve always been a little retro.) It ended the way most pen pals relationships did when you were too young to drive and the person lives several counties away- we gradually stopped writing and lost touch with each other.

So, you are likely asking right now how on earth that has anything to do with fate or debating the existence of randomness in the universe. Well, for one thing, I had to lay the groundwork. For another, I was pretty convinced for a number of years that Julie was my soulmate and no one likes to attribute meeting your soulmate to pure coincidence. There has to be some magic spark, or predestination or divine guidance, right? No one tells the story of meeting their spouse by saying “Yeah, we happened to walk past each other in the supermarket and that was that. Random chance” Nope, there always has to be something special about it, like a certain slant of light coming from the clouds or a unicorn frolicking in the garden. Well, I didn’t end up marrying Julie. In fact, I never even thought I’d hear from her again because I didn’t know where she lived once she ran away from her foster parent’s. One day in high school I’m walking to my locker when a voice calls out to me. “Hey, it’s Julie. Remember me? You liked me or at least you did at summer camp.” Yeah, I remember. You’re pretty unforgettable. Turns out that she was put into a new foster home and it was in my school district so she was going to my high school. She had been there a week and noticed me a couple days earlier but was too nervous to talk to me until now. That’s pretty unusual how things worked out. We became friends again and started hanging out, mostly after school since we had different lunch periods and different classes. It was pretty easy to hang out after school because…she lived three freaking miles from my house! Nah, there is no such thing as a design to the universe. I see no evidence of it. Show me some more proof, concrete proof. Show me a manual, some book detailing the plan.

I found the book twenty years later. By then, I had basically been out of touch with Julie for ten years. Somewhere in that span of time she had gone to college, majored in English, divorced Tommy, and then married Reinhold. I think she has kids too- don’t ask me why I think that but I think I’m right. As far as I know, she is still living in Richmond with Reinhold and hopefully she’s happy. A few years ago, Elizabeth was on an Oscar Wilde kick. She was proclaiming his genius and encouraging everyone to read his stuff. Not that I disagree, but it did involve seeing a bunch of plays and movies and one Christmas, everyone got the collected works of Oscar Wilde as their present. When I was in Paris, I even decided to stop by his gravesite. One day I was at a book sale at the library and I was rummaging through the classics section. Since it was the year before I got the Wilde “doorstop” book for Christmas, I bought a couple of the Oscar Wilde books they had so I could read some Wilde. I’ll buy anything for a quarter if I’m even mildly interested in it. At home, I flipped through Dorian Gray and wondered what people other than Elizabeth thought of Wilde, not that it was a conversation you can start with too many people these days.

This book had some notes in the margins and some underlined passages so I skimmed through those to see if they could validate Elizabeth’s current obsession. As I read through various notes on many of the pages, they bothered me for some reason. I went back to the beginning of the book with the intention of going through all of them again front-to-back. On the front, I see a handwritten notation- Julie Yates, the name I first knew her by- in the same style handwriting that my former pen pal had. I had to find out if it was hers. I was even willing to make that awkward phone call, the one where someone you had long lost touch with calls you with some weird question or lame attempt to reconnect. Still, it was very gratifying to hear that yes, she read Dorian Gray for her English degree, yes, she makes notes in her books, no, she no longer has the book. I was positive that this book was hers and somehow over the last 20 years it had gotten from Richmond to Washington DC, so that when I was at this one particular book sale, I happened to pick up a book I likely would never had glanced at had Elizabeth not been currently enthralled with the author. This particular book would have absolutely no relevance to anyone other than me (or maybe Julie) and it winds up in my hands, twenty years later. That is my definition of impossible. I don’t know if I quite believe in God but I no longer believe in coincidence.

That last paragraph would have been the end of this column except for one small matter and let me just start this footnote by saying…Oh my god! As I was spell-checking this column, I went to Wikipedia again to see if I was spelling “Deus ex machina” correctly since Word’s spell-check is useless. Turns out I spelled it correctly but I kept reading through the entry to make sure I was also using it in the proper context and I came across this section:

“Modern uses- In fiction writing, the phrase has been extended to refer to a sudden and unexpected resolution to a seemingly intractable problem in a plot-line, or what might be called an "Oh, by the way..." ending. Some critics think that a deus ex machina is generally undesirable in writing and often implies a lack of skill on the part of the author because it does not pay due regard to the story's internal logic and is often so unlikely that it challenges suspension of disbelief, allowing the author to conclude the story with an unlikely, though more palatable, ending. A well-known modern example of deus ex machina occurs in the Michael Crichton book The Andromeda Strain: the pathogen referred to in the title is suddenly rendered non-lethal by a random mutation which apparently affects every existing virus particle instantaneously.”

The entry refers to Crichton, the exact person that got this whole train of thought started. How on earth can there be unexpected connections like this and not have everything be part of some larger order? If I were Goldfinger, this would be irrefutable proof for me. Of course, if I were Goldfinger I would also be a crazy, evil billionaire mastermind which I’m sure must have some kind of downside, even if I can’t see it at the moment. Life is not guided by chance. It can’t be, can it?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Christmas Ruins

My sister ruined Christmas. She didn’t mean to, at first, but by the time she was finished she had totally demolished it, leaving it strewn across the floor like a big, fancily wrapped present attacked by a hyperactive 5 year-old on a Snickers bar and fruit juice binge. Susan started her destruction three years ago, with a slightly frantic phone call to my parents on Christmas Eve. She was at the airport but she had some problems that caused her to miss her flight. At first, she didn’t say why she had missed it so we were left to imagine all kinds of things- she overslept, traffic to the airport was bad, she and Kevin had a fight before leaving the house, she went to the wrong airport or maybe there was a pilot’s strike. We had no idea and since I have a vivid imagination, you can guess what kinds of theories I came up with. A few calls later we found out the actual story. She was at the airport about to get on the plane for North Carolina but security had stopped her because her bag was supposedly too big to allow through as a carry-on. Of course, the agents at the check-in area didn’t warn her that this would be an issue. No, it was only the security folks who thought it was troublesome even though they aren’t the ones who operate the planes or load the baggage.

This meant that Susan had to go back to the check-in area to check her bag then go through security again. Naturally they didn’t allow her to go to the front of the line after checking her bag. Nope, she had to go to the end of the line, which caused her to miss her flight. That’s when she called us to tell us the news. Now she was on standby for the next available flight. Since it was Christmas Eve, you can imagine how many unoccupied seats there were. In other words, she didn’t make the 1:00 flight, the 2:00 flight, the 3:30 flight or even the 4:00 flight. Each time she called to update us on her status she was a bit more hysterical. The four of us- my sister, my parents and me- have always been together on Christmas Eve. I don’t recall a single time that wasn’t the case. When my Dad was in Vietnam, there may have been some missed Christmases but I was too young to realize it. When he was stationed in Alaska without us, there may have been a missed Christmas but I was old enough by then that I probably would have remembered that happening.

So basically every Christmas that Susan and I can recall, we went to my parent’s house and celebrated. We followed the same rituals every year. It started with listening to Christmas songs while eating nuts and oranges during the day on Christmas Eve, a ham dinner for supper, opening one present that night then poking and prodding the rest of them before bedtime to see if we can guess what they were. The next morning we checked out our stockings, often having to guess who got which one since they didn’t have names. This was a bit easier when our dog Perky was still around because the one with a rawhide chew in it was usually his. Then we opened the rest of the presents after breakfast, including those that “Santa” had brought overnight. We would call relatives on the speakerphone, thank them for any gifts and wish them a Merry Christmas before tucking into a big dinner, usually a turkey dinner. Then it was time to relax for a bit, maybe read a book and eat stocking candy or perhaps watch some of the Christmas specials on television. In the last few years it also meant Susan or I heading to the airport late in the afternoon- me for a flight home and Susan to meet Kevin at her in-laws’ house in Michigan.

Now those traditions were in jeopardy. If Susan could not get on a standby flight, everything goes down the drain. We can’t give her our presents, hers are in that no-longer-a-carry-on bag. The food is getting cold, and poking at presents isn’t as fun without her. By 5:00, with no good news from Susan, we figured the worst. By 6:00 gloom had descended. My parents were stuck with just me- not a spunky attention-craving daughter, no successful and engaged child to share career and marital advice with. Nope, just me- the quiet one who doesn’t say all that much and isn’t as interesting. Then at 7:00, we got another call. Susan had made it onto a flight and would be at Charlotte airport around 8:00. Christmas was saved! The traditions had been trampled on but the holiday was still salvageable. It was the Goodman family equivalent of the Grinch pulling the sleigh back from the edge of the cliff. There was much rejoicing in our Whoville.

Then came the next Christmas. The following year, Susan must have been over-confident about squeaking out last year’s last-minute miracle because she gave herself an even bigger handicap this time. On the day of her flight, she wasn’t even in the same state. She was in Arizona, driving back to Colorado from a work meeting. She had planned to fly back to Denver and pick up her suitcases from home before flying to North Carolina but a huge snowstorm in Denver had closed the airport. She could rent a car and get back home earlier than she could by waiting for in-bound flights to resume. I was already at my parent’s house since I normally get there a few days before Christmas so I can interact with them before being overshadowed by Susan. It was amusing to hear Susan call and give us updates about what state she was in, whether the airport was open yet and if her flight was back on schedule. By the time all those things aligned, there was no time left for us. If she came to North Carolina, she would only be able to stay part of Christmas Day before leaving to catch her flight to Michigan. She would be able to keep the second leg of her Christmas tour intact though if she cancelled on us. I was a bit disappointed but it made sense. I would probably do the same thing if I was in that situation. Heck, if it was me I wouldn’t even try to do a back-to-back, not with the limited amount of vacation time she had left these last couple of years. I would flip a coin and see who to visit this year: heads- the Goodman’s, tails- the Schaub’s and if it lands on its’ side then me and the hubby are going to Italy by ourselves.

I think of this second Christmas dilemma as the speakerphone Christmas because that’s how we celebrated Christmas morning. Mom, Dad and I unwrapped the presents that were there with Susan listening to us on the speaker phone and she unwrapped some gifts on her end. There was no fighting over where to sit at the dinner table or who got to eat all the stuffing or whether it was time to stop peeking at the presents. Mom told me which stocking was mine, I couldn’t guess Susan’s presents before she opened them and Susan and I didn’t go for a walk around the neighborhood with our folks. Our traditional celebration had now been hit by a bus, sent to Intensive Care and was eating liquid food through a tube. We were experiencing more folly than holly jolly.

Christmas couldn’t get much worse, right? I didn’t say that out loud at the time, I only thought it but someone must have heard because the following year the good news was mixed with a big dose of bad news. The bad news was that Susan wasn’t coming for the holiday. She wasn’t even planning to come, let alone getting waylaid by weather, security guards, delays or timetables. She was staying in Denver and ending the Christmas traditions of her own accord. No more family festivities, no more rituals, no more quality time. I had upheld my end of the ceremonies, coming home every year, not expecting others to come to me, not getting married. (Wait, should I consider that a virtue or just stupidity?) My parents also did their part- no Christmas trip to Europe, no bizarre holiday in Florida, no nursing homes. Nope, it was Susan who ended things. She pulled the plug on our Christmas which was on life support. She’s the one I can point my finger at and say “Ah! It was you!” Her excuse was pretty good though- that was the good news. She was eight months pregnant. Baby Brendan was due in January so she couldn’t very well get on a plane at the end of December, nor would she want to. If anything, we should go to her but we didn’t. I’m not quite sure why not- something to do with bonding time with the in-laws- but we instead tried something new.

Mom, Dad and I joined Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill in Texas for Christmas, along with my cousins Alan & Wesley and his wife and Bill’s son and Bill’s “foster” son and girlfriend. Oh, and four dogs, an RV, and a timeshare condo an hour away. Yep, it was definitely something new. A whole different kind of family experience but that’s another story. Today I just wanted to look at how Christmas was taken out in the alley and beaten up by Susan. I also wanted to thank her for that because sometimes you need to try different things and go outside your comfort zone. I really enjoyed the Christmas with my other relatives; it was an interesting change of pace. This year looks to be unusual as well. My parents are staying home while Susan and I go to Michigan to spend the holiday with her in-laws. Again, I’m not quite sure how this all came about because the original plan was for all of us to go to Susan and if that didn’t work out then it would be the parent’s and I in Florida while she stayed in Denver. No, I don’t know why Florida was under consideration. I don’t decide these things, I just report them. As it happened, Susan’s invitation to me to come to Denver was converted to an invitation to join her in Michigan which I readily accepted. This means that I’ll get to see my nephew for the first time and also spend more than a few minutes around Kevin and his parents. I’ve asked them not to get me anything because I would have no idea what to get them in return so the holiday will really be about spending time with people and I’m happy about that. Maybe some new traditions can start. Plus, there is a much greater change of having a white Christmas in Michigan than there would have been in North Carolina or Florida.

I think the only thing that I’ll be sad about will be the fact that Mom won’t be making the stuffing. She does it exactly how I like. It’s better to fight with your sister over how much stuffing to have then to have all you want of some that is no good. I’m still holding out hope that whoever does Christmas dinner makes it right or that we go out to eat at some place like Boston Market where the odds of good stuffing rise exponentially. So I’m actually excited about Christmas this year rather than just being generally happy about the holiday. Of course that means it could turn out horrible and somehow end in bloodshed and burnt Christmas trees but I’m choosing to be optimistic. If I won’t be home for the holidays, at least I’ll be entertained for the holidays. This might even be the start of a new tradition, which is no traditions. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Change We Need Or The Change We Want?

This presidential election has seen the word “change” used a staggering number of times. The candidates’ slogans are about “Change you can believe in” or “The change you need” or “It’s time for a change.” Barack Obama made “Change you can believe in” the cornerstone of his improbable run to the Democratic Party nomination and likely the Presidency. Much of the time, it seemed like the slogan was used in place of an actual platform. Hillary Clinton was probably exasperated about having to defeat a catchy slogan rather an actual candidate. I understand her angst and why she fought so long for the nomination. It was the Al Gore-like disbelief about losing to a guy with no experience, just a slogan and mainstream popular appeal. The Republican nominee, John McCain, touts his decades-long proclivity for change and reform. He is even saying that the country needs a change from the policies of the current Republican administration and that he is the best one to provide it. It takes some balls to join in the opposing parties’ rote chant to throw out the current bum and put them in there instead. When Obama started to gain momentum, McCain briefly changed his slogans to include the word change also. I also find it amusingly ironic that Obama, the supposed agent of change in this election, is the one to have selected a vice-presidential candidate who is an old white guy with years of service in Congress while the Republican nominee chose a woman. I think the VP debates should have come with identifying subheaders so casual observers could tell which candidate was the Democrat or the Republican. Both presidential candidates are even changing their long-held beliefs in order to be more electable, although with Obama “long held” might not be a precise enough term since he has only been in Congress for two years. McCain is appearing to side with traditional Republican beliefs to win over the party faithful and Obama is ignoring past promises like campaigning in all 50 states and accepting funding from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. That’s why you see his ads everywhere- he is outspending McCain by about four to one and will soon have set the record for most money spent on a political campaign. Selfish, big spending by a politician during an economic downturn? Not quite the kind of change people are expecting but presumably, that will be just an aberration that was necessary to gain the White House.

It seems pretty clear that this presidential campaign is all about change, real and rhetorical. The thing is, what is so great about change? “The change you need” sounds like I’m going to be forced to swallow something unappetizing. I’m more interested in change I want, not change I need. In fact, lately I’ve been sounding a bit like a grumpy old man, grumbling about everything changing and how things used to be. Yes, I would like to see us get out of Iraq and stay out of dangerous military situations but is that change? We weren’t in Iraq 50 years ago. We were just peacefully living in our “Leave It To Beaver” world and trying to avoid tangling with Russia during the Cold War. Then something changed in the 1990’s and 2001 and we went into Afghanistan and Iraq, twice. Do we need to fix the financial markets? Yes we do but things had been going fine until Bill Clinton’s presidency. Then things changed because he aggressively pushed to loosen up the credit requirements for a loan so it got a lot easier to buy a house, even if you couldn’t really afford one. Heck, you could even get a home loan despite not having enough income to adequately meet the mortgage payments and other bills. Now the housing loan market has crashed. This doesn’t sound like what I need. We had a fuel crisis in the 1970’s so people learned to ration and buy fuel efficient cars, then things changed and now our monster SUVs require $4 a gallon gas to fill up with. Was this the change I needed?

It’s not just political situations either. As I’m driving down Gallows Road, I see that the Taco Bell that has been here as long as I’ve lived in the area is now closed. It used to be busy even at midnight and now it is shuttered. So is the gas station across the street, the bank next door and the auto body shop catty-corner to it. Even the Pizza Hut and the 7-11 behind the Taco Bell are gone. You know how I feel about 7-11’s. Closing one is like a funeral for my inner child. It seems like the whole area right around there is closing, like a developer bought everything up and will put in a monstrous high-rise or some retail complex. On the other side of the intersection, there is already a new condo complex so maybe it is going to be bookended? Although, based on what Mike and I saw when we hit the new Chipotle, most of the condos appear to be unoccupied, based on the sterility of their balconies. The Merrifield Multiplex theatre that I always went to on Friday night is a ghost of its’ former self. When I saw the movie Titanic there, it was so crowded we had to park in the back back lot. Not the side lot, or the huge back lot but the overflow lot behind that. Now there aren’t even enough cars to fill the first three rows of the sidelot. I was so worried about them closing that I talked to the manager of the theatre recently to see if that was a possibility. He assured me it wasn’t likely to happen but who knows- things change. Are all my favorite shops about to go away? What’s next? As a kid, my favorite candy bar was the Marathon Bar. Nowadays, I bet no one even knows what that was. (It was two overlapping ribbons of caramel, covered with chocolate.)

The other day I drove by Landmark Plaza and I noticed two things. First, in the last decade two music store chains had come and gone from the strip mall- Tower Records and the Waxie Maxie’s where I worked for my first job after getting out of college. That bummed me out. Second, a Rita’s water ice shop had just opened up. That did not bum me out. In fact, it made my summer because I stopped by numerous times for a gelati (Italian ice with layers of custard) on a hot day. Even on a rainy day’s I’d visit because they had a two-for-one deal if it was raining. Speaking of music, on my way to work yesterday, I was listening to the Fleetwood Mac CD I had bought. It was a remastered version of the self-titled album when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks first joined the band. After an initial listen, I wondered why I was so enraptured with the album when I first got it back in college. When I got to some of the bonus material, I realized why. The bonus cuts were the original versions of the singles from the album. When I listened to those, and flipped back and forth between the remastered versions, I remembered something I had read a little bit ago. There is a trend in music currently to remixed songs at the same time they are being remastered. This is done to “freshen” things up, to change them up. One way to do this is to remix the songs to sound better in a compressed digital format, like when you download songs. Certain elements are emphasized in the new mix or made louder. In this case, it meant that in the song “Over My Head”, the drums were made to be the primary element of the song, not Christine McVie’s vocals or the delicate guitar work by Lindsey Buckingham that had anchored the song originally. In fact, the guitar is almost buried in this version and vocals barely escape the drum onslaught. This happened with almost all the songs on the remastered album. Bet the drum part isn’t what you recall liking about the song Rhiannon. Too bad, because now you will be painful aware of it. I used to think a remastered CD meant a cleaner copy was being made from the master tapes but nowadays, it means the master tapes were used to change and “improve” the original.

My sister got married a few years ago and this year she had a baby- little Brendan who is pictured above. He’s pretty adorable and she’s happy about the whole thing. That was a good change even if it is harder for her to fit into her jeans at the moment. Many people I know have gotten married which is an example of how change can be good. Then they moved away so I don’t see them too often. That’s bad change, at least in my opinion. It probably makes them ecstatic but so far they have been polite enough not to say “Thank God we got away from him!” Some good friends from high school I have never heard from again and some are still in my social circle. I used to live at home and follow my parent’s rules but now I live on my own and make my own rules. I used to earn minimum wage working at the library at school and now I earn a lot more. I got a new-ish car this year, which is a great change but the lock on this car opens in the opposite direction of the lock on my old car- even though they are both made by GM. Don’t they believe in standardization or are they deliberately forcing change upon people?

In an earlier post, I mentioned an example of unwanted change, about how my favorite television shows seem to go away too soon. Another example- Coke is a classic drink but then some executives decided we needed a change so we got New Coke, which luckily caused more changes when Classic Coke was introduced/reintroduced and then it become the only Coke, meaning the newest Coke was the old Coke. What else is going to disappear? When is the last time you saw Rolodexes, lickable stamps, tape decks, record stores, lighters flicked at the end of a concert, standing in line for tickets, Woolworths, Hecht’s, K-Mart, record players, stonewashed jeans, suspenders, rocking chairs, good penmanship, full-service gas stations, everyone at the table ordering dessert, hitchhiking, water beds or analog clocks. I’m not saying that all these things should have stuck around but now there is no choice. I for one loved the idea of self-adhesive stamp but these days, would you risk hitchhiking? Could you find a someone to pump your gas if you had two broken arms? Could you still play your old 45 records if you had the urge? Could you buy the songs digitally instead or are they out of print for good? Can you smoke in a restaurant in DC? Some things are either gone for good or quickly on the way out, for better or for worse. Even the comic strip “For Better Or Worse” has changed. It had been progressing in real time but after 20 or more years, the characters got too old so the cartoonist started over and made them the age they were when the strip first started. Essentially, it was a mulligan, a do-over. That casts the title in an ironic light now. Kind of a metaphor for a lot of things these days. We might say it is for better or worse but we really mean “Until I get tired of it not being mostly on the better side.”

The point of all this ranting and reminiscing is that I don’t like change forced upon me. I want to decide what needs to change. I perfectly understand that it is an issue of control. I don’t like other people deciding on things that affect my life. At the same time, I know that they must be allowed to do what they choose because it is their life, their country or their business being affected. It might make sense for 7-11 to sell of one of their stores to a developer who wants to build a condo complex for people who want to move closer to work even though it means my commute will get more difficult and I won’t be able to get a Slurpee as easily. I know that Steve wanted to get married to Christine and I think that was an excellent decision but it doesn’t mean I’m not sad to see less of them since they moved to Seattle and then Kansas. I’m sure Steve wasn’t happy that his work place changed from a hospital in Seattle to a hospital in Iraq. Mom and Dad bought a new place in a planned community in South Carolina even though it meant moving out of the house they had retired to in North Carolina. Now they are so deluged with social engagements that Mom is giving up her part-time job in order to be a better “socialite”. A major change turned out to be a good thing. The current financial turmoil changed the direction of my investments to a decidedly downward trend line. The invasion of Iraq was quick but the mission still has not been accomplished. The climate is changing worldwide and the polar ice caps are receding very quickly. Soon the seas in the Arctic Circle will be accessible by ship and several nations will be jockeying for sovereignty of the seas and fighting for the oil rights to the vast reserves that had previously been inaccessible. The polar bear might soon have to worry about extinction.

Even if I don’t get to decide everything, even if I have to admit I’m not the center of the universe (and Mom trained me well because she never told me I was) I would like to know what exactly change will mean. Don’t just tell me things are going to change. As I’ve talked about above, change can be good but it can also be bad. It can be New Coke, it can be Iraq, it can be condos, it can be extinction. Tell what will happen, as best as you can project it. Flinging the word around willy-nilly as a campaign slogan is dangerous. Barack Obama is in a position to influence the world. Not just my personal part of it, but the world of everyone I know. Spell it out so even if I can’t control what happens, I can plan for different scenarios. When someone has to power to make changes happen, without any direct input from me, I’m naturally going to be a bit worried. Change can be good or it can be bad. What I want is the change I want. “The change I need” scares me.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Falling Idols

Paul Newman passed away last week and I was quite disturbed by that news. It wasn’t so much the fact that Paul Newman died, because there had been rumors of his ailing health in the last couple of years. I was more concerned about what that implied for the near future. See, Newman was an amazing actor. He brought believability, depth and intelligence to his roles, even in the crappy movies of which there were surprisingly few. The year I was born, he came out with the classic “Cool Hand Luke” (where the phrases “No one can eat 50 eggs!” and “What we have here is a failure to communicate” came from.) I didn’t see the movie at the time it came out, but with the advent of the video age I was able to watch it and appreciate how good it was. Then when the Film Society I was part of in college put on a big screen showing of it, I was hooked on Newman. I’ve loved many of his movies- Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, The Verdict, Hud, Torn Curtain, The Sting, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. They are all justifiably considered classics. Well maybe not Torn Curtain, but since that’s a Hitchcock movie, you consider it a classic by default.

Then as he got older, and supposedly less handsome, you noticed the skill in his performance. Instead of simply appreciating the rebellious, manly attitude of his character, if you are a guy, or swooning over his looks, if you are a girl, you saw the fully formed character he created. There were no discernable gimmicks and you didn’t see him “Acting!” He simply became someone else. His later roles, like The Color Of Money, Blaze, Road To Perdition, Twilight, The Hudsucker Proxy and especially Nobody’s Fool are were Paul Newman won my respect. He managed to stun me with his performances, even in movies that were full of great performances. He had become one of my favorite actors and I thought of him as an icon. That’s why his death bothered me. I’m not ready to have my icons dying off. He was about 83 years old, which is not exactly young but that isn’t too far removed from the age range of some of my other idols. Harrison Ford is getting up there in years now (he is 66 years old) and so is William Shatner (77), Steve Martin (63) and Billy Joel (59). These are people I grew up with. I am as familiar with their lives as I am with my next door neighbors', my former classmates' or my cousins' and uncles’ lives.

Newman was already a “star” by the time I was cognizant of movies and celebrities but I watched in fascination as Harrison Ford gradually become a global icon by starring in a series of movies I adored. Steve Martin has amazed me with his versatility and desire to do different things. I might even like him better as a writer, art collector and stand-up comedian than as an actor in the many bad movies he has done. Newman was diverse too. He was also a race car driver, solider, businessman and philanthropist. As for Billy Joel, he is an intrinsic part of the soundtrack of my life. One of my first concerts was Billy Joel at the Hampton Coliseum, one of my first albums was 52nd Street and I got my first radio about the time he was dominating the airwaves in the late 1970s. Heck, part of the reason I watched Bosom Buddies on television was so that I could hear the opening theme which was the Billy Joel song My Life. If Paul Newman can go, so can any one of these other guys. They might not be as relevant as they once were but these people still mean something to me. I grew up with them and I identified with them. Their impact on me is deeper than their current social relevance. If they died, it would be a bit like my innocence died, like my childhood was gone and only a bleak, depressingly short future is ahead of me.

It isn’t just my older heroes either. Last week I was listening to a couple CDs by a comedian I really liked. His name was Mitch Hedberg and he died three years ago of a drug overdose. Chris Farley and River Phoenix died the same way. Andy Gibb, Rick James and Robert Palmer died of heart failure, Kurt Cobain blew his head off with a shotgun and John Lennon was assassinated. Richard Burton died of a cerebral hemorrhage, Peter Jennings died of cancer and Maurice Gibb died of complications resulting from a twisted intestine. Death claims young people too. In fact, it is even more unexpected when that happens because you didn’t have a chance to steel yourself for the inevitable, like I had been doing for Paul Newman. The people I just mentioned were not all idols of mine; some were just examples of people I respected who died too young although I was quite impacted by Maurice Gibb. His death was bizarre, unexpected and had larger repercussions since it meant the end of the Bee Gees, which many of you may know I’ve liked through thick and thin, despite all the ridicule that entails. So it can happen to anyone at anytime which is ultimately the reason I was so sad about Paul Newman passing away. It brought home the fact that life is fragile and that I will have to start coping with the deaths of celebrities I have admired and identified with.

That’s not to say I won’t feel the same way about a death in my immediate family but so far I have been able to successfully suppress any thoughts along that line. I purposefully avoid thinking about those circumstances because it is horrible to even contemplate the possibility of something like that happening. My circle of friends and family is small enough as it is- probably less than two dozen people- so I want all of them to stick around for a good long time. With family members or close friends though, at least you can be left alone to grieve if something happens to them. People respect your wishes when you say you do not want to discuss the matter. Celebrities are considered fair game. Since their lives are public, everyone feels like it is okay to gossip about them, speculate about their deaths, give an opinion about their status and relevance and generally discuss their death for several days. “Did you hear about…” is often the way a conversation starts at work in the morning so you are forced to contemplate the meaning of someone’s passing. It would be rude not to make some kind of comment during the conversation and it would be slightly off-putting if you said you could care less about that person’s death. The bigger the celebrity, the bigger the ripples in the conversational pool. If it’s a celebrity you liked, you’re stuck. You can’t avoid thinking about them because they are being talked about the whole day long.

I don’t know if it makes me callous or just in control of my emotions but so far I have not cried when any celebrities have died. I did think about them repeatedly in those first few days after hearing the news and I reflected on what meant they meant to me but I didn’t crawl into bed for three days and weep inconsolably. It may be because they were on the outer periphery of my worship and I haven’t been dealt a real loss yet. There are a few people though that I think will really hurt me when I hear about their death. These celebrities are touchstones in my life, people I measure my accomplishments against, those that I model myself after to some extent. They are my vicarious extended family, my virtual neighbors. I think I may actually burst out in tears if I hear bad news about Billy Joel or Harrison Ford. The same might be true for Sandra Bullock, Marisa Tomei and Deborah Foreman- the triumvirate of actress I’ve followed through every movie they’ve made. William Shatner may generate some weeping because Star Trek was a cornerstone of my personal mythos. Every kid I grew up with wanted to embody one of the Star Trek characters (I was torn between Kirk and McCoy myself.) I’ve enjoyed watching Shatner go through several reincarnations- movie actor, writer, myth buster, reality show host, musician, advertising shill, and most recently award winning television actor. I can see myself in his modern renaissance man- successful and good at everything he’s done since his heyday even though he never quite recaptured that greatness or excellence a second time around.

I’m not sure if tears would flow for Steve Martin, Stephen King, Robert B. Parker, Aimee Mann, James Spader or Dennis Leary. I admire them and their work but I’ve never put a poster of them up on my wall. I doubt I would mourn any sports stars either. As a matter of physical reality, sports figures are not in the public eye for more than about ten or fifteen years so it is hard to get as attached to them as someone who keeps working in other mediums and stays visible decade after decade, like a Jack Nicholson or a Bob Dylan, neither of which I would cry over. I would be sorry to see people like Madonna, Clint Eastwood, Jeff Agoos, John Stockton or Leonard Nimoy die but I doubt I would cry. That is probably the case with a majority of celebrities. I’m pretty picky about who I get attached to.

I can only think of three other names of the top of my head that might evoke tears. Dennis DeYoung, former lead singer of Styx, already has my sympathy because of his past impact and his current situation and he would probably get my tears too if he was gone. Juliana Hatfield (41) would definitely make me cry if I lost her. I have so identified with her struggles to maintain her ideals and her efforts to get through life on her own terms that I can’t imagine her not being around to show me what to do next. Her massive insecurities despite her enormous talent make my insecurities seem small and unimportant and help me put things in perspective. If she has problems, then I know it is not just me feeling this way. It’s universal. Everyone must feel this way at some point. Her music plays on the same themes as her life. She’s a very autobiographical artist although sometimes she uses that metaphorically in her lyrics- what she’s singing may be about something other than what you think it is about. That’s part of why I am enjoying her blog. Every week or two, she writes about how one of her songs came about and what it means. Sometimes the songs are about something completely different than what everyone assumed. On top of that, she has an exceptional gift for melody and harmony so her songs are the perfect blend of music and lyrics. I couldn’t enjoy a musician simply on a lyrical level, otherwise I’d love Bob Dylan instead of the Bee Gees.

The third person is Kylie Minogue. I don’t really identify with her on a personal level, but I’ve used her music as a crutch when I need cheering up. Her dance-pop songs are upbeat, melodic, original, layered and uncomplicated. There is no lyrical depth or underlying message. It’s just feel-good music. The reason she resonates with me is because she has been so consistent. I’ve enjoyed almost every song on every album, much like I have with Billy Joel. Kylie also had a comeback moment, like many of the stars I like. She couldn’t get a hit for several years and then exploded back onto the music charts. I like people who don’t give up, who carry on and keep plugging away until they earn their second chance. Also, three years ago she suffered through breast cancer and handled herself with dignity and humility. Until that happened, I wouldn’t have thought about her dying because she is so young (40) but now it is always in the back of my mind when I hear her songs so they resonate on a more personal level than before. I know the seriousness of the disease and I worry about it. Cancer got Paul Newman last week and I’ve spent the past week thinking about what might move me to tears and why.

I’m now at that age where I’m realizing that bad things can happen to people. That has always been the case, no matter what my age was, but it isn’t until now that I’m beginning to pay attention and believe it. I’m no longer a child who has only experienced death on a movie screen. My grandmother died last year, Morfar passed away a few years back and my parents are starting to get wrinkles. Terrorists struck on 9/11 and my friend’s brother passed away this year so I see it happening around me. I feel like my life has barely begun so I’m not ready to see signs of life ending around me. I want my second act, my William Shatner rebirth. I don’t want to see my idols and heroes dying and reminding me of reality and the fleeting nature of existence. They need to remain on the screen, on the page and on the radio, immortal and inspirational. I want Butch Cassidy to run into a hail of bullets, untouched. I don’t want to see what happens five seconds after his heroic and desperate charge. Rest easy, Paul Newman and thank you for what you’ve given us. I hope no one else joins you anytime soon.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

My First Blog Post

My friend Amelia started a blog this year and I’ve been enjoying it immensely. I’m not entirely sure why since it doesn’t deal with earth-shaking news, there is no Hollywood gossip and I can’t directly relate to the subject matter. She writes about canning fruits and vegetables, dealing with her kids, what her husband is up to and what’s going on in her life. I have no kids or wife and I definitely have no idea how to can anything. Sometimes I even have trouble un-caning things. (De-caning things? Opening cans.) So, I don’t have a direct connection with what she is talking about but I think the reason I still enjoy her posts is because I’m finding out what she’s up to. The blog (short for “web log”) makes me feel like I’m interacting with her, even if it is a one-sided, vicarious interaction. It still feels like a conversation, a form of communication. She’s an interesting person and I always like hearing what she’s been up to. When we used to work together at AAA, she would tell me stories about her family or her social life or what Brazil was like when she was there doing missionary work.

What’s ironic is that now I’m reading her writings about what’s on her mind, since I used to be the one who would write stuff and give her things I’d written to see if she had any feedback or constructive criticism. I’m feeling like a slacker which is what she always used to say to me then so now our roles are reversed. In order to get back on track and start writing again, I decided to take a page from Amelia’s book and start a blog. I’m even using the same site as her, mainly because it is free, I like the layout of it and it is really easy to use. So now you are reading my first post. I am now communicating with you, even if it is vicariously and one-sidedly. As another motivator to get into the groove of writing, I decided to look at one of my first attempts at writing on a regular basis and try to draw some inspiration from it. I used to send out my thoughts and musings on actual paper, by physical postal service, to various friends. I thought it would be fun to try being a columnist for an audience of eight people. I’m sure that no one on the Washington Post would have been in fear of me replacing them at a real newspaper but it was fun for me to do. The only thing I didn’t like about it was sending something out and having a noticeable lack of feedback, mainly because I’m insecure and want to know what people think. My ranting & ramblings then grew into the “Year In Review” booklet I sent out each year, until 2006 when I got lazy, fell behind (and as Elizabeth says “started playing too much poker”) and never got around to completing my 2006 and 2007 reviews. The reason I did the original 2-page newsletter/zine thing is as mentioned above- to keep in touch with people and let them know what is going on with me. I also wanted to practicing my writing skills which I had somewhat ignored for a few years. After college, I still wrote some stuff to amuse my co-workers at the Waxie Maxie’s music store but after that, nothing until I started doing my “columns”.

It was sort of strange to re-read the first column for a couple of reasons. First of all, my inspiration for doing them was different than I recalled. I had been thinking it was because I saw Larry King’s television show and thought I could do that better than he could. In actuality, he had done a newspaper column that I read. That, of course, is what I thought I could do better than him, which makes more sense really- writing a column that would be better than his column. Second, many of the references in my first column are very, very dated. Third, some things in life haven’t changed, even a dozen years later. Below is the first column, which now becomes part of my first blog post, kind of a whole “circle-of-life, history-repeating-itself” kind of thing. I’ve taken a couple artistic liberties and added some current thoughts to it, to keep it from being hopelessly outdated. Now that I’ve gotten started, I will do my best to live up to Amelia’s example and contribute on a regular basis, even if I do feel like slacking off or playing poker instead.

Ramblings & Rantings # 1

Seeing as how I'm a big fan of the Larry King column in 'USA Today', I thought I might try my hand at doing one too. I'll follow the same format- lots of short thoughts, some rambling discussions, several non-sequiturs. The only difference is that I won't be wearing suspenders or being paid a ridiculous sum of money for it, although anyone wanting to send money (or comments & correspondence), feel free to do so. (See, this hasn’t changed- Larry King still wears suspenders and I am still shamelessly begging for money and/or social interaction and feedback.) First, let's start with the national anthem, just like most sporting events do- or at least those that aren't on strike. (I’m not sure what sport was on strike at this point- Hockey? Baseball? Has soccer ever had a strike or are they the only sports figures who play for love of the game rather than a huge paycheck?) Picture this: you've been hired to sing the national anthem, one of the most sacred and revered pieces of music in the world, and only some twenty lines long, plus you will be performing in front of at least several thousand people. Now, wouldn't you try to memorize the damn song, or at least make a clever cheat sheet?? I was at a basketball game, and heard someone mess up. This was 2 days after a TV show did a blooper reel of recent flub ups. Is it just this song, or what? Any insights???

One list I forgot to do in my year end lists- television.
So here goes: best show- Friends, best soon to be canceled show- Party Of Five, best already canceled show- My So Called Life (Another good show, cancelled after 19 episodes, just like most shows I enjoy the most. One or two seasons and then bye-bye, e.g. Firefly, Wonderfalls, Shark, Girl’s Club), worst show- M.A.N.T.I.S., Worst soon to be canceled show- Something Wilder, worst already canceled show- Martin Short Show, worst show to ever air and why wasn't it canceled after the second episode like martin short- Roc. (Did I actually watch these shows or did I have the good taste to stop watching after one episode? I know I hated, hated, hated Roc even though my roommate loved it so I saw way too much of it. Mantis I don’t remember except in vague terms. Ditto on Something Wilder.) On Melrose Place this week (which has a great soundtrack available), why didn't Sydney tell all those people to bite her when they were accusing her of 1) burglary, 2) vandalism, 3) breaking & entering and property damage. Better yet, why didn't she file suit since none of them had any concrete, physical evidence? And now that Jo's baby is gone, is she finally going to get a clue, and be interesting again?? (I know I was really into Melrose Place the first couple of seasons then I tapered off a bit, only to reconnect with it when Hilary Swank and Tiffani Amber-Theissen joined the cast. I really wonder why Laura Leighton, who played Sydney isn’t getting more work. She was great on this show and she was also good on Snoops, a show from a couple years ago, canceled- as expected of a show I like- before the first season even ended.)

There is this movie coming out that I'm really worried about- it's called 'Before Sunrise' and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Now the reason I'm worried is because the previews make it seem like it sucks, but the movie was directed by Richard Linklater, who- in my opinion- has become the most promising new filmmaker around after only two films (slacker, Dazed And Confused.) I really want to like it, but I don't know..... (I still think Linklater is a very promising director but he kind of blew it with The Newton Boys and the premise of Tape and Waking Life didn’t sound interesting so I haven’t watched them yet, a decade later. I am looking forward to his next project though. In retrospect, it’s amusing that I was worried about the quality of Before Sunrise because it is one of my all-time favorite movies. Even the sequel, Before Sunset, was fabulous and maintained the renegade vibe of the original as well as advancing the characters and creating another heart-rending ending. Remarkable, since I dislike Ethan Hawke in general. Plus he cheated on Uma Thurman so he’s also an idiot.)

I read a review of the new Extreme album, which says it is their third album. Gee, which one of their previous albums doesn't count- 'Extreme', 'Pornograffitti', or 'Three Sides To Every Story'? And when Patty Smyth had her last album come out on MCA, all the ads called it the 'debut album from the lead singer of scandal', despite having already put out at least 2 other albums on a different label. Same thing with Tori Amos' “Little Earthquakes” album. Makes you think the reviewers also test products for the F.D.A., doesn't it.

I would love to be paid to review movies or music for a living. (Here’s an example of something that hasn’t changed a bit since I wrote it. I still harbor that dream. What I didn’t know at the time was that newspapers and magazines were on the way to extinction so now I’ll have to hope for to write for a TV show or a website.)

Two strong out of the box contenders for this year's Michael Caine award- Larry Fishburne and Gary Oldman (and no, I'm never gonna call him Laurence Fishburne. I don't approve of name changes after someone gets famous, unless it is from marriage- like Farrah Fawcett-Majors- or you get knighted- like Sir Anthony Hopkins [who has the class not to run around expecting people to call him 'Sir']). Larry has done 2 movies already this year- the completely forgettable 'Bad Company' and the excellent 'Higher Learning' in which he does a very capable and nuanced job. Gary Oldman is also making a strong push, with three recent movies. 'The Professional' was over-the-top-Gary, 'Murder In The First' was hamming-it-up-Gary, and 'Immortal Beloved' was Gary-is-actually-acting-Gary. Let's see if they can sustain this pace all year. (This year’s Caine contenders would have included Robert Downey Jr had he not already won in 1986. Man, what a year that guy is having. The actual winner from 1995 turned out to be Antonio Banderas.)

I was watching talk show hell last night (albeit, briefly)- on Letterman was Mia Farrow, on Leno was Sigourney Weaver. Two of the actress I detest the most. So I went to sleep instead.

A few new CDs to look for: the soundtrack to “My So Called Life (with Julianna Hatfield- yeh!!!!) (I still like Juliana Hatfield, as many of you may know.) with lotsa alt-rock, the new Dave Matthews Band album- especially the tracks 'Typical Situation' and 'Warehouse' which are mega-good-, and the forthcoming Traci Lords album (the single 'Control' is already burning up the club charts) which she describes as "Nine Inch Nails if the frontsperson was a woman and they leaned more towards techno."

I have broken my Whoopi boycott. After a string of no-shows for me, including Sister Act, Sarafina, Made In America, Sister act 2, and Corrina Corrina, I went to see 'Boys On The Side'. Let me explain what went wrong- Whoopi made a movie with 2 really hot chicks. I adore Mary Louise Parker. She looks so fetching with that girl next door look. And Drew Barrymore ain't lumpy mashed potatoes either. And the movie was decent- I even plan to see it again. But not to worry- I doubt Whoopi will make another movie I must see anytime soon, so expect a new boycott to start any day now. (Except for that understandable lapse, I’ve since managed to avoid Whoopi Goldberg. It wasn’t hard with her starring in movies like Bogus, The Associate, Rocky & Bullwinkle and TV shows like Hollywood Squares and The View. John- please don’t mention that she was in two good movies I did see- Rat Race & Girl Interrupted because I had managed to successfully block her roles from my memory until I just checked IMDB to see what’s she’s done lately.)

Every day at work, I see people who don't want to give out their credit card numbers on the application, because they are afraid someone will use their info to charge stuff on their cards. “Why do you need this” & “What do you do with this form?” they always ask. What I want to know is do these people ever use their cards?? Because if they do, they leave behind signed -in triplicate- copies of their card imprints!! They don't ask merchants 'Could I please have all copies of that charge slip I just signed', but these same people will refuse to have their card numbers written down on an application. Explain this to me....

Have you ever noticed the more great and famous a musical band is, the more obscure their titles are in comparison to the music. Zeppelin's 'Lemon song' or 'Kashmir'- where do these titles appear in the song?? The Beatles 'I Am The Walrus' or 'Within You, Without You'- proof that they did drugs. Great bands, but how did they come up with these lyrics?? And for that matter, where did they get these band names?? Now compare that to 'I Want Your Sex', 'All That She Wants', 'Crying', 'Crazy', 'Amazing', 'It Must Have Been Love', 'Jeremy', 'Friends In Low Places', 'On Bended Knee', 'I Swear', 'I Want To Sex You Up', and of course 'Funkytown'. (Are you having 80’s flashbacks yet?) I guess chorus = song title for dumb bands, and for great bands song title = What the fuck??

Well, until next time.
Larry King Wanna-Be
Richard Goodman
9646 Masterworks Drive (Except I don’t live here anymore.)
Vienna, Va 22181
C1-24-95, #1 (I think that C is supposed to imply a copyright that doesn’t actually exist. If so, I put it there to scare off all those Hollywood agents who were going to steal my work and make movies from it without my permission. Not likely, I know, but I’ve always had this weird fantasy of suing a Hollywood studio. I think it would be immensely entertaining. Well, this is the end of my first blog post. Feel free to use the comments link to post your comments, reactions and derision.)