Happy Birthday, FS!

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A certain hero of mine turns 99 today, and although Frank Sinatra hasn’t sung a note in nearly two decades, his voice remains as constant in the rhythm of American life as it did for his 60 years in show business.

It is trite to say, of course, “there will never be another Frank Sinatra.” Cliche or not, there won’t be. The world is simply too different now, the way stars are made and music is produced. But his music lives on, and the imitators (good and poor) keep trying. I should know. I’m one of those imitators.

I’ve written many words about Frank Sinatra over the past 20 years, some published, some not. I don’t think I’m going to add anything particularly brilliant today. He was and still is one of the most written about Americans in history. I’ve got two dozen of his biographies on my shelf, and there are probably 100 more I haven’t read. These writers are far more poetic than I, and I recommend them all. Was he a perfect role model? Of course not, but few people we know so well are. He was a human being. A human being like all of us, but blessed with so much talent and initiative, and he shared it with all of us. Those who knew him best echo this sentiment in his private life as well.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sinatra! Ninety-nine looks good on you.

Christmas specials more special this year

Every December I make it a point to watch all of the “classic” Christmas specials, either live on TV, on one of my DVDs, or, most likely, an old VHS tape I made copied for myself in 1997. This year has been especially satisfying for me, getting to watch these specials for the first time with my son.

My favorite Christmas special, of course, is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Aired for the first time on December 9, 1965, it’s sort of the granddaddy of all TV specials, Christmas or otherwise.

I think few people realize that Charlie Brown was actually preceded by the less-heralded Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerRudolph first aired 50 years ago this week, on December 6, 1964.

I think Rudolph is underrated, especially the music. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are at least a half dozen other classic holiday tunes on that soundtrack.

And now my son understands when we get in the car and I announce: First stop… the Island of Misfit Toys!

CFP solves all controversy… obviously

Well, this was inevitable. The system that was going to solve all end-of-year controversy in college football ended up doing nothing but stirring up more controversy and inflaming tempers and egos all over the country. Let me be the first to say told ya so.

The problem with every system to determine a champion in a sport with so many teams and so short a season (so not every team plays one another) is that it must be determined before the start of the season. It would be easy to decide, at the completion of the regular season, who is “worthy” enough to compete for a title. Sometimes there’s already a clear-cut champion. Sometimes there are two teams standing above the rest. Sometimes there are three, sometimes there are seven. Point is, you don’t know until the season is over. But with so much revenue on the line, playoff schedules and their accompanying TV slots must be decided months ahead of time, and you’re left trying to squeeze a square Big 12 team into a round CFP hole. Moral of the story is, it’s not two teams versus four teams, or human picks versus computer picks, but TV advertising and game revenue. In other words, follow the money.

In more pleasant news, I thought The Simpsons really brought it last night. Not exactly old-school Simpsons, just a really good episode. Kudos. 

But the Redskins… sheesh! Zero points? Cousins could have done that!

Thinking back a few decades

Twenty years ago this weekend I was involved in something called “Drug Quiz Show,” a Jeopardy!­-like event for middle school students to display their knowledge of various illegal substances. I’ve thought about that experience a lot, actually, one because one of my teammates from that day is no longer with us, and two, by how ridiculous trying to memorize facts about marijuana and PCP would be in 2014. The Internet has literally thousands of times more information at the click of a mouse or touch of a phone, to say nothing of the casual knowledge held by today’s teen. And marijuana? Seriously? It’s accepted to the point of being quasi-legal in much of the country today, an arrangement unthinkable in the “just say no” culture in which I grew up just a few years ago. Well, maybe a decade or two.

Speaking of decades, tonight marks another anniversary of sorts. I’ve been doing this one for three decades now. With tomorrow being the Feast of St. Nicholas (ol’ St. Nick died on this day in the year 343), tonight’s the night one is supposed to leave out his or her shoes to be filled by a generous benefactor. For the first time in 30 years I’m on the other side of this one, having now a child of my own. (He has no idea who St. Nicholas is or what shoes are either, but the sentiment is there and the tradition has begun.)

These childhood recollections of mine are no doubt excluding important items from entering my memory, but I like them more than the usefulness of any facts I might encounter.

Did I miss the boat?

I take it back. The biggest story from Monday was not World AIDS Day or Ferguson or Colt McCoy but Cyber Monday. Monday, apparently, was something called Cyber Monday, during which we are supposed to make purchases, I guess, somehow, through this thing called the Interweb. Or Internet, or something. I received quite a number of alerts, actually, on my computing machine urging me to do so.

Folks, this is 2014. Is not every day Cyber Monday? Seriously, when was the last time you went to the store to buy something? My greatest purchase this year has undoubtedly been my Amazon Prime membership. In other words, the thing that makes it completely unnecessary to go to the store ever again.

Earlier this week I read that Girl Scout cookies, the last bastion of face-to-face commerce, will now be sold over the Internet. Face it, people, this is the new normal. I, for one, welcome our new Internet overlords!

AIDS Day, anyone?

Today, of course, is World AIDS Day. Anybody still celebrate AIDS Day anymore? Begun in 1988, AIDS Day celebrates AIDS, the world’s first political disease.

Now lost in a sea of other diseases and crises, I think AIDS and World AIDS Day played an important role in the regression of our world (in addition to an amusing sideplot once in an episode of Seinfeld). AIDS, as I said, was the world’s first political disease. Now every disease is political. In fact, every thing is political as of December 2014. Weather? Political. Sports? Political. Christmas? Political.

Good luck trying to put that genie back in the bottle. It’ll be tougher than getting ol’ Cosmo Kramer to wear an AIDS ribbon at a parade.

Black Friday strikes again

It is here. The most anticipated holiday and hotly debated political topic of the year: Black Friday. Mark my words, before the decade is out we’ll be calling Thanksgiving “Black Friday Eve.”

Black Friday is the day on which no one admits to shopping, yet everyone seems to do so. Why the hell would stores be open if they had no customers? Ditto being open on Black Friday Eve or any other day of the year for that matter. This year I’ve read more “Black Friday shopping protest” articles than I ever have before, yet I’m pretty sure the only things people aren’t buying this season are newspapers. How ironic. Unsuccessful dig at capitalism from out friends in the media. Nice try, suckers. And the only thing keeping your dying industry afloat is… Black Friday ads!

How ironic.

So shop away, friends, and good luck to ya. Especially all amateurs who shop only on this day every year. Kinda like bars on Thanksgiving Eve, actually.

Make that Black Friday Eve Eve.

‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving

Having done this blog now for more than a year I realize I’m in a position simply to repeat posts in a never-ending 365-day cycle. For example, on November 25th I’m always going to mention Joe DiMaggio’s birthday, and on the night before Thanksgiving I’m always going to mention, well, the night before Thanksgiving. Hmm. Let me today at least add a new wrinkle.

For those of you reading this blog on some foreign planet, let me remind you that the night before Thanksgiving is the biggest party night of the year. I’m not exactly sure when this became the case, but it seems to be universally recognized now. Thanksgiving Eve is to be big everywhere, and if you’re in a podunk town (where people go out only one night a year), tonight will be off the hook.

I read an article recently headlined something like, “How Do You Know When You’re Too Old to Go Out on Thanksgiving Eve?” I appreciate the sentiment, but this kind of thinking misses the point entirely. Thanksgiving Eve is the one night a year so-called grownups can get away with staying out late and being ridiculous. “I think it’s time for somebody’s dad to go home” isn’t a remark for the unusually old and idiotic patron… it describes 70 percent of the people at the bar! This is amateur night. So beware.

And have at it, amateurs! ‘Cause this guy ain’t gettin’ anywhere near a bar on Thanksgiving Eve.

Cent’anni, Clipper!

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Hardly in need of another tribute, one of the most feted men of the Twentieth Century turns 100 tomorrow. Sure, he’s been gone for nearly two decades, but Joe DiMaggio’s place as an American icon stands as strong today as it did more than 60 years ago, when in fact Joe played his last game. Like most people alive today I never saw him play, but I consider him an idol and an inspiration, a man with few equals among athletes and celebrities, and the blurred line between those groups.

In one of the first posts on this site I paid tribute to Joe D. on what would have been his 99th birthday. The piece was mostly taken from an essay I put together shortly after DiMaggio died in 1999. I was 16, half the man I am today, yet no less taken by grown men paid to play a kids’ game. I reproduce the piece from 2013 in its entirety here:

Ninety-nine years ago today in the quiet fishing village of Martinez, California, the eighth of nine children born to Italian immigrants Giuseppe and Rosalia DiMaggio entered the world, probably to little fanfare. The fanfare began soon after, and continued to the end of the century.

It’s only the truly exceptional athlete who transcends his sport and becomes a national icon the way Joe DiMaggio did, beginning at a very young age and continuing long after his playing days were over. Nearly every man of a certain age considered DiMaggio his favorite player, as did legions of non-fans who knew nothing of the game but appreciated his humble upbringing and grace off the field. In an era in which players’ personal lives were whitewashed by willing reporters and clever PR men, DiMaggio was nothing short of a saint. Even now, a few damning stories and biographies later, DiMaggio epitomizes dignity and professionalism both on and off the playing field.

I’ve been a fan of the great DiMaggio since I was seven years old. That was 38 years after he played his final game. DiMaggio in my family, though, held a place similar to that of John Kennedy or the Pope in Catholic families across America. The following is from a piece I composed for a high school writing class at age 16, shortly after Dimaggio’s death at age 84.

            Few Americans have captivated the nation’s attention like Joe DiMaggio.  He played baseball with a grace and style that is no longer found in today’s game.  Just as important was his behavior off the field.  Uniquely American as baseball is, it seems baseball stars are more than just entertainers; they are our idols.  (I think this was even more true in Joe’s playing days.)  Many of today’s professional baseball players, no matter how well they play the game, do not portray positive role models off the field.  Players are often arrested for drunk driving or caught starting fights in bars (not to mention the dreaded paternity suit).  Even seemingly benevolent Mark McGwire sets a bad example for young people: steroid use (ephemerally legal as it may be).  Let us not forget Dimaggio’s military service during World War II, costing him three seasons in which he was in his prime.  (Many players left professional baseball during the war.)  I find it hard to believe that any of today’s players would want to leave their million-dollar homes to fight in a war overseas.

            It would be hard to pinpoint DiMaggio’s best season.  One thing is for certain: he never had a bad one.  Joe retired when he was only (I use the word loosely) thirty-six, so he never lapsed into mediocrity (which happens to players who simply can’t give up the game after their talents have left).  During his career, DiMaggio was a model of consistency; his most notable baseball achievement is his incredible record of hitting safely in fifty-six consecutive games (he had a sixty-one game streak in the minors).  So often today’s players seem lackadaisical in unimportant games.  Said Joe when asked why he gives it all in every game, “Because there might be somebody out there who’s never seen me play before.” 

            So why is this fisherman from Martinez, California, revered as an American icon?  According to teammate Tommy Henrich, “He does everything better than anyone else.”  Yankees manager Casey Stengel said of DiMaggio, “He makes big league baseball look so simple.  It ain’t so simple.”

            The man was married to Marilyn Monroe and played centerfield for the New York Yankees.  That’s tough to top.

            In DiMaggio’s nearly forty-eight years of being retired from baseball, he truly was a living legend.  There was something about him that gave him an air of deity.  He would go to Old Timer’s Day every year at Yankee Stadium, but in later years he never played.  He would be there in a suit, probably throw out the first pitch (as he did quite often), and salute the crowd.  That was it.  That was Joe DiMaggio.

            So, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” This line, from Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson,” troubled Joe when he first heard it.  After all, everyone knew where Joe was: he was Mr. Coffee.  Paul Simon met DiMaggio at a benefit once and explained the misunderstanding.  The line was not meant to be taken literally. Paul Simon used “Joe DiMaggio” as a symbol for a true American idol (of which we were lacking in 1967  and still are).  To me, a more effective lyric would have been, “Where has your style gone, all you American positive role models, such as Yankee baseball great Joe DiMaggio?  We need some new role models; not necessarily you, Joe, but someone younger maybe.”  However, this line would have been difficult to fit in the song.

            It’s not as though DiMaggio’s death came as a surprise to anyone.  (We had been prepared for it since about September.)  In what turned out to be the last six months of Joe’s life, the American public was bombarded with news about his health.  Every three days or so, the front page of the Sports section would contain a headline and a brief article about DiMaggio’s condition.  There were really only two articles: one said that Joe had suffered a tremendous setback and that the end was near; the other, said that Joe had made a miraculous recovery and would be returning to his newspaper reporter job in Metropolis shortly.  (These two articles were run alternately every three days from September to March.)  My theory is that we simply wanted to root for Joltin’ Joe one more time.  A game is more exciting when it goes back and forth, and that is exactly what the media portrayed.  The media (namely, NBC) was also responsible for making Joe’s recovery truly a miracle.  (This would come in handy if Joe were ever up for canonization.)  For about twenty minutes in December, Joe was dead.  The peacocks at NBC were the first to break the story (and, actually, the only ones).  The error was rectified when a friend of DiMaggio’s called the company.

 

No one is perfect. Not even baseball gods like Joltin’ Joe. But even flawed gods give us something to root for, perhaps even more so than would infallible ones. I reserve a special place for DiMaggio in my life, the baseball-playing uncle from California I never had. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. So, here’s to you, Joe DiMaggio, as timeless at 99 as you ever were.

Make that an even cento.

Mike Nichols, 1931-2014

I don’t think there’s been a tribute to Mike Nichols over the past two days that hasn’t included the phrase “Hollywood legend.” I will not break code here. The man was a Hollywood legend.

Born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931 (Jeebus what a terrible way to begin life, no offense), the young Nichols traveled to the United States as a seven year old with only his three-year-old brother, meeting their father who had fled Nazi persecution months earlier. His mother would join the family a year later, escaping through Italy.

Despite this somewhat rough beginning, Nichols found his way in the United States, succeeding in the most American of ways: abandoning the family business to pursue a career in acting. (Nichols’s father was a physician and his son quickly abandoned his premed program at the University of Chicago.)

The rest of the story is, as the man, Hollywood legend. First, work and eventually success as a stage actor and director, an acclaimed comedy career (teamed mostly with fellow legend Elaine May), then one of the most successful directorial careers in Hollywood history. His films? A total of 42 Oscar nominations and seven wins.

Nichols’s most well-known film, 1967’s The Graduate, won him an Academy Award for Best Director at the age of 36. Not one to rest on his laurels, Nichols directed the envelope-pushing Carnal Knowledge four years later, and classics including Regarding HenryWolf, and The Birdcage in the 1990s. At the age of 74 Nichols directed a sleeper pick as one of my all-time favorites, 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War. And two years ago, into his eighties? Broadway production of Death of a Salesman.

It was Nichols’s stage work that brought him early acclaim and perhaps the reason I respect him most. He’s a real director, not just a movie director. An actor too, and a comedian.

And a Hollywood legend.