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.

Cola wars

It’s one of the most asked questions of our time. A simple survey. And most people have an answer.

Pepsi or Coke?

It’s been a couple decades since I gave serious thought to the question. I was a Coke man. Case closed. Offer me Pepsi? I’ll ask if you have Dr. Pepper.

There have been times over the years, of course, when I’ve done it. I’ve had a Pepsi now and then. It’s not terrible. You know what it tastes like? Coke. But not exactly.

I will never say there’s no difference between Pepsi and Coke. Pepsi’s sweeter, while Coke has a “bite.” It’s a cola, whereas Pepsi is more or less caramelized sugar water. No judgments here. It is what it is. And I suppose it has its place.

Which brings me to my 2014 answer for Pepsi or Coke. With the benefit of a little age, a little wisdom, and a little nuance, I can say that I no longer prefer either Pepsi or Coke. They’re different beverages, and I’m going to pick the one I’m in the mood for. Sometimes I want Pepsi and sometimes I want Coke. Sometimes I want milk and sometimes I want orange juice. Debate settled.

Stay tuned: more world problems solved in the coming weeks.

The following is not a piece of clever satire

Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.

Okay, so this news has been around for some time, but I’m hearing it more and more these days so here it is.

’Round these parts we’ve got this subway/train system called “the Metro.” First developed in the 1960s and built mostly in the ’70s and ’80s, “the Metro” is a series of connected, rapid transit rail lines connecting Washington and its suburbs. The latest piece of this puzzle is the still-being-built Silver Line, which I hope someday really jacks up the value of my home.

Proposals to add a new line to the expanding spider web of existing routes have been at least partially green-lighted in Maryland, where the “Purple Line” is projected to open in the year 2020 (at least according to experts on the Internet).

The thing about rail lines is, not everybody wants them going through his or her backyard. Say you already have a valuable home, like in suburban Maryland, why would you need a nearby train station to offer as a selling point? (Your chauffer doesn’t ride the train either.) Oh, how to stop the train, how to stop this oncoming train?

Leave it to the folks in tony suburban Maryland to come up with the most cliché white liberal response. The golfers at nearby Columbia Country Club? No, no, that’s too obvious. (Though they’ve voiced their objection as well.)

Ever heard of the Hay’s Spring amphipod?

How about the Kenk’s amphipod?

Answer: shrimplike crustaceans living (perhaps) in Rock Creek Park, possibly threatened, possibly endangered, possibly able to halt construction of a $2.4 billion construction project.

Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.

The Chevy Chase (Md.) Town Council has already voted to give $10,000 to the Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail (seriously) so it can hire an American University professor to study how construction of the Purple Line will impact the shrimp and its natural habitat. Seriously.

According to the Washington Post: “Maryland transit officials said neither the Maryland Department of Natural Resources nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mentioned any endangered species along the Purple Line’s proposed 16-mile route between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.”

But that didn’t stop John M. Fitzgerald, a Chevy Chase resident and lawyer, who said, “This statement should not be interpreted… as meaning that rare, threatened or endangered species are not in fact present. If [an] appropriate habitat is available, certain species could be present without documentation because adequate surveys have not been conducted.”

I guess the question now is, when do you stop looking for endangered species.

I think that’s your sign the environmentalists have already won.

What’s an Irish Bearcat to do?

Big news tonight from the University of Notre Dame. No, not football but basketball sweet basketball. Tonight from South Bend the Irish host the boys from my alma mater, the famous Bearcats of Binghamton University.

So what’s an Irish Bearcat to do? Whom to root for? Well, all things being equal, go with the underdog, right?

So… go, Irish!

Sprite on a plane

I’ve seen the news in several places from several different sources backed up by various scientists and I think we can now conclude: your tastebuds really are different while flying the friendly skies.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany (other scientists have shown similar results but these guys sounded the most prestigious) have documented once and for all the changes your tastebuds undergo while flying. Who knew? Well, everybody, but now it’s official.

For 20-plus years I’ve wondered why Sprite tastes better on a plane. Seriously, I never touch the stuff on land. But on an airplane? Nectar of the gods.

Thanks, German researchers, for validating my unscientific musings. And because every other news article about this issue includes this joke: it’s your fault your in-flight meal tastes so bad!

Honoring veterans everywhere

Ah, November, chock full of holidays to every schoolchild’s delight. I’ll admit that when I was a kid I barely understood Veterans Day, confusing it with Memorial Day as so many do. At least Veterans Day never went the way of most holidays, moving to Monday for mere convenience, though it does still retain the problem of its questionable apostrophe. (I vote no.)

Luckily for us in 2014, Veterans Day honors only a small number of our citizens. That is, only a small percentage of our citizens have been required to serve in recent years and that must be recognized as a good thing. I suppose that means we can make our thank yous just a little bit bigger for those we do honor. And I promise to recognize the holiday more than just another day off from school.

The most remembered thing about it was it came down

Twenty-five years ago this Sunday the East German government made a surprising announcement. It would do what its citizens and the Western world had been demanding for years. It would tear down the Berlin Wall.

For 38 years the wall had stood as a literal and figurative barrier between the communist-controlled East and democratic West, a real-life Iron Curtain blocking passage into and out of that forsaken land. Its destruction really did bring freedom and, in time, greater prosperity to a people that had become virtually accustomed to living without it. And the eventual collapse of an empire, rendering an ideology to the ash heap of history. Three cheers for democracy.

A final word for those interested, and a question often raised by my students (many of whom were born post-1989… ouch). Just as the entire wall was not built in a day it was not torn down in a day either. What happened on November 9, 1989, was the announcement that East German citizens could now pass through the wall to West Germany and West Berlin. The citizens took it upon themselves at that point to literally bring down the wall, though the process was not actually completed by the state-run bulldozers until 1992. The final sorry example of crappy government service at work.

GOP wins big; Wizards rally to top Knicks

New York–Paul Pierce and Garrett Temple each scored 17 points, and the Washington Wizards used a 32-15 third quarter to defeat the New York Knicks Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. In other news, the Republican Party regained control of the U.S. Senate and picked up major gains in Congress and statehouses across the country.

That’s how I felt last night watching Election Night “coverage” on several different channels, numbers rolling across the bottom of the screen with sports scores and the occasional pop culture tag. If politics is but a horserace to win, place, or show I’m going to start referring to it as such. I just wish I didn’t have to pay those idiots.

What does this mean? What does this mean? cries the media (I am now referring to this plural noun in the singular to reflect its single-mindedness). Answer: a different set of dopes with patronage jobs on Capitol Hill next year.

No doubt I would be pleased to see some actual policy changes and/or initiatives from Washington in the next two years, but I’m not holding my breath. These guys are comfortable being in the minority and they’re going to act as much even when they’re not.

At least we can all celebrate one victory last night. Goodbye, annoying mailers and TV commercials. This is the day the politicians begin to leave us alone for 10 minutes before the next election.

Update: 7:32 a.m. E-mail received encouraging me to purchase 2014 Republican victory souvenir t-shirt. Thanks for ruining my last point and validating everything that preceded it.

Fifty years ago today

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact date on which a nation lost its soul, but if forced to do so I would select November 3, 1964. This was the ill-fated day of the 1964 presidential election, when Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater, thus killing small-government conservatism forever. Never had Americans had such a choice and such an opportunity, and never have they thrown it away with such vigor. Oh sure, there are glimpses now and then, but nothing like the deathblow dealt fifty years ago today.

I realize the blog is becoming something like what-anniversary-can-we-celebrate-today trivia, but this, like the others is of great importance. In fact, the entire month of October 1964 is something to examine, and I’m ashamed I didn’t do so until today. It was done quite well 20 years ago by David Halberstam in a book cleverly titled October 1964, and I recommend that one highly. Focusing on both baseball and politics, Halberstam examines the changing tides imminent in that month, and in 2014 they are even more clear. And I still think no election was more important.

Goldwater spent the rest of his career pushing small-government initiatives, the kind of thing one can do as a minority-party senator. Does this describe the so-called Tea Party of today? Well, after tomorrow they might not be in the minority.

October Heroes


Is it too cliche to be Madison Bumgarner for Halloween this year? I’d like to think I could get away with it. After all, who called his Game Five performance something resembling Muhammad Ali? Well, Game Seven matched it. Remember, stars shine when the lights are brightest.

Today, of course, is Halloween, one of my favorite holidays. This is my son’s first, and my ninth without the master of all things Halloween. So here’s to Bart Simpson, Michael Myers, Roseanne Conner, Charlie Brown, and everyone who makes Halloween special..

And Joe.