Sunday, July 31, 2016

Fitness Freaks Take Nashville



Here's a bird's eye view of lower Broadway in Nashville Saturday morning.  If you've been to Nashville, you know that the street is home to a couple dozen restaurants and bars where you can get a beer and hear live country and rock music starting at 10 a.m. just about every day of the year.

But this picture was taken at 7 a.m.  The street was blocked off to allow between 25,000 and 30,000 Beachbody coaches to do a 90-minute workout, part of the group's national meeting.

I was not there, of course.  The Significant Other and I had relocated to the city just 18 hours earlier.  As this mass exercise routine was ending I was stepping out in search of coffee and and a newspaper.

The streets were full of groups of upbeat exercisers streaming back to their hotels, sweaty and happy.  Downtown Nashville was a sea of spandex and brightly colored tank tops with peppy slogans.   

It was an impressive display.  Nashville, as you may know, is a tad warmish in the summer months.  At this point, the temperature was close to 80 degrees, and the humidity must have been between 80 and 90 percent.  

I like to exercise myself, but not before a morning coffee and not in this kind of weather.  No bikram yogini, I.

When I found the Starbucks (there's always a Starbucks within two blocks), I saw that many of the exercisers had repaired there for coffee themselves. The line was longer than the 9 a.m. line at an airport Starbucks.

Just ahead of me in the line was a man whose wife is active in the Beachbody movement.  He shared the picture below and told me that next year's convention will be held in New Orleans in July.

Say this much:  Those Beachbody people are tough.


Photo by Tim Bratland


Big Exercise 

Beachbody was new to me, and so I looked it up.  It's a multi-level marketing program that sells exercise videos and nutrition products, and it is very popular.  Typically its "coaches" are people who started as customers and really love the program.   Attendance at this year's convention was 20 percent higher than in 2015.

The company keeps making things interesting.  A relatively new DVD series, the 60-day Insanity workout was called "one of the most challenging fitness programs on the planet" by WebMD.

In fact, the number of ways to exercise has increased over the years as people search for and find the activities that work for them.  Just in small gyms, you can find one or more examples of the following in just about every city, suburb and town:

       --Gyms in office building spaces offering only barre classes based on dance principles
       --Gyms in storefronts offering only "boot-camp" group exercises in which 20 or more people rotate in small groups among aerobic and weight training stations.
       --Spa/gyms offering only yoga and Pilates classes
       --Spin gyms
       --Gyms that hook exercisers up to cardiac monitors to optimize, and regulate, heartbeats per minute

The business model for these single-purpose outfits makes sense for the owners.  People pay $25 to $35 for each group session.  If a gym runs six classes each day with 20 participants in each class, that's $25,000 in revenue per week.  That covers rent and trainers with plenty of money left over.

The value proposition for customers is less clear.  YMCAs and other large gyms, even the odious Equinox chain, charge less than $200 a month and offer a variety of classes into the bargain.  (Plus, even in California, showers and changing rooms.)

It is also true that doing the same exercise several times each week is not as healthy as doing several different workouts.

My guess is that gregarious people like working out with people they know and that they become loyal to small gyms because they appreciate the companionship of friends and known trainers.   But it sure looks  expensive.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Battling the Housefly

The enemy



I learn something every day.

Friends and readers know that I have tussled with all manner of critters.  There have been the ant invasions, which I have discouraged with apple cider vinegar, sometimes in copious amounts.  There was the chipmunk who snuck into the house and commandeered the master bedroom for the night.  And who could forget the skunk who got into a fight under the house and died there?

Yesterday's challenge was a new one -- a swarm of houseflies.

I thought I knew all there was to know about flies, the annoying little agents who sneak in through open doors during the warmer months and buzz around, lighting on food or other soft objects.

The usual procedure for dealing with a fly that has wandered onto your turf is a simple one.  You follow it patiently with a rolled-up newspaper until it has settled on a hard surface.  Then you whack it and escort its carcass into the garbage can.

Not a big deal, I thought.

Now we are staying with dear friends who, like ourselves, were unfamiliar with housefly swarms.  Two evenings ago, we were preparing dinner and noticed a couple flies circling the kitchen.

We dispatched the flies in the usual manner.

Then there were two more.  Then three more and three more again   This continued through the early evening.

By nine p.m. or so, we believed we had vanquished the winged invaders.   We relaxed by watching the night's convention speeches until, stuporous, we fell into deep slumber.


The Return

I rose early the next morning, after our industrious hosts had left for work, and found that a second housefly squadron had occupied the kitchen and family room.  I realized that these guys were serious, and so I employed the Significant Other's technique for dealing with any problem:  I consulted the internet.

(I do recommend this solution.  I am pretty sure that the Roman empire would not have relocated to Constantinople if one of the Caesars had googled the question "How do I stop Huns from storming the city?" and proceeded from there.)

My search informed me that our housefly swarm was not that unusual.  Some of the stories I found were quite alarming.  Here's one:

     I live in Texas and with all the rain, the flies are coming into the house.  I have three baited
     fly trap bottles and strips. It seems no matter how many I kill I am still swarmed. I can kill
     about 100 flies in about 30 mins with a fly swatter, and 30 mins later I am swamped again.
     Any suggestions?

Eew, I thought.  If I were advising that person, I would suggest moving to a different house.

Fortunately, the swarm in our hosts' home was MUCH smaller.  It appeared to have been caused by a pregnant fly who, on an earlier visit, had deposited 50 to 75 eggs somewhere on the premises.  (Don't ask me where: Our hosts' home is pristine, actually antiseptic compared to my place.)

Fortunately, my internet search also turned up news I could use.

1.  Houseflies are drawn to light.  I looked at the big windows in the family room and, sure enough, a number of flies were basking in the sun's rays.

2.  Windex is your friend.  A fly sprayed with Windex is a fly that has lost much of its ground and air speed.


Success

From there, it was easy and fun.

I roused the SO and handed him the Windex bottle -- all men enjoy target practice, we know -- and equipped myself with paper towels.  We moved to the sunny windows.

The SO  sprayed a lounging fly.  I wiped it up.  Then he sprayed another and another and another as I followed behind.  Within 20 minutes we had dispatched several dozen houseflies.

We ate our breakfast and read the newspaper.  Every 20 minutes or so, we returned to the windows and dealt with a couple more flies.

By 9 a.m. we were able to declare victory.

Man, I feel empowered.







Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Making It Hard to Save

An annoying experience gives a financial writer an insight into why some of us are not saving as much money as we probably should.  Reprinted with permission from marklevinson.net

by Marc Levinson

Americans are famously unable to save money. The personal saving rate is a scant 5% of disposable income, and while two in three adults told Federal Reserve researchers last year they were “living comfortably” or “doing okay,” many of those same people apparently have no savings: 46% of respondents to the Fed survey said they did not have the cash to cover an emergency expense costing $400. Among people with household incomes below $40,000, only one in three said they could come up with $400 in cash.

Last month, I got an unexpected taste of why it’s so hard for people to save. My District of Columbia income tax return had an error. Rather than refunding my overpayment by check, the DC finance department sent me a Citibank debit card. I’d never used a prepaid card before, and the experience was educational. Moving the money from the card into my bank account, which is not at Citibank, turned out to be a major ordeal.

In theory, according to Citibank, it’s possible to set up a password on the Internet to transfer money from card to bank account. I followed those instructions, to no avail. The only way to get my money, it seemed, was to go to the bank.

But not to my bank, which wanted a fee to turn Citi’s debit card into cash. To avoid the fee, I had to take the card to a Citibank branch. I did so -- to be told that the amount on the card exceeded Citibank’s daily cash withdrawal limit. I took what Citi would give me, cautiously walked the cash down the street to my bank, and deposited it. The following day, I repeated the process. All told, between my attempt to set up an Internet password and my five visits to bank branches, it took two hours of my time to gain access to money that was already mine. Had the two branches not been close together, the transactions would have taken far longer, and I would have had to stroll through Washington carrying uncomfortably large amounts of cash.

This is the situation facing the millions of American workers, mainly in low-wage jobs, who now get their pay on a debit card rather than having it deposited into a bank account. Yes, I understand that paying wages via debit card may be useful to people who don’t have bank accounts, and I imagine debit cards are cheaper for employers or they wouldn’t use them. But as my experience showed, when you receive your pay on a debit card, you may well have a difficult time saving money in the bank. Which could leave you in a tough spot the next time you need $400.

The author has written several influential books on business and finance, including the very popular "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger."  His next book, "An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy," will be released in early November. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Movie Monday: The Music of Strangers



There are almost 90 movie screens within a 15-minute drive of my current location.  There are many opportunities to see the 13th Star Trek movie, the seventh Ice Age movie or any number of movies involving people using weapons to kill other people or imaginary foes.

Or, on one screen, you can see "The Music of Strangers."

This is the film that I recommend.

The movie is an HBO documentary on The Silk Road Project, a group of musicians from various cultures who have been meeting and performing together since 2000.  The inspiration seems to have occurred first to cellist Yo-yo Ma, an American treasure who was born in Paris to Chinese parents.

There have been many virtuosic cellists (Pablo Casals and Jacqueline du Pre in the 20th century, for starters) but few who have coaxed as much emotion out of the instrument or who have promoted music education and international music with the energy Ma has brought to these projects.

This movie isn't a typical road-trip saga but joint performances of great joy, and sometimes sorrow, interwoven with the personal stories of several Silk Road musicians.  Some of their lives have been difficult, but the artists find meaning and comfort in their music.

The message is simple: Music touches us in a more deeply human way than speech.  Its effects cross oceans and national borders.   It endures.

In a year marked by refugee crises, mass killings and dismal presidential campaigns, these truths are worth keeping in mind.

As one member of the ensemble remarks toward the end, "Nobody remembers who was the king when Beethoven was alive."

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Too Much Television

Yuck.  

This morning I went to the Exxon station to fill up the car.

As soon as I started, a screen on the gas pump burst to life, and I saw Seth Myers saying something.  Then there were a couple commercials.

I resented this.  It's not that I meditate when I'm at the gas station or anything, but that doesn't mean I want to spend the time watching television either.

If you think about it, television has invaded all the little quiet spaces in our lives.

There's a television blaring "news" in the waiting lounge of the airport.

There's a television tuned to CNBC at the Fidelity office.

There's a television running food shows and advertisements as you wait in the line at the grocery store.

There are TWO televisions, always on, in the changing room at the gym.

There are televisions running in mani-pedi parlors.

There's a television broadcasting old movies in the doctor's waiting room.

There's a television running daytime dreck while the dental hygienist scrapes the crud off your teeth.

Enough, I say.




Friday, July 22, 2016

What Is a Portrait?

I used to think that I knew what a portrait was:  an image of a person, ideally offering a view into that person's unique essence.

But after seeing a big show -- "Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection" -- I'm not sure what to think.

The exhibit is at the new Whitney Museum in New York, a fine space designed by Renzo Piano.  The Whitney's focus is American art from 1900 on, and the current show unfolds over two full floors.

I went to see the exhibit about six weeks ago.  There are many truly great works on display. I recommend a visit if you will be in New York between now and February.

But if you go, be prepared to find that the definition of portraiture has been stretched beyond recognition.

In his review, The New York Times critic Holland Cotter called the Whitney event "a show that’s big on weird and basically all about ego. . . ."  That pretty well sums it up.

The first room of the exhibit features traditional portraiture, including Edward Hopper's painting of himself, done in the traditional style.



But then it's off to the races.

Soon comes a room of images called "Portraits without People" that perhaps takes its inspiration from the poet's question,  "How can we tell the dancer from the dance?"

The room includes a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, a Joseph Cornell box and a photograph of architect Philip Johnson's glass house in New Canaan, Conn.  All the works are easily identified with their artists, but none qualifies as a portrait.

On the other hand, an abstract painting by Marsden Hartley does seem like a portrait. It is a symbolic representation of a German officer whom Hartley loved and who died early in World War I.



Much of the rest of the two-floor show has to do with photography.

There is a Henry Taylor painting of Black Panther founder Huey Newton, based on a famous photograph of the man.





There is a 1929 Toyo Miyatake photograph of the Japanese dancer-choreographer Michio Ito.  Every reference to the photograph notes that Ito, who worked in the U.S., was arrested for espionage early in World War II and was sent back to Japan after two years in an internment camp.  


This information is interesting, but I wonder:   Does the photo stand on its own or does it require a backstory to rise to the level of art?  


Here's a self-portrait, a great big self-portrait, rendered in paint from a photograph taken by a friend of the artist.  Mostly it gives the impression that the artist takes himself pretty darn seriously.





This is another interesting piece, a series of photographs of raised fists, including protests and victory salutes.   One fist is apparently that of Richard Nixon.  The photos are mounted on wooden poles, suggesting marching banners or demonstrations.  Does this qualify as a portrait?



There are other odd pieces:  a series of large photographs of teenagers who committed mass shootings, a colored-pencil drawing of Amy Winehouse, a Richard Avedon fashion shot of 1950s super-model Dovima and two elephants,  a 3-D wooden rendering of every school its artist attended, a very realistic-looking statue of a tired old anonymous woman sitting in a chair, an Andy Warhol diptych of Elvis Presley, Diane Arbus photographs taken on the streets of New York and two Robert Mapplethorpe photographs (one of which of course is not appropriate for small children.)

In addition to leaning more toward photography, the newer pieces in the display lean more toward political statements.  I am not schooled in art history and do not know if politics-as-art always has been as big a theme as it is today, but I wonder whether the flowering of contemporary political art will resonate with people several generations from now.

The biggest draw in the show is a wax statue, seven or eight feet tall, of artist Julian Schnabel.  It was made by a younger artist, Urs Fischer.

What is unusual about the statue is that it is also a candle.  Every morning, the museum staff light the statue, which is melting down over time.  


What are we to make of this?   Hippocrates said "Ars longa, vita brevis," but this art is more brevis than most vita.  

Is the melting down a comment on the short shelf life of most human endeavors?  Of the output of an artist? 

My guess is the melting statue is there to attract attention.  It is a theme of mine that people want to participate in things -- they take selfies at crime scenes, they chase around cities playing Pokemon Go, they put bouquets in front of the homes of dead celebrities.  This giant candle allows people to watch the deliberate immolation of a statue.    It allows people to say, "I was there then."

Like much else in the museum show, it is not really a portrait.  Call it a process.  Or a novelty.  


Notes

1.  It is understandable that the Whitney's curators would wish to present some of the museum's best works for the opening of the new location and also that they would like to have an organizing theme for the show.  The problem is that the theme chosen doesn't make sense given the content on display.  

Words have meanings.  To call the Whitney show "Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney's Collection" is sloppy.  What is not "human interest?" -- human interest is the point of art.  And portraits are portraits, not images that involve humans in any conceivable or tangential way.

We are generally sloppy with words these days.  On June 30, I discussed how the word "interrogate" has come to be defined as "to examine a thing or an idea with hostility." Politicians and activists now misuse words with great abandon and little concern for the consequences.  If different groups adopt their own vocabularies with their own meanings, broad public conversation is going to become even more difficult than it already is.

2.  In publicity for the show, the Whitney staff noted often that what is on display is just a sampling of the "thousands" of pieces of art in its inventory.  Other major museums also have vaults full of material that is rarely, if ever, displayed.  I find this unfortunate.  If museums function as gatekeepers, deciding what people can see and when, they might as well be anonymous rich hoarders.  The effect is the same.  

One hundred years ago, Albert C. Barnes, a Philadelphia art collector with a great trove of fine Impressionist paintings, set up his own museum to make the work available to the public.  It is a wacky conglomeration of objects that no curator would tolerate, but you can see the stuff, as he wanted.

More recently, contemporary collector Eli Broad found that many museums were interested in acquiring part or all of his collection, but that none would guarantee to put it on display.  So he built his own museum in downtown Los Angeles.  

So here we are: Art experts or rich people control public access, or lack thereof, to important art. Strange situation.






Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Memphis and Black Lives Matter


The last several weeks of police killings and killings of police have shown us a picture of ourselves that is not flattering.

My vantage point of the moment is Memphis, a city of pleasant and seemingly harmonious people (nicer folks by far than are found in New Jersey) that actually is not what the city or its people want it to be.

On the Sunday after five Dallas policemen were shot dead, 1,000 people here -- most black, but also whites and Asians -- gathered in downtown Memphis.  From there, they moved onto the nearby Hernando de Soto Bridge, the freeway crossing to Arkansas.

Traffic on the interstate was shut down for five hours.  The protesters were not violent, but they were adamant and unwilling to move.  They wanted to talk to the head of police and the mayor.

The interim police director, a black man, told the mayor to stay at city hall, which the mayor did.  Then the police director removed his protective vest and walked out into the crowd.  He linked arms with members of the group and assured them that their concerns were being heard, a sentiment echoed later by the mayor and city council.

Together, the police director and a large number of the protesters walked back to town from the bridge.  (Some of the protestors stayed longer.)  There was no violence.  There were no arrests.  A series of community meetings has begun.


Civil Rights Museum

The protesters assembled originally in front of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  It is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot dead in 1968.  King was on his second trip to the city in an effort to resolve a strike by the largely black trash haulers' union that had left garbage uncollected for as long as a month.

I visited the museum recently.  It is not easy to walk through the place, which consists mostly of displays of civil rights agitation and its often-violent suppression in the 1960s.  The theme is African Americans claiming the right to eat at lunch counters, to sit where they wished on city buses, to travel with white people on interstate buses, to enroll in public schools and to register to vote.

The film of police and governors' actions and statements shames even those who do not hail from the South.  How could these injustices have endured for so long?

I hope we are better people today, and maybe we are.   But there are signs all around that de facto segregation exists, even if it is no longer mandated by government forces.


Memphis Today

This city has problems. Its population is 64 percent African American, and the local murder rate (9.9 per 100,000) is substantially higher than that of much-cited Chicago (5.5 per 100,000.)  Almost all the dead are young black men shot with by other young black men with handguns.

Local public schools can only generously be described as underperformers.  Memphians of all races go to lengths to avoid enrolling their children.  They seek out religious schools -- Catholic, Protestant and Jewish -- or move to distant suburbs.  The people with the least money and the least mobility are stuck.

Memphis has a number of "public charter" schools.  The most highly ranked one I could find (8 on a national 1-10 scale by the GreatSchools group) had a 96 percent black student body.  In 2015, fewer than 50 percent of its fourth graders were reading at their grade level or higher.

Memphis neighborhoods tend to be mostly black, mostly white or transitioning between the two, perhaps because of individual preferences but striking all the same. The neighborhoods adjoin each other, and the incidence of property crime is pretty high.

Among the African American population, the number of high earners has grown since the Great Recession, as has the number of poor people.   Meanwhile, the middle-class cohort has declined significantly.

These issues are not unique to Memphis.  Most urban populations are segregated by neighborhoods and cities.  Public school districts nationwide have been highly resistant even to minor changes to deal with students as they come.  Essentially, our schools have maintained a 1950s education model that isn't working for 21st century students.

In Memphis, a city with low economic growth and few new jobs, these matters loom larger than they might do elsewhere.


Conclusion

Yes, African Americans have achieved the basic rights of citizenship.  But the opportunities -- for jobs and the kind of education that leads to good jobs -- are not good in minority-majority cities. To be fair, such opportunities are limited in formerly stable blue-collar white cities.

This lack of opportunity partly explains why angry young black men take different paths, committing crimes at higher rates and attracting more police attention.  But the police attention catches in its net the majority of African Americans who are law abiding and who understandably resent being hassled.

No wonder there is frustration.

We still have work to do.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Movie Monday: Ghostbusters




Despite what appears to be a pretty adamant campaign to slime this movie, it's not that bad.

When the trailer above was released, it drew more than a million "thumbs down" clicks and all kinds of angry comments -- an all-woman team was political correctness run amok, appropriation of a beloved, iconic property -- that seemed like an overreaction.  This was more than 200 times the number of down-votes typically received by a crappy movie.

The loud, possibly organized opposition (suspected by some to have including no-voting bots) may have cost "Ghostbusters" a stronger opening weekend, but as summer movies go, it more than holds its own.  It is light, silly, good-natured and stocked well with repeated sight gags.  What more can be expected?

The new movie pays homage to its predecessor in ways large and small.  Original stars and even some of the original's ghosts appear in the new movie.  No one says, "He slimed me," but one of the team is slimed on several occasions.  The bad guy is a brilliant creep.  The essential challenge faced by the ghostbusters is to save New York from ghosts.  The ghostbuster team faces an uphill battle just to gain credibility until their help is really, really needed.

Like most summer movies, this one isn't perfect.  The filmmakers have fallen in love with computer-generated imagery, and the final battle goes on and on and on.   The black ghostbuster character of course is street-smart and cool, as are so many men given the "black friend" roles in current films; the stereotype is getting pretty shopworn.

The good-sized crowd in the theater where I saw the movie roared with laughter.  When the old "Ghostbusters" musical theme was played as the show was ending, children in the audience stood up and danced.

So what if it isn't just like the original movie?  We have had many Wizards of Oz, many Tarzans and many James Bonds.  Even Marvell's Iron Man is going to be replaced by a super-bright African American teenage girl in the character's next outing.

Still, some wacky, subversive movies may be so identified with their original stars that they cannot be replicated without extreme fan (fanboy?) resistance and even attempted sabotage.

This could be be why the famed Coen brothers shot down rumors last February that they would mount "The Big Lebowski 2."   And why there probably will never be a reprise of  "Animal House."


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Nordstrom Sale Preview

The Nordstrom Sale -- the big summer preseason markdown of fall and winter fashions -- opened today.

Actually, it's the presale, which starts early for those of us with Nordstrom accounts.  I'm not near one of the stores, so I looked online to see what might be interesting.

Nordstrom is not an out-there leader in the latest fashions,  but it's pretty reliably attuned into the looks of the moment.

Here are some themes I noticed in women's clothing.


Shirts

There are many plaid shirts. Some are shown tucked, but I mostly have seen them worn loose unbuttoned over tank tops or tee shirts. These have been popular with college girls for a couple years now, and my impression is that they are mostly aimed at younger women.




Jeans

Jeans are still skinny and tight.  Most end above the ankle, but some are a slightly looser "boyfriend" variety that end at mid calf or so.  Some, like the pair below still feature rips and tears.


Nothing new here.


Pants

Pants are mostly black and also skinny.


There is also a smaller sampling of the wide-leg, cropped pants, sometimes called gauchos or culottes.




 Designers have been trotting these out for a couple years now, but women still are buying and wearing the skinny pants and, occasionally, wider numbers in black.  We'll see.



Coats

Three trends stick out.

One is 3/4 length coats, straight or almost bloated looking in the middle.  These also are called walking coats or reefers.




Another theme is black leather and faux leather jackets, more of them than I would have expected.  The motorcycle jacket has been around forever, of course, but a particular variation -- with wide lapels -- seems to be favored this year.


Then there are the longer sweaters or  sweater coats, popular last year and still so now.  (Last year, these were sometimes called "dusters;" no more.)




Scarves

The look seems to be big, big scarves --some of them infinity scarves, big circles with no hems -- that wrap around the neck like large clouds.




Shoes

If Nordstrom is reading the trends right, the shoe to own this fall is a beige suede ankle boot with a block heel.  Here is one.  There are many, many others.


There are also ankle boots in black.  Variations include peep toes, and mesh or gladiator uppers.  Some have two-inch block heels, and some are platforms.  There still are over-the-knee boots for women who wear very short skirts.

Mostly, though, Nordstrom is expecting a big ankle boot season. 


Shopping

The official sale opening is July 22 and continues until early August.  Since I cannot make it to a store this year, I set aside some items that looked interesting in an online shopping cart.   By the time I was finished perusing the selections, at least one of the items in my shopping cart had sold out.  

If you want to consider shopping the sale, I'd suggest you do it sooner rather than later.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Grandma's Celebrity Gossip

Grandma

Our popular California columnist continues to encounter celebrities in unexpected places. 

One day last year I was sitting in Dr. Rosenbaum’s office with my great-granddaughter Traci, who drove me to my appointment.

(She’s the one with the ring in her nose. So big is this ring, you could hang meat from it. But such a lovely girl otherwise. Me, I almost said, “You know, bubeleh, while we’re here, maybe we should have Dr. Rosenbaum snip it off and let the insurance pay for it.” But for peace in the family, I kept it zipped. Why klop der kop in der vant?)

While we were there, a woman walked in with a cat. She was middle-aged. You know, about 65-70, and all decked out in some fancy-shmancy shmatte -- a long satin dress, pearls, and matching pumps -- all this at 11:00 in the morning!

So up she goes to the receptionist and says, “I need to see a doctor. My cat has arthritis.”

“How does she know the cat has the  arthritis?” I whispered to Traci. “Does Mittens have trouble shlepping through “Chopsticks” on the Wurlitzer?”

And what kind of a meshuggeneh brings a cat to the doctor’s office anyway?  Back and forth she went with the poor loksh of a receptionist. (Who needs a kopdrayenish like that?)

Then out came the other doctor, the short hairy one with the accent. (Him I never liked.)

And in all this mishegoss, to me the crazy cat lady looked and sounded very familiar. Who could she be?

Then about a month ago, I was sitting under the dryer at the beauty parlor and spotted her on the cover of the National Enquirer. The woman with the cat in Dr. Rosenbaum’s office was none other than Richard Simmons. Different shmatte, same shmendrick.

Like Bruce Jenner (aka Caitlyn Jenner), the Deal-A-Meal bez is now cavorting in public dressed like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” Gigi says he’s now trans-something-or-other. Drag queens are what they used to be called.

And all this goes to show you that the National Enquirer is right, whether it’s about Mel Gibson,  Whitney Houston, Tiger Woods or Richard Gere with the squirrel in his pants.

 I’ve said enough already.


Editor’s Note:  The Idiosyncratist was unfamiliar with the final Richard Gere reference and dug up an old Village Voice piece describing and perhaps debunking it.  Read if you wish:  http://bit.ly/29Li76y

Monday, July 11, 2016

MovieMonday: The Secret Life of Pets



This movie comes from the same people who gave us "Despicable Me,""Despicable Me 2" and last year's financially successful but underwhelming "Minions."  Watch for "Despicable Me 3" next year.

The title is the premise -- the hijinks pets get up to when their owners are away -- and the result is a roller coaster of a story stuffed to the rafters with sight gags and zany action.

The story involves two dogs, recently introduced, who cannot stand each other.  Then they fall into the clutches of animal control agents and then a group of bitter, sewer-dwelling pets abandoned by their owners.  Then the two dogs work together (buddy movie!) in the interest of survival.  Then their neighborhood friends (dogs, cats, a parakeet and a feral hawk) work together to rescue the two dogs.  Mayhem ensues throughout.

Illumination Entertainment has turned out a good-looking computer animation film here.  It bases its characters on stereotypes about the personalities of dogs and cats.  The movie asks its viewers to suspend belief about the true nature of hawks, which is fine, but maybe goes a bit far by making a cute white bunny named Snowflake into a mean trash talker with a nasty agenda.

To be fair, though, Snowflake drives much of the film's action, and Snowflake's energetic voice, that of Kevin Hart, is very well done.


Two Reservations

1. Maybe this movie is too jam-packed.

Not one second goes to waste in The Secret Life, which runs for 98 minutes.  The action and the dialogue rattle along at 90 mph the whole way.

In food equivalents, it's like eating a diet of Twinkies for a month -- tasty, yes, but by the end you are feeling a great big sugar high and your body's supply of basic nutrients has been depleted.

We already have short attention spans.  If we condition ourselves and our children to expect wow moments every second, we may find ourselves less able to enjoy more leisurely pleasures.  Just guessing here.

2.  This may not be a good movie for small children.  I speak generally of the preschool through primary-grade set.

One thing that has made Disney movies so appealing to small children is sincerity.  Bambi is sincere.  The Lion King is sincere.  Even that scamp, short-tempered Donald Duck, is sincere.  When he makes a mistake, he regrets it.  When he gets in a fight, he wins.  His motives are transparent, and he does not want to hurt others.

Newer animated movies from other studios have adopted more adult vibes and themes; the target demo for "The Secret Life of Pets," to me, is anyone over the age of eight who has owned or wanted to own a pet.  This is a very large potential audience.

But for the younger kids?

I saw the movie in a theater full of very young children and their parents.  I laughed at some of the silliness, but I didn't hear much childish laughter around me.

I don't think five-year-olds are delighted by a cute bunny that turns out to have a nasty mouth, a mean streak and a willingness to threaten nice doggies with snakes and alligators.  I'm not sure four-year-olds get the joke when the nice dogs defend themselves against the bad bunny by pretending that they have killed their owner with a kitchen blender.  I don't think three-year-olds are complaisant about owners dumping their pets, which sounds something like parents abandoning their children.

Children are idealists.  They can handle conflict, but they want the good guys to win by being, well, good.  Little children, small and vulnerable as they know they are, are moved by stories of teamwork, kindness and generosity.  And, to be fair, there is much of this in the pet movie.

As they mature, all children encounter and absorb a certain amount of cynicism and sarcasm.  I'm not sure we do kids any favors if we cultivate these attitudes earlier rather than later.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Nothing Works Anymore: Newspaper Delivery

This picture was not taken at my house
Up until recently, the Significant Other and I subscribed to two major daily newspapers.  Every month, each paper would make a sizable charge to our credit card account.  In exchange,we would wake up to find newspapers sitting on our driveway, just in time to read over breakfast.

At least that was the concept.


Mr. X

This is the name I will use for the man who started delivering our newspapers about 18 months ago.
We noticed right away that timely delivery presented a challenge for him.

The two newspaper companies guaranteed delivery by 6 a.m. each weekday morning.  Mr. X perhaps never got this message or perhaps never took it to heart.  Very occasionally, he would deliver the papers as early as 7:30.  More often, they would arrive after 8 a.m., usually between 8:45 and 9:15.

Once I called the lead newspaper's circulation department and tried to explain why late delivery might not be a winning strategy for the company.

"Our town is a commuter town,"  I said.  "Many people take their newspapers to read on the train.  They leave early, and the parking lot at the train station fills up by 7:15 every morning.  If their papers haven't arrived by the time they leave the house, these people are going to cancel their subscriptions."

The circulation employee seemed to listen very carefully.  She promised to contact the distributor and also to forward my message of concern to a supervisor.

At least Mr. X got the message.  The next day, at the usual hour, our papers arrived on the lawn just after the sprinklers had finished running.

Then there were the weekends, when the newspapers' ostensible delivery times were later, 8:30 a.m.

Here too, Mr. X marched to his own drummer.  We speculated that he had a full social life including late engagements on weekend evenings.  Our papers would arrive sometime between 9 and 10:30 a.m.  Once the Sunday paper came just before 11.

I know I sound like a grouch.  I grew up reading newspapers and then working on newspapers and I got pretty used to perusing at least one of them with my morning coffee.  I still prefer reading an actual newspaper to getting one online, but Mr. X was teaching me that I have to get over it.


Not There

Then there were the many papers that never arrived.  Given the casual adherence to arrival times,  I got into the habit of waiting until 11 a.m. or so to report nondeliveries.

Every time I called, I would be reassured that a fresh copy would be sent to our house pronto.

There was never a redelivery -- pronto or slow-o.

One time I called to say, you know, that paper you promised to send yesterday never arrived.  We got credit for the day's papers.

The next day, Mr. X delivered our papers on his usual schedule.  About 8:30, we noticed them sitting on the grass out front.

Slowly we learned that this was the new normal.  Late papers, occasional delivery, lots of back and forth about non-delivery.  I started swinging by the grocery store in the afternoon to pick up papers on days when none had been delivered.

At one point, I asked a circulation clerk if I could call the distribution manager for our area and discuss my concerns about Mr. X's delivery issues.

"Oh, no.   We only communicate with them by email," the agent said.

"Fine.  I'd be happy to send an email."

"Oh, no. We can't share that," said the agent.

"Why not? It's just an email address."

"We're not allowed."

"This has been going on a long time.  Could you at least explain this to the distributor in an email?"

"Sure."

The next morning, late,  Mr. X flung our papers on the wet lawn.


Holiday Season 

Then came mid-December, when newspaper delivery people thoughtfully send greetings in self-addressed envelopes to make it easy for subscribers to send monetary gratuities to the deliverers' homes.

Mr. X was scrupulous about this nicety.

One day in December, no papers arrived.   The next day the papers landed -- on the driveway -- at the usual midmorning hour. Tucked into one was a holiday greeting card in a self-addressed envelope.

A few days later, the second paper contained a self-addressed holiday card.  On the day after that, no papers were delivered.

I am not making this up.

Traditionally, we have sent small gifts of money to the people who deliver the newspapers.  Their job cannot be high-paying, even at the prices newspapers now charge their luckless subscribers, and we appreciated the small luxury of a morning paper.

Last year, however, I was unsure how to proceed.

"How large a tip do you think we should send to Mr. X this year?" I asked the S.O.

"The only tip I'm giving that schmuck is to get a different job," he replied.


The End

Perhaps fortunately, the SO and I are spending much of this year in another state.  Instead of putting our newspaper subscriptions on hold, we decided to cancel them and decide whether to set up new accounts when we relocated.

The SO insisted on making the phone call to notify the circulation department that we were canceling.  I overheard his end of the conversation, which had a spirited tone and continued for a rather long time.  He seemed more at peace after he ended the call.

On the last day of our subscription, the papers arrived around 9 a.m.  We found them sitting on the wet lawn.


Addendum

Like most youthful residents of Portland, Ore., I read the children's books of Beverly Cleary.  She was esteemed in my neighborhood because many of her characters lived on Klickitat Street, two blocks from my home.

I remember particularly a story about Henry Huggins, a boy of 10 or 12, who delivered afternoon newspapers (there were such things at the time of the story) every day on his bicycle.

One time, when the weather was rainy, Henry stopped his bike and walked each paper up to each house's front porch because he did not want the papers to get wet.  He didn't like it, but he did it.  (Now of course all papers come out of the printing plant bagged in carbon-derived plastic bags.)

It turned out well for Henry.  For this, a grateful subscriber sent a letter to the editor praising his work.  The letter was published in the newspaper.

Granted, this story was fiction.  But it was not science fiction.

Sometime, not that many years ago, children on bikes delivered daily newspapers reliably and on time.

Today, higher-paid grownups with cars cannot be bothered to apply anything like the same diligence.
Mr. X is no Henry Huggins.









Friday, July 8, 2016

The Piano with Cartoons All Over It



If you ever read newspaper funny pages, you'll recognize many of the doodles on this grand piano.

The instrument belonged to Mell Lazarus, who created two syndicated comic strips -- Momma, about a woman and her grown children, and Miss Peach, named for a schoolteacher but concerned mainly with her class of wisecracking students.

Lazarus sold his first cartoon at age 16 and never looked back.  The Miss Peach series ran in hundreds of newspapers from 1957 until 2002.  Momma started in 1970 and ended after Lazarus' death in May.   He must have prepared his strips well ahead of time; what finally killed him, which is reflected slightly in the above, was Alzheimer's.  He was 89.

Cartoon artists are a small community who keep in touch.  Many visited Lazarus at his home in Southern California, and he invited them to leave their marks on his piano.  Their drawings and signatures, collected over years, turned the thing into an interesting tour of comic strip history.

Another cartoonist, Rick Detorie, whose One Big Happy comic strip has run since 1988, visited Lazarus three years ago and spent an afternoon taking video footage and talking with Lazarus about his piano.  Detorie released the result on YouTube this week.




Note

In the video, Lazarus mentions that he is loaning the piano to Ohio State University (referred to in Ohio as The Ohio State University.)  The school is home to the  Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Crime Story

Home Invasion

Here is a story from a woman I know.  It happened in her upper-middle-class town of white and Asian professional people and their families.

One morning a housewife in the town was at home with her two children, an infant and a toddler.  The baby was asleep upstairs and the toddler was playing in the living room while the mother sat across the room on the sofa, perhaps watching a television program.

Suddenly, a large black man charged through the back door of the home and surprised the woman.

The man beat up the mother, punching her several times in the kidney and leveling other serious blows.  The mother remained silent, apparently so as not to alarm her child.

Then, when the mother was lying injured on the floor, the man ran up the stairs to the home's second floor and presumably searched for valuables.  He did not touch the infant who was napping at the time.

Shortly later, the man came back down the stairs and beat the woman again, finally tossing her down the basement steps before leaving the home.

All of the above is known to be true because the family's nannycam (a camera typically deployed to monitor babysitters) filmed the entire event.

Police Investigation

When the mother was able to rouse herself, she called 911.  Two local officers were sent to investigate.

During their investigation, at least one of the officers made disparaging comments about predatory black men.  We know this because either the nannycam or a police recording device captured the comments.

 Footage from the nannycam video was released to news agencies, and the attacker was identified and charged in short order.

The attacker may have refused a plea offer or the prosecutor may have believed the case against the attacker was so strong that no plea offer was extended.  In any event, a jury trial was held.  The attacker had a criminal record, but not for the kind of activity described above.

At trial, the bad guy's defense attorney raised the issue of the police officer's racist comments.  It seems that these comments were the only attempt to gain sympathy from the jury, which mostly likely included Hispanic or African American members, given the county's racial makeup.

The evidence was hard to ignore, however, and the man was convicted.  During the sentencing hearing, the woman who had been attacked described her injuries -- internal damage and difficulty walking normally even two years later.

Her testimony must have been moving.  Her facts and the video and the attacker's history, taken together, led to a life sentence for the bad guy.

Again, all of this is documentable and true.

But my friend wonders.

Other Factors

My friend says that people in her town heard other things, possibly from public officials who had talked with police investigators.

The most interesting thing -- which my friend cannot prove -- is that the husband of the woman who was attacked had had a disagreement with another black man.  Apparently the husband contracted with the man for some kind of service and then did not pay the service provider.

The story from there is that the service provider was angry enough to recruit an acquaintance -- the large black man caught on video -- to exact revenge on the family by attacking the man's wife.

It is interesting that the nannycam video includes the man kissing his wife and toddler goodbye on the morning of the incident and that the home invasion followed very shortly afterward.  This suggests that the house had been watched by the attacker and that the attacker waited until he was certain that mother and children were alone.

It is also interesting that the attacker's main goal seemed to be to injure the woman.   It is unusual for criminals to break into houses for the purpose of beating up people they do not know.  Although he spent time upstairs as the woman lay injured, he was not reported to have stolen any valuables, and he did not hurt either of the family's children.

Additionally, before leaving, he attacked the woman again, picking her up and tossing her down the stairs when he could just as easily have run out of the house and made his escape (unaware, as he was, that his actions were caught on film.)  Robbery is bad, but I believe violent physical assault is typically regarded as a more serious crime.

It is also interesting that the family had its nannycam video operating in the morning while the mother was at home with her children.  Typically those machines are set to watch nannies or au pairs. Watching long hours of a babysitter interacting with kids must be a bit tedious.  One would expect a husband to trust his wife with the care of their children and not to feel required to monitor their movements while he was at work.

There have been reports of some home invasions in other parts of my friend's state, typically of South Asian families' homes where crooks seem to believe families keep large amounts of gold and/or money.  The family in the case my friend described seems to be Asian, but not Indian or Pakistani.

Finally and perhaps most interesting, there has never been a home invasion robbery in my friend's town, neither before nor since the event described above.  It's a one-off.

All this suggests that the thing was not random, as the case submitted to the jury seemed to imply.

If the bad guy had been recruited to commit the crime, he did not name his abettor.

If the husband's action indirectly provoked a violent retaliation, that was not revealed either.

What the attacker did was terrible, and he deserves to be in prison.

But there seems to be a strong possibility that two other men bear some responsibility.  If the suppositions are true and either one of them had acted more honorably, the home invasion would not have occurred.

Postscript

I tracked back and read news reports about trial reports on this case. These revealed some errors in my story.

First, the attacker had a previous conviction for home invasion.

Second, the man stole the woman's wedding rings, her husband's watch, a necklace, a cellphone and the baby monitor in her sleeping child's room.  The value of these items might be useful to a burglar, but they do not explain the violence of the incident.

I'm not sure whether these additional facts alter anything in my report above.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Movie Monday: The Legend of Tarzan



This is a pretty good movie.  It tells a coherent story, a fictional story, with a hyper-realistic look that also is fictional.

The set-up is this:  Tarzan (who was raised in Africa by apes and domesticated by a teacher's daughter named Jane) is now John Clayton III, lord of Greystoke, wearing a suit and living a conventional English life when he is called to No. 10 Downing Street and asked to return to Africa on a business project.  He is convinced to go only later when an African American doctor tells Clayton of reports that the King of Belgium's agents have been enslaving Africans in the Belgian Congo.

Jane, now Mrs. Tarzan, insists on joining the trip, and the couple meet up with old friends, including African tribesmen, apes and friendly lions.  Then a bad white guy, in concert with the angry chief of another tribe whose members seem to have rolled their bodies in gray chalk, kidnaps Jane in order to provoke Tarzan to rescue her and then be himself captured and delivered to his enemy. Meanwhile, there is investigation of African slavery.

In Africa, Tarzan reverts to his earlier self and (spoiler alert!) gives better than he gets.


Source Material 

Tarzan was created in 1912 by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, who apparently never visited Africa and featured the character in dozens of adventure novels.  Tarzan movies began appearing in the days before talkies and have been popular ever since.  There have been at least 50 Tarzan movies.

The most recent iteration was conceived many years ago, and there were numerous starts and stops along the way with different scripts, directors and potential actors. (Swimmer Michael Phelps was reported at one point to be in the running for the title role.)

The film's scriptwriters did their homework.  The timing coincides with King Leopold II's brutal and murderous suppression of Africans in the Belgian Congo.  The doctor who accompanies Tarzan has much in common with a true and improbable 19th century man; played by a well-armed Samuel L. Jackson, he also bears a resemblance to the character Jackson played in "Pulp Fiction."  There is mysterious scenery and a riverboat (going to the ocean, though, not inland) that recalls Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."  Tarzan has a distinctive yell, as did the iconic Tarzan played by Johnny Weissmuller in the 1940s.

The film, like Disney's "The Jungle Book" this spring, was filmed almost entirely on studio sets and augmented with lush African footage shot by a camera team detailed to Gabon.  The CGI action and effects are excellent.

The entire project is reported to have cost $180 million, but it opened to so-so reviews.  Unlike most action movies, however, it has a plot that generally holds together.  I wouldn't be surprised if word of mouth caused attendance to tick up over the summer.


Reservations

1.  This may sound odd, but the "The Legend of Tarzan) may be too perfect.   Here is a Warner Bros. promotional still of the title character, who is played by Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd.


Either the actor did a LOT of body work to prep for the part, or his image has been enhanced more than the photos in fashion magazines.  He makes Weismuller (who won five Olympic gold medals for swimming) look like a punk.
         In addition, Tarzan swings on vines with the ease of Spider-Man.  He jumps off cliffs and lands, uninjured, on his feet.  He is so beloved by the animals that he can dial up a wildebeest stampede and a batch of crocodilians to menace his enemies. 
        Tarzan is now a superhero, and Jane is impossibly beautiful.   Marvell Comics couldn't have dreamed up more sumptuous humans.
        How are mere mortals to relate to characters like these?

2.  The film goes to some lengths to portray Jane as strong and feisty ("I'm not a damsel!") and Tarzan's African friends as honorable equals, but the plot necessarily requires Tarzan, the white guy who never gets a suntan, to rescue everybody.  The days when this sort of thing will sell may be drawing to a close. 


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Eyes on Clothes

As I have mentioned, this year has seen some unusual variations in handbags, including stripes and mini bags.

There is a third trend that I think is even more odd: handbags with eyes on them.

Here is a illustration of the look, used to promote one manufacturer's products this year.  



The woman is attractive, nicely dressed and wearing big cool sunglasses.  And she is carrying a purse with eyes on the front flap.  

If this were a one-off, I guess I could get it.  But no.  But there are lots of eye-bags out there this year. 


Provenance

Where, oh where, I wondered, could such an idea have originated?

Then I remembered several years ago when the handbag "charms" thing was getting going.  The charms were the grown women's equivalent of the cute little stuffed animals that primary school students attached to the zippers of their school backpacks.  

The adult charms included the gold MK plates that came with Kors bags and, at extra cost, with other houses' premium attachments: little horses, miniature fruit pieces, leather tassels and plasticine jewels, among others.  It was a look that could be and often was overdone. Its popularity probably has crested by now.  

But I digress.  The point is that the house of Fendi's 2014 bag charms included expensive little fur ones, mostly distinguished by eyes.  


I have never seen one of these on the street, but many fashionable people undoubtedly did.  My impression is that these are being marketed even today.


More Examples

So maybe Fendi started the eye-bag thing.  Whatever.  What is significant to me is that many companies are selling handbags that seem to be staring across the street.  Let me share a few.  

The bag below was priced at almost $1,500 and sold out. 






One designer doubled down on eyes.  The small bag below had a cross-shoulder strap, a leather tassel charm and great big eyes.  It cost almost $900.    (To be fair it was also available in basic black, but still it had the eyes.)

Below, from the same designer, is a similar look, this time in a larger bag that might hold a laptop computer and work papers.   It's whimsical and maybe fun, but I wonder what the reaction would be if a professional woman carried it into a client meeting.


And here is a backpack with eyes.  Interestingly, the same bag, also with eyes, was marketed in black shearling.


I can see how a handbag with eyes could work as an attention-getting thing.  Say you carried one into a bar or to a church social, and a man was interested in striking up a conversation.  His opening comment would be the obvious one -- "That's an unusual handbag you are carrying" -- and the discussion could proceed from there if you found each other agreeable.

On the other hand, if you were a relative of mine and visited one of my siblings with such a purse, the first thing you would hear would be, "What the hell is that?"  The mirth would continue through dinner and be mentioned again and again for years to come.


Too Far

This year, an Italian designer came up with bag featuring not just eyes but a full face and fringe hair.
The design house even showed how the bag would look with a coordinating outfit.


 Remarkably, this was being marketed in Paris, of all places.


Shoes

One New York house, known for beautiful dresses, has had some success with several variations of shoes with faces on them:

Sneakers


Flats


And pumps


The whole-face look may be fraught, however.  One fashion website rattled with discussions when a reader asked,  "Why are there only white faces on the shoes?"  

(I did not follow the discussion.  Unlike all those men who used say they read Playboy magazine for the articles, I am happy to admit that I look at fashion reports for the pictures.) 

Finally, from California, here are eye-laden sneakers from a youth fashion house.  Its products this year are mostly thick-soled sneakers in various colors and designs. For this firm, an eye-oriented design makes perfect sense.  The good thing, for buyers, is that these shoes only cost about $100.  If you wear them out or, more likely, the eye thing ends in a season or so, you will not feel required to hold for the shoes for years in the hope that there will be a retro-eye revival.  



Imitations from Asia

Like so many fashions, the eye-look has been copied by Asian knock-off houses.  

Here is a bag that looks like the famous Hermes Birkin, but with eyes and a price that is considerably -- and suspiciously -- lower.  I'm thinking Hermes won't be putting big eyes on its bags anytime soon.





And here is a less polished effort.  My guess is the manufacturer reasoned that if two eyes is good, six eyes is better.  Most unfortunate.


The Asians also seem to have taken the eye thing further, into clothes. 




And here is an Asian shoe variation -- flats with eyes that are winking.


Note

You will have observed that I view this eye thing with skepticism.  You may disagree.  

But if you like the look and want to give it a road test, why not start slowly?  Buy a cloth patch like the one below and paste it onto a purse or a jacket or another accessory.  

Live with it for a while.  Then you'll know whether to splurge on an autumn bag with eyes on it.