Thursday, January 28, 2010

R.I.P., J.D.

Another reclusive genius passes.....


Jerome David Salinger (January 1, 1919 - January 27, 2010)



There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. ... It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure. ... I don't necessarily intend to publish posthumously, but I do like to write for myself. ... I pay for this kind of attitude. I'm known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I'm doing is trying to protect myself and my work.

Statements to New York Times reporter Lacey Fosburgh, as quoted in Salinger : A Biography (2000) by Paul Alexander; also in If You Really Want to Hear About It : Writers on J.D. Salinger and His Work (2006) by Catherine Crawford

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Special Program for Haitians in the U.S.

Edited version of a letter my wife (who works for a local immigration attorney) sent out to our fellow volunteers at church. Perhaps the information will also be of use to you.



The U.S. Govt. has designated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitian nationals who were already in the U.S. on January 12, 2010. This means thousands upon thousands of Haitian people who have illegal (or no) status in the U.S. can now get a work permit if they are eligible for the TPS program. Lord-willing, they can then find a job in this already difficult, low-employment economy, and then be better able to send money to their family members who may be stuck in devastated Haiti. The deadline to register in this program is July 20, 2010.

If you know any Haitian people who are either illegal or have been trying to get legal but with no success, please mention TPS to them. Even if it is a person who has a Deportation/Removal Order in their Immigration record, they may still apply for TPS. (TPS protects people with a deportation order from being picked up by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) and imprisoned or deported back to Haiti from the U.S. However, TPS is not the same as Permanent Resident Status. People who have one felony or two or more misdemeanors are not eligible to apply for TPS, but should still consult with a legal professional just to make sure.)

I work as a paralegal for an attorney who specializes in immigration matters. Her name is Rita Altman and her office is at 215 S. Olive Ave. Ste. 200 -- right across the street from Paris Bakery downtown. Phone number: (561) 655-5090. Ms. Altman has been practicing as an immigration attorney for 20 yrs., and her firm has been working with thousands of Haitian clients ever since; I have worked for her 6 and a half yrs. We are now attempting to contact all our previous Haitian clients whose immigration cases were denied or who had no immigration relief available to them prior to the earthquake, to let them know about TPS. In the process, we are also asking everyone how their family members in Haiti are doing and requesting that the Immigration Service (USCIS) expedite existing family-based visa cases to get family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents out of Haiti and into the U.S. (So far, to the best of our knowledge, the U.S. State Dept. is focusing on returning U.S. citizens who are in Haiti back to the U.S. and on expediting the process to get spouses, children (under 21 yrs. old) and parents of U.S. citizens out of Haiti and into the U.S. Adoption cases that were already in process before the quake occurred are also being expedited.)

People who are interested in applying for TPS can apply on their own, but if they need assistance, they may contact a private attorney such as the one I work for, or free legal service organizations such as Catholic Charities, Legal Aid or Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC). The important thing is to contact a reputable, knowledgable person or organization and to be careful of individuals and businesses who commit immigration fraud. There is info. available in Creole and French at www.uscis.gov.

Thank you for reading this and for your prayers for our Haitian friends and neighbors. I hope that in addition to praying/making donations, you all may be able to use the above info. as another tool to reach out to those affected by this tragic disaster.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Avatar

Yesterday afternoon we finally gained admission to the attraction known as AVATAR. I had tried for a few weekends, even attempting to get tickets online a few days early. Yeah, I know it's called a "movie" but that is only nominally accuarate. It's what people like to call an "event". Our showing was presented in IMAX and 3-D. Neither makes a movie an event anymore, but director James "King of the World" Cameron has fashioned something far beyond a mere blockbuster, again. He's created another cultural phenomenon.

If you are connected to any sort of media, you'll nod your head. AVATAR is a pop culture explosion that perhaps surpasses the likes of American Idol and Glee or Fox News (yes, that and other cable news networks qualify more as pop than news, in my view). This movie is destined to (and already has) breed a scarily enthusiastic fandom, a subculture of geekery. There will be conventions devoted to this film, just you wait. We've seen it before. It almost doesn't matter if the film is any good. It has been roundly embraced, seen by moviegoers over and over to ensure box office clout. Cameron's TITANIC became the biggest film of all time for the same reasons. I won't preach about how many films that are that popular reflect the unambitious tastes of the masses, but....

Let me state that I thoroughly enjoyed AVATAR. For well over 2 and one-half hours, I entirely bought into its stunningly realized world. I did not think about my watch, not even once. I grinned and wowed and felt like a child. Like Roger Ebert, I felt much like I did when I first saw the original STAR WARS. Witnessing something new, unique, unprecedented.

The rich canvas that Cameron's battalion of artists has created is awe-inspiring. Even if no sort of plot existed, if we were led to just wander through the forest of Pandora and gasp at its luminescent beauty for 3 hours, I would've been satisfied. That, I believe, is the key to maximum satisfaction with this movie. It is a grand-scale carnival ride, like something at Disney World or Universal Studios. In wholly convincing three dimensions (far, far better than what I've previously experienced), we soar over woodlands atop magnificant creatures that ressemble mutated dragons (one very fearsome and painted like Dark Sith from STAR WARS: EPISODE ONE) and nimbly work our away across twisty branches that illuminate with each footstep. There are so many carefully rendered details that you could make a lifetime hobby out of examining and marvelling at AVATAR's beauty. It's that dense. It's an event that may well silence all of those folks who claim that they can re-create a true filmgoing experience with their Blu-rays and gigantic flatscreens at home.

AVATAR is remarkable also in that despite its almost 100% CGI land- (and floating mountain)scape, you really feel as if you're there. My primary beef with CGI flicks like the SPIDERMAN and the MATRIX series is that I usually feel removed from the action. Watching Spidey leap from building to building merely appeared like gawking at a video game. Seeing Neo fight 100 Agent Smiths had the same problem. If I feel, even for a second, that these supposed flesh and blood characters are merely digital bits, I stop caring. The good vs. evil or whatever drama the filmmakers are selling goes right out the window. Yes, I know that Neo was, at times, merely a digital being in the MATRIX films, but nonetheless. I also cite a scene in the most recent SUPERMAN, as the hero ascends into outer space. He was positively PlayStation at a crucial moment.

That does not happen in AVATAR. Each creature, human or otherwise, occupies space and moves naturally. The Na'vis, a blue-skinned race of humanoids with sharply distinguished facial features and height, never seem like just an animator's fancy; they are real. So is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine who signs up to work himself into the Na'vi culture in order to, well, here's where the plot starts to get clunky and predictable.

The planet of Pandora is rich in a substance that an evil (of course) corporation from Earth wants/needs, desparately. In order to efficiently mine the planet of this precious metal, those pesky Na'vis need to skeedaddle, vacate their lush forest so the big machines can strip away the trees and plunder the soil beneath. The U.S. Military is commissioned by the corporation to get the job done. It is led by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), an intense, crusty old Colonel who spouts cliche after cliche, none more than during the final attack upon the forest when he growls things such as "I want this mission high and tight, I wanna be home for dinner." He will prove to be a really hissable, one-dimensional SOB before the film is done.

Jake assimilates into the culture by inhabiting a Na'vi-type body, an "avatar" designed by a team of scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). His original intention is to get to know, gain the trust of, and eventually convince the Nav'is to move out of their valuable domecile so the metal can be extracted. In exchange, the Military promises Jake a surgical procedure that will correct his handicaponce he's back home. Of course, Jake grows very fond of his new friends, and is especially excited that as a Na'vi, he has workable legs. Adding to the complication is Neytiri, a female Na'vi specimen who is saddled with training the human in her culture and language (Cameron actually had a linguist develop it). Love will blossom. In the end, Jake has to decide if he will remain with the Na'vis and warn them of the coming destruction of their land, or continue to be a good soldier/corporate man and follow the original directive.

Does the plot reek of a thousand others? Yep. Even Cameron himself states that it bears more than a passing ressemblance to the 1992 animated feature, FERNGULLY. The conflict here is your basic corporate vs. environmentalist struggle, an eco-message with added parallels to some of the more imperialistic tendenacies of certain governments and armed foces of late. The metaphors for recent wars are about as nuanced as a shovel to the forehead. The good guys are impassioned do-gooders with a conscience; the bad-guys are heartless machines. It's that black and white. The third act of this film is especially weighed down by the heavy-handedness of the screenplay.

However, Cameron also incorporates into the screenplay a co-existence of science and faith that is epoused by the Na'vis. This element was far more intriguing to me than the big, overblown (but undeniably exciting) showdown at the end. We get a brief and fascinating explanation about a rather important and impossibly large tree in the center of the Pandoran forest, and how its preservation can lead to further knowledge and technological advancement. A spiritual element also figures in, a deity that will inform those who believe in the great unseen. One element does not negate the other.

As we see throughout the story, strands of what appear to be fiber-optic cables dangle from the majestic tree's branches with brilliant hues. Dr. Augustine will explain what her hypotheses suggest about that tree, but then we're back to the central dilemma. Commerce trumps knowledge (and science is only there to facilitate commerce), so that tree is destined to be a pile of timber once the bombers are done with it. Only Jake, who has since renounced his race, and his Na'vi brethren with their crude bows and arrows are there to try and stop this from happening.

My summary probably brings to mind many of films past. The STAR WARS series (especially RETURN OF THE JEDI), the MATRIX films, and even THE NEW WORLD. There is very little originality in this story. One can wish that the script was developed with as much care as the effects, but after awhile it wasn't much of an issue for me. I judge films by what I consider the creators' intentions. If I felt AVATAR was really trying to be an important, thoughtful treatise on warfare, race relations, the environment, faith, and technology, I would certainly be a detractor, despite all the visual and aural wonder. The hack job I could do on this script.....the simplemindedness of it could be staggering. What of the implications of this primitive tribe needing some Caucasian to save it? What of the Na'vis abrupt, immediate forgiveness of Jake simply because he has tamed a fearsome winged creature? On and on. I remember cringing at Cameron's TRUE LIES, how the humiliation of a lead female character is played for grand comic effect, yet still enjoyed the wild ride that the film was. TITANIC's script also doesn't really hold up to much scrutiny (particularly the characterizations), but I was impressed just the same.

Cameron is a CGI-era P.T. Barnum, though, and it should've been clear way back where his interests lie. When he created THE ABYSS in 1988, we were treated to cutting edge computer tech. Then with TERMINATOR 2, we gasped at the "liquid metal." With each film, Cameron pushed the boundaries of what computers could realize, how he could fool the audience again. You might say he is the greatest technician in the business, but then you might also rightly say the same of George Lucas (especially lately). Maybe Cameron should find a co-conspirator to work on the screenplays, someone like a Harold Pinter who could really give us dramatic meat and in-depth characters. They'd truly be "kings of the world," at least the cinematic one. Or maybe blockbusters like AVATAR should just be that, while quieter, much smaller pics remain the thoughtful pieces they are.

All of that stated, AVATAR is still most certainly worth experiencing. At least see it in 3-D. It is astonishing and wondrous; just try to keep your inner critic muzzled until the credits roll.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Confederacy of Dunces

Words cannot adequately express how much I love A Confederacy of Dunces . I first learned of it about 20 years ago while an undergrad. A friend I had met in a creative writing course (appropriately enough) detected my appreciation for the wry and recommended it. He would try to describe portions but would always take awhile, as he couldn't stop laughing. In later years I would have the book recommended to me again and again by other wiseacres. I eventually joined the cult.

I've avoided composing an appreciation/review for some time because it's difficult to explain how wonderful I believe it truly is. It's one of those books that not only does not allow you to put it down, but also creates a welling excitement as you read. Excitement that you are watching a plot gel with inventive mischief. A mad narrative that gets better and better as it develops. Full bloom creativity, with each section topping the previous for sheer comic genius. You feel the electricity of an artist in full command of his medium. Confident writing that manages to be side-splittingly funny and heady all at once. This is a perfect example of a head-on collision of the high- and lowbrow. I wonder if the writing of it wasn't as much fun?

Authored by the late John Kennedy Toole in the early 1960s, A Confederacy of Dunces, is a rare bird that manages to be a literary classic that could be, I think, enjoyed by many who find many "classics" a chore. Not since The Catcher in the Rye (another sarcastic classic) has something so revered been so enjoyable to read. The book falls into a category of lit that some will deem insane brilliance, while others will find trivial and silly. What is undeniable is how inspired in its lunacy it is. Dunces is a big, caustic, broad, erudite, gross, eminently quotable and altogether spectacular farce detailing the daily exploits of a guy called Ignatius T. Reilly, a portly (and ever expanding) 30 year-old cretin who lumbers around New Orleans filled with loathing, considerable condescension, verbose insults, and ferocious gas.

Ignatius is an oaf, but he is likely the most educated and articulate oaf in the history of print fiction. He did have 10 years of higher education, after all. His put-downs of his mother (with whom he lives), her friends, the police, and every single other character are great "erucatations" not only of a closed pyloric valve, but also of undeniable wit and a startling command of the English language.

After each of his absurd adventures, Ignatius rushes home to fill his writing pad with epic entries of his musings on the ills of society, the lack of perspective of his contemporaries, and his plans for shaping the opinions of others to mirror his own. His verbal attempts of the latter don't fare so well, as he is met with scratched heads and/or illiterate retorts. It is such a cross to bear, being the only Enlightened One among droves of mediocrity.

Ignatius is especially disgusted with his being born in the 20th century, a time period he finds quite offensive. He in turn clutches the philosophy of Boethius, a 6th century Roman best known for Consulation of Philosophy (the structure of which Confederacy mimics), a pre-Thomas Aquinas tome of Middle Ages classicism.

As Ignatius recommends to another character.....
"....you must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age,....Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books."


Despite his disdain for modern conveniences and pop culture, he indulges in them quite liberally. These vulgarities have their place, things for him to mock with rich superiority. Frequenting the local cinema for the latest Hollywood aberration, as an example, it may be said that the very things Ignatius spits upon serve to give him purpose.
Social Note: I have sought escape in the Prytania on more than one occasion, pulled by the attractions of some technicolored horrors, filmed abortions that were offenses against any criteria of taste and decency, reels and reels of perversion and blasphemy that stunned my disbelieving eyes, the shocked my virginal mind, and sealed my valve
His windmill tilting (and cutlass wielding) would be in vain if not for the burgeois and frequently gaudy world around him. Adversaries abound, from corporate heads to hot dog cart entreprenueurs.

His world is the year-round carnival known as New Orleans. If you've ever meandered around the French Quarter, Chartres Street and therabouts, you know the scene. Every imaginable character parades by, day or night. A real cultural stew, to boot. Illicit activity is not hard to find. Even in the early 60s. Like his protagonist, Toole grew up in and attended school in this mysterious city. He creates a vivid evocation of local color, so lush and ripe, and this sentiment is echoed by many longtime NO residents, past and present. Ignatius' character has even been immortalized with a statue in the Quarter. I visited the city only once, in the late 90s, but its imagery stayed with me, even as seen through gin soaked memories. I seemed to note a strong prescence of the black arts while there, and curiously this is one area Toole does not explore very thoroughly in his novel.

Ignatius is no reveller, not prone to participate in the debauchery about him, but rather he sees himself as a crusader. When the patently unemployable man is forced to seek employment after his mother causes some damage with her vehicle, he seizes the opportunities not to be an efficent company player, but rather an instrument of activism. At Levy Pants, he attempts to rally the minority factory workers to revolt, with hilarious complications and results. For all of Ignatius' haughty airs, he still seems to give a whit about the oppressed, including a black vagrant named Jones who is exploited at the Night of Joy bar by its owner, a steely woman named Lana. How Ignatius eventually engineers social change for every single character (mostly by accident) in the grand finale is ingenious.

There are many characters in Confederacy,, all well drawn and hysterical. There's Sgt. Mancuso, a beat cop reduced to wearing a series of humiliating disguises by his chief until the former actually makes an arrest. There's also Damian, an outrageous local frimping queen who Ignatius enlists to throw a party in the name of political uprising (though the guests would rather just dance and be merry and um, gay).

Toole also includes trio of rowdy lesbians, a very confused co-worker of Ignatius' named Miss Trixie, a waitress who is trying to get Lana to allow her to do her bizarre stage act with a cockatoo, Gus Levy, the harried CEO of Levy Pants, and Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius' former college chum (and sort of girlfriend) who engages in a series of one-uppsmanship written correspondences with him throughout the novel. Myrna is a prototypical beatnik constantly organizing meetings and rallies against the Establishment. She believes, much to the dismay of our protagonist, that sex is the cure for many ills, too. This quite interestingly prefaces the real-life 70s tomes of Erica Jong and others of her mindset. There has been some criticism of the way Toole portrays Myrna, the one female character who seems empowered with social awareness. Critics state that much like the other women in this tale, she is drawn as a buffoon. I disagree; her character sketch allows room for as much self-importance as is afforded everyone else. Check the book's title if you have questions.

Toole also quite adeptly writes in misspelled dialect for certain characters, much like Twain did. Latter day readers might find this wildly un-PC novel filled with offensive caricatures, but its quite evident what Toole is up to. A consideration of the time period: the end of segregation, the rise of Civil Rights, growing political unrest, explains the point-of-view, a savage response to status quo America. Yet, before anything gets too sanctimonious, Ignatius, our certifiably unlikeable, boorish "hero" is viewed as the obnoxious ass that he is, despite his piety. Perhaps Toole is turning the firehose on himself, as well. Perhaps the best example of what Toole is lampooning comes in the form of Dr. Talc, Ignatius' and Myrna's former college professor, seen as a pretentious fraud.

This novel is a great treasure trove of comic gold, but as Southern author extraordinaire Walker Pearcy says in his forward for Dunces, a tragic pall hangs over it. When we reach the final scenes, the manic comedy continues but a sense of bittersweetness adds a most unexpected poignancy as well. Knowing that the author committed suicide at the age of 32 also infuses the reading of A Confederacy of Dunces with an unavoidable twinge of sadness. Every page is stained with tragedy, despite the highly comedic scenarios. The authord never saw his work become published. Knowing that NO would be wrecked by Hurricane Katrina over 40 years later also adds a quaintness to the proceedings. And another, perhaps unexplainable layer of sadness.

Toole's mother had later found the smeared manuscript for Dunces in a drawer and spent the 1970s trying to get it read and published. Pearcy finally relented to the mother's requests for a reading and in 1980, this insane masterpiece was finally unleashed. A year later, it would win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Another novel, The Neon Bible, penned when Toole was 16, remains unread by me but not for too much longer. I can only imagine what other amusing works we could have seen had Toole stuck around.

Subsequently, several filmmakers (from Harold Ramis to Stephen Soderbergh)have attempted to bring A Confederacy of Dunces to the big screen. None have succeeded thus far (there was a live stage reading with Will Ferrell as Ignatius a few years back). There are theories that the project is cursed. Maybe so, as I feel this book almost adapts itself. It's so vivid in its charcterizations and scenarios, a more cinematic book I don't recall ever reading.....

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Another Call

The Immigration Act of 1990 included a provision in which Congress can facilitate the Attorney General to provide Temporary Protection Status (TPS) to U.S. immigrants (documented or otherwise) who are "temporarily unable to safely return to their home country because of ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions." In 2003, this power was handed over to the Secretary of Homeland Security.

This is a call to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to approve this status.



Protected status sought for Haitians - Washington Times

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Your Audiology Tutorial: Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR)

Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR) tests evaluate the function of the auditory nerve and the integrity of auditory pathways in the lower brainstem. Also known as brainstem auditory evoked responses (BAERs) and brainstem auditory evoked potentials (BAEPs), these special tests examine electrical responses of short latency manifest as waveforms produced by an auditory stimulus of one frequency (toneburst) or the complete spectrum (click). The transducer (vehicle through which the sounds are transmitted) is usually a moldable foam insert that is placed in the external ear canal. For some set-ups, that insert is covered in gold and acts not only as a transducer but also as a recording electrode. On a computer monitor, these waves are graphed as a function of time (milliseconds) and amplitude (microvolts).

The waveforms are evoked following a series of sweeps (collections/averages of electrical responses), and are comprised of the differences in electrical potentials among electrodes placed on various landmarks on the forehead, scalp, and outer ear. The electode montage: as with any battery, a ground is utilized (electrode usually on scalp or above bridge of nose, but may be placed anywhere on the body) along with the recording electrodes placed on the "vertex" (high forehead or scalp) and the earlobes or mastoid bone (protrusion behind the auricle [outer cartilaginous portion of ear]). The waveforms are analyzed for their morphology and repeatability. Clinicians examine the amplitude of the waves, how long certain waves take to peak,the latency difference between wave peaks, and the differences of such between ears.

ABRs are mostly used clinically for a)neurological or b)audiological purposes. Neurologically, the evoked potentials test investigates the possible presence of tumors (acoustic neuromas, among other names) along the auditory pathway. If such a space occupying lesion is present, ABR waves will likely peak later than at what is considered a normal latency, not appear with definition, or not be recognizable at all. Acoustic neuromas usually appear in one ear (unilaterally) and if present, will cause degradation of that ear's waveforms as described above. The ABR is very sensitive (positive) for the detection of tumors, second only to the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). ABR waves may also be affected by the severity of the patient's hearing loss, usually in the higher frequency range (above 2000 Hz).

For patients who are unable to participate in behavioral audiometry ("raise your hand when you hear the beep"), the ABR can also be used to predict hearing thresholds (quitest level at which a patient responds 50% of the time). A certain wave (V, generated in the lower midbrain) is measured at various decibel levels for its presence. Wave V will drop out when the level is too quiet; the tester will then increase the toneburst stimulus until the wave begins to re-appear. Threshold ABRs are commonly done on children. As this test requires the patient to be as calm as possible, you might imagine the challenge this can present at times. When medical staff are present, sedation may be administered for the patient if necessary.

ABR testing is also administered via portable devices for newborn hearing screenings (age-specific norms to be used). High risk newborns with hyperbilirubinemia or other pathologies benefit greatly from ABR screens, as the potential for hearing loss is high. The evoked potential tests are also used in the operating room during what is known as intraoperative monitoring (IOM). The ABR monitors the hearing nerve during invasive procedures where blood flow may be compromised to the inner ear. Cochlear function is also monitored via ABR/BAER for hearing preservation during resection and decompression surgeries. We will go more in depth with IOM at a later date.

As you may have guessed, ABR testing, while objective, still involves a fair bit of subjectivity. Marking and identifying waves can yield different results among interpreters, though the amount of variance should be minimal. The presence of waveforms is often subtle, so running multiple trials is essential. Being aware of electrical artifact, which can "muddy up" the waveforms, is also very important; what looks like a peak may just be "noise." Crossed wires and other electronics in the room can contribute to this artifact.

In all, the electrophysiological ABR test is a highly effective method primarily for detecting retrocochlear (beyond the inner ear) dysfunction. It is commonly performed by audiologists and EEG and IOM techs in a variety of clinical settings. It is especially useful in combination with an MRI, but can be used in lieu of it when conditions preclude (such as in the presence of implantable devices).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lenny

After several years of laughing along with the masses, I slowly began to wonder what was so funny. I was among those who loved to trek out to the local comedy clubs and giggle along with the latest new talent. You down your 2 drink minimum, settle in, and then laugh till you have angina. The more I thought about it, the more depressing it became. People forked over not inconsiderable anounts of money to watch someone prance on a stage and tell jokes. Non-stop. One often crass story after another. The audience is expected to keep pace with laughter. No time to ponder or savor, it's on to the next smutty anecdote. Barely time to breathe. You must laugh, whether your funny bone is tickled or otherwise. If you don't, something must be wrong with you. Even worse, you'll be singled out and ridiculed for being a stick in the mud.

Sometimes, comedians die on stage. Their act will bomb profoundly: the deadly silence, the half-hearted laughs, the hecklers. This is not limited to novices; even veteran comics experience this. Cringeworthy, even if you're watching from the safety of your living room. Even more cringeworthy (and intriguing)-I suspect many of these individuals enjoy this masochism. They crave failure as much as they do accolade, perhaps even more. Like the gambler who loses big-depressed but compelled and energized. What happens with success? Disappointment. Watch the finale of Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT sometime. It very effectively conveys this type of soul, how after winning big, the gambler's face is riddled with visible despair. I'll bet many comedians, when their audience is doubled over in appreciative laughter, are similiarly deflated. A major sickness. Had someone had a heart-to-heart with someone like Rodney Dangerfield, I would wager his off the record analyses of himself would reveal my hypothesis. Maybe he is not a great example? What lurks under the goofy fascades of Carrot Top or any of the current crop of funnymen and women?

Lenny Bruce was a different animal. He was very open about his fatalism. He built an entire act upon it. The evidence was right there: he read his own criticisms during his shows. He wasn't even trying to make people laugh anymore. "All my humor is based on destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I'd be standing in the breadline -- right in back of J. Edgar Hoover," he once said. This would come towards the end, but this destination was fairly obvious even from the beginning. Dustin Hoffman's brilliant take in director Bob Fosse's 1974 LENNY elucidates this very great pain. He additionally understands that Bruce was more of a provacateur than a funnyman. He was never suited to the post-vaudeville one-liner, tired mother-in-law jokes. If you watch some original footage of the man, you'll realize that his timing and delivery wasn't really that sharp or funny. Lenny Bruce was a social commentator in decades when such honesty was not appreciated, perhaps even grounds for arrest.

Lenny Bruce indeed scuffled with the law in the 1950s and 60s over the use of words so commonly heard just a few years later in mainstream cinema. He verbalized his leftist views with great vinegar, unapologetically. Calling him a "comedian" may be a stretch, but he was funny at times, if not in that gut-busting way in which we're supposed to laugh when the borscht-belters grab the microphone. Hoffman deftly recreates several historic performances, seen in memory through recollections by his stripper wife, Honey (Valerine Perrine), and agent in glorious B & W. Fosse takes a documentarian's approach, almost flawlessly presenting the restless Bruce through his early Catskills shows all the way to his death in 1966. Aside from one melodramatic, almost 50s-ish scene, LENNY is a focused bio.

Fosse, a tortured artist himself known for his Broadway extravaganzas (happy) and films (pitch black, see also CABARET, the semi-autobiographical ALL THAT JAZZ, and STAR 80), does an especially effective job of rendering the close of Bruce's life. Having gone to seed, unable to appear onstage without audiences filled with instigators and cops, Lenny resorts to merely reading copies of the Constitution and various free speech manifestoes. He wasn't there to make people laugh, but like some of his contemporaries and later kindred spirits, perhaps he was craving the rush of failure. It was out there, but if he was enjoying that, it was not discernable.

"I'm not a comedian anymore. I'm Lenny Bruce."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Jack Frost Will See You Now

My wife and I were recently speaking of how we recalled the winters of our younger days in West Palm Beach, FL. They seemed to be colder and longer than they had been in recent years. Then, New Year's Night 2010 began what has been a near non-stop wave of refreshingly arctic air. A lot of brilliantly cold days and nights. One for the history books.

There was talk of snow flurries. The temps were threatening to plunge into the upper20s/low 30s. This is seriously cold for South Florida. We've had such occurances here and there in years passed, but this time the presence of precipitation made one wonder if we could see some flakes, again. Yes, 33 years ago, South FL had snow.

I remember the morning so clearly. I ran from my front door to the school bus, which was filled with a gaggle of screaming kids. That wasn't unusual, but the reason for it was. I looked up and saw what seemed like hundreds of tiny flurries dropping from a steel grey sky. They landed on my jacket and melted. Most probably died quick deaths once on the ground. No matter. It was beyond exciting. It would be one of the first times that I would realize that I preferred the chill. When we got to school, the principal, a miniature, ancient lady, almost immediately sent us all home. That late January day in 1977 would go down in history, fodder for many conversations over the years.

Ever since, I've waited for the white to return. Most winters were disappointing, and none provided the flakes. Anyone who knows me well can attest that I complain quite loudly about the warm/balmy winter months. Maybe I should've never lived here. My parents decided to flee NYC when I was 4. After years of this warm latitude, I think I'm more suited to seasonal climate. Retirement will be in some such place. Anyway, this past Saturday was an archetypical winter day-overcast, wet, and cold. Unusually cold. We headed out to a reception that evening and the rain had cleared. On the way home, we started hearing that flurries and ice pellets had been seen in parts of western Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Criminy! Didn't see any here, and we're north of there! But, our temps were colder than Oregon that night, so all meterological bets seemed to be off, at least for the time being.

But what a great run we've had. Even if we get no more cold fronts this season, the cleansing swath of 2010 chill has been quite satisfying. And historic.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Darbster

Finding a genuinely vegan restaurant in West Palm Beach, heck, Palm Beach County is no easy task. Darbster, opened this past November, fills this void quite nicely. Its site: a very unassuming spot underneath a giant billboard on the northern side of the Palm Beach Canal. This location has been home to a variety of low rent proprieterships over the years: drive-up convenience store, sleazy bars, restaurants with live chickens scurrying about. It's a place one would easily breeze past along Dixie Highway.

Watch for the sign, and turn in. The owners of Darbster have entirely renovated the space, sprucing up the outdoor deck and bar. Half of the tables are covered by an overhang. Ah, but the food? Many are skeptical of vegan fare, with its faux chicken (chik'n) and cheese (cheez). The substitutes are comprised of soy protein, including the trademarked gardein. My "steak" tacos, ordered on our first visit, were filled with gardein and it, seriously, was hard to note differences with meat versions. Perhaps it was the insanely good (and raw) guacamole and salsa. Either way, a must!

We've been back 2 more times, ordering flax tomato sandwiches, "chicken" marsala, and hearts of palm cakes accompanied by a superb lemon pine nut sauce. A Villa Rolf Pinot Noir goes quite well with the latter. During our first visit, the guy a table over was so impressed with the palm dish that he insisted that he share some with us! Desserts are also quite good: the blueberry fruit cobbler and "chocolate" mousse (another raw dish, made of avacado, cocoa powder, and dates) are recommended.

The atmosphere at Darbster is decidedly relaxed, not beset with superior attitudes or pretention you might find at other such restaurants. The husband and wife owners are delightful, warm people. The wait staff are also quite friendly and efficient. All this, plus you can bring your dog if you wish. In fact, on Wednesdays, you get 25% your food bill if you bring your pooch!


www.darbster.com

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Rant '10

I haven't posted anything ressembling a bitch session in quite some time. In the grand scheme of the world's ills, this may seem minor, but perhaps it is indicative of larger problems?

We were visiting the downtown library last Saturday. As we ascended the four floors, I glanced at the banks of computer monitors. What sites were people surfing? Not PubMed or some news source. No; YouTube, Facebook, and scores of video games. I turned my head and was greeted by some rap star extending his middle finger. Others were watching dance routines. And so on. The crusty near-middle-ager in me was appalled. My tax dollars are going to fund peoples' entertainment? At a place where knowledge and learning is supposed to be fostered? It seems wrong. Additionally, I saw only a handful of people reading books. Reading at all. The library was packed. It seemed wrong.

You're probably thinking I'm a fuddy duddy. There is a part of me that feels that way, too. Thinking that it really isn't a big deal. Plus, at least many of these people are staying out of trouble. You can compose many an argument. But I'm getting alarmed at how lazy we've become. We seemed to want to fill every spare moment with amusement, even at a library. When I went to the library as a younger person, I researched, read. Of course, in my childhood the only computers at the libary were loaded with educational programs, some were games, but I don't recall any of them requiring my trajectory skills with a sawed-off.

I was also required, for every hour of television, to read for 2 hours. And I watched a lot of TV back then. I had accountability, in the form of 2 stern but caring parents. Many of the individuals I saw at the library last weekend may not have even that.

My more extreme side thinks that libraries should block the above websites. I wouldn't advocate blocking e-mail. Many workplaces do this, like it or not. I'm guilty of goofing off myself, but such measures are admitedly effective. Sometimes you have to throw down the gauntlet, establish some parameters. Engage peoples' interest in more than just pithy status updates and music videos. I chafe a bit when I observe four stories of blank-eyed souls just being amused.

Friday, January 1, 2010

FM


As a youngster, I used to clutch a miniature transistor radio as I nodded off for the night. I loved that thing. In my Spiderman bedsheet cave I would press the speaker to my ear, enjoying all the 1970s cheese. Cheesy music (and Muzak), over-the-top disc jockeys often breathlessly announcing what we had just heard, commercials for nightclubs I was far too young to set foot in. Ever heard the song "9-Volt Heart" by The Iguanas? That tells a similiar story.

Maybe you're too young to remember, for example, when disc jockeys would play entire album sides on FM radio. Maybe you're too young to even be familiar with the term "disc jockey." But there was a time, decades ago, when freewheeling guys and gals would not only spin the hits, but also all those other album tracks that would never be issued as singles, never be Top 40 hits. These people were called "personalities", and they certainly exploited their personas. Not the annoying voices you seem to hear of late, but truly talented types who were actually knowledgeable about the music they played, and more than happy to pepper their airtime with entertaining anecdotes. Some did indeed have that laughable "radio voice", but the best ones sounded conversational, like regular folks. This sort of laid-back free spirit is celebrated in 1978's all-but-forgotten film, FM.

The life of a DJ can be quite appealling: front row seats at concerts, the casual dress, the easy access to, er, "recreational" supplements. These cats were/are not always your typical 9-5ers. The downsides? When the ratings book publishes, your numbers are good or you're headed further up or down the dial, in or out of town. Today, rock 'n roll, next week, maybe country and western, buddy. Maybe you'll even be reduced to calling a sock hop. "Don't buy a house," a wise DJ once said.

These particular things haven't changed since the 70s, I'm told. Several years ago I toyed with the idea of going into radio, even securing a scholarship with the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. Besides wanting to be a novelist, film director, and film critic, I had this desire to be a DJ. I had always dreamt of programming sets of music, my voice floating over-the-air to my audience. I loved the idea of this disparate community of strangers out there, across the state perhaps, appreciating (hopefully) the program. I'd savor late nights at the station, perhaps free to play 1/2 hour long live Hot Tuna cuts. I had very romantic visions, probably misguided. But I stopped short of this dream career, convinced even in my most aimless of days that such a life was far too rootless for me. For characters like Mother (Eileen Brennan), the house matriarch-type and Prince (Cleavon Little), the smooth soul brother, there is no alternative. Let's not neglect Eric Swan (Martin Mull, in a wonderful performance), the station lothario who hides from his army of female fans, then complains if no one notices him in public.

Even though behemoths like Clear Channel have bought up and homogenized the radio business, rendering the type of station we see in FM obsolete, those laissez faire souls who now click a mouse instead of dropping a stylus to deliver the tunes still live in an odd limbo of a life. For that reason, this film still has some relevance. Even moreso, the fact that outfits like Clear Channel have bought up and quite adversely segmented the market proves this film quite prescient.

The plot: Q-SKY, a maverick Los Angeles rock station managed by guru/cool head Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon), has its idyllic existence theatened when the parent company decides that for all of the station's success and listener loyalty, not enough moolah is siphoning through. The solution? More ads, naturally! The big bad corporation even sends a rep from no less than the United States Army to pitch an irresistable idea: why not have a commercial every 15 minutes plugging Uncle Sam's plea to all those eligible young men in the station's core demographic? Then, perhaps, a whole block of commercials would follow in its wake! Less music, but who cares? Well, the DJs certainly do, and balk at the proposed business model. If the characters in this movie did indeed survive the excesses of the Me Decade, living to see the 80s and beyond, their worst fears would've been confirmed. How potentially interesting it would be to see a remake of this film, which, back in '78 was billed as a "now story with now music!".

But in this fictional late 70s L.A., the mutiny begins to form. Corporate decides to relieve Dugan of his leadership. He just wants to play music. "I'll give you a station, not a bank" he offers. Yes, I used the word "fictional." Now, I'm sure there are folks like Dugan and crew who got into radio for the love of the music (check out radioparadise.com for proof). But, those ad spots, annoying as they are, do pay the bills. I clench my fists as I say this, but it's true. The only "pure" local radio hails from the college campuses and the non-profits, those not dependent on advertising revenue. The trade-off is that you have to tolerate amateurish announcers and insufferable pledge drives. Can there be an agreeable compromise between profit and art?

After Dugan's exit, the motley assemblege of Q-SKY staff barricades themselves in the station while their listeners gather outside (on a very artifical looking set, meant to be an L.A. street) and push over police vans. Full scale riot. This is the sort of consolidation you want when facing an enemy. Perhaps many of these Angelenos wouldn't normally take 3 steps to voice their concerns over, say, the SALT treaty or apartheid, but damned if you threaten to take their music away....Would you want an angry mob of Parrotheads on your hands?

That last bit also alludes to some of the criticisms leveled at FM. The music Q-SKY plays is anything but rebellious. Billy Joel. Boston. Steve Miller Band. The Doobie Brothers. These are all major label acts who presumably travel first class, perhaps even likely to enjoy the perks afforded by Beefeater and Virgin Atlantic and such. I can sympathize with the gripes of critics. The movie might've been more effective if Q-SKY were a fledgling outfit that played the Dead Kennedys and Crack the Sky. But then the whole plotline would've made no sense. There are lots of music fans out there, ready to spend wads of cash, and most of them enjoy comparatively safe tuneage. And what's wrong with a little REO Speedwagon and Linda Ronstadt, eh? Would the proprieters of your favorite Mexican joint want to advertise on a punk rock station? Better yet, would the Jag dealership want to? If you're employed at a radio station with a sales department, there will be compromise; its very survival depends upon it. You see where I'm going, for better or worse.

FM was directed by famed cinematographer John A. Alonzo (CHINATOWN is among his wildly diverse credits). This would be his only venture into theatrical films as director. Easy to see why. His direction is competent but uninspired. Nothing at all cinematic here. The concert sequences (Jimmy Buffet, Ronstadt) are good but clumsily edited and sequenced within the story. The script is about sitcom level, maybe a notch or 2 above. The characters are not especially well drawn, but the actors (especially Mull) flesh them out fairly well. The timing of FM's release was also unfortunate, as it competed with ANIMAL HOUSE and GREASE. It came and went quickly. Around the same time, a TV show called WKRP in Cincinnati, quite similiar to this film, became a hit. It was more insightful about the biz, IMO.

The soundtrack to FM, you might guess, has endured far longer. This collection has all the Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio staples, from "More Than a Feeling" to "Lido Shuffle" to "Just the Way You Are." It's all well selected, cozy. Steely Dan contributed the excellent title track, one of my favorites by them. Their "Do it Again" is also featured.

Carefully considered, maybe FM is hypocritical. It wants to be a statement against the Establishment while still embracing it (if inadvertently). I guess you can enjoy your corporate sponsored bands without hearing the corporate commercials? Dream on, dude. If you ever purchased records, reel to reels, 8-tracks, cassettes, or CDs, most of the money went to the Man. Not sure about the reimbursement breakdown on digital downloads. In this very different age, where local radio and record stores seem quaint, perhaps that remake I conjectured (with its wildly unbelievable happy wrap-up)would be ill-advised and completely irrelevant. Maybe the entire premise would need to be rethought.