Sunday, December 26, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

It is almost that time of the year to look back on the year we are leaving behind and to look forward to the year ahead. It was a good year with some recoveries from past economic lapses, and it was a year to do a little blaming and learn from some of the errors we made. The election was partly an effort to blame our current leaders and a time to try a few new ideas, and visions, and people. But voters did not go for the totally new, and kept in some of the old, and more tested and true.

We have a basis for an optimistic look ahead with some victories at the end of the year for compromise and reason at the end of the year for the President and the Congress, and hopefully for all of the people. We hope to build on these victories and work on new compromises and understandings and new ideas and reasons.

For me, it was a time of new and old discoveries, with a monumental trip to Auschwitz, and Krakow, and Berlin, and of course, Detmold, and with a trip to help present the United States' human rights records and to look ahead to help build on the record and make it better and help make the world a better place for all people.

Now as I watch Sunday Morning's summary and tribute to some of the momumental people who died this year, I think of all of those who passed our way this year. Here is short list of those who passed away this year:;lst;3

Hopefully, their lives will inspire us for 2011. Let's go for it together and more unified with less disagreements.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Strictly Speaking: Modern Society and the Death of Edwin Newman

Edwin Newman, a clear mellow, kindly, avuncular, and authoritative voice of the news of the 50s, 60s and 70s, passed away in August. His family in Oxford England, waited a month to share and announce the news of his passing--they wanted to mourn his death in private. It was a nice anachronistic touch to handling the news that seemed to fit--in Newman's day or the day of the real news man, news was given more thought, and traveled slower, and it was often saved for another day.

Mr. Newman, with balding head and dark eyebrows, was a striking and prominent voice to three decades of postwar television viewers. He was known for his learned style, his priceless wit and his penchant for punditry. He began his association with NBC in the early TV years of the 1950s and was a frequent NBC correspondent, bureau chief, anchor and critic before retiring in 1984.

He was a news anchor and sometimes foil on the “Today” show in the early 1960s and a presence on the program for many years afterward; Mr. Newman also appeared regularly on “Meet the Press,” where he moderated for forty or so episodes. He won seven New York Emmy Awards for his work in the 1960s and ’70s with NBC’s local affiliate, WNBC-TV, on which he was a drama critic and the host of the interview program “Speaking Freely.”

He was the moderator for two Presidential debates — the first Ford-Carter debate in 1976 and the second Reagan-Mondale debate in 1984. He said he was always in the wrong place at the right time, but he covered many key events of the 20th century from Queen Elizabeth II's coronation to the assassination of President Kennedy, to the Martin Luther King shooting.

He was a newsman who cared about the quality of the news reporting, and in Mr. Newman’s best-known books, he declared what he called “a protective interest in the English language,” which, he warned, was falling prey to windiness, witlessness, ungrammaticality, obfuscation, words that lost their meanings, and other depredations.

Newman was a trusted voice who was a prominent critic of phony language and hypocrisy and spoke up in his books, "Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English?" (1974), and "A Civil Tongue" (1976), and in his commentary. He could be a little prissy around the edges, but that often added to his charm and authoritativeness. He also showed signs of not taking himself too seriously with his appearance on Saturday Night Live in which in one routine, he corrected the grammar of a caller on a suicide hot line.

Modernity and the lack of attention to careful speaking and thinking was an anathema to Newman, and it must have been harder for Newman to function in the wireless and grammar-less world of today. His sobering visions will still be with us to face modern America, but his stilled voice will be missed.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Life on the Shuffle (if not the Fast Lane)

It was an extraordinary Fourth of July. I left at 9 a.m., and I was heading north from DC to visit my mother. The weather was hot but not oppressive, and I felt free, and playful and unencumbered (it is a day of liberty, after all) as I shot north on I-495 and I-95. I heard the special radio shows of the Fourth, of the Past Americana and Europe (a history of Paris), and the state of past, current and future US politics and philosophy, and culture lept before me, and I was able to feel deeply with my emotions and sensory nerve endings exposed, and able to take it in with a clarity that was unusually sharp and focused and extra-sensory. It was jet propelled, and HDTV all rolled into one, and yet it felt oh so natural at the same time.

It was music that was a custom slice of America and more. It was "on the media" on the present and future status of the book with its promise of public collaboration; it was an American tribute from the Beach Boys and Gershwin, and everything in between. It was Summertime in French and beautiful harmonies that included Coldplay and hip hop hotter play. It was playful yet touching on serious topics as well as the light fantastic.

It was a day and a trip of rediscovery, reaching back into America's past and present and yes future and it was reaching back to see who I was 40 or so years ago--influenced by my family's views internally and in a lot of my public behavior in school and after hours at a job in the hardware business, yet I was feeling my wings growing at the same time and I was protesting what was the recent past and present and striking out for human rights.

I was beginning my love with and respect for all people and I was hoping for a better and more enlightened present and future. I was somewhat grounded by my family ties that gave me security and love and nourishment, yet I was struggling to get my legs powerful enough to jump and run and lerch and move forward. I was somewhat shy while I figured things out and I was decent enough and sufficiently law-abiding and truly caring enough to be a decent person yet a person wanting to experiment and jump to the sky while I was grounded and kept a part of my feet on the pitching rubber. I did not want to balk in the winning run.

As the radio played along, it was jumpin jack flash, and I was Mich Jagger in Spain, and it was for what its worth, buffaloing springfield looking at a song for the 60s and 70s and saying hooray for our times, and the great beyond and it was even downtown by a decent but a confused sounding sinatra. It was truly life on the shuffle--free and liberating--jumping back and forth through past, present, and future, fast forwarding back and forth with a clarity and a fuzziness that enabled me to see for miles and miles and to develop a plan for the all the every days in my life and the more special and serious and to see with clarity what I can do to reorganize my life maybe, and reorganizing the office in a non- conventional and dynamic and interactive and workable way I hope.

It was the Fourth, surging forth with freedom and flying ahead with a speed of sound and beyond. It honored the past in a clear sharp manner, yet it lept forward into the future with a sweep that was beyond the horizons of times.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Teachable Moments from an Imperfect Game

In reviewing the recent controversy about the almost perfect game of this past week, we should remember that individual baseball games are arbitrary to a greater degree than most sports contests, and this is part of their charm. Baseball uses the replay in very limited circumstances, and to add more replays would interfere with the timeless flow and simple basic human nature of the game. The Commissioner though cloudy in his statement got the end result right--under current rules, this is a human judgment call made in "real time."

We have humans on the field who do the best they can to make the call without much technological apparatus that would stop everything to try to make it perfect. This is another place where "perfect is the enemy of the good." We have too much technical regimen and cheap popular science introduced into baseball through the noisy electronic scoreboards that try to keep everyone entertained and controlled every minute based no doubt on surveys, focus groups, and scientific analysis of the results.

What should not be lost in all of this is the wonderful way in which the player, the umpire, the manager, and even the fans handled this. They did not need surveys, focus groups or science to reach the right way of addressing this situation. Taking responsibility for a mistake without defensiveness, forgiving the person who made the mistake, and cheering all of the participants and their reactions is a great lesson for children of all ages, politicians, oil and other corporate executives, accountants, Wall Street investment bankers, lawyers, and potential litigants among others. Whether to change the underlying call is much less important, and would almost ruin this important teaching and learning moment. We are human, there are rules, we make mistakes, and this is a moment of people rising to the occasion and displaying the best possible human nature, judgment, and emotion after a mistake.

I will now quietly get off my soapbox, and apologize if I overreacted. Thank you for your attention.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Death of An Art-ist's House Party

Art Linkletter, the friendly and whimsical, everyman host of the early, ad-libbed TV interview shows of the 1950s and 1960s, “People Are Funny” and “House Party,” died a few days ago at 97. Linkletter had a modest talent of ingratiating himself with his subjects and getting them to open up, often with funny and touching results. He was the consummate businessman of the American twentieth-century, complete with modest beginnings that he worked hard at anything to overcome. He recalls an astute yet simple early non high-def time in television history, when he premiered much of what was to come in television, only Art did it in a much more humane and respectful yet entertaining way.

His long-popular CBS "House Party" had a remarkable run of 17 years, from 1952 to 1969 (with a final year on NBC), through the era of the settled-in, buttoned-down Eisenhower cold-war style of Fifties conservatism to the end of high-flying, free-flowing, psychedelically-radical JFK/LBJ Sixties. On the show, he featured a popular segment in which he put small fry at ease, by never talking down to them. He mined and questioned their young alert minds for infinitely clever answers, that provided the jewel-like material for his best-selling, Charles Schulz-illustrated book, “Kids Say the Darndest Things!” Only Cosby and Letterman could later compare with Art's ability to make comfortable his children guests.

In "People Are Funny," the philosophically-simple title of the stunt-oriented, audience-participation prime-time show he hosted on radio and then television from 1943-61, he had a small-d, democratic respect for and delight in ordinary human nature. This was in stark contract to Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" segments, which generally make their subjects look vapid and stupid.

Linkletter hosted a forerunner of the now-trite "reality television," to help prove his belief that normal, everyday people were inherently interesting and entertaining. In one segment of "People are Funny," he gave small amounts of money to people who could keep random callers on the telephone line for three minutes on any selected topic. The calls, an amateur forerunner of "Whose Line Is It Anyway," were often a remarkable display of everyday finesse, patience, friendliness, and the desire not to be rude--all admirable traits that often are missing today from our everyday discourse.

While critics and snobby intellectuals found him "bland," "trite,"and "vanilla," millions of viewers saw into his talents, and responded with loyalty to his wholesome, friendly, clever, and upbeat nature. Women with time on their hands, made up much of his audience for the daily afternoon “House Party.” They found him to be the curious, wise-cracking next door attractive neighbor that they pined for, while husbands found him to be the friendly, safe neighbor who they waved to as they went off to work, leaving their wives in his relatively non-threatening hands. Linkletter was genuinely curious to know what was going on in the hearts and minds of the people he interviewed, and in his loyal distaff audience.

Linkletter was born Gordon Arthur Kelly on July 17, 1912, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He was abandoned by his parents at less than month old and adopted by Fulton John and Mary Metzler Linkletter, a middle-age couple whose two children had died. In his autobiography, “Confessions of a Happy Man,” Mr. Linkletter recalled his adoptive father, a one-legged cobbler and itinerant evangelist, as “a strange, uncompromising man whose main interest in life was the Bible.” By Art's fifth birthday, the Linkletters moved to an unpaved poverty-driven, adobe section of San Diego, and Art took any job he could find--including sorting through and cleaning lemons from an abandoned packing plant, and selling them for 6 cents a dozen. The family prayed and performed on street corners, with Art obediently playing the triangle. At 12, Linkletter discovered his roots while rummaging through his father’s desk, and he was impatient to learn more about the world outside of neighborhood.

After graduating high school at 16, the independent Mr. Linkletter took off to see the world with $10 in his pocket, riding freight trains and hitchhiking, while working here and there as a meatpacker, harvester, and a busboy in a roadhouse. “Among other things, I learned to chisel rides on freight trains, outwit the road bulls, cook stew with the bindlestiffs and never to argue with a gun.” He found work in a Wall Street bank as a quick and facile typist, just in time for the stock market crash in 29. He sailed off to Hawaii and Rio de Janeiro as a merchant seaman, and returned to enter San Diego State Teachers College (now San Diego State University) hoping to be an English teacher.

He got a bachelor’s degree in 1934, but in his senior year, did wanderlust took him to spot announcing at local radio station, KGB, and this led to radio work at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego and at fairs in Dallas and San Francisco. With microphone in hand and hours to fill, Mr. Linkletter ad-libbed, performed stunts and went out into audience to attract attention and keep listeners entertained, ala Steve Allen and David Letterman. He was once lowered from a skyscraper in a boatswain’s chair, interviewing office workers on every floor as he descended. “It was the forced feeding of a young and growing M.C.,” who stayed on for more than 9,000 broadcasts.

Linkletter was in Hollywood but not of it. Unlike many of his neighbors, he was the exemplary family man - married 74 years - with a passel of kids of his own. One of them, Jack, who died in 2007, also became a TV host and was the original inspiration for his kid-terviews. Another, Diane, notoriously jumped to her death from a window, in 1969, at the age of 20, a suicide her father attributed to LSD. This turned Linkletter into an anti-drug crusader, which made him, for a while, a figure of counterculture ridicule.

Even after he retired from full-time broadcasting, Linkletter flitted in and out of television, as a pitchman or guest or talking head, a proponent of proactive aging, for which he was a kind of poster oldster. He briefly returned as a regular contributor to Cosby's late-'90s franchising of the old "House Party" segment, "Kids Say the Darndest Things."

One of his early TV gambits was to inventory and announce with often hilarious precision, the contents of an audience-member's purse--an exercise in exploring human commonality and variety, and a businessman's cheap dodge to get a laugh at a stranger's expense. His showman's trust in the beauty of humble detail, his interest in small things to make large points, are among his common-man, radical elements that always appealed to me. He was an early pioneer of the television culture, at a time when we would pay enough attention to be awed by unique nature of the common place.

It is a shame that TV now reflects our easily distracted, short attention-span nature, that does not pay much attention to the details of what is right around us. We would rather listen now to our i-pods and talk mindlessly on our cell phones and be cut off from the reality of what is in front of our eyes and ears. We could use a lot more of Linkletter's modest methods of entertainment that were simple yet visionary, that were common place yet exceptional, and that skimmed the surface of life but ran deeply into our hearts and minds.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Happy B-Day Mister Bobster

As Bob turns a cool 69 today, he does appear to be "younger than that now." As I am traveling on a wifi bus from NY to DC on the free and open road, Bob's contributions are opening before me and they have been vast. He has added to my sense of freedom, and openness, and smoothed out a perspective so that I do not take things too seriously--"it's life and life only."

He has explored so many types of American music from folk to rock to country to gospel to swing and to all things in between. For a couple of years, he has been opening up doors to many additional known and little-known artists and types of music on his Radio Hour, which features his velvety smooth, man for all eras, DJ voice (I never thought I would be saying "velvety smooth" in the same sentence with Dylan's voice).

I have not agreed with every step he has taken, but, in retrospect, he is often bold and resourceful, and he keeps reinventing himself in a way that is incredibly fresh ("those not busy being born, are busy dying"). He never plays the same song in the same way--and in that way he explores the dynamic nature of music and life, and keeps adding to the bag of human emotions, that we pull our thoughts from. Happy birthday Mister Bobster; we wish you many more years of being born.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Classic, Must-See TV--SNL, for a change

Did anyone else watch Saturday Night Live last night? It sparkled throughout the 90 minute show--which has not happened for many years. Viewers picked the host through a Facebook petition, NBC complied with the results, and veteran comic Betty White did not disappoint. Her delivery and comic timing were superb, and the writing seemed several cuts above the usual. It did not hurt to have former stellar cast members back for the show, including Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon. In one bit, comic-master White led Gasteyer and Shannon through a "Muffin" routine on a take off of an NPR high-brow, food appreciation show, "Delicious Dish," that recalled the Alec Baldwin classic "Schwetty Balls" routine. But, this was just one of many wonderful sketches.

Ms. White appeared in just about every bit throughout the show, and was her sweet, modest, charming, sassy, salty, sexy, and often outrageous self, and she always seemed to know how to get the best out of the material--she homered on whatever pitch they threw at her, often donning outrageous wigs and clothing to put across the scene.

SNL has become a show hosted by the flavor or the flame of the week--often taking a future one-hit wonder pushing a recent movie, CD, or TV hit, who has not shown much talent beyond the confines of the hit. Thus, the show often peaks during the introductory, "live from New York" bit, and maybe has one more routine that's decent, plus a few lines from "Weekend Update."

But tonight was very different, and it showed what the show once was and could be--masters of comedy at work, backed by crisp comic writing, and supported by a great musical guest who clearly respects the guest host. Betty White, the returning and current cast members, and Jay-Z put on a great show tonight, and it was extraordinary to see them at the top of their game. This is what TV can be, and what it rarely is today--a classic album of funny routines, worth watching in its entirety, rather than in bits and pieces for those with short-attention span, on the Hulu/You Tube-laden web.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Game for Mr. Harwell

On Tuesday, I took the night off from the day and night job that I usually love so much to accept an offer of a ticket to a Nationals-Braves baseball game at the Nats Park. It was my first game of the young season and it was a gorgeous DC baseball night that was crystal clear and free of humidity; it seemed ordered straight out of a weather catalog.

The game featured the ageless and wily Cuban pitcher, Livan Hernandez, throwing soft pitches of constantly varying speeds at hitters half his age, and making them look silly as they swung wildly at whatever he pitched their way. The game had two artistic catches by outstretched Nats fielders who banged off the ground and the walls to catch the quick and fleeing balls, and five long arching home runs.

But the game was interrupted by the shorting and the silencing of the magic modern scoreboard of hi-def sounds and pictures and statistics and blatant promotions. The scoreboard was out of commission for much of the game, and we were led to ask the metaphysical question--if a run scores in the ballpark, and there is no scoreboard, does the run count? The runs did count and the score ended 6 to 3 in favor of our perennial hometown underdogs, the lovable and often hapless Nationals.

After I left the ballpark, I heard about the passing of Ernie Harwell, and I am convinced that the scoreboard died at Nats Stadium to honor the passing of baseball's melodious announcer and poet of another era, who died today at the age of 92. The quiet and blank scoreboard yielded its overblown sound and pictures so that the quiet and reflective game of baseball could go on as it has for the many decades of Mr. Harwell's wonderful career, without the squawking modern sounds that tell you when to clap, when to shout, when to stomp your feet, when to wave to the cameras, and when to do the wave. Ernie Harwell announced in an era of innocence when baseball was more of a love and passion than a business. Tonight, the high definition electronics went silent so that we could celebrate the poetry and reflections of a bygone time, when we knew when to clap and when to shout, and when to keep silent and watch the game.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ought to Review the "Decade of Oughts"

The decade has ended, and it has been a while since I have written, and it is time to begin to reflect back. While more thought is needed to really get it right, here are some preliminary thoughts that may or may not be helpful--it was that kind of deade.

We started with fear of the Millennium in the form of y2k. And while that was a bust and a false alarm, it may have given us a false sense of security and invincibility. Time soon seemed to stop as we tried to elect a President in an election that was too close to call and got decided on hanging chads, some Florida maneuvering, and a 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision.

With a pat on the back for a system that survived a hotly contested election, we tried to recover our bearings when on a clear morning we endured an awlful attack from the skies on 9-11 and we were or seemed oh so vulnerable. It was a watershed moment and the first time since the Kennedy shooting and the Iran hostages that we and the so-called greatest country in the world seemed so open to attack. We wondered why we did not see it coming and searched for answers.

Katrina and the slow response to it just confirmed that we did not have our act together yet. But things settled down as we responded and slowly rebuilt New Orleans, and we came together a bit, and survived better in some subsequent hurricanes. The world was hit by a tsunami that reminded us that nature could always run its unpredictable course and that we are not really in control.

But the market took off in blustering confidence as did housing new and old, and we once again felt fiscally strong and invicible, until the bubble burst and we free fell into a recession of only 1929 proportions, and there were some banker bad decisions and villains and of course there was Madoff. We slowly rebounded with the historical election of an African-American president who had to tackle so many problems, that the populace wondered if were taking on too many.

We ended as we began with a small recovery, and with "google" as our word of the decade that had no name. "Unfriending" was a key word of the last year as we turned to electronic technology for our Facebook friends, and it was a decade of failure and accomplishments, artifice and reality, and some heroes and villains. No one really owned or owned up to the decade, but President Obama did take responsibility for errors in a failed December 24 attempted plane bombing and we hoped it was a good sign. As we once again breathed a sigh of relief yet knew that we failed to detect all the clues of our vulnerability. But there was next year and the optimism that buoys us up and lets us sail on to another decade with no real name.
While our lives bobbed and weaved, some of favorite institutions for leisure time, the newspaper industry, TV, movies, and the music industry lost many of its old reliable bearings and all struggled to survive in the new decade. Jon Pareles had a good summary of the music industry in his recent Sunday article at the following web address: