Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Impressions of a Sanders voter

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have made it very clear in the past year that I was a Sanders supporter and this reflects that. If that makes you angry or exasperated I please ask that you do yourself a favor and skip this piece 
 it is not intended to change anyone's mind about how to vote in the general election. The following constitutes neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of Hillary Clinton. I firmly believe that Americans, particularly Americans in safe states, should vote in whatever way their consciences dictate.

As Bernie Sanders’s official endorsement of Hillary Clinton ends what has been the most difficult and bruising Democratic primary of my lifetime (or at least nearly ends – there are still delegates to be counted and a convention to be held), I am left with some impressions that were formed some months ago and have been largely confirmed in my own mind, based on the reactions (or in some cases, lack of reactions) of my friends who support either of the two candidates.

Full disclosure: Let me say up front that what I’m reporting is strictly anecdotal and comes with whatever biases that implies. My opinions are my own.

Throughout this primary season I have gotten into lengthy discussions and debates during which I asked the deceptively simple question: “What are the reasons you’re voting for your candidate?” Putting aside the answers I received regarding Donald Trump, which are not worth printing or dignifying, I was struck by the difference in priority that I often perceived between Clinton and Sanders voters. By and large, the Sanders voters had answers such as (and I’m paraphrasing) “Because I think Wall Street is out of control,” “Because I believe in single-payer healthcare,” “Because I think education should be free.” In other words, voters responded to Sanders because of specific issues (or, if you want to be less kind about it, because of the "free" things they wanted).

When Clinton voters answered the same question, there were a few who proceeded along the same lines, citing specific policies she supported or that they believed she supported. But just as often, if not more often, the answers were along the lines of, “Because of her leadership ability,” “Because she'll get s--t done,” “Because she’s the most experienced candidate in history,” “Because it’s time for a woman to lead.”

The truth is, I can’t recall a single instance of a Sanders supporter talking about him as a person or speaking of qualities they liked in him. Quite the opposite, in fact. The shouting, finger pointing and sometimes tone deaf statements about race and gender that often came from him did not create warm feelings in anyone but the most ardent or malignant Sanders supporter, even though others referred to Sanders as a cult of personality. On the other hand, there was an overwhelming feeling I got from the Clinton supporters I personally spoke with that it was her innate talent and intelligence that they were supporting, regardless of whatever her personal record or statements might lead one to believe about her goals.

There is no arguing that Clinton is a historic and perhaps even iconic figure, and would have been even if she weren’t going to the be the first female president of the United States. There will be no argument from me, either, that she is exceptionally intelligent and will prove to be, at the very least, competent in whatever role she assumes. And it is interesting that many pundits (largely on the Right) have commented that Clinton has relatability issues and trustworthiness issues, because, from where I sit, I see a massive contingent of people who have no trouble relating to her or trusting her, who are willing to follow her because they perceive an ineffable quality that we can call “leadership.” Those people won for Clinton her party’s nomination, and will certainly send her to the White House.

I have come to believe, however, that there is a real difference in how voters choose their candidates regardless of political affiliation or ideology, and I think it affects the process both positively and negatively. To put a positive spin on it, supporting a candidate because of who she or he is demonstrates trust and can lead to a certain degree of flexibility, pragmatism and compromise in a voter. On the other hand, it can lead to inconsistency of belief, blindness to flaws and a certain hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance when it comes to how one treats people who are aligned with political factions other than his or her own.

This feeling has been largely confirmed for me in the days after Clinton became the presumptive nominee, and in particular as Sanders stayed in the race to (in many ways successfully) influence both the party platform and Clinton’s policy goals. As Sanders has gingerly tiptoed toward endorsing Clinton, many of her supporters have been absolutely exasperated and confused by the fact that some of his own are insisting that they will not be swayed to vote for her.

“What is wrong with you? Your own hero has said he’d vote for her and you’re so butt-hurt you’ll give the presidency to Trump!” (The previous was not a paraphrase, by the way, but an actual quote from one message board discussion. I’ve read many, many others similar in tone and meaning.) It’s as if they can’t comprehend that Sanders voters did not consider him a “hero,” or a “God,” or even much of a 
leader – they simply agreed with his platform and it doesn’t really matter whom he endorses if that person is not also going to work to deliver those results.

Meanwhile, those self-same supporters, who routinely mocked many of Sanders’ stated policy goals as being naïve, unworkable, or unreasonable, are notably keeping mum as Clinton has adopted them. When Clinton was steadfastly against free college tuition or a $15 minimum wage, for example, her followers were with her all the way, and could recite all the reasons why Sanders supporters were not “grownup” enough to acknowledge her pragmatism and correctness. Now that she has adopted those issues as a concession to his voters, I’ve yet to see a mass exodus from her or hear anyone say that he or she has lost respect for her for adopting “stupid” ideas. On the contrary, she’s now the person who can get them done – or, more cynically, she’s the person who’s lying to convince all those dumb progressives to follow her even though she knows it will never happen.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. For quite some time I have been one of the voices on the Left who has wondered why certain of Hillary Clinton’s actions and characteristics have been routinely justified as “just the way things are done in politics” or “right wing nonsense” when the same people ignoring them would throw a fit if, say, George W. Bush or Dick Cheney had acted similarly. While I agree with the fact that Clinton has faced an unprecedented amount of mudslinging (that, let me be clear, has not stuck) and that Republicans have indulged in witch-hunting and routinely made mountains out of molehills when it comes to her behavior, I am still baffled by the unwillingness of her supporters to even admit to the molehills.

The e-mail “scandal” was not really a scandal. But it should matter to Democrats, who in the past have claimed to be against secrecy and for openness in government, just as much as it did when it was the GOP sending correspondence down the memory hole. Maybe the money Clinton has received from Wall Street or the speeches to financial institutions  won’t actually affect her governance. But it is odd to hear the idea that money is a corrupting influence on politicians being flat-out denied by people who in the past eight years loudly bemoaned that influence. The allegations that Clinton assisted her husband in covering up sexual harassment and assault could very well be part of an ongoing whisper campaign. But it is strange to hear that from people who otherwise believe that women, by and large, do not falsely accuse men of assault.

I have always been honest that much of what Bernie Sanders claimed he would fight for in office would be impossible for him to achieve. And it is fair to say that much of his appeal lay in a certain political idealism (or naïvety) that results when a candidate does not have years of baggage to sort through, unlike someone who has been in the trenches for years such as Hillary Clinton. The same can be said for a Jill Stein or an Elizabeth Warren, who are currently being celebrated by some Sanders supporters in the way Bernie was. 

This is a problem for Sanders voters. 

We have to allow for a certain amount of flawed behavior in our candidates lest we become uncompromising purists and, ultimately, irrelevant. We have to understand that political leadership requires coalition building, horse-trading, gift-giving (and -receiving), and mind-changing.

But Hillary Clinton’s supporters would be best served if they, too learned a lesson. No one “owes” you a vote, or his or her allegiance, no matter who else is on your “side” or not, and no matter who might be a worse option. In 2016, a lot of people learned that party loyalty is not what it once was, and if you take it for granted that issues voters will fall in line without truly believing a candidate intends to fight for those issues, you do so at your own peril. It was never about one man.

To paraphrase an earlier campaign: It’s the policy, stupid.

Monday, June 13, 2016

An act of terror, an act of hate

Now that time has passed and I have processed some of my feelings, I want to share a little something about an occasion when my perspective changed (I promise, it's pertinent).
Once upon a time, I was adamantly (and vocally) opposed to hate crimes legislation. Obviously, not because I feel anything other than anger about violent acts of racism, misogyny, religious intolerance and homo-, bi-, and transphobia, but because from a philosophical and legal perspective I was concerned about certain victims being treated as more important than others and the potential slippery slope when government has the ability to determine those classes. After all, a dead or assaulted person is dead or assaulted no matter who that person is or what the attacker's motive is.
A few years ago, though, someone changed my mind. That person pointed out to me that we have laws against terrorism and that there are reasons why these are separate and distinct from other laws pertaining to violence. An act of terrorism is not designed simply to hurt the victim but is also meant to instill fear into others who were not directly targeted. It is meant to make people hesitate to take advantage of their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is a statement to others: You must change, you must capitulate, or you must go away. Otherwise, you will be made to suffer.
The same is true of hate crimes. Victims of lynching in the US knew of what I speak. The Jews who woke up the day after kristallnacht knew. Those who survived the massacre in Orlando know now.
There are some who describe what happened on Sunday as an act of terrorism. Others describe it as a hate crime, meant to make a particular community afraid of living as it chooses, where it chooses. Both groups are correct.
This was an act of terror. This was a hate crime. And until we ALL acknowledge that the bigotry that leads to these acts is not created in a vacuum; until we ALL stand up and speak out against hatred of people for their color, sex, gender expression, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs BEFORE that hatred creates vicious killers; until we find ways to keep the tools of death out of the hands of potential murderers, we will continue to suffer the consequences of our passivity as we debate meaningless distinctions and semantics.
Terrorism? Hate crime? They are one and the same, and a community is victimized either way.
Many lives were lost on Sunday; many more people are getting insult added to injury from certain people and media outlets who refuse to admit that this was a hate crime and that the targets were people who are vilified by the right wing as much as they are by any particular religious ideology; and many more lives will be changed forever from this loss. LGBTQ and allied people can now honor those lost lives by living our own -- out in the open -- and saying, "You can not stop thus community with weapons or hate. You can not stop us from loving who we choose, being what we wish to be, and pursuing happiness in whatever manner we wish. We exist. It is our RIGHT to exist. WE WILL CONTINUE TO EXIST."
I stand with the people of Orlando, and specifically the LGBTQ people of that city. And I beg them and you not to let terrorism and hate win. Be out. Be proud. Be yourself. And be the community I know you are capable of being. A community built on love, and solidarity ... and courage.
LikeShow more reactions

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Civilly Disobedient (a contrarian review of “Captain America: Civil War”)


This spring, a disappointing action movie in which alleged superheroes with parental issues tried to violently kill each other really let me down. No, I’m not talking about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – I’m referring to Captain America: Civil War.

No, not this Civil War

I know, the DC Cinematic Murderverse is grim, cynical and full of characters acting wildly differently from how they act in comic books – so it’s bad, bad, bad. I agree. However, I’m trying to understand why the Marvel Cinematic Emoverse – only slightly less grim, just as cynical, and full of characters acting wildly differently from how they act in other movies in the series – is considered so superior by contrast.

To be clear, I was much more entertained by the latest in-name-only Captain America movie than I was by BvS, and even, for that matter, Avengers: Age of Ultron. CA:CW has witty banter, cleverly staged action sequences, and introduces some very welcome “new” (and nearly new) characters to the Avengers milieu, which makes it an improvement over the hard-to-watch, beige-and-gray murk of the Zak Snyder killfest that was BvS as well as the poorly motivated, plot-hole-filled destructo-thon of A:AoU.

This Civil War

However, CA:CW lacks the coherence of the previous Captain America movies, the inspiration of the first Avengers, or the fun of the more recent Ant-Man. CA:CW is a train designed to get us from one Avengers movie to the next – with the direct route requiring that the filmmakers throw out all of the characterization established since Iron Man was released eight years ago. From the start, the heroes never feel like the same people seen in previous movies. Their motivations make little sense – not only based on what’s been established before, but also based on common sense and normal human behavior.

DC heroes beating each other up is much more offensive
than Marvel heroes beating each other up.
No one’s effectively explained to me why Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) would be suddenly gung ho about submitting to governmental control when six years ago he was telling the US government (in the form of the late Garry Shandling) to go f**k itself because it sought oversight of his privately owned weapon of mass destruction (a request that I thought was reasonable at the time). The fact that, since then, governments in that world were revealed to be infiltrated by an ancient conspiracy of sort-of-Nazis (one of whom was, yes, Garry Shandling) makes Stark’s sudden change of heart even more unbelievable. Sure, you can explain it as a consequence of Sokovia’s destruction in A:AoUbut that was entirely Stark’s fault. Shouldn’t he be the one getting locked up? Couldn’t all of this have been solved if he'd kept his promise from lord-knows-how-many movies ago and retired? But then, we wouldn’t have a reason for ostensible good guys to kick the s**t out of each other.

(Nor would we have an explanation for why probably-too-expensive Gwyneth Paltrow sat this one out. Boyfriend gives you a company and you dump him – I get it, GOOP-girl.)

Suddenly Tony's down with oversight

Why would Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), a soldier who, from his own perspective, was letting the US government pump him full of chemicals and radiation in the name of patriotism a few years prior, decide that basic checks and balances are a threat to freedom?

Why would several folks (Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Falcon, played by Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Anthony Mackie, respectively), who are literally government employees, suddenly act like vigilantes threatened by registration? Why, in fact, would any heroes care about the government having their numbers when hardly anyone has a secret identity? And why would the only superhero with a secret identity (Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland this time) be on the side of registration? Why? Why? Why?

Aren't these guys, like, government agents?

Again, the answer seems to be, “Because we need superheroes fighting and we need to make sure the teams are reasonably balanced out.”

In the movie's world – where Earth's governments acknowledge that there was an alien invasion and yet decide it was the people who saved the world from total destruction who should pay – far too many characters act like idiots entirely out of plot necessity.

The last-minute introduction of a “major” plot twist (yes, involving Stark’s mommy, who is mercifully not named Martha) does nothing to rationalize the previous two hours. By the time we find out that Bucky (Sebastian Stan) killed Roger Sterling – sorry, Howard Stark –and his wife (John Slattery and Hope Davis) we’ve seen the following:

  • Steve being sure Bucky didn’t commit a terrorist act despite knowing his pal will kill on behalf of anyone who gets hold of his conveniently Commie-branded phrasebook
  • Tony being just as sure that Bucky did commit said terrorist act despite knowing of multiple recent governmental conspiracies and the fact that the only evidence is a bad photo of someone in a bad wig
  • Alfre Woodard being sure an easy paycheck is worth playing an angry Jiminy Cricket for five minutes and then disappearing entirely
  • Everyone else being so sure of whatever it is they believe that they have no problem attempting to maim, kill, or imprison people they used to work with

Not really Alfre Woodard
Oh, yeah, about that last bullet-point: War Machine (Don Cheadle) gets paralyzed during all the fighting. He’s still paralyzed at the end of the movie. I know the whole “superheroes get into a big fight” trope is something very familiar to comic book readers, but when you see it on-screen, with actual human beings doing the fighting, it just doesn’t work the same way.

They'll work it out before Thanos
comes, probably.

In the real world, friendships end over gossip, or disagreements about who makes a better Democratic presidential candidate. If you can suspend disbelief enough to think these folks can resolve things and be pals again in the next Avengers movie, you are much better at disbelief-suspension than I am. Sorry, there are some things a friendship can’t rebound from, and on the list are both paraplegia and imprisonment.

What’s even more disappointing is that the actors are uniformly great. At this point, Evans and Downey are their characters; in a few minutes, Holland establishes himself as the most appealing Spider-Man yet; Chadwick Boseman is intriguing as Black Panther; Paul Rudd is … well, he’s Paul Rudd, which is fine. I walked out of the theater thinking, “I bet the next few movies will be great. It’s a shame Captain America doesn’t rate his own movie.”

When you get to know him, he's a real pussycat.
As a kind-of Avengers 2½, CA:CW lets down its cast, who all deserve to shine in movies where they play heroes, rather than a bunch of douchebags who don’t know how to use their words to settle interpersonal conflicts. It’s hard for me to guess how their characters will be restored to normal by the time Avengers: Infinity War rolls around, but it can’t happen soon enough. Maybe they need to take anger-management tips from Bruce Banner – or maybe they should stop modeling their behavior off of Zak Snyder characters.
 But this was totally cool, right?!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Apparently, firefighters (and 311) do NOT care about cats in trees

Despite having seen the old “cat stuck in a tree” bit in numerous films and TV shows over the years, I was completely stopped in my tracks when I heard a piercing meow coming from a roughly 30-foot-tall tree in a housing complex on Myrtle Avenue, where I was in the process of schlepping a disassembled bookcase to the M train. I would soon find myself even more paralyzed by the knowledge that there was not a single New York governmental employee who was willing to do anything to help.

It’s not as if the residents, themselves, didn’t care. Standing not far from the tree was a middle-aged lady holding a box of Meow Mix and shaking it to get the crying kitten’s attention. “The cat has been up there for over two days,” she told me. “We tried to get it, but the ladder wasn’t tall enough.”

As a crowd gathered around us, variously saying “here, kitty, kitty,” or taking cellphone pictures, I asked, “Has the city been called?”

“Would you believe,” Ms. Meow Mix said, “that there was a gas leak and the police and fire departments were here and they just ignored the cat?”

Unfortunately, I did believe her, but, realizing that I was wearing my Superman T-shirt, I felt that surely there was something I could do. Naturally, I called that great lifeline of New York City, 311. Reaching the automated directory system, which asked me what I was calling about, I said, “Cat stuck in a tree.” Soon I got an actual human being, who asked, “How exactly can a cat be stuck in a street?”

“Oh, no, I said it’s stuck in a tree.”

“Oh, that makes more sense. Is it sick?”

“I honestly don’t know...I don’t think so, it’s just extremely scared and about 30 or 40 feet off the ground. Apparently it’s been there a couple of days.”

“Yes, I understand. Let me see what I can find for you.”

After a few minutes of pleasant hold music, the operator came back on the line. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything about cats stuck in trees. I don’t know what to say.” Looking down at my shirt, I responded, “Well, I don’t really have any experience with this, myself, but isn’t this usually something a fireman does? Or Superman? But obviously we aren’t going to get Superman here.”

“Oh, that’s funny. Well, let me put you through to the fire department, would that be okay?”

“Sure, I’d appreciate that.”

The phone rings. And rings. Finally, “Fire Department, what’s your emergency?”’

“Well, I’m not sure this qualifies as an emergency, but 311 transferred me to you. There’s a cat stuck in a tree on Myrtle Avenue and it’s been there a few days.”

The fireman laughs. “We don’t handle cats in trees.”

“Oh. Do you know who does?”

“I can look up Animal Control for you.”
“Cool, could you transfer me?”

“Here’s the number. 212-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.” Click.

I dial the number. “We’re sorry, the number you have dialed is not in service. No further information is available for this number.”

Ms. Meow Mix calls over to me, “Who did they put you in touch with?”

“Nobody,” I say. “I’m getting passed from person to person and was just given a non-working number.”

“Typical.” She gives up and goes away. So does everyone else. A man comes with a ladder! Finally! We’re saved! But no, he just is there to casually hang a sign. The kitten continues to meow.

I dial 311 again. What am I calling about? “Animal control.”

“Hello, this is 311, how can I help you with animal control?”

“Could you just transfer me or give me a phone number? I was given a wrong number.”

“Well, what do you want them for?” she asks. 

“There’s a cat stuck in a tree,” I reply.

“We don’t handle cats stuck in trees.”

Record scratch. Um.....what? 

I try a companionable tack: “Well, yes, I understand you wouldn’t know what to do about a cat stuck in a tree, I just want the number of animal control.”

“Sorry, no. That’s not in our jurisdiction,” she says, firmly.

“Wait, what isn’t under your jurisdiction?”

“Cats stuck in trees.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that 311 was the clearinghouse for city agencies. I am asking for the number of a city agency. Is that not in your jurisdiction?”

“We are the number for city agencies. But we don’t handle cats in trees.”

“And you won’t connect me with animal control.”


“A city agency.” Silence.

“Is the cat sick? Is the cat yours?” Wait? Is she about to actually help me?

“No, the cat is not mine. I have no idea whether it’s sick, but it’s been up there two days so I assume it’s hungry.”

“I’m sorry, we can’t help you.”

“Can you tell me who can?”


“Even though this is the number that’s supposed to direct me to the right people.”


“I am going to go back to my office at the Post and see if someone has some idea of who handles animals stuck in city property. I’m sure we’ll work something out.”

So here I am, at my desk. A colleague has given me the number for a shelter (because, guess what, Animal Control does not appear to have any kind of public phone number that anyone can find.) The very helpful, caring person on the other end has promised to find out what to do about this. Which is a lot more than anyone at 311 has done. The cat is, as far as I know, still in a tree.

More to follow.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Goodbye, Obi.

In 1999, my sister Trish and I had been roommates for about three years when she learned of an opportunity to adopt a kitten, so we decided to go see the two cats that remained in the litter — an orange tabby and a black-and-white cat with big ears, prominent fangs, and a white mustache. Both kittens were adorable, of course (what kitten isn’t?), but there was something about the kitten in the tuxedo. We’d already had experience with pretty, kind of haughty, cats. Tuxedo-cat wasn’t pretty — he was, frankly, kind of goofy looking. Naturally, we fell in love with him. We took him home and named him Obi, partly to match the awards-show-themed names of my mother’s two cats, Emmy and Clio, and partly because Star Wars:Episode I came out that month. Obi would turn out to be much more entertaining than The Phantom Menace.

Obi very quickly established himself as different from any other cat we’d had. We’d had lap-cats and high-energy playful kittens who eventually settled down, but Obi was both a playful goofball and a cuddly stuffed animal from the beginning. And he was loyal and clever enough that we began to think that he thought he was a dog. Without any reinforcement he instinctively figured out how to fetch things (usually those rings around the caps on milk bottles) and drop them right at our feet (or sometimes, when he got really ambitious, right in my lap or my hand). He was talkative and expressive, and he liked being around people. I soon got used to waking up with leg cramps from not wanting to disturb him while he lay between my thighs, or on my back, or on my stomach. He divided his time almost evenly between my sister and me, and instinctively knew which one of us needed him more, when we were bored, sad, or in pain.

Because my sister was paranoid that he would not know how to find his way back to the apartment if he ever got out, we got a harness and leash for him. That didn’t exactly go as hoped — once the harness went on, he refused to move. But oddly, he had no problem riding on my shoulder like some demented parody of a pirate and parrot as I walked him up and down the street, greeting pedestrians. I once took him to my then-regular hangout, Cleo’s Saloon, where he got a lot of loving attention from the other patrons until one elderly regular shamed me: “He’s not a dog. He’s probably scared out of his mind. What a terrible thing to do to him.” I didn’t take him out as much after that. Eventually he got too heavy for my shoulder, anyway.

Obi was the sort of cat who made people reevaluate how they felt about cats. I was told this by no fewer than four non-cat-people who met him. He was just ... likable. A good little boy. It’s really hard to convey what it was about him that made him so idiosyncratic and clever and special. The fact that he learned and responded to his name faster than any other cat I’ve known. How you could make a small gesture and he’d know you wanted him to come sit with you. How loudly he purred and how he sometimes was so relaxed and happy that he drooled a little (which was gross and funny and sweet all at once). His terrible, terrible breath, the origin of which we never figured out and the remedy for which we never discovered. How “Little Fang’s” overbite made his face so much more expressive and how his wide-ranging vocabulary of whines and gurgles and meows made it so easy for him to communicate exactly what he wanted from you, whether it be food, or for you to chase him, or for you to move over so that he could demand a belly-rub.

I think you could probably put 10 people in a room together to talk about their pets and nobody would be able to truly convey to the others what was special about their relationship.

A few years after Obi joined my sister and me, my parents moved from Philly to California and Trish headed west, as well. I don’t remember any lengthy discussion of custody, but since I was now the last of our little clan on the East Coast, and alone, it seemed natural that Obi stay my companion. The two of us lived a bachelor existence, two buddies, for about a year. And thank goodness for that, because it was a hard adjustment for me and he brought a little light into a not-especially-bright time of my life.

And then Obi moved, too.

It was at least partly my own decision, of course. I won a not-insignificant amount of money on a television game show and thought the best use of it would be to see the world. I planned a months-long backpacking trip through Europe and decided the best thing to do with Obi was to temporarily leave him with my family (including Emmy and Clio) in California.

I never made my trip to Europe. The reason why is a very long story itself, and not worth going into here, but the bottom line is that Obi never moved back to NYC. My family argued that he was enjoying the big house and the outdoors and tormenting the other two (older) cats too much for it to be fair for him to go back to living in two rooms with two windows, and, besides, I couldn’t afford it. I argued, they wore me down, and eventually I agreed with them. And of course it was a better life there. But he was still my little guy, and every time I visited I got a pang that maybe he would have been better off with me. Or at least I would have been better off. I sometimes missed him more than I did my parents and sister, to be honest. At least I could talk to them on the phone.

But remember when I talked about his doglike loyalty? Well it is a fact that for years, every time I visited, he would move right back into the guest room I used a few times a year. And I was told that every time I left again he would spend the next day looking for me or sitting at the door. And it is true that, when my family insisted I talk to him on the phone, I would say it was ridiculous when they said he would start purring when he heard my voice, but secretly I was thrilled by the thought.

Eventually Emmy and Clio died, and we were devastated. But then my parents’ household was joined by three other cats, and Obi finally got to be an older, crankier alpha cat the way Clio had been to him. And, right up until last week, as he passed 13, then 14, then 15, and 16, he continued to be a runner and a jumper and a scrapper, even as he started becoming bowlegged from old age.

It’s hard to explain how I can so much miss a cat that hasn’t lived with me for over a decade. But even after growing up with our first cat, Whisper, and then picking out Emmy and Clio for my parents when Whisper passed away, Obi was the first cat who chose me. He was my little guy no matter who he lived with, just as he was my sister’s. And as long as he was there, I never got another cat, out of loyalty to him. No other cat would have been quite like him, anyway.

Obi, I am so sorry I couldn’t be there with you yesterday when your time suddenly came. I am having a hard time even imagining what it will be like to go to LA and, for the first time, not immediately go find you to give you a hug once I walk through the front door. The thought that the things you do won’t be the first things my mother and sister share with me when we talk on the phone feels so strange. I’ve always missed you, but now missing you is too painful, and every time I think about you I get teary, so I’m trying not to think about you. But I love you, Obi-Wan, and you will always be my best boy.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bowie and Me

“Something happened on the day he died. Spirit rose a meter, and then stepped aside.”

1. TODAY. Several of my friends and family have left me messages asking me for my thoughts on the death of David Bowie or just intending to commiserate, which feels a little odd to me. They know (as does anyone who I’m close with or who follows me on social media) that Bowie was the closest thing to an idol I have in my life, but the thought of eulogizing him…? We didn’t know each other. I never met the man.

“We passed upon the stair. We spoke of was and when. Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend. Which came as some surprise.”

2. I always thought that I would eventually meet David Bowie. Maybe that sounds odd, but especially in recent years it hasn’t seemed that hard to meet him. My sister has met him. My boss has met him. Several of my friends have met him. I always figured I’d get my shot. That maybe the reason I hadn’t yet was because it would happen only when I had something, anything, I could say to him without losing my cool or seeming like a pretentious asshole or just being “a fan.” From an early age I had a fantasy that maybe we would be...not pals, but...colleagues? I always hoped he’d like me and secretly believed he wouldn’t. I’m so conventional. So boring.

“I feel tragic like I’m Marlon Brando.”

3. 1983. I first discovered David Bowie when I was a small child. It was the '80s, the peak of his career and the beginning of what is universally derided as his nadir (though honestly, in my opinion, the nadir lasted less than a decade. Not so bad). My sister got the LP of “Let’s Dance.” She played it a lot. Then I played it a lot. Bowie and Tina Turner in a Diet Pepsi commercial. Live Aid. Dancing with Mick Jagger and Dennis Miller making fun of it on SNL.

Then, not too long after that, I visited a cousin and found a cassette of “Ziggy Stardust.” I played it so much on the trip that he said, “You can keep it.” I did.

“When all your faith is failing, call my name. When you've got nothing coming call my name. I'll be strong for all it takes. I'll cover your head till the bad stuff breaks. Dance my little dance till it makes you smile.”

4. I started asking for his new albums for Christmas. Cassette tapes of “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down” (Mom and Dad didn’t know any better and neither did I. I loved Bowie’s version of “God Only Knows.” I was a kid).

“Life can be easy. It's not always swell. Don't tell me truth hurts, little girl, cause it hurts like hell.”

5. 1986. Then Labyrinth happened. I got my quarterly issue of “Bantha Tracks,” the “Star Wars” Fan Club newsletter, and there was a big picture of Bowie and George Lucas and Jim Henson. I liked “Star Wars” and Muppets and David Bowie, not necessarily in that order, and I guess Bowie liked Jim Henson and George Lucas, too, right? I swear I never noticed the bulge in his tights until years later.

“Though nothing will drive them away, we can beat them, just for one day.”

6. The ‘90s. The back catalog, in random order, whatever my parents decided to buy me. “Scary Monsters” came before “Hunky Dory” which came before “Space Oddity” which came before “‘Heroes.’” In junior high school I met another fan, Dan Walinsky (shockingly, he came out of the closet in college). We would trump each other by pointing out obscurities that the other didn’t know about. He introduced me to “Absolute Beginners.” I amazed him by producing a rare cassette of “David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal.” 

I read Angie Bowie’s smutty memoir when I'm 15. I adored it. “The Lance of Love.” Later that year I became a junior reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. When my “class” “graduated” from the teen section they gave us a present: Go through the Daily News’ pile of free shit and take one thing you want. “Bowie: The Singles” is right there. I grabbed it. Another teen reporter cursed me out. I was first. Suck it.

“I bought you a pair of shoes, a trumpet you can blow, and a book of rules on what to say to people when they pick on you.”

7. I was not popular as a teenager. The opposite of popular. I was a chubby musical theater performer with a high, over-articulate voice and a funny walk and I went to a jock high school with fewer than 100 students in my grade, who assessed you when you first arrived and that was IT for seven years, until you graduated. No, I was not “out.” But I listened to David Bowie and felt like it was okay to be weird.

“Walls have got you cornered. You’ve got the blues, my friend. And people don’t like you! But you will leave without a sound, without an end.”

8. I never “dressed up” in junior high school. Or in high school. I didn’t wear makeup or have New Wave haircuts. I would have liked to. There was really only one rule my parents had that had total primacy. “Do not embarrass us.” So I was preppy. I would have liked to have dressed up.

By the time I was old enough and confident enough to make my own decisions it felt too late to dress up. And I was never tall enough or thin enough or androgynous enough.

David Bowie probably would not have cared. I did.

See? Conventional. He probably wouldn’t have liked me.

“Don't talk of heartaches, I remember them all. When I'm checking you out one day to see if I'm faking it all. Can you hear me? Can you feel me inside?”

9. But I loved David Bowie. I loved his music, I loved the questionable choices (drum and bass? Tin Machine? “SpongeBob SquarePants”?) as much as the unquestioned ones. The first time I was mugged in Philadelphia, I was wearing a ski jacket and carrying a busted up Walkman with a cassette of “Young Americans” in it. The mugger made me give him the ski jacket. Then he took the Walkman, took a look at it and said, “I don’t want this piece of shit” and gave it back to me. I kept “Young Americans” and had it with me in the cop car. But the cassette case was still in the pocket of the ski jacket. Oh well.

“Love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.”

10. Eventually I have every Bowie cassette. Then I start replacing them with CDs. I love him. Even after he said he wasn’t actually bi. When he says he likes things that I like, I feel like we're connected. He shows up in the “Twin Peaks” movie. Of course he loves David Lynch, I love David Lynch. I stay on the phone for an hour desperately trying to request “Must Be Talking to an Angel” when Annie Lennox is on “A&E By Request.” I can't get through. But Bowie does. What does he request? Guess.

I wind up reading every bio of David Bowie I can get my hands on and EVERY TIME I thrill a little when I’m reminded that he was born on a street called “Stansfield Road.”

I see him in concert more than once. Wait, there’s a story:

Now. Not tomorrow. Yesterday. Not tomorrow. It happens today.

11. It’s the mid-’90s. In college, just moving on from cassettes to CDs. I’m reporting for the NYU newspaper and once again, I’m first to the free pile. This time it’s “1. Outside.” Love it. Review it. To this day I’m haunted by my lack of fact-checking, I refer to one of the characters on the album as “Baby Jane.” She's “Baby Grace.”

I now fact-check for a living. For a newspaper.

But back to the story. Bowie is treating this as a “comeback” (we wouldn’t know the true meaning of that until 2013) he’s performing in Jersey that week, and he’s at Virgin Megastore signing albums. I line up outside. The line’s around the block but I’m going to meet David Bowie! A DJ from some radio station or another asks if there’s anyone in the crowd willing to do “something stupid” for David Bowie concert tickets. I am. He asks me to jump up and down on one leg screaming, “I love David Bowie!” I thought it would be something more stupid, that was easy. I got off easy. I got tickets. My sister came with me. But then they said, “Mr. Bowie is tired now and done signing.” I was 10 feet from the door. No meeting.

They say that at the Outside concert Nine Inch Nails fans left in droves after NIN was done their set. I don’t recall that at all. The concert was amazing.

“I can’t read and I can’t write down.”

12. TODAY. A message from a friend at 9 AM, “I’m so sad.” I’m not ready to get up yet so I put off whatever bad news it is. I wake up and hear “As the World Falls Down” coming from my roommate’s room. Odd. I come out to take my shower and he stops me. “Did you hear the bad news?” “What?” “I don’t want to ruin your day.” It dawns on me. “David Bowie died, didn’t he?” “I’m sorry.”

“There’s something in the air.”

13. 2000s. They’d been predicting it so long I had stopped worrying about it. I am sure I will still eventually meet David Bowie. My sister meets David Bowie. She’s working background on SNL when he performs. She sees him casually leaning against a wall smoking. She couldn’t get me in to 30 Rock. I’ll get my chance.

After a long run of albums that include, in my opinion, some of the best work he’s ever done, (1. Outside,” “Heathen,” “Reality”) I see him in concert again. Again with my sister, this time in Los Angeles. Macy Gray opens. She’s great. But he’s better. Does an entire encore of “Ziggy Stardust” songs, which shocks me and thrills me. On the way to the car afterward we see Dave Foley from “Kids in the Hall” waiting for a bus, which amuses us. We wonder if he enjoyed the concert. Later in the tour Bowie has a heart attack and recedes from public life. The few times he makes an appearance he looks tired. Bloated. I start to worry that I’ll never even get to see him in concert again, let alone meet him. But then he starts showing up again. He’s slimmed back down. “The Next Day” comes out.

“I got seven days to live my life or seven ways to die.”

14. November 2014. I have never been to Chicago. It was never in my top 10 of places to visit. But I fly out to Chicago to see the “Bowie Is” exhibit. No photography allowed, but I sneak a shot of the street sign where he grew up. Stansfield Lane.

“You’re watching yourself, but you’re too unfair. You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care. Oh no, love, you’re not alone. No matter what or who you’ve been. No matter when or where you’ve seen, all the knives seem to lacerate your brain. I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain. YOU’RE NOT ALONE.”

15. TODAY. I read the CNN obituary. It ends with, “David Bowie’s music was a salve for the alienated and the misfits of the world.” I laughed out loud. FUCK YOU, CNN.

My boss texts me, "Let me know if you need to take the day off."

I keep my shit together at the shrink's office until he says, "Just because you didn't know him doesn't mean it wasn't real."

“They say, ‘Hey, that’s really something. They feel he should get some time. I say he should watch his ass, ‘My friend, don’t listen to the crowds.’ They say ‘Jump.’”

16. A digression. It's the 2000s. I’ve told people this and some people don’t believe it, but it’s true. I don’t have recurring dreams. But I used to have SERIALIZED dreams. I have dreams where I see people and they casually refer to events that only ever happened in other dreams. This happened through much of the Aughts and I became semi-convinced that when I was asleep I was actually astrally projecting to an alternate timeline. That's how strict the continuity of my dreams was. In those dreams, David Bowie often appeared. We weren’t best friends, but he knew who I was and that comforted me.

A sample conversation: “I should have known you'd be here, Chris.” “It was a great show.” “Well, thank you. How’s the work coming?” “I’m working on it.” “Well, let me know, I’ll do a backup track. You have to get moving.”

I was in a major depression for much of that decade. The dreams stopped somewhere around 2011, which is when I started getting serious about my mental health. I don’t know what that means.

“Chimes.Goddamn, you're looking old. You'll freeze and catch a cold. 'Cause you've left your coat behind. Take your time.”

17. A few days ago. My colleague at work sends me a link to a website: “What David Bowie was doing at your age.” I tell him, “I know damn well what he was doing at my age. More than I am.” At the “Bowie Is…” exhibit every item around every corner showed me how prolific and prodigious and YOUNG Bowie was for most of his career.

“All the days of my life. All the days I owe you.”

18. I thought I would meet him eventually. And I think now I didn’t meet him because I frittered away my time and my youth and did not make art. If I had made art I would almost have certainly run into David Bowie eventually.

“Down in space, it's always 1982.”

19. 18 months ago. David Bowie, apparently, is diagnosed with cancer. He turns around and records another album, writes music for the “SpongeBob” musical and collaborates on “Lazarus,” which, honestly, I enjoyed but did not love. Some of my friends HATED it. It’s a show about a man who lives forever and cannot die. I can’t possibly imagine what was in David Bowie’s head at the time.

He started young. He made history. He had a body of work spanning 50 years. He inspired me as a kid and now I definitely won’t see him again in concert. Two days ago was the last time I would unwrap a new David Bowie album.

“I know when to go out. I know when to stay in, get things done.”

20. I hurt like I knew David Bowie. I never got to meet him. But I have decades left before I’m 69. Time to get things done.

This way or no way. You know I'll be free. Just like that bluebird. Now, ain't that just like me?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

NY Comic-Con News: "Back in Time" set to take us back to "Back to the Future"

At New York Comic-Con on Thursday, Jason Aron, the director of “Back in Time,” a documentary celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” was asked by an audience member, “Do you feel anything would have been different if Eric Stoltz had played Marty McFly?” (Stoltz  famously was replaced by Michael J. Fox as the lead of the film in the middle of shooting). Answered Aron: “We wouldn’t be sitting in this room.”

Touching on the enormous impact the “Back to the Future” and its two sequels had on pop culture, Aron said the documentary came about when, in the midst of working on a short film in 2013, strangers repeatedly would stop him to talk about the vintage DeLorean he was using. “It made me think we should make a documentary.” Two successful Kickstarter campaigns (raising $45,000 and over $140,000, respectively) and the assistance of “Back to the Future” co-writer Bob Gale and “Back in Time”’s co-executive producer Adam F. Goldberg (creator and show-runner of ABC’s “The Goldbergs”) later, Aron and Louis Krubich, executive producer, and Lee Leshen, producer, had interviewed cast members and crew of the original film including Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly), Steven Spielberg (executive producer) and Zemeckis (director), as well as VIP fans such as television producer Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Terry and Oliver Holler, who created a screen-accurate DeLorean time machine and have traveled to all 50 states with it to raise money for Fox’s foundation, which supports research for Parkinson’s Disease.
Never underestimate the impact of the DeLorean: In a clip from the documentary, Gale mentions that Ford offered thousands of dollars for the use of their Mustang in the movie. Gale’s response: “Doc Brown doesn’t drive a f—king Mustang.” Gale was a touchstone for the production of the documentary: “[He] really helped us out,” says Krubich, “[We said] ‘We need Lea [Thompson], can you help?’ In three or 4 minutes we had an e-mail address and in 30 minutes we had a scheduled date for the[interview].” Gale also assisted in getting clearance from Universal for the use of clips from the films.
Were the cast and crewmembers difficult to work with? Though all had busy schedules, some of them were surprisingly low-maintenance. On preparing for an interview with Lloyd, Leshen says, “We went to the Ralph’s [supermarket]…we got three different kinds of coffee, we got every kind of pretzel and chip you could imagine….he had one pretzel and a half a bottle of water. [it cost us]  $400 dollars.”

The labor of love paid off by giving the crew access to some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. “Riding [a rweal, experimental] hoverboard and feeling frictionless movement under your feet” was the number one experience Leshen took away from making the movie. Meeting superfans like Bill Shea, owner of one of the original DeLoreans used in the movies (valued at over $500,000) was another. Fans who were present at the panel discussion got an experience of their own to take home with them: Each attendee was given a special limited edition bottle of “Pepsi Perfect,” a soda featured in the 2015 scenes of “Back to the Future II.”

More importantly, “Back in Time” will impact lives in the present day. A 13-city tour of the movie, with music by the “BTTF” tribute band the Flux Capacitors and appearances by the famous car, will raise money for the Michael J. Fox foundation. The tour comes to NYC on November 2.

When asked what the most amazing thing the filmmakers have taken from the experience their journey, Krubich instead mentioned the chance of an event that seemed impossible when “Back to the Future II” came out that, if the movie got it right, was supposed to happen this year: “The cubs winning the world series this year…if [the “Back to the Future” creators] got that right, that will be the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Back in Time” premieres on Netflix streaming on Oct. 21. The “88MPH” theatrical tour comes to NYC’s Mason Hall on Nov. 22 and the Sharp Theater on Nov. 23. Backintimefilm.com

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TV Review: "The Muppets" gets a shaky start, but has potential

The Muppets
Tuesdays, 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CST)

I had high hopes. I really did. While others clutched their Miss Piggy-endorsed pearls over the thought of a naughtier, “adult” take on the Muppets, I didn’t bat an eye. Having been a fan of the gang of misfits since their heyday during my childhood, and having familiarized myself with Jim Henson’s work over the years, I didn’t buy the notion that the Muppets were “for kids” in the first place. In fact, I’ve often said that they lost their way following Henson’s death in 1990 precisely because they were being treated as kiddy entertainment — you can keep your Muppet Treasure Island and others of its ilk. Bring on the double entendres!

True, I was a little disappointed that The Muppets was not going to be a variety show like the classic Muppet Show and the less-classic-but-had-its-moments Muppets Tonight! I felt then, and now feel more than ever, that variety is the medium that the characters truly thrive in. With Neil Patrick Harris singlehandedly attempting to bring back the genre with Best Time Ever, and 2011’s The Muppets and 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted’s focus on that aspect of their history, this could have been their moment to resurrect the form. But I kept an open mind about the single-camera mockumentary format, even if it’s long past being “new” post-The Office, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, Modern Family, and on and on and on. After all, the Muppets often thrive when you place them in situations you don’t expect to find them. So truly, I had high hopes.

Where did The Muppets go wrong? Simple. It just wasn’t very funny.

Like I said, I personally have no problem with the Muppets engaging in edgier humor. As an adult there are plenty of moments of their output during the Henson years that make you say, “How could I have missed that?” Henson had a wicked sensibility, and he and his writers imbued their work with a love of wordplay, innuendo, and even occasional insult humor. Look at the scene in The Muppets Take Manhattan, for example, where an amnesiac Kermit rips Miss Piggy apart for her insistence that she has a romantic relationship with him:
 “Maybe you expected me to go hog wild? Perhaps you could bring home the bacon! Ah, the sounds of love: ‘Soooooo-ey! Oink, oink!’ ”
But the problem with The Muppets is that apparently the entire joke of the show is to put wild, “adult” things in the mouths of the characters, as if to say, “OMG! The Muppets are now PG-13! That’s hysterical!” They just forgot actual jokes. Take for example, this dialogue among members of the band The Electric Mayhem early in the episode.

Floyd: “[He’s] not good on the road.” Animal: “So many women, so many towns.”

If this had been a scene featuring a human band in any TV show or movie made after, say, 1985, would it be funny? No, of course not. It would be trite. Cliché. At best it would be a shorthand character-defining moment, but certainly nothing that would make someone laugh out loud. It’s a stereotype that’s been done to death. But “the joke” here is that it’s Animal, a character with built-in recognition. “Wow! They’re implying that Animal, a puppet, has groupies! That’s amazing!” No, it’s not amazing. It’s not a joke. It doesn’t define the character because the character is already defined. This doesn’t even reach the level of sophistication of Meet the Feebles. And practically every joke is like this. Kermit “stress eats.” Wow! “Fozzie knows what ‘bear’ means in the gay community!” Wow! “Zoot is an addict.” That’s so, like, adult!

Compare this to these excerpts from when Kermit and Rowlf meet in The Muppet Movie: “I finish work, I go home, read a book, have a couple of beers, take myself for a walk and go to bed.” “I don’t mean to scare ya, my friend, but I betcha, come Father’s Day the litter bug’s gonna getcha.” Those lines are clever. They’re examples of wordplay that make you take a second and say, “He’s a dog, he goes to the bathroom by taking himself for a walk!” Or, “They’re talking about sex!” In other words, they’re jokes. They’re not for kids, they fit the characters that have already been established through years of familiarity, and they’re funny.

Aside from the ever-present feeling that the writers are trying to push buttons rather than craft punchlines, The Muppets also lacks an ingredient that has been present in almost every Muppets project for the last 50-plus years: Anarchy. Henson and his team (of which only two colleagues, Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire, remain active Muppeteers) loved randomness, non sequiturs, silly puns and sillier physical humor. A well-known quote from Henson regarding his comedic sensibility was, “It all ends in one of two ways: Either something gets eaten or something blows up.” Nothing gets eaten or blown up in The Muppets. Nor do we see ecstatic somersaulting penguins, weirdos getting shot out of cannons, incomprehensible chickens, dance numbers gone terribly wrong, inanimate objects coming to life. Despite ready access to guest stars and musical acts, the writers feel hemmed in by the Larry Sanders Show-like premise, even though there’s no reason this couldn’t have worked if it had been infused with Muppety energy. At no time do the Muppets sing, or dance, or really do much of anything that hasn’t been done much better by real people elsewhere. It feels like such a wasted opportunity.

So, you might ask, did The Muppets do anything well? Absolutely. What The Muppets gets right is an area that hasn’t consistently been done well in the Muppet world, post-Henson: The relationships among the characters are solid. Even “broken up” (we’ll see how long that lasts), there is genuine chemistry and pathos in Miss Piggy and Kermit’s relationship (and let’s not forget that their initial relationship over many years of The Muppet Show was as a “couple” that one of the members denied being a part of). Likewise, Piggy is familiar and well-defined, and the one character who is perfect for this setting. Fozzie Bear’s interactions with his girlfriend’s family also generate actual laughs. And though Gonzo has yet to have a moment to shine, Scooter’s resurgence (many years after the death of Richard Hunt in 1992 put the character on the back-burner for years) was welcome and character-appropriate, as was his relationship to Kermit. The characters feel like themselves even if they don’t feel especially funny. Gone is the angst of the last two Muppet movies, where the central conflict was about Kermit being abandoned by his friends. Here, he is back being the able leader of the team and the character that holds the ensemble together.

Another welcome aspect to the show is that it is, in fact, about the Muppets. The real ones. In their last few movies and television specials it began to feel like the Muppets were doomed to playing second-fiddle to whatever name was lined up to “star” in their films. Between that and the introduction of post-Disney Muppet Walter (blissfully not present in the pilot), I had begun to fear that the writers and puppeteers were afraid to actually focus on the characters Henson and Co. created. Here, the celebrity guests are just that: guests who look happy to let the Muppets shine.

So there is some hope going forward, and I haven’t given up on the show just yet. If the characters we’re tuning in to see could just be funny, occasionally, the Muppets — and their eponymous show — might just have a future.