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Archive for July, 2008

I’m what is called a “reflective skeptic” which is to say that I don’t take anything as absolutely right or true until I’ve had a chance to look at it, assess it, think about it and reflect on it. Sounds complicated but honestly, it’s automatic at this point and doesn’t take up any more time than it needs to. In the end, I may come to embrace whatever it is I’m looking at – a philosophy, an idea, a diet plan – but that’s after I’ve checked it out. Works so well that if I were the proselytizing type, I’d be pushing this approach on everyone. Mainly I use it to counter the effect of so many different people claiming that what’s good and right for them will also be what’s good and right for you.

The point of my little introduction is that when my friends told me to check out a YouTube lecture by a professor named Randy Pausch, who was dying of pancreatic cancer, I was hesitant. I mean, “Tuesdays with Morrie” about Mitch Albom’s  time with his dying professor, is a sweet book but I’m not sure life lessons are all they’re cracked up to be. However, after reading in a USA Today interview that Pausch, when asked if his lecture was based Albom’s book, admitted he’d never read it, then cracked that he didn’t know there was a “dying-professor” section in the bookstore, I went to look at the video.

Dr. Pausch – he was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University – was the kind of teacher I would have loved. His work in virtual reality earned him awards from academic and industry groups. He even got a chance to design a ride for Disney. But it was his lecture on how to live when you know you’re going to die that earned him an audience of millions.  Practical, not saccharine, honest and humorous, he was as inspirational as any self-help guru or lifestyle proponent and much, much funnier.

Randy Pausch died yesterday. Death doesn’t offer happy endings for the living, which means his wife and young children have to go on without him. But what a wonderful gift he’s left them – and us. Thanks, man.

PS – The title of the post is a reference to the opening song from the musical “Zorba!” by Kander and Ebb; the first line of the theme song is “Life is what you live while you’re waiting to die.”

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We’re in the midst of our second heat-wave out here on the Eastern Seaboard and my electricity bill just came in. Apparently setting the thermostat at 78 isn’t good enough especially in my townhouse, thanks to my energy – inefficient design. I’d drive to the beach but well, you know the price of gas.

I’ve been alternating between Barnes and Noble and the public library. This has given me a chance to borrow someone else’s air conditioning, get a little work done and also sip on an iced cappuccino while checking out some new book titles under anything and everything from fiction to current events to philosophy. The buzz is about Jane Mayer’s new book, “The Dark Side – The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into the War on American Ideals”  but I want to read another book on the table by Richard Shankman called “Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter” – although I think I already know how it’s going to turn out.

Speaking of dark, saw “The Dark Knight” last night. A little confusing, a whole lot dark and featuring some terrific performances not only by Heath Ledger and Christian Bale but also, in my view, Aaron Eckhart. I’ve been a fan of his for a few years and could never understand why a guy who played his impossibly good looks into some nice ironic performances had never made it. Then I remember George Clooney was nearly out of his thirties. Anyway, I figure this performance should kick him up a level. Worth a look-see but note: it’s two and a half hours. 

Al Gore gave a speech that was either inspiring or unrealistic, depending on what you read about it.  Maybe it was both. He does seem to be uniquely positioned these days to point out our problems, issue challenges and speak optimistically about a future in which we have become free of our dependency from carbon-based fossel fuels – a future in which we don’t have to be “borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet.” Strangely enough, Gore seems to think we can do it, er, not borrow money to burn oil to destroy the planet but actually reduce or eliminate our oil dependency.

His optimism stands in stark contrast to the way the rest of us seem to be feeling. One recent poll says 81% of Americans feel America is headed in the wrong direction and a Rockefeller Foundation/Time Magazine poll that measured Americans’ concerns about the economy also revealed that nearly half the 18-29-year-olds “feel that America’s best days are in the past.”Speaking of economy, just about everything I read says we’re in it for the long haul, negatively speaking.

Kind of dark thoughts and we haven’t even reached the dog days of summer.

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I’ve been so engrossed in what you might call “man-activities”(watching superhero flicks, worrying over the Mets and the Yankees, reading international thrillers, working out sporadically with weights) that I’ve been missing the cat fights taking place in the news and around the Internet. This is what I get for missing the “Sex and the City” bandwagon. Anyway, I’ve noticed that “cougars” are lately on the prowl; not the real cats, except possibly out West, but rather the slang version, the sexy older woman interested in younger guys (aren’t we all?). Madonna, a major-league cougar (her body alone qualifies her but she also has a husband ten years younger), fought rumors that she was canoodling with even an younger major-league sex symbol Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod). This week’s news has also featured the nasty public divorce trial of lovely (and angry, the reason for going public) Christie Brinkley and her less than lovely and only somewhat younger ex Peter Cook, which has now apparently been resolved. We might have been spared the details about his $3,000/month Internet porn habit and an eighteen-year-old mistress but then we’d have to go back to superhero movies and working out.

 

Cougars, not to be mistaken for cuddly kittens, are predators and are also known as pumas, not to be mistaken for the athletic apparel company. PUMA is also the name of a new political action group I encountered online recently via multiple sites and citations. The name is an acronym meaning (depending on what you’re reading) either “People United Means Action” or “Party Unity My Ass.” Get it? PUMA members are made up of incensed Hillary Clinton supporters, mostly women as far as I can tell, who believe their candidate was forced out of the race prematurely in the name of (Democratic) party unity. Their initial goal appears to have been to help Hillary claw her way back into contention after the last of the primaries. I’m not convinced Hillary necessarily wants that but I’m basing that on a recent speech she gave that involved, yes, party unity (more on that later). At any rate, her public declarations on the matter aren’t stopping PUMA plans which include creating some sort of a commotion at the convention in Denver – but then what is a Democratic Party convention without some sort of commotion? Many PUMA members claim to be ready to vote for or raise money for McCain, never mind that his views on many issues appear diametrically opposed to Hillary’s. Some even call themselves Democrats for McCain, which makes as much sense to me as Jews for Jesus. One enraged blogger repeatedly referred to herself as a “Woman-American” which I guess is how she signals her feelings that her “group” has been disenfranchised.

 

I am woman; hear me roar.

 

Listen, there are plenty of topics about which women and right-minded people can get angry, among them healthcare, childcare, environmental disintegration, energy dependency, the safety of our food and our medicine and our schools, reproductive choice and pay equity. Hillary has consistently offered proposals to deal with these issues which are virtually identical with Obama’s. Can her supporters seriously believe she secretly hopes they’ll vote for John McCain, whose views are so different? Or don’t they really care anymore? F-ck our shared beliefs and full steam ahead?

 

Call me naive but when I heard Hillary Clinton speak at a breakfast yesterday, she seemed to have turned the proverbial corner. Yes, she addressed the disappointment and the adjustment she and her supporters had to make. She also insisted that the greater good trumped all; she indicated that, in her view, Obama represented just that. Maybe her remarks were calculated; her campaign’s in debt and her political future necessitates her playing nice – but isn’t that how politics in general are played? What struck me is that Hillary always manages to rise above repeated attempts to attach stereotypes to her. Succumbing to the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” cliché is not her style; how strange that some of her supporters find it such a comfortable fit.

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Many of my friends like to brag that they’re lucky to get out to the movies once a year. I, however, have the opposite problem, especially at the begining of the summer when, seduced by big marketing campaigns and tired of running my air conditioner at home, I dash over to the local multiplex to catch the new blockbusters, the better to have bragging rights, should anyone ask. Except for the pain of sitting through half dozen or more previews and countless television trailers (hint: bring a book), it’s a pretty painless experience, especially if you buy tickets in advance and can combine various points from the various cards you carry in your wallet to score free popcorn or a companion ticket. So far, it’s worked out well.

I missed “Sex and the City” so probably can’t claim to be completely on top of the summer season. I found the television series only show fitfully amusing; I’m highly ambivalent about the talent and looks of most of the leads and anyway, only certain fashion icons age well and well, that doesn’t include the “Sex” ladies in my book. So sorry, no review.

However, although not at all a fan of adolescent male comedies, I saw “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” Adam Sandler’s absolutely hysterical and over-the-top poke at mid-East misunderstandings. It may be politically incorrect to admit to finding a politically incorrect movie so funny but I did. You go in knowing there’ll be more than anyone deserves of sex-on-the-brain jokes but come on, the target audience is not me. The fact that I enjoyed it so much, however, suggests that it broke more than a little out of its genre with its mix of message and predictable Adam Sandler schtick.

Actually, a number of the movies seem to be playing with their genres. The new hybrid movie means that you either get a flick filled with mind-bending nuance or you get a high-minded mish-mash. Kudos to the directors for trying, though. Makes me feel as if they have some confidence in my intelligence.

The “Indiana Jones” franchise is one that doesn’t mess one little bit with its niche, except to remind us that 65 is the new 40; at any rate, Harrison Ford looks pretty damned good. But the thing about the latest installment is that it’s like going to see a live concert featuring your favorite band from the 60s, 70s or 80s. You love them whether they’re great, or maybe slightly less great. So yeah, I liked the movie (“Go Harrison! Yea, Karen Allen!”) but he seemed tired and she seemed a little startled to be there, although game. Cate Blanchett had a great time as a dominatrix-type spy but that dialect made me think she was playing a German/Russian raised in Australia by way of Los Angeles. The special effects looked tired as well, like the second installment of the “Mummy” series starring Brendan Fraser (not the good one, by the way). I looked at my watch more than once.

I never looked at my watch once during “Iron Man” but that’s because Robert Downey Jr. is not only fun to watch but fascinating. I like his character, an amoral type seeking redemption as much or more than revenge. That’d be appealing even if you didn’t know Downey’s back story. Not only that, I like the way the gadgets work. The movie is thoroughly up-to-date but old-fashioned too. It’s out of the theaters but if it come around again, see it – or rent it.

“Get Smart” also updated the TV show conceit; I just can’t see Don Adams from the TV series in any enterprise labeled labeled “comedy/action.”  The original “Get Smart” was completely over the top but Steve Carell is positioned as a little more suave than all that. Yeah, there were some amusing comedic physical pieces but I got the feeling everyone was trying to look good (and they looked fabulous!)  and the leads were holding back. The supporting players got the funniest bits and some of the best lines and helped fill the time during some of the slower scenes.

“Hancock” is two movies in one, I swear. I adored the first one and went along with the second one which potentially sets up a sequel, although you wouldn’t believe it looking at the trailers, which focus on the first half of the movie only. Will Smith can do no wrong – seriously, I’d watch the man do ANYTHING – and the idea that he’s playing an angry dude with super powers who ticks off (and then confronts) the people he’s trying to help is very funny. I was apparenly one of a handfull of people who wasn’t surprised by the mid-movie twist but I think I was sighing with impatience as the plot unfolded at that point. Still, I understand how it allows for a return of the character. NOTE TO THEATER GOERS: Several movies, including “Hancock” are leaving at least one critical scene to show during the credits. I like to read the credits but for those of you who don’t, if you find yourself out the doors of the theater one they start rolling, you’ll miss a pivotal scene. Same with WALL-E. 

Ah, WALL-E: See it. Or read the article that Frank Rich wrote in today’s New York Times and see it. Or read any number of other reviews and believe them and see it. I don’t know what to say about those folks at Pixar but whatever they’re smoking, injesting, eating, drinking or dreaming about, I want some. At least I want some if it will make me an eighth as creative as they are.

 So Hollywood, if you’re reading this, smile for a minute because at least one reluctant movie-goer has become a regularmovie-goer (at least temporarily). But please, not SO many sequels. You’re killing me!

PS: Stay tuned for “Batman” – I can’t be more impressed by some of these Australian actors who seem to have it all over our homegrown ones and in this one we’re talking about Christian Bale and the late, great (and would’ve and should’ve been greater) Heath Ledger.

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