Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Month That Was - August 2013

The Month That Was - August 2013: Wowie zowie. Already at summer's end. I'm sitting here trying to sum up the month of August and I can't really remember what happened. I read a nice book (below); had a long weekend in Chicago (below); beyond that, uh, work was hellacious, let’s see...oh, I am very close to getting my next book up for Kindle. I need to write and introduction and then it will be ready. I’ll post more here, but don’t get your hopes up; it’s very esoteric. Not anything like what I’ve written before. It’s not even original, really. With luck next month I’ll fill you in.

[TV] Summer Toobage
[TV] Applied Schtick
[Travel] Still My Kinda Town
[Books] Book Look: Radio Shangri-La

[TV] Summer Toobage

Summer Toobage: At the moment any discussion of TV has to start and end with Breaking Bad. The final season has been a tour-de-force. I think everyone who enjoyed the show had this fear in the back of their mind that it might end suckily -- like the The Wire. Nope. I thought it would end sharply but uninspiringly. I assumed that since the elevating underlying tension -- whether it is better to be harmless and forgettable or harmful and remembered -- had been resolved it would be pretty a standard closure-fest. Walt was already deemed evil in the narrative. Case closed. From there, I reasoned it was just a matter of concluding the character arc either with comeuppance or injustice. I had no doubt it would be done with great skill, but the big question was already answered.

Well I just completely underestimated how much skill was going to be brought to bear. No attempt was made to re-ignite the possibility of Walt’s redemption. Each scene seems to push him further and further from sympathy. He’s reached the point where every word out of his mouth is suspect. He claims his cancer has returned, but is that just a ploy for sympathy? He wants his brother-in-law to back off for the sake of the kids, but is that just an angle to buy time? His wife is backed into a corner because of her own secrets. His last act of guilt -- his generosity toward Hank’s injury -- is now sullied when he turns it to his advantage. Jesse, symbolically the first person he manipulated, seems to see through him finally. Every act is calculated to assure his continued survival while maintaining the plausibility of his nobility. He has become, in short, a textbook sociopath. There’s the new conflict: How do you deal with someone who simply can't be believed when he is inescapably entwined with your life and those that you love?

Again, there is no moral resolution left here (unless Gilligan has some sort of monster sized rabbit in his hat), but the rivet factor is through the roof. All down the line -- writing, direction, acting -- everything is getting nailed cold. I’ll hate to see it all end, but I’m already looking forward to binge rewatching the entire series on NetFlix in a year or so.

Other things I’ve been watching on my summer vacation:
  • The Bridge -- from FX, which is probably the best network right now. Based in El Paso/Juarez -- a cross-border/cross-culture hunt for a serial killer. Lots of twists and turns. Interesting, if somewhat unlikely, characters. Needs to be careful not to get a) too tied up in the procedural or b) too tied up in cultural observations about the border. So far it’s done pretty well. Another quality drama that appears to have no larger goal. We’ll see. It has tremendous potential for someone with the right vision, but smart money is always against that. This is worth watching, which is more than you can say for most of these shows.
  • Wilfred -- FX again. Occasionally inspired, occasionally stupid, occasionally disgusting, almost always good for a laugh. The heartwarming story of a suicidal loser and his id manifestation in the form a dog, or rather an Australian guy dressed in a dog costume. Often at it’s funniest when parodying real dog behavior. Wilfred has won me over, although it is now four seasons on and getting to the point where an end game needs to kick in. Still, after watching this, you can never see Lord of the Rings again without picturing Mr. Frodo slumped on a couch next to a guy in a dog suit, doing bong hits until catatonic. A fun and weird curiosity. Farce and comedy aside, there is actually a continuing Lost-like mystery going on about the nature of Wilfred. If you want to take it up, I suggest starting at the beginning.
  • Dexter -- I find I watch this mostly out of habit now. It’s not very good. It hasn't been since season 2. Normally if I keep watching in those circumstances it’s because I feel invested in the characters, but don't really give a rip about any of the characters on this show. Inertia is a powerful thing in the face of some terrible summer TV. This show can be thought of as an ill-conceived version of Breaking Bad: man does terrible things for what might be the greater good and, at least for a while, gets away with it. Unfortunately, since the man in this case is a psychopath there is no question of remorse and/or redemption when things go bad. In these later seasons, the writers have had to imbue Dexter with some emotion to try to get him a character arc beyond the next bad guy he needs to carve up. They’ve failed. What’s left is occasional dollops of lurid entertainment and...inertia.
  • Magic City -- Gone, and soon to be forgotten. Magic City was a middling crime drama/period piece that was originally marketed as Mad Men meets the Sopranos. It couldn't hold a candle to either of those shows, but it was not without certain charms. Though most of the storylines were misguided and meh, the main plot -- a good son, a bad son, and a man whose ambition will cause the loss of both -- had at least a little potential. But really, it was not a show I could recommend to anyone. It inspired no passion, although it was on an upswing and may have hit its stride if given another season. The unlikely, but possible, upside would have been something along the lines of Boardwalk Empire: a high end 2nd tier drama. Starz could do worse and they probably will.
  • Burn Notice -- Was there ever a time when this show was fun and hip, or is my memory failing? Another show that had a good couple of seasons then fell off a cliff. A clever little caper show that decided it needed to have STAKES. I keep DVRing it to see if they find any of the fun and glamour from the early episodes but they never do and I end up FF’ding through the entire show in fifteen minutes. It’s ending about three seasons too late and there will be no redemption no matter how it ends. Luckily only a couple of episodes left and I get an extra fifteen minutes in my week.
  • True Blood -- Yet another one that is lost. HBO has in its pocket the best of so many story genres it’s not even funny. Mob (Sopranos), Western (Deadwood), Cop/Crime (The Wire, although I may have to displace this with Breaking Bad) -- in the entire history of the movies nothing outshines these. Early on in True Blood there was the potential for them to take the Vampire crown also, but that still sits with Buffy. What True Blood was back then was the best Roger Corman sexploitation film ever made, but it has even sacrificed that title to American Horror Story, or it would if AHS was on premium cable and could get R rated. With each successive season it has gotten increasingly shallow, absurd, and non sequitur. As if the the writer’s room consisted of a bunch of giggling adolescents crying, “wouldn’t it be cool if…,” lobbing the idea against a whiteboard, then randomly assigning them to scripts. I’m sure it has been renewed but it needs to die now.
Man has summer TV been epically sucktastic. Glad that’s over. I’m looking forward to decent viewing coming back -- Justified, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Archer, Psych, probably some other stuff I am forgetting. Good stuff, but not great. Of course next year also sees the last of Mad Men and the end of TVs heroic age.

Still there are points of hope. Milch has new pilot coming -- the Money -- which is self-recommending and may even last longer than one season. At least it won’t be like everything else on TV. Also potentially original is a new show called Masters of Sex about early research into sex which judging from the promos, could be something that is new and different -- or it could be an excuse for lurid shock. It’ll be nice to see dramas that don't revolve around crime or historical/fantasy fiction.

Although I am looking forward to some new stuff, I can’t help but feel we’ve peaked, and more and more I will be rewatching the greats rather than watching new stuff. The bright side is that reality TV is drifting away from front and center. Still, peak TV may have passed.

[TV] Applied Schtick

Applied Schtick: Two TV comedy maestros brought their sit-com shtick to something more long form. The results were mixed. Ted from Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane and starring Mark Wahlberg, who I increasingly like, and Mila Kunis gets an “A”. It’s a stupid rom-com candy coating wrapped around what is transparently just Family Guy material. Even the voice of Ted, the intelligent and foul-minded teddy bear, is Seth McFarlane’s Peter Griffin voice. I’m mean exactly that voice. He didn't even try to come up with a different one. But it’s top notch Family Guy material, which means it’s funny as all hell. Worth a free viewing, and maybe even a rental.

Clean History is Larry David’s project and it is essentially a long form version of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. The gimmick here is that Larry managed to get himself dumped by a company that went on to tremendous success effectively losing out on a billion dollar payoff. Now living a much smaller life incognito on the other side of the country his past catches up with him and he decides to take revenge on it. The setting in Nantucket but it might was well be the L.A. of Curb…. Same characters, and in some cases same actors. Larry David plays Larry David. At it’s best Curb… can be very funny, but this is not Curb… at its best. When Curb… is not at it’s best it barely funny at all. Remember: it’s a show about George Castanza, with Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine removed. Its only going to score big about a third of the time at most, and Clear History isn’t one of those times. It’s not bad. I’ll give it a B/B-. But not worth going out of your way to watch.

[Travel] Still My Kinda Town

Still My Kinda Town: It had been a couple of years since I visited Chicago, which is far too long as it is about as perfect as imaginable a long weekend destination. I had first planned to drive in, but parking is always a hassle and my car is getting to be old and oil thirsty, so I took Amtrak. The Ann Arbor train station is 15 minutes away and since I am now old and spoiled enough to pay for business class, the 5 hour (with delays) trip is pretty much hassle free (provided the train doesn't break down, which has been known to happen).

Not only is the train vastly cheaper than flying, it’s just about as fast. Figure two hours of transport and contingency padding pre-flight, an hour and a half flight, another hour of getting in from O’Hare -- you’re over four hours right there. So flying may be faster but not by much. Meanwhile on the train there’s no security line, you can get up at will, you have about three times as much legroom, power outlets and free wi-fi (it even works sometimes) at your seat, and you can whip out your phone or other devices whenever you want (just don’t be an ass about it). A cab from Union Station is about a quarter of the price of a cab from O’Hare or Midway. Union Station itself is a bit of a Charlie Foxtrot, but not one the level of a big airport. All in all, it’s a brain-free decision.

The Chicago 10k was happening on Sunday morning so I arrived Saturday afternoon with the intention of staying off my feet but my room was in Streeterville (the area near Navy Pier) and the packet pickup for the run was up in Old Town, right next to Second City, a couple of neighborhoods north. I was so excited to be in Chicago again that I fooled myself into thinking the walk would be nothing. It’s really not so much -- a little over a couple of miles -- four miles round trip, rather a lot for pre-race wear and tear on the feet. Then I completely underestimated the distance from my hotel to the far end of Grant Park where the start of the race was -- another two miles. So ended up walking 10K (6.2 miles) just to get in position to run the 10K. My feet were killing me the whole race and my time was disappointing. Still, there are worse ways to spend a Sunday morning than running along the lakeshore.

The only thing left to do was nap. So after the race I walked over to Millenium Park, made a quick, obligatory visit to the Bean and the Crown Fountain, I settled on the lawn in front of the Pritzker Pavillion for some shut eye in the cool shade. How perfect is that?

Somewhat recharged, I paid a visit to the Art Institute. They had a Impressionism and Fashion exhibit going on that didn’t really interest me and the main sculpture garden was down for renovations, so it was a little disappointing, but there is so much tremendous stuff on display there that I could still wander for for a couple of hours, or at least until my feet gave out again.

Come evening I engaged in what was probably the single most touristy activity imaginable. Not only did I go to Navy Pier (self-described as the busiest tourist destination in the Midwest), I went to the Margaritaville on Navy Pier and had a margarita. All that was missing was and old time photo and a souvenir snow globe.

The next day (Monday) was dedicated to my traditional Chicago activity -- rent a bike and pedal north to Wrigleyville. This is an activity I highly recommend to anyone who will listen. You can rent a bike at Navy Pier of Millenium Park (there may be other places). If you are heading north I suggest Navy Pier, for points south, which would be the museum campus, Millenium Park works better (be careful to walk your bike until you get out of the park or you’ll get yelled at). Either way, once you have your bike you have miles and miles of a paved pedestrian/cyclist/rollerblade path running along Lake Michigan that is a joy to ride. North from Navy Pier you will ride past broad beaches full of folks swimming and playing volleyball and just laying about. You could be in Miami Beach by the look of it.

At any point you can turn left and head back toward the city attractions. First up is Lincoln Park, a vernal space with a zoo and gardens, also to home to Depaul University and Chicago Pizza Kitchen and Oven Grinder (where the locals go for pizza pie; they tend to pass on the famous name deep dish joints). Next up is the turnoff onto Addison towards Wrigleyville.

Wrigleyville is the neighborhood around Wrigley Field where the Cubs play. It’s loaded down with bars and souvenir shops with some quirky boutiquey kinda stuff mixed in, mostly running along Clark St. When the Cubs are playing it gets fun. When the Cubs are playing the White Sox, or there is some other special aspect to the game such as it coincides with a Northwestern football game, it gets downright Bourbon Street-like. At 11 AM on Monday when the Cubs aren't playing until the evening it’s pretty quiet, which was fine with me. I snagged a quick lunch at Vines on Clark, one of the places that does a little better than standard bar food, then trotted across the street for a tour of Wrigley Field.

If you are not a baseball fan, let’s just note that Wrigley Field is an old, old, old, traditional park. It is loaded down with stories and history of the sort that baseball nerds drool over. The tour covers all that history as you walk throughout the park from the bleachers to the press box, eventually ending right down on the field. It’s very nicely done and the guides are professional and knowledgeable. Like all ballparks, Wrigley has that cathedral like quality when empty -- the beautiful green shadings and amphitheatrical shape. There is comparatively little advertising since it was designed long before things such as corporate sponsorship were a gleam in anyone’s eye. I have to say, though, that when it comes to actually watching a game, Wrigley just can’t measure up to modern parks for comfort and convenience. Concession choices are limited and you get your fair share of obstructed view seats.

Note: If I was King of Wrigley Field I would find a way to completely demolish and re-do the upper deck. There has to be a way to have an upper deck without the dropping huge support poles in front of lower deck fans. Plus, with a new upper deck you could build in some of the posh seating and services that generate so much revenue. And you could do all this without altering the traditional character or interfering with the surrounding neighborhood.

Still, there is tremendous value to Wrigley Field, and Wrigleyville is part of that. There is virtually no parking anywhere around the stadium, the environment is part of the city, not a bubble for folks from the suburbs to haul in for the game, get slotted into a parking space, then crawl through the traffic jam out on the way home right after. If you want to see the Tigers you go to Comerica Park then leave, if you want to see the Cubs you go to the city where Wrigley Field is. Does that make sense?

The lakeshore bike path continues north a way further up to Edgewater Beach. I expect it’s an easy street ride beyond that to Loyola University and Northwestern University. Chicago, in many ways, resembles a giant college town. Sadly, threatening skies put the kibosh on any further exploration. I got back to Millenium Park just as the rain was starting in earnest. The evening would be indoor time. Dinner was a small grilled veggie pizza at Gino’s East, of which I ate about half. I used to work at Pizzeria Uno’s so I’m familiar with Chicago Style Deep Dish, but I have to say that the famous names in Deep Dish -- Uno’s, Gino’s, Giardano’s, Lou’s -- all taste pretty much the same to me. It’s all tasty stuff -- I love the sweet chunky tomato sauce most of all -- but undifferentiated.

The next morning was checkout time, but I had scheduled a late train back, so I had a final few hours to enjoy the city. A walk up Michigan Ave, past all the high end stores, to the Gold Coast area where the ultra-hip shops and restaurants are. I happened on a little place called Da Lobsta where they claimed to do a genuine Maine-style Lobster Roll, and they do, it was very tasty and trad -- made me miss Maine. From there further north to the Lincoln Park Zoo and spent some leisurely time checking out the beasties.

On the way back to get my gear I did something silly. I stopped at Portillo’s for an Italian Beef. Chicago is best known for Deep Dish and the famous Chicago Style hot dogs. Less well known but still iconic is the Italian Beef sandwich. It’s simple: seasoned roast beef left to marinate in it’s own spiced juices, topped with a small touch of sweet Italian peppers. It is serve on a chewy hoagie roll and -- this is key -- au jus, messy au jus. It’s fabulous when done right, a Portillo’s does an excellent job. Not a thing you want to eat everyday, but I figured between running and biking and walking I had probably covered forty miles over the previous 2 days. Plus, I didn't want to be hungry on the train ride back. So I indulged.

And I wasn’t hungry on the ride back. I felt like a bloated pig on the ride back. And the bulk of the following day. But that’s alright. I get to Chicago a couple of days a year if I’m lucky. I’ll gladly indulge in whatever it offers.

[Books] Book Look: Radio Shangri-La, by Lisa Napoli

Book Look: Radio Shangri-La, by Lisa Napoli: The bulk of the interest in this book comes from the author’s adventures managing an independent radio station in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan. Let's take a moment to talk about Bhutan.

Since time immemorial Bhutan was isolated geographically. It became something of a Buddhist fundamentalist monarchy. Even when interaction was possible, it was held at bay in an effort to keep the people on the proper holy path. This was possible not just because of its geographic isolation but also because there was little value strategically or in natural resources. A traveller might wander in, admire the views, then move on without a reason to staying in contact. However, the world cannot be kept at bay forever.

In an attempt to not lose itself in the global cyclone of popular progressive culture, Bhutan has taken to monitoring, limiting, and controlling much of its connections to the outside world. What is permitted as far as contact and behavior is determined by the government in accord with something they refer to as Gross National Happiness. In other words, instead of allowing collective individual and economic forces shape their country, they will assess the value of any technology or cultural development that appears with respect to its effect on the Happiness of the nation and then decide whether to allow, forbid, or modify and control it.

It is a naively appealing idea, also vaguely utopian, and we know where that can lead. In some ways it draws comparison to the Amish, who do similar evaluations with respect to the possibility of things encouraging pridefulness. It also brings to mind the appeal of what might be called the nanny-state to a certain mindset: the good-intentioned banning certain kinds of food or entertainment or other “consenting adult” style behaviors that percolates through the West. Of course, such precepts never gain much more than a toehold in the West because we’re too varied. Cultural control and diversity are mortal enemies. To have success with something like Gross National Happiness you need a monoculture -- a broad and deep agreement on what actually constitutes happiness. The Bhutanese have that and it seems to work well for them.

In any event, as knowledge and information drifted in from outside through various sources -- not the least of which elite families sending their children to schools in India and the West -- modernizations followed. One such modernization was the creation of an independent radio station, which is central to our story. An experienced media executive, Lisa Napoli, through a chance meeting or two, found herself flying halfway around the world to run this new radio station. It was quite and adventure and Napoli reveals it in a very engaging manner.

There is much cultural substance and event here, both large and small. Napoli has to gently induce a stronger professionalism to her colleagues, in an atmosphere that is more like a college radio station run by volunteers, without offending the more personal way of life of the Bhutanese. The portrayals of the young station employees and their almost adolescent love of Western pop culture is endearing. But there are also larger, more complex events. The first ever public elections, and the associated campaigns are occurring. And later, one of the friend/colleagues from her visit manages to scam her way to America in a romantic search for a dream, and for time disappears from sight.

I would have preferred more in depth examination of these events, the conflicts and motivations behind them -- they seem like a gold mine for observational and philosophical commentary -- but that’s not the direction Napoli chose. The subtitle of the book is “What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.” Napoli spends a fair amount of time on her emotional self-discovery. This is not necessarily a bad thing as we see her draw on a number of experiences and thrown in a touch Buddhist fatalism to come to terms with how her life has been shaped by her past and her decisions. This didn't interest me so much because I am old and have already internalized most of her lessons.

Should you read Radio Shangri-la? Sure. I liked it and this is one instance where I think most readers would enjoy it more than I did, that is to say most readers would probably appreciate the biographical personalization Napoli provides. It is written with warmth and delicacy and is never overly serious. Yes, I think you’d enjoy it.

Interestingly, Napoli is co-guiding a tour to Bhutan in 2014. It sounds amazing, but the fact that total overall cost for me would be something well north of ten grand, I’m going to have to pass. I’ll have to wait for an invitation when they need someone to teach them to how write books that don't sell. Then it’ll be my turn for such an adventure.