I see a note from my sister on Facebook: "I HATE CABLE TV." In theory, I'm with her. The cruelest part of getting more channels than you can count is the joke whose punchline we all know: Now you get to watch 500 channels of garbage.
Why then, do I have a satellite dish installer on the roof right now, replacing our old DirecTV dish with a brand-new dish that will enable us to receive a high-definition signal? I think it's got to be more complicated than we want to see the garbage more clearly.
sLet me catalog the reasons.
--Curiosity: I've wanted to see whether HD television really is better--especially for the Tour de France in July.
--Weakness: I know that changing to HD isn't going to improve the quality of the programming. I know it's probably not worth whatever extra amount DirecTV will charge us. But we've been talking about getting new service for awhile and now I'm just giving in.
--Distractability: I'm as willing as anyone to slough off my chores and responsibilities in favor of a nice "Seinfeld" episode. (Do I still read? That seems to be the culturally correct alternative to watching the tube--as opposed to gardening, cooking, paying the bills, or going to work. Yes, I try to, though sometimes it takes me forever to get through stuff. Right now I'm reading two nonfiction works: a biography of John Brown and a first-person account of Robert Falcon Scott's last Antarctic expedition.)
--Keeping in Touch with the People: Here's a self-justification that often pops up in my brain: "I work in the media, so I need to know what's going on out there with the culture and with media consumers." That's partly true; but only partly. If this were really an exercise in keeping current with popular tastes and the concerns and fascinations of my fellow citizens, I'd be watching a lot more "American Idol," and I'd regularly check in with the crowd-baiters on Fox News. (In practice, I find about 15 minutes of "Idol" fulfills my annual requirement, and I'm so enraged and depressed by Fox News that the only way I can deal with its spew is the occasional Glen Beck deconstruction on "The Daily Show." Speaking of "The Daily Show," though, and "The Colbert Report"--I find I can live without them. Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC? Turns out I don't like left-directed pandering any more than I can stand the right-directed ravings on Fox.)
--The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name: Well, maybe it's time for me to come out. It turns out I actually like television. I think there's plenty of inventive storytelling on the tube. Some of it can be deep, compelling, and memorable. -"Lonesome Dove," anyone? Or "Band of Brothers"? "The Wire"? "Deadwood"? (I could go on.) A lot of the programming is superficial beyond a catchy gimmick--"24." Some shows are based on formula and gimmicky, but work the formulas and gimmicks well: the whole "CSI" and "Law and Order" franchises. But the point is: on occasion, there's real content out there that is--I hope this doesn't set off a sacrilege alarm anywhere--on the same level of all the popular entertainments of the past, from "The Iliad" to "King Lear" to "Wuthering Heights"--that we have been taught to think of as classics.
Enough said on that. The dish guy is still on the roof.
We've watched most of the first two installments of the new Ken Burns public TV extravaganza, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." The beauty of the show is exhilarating and the history is fascinating (Theodore Roosevelt--what a guy).
The first two episodes are closely entwined with the story of John Muir, and part two focuses first on his fight to complete the preservation of Yosemite and then on his unsuccessful battle to stop San Francisco from flooding Hetch Hetchy valley. Muir's voiceovers are done in a soft Scots burr. Occasionally, you hear about Muir from Lee Stetson, who has portrayed him for decades and who has even adopted the Muir look. But when Stetson appears on camera, he speaks in a plain old General American accent. At the very end of the second episode, though, he briefly introduces a Muir quote, then instantly transitions to the gentle and compelling Muir voice, then appears on camera to finish the quote. It's a moving performance. Here's what he recites:
"Muir said, 'As long as I live I'll hear the birds and the winds and the waterfalls sing. I'll interpret the rocks and learn the language of flood and storm and avalanche. I'll make the acquaintance of the wild gardens and the glaciers and get as near to the heart of this world as I could. And so I did. I sauntered about from rock to rock, from grove to grove, from stream to stream, and whenever I met a new plant I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell. I asked the boulders where they had been and whither they were going, and when night found me, there I camped. I took no more heed to save time or to make haste than did the trees or the stars. This is true freedom, a good, practical sort of immortality."
You could call this "All Cronkite's Children." Not to blame him, or to praise him, but just as a nod to the news wreckage we're left with world that evolved in his wake.
(Featured on the ABC News home page right now: Nude Video of ESPN Reporter Stirs Controversy; Will 'American Idol' Bid Adieu to Paula Abdul?; Do Circumcised Men Do It Better?; Woman's DIY Plastic Surgery Nightmare; 'He' Becomes 'She': Husband's Transformation. 'Nuff said.)
In a rare show of endurance and stick-to-itiveness, I have concluded my 10-week program of watching all five seasons of "The Wire." It wasn't easy. I ventured late into the night, consuming piles of burritos and pizza slices, quaffing unpretentious but still premium brews and humbler vintages of red wine as the gritty life of "Ballmer" played out before my slack jaw and uncomprehending stare. But finally, red is black, and the last disc is ready to go back to the video store.
The project was occasioned by wanting to watch Season 5--the one in which The Baltimore Sun is a major player--for the first time. But I wanted to put the season into perspective by seeing everything leading up to it. As the series aired, I saw only Season 4 as it aired. I had already seen the first season on DVD and maybe parts of the third year, too.
Treading where millions have before, I offer a few takeaways:
--If you could see just one season, watch the first. You can chase your tail arguing about which season was the best conceived, best written, best acted, etc., and I'm not certainly above that (see below). But what the first season has that the rest never equal is surprise: A world and characters are revealed with depth and detail and tension rarely equaled on the tube. The best of the subsequent seasons build on the first, the worst of them mimic them in a tired sequel kind of way.
--Best seasons: the first and fourth. The first for reasons already elucidated. The fourth because of the combination of wonderfully tight story lines and the group of kids the season follows.
--Worst season: the second. It seems forced and formulaic; reminiscent of the SCTV parody of "Ocean's 11."
--Best take on the theme song, "Way Down in the Hole": Season 1 (The Blind Boys of Alabama) and Season 4 (DoMaJe, said to be a group of Baltimore kids). Tom Waits wrote the song and his version is used in Season Two; I found it grating to the point of fast-forwarding through it.
--Favorite characters: Bunk, Omar, Freamon, McNulty. Not in any particular order. And oh, special mention to Snoop, one of the oddest and scariest characters ever; and to Bubbles, who alone among all the characters is redeemed at the end.
--Favorite arcane newsroom moment: From Season 5. An editor at the Baltimore Sun asks a rewrite man to do something. The rewrite man, Bill Zorzi (actually a former Sun reporter), retorts: "Why don't you stick a broom up my ass and ask me to sweep the place?" If you spent any time around The San Francisco Examiner in the 1980s, this was a moment of pure deja vu. There was a copy editor there named Tony Stelmok, an old-timer whom a colleague describes as looking like Colonel Sanders. One night, the slotman directed him to trim a story or write a whip (a "reefer" line, for instance, one referring readers to a story on another page), to which Stelmok responded: "Whip, whip, whip. Trim, trim, trim. Why don't I just stick a broom up my ass and sweep the place, too?") As it happens, there is an Ex-Sun connection: Jim Houck, a news editor at the Examiner, became managing editor at the Sun. Given the relative rarity of the formulation "why don't I stick a broom up my ass," I'm betting that Houck carried the Stelmok tirade to the Baltimore newsroom, and eventually, through oral tradition, onto TV.
Walking the dog this morning, we encountered a younger couple pushing a kid in a stroller. The guy had a Cubs T-shirt on. "They're gonna clinch today, right?" I said. "Oh--you never know. They could still lose it." Technically, it was true, but I thought it was an overly cautious, self-consciously Cubsy thing to say. As it happened, the Cubs did win this afternoon. They won the National League Central Division title. We'll see what the next step is. While we let the suspense simmer, we can consider some of the team's musical history
Growing up in the Chicago area--the far south suburbs, in my case--baseball was a summer fixture on WGN. The station had a heavy schedule of both Cubs and White Sox game. Back then, WGN didn't have an ownership connection with either team (that would come in 1981, when WGN's owner, the Tribune Company, bought the Cubs from the Wrigley chewing gum dynasty). The fact you could count on seeing 150 or 160 games a year, including all those weekday afternoon games from lightless Wrigley Field, had something to do with creating a pretty avid fan population that followed both teams. At least I know I and most of my friends did. Eventually, the Sox went to WFLD, on Channel 32. Their games were fun to watch because Harry Caray, who had alienated his bosses in St. Louis and Oakland, took up residence on the Sox airwaves. Many commercial breaks featured Harry and Falstaff beer, and Harry delighted the fans at Comiskey Park by doing his play by play from the barren bleachers in center field, his booth perched about 500 feet from home plate. On hot days, the Sox set up an open-air shower out there for fans to cool off.
When the Sox left WGN (Channel 9 in Chicago), the station responded by adding Cubs games to its broadcast schedule--more than 150 a season. Maybe that was part of developing more of a Cubs-centric fan base. More important was that the long-comatose franchise woke up and started a run of about seven seasons or so in which the team went from a horrifying 10th place finish in 1966 to challenging for firstt in '67; the following seasons ranged from very good but heart rending (1969) to decent and unembarrassing (1973, when the Cubs and several division foes wallowed around the .500 mark until the final week of the season). Needless to say, the notion that the Cubs could make what was never back then called "the post-season" was a theory we never saw proved.
I did mention music up there. WGN's telecasts in the late '60s featured Mitch Miller-like choral numbers that a music salesman in a plaid blazer might have pushed as "peppy." One had a line that went "Hey, hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it/The Cubs are on their way." "Hey, hey" was WGN announcer Jack Brickhouse's signature home-run call; it's now enshrined on the Wrigley Field foul poles. In due course, that sappy number was supplanted by a mindlessly cheerful ditty that started out, "It's a beautiful day for a ballgame, for a ballgame today."
Eventually, I moved away from Chicago, well beyond the reach of WGN's signal and then, when it became a national "superstation," into austere Berkeley households with no cable TV. In 1984, the Cubs did what they had never done in my lifetime and played well enough long enough to get into the playoffs. No need to go into how that turned out. By that time, though, Steve Goodman had written the best Cubs song ever: "The Dying Cub Fan's Last Request." That's wrong, actually. It's the best baseball fan song, ever--unique for its combination of humor, poetry, and rueful but affectionate disdain for the home team.
Goodman died a few days before the Cubs clinched their playoff spot in '84. But by then, he had already composed and recorded the song that the team now uses as an anthem after a home win: "Go Cubs Go." A year ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote a great piece about how the song came to be written. The best part is that some of the team's execs disliked Goodman because of "The Dying Cub Fan." I don't know where any of those guys are now. But today, when the Cubs won, Goodman's voice was ringing out over Wrigley Field, and it sounded like every fan in the place was singing "Go Cubs Go."
(Lyrics after the jump.)
Exclusive coverage of media coverage of Hurricane Ike's rampage in Texas. While so-called serious journalists continue to document our looming presidential disaster, here's a little video editor humor for you: At midday today, CNN showed a montage of storm damage in the Galveston area. They flashed some shots of downed power lines in the parking lot of a business called Lipstick; upon further perusal, the sign on the building reads Lipstick Gentlemen's Club. There is a "topless entertainment" establishment on Texas Highway 146, listed variously as in Kemah or Bacliff, just outside Galveston (Google street view here).
OK -- no worries. Even lap-dance palaces can be terrorized by rampaging storms like Ike.
But the very next shot in the montage showed a big sign saying Dipsticks. I can't place it exactly, but it looks like it could belong to an automotive shop about 100 miles north of where the first shot was taken. Just a hunch, but I'd guess some CNN editor got hold of the tape, saw the Lipstick and Dipsticks, and couldn't resist splicing them together. It's one of my storm coverage highlights.
A sort of cheesy Versus screen grab from Tour de France Stage 9, the first Pyrenees day, on July 13. In the foreground: Maxime Monfort of Cofidis. He never showed any expression as he attacked on a tough climb. Behind him: David de la Fuente of Saunier-Duval, who briefly held the polka-dot jersey of the Tour's leading climber. De la Fuente wore the same dramatic grimace all the way up the hill.
(De la Fuente eventually lost the jersey to teammate Riccardo Ricco, who in turn was ejected from the race after a reported positive test for a form of EPO; which ejection, in turn, caused Saunier, with de la Fuente, to quit the race.)
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Versus, the jock cable TV network that promotes its Tour de France coverage as part of its "Red, White, Black and Blue Summer" (the network also presents bull riding and some form of fighting in which heavily muscled males punch and kick the crap out of each other), has another mission. With the consensus view now apparently settling on the belief that professional cycling before now was unspeakably shabby and riddled with drug cheaters, Versus is bending over backward to emphasize cycling's New Really Clean Era.
OK, great. The Tour blew itself apart the last two years by stripping the 2006 champion, Floyd Landis, of his title, and then seeing its 2007 champion in the making, Michael Rasmussen, fired by his team a few days before the end of the race. Unspeakably dirty or not, the Tour was reduced to a shambles and came to represent not only the greatest feats in athletics but the worst of the doping believed to afflict cycling and elite sports in general. However, it's more than a little disingenuous for Versus, which made built a good audience and raked in good money promoting the legend of Lance Armstrong, to turn around and strike the pose that those days were the bad old days.
As part of its New Clean Era coverage, Versus produced Greg Lemond for an interview on Sunday. Lemond, a great champion in his own right who has made a second career out of trying to undermine Armstrong's accomplishments, is a spokesman for the Righteous Really Clean New Cycling. Lemond was odd in the interview, a little disjointed and tongue-tied and inarticulate. One of the Versus personalities, Bob Roll, tried to set him up with a question on the new age in the sport: "You have a huge legacy in this race. How do you see the evolution of the sport as it is right now?"
"I'm more excited about the cycling than I have been in years, and I think there's a big change, there's good people in it. Bob Stapleton and Jonathan Vaughters [the men behind the newly sponsored Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia teams] are really making a big effort. I think there's a desire I've never seen before. It's good. I'm positive."
Translation: Now that Armstrong and the disgraced Landis have departed the scene, Lemond can get into the sport again. And there are classy people involved, not the scumbags who helped Armstrong eclipse Lemond as America's greatest racer.
Roll's cohost, Craig Hummer, asked an interminable question about the meaning of two big name U.S.companies signing on as team sponsors in the last month or so. Lemond seemed to come unhooked from any thread the interview might have had.
"Yeah -- you know -- cycling is -- I'm actually very bullish on just the sport in general. When you look about -- look at congestion, you look at the diabetes problem in America, um, it's probably the best sport to do in terms of low impact but high cardiovascular output. And so I'm really bullish on the sport in general as a leisure activity in America. It is a sport of people past 40, but we need to get those kids in high school, and I'm very optimistic, and the Tour de France, you can't duplicate this, this is magic, and, uh, I saw it last year, and, I mean, when Rasmussen and Vinokourov, it was quite depressing to my sons, but they still watch cycling, they watched the Tour of Flanders this year. It's a great sport."
(Congestion? My co-watcher theorizes he meant asthma.)
From the Versus Stage 1 telecast of the Tour de France:
"The beautiful scenery of Britanny now, remember we're in Britanny now for three days, that's what they've paid for and that's what we're gonna get and enjoy here on the Tour de France because these narrow roads constantly twist and turn, the undulations are very, very special here for all of the riders and 43 of them in their first Tour de France."