Archive for February, 2008

Political Writing: Maureen Dowd Bedazzles

February 28, 2008

Every once in a while, I read an op-ed column that is so entertaining, it could stand alone as a piece of great writing, even outside the context of the current events spurring it. Maureen Dowd‘s Op-Ed column today in The New York Times, “Begrudging His Bedazzling,” is one of those columns. Regardless of one’s politics, you have to appreciate the sheer fun evidenced in the wordplay of this column, which addresses the difficult time Hillary has had countering the Obama charisma (or “Obamisma,” as I like to call it). First, Dowd runs off a string of opposites in attributes, starting with “Sunny beats gloomy.” And to her credit, I think, these attributes are utterly free of gender connotations. But where she really starts to have fun with this piece is in her characterizations of the many voices of Hillary:

After saying she found her “voice” in New Hampshire, she has turned into Sybil. We’ve had Experienced Hillary, Soft Hillary, Hard Hillary, Misty Hillary, Sarcastic Hillary, Joined-at-the-Hip-to-Bill Hillary, Her-Own-Person -Who-Just-Happens-to-Be-Married-to-a-Former-President Hillary, It’s-My-Turn Hillary, Cuddly Hillary, Let’s-Get-Down-in-the-Dirt-and-Fight-Like-Dogs Hillary.

That passage made me chortle with glee.

Now clearly, Ms. Dowd is no hack. She’s been an op-ed columnist for The New York Times since 1995 and won a Pulitzer for Distinguished Commentary in 1999. But I think she had some real fun writing this column, so for me, I’ll take her “bedazzled” and raise her a “bewitched.”

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THE WIRE: Rest in Peace, Omar

February 27, 2008

Omar Little The WireWell, by now it shouldn’t be a spoiler anymore. One of the best anti-heroes ever — the gangster with a code, Omar Little — met his end Sunday night on HBO’s The Wire. His life ended with both a bang and a whimper: the bang of a pistol held by an 11-year-old Omar wannabe, and a whimper because it was unexpected, without fanfare, and because Omar looked so tired before it all went down. He lived by a code, and while he may have been a murderous thief, he was also a man of honor. “I ain’t never put my gun on nobody who wasn’t in the game.” And it is a credit to the writing of the character (by such amazing writers as David Simon, Dennis Lehane, Ed Burns, Richard Price, David Mills, and more) and the fine acting of Michael Kenneth Williams, who portrayed him, that so many viewers are left so sad.

You will be missed, Omar. Your murder might not be considered news by the folks at The Sun, but you will be remembered.

Who Needs Therapy? Watching IN TREATMENT

February 24, 2008

Gabriel Byrne - In TreatmentI’m the latest victim to HBO’s insidious viewing experiment. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? For its latest series In Treatment,” rather than introduce the series with one episode per week, HBO has taken the approach of airing Gabriel Byrne and his luscious Irish voice five nights a week. Each night highlights the therapy session of a different patient, with Fridays dedicated to the sessions between the therapist Paul (Byrne) and his own therapist, Gina.

I suppose there that some out there who have sampled the program, decided they hated a certain day’s patient, and have been able to omit that day from their schedule, thus regaining back some of their own life. Not me. I’m as enthralled by the patients I despise (Yes, I’m talking about Laura and Alex) as the one who breaks my heart on a weekly basis (Sophie, anyone?). And I can’t miss Friday, because that’s when you get to hear what Paul actually thinks about having these people lie to themselves in front of him all week.

The show is based on an Israeli series, “Be Tipul,” and the writing has been stellar throughout. Many of the episodes have been penned by the show’s executive producer and director, Rodrigo Garcia (who, in your trivia of the day, is the son of the literature Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez), although many other fine writers have contributed to the series. It must be a major challenge to present compelling drama from what is overwhelmingly dialogue only. And yet, each episode has a short story structure with development and movement. The dialogue is not static and shows us as much as it tells.

I do wonder if there might be a gender divide in viewership, however. The men I have spoken with who have sampled episodes of this show have uniformly disliked it; women seem to be much more intrigued to follow Paul and his patients on their therapeutic journeys.

Who out there is watching? What do you think? I’m listening.

It’s All About Me!

February 14, 2008

I’m one step closer to my fifteen minutes of fame! A very fine writing blog, WordCount, by journalist Michelle Rafter has included “WordHappy” in her list of the best blogs for writers. Clearly, she has impeccable taste. But seriously, I’m honored to be in the company of so many really fine writing blogs. Definitely check out WordCount; Ms. Rafter has some interesting (and well presented) insights about the writing biz as it exists today.

Golden Heart: Great Love Songs Part III

February 14, 2008

Golden HeartHappy Valentine’s Day, everyone! I’ve saved a couple of the best love songs for last, songs that are so good that even if you are currently unattached or unlucky in love, you might not even mind that these are love songs.

The first song comes courtesy of a wild, twelve-piece band from Portland, Oregon: Pink Martini. These guys and gals play a bubbly, big-band style of music as if they’re a little tipsy on sarsaparilla. You can find their lead vocalist, China Forbes, singing in English, French, Italian, Croatian, and Japanese. Obviously an overachiever. But, oh, the songs. Today’s pick comes from their fabulously titled second album, Hang On, Little Tomato (2004). It’s a little ditty set to a cha-cha rhythm (feel free to correct me – I guessed because I could insert the “cha-cha-cha” between the lines) called “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love”(lyrics and music by China Forbes and Thomas L. Lauderdale):

When you are near, everything’s clear
Earth is a beautiful heaven
Always I hope that we shine like a star
And be forever floating above
I know a falling star can’t fall forever
But let’s never stop falling in love

Doesn’t that just hit the sweet spot?

My second pick for today does double-duty as a ballad and a love song: “Golden Heart” from Mark Knopfler‘s album of the same title (1996). Let me set the scene for you. A gentle Knopfleresque guitar thread wafts from the speakers for close to a minute. And just when you begin to think that maybe you’re listening to an instrumental, he quietly begins to sing of a stranger spied in a store, wearing a golden heart amulet:

Then we swirled around each other
and the thread was spun
To some arcadian band
I would stop it
from swinging like a pendulum
Just to hold time in my hand

Nothing in the world prepared me for,
your heart, your heart
Nothing in the world that I love more
your heart, your heart
Your golden heart

So if you’re needing a last minute Valentine’s gift, just play your intended one of these unabashedly romantic songs. They’re better than roses. But not chocolate.

When She Loved Me: Great Love Songs Part II

February 12, 2008

Heart in HandI’m not sure I noticed this until I started hunting for love songs that I love, but there are not very many “rah-rah” ain’t-love-grand love songs out there. Most of them seem to have a thread of sadness running through them — memories of a love now lost, or love despite disappointments or betrayals.

Still, they sure are purty. The first of today’s installments comes courtesy of English singer/songwriter/guitarist extraordinaire Richard Thompson: “Dimming of the Day” off of the Richard & Linda Thompson album Pour Down Like Silver (1975). It is perhaps better not to know that the Thompsons experienced a rather ugly parting of the ways by the early 80’s. Still, the song endures, and has been covered by artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt and the Neville Brothers:

This old house is falling down around my ears
I’m drowning in a river of my tears
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day.

Then, for a love song of a different kind, consider the love that a toy has for its owner. At least, Randy Newman did in his song “When She Loved Me” off of the TOY STORY 2 soundtrack. Despite its unconventional theme, I think it holds up as a love song for any type of love outgrown:

When somebody loved me
Everything was beautiful
Every hour we spent together lives within my heart
And when she was sad
I was there to comfort her
And when she was happy
So was I
When she loved me

I’m open to any reader suggestions as well. It would be fun to create the ultimate non-wedding cliche love song mix.

Real Fine Love: Great Love Songs Part I

February 11, 2008

Hearts

Well, now, it’s Valentine’s Week. And I’m as sentimental as the next girl, but all the hoopla over cards and jewelry makes me feel more cynical than romantic (much to the relief of my much beleaguered spouse). Please note that I omitted chocolate from the mention of Valentine’s items that make me grumpy. So to get myself in a more receptive mood for Cupid’s bow, I started to think about all the really fine love songs out there. And I’m not talking about the wedding reception mix CD either. I’m talking about love songs that maybe make you a little melancholy or a more than a little grateful. There are a bunch out there, and they’re woefully underplayed. So consider this my Valentine’s gift to you — find some of these CDs, play them, and feel a little better about February 14th.

Today’s installment will concentrate on a singer-songwriter I’ve written about before, a man whose voice your mama might’ve warned you about: John Hiatt. Sure, you’ve probably heard the cover of “Thing Called Love” that Bonnie Raitt recorded, that Hiatt originally sang on his Bring the Family album (1987). But that’s not my favorite love song on that album. For that, you have to take a listen to “Learning How to Love You”:

And I don’t pretend to know how
You ever saw it through
‘Cause I only got to where I am right now
Learning how to love you

Or even more romantic (with a upbeat tempo, natch), try “Real Fine Love” from his Stolen Moments album (1990):

Well now the babies are all sleeping
And the twilight’s givin’ in
She looks like you, he looks like her
And we all look like him
Well maybe it’s just a little thing
The way I feel tonight
A little joy, a little peace
And a whole lot of light

Somebody comes at you with that kind of love song, you might just have to get a little sentimental. What are some of your favorite underplayed love songs?

Options: Superb Mac-iavellian Hilarity

February 6, 2008

OptionsA short while ago, I finished reading a book that actually had me laughing so hard I was keeping my spouse awake. I’d heard of “Fake Steve Jobs,” aka Daniel Lyons, because he’s gigundous in the blog world, and the blog is pretty darn amusing. Its popularity is well earned. For anyone whose geekdom setting is not set terribly high, Steve Jobs is the CEO and man behind the mirror at Apple. He began to be parodied in blog form on “The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs” back in 2006. Not satisfied with that, Fake Steve Jobs wrote a parody novel, Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs (2007), that explored the stock options backdating scandal that plagued the real Jobs back in 2006 and early 2007.

The novel is hilarious. And while I expected it to have a funny characterization of the leading man, Jobs, it also contains a very tight narrative structure that keeps the novel moving at a brisk pace. But the true fun of the book is in the persona that has been created for the Fake Steve Jobs. It is so over-the-top with narcissism, mixed in the self-pity of the obscenely rich, combined with sociopathic detachment, that there was generally a spot on every page that had me shaking my head with disbelief as I chortled with glee.

A small example should suffice. Here is Fake Steve Jobs’ philosophy on employee performance:

Management gurus also tell you to reward performance, and dole out loads of praise. I disagree. My motto is this: No praise. Ever. You start praising people and pretty soon they start thinking they’re as smart as you. You cannot have this. All employees must know at all times that you are better in every way than they are. Repeated criticism, in the most humiliating fashion, is one way to accomplish this.

The best way to keep people’s spirits broken is to fire people on a regular basis for no reason. Fly off the handle, shout at people, call them names, then fire them. Or better yet, don’t fire them. Let them believe they survived for a few days. Then, when they’re relaxed, call them in and fire them. It’s all part of creating and maintaining a culture of fear.

Only in a parody can someone go that far out on a limb and not crash to the ground. It’s sheer brilliance.

Top Commercials of “The Big Game”

February 4, 2008

Football HelmetTrue confession: no, I didn’t watch the “Big Game.” [side rant: how goofy is it that no one this year has called it the Super Bowl? Seriously, even if it’s trademarked, how many different ways can you refer to the ultimate football slugfest?] But thanks to YouTube, I didn’t have to miss out on the commercials, my favorite part of the show. How was Tom Petty at halftime, by the way? I love him.

So here are my picks for the best commercials of the night. Now, my utterly subjective criteria for “best” are:

  • The ad must either tell a story or explore a theme in a new and different way; and
  • The ad must be related to the product or service it is promoting — i.e. no brilliantly executed ads where you have no idea twenty seconds after the commercial who it was for.

That’s it. Nothing too taxing. And there were some lovely examples of that this year. No blockbuster commercials that I saw, but definitely a few that I thought were exemplary representations of marketing. Standard disclaimer: I have no commercial interest in any of the following products or services. I just liked their ads.

A drum roll for the winners:

  • Fed Ex “Carrier Pigeons“: Very funny, well executed exploration of the alternative to overnight shipping.
  • Coca Cola “It’s Mine”: Nicely laid out story using Macy’s parade balloons as characters. Besides, you gotta love that Charlie Brown finally won something in the end.
  • CareerBuilder “Queen of Hearts”: Good tweak on the old warhorse cliche of “Follow Your Heart.”
  • Diet Pepsi Max “The Nod”: No real story, but an artful and funny take on the selling point of the soda — caffeine.
  • Bud Light “Jackie Moon”: A match made in heaven. Will Farrell as Jackie Moon shilling for Bud Light in hilarious examples of bad advertising. My favorite: “A magical blend of barley, hops, and delicious alcohol.”

So don’t hold back. What were your favorites?