Saturday, December 31, 2005

It Ain't "Deuteronomy"

On to lighter topics. I’ve figured out why I don’t like “Numbers” more. Oops, let me spell it the way they do in the credits: "Numb3rs." Already intrigued, aren'tcha?

The show, Friday nights at 10 on CBS, has a lot to like about it—great cast, Rob Morrow, David Krumholtz, Judd Hirsch, and inventive use of math. “Numb3rs” is “Law and Order” meets “Judging Amy.” Or “My Three Sons” meets “Judd for the Defense.” Rob Morrow’s the FBI Special Agent (aren’t they all special?) whose brother, Krumholtz is a math professor. His math helps the FBI solves crimes. And then there’s their lovable dad, Judd Hirsch, who isn’t above telling these fellas a thing or two. What fun. And it’s all from hitmakers Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Blade Runner,”) and his brother Tony Scott (“Days of Thunder,” “Beverly Hills Cop II”) !!!

It’s a nice premise, and they even have a teacher’s guide, to use episodes of the show to show kids some pretty advanced mathematical ideas.

Tonight, though, on an episode called “Bettor or Worse,” (already clever, right?) I figured out why I just can’t reach escape velocity with this show. It’s the stealing.

Every show steals from t.v. and movies. It’s not that writers can’t write from real experience; it’s that networks, with the millions of dollars they have riding on each decision, only buy shows that seem like other shows or hit movies.

That’s why the first years of “Ellen” (the sitcom, not the great talk show) and all the years of “Friends” (“The One About Seinfeld, Cheers, and Mad About You”) borrowed heavily from other shows. ("No! It's different-- this guy's name isn't 'Kramer'!!")

But here’s the part I love about “Numb3rs” (Please tell me it isn’t written that way in new Bibles...)—“Numbers” steals scenes. I don’t mean stories or plot lines. I mean visual scenes. I mean, in a b-plot, Krumholtz is on a date with a lovely woman, outdoors at night, at a posh restaurant, they agree not to talk about work, PAUSE and then discover they have nothing else to talk about… where have I seen that…Ohhhhh yeah…”The Player,” when studio head Tim Robbins is sitting outdoors at a posh restaurant with his underlings and says, “let’s not talk about work," PAUSE, followed by "Oh come on, we’re all bright people, there must be something else we can talk about.”

Later on, there are three of the show’s regular cast, discussing a case, not looking at each other, walking side-by-side down a building corridor, moving directly toward the camera…just like…the opening credits of “Law and Order,” where the main cast talks to each other while walking down a corridor directly toward the camera.

Murrow gets a lead, and heads straight to LA’s south bay, where he finds a crime was about to take place, but was called off in the middle of a parking lot, right at the “magic hour” (late afternoon, early evening, when everything in the frame is golden), and I’m not sure if that’s from Michael Mann’s “Heat,” when Al Pacino and his men hit a golden rooftop, only to discover that De Niro and his folks have left, and are taking pictures of the cops, or Robert Towne’s “Tequila Sunrise,” where, okay, actually, EVERY SHOT OF THE MOVIE was taken at between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and you feel like you’re watching Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell and Michele Pfeiffer through a jar of honey.

I’m not saying don’t steal. We all do.

Just, please, steal from obscure movies. Steal from “L’etoile des Enfants de la Plume de Ma Tante.” Steal stuff and change it. Steal stuff that other cinematographers and film buffs would catch, but that don’t distract schmoes like me from watching the show. Thank you.

Court Reporter

I’m sure both of you have been wondering how things are going down at the courts building, jury-duty-wise.

There’s not a whole lot I can say, but I can give you a couple of snapshots:

1. As someone who has auditioned thousands of times for acting jobs, knowing that many others are also auditioning, I can assure you, even that is less frustrating than sitting for an entire day, in the hopes of working for free.

2. The County of Los Angeles has decided, and they’re probably right to do so, that nobody will listen to what they are told the first time, or properly follow instructions. Complicated matters such as sitting down, reading your form, finding your 9-digit number on that form, and knowing where to go to the bathroom, all had to be repeated numerous times in a silent room with great acoustics. We’ve all watched too much t.v.; we aren’t accustomed to hearing information that takes more than 10 seconds to impart without zippy pictures and a music soundtrack. This requires too much concentration.

3. Nobody, and I mean, NOBODY, wants to do jury duty. The matronly woman, effervescently smiling as she knits, will tell you you’re wearing a lovely shirt, thinks that what you do is fascinating, and hopes to God that she can get the hell out of there.

4. Because of 3, if anyone does find a way out of jury duty, everyone will try to take that path. One poor woman from another country—I can narrow it down to Asia—finally stood up during our orientation and said, “I know unstand??” She was afraid to not show up, but had no idea what we were being told. The clerk directed her to a personal interview, to ascertain whether she knew enough English to sit on a jury. Thirty seconds later, one at a time, 15 different people suddenly came down with “I don’t understand” disease. There was one fellow who got up to say it, and the clerk actually said, “I already talked to you before sir, and I told you, you understand enough to stay.” The fella still got up to complain three more times, then got assigned to a courtroom, where so far, he has claimed to be a crime victim, a convict, an ambassador, a college student, and an employee on maternity leave.

5. If you judge a book by its cover, we, as a society, understand the importance of the Justice system, but wish it would take care of itself. The courtroom I saw was lovely and modern. The initial building of the place showed a certain economy mixed with style and power. But once those good intentions were erected, they are hard to maintain. Now, all the hallways in the building wish they were as nice as those in public schools. All the bathrooms have grafitti etched into the walls and mirrors. These are not prison bathrooms. These are the bathrooms for jurors and the gallery. It’s bad enough that people show the court this kind of disrespect; what’s worse is, knowing you’re about to make decisions about people’s lives, and then going inside to this dingy sliced up bathroom, and getting a twinge in your gut that tells you everyone must be guilty.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

We, the (Jury) People

My principles and my selfishness are having a battle royale inside my brain pan this evening—tomorrow, I go into court for jury duty. I’ve checked in through a phone registration system for years, but this is the first time I’ve actually had to show up in person.

We Americans know that the jury system is one of those democratic foundations that makes the country possible. We know it’s our duty to serve. I think back on my immigrant great grandmother, who was legally blind, yet learned the required American history and constitutional principles to become an American citizen, and I know this is a drop in the bucket by comparison, to be part of a free and civil society.

But you know the flip side. I’m about to get up, drive into downtown, and declare my availability to have a powerful stranger called a judge, assign me to a group of other strangers called a jury, for an undetermined period, to consider who knows what.

Movies and television don’t help. We don’t see the inside of a jury room in a drama, unless the 12 are having a horrible time. Even in comedies, (I’m thinking television’s version of “The Odd Couple,” it’s funny to watch, but you wouldn’t want to be in that room.

I was even thinking about this in another way. You know the cliché about the jury being filled with people who couldn’t get out of jury duty? Well, what if we allowed our lowest income people to attend jury school, and serve as our jurors? I know, “professional juries” is the beginning of the end of democracy, or the midpoint… But here you could have people, generally ignored by society, suddenly placed in very powerful positions. We’d have to pay them of course. And then, we’d have to give them lots of security. And we’d have to make sure that a select few didn’t try to impose their will…okay, it’s a bad idea. Maybe just my late night subconscious trying to weasel out of this.
When I’m back, there’ll be more in this space. Assuming I’m not questioned as a prospective juror and accidentally say something so stupid and evil that they lock me up in an undisclosed…there’s that late night grey matter again…

Sunday, December 25, 2005

What I Learned on the T.V.

Sorry if I got egg nog on you, but I was watching a "Meet the Press" rerun Sunday night. It was a special edition, Tim Russert talking with Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel. It's a real pleasure to hear anchors who are no longer anchoring, because they can speak more freely.

They shed light on a lot of subjects. Then there was this exchange, talking about the lead up to the Iraq war:

MR. BROKAW: There was not--you know, the French intelligence were sharing the same conclusions with the administration. I thought--I agree with you that I don't think that we pushed hard enough for vigorous debate. I think that on Capitol Hill that the debate was anemic, at best. You had--Ted Kennedy and Senator Byrd, really, were the only ones speaking out with any kind of passion in the Senate, the people who...
MR. RUSSERT: And they were not questioning whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
MR. BROKAW: No. No. No.
MR. RUSSERT: That seemed to be a uniformly held belief.
MR. BROKAW: Right. Yeah.
MR. KOPPEL: Nor did the Clinton administration beforehand.
MR. KOPPEL: I mean, the only difference between the Clinton administration and the Bush administration was 9/11.
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. KOPPEL: If 9/11 had happened on Bill Clinton's watch, he would have gone into Iraq.
MR. BROKAW: Yeah. Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me continue on Iraq and show you pictures from December 15. These are 11 million Iraqis voting, proudly holding up their fingers, having dipped it in ink as evidence that they had cast their vote; even on their hospital beds, making their vote and their views known.

I just spit up more egg nog writing it down. I'm not sure which is more disorienting-- that Koppel, an enormously gifted journalist, would blurt that out, or that nobody reacted, or at least said, "Gee Ted, are ya sure about that?"

Read the whole transcript of the 12/25 edition of "Meet the Press."

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"I Won't Be Ignored!"

Glenn Close said it in "Fatal Attraction." Now, U.S. District Judge James Robertson, one of 11 Judges on that super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that dishes out the hush-hush wire taps, is saying the same thing. Or, maybe he's just saying, "Okay,... well...I guess you won't be needing me, then..."

From the Washington Post, "Spy Court Judge Quits in Protest"

The REALLY New Testament

The New Yorker's Shouts and Murmurs section features a segment from the Book of Job. No no, I mean Jobless:

“Have you seen the fastnesses where Overtime and Sudden Death abide? Can you explain, near the end of the year, who exactly is eliminated, and why, or can you say who will be chosen for the bowls? The runner who solicits my blessing leaps beyond his enemies; I cause their feet to stumble as if entangled in a snare, and they are laid low. Victorious, he kneels by the cushioned pole, removes his helmet, and prays earnest thanksgivings to me with a great host looking on. What is your complaining, compared to this?

“Yes, and consider even this example: When my servant David Ortiz, last year or the year before, in an important situation, entreated me in his heart for a hanging curveball, and I heard him, and ordained a hanging curveball to be thrown, and he smote it hip and thigh, and ended up at second, and stood there in the lights pointing straight up to the firmament where I in fact was, David Ortiz praising me before all the assembly and those at home, did you then understand the vastness of my power, or can you unfold for me the art of causing hanging curveballs in important situations which I employed there?

“Can you make a thirty-cubit putt drop at your command? The faithful petitioner squats upon his haunches, he weighs and judges the path, he closes his eyes and silently raises a solemn prayer to me. Are you conversant with the ways of the Bermuda grasses, and do you comprehend how the inclination of their blades to one direction or another affects what rolls upon them? Know you how the little pieces of plant food, invisible in the grasses’ lower depths, have a significant influence for success or ruin? Surely this knowledge, which is mine abundantly from the beginning of the world, is yours as well. "

Read the whole thing.

"Money, Cars, and Light Bulbs!!!"

A few years back, on my radio show, we did a game show parody by that name, where contestants didn't do anything, but were awarded money and cars, surrounded by blinking light bulbs.

It turns out, you don't need the cars.

NBC's new series,
"Deal or No Deal", with Howie Mandel, features only contestants and money. Okay, the money is in briefcases. But that's it. Does the briefcase you chose contain the million dollars? Or will you trade the briefcase for less money, guaranteed, as we open the other cases?

No trivia. No physical challenge. Just you, your family on stage with you, pressuring you, and money. And Howie Mandel. Naturally, each of the briefcases is held by a female fashion model.

It's hypnotic. There's a middle class American family deciding whether to take $125,000 or turn down the deal, in hopes that another briefcase has a million.

Even while you're hypnotized, though, you get a little growl in your tummy. It's your conscience wondering if we don't have something better to do than watch other people get money dangled in front of them. Sitting and watching poker on TV seemed lame enough. Now, we've removed the cards.

Film buffs remember Martin Scorsese's character in the movie "Quiz Show" (an excellent rental if you haven't seen it), saying that the "21" scandals were beside the point, because the audience didn't care about the contestant's knowledge: "They just wanted to watch the money." Now, they can.

My Jell-O Has Expired

There. I said it. And, dammit, I feel better coming out of the closet about my closets.

For years, I've let stuff amass in my home. Papers, clothes, and even food items. It's not something that's easy to discuss, because people will tell you, "Oh, yeah, my place is a mess, too," meaning that the laundry hamper is crowning, or the coffee table is cluttered.

I have a "protective" mass of junk around me. You'd be surprised. You can grow accustomed to anything. But once you start cleaning, it becomes archaeology. I found an opened pack of "smints," canned soups that I must have meant to eat while watching Charles and Di's wedding; BodySmarts, which I don't believe exist anymore-- they're chewable "snacks" like Starburst Fruit Chews, but with nutrients in them. They also have hydrogenated oils. Mmm.

I hear you saying, "Don't throw that crap out---Nooooooo!---start an expired food museum!" but tragically, some exhibits have to be expunged.

After getting rid of the stuff that's over a year out of date (does vinegar expire?) here's the frightening part: I have virtually no food in the house.

Well, off to the bedroom closet-- those unisex culottes never did catch on, did they.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Happy Holidays, Because...

It feels bizarre, being forced to defend saying “Happy Holidays.”

Too often, though, I’m tempted to dismiss seemingly nonsensical controversies, only to discover that the molten controversy has solidified into a new consensus, and we’ve now decided that the Earth is definitely flat.

So before that happens with holiday greetings, I offer this.

If we were closer friends, I’d know what holiday you celebrate. And I’d be more specific. But I don’t.

So, for this moment, while you’re scanning my groceries, or serving me coffee, or making my casual acquaintance in some other way, I want to contribute to the good cheer in our community.

And since you and I are both humans, probably rushed at this time of year, for this brief time that we’re paying attention to each other, I want to express the hope that you are not only busier, but also enjoying whatever celebration you engage in during this season.

It’s a small gesture, but with millions of small gestures we tell one another, “We aren’t isolated from each other. We’re people with compassion. We feel it’s not just important for ourselves to enjoy our own celebrations, but to wish other people good celebrations, too.

And yet, we value our privacy. So when I say this to you, I’m not interrogating you about your beliefs, or demanding that you observe my faith my way, instead of your own. “Happy Holidays” means have a good time by your own standards, not mine.

So, there it is. I wish you Happy Holidays.

And, sure--if anyone’s upset about “Have a nice day,” I guess we can explain that one, too.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Rice Defends Domestic Eavesdropping; President Reasserts NSA Powers

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, speaking Sunday morning on NBC's "Meet the Press" program, told host Tim Russert that, "We had a problem in this country. We had intelligence agencies spying on people outside this country, and law enforcement working within this country. And they never communicated with each other.

"So now, we have spies spying on people within this country, and law enforcement working outside the country, and a secret tunnel that goes from inside this country to outside this country. So now, anyone inside this country or outside this country who does anything that may seem harmless, like, eat a potato, or dangerous, like, buy explosives, will have that information shared with others inside the tunnel, coming from inside this country or outside, to make Americans as safe as they can be within the country, unless they are Americans buying potatoes or explosives, in which case they may be prosecuted as they should be, within or without this country."

Hours later, on Sunday evening, President Bush asked Americans to "keep the faith" "because we're already winning in Iraq." The President added, "I know a lot of folks might not support my policies right now. But I want to ask a favor of you: I want you to support my policies right now. Because we are, in fact, winning the struggle in Iraq. And here's proof. This is a graph showing that, as time goes on, we are winning in Iraq. This axis is time. This other axis is winningness. And you can see that, on into the future, our winning increases.

"Furthermore, I once again ask Congress to renew the Patriot Act. I know we're having some problems in the Senate, but I must insist that we pass this crucial legislation. It allows for surveillance to be conducted through secretly issued wiretap warrants from the courts. Unless this law is passed, we will be forced to continue to do what we're already doing-- spying on people without warrants. Of course, once I've signed the renewed Patriot Act into law, we will continue to spy on Americans without warrants, but sometimes we might go ahead and get a warrant, and for those times that we want to get warrants before eavesdropping on people, we will be forced to do it without warrants all of the time, rather than just some of the time.

"It would be illegal and inappropriate for the federal government to come into your home and start eavesdropping on your day-to-day life. Because America is a land of freedom and individual rights. I believe that government is not the answer. The less government the better. That's what's great about America-- our individuals. But in order to preserve this freedom, we need to remember that 9/11 happened. And when such an event happens, it's important to be able to eavesdrop without warrants.

"Some people say, 'Well gee, Mr. President, when 9/11 happened, there was already information coming in stating that people of Middle Eastern descent were learning how to fly planes, but not how to take off and land, and a memo saying that terrorists were planning to fly planes into buildings. How will eavesdropping without warrants help?'

"That's a good comment, and I appreciate it. But to keep America free to ask questions like that one, we need both a law authorizing warrants to eavesdrop on people, and the power to eavesdrop on people without warrants. Simple as that.

"This is not a time, as some have suggested, to hide in the basement, forget about defending America and eat French food. This is a time for keeping our nation secure. And for eavesdropping on it."

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Happy American Holidays!!

What delightful memories I have of our family’s celebrations at this special time of year! As we gathered around the holiday tree, sipping a viscous beverage, my parents, my sisters and I would fill the house with music-- the sometimes holy, sometimes boisterous sounds of cherished seasonal tunes. Songs about sleighing. And winter. And snow. Or sleighing in the winter snow. Several of them involve coming inside to warm up from the cold wintry snow.

And oh, the food! Mother and/or Father would outdo themselves, with a large hot dense main course, cooked just right, and seasoned to perfection. The squash and potatoes were hearty. The dessert, moist and sweet, announced to our insides that it was that time of year. The Special Time.

Dad, in particular, always enjoyed lighting a fire. And yup, you guessed it—that would kick off a whole new round of season songs, specifically about warming up near a fire after coming in from wintry snow. We’d gaze into the flames, focusing on our own private meditations.

After a reasonable time for contemplation, it would be time to visit the neighbors!

From house to house we’d go, sharing appetizing foods from many lands, comparing holiday trees, and talking about property values, food preparation and traffic. My hair would be tousled by older people. I’d be bounced on knees. And everyone smoked.

But Mom and Dad and Allison and I saved our best visit for last, our next door neighbors, the Blanks.

Mrs. Blank always prepared the unique delicacies of her native Asia. Mr. Blank told fascinating stories of his childhood in Africa. And their boarder, Shawn, would have special treats shipped in from his homeplace of Europe, just for the season.

I suppose I’m biased, but I would swear that our American Holiday Celebrations were just about the best anywhere. But, you know kids; it wasn’t long after—maybe a week or so—that we children had moved on, and a new theme filled our hearts: it’ll only be a few months before our visit from the Festival Rabbit!