Far From the Crowded Madness

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-11-55-11-amSorry that I’ve been out of the blogging loop for a while. I have my reasons. Too much work, or travel, or baseball to watch, or baseball to play, or currently a new novel to work on. There’s also been this three-ring shit storm of a national election that never seems to end and fill my time—time that would be better spent folding my T-shirts if I wasn’t seriously trying to help prevent a lying, racist, misogynist madman from being elected President.

My friend Lou advises me to just turn off the noise and do something else: read a novel, take a hike, get a massage, take a bike ride, read another novel, sing at a karaoke bar, write software code, spend a day with old family photographs, play with your pet—basically do anything except follow the soul-sucking election news.

So I’m pleased to announce I’ve discovered the perfect escape: the Yorkshire Shepherdess.  Amanda Owen runs a 2,000-acre farm in Swaledale, one of the most remote regions of the North Yorkshire Moors. She has a husband Clive and seven children, and regularly posts pictures of them, their locale, and their 900 sheep on her glorious Twitter account (@AmandaOwen8) that puts me in a good mood every time I see a new post and photo. Describing herself as a “shepherdess/hill farmer/mother/teamaker, general all round dogsbody,” her Twitter feed has over 20,000 followers.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-38-23-pmRavenseat, Owen’s working farm, also has a “Shepherd’s Hut” available for nightly rent, and to virtually transport you there, I’ll just reprint her delightful welcome message from the farm’s Web site (ravenseat.com)…

A working farm, specialising in Swaledale sheep, it offers a welcome break from trudging through peatbogs, whether you just want a cuppa, a cream tea with freshly home-baked scones, or you’d like to rest a little longer with an overnight stay in our Shepherd’s Hut, restored by our very own Shepherdess!

You could wake to the sound of sheep, cows, hens, dogs, tractors and free-range children and enjoy a traditional cooked breakfast in the comfort of the hut or, weather permitting, outside on the riverbank with a view of the waterfall.

Cream Teas are available from May to September, although opening hours are variable due to the nature of farming and the location. If travelling a distance it would be advisable to telephone beforehand to avoid disappointment.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-36-11-pmOwen also had a book published a few years back called, unsurprisingly, The Yorkshire Shepherdess, about her journey leaving city life to achieve the dream of raising a “family and a flock”. In the book, according to its Amazon UK blurb, “Amanda…evokes the peace of winter, when they can be cut off by snow without electricity or running water, the happiness of spring and the lambing season, and the backbreaking tasks of summertime – haymaking and sheepshearing – inspiring us all to look at the countryside and those who work there with new appreciation.”

Indeed, in these days of all-encompassing anxiety and click bait, it’s just comforting to know that a peaceful, civilized corner of the world is reachable at any time via the Internet, or in person, via jet, rental car and possibly lorry.

Thanks, Amanda!

For the Love of Albert

1401x788-albert-brooks-1Albert Brooks, the funnier, just as neurotic, but less creepy Woody Allen, has seven of his movies streaming on Netflix beginning tomorrow. This is fantastic news, and I do believe a full-on Brooks Binge is on my upcoming calendar.

Brooks, a vastly under-appreciated comedy filmmaker, is a master of dry wit and satire, and the characters he plays in every film are full of Jewish angst, but it’s a more subtle concoction that manages to comment on modern relationships (and the self-involved inhabitants of L.A.) without beating you over the head with directly-emoted feelings like Sir Woody is prone to do. Brooks is also regularly hilarious on Twitter, and I heartily recommend following him there.

Directly off Netflix’s press release, here are the seven movies you will be able to stream:

• “Defending Your Life” (1991): A man who dies and arrives in the afterlife only to find that he must stand trial and justify his lifelong fears in order to advance to the next phase of existence; or be sent back to earth to do it again. The film stars Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep and Rip Torn.
• “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” (2006): To improve its relations with Muslim countries, the United States government sends comedian Albert Brooks to south Asia to write a report on what makes followers of Islam laugh. The film stars Albert Brooks, Sheetal Sheth and John Carroll Lynch.
• “Lost in America” (1985): A 30-something married couple, inspired by the film Easy Rider, decide to drop out, quit their jobs, sell their home and travel across America in a Winnebago. The film stars Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty.
• “Modern Romance” (1981): A successful film editor with far too many issues affects the relationship between him and his remarkably patient girlfriend. The film stars Albert Brooks, Kathryn Harrold, Bruno Kirby and George Kennedy.
• “Mother”: A neurotic successful sci-fi writer is finalizing his second divorce, and is perplexed by the issues he has with women. He decides to initiate a project that will help him understand what went wrong in his relationships — he moves back in with his mother. The film stars Albert Brooks and Debbie Reynolds.
• “The Muse” (1999): A Hollywood screenwriter seemingly has it all, but he’s hit an artistic dry patch, so his writer friend recommends the services of a woman he swears is a veritable muse. Steven takes her on and is suddenly more inspired to create. Her services, however, come at a very steep price and Steven becomes suspicious about who Sarah really is and what she wants. The film stars Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell.
• “Real Life” (1979): Brooks, in this spoof of 1973 reality TV program “An American Family,” portrays a documentary filmmaker who attempts to live with and film a dysfunctional family for one full year. Also stars Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain, J.A. Preston and Matthew Tobin.

I have seen all of these except Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, and boy am I ever curious to see that one now. Real Life, Brooks’ first film, was vastly ahead of its time, a spoof of reality shows inspired by PBS’ documentary series about the Loud family of Santa Barbara.  Modern Romance, still my favorite Brooks, is an hysterical depiction of an L.A. film editor’s on-off-on-off-on etc. relationship with his girlfriend, co-stars the late and great Bruno Kirby as his supportive best friend, and contains one of the funniest drug-taking scenes ever put on film, when Brooks slips a few quaaludes alone in his apartment and slowly loses his mind. It also features Brooks’ real-life brother, “Super Dave Osborne” in this great scene in a running store…

Lost In America is also a classic, containing one of the funniest losing-your-job scenes ever put on film, with Julie Hagerty of Airplane! and What About Bob? fame turning in her greatest performance as Brooks’ gambling-addicted wife. Defending Your Life is just a brilliant concept, and features a funny and sweet Meryl Streep and excellent Rip Torn. Mother and The Muse are less perfect films, but compared to the routine bromantic slop Hollywood tries to pass for comedy these days, are more than worth your time—and Mother stars legendary Debbie Reynolds in the title role!

Anyway, enough of my yappin’. Crank up the old iPad this holiday and enjoy!!

Spring Gleaning

PolBooksSorry I haven’t posted much lately. Been working in my spare time on a new baseball-free novel (hard to believe, I know). Also, bloggy inspirations have been few and far between, or maybe our toxic and frightening political climate has just pulverized them all into dust. Whatever, I have a flurry of writerly happenings on the near horizon, so thought I would share…

TUESDAY, APRIL 5th, 11 a.m.
I will be a return guest on Rick Flores’ great radio show, “Wasteland of the Free”, KFCF, 88.1 FM in Fresno, to discuss the new baseball season and my latest replay novel Twinbill. Rick’s a great guy with exceptional musical/cultural tastes, and I’ll do my best to post a link after the fact.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 20th, 7 p.m.
I’ll be part of a Baseball Reliquary panel discussion called “Making it Personal: Baseball as Creative Inspiration”, along with artists Pat Riot and Greg Jezewski, in the Mortenson Auditorium at the Arcadia Public Library in Arcadia, CA. I’ll talk about the unique “fictionalizing” process that has led to my four novels, and there will be a book signing afterwards, so stop by if you’re able!

SATURDAY, MAY 7TH, 2 p.m.
I’ll be reading from Mystery Ball ’58 and Twinbill and discussing my work at the Avid Reader bookstore at Tower, 1600 Broadway in Sacramento.

In case you missed them, I’ve also started writing pieces for a couple of online ventures, Crooked Scoreboard and Baseball Magazine. If you have a hankering to read about a man obsessed with ’60s Astros catcher John Bateman or a random Giants/Phillies doubleheader in 1943, look no further.

Only 17 days till Opening Day, peoples!

Leave the Gun, Set Your DVRs

Picture+8Back in October of 1990, Francis Ford Coppola released a special re-cut VHS boxed set of Godfathers I and II (the only Godfather films that truly exist) entitled The Godfather Epic (1902-1959). The three nicely-packaged tapes totaled over seven hours in length and included a handful of extra scenes not found in the originals. I was never a big fan of the disjointed time-jumping in Godfather II, but the Epic solved that problem by beautifully re-cutting the entire story in chronological order, so that Vito Corleone’s escape from Sicily is followed by his immigration, followed by the Little Italy De Niro scenes, etc.

It has become the only way I like to watch the movies.

Alas, we only have one VHS player in the house now, a pint-sized portable TV out in my wife’s studio, and there’s no way in hell I’m re-watching those tapes again on that. Enter HBO, otherwise known as Cable Drama Network of the Gods. This Sunday, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern and 2 Pacific, they are showing—uninterrupted—all seven hours and ten minutes of The Godfather Saga, which is the same thing as the Epic, except this time in restored high-definition quality with no tape-changing required. It may not have hit my eye like a big pizza pie, but I am over the moon.

Not only is The Godfather story better when you can follow Vito’s journey from penniless orphan to crime boss in its rightful order, but the transition from De Niro’s last scene straight into Brando’s first is a revelation, and makes you realize how amazingly De Niro inhabited Brando’s character. Also, the extra scenes help embellish the story and characters, particularly in Little Italy, and never feel irrelevant like some of the previously-deleted moments Coppola included in his Apocalypse Now Redux.

Of course, there’s playoff football on this Sunday, but this, my friends, is why they invented DVRs. HBO is providing us with a New Year’s gift we really can’t refuse.

 

The Hour of Living Dangerously

ChipotleI ate at a Chipotle for lunch earlier this week. I am still here.

I didn’t do this on a dare or a death wish. It just so happens it’s an easy walk from the Barnes and Noble I had to visit on my lunch hour, and didn’t even think about the recent food poisoning incidents until I was already inside the place and about to order.

I swear, it was only a year ago that I stood in the line that was out the front door at this very same Chipotle and texted my wife to say “Let’s buy stock in this company. Today!” On this recent visit, I had apparently entered the E. Coli Twilight Zone. There was one person in line in front of me. One person. Thankfully this gave me a few moments to check Google on my phone for a Chipotle food poisoning update, and there were plenty of stories. Cases had just been reported reaching Illinois after a flurry of them in the Pacific Northwest. A few days later, more poisoning would hit some college students in Boston, and I caught a few minutes of the thin, mild-mannered company CEO Steve Ells on CBS This Morning, apologizing and insisting changes were being made to make Chipotle the “safest place to eat.”

“Can I help you, sir?”

I looked up from my phone. The young Latino counter person was ready for me. I lowered my voice just a little bit.

“Which meat is safest right now?”

She gave me the glimmer of a smile. “Oh, they’re all safe. What can I get you?”

I paused. Ran some junk stats through my head about actual chance of contamination, similar to the ones that measure your chance of being booked on a doomed Princess Cruise, then took the plunge. They had my favorite item, shredded carnitas, at this particular store; most of the ones near my house hadn’t had carnitas for months for unspecified reasons. I talked her and the server beside her through my order, which as usual, they completed at rapid speed, added a bag of chips and bottled water, and helped myself to one of at least fifteen empty tables.

I ate a little slower than I was accustomed, spearing each pork morsel with my plastic fork before carefully inspecting it. The food was as delicious as it usually was, yet even though it was the busiest hour—between noon and one—there were never more than a dozen other people in the place. More than anything, this made me deeply sad.

I can’t vouch for what it’s like to work at a Chipotle, and this store had obviously let a few people go of late, but as a customer, it’s been one of my favorite franchises for years. Their fare has always seemed healthier than what you find at other “fast food” eateries, they’re extremely upfront with their ingredients and calorie counts, and despite occasional reminders to keep my fingers off the counter glass and a need to catch them before drowning my order in a small lake of hot salsa, the efficiency of their ordering system never fails to amaze.

I wouldn’t wish E. coli on anyone, but why did this have to happen to a new, successful and downright likable franchise like Chipotle, as opposed to an Arby’s, Shakey’s, or a homophobic Chick-fil-A? My wife heard my sadness the other day and said, “Don’t worry, they’ll be back.” and I saw their stocks just rose again after another encouraging public statement by  Steve Ells. I’ve shown my support by braving their front door this week, so now I feel I can kick back for a little while. You know, at least until I notice their line getting long again. I can certainly be adventurous at times, but hell, no sense pushing my luck.

In Praise of Lame White Dancing

During the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time dancing to African music at L.A. clubs, often with my wife. We did the best we could out there, given our whiteness, and besides it was fun and great exercise. Then a lot of the great visiting African musicians began to have visa problems, and the African clubs basically dried up. I will still put on a Tabu Ley mix and cut the rug at home once in a while if no one’s around, but I miss the experience of moving with a lot of people to tribal rhythms in a hot room.

There’s a weird flip side to this, though. One of my guilty pleasures for quite some time has been watching old videos of white people dancing extremely lame. Suffice to say, the Internet is a cornucopia of riches. Thank God soul music was born, because the late ’50s and 1960s featured some of the lamest white dancing we may ever see on the planet, and it’s all fantastic. Just feast on this gem for starters:

Granted, they’re amateurs, they’re kids, and it’s somewhere in Iowa, but the sheer lifelessness of that video is almost mind-numbing.

It’s also incredibly mystifying, because the Big Band Era just fifteen years earlier gave white people a dance craze that was fluid, snazzy and stylish. I mean, look at these people:

Pretty darn awesome. Of course, it didn’t take long for African-Americans to blow our asses out of the water in this regard…

Maybe we were just too intimidated on the dance floor, and it was time to retreat into our stiff, unsexy and creepily misogynist ways. Take it away, Royal Teens!

Not sure exactly when the “Go-Go Girl” was invented, but it was a staple of white dancing lame-osity throughout the decade. Whether it be during a performance by the Gentrys…

or “I Fought the Law” by the Bobby Fuller Four, a song so epic that the Clash covered it. Here, the go-go girls come complete with guns…

Did surf music and the Beach Boys help this dire situation? You be the judge:

Dick Clark’s American Bandstand was certainly not immune to the the lame white craze. Check out these boppin’ teens strutting their loafers and Keds to the Reflections’ “Romeo and Juliet”!

Maybe a black artist like Bobby Day and his hit song “Rockin’ Robin” could bring out some talented dancers. Nope, just more lame white people:

Perhaps foxy Joey Heatherton could be an inspiration on the dance floor. Errrr…sorry.

Hullabaloo along with Shindig were two ’60s TV shows largely responsible for keeping the dancing culture in years of quicksand. Here’s their classic rendition of the Batman theme song…

Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank, had a huge hit with “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”.  The performance? Walking is an understatement:

The Disco Era in the ’70s got us out of the doldrums for a while, but produced a whole new breed of lame white fashion and dance challenges that have lasted up to the present day:

My feeling is that if you’re going to go lame, GO LAME ALL THE WAY. I’ve posted this more recent Finnish video (not Swedish) at least once a year, because I simply can’t get enough of it.

But wait…What’s this? A white dancer who had every move in the book? This guy doing “The Nitty Gritty” in the ’60s was far and away the exception.

There is hope, though. One of the best ways to rise above white dancing lameness is to first accept it, then work and work until acceptable dance movement is reached. And no one understood this better than Napoleon Dynamite.

We can do this, white people. I think we can really do this.

On Not Giving a Crap About the 2015 Red Sox

10_crazy_red_sox_fan_dancingAUTHOR’S NOTE: This was originally written for Fire Brand of the American League, which is the official Red Sox Web site for ESPN’s Sweetspot network, but that entity appears to be either frozen in time or gone with the Internet wind, having not posted any new content since July 27th. An e-mail to their 20-something editor has gone into a similar black hole, so screw it, I’m posting my blog here instead. They don’t pay their writers anyway.

At some point during the 2003 season, months before a Yankee bastard son of Bucky Dent named Bret Boone drove another postseason home run nail through Boston’s heart, I had what I thought was a good idea for a baseball novel/screenplay. Three Red Sox fanatics, losing their minds because of the 80-plus years of their team’s futility, enter a time portal to the winter of 1920 and kidnap Babe Ruth to prevent him from being sold to the Yankees. I had the thing fully outlined and was working on a treatment when lo and behold, the 2004 Red Sox happened. Bosox Anonymous was stuffed in a drawer, never to be contemplated again.

So now it’s 2015, and the Red Sox are working on their third last place finish in four years. On most nights their pitching staff is an eerie hybrid of a cesspool and lava pit, and Don Orsillo is saying “Sox strand two” after so many innings it’s become a masochistic mantra.

Am I at my wit’s end, though? Do I need to find another time portal? Not at all. ’04, ’07, and ’13 were so spectacular, fortunate, and triumphant that they’ve reduced my anxiety about the team a thousandfold. This isn’t to say I don’t get upset if they blow a late lead, Clay Buchholz goes on the DL, David Ortiz grounds into two double plays in one at bat or Rick Porcello serves up five piping hot meatballs in the first four innings, but the feelings of desperation, of gut-punching pain, and of a lifelong curse have been erased forever. Realizing that the Cubs still haven’t won in 107 years, it’s not a bad place to be.

When today’s teams have a long losing streak going, I have no qualms about giving up their telecasts for a re-watch of the 2004 ALCS—a comeback I still can’t believe happened eleven years later—or the last three games of the ’07 one vs. Cleveland, or Game 6 of the ’13 series with St. Louis, a game I just can’t seem to erase from my DVR. It’s not that their losing isn’t painful to watch, it’s that I have confidence in the team’s management, love many of the young players they’re bringing up, and believe they’ll be good again in this decade, as opposed to another fifty years. While we’re waiting for the next good Sox team, why not enjoy the new excitement in places like Pittsburgh, Houston, Kansas City, and Toronto? Wrigley Field is even more fun these days, and nothing would be sweeter outside of another Sox title than one for the Cubs.

Since winning in ’04, Boston fans have acquired a reputation as spoiled whiners, and while I think it’s mostly been misdirected frustration and jealousy (Who says you’re supposed to stop caring for your team after they win?) there is some truth to the idea that we have very little to complain about. We have Mookie Betts, Xander Bogearts, Brock Holt, and a wonderful historic ball yard. In a down year for most of the AL East, it would be nice if we had some real good pitching, but that tends to come in cycles. Hate to sound like an old guy on his porch, but I started rooting for the Sox in 1963 in the days of Bill Monboquette and Jack Lamabe, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s patience.

Growing up with Channel 22 in Springfield and later with Channel 38 in Boston, watching Sox games was not just a ritual but our only TV baseball option outside of a weekly national telecast. The concept of watching any team you wanted on your satellite or computer or pad or phone was straight out of a Ray Bradbury novel. We were stuck with the Sox for better and worse, day in and day out, and it was only natural to become obsessed. Seriously, if I didn’t happen to be camping in the San Gabriel Mountains the night a ball went through Bull Buckner’s legs, forcing me to miss seeing that happen live, who knows if I’d still be here today? My remains they found at the bottom of that 2000-ft. gulley would still be sporting my faded Dewey and Pudge hat.

I guess I feel I’ve earned the right to take every Red Sox loss this season with a full pound of salt, to not give a crap and be fine with it. And if you look at the standings, it’s easy to recall that back in 1978, the Sox had a 14-game lead in August on the Yankees—

Oh right…The Yankees. Forgot that they’re in first place. No, no. This can’t happen. Someone has to beat them. If not for the division title than the wild card. Or in the playoffs! Damn it to hell.

Forget everything I just said. THIS SUCKS!!!!