Matt McHugh
Matt - Blog - September 2004


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It's Debatable

Watched most of the first 2004 presidential debate (missed the last 10 minutes). Right off the bat, I knew we were in for some fun when Jim Lehrer laid out the ground rules. Two minute answers, 90-second rebuttals, discretionary 30-second counter-responses. No direct questions to your opponent. The audience will remain absolutely silent. Go to Jail. Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Etc., etc.

What's the purpose of all this? The whole rigid format reminded me of my college forensic speaking competitions. Essentially, the debate was structured to be a test of public-speaking ability. This does not strike me as particularly fair or valuable. Setting aside any political allegiences or predilections you may have toward one candidate's content or position, it was pretty obvious Bush was wholly outclassed. Again, all policies aside, Bush ain't even in Kerry's league when judged solely on extemporaneous public speaking ability. Trust me on this. I know more about it than you. (Trust me on that, too.)

However, is that our primary criterion for choosing a president? To be able to give good speeches? Granted it is a big, big part of the job--but if that's what we really want of the president, we should just elect an actor and everybody'll love him no matter what his administration does.

Oh wait... we did. And we did. Ve-ry in-ter-est-ing.

-- mm

Music Television Commercial

Just saw a preview of a new 1-800-OK-CABLE commercial featuring Long Island-based band Early Edison. It's basically a video for a composed-for-the-occasion song with a punk-pop beat and suitably tongue-in-cheek lyrics ("I don't mind if I'm your man when you only want to watch something on demand"). I've met the band's singer-songwriter Tom Ashton a few times, and he's been plugging away in the NYC music scene for years. They've had some successes getting songs into movies and TV shows, but being front-and-center--musically and visually--on a commercial is a pretty big feather in your recording artist cap.

Of all the creative businesses out there, it seems to me the music business is the strangest. From master studio musicians whose names you will never know to teen idols with the shelf life of buttermilk, the possibilities for overnight success to decades of disappointment are endless. Five years ago The Backstreet Boys were probably the most famous group in the history of the world (I'm serious). Today, you couldn't give away their CDs in a cereal box. Global media has made it possible to become a household name on every continent in weeks--but any cookie-cutter fad that spikes so high so fast will wear out its novelty just as quickly. Others can produce startlingly original work year after year and never make a blip. Talent and perseverance only go so far when public whim is the big deciding factor. (Political candidates take heed!)

And behind it all are the producers, shaping the product to fit the tastes of the day... and vice versa. I've always wanted to be a musician, but I just don't have the chops (and I have tried to acquire them). However, I have no doubt I could be a producer. All that takes is money and a knack for manipulating consumer opinion. Give me a few million dollars and I'll give you a chart-topping Boy Band or Pop Tart. At least for a few weeks. After that initial honeymoon phase, talent starts to be a factor... and that's where I'm a little shaky.

-- mm

1-800-OK-Cable commerical at

SUBJECT: New Screw-You Policy

Let me start by saying I consider car salesmen scum of the earth. The entire automotive dealer industry is one of the most innately consumer-hostile enterprises in the country. If you need any proof of the profit margins of cars, just look at how much advertising they do. My quick impression is that roughly 25% of all TV advertising is for cars. Magazines are probably up there as well. Cars should last 10 years / 150,000 miles easily--yet hardly anyone I know actually owns a car. They all lease: an insanely wasteful practice that benefits only dealers, who get about 75% of the car's original inflated retail price over three years. Then they get the car back and re-sell it for another 75% of it's original inflated retail price, while you get squat (Question: how many of you have had to buy out a lease because you went over the mileage? Be honest...). Don't even get me started on options. The salesmen will go on endlessly about how it's like getting a new car every three years, and they've succeeded in schooling the nation that that's the way it should be. They... are... SCUM.

That said, you do have to buy a car sometimes. My solution for this was to do it online. The best site I'd found for this was Got my current car through it four years ago and have always recommended it wholeheartedly. Until now.

Recently, CarsDirect has abandoned the one thing that made them useful: the ability to get pricing quotes online. You used to be able to pick a car, mix and match options, and they'd spit out a number--typically dead on at 3-4% over dealer invoice, which is what the long-standing consumer wisdom says you should pay for a car. MSRP or "Sticker Price" is closer to 10% or more over invoice. Anyway, this extremely consumer-friendly and helpful feature has been replaced by the decidedly sinister "give us your name and address and phone number and a dealer will call." They no longer tell you how much it costs up front. You have to submit yourself to the harassment of a scumbucket car dealer.

This is an unequivocal fact--and anyone who disputes it is simply attempting to obscure that fact that they profit from it: anyone who will not tell you how much something costs right up front is trying to screw you. Period. CarsDirect is now trying to screw you. To be fair, it was probably pressured by the car manufacturers and dealers (who have very active lobbyists, by the way) to "put back the middleman." That's no excuse... just means they caved to scum.

Anyway, if you're car shopping, try Research; click on the More Info links. They, at least, will still show you price ranges.

-- mm

A Favorite Sting Line

I'm listening to the Sting song "Saint Augustine in Hell" from his album Ten Summoner's Tales. I like Sting quite a bit; this particular song is not really a favorite, though I like this album. I especially love the title, which is a pun on his real name (Gordon Sumner) within an echo of The Canterbury Tales (there is no "Summoner" character, but it sure sounds like there could be). But I digress...

Anyway, I just wanted to point out a line from the song. Sting has lots of gems, and this is one I particularly like:

She walked into the room on the arm of my best friend
I knew whatever happened, that friendship would end.


-- mm

P.S. - Came across this on the mostly harmless site, briefly pondering if Sting has bipolar disorder. There's a further page that lists a few dozen bipolar celebrities.

I see the potential for a party game here, at least on a par with Who's Jewish / Gay / Dead / etc.

It's Not "Baa-aaacck"

Oh, one more thing about The Apprentice, then I'll shut up.

In a promo teaser for the season 2 debut of the show, they cut to The Donald looking at the camera and giving the sing-song cadenced phrase:

"I'm Baa-aaacck"

Canny 30-somethings might associate that signature phrase with the Poltergeist movies--however, there's an interesting little synthesis going on. In the first movie, the little girl says, in a creepy-but-happy sing-song voice "They're Heeeer-eeer!" In the second movie, she says in a terrified quaver "They're Back!" However, pop culture has smashed these two together into a creepy, sing-song "They're Baa-aaacck!" and we accept it smoothly without considering its source or the synthesis.

So what does this mean? Well, besides proving once again my head is filled with a terrifying amount of useless garbage, I might go so far as to suggest in invokes a collective unconscious kind of thing. We can all have our memories readily redacted by a hybrid of something we recall inexactly. If something approximates what we expect to hear, we can swallow it without a hitch.

Just something to bear in mind in an election year.

-- mm

Yep, The Apprentice Still Sucks

Caught a chunk of a season 2 episode of The Apprentice tonight. The task was, on 24-hour schedule and $50,000 budget, to create "buzz event" for new Vanilla Mint Crest toothpaste.

Again, here's why I hate the show: the above represents a moderately interesting challenge--however, the two teams on the show approached this with only a modicum of creativity that was overshadowed by staged personal bitching. In the end, they fired the chick everybody said was crazy.

I must admit, I do find it entertaining to contemplate the litigious powderkeg an employer would face were they to based a termination decision on coworkers' round-robin accusations of mental instability, so I guess the show fulfilled its purpose. And I'm talking about it--a classic no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity deal--so, again, I've played right into its hands.

Well, no more. I'm going to ignore it and see if it goes away.

-- mm

Rude Vile Duck

Sir (oh, how he must love being called that) Elton John arrived in a Taiwan airport today for a concert, where he was hounded by photographers as his bodyguards tried to shield him. Their encroachments apparently irked John (Sir John? Sir Elton? ... ah, screw it, I'm just calling him Captain Fantastic from now on) enough that he ranted at them several times, at one point wagging a finger and calling them "rude, vile pigs."

It's unclear exactly what so set off Captain Fantastic--who must be quite used to paparazzi--though I can't but imagine his outburst was warranted, if imprudent. I can only imagine how trying it must be to want to be left alone while parasitic picture-mongers jostle you. Heck, I get pretty irritated when someone says hello to me at the office when I'm lost in thought, so I've no room to wag fingers. Still, that's the unholy side of fame... the be-careful-what-you-wish-for part. On some level, I feel people who seek it deserve whatever comes out of the Pandora's box they open; on another, I think people should be famous for their work, not their fame itself. The only legitimate reason to harass Elton John is if he's talking on his cellphone in the elevator when you're trying to listen to "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" in the muzak.

I wonder what I'd do if hounded by paparazzi? I imagine I'd do what many celebrities seem to do: bear it with good humor until they explode. Given my pattern in other aspects of life, I can be very calm and patient for quite a long time--but when I finally go, it's suitably explosive. I have no doubt I'd go all Sean Penn on someone's ass eventually. Which, interestingly enough, only seems to buy you more fame. OK, then... if I ever get famous enough to have photo-stalkers, here's my plan: I'll have a camera-wielding plant that will, very conspicuously, assault me in a public place. I'll then wallop him handily with some photogenically choreographed martial arts moves. I make it big in the entertainment news circuit as the scourge of the stalker-razzi and (since I'm neither sued nor charged with battery by my accomplice) get away scot free. Win-win.

Remember, folks, when you see on ET, you heard it here first

-- mm

Cat and Mole

Yesterday, former pop singer Cat Stevens, who became a Muslim and changed his name to Yusuf Islam some 20-odd years ago, was denied entry to the United States. He was on a flight from the U.K. to Washington DC when his plane was forced to land in Maine. He was then detained, questioned, and put back on a flight to London. His 21-year-old daughter was allowed to enter the U.S., but he was denied entry for being on a "terrorist watch list"--not specifically for any activities he himself has engaged in, but for his fundraising activities for charities that have rumored ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Mr. Islam/Stevens himself has frequently made public statements condemning terrorist violence, expressly stating that it was counter to the Koran and the true Muslim faith (though, he did say that the 1989 death sentence issue by Iran on author Salman Rushdie could be justified by the Koran).

In any event, I personally don't think Mr. Islam/Stevens is a terrorist nor would he directly support terrorist organizations willingly. However, as more and more intelligence is revealing, there are many seemingly innocuous Muslim charities that funnel money back to Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda. It doesn't take much imagination to see how charitable donations (a core religious obligation of all Muslims, by the way) given to "Refugee Relief" and "Education Funding" sent to the Middle East end up buying weapons or housing recruits training to use them. The fact a person gives money out of a desire to do good doesn't mean that's what the money ends up doing. Hell, people question where Red Cross donations are going--and that organization has some semblance of accountability. Hamas et al. have none.

In the end, I personally think Mr. Islam/Stevens is probably a victim of paranoia and prejudice, a kind of "soft bigotry" that creates guilt-by-association for anyone remotely connected to a group we perceive as the enemy. I feel bad for Mr. Islam/Stevens--but, frankly, not that bad. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there aren't people out to get you.

As much of an inconvenient ordeal this brand of American guilt-by-association paranoia may have caused for Mr. Islam/Stevens, at least he wasn't beheaded on webcam.

-- mm

'Amused' Cat Stevens back home on

Giving Courtesy a Try

My son is trying a new tack lately. He's asking politely for everything (May I have a drink? May I go outside)--including things he wouldn't normally ask for (May I read my book? May I sit down on the rug?).

I have no illusions that this is much more than a linguistic experiment on his part, rather than a complete attitude change toward courteous deference in all things. Eventually, he'll tire of this or hit a frustration level where he'll throw a tantrum. Still, I think it bodes well that he's cognizant enough of it's possible power to give it a whirl. What I'd like him to learn from this experiment is that, generally, asking politely gets a better result. He still won't get cake for dinner or get to stay up and play a video game till 10:00--and when he gets enough No's to such things, I'm sure they'll be a backlash--but for now, we're making a concerted effort to indulge his neatly phrased requests.

In my experience, courtesy is always the best, first option if you want anything from someone. It doesn't always work to be sure, and you often have to go to Plan B--but there's real value in following the procedure. As I say, I learned that by experience (although I was told it as well). I expect my boy to largely ignore what I tell him in favor of his own experience. For me, the trick is the best way to shepherd him through the experience without having a coronary in the process.

-- mm

Freakin' Kid

My 3.75(to be precise)-year-old son has begun using the word freakin' in sentences. Mommy, where's my freakin' robot? I'm eating my freakin' breakfast. I'm on the freakin' potty.

My wife blames me, and I must cop to sometimes being a profanity blurter of nearly Tourette's-level coprolalia (great word!), but were he emulating me, I suspect he'd come out with much worse. (BTW... the wife does her share, too; the echo effect she created once referring to a brusque traffic cop with choice epithet is still legendary... but I digress.) Anyway, I can think of two sources where he would have picked up the F-word-lite:

  • On the cartoon website, the character StrongBad says "freakin" and "Holy Crap" frequently. I guess I'll have to phase that one out of the evening's entertainment.
  • Once, he overheard the word and immediately latched onto it from group of teenagers in a donut shop.

In any event, this doesn't upset me much. He's still young enough where he can simply be distracted by a funnier expression ("Rutabaga Dinky-Do!" is my current frontlister here). And, where we've simply said that's not a nice word, he seems to take that at face value currently--rather than a challenge to push the envelope (which he does with everything else, i.e., getting dressed, eating, not sitting on his sister, etc.) When he does finally come out with a whopper obscenity in an embarrassing situation, I know I'll have only myself to blame. Though, I'll still try to pin it on the wife.

-- mm

X2... Whoo Hoo!

X2, the sequel to the 2000 X-Men movie from Bryan Singer, is finally on cable, so I get to watch bits and pieces of it over and over again until I have it memorized in its entirety... my favorite way to experience sci-fi/action flicks I love (and even some I hate... I'm weird like that).

And there's a lot to like in this one. I find the cast and story very satisfying and, in many ways, I'd argue that it's the best superhero movie translation ever made--specifically in terms of what it changed and what it preserved from the comic. Fantastic exaggeration injected with just enough reality to make it go down smooth for geeks and non-geeks. The heros are powerful, yet vulnerable enough so that you can imagine they might actually fail. The villains are intelligent and, if you think about it, kind of have a point. The school-age mutants have the yearning uncertainty of real teenagers, and Wolverine is still (literally) too cool for school.

And the chicks are hot. Let's not forget that. A factor not to be underestimated where black leather uniforms and painted-on bodysuits are the norm. I've always been a Jean Grey fan... but Storm ain't no slouch either--and I'd forgotten about non-blue Mystique... and Rogue is just cute as a button. Much to consider here.


-- mm

* - Thank God for Cable

Why America Slept

Picked up Gerald Posner's 2003 book Why America Slept, an account of decades of U.S. intelligence and administrative missteps that supposedly contributed to the failure to prevent 9/11. I really enjoyed Posner's book on the JFK assassination (turned me from a minor conspiracy buff to a full-blown Oswaldite), so I'm curious on his take on this situation. I've only read a chapter or two, but already the evidence for CIA/FBI and Executive (Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes) blunders seems jaw-dropping. I still think that, even absent such errors, there is no way to ever eliminate the possibility of terrorist attacks and I simply can not blame the government--again, no matter how bureaucratically confounded--for the actions of suicidal fanatics. However, I would like to understand it all better.

In any event, I doubt that reading this is likely to soothe my anger at either the government or the terrorists.

-- mm

Miscellaneous Travel Observations

A few things that caught my interest during my recent travels:

  • Virgin Atlantic gives each passenger a "goody bag" that includes a toothbrush and a teeny-weeny tube of toothpaste. This is brilliant; every hotel in the world should do this.
  • A bank machine in London when asking if I wanted a receipt of the transaction called it an "advice slip." I half-expected it to include a recommendation of where I ought NOT to spend the money.
  • Instead of plastic bottles, my London hotel had a little basket of ketchup-style packets with shampoo. Again, brilliant in it's practically.
  • Vegas odds makers for the Nobel Peace Prize (you really can bet on anything) were giving Yassar Arafat better odds than George Bush.
  • A local I spoke to in Vegas said her property value doubled in 15 months. Apparently Vegas is the hottest real estate market in the country.
  • Outside the Mirage, there's a bronze statue of Siegfried & Roy; I watched dozens of tourists delight in pantomiming tiger attacks on Roy
  • At the MGM Grand, they've removed the Wizard of Oz theming I remember from a few years ago in favor of an Art Deco classic Hollywood motif. It's prettier, but not as much fun.
  • Also at the MGM Grand,there is now a exhibit with several female lions (and even a few insanely adorable, weeks-old cubs). The exhibit is set up with glass ceilings where the lions can literally walk over you. I watched a 300-pound lion stand three feet above me and casually pee on the glass. That, my friends, is a Vegas experience I wouldn't trade for nothin'.
  • The dancing fountains at the Bellagio are quite impressive. I watched choreographed light-and-water performances set to "Fly me to the Moon" and an Italian aria. Could have spent hours there.

-- mm

Sin City, Family Fun Spot

Spending the night in Las Vegas after a business meeting this morning. The place certainly does not disappoint.

Right across from the Tropicana where I'm staying is New York, New York. Its squashed rendition of the New York skyline--complete with Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Grand Central, Empire State, Chrysler Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Grant's Tomb, etc.--is bizarrely impressive. It looks like a Lego model on a truly monumental scale, the illusion broken only by a roller coaster snaking through it. (Rode it. It's pretty good, with a truly harrowing first drop--though at $12.50 you pay for the novelty.) Also went to an aquarium at the surprisingly elegant Mandalay Bay. It was certainly the best designed I've ever seen, from an aesthetic point of view--attractively, if illogically, themed to look like ruins of a mish-mash of Southeastern Asian and Meso-American temples. Large over/under viewing tanks, and a massive walk-through tube so perfectly lit that if you look up, you can't see the glass at all and you'd swear fish are swimming in the air overhead. The piece-de-resistance is a shark tank designed to look like a sunken pirate ship. You walk into the shadowy hold and look through the ship's ribs into a eerily dark tank where dozens of sharks glide by in silent menace. There's even a hammerhead, supposedly the only one in U.S. captivity. The giant TV/billboard that first alerted me to the aquarium's existence melodramatically referred to the hammerhead as "evolution's mistake." The audio program at the exhibit, however, said that the shape of the head helps the shark pin down rays, it's main prey. Ooh... good one, evolution!

Elsewhere, a replica of the Eiffel Tower at Paris merits a few minutes of staring. And the Venice casino has authentic-looking gondolas plying through sparkling, pristine canals (a pointed deviation from reality, I'm led to understand) and large-scale re-creations of the Doge's palace, complete with and the main tower and the Bridge of Sighs. In the Luxor--a black glass pyramid fronted by a blue-eyed sphinx--there's a recreation of King Tut's Tomb, complete with an audio program where a Howard Carter-impersonator (I wonder if it's Vegas headliner Danny Gans?) explaining the significance of the items on display and encouraging you to sample some of the other fabulous attractions at the Luxor. One of them was a really cheesy motion-simulation ride (i.e., you watch a movie while your seat bucks and tilts in sync). When it ended, every person on the ride sat blankly saying "that's it?". It wasn't actually the ride itself that was unsatisfying, but the plot of the little 4-minute movie (see, writing does matter).

Such was my adventure in family Vegas. I did drop $35 on video poker, though... so I still got some of the traditional experience. However, I didn't go to any brothels or order an escort. It's not that I'm morally opposed to the concept; it's just that paying young, attractive women to spend time with me makes me feel even older, balder, paunchier, and more pathetic than I usually do.

-- mm

Photos of the Doge's palace in Venice on

Off to Vegas

My whirlwind travel stint continues! Today, I have to fly to Las Vegas for a meeting on Friday. This bizarro touch-and-go traveling is very usual for me, and not especially enjoyed. However, I have to admit, I'm kind of looking forward to Vegas. When I originally got this assignment to meet with a customer in Vegas, some friends and I tried to concoct a plan to make it a "guy's weekend" -- this year's installment of what's become an annual ritual. But such impromptu jaunts are tough for pushing-40's with kids and assorted other responsibilities, so it's a no-go. The trip is just a 48-hour airport-hotel-airport deal for me now.

That's not to say I won't try to squeeze in a little R&R. I haven't been to LV in nearly ten years, and the place has changed a lot. I want to see some of the new theme casinos--like the one that's a large scale replica of the NYC skyline, or the one that recreates Venice, canals and all--or watch the choreographed fountains at the Bellagio (immortalized for me by the ending of the Clooney-Souderberg Ocean's Eleven). I'm not much into gambling (though I always drop a little on video poker), but I do enjoy the gaudy spectacle of the place. You can spend several days just exploring some of the attractions the casino-hotels put in, almost as an afterthought. The dolphin habitat at the Mirage. The car museum at the Imperial Palace. Live circus acts at Circus, Circus. The fighting pirate ships at Treasure Island. Not to mention simply wandering around slack-jawed the sheer magnitude of the gaudy architecture.

I'd rather not make the trip, but--since I must--I'm going to enjoy it, dammit.

-- mm

Situation: Done!

My sitcom script for the Bravo Situation: Comedy reality show contest... done! Seventy pages (lots of double-spaced dialog and generous page-breaking pads that figure) of pure comic gold!

Actually, a couple friends who read it in progress said they liked the story, but didn't find it particularly funny. I scrupulously followed the three-jokes-a-page rule I found in a book about writing sitcoms, but I guess they don't add up to big yuks. They were funny to me because I spent a lot of time imagining a funny cast giving perfect delivery (that and the fact that I generally find myself amusing). This enterprise has really reinforced in my mind that it's the actors that make a sitcom. A good cast can make so-so jokes work; a bad cast will destroy the best-turned lines. Seriously... imagine anybody other than Kramer delivering the catchphrase "giddyup!" and it don't work.

So what now? Well, I mailed the thing (3 script copies, plot summary, character list, and signed agreement) to the contest address. And then? Well, that's it. As a struggling writer with a drawerful of rejection slips (a pretty good definition for the calling), I'm quite accustomed to sending work I'm proud of into the void, only to have the void swallow it whole or burp back a generically polite "does not meet our needs at the present time" so I'm not going to obsess over its fate. Believe me, I'd love to make the 50 runners-up, or the 7 seven semi-finalists, or the 2 finalists who actually get to appear on the reality show (oh, the dreams I've had about carpeing that diem!), but the odds are simply against it. My random guess is that this contest is likely to get 20,000 or so submissions (i.e., one from every Film and TV student in the country). Is mine good enough to stand respectably among them? Absolutely. Is it good enough to beat them all out? Probably not. That's not self-deprecation; it's just an honest awareness that what I came up with was not a work of ground-breaking genius.

Anyway, I did what I wanted: I finished something acceptable by deadline. As soon as I'm sure it hasn't been selected for the next round of judging (hey, I can still dream!), I'll post it. For now, it's back to wasting my time on short stories as my excuse for not working on any of my drawerful of unfinished novels (another good litmus test for struggling writer).

-- mm

Shrek 2

My other choice on my Virgin Atlantic Airlines personal in-flight video screen: Shrek 2. I wonder why I'm drawn to escapist, kid-oriented movies for entertainment when I'm on a plane. Oh, wait, I know... because they're ENTERTAINING. Angels in America and Saving Private Ryan have their value, but not while I'm just killing time waiting for beverage service and chicken-in-a-pouch.

Anyway, the movie was OK, as far as I could tell. Despite Virgin's best efforts, the compromised quality of those video screens when the person in front of you can't decide to recline or not and those dinky headphones' inability to compete with roaring jet engines make for a pretty lousy viewing experience. A big part of the first Shrek movie, which I quite liked, was the dense layering of verbal and visual gags within that exquisite computer animation. That don't translate well when you can't see or hear so good, so I'm sure I missed a lot. Ah well... as I've said often, thank God for cable.

In any case, I suspect I've had my fill of Shrek for a few years, so number 3 will probably pass under my radar. Unless my kids drag me to see it. Interestingly, my 3.5 year old boy hasn't watched the first one. I started to show it to him, but he got scared of big, green Shrek's menacing roar. Can't figure out why, since he's fascinated by the Hulk and Frankenstein. Probably just as well. There's slapstick violence that I'd rather he didn't imitate--and Shrek does say "save my ass" once referring to rescuing his Donkey sidekick. Of course, that's nothing compared to what I often fail to prevent myself from blurting when I can't find my keys in the morning.

-- mm

Harry Potter 3

On my return flight from London, I watched several movies on my personal video screen. Virgin Atlantic Airlines, with its ties to the recording and film industry, seems to pride itself on offering ample in-flight entertainment. Sitting in a cramped seat for 7 hours, you really appreciate their efforts. Anyway, one of my choices was the third Harry Potter movie: ...Prisoner of Azkabahn.

I've read J.K. Rowling's HP books (except the most recent ...Order of the Phoenix) and enjoyed them; ditto with the two previous movies. This entry in the "franchise" (I love that term applied to movies) was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, rather than Chris Columbus who did the other two. I recall when the movie came out critics praising it as "darker" and "more fluid" than the others and cited Cuaron's direction, a Mexican whose previous biggest film was in Spanish, as an improvement to the series. Personally, I didn't see the big difference. Visually, it looked very much like the other films--perhaps a little "darker" in color palette with a few new location shots. Personally, I was quite impressed with the cinematic vision (the casting, the sets, the tone) Columbus created from scratch, so Cuaron had a pretty well-stocked sandbox to play in right off the bat. The plot is a little more sinister and the kids are a little older, so that lends some more "maturity" to the story. For anyone willfully ignorant of the HP conceit, it's about kids at a school for magic, following them from ages 11 to 18--essentially, a wizard's buildings roman. It's a brilliant idea: a child's fantasy story that matures into adulthood with the characters. The whole thing seems to be building to an almost apocalyptic good v. evil climax. In the first installment, we see 11-year old Harry playing with toy soldiers; by the last one, I suspect we'll see him leading an army.

Here's my problem: I'm kind of tired of it already. I like fantasy stories and the books/movies are fine examples of the genre, but I find that my attention span for an ongoing serial is two or three years max. After that, the novelty of the story has worn off and I move on. Rowling has two more books to write in her planned series of seven; there are four more movies, if they keep pace. One of the most interesting things about the movies is to watch the cast of kids (who are exceptional) age right along with the characters. A cinematic study of kids going from 11 to 18 has sociological value in itself--though it's pretty unlikely the franchise can keep cranking out one of these pictures every year, and that's assuming that Rowling can finish the books in time as well. In any event, I probably won't be lining up for future HP's as the factory spits them out--simply because I've had my fill for now. Now, in, say, 5-7 years (if not sooner) when the series is done in every form, I'm certain I'll have to get all the books and DVDs for my little ones. At that time, I'm sure I'll re-read and/or watch them with the kids with the novelty renewed vicariously.

-- mm

Home Again, Home Again

Back en route home, to New Jersey from Old Blighty. This trip, rapidly on the heels of my Jersey shore vacation has left me pretty wrung out. And, I have to fly to Vegas for business later this week. I used to travel a good bit for work, but because of the kidlets at home, I've made a real effort to cut that back in recent years. Mostly, that's worked out; this little series of jaunts is a rarity.

Prior to procreating and suffering a major back injury (unrelated phenomena, incidentally), I loved to travel. Even the crushing sameness of airports and hotels seemed like a novelty, and I always managed to tack an extra day or so onto each trip to see the sights. When I think of all the places I've been--for work and/or pleasure, often multiple times--I'm fairly impressed. Here's a selection:

  • Chicago
  • San Francisco
  • Napa
  • Monterey
  • Grand Canyon
  • Yosemite
  • Zion and Bryce Canyon, Utah
  • Los Angeles
  • San Diego
  • La Jolla
  • Vancouver
  • Toronto
  • Montreal
  • St. Louis
  • Orlando
  • Tampa
  • Miami
  • Ft. Lauderdale
  • Florida Keys
  • Washington DC
  • Boston
  • Atlanta
  • New Orleans
  • Las Vegas
  • Dallas
  • Minneapolis
  • Mankato, Minnesota
  • Outer Banks, North Carolina
  • Cancun, Mexico
  • Cozumel,Mexico
  • Grand Cayman
  • Turks & Caicos
  • London
  • Nice, France
  • Monaco
  • Lisbon & Sintra, Portugal

Never as a kid in a little Pennsylvania suburb who never set foot on a plane until he was 20 did I think I'd get around that much. Gotta love business trips (and the tax incentives that make them possible!).

-- mm

9/11 3

Third Anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Of all the myriad thoughts and feelings this stirs in me, the chief one--anger--has slightly ebbed this year. Until very recently, I couldn't hear about it, see pictures of the Towers (before or after), or even contemplate the lower Manhattan skyline without coming to an inner boil that often spiked into a rant. Grief or empathy or patriotism over the incident were, and are still, overlayed by pure anger. Many people often reflect and/or lament over "why" this happened. Why did God allow it? (an infantile question). Why would anyone want to do this to U.S.? (a naive question). Why wasn't this prevented by our Government? (a damn good question... though I've never blamed the government, per se... however, the airline industry doesn't get off so easy in my book).

I know exactly why it happened. Forces in the Arab world have been systematically fostering Muslim extremism for years in an attempt to gain political control. Hatred of the U.S. (for both false and legitimate reasons) is a highly effective way to galvanize followers under a banner of religious rage; high-profile demonstrations of power (what else would you call terrorist attacks? They certainly have no direct strategic objective) help reassure the faithful that they chosen a winning side. It's that dynamic that enrages me. Religion goading hatred into violence for political gain.

The recent Chechen terrorist attack on a Russian school spurs the same anger--only, in many ways, more visceral now that I have children of my own rapidly approaching school age. I would never argue that my ugly fits of "genocide's-too-good-for-'em" rage represent a defensible moral or strategic position, but self-awareness demands that I don't pretend I don't have them. I have to tell myself that I'm different from the terrorists precisely because I fight against such hateful reflexes, that I don't indulge my basest fantasies of righteous vengeance against a dehumanized enemy. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy thinking about what I might do if I got my hands on one of them.

What did I say before about the anger ebbing? Well, it's true. Three years ago, you wouldn't have heard me say anything so restrained.

-- mm

English Countryside

Survived (just barely) the initial day of my UK business trip. Now, on day two, I have to travel by train to an office about two hours south of London. I've made this trip a couple times before and the thing that strikes me most about the English countryside is how much it looks exactly like what you think the English countryside should look like.

Scruffy green rolling hills. Fields and pastures delineated by hedges or tree lines or low stone walls. Meandering waterways. Sheep, cows, rabbits, pheasants--I haven't seen a fox yet, but I'm sure they're there. Cottages clustered into little towns with a castle or cathedral in the center. With a lifetime of imported literary and cinematic impressions of England, it seemed improbable to me that the place could really look that, but it does. Straight outta Howard's End or Watership Down.

But, by far, my favorite bit of the train ride is the announcement of destinations. Either on the train or on the platform, you'll hear a well-schooled British voice carefully read out the dozen or so hamlets along the line. Some of the names are pretty funny in themselves (Cockfosters, Uppminster, New Pudsley), but there's something about hearing the litany of towns delivered with such unironic propriety that strikes me as downright hilarious. To capture the experience, I took out my pocket digital recorder and made a recording of the station announcements on this trip. See if they strike you as funny.

-- mm

36 Hours

Since Hurricane Frances altered my best-laid plan for a day-flight--conceived to give me a full night to recover before the next day's business--to the UK, I'm stuck doing an overnighter, landing in London at 9:00 am on the day I'm supposed to have a series of meetings. I hate flying over to Europe, traveling 7-6 hours then losing 5 hours in the time difference on top of it. I usually end up falling asleep around 16:00 (that's 4:00 pm to all you U.S. half-clockers), then waking up around midnight, unable to sync up to the local time.

Even more amusing is the zombie-like state I end up in. I remember once falling asleep on a tour of the (reconstructed, not on original site) Globe Theater in London once after landing at 7:00 am and not being allowed to check in to my hotel till 3:00 pm. Ditto in the Victoria and Albert Museum on a different trip but with the same overnight flight fiasco. The V&A has a room of reproductions of renowned works of art (Michelangelo's David, Raphael's School of Athens, Da Vinci's Pieta, etc.). As I walked through that room, running on 36 straight hours, the word "Reproductions" splashed all over the walls didn't quite register on my impaired consciousness and I wandered in a awe that this one museum had so much really famous stuff in it.

Illogical thinking that seems to make sense is one of the hallmark experiences of being beyond exhaustion like that. It's like a walking dreamstate, when imagination, memory, and perception combine in a melange that, when reconsidered later, is fascinatingly ludicrous. Once, in such a condition, I held the back of my hand against a glass, confused that my fingers didn't bend backwards to grasp it. Another similar time, looking at words on a page and seeming to see them marching in ranks like Space Invaders, I reasoned that I would know when I had finished reading the page when I had shot all the words down. It's an interesting insight into the tenuously crosswired switchboard of the mind--well worth a little sleep deprivation to explore from time to time.

-- mm

Hurricane Frances

Hurricane Frances is chugging up the U.S. East coast after hitting already storm-wracked Florida pretty hard. For me, in New Jersey, it's not a threat to my life and home, so much as an inconvenience to my schedule. A Wednesday morning flight I had to the UK was cancelled and I was bounced to an overnight flight. That means I land in Heathrow at 9:00am and have to be in a London office for a meeting at 11:00am. Don't know about you, but I don't get much real rest in economy class on a seven-hour transatlantic flight, so I expect to be quite the zombie for the working day.

To make matters more amusing, I had to walk to the train station dragging my bags on unstable little wheels during a torrential downpour where all the curbs were flooded out six inches deep. By the time I got to work, I was drenched to my skivvies and had to unpack my water-logged suitcase to find a change of clothes relatively dry enough to wear for the next 36 hours. I managed this and hung the moister of my socks and underwear from semi-open file drawers to dry out as best as they could before my 9:25 pm flight. I resisted the urge to drape them over my officle walls Petticoat Junction-style, but it was strong.

Whenever forced to bear such minor tragedies, I always try to remind myself that they are, in fact, pretty minor. Some lost sleep and wet tighty-whities are tiny trials compared to people in the Caymans, Florida, and Jamaica who are losing everything. Though, frankly, I wouldn't feel too bad if the flood washed away a few of the shadier Caymans offshore banks. Or maybe Halliburton's Caymans office (which I think consists of a fax machine).

-- mm

Iraq Hits 1K

The U.S. death toll in the Iraq War has officially hit 1,000. That includes those killed in combat, as well as those killed in accidents (helicopter crashes, etc. ...even the preparations for combat are pretty dangerous nowadays). The number of Iraqi dead--combatants, insurgents, and civilians inclusive--is estimated at @20,000*.

The numbers in themselves are pretty meaningless. People die in war. Period. The question to ask is: is the good being accomplished sufficient to counter-balance those deaths. Twenty-one thousand is a reasonable price to pay for substantial increases in the long-term security and freedoms afforded millions--at least that's how the Bush administration's military logic goes on this. Fans of the Iraq invasion (and there are a surprising number of them in the U.S.) would certainly argue that such a toll, while tragic, is justified in that it serves the greater good. Most I've encountered are pretty hard-pressed to provide details on what they think that good is, but it usually seems to come down to 1) we got rid of a dangerous dictator 2) we've freed and aggressively repressed people and are helping them rebuild their lives 3) we are rooting out sources of terrorism that threaten U.S. security. On the opposite side, I tend to hear arguments like 1) we have enabled terrorism-inclined Islamist factions, formerly repressed by Saddam, to make violent coups for power 2) we have caused (directly or indirectly) civilian collateral damage that is fanning hatred of the U.S. in Iraq and other Arab nations 3) we are expending military and monetary resources in Iraq that could be better spent elsewhere.

Personally, I tend to think--and this is from a purely strategic point of view (discussing the "morality" of war is simply delusional)--that the Iraq invasion was neither necessary nor is likely to have lasting benefits for either country. With only my armchair general's expertise, I could well be wrong on this--though the vast number of popular war-supporters have no better intelligence than I to justify their views. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I always believe the government knows more than it tells us. Frankly, I'd love to have some insider spill the hidden agenda like: "Look, we made a deal with the Saudis that if we got rid of Saddam and gave them contracts for the Iraqi oil fields, they'd keep supplies and prices stable for the next thirty years, which is pretty much the remaining lifetime of fossil fuels, so we've basically guaranteed the reliability of the global oil-based economy for the foreseeable future." Now that's a justification for going to war. I wouldn't feel so bad about spending 21,000 lives and a few hundred billion dollars on such an outcome. But nobody's going to say anything like that... and the really scary thing to me is that there may not even be anything that coldly practical at the root of all this. I have this nagging fear that the Bush administration is going about this enterprise with the same degree of factual ignorance they had about the WMDs--that the real generals don't actually know any more than the armchair ones.

Dubya likes to talk a lot about now being a time for hope. OK then...cross your fingers, folks!

-- mm

Labor Day

I don't quite get the purpose of this holiday, except as a bookend to summer--which is perfectly valid: holidays serve the needs of society, and we all need something to tell us "funtime's over... get back to work."

It's been many, many years since I mourned the passing of summer. When I was about 12 years old, I started to grasp the nature of school. Prior to that, it was a constant trial and I did poorly; afterward, I got pretty good at it. With the exception of Algebra and Trigonometry, high school was pretty easy and fun, and college was a blast. Everything I liked to do always centered around school, even sports and activities were always associated with the school year. I can remember champing at the bit to get back in late August. Not that I didn't enjoy the freedom of summer, but after three months, I was quite done with it. And, by the time I got to college, summer was filled with the much, much more tedious and frustrating enterprise known as work. And I had some crappy jobs. Stockboy. Deli clerk. Snack bar cook. Dishwasher. Furnace cleaner. Illegal asbestos remover. Garbage man (rode on the back of the truck and everything. Something in me thought it might be romantic in raw, blue-collar kind of way. Take if from me, folks... it ain't.)

So, in honor of my long history of days of labor, and my ongoing struggle with the concept, I'll take the day off to mow the lawn, clean the garage, take the kids to the town street fair, etc., etc.

-- mm

Till Next Year

My week-long beach vacation is over. In the can. Survived it. Knocked it back. Finito.

Of course, when I get home, the sink is backed up, the yard is dead (I mean brown, completely... when the hell did that happen?), and I find that none of the frantic "this-can't-languish-for-a-week" e-mails I sent at 1:00 am the Saturday before I went on vacation got through (server went down... oops!).

Ah, well. Now I have a couple days to try to catch up before I have to fly over to UK for business. Oh, wait. Tomorrow is Labor Day, so the office is closed. Yippie! It may be just one more day that the flood pushes me back, but a least everybody (in the U.S. at least) gets swept back equally.

-- mm


My week-long beach vacation is almost over. It's only now, with the end clearly in sight, that I've been able to enjoy it. There were moments of it, to be certain, that were pleasant--but on the whole, it was much more taxing on me than a week of work. Between having to deal with the kids all day (something I normally don't do and keeps my blood pressure percolating just shy of boiling) and the constant knowledge that my already over-clogged inbox is just getting worse by the minute, relaxation is simply not an option. I always say that taking time away from work does not decrease my stress level; no one ever seems to believe me.

Not that I'm a workaholic, mind you. I have all sorts of little hobbies and projects outside the office, but the imposed 9-to-5 discipline of regularly going in and slogging my way through the endless mounds of malarkey that constitute my livelihood is extremely useful to me. I, as I'm sure many people do, have much more work at my job than I could possibly ever complete competently. Working is basically swimming against the tide. If I spend the day paddling, I feel like I've accomplished something (regardless of actual upstream progress or lack thereof). If I just drift, all I'm aware of is how fast I'm being swept backward.

So, basically, working is a helpful distraction to keep me from noticing how desperate my situation truly is.

-- mm

Situation: Desperate

Oh, yeah... my sitcom. The script I was going to write for the Bravo Situation: Comedy reality show contest that has to be postmarked by Sept 18th to qualify. Barely made a dent on it on vacation. I'd begun the script (though, I think I have to fix the formatting... forgot to double-space the dialog; and such errors are apparently unforgivable), but now I've decided to go back and rewrite the beginning. I was concentrating very much on the jokes (which ain't so great so far) and characters, and hadn't really defined much of a story for the episode. I bought three books on how-to-write-for-TV (judging from the number of titles available on this, I gather that this is one of the main ways TV writers make money) and they all say "STORY IS KING" so story I must.

So, I mentally juggled a few things around, condensed two characters together, emphasized one character's predicament for the episode, and I think I've got a better grip on it. Now I have put none of this to paper--save a couple of pages of notes I made sitting in a bar (my preferred way of working out literary ideas, seriously; it's a time-honored writers' tradition)--but I still have a few days to write it, so I'm hoping for the best. If the idea is fully fleshed-out mentally, I can bang out a short story in a night or two (10:00 pm to 2:00 am, my writing hours). Hopefully, I can do the same with a 50-page sitcom script, though the fact that this is, essentially, a completely new genre for me has got me worried.

Well, I wanted to do this for the challenge of it. This just ups the ante!

-- mm

Right and/or Wrong

I actually sat through all of Dubya's RNC closer speech. While I have as many stubborn preconceptions as the next fellow, I generally consider myself a fairly open-minded person. I always try to consider different ideas, even if I'm not initially inclined toward them, and evaluate whether or not I think they're of value in themselves. Politically, I tend to stand to the left (I don't "lean"), but I would never espouse the validity of a liberal Democrat's point of view on a issue simply because a candidate branding themself a liberal Democrat promoted it. I try to judge the message, not the messenger.

However, this bent is particularly difficult for me when President George W. Bush is involved. I viscerally hate the man almost as much as I've ever hated any politician (and I ain't fond of many neither). To me, he represents truly the worst of the species: a rich, privileged son of a rich, powerful man who had everything handed to him (Ivy League education, cushy National guard draft dodge, oil company directorship, governorship). After partying away his youth like drunken brat, he finds religion and steps into his pre-ordained role as a scion of Texas "oilty" (how you like that portmanteau?) and became president on a technicality. He radiates beady-eyed meanness and fumbling-mouth stupidity in every unscripted moment. When speaking from the script, he seems to have only a minimal understanding of what he is saying. I truly believe that to be a successful politician, you must be something of sociopath--someone so comfortable with hypocrisy that truth and falsehood are essentially irrelevant to your thinking. Seriously, you think anyone who is "honest" could ever be elected to high office... you'd just upset people more often than not, because the truth is rarely pretty.

Now, all that said (and, yes, I do recognize that Bush fans can readily say many of the same things about candidates they don't like), I did try to take the content (what little of it there was) of King George II's speech seriously. What I walked away with was basically 1) tax relief is good for the country; 2) the invasion was good for Iraq 3) frivolous lawsuits are crippling healthcare and 4) education improves with the imposition of standards (I have not checked out his website for more details yet... remiss of me, I know). There was some other stuff in there about the rights of the unborn and activist judges (presumably not the Supreme Court ones who granted him office) to appeal to the Ralph Reed demo he courts--and some crowd-pleasin' Kerry-bashin'--but I consider that de rigueur stumping, not policy. So, in the spirit of intellectually honesty, I'm left trying to decide if I think the policies he supports make any sense. This is the toughest thing for me. I don't have the background to intelligently evaluate the complex repercussions of his administration's economic, military, legal, and educational strategies. I doubt any one person does.

The story goes that we should vote for the candidate we think will do the best job. I've come to the sad realization that, for the vast majority (myself included) "thinking" has little to do with the decision process.

-- mm

Du Bist Ein Republican

I caught a smattering of Arnold's speech at the Republican National Convention. His "If you believe [commonsense thing], you are a Republican" schtick went over big with the home crowd naturally. To me--although there's oodles of quasi-religious, moralistic ideology bandied about within it--the essence of the Republican party has always been an economic pragmatism. Put succinctly, it's: "if business thrives, the country and its citizens benefit." Reagan called it trickle-down; Bush calls it tax relief. Same difference. It's the root of the party's perpetual inclination to try to assist big business through deregulation and tax incentives. Debt and inflation are irrelevant if the economy is growing, they seem to reason. You can get roomfuls of economists who can't agree on the effects of said policies, so I wouldn't even begin to argue pro or con. However, I do think there are a few key aspects of the Republican ethos that Arnie missed:

If you believe 70% of the country is more or less getting by OK financially and that's a perfectly acceptable ratio, then you are a Republican.

If you believe that the 1% of the population that controls 90% of the country's wealth is really in the best position to decide how it should be used, then you are a Republican.

If you believe that anyone who advocates personal privacy--in anything other than income disclosure--must have something to hide, then you are a Republican.

If you believe the purpose of your life is to husband adequate wealth to insulate yourself and your family from the hardships of the world, then you are a Republican.

If you are rich--or harbor any hope you might someday be able to get rich--and therefore support curtailing the tax liabilities of being rich, then you are a Republican.

Etc., etc. I can envision a big Jeff Foxworthy-esque "You might be a Republican" bit... which I think has been done already. Fortunately, Republicans don't believe in frivolous lawsuits.

-- mm

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