Saturday, November 30, 2013

My Christmas Playlist

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it's time to break out the Christmas music—and I don't mean the latest albums by Susan Boyle and Kelly Clarkson. When it comes to Christmas music, I prefer the classics. Here's what's on my playlist...

First, there are the two quintessential Christmas classics that have been played on the radio every year since before I was born (and are still just as popular as ever): Bing Crosby's White Christmas and Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song. Both are available as downloads and on countless CD compilations—and will never go out of style or print.

During the early years, my parents had only two Christmas records, both ancient, scratchy 78's: Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride and A Christmas Festival, performed by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. One of my earliest Christmas memories is of my mother playing these old records on the portable phonograph my parents had before they bought their first stereo. Both pieces are available—in stereo, non-scratchy versions—as downloads and on CD.

For some reason, when I was a kid, all of the tire companies—Goodyear, Firestone, BF Goodrich—came out with Christmas albums every year. They were all good, but Goodyear's The Great Songs of Christmas—Album Three, from 1962, is my favorite. All of the classic tire company Christmas albums are out of print, but you can find most of the tracks on other CDs or as downloads. My favorites from this album include Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Percy Faith, and the Christy Minstrels—but Carol of the Bells, by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, tops the list.

Here's another great tire album: BF Goodrich's Something Festive, from 1969. This one's all A&M artists: Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, The Baja Marimba Band. My mother's favorite was Pete Jolly's jazz piano version of It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. My brother, sister, and I listened to Liza Minnelli's schmaltzy Raggedy Ann & Raggedy Andy over and over again. It's laugh-out-loud funny—especially when played at a faster speed. I'm sure most of the tracks are available as downloads or on other CDs—I know the Herb Alpert tracks are. I found a pristine copy of the LP at a swap meet years ago and digitized it. The Pete Jolly track reminds me of my mother, and the Liza Minnelli track makes me think of my brother and sister—and still makes me laugh at any speed.

My all-time favorite Christmas album is A Christmas Sound Spectacular, from 1959. This collection of sacred and secular Christmas music, played on carillon backed by orchestra and chorus, is truly spectacular. A few years ago I found the CD on the Internet and was disappointed to find that it was not nearly as "spectacular" as I remembered it: the CD had been made from a monaural master. But this year, I found it on iTunes in stereo! Considering the album was originally part of RCA's "Living Stereo" catalog, you really need to hear it in glorious stereophonic sound.

I have many other songs on my Christmas playlist (even a few from this century), but these are my favorites. They bring back happy memories of Christmases past, when I was a child and the house was always filled with music, laughter, and love.
And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
To kids from one to ninety-two;
Although it's been said many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas to you!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Doctor and Me

Sarah Jane: You're serious, aren't you?
The Doctor: About what I do, yes—not necessarily the way I do it.
(The Time Warrior, 1973)
The above exchange between the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and his latest companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)—neatly sums up the essence of Doctor Who and helps to explain why I have been a fan for over thirty years. And yes, I am about to get all nerdy fanboy here, so if you find that sort of thing annoying, you probably won't want to read any further.

I can't help it. Today is a huge day for us Doctor Who fans. It's the fiftieth anniversary of the program's first broadcast. (Think about it. How many television programs can you think of that have been around that long?) If you aren't familiar with the program—well, first of all, where have you been? Secondly, if you want to know what Doctor Who is all about, you will have to read about it elsewhere (Wikipedia is a good start), because I won't be telling you who the Doctor is, what a TARDIS is, why it looks like a police box, or what a police box is. Instead, I will be telling you about my personal relationship with one of the most extraordinary and longest-running programs in television history.

Sarah Jane: You're being childish!
The Doctor: Well, of course I'm being childish! There's no point being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes.
(Robot, 1974)

It was some time in the late 1970's when I first stumbled across Doctor Who on WTTW, Chicago's PBS station. I thought I was watching a low-budget British horror movie, complete with laboratory, mad scientist, and hunchbacked assistant. The doorbell rang, and the hunchback answered it. At the door, in the pouring rain, stood a petite brunette and a tall, curly-haired man wearing a ridiculously long scarf and holding aloft a broken umbrella. "Can you spare a glass of water?" the curly-haired man asked.

I instantly became a fan—one of that select group of Americans ("we few, we happy few") who had discovered the best worst-kept secret on public television. Doctor Who struck a chord with us that programs like Dallas or Dynasty never could.* (I strongly suspect that, like me, most "Whovians" grew up on Mary Poppins and Doctor Dolittle, and as teenagers preferred such British imports as The Avengers and The Prisoner to domestic fare.) Almost overnight, Doctor Who acquired cult status with Americans in my age group. There were comic books, fan magazines and conventions, and volunteers began showing up to answer phones at PBS telethons wearing the Fourth Doctor's trademark floppy hat and scarf.

I did not dress up like any of the Doctors or attend any conventions. I did, however, save up to buy my first VCR so that I would never miss an episode. I watched companions come and go, Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison, Peter Davison into Colin Baker. Between new seasons, KCET aired as many of the old William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee stories as were available at the time. A decade slipped by in my personal space-time continuum; Sylvester McCoy had just taken over the TARDIS when I got married and moved to Western New York. (I tried to make a fan of Loretta, but she never really took to the original series. She does, however, enjoy the new series.) It felt like losing an old friend when Buffalo's PBS station stopped carrying the program after Sylvester McCoy's first season. Sadder still, shortly thereafter the program was canceled by the BBC.

The Doctor: I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there.
(Doctor Who, 1996 TV movie)

Doctor Who fans around the world got their hopes up when there was talk in the 1990's of the program being revived—only to have those hopes cruelly dashed when the result was a single TV movie that, although it had some good moments (including a wonderful performance by Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor), did not measure up to fans' expectations or achieve decent network ratings. We were forced to admit that our favorite television series was dead, with no hope of regeneration. However, there was some consolation in the fact that Doctor Who lived on as a series of audio adventures featuring original cast members.

The Doctor: One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.
(The Dalek Invasion of Earth, 1964)

When, in 2003, the BBC announced that Welsh producer Russell T. Davies would attempt to again revive the series, I was determined not to get my hopes up. But this time I was in for a pleasant surprise. Not only was the new Doctor Who good, in many ways it surpassed the original series. While true to the original's spirit, the writing was tighter, the stories faster paced. (As the Tenth Doctor's companion, Donna, remarked, "there's an outrageous amount of running involved.") The special effects were light years beyond the cheesy rubber-suited aliens and chroma key effects of the original series, and the music—I could probably write an entire post describing Murray Gold's by turns exciting, soaring, and hauntingly beautiful Doctor Who scores.

I liked Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor; I liked David Tennant's Tenth Doctor even better. I liked the way the stories explored the relationships between the Doctor and his companions. Although a part of me resisted the idea of the Doctor becoming romantically involved with a companion (unheard of in the original series, where the Doctor's relationship with his companions had always been strictly avuncular), I had to admit that his evolving relationship with Rose moved me in a way the old series never had. In the old days, the departure of a Doctor or a companion was always poignant, but in the program's history there had never been anything like the heartbreaking departure of Rose at the end of the second season.

I'll admit it. I cried.

In fact, I found myself shedding a few tears during many episodes of the new series. There was an emotional aspect to the stories that the original series never had—which I'm sure is why it quickly became more popular than the original series ever was.

The Doctor: I am and always will be the optimist. The hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.
(The Almost People, 2011)

I was a little worried when Tennant and Davies both left the show at the end of the fourth season, but I needn't have been. "The Eleventh Hour"—the episode that introduced Matt Smith's Doctor and Karen Gillan as his new companion, Amy Pond—was quite simply the best introduction of a Doctor or companion I had ever seen. And as the series progressed under the leadership of Steven Moffat, it delved deeper into relationships than it had even done under Davies. By the sixth season, the Doctor had managed to acquire an entire family, comprised of Amy, Rory, and the mysterious River Song—the nature of whose relationship with the Time Lord was finally revealed by Moffat at the end of the season, three years after her character was first introduced.

Now, after three seasons in the TARDIS, Matt Smith has decided that it is time to move on. Peter Capaldi will be taking over the role, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he will bring to the character next season. But right now I'm looking forward to another ride with the Eleventh Doctor and his latest companion, Clara (who reminds me a great deal of Sarah Jane Smith). And what a ride it promises to be—at least two other Doctors (David Tennant and John Hurt), one former companion (Billie Piper as Rose Tyler), and possibly the long-awaited answer to a question that has been troubling us since the first season of the new series: how did the Doctor become the "Last of the Time Lords?"

The Day of the Doctor will air in just a few hours, simultaneously, all over the world. Check your local listings.

The Fourth Doctor and Me (Madame Tussauds, 1985)

*To my surprise, when I visited England in 1985, I discovered that Dynasty and Dallas were also more popular there than Doctor Who. There's no accounting for taste.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

In Space, No One Can Hear You Clean

I was a child of the space age. Sputnik went up when I was a two years old, and I was six when Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space. I eagerly followed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and I remember the thrill of watching Neil Armstrong make his "one small step for man." Like most kids from my era, more than anything else I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.

Space Boy, circa 1959

Science fiction movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where terrible things happened in space, didn't scare me because that was science fiction. Even real-life disasters like the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle didn't discourage me. I knew that some day, I would have the opportunity to go into space—to be a Rocket Man, like the guy in the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song (though hopefully not as lonely).

Then I saw Gravity.

If there is a piece of debris on the road—the tiniest piece of debris—I am sure to hit it. That's just the kind of luck I have. The worst case scenario when you hit the tiniest piece of debris on the road is that you end up with a flat tire. Now, thanks to Gravity, I know what the worst case—or, in fact, the any case—scenario is when you hit the tiniest piece of debris (or the tiniest piece of debris hits you) in space.

You die.

Astrophysicist (and second coolest "Neil Something Something" after Patrick Harris) Neil deGrasse Tyson found plenty of flaws in Gravity, but one of the things he thought the film got right was the danger of orbiting space debris. According to Wikipedia, NASA is currently tracking "about 19,000 pieces of debris larger than 5 cm...with another 300,000 pieces smaller than 1 cm below 2000 km altitude."

Computer-generated image of stuff orbiting our planet, approximately 95% of which is debris. (Wikipedia)

After seeing Gravity, you couldn't pay me to go into space—at least not until somebody goes up there and does some cleaning. And why don't we? We have scores of brilliant people working in the field of space exploration, and probably just as many equally brilliant people working in the field of cleaning. (Okay, I can think of two: Heloise and that Dyson vacuum cleaner guy.) Surely, they can put their heads together and come up with a solution.

Then, and only then, will I dream once more of becoming a Rocket Man.

And I think it's gonna be a long, long time
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I'm not the man they think I am at home
Oh no, no, no, I'm a rocket man
Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone*
—Bernie Taupin

*Until I looked up the lyrics for this post, I never knew what that last line actually was. "Burning off his face, I'll never know?" "Burning all the things I've ever known?" I have a similar problem with the lyrics of other Elton John/Bernie Taupin songs. For years, I thought that Daniel was "a star in the felt of the sky," that Yellow Brick Road was "where the dogs are society's hounds," and that Benny, of Benny and the Jets, had "electric boobs."

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Fanfare, please...

This is my 100th post. It's been nearly two years since I started this blog, and here I am, still plugging away, still trying to come up with something to write about each week.

It isn't always easy.

This week was particularly difficult. I wanted this post to be special, like the 100th episode of a popular TV show—say, the "My Way Home" episode of Scrubs (a clever homage to The Wizard of Oz), the "Unusual Suspects" episode of The X-Files (in which we learn how Mulder met the Lone Gunmen), or Phoebe giving birth to her brother's triplets in Friends (which was not nearly as wrong as it sounds).

To be honest, I didn't feel like writing anything this week. All I wanted to do was read. I am currently immersed in A Dance with Dragons, book five of George R. R. Martin's sprawling fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for HBO's sprawling fantasy, Game of Thrones. (I realize the book has been out for over two years. I was waiting for it to go on sale, which usually happens when the next book in the series is released. It finally went on sale last month, although there is still no sign of book six. What's up with that, Mr. Martin?)

I had not read the books when Game of Thrones premiered two years ago. I watched the first episode with Loretta and frankly, I didn't care for it. There were too many characters—none of whom made a favorable first impression. The story was confusing. And where was the fantasy? I had heard that this was a fantasy series, but there were no wizards, no dragons, no heroes—just a lot of brutish, foul-mouthed louts trying to kill each other. I quit watching after the first episode, but it caught Loretta's interest. She was between jobs at the time and watched most of the first season while I was at work.

Then I happened to catch the last scene of the final episode, "Fire and Blood," and what I saw immediately grabbed my attention: a naked young woman emerging from the ashes of a fire with three baby dragons.

Daenerys Targaryen and Friend

Now, I know what you're thinking got my attention: the naked woman, right? Wrong! Naked women are a dime a dozen on HBO. It was the dragons!

I was hooked. I made Loretta sit through the entire first season again with me. As I got into the story, I realized that there actually were a few noble characters. One, in particular, stood out: Eddard "Ned" Stark, reluctant "Hand of the King," played by Sean Bean. Here was an honorable man who, surrounded on all sides by ambitious, deceitful, treacherous people, stood by his principles at all costs. Just in case you haven't read the books or seen the TV series, I shouldn't tell you what happens to Ned, largely due to his cherished principles. I shouldn't, but I will.

He dies.

Lots of people die in George R. R. Martin's world, I discovered as I got deeper into the TV series and books. Fans quickly learn not to get too attached to any character, because there's a very good chance that that character will be killed—most likely in a horrible way. A good many Game of Thrones fans who had not read the books were deeply disturbed this past season by events in the episode titled "The Rains of Castamere." Those of us who had read the books weren't disturbed at all. We knew what was coming. We looked forward to it with an anticipation bordering on glee—which, when you think about it, is a bit disturbing in itself. (A rather cruel video on YouTube features a montage of the horrified reactions of people who did not know what was coming, captured by their friends who did. A second video features George R. R. Martin on Conan O'Brien's show, laughing as he watches the first video.)

One of my favorite characters in the story is Hodor—the sweet, simple-minded hulk who has served as young Brandon Stark's legs since Bran was crippled in a tragic fall in book/season one. "Hodor" is not really his name; he is called "Hodor," because the only thing he ever says is "Hodor"—whatever "Hodor" means. I am hoping that George R. R. Martin will eventually tell us what "Hodor" means, and that he will allow Hodor to survive to the end of the story—if he ever gets to the end of the story. (He'd better get busy. He isn't getting any younger, and neither am I.)

I have reached Chapter 15 of A Dance with Dragons, and so far, I am happy to report that Hodor is still alive. I am hopeful that he will remain so. If you have finished the book and know otherwise, please keep it to yourself.


(By the way, in case you're wondering—at ten episodes a season, with each season roughly equivalent to one book, and with George R. R. Martin promising seven books, Game of Thrones will probably never reach the 100-episode milestone. On the other hand, the story has already turned out to be much longer than he originally anticipated. If there is a 100th episode, I hope it features Hodor.)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Don't diss my kisses!

Halloween is over, and once again Loretta and I are left with the task of finishing any candy that was not given out to trick-or-treaters.

It's an unpleasant job, but somebody has to do it.

This is why we always buy Halloween candy that we like. Loretta's favorite is Peter Paul Almond Joys. I prefer Peter Paul Mounds, or for that matter, anything with dark chocolate. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are good, too—especially the dark chocolate ones.

David Ng and Ben Cohen didn't consult us when they made their "The Candy Hierarchy" chart. They have been posting a version of this chart every Halloween since 2006, claiming that it "represents a thoroughly authoritative attempt to scientifically measure and classify Halloween Candy." Ha! Have you seen it? If not, you should. It's amusing, albeit utterly subjective. Some would go so far as to say biased. I know I would. In fact, I will: The Candy Hierarchy is completely biased.

And completely wrong.

As you may have guessed, I take issue with some of Mr. Ng's and Mr. Cohen's candy rankings. Granted, Reese's deserve a place in the first tier. But where are Almond Joys and Mounds? Arbitrarily assigned to the second tier, along with Tootsie Rolls and Whoppers.

I ask you, who in their right mind would rank Almond Joys and Mounds with Tootsie Rolls?

Now, before you Tootsie Roll fans jump all over me, let me just say that I have nothing at all against Tootsie Rolls. When I was a child, I loved those rock-hard cylinders of—well, whatever it is Tootsie Rolls are made of. "But when I became a man," as the saying goes, "I put away childish candies." I no longer eat Tootsie Rolls, but they will always have a place in my heart, as do all of the favorite candies of my childhood.

Which brings me to my point.

As a child, my favorite Halloween candy was peanut butter kisses—PBK's for short. You know—those chewy nuggets of peanut butter taffy wrapped in orange and black wax paper? And where do you think Ng and Cohen rank my childhood favorite every single year?

At the very bottom, with the dregs of Halloween.

Surely, if they are going to put Tootsie Rolls in the second tier, PBK's deserve a place there. I would even settle for third tier, which would place them on a par with Milk Duds and "Licorice (not black)."* But they aren't even in the bottom tier, which includes "those odd marshmallow circus peanut things"—oh no. They are relegated to the "so low it does not register on our equipment" tier, along with "Pencils," "Generic Acetaminophen," and—gasp!—"Hugs (actual physical hugs)!"

Worse yet, Ng and Cohen have the effrontery to describe my childhood favorites as "anonymous brown globs!" At the very least, have the courtesy to refer to them by their proper name.

"Anonymous brown globs," indeed!

I find such flippant disdain for a perfectly innocuous confection unwarranted and intolerable. I welcome your opinion on the matter. Send me your choices for top-tier Halloween candy. Better yet, send me the candy—especially Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, anything with dark chocolate, and those delightful "anonymous brown globs."

*I assume they mean Red Vines or Twizzlers, which I believe are referred to by some as "red licorice"—a misnomer I have always found infuriating. Licorice is a flavor derived from the root of a plant. So-called red licorice has no licorice in it and tastes nothing like licorice. (I'm not sure what it does taste like—presumably something red.)