Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue Man Group in Space

Avatar is an unequivocal visual triumph. The Pandoran world is truly believable; there's no sense that you're watching computer generated characters with human voice overs. The Na'vi are real, so real that when the human actors enter the picture towards the end they are the ones that seem fake. I saw Sigourney Weaver on The Daily Show and she explained that the actors were wired to track their movement but, most importantly, could see themselves in real time as the giant blue goodies on a monitor. Whatever. It works and works well, especially in 3D (IMAX was sold out).
What to make of the story? It's easy to make it a play on the Americans v. the Indians. The high schoolers I saw it with viewed it through that prism, but I think there's more to it than that. After all, if you're going to slam Manifest Destiny, it would be best not to work in Hollywood, California. It doesn't help the argument.

I saw two sides of the American experience. The Na'vi suffer a 9-11 tragedy. I won't go into details, but it's hard not to make the connection, especially when the extra-terrestrial high rise is seen in its skeletal form surrounded by smoke, eerily reminiscent of the Twin Tower remains. So what do they do when confronted with an attack on their most significant structure? Like ideal Americans, they rise to defend their culture in ways that show their strength and goodness. Just like us.

But there's that other part of us, the part represented by the human-corporate-Blackwaterish plunderers, the ones who seek to destroy the alien world for its raw materials. They'll do anything to achieve their goals, including full scale annihilation and murder of innocents, or as we like to call it "collateral damage." Try thinking of your kids in that light.

Sure, the U.S. v. the Native-Americans comparison is valid and obvious. I like my view better. It makes for a more interesting movie.

Here's where the movie bites and bites hard. In typical Cameronesque fashion, there is a high level of stupid. What is the magic mineral that the Earthlings have come to take? What could this impossibly rare rock be called? "Unobtainium." I shit you not. Ridiculous. What, was "hard-to-get-ium" deemed too simplistic? I picture a meeting that went something like this:

James Cameron presents the script. Everyone at the table is too scared of his well-deserved tyrannical reputation to speak out. As someone is about to say, "Um, Jim, that's really dumb," they think twice and shut up. It stays in the final cut.

And what is this "unobtainium" needed to be obtainiumed for? Who knows? We're told it costs $20 million a kilo, but why? And is that a lot of dough in 2154? Even a throwaway line like, "We couldn't travel this far in space without the stuff," would have sufficed.

Also, the whole green, preserve the planet spiel gets weary. There's only so much of that "we can learn from the indigenous people" stuff I can stand.

A few words about the acting. It's damn good, often a rarity in effects driven flicks. Giovanni Ribisi, who I haven't seen in a good long time, though he seems to have stayed active, is a hoot as the leader of the greedy capitalists. Sigourney is wonderful, and kinda hot in her bluish incarnation. Zoe Saldana, however, steals the show, after the technology, of course. As Neytiri, she is fierce and sexy. Her hisses of anger, cries of frustration and wails of agony are visceral. Again, it's her acting, not a voice over. She is powerful, and when Neytiri appears next to a human, you're struck with how organic her ten foot presence feels. It's remarkable.

So see it and overlook the flaws. While tickets are hard to come by, they are not unobtainium-able.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Everyone Pulled Their Socks Up, Everyone Had a Good Time

As we come to the end of the year, a few thoughts on my own 2009.

1 - This was a big year for me in reclaiming some valued past friendships. Through the miracles of Facebook and actually reading my SUNY-Binghamton Alumni mag, I have gotten in touch with several past pals. Some, like Ben, Paul, Paul and Dave, I've seen in person. I spent only two years with these guys back in college and yet it has been effortless transition back into an easy camaraderie. Much to my surprise, and delight. I realize how important these people were during a key part of my life and am more than thrilled to be back in touch. They are all quite accomplished and as interesting and enjoyable to be around as ever. I missed a lot dropping these folks from my life.

Then there are the Facebook friends, mostly from High School. I'm sure I'll see some of them, though I'm pretty anti-reunion (I could be swayed, though). Jim, who I think I knew for maybe a little over the year, but has a pivotal place in my personal history, is a recent addition. As he battles Ben (see above paragraph) over political issues that I provoke, Jim makes me smile with his approach to issues that I totally disagree with.

I learned in 2009, more than in any other year, how important it is to keep your friends close. It's a lesson I won't forget.

2 - In my mind, 2009 was going to be my breakout year as a writer, and, though it turned out I mostly ran in place, progress was made. I wrote two extensive book proposals, one which garnered serious literary agent interest until they dropped me cold. I could have been crushed by that, but instead took a decidedly positive approach and realized I had entered new territory. The L.A. Dodgers' official magazine ran a book review I wrote on Michael D'Antonio's Walter O'Malley bio Forever Blue. That was cool. I also just got the gig as music editor for an online mag called ragazine ( That starts in January.

The Maybe Baby blog (, began in January and, with new posts every other Friday, will last at least another year. I have readers across the country and around the globe. It's been very exciting to come up with an idea and execute it well enough that complete strangers feel compelled to comment on how much they love your work. Katz Komments, a more personal blog with readers that may number in the single digits, has been a fun outlet for my shallow thoughts.

As I look back, 2009 was a watershed year for my new career. I produced a hell of a lot of material and made some solid connections. Maybe 2010 will be, as Al Stewart sang, the Year of the Katz?

3 - The greatest thing that happened this year, hands down, was our son, N. graduated high school and began college. His autism provided some challenges, to be sure, but he finished up his first semester on Wednesday and, as far as I know, he's going to get B's in all his classes. Maybe C's in some. Who cares? N. earned all his credit hours. Think how many first time collegians drop out, or fail. N.'s story is a certifiable success, the #1 event in our year.

So, this may be the final post for 2009. Some busy days ahead, then off to Chicago for friends, pizza, and hot dogs. Love to you all, and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Age

There is a scene in Judd Apatow's brilliant Funny People when comedian George Simmons, an Adam Sandler-like figure played by Adam Sandler, presides over Thanksgiving dinner. Sick and alone, Simmons/Sandler poignantly tells the gathering of twenty-somethings that this holiday together is the one they'll remember the most. Simmons reflects on how much older he is than the rest, and that he no longer talks to people he was once so close to. It's an understated, emotionally rich moment.

I've been thinking a lot about time lately, and find myself even sadder than the Sandler character, who's actually four years younger than me. I'm lucky enough to have some things in common with Simmons, though I'm not super-rich, or dying. At 47, I've been fairly successful and, dare I say it, retired for about 6 years. My family is great - a wonderful wife that I dig the most, three boys growing into three solid men. So, why am I so mournful? I'm aware that no one likes to hear the whining of a guy in my position, but I continue nonetheless.

As a kid of 18, or 22, nobody would've called me "Mr. Joie de Vivre." I never had that "Hey, world, look at me" attitude, or thought that I would run the table at life. In truth, I didn't really enjoy my younger days - the driving internal competition I put myself through, the emotional roller coaster I was on, the ultra-moodiness. I didn't look at getting old as desirable, living a long life an admirable goal. I still don't. The very idea of living again as long as I already have makes me shudder.

The physical changes of aging bug me, for sure. The thinner hair, the slightly (slightly!) sagging face. I'm in pretty good shape, about the same weight as I was 25 years ago. Physically I'm not as solid as I was, can't do things as well or as easy as I used to, like getting up from a chair without shooting back pain.

Do I wish to be younger? Not really, my life has never been better. But being young, there's nothing like it and I'm not sure why I feel that way. Maybe it was those moments of discovery, about people and things, that is irreplaceable. Maybe it was those late nights of intense discussions about music and politics, every argument accompanied with absolute certainty. Maybe it's those memories that, in reflection, seem so perfect, not marred by the realities of being insecure, completely dependent on parents for money, a false sense of control.

I think what it comes down to is that I wish I was the person I am now, but back then. I would've been so much happier. And what really nags at me, what comes through more and more every day, is that I could have been that person - confident, caring, kind, generous - and I wasn't. That guy was there, lurking some where beneath, the whole time and the years I buried him were a waste. And it sucks to know that.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Petty Deluxe

Tom Petty is one of those guys who never gets automatically put towards the top of the all-time greats' list. Even among his peers- Springsteen and U2, for example - he shines a bit dimmer. That's not a reflection on his music, but on his method. Petty & The Heartbreakers are straight-forward, balls out rockers; no grand statements, no singing on the steps of The Lincoln Memorial, or confabs with the President over AIDS in Africa. As a result, he floats somewhere below the surface of fawning attention.

Think about what Tom Petty has done, as a musician and a person. For over 30 years, Petty has been a constant seller, a consistent hit maker and a creator of a relatively disaster-less canon of work (maybe The Last DJ mars that record, but I'm willing to give it another shot). He is impossible to tag. Remember when he was kinda punk, kinda New Wave? He wasn't really, though. Remember how he was a sort of Southern hard rocker? Not quite. Did his covers of "Shout" and "Needles & Pins" denote a slavish devotion to rock history? Yes, but he was, and is, so much more.
The Live Anthology, in its deluxe box form, is a wonder. The 5-CD set is an uninterrupted three decade concert, flowing seamlessly from 2002, back to 1981, then forward to 1987, and so on. This band is the equal to The E Street Band, a group that enjoys playing and can play anything, any time. Listen to their take on "Green Onions" and marvel. In the big box of Petty, there are two DVDs, including a 1978 New Year's Eve show. That's the Petty of my memory, the shows that I saw way back when. There's also a great book, a sheet of backstage passes that I resist removing, and a Blu-Ray disc of the entire 62 song set that, when cranked, will make you believe in God and rock and roll. It sounds live, I swear.

If possible, Petty the man is an even greater story. Here's a kid who challenged the music industry for their habitual abuse of hungry young artists dying for a record deal and won. A newly established superstar battling the label to keep his Hard Promises album affordable. A fan protecting the integrity of heroes like Roger McGuinn when producers tried to force the ex-Byrd into a contemporary mode. A man who, at the top of his game musically and financially went back to his first band, Mudcrutch, and brought them back for the album they deserved to make when they were kids.

In no way has Tom Petty suffered over the years. He's sold a lot of records, worked with George Harrison and Bob Dylan, been the subject of a fantastic documentary and, most of the time, been treated kindly by the critics. He didn't get lucky; he earned it. He deserves more of your attention. The Live Anthology is a good place to begin.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Just Put a Band-aid On It

Like many, I heard the news from Howard Cosell. Sometimes I think that getting word from Cosell took the emotional power out of the moment. It was impossible to fathom that, during Monday Night Football, such horrible news, news that John Lennon had been shot and killed, could be delivered in between a draw play and a square out. Howard, in his inimitable fashion, sucked all the horror out of it.
I was the Beatles guy in High School, knowing more about them than anyone (except maybe Jim M.). I graduated early, in January 1980, and there was a surprise party for me. The most memorable things about that night were the giant hamburger and the engraved plaque with all my friends' names and "Beatles Forever." I haven't seen it in awhile, but it's around here someplace. At parties I would have everyone going with the Paul is Dead stuff, pointing out images of skeletal heads in the Magical Mystery Tour booklet.

There was an outpuring of concern for me after Lennon's killing, which I found incredible. I knew where my friends and family were coming from, but, oddly, I was unfazed by it. No tears, no nothing. Maybe I was already beginning to move away from idolatry, I don't know. I do know I was turning from a John-centric to Paul-centric view of Beatle-y things, for sure part of a journey from empty idealism to practicality. After all, it was the beginning of the Reagan years, I was headed for a job of some kind in the near future, and shouting slogans didn't hold the same appeal anymore.

Double Fantasy had come out in November. I'm pretty sure my brother bought it for me, which always surprised me. One, that he bought it for me at all. Two, that I didn't rush out to get it on the first day of release. I did that for George's 1979 album, why wouldn't I do it for John's first record in 5 years? "Starting Over" was a crap song, although I liked that John put himself in a '50's context. I remember eating at the Red Jacket Quad cafeteria at SUNY-Buffalo and hearing "Woman," which I loved. Honestly, I didn't dig John's material on the whole, though I liked most. I thought Yoko's tunes had more balls. I was 18 then. Now, I'm 47 and I find that the 40-year old John's songs are more meaningful. This is particularly true of "Watching the Wheels," which I live.
Still, my next door neighbor Congo and I talked about seeing Lennon in concert if he toured and we were very excited at the prospect. All that ended on the night of December 8, 29 years ago. The ensuing martyrdom and canonization of John Lennon irked me to no end. The two guys across the hall, who had zero musical knowledge, dashed out like so many to buy Lennon solo albums and, once they heard them, complained to me how much Sometime in New York City sucked. Well, just 'cuz he's dead didn't make it a good album. And why was I responsible for their wasted money? (Oh yeah, I'm the Beatle guy). It was the start of a real anti-John period for me. I couldn't stomach the "John Lennon and The Beatles" take on the group, which lasted into the mid-'90's when a Paul resurgence began. Pays to be the last one standing, don't it.

Now, I often find myself thinking about John Lennon. In researching for the Maybe Baby blog (which you should all read this Friday), I've watched hours of Lennon material - Dick Cavett interviews, Tom Snyder interviews, etc. John was quite a complex character and so much fun to watch, even when he's a hypocritical, haranguing, pain in the ass.

As Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones and a few others have proven, rock stars can age well and produce fine material. That wasn't the case in 1980. Chuck Berry wasn't out with a new album of songs that could compare well with his masterpieces. Many icons of the 1960's have shown they still have a great deal to offer. It's in that context that I find myself missing John Lennon the most. Can you picture him as he would be today, older, wiser, more mature, and still rocking. See him? Now you miss him too, and it hurts.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Perils of Public Speaking

In the past few years, I've found myself often engaged in public speaking. When The Kansas City A's & The Wrong Half of the Yankees came out in April of 2007, radio and television interviews followed, and I found myself surprisingly calm. I knew my subject matter, and made sure to go to the bathroom ten times before the talks would begin, but, still, I was amazed at my fairly matter of fact manner. Even presentations at the Hall of Fame, or the SABR National, went smoothly. If I did get nervous, it was always in the middle of the talk, not the beginning, a phenomenon I found quite interesting.

Being an elected official also entails a great deal of public speaking, but that's OK too. It's less speech-making than public access to a work meeting. Again, I do a lot of homework and know what I'm talking about before I speak. So, no nervousness there.

Now when I speak about our autistic oldest son, N., I get emotional at the most surprising times. I might mention that he passed the History Regents and feel a lump in my throat. Recounting his first class participation in college is sure to make me falter. So when I agreed to speak before a group of health professionals on N.'s college experience, I should've known I'd be a mess. Yet, I was completely caught off guard.

The event was yesterday at the Holiday Inn-Arena in Binghamton. Whenever I'm in my old college town, I wax nostalgic and, probably the emotional stage was set simply by back being in the Carousel City. In my student days, I never had any reason to go to the Holiday Inn, but thinking back on the Talking Heads show at the Arena across the street, or, wait, I also saw Rodney Dangerfield and John Sebastien there, I plunged deep into my past. I also thought to head over to my last college house and take some pictures when I was done speaking and email them to my ex-roommate.

There were six speakers. I was to be last. Not having prepared remarks, I scribbled some highlights of N.'s life on a notepad. The first five presenters were done with their talks in a total of 23 minutes, and I was suddenly up to bat. I really thought there was one more person to go before I'd head to the podium. Perhaps that put me off my game.

I began well, making it clear that I knew nothing about funding sources, programs, etc, but I knew a lot about N. The audience laughed and, as I got into N.'s early diagnosis of hyperlexia, I saw some nodding heads. Talking about his successes, and our subsequent move to Cooperstown, I was still in control. Briefly, I touched on his first year, then mentioned his one-on-one aide who joined him in 8th grade and stayed with him until graduation. That's where I lost it and lost it good. Not a small choke-up, or a hesitation, but a real cry. I needed to stop and regain my composure.

For those who watch Baseball Hall of Fame Induction speeches, and I know you're out there, you'll remember that Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski's speech never began due to excessive blubbering. I thought about that for a split second, and then forged ahead. A good recovery, I must say. I got in N.'s line about his "Cobleskill Adventure," as he calls his college time, and got some laughs. But, uh-oh, as I went on about his good grades and professorial support, and that this kid was maybe going to graduate from college, I could feel my eyes water. I managed to get to the end of the talk, making a few quips about how ill-informed I was about the behind the scenes funding that was allowing N. to go to college and do well.

I finished and sat down. To my leftt was a young girl, maybe teenage, who lives in a support home and spoke from her notes. She'd told me before she led off the session that she was nervous. When I sat down, I leaned toward her and said, "Well, I cried!" The health worker to my right said "You had them glued." Well, maybe I let my emotions get away from me, but, you know, you gotta lay it on the line to tell a good story.