Living Without TCM

Just like that, it was gone: my default channel.

In its place, the increasingly common and annoying message from Comcast, announcing “This channel only available by subscription.” Comcast certainly isn’t known for its stellar customer service, but this seemed bizarre even by its standards (such as they are).

And yet, it was true. If I want my classic movie channel back, I have to subscribe to a sports and entertainment package, emphasis on the former. Golf, basketball, outdoors, baseball—all the athletics that I really couldn’t care less about. Why? Because fewer and fewer people were watching Turner Classic Movies. (No explanation as to why Comcast is also dumping the Starz Channel.) Okay, I got a D in graduate economics, but it seems to me that if fewer people are watching it, the idea of charging them for it only means diminishing returns for Comcast.

But here’s the surprise—I’m not sure I care. Here’s why.

  • Robert Osborne is dead. He was the face of TCM, but I thought he was wonderful long before Ted Turner thought of a classic movie channel. He was a reporter in Hollywood who’d written some wonderful books about the Academy Awards. Don’t get me wrong—I love his replacement Ben Mankiewicz. He not only has a Hollywood pedigree—his grandfather Herman shared the screenwriting Oscar for Citizen Kane with Orson Welles, and his great-uncle Joseph won four Oscars in two years for writing and directing A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve—but a Washington pedigree as well: his father Frank was Robert Kennedy’s press secretary during his 1968 presidential run. But there will never be another Osborne.
  • TCM was a good idea at the time. At its inception, there was no way to get curated commentary on classic movies. You could watch DVDs, but TCM crafted tributes and insights that were unique. But you could tell that the programmers were stretching its boundaries: silent movies, foreign films, trashy horror films, more-recent films (films I saw in high school, gack!). Its original purpose ran out of steam.
  • There aren’t that many The Best Years Of Our Lives. The C in TCM stands for “classic,” but there are only so many really classic movies, and you can only show them so many times. I will always be grateful to TCM for introducing me to The Best Years Of Our Lives, a wonderful film that I’d only read about. But even after watching every star-studded movie I hadn’t seen, I found few movies that wonderful. Too many of them are dated, stodgy, or silly; if you can watch Woman of the Year, an antediluvian stiff with Tracy and Hepburn, without cringing at its chauvinism, you’re a better person than I. I began to get the same realization watching TCM that you get walking into an antique shop: just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s valuable.
  • On-demand is in demand. Software eats everything, and it’s eaten TCM. I can press a button on my Comcast remote (one of the reasons I don’t loathe it entirely), speak the name of a movie, and my options for watching it appear. It’s probably available on-demand from one of the cable channels Comcast still offers, and if not, there’s Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. It’s like that wonderful Qwest commercial from 1999 has finally come true: “every movie ever made in any language any time day or night.”

 This may be blasphemy coming from someone who used to review movies, who used to spend more time in screening rooms than studying for finals. But it’s true. All of life is letting go. If I can live without Crispy Critters, my Mustang convertible, and E tickets, I can live without TCM. It’ll just be one more thing that occasionally flits across my mind, making me think whatever happened to …


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If I Were King Of The World

In E.B. White’s children’s classic Stuart Little, Stuart acts as a substitute teacher and talks to the students about what he would do as King of the World. I’ve always liked that idea. Part of me feels that, if I were king of the world, I’d be quite fair and benevolent. But a deeper part of me knows that I could be really, really dictatorial.

To that end, I’ve devised a list of the ten things I would banish if I were king of the world. Alert: some of your oxen may be gored here.

  • This one’s easy. Unless game animals suddenly develop the capability to shoot back, there’s no need for hunters or anyone else (beyond the military) to have automatic weapons. They’re outta here.
  • Look at that beautiful expanse of neatly manicured grass. Note that its usage is restricted to really rich people who use it more to craft deals to make themselves even richer than to exercise. Golf is not exercise. And even public golf courses, with their overuse of water-hogging grass and public space, are not necessary. Turn ‘em all into public parks, with more native plants than grass.
  • Lest you think I’m targeting the rich, let’s also get rid of that insane waste of gasoline and source of noise pollution, car racing. Really? NASCAR traces its roots back to moonshiners who used soup-up cars to outrun law enforcement. Sure, let’s glamorize that.
  • And while we’re on the topic of gas guzzling, let’s do away with any RVs that aren’t built on van chassis.
  • And while we’re on the topic of waste and noise pollution, let’s put air shows and fly-bys on this list. Who needs having their eardrums punctured and their pets petrified?
  • You gotta love the way America takes care of its rich, as if they were some sort of endangered species (if only we did take care of endangered species that way). If you invest in stocks, and the stock goes up, you get profit. If you invest in stocks, and the stock goes down, you get a tax write-off. Stockholders win either way. You want tax loopholes, move to Ireland.
  • I’d also get rid of any sport or entertainment that uses animals, starting with circuses and dog racing (I would allow the creation of Internet cat videos, however, as long as no cats were denied treats during filming). I would also ban Cirque d’Soleil, whose shows I find way too loud.
  • One more noise pollution thing: must we have background music at every freakin’ event, from football games to trade shows? Are we in that much need of distraction? Whatever happened to good old-fashioned silence?
  • In this 50th-anniversary year of the moon landing, I’ve been trying to figure out the value we’ve gotten out of NASA. I have a friend who’s both extremely progressive and highly scientific, and he believes that the moon landing represented “an unprecedented technological advancement,” even more than Henry Ford’s creation of the assembly line, with ramifications for software, computer components, and more. Still, when I see estimates that the moon landing cost $150 billion (in 1960s money) and sucked up 4% of the 1966 GDP, I don’t think we need to go to Mars.
  • Finally, one that everybody can agree on. I would ban every celebrity who is only famous for being famous. Where do these bozos come from? A world without Kardashians … oh, my, I’m getting all mushy just thinking about it.

That’s my list. I’m taking nominees for more items at my coronation.


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Eight Reasons Why When It Comes To Weird, Portland Isn’t Alone

Calling Portland, Oregon, weird has become a cliché. The television series Portlandia helped. Portland itself helps. It has naked bicycling, adult soap box racing, and a donut shop that sells NyQuil Glazed and Vanilla Pepto Crushed Tums doughnuts. It once elected a mayor whose claim to fame was a famous poster showing him opening his trench coat to flash a statue. The caption read, “Expose Yourself To Art.”

We did not move to Portland proper (two words that, based on the foregoing, rarely appear together). We moved to a town just south of Portland called Lake Oswego. It’s a little weird in and of itself. Here are eight reasons why.

  • The name Oswego derives from the Iroquois word for “river-mouth.” So Lake Oswego is not quite as redundant as Lake Tahoe, which basically means “lake lake,” or Melbourne’s Yarra River, which means “river river,” but it’s close.
  • Said lake is private. This is a little odd for someone who spent most of his life under the auspices of the California Coastal Commission, which basically deems that almost all land near water is publicly accessible. We could have bought a house on the lake, if we’d wanted to forego eating for the rest of our lives. There is a small pier near a city park for people who live on the lake to dock their boats and visit downtown, but it is illegal for other people to take other craft, like canoes and kayaks, to the pier to launch them. The Oregon Supreme Court is currently considering a challenge to this concept.
  • Lake Oswego has nicknamed itself “Tree City.” At the same time, for a current renovation of City Hall and a beautification project of one of the city’s major streets, the city has sanctioned the removal of hundreds of mature trees. This doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of trees that developers petition to remove from lots each year, not because the architectural plans require it, but because it’s easier to move heavy equipment around a lot if there aren’t pesky two-hundred-year-old fir trees in the way.
  • That’s not the only thing about the municipal government that bewilders me. We live in a section of town where the streets are designated by letters and numbers. At one end of our street, for example, it’s Y Street. But by the time you get to our house, it’s X Street. A block over, Y Street pops up again. If that weren’t enough, the house next door, which should have a lower number than ours, has a higher number. Our tax dollars at work, keeping everyone on their toes.
  • Retail is slightly weird here too. There are two Shell gasoline stations within three blocks of each other. The local school district is supposed to be the best in the state, but the town has no bookstore. It does, however, have two ice cream parlors diagonally across the street from each other. One has flavors like Carrot Cake Batter & Pralined Hazelnuts; Caramel Corn on the Cob; Freckled Chocolate Zucchini Bread; Green Fennel & Maple; and Tomato & Strawberry Sorbet. We go to the other one.
  • On the other hand, street parking is free. No meters, no nothing. It’s like going back in time.
  • Of course, the other throwback to another age is the railroad track that runs through downtown and along the lake. It’s not widely used, and the sound of a train horn is somewhat romantic from far away (especially since I spent the first ten years of my life next to a railroad track). It is, however, a little weird to be sitting waiting for a train to go through when most cities built overpasses or underpasses back in the fifties.
  • Lake Oswego is also—there’s no delicate way to put this—pretty white. We did not consider this lack of diversity before we moved. The city actually elected a Vietnamese restauranteur to the City Council last year, and that was a big deal. It turns out, however, that that’s not just a Lake Oswego thing. Just as the U.S. once had Chinese exclusionary laws, Oregon had black exclusionary laws. Portland hasn’t always been as politically blue as it is now.

Despite the foregoing, we like it here very much. We will support almost any kind of weirdness, especially doughnut-related. We will, however, draw the line at bicycling naked. Thankfully.



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California From Afar

It’s odd looking south on California. It’s been almost a year since we moved to Oregon. I feel like an Oregonian (especially after what happened in my previous post). Yet I frequently find myself in a bit of a twilight zone between the two states, mostly because the first newspaper I read in the morning is the digital version of the San Francisco Chronicle, rather than the Portland Oregonian. (Please note that as a former journalist, I pay for all my digital subscriptions.)

There are legitimate reasons for this. I still look upon California fondly, though she’s really like a girl I had to give up because of her dysfunctional behavior. That is, the time we had together was wonderful, but no, I don’t need to spend the rest of my life with her. There are stories ongoing in California that I want to follow; my biggest regret about dying is not the actual dying but the fact that I will miss the next day’s headlines.

So I feel like I’m in a bit of a Twilight Zone, state-wise. In the Oregonian, as with any metropolitan newspaper, there are ongoing stories, progress reports about political escapades, trials, corruptions, feuds with the neighboring state of Washington. Reading them is kind of like walking into the middle of a movie, where you’re not quite sure what’s going on, and you really need to focus to figure out who’s who and what’s what.

I’m retired. I don’t have to focus anymore.

It doesn’t help that the Oregonian only prints on paper four days a week; the other three days are online-only. That isn’t conducive to forming a habit. I frequently have to ask myself what day it is to figure out whether I need to go out front and pick up the paper. But since the delivery person doesn’t wander around until seven or eight a.m. (I wouldn’t get out any earlier either if my work had been cut back to four days a week), I’m usually done with the online version even before I get to the print version.

Then there are the obituaries. As you age—and I know most of my readers will back me up on this—the obituaries become more important. I haven’t lived in Oregon long enough to know the people in the Oregonian obituaries. That’s one reason why I’m still devoted to the Chronicle—not that I know people in its obituaries, but I am more likely to.

And by reading the Chronicle, I get to follow all the sturm und drang that drove us out of California from afar: gas prices, traffic, taxes, traffic, drought, traffic. I was going to say that the only thing California has over Oregon is stricter vaccination laws, but then I read that it’s dealing with a measles outbreak too. Apparently you can escape drought and traffic, but not stupidity.

The question remains: when am I going to start reading the Oregonian first and the Chronicle last? That’s a tough question. I suspect it will be when I see the first obituary of someone I know in the Oregonian. Then I’ll know the time has come.

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Deer God

It took almost a year, but I finally found something distressing about Oregon.

As I noted in On Becoming An Oregonian, our home town is a cross between Lake Tahoe and Carmel. Somewhere between rural and suburban. Lots of trees … and forests … and deer. And we killed one this month.

It was traumatic. We were driving on a state highway just a few minutes from our house, a road we’d traveled a hundred times before. The foliage comes right up to the road, and there’s barely a shoulder. I had no time to react. It was just … there. Its neck whipped around and both of us saw those dark, plaintive, bewildered eyes. “Wait,” it seemed to be saying, “I’ve never done anything to you.”

We turned around, but by the time we got to where the collision happened, the deer was gone. I can only hope the impact threw it into the foliage, where it passed away. Neither of us could bear the thought of it suffering. We were on our way to Seattle for the day, and Monica worried that this was a bad omen.

I have realized in the interim that for something as traumatic as this, we experienced the best outcome (for us, anyway). For instance:

• If you brake for a deer, the front of the car dips, which tends to send the deer into the windshield. I lost a co-worker to a deer hit many years ago.

• If you swerve, you risk losing control. A few months ago, a local 21-year-old was killed in a single car accident; his parents suspect he was trying to avoid a deer.

• If the deer was hanging out that close to a busy road, its days were numbered; if not me behind the wheel, then someone else.

• I was less worried about the car that I thought I would be, and insurance covered everything without a raise in rates.

And yet …

I’m not Catholic, and don’t necessarily believe in the concept of penance. And yet, I had taken the life of an innocent woodland creature. I wanted to find an act of contrition somehow. Sending money to the Nature Conservancy just wasn’t going to cut it.

Fortunately, my Unitarian minister had a brilliant idea. We couldn’t save that particular deer, but we could help others. And that’s how Monica and I ended up deep in the state park a few blocks from our house, armed with wild rice, grain, and salt licks. It was a beautiful spring day—sun shining, light breeze, temperature comfortable.

We went off the trail, found a couple of hidden spots, and set down the salt lick and grain. Monica invoked the spirits of nature—fire for the east, earth for the south, water for the west, and wind for the north—and we prayed for forgiveness from the deer spirit.

We still love Oregon, but now we’re a little more cautious about fauna emerging from the flora.


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An Earth Day Conundrum

It’s been a long time – more than 50 years – since actor Walter Brooke said that famous word to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: plastics. Then, it was a growth industry. Now, it’s a pariah.

If you read the feature in Sunday’s Parade magazine, especially the part at the end about the mother albatross accidentally killing her fledglings by feeding them plastics, you know the problem goes beyond the fact that China has stopped taking our plastics off our hands. The article immediately got me thinking about how to follow its tips (many of which I’d already done, happily) and cut down on my own household’s plastics consumption.

It also got me thinking of why we went in this direction in the first place.

It wasn’t because in the 60s we suddenly developed a devotion to the fossil fuel industry (yes, plastics are made from petroleum). It was because, as a society, we hew towards safety. If you’re a baby boomer like me, then you’re old enough to remember a time when shampoo bottles were made of glass, and dropping them onto a porcelain tub when your hands were wet set off a panic over whether you could find all of the shards or not. It was almost forty years ago that an unknown perpetrator panicked the pharmaceutical and retail industries by tampering with Tylenol bottles. The result: more seals and protective packaging, all made of plastic.

None of this is new, of course; the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the precursor to the creation of the FDA, came about because of unsanitary conditions in food-processing plants and the dearth of labeling laws that allowed unsafe ingredients in medicine. But the problem seems to be getting worse.

Some ways of getting rid of plastic are pretty easy. I’ve purchased both glass and metal straws, although at my age, I don’t always remember to take them with me. I have more canvas tote bags from trade shows than I’ll ever have groceries to fill. I give my dry cleaner my laundry in a cotton bag that is then reused – thanks to a hole in the bottom for the hangers to fit through – in place of the plastic that usually covers cleaning. Although I love my food preparation gloves, I think I’ll just wash my hands after I’ve prepared fish.

Others are more difficult. I can’t tell the newspaper delivery person not to put the paper in plastic, especially in rainy Oregon. I reuse produce bags until they’re disgusting, but you can’t forgo them entirely, especially when you’ve chosen a recipe that calls for several pounds of mushrooms. I’m going to try and stop buying any jars that aren’t glass, but that may not be easy if a glass jar isn’t an option. Plastic, after all, is lighter than glass, and using less fuel when transporting food is always a good thing.

Stepping back, the plastics conundrum is a sad metaphor for so many of our other problems. We live in an interconnected world, where pushing in one direction frequently creates pressure in another direction. We wring our hands over the homeless, but while one faction wants to get the mentally ill among them off the street, another faction doesn’t want to restrict their civil liberties, and still others don’t want to return to the days of “snake pit” mental institutions. We want to reduce traffic, but we don’t seem to be able to figure out how to build or fund mass transit systems that are just as convenient as cars.

Getting rid of plastics is just as complicated. A grassroots effort will only go so far. At some point, regulations have to push recalcitrant corporations to change their packaging, but that effort too will be stymied if industry can’t come up with safe and ecological ways to package what we eat and drink.

Was life really simpler when shampoo came in glass bottles, or does it just seem that way from this distance?

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Dear Bob

Last October, as I noted recently, I lost a dear friend of more than twenty years, Bob Burkhart, to cardiac disease. Unlike the tragic deaths of other friends, it was unexpected. Except, in a way, it wasn’t.

Dear Bob,

I miss you more than I thought I could. As I think back on our time together, I realize that you were really good at the true fundamental of friendship: you honored my strengths and ignored my faults.

Remember the drive we drove back from Kansas because Justin’s father had given him a car? We decided – because it was kind of on the way – to go through Vegas, but that meant crossing Hoover Dam and it was just after 9/11. The backup of cars being searched for security purposes stretched on and on, and turned me into a cranky toddler. When we finally checked into the Bellagio, you asked the desk clerk to immediately send a bottle of Veuve Clicquot up to the room “because my friend really needs one right now.”

You didn’t try and change me, because you never wanted to be changed yourself. You were a big man, wonderfully in heart but unfortunately in body too. When friends asked why you never dated anyone, you said it was because women always wanted you to lose weight. We got the message. Don’t mention the weight thing.

You lived the way you wanted to live. In fact, you lived the way the rest of us wanted to live, with everything from M&Ms to fine chocolates in crystal dishes scattered around the house. You knew all the great wines. You knew all the great restaurants, whether they served filet mignon or greasy breakfasts. You were a great cook, too.

When I lost six inches off my waist a few years ago, I hoped to be a role model to my friends. Not to you, though. I knew that was fruitless. I was both thrilled and saddened when I found out later that you had tried to lose weight, and hated how the effort made you feel. Really, I would have coached you.

But to our eternal discredit, we let you be obese. Because all your friends loved you as you. Because you loved us as us. It was part of the bargain we made with you.

But now, with you gone, I see the error of our ways. We kept our silence even as we knew that your size was putting a greater and greater burden on your heart. You were, in essence, breaking your heart day by day. And we thought it was okay because it was your heart and your decision, and we loved you so much.

If only I’d known you were breaking my heart too.


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