Lookin’ back.

Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Ryan Murphy’s entertainment factory. He has done some good work – “Glee” was fun for a while – but sooner or later it seems he can’t restrain himself, or the people who work for him, from getting all ooh-look-at-me-being-transgressive-here. I just get sick of it. I feel like it’s a movie I’ve seen once, didn’t like, and don’t need to sit through again.

He’s generally very well-liked by critics, too.

I didn’t watch the first “American Crime Story,” his limited series that looks at one big messy story about a terrible you-know-what. It was about the O.J. Simpson case, and I OD’d on that one when it happened. I did see the second season, on the murder of Gianni Versace, at least most of it. But the third season, about the impeachment of Bill Clinton, dropped on Hulu recently and I am there for it.

Murphy tends to use the same actors over and over, his own little repertory company, with one, Sarah Paulson, his muse. She was Marcia Clark in the O.J. story, and she’s Linda Tripp in the impeachment saga. Early criticism was that Murphy would have been better off casting another actress than putting Paulson in a wig and fat suit to play Tripp, and I would have agreed in the early episodes, but it’s paying off at the end. She brings some humanity to a thoroughly unlikable person, no small feat.

Tripp is styled as the hero of her own movie, a woman who sees herself as a Very Important Person Who Is Only Doing Her Patriotic Duty, even as she does one shitty thing after another — primarily taping Monica Lewinsky. At one point, she hisses that Ronald Reagan never set foot in the Oval Office without a suit and tie, but the Clintons OMG with their pizza and rock ‘n’ roll and such disrespect, blah blah blah. The rest of the players – Ken Starr and his creep squad, Matt Drudge, Paula Jones, Susan Carpenter McMillan, the whole freak squad – comes to vivid life. I find myself being whipsawed through the whole experience again, how betrayed I felt at first (an intern? REALLY?) followed by the whole greasy shitshow.

Starr doesn’t come off well. Neither does his smarmy little aide, Brett Kavanaugh. Many of the supporting cast are superior — Margo Martindale as Lucianne Goldberg in particular — although I couldn’t buy Edie Falco as Hillary. She’s too New Jersey to play a Midwestern girl.

But as a dramatization of an appalling chapter in American history, it works very well. God, I remember pulling into the Meijer in Fort Wayne during the impeachment debate, when Larry Flynt was dropping his bombshells about all those Republican hypocrites, and just sitting in my car, too stunned to even buy my groceries.

No wonder we got Trump. We deserved him.

The end of the week, tra-la tra-la. Now, just to make sure I go into it with a stomach of bile, think I’ll read about Ginni Thomas. You have a better one.

Posted at 9:09 pm in Current events, Television | 39 Comments
 

Monday.

And…justlikethat, the weekend slips away. It’ll do that when you’re concentrated on stuff like taxes, laundry and watching “Licorice Pizza,” i.e., the same sort of weekend I’ve been having for maybe two years.

Taxes were the big bummer. We’re going to owe a lot, thanks to a Roth conversion we did last year. But that money will grow (theoretically) and be tax-free when we spend it as liver-spotted old people, so: Good thing, I guess. But there are worse fates, and it was balanced by good news: Apparently my brain MRA turned out fine, so I don’t have carotid blockages causing my vertigo. Taxes are a cakewalk next to that. Still: Ouch.

As we tend to say at this stage of life: Consider the alternative.

Have you considered the alternative? As I’ve said before: I have a letter in my estate folder, bequeathing my online presence to J.C. He is instructed to kill my social-media accounts and do as he pleases with the archive of this blog. (Estimated retail value: $12.98.) Let this be another declaration of intent.

And speaking of the alternative, Clarence Thomas has been hospitalized with “an infection.” Thoughts and prayers.

Sorry I didn’t update Friday. I went out on St. Patrick’s Day, had a beer and a half and got another little spinning bout. It was 10 percent of the one the week before, but enough that I asked Alan to pick me up at the bar. (I’d ridden my bike there, as a celebration of the first 70-degree day of the year; talk about luck of the Irish.) The day ended with takeout pizza, not corned beef and cabbage, but I know which one I prefer.

Is anyone else watching “Winning Time,” the HBO dramatization of the rise of the L.A. Lakers? You know me — no sports fan — but I’m enjoying the hell out of it. It’s funny, weird, fourth-wall-breaking and simply a hoot to watch. I have no opinion, or knowledge, of its historical accuracy, but it’s well-cast (Gaby Hoffman! John C. Reilly!) and so much fun. A lot of the early episodes are spending a great deal of time on Magic Johnson, and the most recent delves into his sexual profligacy, particularly with prostitutes. I’m a little puzzled by this because I assume all pro athletes are like this, but then, Magic lives with HIV and I expect this is laying the groundwork for the eventual revelation. However. Didn’t I read sometime around then that there had been rumors in L.A. for years about him being bisexual? I feel like I did. Whatever. This week introduced Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, and I’m absolutely there for it. (I have an irrational attachment to Brody’s nose. I can’t explain it.)

So, the week ahead yawns, and at least it’s a nice day here. Since this is short and boring, a photo from my St. Patrick’s Day. Don’t see a lot of these outside Greenfield Village, but it’s a real Model T and it starts with a hand crank. Fun thing to bring to the bar on a beautiful day, I’d say.

Posted at 9:07 am in Same ol' same ol', Television | 39 Comments
 

Walkabout.

Ladies and gentlemen, a project weeks in the making. My…home office:

Please, ignore the laundry basket.

Now that I look at it, I realize it’s not too different from before, but believe me, it is. We got rid of the double bed that had been there; Kate’s room is now the official guest room. An entire bookcase, outta there. Several cartons offloaded at John King Books for store credit — I believe we have $100 worth now, and I’ll probably donate it to a teacher or school or something. The desk has one-third less crap gathering dust on it, and I’m still not done.

My office cleanings rarely take place quickly, because I have to think about everything I pitch, and sometimes write about it. We hold on to so much in our lives, and so much of it is just garbage, but it makes us feel good to know it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere. In that closet I have a number of Kate’s baby toys, and Alan’s childhood teddy bear, which was given to us by his mother the last time she cleaned out a space. I just can’t bear to see them go into a garbage bag just yet, although I know that’s where they’ll end up, because everything ends up there.

I threw out so much. All my clips, all my career stuff, awards, everything. I figure if I absolutely positively have to have some clip, it exists somewhere. It would be an excuse to come down to Fort Wayne and sit among the microfilm readers, so win-win. I recall once reading a James Lileks blog where he revealed he was doing a project where he was compiling every word he’d ever written on his site, printing it out and putting it in bound volumes. I’m sure the University of Minnesota library will be pleased to get these treasures when he dies, but I have a much more Buddhist sand-painting view of my work. Do it, put it into the world, then forget it. And I must have forgotten it, because it’s in these boxes I’ve been dragging through my life without opening for years and years.

So: All of this is preface to me taking a few days out of my life for a walkabout. I realized, mid-January, that I was getting very sludgey in the head, and decided I needed a change of scenery. (Big talk for someone whose shampoo and facial moisturizer, purchased during a monthlong trip to France, haven’t run out yet.) So I’m starting out, tomorrow, on a few day’s loop of the Ol’ Souf’, as I’m calling it. First stop, North Carolina, where I have friends I haven’t seen in years living in the Outer Banks. I’ve been given a particular time to arrive, i.e., low tide on Saturday. Otherwise the unpaved road might not be passable. Well, that’s different, I thought, agreeing to every detail. Then on to Atlanta to crash with John and Sammy for a couple days, then home. I’d tried to loop in Nashville, but my friends there are going on their own brief walkabout, so no go. There will be stops along the way — Columbus, Pittsburgh, somewhere between Pennsylvania and the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Atlanta and Detroit. I like that much of this is unplanned, because I want to be unplanned, just for a week.

It’s a working trip, in that I’ll have my laptop and still be contributing to Deadline, but at rest stops and Waffle Houses and the like. I’ll be Chris Arnade, only probably not at McDonald’s. (I see he’s walking now. Oh.)

And also posting here, needless to say. Maybe with some more interesting pictures. John informs me the Obama portraits are at the High Museum in Atlanta, so I really want to see those.

OK, so, bloggage? Just a bit:

How do we Elmore Leonard fans feel about this? About Raylan Givens being surgically inserted into “City Primeval” and made into a miniseries? I’ll tell you how I feel: NOT GOOD. A bad idea. Let me drive for a few days and I’ll tell you how I feel about it.

Posted at 5:38 pm in Same ol' same ol', Television | 50 Comments
 

Eating with Sterling Cooper.

I’m a re- person. I like to reread books, rewatch movies, TV shows, all of that. I don’t wallow in the past, but when the pickings are slim, sometimes I’ll decide to rewatch “Mad Men,” and out of guilt for the indulgence I look for something different to pay attention to, critically.

This time? Food.

I often reflect on the difference in American meals over the course of my lifetime, how much richer, more varied, larger they was when I was a kid. I don’t need to tell you that, in my part of the Midwest, a salad used to be iceberg lettuce and a tomato the approximate flavor of cardboard. Dressing was made by Kraft. Vinaigrette was unheard of; if you were that kind of weirdo, a waitress would bring you twin cruets of salad oil and mystery vinegar.

You were there. You remember. Needless to say, it’s different now. In fact, food has emerged as the new religion, given outsize importance in American life. But “Mad Men,” with its famous attention to detail, is pretty close to how I remember ’60s food. It’s interesting to take note of.

First of all, the show takes place in New York, and as New York has always been, it was ahead of Columbus, Ohio. So, early on, when Don and Betty are in a hotel room, and she’s ordering room service, she asks for “crab meat in an avocado.” Crab meat was fancy food, but I don’t think I even knew what an avocado was until I was in college. The Drapers throw a fancy dinner party, and Betty is enormously proud of her trip-around-the-world menu, including “rumaki from Japan” (remember that) and gazpacho (nope). They go out to dinner, and the appetizer is a glass of tomato juice, served in a small glass in a small dish. Definitely remember that; it was standard in steakhouses into my college years.

There’s more. You want to know about the obesity problem? Look at the sandwiches dispensed from the coffee cart – they’re two pieces of standard grocery bread, and barely a filling. (Although everyone eats donuts and “buttered rolls” for breakfast in the office, and that doesn’t seem to show on anyone.) Don walks in the door on a summer night and Betty asks, “Hot or cold?” The choices: Swedish meatballs or chicken salad. Either one will serve for dinner, with Ritz crackers.

People just didn’t pay that much attention to what they ate, compared to today. But the classics then are classics today. Roger asks a waiter for “iceberg wedges with bleu cheese and bacon,” aka the wedge salad. Joy the lotus-eater tells Don about the Mexican food on his plate: “It’s a pepper, stuffed with cheese.” Chile rellano. Don drinks like a fish, but doesn’t eat very much, which made his choice of a late-night snack, corned beef hash with an egg, a little puzzling, but maybe that’s how he endures – fatty midnight meals to coat the stomach for all that drinking during the day.

The late-decade pivot to fast food comes when the firm guns for the Burger Chef account, a place I remember well – not exactly a regional chain, but it never caught on too widely. Didn’t they flame-broil their burgers? I liked them, although now I know the flavor probably came from a test tube. My mother worked full-time, unusual for our neighborhood, but fast food was a rare treat, saved for when my father was out of town on business. We preferred Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips.

Anyway, we’re in season three now, and I think I’m going to slow the pace a bit. I want to leave for France (fingers still crossed; pass sanitaire still hanging in the balance) with an empty stomach.

I leave you with what got me thinking of all this: A page from one of my mother’s most-used cookbooks (although we never had this). “The American Woman’s Cookbook” is a real time capsule, and I’ve enjoyed paging through it, if not actually cooking from it. It’s a reminder that grocery stores weren’t always lavish cathedrals of food, and sometimes you had to make a meal out of what you could get your hands on:

Happy Wednesday. May all work weeks be four days.

Posted at 8:48 am in Television | 44 Comments
 

Our dogs, ourselves.

I look in the mirror, and I look one way. I look OK. Presentable, anyway. Good enough for what I need to do that day. Then I pass a reflection in a store window, in a mirror at the gym, or on a Zoom camera, and all I can think is: Who’s the old fat lady?

A friend says when we look in our own mirrors, we have our own presets. We know what we’re supposed to look like, and so we see ourselves that way. But other mirrors tell the truth. This is a very strange conversation, but it makes as much sense as anything. It’s like the United States, when we tell ourselves we live in the greatest nation in the world, the land of freedom and opportunity, and all of that is our preset. I heard an interview with an Afghan woman on the way to work out this morning. She was spitting with anger at how betrayed she feels by the United States, and who could blame her? She’ll probably swing from a rope before too long, if she isn’t killed some other way, for the crime of being educated, English-speaking, intelligent.

I saw a tweet by Ted Cruz, jeering at the CNN correspondent covering the fall of Afghanistan. She’s female, and she wears an abaya on the streets when she’s working. Cruz jeered at her “burkha.” It’s not a burkha, you dumb fuck, Mr. Harvard, it’s an abaya. Didn’t we learn this after 9/11? An abaya is a full-length dress, usually black, worn with a hijab, but leaving the wearer’s face uncovered; a burkha is the garment that covers everything and the wearer can only look through a crocheted screen. That’s three terms of art about Islamic religious dress for women; is it so hard to remember? I remembered, and I didn’t go to Harvard.

But of course, not remembering, calling everything you don’t like a burkha — because we agree that’s the most medieval garment, the worst one — is its own mirror. It says, who gives a fuck what these awful people call their outfits? The guy can probably expound on different styles of cowboy boots, but can’t be bothered to step outside his comfort zone, even to sound smarter than he is.

I turned off the radio on my way back from the pool. It was a lovely morning, and I wanted to enjoy it, feel thankful that I don’t live in Afghanistan or Haiti. There will always be a Haiti. You have to enjoy good fortune when you have it.

How can it only be Tuesday? It feels like it should be next Thursday.

Two pieces of bloggage today, neither of which has anything to do with Afghanistan, Ted Cruz or Haiti:

Do you talk to your dog? (Of course you do.) What sort of voice do you use? And when your dog talks back (of course it does), what kind of voice does it use? The WashPost investigates:

Most nights, as he is about to go to sleep, Josh Lieberthal gets into an argument with Werner Herzog. It is often over the pillow, which the 30-year-old communications specialist refuses to cede.

“You gave me part of your pillow,” the argument goes, in the German director’s soft, accented timbre. “The pillow is actually part mine, now.”

The voice belongs to Lieberthal’s dog, Rocky — a 5-year-old wheaten-poodle mix, or “whoodle” — with whom he and his fiancee share a bed. The argument is one that Lieberthal has with himself. Rocky’s voice, which Lieberthal provides, is that of the 78-year-old director of “Grizzly Man,” which just seems to suit his dog.

…He doesn’t remember when, or how, or why he — er, his dog — adopted a thick German accent, dropping the “w” and “th” sounds, but he and his fiancee do it all the time now. Even, occasionally, when they’re not with their dog.

“I feel like a crazy person,” he says. “But at the same time, this is just so normal for us.”

Of course it’s normal! Our last dog, Spriggy, had his own fantasy sitcom, the scripts for which we would sometimes improvise as we dressed for work. It was called “The Spriggy Show, starring Spriggy! Co-starring Alan and Nancy” and the episodes usually involved Spriggy getting into some sort of mischief and escaping all consequences. There was the one where Spriggy called the state of Michigan and ordered a truckload of sand to be dumped in our back yard. That one came after a blissful camping weekend where he ran wildly on some sandy riverbanks. There was the one where he talked the dumb hound dog next door, Samson, into letting him climb up the bigger dog’s back so Spriggy could raid the dumpster at Casa d’Angelo, the nearby Italian restaurant.

“Are we gonna get in trouble, Spriggy?” Samson would ask in a Southern accent. “Hey, can I get one of those meatballs?” Spriggy, deep in the dumpster and speaking with his mouth full, would reply that he couldn’t find any. “And his head pops up, and he has spaghetti hanging off it,” Alan would say. “Hmm, good note,” I’d say. “Make sure to tell the writers’ room.” More from the Post:

Sarah Coughlon, 27, has an ongoing bit with her girlfriend that their dog, Maurice, is the manager of the Bedford-Stuyvesant WeWork.

“He’s also sort of bumbling and, no offense to WeWork, but they seem sort of bumbling. And so I think he’s, like, kind of overwhelmed,” Coughlon says. “He’s really doing his best.”

Maurice, a mix that Coughlon describes as “a German shepherd that has beagle ears,” has a Midwestern accent for reasons that Coughlon cannot explain and always refers to his owners as “the ladies.” Coughlon, who works in advertising, doesn’t even go to a WeWork. Maybe this whole weird comedy bit comes from “trying to sort of make sense of the fact that our home that’s like our sanctuary suddenly becomes a workspace and that my girlfriend becomes my officemate. And that’s a weird relationship for us to have,” Coughlon says. “I think we are sort of trying to mediate that through the dog.”

“The ladies.” Cracks me up.

And if you watched “The White Lotus,” which was a very very fine HBO limited series that ended Sunday, you might want to read this interview with writer/creator Mike White.

And that’s it for the midweek. Enjoy talking to your dog.

Posted at 9:51 pm in Current events, Television | 55 Comments
 

A different tongue.

I stumbled into watching this show on Apple+. “Physical.” It stars Rose Byrne and it’s set in the ’80s, about a woman who finds her calling in teaching aerobics. (Remember aerobics, ladies? Grapevine left, grapevine right, all that? Ah, memories.) The main action is set in 1986 and 1981, and I keep spotting what I’m calling linguistic anachronisms, i.e. people using words and phrases that they didn’t use in 1981. Hey, I was there. I know.

Such as? The main character says to herself, “I will eat clean,” an expression that is very, very recent, not 40 years old. Her husband, a professor at a crappy college, has one of his students as the last guest at a party and tells his wife, privately, “I think she wants to hook up with us,” another wrong-o. A 1981 man would have used the term “menage a trois,” the term of the era; hookup is a hip-hop era term. Some surfers call her a “bee-yotch,” another nope from me. And one more: “Impactful,” which is so recent it still sets my teeth on edge.

I guess there are two schools of thought about this. One is that, as a writer, you want to reach the audience you have, so if it takes eating clean and bee-yotch to do it, no one really cares. The other is that a period piece is a period piece, and people need to speak in the language of the time you’re portraying. (Except in strange in-between spaces that are almost a form of magical realism; I tried to watch the Emily Dickinson thing, also on Apple+, and the language was so jarring I just couldn’t, as the kids say. I couldn’t handle Emily telling her pals, “You’re so extra.”)

But it bugs me. “Mad Men” was famously loyal to all that stuff. There was some hoo-ha early on where Don was wearing a watch in 1960 that didn’t hit the market until 1961, and I recall Laura Lippman saying something about a character noting a driving time between Manhattan and Rehoboth Beach that was insanely incorrect, but I only noticed a few linguistic anachronisms that took me out of the action, and now I can’t even remember them.

One final note about “Physical” – the husband character loses his job at the crappy college and dispiritedly tells his wife the only school that seems to be interested in him is Denison. “In Ohio?” the wife says, with the same misery in her voice. OK, sure, there’s snow, but given that he’s a student-fucking sleaze bag, ending up at Denison would be like driving your car off the road and landing in the master suite at the Ritz-Carlton.

Pretty dumb show, yes.

Speaking of Laura Lippman, I have her new book and would rather be reading it than doing this. So I leave you with just this, an advance look at yet another Trump book, this one about the pandemic:

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as White House officials debated whether to bring infected Americans home for care, President Donald Trump suggested his own plan for where to send them, eager to suppress the numbers on U.S. soil.

“Don’t we have an island that we own?” the president reportedly asked those assembled in the Situation Room in February 2020, before the U.S. outbreak would explode. “What about Guantánamo?”

“We import goods,” Trump specified, lecturing his staff. “We are not going to import a virus.”

Kiiiiinda wish we’d known this earlier, but OK, whatever. Guantanamo. I ask you.

OK, one more. Tonight’s dinner, an asparagus/ham/shallot/mushroom souffle, and the best one yet:

It was delicious.

Posted at 8:53 pm in Current events, Television | 81 Comments
 

The gray.

In our foolish faith that one day, HBO will get good again, Alan and I have been watching “The Investigation,” a Danish series. It’s a dramatized version of the painstaking police work it took to imprison the killer of journalist Kim Wall, in 2013.

Wall went for a ride in a Peter Madsen’s submarine and never came back. Madsen lied and lied and lied, first claiming he put her ashore, then saying she was killed by a falling hatch cover, then switching his story to suffocation, and that’s as far as we’ve gotten. (His dismemberment and dumping of her body was harder to explain, but it was something like, “I panicked and wanted to bury her at sea, but I couldn’t carry her up the ladder to the exit hatch, so, y’know, I parted it out.”)

Anyway, I like to think of myself as a fairly sophisticated consumer of filmed entertainment. I don’t mind subtitles, I respect artistic choices even if they are not what mine would be, and I enjoy foreign films, if only for the glimpses they provide of life in other countries. But man, is “The Investigation” ever slow.

And by “slow,” I mean I said this the other night, as the main character left his office for the day: “You watch. We’re going to follow him all the way down this long hallway, and out the doors,” and we did. About 30 seconds of screen time, an eternity, all to say: He’s leaving work now.

One episode consisted of the police shuttling between various undecorated offices. All the walls were white, lightly tinged with gray. All the officers have the same Scandinavian efficiency in their speech, movement and dress. No one talked about a partner at home, or their children or dogs. No one goes out for a drink after work. No one swears or throws a file folder down on a desk in disgust. No one is particularly good- or bad-looking. The only gun fired is a shotgun, because Jens, the main character, shoots skeet and duck-hunts. The search for the remains by divers is about the only break from tinged-gray white walls we get, and even that is agonizing. They dive, and find nothing. They dive again. They dive again. Etc.

Jens is the most well-rounded, if only because the writers tacked on a subplot of him trying to connect with his adult daughter, who is drifting away from him because he works so hard and is never there for her. They have short, tense conversations in which much is unspoken. Jens expresses sadness through his wide-set eyes. It looks a lot like all his other expressions.

And yet, still we watch. I did some outside reading, and learned that all these choices were deliberate, that the intent was to concentrate on the work it took to bring Madsen to justice, not the lurid crime itself; in fact, Madsen’s name isn’t even spoken aloud. Journalists hear that a lot: Why do you even tell us the bad guys’ names? You’re glorifying them. And no, that’s not true, unless you think having your photo all over the news under headlines like SPREE KILLER constitutes glory. I guess it’s good for the casual viewer to learn that police work, like most work, can be a slog, that it’s interviews, lab testing and diving again and again in hopes of finding human remains. But man, talk about Scandinavian bleakness.

Will I finish watching it? OF COURSE.

What else to report at week’s end? Not too much. I made a spinach soufflé for dinner last night, with roasted potatoes on the side. It turned out OK:

People act like soufflés are alchemy, but it’s all about folding egg whites. I could teach you, I promise.

So, have a great weekend, all.

Posted at 8:11 am in Television | 72 Comments
 

Bad night, bad day.

Whenever Trump pulls some shit, I sleep badly the following night, and it was very true last night, when I awoke at 2:30 a.m. and never really got back to sleep. It’s going to be wine and a little cannabis edible for me tonight, and no water after…well, after now. No middle-of-the-night peeing! I’m going for seven hours, uninterrupted.

My mood today has been murderous. I drafted and trashed tweets and Facebook comments off and on all day. Just not the right day to do that, although god knows I was tempted. The display last night was almost literally stomach-turning. The only smile I got all day came from Tom & Lorenzo:

So I leave you today with…OK, two sick-making pieces, both from the WashPost, but both worth your time, plus another that’s less so. First, Gene Weingarten’s Sunday cover story, on what’s so awful about right now. After a long indictment of the president, he writes:

Mostly, I cannot forgive him for what he has taken from me, personally. It’s not money — with his mismanagement of the virus, eliminating my travel and restaurants, and with his tax policies that favor the economically comfortable at the expense of the poor, he probably has actually made me money. What he has taken from me are two things: First, my genuine lifelong feeling that the United States, for all its weaknesses and failures, deserves, and has always deserved, the benefit of the doubt. Second: I find myself profoundly disliking and disrespecting almost half of my countrymen and women — that is, the group of Americans that support Trump. I have never felt such antipathy before, even in other sharply polarizing times, and it feels absolutely terrible.

Also, it has a great kicker.

The other WP piece is another investigation of just how obviously, and blatantly, and shamelessly, the president has poured money into his own pockets for four years. Forgive the extended excerpt, but it has a rhythm to it I don’t want to disrupt:

President Trump welcomed the Japanese prime minister at Mar-a-Lago, in front of a towering arrangement of roses. The two could have met in Washington, but Trump said his private club was a more comfortable alternative.

“It is, indeed, the Southern White House,” Trump said, greeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in front of the press in April 2018.

For Trump, there was another, hidden benefit. Money.

At Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s company would get paid to host his summit.

In the next two days, as Trump and Abe talked about trade and North Korea, Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., club billed the U.S. government $13,700 for guest rooms, $16,500 for food and wine and $6,000 for the roses and other floral arrangements.

Trump’s club even charged for the smallest of services. When Trump and Abe met alone, with no food served, the government still got a bill for what they drank.

“Bilateral meeting,” the bill said. “Water.” $3 each.

Indeed. This chiseling bastard. No wonder he had to buy a club to get a toehold in Palm Beach.

Finally, a break from the misery, again via T&L, who like me have been watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix. (The novel was written by my college roommate’s father, who died years ago. I feel bad because I never read it, and I guess I should buy it, now that his children control his literary estate.) The production is gorgeous, all midcentury modern design and wardrobe, and everyone’s favorite gay uncles have picked out how many of the costumes have a chessboard theme to them. Reminded me of their Mad Men analyses.

OK, I’m going to order takeout and hope for a better night. Hope you have one, too.

Posted at 5:49 pm in Current events, Television | 86 Comments
 

What immortal hand or eye?

Like many of you, I spent seven hours of my life watching “Tiger King” on Netflix this week. Kate and I got into it; it was our mother/daughter quarantine jam.

I have two (2) experiences with so-called private zoos to share before I get into “Tiger King.” When I was at Bridge, I reported on a story about some bills that were introduced not long after the 2012 incident near Zanesville, Ohio, when a mentally disturbed owner of a private zoo — a state, after watching “Tiger King,” you may assume most of them live in — killed himself, but not before opening all his cages and freeing his animals to roam. By the time the police were done dealing with the grisly aftermath, I believe most of the animals were dead and at least a couple had “disturbed the corpse” of their former keeper, which is how they put it at the news conferences.

There’s only one reference to this in “Tiger King” — a brief snippet in the opening sequence, in which the governor or someone says, “We were amazed that anyone can just own a tiger or lion.” Yep, they can, and my story, which seems to have been re-topped with maybe some editing notes lost in a CMS migration or two, because that’s really not my style, only scratched the surface of the weirdness of private zoos.

In Michigan, as I remember it, some members of the traditional zoo community — facilities like your city’s zoo, with a board of directors and responsible habitat duplication and so on — were pushing legislation that would have made private zoos like the one in Zanesville much harder to establish and run. The legislature, always happy to help out a pal, countered with a bill to protect a single roadside outfit in the Upper Peninsula, where orphaned bear cubs were available for visitors to pet, hold and have their photos taken with them.

As I worked on this, I was introduced to the tension between the AZA, or Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the ZAA, or Zoological Association of America. What’s the difference? Here’s me:

“The confusion is that AZA and ZAA are basically two different things,” said Tara Harrison, veterinarian at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo and an opponent of the legislation. “The AZA is the gold standard.” It is the accreditation body that recognizes the zoos most people visit, five in Michigan – Potter Park, the Detroit Zoo, John Ball Zoological Garden in Grand Rapids, Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek and the Saginaw Children’s Zoo.

The ZAA, Harrison said, is for smaller, frequently privately owned “roadside zoos” where visitors can not only see animals, but sometimes interact with them.

To differentiate the two, Harrison says, she points to the AZA’s 70-page application for accreditation, as well as numerous protocols pertaining to safety of animals, enclosures and visitors, veterinary care and more, while the ZAA’s, available on its website, “is three pages.”

Here’s one of the pushback bill’s co-sponsor’s take on Big Zoo:

Hune thinks the difference is also one of size and market. The AZA, to him, is the big-money, big-zoo club trying to quash the entrepreneurial upstarts who represent competition for not only visitors, but prestige. The use of the term “roadside zoo” is offensive to many who keep these smaller facilities, and rely on tourists or limited trading of animals to survive.

Very Tea Party, that guy. But reporting gave me an excuse to go visit his family’s camel farm on my way home from Lansing one day:

To Hune, who raises Bactrian camels on his parents’ farm outside Fowlerville in Livingston County, the Zanesville incident was an outlier, a rare and random act by a mentally unstable individual. Not that he would deny animals can be dangerous – in 2004 his father, David, suffered a skull fracture when one of his son’s camels picked him up by the head as he worked nearby.

“It wasn’t an attack,” said the younger Hune. “He just wanted attention.” The incident left the elder Hune with a plate in his head, but that didn’t dampen the family’s enthusiasm for exotic livestock; four camels still live on the farm, along with ponies, donkeys and a few head of cattle David Hune raises for freezer beef.

Anyway, my point is: There are legit zoos and there are “Tiger King” zoos, and I bet even the ZAA wouldn’t want shit to do with that guy. Which brings me to my second anecdote, which happened years ago, when I was sent to write about a private zoo, with tigers, down in southern Ohio, around Logan. I took my friend Becky along for company on the drive and what the hell, how often do you get to spend a day at work visiting a tiger outfit.

This zoo, near Logan, was pretty much a dump, run by two guys who drank beer most of the day and messed around with their animals. I really don’t remember much, but I remember feeding time, which was terrifying. One guy came out with a bucket of meat and the other guy drew a large-caliber handgun and covered him.

“Is that necessary?” I squeaked.

“Oh yeah,” the other guy said. Dinnertime ended without serious incident, but it made me far more appreciative of the Columbus Zoo, where the big cats managed to be fed without Smith & Wesson getting involved.

Anyway, like I said, Joe Exotic, the titular star of “Tiger King,” was leagues beyond these guys — a narcissistic, half-nuts redneck who ran a private zoo in Oklahoma where he bred and sold tigers to terrible people and antagonized a particular animal-rescue sort named Carole Baskin, a feud that led to his downfall. My takeaway: Don’t pick a fight with a deep-pocketed woman married to a lawyer.

That’s really the TV Guide synopsis. It is so, so much weirder than that. I lack the energy right now to describe it, so I’ll defer to New York magazine:

Every time you think you’ve gotten a handle on what exactly the crimes are in this true-crime series, Tiger King throws you another curveball. Thought it was going to be about illegal animal breeding? Well it’s also about murder. But not the murder you thought! Well okay, yes, it is about the murder you thought, but it’s also about more murder. All of that seems like plenty for one series, right? Ha ha, there are also cults! And polygamy! And everyone has lions and tigers just lying around their homes, all the time! Tiger King is absolutely “good,” in that I watched all of it as quickly as possible, often with my jaw on the floor.

…There’s a whiff of class tourism here, not that different from shows like Toddlers and Tiaras or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo — shows that treat their subjects like sideshow acts in a circus, where the circus is poverty. You feel okay watching this?

No, not entirely. But I did. It beat watching CNN.

Kate and I went for a much-needed bike ride today. The river was blue, the sky was blue, and it was warm for once. It felt very good. Of course, the information never stays at bay for long:

Have a good weekend, all. Stay separated.

Posted at 8:17 pm in Current events, Television | 59 Comments
 

Take a deep inhale.

My old Russian teacher called the other day. I hadn’t heard from her in quite a while, so it was nice to catch up. I told her that Alan and I were thinking about traveling to Russia with some friends, maybe next year or the year after. They want to see St. Petersburg, I want to see Lenin laid out in his tomb. So I said I should start watching some Russian movies, get used to hearing the language again. She recommended a show on Netflix called “The Sniffer.” I watched an episode yesterday. It is hilarious.

The premise: A Russian investigator of some sort possesses a superhuman sense of smell. This is established in the first scenes, where he boards a plane. As he settles into his seat, another boarding passenger walks down the aisle, arm in a cast, and he determines that the cast contains plastique and a blasting cap; the passenger is a suicide bomber. So he calls the stewardess and calmly asks for the pilot, who appears reluctantly, hears the story, and asks just how this chill gent knows all this.

The same way I know you had sex with this lovely lady in the cockpit. Thirty minutes ago. Twice, he says. And that’s how we meet the Sniffer — and that’s his character’s name, he doesn’t have a regular one — who solves crimes by smelling them.

It’s plainly influenced by the CSI franchise. When the Sniffer inhales, special effects swirl around him, sometimes taking human form. He is able to take a few deep breaths and sketch out how the crime was committed — by a woman in her 40s, left-handed, who showered this morning, stopped menstruating four days ago, etc. It’s ridiculous, and yet, it’s in Russian, and I can pick up a few words. Two episodes in, and I am totally invested in the Sniffer.

You might ask yourself the obvious question: When you have the sense of smell of a million bloodhounds, how the hell do you keep from gagging around, say, a public toilet? (One reason hounds are hard to train is, their noses are like satellite dishes of smells, and it’s, shall we say, distracting. They have a hard time concentrating on your commands.) The answer? The Sniffer wears a plastic nose piece that presumably blocks the worst of it.

Like I said: Ridiculous. Shot in Ukraine, though, which brings us to the events of today, of which I can only say this: I can’t. I can’t even. I can’t even EVEN.

I feel confident that as I start this sentence, something will happen before the end of it that will upend anything I might write. So I will leave you with this:

I somehow wrangled a media pass to Kanye West’s “Sunday Service” concert, which is popping up in Detroit tomorrow, and which I am attending. Ooh, exciting. I’ll give you a report on Monday. For now, let’s grab our popcorn and watch everything unfold.

Happy Friday, happy weekend, God save the United States of America.

Posted at 9:03 pm in Current events, Television | 39 Comments