Secondary roles, major flops

I was thinking about a couple of the character-driven movies I’d seen recently.  But it was not the main figures in Crazy Heart and Mr. 3000 that bothered me. It was the secondary characters, the two female journalists, that caught my attention.

Having some expertise in the journalistic field, I was struck by the possibility that Jean Craddock, in Crazy Heart,  and Maureen “Mo” Simmons in Mr. 3000, might be taken seriously, that they might be sublimated far beyond what they were.   As journalists, these two characters are flawed and misguided posers.  They truck on nothing but their good looks to crawl up a disgusting media ladder to nowhere, a ladder long shaped by style over substance, by opinion over fact, by beauty over brains. 

Of the two journalists, Simmons is the lowest of the low.  Played by beautiful and brassy Angela Bassett, Simmons is a veteran TV “reporter” for ESPN.  She is romantically involved with one of her subjects, Sam Ross.  Ross (Bernie Mac) is a baseball has-been trying to make a short comeback with the Milwaukee Brewers.  It is a big story for Simmons because Ross is the center of national attention being only three hits away from the magical 3000 Club, a feat he thinks will propel him into the Hall of Fame.  

In Crazy Heart, Craddock, played by moony-eyed Maggie Gyllenhaal,  is an inept “feature writer” for a newspaper in Santa Fe.   She too becomes romantically involved with the subject of a profile she plans to do on another has-been, the country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges).  Craddock has the excuse of being new in the business and totally untrained.  

The problem with Simmons and Craddock is not that they have affairs with their subjects.  That happens often enough and is no great sin.  The problem with these two so-called journalists is that their conflicts of interest do not ring a bell, that both continue to go about business as usual with their subjects-lovers.  If known, not exactly an atmosphere that breeds the all-important trust of the reader or viewer.  

In real life, if discovered, this behavior would be a career-ender.  Or it should be.   Both would be fired.  Such conflicts can be extremely embarrassing to a media outlet.  The heads on the periphery, those of editors and producers, may even roll as well.  In the real world, Simmons and Craddock would have come clean.  They would likely have revealed the conflicts to their bosses, kept the romance going and trotted off with new assignments and perhaps new gold stars pinned to their lapels.

This is the problem with character-driven films.  Directors are so focused on the central character, the Bad Blake and the Sam Ross, that they often fail to pay close attention to minor parts.  They kiss them off.  They get sloppy with reality.  And their attempt at plausible story lines falls flatter than flat.

In this way, Crazy Heart and Mr. 3000 are undeserved bad news for journalism.


Travel blues, credit card mysteries

In front of the Amenano B&B in Catania

You had a wonderful trip to some foreign land. You return home thinking it could not have gone better. Then, whack, an unsuspected charge on the credit card arrives. Suddenly you find yourself embroiled in a dispute that lasts months and dampens memories of the trip’s good times.

This unhappy predicament has struck us twice now.  Most recently on a trip to Italy and several years ago in Australia.

The latest incident occurred over a mysterious charge of $40 which was added to the cost of lodging at a B&B in Catania, Sicily.  In October, we had spent two nights at the Amenano, a small, hidden place on the second floor down some side streets and just north a few blocks of the Piazza Duomo, the city center.  Our corner room was large but drab and dimly lit.  I could not for whatever reason pull up the internet on my laptop although the Amenano’s clerk assured Wi-Fi was available throughout.   Still, it seemed a comparative bargain at 70 euros a night.  Nebra paid with her AAA Visa card.

The surprise $40 showed up on Nebra’s first credit card bill after our return to Phoenix. A small sum, yes, a sum that many might overlook.  But Nebra has a fine sense of justice and so disputed the charge by calling the credit card company.  She asked a logical question.  What was the extra charge for?  While the company laudably decided weeks ago not to charge her, she learned only today what the questionable charge was.  Damages to a lamp and a wall socket, the card company said.  Neither of us remember any such damage inflicted by us.

The trip to Australia, in 2004, generated a similar but much more expensive example.  We had rented a cream-colored Hyundai Elantra from Europcar in downtown Sydney.   The ensuing drive to Adelaide passed with what I saw as only a minor incident.

It was my first experience driving with the steering wheel on the right side of the car.  Trying to parallel park in Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains, I struck a sharp-edged curb and destroyed the left front tire and its plastic rim.  I soon bought a cheap tire for $25 and had it installed and off we sped on our merry way to Adelaide via Melbourne without further misfortune. 

At Adelaide, I returned the Elantra to Europcar at the airport and flew out to Brisbane, leaving Nebra behind to visit friends.  I told the agency’s clerk about the tire and rim.  The company’s garage, she said, would assess the damage and get back to me.  I thought at most that would it would cost me a few hundred dollars.

A month later, back in the U.S., I received a shocking bill.  Europcar was charging me $626.93 for “complete crash repairs” to the Elantra.  That included $88 for the two-day repair when the car was unavailable for rental. 

Europcar said that my Visa had already been dinged for $224.40, presumably for the tire and rim damage, but did not elaborate.  In addition, the rental company wanted payment for $402.53 for other unspecified damages.  There was no other damage, and I had a copy of the pre-existing damage report ato prove it.   I asked for an itemized account and received no further word from the car czars. More correspondence led to nothing.  Finally came a blunt letter from Europcar stating my Visa had been charged the remaining $400, case closed.  

I’m not the dumbest person in the world.  It’s just that I act that way sometimes when I’m angry.  Unlike Nebra, I didn’t  think it out.  I wanted to throw stuff.  I never thought of going to Visa and disputing the bill.  I preferred to sulk and vent.

The lesson I learned, or hope I did,  is this.  When disputed charges arise, don’t argue with the vendor.  Go straight to the credit-card company.   Corporations like Europcar don’t listen to little guys like me unless we get in front of a TV camera.  Corporations like to talk to corporations.  They speak the same lingo and, I think, enjoy twisting each other’s tail. 

You should also act immediately.  Don’t let the issue linger.  Long story short, I ate the $400.

I also have a word to vendors like the Amenano Bed & Breakfast.  There are some costs you should just eat yourself like your wife’s bad breakfast.  Particularly smaller costs like “damage” to a lamp and a wall socket, come on. 

In the end, the vendor may receive its $40.  But, right or not, you also are faced with irate customers like me who write bad reviews regarding your business practices, both on this blog and, say, Trip Advisor.  The potential loss of revenue to Amenano may ultimately far exceed the pittance it tried to extract from  lodgers from a faraway country.

Bird counting in unison

One of the many ways I escape the noise of an angry, fractured America is to walk out to the patio with binoculars and dog-eared Peterson Field Guide in hand and observe birds. It relaxes me no end.

Was it a Yellow Warbler or . . . .

Birds do not care if you’re conservative or liberal, anti-abortion or hate the stimulus.  They will pose on a limb for you whether your name is Adolf or Mahatma. They will eat from your feeder whether its hung up with the right hand or the left.  They treat you the same.  With great fear.  And they are wise to do so in this era of hatred and thoughtless violence. 

Not all birds have got the message.  I recently saw a pair of malingerers, Mallards, male and female, asleep on the ledge of a water fountain at a mall.  Someone with a weapon, you can bet, had an eye on them.   

an Orange-Crowned Warbler?

Every year about this time, since 1998, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) provides me with the perfect excuse to step outside and inhale a wheeze or two of what now passes in Phoenix for clean city air.  

This year’s count took place February 12-15 and, as usual, was open to anyone.  Even to those who can not distinguish between an American Eagle gold coin and the common loon.  You observe for at least 15 minutes, note the largest number of each species you see at one time and submit the results online via an easy form.  The results of the count are broken down by state, city, species, etc., and published, although the final numbers will not be known until the submission deadline on March 1.  

I doubt there is much good science in the results of the GBBC.  No matter.  The sponsors, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, deserve high marks for their attempt at upping America’s awareness of our often-unnoticed neighbors in feathers.   By mid-afternoon over 80,000 checklists were turned in from across the U.S. and Canada.   

I went out twice, around noon on the 13th and in late afternoon the next day, a total of only an hour and 45 minutes.   My two lists were small.  Only 10 species this year and 26 birds.  Pigeons, Starlings, Verdins, Mourning Doves, House Sparrows, Mockingbirds, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Gila Woodpeckers and Inca Doves, all within a few miles of downtown highrises.  

The most stressing moment, if you could call it that, was deciding whether I had seen a Yellow Warbler.  Or was it an Orange-Crowned Warbler?  Just think of it.  What a better world it might be if that question weighed on everyone’s mind for just one hour a day.  

Anyway, I regret now that I chose the Orange-Crowned and not the Yellow as my 10th species.  For one thing I didn’t see the “orange” on top of the head although Peterson says it is “seldom visible.”  It’s not like the warbler stops and poses for you.  It’s not a dove.  Warblers are twitchy and move a lot.  I now believe this very yellow bird was, duh, a female Yellow Warbler.  I had discounted it because it is still winter here and the Yellow’s range is said to be mostly west of here, along the Colorado River, until spring and summer.  As if birds follow what a book says.  

The bigger picture shows the Northern Cardinal as the GBBC’s most-counted species in America so far.  If it holds off the Dark-Eyed Junco and Mourning Dove, the Cardinal would win the count’s title for the sixth straight year.  Before that the Mourning Dove was king for five of the first six years.   

In Arizona, the top 10 species in order:  House Sparrow, House Finch, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Lesser Goldfinch, Gambel’s Quail, Starling, Rock Pigeon, Great-Tailed Grackle, Redwing Blackbird and White-Crowned Sparrow.   

For my money, the Pigeon continues to get dissed.  If it is not the most populous bird in the state I’ll eat a crow.  In driving through my neighborhood several days ago, for instance, I counted 57 pigeons grazing on lawns.  Yet I could not rightfully put them on my list.  I think they largely went uncounted.  

If you are looking for democracy in action, then the GBBC is your cup of tea.  It is grassroots.  PAC money and special interest groups carry nary a dime’s worth of influence.  Take the locality reporting the most species.  It’s little Tivoli, Texas.  Do you think those birders consulted with those spoiled Wall Street bankers before writing their checklists?   Tivoli, though, may not be a perfect example since it rests on the Gulf Coast near the huge Aransas Wildlife Refuge.  

A better choice might be the locale with the most submissions.  Ahead of contenders Charlotte, Tallahassee, Sacramento and Atlanta is little Columbia in south central Kentucky, population about 4,000. 

Columbia’s birders sent in 545 checklists at last look, a fact that will surely bring national attention to the town.  Already a “celebration potluck” is planned for February 23.  

I wager a lot of the Columbia birders carry strongly diverse political views.  Not one view flies for all.  But for a few days out of the national turmoil that is 2010 they united and carved out a niche of history for themselves.

A name out of the blue

I was driving home from the gym last night and had just turned into the neighborhood, when out of nowhere a name from long ago suddenly popped into my conciousness.  “Winford Boynes.”

Boynes with the Dallas Mavs

I had not thought of Boynes for decades.  If I had, I don’t remember it.  That his name would break the surface of my brain and spill out into the cool air of a sedate Phoenix evening all but blew a synapse or two. 

For the rest of the drive home, I wondered what had triggered the moment.  The only thing I could think of was that I was half-listening to a radio broadcast of an ASU basketball game at the time.  I made a mental note to look up “Winford Boynes” on the internet later that night.

If Boynes and I were to meet on the street today and chat, he would have no idea who I was.  I was mostly a phantom in his life story.  And I, after not seeing him in 36 years, would not recognize him.  I might say, “Now, there’s a tall, athletic guy.  Bet he played basketball somewhere.”  

This seemingly irrelevant stuff must be just laying there in the cranium crust of my mind, waiting for some obscure reason to explode.

In 1974, I worked as a sports writer in Oklahoma City, and Boynes was playing basketball for Capitol Hill High School.  At 6-foot-6 with the athleticism to play both forward and guard, he was the most talented, the most highly-recruited player in the state.  And he no doubt ranks still among  the top 10 basketball players produced in the Sooner State. 

While I’d seen Boynes play several times, I can not remember a single performance.  I do remember he was always dominant, a teenage man playing among children, stoic and methodical, carving up any defense that tried to stack the deck against him.  But it wasn’t until recruiting season that I established a limited contact with him.  The readers of The Oklahoman wanted to know what major college would land this phenom and thus so did I.   Boynes was the kind of player that could literally overnight turn a losing basketball program into a winner.

It was sometime after the high school season that I showed up one night at the house where Boynes lived not far south of downtown.  Recruiting season was coming to a close.  Boynes had narrowed his selections to three or four colleges.  On this particular night, he was being wooed by Denny Crum, then the head coach at Louisville.  By the time, I arrived at the darkly-lit house, both coach and player were gone, off to where only the smirking gods of recruiting knew.  

I don’t know what I expected to find.  I do remember a pleasant woman invited me inside.  I do not recall if it was his mother, a grandmother or an aunt.  Maybe a small child was there too.  Anyway,  I stayed a couple of hours and left.  It slowly dawned on me that neither Boynes or Crum was going to return anytime soon and that neither was interested in talking to a newspaper reporter.  It was such a nothing kind of experience that I doubt I even wrote anything at all about it. 

Why is it then that “Winford Boynes” remains so close to my consciousness?  I think it has something to do with the smarmy world of college recruiting, a process done in secret where adults exploit and lure talented teenage athletes with offers of cash, sex, a new car, house rent for mom and pop, easy academic courses and high-paying summer jobs that require no work.   

While I do not know what transpired that night between Boynes and Crum, I suspected not everything was on the up and up.  And I think it was that gut feeling as I left the house that has stayed with me all these years, though I was not concious of it.

It is not just college recruiting.  Cheating and backroom deals seep into every aspect of life in this country.  Smoke and mirrors at every turn.  Most of us never really know the truth about anything.  We act on our gut feelings.  Reality is always an arm’s length away.  I think of all the conspiracy theories put forth about 9/11, the assassinations in the 1960s, the war in Iraq, you name it, and I always come up a bit empty.  There’s something there that Americans don’t know.  Or don’t care to know.   No one ever pushes.  We go on to the next thing.   And all the crud recurs over and over.

So “Winford Boynes” is my touchstone for the elusive truths of life.  I suppose his name will pop to mind again at some unexpected moment. 

As for Boynes, he did not sign with Crum or Louisville.  He ended up going to the University of San Francisco, became a star there on some very good basketball teams with the center Bill Cartwright, now an assistant coach here in town with the Suns.  One season while Boynes was there the Dons were 29-0 before losing to Notre Dame.  Boynes scored 40 points in a tournament game against Arizona State and was the 13th player chosen in the 1978 NBA draft.  That he only played three seasons in the NBA, first with New Jersey and finally with Dallas, startled my senses.  I thought he was more talented even than another Oklahoman, Alvan Adams, who played 13 seasons with the Suns.

It doesn’t seem possible but Boynes will soon be 53.  I did some brief internet searches to see where he is now, but could find nothing. 

I hope he’s enjoying a great life, and I wish him well.

Opera and Monster Jams: A Common Ground?

It’s not often I get a chance to see two extreme sides of a fractured America walking side by side on the same Phoenix street.  But I did last Saturday night in the heart of downtown.

I’d taken light rail with Nebra to the stop at 3rd Street and Jefferson.  We were headed to the opera at Symphony Hall. 

I knew right away it was an unusual night.  For one thing, there were three rail cars in our train.  Not the usual two, or sometimes, like on a Sunday, say, when you see only a single car.  And the cars were full.  We stood the whole way.  I knew from experience the busy traffic was not entirely due to the showing of La Boheme, the silly and over-wrought Puccini opera which is sung in Italian and set in Paris.  This after all  is not New York City. 

Stepping from the rail car and veering west, waves of other folks, mainly families with small children, met us head-on, steering east.  Their attire struck me as very casual, their demeanor happy and noisy.

I wore my Sunday best, unhappily traded off had I my faded blue jeans for dressy black slacks.  I also wore my properly sedate game face, though in truth it was more glum than sedate, not being ecstatic at revisiting the opera.  In my virginal visit I had been less than enthralled with Tosca, another Puccini composition.  My goal was to adventure into a realm of which I had not been fully exposed.  To be more “edifying”  as my grandmother preached.

I asked a traffic cop where these legions of  happy people were going.  He said there was a “monster truck show” at Chase Field, the big stadium where the Diamondbacks will start their 13th baseball season in a few months.  Music to this segment of America is not a foreign-sung aria.  It is the sight and sound of giant trucks using their 150,000 horse-power engines to negotiate an obstacle course that includes smashing over puny cars I see on the street everyday. 

Later, when I took time to go to the internet, I discovered the event at Chase Field was called a “Monster Jam,”  just one of five similar competitions held that same night throughout the U.S  Of course I had heard about these Jams.  Just never bothered to see one. 

These big trucks have names, I learned.  Donkey Kong, Captain’s Curse, El Toro Loco to name a few.  And they trucks driven by real people.  At least one driver, Dawn Creten, is a woman.  These competitions are held all over the world, in places like Helsinki, Barcelona and in Malaysia and New Zealand.  There will be many more of these events at different points leading up to the World Finals in late March at a fitting place I should’ve guessed without having to look it up — Las Vegas, the capital of crass. 

At Symphony Hall, a soft buzz of voices permeated the lobby.  I don’t know if it was SRO, but there was a nice crowd.  Some dressed to the Nines in coats and expensive ties and backless gowns and fancy jewelry.  But many more like me, a step or two down, and liking it like that.  And while mostly a gathering of  white folks, clusters of  blacks, Hispanics and Asians sat not too far from me.  Our seats, near the back of the auditorium, cost about $75 a pop, and I wondered what the price of a ticket to the Monster Jam was. 

Monster Jams were just gaining national traction when the 100th anniversary of La Boheme‘s première performance passed in 1996.  I read U.S. companies perform La Boheme more than any other opera with the exception of Madame Butterfly.  If true, it is hard for me to grasp.

The plot features two of the most emotionally-starved human beings imaginable.  Rodolfo, an impoverished poet, and his consumptive girlfriend, Mimi, spend most of the four acts exclaiming and bewailing their love for each other until the tragic end put me too out of my misery.  I’ve been there, I know teenage sick love-puppies when I see them.  If an adult American male connects with the wimpy Rodolfo, I stand aghast.  And talk about stupid.  He tosses sheets of his play into a stove to keep him and his friends warm.  While it provided the only humor during the sobering two hours, almost everyone knows paper burns fast and offers little heat.   By the end, when Mimi dies, my most profound feeling was overwhelming gratitude.  I was ready to go home.  

Those spectators in the front of the auditorium, the season-ticket holders and members of the sponsoring Arizona Opera I assume, immediately rose and to my amazement  applauded wildly as the final curtain fell.  That group of front-sitters were without doubt among the most knowledgeable present.  They knew when to start applause for a yet-unfinished aria, and they knew when to stand and applaud after the second act, the cafe gathering, the only time the entire ensemble appeared.  But for my taste their applause was too calculated and bereft of spontaneity.

I stood like many others in the back to clap politely for the encore.  I did applaud  loudly for Timothy Mix, who played Rudolfo’s more mature roommate, Marcello, the artist.  Mix’s was a dominating performance, even to my untrained ear, in an otherwise limp undertaking.  As I’m sure many new opera-goers discovered over the years, it is for those wonderful and powerful, highly trained voices and the orchestra that attracts. Not the plots.  And in some intricate way I made an unlikely connection between La Boheme and the Monster Jam.

The patrons of both are hooked on the extremes.  Extreme sport on one hand, and extreme music on the other.  Both rest at the far ends of the scale in America.  The opera refined and intellectual, the Monster Jam loud and visceral.  No question, though, that the big Jam is closer to the middle than opera.

I suspect that neither crowd that Saturday night in Phoenix knew much about the other.  I would bet the vast majority of  the Jam crowd had never seen an opera.  And vice versa. 

America is in this deep rut in almost every way.  We specialize far too much.  We find an interest or two and bore deeply, giving our hearts and souls, as Rodolfo did to Mimi.  We do that with the exclusion of almost everything else.  It would be pleasant to see a more flexible America, a more adventuresome citizenry with more open minds.  Open minds.  Now that’s a modern American pipe dream if ever there was one. 

At this rate, I may even talk myself into watching the next Monster Jam.  But another Puccini will have to wait.