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Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert is one of those people I thought would be around forever, because after all I’ve been watching him since I was a kid, when he and Gene Siskel were hosting Sneak Previews in the late 1970s. It was a little shocking when Siskel died in 1999, but also reassuring (I thought) that Ebert kept their film review show going afterwards. Other than graying hair, Ebert didn’t seem to change very much over the years. I can’t say I was ever a “true fan”, since I didn’t follow his columns (even on the Web), nor watch his show every week (though I’d sometimes watch one if I came across it). Nothing against him, but I’m not truly a film buff, and in fact I’ve spent more time in the last decade watching films made before I was born than films made after I was born. Still, like any other enduring public figure who’s been there for most of your life, you get used to the lack of change.

I came across Ebert’s blog a year or two ago and had read about him having had throat cancer. His picture on his blog showed him with his hands palms-together in front of his face, covering much of his lower face. But other than looking thinner, he basically looked like the same guy.

The picture, it seems, is several years old, as I learned by reading this amazing profile of Roger Ebert in Esquire, which includes a head shot of Ebert as he looks today: He no longer has a lower jaw bone, and cannot eat or talk. And, obviously, he looks quite different. If you cover the bottom of his head, then he looks basically the same as he always has. But the difference of the totality is striking.

I’m not sure why the photo is so fascinating to me. I usually shy away from pictures like this (for example, the seemingly-omnipresent ads in the paper to donate to help children with cleft palates always cause me to turn the page immediately), but not this one. With the equally bewitching article, I think it makes me think that this sort of thing – although rare – could happen to anyone. Ebert seems to deal with it as well as anyone could hope for, at least from the view from the outside: Last month he wrote an entry about not being able to eat, where he seems to be philosophical about it. I’m sure it’s been terrifying for him at times – but you can’t be terrified constantly.

This month Ebert wrote a follow-up to the Esquire article, and it’s also a fascinating read (and has additional pictures). He seems a little surprised that he’s exposed his home life as much as he has, as if he knew intellectually what inviting the writer into his home to write the profile meant, but until he saw it he hadn’t realized it emotionally.

It’s the final paragraph in the blog post that gripped me the most:

I studiously avoid looking at myself in a mirror. It would not be productive. If we think we have physical imperfections, obsessing about them is only destructive.

I don’t think I could do that. I don’t know if I’d be able to deal with it as well as Ebert seems to be. Then again, maybe you deal with it because it’s better than the alternative.

Sunday in the City

Friday night I surprised Debbi by taking her to dinner at Sundance The Steakhouse, which we’d last (and first) visited for my birthday this year. It was as good as it was the first time!

Saturday we took the cats to the vet, Debbi taking hers in for a 2 pm appointment, then me taking mine in half an hour later. She was in-and-out and ran into me as I was arriving. It took longer for my guys to get their check-ups. Newton seems to be doing well enough given that he’s taking thyroid medication. Jefferson, however, has some really crummy teeth and his gums are looking pretty bad, including a spot that’s bleeding. He’s lost 3 pounds in the last year, and it could be because he’s having hyperthyroidism himself, or it could be because eating has been difficult because of his mouth. And the vet said there’s a chance that he could have a tumor which is bleeding. So both cats are getting blood tests, and we’ll see where to go from there. My bet is that Jefferson “just” needs some dental surgery.

Still, for 15-year-old cats, that’s not really too bad.

We had a more exciting day today, since I wanted to go up to the city for Borderlands Books‘ 12-year anniversary sale. We left early and got breakfast in San Carlos, but realized that we’d be getting to the bookstore well before their sale started, at noon. We tried going into Golden Gate Park to visit the botanical gardens, but there was no parking. However, we saw a sign on the way for the Disney Family Museum, which recently opened in the Presidio, and decided to go check that out.

Even with a $20 entry fee, I figured there was still some chance that it would be little more than a few trinkets that Diane DIsney Miller had inherited from her famous father, perhaps with some notes on his life. But in fact it was much more than that, and we spent more than two hours going through it (and could have spent more time than that).

There’s not much left inside that looks like an old Presidio building – they clearly spent plenty of money to make it a modern venue, with computerized displays in addition to the memorabilia, and even a theater in the basement. The reception area has hundreds of awards that Disney was given during his lifetime (including most of his Academy Awards) on display. Inside is an impressive collection of photos of Walt and his family, and many DIsney memorabilia, including a polo cup he won, one of the trains he built for his home, the fiddle his father played, and many of his early drawings (some the originals, most reproductions). The earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse are among he collection.

The narrative is well-written, although the layout of the individual rooms makes it sometimes difficult to know where to start, so sometimes you experience things out-of-order. While it admirable grapples with a few of Disney’s less shining moments (such as the early 40s animators’ strike), it oddly glosses overt the construction of Disneyland, which occupied Walt for several years and was one of his greatest accomplishments.

While some have cautioned that the museum is more about Walt and less about Disney, anyone interested in either the man of his company ought to enjoy the museum. It’s a good companion experience to the biography of Disney I read a few months ago.

After the museum, we stopped for sundaes at Ghirardelli Square, and then headed to the bookstore, where I picked up a few things, and we got to see Borderlands’ two hairless cats, Ripley and Ash, the latter of whom I hadn’t met before.

The only blemish on the day was having trouble getting dinner cooked (stuffed pork chops from the supermarket that took about 25 minutes longer to bake than advertised), and watching the Patriots mysteriously hand the Sunday night football game to the Colts by not punting the ball on 4th-and-2 at their own 30, leading by 6 with 2:30 left in the game. WTF??? The Pats lost 35-34. Gah.

But that aside, it was a day of pleasant surprises, so I can’t really complain.

RIP Michael Jackson

When I was a young teenager, Michael Jackson was almost inescapable: His music was on every pop radio station, and he was one of the darlings of MTV. His album Thriller was a generational advent, especially when the video for the title track showed up (it’s still influential today).

So I couldn’t help but pay attention to Michael Jackson as a teen. Despite this, I never bought any of his albums or singles. They were nice enough, but mostly not my thing. (Though to be fair, I did enjoy his music casually, especially the “Thriller” video.)

To be fair, Jackson at his best was better than dance-pop music (especially the synth-pop of the early 80s, which was largely execrable and which, unlike Jackson’s music, sounds even sillier today than it did then). It had some depth and complexity to go along with the rhythm and melody, and I think that’s what over the long haul separated him from most of his contemporaries. Jackson was also a showman, but what he brought were not just slick dance moves and a pretty face (although he brought those, too), but a sense of grown-up style atop his fundamental energy and enthusiasm. Really, all of this is perfectly captured in the cover to his album before Thriller, Off The Wall. Even in his later years, I think it’d be fair to say that Jackson was basically a big kid in an adult body.

Why do so many pop stars become so eccentric? Okay, everyone’s eccentric in their own way (look at me, for instance. No, on second thought, stop looking at me), but something about the rise to the top or the fall from the top seems to make these people nuttier than normal. Arguably Madonna and George Harrison’s eccentricities are more the result of the media coverage that they received, but consider Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, who embraced their eccentricities and ultimately crafted their images around them, and then seemed to get stuck in a feedback loop of getting weirder as they’re farther removed from their peak.

(Aside: Elvis, The Beatles and Jacko are clearly the dominant pop stars of the 50s, 60s and 80s; who was the dominant star of the 70s? The Bee Gees? Somehow they don’t seem to be in the same class.)

Jackson’s later years became more spectacle than performance (his last album was released in 2001), but his death yesterday still reverberates (even though I’m still a little surprised at the number of passionate Jackson fans out there today). I can’t yet think of the music of my teen years as “golden oldies”, but Jackson’s passing is a big step towards making it so.

(Another reminiscence at Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets.)

The Secret Lives of Comic Store Employees

Interesting piece at Wired. I’m not sure how much of it is “secret”, although to be fair I’ve been acquaintances with owners or employees of comics stores for over 30 years so maybe it’s just not secret to me!

Jeff Dunham

Last year Debbi came across comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham on Comedy Central, and he became a favorite of hers. She bought his DVD, Arguing With Myself. I can’t remember seeing Debbi laugh so hard as when she saw his special, and then his DVD! So, of course, we’ve gone twice to see him at the Improv in San Jose.

At first glance, Dunham is this unassuming-looking guy who looks like he could be your next-door neighbor. In fact, his humor is extremely irreverent. He opens his act as a straightforward stand-up act, usually talking about his family (wife, three kids, and many dogs), and then brings out his puppets, who include crotchety-old-guy Walter, and manic-verbal-abuser Peanut. It’s sort of a good-cop-bad-cop routine, with Dunham trying to keep the characters in line, while they’re abusing him, the audience, their hypothetical relatives, and anyone else who comes to mind.

And really, he’s hilarious! Many of his gags deliberately break the illusion of his puppets’ reality, as they comment on his reactions to him, and suggest some novel uses for his ventriloquism.

I think my favorite joke of the evening involved his chihuahuas, which (he says) were entirely his wife’s idea. Little yappy dogs, he’s greatly amused at some of the tortures they undergo due to their small stature and smaller brains. This gag involved his youngest daughter taking one of them for a walk using a retractable leash, and the devious trick the played on the poor beast.

Have I mentioned that my sense of humor is a little irreverent, too?

The one thing that makes me a little uncomfortable are his gay jokes. They aren’t really gay-bashing jokes, but rather using “gay” to mean “effiminate”, as in “driving a powder-blue Prius while holding your wife’s chihuahua is gay.” The web comic strip PvP often makes exactly the same sort of jokes, for instance in the sequence starting here (though Dunham is funnier than PvP). Is this funny, or is it a little too tactless? I’m not sure.

(Note that I have no problem at all with him making fun of people who drive Priuses. Or, for that matter, abusing chihuahuas. We each have our own boundaries, I guess.)

He’s even edgy enough that one of his new puppets is Ahmed the Dead Terrorist. Which is, uh, really weird. (This wasn’t his A-list material, but I think it was also some new material he’s still shaking out.) Then again, is anyone else taking on the terrorists in quite this way?

Overall, we had a terrific time at the show, and assuming you’ve got an equally irreverent sense of humor, or are willing to shove aside your sensitivities for 90 minutes, I’d wholeheartedly recommend going to see Jeff Dunham.

Creepy Celebrities

The San Jose Mercury News has an interesting article on the celebrity status of the late Anna Nicole Smith. Even I was surprised by it, and I’m not really a celebrity-watcher. But some celebrities are hard to escape from, unless you never follow pop culture at all, and Smith was one of those, especially once her “reality” show become popular.

I’ve seen bits of her show while channel-surfing, and I immediately classified Smith as a “creepy” celebrity: Her shrill voice, her odd sense of decor and color, it was all just really weird. And of course her public exploits tended to seem equally weird. And, of course, she was one of those people who’s mostly famous for being famous, not because she was particularly talented or accomplished. This sort of fame is also very creepy to me.

I know it’s gauche to speak ill of the recently deceased, but Smith’s whole cachet seemed to be wrapped up in being peculiar, if not outright creepy. That ship sailed before I got anywhere near the pier.

My list of the five creepiest celebrities:

  1. Paris Hilton
  2. Mary-Kate Olsen (who jumped onto this list after I saw this photo)
  3. Britney Spears
  4. Anna Nicole Smith
  5. Pamela Anderson (especially after reading about her flirtation with on-line poker)

I can’t honestly think of any male celebrities I find creepy enough to put on this list.

One celebrity whom some might find creepy is Jessica Simpson, but honestly I find her to be your basic pop singer trying to forge an acting career. While anyone willing to do a “reality” show has to be considered at least somewhat peculiar, I just don’t find her strange enough to be creepy.

Which celebrities creep you out?