Notes from 2017 – Time to save Big Bird again!


Last week, the New York Times reported on administration plans to cut popular domestic programs, including funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The move would save $500 million a year, about 0.016% of the federal budget.

Said Heritage Foundation economist and presidential advisor, Stephen Moore, “I think it’s an important endeavor to try to get rid of things that are unnecessary.” 

Here are some of the things Mr. Moore considers unnecessary:

Sesame Street
Downton Abbey
Ken Burns “Civil War”
Ken Burns “Jazz”
Sherlock Holmes (several versions)
The Midsomer Murders
Ken Burns “Baseball”
Shakespeare plays (many)
The PBS Newshour
Masterpiece Theater
The Antiques Roadshow

These are just a few of my favorite programs, past and present. Add yours to the list

Politicos periodically try to defund PBS. Remember the rumor that one of the Teletubbies was gay?  But I think the real reason is apparent in this dialog from The Power of Myth series, one of the most popular television programs of all time. The conversations between mythologist, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer’s, which first aired in 1988, are as relevant as ever today:

Joseph Campbell on "The Power of Myth" series

Joseph Campbell on “The Power of Myth” series

BILL MOYERS: Would the hero with a thousand faces help us to answer that question, about how to change the system so that we are not serving it?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I don’t think it would help you to change the system, but it would help you to live in the system as a human being.

BILL MOYERS: By doing what?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, like Luke Skywalker, not going over, but resisting its impersonal claims.

BILL MOYERS: But I can hear someone out there in the audience saying, “Well, that’s all well and good for the imagination of a George Lucas or for the scholarship of a Joseph Campbell, but that isn’t what happens in my life.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You bet it does. If the person doesn’t listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life, and insists on a certain program, you’re going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off-center; he has aligned himself with a programmatic life, and it’s not the one the body’s interested in at all. And the world’s full of people who have stopped listening to themselves. In my own life, I’ve had many opportunities to commit myself to a system and to go with it, and to obey its requirements. My life has been that of a maverick; I would not submit.

BILL MOYERS: You really believe that the creative spirit ranges on its own out there, beyond the boundaries?


By now it should be obvious – this year’s crop of would-be overlords, like all of their kind, want “a world…full of people who have stopped listening to themselves.” It’s up to ALL of us to deny them the pleasure!

We know the drill by now…when this budget item comes up, call and write elected representatives. Make #SaveBigBird go viral on twitter. It worked last time an administration tried to evict Big Bird, and it will work again!

Ken Burns, Downton Abbey, Sesame Street, and Joseph Campbell cut across party lines. They invite all of us to listen deeply to ourselves. They remind us not to let others drown out the still small voice of our souls.

The end of Longmire?

From the A&E Longmire Facebook page

From the A&E Longmire Facebook page

I’ve devoted only one of 645 posts to a television show, Longmire, because the series is exceptional. Walt Longmire, a rural Wyoming sherif, is haunted by his wife’s murder. Each week we see him try to keep peace with his own demons, with his daughter, his employees, and the neighboring Cheyenne reservation, while solving crimes and capturing desperadoes.

Though the show has a solid viewer base, A&E cancelled the series two weeks ago. TV Guide reports that Longmire viewers are too far over the hill. With an average age of 61, apparently we don’t by as much stuff as the sought-after 19-49 year old demographic.

“It was losing money for us,” said one A&E executive. “It’s a business.”  No one thought the decision was based on quality…

All may not be lost. As one of the top 25 television shows of the summer, Warner Brothers is putting together a presentation to other cable networks to continue with a fourth season for Longmire. I hope they succeed so I don’t have to spend my “golden years” recalling the good old days when television was occasionally intelligent.



Thanks to a tip from our niece, Theresa, we’ve discovered a promising mystery show on A&E.  Longmire, based on a series of award winning novels by Chris Johnson, premiered in June, 2012.  Now in its second season, the first years’ shows are available on Netflix.

In the pilot, we find Walt Longmire (played by Australian actor, Robert Taylor), sherif of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, returning to work a year after his wife’s death.  He gets a call from his deputy, Vic (aka Victoria, played by Katee Sackhoff), formerly a Philadelphia homicide detective.  Joining her on a remote ridge, they discover a dead sheep and a dead man, both killed by bullets from an antique Sharps rifle.

The victim is a teacher whose wife thought he was in Laramie.  With more digging and the help of his Cheyenne Indian friend, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), Longmire discovers the dead man was the father of a 16 year old girl whose Cheyenne mother reported her missing three months earlier.  That could present new problems; Longmire isn’t popular on “the Res,” having jailed the tribe’s chief for extortion.  A gun expert warns Longmire that the Sharps rifle can kill a horse at 500 yards.  Such an antique sniper’s weapon would only be used “by a coward or a professional, and both can be very dangerous.”

Longmire echoes the square-jawed defenders of justice from earlier era westerns – he reminds me of the McLoud mysteries that starred Dennis Weaver from 1970-77. This show, like our times, is darker and more full of angst than the earlier series. Look for the show on Monday’s on A&E, or on Netflix.  I plan to.

Homer in Iceland


Readers of this blog know I am a fan of things Icelandic and a fan of The Simpsons.  I was delighted last night to discover a little known saga on the final show of season 24 of our longest running television show.

If I’d only been more active last week on Facebook, where I follow The Simpsons, I would have been able to pass along advanced notice, but sooner or later, “The Saga of Carl Carlson” will show up on Hulu, so here is a brief description to whet your appetite.

When the gang at Moe’s tavern wins the lottery, Carl mysteriously disappears with the loot.  Lenny, Moe and Homer track him to Iceland, his native country since he was adopted by the Carlson clan as a child.  His pursuers learn that his goal is to clear the family name from a stain in a thousand year old saga.

Greed hangs in the balance with male bonding, but at last Homer speaks up in defense of Carl.  There are some great scenes of volcanoes, tiny horses, and northern lights, as well as appearances by Sigur Ros, the internationally known Icelandic band.  They provide the soundtrack as well, and their own take on the theme song.

Reunited at last back at Moe’s, Homer reflects on the strength of male friendship: “We don’t get together to share our feelings, we come here to escape them!”

“The Saga of Carl Carlson.”  Remember that if you are a Simpson’s fan and missed the show.  Check back on Hulu.  This episode is a lot of fun.

Johnny Cash was born this day 81 years ago.

Johnny Cash, who was born February 26, 1932, died a decade ago, a matter of months after the loss of his beloved wife, June Carter Cash.

During his 71 years, the Man in Black won membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and The Gospel Music Hall of Fame. As those credentials suggest, his music spanned the entire spectrum. Most recently, “Girl from the North Country,” his duet with Bob Dylan, was featured on the soundtrack of Silver Linings Playbook.

There’s no way I could objectively pick a “definitive” Johnny Cash song – instead, I’ll post his version of a song that has been one of my favorites since the days when my parents played it when I was a kid.

Remembering Max Headroom, a visionary TV show

max headroom newsweek

In 1984 I joined Intel as their graphic workstations  were shrinking from video arcade sized units to large desktop computers. In my spare time, I sometimes played with a Commodore64 and saved quarters for Space Invaders. The first IBM personal computer did not roll out until the following year.

That was the state of technology when Max Headroom was born.  The creation of a British trio, George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton, Max was an artificially intelligent, disembodied personality who lived in cyberspace before the term was coined.  Computer animation wasn’t advanced enough to portray the computerized look the group was after, so filming Max required a four hour makeup session that actor Matt Frewer described as “a very painful, torturous and disgusting enterprise.”

Rocky Morton described Max as a “very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host,” but he was also “media-wise and gleefully disrespectful,” which endeared him to younger viewers.

Max appeared on American TV in 1987, as a talking head – literally – in a TV newsroom in a dystopian near-future dominated by large corporations and television.  Although he became a spokesman for “The New Coke,” and appeared on Sesame Street, only 13 shows aired.

Part of the problem was that Max was down right irritating, with his visual and vocal stutter and an op-art background that was the best computer animation could do at the time.  Here is a 3o second sample from his Coke commercial:

The fact remains that Max Headroom was decades ahead of his time. In one episode, for instance, terrorists blow up all TV towers in the city, pushing the population to riot when they find they have nothing to watch. In the nick of time, city officials pacify everyone by distributing hand-held video viewers loaded with old reruns.

Remember, this was 1987, when the best technology Hollywood had to offer wasn’t enough to capture the vision of Max’s creators.

So what brought Max Headroom to mind right now?  Beyond Max’s “dystopian future dominated by large corporation and television” that is.  Why today, December 3, 2012?

Yesterday, after  a series of storms, I ventured out to the supermarket and walked in just as they played the Christmas carol holiday song I hate most, “Little Saint Nick,” by the Beach Boys.  I had to compliment the store, however – the sound was just barely audible.  Not loud enough to cause real annoyance, I thought, but enough to keep silence at bay, which might cause people to riot.

That brought Max to mind.  “Ha-ha-ha-happy Ho-ho-holidays, everyone.”

Life: The Movie by Neal Gabler – A Book Review

In his final movie, Being There, 1979, Peter Sellers plays Chance, a gardener with a low IQ, who becomes an advisor to the president and business tycoons. In one iconic scene, Chance is accosted by a knife wielding youth in Washington, DC.  He pulls out his TV remote control and clicks it to change the channel.  He is puzzled when the assailant doesn’t vanish.

Peter Sellers as Chance in “Being There”

This might be the perfect illustration for Neal Gabler’s, Life, The Movie:  How Entertainment Conquered Reality, (2000).  Gabler quotes historian, Daniel Boorstin, who wrote in the early 60’s that, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.”  Done deal, according to Gabler, who calls us, not just a “post-modern culture,” but a “post-reality culture.”

At times I had to keep my own assumptions in check:  subjects like reality and imagination open onto psychological and spiritual vistas beyond the scope of this or any other single book.  But when Gabler cited concrete examples, I found myself nodding my head on almost every page.

“You know how to brood because you have seen Rebel Without a Cause,” Gabler says, quoting cultural analyst, Louis Menand.  “What better model does the world offer?”

Gabler charts the ascendency of entertainment in America from the early 19th century, where the split between high and low culture was fueled by our democratic suspicion of all elites.  Calling someone “aristocratic” was a serious insult.  During the 1840 presidential campaign, when a man called Daniel Webster an aristocrat, he thundered back that he’d grown up in a log cabin, and anyone calling him an aristocrat was “a coward and a liar.”  ( Sound familiar? )

Nathaniel Hawthorn despaired of the fate of serious writers amid the flood of “trash” being published.  One publisher sold four million dime novels in five years, at a time when the US population was only 25 million.

In 1850, 1% of the population owned 50% of the nation’s wealth and held almost all public offices.  Upward mobility was a myth, since 98% of that wealth had been inherited.  While the one-percent held the power, then as now, culture wars raged, sometimes with a violence that we (thankfully) haven’t seen yet.  One night in New York, rival Shakespearean actors, one British and one American, were both scheduled to perform, the former in an uptown theater, the latter downtown.  Police ejected the rabble who had bought tickets solely to heckle the British actor.  A much larger crowd gathered across the street to throw rocks as the “aristocratic” crowd tried to leave.  The militia was called, a riot ensued, and before the night was over, 22 lay dead and more than a hundred wounded.

In the end, it was movies that won the day for popular culture.  The 1% stayed away from the early nickelodeons, which tended to be crowded and crass.  Later, with middle-class patronage, refined behavior became the norm, but the elite have never fared well in the movies, from the Marx Brothers  Night at the Opera, to the present, where a too-expensive suit is always the mark of a villain.

Three Stooges + high society + pies = disaster

As he charts the history of high vs. popular culture, Gabler makes a telling point.  It isn’t just about high brow and low brow – it’s about the ascendency of entertainment.  Being entertained is easy, and the corollary is that when the goal is entertainment, grabbing and holding audience attention is the supreme value, and “things that do not conform – for example, serious literature, serious political debate, serious ideas, serious anything – are more likely to be compromised or marginalized than ever before.”

Life: the Movie is a complex and disturbing book.  Gabler says in the introduction, it is diagnostic and not prescriptive.  To offer easy answers, he says, would be like the movie illusion where we meet the monster in act one and see it vanquished in act three.  Writing 12 years ago, Gabler said:

“One is almost compelled to admit that turning life into escapist entertainment is a perversely ingenious adaptation to the turbulence and tumult of modern existence.  Why worry about the seemingly intractable problems of society when you can simply declare ‘It’s morning in America,” as President Reagan did in his 1984 reelection campaign, and have yourself a long-running Frank Capra movie right down to the aw-shucks hero?”

I read this book after watching Neal Gabler speak on the fictions that lace the current election campaign on Moyers & Company, as I described in the preceding post. Because of it’s scope, I would recommend Life: the Movie only to those who want to delve into this issue in some depth.

But  I would recommend that everyone watch the ongoing conversation this year between Gabler and Moyers.  The confusions and illusions surrounding the political process are more convoluted than when the book was written, but Neal Gabler remains a reliable guide to pulling back the curtains and helping us draw closer to the truth.