I Like ‘Em! (These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things)

One thing for certain about this little old world of ours is that it holds an overwhelming amount of content geared for human discovery and consumption. Travel destinations, food stuffs, movies, automobiles, political causes, you name it . . . there’s always something for us to get excited about and sink our teeth into, if we are so inclined. Which, no doubt, nearly every one of us is. Myself included.

This story, then, shall be a look at a few things that have rung my bell quite nicely as of late. In the upcoming paragraphs I’ll expend wordage upon this motley group: a television series (Ozark), cheddar cheese, and the song (Texas Sun) that has captivated me more than any other recording so far during pandemic-plagued 2020. And I’ll be glad to hear about what has been tickling your fancies recently. So, please don’t be shy about letting me know.

Let’s start with Ozark, the Netflix series whose third season was unleashed earlier this year. My wife and I watched all three seasons over the past few months, taking a two or three week breather between each arc. (The fourth and final season is on the drawing board, but who knows when filming will be able to begin.) We became hooked almost from the get-go, as have millions around the globe. Not so one of my cousins though. When I mentioned Ozark to her during a phone conversation not long ago, she said she’d seen a few minutes of the show but that’s about all. “I don’t want to watch all those sleazy people” was more or less how she summed up her feelings about Ozark.

Sleazy? Indeed! That word damn well fully applies to many of the show’s characters. It barely indicates, though, the depths of their polluted natures.

In Ozark we learn the tale of a married couple, Marty and Wendy Byrde (played, respectively, by Jason Bateman and Laura Linney) that is ordered by a Mexican drug cartel to abandon their home in Chicago and relocate, with their two kids, to central Missouri’s Lake Of The Ozarks. LOTO, an enormous man-made lake and a popular vacation spot, is surrounded by rural territory populated with all sorts of unsavory individuals.

Why did the cartel so demand? Because Marty, a buttoned-down financial wizard who years before had agreed, foolishly, to become one of the cartel’s primary money launderers, through no fault of his own got on the cartel’s very wrong side. Via astonishingly quick thinking and quick talking, he avoided execution by convincing the cartel’s top brass that he could make and launder enormous monies for them in, of all places, the Lake Of The Ozarks. Turns out he was pretty right as rain, though establishing the mechanisms that enable that to happen send Marty and his family down hellish paths that in a million years they otherwise wouldn’t have imagined could emerge. And their ordeals gradually bring out the worst in Marty, and the scarily worst in Wendy.

I can see the show’s writers rubbing their hands gleefully as they came up with plot lines that continuously elevate the dangers and other mega-problems that Marty and Wendy must confront. What a series! Prominent cast members regularly meet their demise. Dirty-dealing and treachery reign supreme. Ozark isn’t for everybody, as my cousin demonstrates, but, if you’re not already a fan, it just might be for you.

Now on to cheese. I’ve been a cheese lover for many moons, and cheddar is one of my favorite types. But not the mild kind. I like cheddar that is bold, aggressive and memorable. Those are qualities, by the way, that yours truly sorely lacks.

But it never has been easy for picky me to find cheddars that I deem outstanding. Vermont, for instance, is famed for its cheddars, but I’ve yet to taste a Vermont cheddar that truly knocks my socks off. Thankfully, about four years ago I stumbled upon Old Croc cheddar, which is produced in Australia. The brand’s extra sharp version pleases me deeply. As does a very recent discovery of mine: Sartori’s aged and sharp cheddar. Heavy with elevated flavor, and salty, it is the first American-made cheddar to receive my seal of approval. Take a bow, state of Wisconsin! Pieces of Old Croc and/or Sartori have been my go-to lunch of late. They’re delicious as is, and even better when atop Triscuit crackers.

I wouldn’t dare eat those cheddars while listening to Texas Sun, however. That’s because the process of munching away would interfere with my ability to absorb this oh-so-fine song, which was released in February. A collaboration between vocalist Leon Bridges, who often makes soul music in the vein of Sam Cooke, and indie rock band Khruangbin, Texas Sun is a meditation on longing and lust. It is gently powered by a sweet and steady beat, and wafts upon the wings of dreamy guitar lines. I’ve heard this song many times on various radio stations, which indicates to me that it has found its way into the hearts of numerous music lovers and radio programmers. The best thing for me now to do is to get out of the way and allow you to listen. Here is Texas Sun:

TV, I Bow Before Thee!

Like everyone, I’m anxiously awaiting the day when a vaccine is created that puts an end to the pandemic that has sent us into the twilight zone. It will be fabulous to ditch the f*cking masks and gloves that make us look like weirdo safe crackers. Better yet, getting together with friends and relatives will be back on our agendas, and the outlook will be fair or better for those businesses that were able to survive the dark times. Until that day arrives though, the overall picture, I believe, will continue to be anything but pretty.

Fortunately, life has been okay for me and my wife Sandy since coronavirus struck our part of the USA in March (we live near Philadelphia). Nowhere near as okay as it used to be, but okay enough. You adapt as best you can, after all, and try to deal with reality decently.

Among other things, the pandemic has forced me to make major adjustments to time allocation, as many of what had been my normal, much-enjoyed activities are only memories right now. That’s because, for health and safety reasons, my volunteer jobs were suspended and most of the usual outside-the-home entertainment choices that Sandy and I indulged in (socializing, cinemas, music venues, restaurants, museums) are unavailable, for now anyway.

So, how have I, a lazy septuagenarian, been filling the 16 or so hours of freed-up time each week? Well, for one thing, the living room sofa and I see more of each other than ever before. Upon its sensuous cushions I while away the time, alternating between scratching my balls and twirling the five strands of hair that remain on the crown of my head. Yes, I’m proud to report that my fellas are hanging in there okay, considering my advanced age, and that the strands of hair look damn studly. Thanks for asking!

Now, the scratching and twirling account for about nine of the 16 hours, and largely are confined to mornings and afternoons. What about the other seven hours? In a word, television. You see, in early April I really began to miss the kicks I’d been getting for ages at concerts, cinemas, etc. This ol’ boy needed to get entertainment from somewhere. And I wanted to do that with Sandy, my partner in kicks-experiencing for lo these many years. Television was the obvious outlet.

It’s not that I’m a stranger to the tube. In fact, I once was a highly dedicated viewer. But that ended about 12 years ago. Since then I’ve watched TV mostly in shortish sessions and mostly late at night, compulsively and expertly flipping channels. That pattern now has expanded. Yeah, I’ve retained the late night regimen. But, in addition, several evenings a week at around 8:30 or 9:00, Sandy and I head upstairs to our bedroom, which contains the bigger and better of the two TV sets in our home. We then proceed to lose ourselves for an hour or more. Doing so is nothing new for Sandy, who always has racked up admirable numbers of evening hours in front of the home screen. But, as noted, it’s been more than a while for me.

And you know what? I love it! Laughing, gasping, oohing and aahing together has been fun. Together, of course, is the operative word.

And what have we watched? Good movies, such as The Two Popes, The Wizard Of Oz, Saving Mr. Banks,  and Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. And a not-so-good one, Roma, which won an Oscar as 2018’s best foreign language film but which left me blank.

And entertaining series, two of them (Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm) on network and premium-channel television. The others (Sherlock; Lilyhammer; After Life) were on Netflix, which has become one of my greatest pals. Man, we tore through the Netflix series zestfully, usually chowing down two episodes per sitting (no binge-watching for us, though. Maybe Sandy has the energy for that, but I don’t). And we’ve only scratched the surface of what the Netflix library holds.

Yes, without a doubt we’ll keep watching TV together till outside-the-house entertainment opens up, and probably not stop even then. I’ve learned that there’s a whole lot to be said for TV togetherness. I used to know that, but had forgotten. So, at least one positive development has come out of the pandemic.

Girls and boys, in conclusion let me say this: The last few months have been disorienting to most, probably all, of us. What adjustments have you needed to make as a result of coronavirus’ far reach? How do you spend the extra hours that you might have found yourself with? Finally, which shows and movies have you been watching on TV? I’d be glad to hear your thoughts about any or all of these items.

Tomatoes, Beer And The Kominsky Method: A Sexy Story

Over the phone I could feel my editor Edgar Reewright’s blood pressure galloping towards very unhealthy levels. I could sense that the veins in his forehead were bulging more than his famously small pecker ever has. And, almost needless to say, I heard him roar loud and clear.

What the hell’s wrong with you, Neil?” Edgar screamed at me. “Why do you keep doing this? Is it so hard to come up with story ideas whose components go together like hats and gloves? It isn’t. In fact, it should be easy!”

“Neil, an essay about tomatoes, beer and The Kominsky Method just won’t cut it. They’ve got nothing in common, and I say that even though I don’t have a clue about who or what Kominsky is. If you want to write this story, then write it. But edit it yourself. Oh, where did I go wrong to end up with you as a client? If you weren’t a reliable source of income I’d drop you faster than my first three wives dumped me!”

“For crying out loud, Edgar, calm down,” I said. “What’s wrong with this story idea? The answer is nothing. I like writing about things that give me a buzz, and this story will be about the ones that have excited me the most lately. Not only that, somewhere in the piece I’ll ask the readers to let me know what’s been ringing their bells. They’re a discerning lot and will help to expand my horizons.”

“Horizons, huh?” Edgar snickered. “You’re old, Neil, remember? Your horizons are too stiff and achy to expand more than an inch.”

“Maybe so, Edgar,” I said, “but that inch is more than your famously small pecker is capable of expanding.” Edgar didn’t respond to that cutting remark.

“Hear me out, Edgar,” I continued a few moments later. “Let’s start with tomatoes. Have you ever tasted little yellow ones? I never paid any attention to them until a few months ago, when they caught my eye at the supermarket. Now I’m hooked on them. “Comets” is the brand name of the ones I buy, and they’re damn fine. Sweet as sugar, with just the right amount of tang. They make any salad better.”

Edgar didn’t say a word.

“And how about the beers that Magic Hat Brewing Company, in Vermont, turns out?” I continued. “Magic is right. The brewers there are magicians, Edgar. Magicians! I have two Magic Hat variety packs at home. And every one of the brews in those boxes is absolutely delicious. I’ve been drinking their beers for years, but didn’t know about the vastness of the Magic Hat repertoire until the variety packs entered my life not long ago. That brewery rules!”

Once again, Edgar remained silent. What was wrong?

“Edgar, this conversation isn’t going well, so I think we should say our goodbyes soon. Then I’ll start writing the story. But I can’t leave without recommending The Kominsky Method to you. It’s a television series, a comedy/drama done charmingly and with a sharp wit. Netflix carries it. Edgar, I don’t turn on the TV too often, so I’m glad I decided to give Kominsky a try. Do you like Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin? I do. They’re the leads in the show and are fabulous. So is everyone else in the cast. Watching Douglas and Arkin try to deal with the slings and arrows that life throws at them in their old age is a blast, and touching too.”

I paused. Then I said, “Edgar, you haven’t talked in three minutes. I don’t hear you breathing. Speak to me, Edgar. Speak to me! Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here,” Edgar, sounding sad, said ten seconds later. “I heard you talking all along, but nothing registered. I was deep in thought. Neil, how do you know about the size of my manhood? I thought that nobody knows except for my wife Loretta and my three exes.”

“Edgar, you’re kidding me, right? Everybody has heard about your short sword. Your third ex-wife went into all the details in a post on her Facebook page last week. She mocked you real good. In no time the article took off. You’re famous, Edgar. Maybe you don’t want to be, but you are.”

What? I’m going to sue her. I’ll have my day in court. I’ll tell the world that size isn’t everything. It’s quality that counts, Neil, not length! Quality is my middle name, in bed and, as you know, as an editor. I’ve got to go now. Good luck with your story. You’re on your own with it. Hopefully your next idea will be better than this one.”

Just before Edgar pressed the red button on his cell phone to end our call, I heard him yelling to his wife: “Loretta, I’ve been defamed! I need top-tier representation. What’s that lawyer’s name? You know who I mean. He used to star in porno films before he went to law school and became an attorney. Wait, I’ve got it. Big Dick Johnson! Please get him on the phone for me!”

(What’s been ringing your bells lately? Comments about that, and about Edgar or anything else, are welcomed. Ditto for sharing this story.)

Are We Living In Television’s Golden Age? I Think So. Do You?

Over the last year or two I’ve mentioned to a few people that American television’s Golden Age — by which I mean its greatest era in terms of scripted series — is now. In my humble opinion, needless to say. I said it just last week to my pal Gene as we were munching on our lunches in a café near to where I lived, many moons ago, in Philadelphia’s University City section.

Yes, I know that the Golden Age title long ago was bestowed by some on 1950s American television, because it was in that decade that the small screen came of age in the USA. But let’s face it — when it comes to quality, 1950s American TV doesn’t deserve to wear the crown. And speaking of America, it’s that country’s products that I plan to talk about in this article, since I know not much more than diddly-squat about television’s offerings from elsewhere.

Getting back to Gene and me: Our conversation, as always, was all over the map. Part of the time we talked about television, about series from TV’s earlyish days, such as Have Gun Will Travel and The Twilight Zone. They, and plenty of other shows from the 1950s and 60s, not to mention less-ancient decades, are in repeats on an assortment of networks. And some of those series hold up. The Twilght Zone, for instance, will mess with your mind and emotions nearly as much now as it did when it was originally on the air (1959-1964). Overall, though, a pretty high percentage of elderly shows don’t seem so good anymore.

But Gene and I didn’t have too much to say about the tube’s post-2000 scripted fare. That’s partly because neither of us, especially me, has seen a lot of it. I used to watch quite a few series. But, for reasons I’m not too sure of, that mode of behavior became very sporadic starting in the early aughts. When Sex And the City hung up its high heels in 2004, followed by NYPD Blue’s closure the following year, my series-watching came almost to a halt.

But despite that, I’ll assert once again that we are in the midst of American television’s greatest era. (And let’s define that era as starting around 15 years ago). I’m certain of this because I keep up with reviews, and I’ve never read as many good reviews of scripted shows as I have since the early 2000s. It’s often one rave after another. Far more excellent shows have been birthed in the aughts than in the 30 years that preceded them, substantially because there are way more networks and other outlets (Netflix, Hulu et al) airing original material than ever before. Take these examples of series from our present century: The Wire, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock and Homeland. From what I gather, hordes of people would say this about each: “It’s the best series of all-time.”

And I’m certain because my wife Sandy clues me in on the programs that she watches. Currently she’s in love with, among others, This Is Us, Elementary, black-ish, Better Things, I’m Dying Up Here, Modern Family and Homeland. And she swooned over The Middle, The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire and many more whose plugs have been pulled.

And how about these high-quality programs that are churning out new episodes and which Sandy hasn’t (yet) added to her menu? — Killing Eve, Atlanta, Westworld, Dear White People, The Chi . . . the list goes on for distances too lengthy to travel. Maybe that’s why I watch so few of them: There’s just so much good stuff, the multitude of options is intimidating.

It’s not that I don’t turn on the television. I do, though usually for only an hour and a half late at night when my usual pattern is to flip from sports show to talk show to news show to whatever. And it’s not that I haven’t seen any scripted series at all. I have. In the last three years, for instance, I’ve watched various episodes of five: Blue Bloods, Modern Family, Everybody Hates Chris, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Lopez. The first two, which are still in production, I catch now and then in repeats. Ditto for EHC, which was cancelled in 2009. And I wouldn’t have missed even one installment of Curb’s latest arc (from 2017). Curb Your Enthusiasm is hilarious.

As for Lopez, I was one of about eight people who knew of its existence. I liked its adorably quirky characters and went into a mild depression when I learned a few months ago that it wouldn’t be returning for season three. I hope that George Lopez reads this article and, out of the goodness of his heart, decides to cast me in whatever his next series might be.

Of all the many, many series that I could be tuning into, how’d I come up with those five, only two of which (Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm) not only began in our Golden Era but meet its high creativity standards? Well, it’s just one of those things. So, yeah, I need to up my series-watching game. I mean, I’m not an anti-TV snob. These days, sadly though, I allot too many hours to contemplating my navel. You would too if yours alternated every 30 minutes between being an innie and an outie, as mine does. Very distressing. Yes, spending more of his time with an increased number of primo TV series would be a far better way for what passes as a grown man to behave.

Readers, am I right or wrong about American television’s Golden Age? What current shows do you like, and why? Which of them do you consider to be top-notch? Which are guilty pleasures? What are the best series of the last 15 years? Or of any time? Etc., etc.

And let’s open all of the above questions to series that are not of American origin. What’s the state of affairs, TV-wise, in countries outside of the States?

I’m awaiting your responses eagerly. This, for me, is a learning exercise. One’s never too old to learn, after all. And one’s never too old to grab hold of good entertainment.

The End Of My Long Affair (With Turner Classic Movies)

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 I became a film buff of sorts. It all happened very naturally and wasn’t anything I thought about. There were fewer options for movie lovers back then in Philadelphia than there are today, but there were enough. In addition to first-run theaters, Philadelphia had various venues that specialized in lesser-known flicks — some were foreign, some not. I had never before seen many foreign or cult movies and found myself liking them. My cinematic diet, consisting of the mainstream, the obscure, the subtitled, has remained consistent ever since.

My wife Sandy, whom I met in 1990, is a big movie fan too. Each year she and I leave the house 40 or more times to take in movies. Chez us, together we catch an additional 25 or so flicks on the tube. We like doing things together. For a span of eight years in my married life though, I also viewed hundreds of films on my own. I watched them on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. I became addicted to TCM, but I’m not anymore. Here’s the story:

In 2006 my thoughts and activities were less-focused than they should have been. My father had died the previous year and I think my restlessness was partly connected to his passing. He had lived with Sandy and me, and we spent a lot of time caring for him. With him gone I had trouble finding ways to fill up my days fully.

I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.
I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.

Sandy had been suggesting I might do well to add some prime time television viewing to my regimen as one way to get my mind off of things. But I couldn’t decide what to watch, didn’t think I’d  be happy devoting a bunch of hours to the small screen. Somehow though, I heard the call of TCM. Our meeting must have been preordained. And so a few months into 2006 I began descending the stairs on many evenings from our kitchen to finished basement, a place I hadn’t visited all that much since moving into our house the year before. In the basement’s den area sat an old bulky TV that had traveled from our previous home.

The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. I took this photo recently.
The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. This is a recent photo.

I began the affair gingerly. The first TCM movie I watched in 2006 was The Letter, a Bette Davis melodrama. It was pretty good. “OK, let’s try another,” I thought, and not too many days later Tender Mercies passed before my eyes. I had seen it when it came out in 1983 but didn’t recall it too clearly. I gave it two thumbs up in 2006.

Turner Classic Movies is quite the amazing broadcaster. Movies in their unedited versions 24 hours a day with no commercial interruptions. TCM’s core is English-speaking productions from the 1930s through 70s. Once in awhile the station throws in a foreign movie or a silent or a post-1970s film such as Tender Mercies. Despite the station’s name, however, hardly every TCM movie is a classic. There are plenty of clunkers. On many occasions I turned off a movie within its first 30 minutes and made the long climb upstairs.

And yet, duds or not, I became very comfortable sitting in a recliner in front of the basement TV. By 2006’s end I had watched 61 movies on TCM. The next year’s number was 103, and the year after that I reached the 87 mark,  my two highest totals. Since then the counts have descended, from 64 in 2009 to seven in 2014. I’ve managed merely one movie so far in 2015, The Great Santini, a good one that seemed a tad better to me when it made its initial rounds in 1983.

Why the dramatic falloff? Well, after cutting a slew of notches into my movie-watching belt I discovered that my TCM motor was running out of gas. Eventually, many of the movies I contemplated watching didn’t seem, upon investigation, good enough to spend time with. And the slim pickings of films from 1980 onward began to bother me a little.

But I tip my hat to Turner Classic Movies without hesitation. You see, to Sandy’s amazement somehow I’d made it into my late 50s and early 60s without having witnessed On The Waterfront, West Side Story, Singin’ In The Rain, From Here To Eternity and others that the general populace would deem to be true classic films. TCM rectified that situation. Contrarian that I sometimes am though, Singin’ was the only one of those that I felt was completely worthy of wearing a crown. And, besides Singin’, at least 15 more offerings that I first caught on TCM are now on my list of elite movies: In A Lonely Place, Odd Man Out, The Misfits, Darling, Sweet Smell Of Success, Hud . . .

Hey TCM. you’re a great station and I thank you for all the entertaining hours that you bestowed on me. Add some movies from the current century and maybe once again you and I will become pals.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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