Monday, November 26, 2012

Larry Hagman Dies: Remembering the Shot Heard Around the World

Article first published as Larry Hagman Dies: Remembering the Shot Heard Around the World on Blogcritics.

It has been 32 years since the headlines screamed out “Who Shot J.R.?” and created a cultural phenomenon that shook the world. It was an advertising dreamtime for CBS and its Dallas TV series, a nighttime soap opera that was for a time the biggest thing around. Back in 1980 there was no way anyone could have escaped the mania involved with the shooting of one of the nastiest villains ever to appear on television screens.

To his credit Hagman made J.R. more than a villain. In a time when Darth Vader could be seen as cinema’s worst bad guy, there was something very sterile about him, almost robotic. Not so with John Ross Ewing Junior as played by Hagman. He was a complicated fellow, with internal and external conflicts that would rival the title characters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Othello. J.R. loved his mother Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes), had a love-hate relationship with his wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), craved his father Jock’s (Jim Davis) approval, despised his brother Bobby’s (Patrick Duffy) wife Pam (Victoria Principal), and had an equally evil nemesis in Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval). There were plenty of opportunities for dysfunction at every turn at the sprawling Southfork Ranch where the family lived, and the audience loved it for fourteen seasons (1978-1991).

By the time J.R. seemed to get his comeuppance with a bullet that ended season three, the frenzy about learning the name of his assailant reached juggernaut proportions. There were stories in newspapers, magazines, and on TV about it, and the Dallas cast kept the secret extremely well. I remember having friends overseas at the time and even they were caught up in the mania. By the time the shooter was revealed to be his mistress and sister-in-law Kristin Shephard (Mary Crosby), everyone was surprised and delighted. Of course, J.R. made a full recovery and got quickly back to his dastardly ways.

I just typed “Who shot” into Google and the first thing to come up was “Who Shot J.R.?” After 32 years, that is pretty amazing. What followed were 217,000,000 results in three seconds, and it is hard to believe that too. Hagman’s villain did leave his mark on TV because it changed the way many shows operated. It became clear that an ostensibly bad guy could actually be the lead character of a successful TV show. Over the years that tactic was used again – just think of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos and Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey in The Shield as examples.

While I always found Hagman’s portrayal of the evil J.R. quite enjoyable, my favorite memory of him was on a very different show. He played astronaut Tony Nelson in the 1960s comedy I Dream of Jeannie. Tony finds an old bottle when he is stranded on an island and releases a beautiful genie (Barbara Eden), whom he takes home with him when rescued. Hagman made quite an impression in this series as an entirely likeable and funny character, and I think that many people will remember him fondly for this role.

Hagman had been starring in a new version of Dallas that started earlier this year on TNT. Though some of the old characters did return, I must honestly say I never saw an episode, so I cannot comment on it. I know it was renewed for a second season, but I am sure that Hagman’s death will greatly affect the future of that series.

At this point Larry Hagman has a secure place in TV history as one of the best bad guys ever. Rest in peace, Larry Hagman and J.R. Ewing!

Photo credits: extratv.com; nypost.com

Friday, November 23, 2012

NHL Turkey Talk Fails to Gobble Up Lockout

Article first published as NHL Turkey Talk Fails to Gobble Up Lockout on Blogcritics.

The National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association are a bunch of turkeys. Even on Thanksgiving Eve they failed to come up with a solution to the lockout, with the league yet again rejecting the union’s proposal. After the meeting NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, “There was movement by us on some issues, but we’re still far apart.” In other words, once again, the fans are discounted as the lockout has gone on 68 days now.

Union executive director Donald Fehr said of the union’s rejected five year offer, “On the big things, there was no reciprocity,” which means that the two sides cannot agree on how to play nice. Yes, the “big things” are revenue and player contracts, with the $67.25 million salary cap one of the things players want guaranteed. To this Bettman responded that the union “isn’t particularly realistic,” noting that losses in revenue continue to accrue as the lost season continues.

To the average fan none of this matters. Arenas remain dark, players are off to all corners with their skates hanging from a hook in the closet, and time is wasting away. As of now there is a distinct possibility that the December schedule is gone, though the NHL has not announced that officially. The way things are going, the entire season is in serious jeopardy.

So, for me, once a loyal NY Islanders fan, enough is enough. I am so tired of these lockouts in professional sports. The lucrative player contracts, the huge money generated by network deals, and the enormous revenue that is there for both sides is never enough. They are so angry with each other that they are like two kids on a playground who want the same swing, and there is never going to be enough room for both to sit down on it. The problem is that as long as they don’t play nice, the fans suffer.

Today I took my Islanders gear out of the closet, shoved it in a box, and put it out in the trash. I reached this point because I believe that this season is gone, and so too is my allegiance to the team and to the sport. I can honestly live without hockey. My Knicks are playing impressively, the Jets keep me interested – even if they are struggling this year (again) – and before I know it my Mets will begin spring training, so I have plenty to keep me entertained.

So on this Thanksgiving Day I give thanks for seeing the light. I am done with hockey. I am tired of the turkeys on both sides, and I have a Jets football game to watch tonight after the big meal. Goodbye, NHL, and good riddance.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

We Need to Celebrate Thanksgiving After Hurricane Sandy

Article first published as We Need to Celebrate Thanksgiving After Hurricane Sandy on Blogcritics.

Hurricane Sandy caused at least $50 billion worth of damage across the northeast, giving the worst of its wrath to places like New York’s Staten Island, Manhattan, and Long Island. Many people lost everything, with homes washed away or burned to the ground. Others spent days or even weeks without electricity, and even now many of us here still walk around as if in a collective daze. Just a gust of wind gets us nervous, forcing us to anxiously glance up at trees and power lines.

The only thing I can think of that had a similar impact was 9-11-2001, when afterwards the sight of jet planes made me shiver. Even now I pause briefly when I hear the sound of plane engines, unable to shake the memory of that day and, as if I could ever forget, all I need to do is look at the skyline of my city to know it has been changed irrevocably.


While 9/11 had a focused impact on what we called Ground Zero here in New York, Sandy’s path of destruction was a much wider one. It too changed landscapes forever, toppling a devastatingly high number of trees, destroying homes, ripping apart infrastructure, and shattering lives. Just go down to Long Beach or Island Park on Long Island, and you will see the carnage that was left behind, the detritus of lives forever altered by the ferocity of Mother Nature’s seemingly unforgiving hand.

Now in these days after the catastrophic event, it is more important than ever to seek normalcy in things that remind us of better times, happy things, and the people who matter most to us. The “holidays” represent an opportunity to bring some kind of joy to people, to put smiles on faces that have had nothing but the heft of loss and despair to think about.

Many of us have done our part in these last weeks: collecting clothes, cleaning supplies, food, and water; we have also raised money to help those who have nothing left. All of these things are substantial and tangible, but the intangible things matter too at times like these.


The Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City is one thing that has always brought New Yorkers together – millions of them – at one time. The only comparable event is New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the “holidays” and New Year’s Eve the end, and during the time in between this year it will be important to remember to continue to do the job of helping those who lost so much during the hurricane.

Thanksgiving is a time to say “Thank you” as much as possible. People mistakenly think of this as some kind of religious thing, though there is nothing wrong with people who worship their god to give thanks to him/her; however, giving thanks is something that should be done between people as well. We should thank all those first responders who went beyond the call of duty to help during the storm. Just as the firefighters went up the stairs in the Twin Towers on 9/11 while everyone else was coming down, these brave souls ventured out into the storm to do their jobs while everyone else was hunkered down somewhere in a presumably safe place.

After the storm there were so many people who tried to help, some driving all the way to New York from places as far away as Texas and Canada to offer supplies and a helping hand. Neighbors took in neighbors who lost everything, and ever dependable family members did the same. As is usually the case, New Yorkers come together to help during a crisis, and this time is no exception. All of these people deserve a great big hearty “Thank you” for a job well done.

So this Thanksgiving is the start of something: a holiday season unlike any other here in New York since 9/11. All of us who got through the storm relatively unscathed should be thankful for that, and we need to extend that thankfulness outwardly as far as possible. We need to continue to give and to care and do what New Yorkers do best now and in the weeks and months to come.

I remember walking down the street in Queens in the weeks before Christmas after 9/11 and encountering a vast display of lights outside one home. I saw a man coming down a ladder who had just strung even more lights along the roof. I said something to him about it being an amazing array, and he said, “I’ve decorated more than ever this year because I am sending a message out into space. I want everyone to know they can’t keep us New Yorkers down.”

So this year we need to celebrate the holidays with full vim and vigor. We need to do whatever we can to help others, and we do need to send a message of light to permeate the darkness, one that seemed to last forever after the storm for so many. Now it all starts with Thanksgiving, and this year more than ever we need to give thanks and to be thankful, while assisting those who are the most needy. Most importantly, we need to put smiles on those faces that have had nothing to smile about for what seems like such a long time, and that time is now.

Photo Credits: parade-abcnews.com; long beach-nydailynews

Monday, November 19, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall - Last Rat Standing

Article first published as Movie Review: Skyfall - Last Rat Standing on Blogcritics.

In the world of James Bond, super-agent for the British government, we expect girls, guns, and gadgets galore, but what we do not usually expect is great depth. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Jarhead) and actor Daniel Craig are not opposed to this history; rather, they mine it for all it’s worth while extending the metaphor of “license to kill” to encompass so much more. In doing so, Skyfall may just be the best Bond movie ever, or at least one of the top two or three (my favorites being From Russia With Love and Goldfinger). This is because despite all the usual and expected trappings, we get more into Bond’s psyche and history, thus understanding him more than as a caricature of our imaginations.

The story once again takes place in exotic locations – Shanghai, Macau, and a smashing opening sequence in Turkey – but there is also much of the film taking place in England, London specifically, taking us into the Tube and the streets like no Bond has ever done before. When Bond complains about the crowds waiting on the platform to the new and much younger Q (Ben Wishaw), he gets the response that we would expect from a young guy, but also a truism because Bond has probably never been on a train as a passenger in the Underground before.

The story is basically typical Bond, except that in the beginning Bond is out of the game and living the good life, so to speak, playing drinking games with scorpions and spending time with a beautiful woman. Still, he gazes out the window, looks a bit lost, and we imagine he misses the old life. Only by chance does he hear a CNN broadcast about an attack of the MI6 headquarters in London, and thus he is motivated to get back in the action.

When he returns from the “dead” to meet M (Judi Dench) in her London flat, she is not that surprised to see him (even though she has recently written an obituary for him). Bond wants in but he has been out for so long that he must take a series of tests to be qualified as an agent again. Much is made of him being “old” and even M reminds him that he’s been in the game too long, and you get the feeling that time isn’t kind to secret agents either; but Bond wants to avenge the death of fellow Agent Ronson (Bill Buckhurst), who died in Istanbul and lost a list of embedded agents worldwide. Bond must find his killer Patrice (Ola Rapace), retrieve the list, and take him out to settle the score.

This is basically the simple plot, but there is much more going on too. There is a sexy and intelligent female agent Eve (Naoimi Harris), who challenges Bond perhaps as much as Vesper Lynd once did. Besides the new Q there is also Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a member of Parliament who may or may not be trustworthy. He is pressuring M to retire because he feels she bungled the retrieval of the list.

Bond heads to Shanghai to confront Patrice, and then on to Macau where he meets Severine (Berenice Marlohe), who joins the vast army of beautiful but deadly girls Bond takes to bed. The next morning they are off to villain Silva’s island hideaway (a Bond staple, of course). Silva is bleached blond and dentally challenged villain played by Javier Bardem with such glee and gusto that he may be the best Bond bad guy ever, or at least right up there with Gert Frobe’s Goldfinger.

Bond and Silva’s initial confrontation includes a chair, handcuffs, and Silva getting touchy-feely with 007. The scene involves rapid fire dialogue, with Silva revealing he was a former agent and has serious issues with M abandoning him in Hong Kong. He also tries to convince Bond that M has failed him as well, making it seem as if they are brothers with mommy problems. Silva tells Bond of an experiment he did with rats that involves the rats killing one another until just two remain. Silva says that they can either work together or fight until there will be one rat standing.

From this point forward there are too many spoilers that can be revealed, so let it suffice to say that Bond eventually gets back to London and has to find a way to protect M. The tension builds as he must spirit her away from the city to a remote location for the final confrontation, and here we encounter more of Bond’s past, including an old caretaker named Kincaid (Albert Finney) who for Bond is sort of like Alfred the butler to Batman’s Bruce Wayne.

In the final act there is a great battle sequence, as good as anything we have ever seen in a Bond movie. You get all the gunfire, the explosions, and the confrontation between good and evil you will want, but there is also an epiphany for Bond that has been 23 films in the making, and it is a brilliant moment. As he stands on a London rooftop with Union Jacks fluttering in the wind, there is an affirmation for all that Bond has done in the name of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and a promise that he is far from finished.

Those of you who are like me and have seen all of the Bond films (some at least five times) will find many little pleasures in the movie, with some nods to previous films that are all intentional. When Bond opens an old garage and reveals the famous Aston Martin from Goldfinger, you have to get a chill as you make the connection. There is also the collective weight of the character’s experience, so we do think we know Bond, but we have never known him so intimately as we will by the end of this film.

Daniel Craig has really slipped into the character’s skin now, seeming as comfortable there as Sean Connery once was (before he became restless and unhappy with the role). While for me Connery felt just right in the role, the other Bonds never were. Roger Moore was way too glib; George Lazenby was too dull; Timothy Dalton was too stiff, and Pierce Brosnan was way too pretty. Craig is a more physically sculpted Bond, yet he wears a designer suit just as well as Connery. He also is a stronger actor than any of the others, delving into the motivation for Bond’s actions in ways none of them could. Mendes has allowed Craig to make that exploration here, and it pays off very well considering the heft of the storyline.

I really enjoyed every moment of this film and, for a movie coming in at two hours and twenty-three minutes, I can honestly say I never once looked at my watch. I must also note that the theme song “Skyfall,” as performed by Adele, is perhaps the most perfectly suited song in Bond movie history. It is also one terrific song, with Adele’s powerful vocal making it all the more memorable. I think it ranks right up there with Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” and that is indeed the highest praise I can give it.

In the end there is a hint that we should expect more from Mr. Bond, and hopefully with Daniel Craig in the role. He plays the character like he owns it now, and when he says the famous line, “Bond, James Bond,” the line is resonant because you really believe Craig is Bond. Skyfall is truly not just a great Bond movie but also a great film. As you watch it you may be thinking that it is not your father’s Bond movie, but you’ll realize that it is what a Bond movie needs to be now.

Photo Credits: guardian.co.uk

Sunday, November 18, 2012

R. A. Dickey Wins the NL Cy Young Award – The Best Story in Sports This Year

Article first published as R. A. Dickey Wins the NL Cy Young Award – The Best Story in Sports This Year on Blogcritics.

Yes, I am a New York Mets fan, but the fact that R.A. Dickey won the National League Cy Young Award is the best story in sports in 2012. In a year of muck and mire – think Melky Cabrera, Lance Armstrong, the NHL mess, and the New Orleans Saints Bounty Scandal – it is refreshing to have a great story about a good guy who got what he deserved.

Dickey’s story is not just a Mets story, but one for all sports fans, for it transcends team glory and becomes a lesson in perseverance and human dignity. For every kid who has thrown a ball against a wall, for every one who has swung a bat, shot a basket, slapped a puck, or tossed a football and dreamt of being in professional sports, this is a story for you.

Looking at Dickey’s career, one would have to be surprised that he got here. Coming into this year, he had never won more than 11 games in a season (2010) and had a career record of 41-50. This is not the stuff of which dreams are made, but since coming to the Mets Dickey has “found” himself, starting more games each year, pitching more innings, and developing that knuckleball with consistency that has helped him find success.

In the three seasons he has been with the Mets he has become the ace of the staff and has endeared himself to the fans.When Dickey won the award, he was as always humble and grateful. The thing that struck me was that he said it was for the fans. He recognized that in a difficult season with not much going for it, the fans needed something for which to cheer. That something was Dickey, as he became the first Met to win 20 games since 1990 and only the third player on the team to win the Cy Young (after Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden). Of course, Dickey said, “To have my name linked to Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden is quite humbling.” Would we expect anything less?

Dickey beat out Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Gio Gonzalez of the Washington Nationals with 209 votes. Clearly, the 20 wins were not the only thing that put him on top. He had a 2.73 ERA and led the league in innings pitched, strikeouts, shutouts, and complete games. He also most definitely led the league in personality, a shiningly bright example of everything good about the game.
He is also a knuckleballer, and that seems rather unique these days, a throwback to old fashioned baseball as much as the high stockings he wears in on the field. He has the old-time aura about him, as if he could have been a contemporary of Cy Young or that he could have struck out Mel Ott or Ty Cobb just as easily as he could Ryan Howard or Matt Kemp.

Dickey’s story is so inspiring because he defied the odds. He had the pinball journey from team to team, from majors to minors, and then he finally came to the Mets in the minors, pitched very well, and got the team to notice. He came up in 2010 and his knuckleball excited the fans, inspired his teammates, and earned him 11 wins. Dickey was on his way after that, but the 20-6 Cy Young season still comes out of nowhere, and it is a shot in the arm to Mets fans who suffered through another dismal year, one in which Johan Santana threw the team’s first no-hitter and then fell apart, as did the season after that. The one shining light was Dickey, and fans appreciate that and he definitely knows it.

Off the field, Dickey is a simple family man from Nashville. What some people might not know is that last year Dickey climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to help Bombay Teen Challenge, a charity that assists girls in danger of abuse in Mumbai, India. He wrote of this journey in The New York Times, Dickey also wrote a book (along with writer Wayne Coffey) – Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball – and this great story is told by a man who has climbed the mountain both literally and figuratively. One can see the beauty of this story, the metaphor of mountain climbing not just to help others but as a summary of his whole pitching career. The struggle, the moving upward against all odds, the reaching the top, and the reward being not just the stunning view but the fact that he got there.

Dickey deserves this award and he says it is for the Mets fans. Yes, we are long suffering, but stories like Dickey’s not only make us happy but are also why we remain loyal fans. Our team can lose, and boy they know how to do that, but there is a human connection for us. Over the years it hasn’t just been about 1969, 1973, and 1986 (when the team was in the World Series), but about all those years in between when names like Kranepool, Throneberry, Seaver, Koosman, Grote, Swoboda, Gooden, Strawberry, Carter, Knight, Hernandez, Franco (John), Piazza, Reyes, Knight, Dickey (and too many others to name here) were not just players but guys we liked, ones who seemed like our family and friends.

Dickey climbed the mountain, got to the top, and we are all cheering him. In a tough year in sports, it is the feel good story of the year. We need more of that kind of thing for sure, but for now let Dickey bask in the glow of his accomplishment because he did it the old-fashioned way: He earned it.

Photo Credits: Dickey - NY Daily News; Kilimanjaro-telegraph.co.uk

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Real Pain in the Gas

Article first published as A Real Pain in the Gas on Blogcritics.

With gas lines considerably eased by rationing based on odd and even license plate numbers, the “shortage” of gasoline is basically over here in New York City and Long Island. Now, as we think about the insanity of those two weeks after Hurricane Sandy had battered our area and beat us into submission, it is fitting to take a look back at some stories that took place during that time. For me one that stood out was the tale of “Napoleon,” the guy who pumps gas in my local station.

Napoleon is not his real name. I think it is Amir, Jamal, or Hank, but I am not sure. This is because Napoleon wears jackets with different names sewn in a circle over his right breast. The reason I call him Napoleon is because he always has his right hand stuffed inside the jacket (holding his wad of money) the way the diminutive French emperor was depicted in paintings. This gas attendant also is short in stature, so the name seemed fitting enough to me.

Anyway, before the gas crisis, Napoleon always had a benevolent script that he followed. This basically involved a few lines of dialogue. “Good morning, my friend,” was his first line. The second was “Fill it up for you?” And the third line, after filling my tank and taking my money, was “Thank you for your tip.” Of course, the first time he said this, I was not prepared to tip him. The next time he washed my windshield without my asking him to do it, so I felt inclined to give him a little something.

My father taught me to always appreciate service, no matter how insignificant it might seem to someone else. I saw my Dad tip the guy in McDonald’s, the elevator operator, the doorman, and so on. He never missed the opportunity to recognize someone’s work and praise him or her for a job well done. With that in mind, I became a regular at this gas station and gave Napoleon a tip each time I gassed up.

So along came the gas shortage. This was a difficult experience for everyone. I had heard horror stories of gasoline attendants barking orders at customers, no doubt enjoying their unexpected and new found power. I tried to avoid sitting on line for four or more hours as everyone else was doing, and I passed my regular station with the line going on forever, but I noticed that Napoleon was allowing certain customers to come in the back way and get gas without waiting on line.

Since my tank was almost empty I was desperate, so I parked my car, walked up to him, and wished him a good morning. I immediately saw something askew in his face, as if he had become a different person. On this morning he was wearing his “Hank” jacket, and his right hand was stuck inside it as he pumped gas with his left one. I asked, “Is it possible for me to come in the back way and get a few gallons?”

Napoleon pulled out that right hand filled with cash and jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “Get to the back of the line!” At that moment an older gentleman walked up to him with a plastic red gas can, and Napoleon screamed, “This line is not for you; go on the other side.” I stared at him and saw his crazed expression and realized he had become the embodiment of the name I had given him.

Without saying a word I turned, got back in my car, and drove away. A day later the odd-even rationing started, and I ended up getting gas in a different station. By the time I needed gas again today, the lines were gone and I pulled right up to the pump where Napoleon stood with his hand inside his Amir jacket.

Now he was once again on script, friendly as ever, saying his lines as he always had done. Gone was the little tyrant with fiery eyes. When I handed him my money, he said, “Thank you for your tip.” Napoleon looked down at his hand and saw that there was only the money for the gas. He glanced up at me as if he had lost his puppy and asked, “My friend, did you forget something?”

I started my car, shifted into drive, and said, “I left your tip at the back of the line.” I drove away, enjoying the smile on my face in the rearview mirror. I knew I would have to find a new gas station, but I didn’t care really. Ostensibly, I was condemning Napoleon to an Elba of my own imagination, and after all the worry about getting gas over those frenzied days, I felt completely justified in doing so. So I bid adieu to Hank, Jamal, Amir or whatever was his name, but in reality he turned out to be a real pain in the gas.

Now I figure the money I save on his tips can go towards a lottery ticket each week. As they say here in New York, “Hey, you never know.”

Photo Credit: the100.ru

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Christmas Songs on the Radio on Veteran’s Day – Stop the Insanity!

Article first published as Christmas Songs on the Radio on Veteran’s Day – Stop the Insanity! on Blogcritics.

I heard my first Christmas song of the season yesterday morning on the radio. Every year I always mark that occasion as a reminder that I have lots of things to get done, but then I realized that this was Veteran’s Day. Christmas music on Veteran’s Day? There is something wrong with this picture to be sure.
In recent years radio stations here in New York have been going with an “all Christmas music” format, usually starting around Thanksgiving. The theory goes that once the turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie have been ingested, that people are ready for Black Friday (dubbed by retailers as the day after Thanksgiving) to start their Christmas shopping. Ostensibly, people want to get into their cars and hear the songs on the radio or as they walk around the mall. I have come to accept that over time, but now this is getting ridiculous.

It is bad enough that Christmas decorations have been in the stores since late September. It is a little unsettling to see Halloween decorations set up right next to Christmas ones. I don’t know about you, but Santa and Frosty the Snowman just don’t go with witches, skeletons, and jack-o-lanterns. Yes, it perturbs me to see this, but it also is difficult when you have a little kid with you. What messages are being sent into a three year old’s brain when he sees these things?

This meshing of holidays, not to mention the almost complete disregard for Thanksgiving as its own holiday, has been bothersome for a long time to me. Trying to get any Thanksgiving decorations is always a problem. Stuck between the retailers’ dream holidays of Halloween and Christmas, the most you can sometimes find is a pilgrim boy or girl if you’re lucky.

I guess we cannot blame retailers who see this as their biggest time of the year, but it is vexing. So when I am sitting on a line waiting for gas and going around the radio channels, I don’t like hearing that Christmas music so early. As I heard the lyrics, “It’s that time of year/when the world falls in love….” I felt like screaming, “No, it’s not that time of year yet!”

So I am officially bypassing 103.1 FM until after Thanksgiving. I am sure some other stations may start ramming Christmas songs down our throats soon. Maybe I am sounding a bit like Scrooge here, but I want the season to actually be in season. For me that means at least wait until after Thanksgiving to decorate for Christmas and play the music. Even then, by the time we actually get to Christmas Eve, I have heard “Holly, Jolly Christmas” enough times to make my head explode. How’s that for getting into the Christmas spirit? It gets me thinking that Scrooge may have had a point after all. Bah, humbug indeed!

Photo Credit: dreamstime.com

Monday, November 12, 2012

LIPA Management Must Go - Still No Power for Many on Long Island

Article first published as LIPA Management Must Go – Still No Power For Many on Long Island on Blogcritics.

There is no other way to say this: the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) is a disgrace. This has nothing to do with those hardworking people up on utility poles; these guys are breaking their backs all over the island. It has to do with management and the mishandling of the greatest disaster to ever hit this area. There is no question that LIPA has bungled this recovery process, and Governor Andrew Cuomo better act quickly and decisively because people are still suffering.

Now going into the fifteenth day since Hurricane Sandy, there are about 90,000 homes still without power on Long Island. These people have been without electricity, which means they are also without heat and hot water. As the cold weather has come into the region, the fear of bursting pipes is all too real. There is also the question of this being a human rights issue. The quality of life for these people has hit rock bottom, and no one seems to be doing anything to speed the process.

To confound the situation even further, a number of the affected homes must undergo “inspection” before LIPA can even begin repairs. This is due to safety considerations or salt water damage, but the fact is that this red tape scenario only lengthens the process. Since there are not enough inspectors to go around, people are sitting in the dark under mountains of blankets, waiting for the system that has obviously failed them to get things right.

Many politicians and pundits are outraged by LIPA’s inability to get the job done. While Governor Cuomo has been harsh in his criticism of the authority, nothing seems to jumpstart their efforts. There has been talk by some of bringing in the Army or National Guard to take over operation of LIPA, but nothing is happening and people need action right now.

My thought is that LIPA’s management must be immediately removed and replaced by people who know how to get the job done. This could mean staff from another agency (like New Jersey’s PSEG that seems to be getting a much better job done) or from another country. There also has to be a long term plan to work on updating an antiquated power grid that is extremely vulnerable on Long Island.

In all the time since Hurricane Irene (August 2011) LIPA has done nothing in the way of proactively preparing for the next big storm; therefore, we must assume it will learn nothing from this event and go about business as usual. We cannot and must not allow that to happen.

People in the New York area, particularly Long Islanders, have been suffering these past two weeks.
There were two major storms, power outages, school closings, food shortages, and long gas lines. You must forgive some people if they are wondering what is coming next? A plague of locusts or pestilence (we’ve already had the plague of darkness)?

Still, despite all this suffering, there are people with a sense of humor. Civility is not in short supply, and many people have gone out of their way to help neighbors and friends. There have been large collections of food, water, and clothing for people in the flood ravaged areas of Breezy Point, Staten Island, Coney Island, and the Rockaways. The magnanimous nature of people is not being damaged despite the devastating physical impact of the storm on our area.



As this video (with apologies to Taylor Swift) clearly shows, we have to find a bright light in the darkness, and that is inherently within the people who live here. They are close to broken, many hungry, cold, and angry, but they are hanging on. But how long can they? It is time for the government to step in, to stop the travesty of so many still waiting for the light, and end people’s misery. Take over LIPA now, Mr. Cuomo, before it is too late.

Photo Credit: libn.com

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Confessions of a Gasoholic

Article first published as Confessions of a Gasoholic on Blogcritics.

For those of you who have no trouble getting gasoline where you live, I am happy for you. Here in New York we are all running on empty, unless we are willing to waiting in ridiculously long lines to get gas. The crisis started with Hurricane Sandy and was exacerbated by the freak snowstorm that dumped insult and injury on us while we were down. Tankers couldn’t get into port, so gasoline trucks couldn’t get gas; stations had no power to pump gas even if there was gas, and so on. It was enough to make any rational person go bonkers.

Okay, I must confess – I am a gasoholic. I am in detox right now, shivering me timbers in the limbo world of having a needle on empty. I crave gas like other people may crave spirits or chocolate or shopping. “Drive ‘til I drop” used to be my motto. Now I am walking everywhere, and it is really an eye opener for an addict like I am.

Before all this happened, I never thought anything about knocking back ten gallons. Hey, I was thirsty and gas was freely available. I’d belly up to the pump, have my fill, and then go on my merry way. I liked going wherever I wanted to go, no matter how far away it was. Daytrip to Montauk to sit on the beach? No problem. Drive upstate to see fall foliage? Hey, I’m on my way.

Yes, this is a particularly hazardous gas consumption lifestyle, I know. I didn’t care though. Want a hotdog? Why not drive down to Coney Island to get the real deal? Who cares about gas? Even as the price went up, I suppose I thought of it as a top-shelf mentality. A drinker can either have the cheap stuff or the top brand, right? I felt the same way. Gas at $3.99 a gallon was just a luxury tax of sorts. I wanted the luxury of driving wherever I wanted to go whenever I wanted to get there.

Now, courtesy of this gasoline crisis here in New York, I am a walker, and I see lots of other walkers. I am part of the club that says “I will not sit in a line for gas for four hours.” I refuse to waste my time doing that, so I walk. All the things I may have done by car are now done on foot – grocery store, post office, bank, Starbucks, and more. I am becoming a walking machine and, quite truthfully, I like it. It feels good and, as the air gets colder now, it is invigorating.

I guess I am also getting back to my New York City roots. I used to take a subway or bus wherever I had to go, and then walk the rest of the way. There is great freedom in going somewhere, getting off the train or bus, and not having to worry about where to park. Parking is expensive in New York anyway, almost worse than the price of that elixir of life for my car that is so hard to come by now.

So I have confessed and repented, and now I am not turning back. Oh, wait, I just got a text from my sister – ten minute wait at a gas station on her corner. Have to run. Forget what I said; I am back in the saddle again. Petroleum martini please, stirred not shaken, and heavy on the octane. I am ready to roll.

Photo credit: tumblr.com

Monday, November 5, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Car Wars - A New Hope?

Article first published as Hurricane Sandy: Car Wars - A New Hope? on Blogcritics.

If you are reading this from the friendly confines of a dry, heated home, thousands of miles away from New York, with a car fully gassed up in the driveway, and a grocery store full of food not too far away, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Well, the answer is that it is getting ugly; people are starting to break. Besides not having electricity, which basically controls everything in a modern home, people are faced with the inability to get gasoline, which means they are trapped in those very areas that are powerless and unable to seek out that restaurant or store in a powered area.

Last night the gasoline station on my corner had gas. There was a line of cars running along the two streets that connect at that corner, with literally hundreds of people taking a chance on getting some of the precious liquid. There was also a separate queue of people carrying red gas cans, desperate for gas to take home to fuel their generators. The police were there to keep order, but you could see the frenzy in people’s faces and knew this was bordering on spinning out of control.

Right now, with an impending work week starting on Monday, November 5, 2012, the gasoline shortage threatens all of us who need to get to our jobs. We still have only one station opened in our area, and it is also interesting that the station cannot open without the line already established at the curb. How is this happening? The answer is that it could be an inside job, with attendants calling out to inform people of impending deliveries. It also is possible that someone sees a delivery truck, pulls up to the curb, and starts the phone chain. Before you can say, “Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope,” the line is a few miles long.

It is getting cold here in New York, so not only do people without power have to deal with the inconvenience of no appliances, TV, and hot water, but now that is compounded by having no heat. There is the possibility also of pipes bursting, and this only enhances the anxiety everyone is experiencing.

The new hope that people are getting comes from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been relentless with his drive to get help for New Yorkers. In his last press conference, the governor explained how the Coast Guard had shut down the ports due to the flooding, and that this caused gasoline to be delayed from reaching our stations. It doesn’t make a difference to anyone why it has happened, because we still need gas, but Cuomo indicated that now the ports were opening, gasoline would be delivered to stations, and the situation should begin easing next week.

For now the site of long lines at the gas pumps only adds to our frustration and anger with our utilities, the government, and the oil industry. It seems no one in these entities can think ahead, to deal with a situation proactively. On Long Island for example, it is well known that trees are the major cause of problems with power lines. LIPA never seems to do anything before a storm to trim or even remove trees that could cause problems later on. It is always after the fact, and now there are people close to being without power for a week being told that they might not get power until next weekend.

Things are getting better in some areas of New York, and Manhattan has its power back again. But the reality is that things are still a good deal worse for us, and the end for many is still not in sight. There are many (who like myself are unable or unwilling to sit on lines for six hours to get gas) who are going to be down to running the car on gas fumes pretty soon, and then there is the possibility of not being able to get to work. All of this is a domino effect that is hurting our city every day that this crisis goes on.

So we wait and hope that the governor is right, but as of now getting gasoline here in New York is an arduous and unpleasant task. People are angry, sometimes coming to blows, and though many try for civility, tempers flare more easily than ever before. Drivers are weary and, when another driver attempts to cut a line, you can imagine that a battle will understandably erupt. We have been through so much already, and the prevailing question is when are things going to get better?

We all need an answer soon because of not only the cold weather but also dwindling spirits. On this day when we set the clocks back one hour, it is clear we are running out of time.

Photo Credit: money.cnn.com

Sunday, November 4, 2012

NYC Marathon Canceled: What Took Them So Long?

Article first published as NYC Marathon Canceled: What Took Them So Long? on Blogcritics.

With a city still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Mike Bloomberg continued to push for the NYC Marathon to go on as scheduled this Sunday, November 4, 2012. Only when inundated by innumerable complaints about the insanity of such an event taking place in a ravaged environment as is the case in our city right now, did the Mayor finally back down.

His office released this statement: “We have decided to cancel the NYC marathon. The New York Road Runners will have additional information in days ahead for participants.” This announcement is completely devoid of emotion. I suppose we should expect no less from a man who talks the same way about a crisis as he does above a positive situation. He makes Ben Stein seem animated in comparison.

The NYC Marathon is a fantastic sporting event. Runners go through all five boroughs of this great city, and the visual aesthetics are usually a delight as cameras pick up the essence of the town, the trees changing color, and the spectators cheering on the participants. Unfortunately, this year would have been a spectacle that could not help but capture the detritus of Hurricane Sandy, the devastation clearly still visible as it will be for weeks, months and, in some cases, years to come.

The race starts in Staten Island at the entrance to the Verrazano Bridge. Perhaps no borough has been hit harder than SI, with people living without power, streets flooded out, and many homes destroyed. How could the Mayor be so insensitive as to want the race to go on, especially with it starting there?
Each borough has had its difficulties. Brooklyn’s Coney Island has been hard hit, with long lines of people waiting at MCU Park (where the Brooklyn Cyclones play) to register with FEMA. Here the inhabitants of the famed NY Aquarium had to be evacuated because the influx of contaminated seawater not surprisingly threatened their survival. In Queens the community of Breezy Point was devastated by a flood and then a fire that wiped out between 80 to 100 homes. In the Bronx City Island residents were crushed by the storm, many flooded out and still without power. Perhaps most notably, Manhattan, the borough where most of the race takes place, still has people without power, flooded streets and subway stations, and people wandering around like bands of nomads seeking sustenance and assistance.

If the race had gone forward, it would have been a hard slap in the face of New Yorkers. Can you imagine anyone pushing to do something similar in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina? It is unfathomable how the Mayor and his team did not cancel it immediately, but it is now done and we have to be thankful for that.

The NYC Marathon is a showcase for New York and for forty years it has been something that all New Yorkers could enjoy. It brought people here from all over the world for a premier sporting event, and it rightly has been celebrated as an exciting moment annually in our town. While those who trained for it are no doubt disappointed, they must understand that the suffering all around them would have inhibited their ability to enjoy being participants. The race will be on again next year, and then we can show the world how well we have bounced back from this disaster.

Until then, the Mayor should harness all his resources to assist in the effort to get the power on again, aid in recovery efforts, and help New Yorkers get back to normal as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Mr. Bloomberg enjoys showmanship and events like the marathon provide him with a venue for that; however, the people yelled loudly and clearly, letting him know they wanted leadership and not showmanship. New Yorkers spoke up for their fellow residents who are still suffering, and the Mayor backed down. Way to go, New York!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Brings Out the Best and Worst in Us

Article first published as Hurricane Sandy Brings Out the Best and Worst in Us on Blogcritics.

There is no telling how long the pain and suffering from Hurricane Sandy will last. I heard on the radio this morning that the cost of this hurricane would be around $50 billion, and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has just pledged $100 million to help the victims of the storm in our state. Well, that sounded great, but then I saw a report about a woman in Island Park, NY (southern shore community on Long Island), who still has no power, is living in filth, and hasn’t seen assistance from anyone in the government or anyone else yet.

I think this is the nature of this disaster, and it is playing out on our television screens (if we have electric power). It seems as if it is going to get very ugly before it gets any better, kind of like watching a marathon of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, except in that case it never gets better. That Island Park woman’s story can be multiplied by hundreds of thousands. I know people are suffering all over the world, but perhaps here we have a microcosm of a suffering that defines the greatest fears of modern western society, one that is incomprehensible to us because it is not supposed to happen here.

How dependent are we New Yorkers (I’ll be specific simply because this is my own situation) on an infrastructure that we take for granted? We soldier on each day expecting that trains will run, traffic on bridges will flow freely, tunnels will be open, planes will take off and land, and Starbucks will have the coffee hot and waiting for us. When these things do not happen all at once, there is a collective culture shock that borders on mass hysteria. Add to this a city that is flooded, powerless, and hungry, and you have a miasma that borders on the cinematic wastelands we have become inured to through endless films and TV shows.

In my house we went without power and that meant no heat, no hot water, no Internet or TV. It was like the end of the world as we knew it. As we sat around with lanterns and flashlights, we took turns telling ghost stories (since it was Halloween after all). I also explained that this was how most people lived one hundred years ago, and the concept seemed exciting to the kids for a short time. My 11 year old became tired of the novelty very quickly. She is a child of technology and does not know life without iEverything. She stared at the useless Wii console in the darkness of the room, seeming as if her best friend had gone to the great beyond. I can’t tell you how many times I was told that “This hurricane thing is so boring.”

That first night in the darkness it seemed as if we were travelers in a spaceship that had lost power. We sat in darkness, hearing the wind howl outside fiercely, as if the ship were tumbling out of control through space. The trees bashed the house like a meteor shower, and the rain pelted our windows like fire from alien crafts. Somehow we made it through the tumultuous night, and in the morning it felt like we had crashed on an alien world. We ventured outside, opening our front door as if it were a hatch on that spacecraft. We walked over debris, large branches, and scattered Halloween scarecrows and witches like astronauts crossing a new terrain.

Everyone was looking around at this “new” world, with toppled trees, some crushing roof tops, others blocking streets and dangling dangerous wires across sidewalks. It did seem as if the old world we knew had been irrevocably changed by the force of a hand more powerful than anyone could have imagined.

The initial awe was soon replaced by stark reality. We had no power, and in this world we live in power is everything. The life we have created for ourselves is inextricably linked with being able to fire-up the whole array of tools we use in daily life. The batteries were low in our cell phones, laptop, lanterns, and flashlights. We had replacement batteries for the latter, but the phones and laptops were going to expire without the ability to recharge. Plus all the other things we need power for: the microwave, the stove, the heat, the hot water, the toaster, etc., sat uselessly in a house that now seemed less like home and more like a place where we crashed to escape the storm.

As the days passed, it seemed people got more desperate. Once our local Starbucks gained power, I saw people lining up outside with laptops in their hands. Inside customers sat on anything and everything, including all over the floor. The baristas could barely keep up with the orders, for people were looking for sustenance for not only body but also for the mind. They were going stir-crazy in homes with no connection to the world we have created, one of the expected instantaneous connection that without which we are lost children.

Even today, now the fifth day of the ordeal, I saw this vapid expression on people’s faces. They seem less like deer in the headlights but more like people who have lost their memories, wandering past darkened storefronts as if it has been so long they cannot remember what it was like to shop. A few fortunate shop owners have posted signs “We Have Power” outside their windows and doors, and people flock there even if they can only walk into an establishment that is illuminated. Other stores have signs that read “Free Charging” or “We Have Wi-Fi,” and that brings the people in to simple Mom and Pop stores they never would have entered before. The local library had up a sign reading “We Have Power and Wi-Fi,” and there was a long queue of people waiting for the doors to open, with laptops tucked under their arms and kids holding their hands.

Amidst all the turmoil, there are examples of people helping others. I know of someone who carried meals to an octogenarian stuck on the 18th floor of her building. Some neighbors came around with chainsaws to help others get trees off lawns, houses, and garages. Others took red gas cans with them to seek out the precious liquid for their confined neighbors’ generators. All of this is comforting in this ugly reality of the storm’s aftermath.

But there is a decidedly dark side revealing itself daily. People’s tempers are getting shorter, the fuses are burning low, and an explosion is only seconds away. There are fights erupting on long lines for gas stations, where people are getting desperate for even a few gallons. Going around my neighborhood, I only saw one gas station open today, and the line had to be miles long. I have heard stories of friends and relatives waiting on line for hours, only to have an NYPD officer walk up to the car and tell them, “Sorry, they’re out of gas.” This is more than a tempest in a teapot; it is a recipe for a raging storm after the calm.

I have done lots of walking these last days, mostly to save gas. I find a store here to get a loaf of bread, or there to get a carton of milk or a dozen eggs. Sometimes a store just opens and I go in and can see the water beading on frozen dinners in the freezer, which turns me away because they probably were defrosted days ago and are in the process of refreezing.

Behind our local supermarket, there was a dumpster the size of a truck filled to the brim with discarded food from the store. Need proof that the feared zombie apocalypse has indeed gripped this part of the world? Well, earlier today I saw people actually jumping in and digging out food, and some of them were sitting on the sidewalk, noshing on their pickings like those living dead ghouls gnawing on someone’s tibia.

New York is a great place to live, but one of the problems is that we are surrounded by water. This proximity is a great attraction to tourists, who love to take the Circle Line tour around the island. We have the Statue of Liberty to visit, great beaches, and many opportunities for recreation in an urban environment.

This wonderful asset is also a great liability because, as the old saying goes, “water will find its own level.” Unfortunately, when we have a storm of this magnitude, that means millions of gallons of it pouring into subways, streets, and places like the Ground Zero site.

It is a tough time to be a New Yorker now, but as the world learned after September 11, 2001, we are not easily beaten. In true New York spirit we get up, we dust ourselves off, and we raise our fists and say we’re ready. Yes, we will get through this. Governor Cuomo has shown great leadership, and his press conferences have been helpful. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also shown leadership, but his deadpan delivery and monotone speaking voice is such that the animated sign language interpreters standing next to him at his press conferences have made his lack of public speaking skills painfully obvious.

New Yorkers will get through this. It will still be a rough time ahead, and some people are still without power and may be for many days to come. If you can help, please donate as much as you can. Just as people helped after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti, we need people to help now. You can help those affected by Hurricane Sandy by visiting www.redcross.org, going to iTunes.com/redcross, texting REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10, or calling 1-800-435-7669. Please remember that woman in Island Park, and so many more like her, and make a difference now. Thank you!

Photo credits: FDR-arstechnica.com; subway-ibtimes.com