Is Darth Vader The Most Famous Character Created For Cinema?

vaderTen or so years ago I heard radio host Max Kellerman ask this question on the air, and I’ve pondered it off and on since: What is the most famous character created solely for motion pictures?

It has to be his evil highness, Lord Vader. That’s what Kellerman reasoned then, and I still can’t think of a better answer.

“Created solely for motion pictures” excludes a host of household names: Superman and the rest of the long-underwear brigade, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Vito Corleone, Flash Gordon, Scarlett O’Hara, James Bond, Mary Poppins, The Lone Ranger, Hannibal Lecter, Harry Potter, Zorro, Snow White, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy, to name a few. (Technically speaking, Vader first appeared in the novel Star Wars, six months before the film. But even more technically speaking, that book was based on the film’s screenplay.)

Other characters that were (to my knowledge) born on the silver screen, like the Terminator, Jack Sparrow, Freddie Krueger, Indiana Jones, “Dirty” Harry, or Rocky Balboa, certainly are all recognizable, but are they iconic – and if so, in the same way as Vader’s metal-faced, black-clad figure?

Then there are cinephile characters like Travis Bickle, Annie Hall, Jeffrey Lebowski, Norman Bates, Charles Foster Kane, The Man With No Name, and Tyler Durden. But while those names are known to even casual movie buffs, I’d wager the general populace can’t name their respective films.

E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, could have given Vader a run for his money. When I was a kid, you couldn’t escape the slimy little slug. He was just everywhere: toys, commercials, fast food tie-ins. At one point the all-time highest grossing movie (not adjusted for inflation), E.T. never became what Star Wars did: A blockbuster series that spawned a merchandising revolution. And although the character appealed to young children and sentimental adults, it couldn’t capture long term interest among the broad, zeitgeist-pushing middle swath of pre-teens, adolescents, young adults, and – most importantly – geeks. E.T. fizzled out.

We also have King Kong and Godzilla. Famous in their day, for sure. You’d have to go back to the ’30s and ’60s, respectively, and gauge these behemoths’ Q-scores against Vader’s today. I can’t say for sure, but something tells me the Force is with Vader.

That leaves one character created in moving pictures (that I can think of) that can beat out big bad Lord Vader. That character is Mickey Mouse, who dropped in on our lives in a 1929 animated short. (Bugs Bunny, too, first appeared in animation, but it’s difficult to argue that the wascally wabbit comes close to Mickey’s worldwide recognition.) He is probably more famous than Darth Vader, but giving the nod to Mickey feels like a technicality. If we require that the debut must have been a feature-length film, Mickey is out.

But even if Vader is second to Mickey Mouse, that is no small feat, considering the character’s limits and nature. His face is hidden most of the time and we cannot see his mouth move when he speaks. He is a ruthless dictator, rather than a noble hero or cute anthropomorphic rodent. In fact Vader is so vile that we see him order the destruction of a peaceful planet, duel and kill an elderly man (his old friend, in fact), murder well-meaning generals for their incompetence, slice off his son’s hand, and throw his boss down an elevator shaft and into deep space. (Some people might have empathized with that last act.) Ultimately we are told that not even Darth Vader is beyond redemption, but the world clearly fell in love with his unabashedly evil side. Deeper minds than mine can divine what that says about humanity.

Darth Vader – cinema’s most famous character. Or have I left anyone out? You tell me.

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Travelin’ Playlist Essentials – Come Fly With Me

frank

“Weather-wise, it’s such a lovely day / Just say the words and we’ll beat the birds back to Acapulco Bay.” Is there a more exuberant song about jet age travel than “Come Fly With Me”? Was there a better voice to convey this exuberance than Frank Sinatra’s? Dean Martin may have had the more gifted singing voice, and Sammy Davis Jr. may have been a more versatile all-around talent, but in my opinion something intangible dwelled in Frank Sinatra’s early singing that gave him an edge over his contemporaries. Call it attitude or unbridled emotion if you will. It’s the kind of essence that pushed the envelope for other, more limited vocalists, like Joe Strummer or Van Morrison. It no doubt helped make Sinatra a performer for the ages, which makes this song one of the most important pieces of recorded music.

Released in 1958 on the LP of the same title, the song captures both Sinatra at the peak of his abilities and popularity, and the nascent wonders of commercial aviation. The LP itself was ahead of its time in that it was something of a concept album. The cover art is a painting of a sharply dressed Sinatra about to board a TWA plane (and probably convincing an out-of-frame female, whose hand only we can see, to join him). The title track kicks off a series of tunes about destinations ranging from Vermont to Capri to Hawaii. But it is the song “Come Fly With Me” that has proved most enduring, as recognizable today as any of the standards or failed show tunes Sinatra would claim as his own, or for that matter any hit from ensuing wave of rock music that would render Sinatra and his Rat Pack cohorts yesterday’s news. With its impatiently lilting and brassy intro, gliding orchestration, and most importantly Sinatra’s talent for knowing when to croon and when to bellow, the song evokes all of the adventure of air travel (with none of the hassles, of course).

Jet travel in the ’50s was expensive, time-consuming, and fraught with accidents, but you’d never know it from the way Sinatra invites us to Bombay and Peru as if they were around the corner. It’s not a complicated song by any means, and the bridge and final verses are repeated to close it out, but it’s worth it for us to hear Sinatra return to the whimsical, cascading line “You may hear angels cheer, ’cause we’re together.”

Born 100 years ago this weekend in Hoboken, New Jersey, Sinatra in 1958 still had more memorable songs to record, but it wouldn’t be long before his voice became strained and lost some of its range and gusto. As a result he would often sound like the caricatured version of himself many of us remember, doo-be-dooing lyrics and sounding as though he were mailing in live performances, as booze and cigarettes took their toll. But “Come Fly With Me” was before all of that and before a lot of other changes that would demystify Sinatra and his friends, science and progress, politics, and an era viewed from afar as unrealistically comfortable and fanciful. Nevertheless, great music stands on its own, and “Come Fly With Me” not only still stands, but still soars.

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The Colorful Carts Of Sicily

IMG_20150606_162121643The goal, upon returning to the endlessly fascinating island of Sicily, was to see firsthand a Sicilian cart. On my first full day there, this mission was accomplished. It was on the breathtaking hillside town of Erice. Having roamed its warren of narrow stone streets, enjoyed a lunchtime pizza, and not coincidentally purchased a number of souvenir toy carts for friends and family back home, I wandered into a quiet botanical garden. It sat on the edge of the mountain with its own amazing views of the Tyrrhenian Sea to one side, and miles of pastoral landscape to the other. A Norman-era castle sits astride the mountain edge; its walls provides tourists with vista photo-ops as it protects them from the steep drop-off. The castle was built on the site of the Greeks’ Temple of Venus, which had been pilfered and moved to Rome by the Romans in an effort to sway her favor and seize momentum against Carthage. And before that there was a temple to the fertility goddess Potnia, belonging to the Elymians, Greek Sicily’s west coast predecessors.

As I approached the castle I saw in front of its high wall a man, an accordion, a horse…and a cart. A carretto – heck, let’s go with the Sicilian pronunciation and call it a carrettu. It was a multicolored, multi-paneled wooden trailer attached to the horse, and its panels featured various medieval battle scenes. It looked, as most carretti (plural) do, almost like an ancient comic book was plastered onto it. It was clearly for show, as the man played accordion and sang for euros next to it.

I tried asking him some questions about it, but the gentleman was preoccupied with entertaining tourists and had little to say. When I asked him to take my picture in front of his cart, he put a Sicilian-style cap on my head that I’m embarrassed to say was emblazoned with an image and logo from The Godfather. He whistled the theme song as he snapped some photos. A bit disappointed, I gave him a euro for his troubles, realizing this, and not cart history, was his livelihood. Nevertheless, I’d gotten some closeups of my own.

IMG_20150606_162238356I had been to Sicily once before but had never seen nor heard of these mysterious objects until I read John Keahey’s travelogue Seeking Sicily. In it, he describes the carretti, and one is pictured in black and white. A Google image search brought them roaring to life for me. It was but a week or two later when I saw a large model of a Sicilian cart on display in an Italian grocery store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It could be bought for a price of several hundred dollars, I was told. The hell with that, I said to myself. I’ll go back to Sicily and see the real thing.

IMG_20150606_162246043IMG_20150606_162228901Of course, carts had been in use on the island since at least Greek times, but it was in the 19th century that the carretti, with their uniquely flamboyant designs, came into wide use. As vehicles they were employed to transport agricultural products across difficult roads. As works of art, they might depict anything from peaceful saints to violent Crusades. Their construction was the result of specialized labor, as different tradesmen worked on the wood parts (walnut, beech, and ash), ironwork, assembly, and painting. The evocative artwork extended beyond the cart’s walls and onto the wheels, their spokes, all the way down to the axle. Even the horses were draped with elaborate finery and their heads adorned with bright, colorful plumes. The carretti were obviously attempting religious or historical storytelling in addition to transporting goods, but they simultaneously were wheeled exercises in peacocking, like a low rider with Daytons and hydraulics.

Today most carts appear as curiosities or decorative pieces, and the number of artisans with knowledge of the craft of cart making has dwindled to a handful. Toy souvenirs can be found in gift shops all over the island, but the carts themselves are becoming endangered species. (Sicily has two museums dedicated to preserving their history.) On my trip I would encounter one other cart, parked horseless outside a gelateria in Catania. It sat forlornly on busy Via Plebescito, its shafts pointed down toward the gutter as cars and scooters whizzed by indifferently. Perhaps in its day it had been affixed to a mighty beast, which pulled its payload of lemons or eggplants from one dusty hamlet to another. Whatever it might have been through, it had survived, and like all carretti it still had a story to tell.

 

Posted in Italy, Sicily, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

5 Reasons Why Sports Are More Important Than Politics

Are you tired of being told that the sports you watch are inconsequential and that athletes are overpaid? Sick of being lectured for not paying sufficient attention to the “issues that matter”? Good news: By ignoring the sad displays of the political class in favor of enjoying athletic competition, you’re doing yourself – and society – a huge favor. Read on.

nixon_ap_328_6051. In sports, what you see is what you get. On the basketball floor, a point guard is going to do his job: Setting up the offense, finding the open man, and shooting when open. The other players, down to the 12th man, have their assignments and they do them. Roles are defined, and everybody gets to work. The results – a point differential, usually – speak for themselves and are unambiguous.

Not so with politics. When they’re not turning around and doing the opposite of what they promised voters they’d do, politicians are busy running for some new job instead of doing the current one. Politicians are also the biggest poseurs on the planet; they cannot help wanting to be all things to all people in their desperate gambits for approval. Would Shaquille O’Neal lobby his coach to play point guard? No, but Hillary Clinton could not resist pretending to be Jewish and a Yankees fan immediately after moving to New York and launching her senate campaign. And as for the results, let’s just say political point-scoring is an unpalatable spectacle. With the exception of actual, up-or-down voting (you know, doing their jobs), the “political game” is a subjective, narcissistic bout of mud-slinging with no definitive winners or losers. That is, except for taxpayers.

obama-superbowl-champs-01-horizontal-large-gallery2. Athletes are far more respected for their profession than are politicians. This may seem unfair at first, since no Olympic javelin thrower ever had to make the decision to launch missiles. Certainly, playing in games is of far less consequence than some of the issues confronting legislators and executives. If the argument could end there, then politicians would deserve having all those middle schools named after them. But it doesn’t end there, does it?

As pointed out above, politicians lose points because they’re uncomfortable in their own skin, they fight dirty, and they’re slippery and disingenuous. Their profession not only does not forbid outright sleaziness, it encourages it. It’s bad enough that they will do or say anything for a vote, but worse still is that politicians are slaves to the corporate money trough. We could drag out the Clintons again as an example, but there’s nothing unique about the ethical gymnastics they’ve performed to build their fortune. If you wrote a big enough check for a congressman, there’s very little he won’t say or do for it. Does that remind you of another timeless profession?

Athletes get into their fare share of scandals, but the fact remains that as a whole their profession is held in higher regard by the general public. If you don’t believe me, look at the parades that are thrown for World Series winners, or welcome-home rallies that are held at airports for also-rans. Even fans of rival teams can have grudging respect for players they “hate,” because their field of battle holds more honor than any collusive two-party election debate.

If you require further evidence, ask yourself why presidents invite championship teams to the White House for photo ops, visit historic stadiums, or seek celebrity athlete endorsements. Clearly they’re hoping that that winning popularity will rub off just a little. Now ask yourself if Lebron James cares whether the governor of Ohio is watching him play from the stands. And as for retired athletes that go into politics (think Jim Bunning, Steve Largent, or Bill Bradley), that’s a sure fire way to alienate a good portion of your fan base.

bearspackers3. Sports cultivate healthy geographic rivalries, while politics promote ugly divisions. When people root for teams to beat other teams, they’re engaging in a (generally) healthy form of tribalism that’s been embedded in our brains since we were cavemen. Green Bay fans “hate” Chicago, and Boston fans “hate” New York. Even fan bases that are relatively close (think: Duke-North Carolina) can’t help but get swept up in border rivalries. These rivalries promote civic, national, or cultural pride, wherein even down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit can have something to cheer about.

The political class, meanwhile, finds “issues” that divide society based on religion, personal taste, sex, race, money, and the like, and exploit them in the crassest possible fashion – all in the name of career advancement. When you see two groups shouting each other down at some silly protest, stop and think for a moment who might stand to gain from such an ugly display. Politicians love divisions, because it whips people into frenzies, mobilizes them to vote or finance campaigns, and – worst of all – distracts them from the very real evils being perpetrated in government…usually by politicians themselves. Neat trick, no?

We can’t totally blame politicians for this, however, since we’re the ones allowing ourselves to be manipulated. Next time you feel like taking sides and screaming your head off about something, do it at a ball park. They have beer. And nachos.

belikemike4. Watching athletics can encourage athletic activity.  No, watching sports is not tantamount to participating in them, but at least it can encourage some of us to get out and get the blood pumping. When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to shoot hoops after watching Michael Jordan. Younger fans will emulate their sports heroes, and many will go on to their own heroics, whether it’s at the high school level, the Olympics, or just in the backyard.

Watching politicians “compete” may also encourage athletic activity, if you find yourself so disgusted that you flip off the TV and go for a nice, mind-cleansing run. Unfortunately, it more frequently encourages bitter arguments and overall anger and negativity.

Bad News5. The sports pages tell the story of mankind’s accomplishments. The front pages tell the story of mankind’s folly. Okay, so nobody reads actual newspapers, but you get what I mean. The stories about athletic competition are most often joyous and inspiring. A new 100-meter dash record is set, or a grand slam is hit, or an aging tennis player beats the odds and hangs on through the semifinals before going down swinging. Their accomplishments are amazing physical feats, poetry in motion deserving of the accolades we shower upon them. No, they’re not curing cancer (or maybe they are, when they run for the cure). But they’re showing us what’s possible, and what’s good, and what’s fun in life.

Now flip to the front pages. Besides sensational sex or death headlines, it’s story after story about what our leaders failed to do or did wrong. A bill got stuck in committee. A representative took payoffs. A senator ignored hard evidence and voted on superstition. A governor had an affair. A president wiretapped a nation. It’s one pathetic disappointment after another. Sure, every once in a great while, something momentous occurs, but that’s more often than not a) because the public got fed up and demanded it and b) in spite of the efforts of a lot of politicians.

Spectator sports are entertainment, and society cannot get by on entertainment alone. But I submit to you that the athletic entertainment we consume propels us to greater things, without the help (or obstruction) of government. When we enjoy the feats of athletes, we believe that we, too, can rise to our own challenges, fight the good fight, accept the final score, and shake hands with our opponents when it’s all said and done.

Posted in History, Humor, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dave And Me

Adam with Letterman

“May we see your photos please?” Yours truly, left, and David Letterman, December 1998.

In the Summer of 1998, my dad and I packed our bags, hopped into his maroon Ford Taurus, and drove from Madison, Wisconsin to New York so that I could interview for an internship with the Late Show With David Letterman. Technically, we never drove into New York City. Rather, we stayed in Tarrytown, a Hudson River town less than an hour outside of the Big Apple. It was more practical and less stressful to park the car, stay at a nice hotel, and take the train into town for the three-hour-long interview. So off we went, through the soul-crushingly flat lands of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, then the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, until we finally crossed the Tappan Zee bridge (twice; my fault as my dad will tell you) and got to Tarrytown. We had driven straight through, about 24 hours.

My interview was the next morning, and it was indeed about three hours, as I was warned. It was a whirlwind: First with Janice Penino, who was the internship coordinator, and then with each department: Writing, Production, Talent, Research, Audience, Website, Music, and Mailroom are what I remember. Then a closing interview with Janice again, and suddenly I was out the door on 53rd Street. My dad, who had never been to New York City and rightly thought it smelled like urine, spent the time walking Central Park. It was the closest he could get to nature, I suppose. Anyway, we hopped back on MetroNorth, found our car, and hit the road back to Wisconsin.

Why not fly? I’m not sure, except that gas was then about $1.06 per gallon. There were definitely some contentious moments battling road-hogging semis in the middle of the night in Pennsylvania on zero sleep. But we made it.

The call came a couple of weeks later. “The talent department would like to hire you,” Ms. Penino said in her rapid-fire New York accent. I was on a land line at the offices of Oscar Mayer Foods, where I was working that summer on the Wienermobile Hotline. That makes me sound like some kind of Commissioner Gordon for ground and encased meats, but in fact I was answering 800-number calls for people interested in auditioning their kids for an Oscar Mayer commercial. The Wienermobile, which my cousin Amanda was at that moment driving with a team of coworkers across the USA, was making stops at state fairs, ballparks, zoos, and the like. (Every single relative of mine in Madison has worked at Oscar Mayer at some time or another.) Oscar Mayer products advertised the Wienermobile tour along with the 800 number for more information. I told customers where and when the giant phallic automobile would be in their neck of the woods. “Rainier Stadium,” I’d tell the Seattle-Tacoma callers, for instance. “Navy Pier,” for the Chicagoans, with the dates of course. This was not before the internet, but certainly before its ubiquity. Sometimes PETA would call, pretending to be regular folk so they could show up to protest. We knew it was PETA because we had caller ID, and besides, they always sounded so forced in their role-playing. But we played along and told them because what’s so bad about a little free publicity? I’d heard that once a PETA protester arrived at an event dressed in a plush pig outfit, climbed to the top of the Wienermobile, and got stuck head-first in the sunroof, his feet dangling above it, his torso trapped within. The news crews were all there to capture it. Now that’s publicity you can’t buy.

Anyway, there I was at Oscar Mayer, accepting the internship for Late Show. With David Letterman. Yes, I put a full stop in the title for effect. I’d been dreaming of getting this internship for several months, and had already applied for summer but did not get an interview. When I called to ask if I could reapply for fall, Janice said sure, “but don’t put a Top Ten list in your application this time.” Touché. My plan was either to do a late night internship in New York or Los Angeles, or study abroad in Sydney. I figured Sydney would be good for me since it was as far from UW-Eau Claire as I could get and still be in school. But it never came to that, or perhaps I’d be there now, surfing on a crocodile right by the opera house.

I readily accepted the unpaid internship, worked out the academic credit with my school, and got my finances in order for a semester in New York. (Read: I saved and borrowed a lot of money.) All of the accepted interns were given each others’ contact information so we could work out potential roommate arrangements. Two other interns, Pete and Brian, got a place with me in what was advertised as a brand new loft building in Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights is an old, brownstone neighborhood, and it’s where the Huxtables lived on TV. It’s what you imagined yourself living in if you were from Wisconsin and thought some day you’d be in New York. You’d have a stoop, and a bay window, and there’d be a bunch of colorful characters hanging out nearby, including maybe a large feathery bird that sang.

Arriving at the address weeks later, we all discovered that the “loft” was in a renovated warehouse at 200 Tillary Street. Today it’s probably a luxury condo, but then it was just another building near the projects, a beer wholesaler, and the exit ramp for the expressway. It wasn’t in Brooklyn Heights. It wasn’t, so far as I could tell, in any neighborhood, just a crossroads of urban eyesores, all the things about big cities that no one wants to see or deal with, with the exception of the beer wholesaler. Our apartment was a big open floor plan, no private bedrooms, painted in weird Miami Vice-style pastels and with giant, warehouse windows. Sometimes the shower worked, sometimes it shut off mid-stream. At one point, management crammed an overflow tenant into our unit, which led to a major argument and a slight rent reduction. Pete was from Oregon, Brian was from Indiana, and Owen the overflow tenant from England, and we were all experiencing our first lesson in New York apartment living: There’s no looking out for the little guy.

I had thought the lack of privacy would be an issue, but we were so exhausted from the long hours on our feet at Letterman that there was very little time for anything but sleep when we were there. My first work day, I came home and collapsed on the bed. Interning in the talent department meant going on a lot of runs, often for dressing room accoutrements for talk guests. We also had to update show calendars constantly, run copies of news articles and entertainment gossip pages that were faxed in, record and dub segments, answer phones, get lunches for staff, and be available to other departments when needed. There was hardly any down time, but I didn’t care. I had so much fun seeing how the show was put together, the “bitch work” didn’t phase me one bit. It was better than any course in college I’d taken.

There were priceless payoffs, of course. Twice each intern got to sit in the control room and watch the show being directed, which is a fascinating experience for anyone interested in TV production. We constantly bumped into celebrities; I remember briefly meeting Cal Ripken, Jr., Melanie Griffith, Joaquin Phoenix, and Cyndi Lauper, off the top of my head. Dave and Steve Martin pre-taped a classic bit called “Dave and Steve’s Gay Vacation.” Jim Carrey and Jerry Lawler showed up to film a scene for Man On The Moon. We helped put together the  prime time 5th Anniversary Special that November. I got to sit in on a private performance by Elvis Costello, quite by accident. We were surrounded by and working near the show’s legendary supporting cast, people like Paul Shaffer, Biff Henderson, Alan Kalter, Rupert Jee, and Larry “Bud” Melman. Sometimes writers would cast interns as extras in comedy bits, meaning our parents might see us on TV, and we’d get paid the AFTRA union rate on top of it. Zoe Friedman, who booked comics, used to call me into her office to ask my opinion of submitted stand up tapes of comedians trying to get on the show. The timing of the internship coincided with the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which provided plenty of amazing nightly material and surreal New York Post headlines in the morning. It was an electric, high-energy, high-pressure place, and it was totally unpredictable. You might get yelled at for failing to transfer a call from a publicist, or you might be given a Late Show sweatshirt for running out to pick up something for Dave or the staff. You never knew when you woke up how the day would go, but you knew you wouldn’t be bored.

Not every intern who goes through this crucible comes out satisfied. Some seemed indifferent; others were downright disappointed. One of the first things you learn is that you’re not going to be chumming around with Dave, or even see him that often. He’s just not the type to interact with a lot of the staff, let alone interns. One of the interns I worked with came into it fresh-faced, star-struck, and innocent. By December he seemed completely jaded. His experience was different from mine, so I can’t say I’m any better than he is. Others didn’t seem to be fans of the show per se, but just looking for experience. It struck me as odd that someone would apply for an internship in late night TV on a whim.

Whatever our challenges, we all got to drink them away on Thursday nights at McGee’s on 55th Street. As many talk shows do, Letterman taped its Thursday and Friday shows on Thursday, allowing the staff and crew to catch its breath on Friday. The second show usually wrapped by 8 or 9 PM, and then it was off to McGee’s. I came to New York in late August with what I thought was enough money to last the semester, but I was thoroughly unprepared for Midtown Manhattan bar prices. In Eau Claire I could sometimes stretch a sawbuck into a pretty good night on Water Street. In New York, that got me a Guinness. By my last day there I was scraping pennies together, and it didn’t help that I’d gotten a ticket for jumping a subway turnstile. If I could do it over I’d do it all the same – except jumping that turnstile. That was dumb.

The semester concluded that December with a staff Christmas party right there on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater. I knew companies threw Christmas parties, and here I was at my first such party, and it was at the Late Show for God’s sake. Just a few feet away from me was Mr. Letterman. I’d barely exchange a “hello” with him all autumn, but here now I’d noticed he was briefly by himself. I took a swig of Heineken and mustered up the courage to approach him and thank him for such an exciting time. He was incredibly gracious and appreciative, and we engaged in a little small talk, and an assistant named Helen Stoddard snapped that photo and mailed it to me.

I flew home that Christmas morning feeling triumphant. I’d not only worked on the show of my idol, but I hadn’t folded under the pressure. I couldn’t wait to move back and take another swing. College held nothing for me now, and yet I had to go back to Eau Claire in the dead of January. Not only did I have to finish my semester, but I had to take a winter term class. It was a required Phy Ed course I’d been putting off for four years, but now I had to pay the piper. To add insult to injury, it was at 8:00 in the morning. Every weekday for four weeks, I’d wake up in the zero-degree northwoods tundra, put on my layers, and hike to the frozen Chippewa River, over its windy footbridge, up the punishing hill to upper campus, and into the fitness center. Then I’d strip down to gym shorts and a t-shirt and we’d run laps or lift weights or whatever. Then put it all back on and march home. It being “Winterim,” my roommate was not there, nor were any of my friends. Nor, for that matter, was roughly 80% of the campus. The sun sank around 4 pm, and in the cold darkness I’d drink Jack Daniels and listen to Frank Sinatra and draw maps or write letters. Coincidentally, my apartment in Eau Claire was on Broadway, same as Late Show some 1,000 miles east. The similarities ended there, though. The sparse street lighting, the slow-moving auto “traffic,” the utter silence, hell, the lack of urine scent, it was all like a sick joke. Just a few weeks prior I was running to catch subways, flying around in cabs, getting coffee for Bob and Elizabeth Dole, and now I was wearing a winter hat indoors and drinking a highball of whiskey to keep from going insane. I vowed that I would get my degree and move back to New York before 2000 and, God willing, work at Letterman again.

I did move back, but I never worked for Late Show again. I probably applied five or six times and even interviewed for a job once. The stars never aligned, but the internship did open the door to a successful run for me in television production, including stops at NBC, ABC, and the company of Letterman’s then-talent executive, Joanna Jordan. More recently I’ve been at NYU’s Film and Television department, where I oversee its internship program and help students snare their own white whales. Every job I’ve had I can trace in some way back to Letterman, and it seems many of the great people I know I can trace back to there, too. With his show ending in a week, there’s an outpouring of nostalgia among Late Show veterans on social media. Even though I was there for the blink of an eye, it goes deeper than that for me. I discovered David Letterman when I was around 12 or 13, and to me he was the consummate broadcaster, host, and comedian. His Midwestern sarcasm resonated with me, and he possessed a cerebral quality and way of connecting with people – not only celebrities, but anybody – that was and remains rare in any industry. He is the reason I worked in television, the reason I moved to New York, and he absolutely is the reason I stay up past my bedtime eating Doritos and watching TV when I should be sleeping like a normal person. His style and humor have significantly influenced my writing here and elsewhere. So, Mr. Letterman, thanks for the laugh lines on my face, the bags under my eyes, the late night calorie ingestion and the borderline alcoholism. But more importantly, thanks for the 33 years of entertainment, the semester of hard work, and for changing my life. Enjoy retirement.

Posted in Americas, History, Humor, New York City, Travel, United States | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Can’t Choose A Country To Visit? Try An International Zone.

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Any time you’re within the confines of an international airport, for instance at the duty free shop, you’re in an “international zone.” It’s a physical area governed by international law or by more than one nation, hence, the lack of duty on that bottle of rum. This concept was exploited in the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal, in which a traveler from a war-torn country can neither return home nor enter the U.S. (or elsewhere) and ends up living at Kennedy Airport indefinitely. That was a ridiculous conceit, of course, but it illustrates the point. An international zone is like the line of scrimmage in football, belonging to neither team. Or perhaps like No Man’s Land on the battlefield. Except in the case of an international zone, it’s not fought over as in war or football. It’s staked out and agreed upon.

Be that as it may, these zones can be the result of war. In Baghdad, Iraq, the center of town was a heavily-fortified international zone from 2003-2009. Known as the “Green Zone,” it was the safest part of Baghdad during those years.

Likewise, post-World War II Vienna was carved up among the British, Americans, French, and Soviets. Its historical center was an international zone, with the four powers rotating governance. (It was the setting for the film The Third Man.)

A few years earlier, the city of Ottawa – or more specifically, a maternity ward in a hospital there – was declared an international zone. This was arranged as a courtesy for the royal family of the Netherlands, in exile on account of the war. Queen Juliana was pregnant, and in order to ensure her daughter was born strictly Dutch and not Dutch-Canadian, the maternity ward was zoned out of Canada for the birth of Princess Margaret. Apparently in the Netherlands, “Dutch” nationality does not mean being split down the middle, as with dinner checks and doors in America.

Other international zones include the Channel Tunnel between England and France, and of course the United Nations headquarters in New York City and its various global outposts. And yes, the UN has its own duty free shop. “All members of the diplomatic community are welcome to shop here,” its website boasts. Ah, the life of a diplomat: Free parking in New York City and tax-free booze, cigarettes, and perfume.

But the international zone that plays on the collective imagination is certainly the Moroccan city of Tangier, between 1923 and 1956. Situated on a horn astride the Straits of Gibraltar, just a stone’s throw from Spain, Tangier was by 1900 a hodgepodge of Muslims, Jews, Spaniards, and other Europeans. Morocco itself had been prized by both Spain and France for decades, and the two European forces divided Tangier in half in 1912. In a strange byproduct of the horsetrading that went on within the League of Nations after World War I, Spain, France and Britain agreed to make the city an international zone.

During the ensuing years, Tangier developed a reputation befitting its status as city without a true state. It attracted scores of foreigners, including many spies and smugglers, and even worse, writers and artists. Indeed, it inspired the “Interzone” in Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, who lived in the city in the ’50s along with contemporaries like Paul Bowles and Brion Gysin. Westerners flocked to Tangier, even after it was folded back into Morocco, in search of spirituality, sex, drugs, artistic inspiration, or all of the above. Author Greg Mullins wrote in Colonial Affairs: Bowles, Burroughs, and Chester Write Tangier,

During this period of his life, Burroughs was seeking a physical utopia, a place where he could live and act as he wanted with interference from neither official state authority nor unofficial moral authority. In fact, he wanted to live in a place where he was out of place and where consequently he would be free.

Moroccans considered the town “a place apart, a plague zone infested and infected by infidels,” according to Iain Finlayson in his book Tangier: City Of The Dream. But writer Paul Bowles summed up the frontier town on the Maghreb best in saying, “Tangier is a one-horse town that happens to have its own government.”

Alas, that Tangier is only available to us through the words and images of those long-ago inhabitants. One thing is for sure: they don’t make international zones the way they used to.

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Five Things I Learned From My Stay In Seville

When it comes to traveling in Spain, Madrid and Barcelona get most of the press. But if you have the time, make your way south to Seville, once one of the richest cities in Europe and today still an incredible outdoor museum of old streets and architecture ranging from Roman to Moorish to Baroque and Gothic. Here are five takeaways from my brief time there.

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1. Its old quarter district is a seemingly endless labyrinth.

I remember reading that Casco Antiguo, Seville’s historic old quarter, is one of the largest such in Europe. I believe it. My first night there, in spite of my best efforts to pay attention to landmarks, I got hopelessly lost. My first mistake was to use the old churches that often mark tiny squares as landmarks. After a while, one church looked no different from the next. Looking at Casco Antiguo on the Google Maps app on my phone was like staring at a drawing of a large intestine. Eventually I realized I was only making things worse for myself, so I started asking directions. Even the locals I asked seemed not to be able to wrap their heads around the network of narrow, winding streets and alleys. They seemed just as confused as I was. Eventually I made it back to my hotel, but I chalk that up to dumb luck and being able to find a major boulevard outside of the ancient barrio.

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2. Its Roman aqueducts were still in use in the 19th and possibly early 20th centuries.

As you’ll see when you visit, there are three remnants of an aqueduct in Seville, adding a great Roman flair to this heavily Moorish-looking city. The structure was built around 65 B.C., and later renovated during Spain’s Islamic period. Incredibly, the Caños de Carmona aqueduct was still at full functioning capacity prior to its demolition in 1912. I couldn’t find information on why it was torn down – progress? malaria? – but it was through the efforts of the Marquis of San José de Serra, one Carlos Serra Muños de Priego, that portions of the mighty structure were preserved. In case you thought wealthy Europeans with fancy titles simply sat around counting their gold and serfs, here was a guy who saved something historic that we can all enjoy.

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3. The University of Seville’s main hall is a beautiful old tobacco factory.

I wish I’d studied here – what a beautiful university. It’s situated just outside Casco Antiguo, and the crown jewel of Universidad de Sevilla is its main hall, which once was a processing plant for one of the American cash crops from which Spain amassed her wealth. “The Old Tobacco Factory” was built in the 18th Century and its use stretched into the 1950s. (Sensing a trend here? Things used to be built to last, though I suppose we should be thankful that decline in tobacco use may have had something to do with its closure.) The edifice was also the setting for the opera Carmen.

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4. Though the historic center is extremely touristy, you don’t need to venture far to find a “local” tapas place.

There were throngs of tourists just like me walking about the Casco Antiguo, and rightfully so. It’s a charming, beautiful, and fun place to be, with plenty of places to find beer, wine, tapas, ice cream, Arab baths, churches, etc. Not to mention the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and a well-preserved Moorish palace nearby. But all those crowds can leave one longing for something quieter. I took the advice of a Finnish tourist and crossed the Queen Isabel II Bridge to the Triana neighborhood, which had a smattering of tourists amidst locals going about their business. That’s where I had cheap tapas and beer at La Antigua Abaceria, a simple meat-and-cheese joint down a narrow street not far from the bridge. It was a great place to relax and recharge.

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5. It’s hot as blazes in summer.

File this under “duh.” Seville is one of the sunniest places in Europe, logging around 3,000 hours of sunny weather per year. I was there during the long days of June, and even though I accept the objective fact that it’s better to be warm than cold, even I had to seek refuge from the fierce Andalusian sun. No wonder these people take siestas at midday. Cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating had awnings lined with misting pipes to keep customers comfortable. I downed several bottles of water per day and sweat most of it out. And as it was nearly the solstice, the sun hung in the sky until around 9 or 9:30 at night; there was still a twilight after 10 p.m. Bring sunblock, drink water, and find shade in the afternoon.

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Bacon Fat In Bratislava

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Bratislava is just an hour by train from Vienna and across the Danube from Austria. In fact Verizon sent me a “Welcome To Austria” text while I was there.

The Slovakian capital of Bratislava might seem an unlikely stop for the Eastern European traveler. If you’re aiming to see the big league towns, such as Prague, Budapest, and Vienna, you might be inclined to skip Bratislava. No doubt this is why those cities are teeming with tourists, whereas in Bratislava the crowds of sight-seers seemed to me to add up to a handful here or there. It’s an unassuming town, with an old town center built into its hills and a 600-year-old castle on a hilltop.

Certainly, local pubs and souvenir shops have capitalized on Bratislava’s medieval appearance. Signs beg passers-by to come in and drink inside taverns supposedly old enough to have witnessed the Hapsburg era. Nevertheless, its well-preserved center does bespeak a storied history. Maybe it was the gloomy grey sky, or maybe I was just in the mood to time-travel, but there was something palpable about this low key town the world once called Pressburg.

It was once a key Danube port in the Slavic kingdom of Great Moravia. Sometime after the 11th century it was folded into the Kingdom of Hungary; as you might expect, there were dozens of attacks and battles between various factions, including the Germans, the Mongols, and the Ottomans. Where Hungary itself fell to the Ottomans in 1526, Bratislava held strong, forcing the invaders to run an end-around to advance on Vienna.

IMG_20130611_122156_629That was followed by a few hundred years of Hapsburg rule, ending after World War I when Czechoslovakia was formed. Locals wanted to lose the Germanic name Pressburg, and nearly voted to name it after Woodrow Wilson. (This would have made it the second foreign capital to be named for a U.S. president, following Monrovia in Liberia.) Instead, they chose history over novelty and went with its Slavic name that had been in and out of use since the 800s.

The 20th century was a rough one for Czechoslovakia. World War II brought Nazi occupation, followed by forty-odd years of communism and bad architecture. However, several cultural institutions were implemented during its days as a Soviet satellite, including a philharmonic orchestra, national gallery, and national academy of sciences.

The fall of communism split the country into two republics, with Bratislava as capital of Slovakia. After a rough transition during the 1990s, Bratislava has settled in as a safe and stable city.

Where I Stayed

The Film Hotel, as you might guess, has a movie motif. A giant Oscar statue greets diners in its restaurant, and rooms are named for Hollywood greats, their photos hanging above the head of the bed. I had hoped for a lovely portrait of Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth; I got Leonardo DiCaprio. Even more disturbing was the life-sized statue of Jar Jar Binks on the way to the restaurant’s restroom. Nevertheless, the hotel had a certain charm to it and a polite staff. It is around 60-70 euro per night and located just outside the historic city center.

What I Ate

It’s been two years, but what I remember most clearly was Chlieb s Masťou, bread spread with pork cracklings (aka lard), the kind of leftover fat from when you fry bacon. It’s a Slovakian delicacy, and the kind of thing that would come with a Surgeon General’s warning in the U.S. The texture and saltiness was a little much for me. Overall it probably didn’t do as much damage as the pork loin I had in Serbia, which was stuffed with bacon, ham, and cheese, and served with potatoes and peppers. You can still smoke in restaurants in both of these countries, by the way.

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The World Is HD And 3D

We live in remarkable times. More technology than probably existed when I was 20 can now fit into the palm of my hand. Information is everywhere, and we are now not only its consumers but its couriers. When I was a boy, I wondered how a motion picture could be transmitted from a giant radio tower into a box in my home. (I’ve read about the process many times since, but I still wonder.) Today what we think of as the “airwaves” can easily be defined as a distance of a few feet. I call up an episode of Louie on the Netflix app on my phone, Chromecast it to the TV via WiFi, and boom – I’m watching what I want, when I want. And it’s not just contemporary entertainment. YouTube has become a veritable Library of Congress for almost anything that’s been committed to a recordable format. I can demystify and de-cobweb my own brain’s memory by searching for and playing a bad TV commercial from 1982, one that I vaguely remembered. I can read a news article from 1912 without hoofing it to the library and scanning the microfiche. (For those of you who remember microfiche.) And of course this treasure trove of video, audio, and print is not confined to our homes or even our persons. It now seems to be wherever we go.

There’s the rub. It’s everywhere, and it’s hard to put down, turn off, X-out, sign out. Screens are now ubiquitous, unblinking eyes, that seem to follow us through our daily routines whether we require them or not. Airport terminals are riddled with them, as if passengers need to be reminded of the existence of Isis before boarding their flights to Omaha. Get on the plane and there’s often one not a foot from your face. Dark bars that once kept a single TV in the corner for heavyweight prize fights and World Series games are now bathed in the hot white heat of a dozen LED screens. When I hop in a taxi, I’m greeted with a screen playing prepackaged news and entertainment segments. I can turn the sound off, but I can never turn off the screen.

Fine, we can’t control those screens. What about the ones we can control? The phones, tablets, and TVs we all use and enjoy? In a pedestrian-heavy city like New York, I see it all the time: People walking down the street, eyes and fingers trained on their phone screens, as if the Word of God were about to be delivered right after a quick Taco Bell ad. Curmudgeons have taken to calling them “cell phone zombies.” I think this is an insult to zombies, who usually are facing forward and have an air of purpose about them. The purpose of a cell phone zombie seems to be to disengage with the world blithely, because their Instagram or Tinder or Vine or Buzzfeed list or text message is simply more interesting. They don’t watch where they’re going, because their expectation is that they’re obviously so preoccupied with the banality of the online world that people will move out of their way. I repeatedly defy their expectations.

I say this as a 39-year-old, so I’m sure I’m showing my age, but I also say it as someone who’s been guilty of it, too. An airport delay, a traffic jam, a long wait in the doctor’s office – who wouldn’t seek refuge in quick entertainment? But when it becomes a habit, or worse, a crutch, is when I consciously put the damn thing away. It is the great irony of our age that as we become more connected, we become more isolated. We seek refuge behind our devices and by doing so, we stigmatize real interaction. Don’t believe me? Take note at how often the word “creepy” is bandied about to describe people these days. Creepy used to refer to Halloween stories, but now it’s a catch-all term for anyone who distracts us from our comfort zone. Its use tells me more about the cowardice of the user than the supposed creepiness of the object of his or her contempt.

You want to know how to excel in this world? Be the one who puts down the device. Interact with the world. Make eye contact when it’s appropriate. Talk to people. You’d be surprised how desperately most people want to be talked to, or asked about. Separate yourself from the herd of zombies. They may try to pull you back in. The advantage will be yours, and your real-life experiences will be better than any YouTube video.

It’s not just about people, either. The world is filled with amazing visuals and audio. I live in a big, polluted, crowded metro area and I see them daily. A well-manicured garden, a beautifully-designed 100-year-old building, a blue sky, an antique convertible, a street saxophonist, a conversation in a foreign language. And it’s all in high definition and 3D and hi-fi stereo, free of charge.

Our devices are truly incredible in their capacity, speed, and performance. But compared with our brains, they pale in comparison. The inner workings of the human mind reveal a supercomputer honed on billions of years of processing and amassing and trial and error. The human mind simply could not exist in its modern form – could not imagine let alone devise modern technology – without real interaction with the world. The cave man who dodged the saber-toothed tiger was as much an architect of your smartphone as Samsung. But just like any computer, the brain needs its down time, to be refreshed and “updated.” That’s when one should tap into the best app available – the world around us. Yes, it’s free.

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Travelin’ Playlist Essentials – Carefree Highway

????????If there were a Travel Disaster Songs playlist, no doubt Gordon Lightfoot’s most famous tune, “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” would be a first-ballot no-brainer. That list will have to wait for another time. Fortunately, in addition to singing about shipwrecks, Lightfoot has also penned a song or two about the joys (or perhaps melancholy) of travel.

“Carefree Highway” was one of the Canadian songsmith’s biggest hits, and it helped fill out his solid 1974 LP Sundown. That album opens with another vagabond song, “Somewhere U.S.A.,” but that number falls a little short both in comparison to “Carefree Highway” and as an album opener in general. It’s a mellow, bittersweet song with a pleasant melody, but its lyrics have not aged well, especially when Lightfoot croons “I would gladly offer you my love / In this hotel in Somewhere, U.S.A.” That’s not as ’70s-cheesy as “We made love in my Chevy van,” but it’s in the ballpark, at least in this writer’s opinion.

“Carefree Highway,” on the other hand, brims with the kind of satisfaction that comes with driving for driving’s sake, getting the heck out of Dodge, flying down the road unabated by stoplights. Often misheard as “every highway,” its lyrics wistfully pine for this “old flame,” which in fact is a stretch of Arizona State Highway 74, whose fanciful name Lightfoot noted and filed away for future reference. This song also has him singing about a woman – her name is Ann – but now he’s trying to forget her, or at the very least clear his mind. According to Lightfoot’s own liner notes from one of his collections,

There was a real Ann…It’s one of those situations where you meet that one woman who knocks you out and then leaves you standing there and says she’s on her way. I heard from her after a Massey Hall concert many years later; she stopped by to say hello. I don’t think she knew that she is the one the song was about, and I wasn’t about to tell her.

As for Lightfoot’s discovery of the curiously-named stretch of road, blogger John Woestendiek at Ohmidog.com did a little research on that for a 2010 post. He unearthed an item from the Carefree Times blog written by Nancy Westmoreland, who had personally quizzed Lightfoot about it. Per Westmoreland,

The story goes that he was on the band’s bus, traveling for an engagement at the Gammage Auditorium, when he saw the large marquee freeway sign along Interstate 17. He actually had the bus driver pull over so he could get out and snap a close-up photo of the huge off-ramp sign. When he arrived home, he had the picture blown up and placed on his living room wall. He wrote the song while on the bus, and it became one of his biggest hits, exposing millions around the world to the Carefree Highway.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Town of Carefree, Arizona. Its 3,363 residents get to brag not only about its pleasant-sounding name, but for having the highest number of restaurants per capita in the state, the Western Hemisphere’s third-largest sundial, and being home to a defunct movie studio in which parts of films such as Zabriskie Point and Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure were shot. Visit and you might take a stroll down Ho Hum Drive, Nonchalant Avenue, Rocking Chair Road, Never Mind Trail, Lazy Burro Road, and even Easy Street.

Just let Mr. Lightfoot tell you how to get there.

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