Monthly Archives: July 2008

Get Well, Prince of Darkness!

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Bob Novak has had a shitty month of July. First he got fed bad information about John McCain possibly announcing his VP pick during Obama’s overseas trip, then he ran over a man almost as old as him while driving around DC, and then he is abruptly diagnosed with a brain tumor while vacationing at Cape Cod–the same spot where Teddy Kennedy incurred whatever symptoms inspired him to get checked out for what was eventually diagnosed with brain cancer. The nation’s longest-tenured living political columnist is now off the job for the first time in 45 years, and may or may not return. This prescient column, from a couple months ago, might end up serving as his epitaph, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that yet.

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Review: “Nature Boy Ric Flair: The Definitive Collection”

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There isn’t much to be said about Ric Flair that hasn’t been said already, often by Flair himself. Yet he remains a seemingly endless source of entertainment for pro wrestling fans. In an industry where gimmicks go stale and fans’ tastes shift faster than Harley Race on the Autobahn, Flair has maintained a prominent place on weekly television for 30 years, in a genre that is narrowly-defined and widely ridiculed but is consistently high-ranked for the whole history of cable TV and PPV.

How many people who were in top position on US TV in 1978 are still there now? Susan Lucci? The attrition rate of TV news anchors has been staggering–from Jessica Savitch and Max Robinson to Peter Jennings and Tom Snyder, with dozens inbetween. David Letterman got over in 1981, so he might be the closest thing in terms of limelight longevity. Tom Brokaw had already retired from the nightly anchor spot at NBC, where he dominated in ratings contests against Jennings and Dan Rather, but the death of Tim Russert led to his return, as host of “Meet the Press”. Rather, of course, is all money on a live mic, and that makes him more like a wrestler (maybe fellow Texan Terry Funk) than most of the younger generation of reporters, who come off as brazenly fluffy and project nothing of inner grit beneath the shine.

Anyway, “Nature Boy Ric Flair: The Definitive Collection” comes after Flair’s retirement weekend, where he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame before losing to Shawn Michaels in Houston at WrestleMania XXV. That match is included on the set, but Flair’s hour-plus HOF speech was not–a disastrous gambit to get more people to buy the WrestleMania DVD. This is the second time WWE has done a Flair set–both triple-discs–and combined they make for a very effective introduction to a legacy that will probably linger in some form for as long as human beings exist.

The documentary that comprises disc one of the new set is up to the usual high standard WWE has for such things; production values are never an issue with their product. What is an issue, though, are the matches themselves. They are lucky that Flair is Flair, and people will buy the set just to have it. (This, is the saving grace of archival media. No one will ever know how many Ric Flair tapes were sold or traded just on the underground level, entirely independent of official releases, long before the Digital Age. He’s like Too $hort or Sun Ra, in that sense.) Only three of Flair’s 16 world title wins have been included on either collection.

Whereas the first set was comprised of groupings of matches and promos around specific feuds with Dusty Rhodes, Barry Windham, Sting, Ricky Steamboat and Terry Funk, along with documentary clips and extras like his 1992 Royal Rumble victory and his 2003 match with HHH in Greenville (though it oddly doesn’t include Flair’s promo to set up the match, which was one of his best of this busy decade), the second set is mostly a hodge-podge. That’s not to say the matches aren’t good; they are nice to have. Matches with Jack Brisco and Harley Race from 1982; the legendary draw with Sting from 1988; a 2 of 3 falls match with Kerry Von Erich (who is clearly buzzed beyond belief) from ’82; a great defense of the Intercontinental title against HHH (in a cage!) from 2005; a match with Roddy Piper from ’91 and a short but sweet six-man tag pitting Flair and the Andersons against Rhodes, Magnum TA and Manny Fernandez.

It says something about Flair’s nature that he would commission a brand-new robe, arguably more elaborate than any before, for what he knew would be his last match. Flair went down after three Michaels superkicks; one is typically a finisher. Michaels’ Asai moonsault onto the announcers’ table was one of the great “Holy Shit!” moments from this year. It may be impossible to cherry-pick matches for a Flair project, but it was unfortunate that some of his better stuff from the ’90s wasn’t included, nor his title defense against Road Warrior Hawk from 1986, nor his street fight with Mick Foley from 2006, nor any of his work with Steve Austin, Brian Pillman, Eddy Guerrero or Ron Garvin, Ricky Morton or Randy Savage. But it doesn’t really matter, since they will surely do another volume sooner or later.

Tony Snow on death–a must-read

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Encountered the following essay after the death of its author, former Fox News host and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, who died from colon cancer on July 12. It is among the more earnest and sensible expressions of faith I’ve read in recent memory, and worth anyone’s time:

‘Blessings arrive in unexpected packages, – in my case, cancer. Those of us with potentially fatal diseases – and there are millions in America today – find ourselves in the odd position of coping with our mortality while trying to fathom God’s will.

Although it would be the height of presumption to declare with confidence ‘What It All Means,’ Scripture provides powerful hints and consolations.

The first is that we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to answer the ‘why’ questions: Why me? Why must people suffer? Why can’t someone else get sick?

We can’t answer such things, and the questions themselves often are designed more to express our anguish than to solicit an answer. I don’t know why I have cancer, and I don’t much care.

It is what it is, a plain and indisputable fact. Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out. But despite this, – or because of it, – God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We don’t know how the narrative of our lives will end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the moment we meet our Creator face-to-face.

Second, we need to get past the anxiety.

The mere thought of dying can send adrenaline flooding through your system. A dizzy, unfocused panic seizes you. Your heart thumps; your head swims. You think of nothingness and swoon. You fear partings; you worry about the impact on family and friends. You fidget and get nowhere.

To regain footing, remember that we were born not into death, but into life,- and that the journey continues after we have finished our days on this earth.

We accept this on faith, but that faith is nourished by a conviction that stirs even within many non believing hearts – an intuition that the gift of life, once given, cannot be taken away.

Those who have been stricken enjoy the special privilege of being able to fight with their might, main, and faith to live fully, richly, exuberantly – no matter how their days may be numbered.

Third, we can open our eyes and hearts.

God relishes surprise. We want lives of simple, predictable ease,- smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see, – but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance; and comprehension – and yet don’t.

By His love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.

‘You Have Been Called’.

Picture yourself in a hospital bed. The fog of anesthesia has begun to wear away. A doctor stands at your feet, a loved one holds your hand at the side.

‘It’s cancer,’ the healer announces. The natural reaction is to turn to God and ask him to serve as a cosmic Santa. ‘Dear God, make it all go away. Make everything simpler.’

But another voice whispers: ‘You have been called.’

Your quandary has drawn you closer to God, closer to those you love, closer to the issues that matter,- and has dragged into insignificance the banal concerns that occupy our ‘normal time.’

There’s another kind of response, although usually short-lived an inexplicable shudder of excitement, as if a clarifying moment of calamity has swept away everything trivial and tiny, and placed before us the challenge of important questions. The moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change.

You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft.

Faith may be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

But it also draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies.

Think of Paul, traipsing through the known world and contemplating trips to what must have seemed the antipodes ( Spain ), shaking the dust from his sandals, worrying not about the morrow, but only about the moment.

There’s nothing wilder than a life of humble virtue, – for it is through selflessness and service that God wrings from our bodies and spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and the most we ever could do.

Finally, we can let love change everything.

When Jesus was faced with the prospect of crucifixion, he grieved not for himself, but for us. He cried for Jerusalem before entering the holy city.

From the Cross, he took on the cumulative burden of human sin and weakness, and begged for forgiveness on our behalf.

We get repeated chances to learn that life is not about us, that we acquire purpose and satisfaction by sharing in God’s love for others. Sickness gets us part way there. It reminds us of our limitations and dependence. But it also gives us a chance to serve the healthy.

A minister friend of mine observes that people suffering grave afflictions often acquire the faith of two people, while loved ones accept the burden of two peoples’ worries and fears. ‘Learning How to Live’. Most of us have watched friends as they drifted toward God’s arms, not with resignation, but with peace and hope. In so doing, they have taught us not how to die, but how to live.

They have emulated Christ by transmitting the power and authority of love. I sat by my best friend’s bedside a few years ago as a wasting cancer took him away. He kept at his table a worn Bible and a 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

A shattering grief disabled his family, many of his old friends, and at least one priest. Here was an humble and very good guy, someone who apologized when he winced with pain because he thought it made his guest uncomfortable. He retained his equanimity and good humor literally until his last conscious moment. ‘I’m going to try to beat [this cancer],’ he told me several months before he died. ‘But if I don’t, I’ll see you on the other side.’

His gift was to remind everyone around him that even though God doesn’t promise us tomorrow, he does promise us eternity, – filled with life and love we cannot comprehend, – and that one can in the throes of sickness point the rest of us toward timeless truths that will help us weather future storms.

Through such trials, God bids us to choose: Do we believe, or do we not? Will we be bold enough to love, daring enough to serve, humble enough to submit, and strong enough to acknowledge our limitations? Can we surrender our concern in things that don’t matter so that we might devote our remaining days to things that do?

When our faith flags, he throws reminders in our way.

Think of the prayer warriors in our midst. They change things, and those of us who have been on the receiving end of their petitions and intercessions know it. It is hard to describe, but there are times when suddenly the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and you feel a surge of the Spirit.

Somehow you just know: Others have chosen, when talking to the Author of all creation, to lift us up, – to speak of us! This is love of a very special order.

But so is the ability to sit back and appreciate the wonder of every created thing. The mere thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness more luminous and intense.

We may not know how our contest with sickness will end, but we have felt the ineluctable touch of God.

What is man that Thou art mindful of him?

We don’t know much, but we know this: No matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter how bleak or frightening our prospects, each and every one of us who believe, each and every day, lies in the same safe and impregnable place, in the hollow of God’s hand.’

T. Snow

Myers on Murder

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By chance I encountered this article by one Jim Myers from the Atlantic Monthly, March 2000. After the last few weeks of extra attention on DC’s crime scene, it helps put the situation in context. Myers wrote this at a time when that city’s murder rate was near its all-time highs–a fair bit ahead of today’s. This is one of the finest pieces on the subject I’ve ever read–the numbing, nauseating pathos of senseless death in America.

“New View” at the Cummer

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My capacity for art criticism is all but nonexistent. It’s a subject better left to Madeleine Peck. My personal aesthetic is incomprehensible, and I would be reluctant to pass it off as “credible” in the mode of, say, my writing on politics, music or competitive BBQ except insofar as one might be considered relevant to the other. Consider that the universal disclaimer to any future comments about visual art.

The Cummers’ commitment to kids continues, long after they have themselves transcended this dimension. If it’s true that one’s deeds in life confer a form of immortality, then it’s likely that their names will be a real part of Jacksonville’s history for as long as the city exists. Their museum on Riverside Avenue is in its sixth decade as arguably the region’s premier draw. Certainly many artists, etc. will disagree, and that is a good thing, but no one would question its relative merits, such as accessibility and range of interests.

“New View: The Many Faces of the St. Johns”, wrapping up at the Cummer’s Thomas H. Jacobson Gallery of American Art on July 13, celebrates the main artery of Northeast Florida. If its city’s citizens are indeed its backbone, then the St. Johns River is the spinal cord itself. “New View” is built around selected works from past masters Theodor de Bry (1874-1939), Frederick Carl Frieseke (1525-1598) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910), as well as one piece, “Florida Rats”, by noted naturalist illustrator John James Audubon (1785-1851). The bulk of the exhibit, however, is comprised of mixed-media efforts by students from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, including: Erin Baker, Jessie Barnes, Andrew Bartholomew, Rachel Bohannon, Lauren Boivin, Erin Broadfoot, Christiana Broughton, Crystal Bui, Caitlyn Cooney, Bettine Dela Pena, Erin Devlin, Kate Godfrey, Shea Green, Reine Hogue, Marty Howard, Alex Huffman, Caroline Johns, Catherine Leporati, Naomi McDonald, Alex Miller, Kaitlyn Moore, Emma Peterson, Rebecca Pitts, Paula Runyon, Leah Sakara, Emma Shoots, Portia Smith, Courtney Taylor, Rachel Teano and Micaela Yates.

Quoting the museum website: “A collaboration in the truest sense, New View: The Many Faces of the St. Johns River, is a result of a partnership between The Cummer, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, The St. Johns Riverkeeper, Jacksonville Port Authority (JAXPORT), Museum of Science and History, Ritz Theater and La Villa Museum, The Jacksonville Public Libraries, Dr. Carolyn Williams, History Professor at UNF, artist Sarah Crooks Flaire and the Florida Humanities Council.  […] This exhibition is underwritten by Jacksonville Port Authority (JAXPORT).  Programming is sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council, the state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

The river has survived acts of extreme avarice and wanton self-destructiveness by the people whose lives literally depend on the river’s immediate and long-term condition. While the exigences of building a modern industrialized economy may have required certain compromises–dredgings, dumpings, demolitions–at no point were the costs of such actions unclear to policy-makers or the voters. This region has at least shown, at times, the courage to reverse decisions proven ineffective or dangerous, and nature has generally come through the decade in better shape than certain segments of the human population. Former Jacksonville mayor John Delaney was quoted in January 2004 saying of the river that “My goal was to get it as clean as it was before the Europeans came here.”

The recurrence of similar themes through works done hundreds of years apart, by artists of vast diversity, points to the persistence of the River itself as a force shaping the lives lived around it–lives like those of the Cummers, whose old family home is now the kind of place where teenagers can show their work side-by-side with bronze busts and marble statues, then put that on a college application and have it count for something. And they had free cupcakes!

Dems determined to throw 2008 election!

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The Democratic National Committee, whose conventions in 2000 and 2004 were marred by left-wing protests (the former ultimately undermining Al Gore’s chances to become the 43rd President), has apparently learned nothing from that painful experience. The Denver Post reports that protesters at this year’s convention will be corralled behind fences, in an attempt to bury their legitimate concerns about a party whose commitment to its own stated values tends to depends on day-to-day exigencies.

They know this won’t work; in fact, they should realize that the effect of such action will be exactly the opposite of their desired goal of a convention scrubbed clean of Clintonistas, a captive audience for what should be some pretty amazing additions to the Obama personality cult. Given their understanding of the stakes, and their knowledge that a Democratic victory in November will be the result of long-simmering resentment among the American people, particularly among the young and the poor, it’s worth questioning the party’s commitment to winning. Imagine the blogging that will come out of that protest pen; imagine the camera-phone video that will come out after the inevitable civil unrest.

The smart thing would have been to let the protesters protest, allowing them to engage the self-satisfied suits who run the party, trusting that Obama (who is extering enough control to move party operations from DC to Chicago, but has remained silent on the protest-pen issue) is a real enough deal to bring all these people together. Instead, Howard Dean and friends are handing the Republicans an opportunity to present the Democrats as being too factionalized to run the country effectively. After all, the Democratic congress has done nothing since they took over 18 months ago, seemingly afraid of the slightest criticism or blowback from actions that the American people elected them to put into motion, and the primary process was marred by public infighting that is only now starting to cool down a bit. The Democratic convention could potentially serve as Exhibit A for the proposition that the Dems don’t have what it takes.

Random speculation on the housing market

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Apparently there is some use to AOL, after all. The homepage I can never remove has an article today about the stagnant housing market. Actually, “stagnant” is probably an understatement, give the sort of harsh words afloat on the subject. While some cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City have not outright tanked yet, in some cases showing marginal progress from the past year (2007 will have been the last “good” year for people in this industry), all the prestige, high-value property on our coasts has proven nearly impossible to sell, even at some of the steepest discounts seen in my lifetime.

In Florida, where citizens were joking as late as last year that the state bird should be the building crane, the game is already over. Crist’s property tax cuts failed, inciting budget shortfalls statewide, to the point that they were rolled back in Jacksonville within a matter of weeks.