Monthly Archives: April 2009

Kid Stuff: Barbie

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She looks pretty good for 50, don’t you think? It’s rather amazing to see the impact a simple doll has had on American girls. She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t wet. She doesn’t come with some goofy birth certificate. She’s a doll, for heaven’s sake.

And yet…she’s become an icon, both revered and reviled. Some say that Barbi’s figure leads girls to unrealistic body image issues, and contributes to anorexia and bulimia. Yeah, well. Mattel has sold over a billion of the things. There’s not that many people with eating disorders.

Did you know her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts? Or that she’s had more than 80 careers? That she’s had 43 pets? That she didn’t have a belly button for 41 years? Personally, I don’t know whether she’s stringing Ken along or vice versa, but I think their relationship has been platonic long enough.

So to Barbie, I say congratulations on your longevity. And happy birthday. It’s hard to imagine an American girl’s room without you.

TV Show: Saturday Night Live

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The casts members come and go. “No one can do Weekend Update like Dennis Miller,” we said. Then Tina Fey came along. “What will the show be without Phil Hartman,” we moaned. Then Will Ferrell blew us away.

Think of all the catchphrases Saturday Night Live has added to our lives. (Sometimes, till they drive us crazy.) “Two wild and crazy guys.” “Well, isn’t that special?” “More cowbell.” “You look mahvelous.” “Making copies.” “We want to pump…you up.”

Last year, SNL proved its mettle by providing some of the funniest moments in a very long and dreary presidential election. Tina Fey’s uncanny resemblance to Gov. Sarah Palin led to several spoofs, and the great line, “I can see Russia from my house!”

SNL’s obituary has been written many times, and still it survives. It seems as if it’s been on all my life, and for many people, it has. Will it go on forever? Don’t bet against it.

Actor: Jimmy Stewart

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I almost met Jimmy Stewart, once. Okay, I had absolutely no chance of actually meeting him, but he did pass by me within a few feet.

It was at the Virginia Film Festival, back when it packed some punch. I went with my friends Shawn and Sandy Murray to see an incredible double feature: It’s a Wonderful Life followed by To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck was there to discuss Mockingbird, but the highlight was seeing Jimmy Stewart talk about one of my favorite films. It was an amazing afternoon for a film lover.

Seldom does one actor appear in so many all-time classic films. Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonRear WindowThe Philadelphia StoryRope…Anatomy of a Murder. Ninety-nine movies, according to And each time that distinctive voice, that guy-next-door demeanor, that winning personality shone through.

No, I never got to meet Jimmy Stewart. But I knew him, all right. Knew him like a best friend.

The Arts: Fallingwater

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It was the perfect marriage of client and architect. The Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh appreciated modern art and architecture, and owned a beautiful piece of property in the mountains. Frank Lloyd Wright loved nature, and this site with its waterfall was his perfect canvas.

The Kaufmanns thought their new vacation lodge would have a beautiful view of the waterfall. They were startled, looking at the plans, to findĀ  the falls were to be part of their home. They’re visible only from the top level, but the sound of rushing water is a constant reminder of Wright’s amazing design.

Frank Lloyd Wright created so many remarkable buildings that people disagree about his masterpiece. But the combination of organic design, exceptional innovation, and natural harmony makes Fallingwater my choice. It’s an undeniably great American thing.

Sports: March Madness

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by natc.

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by natc.

The championship game, feh. Fans of the two schools involved care immensely, basketball fans care some, Joe Sixpack just hopes it’s a good game. So what propels this sporting event into a listing of Great American Things?

The brackets.

The chance to pick those 12 seeds to upset the 5 seeds. To see the Richmonds, the Cleveland States, the Austin Peays become giant killers. To parlay a $5 investment into — get out of here! — maybe $150. Everyone does a bracket or three. Everyone has hope.

And then, once in a blue moon, there’s Villanova beating Georgetown. Or Lorenzo Charles stuffing Derek Whittenburg’s air ball. What could be better than that?

Having picked Villanova or N.C. State in your bracket, that’s what.

The Arts: Elmore Leonard

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Some of you just said, “Whomore What?” Well, if you don’t know Elmore Leonard, allow me to make the introduction. Meet one of the greatest crime novelists ever. But that’s not even enough, one of the greatest novelists of our time in any genre.

No one writes better dialogue than Elmore. No one. Crisp, smart, funny, real. Maybe you’ve heard some of it in movies adapted from his books: Get ShortyOut of SightJackie Brown (the novel was Rum Punch). His advice to writers: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Elmore is writing less frequently these days, as you might imagine, at the age of 83. But if there’s been any drop off in quality, I haven’t seen it. He has a new book, Road Dogs, coming out in May.

I cannot wait.

Americana: Jeep

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by joujoubee

Photo courtesy of Flickr, posted by joujoubee

It’s an ugly thing. Even now, with all the innovations brought to the world of SUVs, Jeep is still the ugly stepsister. But they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And since World War II, Jeeps have delivered our troops, delivered the mail, and delivered families to ballgames and work.

That’s a beautiful thing, if you ask me.

Some say “Jeep” comes from a slurring of the letters GP. Others believe soldiers named it after Eugene the Jeep, a character in Popeye cartoons. What’s not in dispute is that the US Army needed a vehicle sturdy enough for off-road terrain that didn’t require a lot of maintenance. The Government paid about $750 for the first production.

You’ll pay a lot more now for a Liberty or Cherokee. When you do, you’ll also be driving a comfortable vehicle that may never stray from asphalt. But you’ll be driving one other thing.

A little piece of American history.

Kid Stuff: Baseball Cards

Photo courtesy of Flickr, taken by Sports Card Radio

Photo courtesy of Flickr, taken by Sports Card Radio

Don’t pay any attention to all those bandwagon jumpers who decided in the mid-80s that baseball cards were the investment of the future. Real baseball cards have a historic and visceral appeal that transcends dollar values.

Not that it isn’t fun from time to time to pull out the 1958 Al Kaline card and ponder its value. But I honestly get more of a thrill just looking at Al’s mug against that bright red background than I could ever get by selling it. I remember the smell of the gum that Topps inserted in each pack. And how it was often stale, and broke into pieces when you tried to chew it.

Baseball cards are a small part of what makes America special. Kids today look for rookies, embossing, and swatches from game-worn uniforms. But you can’t beat the old cards. They were from a simpler time. A sweeter time.

Singer: Marvin Gaye

Flickr photo by CoincidenceUNO.

He would have turned 70 today. Hard to comprehend. But he never made it, and we can only guess how depleted our musical heritage is as a result.

He signed with Motown in 1961, and actually started there as a session drummer. He went on to record thirty-nine Top 40 songs, from dance hits like “Hitch Hike” to memorable melodies like “How Sweet It Is (To be Loved by You)”. He had hits with three different duet partners: Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell. Just listen closely to where Marvin and Tammi took “You’re All I Need to Get By”, and you’ll agree it’s just as amazing now as when first recorded. His “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” is often considered the pinnacle of Motown music.

Marvin’s music got more political during the latter part of his music career, leading to fights with Berry Gordy, who initially refused to release Marvin’s first “relevant” soul album. But American music is so much richer because he did. Even now, Marvin is What’s Going On.

Right on, baby. Right on, right on.

Americana: Jeans

Flickr photo by bburky

They’ve come a long way from being “dungarees.” Years ago they were stiff, slow to break in, cool but not comfortable.

That was then, this is now. You can put them on right out of the store, and they fit great and feel wonderful. They’re accepted almost everywhere now, not looked down on as second-class apparel.

Two immigrants, Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss, created them way back in 1873. And they’ve become the most popular clothing product in the world. They’re what the world wants. They’re what America wears. They’re a great American thing.