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The National Football League’s Toughest Player

Posted by on Dec 27, 2014 in Blog | 1 comment

 

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The NFL’s toughest player isn’t who you might think.

This weekend, as he starts his final game of what’s been a nightmare season, my vote goes to the bruised, battered, and too-often beaten quarterback of the hapless New York Jets — Geno Smith.

That’s right.  The quarterback with one of the worst passer ratings in the league is my pick as the game’s toughest player.

Here’s why.

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How One Man’s Being “Abnormal” Saved 14 Million Lives (Movie Review: “The Imitation Game”)

Posted by on Dec 26, 2014 in Blog, Movie Reviews, Politics | 1 comment

 

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There’s no such thing as being “normal.”

We all look and act differently.  Each of us perceives things separately.  All of us think in unique ways.  Each one of us must contend with the influences which shape our lives and mold us into becoming individuals.  No one’s single experience, nor reaction to it, is quite the same.

Hence, being “normal” becomes an apparition.  Normalcy does not exist.

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A Christmas Night Manifesto for Secular Humanists (Part 2)

Posted by on Dec 25, 2014 in Blog, Essays, What's Left | 2 comments

 

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By the looks of me and the things that I do, one would assume I’m a Christian believer.

Every year, I put up a Christmas tree and hang up pretty lights and decorations.  I’ve committed most of the verses of popular Christmas songs to memory.  I attend Christmas shows, even those held inside churches.  I send out Christmas cards to friends and family.  I buy presents.  My heart is filled with joy.  I even get sentimental.

Fact is, I am not a Christian.  I’m an anti-theist.  That means I’m opposed to theism.  I don’t discriminate.  I’m opposed to all religions.  I actively seek to expunge religion’s deleterious influences on society, culture, politics, and economy.  I speak out on the false notion of faith, its demands for blind obedience, and enslavement of the mind.

So, how can I be ideologically consistent and remain true to my beliefs while engaging in the practices of faiths that I do not share?  How can I celebrate Christmas?  That’s the basis of this essay, the second in a two-part series.

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A Christmas Day Manifesto for Secular Humanists (Part 1)

Posted by on Dec 25, 2014 in Blog, Essays, What's Left | 2 comments

 

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When it comes to celebrating Christmas, the secular humanist community is divided.

We aren’t Christians.  To us, the Bible is nothing more than historical fiction.  We don’t believe in the so-called “miracle” of a virgin birth which supposedly occurred 2,014 years ago on this very day under the Star of Bethlehem.  We don’t bow our heads in prayer, because no one is listening.  We certainly don’t adhere to ancient belief systems lacking tangible evidence, which were forged during the Bronze Age by ancestors prone to mass hysteria and superstition.  In short, we believe the traditional version of Christmas is entirely bogus.

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We are never prepared for what we expect (Movie Review: “Wild”)

Posted by on Dec 24, 2014 in Blog, Movie Reviews | 2 comments

 

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We are never prepared for what we expect.

So wrote novelist James A. Michener.

That thought sums up the life-transforming excursion in pursuit of self-awareness, some might even say an identity, ventured by writer Cheryl Strayed back in 1995, when she embarked upon a grueling three-month, 1,100-mile journey entirely by foot, along the Pacific Crest Trail.

The once-troubled woman from Minneapolis started her long hike in California’s blistering Mojave Desert.  It ended many bruises and blisters later in the lush mountain forests of Washington State.  As with our most goals and the most purposeful of pursuits, the geographical destination isn’t really the thing.  It’s the deeper journey within the mind and soul which ultimately delivers the satisfaction we long for.  Getting there isn’t fun in the classic sense.  But making the effort and pushing oneself into unchartered territory is well worth the pain.

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The Great Escape and Bloody Execution of Nicolae Ceausescu

Posted by on Dec 23, 2014 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Politics | 3 comments

 

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Writer’s Note:  This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Romanian Revolution.  This is the first in a serious of articles which recalls my first-hand account of the uprising in Bucharest between December 21-25, 1989.    

 

Four days after making a dreadful miscalculation and delivering his final rambling speech to a crowd of more than 100,000 stoic sycophants from the grand balcony of the Communist Party Central Committee Building in Bucharest, and while the Romanian nation watched breathlessly on live television, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena would gunned down by a firing squad on Christmas Day.

Now 25 years later, several questions about the Ceausescu’s final days remain unanswered.

How could Ceausescu’s iron fist lose its mighty grip on power so quickly and so completely?  How did his situation manage to deteriorate so badly for him?  He’d ruled his nation as a archetypal cult figure for 24 years.  Yet, his body ended up crumpled against a wall, riddled with bullets fired from a makeshift execution squad made up of Romanian Army paratroopers who were hastily assembled at a military base in the small town of Targoviste, just outside Bucharest.

What happened?

This is the story of what I witnessed in central Bucharest during those days which led to the downfall of Communist rule in Romania.

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A Song for All Seasons, An Anthem for the Ages

Posted by on Dec 21, 2014 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 1 comment

 

War is Over by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

 

Why “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” a song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, stands the test of time

 

John Lennon once said he always wanted to write a good Christmas song.

Hard to believe, but as accomplished and prolific as The Beatles were as a group for close a decade with more than 300 recorded songs, they never released a holiday tune.

[Note:  “Christmas Time is Here Again” was an impromptu radio jam session, but wasn’t a commercial recording.]

So, about a year after the four icons disbanded as a rock group, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono splintered away from London for a fresh new start in New York City.  That’s the creative and spiritual nest of solace they would ultimately call home and remain for the duration of Lennon’s life, destined to last only another nine years.  In fact, the unconventional duo never again returned again to England, not even for a visit.

During their early months, they settled down in Manhattan, where Lennon wrote a number of mediocre songs that were looked upon as his few commercial failures as a pop artist.  The mishmash of largely forgettable music, some of it original and other songs blatantly purged from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention who he worked with in a somewhat disastrous collaboration, was ultimately released on the bomb of  double-album, “Sometime in New York City.”   This creative yet aimless period fueled by intense political activism and protest, however, included a most unusual Christmas song that was inexplicably omitted from the early 1972 album.  And yet, that musical oddity would ultimately become a powerful anthem for world peace as well as a timeless melody of hope for all humanity.  Cynics would even say it became one of the hallmark signature songs of the holiday season, serenading shoppers to shop and spend, hardly the original intent of the lyrics.

Like so many great works of creative alchemy, the song wasn’t particularly well-received when it was released, either by critics or the buying public.  The single certainly wasn’t a hit when initially released late in 1971 inside the United States.  The following Christmas, the single was released in England, where it enjoyed somewhat modest success, lofting as high as fourth in the charts.  But by the mid-1970’s the song was mostly forgotten and seemingly destined as a clumsy musical footnote.

The song later appeared on a relatively obscure John Lennon collection of hits, called “Shaved Fish.”  But following a stellar track record of commercial and critical successes — both with The Beatles and his hastily-assembled sidemen called the Plastic Ono Band — no one was quite sure what to make of the odd tune.  It certainly wasn’t a mainstream Christmas song in the old traditional sense.  But it wasn’t quite a political song either, not in the mold of other Lennon classics like “Give Peace a Chance” or “Imagine.”  Older traditionalists who fancied familiar Christmas music of the day weren’t about to purchase new single by one of the counterculture’s most outspoken Leftist revolutionaries.  And younger fans weren’t all too enthusiastic at the notion of listening to what amounted to a corny Christmas song.  Adding to its marketing troubles, the title was even controversial, opting to omit “Christ” from Christ-mas in favor of “Xmas.”  After Lennon’s controversial remarks about Jesus six years earlier “We’re more popular than Jesus, now”) and his widely-banned “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” tackling the holiday supposedly dedicated to the birth of Jesus seemed like yet another unnecessary risk.

It’s easy to now see that this song was way ahead of it’s time.  The song is titled “Happy Xmas (War is Over).”  It’s officially credited to “John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the Plastic Ono Band.”  But this music and lyrics and message is emphatically Lennon’s — all his own.

Not that it’s a great song.  It isn’t.  In fact, it’s downright pedestrian.  Amateurish even.  The instrumentation is unremarkable, even rustic.  There are no powerful voices nor memorable musical interludes.  It’s not even arranged very well.  The song has a “live” feel because that’s essentially what the recording session was — an afternoon recording followed by a quick studio mix with raw masters.  Lead singer (Lennon jamming), his backup vocal (Yoko Ono — with questionable singing abilities, to put it kindly), and a raw unrehearsed local choir struggle at times to make it all work.  But then, perhaps that’s the magic of it all.  That it’s so unrehearsed.  So genuine.

The lyrics of this odd holiday arrangement, like no other for its time, were penned by Lennon in just a single day.  The basic chords were hashed on an acoustic guitar in his living room.  After recording a few quick takes of the new arrangement with the Harlem Community Choir one afternoon in a studio, the master tapes were hastily arranged by the eccentric record producer Phil Spector, who was then at the very tail end of his staggering run as a music innovator.  It’s one of Spector’s final “wall of sound” musical creations.  And despite these disparate creative forces, there was utterly nothing to indicate this odd combustion of egos and sounds would eventually spawn to a song which likely endures as one of the single greatest holiday songs of our lifetimes — or more precisely the next century.  Alas, now nearly half a century later its reach beyond merely the music scene has become universal.

Taking nothing away from timeless classics such as “White Christmas” or “The Christmas Song,” and so many other marvelous arrangements by music greats, “Happy Xmas” has a number of defining characteristics that make it truly special.  No song before had ever melded the traditional messages of Christmas into an anthem for global peace.  While it was written in reference to ending the war in Vietnam (“War is over, if you want it.”), it’s really a desperate plea to end all conflicts.

Moreover, this wasn’t a song which reinforced the traditional comfort zones of the holiday season.  There are no chestnuts raging over an open fire.  And some people out there don’t like that.  That makes some of us uncomfortable.  To the contrary, it yanks the listener out of the cozy fantasy of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams Christmas specials into the real world.  Those who heard it were shaken from the old-fashioned notion of Christmas — one which really doesn’t exist anymore, except in fantasy.  The song asks us to confront ourselves and the world we made.

Listeners were even challenged by the song’s lyrics.,  Indeed, challenged.  To do more.  To be part of change.  To make it happen. “ And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”  But the song isn’t really a lecture.  Rather, it’s a renewal of hope.  “Another year over, a new one just begun.”

Lennon was gunned down by a lunatic in December 1980.  Following that dark time just before a Christmas some 34 years ago, as part of the worldwide renewal of the extensive Lennon musical catalog, “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” was re-released.  The second time around, it made it all the way to number two on the record charts.  It’s pretty much been a staple of the holiday season ever since.

There is great power in great music.  Accordingly, I’d like for you to consider the power of this rustic masterpiece.  Take just a few moments, and listen to his message which is just as powerful now, as then.

Watch and listen to two very different accompaniments in the video clips below.  The first version may be difficult to watch.  It’s heartbreaking.  It’s painful.  It’s essentially the message Lennon was likely trying to convey when he wrote, “For weak and for strong, The rich and the poor ones, The road is so long — So happy Christmas, For black and for white, For yellow and red ones, Let’s stop all the fight.”  I suspect this message is too heavy for some around the holiday season.  But it needs to be heard – again.

By contrast, the second arrangement is considerably more upbeat.  It’s cheerful.  It’s happy.  The second video clip was taken from a popular television show (“ER”) several years ago.

Oddly enough, the music on both videos is exactly the same.  Nothing is different except for the imagery.  But watch and listen and feel the emotional responses you have to each.  The difference is staggering.  That’s the real power of a great song.

Indeed, this is why “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” now stands as a timeless masterpiece.  That it can bring about two extraordinarily opposite reactions.  Same song.  Same message. Different interpretations.

The greatest tragedy of all is that these kinds of songs need to be written at all.  That music like this is so necessary to dry our tears and ignite our hope.

The horrors addressed in this song, ceaseless war and unnecessary violence, will perhaps always be with us in some fashion.  They won’t be reduced nor erased easily.  And that’s why we so desperately need songs like this one from John Lennon and others — now more than ever.  It reminds us of what could be possible, even it just a dream.

HAPPY XMAS WAR IS OVER — ONE (POLITICAL/PROTEST VERSION)

 

HAPPY XMAS WAR IS OVER — TWO (HAPPY/TRADITIONAL VERSION)

__________

 

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Philadelphia Eagles’ Head Coach Chip Kelly is Either a Coward or a Moron

Posted by on Dec 20, 2014 in Blog, Sports Betting | 6 comments

 

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Philadelphia Eagles

 

Philadelphia Eagles’ Head Coach Chip Kelly is one of two things.  He’s either a coward or a moron.

Take your pick.

There’s no other possibility, unless insanity is his defense.

Late in today’s NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins, Kelly and his team faced a common dilemma which comes up all too often in football games.  Yet, I rarely if ever see a head coach make the right decision.

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Bottom of the Barrel: The Ten Worst Wines in My Cellar of Shame

Posted by on Dec 19, 2014 in Blog, Personal, Restaurant Reviews | 55 comments

 

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Have you ever tried a wine that tasted so unbelievably bad you couldn’t drink it?

I have.  Plenty of times.

And since I’m the “most interesting man in the world” who specializes in wines priced at under $15, my frugal predilections have subjected my highly-seasoned palate to some occasional instances of horror.  I’m talking about wines that are such an abomination they trigger a gag reflex.  I’m talking about vintages laced with such a pungent taste and aroma that your eyes water.  No, those aren’t tears of joy, my friends.  Stay thirsty.

Just in time for the holiday season, here’s my bottom ten picks which should be avoided at all cost.  In other words, even if they are free, you shouldn’t drink them.

Here are the worst ten wines currently on the market, each with a permanent induction into my cellar of shame.  Let the countdown begin!

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North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un Kicks Sony’s Gutless Ass

Posted by on Dec 18, 2014 in Blog, Movie Reviews, Politics, Rants and Raves | 2 comments

 

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You fucking cowards.  You’re pathetic.

I’m talking to you — Sony, Regal Cinemas, Cinemark, Cineplex, Carmike Cinemas, and AMC Theaters.

Each of your companies should be ashamed for yanking the new movie, “The Interview,” which was going to be released next week.

Why was the movie’s opening night cancelled after so much advertising and media fanfare surrounding its premier?  Because you’re afraid some computer hackers over in North Korea might continue making you look like fools.  They’ve already drilled into your personal files and basically sent you scurrying all over Burbank like rats, hastily issuing apologies and releasing canned statements to the press which desperately try to undo the damage you’ve done.  Now, a bunch of commie slaves chained somewhere inside a Pyongyang dungeon have trampled over your firewalls and are rampaging through your IT system like a band of coked-up Genghis Khans hunting for Scarface’s mansion.

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