FIRST RATE FIRST MAN

Every late ‘70s college kid had a story about the night of July 20, 1969. Most were like mine: Our parents woke us up, told us something momentous was happening, and carried us in front of the TV. We watched the miracle of men in bulky suits climbing down the nine steps from the lunar module and hopping along the surface of the moon until we fell back asleep.

One friend had a different story. She told me that after years of scrimping, her parents had finally saved enough to buy their first home. It was in a new Texas subdivision, and to save money her father decided they’d put in the lawn themselves. That night, after being allowed to marvel for a few minutes at the giant leap for mankind, her father took her outside, gave her a small gardening trowel, and told her that since she was up, she could help him plant St. Augustine grass plugs in the front yard. She begged to keep watching the miracle on the moon, but her father insisted.

She told me that as she knelt in the mud digging with her little shovel, she’d gaze up at the crescent moon and cry.

I never forgot that story, because it shows, in a small way, how our perceptions of earthly affairs are transformed when viewed through the prism of another world. That bright, new perspective was very powerful, and many of us remember it vividly. Many are also confused by what has happened since.

There was a lot of talk in the ‘60s about our destiny being among the stars, and that the moon missions were only the first of many great adventures soon to come. But in the years since, our manned space program has languished, never venturing beyond low-Earth orbit.

Incredibly, America can’t even transport its own astronauts to the International Space Station, relying instead, ironically enough, on confiscatory taxiing by our space archrival, the Russians. Which is a bit like a fleeing Bugs Bunny suddenly skidding to a stop and turning to ask a befuddled Elmer Fudd if Bugs could help him reload his shotgun.

What was it that gave us the guts in the protocomputer ‘60s to rocket to the moon with mechanical, manual winding watches strapped to our wrists? Finally, we have First Man, a great new movie that provides answers to that question.

 The reason it’s the first Apollo 11 movie in 49 years is the same reason they’ve never needed a fundraiser for wayward astronauts: Perfect self-control at all times was in the astronaut job description, which doesn’t normally make for the most compelling movie characters. But, Ryan Gosling unforgettably portrays Neil Armstrong – the prototypical steely-eyed missile man – as a man in full, struggling to maintain his stability as he copes with the passing of his beloved two-year-old daughter, the fiery deaths in preflight testing of his friends on the Apollo 1 crew, and his doomed marriage, all while being stretched into impossible shapes by his otherworldly responsibilities at NASA.

And for us space nerds, it’s fantastic that Hollywood is finally using its latest special effects wizardry to create something that dazzles people over the age of twelve. The Gemini and Apollo mission scenes perfectly capture the rickety, almost Jules Verne-like, we’re-never-gonna-know-if it-flies-unless-we-light-the-candle-on-this-darn-thing nature of those spacecraft. The portrayal is so realistic that you can easily imagine yourself strapped in alongside our intrepid astronauts as they’re violently thrown around inside those tiny, creaking capsules.

But, the movie really rounds into its own when Neil Armstrong opens the hatch of the lunar module and stares down on the powdery brilliance of the moon’s surface.  At that moment, he knows, along with every sentient being in the audience, that our future really is among the stars. It’s great to have that spirit of 1969 back again.

Once in a great while, and probably by mistake, Hollywood makes a terrific movie for intelligent adults. Please see First Man.

 

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T-BALL COACH AGONISTES

Why are the MLB playoffs one of the few remaining American civic rituals not ruined by our current, culture-swallowing obsession with partisan politics? Maybe it’s because we realize that, like Lincoln’s “Mystic Chords of Memory,” the game’s legacy still helps bind our fractious nation. Lou Gehrig’s courage, Hank Aaron’s power, Willie Mays’ grace, Jackie Robinson’s heroism, Cal Ripken’s grit, Roberto Clemente’s magnanimity comprise much of what’s left of our unquestioned American pantheon.

I’ve never played a down of organized baseball, but I’ve always loved the game for its heroes and also because so many of my own indelible memories are wrapped around it: My father and I in a cheap Dallas hotel slapping each other on the back as Reggie hit homers on three consecutive pitches from three different pitchers in the ‘77 Series: Standing at Shea Stadium in reverent silence as an aged, pigeon-toed Say Hey Kid slowly trotted out to center field: Our beloved Astros defying their carved-in-stone choker heritage and pulling off an incredible win in the seventh game of the ’17 World Series.

While I never played organized ball, I did have a brush with it almost 25 years ago when I volunteered to announce my five-year old son’s T-Ball games over the field PA system.

Matt was on the Braves, so I’d always welcome the fans to the friendly confines of Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Because the games were only five innings long, I instituted a second inning stretch, and my eight-year old daughter, Erin, would lead the fans in a merry rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game. I also gave each player fearsome nicknames as I announced their at-bats: “And now, striding up to the plate, Matt “The King of Ding” Merkl!” There were also “The Princess of Power”, “The Baron of Bonk”, “The Czar of Far”, and my personal favorite, “The Ayatollah of Bye-Bye Ballah”.

The next year, the league called asking if I’d volunteer to coach T-Ball. I told them I didn’t know the first thing about playing baseball, but they were desperate, so I reluctantly agreed to coach Matt’s Dodgers. Panicked, I made a beeline for the library where I spent hours researching how to properly swing a bat, field grounders, slide, run the bases, and, well… play baseball. Wisely, I also asked Jim, a world-weary friend who’d actually played Little League, to be my assistant coach.

On Opening Day, the Dodgers all showed up looking very professional in their brand-new uniforms and stiff gloves. I noticed, however, that for some reason their baseball shoes all seemed to be levitating just above the ground, like Luke’s Landspeeder. Apparently, none of them weighed enough for their cleats to penetrate the sunbaked Corpus Christi ball field. I pointed this out to Jim, who mumbled, “If we lose today, it’s not going to be for want of traction.”

As the game settled in, I began to imagine myself as Billy Martin managing the mighty Yankees. I casually slung my arm over the dugout rail and worked a chaw of Dubble Bubble while plotting intricate game strategies. But, my reverie was shattered when I noticed that all my outfielders were running around together in crazy circles, then piling on top of each other, only to get back up and repeat the process, like a flock of deranged birds.

I turned to Jim, who was sitting on the bench with his head in his hands, and asked, “What the heck is going on out there?”

                Through his hands, Jim muttered, “Butterfly.”

“Oh.” I stopped chewing and removed my arm from the dugout rail.

                The game turned out to be a tight one. With 2 outs in the bottom of the fifth and nobody on base, the score was tied.

Our next batter somehow drilled a line drive into right field and jetted around the bases sliding just under the tag at third for an amazing triple. The crowd exploded, and the other team’s coach rushed out from their dugout to argue the call with the ump. Meanwhile, their third baseman and my runner – completely oblivious to the tumult surrounding them – were happily showing each other cool Hot Wheels that they had both somehow managed to sneak onto the field.

                I knew that Billy Martin would have charged toward third and maniacally joined in, arms flailing and feet kicking dirt on the ump. As I shot off the bench, Jim, staring straight ahead, hissed,” If you take one step out of this dugout, you’ll never see me again.” I sheepishly sat back down.

                Somehow, we managed to finish second that year, a fact that was completely lost on the Dodgers who were only interested in goofing around with each other in the dugout and free ice pops after the games.

                It may not seem like much to people who actually played baseball, but it’s a rare week that I don’t smile remembering my time coaching the mighty Dodgers.

ROTTEN ROTTEN TOMATOES

There’s a problem with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There’s also a problem with Rotten Tomatoes. And it’s the same problem: They overthink movies.
Last week, the Academy announced a new award for outstanding achievement in popular film, the so-called “Popcorn Oscar.” They had to create this condescending category because a top 10 box office movie hasn’t won a best-picture Oscar since 2004. For most people, this makes tuning in to the Oscars about as much fun as watching American Idol without actually getting to see the contestants perform.
Before 2004, popular movies used to win best-picture Oscars regularly. Academy members now seem to view popular success as an absolute disqualifier. Which is clearly loony because most great American movies were also box office gold.
The unwatchable, irrelevant Oscars can go the way of the dodo for all I care. What really worries me is Rotten Tomatoes, a new cultural force that seems intent on forcing Hollywood to make only the kind of dreary movies that would have a real chance of winning a best-picture Oscar.
Rotten Tomatoes is a website that gathers movie reviews from hundreds of critics; determines, using their own in-house process, whether each review is positive or negative; and then assigns them a Tomatometer score. Any movie at or above 60% positive reviews gets a “Fresh” score, below 60% gets a “Rotten.”  Simple enough.
But the Tomatometer scores have become so crazy powerful that most movies adjudged rotten usually don’t make much money. Which means movies similar to those they deem rotten are less likely to be made in the future. That’s way too much cultural clout for a dinky website with 36 employees.
 The problem is that most movie critics are of the tendentious, virtue signaling variety. They like movies that most people would only watch if they were strapped to a chair with their eyelids pried open, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. The forgotten best-picture winners for the last four years, all of which received over 90% Tomatometer scores, pretty much give you the flavor.
By and large, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t like comedies that are unironically funny. And they hate action movies if Americans are unambiguously the good guys and the bad guys are truly evil. You know, the kind of movies people actually like, reminisce about with their friends, and watch on TV over and over again.
I bring all this up because I saw Mile 22 last week which received a whopping 21% Tomatometer score. And, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, I liked it.
It’s a Mark Wahlberg, American hero, shoot ‘em up also starring the very dangerous Ronda Rousey; Ika Uwais, the baddest martial artist in movies; and John Malkovich, who coolly delivers the only cool line of the summer. In other words – and this is very high praise for a movie – it has absolutely no shot at winning a best-picture Oscar.
If you could use a little break from your seemingly unsolvable problems, and if, like most South Texans, you’re sick and tired of it being as hot as the devil’s instep outside, then Mile 22 just may be the movie for you.
Best of all, if you see it, you get to poke at the exquisitely delicate sensibilities of our cultural overlords at Rotten Tomatoes.

 

AIR CONDITIONING IS LIFE

If you flit from one air-conditioned space to another, you can forget that, from April through September, South Texas is uninhabitable. I’d managed to forget, until a recent Thursday night when my wife intruded on my Astros stupor and asked, “Is it hot in here to you?”
I reached up to a vent; it was blowing hot. And suddenly, all hope was swept from the universe, because I knew from bitter experience that this could cost me as much as $8,000.
After a long, sleepless night marinating under a languid fan, I located an AC repair company that could send a tech at 10 a.m.
A smiling Bernie (not his real name) arrived right on time and disappeared into the attic. I paced the floor beneath him like an expectant father as I awaited the verdict, pausing only to stare intently at the ceiling each time he moved around or dropped a tool.
After 20 minutes, he reappeared and said everything checked out fine, but he needed to see the condenser unit. We went outside, were immediately attacked by a thousand ravenous mosquitoes, and hastily retreated into the house where Bernie doused himself with repellent. As he bravely stepped back outside, I felt like Katharine Hepburn watching Bogie slide back into the leech infested Zambezi.
Fifteen minutes later, he came back inside and told me he’d tweaked a few things, but the condenser checked out OK. I reached up to a vent; it was blowing cold.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing, really,” he answered.
That weekend, the conditional condition of my air conditioner loomed over me like a sword of Damocles.
The AC worked until Monday at 8 p.m., when a telltale heartbeat sound began emanating from the attic. Because no air was flowing from the vents, I turned the AC off and the sound stopped.
I called the repair company and a still smiling Bernie showed up a half hour later. I told him about the heartbeat, and he climbed into the attic. After ten minutes, he shouted, “Turn it on!” I did, and it worked fine. As he descended the ladder, I asked what he’d done?
“Nothing, really,” he answered. “Tell me about the sound.”
I told him it went THWUMP every second, just like a heartbeat. He raised an eyebrow and said he’d never heard an AC THWUMP. I called my wife over to testify that she’d heard it, too. He gazed at us for a moment, said it was working fine now, and left. A half hour later: THWUMP, THWUMP.
I hustled up to the attic, made a video of the THWUMP, and texted it to the repair company.
We spent another long, sleepless night sautéing under a sheet.
When I called early the next morning, the office manager happily told me that all the techs had watched my video, were convinced it was the motor, and Bernie would be there at 3 to change it out.
I rushed home by 3, and, just for grins, turned on the AC. Naturally, it ran fine. When Bernie showed up at 3:45, he explained that because my motor was under warranty, he could only replace it if the AC wasn’t working. He waited a while in my rapidly cooling house, but eventually went out to his truck and returned with the bill. Just as I was about to sign it: THWUMP, THWUMP.
He hurried for the attic but stopped when he remembered his tools were in the truck. I told him I’d get his tools and ran to fetch them. After 5 minutes, he climbed down the ladder and announced it was definitely the motor. He changed it out, and I thanked him profusely for his hard work and perseverance.
That night my wife and I were luxuriating in the wonder of conditioned air when at 8:10 p.m.: THWUMP THWUMP.
Despairing, I called the repair company. The office manager practically wept when I told her the heartbeat was back. Forlornly, she said she’d call Larry (not his real name) and hung up. Who’s Larry, I wondered?
An hour passed and no one called. My wife and I agreed that if Bernie had abandoned us, we needed to buy a new system.
Then someone knocked at the door.
“I hate your house,” Bernie said as he stepped inside.
“So do I,” I admitted. “You came back!”
“I couldn’t leave you like this,” he said.
He climbed into the attic and came down a few minutes later holding a tiny electronic box.
“I changed this part out,” he said. “I’m going home”
“You’re not leaving!” I protested. “When you leave, it breaks! We’ll make up a bed for you!”
“No, this time it’s fixed.”
“Alright, but if you see someone running down Rodd Field Road chasing after your truck screaming, ‘It’s THWUMPing again!’ pull over.”
Here’s to my AC that’s been running for two weeks (knock on wood). But most of all, here’s to heroic Bernie and his fellow AC techs who make South Texas somewhat habitable.

 

AIR TRAVEL AS CATTLE DRIVE

With one word, one of my fellow passengers perfectly described the experience of modern air travel.

I was recently waiting to board a 737 in yet another cookie-cutter terminal located somewhere in the USA. The flight had already been delayed three times, so when it was finally announced we’d be departing shortly, all 150 of us rushed expectantly toward the boarding area.

We stood there for another 20 minutes in an angry, sweltering mob with no explanation for the additional delay from the harried gate attendant. I locked eyes with the guy next to me who smiled wanly and said, “Moo.” That pretty much sums it all up.

Ten years ago, airlines sold 73% of their seats. Today, thanks to algorithms, they’re filling 84%. This increase has led to higher profits, but at the price of customer sanity. More passengers mean overcrowded boarding areas, slower boarding times, less room in overhead bins, stressed-out flight attendants, and a general, dehumanizing feeling of being herded.

My recent flight delay caused me to miss the last late-night connecting flight to Corpus Christi. As I stepped off the plane at DFW, an airline employee hurried by and handed me a boarding pass for a flight at 9 the next morning. “What am I supposed to do for the next 10 hours?” I asked as she rushed away. She shouted over her shoulder that she’d try to find me a hotel, and then promptly disappeared for a half-hour.

When she finally came back, she said the only nearby hotel with a vacancy was located in another terminal inside the airport. I told her that sounded great and asked for directions.

The hotel was hard to spot because it was just a retail storefront among many others in the terminal. As I approached the front desk, the pretty, perky clerk gave me a big smile and asked,”Are you planning to take a shower?”

After a hard day on the road, I figured I probably didn’t smell great, but still the question struck me as odd. “Why do you ask?”

“Because it’s $20 more to take a shower.”

“How would you know if I took a shower in my bathroom?”

“There’s no bathroom in your room. There’s only one shower, and it’s located down the hall.”

“What if I need to use the restroom in the middle of the night?”

“There’s a men’s room in the terminal.”

There’s a men’s room in the terminal?

She gave me another big smile, and said, “We’re not really a hotel. We’re more like a place to take a nap.”

Suffice it to say I spent a sleepless night in a tiny, frigid room curled up on a five-foot-long plastic upholstered couch shivering under the kind of blanket they give you for free if you subscribe to Sports Illustrated. The long night was interrupted only by my middle of the night, sleepwalking, sleep-haired trek through the terminal to get to the men’s room, which greatly amused everyone in the vicinity, except me.

The next morning, I was sitting bleary-eyed in my tiny window seat on a tiny jet to Corpus Christi watching as a very nice, very huge man was shimmying his hips like Shakira to try to fit between the armrests of the tiny seat next to me. It soon became apparent that this was impossible, so the stewardess reached over and raised the armrest between us. As he crashed into his seat, I was smashed up against the bulkhead like a swatted fly. For the next hour and sixteen minutes, our bodies were in constant, intimate, sweaty contact. As I finally deplaned, I thought the least the airline could have done was offered me a cigarette.

Believe me, I appreciate the speed of air travel and its relative affordability. And I also understand that narrow seats and full planes help keep ticket prices low. I’m just suggesting that the airline industry keep in mind that the cold, hard numbers in their algorithms represent human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

ARNAUD BELTRAME, TIMELESS HERO

Think about the beautiful things in your life. The unshakable love of your parents for you. What it felt like to fall in love with the love of your life. Your first baby’s first smile. All the shared experiences that forged unbreakable bonds between you and your siblings. Memories of crazy-fun times spent with friends. When winter turns to spring and summer to fall. A mountain sunset or a beach-side sunrise. Think about all of it, and then ask yourself if, under any circumstances, you’d ever sacrifice it all for a perfect stranger?

Now imagine you’re Arnaud Beltrame, a police officer dispatched to the scene of the hostage situation that occurred in Trebes, France last week. A terrorist has stormed into a supermarket and taken fifty hostages. On the way to the store, he carjacked a vehicle, killing one person in the car and wounding the other. He then fired six shots at a group of police officers, wounding one in the shoulder. He entered the supermarket guns blazing, murdering two and wounding more than a dozen others. The terrorist, now claiming to be a soldier of the Islamic State, is demanding, in exchange for his hostages’ lives, the release of a fellow Islamic State soldier who participated in the November 2015 Paris attacks which left 130 people dead and about 350 wounded. During the ensuing hostage negotiations, all but one of the hostages, a young mother, are freed.

It’s a glorious early spring day in southern France. Officer Beltrame has a loving mother and brother. He’s in the midst of a brilliant career as a police officer. He and his fiance, Marielle, are busy finishing the marriage preparation course required by the Catholic Church and planning their June wedding.

But, Officer Beltrame, with every beautiful thing in life to live for, lays down his gun and walks into the store to take the place of the last hostage. Inevitably, two hours after entering the store, he is shot and stabbed and later dies of his wounds, but not before marrying Marielle in a deathbed ceremony conducted by the local parish priest

His mother said, “I am not surprised that it was him. He has always been like this.” She described her son as someone whose reason for being was to defend others’ lives. His brother said,” He was very aware of what he was doing; he didn’t hesitate for a second.” French President, Emmanuel Macron, said, “In giving his life to end the deadly plan of a jihadist terrorist, he fell as a hero.”

Watching the news every day, it’s easy to believe that the West has lost its soul. It seems perfectly clear that materialism and hedonism have killed off our cultural conscience in favor of the guilt-free pursuit of our own selfish goals. But, Arnaud Beltrame’s story recalls the sacrifice of another innocent person who, two millennia ago, willingly surrendered himself to the brutality of insensate evil for the sake of others .

If the West can still produce selfless heroes like Officer Beltrame, there’s reason for hope.

Have a Happy Easter.

THE 15:17 TO PARIS

Clint Eastwood’s latest project, The15:17 to Paris, is the story of the 2015 terrorist attack on a French train that was thwarted by three young Americans. It only got a 21% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I went anyway because there’s only so much to do on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon.

I managed to endure the 30 or 40 stultifying previews, each featuring snide heroes with fully automatic weapons chopping up sundry monsters, robots, and aliens. Proving that if you want to save yourself a trip to the movies these days, fill a blender with tomato juice, leave the lid off, and hit frappe.
Finally, the show started, and I beheld something I haven’t seen at the movies in a long, long time: Real life. Hollywood can’t seem to paint in this color anymore: The houses are always too nice, the cars too new, the bodies too perfect, and the dreams all come true.
But, here were people just like us grinding through ordinary lives. The film’s three protagonists grew up in modest houses; they were trouble in school and their stressed out single moms struggled to control their rebelliousness; as young men, they worked in fast-food joints and strove to realize their dreams only to fall short through no fault of their own; and, even though they prayed earnestly for guidance, there were never any easy answers. And, none of it is lit particularly well, the direction is minimalistic, and the acting is halting and amateurish. You know, like real life.
The acting is amateurish principally because Eastwood cast the men who actually overpowered the terrorist in the three leading roles. Why would the director of Unforgiven and American Sniper choose to work with amateurs? The answer gobsmacks you during the riveting attack sequence.
We, understandably, try to keep a psychological distance from the reality of terrorist attacks. That’s why our most vivid memories of them are often the pathetic, kabuki-like ritual of lighting candles and leaving messages at the scene of the carnage. The cold reality that’s lost in all this deflection is that on the ground, in real time, they’re savage, bloody attacks on individual, innocent, terrified people. That blunt fact has been lost on popular culture – until now.
In 15:17 to Paris, when the terrorist starts shooting, we identify so strongly with three of the people he’s trying to murder that the movie transports us into the center of a ferocious life or death struggle. And Eastwood’s camera spares his audience not one gruesome detail of that struggle, forcing us to stare into the pitiless evil that is a terrorist attack.
But, it’s when the shooter enters the Americans’ train car that the film really comes into its own. Watching the three everymen who actually risked their lives to repel the attacker reenact their transformation into heroes is cinema magic.
At 87, and after almost 60 years working in movies, Clint Eastwood knows that slick Hollywood productions can’t convey the grittiness of real life. Casting amateurs was a brilliant directorial choice because there are no actors skilled enough to portray the empathetic ordinariness a true telling of the story demanded.
The critics are wrong. The audience applauded as the credits rolled. This is powerful stuff. Check it out.