Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Best of 2009

We wrote last week about some of the worst ideas of 2009.

Space limitations kept the list to a precious few. We fondly remembered the exploits of Octomom and Balloon Boy, Tiger Woods and Mark Sanford, Gavin Newsome and the Tea Party Patriots.

But we hardly scratched the surface.

We had every intent of revisiting the subject this week. But like Scrooge, our resolve to engage in another "bah, humbug" column has been melted away in the warm bask of the holidays.

So instead of mocking the mediocre, we will instead hail the heroes today, those formidable individuals who give us hope that maybe, just maybe, the human race sometimes gets it right.

So let us raise a glass in praise of:

Captain Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III. Our newest Rose Parade grand marshal successfully carried out the emergency ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, offshore from Manhattan, on Jan. 15, 2009, after his plane struck a flock of geese, disabling both engines. His piloting skills saved the lives of all 155 people on the aircraft.

But more than that, he is the sort of "aw, shucks" hero that Americans love, a Jimmy Stewart firmly in command at the controls. And yet he is an American everyman: Sullenberger lost 40 percent of his salary over the years, which contributed to financial strain prior to the Hudson landing. He and his wife were facing the possibility of having to sell their home in order to stay afloat.

Jorge Munoz is a school bus driver who has taken it on himself to help hungry New Yorkers make it through tough times. Since 2004, he has handed out more than 70,000 meals from his mobile soup kitchen in Queens - for free, according to CNN. Munoz estimates that food and gas cost approximately $400 to $450 a week; he and his family are funding the operation through their savings and his weekly $700 paycheck. "I'll help anyone who needs to eat. Just line up," Munoz says.

Firefighters. Oh, sure, they drew some flack for their response to the Station Fire in its early hours. They reacted slowly. They should have used helicopter water drops after dark. But for those of us who watched the fire burn 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest, it was a miracle it wasn't much worse. In a sort of slow-motion rampage, it threatened thousands of homes and businesses, threatened to destroy Mt. Wilson and burned for weeks, covering much of the Foothill area in smoke and ash. Two firefighters died in the blaze. Battling this inferno were brave men and women who defended a lot of homes they could probably never afford to live in. Without them, a lot of us would still be bunking down in high school gyms.

Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Just about the time the Olympic Games get boring, along come a couple of young studs who do the impossible. The best thing about them: they seemed to be having a genuinely good time while smashing world records. Honorbale mention: Brett Favre. Old guys can still play, too.

Mandi Bohrer. Mandi is gung-ho Army all the way. She graduated from West Point, served in Iraq and is married to a fellow officer. She and her husband are also parents of a 4-year-old daughter. Both mom and dad are being deployed to Afghanistan. It was either go together or stagger their deployments and spend nearly three years apart. In the meantime, the Bohrers have updated their wills and documented their last wishes. "It weighs heavily on me," Bohrer told Newsweek magazine. "But if I don't step in and go, someone else will have to. Someone else will have to leave their family."

Barack Obama. Not so much for who he is but what he represents. He is not the first president who rose from humble beginnings to achieve the highest office in the land. But he's the first African-American to do so and that very fact has endeared him to millions while earning him a place in history and ending an ugly chapter in the United States.

Worst Ideas of the Year

Just think of the really bad ideas we have had to endure and overcome over the years. The Edsel, leisure suits, Jerry Springer, mood rings and wine in a box come to mind.

But just when you think there couldn't be any more dumb ideas, when you believe that mankind has run the gamut on stupidity, a new crop appears.

As a public service, therefore, I offer the Worst Ideas of 2009, an entirely personal and nonscientific survey of people and their schemes that left us shaking our collective heads and proves there is no statute of limitations on dumb deeds done daily:

Worst reality show ideas: A tie between Octomom and Balloon Boy.

Nadya Suleman is the single mother of six who thought it would be a good idea to bring eight more children into the world through in-vitro fertilization. Just the thing you want to do when you're out of a job and on public assistance. For this act, she receives more media coverage than World War II. A British TV firm has signed a contract with her for a reality show. With any luck, it won't be shown in the U.S.

In the meantime, Richard and Mayumi Heene decided to compete with Nadya for bad parent of the year when they claimed their son, Falcon, was carried away by a balloon shaped like a flying saucer in Ft. Collins, Colorado. After a three-hour flight that covered 50 miles, caused Denver International Airport to be shut down and involved the National Guard, several police jurisdictions and the worldwide media at a cost of some $2 million, it was discovered the incident was a hoax. It's purpose? To make the family "more marketable for future media interests," according to authorities.

The couple pleaded guilty last month.

Runner up: "Jon and Kate Plus Eight Get Divorced."

Worst idea by a married man: Tie between Tiger Woods and Mark Sanford. Tiger, perhaps the most recognized sports icon in the world, could drive a golf ball 350 yards but had trouble getting his SUV out of a driveway. Apparently, the pressure of winning a golf tournament is nothing compared to being chased by your wife wielding a three iron after discovering you've been unfaithful.

Although Tiger has always been presented as a squeaky clean family values guy, the number of women he allegedly had on his speed dial could have filled the Los Angeles phone book.

Tiger's main benefactor is Nike, whose slogan is "just do it." Apparently, Tiger took it literally.

Not to be outdone, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford not only cheated on his wife, but came off as a sort of a romantic Keystone Kop in the process. Sanford, mentioned as presidential material, disappeared for 18 days in June, while explaining he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail."

Turns out he was Flying Down to Rio to spend time with his "soul mate," a 43-year-old divorced mother of two. (Sample e-mail from Mark to Maria: " have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses ... I love your tan lines ... I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night's light ..."). To this day, he has refused to resign from office even after being censured and bidding goodbye to his wife and four sons who packed up and left him. Runner up: David Letterman who announced his infidelities between jokes.

Worst food idea: Domino's pasta in a bread bowl (about 1,500 calories). Honorable mention: Chili's Smokehouse Bacon Triple-the-Cheese Big Mouth Burger with Jalapeno Ranch Dressing (2,040 calories).

Worst beverage idea: Utopia Beer. This Sam Adams product is 27 percent alcohol by volume and $150 a bottle. Runner Up: Vio, brought to you by Coca-Cola, a blend of skim milk, sparkling water, and 27 grams of sugar. Carbonated skim milk? Cheers.

Worst political idea: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome running for governor. This bright young light from Bombast by the Bay couldn't even knock poor old Jerry Brown out of the prelims.

Maybe it was his support of gay marriage by extorting, "It's going to happen, whether you like it or not" (which is probably what the deckhands on the Titanic said) or his affair with the wife of his campaign manager. His worst mistake was remaining a mystery in Southern California where all the voters live.

Runner up: The Tea Party "patriots" who showed up armed and dangerous at Town Halls across the country, loudly shouting down elected officials and all who disagreed with them. And they called President Obama a Nazi?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Lot Like Christmas

Ah, Christmas. We celebrate it on the same day with the same trappings. We deck our halls, done our gay apparel, roast our chestnuts on an open fire. Yet, we all celebrate it differently.

That's because of traditions.

Maybe your family plays a spirited game of touch football using Aunt Mary's fruit cake.

Maybe you make book on how much Christmas cheer Cousin Charlie will consume before he falls into the tree.

Maybe its a keepsake, like that ornament from the Kern County Fair.

Or that recipe for Eggnog casserole.

My mother used to cook up a batch of sweet potatues covered with marshmellows every Christmas becase "it's one of dad's favorites." Years later, dad admitted to me he hated the dish but ate if to keep peace in the family.

My kids tried to start a tradition one year by awakening at 3 a.m., about five minutes after I had collapsed into bed exhausted from an evening of Greco-Roman wrestling with a mass of "some assembly required" toys. It was the
shortest tradition ever.

We do watch a scratchy old video tape of "A Christmas Carol" starring GeorgeC. Scott every year simply because he is the best Scrooge of all time.

There's a fire in the fireplace Christmas morning even if it's 80 degrees outside. There's always a birthday cake
because the Old Man of the House had the misfortune of being born on Christmas Day.

One family I read about buys the ugliest, tackiest outdoor decorations they can find. They try to sneak them onto their friend's lawns or houses during the season. The rules of the game state that if you get the tacky decor up without getting caught, the victim has to keep it in their yard until Christmas. If you get caught putting
them there, you have to put them on your lawn.

Pretty funny unless you live next door to the loser.

Leave the cozy confines of the U.S. of A. and you find Christmas traditions that are, well, different:

On Christmas morning, people in Portugal have a traditional feast called "consoda" with a twist; not only does the
family get together to eat but also dead people are invited. Extra places are set and food is offered to the deceased. Which is a great idea because since the deceased rarely show up, meaning more food for everybody.

In parts of Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland, the last month of the year is a time, especially for naughty kids, to be frightened. It seems young men dress up as the Krampus, a devil-demon creature equipped with cow bells and rods, usually accompanied by the Nikolaus (a sort of Santa Claus) and roam the streets to scare hell out of the
children as well as adults. This is called a Krampuslauf.

Leave it to those Germanic types to celebrate as only they know how.

In Greenland, so I'm told, kiviak is a gastronomical Christmas treat made from the raw flesh of an auk which has been buried under a stone in sealskin for several months until it's achieved an advanced stage of decomposition. Apparently, it smells like old blue cheese and tastes very pungent.

I could not find no other country that has adopted this tradition.

In some rural areas of south Wales, the Mari Llwyd is a person hiding under a horsehair sheet while
carrying a horse's skull on a pike . The Mari Llwyd wanders the streets at Christmas with a band of mummers and anyone "given the bite" by the horse's jaws must pay a cash fine.

Which is the basis for our IRS.

Little known facts about some other Christmas traditions:

--- Santa's reindeers are all females since male reindeer reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid December.Female reindeer retain their antlers till after they give birth in the spring.

That makes sense because only female reindeer would stop and ask for directions.

--- Truth be told , the 19th-century author who bequeathed us the image of a fat, jolly, white-bearded St. Nicholas ("His eyes how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!") was himself a dour, straitlaced academician. As a professor of classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, Clement C. Moore's most notable work prior
to "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was a two-volume tome entitled "A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language."

Fortunately for us, the man had children.

--- Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer began life as an advertising campaign for a department store. In 1939, Montgomery Ward asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas story coloring book they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick.

As a child, May was rather sickly, shy and introverted. So, he based the story on his childhood feelings of alienation from his peers. As to the name, May considered and rejected Rollo (too cheerful) and Reginald (too British) before deciding on Rudolph.

According to one published account, May's boss was worried that a story featuring a red nose - an image associated with drinking and drunkards - wasn't suitable for a Christmas tale. May responded by taking Denver Gillen, a friend from Montgomery Ward's art department, to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sketch some deer. Gillen's illustrations of a
red-nosed reindeer overcame the hesitancy of May's bosses, and the Rudolph story was approved.

And to end on a happy note: Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that suicides aren't more prevalent during the holdiays. In fact, there's a rise during the spring and summer months.

A Man's Home Is His Castle

Most journalists, at least the print variety, believe it is their sworn duty to comfort the afflicted, represent the under represeted, give voice to the voiceless.

But sometimes you just have to say what the heck and extend a hand to the rich.

It is in that spirit that I stand ready today to assist Candy Spelling, who finds herself in a spot of bother.

It seems Mrs. Spelling, widow of legendary television producer Aaron Spelling, is having trouble selling her 4.7-acre estate in Holmby Hills.

She is the process of downsizing to a a 16,500-square-foot condo in Century City which will set her back $47 million. So unloading the Holmby place would probably help her bottom line.

It certainly has everything you'd want in a home: a kitchen that serve 800, five fireplaces and four wet bars. There are seven bedrooms in the servants' quarters alone.

The main house features a bowling alley, a wine storage and tasting room, gift-wrapping room, a humidity-controlled silver storage room, China room, library, gym and media room. And, of couse, a screening room with a wall-to-wall video theater setup that rises from the floor.

Nobody quite knows how many rooms are in the place. "You're really asking the wrong person," Spelling once joked. "There's a lot. (The house) has evolved and I actually haven't gone around and counted."

Outside, you'll find a tennis court, fountains, a waterfall, a pool and spa, a reflection pool and a pool house with a kitchen, and 16 car ports.

Asking price: $150 million which makes it the most expensive residential real estate listing in the United States.

It also makes it hard to sell. Let's face it, this isn't the place for the 10 per cent down, 30-year mortgage set.

Indeed, you have to be prescreened and prequalified. After that, all you need is a fortune to buy someone else's view of paradise.

So this could take awhile.

We recently visited a home owned by a family that once faced a similar problem.

The master of the house had died unexpectedly, leaving his widow and daughter alone in a home that makes the Spelling spread look like a San Bernardino County fixer upper.

It's called Biltmore House and it rises like a fairy tale castle in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Ashville, North Carolina.

Constructed by George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of the family patriarch, between 1888 and 1895, it gives ostentatiousness a bad name.

Built in a French Renaissance style, its 175,000 square feet (the Spelling house is 53,000
square feet) contains 250 rooms. The architect was Richard Morris Hunt and the grounds, all 175,000 acres, were under the care of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City.

It had a 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, two-story library, and other 19th-century novelties such as electric lights, elevators, forced-air heating, centrally-controlled clocks, fire alarms and an intenal intercom

Remember: It was occupied by just three people: Vanderbilt, his wife and daughter, joined from time to time by guests. He called it his "little mountain escape."

It's no wonder the Gilded Age led some common folks to grab their pitchforks and join the Communist Party.

In 1930, faced with a Depression, Vanderbilt's only child, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, and her husband, John Amherst Cecil, opened Biltmore House to the public. Family members continued to live there until 1956, when it was permanently opened to the pulic although it is still owned by the Vanderbilt heirs.

If nothing else, the Vanderbilts know how to make a buck. According to the Biltmore website, the estate draws approximately 1 million visitors a year. At about $50 a pop, the tourist income alone would buy you, say, a Century City condo.

So here's a suggestion for Candy Spelling. Open your place for tours. Oh sure, the neighbors might complain about tour buses lurching and belching their way through Holmby

But the Spellings threw a lot of parties in their day so trafficis nothing new in the neighborhood.

Throw open the doors, Candy. We'd all like to see the place. And you can make a few bucks while you're waiting for that certain someone with a checkbook to show up.

That advice comes free of charge. Now, back to the afflicted.