John Lewis’ last words, Barack Obama’s eulogy

Yesterday, while dignitaries gathered in Atlanta for John Lewis’ homegoing, The New York Times ran a column by the famed civil rights leader and representative: “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” You should read the whole thing, but I was particularly moved by these words:

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

That had a deliberate echo in Barack Obama’s eulogy later that day:

He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power. And that the fate of this democracy depends on how we use it; that democracy isn’t automatic, it has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to, we have to work at it, it’s hard. And so he knew it depends on whether we summon a measure, just a measure, of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong and call things as they are. He said that as long as he had breath in his body, he would do everything he could to preserve this democracy. That as long as we have breath in our bodies, we have to continue his cause. If we want our children to grow up in a democracy — not just with elections, but a true democracy, a representative democracy, a big-hearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation — then we are going to have to be more like John. We don’t have to do all the things he had to do because he did them for us. But we have got to do something. As the Lord instructed Paul, “Do not be afraid, go on speaking; do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Just everybody’s just got to come out and vote. 

(You should also read the whole thing.)

John Lewis devoted his career to ensuring that the ideals of this country — and the rights, including the right to vote, enshrined in the Constitution — would be accessible to every American. I’ve always been reluctant to use the phrase “American exceptionalism” — especially given the current situation — but, at its best, this country is capable of transcendence.

One more quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin: When asked if we had a democracy or a republic, he reportedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” We have to do our utmost to honor Franklin — and John Lewis. Vote.

Goodbye, ‘Stone Soup’

Image of Jan Eliot from stonesoupcartoons.com.

As regular readers of this blog — both of you — know, I love comic strips. (Yes, I still read “Judge Parker,” but lately the wacky plotlines have turned to … politics?) I still read them in the daily and Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution, even the 1973 reruns of “Peanuts” (a great era for “Peanuts,” if you ask me, as long as Rerun wasn’t involved).

On July 26, the last entry of Jan Eliot’s “Stone Soup” was published. This was no surprise to anyone who’d followed the strip; Eliot herself had said the last strip would be published that day, and the Sunday strips for the last month or so have featured a new character — one Jan Eliot, who was kind enough to tell her characters that she was wrapping up the strip.

I almost always enjoyed “Stone Soup.” It had a gentle but winning humor, much like another underrated family strip, Robb Armstrong’s “JumpStart.” Eliot had a few surreal touches — the wading pool that 10-year-old Alix would dive into and find the great creatures of the sea was always welcome — but in general, “Stone Soup” was about an extended family getting by as best they could. Val had a paper-pushing job she obviously didn’t love; Wally was an upbeat nerd before he married Joan, and remained an upbeat nerd afterwards; Holly, the tween daughter, could go from black storm clouds to sunny innocence to pouty childishness in no time flat. There was even a Peace Corps grandma.

“Families are many things, and I enjoy representing the less idealized – but more realistic – circumstances,” she said in a 2003 Washington Post chat.

It was a sweet strip.

Eliot began “Stone Soup” in 1990 as a weekly in the Eugene, Oregon, newspaper, and it was syndicated as a daily strip in 1995. So she’s been at it for 25 years. Every year she’d do at least one strip in which her characters quietly enjoyed a late-summer day, grilling, jumping into a lake, or simply talking on the lawn.

“You gotta love August,” Eliot would inevitably caption it.

August is coming up on Saturday, and the next day there will be no new “Stone Soup” for the first time in a quarter-century. I’m not going to love that version of August, but Jan Eliot deserves her retirement.

Jan, thank you. May you love this August — and many more to come.

UPDATE, 10:50 a.m.: I would be remiss if I didn’t include a link to this interview Eliot did (with three other cartoonists) for my friend Tom Heintjes’ fine magazine, Hogan’s Alley.

Is there going to be a stupidity vaccine, too? And will it work?

The coronavirus has revealed just how impatient Americans are — as if we didn’t know already.

As soon as lockdowns started easing, too many people went about their lives as if Covid had magically disappeared, only to get infected or infect others. Southern and western states looked at the disease as if it were a big-city, Northeastern and Midwestern problem, only to get hit with their own hotspots and hospital overflows.

Even now — now that we’ve passed 150,000 dead, now that the disease has pretty much affected every corner of America, now that it’s hammered professional sports teams and people under 30 and former presidential candidates — we’re still being stupid. And school will begin — presumably — in a few weeks.

Oh, but wait. We just started a Phase 3 clinical trial! A vaccine may be at hand! Everything can return to normal!

Not quite.

Continue reading

Give me a Cronk, and make sure it has a nice head

Image from the Toronto Star.

I love root beer.

I’m apparently more or less alone in this passion. The top 10 brands of soft drinks in America begin with Coca-Cola, include Mountain Dew (!) and Diet Pepsi (!!), and conclude with Coke Zero. No A&W, Mug, Barq’s (which, in the days before Coca-Cola bought it and started insisting it was root beer, the company said it was just “Barq’s”) or IBC. Certainly no Hires — which I’ll get to soon enough.

But in recent days, thanks to that awful Twitter, a brand of root beer-type beverage has staked its claim: Cronk.

Continue reading

Regis

Image from Reuters.

Yesterday, I linked out to an old article I wrote about my experience on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” It was my tenuous link with Regis Philbin.

But Philbin, who died Saturday at 88, was much more than a game show host. Indeed, he’d already been doing “Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee” for several years when “Millionaire” landed in his lap. And he kept doing “Live!” with another co-host, Kelly Ripa, after that.

David Letterman, who paid tribute to Regis on Saturday, had him on frequently — more frequently than any other guest, though a lot of those appearances were simply Regis lightening the mood with his characteristic open-hearted bluster. Regis knew how to play the game. That’s why he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records as the guy with the most broadcast hours in history.

Continue reading

Sunday reads: The game show experience

Regis Philbin (right) with some doofus. Courtesy ABC.

Let me beg your indulgence. This Sunday read is going to feature two pieces I wrote — but there’s a reason for that.

Regis Philbin died yesterday. He was 88. And though my favorite memory of Regis is as the good-natured, over-the-top guy who would race down David Letterman’s steps or interrupt the host on random episodes of Dave’s late-night shows, most people associate him with hosting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on ABC in the early 2000s. (OK, there are probably a few folks who remember him as Joey Bishop’s sidekick or as one-half of “Live with Regis and His Co-Host.” But it’s my blog, so I’m playing up “Millionaire.”)

Regis and a game show made for an unlikely pairing. “Millionaire,” an American version of a hit British show, was supposed to be summer filler (back when there was such a thing). ABC scheduled it for several consecutive days in August 1999, during the doldrums of the TV year, and booked Regis as the host, probably because he was good at hosting things on television.

Much to everyone’s surprise, it was a massive hit, absolutely dominating the ratings. The top three shows of 1999-2000 were “Millionaires”; so were five of the top 20 in 2000-01. Regis’ name was everywhere, even on clothes, as his monochromatic shirt-and-tie look became the rage. Eventually, ABC would kill its golden goose by airing it too much and watering it down with celebrity versions, but it was fun while it lasted.

In the midst of “Millionaire” mania, I made it to the show. I won’t tell you how I did. You should read the article I wrote about it, the first of my Sunday reads. (I hope it makes the rounds; my old colleagues at CNN.com will be tickled to see a piece from CNNfyi — our long-defunct student news page — trending.)

I barely met Regis, but he was a champion in a literal sense: He wanted you to win. It was nice to have his energy on your side when being watched by 30 million people.

“Millionaire” was my second experience embarrassing myself on national television. More than a dozen years earlier, I had qualified for the other major knowledge-based quiz show of our times, “Jeopardy!” I took the test — back then it was 50 questions on typewritten pages, not the online version that exists now — and survived, but it was still a shock when I got a call a few months later, in the fall of 1987, asking me to come out to Los Angeles to play.

The show did not pay for airfare, and the best it could do for lodging was a discount at an L.A. hotel. Not that it mattered: I was a graduate student on the other side of the country with no money to speak of. So my mother lent me $300 for the round-trip flight, the parents of a couple of her friends put me up at their house in West Hollywood, and I took the Sunset Blvd. bus to KTLA studios, where the show was taped in those days. (I still wonder if I’m the only out-of-towner ever to take a city bus to my “Jeopardy!” taping.)

Image via survivornet.com.

My “Jeopardy!” experience also did not make me a millionaire. I lost to an eventual five-time champ — the limit in the days before you could win indefinitely — called my mother from a pay phone outside KTLA, took the bus back to my lodgings, and held my tongue until January, when the show finally aired.

“Jeopardy!” is also in the news, thanks to Alex Trebek’s new memoir and his continued fight against cancer. When the show turned 50, in 2014 (counting the 11 years under Art Fleming), I wrote a story about it for my then-employer. That’s the other Sunday read. It comes with a quiz, of course. I hope you ace it.

Regis, you were great. Alex, you’re a winner. My two stories are four cents’ worth; you’re both worth far more than a million bucks.

Read the “Millionaire” story here.

Read the “Jeopardy!” story here.

Peter Green, 1946-2020

Peter Green (foreground) with Fleetwood Mac in 1969. Photo from Getty Images via NBCNews.com.

Peter Green, the soulful guitarist who founded Fleetwood Mac with his fellow Bluesbreakers John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, and then left the band’s original incarnation in a whirlpool of drug abuse and mental illness, has died. He was 73.

Like most Americans who discovered Fleetwood Mac in their mid-‘70s California Buckingham-Nicks incarnation, I knew little of Green besides the fact that he was a brilliant guitarist and part of the group’s star-crossed history. (Jeremy Spencer, who came on board as the second guitarist, literally left in the middle of a tour to join the Children of God, a religious group, to which he still belongs today.) All I’d heard of that era was “Oh Well,” the nine-minute, half-blues/half-classical opus from the group’s 1969 LP, “Then Play On.” So it was a revelation when I bought the group’s 1992 boxed set, “25 Years – The Chain,” which had a number of Green-led songs on Disc 4.

Continue reading

Review: ‘One Good Turn’ by Witold Rybczynski

One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I generally like the books of Witold Rybczynski. “City Life” was a fascinating history of urban development; “Waiting for the Weekend” was a brisk look at how we created the modern workweek. Though I wasn’t as impressed by “Last Harvest” or “Home: The Short History of an Idea,” they were readable, thorough, and filled with interesting tidbits.

So when I picked up “One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw,” I thought, how bad could it be? I mean, it’s a slim work – 151 pages, including many illustrations – and though the screwdriver itself might seem like a better topic for Rybczynski’s ally in explanation, engineering professor Henry Petroski (“The Evolution of Useful Things”), I figured that Rybczynski probably had a number of Bill Bryson-like anecdotes up his sleeve.

Well, I don’t want to say I was screwed, but “One Good Turn” was about as interesting as inserting a drill bit.

Continue reading