Sunday, January 25, 2015

Television's Unrealized Potential

Perhaps it is easy to admire someone with a talent that you yourself have no pretensions to. Envy doesn't intrude. And if they live and work far, far away from your own milieu, then the capacity for romanticizing kicks in.

That must explain some of my admiration for a certain stage actor who stars in one of the episodes of Star Trek that I fall asleep to on many a night. He was John Colicos, a Canadian stage actor who also had a Hollywood career. He plays the first Klingon in Star Trek (the first season episode, "Errand of Mercy.")

It is almost a good thing that the story doesn't interest me that much. Nor does the outdoor scenery --  there were no Trona Rocks in this episode; it was shot almost entirely on stage. Nor is there an alien hottie to be romanced by Captain Kirk, as there usually was. No distractions. Nothing but that remarkably nuanced voice of Mr. Colicos. He could have read the telephone white pages and made it sound interesting.

Although his character didn't really say anything profound, he was a charming villain. It really is the villain that makes the story.
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Commentary tracks on DVDs are developing as a new medium right in front of our eyes these days. Once I was listening to Sidney Lumet on the commentary track of "Network." He expressed the greatest respect and appreciation for the writer, the late Paddy Chayefsky. 

He also reminisced about the early days of television, which was largely "live" television, produced in New York City. At the time I thought he was just doing an old-man-nostalgia thing, or looking at the issue from the prejudices of a theatre-oriented, New York City local yokel. But now I'm not so sure. Maybe he was right.

Imagine working on live television in New York City in the early 1950s. Television was unshaped, unrealized. But anyone could see how important it would become: a TV set in every household in America, just the thing that had happened to automobiles, radio, and so many other things. There are always such high hopes when a new and big project is started. (Before reality sinks in.)

New York City had a deep pool of talented theatre actors, directors, set designers, musicians, and writers. Only a few would become stars. The rest waited on tables at restaurants most of the time. Now, suddenly, there was more employment; not a great part on the TV show perhaps, but at least a chance to practice their craft and be exposed to a wider circle of directors and producers.

The world of theatre was available to a few ten-thousands of people living in large cities and with large incomes. Television was reaching the millions. It must have been an exciting time of great optimism. 

Look at the advantages television had over live theatre, with its need to reach the back row, its goofy makeup, the over-acting, and the stentorian vocal delivery. Television had multiple cameras that could zoom in; everybody in the audience had a great view.

Movies tend to be a visual medium. The star is actually the Director, then the beautiful leading actors and actresses, the camera itself, and in modern times, the computer-generated special effects.  But try naming three important scriptwriters in the movies!

On the stage, the playwright is the star. Television lends itself to the same quality. Whether heralded or not, the television writers were the real stars. Usually writers are rather unglorified, but Star Trek credits start off with the writer first and in the biggest letters. Does any reader know whether this was rather unique? Is the emphasis on good scriptwriting the key to its anomalous longevity and success? 

Talented and imaginative writers, great lines, less camera-worship, and actors like John Colicos; and all available virtually for free to the whole world. What television could have been!

And what will the generation-to-come think of those of us who experienced the naive and optimistic salad days of the early internet?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Making Hiking Sexier than Oatmeal

If done thoughtlessly or imitatively, the sport of hiking is about as exciting as a breakfast of store-brand instant oatmeal that is prepared with luke-warm, soft water. Of course oatmeal can be sexed-up with more texture, fruit, nuts, and yogurt. Learning how to do the same to hiking has been a long-term project for me.

One of the tricks of the trade is to take a more "naturalistic" approach. Recently I had an opportunity to do an unusually fine job of that with two boondocking friends, of bus crash fame. We walked toward some jagged Yuma mountains, right from the front door, at sunrise, with tribal "associate members," aka dogs. 

But we weren't on our way to a stereotypical peak-bagging hike on an official list of Top Ten hikes in the area. Rather, we were headed up a large arroyo, delineated by harsh brown mountains. When you look at the area on Google maps, you can't tell ridgelines from declivities. It's as if the land was a piece of crumpled aluminum foil that was illuminated with a flashlight in a dark room. You must move Google's hand icon to the spot and read the altitude.

Let's hope they weren't just doing this hike to humor me.  The scenery turned out surprisingly good. We were also relieved to find/lose/re-find a faint trail (made by whom?) along the arroyo. (There were no signs of course.) This made walking easy, both directions. The mountain walls on both sides were almost canyon-like. The rocks were so sharp to touch that you would have needed gloves. But the rocks in the arroyo were half-rounded and easy on the dogs' paws. 

There was precious little vegetation except along the arroyo, where the trees were surprisingly large. Even though the weather on this winter hike was perfect, the morning sun eventually climbed over the ghastly walls to heat up the trail, enough to imagine the horror of Yuma's summer heat. 

We had already been surprised a couple times, would we be lucky enough to stumble onto a spring or even the tiniest trickle of that magical liquid dribbling out of an untouchably sharp rock? 

Alas, that didn't happen. Nor did we find the fabled Southeast Passage through the mountains, despite some false hope along the way. It didn't really matter. When we had had enough, we sat down and enjoyed a snack in the shade. The descent was pleasant as it always is, in an arroyo.

I am not anti-camera, and in fact, even brought mine along. There would have been a couple opportunities to use it, too. But I didn't. Visual entertainment is not rubbish, but it is irrelevant. The satisfaction to be gotten along the arroyo is an autochthonous one: a Dread of sun and heat and the Ecstasy of water.  

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I had promised my friends that rains were soft at this time of year, the secondary rainy season in the Southwest, and that they should camp right down in the arroyo, on the nice rounded cobble. A couple nights later they claimed to hear a foot of water flowing over the nice rounded cobble. (It was the middle of the night, and I suspect they were dreaming.) What could be more wonderful than to wake up to water flowing over your campsite? Shame on them for not appreciating that. Still they won quite a few brownie points for their camping and hiking skills over their two week stint. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

An After-Ride "Drug" Trip?

(Yuma.) It is never hard to think of something that I feel like writing about, but there are topics that seem "inappropriate," if you can stomach the word. For instance, is it right and proper to write about how the world looks after a bicycle ride, or is that like somebody writing after getting drunk?

It is odd how little I have learned about exercise physiology and psychology. Despite hundreds of experiences of feeling calm euphoria after a ride, I have never seriously studied endorphines, dopamines, and receptors in the brain. Was I afraid that it would turn out to be mere pop science?

But there I was again, finishing another fast 50 mile ride with 70 year olds, when I rounded the last corner before getting home, and saw a Red Flyer wagon at the end of a driveway. It was decorated in bright colors and was laden with Girl Scout cookies. I was hungry, so I did a quick loop-around to the wagon, operated by a Little Darlin' and supervised by an attractive mother. The Little Darlin' (age 5 or 6) gave me the standard sales pitch. It was pretty long -- long enough that it was all she could do to memorize it. After she said something about military discounts, I asked her about discounts for bicycle club members. I was surprised that she said yes, but don't worry, I didn't hold her to it.

One box would have been enough, but the Little Darlin' shook me down for a couple boxes. How do you say 'no' to such a creature? Ahh well, she might as learn who rules the world, and Why.

On one level, there is nothing special about this experience at this time of year. Little shakedown artists are loose all over the country. It surprises me that they don't need an expensive license from a newly-created federal regulatory agency. 

What made it special was how it pierced me, and it really shouldn't have. I was aware of it at the time, and felt awed by the effect she had. Let's give the little girl her fair share of credit, but the "mood preparation" from aerobic exercise clinched it.

So that's where I sit: wondering whether subjective experiences like this are worth writing about. Obviously I finally decided that anything this fine, is worth it.

This example might be useful to people who are in the mood to stop thinking of aerobic exercise as a dreary grind that you do only because it is 'good for you.'  It would be useful to them to understand how calm euphoria from aerobic exercise intensifies the enjoyment of so many things, sleep, music, water, food, or just about anything!