What I found in the shrubbery

A year ago this day, I was in my front room — where I am now as I type this — thinking to myself how much I enjoyed the quiet. The day before, the neighborhood had been filled with the din of the Downer Classic bike race, which essentially turned my condo building’s front yard into a street festival. (Side note, this is super convenient when you get thirsty for a beer.) Turns out the quiet was a good thing, because the noise I heard next would not have been audible without it.

It was a plaintive mewing sound, coming from somewhere in the shrubbery under my balcony. The instant I heard it — I’ll never forget this — I thought two things.

1. It is a stray kitten (picture in my head of incredibly cute fluffy ball with sad eyes).

2. It is Jools reincarnated and coming to visit me (picture in my head of cat who died two years earlier).

Now, Thought #1 is reasonable enough. However, I cannot explain Thought #2 reasonably. My personal theory is that I was missing Jools a lot more than I realized. As some of you may know, Jools was my petulant roommate for 20 years and the only cat I had ever hung out with. She had been with me through two states, four towns, five employers, five homes, one temporary home (thanks, Suzanne) and one fiance. She had been the most consistent living being with me over that stretch of time.

This is Jools

This is Jools.

Anyway, after hearing another mew, I went outside to check the shrubbery.

Several of my neighbors were already there, and I immediately recognized this tableau: respectable adults on hands and knees pleading with a creature in the bushes. I had done it quite a few times with the aforementioned Jools. Of course, I joined my neighbors, crouched into the landscaping, and spotted the source of the mewing. I was startled to see that the little forlorn fuzz ball was a white-brown-gray tabby just like Jools. Same eyelinered eyes. Same masked face.

Readers,  I sense you know where this is going. Long and short of it, the fuzz ball is now permanently part of my household.

strayfuzzball

The fuzz ball, in my bathroom.

At first there was a joint-custody arrangement with Morgan and Ellen, two of my wonderful neighbors who actually know some things about cats. We shared care-taking duties while we tried to assess the fuzz ball’s health (just fine) and find her owner (no luck). We decided to name her Georgia, after the name of our condo building, The Georgetown. But Morgan and Ellen were not in a position to take her in, long-term. So I caved.

GeorgieonscreenIn the time that she has been with me Georgia, a.k.a. Georgie, has taught me that she is not Jools. For one thing, Miss Jools, as I keep reminding her, never ever walked on my countertops, scratched the upholstery, put her head into every mug and glass left behind in the house, climbed up the screen windows, walked across my keyboard as I type, or scattered her litter all over the room. Georgie has wasted no time putting distance between herself and her predecessor, despite some similarities in their appearance. OK. I get it Georgie.

On the other hand, she does crawl into my lap at times.  I like that. And she plays a game with me, where she runs down the hallway, crouches, and looks back, which means “Throw that toy mouse NOW,” which I usually do. And you should see her jump! She is quite the athlete.

So anyway, it’s been a year, and I think we’re making it work. If you are curious, look for #tuesdaykitten every week on my Facebook page, I post a weekly update about her.

Thanks, Morgan and Ellen, for helping Georgie get back to health those first few weeks, and for the team effort in finding a home for the fuzz ball in the bushes.

And thanks, Georgie, for teaching me, once again, that cats do not conform to my personal expectations. Ever. But don’t blame me if I keep wishing.

Georgie on the bookshelf, looking for trouble.

Georgie on the bookshelf, looking for trouble.

 

 

 

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Binge-viewing bonanza, part 2

My binge-viewing habit started with movies. It was a snowy weekend while I was living in a little town just north of Niagara Falls. I didn’t have many friends at the time, so naturally I went to the video rental store. I still recall that blissful, wintry weekend of binging on the Godfather movies.

So I was surprised to see so few movies recommended for my binge-viewing list. Maybe it’s because you have to go back a ways for the really good stuff, and that stuff isn’t top-of-mind. (Facebook favors the top-of-mind.) And it’s true there is an embarrassment of riches on television these days. But I did receive a handful, including one fabulous trove of suggestions from my old friend and colleague Joe Vince. Anyway, here goes.

First, the paltry list from my non-Joe friends:

  • Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy: “Bleu”, “Bialy”, “Blanc”
  • The Harry Potter series
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, ending with The Hobbit and then a trip to theater to see “The Desolation of Smaug”

All worthwhile films for sure, but a tiny selection. Joe’s list makes up for it. Here goes (I am repeating it verbatim):

Neo-Noir by Decade: Start with Lee Marvin in “Point Blank” (1967), then “The Long Goodbye” (1973), throw in Michael Mann’s “Thief” (1980) and Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1997) and end with “Brick” (2005) and “Killing Them Softly” (2012)

Orson Welles (Minus “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”): “The Third Man,” “Lady From Shanghai,” “Mr. Arkadin,” “Touch of Evil” and “F For Fake.” If you’re feeling particularly game, end it with the animated “Transformers: The Movie” from the 1980s.

My Top 12 Movie Christmases: All of these are set during the season or have excellent Christmas scenes. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” The Thin Man,” “GoodFellas,” “The Godfather,” “Die Hard,” “Boogie Nights,” “The Apartment,” “Brazil,” “Go,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Trading Places,” and “LA Confidential.”

“The Story of Film: An Odyssey”: OK, this is one thing, a 15-part British documentary series (each episode is an hour) that’s on Netflix and is phenomenal. I binge-watched this earlier this year, and it was a revelation. Biggest downside: The narrator’s voice is haunting, and I don’t mean that as a good thing. He’s Irish, but his accent and inflections are quite possibly the most discordant in the history voice-over narration. Not enough to make me not recommend the series, but enough to fill my sleeping hours with dread. A the kids say, tho, your mileage may vary.

Happy Holidays, everyone! See you next year.

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Binge-viewing bonanza! Or, what I am doing over my holiday vacation

I am about to experience two blissful weeks of Living Lightly. No holiday travel, four days off work (plus two weekends), barely any holiday parties, and a lovely low-stress boyfriend who does a lot of the cooking. When it dawned on me that this would be the case, I naturally thought: BINGE VIEWING.

I’ve got the time, I’ve got the couch, I’ve got the excuse (super cold and snowy outside). Just one catch. I have run out of ideas. I set up a binge-viewieng wish list a while back, and I’ve gone through most of it. What’s left is either outdated or, well, at the bottom of the list.

So I decided to crowd-source:

Image

I was not quite prepared for the response. I received roughly 70 comments and 98 recommendations in all. And boy are they an eclectic mix.

I was so overwhelmed by the choices — and my friends’ enthusiasm — that I felt I should share. I think it’s a list that will help humankind. Consider it my holiday gift to you, my way of preventing you from wasting your time on untested BBC series, or questionable Showtime productions, or B-list HBO programming.

But first — a few observations.

The number-one most frequently recommended binge-viewing series: House of Cards (12 recommendations). Almost no one specified original BBC version versus Netflix, but given how recently it was promoted on Netflix I’m gonna guess the Kevin Spacey version was the impetus.

This was followed by:

  • Orange is the New Black (7 recommendations)
  • Downtown Abbey (6)
  • Homeland (6)
  • Game of Thrones (5)
  • Scandal (4)

And then it drops off.

My personal favorites were the surprises — lesser-known British series (thanks, Jeff, for tipping me off about Mapp & Lucia), or old gems (Twin Peaks!) or newer options I had overlooked (Portlandia and American Horror Story look pretty great). On the other hand, I am kind of shocked at some oversights (Rome! True Blood! Battlestar Galactica! People, come on!). And of course, there is a natural filter in that these come from my Facebook friends, and therefore from people inclined to have tastes, cultural references, and quirks similar to mine, for better or worse.

So here’s the list. I am breaking it into two parts: TV shows and movies. I am starting with TV shows, and am bold-facing ones that I have seen and can recommend. They are in alphabetical order with the number of recommendations listed in parentheses (if more than  one). Check back in the next day or two for the movies. Now, the only thing I need to do is pick what I’ll binge on tomorrow. Yikes.

24
Arrested Development (2)
Better Off Ted (2)
The Blacklist
Boardwalk Empire
Bones
Breaking Bad (3)
Burn Notice
Dexter
Doctor Who (2)
Call the Midwife
Chuck
Coven
Deadwood (2)
Downton Abbey (6)
The Following
Elementary
Eureka
Firefly
Fresh Meat
Friday Night Lights (2)
Fringe
Game of Thrones (5)
The Hollow Crown
House
Homeland (6)
House of Cards (12) (I saw the BBC version)
The IT Crowd
Justified
The Killing (2)
Life
Life on Mars (the original British version) and its spinoff Ashes to Ashes
Lillyhammer
Longmire
Lost
Luther
Mad Men
Mapp & Lucia
Merlin
Monarch of the Glen
Monk
NCIS
Nurse Jackie (2)
Once Upon a Time
Orange is the New Black (7)
Orphan Black (2)
Parenthood
Portlandia
Realtree’s Monster Bucks XVII
Rev
Scandal (4)
Sex in the City
Shameless
Sherlock
Six Feet Under (2)
Slings and Arrows
Sons of Anarchy
Spy
The Top of the Lake
Treme (2)
Tudors (3)
Twin Peaks
The Wallender series
The White Queen
West Wing
The Wire

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A publisher’s reflections: Life in a post-panic world

I’m in my fourth decade in the publishing business. From the first week I set foot in the door of this occupation, I’ve been hearing alarms about the death of fill-in-the-blank. With all due respect, I’m over it.

Newspapers, magazines, books, the written word – they are not dying. They’re sharing the audience with more options. The way I see it, hanging on to the discussion about what’s going away is a distraction from the hard work of moving forward. I’d rather be in conversations about the fun stuff going on and how to be part of it.

I went to Oxford, Miss., last week to attend a conference hosted by The University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Billed as a gathering of industry folks “looking for solutions to today’s publishing problems,” it’s called the ACT Experience — Amplify, Clarify, Testify. It’s a little like a publishing PechaKucha except each presenter gets 30 minutes instead of 6 minutes, 40 seconds.

I hadn’t been to an organized gathering of publishing people in a while. Following trends via news feeds and e-newsletters is hardly a substitute, and I was looking forward to an actual 3-D discussion. I couldn’t wait to hear from a former publisher of The New Yorker, the multimedia director at Vanity Fair, the co-founder of Blindfold magazine, and the creative minds behind one of the biggest women’s magazine in the Netherlands, among other folks doing very cool things in the magazine world. I was, however, wary of the theme: “Never Underestimate the Power of Print in a Digital Age.” Would we be recycling the death-of-print conversation again?

Thankfully, no. What happened instead was invigorating and encouraging. While some of the issues and admonitions were familiar, there was a different undercurrent. As I listened to one speaker after another, the ideas shifted fluidly from print to digital to QR codes to mobile to watermarking to . . . whatever. There was a lot of talk about storytelling, content, passion, quality. It wasn’t platform-agnostic so much as platform-pluralistic.

BoSacks holds forth.

By the end I was thinking that, after all these years, maybe we are ready to get on with things. And as I’ve thought about it since, I think maybe a corner has been turned, one where we folks in the business of producing paid content can quit obsessing over what we are losing grip of and invest our energy in getting a grip.

I scribbled pages of notes while I sat in the auditorium. Here’s a small sample:

“Loss of dominance is not equivalent to death, it just feels that way.” — Bob Sacks a.k.a. BoSacks, the inimitable media blogger.

“The human story by terrific writers wins any battle in any market.” – Michael Capuzzo, who with his wife Teresa publishes Mountain Home magazine.

“Mediocre content is fading fast in print.” — Bob Sacks again, warning us that there’s no room for so-so print content anymore. His advice: “Stop whining about the death of print, which isn’t happening, and get back to the business of producing content people want.” The future is all about fewer, better, more expensive print products.

And here’s my favorite quote of all from the Act 3 Experience:

“Make something worth printing.”

This comes from a third-generation printer. His name is David Fry, chief technology officer at Fry Communications, and he was one of several printing-industry representatives who were talking about ways their business is adapting in today’s marketplace.

If it’s good enough, if it’s something your customer wants, it’s worth the tactile, permanent experience of print. It’s worth paying for and holding on to. “Make something worth printing.” It kind of all boils down to that, doesn’t it?

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Q and A: Stephan Pastis tosses a few pearls

This Q&A will appear in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, or see it online at jsonline.com.

Pig, friend of Rat, product of Stephan Pastis’s brain.

Lawyer-turned-cartoonist-turned-tweener-novelist Stephan Pastis visits Milwaukee Monday to promote his 20th collection of “Pearls Before Swine” comic strips. “Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out!” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $16.99) collects two years’ worth of strips, and reminds us that Pastis’s dysfunctional menagerie has lost none of its twisted charm.

It’s been 10 years since Milwaukee Journal Sentinel readers were first introduced to Rat, Pig and the rest of the gang. Rat’s still the cynical, know-it-all rodent who plays yin to Pig’s exasperatingly clueless yang. The world they share with professorial Goat, long-suffering Zebra, volatile Guard Duck and other sidekicks remains goofy, irreverent, and off-kilter enough to keep you guessing.

Pastis, meanwhile, has seen his strip picked up by more than 600 newspapers worldwide, has launched a “Pearls” iPad app, and shows real star quality in his promotional videos. Just in case that comic-strip thing doesn’t work out (and perhaps desperate not to resort to his original law career), he has two more books due in the next six months: “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” an illustrated novel aimed at kids 8 to 12, and “Friends Should Know When They’re Not Wanted: A Sociopath’s Guide to Friendship.

In “Freaks,” Pastis annotates many strips with pithy comments and insightful asides (sample: “‘Sigh’ is a great way to end a strip for which you otherwise have no ending”). We asked him for a few more in advance of his appearance at Boswell Book Company.

Q. As one of our foremost promoters of pigs in popular culture, how do you feel about “Angry Birds?”
A. Rat loves any game that abuses pigs. Though as the creator of both, I try to remain neutral. On a much more insightful note, I, Stephan Pastis, have gotten all three stars on every single level of Angry Birds, including the latest update. It is the proudest accomplishment of my life.

Q. Your new book reveals your secret desire to do the Lambeau Leap after book signings. Should we be ready to catch you in Boswell’s fiction section tomorrow?

A. I fear that any fans of Rat would get more joy in seeing me fall than actually catching me. And I applaud them for that.

Q. Comic-strip celebrities often make appearances in your strip. Have they ever made odd demands? All-yellow M&Ms in the break room, things like that?

A. Dennis the Menace had demands involving women that I cannot repeat here.

Q. Album cover art, hand-written letters, the ode – all once popular, mainstream practices and now, not so much. Will the comic strip go the way of the ode, something respected but with a small, eccentric audience?

A. I’d tell you if I knew what the hell an ode was.

Q. Did Rat have an unhappy childhood?

A. His father was killed by a circus clown. Other than that, pretty normal.

Q. In “Freaks,” you remark that some characters never caught on, one tragic example being Feral Ballerina. Any particularly big disappointments?

A. There was a killer whale that lived next door to some seals and he was always trying to get into their house to eat them. I loved that whale. But I don’t think anyone else did. So I had him die as a result of an exploding meatloaf.

Q. “Freaks” also resurrects a dizzying array of characters who never re-appeared – Kiko The Lonely Cactus, Jenny Jellyfish and J. Rutherford Shrimp to name a few. Have you ever resurrected a character by popular demand?

A. I believe the aforementioned whale has died, undied, died, and undied again. He’s quite flexible.

Q. Action figures, amusement park ride, Broadway musical, clay animation movie, talk show: If you had your choice, which would be your dream PBS brand extension?

A. Guard Duck action figure that lobs actual hand grenades. (Don’t worry. We’d include detailed safety instructions.)

Q. “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” is coming out in February. It’s about a kid who can’t do anything right. Autobiographical?
A. Timmy is a detective who can take any mystery and make it more mysterious. He has few friends, is very arrogant, and is profoundly delusional. And yes, that about sums me up.

:: Stephan Pastis will sign books 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave.

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My “Pearls Before Swine” Legacy

When I look back on my career, just about the only lasting impact I can point to is the funny pages. For about eight years, I had control over the two pages daily and six pages Sunday whose primary, number-one, most important mission was: Make ’em laugh (except I guess for “Spider Man” and about every other episode of “Marmaduke”). This is to say that I took calls from sales reps pitching new strips and I collected piles of press kits stuffed with funny-page samples and I made the decisions about which comics to kill in order to make room for new ones. Yes, it was me, I yanked “Cathy” from the local newspaper. I know, I know.

This responsibility terrified me at first, but over the years I really warmed up to the job. I like to think I started refining my eye.

Rat, one of the main characters in “Pearls Before Swine,” is pretty much the antithesis of Nancy.

Which brings me to “Pearls Before Swine.” I am proud to take responsibility for adding this brilliant strip to the pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 10 years ago. I wish I could remember exactly what convinced me to snap this newcomer up. It could have been the fact that creator Stephan Pastis put Nancy into one of his strips in a sort of cameo appearance — a technique he would later use with characters from “Family Circus,” “Hagar,” “Blondie,” and many others. The juxtaposition of this uncool bow-decorated 1930s girl with a deeply cynical bat-carrying rat was, to me, pure genius. (Looking back, I think it resonated, on a subconscious level, with my anxiety about mediating the tension between nostalgia and relevance on the comics page, a foreboding of things to come for newspapers. But let’s not go there.)

I’ve moved on to other things and that’s good. Space for comics has shrunk for every newspaper in the country, and I don’t envy the folks who have had to manage that new reality. But at least the good people at the JS have held on to “Pearls”, which I still adore.

The newest collection of “Pearls” from Stephan Pastis

I mention all this because Stephan has a new collection of strips out (his 20th) and it’s a hoot. When I learned he was going to be in Milwaukee to promote it, I got in touch and caught up with him a little. He’s been a busy guy: doing videos to promote the strip, launching an iPad app, even working on an illustrated novel for young people.

If you’re nearby this Monday, Oct. 1, come on over and visit Stephan at Boswell Book Company. Things get started at 7 p.m. There have been some rumors of a Lambeau Leap in the fiction section afterward, but I cannot verify this.

Also, watch this space for a Q-&-A I did with Stephan in advance of his visit (it’ll be in the Journal Sentinel, too).

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Sometimes, Potato Salad is just Potato Salad

You pay good money for an artisanal stuffed dachsund at a chic art-village boutique, you mail it to your beloved nephew, you picture him embracing it with big happy eyes and a bubble over his head saying, “You are my favorite aunt.” You visit months later to find the dachsund is untouched, but the $3.49 rubber frog you picked up at the 7-Eleven the last time you visited is squeezed and chewed to within an inch of its life. There’s no bubble over the little guy’s head, either.

I suspect my reaction to this phenomenon is something like the way my Mom used to feel about her potato salad.

“You don’t want my Sour Cream Apple Cake? What about this great Bon Appetit recipe for Pan Asian Cole Slaw? You want the potato salad? Again?”

No thank you, no thank you, yes please.

Sometimes you’re stuck with the tried-and-true, however bored you might be with it. And Mom, for the record, I want to tell you that this is OK when it comes to your potato salad.

Potato. Onion. Vinegar. Mayo. And a few basic but critical ingredients in just the right proportions. Boil. Dice. Toss. The best. For going on 50 years now.

All the Golembeski daughters had their staples at the family picnics, the things they’d be expected to pack in the ice coolers without being asked. They could turn them out in their sleep (or, I imagine, when sleep deprived). If Aunt Marlene did not bring her elbow-macaroni-with-shrimp salad and if Aunt Dot did not bring her potato salad, the disappointment would be palpable.

Mind you, I grew up at a time when a fresh basil leaf was exotic. If it wasn’t in a can, a jar, or a Green Giant frozen-food box, I would not know what to make of it. Creative cuisine meant making chip dip without Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. At some time in my high school years, though, I sensed change afoot. A copy of Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cook Book showed up. Someone introduced red-skinned potatoes to one of our family picnics, with the skins still on! Mom even started putting wine into food, for God’s sake.

When I moved out on my own, I started getting invited to picnics of my own. I am not sure when the inevitable dish-to-pass question first came up, but I know that my reflexive answer was: Mom’s potato salad. I knew exactly how to make it. I could shop for the ingredients without thinking. It was always a snappy solution. And you know what? It was a hit! People started expecting it.

In more recent years – OK, decades — picnic activities have fallen off, my potato-salad fans have moved on, and I guess it’s fair to say I’ve tried rebranding myself. I felt I should evolve from Picnic Dish-to-Pass to Dinner Party Cuisine-to-Impress (“We’re thinking of regional Mexican next Saturday, does Oaxacan mole sound OK?”). But a call came a few weeks back, my first in ages: A neighborhood backyard picnic. Smoked pork shoulder, cole slaw, the works. I said I’d bring Mom’s potato salad before it occurred to me that the unthinkable had happened, and I no longer remembered how to make it.

Shockingly, it didn’t take long to find the “recipe,” stuffed into a folder that was shoved to the back of a closet shelf. There you go, scrawled onto the back of a Niagara Gazette memo slip, I’m sure as I was talking to her on the phone at work: Mom’s Potato Salad.

Potato. Onion. Vinegar. Mayo. And a few basic but critical ingredients in just the right proportions.

I boiled. I diced. I tossed. The muscle memory came back as I put each potato into my palm, took up a blunt-edged dinner knife, and cubed. I had jotted down proportions, but I knew they were rough. I had to use instinct. Was a time it would turn out just right after a few tastes, but that takes practice. It had been so many years that I didn’t trust my judgment about the celery seed, the sugar, the salt. I was just hoping for approximately right.

I tasted, adjusted, and thought – not bad.

I think everyone like it. It seemed to stand up well to the red-skinned competition someone else brought along. I think I’ll make another batch this weekend. I figure it’s my time of life to embrace my brand, even if it’s just white-skinned potatoes and mayo. I’m OK with that.

Thanks, Mom. And happy birthday!

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