Friday, December 30, 2011

Reflections & Remarks on the Year Gone By (December 30, 2011)

I never imagined a year ago that 2011 would turn out to be so life-changing. It didn’t start with a bang and won’t end with a whimper. But, it was neither the best of times nor the worst. It was mostly just lousy.
One of the best days was July 9th when I was at Yankee Stadium with my two oldest friends as we witnessed Derek Jeter get his milestone 3,000th hit. Even in a great year, something that momentous would stand out.
A month later the worst day happened of the blue when I was unexpectedly fired.
I’m not making any New Year’s resolutions or harboring notions of a great leap forward, but as the autumn of my life begins, I hope winter's down the road a piece.
Don’t get me wrong, I try to maintain a positive outlook, but with the few setbacks I’ve had, that has somewhat diminished. Gratefully, in regards to the outlook, several friends have been supportive.
Since August, I’ve tried to adjust to being jobless, because finding one — or any satisfying employment — at this point in time doesn’t look promising.
Leads have been few didn’t pan out. Weeks after one interview, I learned I was rejected because I wouldn’t “fit in,” which might be interpreted as a polite — and legitimate — way to let me down easy, instead of bluntly informing me I was too old. Nonetheless, if I was hired, it would merely have provided nothing more than a daily activity to get me out of the house.
I’ve had about a dozen freelance writing/photography assignments, which have not been especially financially rewarding.
To keep my writing skills fresh, I started a blog, and though it hasn’t drawn many readers, I continue to post a new column weekly. It doesn’t matter who reads it, but, presumably, most are friends and acquaintances, not Internet surfers seeking a clever viewpoint. Nevertheless, I’ll keep posting, if only for my own satisfaction.
Furthermore, since I have anyone to proofread it, I’ve become a better editor though I tend to tweak it a bit even after it’s posted and find an error.
So, now that I’m accustomed to the bleak job picture, much like millions of others across the country, I spend more time than I prefer, planning activities, errands for the upcoming week and puttering around my apartment.
Being idle doesn’t mean being idle.
I’ve cut spending to equal my budget reduction, but also realized that keeping my brain functioning — and my body — is just as critical.
We’ve all been cautioned that to ward off Alzheimer’s disease it is vital to maintain brain activity. In that regard, I do the Daily News crossword puzzle and Jumble six mornings a week. They’re not extremely complex, but it is rewarding when I usually complete them.
The harder part is physical activity. I’ve become sedentary as I spend more time at the computer and watch more cable news by day and a few favorite programs at night. I’ve also been reading more. Before the weather got colder, I’d walk around the Marine Park oval several times a week. I’ve been doing that intermittently for well over a decade now and it stirs my endorphins and gives me a feeling of accomplishment.
Now that I’ve bared myself, to some degree, here are a few things that ticked me off in the past year.
2012 is going to be a long year — politically. Anyone who’s paid attention to domestic current events has seen the yo-yo effect that continues to dominate the Republican Party’s presidential nomination race that will likely continue until one individual is harvested to end this exhausting ordeal at the top of the news every morning.
For the last five months, unless there was a disaster or tragedy at home or abroad, cable news networks began their 24-7 time slots with “breaking news” tidbits from the Republican debates and consequent Democratic reactions.  It’s mind-numbing to watch the same news over and over. Even before the first GOP battle at the voting booth in Iowa next week, and the presidential election almost a year away, we’ve seen a dozen debates and as many lead changes for the Republican frontrunner.
Americans apathetic to the political process likely turned a deaf ear to the chaotic GOP race from the start, while political junkies, who delight in such matters, cannot seriously be looking forward to ten more months of this.
Nevertheless, this is what we’ve come to expect from our limited democratic process and relentless news coverage.
Some names I’d like to read or hear a lot less about in 2012 include any member of the Kardashian clan and the Jersey Shore gang, especially Snookie; Lindsay Lohan should go into seclusion and straighten herself out before reemerging, and, last but not least, Donald Trump.
Celebrity weddings should be ignored. From now on, unless a couple manages to reach their first anniversary, there should be a mandatory blackout because, as we’ve seen lately, that goal is scarce.
It ain’t never gonna happen while there’s apparently an avid audience for it, but I’d be thrilled with a lot less media coverage of celebrity gossip that passes for news nowadays.
And if you’re a fan of reality shows, wake up and smell the staged dramatics. When it comes to television programming, reality has truly lost its meaning. 
Went to a movie, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” for the first time in months and it was very good, from the riveting screenplay to the first-rate acting to the stylish, spot on atmosphere on screen. (However, a few members of the audience supplied an uncalled-for laugh track during terribly violent scenes – which I may provide fodder for another column.) I never read the best-seller on which the film is based, but this version, surprisingly, is much better than the European version I saw on DVD. Due to graphic scenes depicting sadism and murder, which are key plot points, this ain’t a date movie.  I anticipate the sequel and plan on reading the second book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy early next year.
Well, that’s my final column for 2011. I wish my regular and occasional readers a happy and healthy New Year. And if prosperity also comes your way, that’s great.
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

This Brooklyn Diamond Keeps On Shining (November 17, 2005)

In conjunction with the airing of the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors, here's a column I wrote several years ago about one of the recipients.
Has anyone checked to see if hell froze over last week?
It might have because veteran pop singer/songwriter Neil Diamond has been receiving the kind of first-rate reviews and praise from music critics for his latest recording that are usually reserved for less popular, more hip performers.
Who would have thought that this Brooklyn native son would become the music critics’ darling 40 years after his career began as a $50-a-week songwriter?
Well, maybe not a darling, but his latest disc, “12 Songs,” which was released last week, has garnered some exceptional reviews from the likes of Newsweek and Rolling Stone magazines, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, among others, including words and phrases like “masterpiece,” “unparalleled songwriting,” “returns Diamond to greatness” and “(Diamond’s) best work in 30 years.”
Despite his immense popularity – he reportedly was the biggest selling solo concert draw in the 1990s and has sold over 120 million records — Diamond has rarely, if ever, earned the kind of accolades he’s now getting from critics who typically reviled and panned the dozens of albums he’s recorded during his career. Derisive terms, such as master of schlock ‘n roll, schmaltzy crowd pleaser, bloated, over-produced, the Jewish Elvis and others, has followed him his entire career. Sometimes his detractors seemed to ignore the music as they panned his sequined, studded and beaded wardrobe.
Early in his career Diamond had a string of 15 hits in five years (“Cherry, Cherry,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” among them), more than 40 Top 40 hits, and several of his songs have been covered by a diverse mix of artists, from The Monkees to Urge Overkill to Tina Turner to Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, to name a few.
“12 Songs” was one of the most-anticipated releases of the year because Diamond turned to hip-hop and hard rock producer Rick Rubin, who had worked with such contemporary and veteran artists, as LL Cool J, Jay Z, Tom Petty and Mick Jagger, before reviving country singer Johnny Cash’s career a decade ago.
Rubin, Diamond learned, had been a fan of the singer/songwriter for years and persuaded him to go back to the basics — playing acoustic guitar and recording his songs with minimal accompaniment. In other words, forgo the dramatic atmosphere and get back to his roots — his unmistakable baritone voice and musicianship. For the first time in 35 years Diamond plays guitar on the recording.
Rubin stripped Diamond of the customary glitz and trimmings to carve out a dozen low key, reflective and passionate songs without losing the powerful emotions prevalent in his repertoire of power ballads and up-tempo songs, and backed him essentially with only a handful of musicians.
Diamond, who attended Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School, has even admitted in recent interviews that he feels some of his new songs hark back to his first two albums, albeit with much more mature outlooks.
Like others who deem it unfashionable to admit, I enjoy much of Neil Diamond’s music, particularly his earlier work. My musical tastes are diverse, with a penchant for classic rock, but when someone asks me to list my favorites I rarely include Diamond, though I enjoy listening to his music and include one of his Forest Hills shows as a favorite concert. I find some of his later material excessive, but his early work, despite being nostalgic like some early Beatles’ songs, has stood the test of time.
In addition to being drawn to his music, there’s also an indirect link because of our similar roots. He is several years older than me, but we grew up in adjoining neighborhoods – he in Brighton Beach, me in Sheepshead Bay. That connection re-emerges whenever I listen to the opening stanza from his reflective “Brooklyn Roads” that recalls a time and place to which I relate: “If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my mother/Callin’ ‘Neil, go find your brother/Daddy’s home and it’s time for supper.’” (©1970 Stonebridge Music.)
As far as his loyal fans are concerned, Neil Diamond never lost his luster. And those who've enjoyed him from the closet can now unreservedly emerge.
Those who constantly condemned him for decades now concur that Neil Diamond has produced a sparkling gem.