15 Thoughts On The 2015 Oscars

- February 23rd, 2015

oscar-statuettes

This year was in the running for flatest Oscar show EVER — for the first half. And then it found its groove. And then it got pretty good.

Who kidnapped Neil Patrick Harris? Who was that boring, unfunny, mean-spirited imposter on stage?

Speaking of which, who was the worst Oscar host ever — (1) James Franco, (2) David Letterman or (3) fill in your choice here (mine is Whoopi Goldberg)?

And what was with all the underwear bits?

Please explain: Exactly how does one tell apart Chris Pine, Chris Pratt and Chris Evans? Or are they completely interchangeable?

Does someone win a makeup and/or special effects Oscar for turning John Travolta into Mae West?

Patricia Arquette? Granted, her equal-pay speech was the first spark of life in the Oscar show, but did she really deserve that Oscar? Really?

Did you notice how the stars (Steve Carell et al) were clutching their Lego replica Oscars more tightly than they would a real Oscar?

When is Channing Tatum going to pull the ripcord? You know it’s coming.

Is Benedict Cumberbatch the coolest actor in the world? Without question.

High point: Glory song writers Lonnie Lynn (Common) and John Stephens (John Legend) gave ripper acceptance speeches that deservedly got a standing ovation. (And presenters Idina Menzel and John Travolta were pretty funny goofing on Travolta’s botch of her name last year).

High point: I hate, hate, hate The Sound of Music. But I was pleasantly surprised by Lady Gaga’s performance — more impressed than by her collaboration with Tony Bennett.

High point: I would have been fine with any of the nominees for best director winning … but Alejandro Inarritu soared. And his second speech was even better than his first. What a guy.

High point: Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore seemed genuinely happy and excited to win their Oscars. But maybe they’re just really good actors.

Well, it’s nice Birdman won Best Picture, but isn’t that sort of a curse? Quick — tell me ONE Best Picture winner from the 21st Century. One that deserved to be Best Picture of the Year. One that will stand the test of time like Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather. Good as it was, you won’t be watching The King’s Speech for the 14th time in 2025. Or Birdman either. You just won’t. I guarantee it.

 

Back In The USSR

- February 15th, 2015

This is a Rewind of a Nosey Parker piece from March 13, 2014, originally entitled “A Quarrel In A Far-Away Country Between People Of Whom We Know Nothing.”

That quote was something Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said in a radio broadcast to the British people shortly before he flew to Munich, Germany, to sell out Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler in September 1938.

The piece compares Russian President Vlad Putin’s current machinations in Ukraine and elsewhere (hello, Baltic states) with Hitler’s aggressive moves in Europe in the late 1930s. It’s not an exact comparison, of course, but there are lessons to be learned from the democracies’ earlier failure of will that can be applied to the present series of escalating crises in eastern Europe.

As I said, the piece appeared in March 2014, after Russia had seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine but a few days before Putin formally annexed Crimea and before pro-Russian (and covert Russian) forces in eastern Ukraine began open warfare against the Kiev government in April.

It’s hard to believe all of that was less than a year ago. Just as it must have been hard for western Europeans to grasp the rapidity and urgency of cataclysmic events unfolding around them in the late 1930s.

The piece below appears exactly as it was written in March 2014. The points I was trying to make remain exactly the same today, but you do have to keep the context of when it was written in mind.

It’s quite a long piece with a lot of historical detail, so if you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the most salient part:

“That was the big mistake Chamberlain and his ilk made in the 1930s: They didn’t realize — probably couldn’t comprehend — that Hitler actually wanted another war. Of course Hitler was nervous about going to war, wanted it on the most advantageous terms and in the most favourable conditions, but he still wanted war — needed war, actually, to keep his house of cards from collapsing, to keep the world in thrall, to keep Germany, as he put it in 1942, ‘in a state of perpetual alertness.’

“Again we come to a comparative difference between Hitler and Putin. I am quite confident Putin doesn’t want war the way Hitler did. But Putin isn’t terribly afraid of war either. He’s quite willing to gamble and take chances in the pursuit of his goals. He’s much more willing to walk along the razor’s edge than Barack Obama or any of the other ‘leaders of the free world’ currently chastising him.”

The original piece in its entirety starts below the photo.

gas-masks

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

— Neville Chamberlain on 27 Sept. 1938, shortly before he flew to Germany to sign the Munich Agreement, caving in to Hitler and chopping up Czechoslovakia

 

“Being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

— Dirty Harry, 1971

 

Sudetenland-salute

Just how far is too far?

Far away enough to forget about or going too far to be able to ignore?

How far has Vladimir Putin gone? How much further will he go? When will push come to shove?

Can Vlad Putin’s takeover of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 really be compared to Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938?

All good questions, hard questions, important questions. Glad I don’t have to answer them.

But Barack Obama and the rest of the “leaders of the free world” do,  just like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Premier Edouard Daladier and the other “leaders of the free world”  had to when faced with the aggressive expansionism of Hitler in the 1930s.

 

You think that comparison is going to far,  mixing apples and oranges?

Well consider this headline:

“Western dilemma: Giving XXX to YYY to save ZZZ”

And here’s the start of the story that goes with that headline:

“It is the ugly solution to the XXX crisis world leaders will never acknowledge but grudgingly may have to accept.

“Give XXX to YYY — and hope this sates his ambition of being remembered as the omnipotent leader who restored AAA’s post-BBB might enough to leave the rest of ZZZ alone.”

In the 1938 version, the XXXs represent Sudetenland, the YYYs  represent Adolf Hitler, the ZZZs represent Czechoslovakia, the AAAs represent Germany and the BBBs represent World War I. (I know the writer wouldn’t call it World War ONE yet in 1938, but we’re working from hindsight and you’d get confused if I called it THE World War.)

So the 1938 headline and story would read:

“Western dilemma: Giving Sudetenland to Hitler to save Czechoslovakia

“It is the ugly solution to the Sudetenland crisis world leaders will never acknowledge but grudgingly may have to accept.

“Give Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler — and hope this sates his ambition of being remembered as the omnipotent leader who restored Germany’s post-World War I might enough to leave the rest of Czechoslovakia alone.” 

In the 2014 version, the XXXs represent Crimea, the YYYs  represent Vladimir Putin, the ZZZs represent Ukraine, the AAAs represent Russia and the BBBs represent Soviet Union.

So the 2014 version would read:

“Western dilemma: Giving Crimea to Putin to save Ukraine

“It is the ugly solution to the Crimea crisis world leaders will never acknowledge but grudgingly may have to accept.

“Give Crimea to Vladimir Putin — and hope this sates his ambition of being remembered as the omnipotent leader who restored Russia’s post-Soviet might enough to leave the rest of Ukraine alone.” 

ANSWER: It just doesn’t matter. It could be either. It applies to both. In point of fact, it’s an AFP wire story from a few days ago — March 10, 2014. But it could just as easily have been a Reuters wire story from September 1938.

 

Of course I know Vlad Putin isn’t an exact replica of Adolf Hitler, and modern Russia is not the same beast as Nazi Germany, and the present Crimea Crisis is not a Groundhog Day repeat of the 1938 Sudetenland Crisis.

In fact, Crimea in 2014 might be better compared to Hitler’s reacquisition of the Saar region in 1935, his military takeover of the Rhineland in 1936, his absorption of Austria in the 1938 Anschluss (six months before the Sudetenland Crisis) or his annexation of Memelland from Lithuania (Ha! Didn’t know about that one, did you?) and occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

German-annexation-1930s

(What about 1937, you ask? Didn’t Hitler do anything really bad in 1937 — apart from increasing the persecution and murder of Jews, left-wingers, dissidents, modern artists and other “anti-social undesirables” inside Greater Germany and using the Spanish Civil War as an off-site training seminar and bomb practice range for the Luftwaffe, I mean? Well, in 1937 Hitler was busy planning the events of 1938 and 1939, weeding out softies from the Wehrmacht high command  and getting his military ducks in a row.)

So the Saar. Rhineland, Austria, Memelland etc. could be considered 1930s versions of Crimea as easily as the Sudetenland. Or they could be compared to Russia’s takeover of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. Or you could even get into Putin’s brutal suppression of independence aspirations in the Caucasus republics.

Sudetenland-map

Crimea_1882

And we haven’t mentioned the various 1930s crises linked to Hitler’s avaricious designs on the Free City of Danzig and the Danzig Corridor in Poland. Danzig (Gdansk) bears a striking similarity to Kaliningradskaya Oblast, that outport of the Soviet Empire still proudly waving the Russian flag (and housing a large Russian military presence) 300 km west of the Russian frontier, smack dab in the middle of nervous Poland , only about 100 km as the crow flies from old Danzig/Gdansk.

And let’s not even mention that other breakaway Russian enclave, Transnistria, squatting even further away from Mother Russia between Ukraine and Moldova, just up the road from Crimea.

But forget all that.

Forget those parallel litanies of obscure names and forgotten dates and painful memories of wrongs done and scores settled. They don’t matter, at least not in the specific.

My point is this: The exactitude of comparison doesn’t matter. It’s the general thrust of events you should consider, the weight of historical impetus, the pattern of expansionism and aggression and escalation and self-justifying, self-fulfilling inevitability.

The differences between Hitler and Putin, between German expansionism of the 1930s and current Russian expansionism are matters of degree, not intent — quantity not quality.

 

I used to be annoyed during the Cold War whenever anyone referred to the Soviet Union as “the Russians” because (for heaven’s sake, you idiot!) “Russia” was only one of dozens of partner elements making up the USSR — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

But I was wrong: The USSR was just the Russian Empire under a different name. It was always “the Russians” that counted, that called the shots. Sometimes the “Russians” were ethnically Georgians or Ukrainians or Kazaks or Uzbeks or  Estonians or Moldovans, but they were all ultimately “Russians” serving the cause and purposes of a “Russian” Empire.

That Russian Empire stretches back to its founding by the Vikings (really, Vikings — I’m simplifying a bit yet it’s true) about 1,200 years ago. I hate to tell you this but, in its early days, the heart of the Russian Empire was Kiev, not Moscow. So you can’t be too surprised that “Russia” and “Russians” still have a very paternalistic/possessive view of Ukraine, its people and its territory.

Russia is now formally the Russian Federation, consisting of almost two dozen nominally autonomous republics, twice as many oblasts (provinces) and more than a dozen other bits and pieces identified as krais and okrugs and whatnot.

But it’s all still “Russia,” baby. And it’s getting bigger year by year as the black hole that is the Kremlin keeps sucking back in chunks of territory that dislodged when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990-91 period.

And at the centre of power, the very focal point of the Kremlin’s fundamental black hole, is Vladimir Putin, ruler of the Russian Empire for going on 15 years. That’s almost as long as he was a KGB officer, keeping the locals in line for prior occupants of the Kremlin.

As Putin said when he was sworn in as president of Russia for the third time in 2012:

“I consider it to be the meaning of my whole life and my obligation to serve my fatherland and our people.”

And, of course, the world notices. In October 2013, Forbes magazine declared Putin “the most powerful person in the world” — more powerful than Barack Obama (2011 and 2012′s most powerful), Xi Jinping, Pope Francis or even Bill Gates.

It’s more than a little reminiscent of Time magazine declaring Adolf Hitler “Man of 1938,” the year Hitler “strode over a cringing Europe with all the swagger of a conquerer,” as Time put it.

Time-Man-of-1938-cover

The Time cover didn’t mention Hitler by name, just identified him as “MAN OF 1938: From the unholy organist, a hymn of hate” with a black and white drawing of Hitler sitting at a pipe organ which controlled a giant medieval breaking wheel, a machine of torture and death.

Time-2007-Person-of-the-Year

Vlad Putin got the same honour — only now called “Person of the Year” — from Time in 2007. He was designated “Tsar of The New Russia.”

 

Of course Germany in the 1930s and Russia today are two completely different places, forged by different histories and geographies and cultures and experiences.

But life does have a habit of repeating itself in broad strokes. Human nature and the pulsations of social magma are the same in every generation and every corner of the world.

Hitler wanted to restore a Greater Germany to its rightful place of power and prominence in the world, a position from which he felt it was toppled by treachery and deceit, weakness and a failure of will at the end of World War I.

Putin wants to restore a Greater Russia to its rightful place of power and prominence in the world, fueled by a similar sense of anger, resentment and lost entitlement due to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

David-Low-18Feb1938

So, no, I do not believe Putin is Hitler reincarnate. And, no, I do not believe that Putin’s Russia in the 21st Century is behaving exactly like Hitler’s Germany of the 20th Century.

But I do believe they are driven by the same impulses. I do believe that Putin, like Hitler, will keep pushing until he is pushed back. I do believe that every failure to restrain Putin’s expansionism simply encourages him to greater boldness in his acquisitiveness. And I believe the other major powers of the world will be weak and ineffective in dealing with Putin’s expansionism until he pushes them to the breaking point. And then God help us all.

 Ju-87_stuka

In 1930s Europe, the dreadful, devastating impact of total air assault hung in the background of every diplomatic crisis exactly the same way the always-present-but-rarely-spoken-of threat of nuclear war colours any current confrontation between the West (i.e. the American sphere) and the East (the Russian and/or Chinese spheres).

Britain, France and the rest of non-totalitarian Europe had seen the obliterating impact of Nazi air power on urban, civilian populations during the Spanish Civil War. And Britain had nothing to counterbalance the Luftwaffe in 1938. The RAF’s very first Spitfire, after all, was not even operational until August 1938

So far, fortunately, Sarah Palin is the only one I’ve heard currently even considering playing the nuclear card. Her advice to Barack Obama in dealing with Russia? ””Mr President, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a nuke is a good guy with a nuke.”

Sarah may be a trigger-happy nutbar but she raises an important issue: What is worth fighting for and just how much fighting is anyone prepared to do over  “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” as Chamberlain so coldly — and realistically — put it in 1938?

When a conflict has the potential of escalating into total war, anyone with an ounce of sense or humanity (say good night to Sarah Palin) has to be beyond cautious in pulling the trigger — or pushing the button. Especially if it’s over “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

No sane person or society wants war if they can avoid it.

Especially if it’s over “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Especially if they’re still licking their wounds from past conflicts and traumatic disruptions. (Hello, World War I. Hello, Depression. Hello, Afghanistan and Iraq.)

Chamberlain

Don’t forget, Britain in the 1930s was still deeply traumatized by World War I, a war in which more than 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians died, 20 million were horribly wounded, maimed and disfigured, another six million missing and presumed dead, and millions more dead of disease. Britain alone had about one million war dead and 1.5 million wounded. Plus Europe’s economies were shattered and massive war debts crushed every post-war government’s ability to manoeuvre.

So the vast majority of Britons supported Chamberlain’s peace-making efforts and were quite willing to give the resurgent German Reich inconsequential bits and pieces of territory on the far side of Europe if that’s what it took to ensure a larger peace. Those places were all German-speaking, anyway, right? They  were probably better off (so the rationale went) as part of a stable and prosperous Greater Germany instead of being mixed up in the factional ethnic squabbling of Central and Eastern Europe’s newly created nation states sliced and diced and artificially created at the end of World War I out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Habsburg Empire or Holy Roman Empire or whatever you want to call it.

Czech-Sept

Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was generally seen as a belligerent warmonger and his strident warnings about the dangers of Nazi Germany were dismissed as hysteria and over-reaction by the majority of the British public.

Now this is another thing that’s important to remember: Chamberlain talked tough to Hitler on occasion. “We’ll do this if you do that” and so on … but never once did he follow up on his threats until it was too late to make a difference.

It didn’t take Hitler long to figure out that Chamberlain was a stuffed shirt full of hot air and not much more.

Chamberlain-Hitler-24Sept1938

Chamberlain and Hitler in Munich: Who has the high ground?

 

That was the big mistake Chamberlain and his ilk made in the 1930s: They didn’t realize — probably couldn’t comprehend — that Hitler actually wanted another war. Of course Hitler was nervous about going to war, wanted it on the most advantageous terms and in the most favourable conditions, but he still wanted war — needed war, actually, to keep his house of cards from collapsing, to keep the world in thrall, to keep Germany, as he put it in 1942, “in a state of perpetual alertness.”

Again we come to a comparative difference between Hitler and Putin. I am quite confident Putin doesn’t want war the way Hitler did. But Putin isn’t terribly afraid of war either. He’s quite willing to gamble and take chances in the pursuit of his goals. He’s much more willing to walk along the razor’s edge than Barack Obama or any of the other “leaders of the free world” currently chastising him.

I wonder how long it took Vladimir Putin to figure out Barack Obama was a Brooks Brothers suit full of hot air and corporate complacency and not much more?

Like Hitler, Putin will just keep pushing until … until what? Until the threatened repercussions become real? Until the penalties for losing become greater than the rewards for winning? I don’t really know what the line in the sand, the cut-off point is. And I don’t think the “leaders of the free world” do either. That’s the problem.

They’re just pussyfooting around, trying to find their way through a dangerous, dark forest. Fearful, uncertain, perplexed, divided, irresolute … doomed to failure.

The best they can do at the moment is threaten Russia with sanctions.

Reminds me of the story, as quoted by Churchill, of Stalin dismissing advice in 1935 to ingratiate himself with Pope Pius: “The Pope? How many divisions does the Pope have?”

Today’s version: “Sanctions? How many divisions do sanctions have?”

Sanctions are talk, just talk, bafflegab and blather, smoke and mirrors, posturing and pretence — an attempted appearance of decisive activity when nothing is really happening except denial and retreat and indecision and appeasement.

Sanctions? How many divisions do sanctions have? Exactly the same number as the Pope.

I knew the jig was up when I read a British newspaper analysis that took the position that Britain can’t afford to get in a pissing match with Russia at the moment, since the Brits are currently trying to bring home billions of pounds worth of military hardware from Afghanistan and any way except overland across Russia is prohibitively expensive.

My God, what a stunted, twisted rationale for setting national policy! It positively reeks of appeasement. Neville Chamberlain would be so proud.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m actually beginning to understand how Chamberlain the Appeaser actually got himself in that mess back in the 1930s. We’re living through the same kind of scenario today.

 

Time-25April1932

One big thing to know about Neville Chamberlain is that he never expected his legacy to be in the field of foreign affairs.

Chamberlain, a former mayor of Birmingham, was considered an energetic and effective reformer on social and workplace issues. As health minister and chancellor of the exchequer, he had modernized the British welfare system during the depression and, as prime minister, pushed through the Factories Act 1937 (which limited working hours for women and children and generally improved working conditions), the Coal Act 1938 (which set the stage for nationalization of Britain’s coal industry) and, also in 1938, the Holidays with Pay Act (which is self-explanatory). Again in 1938, Chamberlain’s Housing Act provided subsidies to redevelop slum neighbourhoods and maintained rent controls.

Despite the way he looks to us now, Neville Chamberlain was seen in the 1930s as quite the modern fellow, a real go-getter with very progressive ideas

Chamberlain was focused on a substantial agenda of other domestic reforms while Europe was sliding closer to the calamity of war. In fact, Chamberlain’s actions in appeasing Hitler were largely driven by his desire to get Europe back into a state of peace and calm so he could continue to focus on his domestic agenda.

Fat chance. Wasn’t going to happen, Neville.

 

But Chamberlain was doing the best he could, given the cards he was dealt. His generals, his government, his people were all telling him the country was in no condition to fight a war.

And again, don’t forget, all this fuss was over “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Can you honestly tell me that two months ago you could pinpoint Crimea on a map? Even today, can you honestly tell me that you can unerringly distinguish Ukraine from Belarus on an unlabelled map? And the Baltic States — I defy you to say you can tell the difference between Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia if you don’t have ancestry in one of those countries.

Baltic_states

Here are the Baltic States. Go ahead, identify them.

 

The Baltic States feel especially vulnerable to Putin’s aggressive border manoeuvres since they too have substantial Russian-speaking minorities, the result of being under Moscow’s thumb for half a century after 1939.

Is Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia worth fighting for when Putin comes knocking — or will they be “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing?”

And poor old Poland — battered and butchered by both Russia and Germany for hundreds of years — is ramping up its military spending, including a new missile defence system, and begging the U.S. and NATO to get more involved because of its fears of renewed Russian expansionism.

Even neutrality-loving Sweden is considering joining NATO because of Russia’s belligerency. The Swedish finance minister, Anders Borg, recently described Russia’s relations with its neighbours as “a bit more erratic and unpredictable.”

Hmmm. Now that doesn’t sound good in a period of escalating crisis.

And how about the aforementioned Russian province of Kaliningradskaya? Do you have any idea where in the world it is? You should. It’s as close to Amsterdam as it is to Moscow — far closer to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, Prague and Vienna than it is to Moscow — and it almost certainly has tactical nuclear weapons on its soil, pointed west.

Are any of those places worth fighting for, worth risking nuclear war for?

“A quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

That’s the quandary, that’s the dilemma — now just as surely as it was in Neville Chamberlain’s time.

So we probably owe an apology to poor old Neville Chamberlain because we’ve vilified him for kissing Hitler’s ass. He was just trying to keep the peace, keep his country and his people out of another devastating war they didn’t want, couldn’t afford and might well lose.

dailymail-1-Oct-1938

And, as you know, Chamberlain did come around to seeing the error of his ways eventually.

“No greater mistake could be made than to suppose that, because it believes war to be a senseless and cruel thing, the nation has so lost its fibre that it will not take part to the utmost of its power in resisting such a challenge if it were ever made.”

That is what Chamberlain had to say on March 17, 1939.

Of course that was two days after Hitler had already invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and long after Hitler had ignored Britain and France’s bleatings as he swallowed the Saar. Rhineland, Austria, Memelland and Sudetenland.

And, of course, it followed Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler during the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938.

Chamberlain-Edouard-Daladier-Hitler-Mussolini-Count-Galeazzo-Ciano

 

Here is a sequence of quotes to remind you of that attempt to avoid entanglement in “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

“The condition of the Sudeten Germans is indescribable. It is sought to annihilate them. As human beings they are oppressed and scandalously treated in an intolerable fashion … The depriving of these people of their rights must come to an end. … I have stated that the Reich would not tolerate any further oppression of these three and a half million Germans, and I would ask the statesmen of foreign countries to be convinced that this is no mere form of words.”

— Hitler on 12 Sept. 1938 at the Nuremberg Rally

 

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

— Neville Chamberlain on 27 Sept. 1938, shortly before he flew to Germany to sign the Munich Agreement, giving Hitler the Sudetenland

 

“Oh, don’t take it so seriously. That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.”

— Adolph Hitler to his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, on 30 September 1938 after Hitler cavalierly signed a three-paragraph statement prepared by Chamberlain saying that Britain and Germany considered the Munich Agreement “symbolic of the desire of our two people never to go to war again.”

neville-chamberlain

“I believe it is peace for our time … Now I recommend you go home and sleep quietly in your beds.”

— Neville Chamberlain addresses the British people outside 10 Downing Street on 30 September 1938 as he waves the paper bearing Hitler’s worthless promisary signature.

 

“England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.”

— Winston Churchill on 3 Oct. 1938 in the House of Commons.

umbrella

 

Sleep well, everyone.

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Here Comes Friday The 13th

- February 9th, 2015

fridaytitle

Here it comes … bump, bump, bump … Friday the 13th. The real thing, not the stupid movie.

And it’s only the first one of 2015. Not the last, not even the second-last. The year 2015 is positively littered with Friday the 13ths. I see a bad moon rising.

 

I’m not going to delve into the superstitious reasons (mainly to do with religion) why Friday the 13th is supposed to be a bad-luck day, mainly because nobody really knows for sure how Friday the 13th got that rap.

The thing I find most interesting is that, although Friday and the number 13 were thought to have ominous connotations separately for centuries, the dreaded combination — Friday the 13th — didn’t become part of common folk lore until the 19th Century.

You can go to Wikipedia and elsewhere to read the many varied suppositions for the Friday the 13th hex. They make about as much sense as St. Valentine’s Day becoming a day for lovers. Maybe less.

 

This is one of those rare years when we get three Friday the 13ths — Feb. 13, March 13, Nov. 13.

Although the last year with three F13s was 2009, it’s rare that years-with-three would come as close together as that. The next year with three F13s is 2026 and the next one after that is 2037. (I’ve got a feeling the 2009 anomaly was somehow due to 2008 being a leap year, but I don’t know that for sure.)

In any case, one thing all years-with-three have in common is that those three days are ALWAYS Feb. 13, March 13 and Nov. 13.

(Three is the most F13s any calendar year can have, but every year has at least one.)

In a year with only one Friday the 13th (2016, for example), the big day ALWAYS falls in warm or warmish weather (by that I mean the six months between mid-April and mid-October). Years with two F13s can be one good/one bad (2017 and 2019) or two good (2018), or very, very rarely two bad (2020) — and then only because leap year messes up what should have been a three-F13 year.

Now the only reason I’m telling you all this is because, in Southern Ontario, Friday the 13th is the day when motorcyclists from across North America swarm to Port Dover down on Lake Erie like swallows returning to Capistrano or yellow warblers homing in on Tommy Thompson Park.

Ride-of-the-penguins

And, for obvious reasons having to do with personal comfort and safety, Port Dover sees a lot fewer motorcycles when the weather’s cold and/or bad like 2015′s Friday the 13ths will be. Oh sure, there will be some hardy souls (read “crazy fools”) who brave the weather and road conditions to (hopefully) get their bikes to Dover. And there will be plenty of others who show up in four-wheeled vehicles for the party. Just not as many.

The town of roughly 6,000 has been known to swell to 150,000 a couple of times in the past, although the OPP has guesstimated the F13 good-weather attendance at 100,000 for the past few years.

On good-weather Friday the 13ths, vehicular access to the town is shut down for the day to all except locals (who get special resident passes to put in their windshields) and motorcyclists, who park their bikes by the thousands up and down the town’s main streets.

port-dover-13July2012

But on bad-weather Friday the 13ths — like all three this year — there’s no access restrictions at all, although you can be assured of some serious traffic jams.

This year’s Port Dover biker days will be Numbers 58, 59 and 60. The first was held on Nov. 13, 1981, when young local Chris Simons and a couple of dozen of his biker friends got together at the old Commercial Hotel (now Angelo’s of Dover) for some beers and laughs and bike talk.

Everyone had such a good time they all got together again — and brought along more friends — the following year on Friday the 13th. Since then the event has grown and grown and even become fairly respectable.

The 100th PD13 — as Friday the 13ths in Port Dover are known — will be on Friday, Jan. 13, 2040. I think it’s safe to say I won’t be there that day.

Now, if you’d like to see what goes on but can’t be (or don’t want to be) in Port Dover yourself on Feb. 13 (or March 13 or Nov. 13) here’s a link to a piece Rick Mercer did in 2013 (during the Sept. 13 biker day) for his CBC show. That was a warmish weather day unlike this coming Friday but you’ll get the drift.

And on any given Friday the 13th, you can plug into this link to a live webcam set up in the centre of town by the local newspaper, the Port Dover Maple Leaf, to see the comings and going.

That’s assuming there isn’t a blizzard blowing in off the lake, of course. But even if you can’t see anything, rest assured there will still be a big party going on indoors.

Have a happy Friday the 13th.

Friday13

Return

Another Sip Of Popcorn Sutton’s Moonshine

- February 2nd, 2015

popcorn-sutton

A week or so ago, I wrote a Nosey Parker piece on the cockamammy idea of turning vodka into gin. That in turn led to a discussion with a couple of friends about various homemade varieties of alcohol we had encountered in our lives. Which, in turn, led me to thinking about Popcorn Sutton, a legendary moonshiner I had tried (unsuccessfully) to track down in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina in the summer of 2008.

I wrote the original piece in April 2009, shortly after Popcorn Sutton died. Then, after a few people who knew Popcorn had stumbled across the blog post and added comments, I went back to the sparkling stream in June 2012 and made some significant updates at the end of the original piece.

Now I’m back again with a few more additions, but nothing as major as the 2012 updates. After all, Popcorn’s been dead for almost six years at this point, and the story really ended when Popcorn died. There will never be another Popcorn Sutton. 

The main body of this piece is the original 2009 blog post with the 2012 and 2015 updates indicated as such.

Popcorn Sutton at Misty Mountain Ranch B&B
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton stands on the front porch of Misty Mountain
Ranch B&B near Maggie Valley, N.C.
/Photo courtesy of Peter and Karen Hessian

 

I first heard about Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton on a train rolling through the mountains of North Carolina one evening last June (that would be 2008).

Jim Harbin, who was working for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad at the time, told me about this legendary old moonshiner from Maggie Valley, N.C., who had just been busted again by federal agents for distilling illegal alcohol.

I had to be in the low country the next evening, but I determined to track down Popcorn Sutton, moonshiner extraordinaire, if possible in the short time I had.

Jim warned me to be careful: “I hear he can be a mean man. Hard and mean. Hey, he runs shine INTO Tennessee. You’ve got to be hard to do that.”

The only leads I had for finding Popcorn Sutton were that his base was in a small town (the aforementioned Maggie Valley) near Great Smoky Mountains National Park and that a friend of his, Stuart, worked at a campground somewhere on Balsam Mountain, near where I was staying.

The next morning I started going up one side of Balsam Mountain and down the other looking for the campground and Stuart. I finally found Moonshine Creek Campground down on Dark Ridge Road, way down in a valley at the foot of the mountain.

Well, I never found Stuart but I did find a woman named Cathie in the campground office who knew Popcorn — and, amazingly, I also found some of Popcorn’s honest-to-goodness moonshine there.

Cathieupright

Cathie with some of Popcorn Sutton’s moonshine

Cathie: “I know Popcorn’s out but I don’t know where he is. I’ve heard he’s over in Tennessee.”

Me: “A fella told me last night he was in Maggie Valley.”

Cathie: “Yeah, might be. I’ve heard Maggie Valley. I’ve heard Tennessee. He might have just decided to go to cover for a while.”

And that’s when I noticed two liquid-filled mason jars on a shelf behind her.

Me: “Is that what I think it is?”

Cathie reached up to bring the jars down: “Yes, that’s genuine Popcorn shine. I got it as a birthday present and I just keep it around to give the campers a thrill.”

She unscrewed one of the lids. “You can smell it but don’t drink none.”

With the fumes of that raw alcohol spirit still clearing my sinuses, I headed for Maggie Valley.

Popcorn Sutton’s “antique shop” — more ramshackle garage than anything — was there but closed up tight.

Again, I met people who knew Popcorn — a second-cousin-once-removed and a couple of fourth cousins.

Everyone said roughly the same thing: “He’s over in Tennessee” or “I think he’s still in jail.”

I stopped for lunch at Salty Dog’s Seafood and Grill, where grey-bearded bikers were waiting out a rainstorm drinking beer and eating oysters on the half-shell. (Salty Dog’s, by the way, is the best and cheapest fresh-seafood-far-from-the-sea mountain eatery I’ve ever been in — a dozen fried shrimp and fries and three draft beers for a total of $11.06, tax included.)

And of course the waitress was related to Popcorn Sutton.

Me: “He’s got a place here, doesn’t he?”

Waitress nods.

Me: “Can you tell me where.”

Waitress: “No, Popcorn wouldn’t like that.”

Me: “I won’t tell him where I got the address.”

Waitress: “Well, I don’t know you and I don’t know what you would or wouldn’t do. But I’ve known Popcorn since I was a little girl and I sure do know what he’d do if he found out I’d told you something about him.”

So that was that. One last question for the waitress: “How old’s Popcorn.”

“Oh, he’d be 55-56, somewhere’s around there.”

What? This “mean, old SOB” (as people had been describing him) was younger than me? Great.

So that ended my day of searching for Popcorn Sutton in the Great Smoky Mountains. I headed to the lowlands through rain that turned mountain roads into rivers and lightning and thunder that sent wild turkeys racing madly through the woods.

I did find Popcorn a few months later, but not in person — I talked to him on the telephone in September (again, 2008).

And he was nowhere near Balsam Mountain or Maggie Valley. That was a wild goose chase. He was across the state line, under house arrest in his other home in Parrottsville, Cocke County, Tenn.

I found Popcorn through Peter and Karen Hessian, two of his longtime friends and supporters, who own the Misty Mountain Ranch B&B near Maggie Valley. Popcorn was a regular visitor to Misty Mountain, where he would often play the banjo on the front porch for guests.

That was the nice side of Popcorn. The “mean, old SOB” side of him explains how he got his nickname. One evening about 40 years ago Sutton was trying to get a dime’s worth of popcorn out of a dispensing machine in a bar. The vending machine ate the dime but did not produce the popcorn — so Sutton killed it. Depending on who tells the story, he either shot the machine with one of the pistols he carried around at the time or he beat it to death with a pool cue.

And thus the legend of “Popcorn” Sutton began.

Popcorn was arrested, of course, and had to pay to replace the vending machine.

It wasn’t his first brush with the law. Popcorn had already been convicted of moonshining earlier in the 1970s. It was a family business. Popcorn learned the trade from his father and grandfather. He learned to do it right, with the finest equipment (costing about $10,000 per still, Popcorn reckoned) and best ingredients, and he sneered at amateurs who produced deadly rotgut on the cheap.

Here’s the link to a video interview with Popcorn Sutton that Johnny Knoxville posted on his jackassworld blog in February (2009). If the site tells you the video is not available, try again in a few minutes and it will be there. It’s hit or miss.

As a legendary moonshiner, Popcorn became something of a celebrity in the mountains. He wrote a self-published book entitled “Me and My Likker” that sold out and was the subject of a TV documentary, as well as the star of several YouTube videos showing him making moonshine.

book cover

Customers began asking Popcorn to autograph their liquor purchases, so — in true Popcorn Sutton fashion — he took to signing the lids of his jars with this slogan: “F*** You — Popcorn Sutton.”

I was relieved to find out Popcorn really was older than me. When I talked to him on the telephone last September, he was about to turn 62 — although you can see by the accompanying photos that the grizzled, elfin old codger could easily pass for someone in his 80s.

popcorn booking photo
Popcorn Sutton’s March 2008 police booking mugshot

Popcorn was under house arrest at the time, with a tracking device on his arm that kept him within 100 feet of his house, awaiting sentencing on alcohol and gun charges. Federal agents had seized three stills and 850 gallons of moonshine on property he rented in March 2008. He was still on probation from a 2007 moonshining conviction at the time.

He pleaded guilty to the new charges last April.

The gun offences were Popcorn’s biggest concern because, as a previously convicted felon, that meant federal prison time. Popcorn knew he could not do a long spell in prison. He spent 10 days in jail in Greenville, Tenn., after his March arrest and that nearly did him in.

“I almost died from those 10 days in that dungeon in hell. I’m sick, I’ve got three bleeding ulcers, I can’t eat regular food, and I’m addicted to cigarettes. It drove me out of my mind not having my cigarettes those 10 days. That jail wasn’t fit for a dog. And that ‘s nothing compared to the penitentiary. I won’t live two weeks in penitentiary.”

Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents had Popcorn under surveillance for some time before his arrest, but they also had an undercover agent posing as a biker get close to the old moonshiner.

“He bought liquor from me two or three times. I trusted the wrong damn one there. And I make a real mistake showing him my guns. They’re old antique pistols that I kept locked away in a safe — real collector’s items. I never carried them around or anything. They’re just real beauties and I was proud of them, so I made the mistake of showing them off to this fella. Now they want to put me in prison for that.”

Popcorn was living with his fourth wife, Pam, in Parrottsville as we talked. He said he had been “run out” of Maggie Valley, his hometown, the previous year after a falling out with the woman he had lived with there the previous nine years.

And he was flat broke, living on donations and what money his wife earned working three days a week.

“I used to have money. Now I don’t have a dime.”

In his flush days, Popcorn looked to the future and bought himself a fancy coffin, which he kept in his bedroom awaiting the day it would be needed.

For a scrawny little old man with a bushy hillbilly beard, Popcorn always seemed to somehow attract women. And he had a very unique perspective on the kind of women he favoured.

“I like big’uns — 250, 270 pounds, the more the merrier. I like them big legs wrapped around me.”

Popcorn was nervous talking about his case and did not want me to quote him directly while his public defense lawyer tried one last-ditch manoeuvre — an appeal to then-president George W. Bush for a presidential pardon.

“You can’t get a letter to Bush, can you?” Popcorn asked me on the phone in September (2008).

I couldn’t but I told him I would do what I could to help. I let Popcorn down. I got too involved in my own life and put his on the backburner. I should have done more to help a sick old man stay out prison and I didn’t.

Popcorn was not on the Bush end-of-term pardons list.

Two weeks ago, I got a cryptic e-mail from photographer Melody Ko, who had also taken an interest in Sutton. “Did you hear about Popcorn?” was all the message said.

I Googled “Popcorn Sutton” and found out the bad news: The old moonshiner had killed himself the week before.

On Friday, March 13, he finally got the notification to turn himself in at a federal prison in Georgia on March 20 to begin serving his 18-month sentence.

Popcorn thought about it over the weekend.

On Monday, March 16, while his wife was out of the house, Popcorn hooked up a hose from the exhaust to the interior of his old green Ford Fairlane.

Pam Sutton found her husband dead when she returned home. Two days later she buried him in the mountains near Maggie Valley, N.C., in the coffin he had bought many years before.

“He couldn’t go to prison. His mind would just not accept it. … So credit the federal government for my husband being dead. I really do,” she told The Associated Press a few hours after burying Popcorn.

I will visit Popcorn’s grave when I get back to North Carolina, to say goodbye and apologize for not having done more to keep him alive.

I’ll be interested to see if his gravestone has the words he wanted on it:

Popcorn
said
“F***
You”

________________________
2012 UPDATE:
Only a few months after Popcorn Sutton took his own life to escape the malicious persecution of the United States federal government, the state of Tennessee passed a law allowing micro-distilleries — legal moonshine stills, in other words.
Before he died, Popcorn sold his whiskey recipe to a motorcycle racer named Jamey Grosser and the two set up a partnership. With Popcorn’s death, his share of the partnership passed to his wife, Pam. And after micro-distilleries became legal, they brought in a third partner as financial backer — country music singer Hank Williams Jr., who had shown up unannounced at the public memorial service for Popcorn in 2009.
In November 2010, Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey went on sale. Among those attending the launch party in Nashville were Travis Tritt, Martina McBride, Kid Rock, Tanya Tucker and Rodney Atkins. They did Popcorn proud (although he probably would have been a little flumoxed that his “likker” was now legal).
popcorn-whiskey
As for his grave, I haven’t visited it yet. I’ve been back in North Carolina once since then, a flying visit for a family funeral, but I didn’t have time to get up into the mountains. But others have and I’ll pass on what I know from their visits.
Pam Sutton had originally buried her husband in his home state  in the middle of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. But in October 2009 she had his coffin relocated to the grounds of their home in Parrotsville, Tenn. And that’s when the public memorial service attended by Hank Williams Jr. took place. And that’s where Popcorn Sutton’s grave is today.
As you can see from the following photo, posted by David Morgan on Popcorn’s www.findagrave.com listing, the words Popcorn wanted on his headstone aren’t there.
Popcorn-headstone
But, son of a gun, they are on the footstone at his grave. We’ll let Popcorn have the last word.
Popcorn-footstone
___________________________________________
2015 UPDATE:
As I said earlier, Popcorn’s story really ended with his death. Everything that’s come after is pretty much bookkeeping and legend polishing.
The legal distillery in Cocke County, Tenn., is doing thriving business turning out Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey and I’m told it’s almost as good as Popcorn’s original likker. Popcorn’s widow, Pam, is now living in comfortable retirement as a result.
In late 2013 the distillery changed its bottle packaging from mason jars to something that looked suspiciously like a Jack Daniel’s bottle. And, of course, Jack Daniel’s sued for trademark infringement.
popcorn_sutton_jack_daniels
The case was supposed to come to trial this month, but the two parties reached an out-of-court settlement  awhile ago and Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey is being sold in mason jars again, which is probably for the best anyway. (Of course, none of the jar lids have Popcorn’s personal inscription on them.)
pocorn-sutton-legal-whiskey
As for Popcorn’s legacy, film maker Neal Hutcheson — who shot quite a lot of footage for a homemade documentary that Popcorn himself sold in his antique/junk shop and which was later used in several TV documentaries on PBS and elsewhere — has various film versions available for sale online.
popcornsutton-neal-hutcheson-film
Popcorn Sutton at one of his illegal mountain stills from a documentary shot by Neal Hutchison in 2003.
And I just discovered that Popcorn Sutton spent time the day before his death with Nashville photographer Andy Armstrong, who was hired to take publicity shots of Popcorn for the legal distillery business that was then being set up. Armstrong has posted a YouTube video now with some of those photos and Armstrong’s recollections of the day with Popcorn. Here’s a link to Andy Armstrong’s video.
And that’s about it, as far as I can see. Popcorn is long dead but his legend lives on. And, like most legends, it’s a commercial property now that has a far greater monetary value than Popcorn was ever able to accrue in his own lifetime.
So one last time, we’ll give Popcorn the final word.
popcorn-sutton-said
________________________________________________________

The Super Bowl Ads You Aren’t Allowed To See

- January 30th, 2015

Budweiser-2015-ad

The wonderful, manipulative 2015 Budweiser Super Bowl ad you won’t see on the Canadian game broadcast.

 

So the CRTC, in its infinite and profoundly compassionate wisdom, is going to finally let us watch the American TV transmission of the Super Bowl — complete with multi-million-dollar spectacular ads not seen on the Canadian telecast.

In 2017.

Thanks a bunch. My reaction to that paternalistic arrogance is much the same as Toronto Mayor John Tory’s reaction to Premier Kathleen Wynne’s loan sharkery: “Get stuffed.”

I, for one, plan to watch the American telecast of the Super Bowl  — with all the American ads —  this Sunday, not in 2017. And I’m going to do it in the comfort of my own home, I’m doing it legally and I’m not going to pay any corporation one damn nickel to do so.

I’ll tell you how I’ll be doing that in a bit, but first … let’s get to some of the new ads you won’t be seeing on the Canadian Super Bowl telecast.

In recent years, more and more advertisers have been sneak-peeking their attention-grabbing ads before their supposed Super Bowl premieres just to get a little more milage and bang for their buck.

Of course, some companies like Coca-Cola still keep their big production numbers under wraps until the actual game telecast, but a fair number of Super Bowl creations are already available for perusal.

Unfortunately, I am not particularly impressed by most of the 2015 ones I’ve seen. They’ve been rather … ordinary. Even dumb.

But don’t take my word for it. Check ‘em out and make up your own mind. Probably the easiest way to do that is by going to the link here for a compilation put together by NBC’s Today Show. You’ll see what I mean.

There are a few currently available Super Bowl ads that have impressed me, though.

snickers-brady-bunch-super-bowl-commercial-2015

I mean, who wouldn’t be impressed by this Snickers ad that throws together The Brady Bunch, B-movie machoman Danny Trejo and another actor whose initials are the same as Super Bowl (that would be S.B., right, not XLIX).

And Budweiser — which pulls out all the stops for Super Bowl — has this one for 2015 about a little lost dog and his “Best Buds.” It’s the continuation of a story that Budweiser began in its 2014 Super Bowl ad and it came close to bringing a tear to my eye — in less than a minute.

Fortunately GoDaddy came up with this cynical counter-schmaltz ad about another lost puppy that wiped that tear away – and wiped the smile off a lot of faces too. Which is why you won’t be seeing this particular GoDaddy ad on any Super Bowl telecast, Canadian or American or Brazilian or Eritrean.

danica-patrick-with-Buddy -godaddy-super-bowl-pulled-ad

GoDaddy spokeswoman Danica Patrick cuddles with Buddy, the star of the GoDaddy ad that caused a massive backlash — and was quickly pulled from the Super Bowl commercial lineup.

 

GoDaddy previewed the ad last Tuesday and by Wednesday the storm of outraged protest (understandable and probably appropriate) was so strong that GoDaddy buckled and pulled the ad from the Internet — and also pulled it from the whole Super Bowl telecast. Now that’s the power of protest and social action.

Still, it was a pretty funny ad … if you like black humour (which I do). So I’m glad we can still see it on YouTube. Maybe, in the end, GoDaddy is getting more milage from the ad this way rather than if it had just gone on the air Sunday and been buried under all the dozens and dozens of other Super Bowl ads that will dazzle us — those of us who watch the American broadcast, anyway.

Speaking of which, the reason I’ll be watching the American version at home is because I am not a prisoner of any cable or satellite “provider.” I get my TV for free with a small, inexpensive over-the-air antenna.

The GTA is wonderfully situated for over-the-air reception. On a good, clear-sky day (like the ones we’ve been having lately) I get crystal-clear reception of more than 20 stations — a lot of them ones you don’t even have the option of accessing via cable or satellite.

On a really, really bad weather day that number drops substantially, of course — sometimes down to seven or eight stations. But, because all over-the-air transmissions are now digital, the picture quality is still perfect — better than the compressed-data quality you’re getting from cable or satellite transmission.

Here’s the link to a website that lists all the over-the-air stations you could be accessing for free in the Toronto area if you made a modest investment (I’m talking well under $100 in most cases) in a digital TV antenna.

As well as TV stations located in the GTA, I pick up clear signals from about a dozen broadcasters in the Buffalo area. And one of those, of course, is WGRZ, Channel 2 (or, more correctly, Channel 2-1, since WGRZ also broadcasts completely different programme content on Channels 2-2 and 2-3, which I also receive — and which you don’t unless you have over-the-air antennae).

And WGRZ is the Buffalo affiliate of NBC, which is producing and broadcasting the Super Bowl XLIX telecast on Sunday.

So that’s why I’ll be watching all the new American commercials during the Super Bowl broadcast while you’re probably watching the same old regurgitated Canadian commercials you’ve already seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times.

You know there’s still plenty of time to step out to the store and get your own television antenna. You could try it out for a while before deciding whether or not to finally cut the cord to Rogers and/or Bell. I’m just saying.

Enjoy the game, however you choose to watch it.