Sunday, August 16, 2009

Unfinished Business 2009 (Vol 1, No 1)

Welcome to two months ago.
A little more than a year ago, I embarked upon a personal experiment, holding myself up to public scrutiny in the process.

...And failed miserably.

In an attempt to goad myself into begin writing again on a more consistent basis, I promised here in this space, to finish what I had started but not completed: my goal was to post the concluding parts to four series, as well as four short stories that had languished for a year or more in various stages of incompleteness.

Oh, and did I mention that I proposed to do all this in three weeks?

Oh well. At least I managed to get four posts out of the deal, which in recent years is actually pretty good output for me in three weeks’ time.

Additionally, part of that proposal was to backdate the new/old series posts to keep them in chronological order with the the original story parts; then to post a current page (like this one) with links directing readers to the new parts.

Trouble was, I never actually finished any of the four series I was attempting to get sewn up, so I never had any reason to post the backlinks.

But this time I’m gonna do it right…ehhhxcept that now I’m doing it for yet another series that I let slide; one, however, that is quite a bit more recent — as in two months instead of two years old.

It’s the conclusion to The Eagle Has Landed, a tribute to my Father In-Law, who passed on June 7, 2009. I managed to get two of the eventual five parts of the series written and posted before an unfortunate event — one nearly as unfortunate as Ed’s death itself — reared its ugly head and robbed me of my motivation.

However all that’s in the rear-view now, and I decided that I would today finish what I started, both to honor this great man, and maybe…possibly… get myself back on the blog beam once again.

I mean this makes six posts in eight days — not too bad for ol’ slothmeister, AJ (but I’ll try to do better…).

So if you’d like to pick up where story left off left off, click here. This will take you to Part II, an intermediate post that ‘sort of’ explains what derailed my original attempts to get this tribute out in a timely manner (you’ll understand why I can’t be more specific after you read it).

On the other hand, if you didn’t get a chance to read it from the beginning, you can do so by clicking here and return to the Epilogue.

I’ve never before asked anyone to read my posts; I’m asking you to read this.

Please join me in honoring a great man, my Father In-Law Ed C.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

John Hughes Addendum

About Yesterday…
Okay. I was originally going to include all this yesterday, as a postscript to my longer-than-I-wanted-it-to-be tribute to John Hughes, but thought better of it for one very good (think: War And Peace) reason.

Nonetheless, today is another day, this is another post, and I’ve had nearly 24 hours to really think about what I wish to say here.

First, please understand that I was so torn up about John Hughes death as to be all but paralyzed. I wanted to write something, anything, that might convey the sadness with which I met the news of his loss to us all, but I really didn’t know how to say it, given the power of his legacy as a ‘Teen movie guy.’

You see, as I kind of indicated in the last post, I never really got that from John Hughes. I wasn’t one of the young people he connected with in the 80s. I never even saw one of his movies in the theater until Home Alone in 1990 — when I was in my mid-thirties, and just a year before he all but bowed out of limelight after directing his last major motion picture (Curly Sue) in ‘91.

As in so many other circumstances in my life, I was late to the party.

I never saw The Breakfast Club until probably the late 90s, because I really never thought it was for me.

I know that Home Alone was the ‘a-ha moment’ for me with regard to Hughes’ films, but perhaps just as great a revelation was Uncle Buck, a movie I very much doubt that Hughes — or John Candy — ever got enough credit for. THAT was the one that cemented John Hughes’ genius for me. But again, I saw it only several years later, after Hughes had stepped away from the Director’s Chair.

So here was my dilemma: I really didn’t know how to fashion what I rather felt was a relatively ‘johnny-come-lately-to-the-John-Hughes-bandwagon’ experience without sounding just that: like a bandwagon-jumper-on’er.

A Shout Out to a Couple’a Bloggers
So, all that to say, there is a reason why I was able to put my emotions into words yesterday. There is one person in particular who paved the way for me, without whose honesty I wouldn’t have been able to pull out of myself what I very much wanted to say about this humble, gifted, and genuine filmmaker.

An important acknowledgment of gratitude is actually due to two bloggers, without either of whom I likely would not have written yesterday’s post: Brian Clark and Alison Byrne Fields.

Brian is a tremendous writer and a really interesting guy. His blog, Copyblogger may on the surface seem to be all business, but his posts and the persona he exhibits on Twitter reveal the heart of a very personable, well-grounded individual. The kind of guy you could really enjoy hanging out with.

I’m a big fan of Brian’s, but have never been so grateful to him as yesterday morning, when he tweeted a link to a story of another blogger; an author whom I did not know, but whom, as I would learn later on (much to her chagrin, BTW), has become somewhat of an overnight Internet celebrity for her heartfelt post last Thursday John Hughes passing, and in particular, the pen-pal friendship the two held from 1985-87.

Alison Byrne Fields is a talented woman with an impressive career apart from her blog, however the publicity of her John Hughes story has apparently taken on a life of its own. The post registered well over eleven hundred comments less than 48 hours. Add in the interviews on NPR and full reprints of her post in the New York Times, and, well, you can understand why all the attention might be a little unnerving.

Her most recent blog post details the shell-shock she’s experienced, and for me reveals in no uncertain terms her true motives in revealing something that that could easily be perceived — and has, by a very few — as little more than a publicity grab.

I don’t believe for a moment that her intentions were anything short of a desire to confirm what we already knew about John Hughes, through the intrinsic nature of his work. I applaud her for her courage and her generosity for sharing such a personal treasure with us.

The Rest of the Story
Alison had mentioned her warm, yet distant relationship with Hughes a few times previously in her blog, but never called it out as any kind of claim to fame. She even admitted just last summer that she indeed knew why Hughes had disappeared from Hollywood, but sprightly declined to reveal the reason. She said that she wished to honor the fact that if the man himself didn’t want to talk about why he decided to step out from under the spotlight’s glare, than neither would she.

In retrospect I believe I appreciate her for that more than anything else she would do later. However, when that part did come this past Thursday, she granted us all the greatest of favors.

Alison finally told the story in detail, from the beginning.

In 1985, following a I’m-pouring-out-my-heart letter to Hughes, thanking him for making The Breakfast Club, the movie that made her “feel like he got what it was like to be a teenager and to feel misunderstood,” she received an unexpected reply.

Really unexpected.

Instead of a personal reply acknowledging her candid and heartfelt thank you letter to Mr. Hughes, she instead received a form letter, along with some Breakfast Club fan club paraphernalia.

Rightfully incensed, she fired back a letter to Hughes, blasting him for the ‘inappropriate response.’

Obviously realizing the seriousness of the influence his work had struck, and being the kind of person he has now demonstrated himself to be, Hughes wrote back apologizing, and later agreed to become pen pals with his young fan. Over the course of the next two years they exchanged letters, forging an active friendship that would last for many more.

Alison would keep Hughes abreast of what was going on with her life; with boys, with her parents; her pursuit of writing, her challenges, dealing with critical teachers, and her dreams for the future.

Hughes’ encouraging responses were more than lip-service. He shared insights, movie ideas, things that anyone, regardless of age would be thrilled to receive from a man of his stature.

He made her feel significant.

“I can't tell you how much I like your comments about my movies,” he would write, “Nor can I tell you how helpful they are to me for future projects. I listen. Not to Hollywood. I listen to you.”

“You've already received more letters from me than any living relative of mine has received to date,” Hughes confided at one point. “Believe in yourself. Think about the future once a day and keep doing what you’re doing. Because I’m impressed.”

Alison obviously took his advice. She would go on to a career that has been heavily involved in advocacy and non-profit concerns, including such notable positions as Creative Director and Chief Strategist of the late 90s ‘Rock the Vote’ initiative, and has also worked with a variety of private and governmental agencies on the formation of policies to combat the AIDS pandemic around the world.

She as well has been a driving force in the development of the use of social media strategies to promote issues advocacy, and currently holds the position of SVP/Group Account Director, Issues & Advocacy/Social Media Strategy Director for global Ad Agency giant, DDB.

Is it any wonder this former ‘misunderstood’ teen would impress John Hughes?

The Right Reasons
Alison Byrne Fields didn’t ‘need’ the story of her friendship with John Hughes in order to receive her fifteen minutes of fame. Hell, she was already going on her fifteenth hour…

She didn’t need to curry favor with the world by revealing the full story, including the contents of that fateful telephone conversation she and Hughes shared in 1997. She did it because she’s honest, and I believe, she wanted the world to know the true heart of the man; someone we already respected, but realize now even more how well-placed that honor has been.

John Hughes walked away from a movie career, making millions, in favor of a simple life on a working farm in rural Illinois. He did it, not because of any physical stress that lifestyle cost him, but rather out of concern for what it could do to his family. He feared that his sons could “lose perspective on what was important and what happiness meant.”

He walked away for the right reasons; he placed his family first. As always, his heart was in the right place.

So was Alison’s.

That was the incentive I needed. That was the light bulb that suddenly cleared the cobwebs from my emotionally-tangled head. THAT was who John Hughes was, and that’s exactly what comes through in his movies.

Thank you, Alison.

Rest well, Mister Hughes.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

He Made Us Comfortable in Someone Else’s Skin

What a lousy year…
I’m really not in the mood to write today, but I feel I must. I need to do so in order to pay tribute on at least a somewhat timely basis to the passing of yet another luminary in our culture whose life has come to a premature end; a man whose movies defined a generation in a way that may never be duplicated: reknowned 1980s writer/director/producer, John Hughes.

Photo courtesy Cinetext/Allstar

Over the past three months I’ve started and stopped at least four stories regarding the notable lives that 2009 has claimed; the list is staggering. It seems that each time I try to express my regret for one of the individuals who has passed, another one drops off and I’m once again crippled by grief and have to set it aside.

On June 25th we experienced the double-whammy of losing both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson within mere hours of one another. And though these were the two who captured the attention of the TeeVee news magazines for weeks, there were others who preceded them. Giants of significance to me, in the personal, entertainment, pop culture, and political arenas; names like Ed McMahon, my Father In-Law, David Carradine, Dan Miller, Chuck Daly, Dom Deluise, Jack Kemp, Bea Arthur, Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych, Paul Harvey, James Whitmore, Andrew Wyeth, and the great Ricardo Montalbán.

But the Grim Reaper wasn’t finished in June; he kept right on going, and has in just the past six weeks claimed the additional lives of Walter Cronkite, Robert McNamara, Steve McNair, and Karl Malden.

Now if you’re looking at that list and either scratching your head because there’s a bunch of names there you either don’t recognize — or in whose passing you weren’t quite moved enough to really feel bad about, well, no worries here. Chances are you’re not 53 years old, have split your lifetime between LA and Nashville, and/or are married to the daughter of a late, former Apollo 11 Moon Mission engineer.

You Just Never Know
We all have our own individual list of people that have touched our lives; its not the same for everyone, just as we also wield our own sphere of influence that touches the lives of others.

Sometimes that influence is through incidental contact; other times it’s quite intentional. Sometimes it’s a part of our job; other times it’s none of our freaking business. Sometimes our influence is a good thing; other times it’s the worst thing that we could possibly do to another person.

There’s one constant in all of this however, and that is that we never know.

We never know how just a look from us can change another person’s day; how an encouraging word can either make or break a child; how the conscious decision to NOT let our ill mood affect our response can make all the difference in the outcome of an inter-personal situation.

We never know how years of direct exposure to another soul can either mold that person’s character for good, or cast an irrevocable die of pain upon their life.

We just never know.

My all-time personal favorite quote — the single greatest influence I have ever received from a poet, is displayed in the masthead of my blog. It’s not from a poem, but is from the heart of a wise and inspired poetess, Maya Angelou:

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This has become my mantra; something I attempt to use to govern my actions; to make each and every contact with another person a positive one, because…you never know.

A Hughe(s) Loss
John Hughes probably had a clue, but I doubt he ever knew just how influential his movies were, or how much he would be missed when he left us this past Thursday.

I sure as hell didn’t know how it would affect me.

And the thing is, at the time I heard the news, I really didn’t know why I was so shaken.

Perhaps it was just the straw-that-broke-the camel’s-back of this god-forsaken ‘another one bites the dust’ kind-of-year.

Perhaps it was the fact that just a few days earlier I had actually done a Google search on Hughes to try and find out what he was up to. I hadn’t heard anything about him making movies in what seemed like forever. Was he ill or just laying low? Why had he dropped out of the limelight? Why had he not directed a single feature film since the early 90s?

And then came Thursday...and he was gone.

The irony was simply too sharp. I really had to swallow hard as I read aloud to my co-workers the news of John Hughes death from the press release I received via email late Thursday afternoon.

I felt as though someone had punched me in the gut.

The man was 59 years old — just six years my senior. I had no idea. I’d always assumed him to be was much older than that. I’d never even seen a picture of him prior to that news release.

I guess I knew a different John Hughes. The filmmaker I admired was perhaps different than the one whose movies you connected with as a teenager. I was well beyond my teens in the 1980s, but instead was traveling through my late twenties and into my thirties by the time Hughes’ films exploded upon the scene.

Hughes’ original Brats: (clockwise from left) Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, and Molly Ringwald
Photo courtesy

I was, by MY generation’s directive, almost ready to join the ranks of ‘those not to be trusted’ when The Breakfast Club hit the theaters in 1985.

Oh, and did I mention, I what an ASS I was back then, too?

In the mid-80s I used to bristle at Generation X, as they recently had been dubbed. The kids born after the mid-60s; those malcontents who listened to Punk Rock, dyed their hair chartreuse, and spent their time yakking about ‘No Nukes.’ These were the age and experience group that John Hughes’ films were directed to the most.

I realized at the time that this must have been how my parent’s generation felt about me and my mates in the 60s, when the first so-called ‘generation gap’ formed.

I was aware of The Breakfast Club, although not necessarily cognizant of Hughes per se. What I did know, however, was the ‘Brat Pack’ — this group of up-and-coming actors, and how they were being hyped as ‘the next big thing’ in Hollywood. The Breakfast Club was ostensibly the birth of the Brat Pack, as noted in the 1985 New York magazine cover story which popularized the phrase.

Yeah, they were brats alright, I thought. Kids these days.

I just rolled my eyes.

But as has so often in my life been demonstrated, I later realized that I needed to stop assuming things that weren’t necessarily true. I mean, you know what they say about ASSuming…

So I went to a different ‘Brat Pack’ movie that came out that same year: St. Elmo’s Fire. It wasn’t a John Hughes film, but its ensemble cast featured three of the Breakfast Club’s five principles, including Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson.

I loved it.

But enough about brats; back to John Hughes.

An Overdue Present
I may have given the Brat Pack a second chance in 1985, but would continue to be late to the John Hughes love-fest for another five years, until a screaming kid would force us to take him to a movie about another screaming kid: Macaulay Culkin in his portrayal of the precocious Kevin McCallister, in Hughes’ comedic masterpiece, Home Alone.

Our kids were ages eight and six in December, 1990, and Home Alone was all the rage among most of the young parents we knew. So after much cajoling from our son Shawn, we treated the kids to the now-classic Chrismastime flick — which they loved.

However it was I who received the long-overdue present at the movie theater that day: the gift of John Hughes.

There are two movies from the Early 90s that simply enrapture me, not necessarily for their production values, or even their story lines alone, but rather the aesthetics created by the combination of those two elements that infuse the mind of the viewer.

One film, about which I’ve written fairly often in previous stories, is City Slickers — both for it’s breathtaking cinematography of the West and its humorous-yet-gripping truths about a man saying goodbye to his youth.

Home Alone is the other, and probably for exact opposite reason. Oh it’s funny, silly, and all of those things that one would expect from a plot about a young boy who believes he’s made his family disappear, but there was something more in it for me.

Home Alone reconnected me to my childhood — not that I ever spent any time fending off burglars by greasing up the basement steps or pretending I was a gangster joyously filling my enemies full’a lead.

What I got out of the movie — and the numerous other John Hughes films I would subsequently rent and devour over the years that followed, was pure John Hughes; a guy who was a child of the Midwest, just like me; a child of the 50s and 60s, just like me; and a filmmaker who poured out just the right amount of that part of his life into every movie he made.

I don’t really know how else to define it, but the ‘feeling’ of Kevin McCallister’s neighborhood in suburban Chicago is exactly how it ‘felt’ in similar settings throughout the Midwest I grew up in. The flavor was unmistakable to me. And amid all the movie’s laughs and high-jinx was the poignancy of this connective tissue that bound it all together.

This wasn’t just a movie about a kid in suburban America, it was a movie about me. And I’m certain that the way Hughes affected me in Home Alone is the same way so many GenXers felt about The Breakfast Club.

He made us feel connected.

John Hughes didn’t just make movies about teens; he made movies about the human spirit — weaving characters into whom we could lose ourselves and identify; seeing our lives through their eyes for just a little while, and then returning us to reality a little more enlightened; a little more encouraged to go out and make the world our own. He had a remarkable ability to speak to the heart, whether in laughter or in angst, making us comfortable in someone else’s skin.

And he will be missed.

Next: John Hughes — addendum

Friday, August 07, 2009

Dood...We Were Jobbed.

Say it Ain’t So, Joe(job)
If you’re a fan of micro-blogging medium, Twitter, I think you’d agree that yesterday morning was just a bit of a bummer. Our Daily Affirmation-in-a-(Dialog) Box was wrested from us for better than six hours (depending on your locality) by what was originally assumed to be a coordinated DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack on several social media vehicles, including Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal and YouTube, but which is now believed to actually have been directed at silencing the political views of one individual; a well-known anti-Russian blogger, who has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the Kremlin’s policies toward the Republic of Georgia. I actually found that somewhat easier to stomach than the usual ‘because I can’ reasons many hackers choose as motivation for their mischief.

But politics aside, what I found most appalling of all wasn’t the kill-the-fly-with-a-hand-grenade approach that was taken in carrying out their mission, but rather the mindless assist these hackers got from the general public in accomplishing it.

This was no a sophisticated surgical strike of technical programming prowess, folks. It was a freaking ‘Joe job.’

What’s a ‘Joe job?’ you ask? Well the term was a new one on me too until I read this newsflash from the British IT website, The Register. To quote the author, “Joe jobs are spam messages that are designed not to push Viagra but to induce someone to click on a link in the hopes of harming the site being linked to.”

Sounds harmless enough. I mean, we’ve all received and deleted hundreds of these spam emails over the years; even more that we don’t see are corralled by our email client’s spam filters. But should one or two a day slip through, we know not to even open them, much less click on the links they offer, right? I mean what are we, stupid?


Dis and DDoS
DDoS attacks are usually performed by malicious software (or ‘bots’) exacting furious request activity on a particular web site or service, over a short period of time; the result being overloaded servers and the target site being rendered inaccessible. Since DDos bots can’t be everywhere and thereby are traceable by IP address, their attacks are usually short-lived. However in this case, the attackers were people all over the world — who didn’t even realize they were attacking. And when thousands of people worldwide click the same links at essentially the same time, the impact is virtually impossible to combat; you just have to wait it out and hope that the damage of being out o’ commission was minimal.

So there you have it. What we thought were the coordinated efforts of cunning hackers in the shadows, perhaps making a power statement on the highly visible stage of the social media Web, now appears to have actually been an old-school, comparatively unsophisticated attack that became insurmountable only through the unwitting collaboration of thousands of know-nothing link-clickers in broad daylight.

The Register article explains:
"This was not like a botnet-style DDoS; this was a joejob where people were just clicking on links in email and the people clicking on the links were not malefactors. They were just the sort of idiots that click on links in email without knowing what they are."
Bill Woodcock, Research Director, Packet Clearing House
Now I don’t know about you, but THAT pisses me off a helluva lot worse than the thought of some pimple-faced hacker dude, holed up in his Mom’s basement, hatching a plan to receive his fifteen minutes of fame.

But whatvs. People either get it or they don’t. But if they don’t understand the implications of their carelessness now, will they ever learn?

When will folks understand that clicking on links in emails you receive from unknown sources just to see where it goes is about as smart as sticking your finger in a light socket just to see if it’s on?

♫ And I get on my knees and pray...We won’t get fooled again ♪
Y’know, I can’t help but think the person or persons who actually launched this joe job are feeling like they just won the lottery. They must be bustin’ their buttons over their unexpected brilliance right about now. I mean this has gotta be better than Christmas for these guys.

Not so much for the rest of us, however.

Traditional DDoS attacks can be mitigated. User carelessness/stupidity cannot.

You don’t think other would-be copycat hackers are taking notes here? I mean, c’mon people.

Look before you leap.

Think before you click.

Google before you ogle.

This scenario could (and likely will) be repeated. It’s up to us to defuse the idiot-bomb before it explodes on our faces again once again.

WE caused Twitter, Facebook and the others to go down.

WE were the ones who made Joe Hacker’s job easier than it should have been.

And WE can be the ones to keep it from happening again.