Out in Right Field

Thursday, 15 July 2010 12:24 PM Written by

(or, edges of the big tent can't go both ways)

Does anyone else but me find it amusing, and maybe a little unsettling, that the most shrill, insistent voices (No activist judges! Stick to the original intent! What would Alexander Hamilton say?!) for preserving the legal, literal integrity of the U.S. Constitution and the most shrill, insistent voices (Ban flag-burning! Ban same-sex marriage! Term limits for Congress!) for adding knee-jerk, flavor-of-the-month amendments to the U.S. Constitution come from the same side of the political spectrum? It's a broad side, to be sure, but it's still the same Big Tent.

And, though most of those tent-dwellers aren't too happy about people who go both ways, they often seem to want it both ways themselves. You must respect tradition, they say, while lining up to decorate the Constitutional Christmas tree with a whole family-(values)-room full of tacky, tasteless ornaments, hawking homespun images of snow-covered pines but delivering instead the philosophical equivalent of flashing lights and barbarian garland.

I know there's a distinction to be made here between oligarchical judicial tampering and democratic legislative tampering, between the critical will of a few appointed (and confirmed by officials democratically elected, but anyway...) individuals and the collective will of the people (as determined by democratically elected officials, but anyway...), yet the simple fact remains that, whatever Alexander Hamilton wanted then or John Boehner wants now, the U.S. Constitution, in all its foresighted glory, happily harbors both.

Need a judicial interpretation? Bring it on! Want a popular amendment? Let's do it! 

Many of those Big Tent Dwellers may seem to want it both ways, but in the end, like all political partisans and persuasions, they really only want it one way: their own. No surprise there. No harm, either. Because the big, sloppy, supple, subtle, originalist, activist beauty of the U.S. Constitution is that it's free to go both ways. Even lots of ways.

You just have to accept that contradiction. Preferably while avoiding one of your own.

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Our Favorite Uncle Rick

Wednesday, 14 July 2010 08:10 AM Written by

(our foremost salesman/chronicler)

Tonight at 8pm is the premiere of Breakfast Special, the latest national public television feature from Rick Sebak. I’ll be watching, or DVRing, or both. I urge you to do the same.

If you don’t know who Rick Sebak is — what the hell is wrong with you?

Um. I mean. Uh...  Keep reading. You’ll find out in a moment.

I’ve been looking forward to the special for a while, and I’ve been reading as much of the previews and reviews as I can without learning too many of the kinds of details the discovery of which make Mr. Sebak’s shows such a delight. This morning, I read a brief but affectionate blurb from USA Today (and former Pittsburgh Press) TV critic Robert Bianco — It’s a welcome reminder that we are a better people than reality TV would have you believe — that reminded me of something I wrote about Mr. Sebak and his work a little more than seven years ago.

I was teaching at Carnegie Mellon at the time, and Mr. Sebak had been invited to deliver his version of The Last Lecture — an annual installment of the university lecture series that would, of course, go on to great international fame and insufferable hype a few years later. After some other professors and administrators had inexplicably turned down the gig — likely because it required extra work, did not come with any grant money, and would not help them get tenure or promotion — I happily accepted the task of introducing Mr. Sebak before his presentation.

The era of reality TV had already and unfortunately begun, and, like Mr. Bianco, I could not help noticing, and lamenting, the difference between the kind of dross and dreck the networks were so cynically foisting upon us and the kind of grace and dignity that Mr. Sebak, in both his local and his national specials, was so warmly and humanely delivering. While CBS and FOX fed us like swine, Mr. Sebak insisted on throwing us beautiful little pearls.

Not much has changed in the interim.

Which is why, as I prepare to avoid the festering plagues of Big Brother, Minute to Win It, So You Think You Can Dance, and America’s Next Top Model, all of which run tonight at 8 opposite Mr. Sebak’s Breakfast Special on PBS, I couldn’t help but think of that old introduction, and of the man and the talents and the lovely little shows that inspired it. And I couldn’t resist posting it here, aired for the first time in public since I delivered it in March of 2003, as a tribute, and a thank you, to a Pittsburgher who makes our televisions, our city, our country, and indeed our whole world, better places to call our own...    

Rick Sebak Intro
March 10, 2003

Good afternoon. Welcome.  

Two weeks ago, WQED TV, the city of Pittsburgh, the whole country, lost a national treasure, someone whose combination of warmth and charm and friendliness earned him — truly earned him — love and respect, critical and popular acclaim.  
A few minutes from now, you’ll discover — if you haven’t already —  that the station, the city, the country, and, at least for a while this afternoon, this campus, can still claim someone with those same qualities, a man whose hard work and insight and creativity have also produced — and, happily, continue to produce — a rich tradition of uncommonly warm and charming and friendly entertainment.
Rick Sebak, an award-winning documentary writer, narrator, and producer, this afternoon’s university lecturer, populates his programs — his neighborhoods — with the unsung charms of American culture and the warm embrace of unwritten history. Like Fred Rogers’ television work, the best of Rick Sebak’s documentary work positively sparkles; it rises from the crowd of its genre and commands attention precisely because it does not seek it. His signature style (he likes — or so I’m told — to call his programs “scrapbook documentaries”) relies on places and personalities, memory and testimony, old films and photos, postcards, home movies, all sorts of memorabilia, to create a tangible sense of time and place, of history and culture, of Pittsburgh and the whole United States.
He is, along with Ken Burns, one of PBS’ two most recognizable and — just watch during any pledge drive — most marketable documentarians. But unlike Ken Burns, whose work chronicles great, grand, sweeping concepts — Jazz, Baseball, the Civil War — subjects epic, almost operatic, Rick Sebak celebrates and elevates the intimate, the microscopic, the fine print of our lives and loves and everyday, work-a-day remembrances. He takes us to the shore, to flea markets, to hot dog shops and diners and ice cream parlors, to long lines and vintage rides at great old amusement parks.
Rick Sebak finds the little kid — the awe, the warmth, the wonder, the happiness — hiding in our history, in our culture, and, indeed, in every one of us.  
It’s fitting that one of the programs that first won him national acclaim — and that also won him a 1991 CIN-E Golden Eagle Award — was a special called “Our Neighbor Fred Rogers.” Critical acclaim also came to his other national specials — “Shore Things,” “An Ice Cream Program,” “A Hot Dog Program,” “A Flea Market Documentary,” to name but a few — and followed him home, right here to Allegheny County, through fourteen documentaries known collectively as the “Pittsburgh History Series.”          
1988’s “Kennywood Memories” won many awards, including a Golden Quill for Best Documentary. “Something About Oakland” earned a Mid-Atlantic Regional Emmy for Best Cultural Program of 2001. “Pittsburgh A to Z” won a Judges’ Merit Award from the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters. 1990’s “Things That Aren’t There Anymore” — a program I vividly remember watching, the night it first aired, when I was an undergrad at Duquesne University — both set a standard, and became a model for, similar documentary programs around the country.
He’s been called the foremost “salesman/chronicler of Western PA.” I like that. I imagine he does too. And while it’s certainly true, it seems to me that Rick Sebak is, at heart, a salesman/chronicler of all American culture, of everyday human experience, of the little things and places and moments in our lives that we’ll always, even if we’re already close to forgetting, want to remember.  And to honor.   
Rick Sebak’s programs — as you’ll see in the video clips to come — are warm and wonderful, filled with genuine insight and honesty, brimming with real people and their real, palpable emotions. They’re bittersweet and nostalgic and maybe, sometimes, a little bit sad. But they always, always leave a smile on your face.  
This weekend, when I told people I would have the honor of introducing Rick Sebak, everyone, everyone I told — and I told a lot of people, because I was proud and excited to be doing it — had the same reaction. From the East End to the Strip, from Uptown to the South Hills, I heard the same things: Oh, that’s so cool! He’s great! I love him! I love his shows! When I mentioned his name, their faces lit up.

They lit up, I should tell you, the way the faces of the people in his documentaries light up when they’re talking about eating an Isaly’s skyscraper cone, or sneaking into Forbes Field to watch a ball game, or riding the Dips at West View Park. Not one person I told was anything less than totally enthusiastic.  Most were envious.
And the more I thought about it, the more truly remarkable that reaction seemed. These days, in this town, you couldn’t even get that kind of reaction for Bill Cowher or Mario Lemieux. Two weeks ago, you would have gotten it for Fred Rogers. And I got it — everywhere I went this weekend, and again here today — for Rick Sebak.   
Because his programs feel like summer block parties, intimate gatherings with good friends, family reunions where you can’t wait to seek out your favorite Uncle Rick — because you know he’ll always have a good story and a warm, wry smile. Rick Sebak’s programs bring us together; they tell our tales and honor our collective memories; they make us feel like we’re a part of something, some wonderful history, that we all can and should cherish. They make us feel connected — to our traditions, to our culture, to our emotions.  And to each other.
Now more than ever, we need that feeling.
Rick Sebak makes Reality TV as it should be made: with grace and dignity and simple, humble humanity, collecting rare moments of respect and remembrance, celebrating the friendly, the familiar, the uniquely fascinating. His programs are, and he is, by any standard, a national treasure.


It’s a great, recurring joy to see his work grace our screens. It’s a true honor to have him living and working with us here in Pittsburgh. And it is both a rare pleasure and a wonderful privilege to introduce him to you today.  
This afternoon’s University Lecturer: Mr. Rick Sebak...

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Kids, and Everyone Else, Eat Free

Wednesday, 14 July 2010 04:34 AM Written by

(at omnivore)

For many months now, since its debut at the dawn of PG+ all the way through to my last guest ranting appearance, I’ve been urging anyone with keys to the paywall kingdom to watch an episode or three of Mackenzie Carpenter’s Omnivore, an arch, fun, delightfully droll take on the week’s culture, news, politics, art, scandal, and whatever else happens to pop up on the zeitgeist radar.

Mackenzie’s smart and shallow — her words, not mine — weekly webcast, with its unpredictable mix of interview segments, panel discussions, editorial commentary, occasional guest ranting, and always clever, sure-handed production from PG video whiz Melissa Tkach, was one of my two favorite features on the Plus side.

You’ll notice I said was.

Not because, like another long lost PG+ show, it has grievously kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible, but because, as of today, with much fanfare and some well-earned huzzahs, it’s found a new home here on the PG Minus side.

Which means there’s absolutely no excuse now for you not to tune in, turn on, and drop out less than ten minutes of your week to enjoy all the delightful dish that Omnivore offers.

It’s free. It’s clear. And it’s always a hell of a good time — as it is today, with memories of George Steinbrenner, nightmares of Barbara Walters, a lively remembrance of the late, great Harvey Pekar with PG columnist Tony Norman, and a final guest editorial from a PG blogger with whom you may be familiar...

Check it out. Go back for more. (It doesn't cost you anything!) And, if Mackenzie or any other omnivore should ask, tell ‘em TRM sent you.

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A German and a Persian Walk into a Blog...

Tuesday, 13 July 2010 06:20 AM Written by

(...for a double-shot birthday tuesday)

TRM takes a moment and makes a post to celebrate the birthdays of two of its most favorite persons:

Ralph Moeslein, total rock of a husband, father, grandfather, and father-in-law, and proud patriarch of the Moeslein (and Smith and Hermann) clan.


Keyana Farkondepay, totally rockin' friend, former student, former TA, future journalist, and all-around communicator extraordinaire.

Other than their loves of good football and good beer, it's difficult to imagine, besides this fateful date on the calendar, that they have much in common. Except, of course, for the great pleasure I take from having them both in my life.

Happy Birthday, Dad. Happy Birthday, Keyana. May your days be as vital and as vibrant as you.

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The Wall (6/6/10 - 7/7/10)

Tuesday, 13 July 2010 06:14 AM Written by

(they gave the last full measure of devotion)

Specialist William C. Yauch.

Sergeant Israel P. Obryan.

Specialist Christoperh W. Opat.

Captain Michael P. Cassidy.

Specialist Jacob P. Dohrenwend.

Private 1st Class Bryant J. Haynes.

Specialist Morganne M. McBeth.

Sergeant Johnny W. Lumpkin.

Sergeant Jordan E. Tuttle.

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Jesus Take the Wheel

Monday, 12 July 2010 12:55 PM Written by

(away from many of your followers)

After two more close calls today, following hard upon two even closer calls over the weekend, in which I (in my 4Runner) was almost hit by a clueless, cell-phone-yakking driver with a Jesus Fish on his car’s back end, or a macramed cross hanging from her rearview mirror, or a proselytizing Christian bumper sticker on its tail — or, in one particularly memorable instance, all of them at once — I’m thinking it’s high time for a new variation on those old, inquisitive initials. Instead of WWJD?, I’d like to see some bumper stickers that read: 


The answers, for everyone I saw and so narrowly avoided these past few days, would have been:

Without talking on a cell phone. Always in His own lane. Not while eating yogurt. And, Better than most of his damned disciples.

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Double Drivel

Monday, 12 July 2010 05:56 AM Written by

(of negotiations and reparations)

The AP reports: Jesse Jackson criticized Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert on Sunday, saying Gilbert sees LeBron James as a "runaway slave" and that the owner's comments after the free-agent forward decided to join the Miami Heat put the player in danger.

I’ll be Dan Gilbert’s basketball-playing slave for $14 million a year. Hell, I’ll do it for half that. I’ll even promise never to run away.

Unless he wants me to play with a lunatic like Jesse Jackson.

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For Tim

Sunday, 11 July 2010 06:24 AM Written by

(a birthday haiku)

Lawyer. Judge. Comic
genius. Font of history,
ghosts, and great friendship.

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