Saturday, October 11, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

I finished this book last week, a thriller for armchair adventurers. I guess I can claim that soubriquet, but I read such like for more than the sensation of my hair standing on end. The book concerns an attempt to sail to the North Pole, back in the yeasty end of the 19th century.

I shan’t speak overmuch about the book. Suffice that the narrative rollicks, and that depth and scholarship show clearly. What gets me is the craziness of the undertaking.

The publisher of the New York Herald subsidized the expedition. He is the one who subsidized Stanley’s search for Dr Livingston (who was not exactly lost and didn’t exactly need saving). The Stanley expedition was a publishing coup—it stirred the public—and the polar one struck a public chord as well.

The polar expedition, led by Captain De Long, held the central idea that the polar sea was warm. Leading scientists and cartographers felt sure that an open sea existed in the polar region. One theorized that a Pacific current similar to the Gulf Stream drove warm water thru the ice to make a passageway to the North, and kept the ocean there in a liquid state.

I don’t know, speaking definitively, if this idea is hypothesis or theory. Hypothesis (if I understand the term rightly) is an idea to be tested; theory has faced tests and has yet to be disproved. Scientists actually had some reason to believe that the Arctic Sea could be warm. For instance, the warm northerly-tending current does exist. None of the whalers and others who have found their way to the region ever found hint of such a situation, tho. That whalers never found a warm sea does not mean one didn’t exist. It ought to, however, have tempered the theories.

The USS Jeanette, then, pretty quickly seizes up in ice, the ship remains stuck for two years, until finally crushed and sunk. The expedition slogged across 1000 miles of ice before reaching Siberia. Many died. Like I said, a hair raising story.

I know hindsight gives me strength, but it is hard to believe that so much was risked on the advice of so little knowledge. I guess that defines the human condition. Out of ignorance we sometimes find the light switch.

Poe, interestingly, in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, writes of a warm southern polar region where dark-skinned natives help fulfill a scurvy vision of a master race. Poe had a brilliant mind but here his swipes never quite hit the light switch. The hardest challenge is to listen to yourself.

Poe of course took many crazy undertakings. Imagining the tale-telling heart or the pit with the pendulum with such unsettling closeness shows a daring many of us can’t match. Likewise Lovecraft. One can lose one’s way, by which I mean, one loses the generative understanding. That is, if you can imagine a bleak and lacking race—frankly if you can imagine race at all (scientifically speaking, the term is a whole lot less settled than most people understand)—then perhaps you look for the light switch in the wrong place.

Theories should be placed within the coven of proof. Another book read recently, Into the Silence by Wade Davis, recounts the experiences of those who made the first attempts to climb Mount Everest. Most of them survived, somehow, the intensely stupid and foolish commands of the opposing armies during World War I. Commanding officers nowhere near the front were designing elegant plans that murdered millions and millions and millions. Was that just the olden days? Let’s talk climate change, let’s talk fracking, let’s talk…

So anyway, castles made of sand.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Mention of Poe recently and I found an urge to read him. Been a while. I have two volumes from Library of America. One consists of poetry and fiction, the other his reviews and critical work. One of the cover photos of him, he looks roughly like Baudelaire with his intense eyes and the expansive brow. Fitting.

In school, elementary school, we were fed the highlight stuff: the well-known poems and a few of his so-called horror stories. One gets a skewed vision of his work from that sampling. His poems are somber yet overripe. An eleven year old could tell that Poe’s a bit bent. The horror stories were problematic because they lacked monsters, To this elevated eleven year old, horror meant Frankenstein, the Thing, and Dracula lurking nearby. Some hyper loony thinking he hears a dead man’s heartbeat comes a cropper compared to that. Not to say the intensity of Poe’s narrative didn’t grab me.

Poe’s oeuvre is quite varied. He writes humourous pieces (somewhat labored, I think), satires, capers, even. “Eureka (A Prose Poem)” is a philosophical treatise. His detective stories, to call them that, are thorough masteries of the words induction and deduction. He had a surprisingly scientific mind, surprising because he could launch the wildest conjecture, crazy Lovecraft style.

Poe’s erudition shows most in his non-fiction, but he reveals it thru out his fiction, as well. One can fairly call him an autodidact. Yes, he went to West Point, but didn’t do well. Thru out his work, one sees him pressing his knowledge forward. Reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym again, I surmise that Poe hasn’t the practical nautical experience of a sailor that Melville had, but he seems to have made a good study nonetheless.

As to Pym, in which I am ensconced, we have an imperfect but curdling precursor to Moby Dick. Poe proves intent on providing close detail. Poe came from an era when readers wanted to remain in the sentences, not skim to the period. Honestly, I want to let the sentence envelop me, but I also want to get to the next one. I admit it, I jump ahead. But Poe tries to be precise, and detailed. I admire that. He tries to embrace the totality. He may be faking it, in terms of experience, but I am okay with that. He is writing the world.

Some of Pym can only be termed implausible. Pym himself, a stowaway, is tucked into a box in the hold of a ship. The box resembles Thoreau’s fine vision of a perfectly fine residence—refer Walden—a coffin-sized box whereat to lay one’s head. The bad air of the hold causes him to swoon for several days. Too much a machination. During that time of swoon, the ship undergoes a mutiny. It is a bit of a labour, transforming the plot necessities into believeable behavior. As I said, tho, Poe details it carefully. Let us just ride his wave, he is so intent.

He definitely angles towards something. He commands—or sort of commands: he’s an explorer—a rare sort of intelligence. Autodidacts must prove themselves, no diploma certifies them. We are weak that way.

His critical work is fun to read, if you can glean a sense of the subject. If Poe writes about Longfellow, you have a reference point. Poe seems to have reviewed anything that made it thru the transom, so many of the contemporaries about whom he writes are as ciphers to me, so it’s hard to rally interest. He finds some weirdoes, tho. He writes of one author, who writes in English yet inexplicably provides footnotes in French. I mean, whoa!

I write here wishing I had the time to just read everything by Poe. I think he is worthy of that. There’s a lot of crap here, that much I can tell. But he’s so certain in his work, certain that if he keeps at it, the many trails, there opens a way.

It’s a weird undertaking, an American literature. I don’t mean that jingoistically. The settlement here, in all its English motivation, eventually moved toward American. Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, these five in literary bundle describe a possible place. I don’t care America, but in a wilderness sort of project—make your own—these startled a hart.

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Monday, September 01, 2014

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee

I thought I had read Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. In sooth, I confounded Wounded Knee with In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen’s book details the beginnings of the American Indian Movement. Brown’s book gathers rather anecdotally some historical moments of the Western Indians.

Dee Brown has often been thought an Indian. The misprision seems natural. He writes from the Indian point of view. He often refers to people by the names the Indians used for them: Long Hair (Custer), Three Stars (General Terry). Brown also depends heavily on statements and remembrances made by the Indians themselves. He lets them have their word, late as it may seem now.

The subject of course leaves one dispirited. Not only has this nation been ruthless in its treatment of the natives who were here, the history of the Indians has been allowed to shrink to a few episodes.

Surely I am not alone in having wondered as a youngster how the nice Indians who helped the Pilgrims in a few years were savagely trying to kill John Wayne. What happened? America the opportunity happened. Once the Pilgrims and others got a foothold on the land, they wanted more.

As the Eastern seaboard became established and colonists became less dependent on Europe, the vast expanses out West became more enticing (“the only nest is West”, as Charles Olson wrote). The Indians were wasting all that potential. They weren’t building cities, weren’t digging ore from the ground, weren’t settling down. Settlers came and took what they thought was not being used. Mercantile America. Has mercantilism declined since then? Uh, no.

So here we are with this history. And words are at the bottom of it all. Words given, treaties broken. There’s something not being heard.

Anyway, a number of the episodes in the book were new to me, and those I had previously read about were new by way of the different viewpoint. I think I read history to keep stupid assumptions and ignorant expectations in line.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Boston Poetry World Cup 2014

I read at the Boston Poetry World Cup 2014 this past Saturday. It had been a busy, distracting week, so I came into it a little unfocused. I didn’t even finalize and print out what I wanted to read until that Saturday morning.

In reading aloud the handful of poems, just to make that effort, I started to cry when I began two of them. One poem mentions Erin, the other Beth. I have my moments of emotional surprise—where did that come from?—but I guess I can explain the tearfall. I don’t write to “say” something, but there exists an emotional envelopment of the words. That emotion hit me at the unarmed level, something like that. This was problematic because I didn’t want to make a display at the reading.

So anyway, Beth and I got there as the second set was beginning, people going in. Met Joel Sloman there. He did not go in. We spoke with Joel then I stood in the doorway and listened while Beth and Joel remained outside. I didn’t know any of the readers in the set. Nothing sprung out at me re “the work”. I don’t mean to be dismissive. I read poetry better than I hear it. After the set I found Joel, who had just said goodbye to Beth, who was just off to feed the metre. He seemed mildly perplexed that he wanted to leave. To be honest, I had entertained the idea of skipping the event (work precluded Friday night and Sunday).

I sat thru the next set sans Beth, who went and had coffee. I was to read in the following set. Or something like that. Beth joined me when my set began. I don’t want to review readers since my head was in the wrong place. The reader before me—I was second in the set—was kind of quirky and energetic. He seemed intent on pushing his work forward. One hears enough wispy readers, and I myself am not a dynamic reader, but I felt pushed upon. Still, there was something to grasp.

I first read an old poem, “Measly Poets Aloft” which is mildly snide yet I think uplifting vis-à-vis, you know, poetry and stuff. And I mean stuff. Voici est la poème:

the call from the minaret makes an opening between us and them. a crane lofts thru the sky that we started noticing just the other day. any sky makes a picture alerting us to words softened in rainwater, or perhaps a frog in a flooded ditch. when poets put on their big shoes, the minaret just about sparkles. the message is clear. we aren’t the only ones capable of flight, we who view the cranes. we listen for poets to gamble their lives and stress out. the matter sur la table will seem more important later, when the decoding has gone on long enough. why shouldn’t one want this sort of discussion? discussion wants theories in place. the term open should be closed permanently, an impossible position. the minaret has it over all other possibilities, frankly. someone stands up there now, calling out in that lovely way.

This poem is in my book Simple Theory. As I looked at it that Saturday morning, I decided to remove a line: “the minaret is as masculine as you can get.” I might have been worrying about meaning, whatever that is. I just thought the sentence might be read/heard by rote. Probably weak of me.

I next read a piece that actually is a narrative. I take pride in writing narrative that goes nowhere, that is, that doesn’t aim to fulfill the reader’s wish for simple completion. What I read next is a sort of scifi flourish, a seeming raygun sort of perplexity with the final declaration that I was a Republican. Scare quotes if you need them. To me, it’s a funny piece (only 1/9th of the full work).

I read a quirky little something that I found in the Sunday comics—two speech balloons tied together:

Modest Lyric Compartment

I have made a list of
things you can do
that will tell me that
you love me
I call it
a strategy
so you won't
lose hope

I then read the Erin poem but not the Beth poem. Another poem sounded like Stein (mucho repetition). I muttered few footnotes. Have no sense of audience reaction.

I am not sure if we even completed the set. I did throw the little cash I had into the proffered bag-functioning-as-a-hat. We then went looking for provender.

Some observations:

The format of the reading: fine and dandy. I respect people willing to make these readings happen, in whatever form. Bringing a mob of poets together creates an event.

The 8 minute time limit is okay, I mean jinkies, people can and do go on. Those 8 minutes best serve those who read often. One can feel okay about reading one’s latest, or something unusual, or someone else’s work, or whatever, without feeling one is losing an opportunity. Those of us who don’t read often might feel pressed to cover a lot of bases. Something old, something new, something “great”, something funny. Funny means audience interest, of course.

It doesn't seem like people recognize the narrative nature of their work. They tell prosy stories about events or emotions without seeing how tied to the trail they are. This presents a sort of goal-oriented vista that simply talks too much. The music seems mainly to lie in the adjectives.

With the vast number of readers, one can declare that poetry is alive and well. Also that it is overwhelming us. I do not know what holds us all together. Audience is now a big fat fishbowl. Who are we singing to?

LANGUAGE poetry seems like the last entailing critical faction. What I mean is, Langpo gave people a climate of agitation and debate that brought poetic vitality, whether one was for or against. I am unaware of any other overarching influence since Langpo sprang into the pantsuit of the ages. Flarf might be mentioned, but it seems more like something those people over there do, rather than a general insight. That, at least, seems the critical stance.

Hearing the poets read, and I’ve felt this in all of these recent poetry fests, it sounds like an amalgam of amalgams. I don’t think of poetry as one thing, but the sightings I’ve been hearing don’t seem like any thing. I mean by that that the current answer to what is poetry is: whatever. Truly, I feel that way myself but the thing is, how does that translate to a community of listening machines?

I don’t think there’s enough listening to one’s self, let alone one’s non-self. The Internet says we are all good, step on up to the plate. Egalitarian wins everyday. For 8 minutes, I can be Allen Bramhall. I know just as do you that that is a pittance. Why, then, are we so careless in the realm? Well, that’s what I was thinking, these past few days and all.

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Greek Orthodox Funeral

A co-worker lost his mother this weekend. The funeral service was this morning. Beth knows Steve, as well.

The service was to be at the Greek Orthodox church in Lexington, my home town. I had no idea there was a Greek Orthodox church in Lexington. It was located on a road I’m very familiar with.

We got to what I thought was the right place. In sooth, it was Episcopalian, and the door was locked (cue symbolism). Beth noticed across the street a little chapel. From the outside it gives little impression. I guess I never gave it notice. We were a little late because of my misunderstanding. The service had begun but people were still entering.

The images and iconography inside the church gave an almost visceral effect. The Unitarian church my family went to, there on Lexington’s Green, is rather elegant inside but clearly with a Puritan soul. A crisp, boring place. Frankly, the place was more about bake sales than spiritual comfort. I’m not taking back that remark.

The atmosphere was surprisingly comforting. The images were beautiful and the singing by the priests as they shifted between Greek and English. A patriarch or whatever he’s called led the service, one of the other two turned out to be the parish priest. I won’t describe the service any further except to say it was moving.

The most moving part came when the parish priest spoke about Steve’s mother. He looked fairly young, maybe in his 40s. He clearly had a connection with Steve’s mother. I guess by the presence of the Patriarch that she was much-respected in the community. The parish priest was extremely emotional as he spoke, taking frequent pauses to compose himself. It was stunning to witness that touching embrace by a religious figure. After the service, he hugged family members in the most tender way. Us WASPs must be soulless.

The funeral was open casket. After the service people were invited to kiss the deceased. I watched anxiously to see if this were a requirement. Beth assured me it was not.

As Beth said, this was the second funeral we’ve attended this year that actually offered a feeling of comfort and reassurance. Religion lays too much weight on angry differences, as if we all aren’t in the same plight. It’s nice to know that churches can contain loving kindness.

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Going for a wider audience with the title reference to a Moody Blues lp. Anyway, Erin and I went to see the spectacle of our longing today.

A mezzo audience, theatres don’t seem to be crowded anymore. Short wait till previews. Only three movies to look forward to, or not. The first was a noisy Scarlett Johansen vehicle. The concept is a little fuzzy, something about her character getting kidnapped, and a bag of something placed surgically in her stomach. Oh, that old plot. The bag ruptures, thereby giving her super powers. Basically you watch to enjoy Scarlett looking like Scarlett, and the gymnastic mayhem her character perpetuates. Luckily I’ve seen enough. I mean, I sort of accept Scarlett as a capable implementation of the usual road, but this movie can’t possibly want anything.

Another movie shows a rascal hoodlum being trained as a government assassin. Look, there’s no balance here at all, it’s mindfuck for violence, with stray jokes to make it all okay. Their lordships Michael Caine and Samuel Jackson cannot make crap like this better. Another fury comes our way but at the moment I cannot recall what misery it releases.

So X-Men. The movie begins in The Matrix, to wit: a dark, dystopian world in which robotic warriors annihilate mutants, and everybody. A stupid, confusing scene of the remnant X-Men fighting off the robots, called Sentinels. It’s a mess. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan play Dr Xavier and Magneto, now elderly but friends. The only answer is to send someone back in time and prevent um Mystique from killing the inventor of the Sentinels, back in 1973. Yeah, sure. See, Ellen Page has some sort of power that, well it’s like this, um… Okay, it is Matrixy. Wolverine gets the nod because he’s so healthy. She puts him to sleep and his mind goes back to 1973. I guess mine does that occasionally, as well.

Big fail, not to exploit the music and culture of ‘73. The only thing Forrest Gump got right was the tunes of the era.

Wolverine wakes in bed with some 1973 female. He slips naked from the bed so that we can peruse most of the acreage of his jacked body. Hugh Jackedman. He looks like a professional wrestler, ready to explode. It is funny that acting chops emanate from that puddle of improvement. His mission is to find the young Charles Xavier and stop Raven/Mystique. Wolverine finds Xavier and Beast at the now closed school. Xavier is deep in self-pity. Eventually he comes around enough to join Wolverine in trying to get Magneto to help. Magneto is imprisoned under the Pentagon. Not clear why they need Magneto.

Wolverine enlists the help of someone who will eventually become Quicksilver. He’s just a slacker kid but can move faster than the eye can see. The scenes with Quicksilver are played for laughs, a super powered stoner. Pretty easy getting Magneto out. A bunch of guards convene with pistols blazing. Here Quicksilver enters Matrix slo-mo, tipping bullets seemingly motionless in mid-air so that they stray from their targets and so forth. Funny scene. After this, he’s about done.

A problem with the X-Men is that there are so many of them. Most are spear carriers. Several, like Wolverine, Magneto, and Mystique, get to chew the curtains. The rest are stand ins for something eventually to happen. Mystique is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who I glean is Hollywood something. My meager inventory of either sides with Scarlett, if we demand competition. Lawrence looked roped into sentiment.

Mystique fails in her attempt to kill the Sentinel inventor, at the—no kidding—Paris Peace Talks. She and Magneto reveal themselves as mutants, and that sets Richard Nixon to greenlighting the Sentinel program. This Nixon looked like 2nd rate Vegas comedian. For some reason, Magneto lifts a baseball stadium and drops it around the White House, where the Sentinels are displayed. Show off. This is a scene full of… scene.

At this point, Mystique almost kills the Sentinel maker. Thru the good offices of Dr Xavier and Wolverine, she chooses not to pull the trigger. Whew.

In the future, a gazillion Sentinels locate the remnant X-Men in their Chinese Fortress of Solitude. This brought to mind the scene in the Star Wars Thrillogy when the Jedi are killed off Godfather-style. X-Men as a rule hold their hand palm forward to exert their power. Pity the poor actors hung upon these pegs. Halle Berry looked like exerted Hollywood featurette, star power being a mere visual. A lot of yelling and vague ministrations as the Forces of Good flex their steroids. Good Lord, it is the inside of a chocolate éclair!

The Manichean bullshit here is American dream. Mutant Republicans and/or Democrats get to save their party platform by being right. Murder is right for the right reason. Everything is good if you’re right. Wolverine wakes up and the world is okay again.

Look, we don’t need physics, it just holds us back. And we don’t need empathy, where’s the thrill in that? Accusations that the director committed sexual assault on a teen kind of adds to the privilege of righteous mode. Look, there is no moral basis to this movie. It is just flickering electrons with commercial intent. How could we even ask those electrons to care for the endeavour? We are intent to blink as hard as we can.

I think it is time that Marvel start eating its own entrails, and not ours.

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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Why “Roadrunner” is the Greatest Song Ever

Song by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

The count down is magical extra two steps: Richman counts 1, 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6, to start the song. And he means it. Paul McCartney's fully directed countdown to “I Saw Her Standing There” is a sprinter's call in the moment. I remember the insistence.

Modern Lovers, oh my god! Could we all, could we all reach that sanctum?

Richman has been to town at Stop & Shop.

“Going faster miles an hour”, grand vista of language faster than intent.

AM was a real creature then, and he knew. The scamp district ekes a vantage and sight. No Longer Exists As Such. Precursorian remnant.

“I'm in love with modern moonlight”. The precinct of sincere dispatch, in the cuddling grasp of how the night embraces the treasure.

Chunka chunka persistence, drums, bass, and guitar. Organ floats atop, a voice, a vowel.

“The factories and the auto signs got the power of moderns sounds”. ALRIGHT!

The highway is your girlfriend as you go by quick
Suburban trees, suburban speed
And it smells like heaven (thunder)

Splashy/crunchy guitar chords, oozing/running organ runs.

Modern is a town with taste.

* * * * *

Roadrunner by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers is a personal obsession. When I saw Phish my 2nd time, the opened with this song. It was in the running for Mass State Song. Beaten out, naturally, by The Standells and "Dirty Water". Fair enough, but they were from LA and knew little enough of the Charles River. I think Richman knew Stop & Shop and Rt 128. Modern Lovers were eventual drummer for The Cars and eventual keyboardist for Talking Heads. Other song obsession: "Omaha" by Moby Grape ("Listen my friends").

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Good Morning America Announces the End of the World

The tv was on when I arrived at the gym, so I watched the already chosen show, Good Morning America. If we need immutable evidence that we're up Shit Creek, shows like this provide it.

Fatuous comes quickly to mind when one reaches for descriptors. Fatuity is alive and well within the precincts of this show. GMA banks on your short attention span. I know the show aims for an audience readying to launch out the door, so yes, things are short and sweet (minus the sweet). But the smirky smarm of the microbits of information and entertainment of every segment should be seen as oppressive. Given the ratings magic of these morning shows, I guess people see oppressive smarm as a positive.

In the old days of these shows, sturdy desks and serious expressions made the chop suey being offered seem mildly consequential, even if the report were on the latest trend in wearable rutabagas. Celebrities were kept to a minimum, which is where they belong.

Nowadays, the word celebrity is big and flexible. It's not just film stars and bestseller writers, it's also the guy who split his pants in the Youtube video. That means there exists an awful lot of celebrities to celebrate. The panel itself is a congealed mass of celebrities, tho I cannot name them all.

Four women and a man form the panel. I suppose there are substitutions at times. I recognize three as first teamers: George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts, and Lara Spencer. The other two were properly lively and attractive (as well), whatever that might mean.

Stephanopoulos looks a little crunchy at this point. No longer the wunderkind on the big political stage, with his dark hair and dark suit, and especially as the women dress brightly, he looks grave and heavy. Not that he doesn't chum up with the banter, as the show requires. His effort at playful fun is unsettling, might even physically hurt, but he’s a game competitor.

Robin Roberts actually carries some gravitas herself. I imagine she was an athlete of note, in college. Well yeah, and a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, back in the 50s. She really knew what she was talking about as an ESPN anchor, or whatever she was. Stepping up to GMA represents a step down to frivolity, but at least now she can afford to buy stately Wayne Manor.

I first saw Lara Spencer on Antiques Roadshow. She looked the part, cool and efficient. She presented the right tone of sedate professionalism, as must be on PBS. On GMA, she matches all the others in cackle and smirk.

Amy Robach—I had to look her name up—--is whoever she is, I didn't see enough. Was there someone else sitting cross-legged on the panel or did I imagine it? The set, I should note, entirely lacks desks, the troupe lounges in swivel chairs as they blurt cheap hilarity at each other. Another guy was outside in the crowd looking for insipid people. Who were never far away.

And that's the dynamo producing moolah for some corporate entity. That's the product, that's the thing people are buying. Spencer got to introduce a Youtube video that showed animals in stop-motion that made them look as if they danced. Isn't that sad? That's where the billion dollar corporation goes for content. There's a bottom line here folks: let's don't overspend. Any crap will do.

Spencer also got to do a spot with a Youtube phenomenon dog. I don't know what the dog did in the video but on the live set it properly looked around and ignored Spencer. Great tv.

Don't worry, there's still news on the show, which means the word Benghazi was pronounced, etc. The show cuts away briefly for local weather. Apparently we'll be having some.

I've heard, like maybe from one of the People magazines collected at the gym, that bad blood exists between I guess it would be Spencer and Robach. I should hope so. Not that that would interfere with the prime bantering. Small talk and guffaws, that's a job and these stalwarts are determined to do it right. Good Morning, America!

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