Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sweet Spot: Eddie's Attic 8/26/09

Sweetspot - The Rescues (mp3)

On Wednesday night, I traveled to Atlanta with five women of varying age to see The Rescues in concert at Eddie's Attic, a venue for singer-songwriter and acoustic types. I don't want to overstate my case here, but it was one of my most enjoyable concerts of the last decade.

For those who aren't listening to the song I've posted -- and I'd barely put it into the top half of my favorites -- The Rescues are pure uncut AAA music, plain and simple. (AAA = Adult Album Alternative, which is to say, for people who used to enjoy Nirvana but grew up, had kids, and stopped drinking and doing other drugs quite so often.) They're modeled a little after bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, so they're not afraid to be melodramatic and cheesy, and they live quite comfortably in the realm of depressive break-ups.

The Rescues weren't a great "concert experience." No moshing. No dancing. No stage diving. No biting the heads off of bats, and no destroying precious instruments. They weren't so loud I had to wear earplugs. In fact, the entire bar's audience stayed seated and subdued during the performance... in part because there's this ginormous sign on the stage that suggests the audience do just that. ("Respect the music" was the basic gist of it.)

[Embedded below is the YouTube video of what was the most powerful new song of the bunch, except I liked the version in Atlanta even a little bit better than the one below.]

So it might not have been a great concert experience, but it was a phenomenal musical performance. Every guitar chord and every voice and every piano key had a distinctive and audible place in the songs. It was like a high-course meal where each and every ingredient in a dish is distinguishable and vital, and you know you're eating an amazing meal.

Generally speaking, I'm more of a casserole and pizza kind of guy, so a good and loud Dinosaur Jr. concert is fine by me. But maybe because I don't get the opportunity to enjoy a concert like this, where four distinct and incredibly talented voices are constantly merging in and out of one another, watching The Rescues felt truly special. Equally cool was watching as they exchanged instruments. No one in the band played fewer than three instruments over the course of the 90-minute show. That's probably the reward of four once-maverick singer-songwriters merging into a single unit -- when they were solo, they had to learn all that stuff for themselves.

[Pictured at right are me and my Bizarro Lesbian Twin, one of about 2,000 lesbians in attendance. I have no problem whatsoever with lesbians, but it's either a damning statement for me or for her that we share exactly the same fashion sense. One of us is dressed to attract the wrong crowd, is what I'm sayin'.]

Perhaps the most astonishing part of the concert was that they only played three songs off their only album. The rest of the time they played "newer" songs due to come out on their next CD. Historically speaking, there's a direct relationship between how much I enjoy a concert and how familiar I am with the songs being played. The fewer the songs I've heard before, the less I enjoy the concert. I guess I like having a baseline, some sense of what to expect.

Yet strangely, with The Rescues packed in at Eddie's Attic, because I could hear the words and the instruments and the harmonies, it practically felt like I was at a recording session. And the level of reverence the audience afforded them, almost like church, made it feel really intimate and intense and capital-I Important. Who knows if that was me, or if they have that power to make all their audiences feel like that. Springsteen's magic is that he manages to make 95% of his concerts feel like it's his first one ever.

Great performers do that. They assist in keeping your illusions alive. They help you believe in things just a little longer than you should. And on Wednesday night at this concert, The Rescues proved themselves plenty capable of keeping some terrific illusions about music and concerts and life thriving just a little bit longer.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Guest Blog: The Trout King Short List


Van the Man
I was lucky enough to see Van Morrison perform his 1968 masterpiece Astral Weeks live in concert last year (he's recently added new performances of this album around the country) and I listened to the album a lot to prepare for the concert and I haven't been able to stop since. Its unique blend of free-wheeling jazz, romantic swing and mystical Celtic soul is certainly unique among rock's canon. It lacks the concise pop punch of its more popular successor Moondance, but it more than compensates with a depth of feeling and intensity. I almost can't listen to the album's centerpiece Madame George without tears coming to my eyes, especially since I discovered the song's connection to Bruce Springsteen's Backstreets from the Born to Run album. Springsteen guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt said Astral Weeks was "like our Bible." The connection is clear between these two songs' repetition of the word "backstreets" and even more so on bootleg live versions of Backstreets from the 70's.

(Links removed upon request.)
Van Morrison--"Domino" (mp3)
Van Morrison--"I've Been Working" (mp3)

Hammerin' Hank
Not Hank Aaron, but Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish baseball star who almost broke Babe Ruth's home run record back in the 1930's. I recently re-watched a terrific documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which effectively details both the tumultuous times and the discrimination faced by Greenberg, which one fellow player said was second only to that endured by Jackie Robinson. The quiet strength and dignity of this man shines through via period footage and recent interviews with such prominent and varied figures as Walter Matthau and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsberg. I was reminded of this movie by the recent theatrical release of director Aviva Kempner's new documentary entitled Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. This film, currently showing in major cities, shines a light on the now little-remembered first queen of television comedy Gertrude Berg. The show she created on radio and brought to TV, The Goldbergs, reigned until I Love Lucy despite, or maybe because of, its distinctly ethnic nature. It's a fascinating story of one woman overcoming both gender and ethnic discrimination to become, for a time, the second most admired woman in America behind Eleanor Roosevelt.

Arrestingly Funny

Not sure why I resisted this show when it was broadcast, probably because Fox news makes me hate the Fox network generally, but I've only recently been introduced by a friend to Arrested Development. A change of pace from popular comedies of awkwardness like The Office, this show is flat out wacky and so quickly paced that is actually exhausting to watch. Then again, maybe that's from all the laughing. From main character pros like Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman and Michael Cera (in his career-making role) to guest casting like Henry Winkler and Liza Minelli (!), the cast is an incredible collection of comedic talent, while the writing out-crazies even 30 Rock. Thank God for Netflix so I didn't miss out on this treasure.

French Kiss
My first trip to France this summer had me trying to digest as much French and French culture as I could in preparation. I failed miserable on the first, relying on my brother's high school French for communication, but a book clumsily titled Sixty Million French Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but not the French really helped with the second. Using part history, part current events, part pop psychology, the authors Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow (both Canadians!) help explain why the French are the way they are and how that causes problems sometimes with American customs and mindsets. An insightful, well-researched and funny guide for anyone---tourists, diplomats or businessmen---trying to understand the French people.

Both Van Morrison tracks come from his classic CD, His Band and Street Choir, which followed both Astral Weeks and Moondance, available at Itunes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Billy & the Doc-In-The-Box

Hello Time Bomb - Matthew Good Band (mp3)
Kiss the Dirt - The Brent Flood (mp3)

Herein lies the true story of my experience on Saturday, August 22, 2009. But first, some background. [NOTE: This entry is of a TMI medical nature and may not be suitable for young children or those with weak stomachs.]

Last Tuesday I emerged from my morning shower to notice an annoying zit-looking thing halfway between my belly button and my, well, junk. Because I seem to attract biting insects and arachnids of all stripes, I kind of assumed it was a spider bite. Wouldn't be the first time.

Because I'm a moron, I decided to treat it like a normal zit, and I tried popping it. When it didn't pop, I went on with my day and forgot about it.

On Wednesday morning, I emerged from my morning shower to notice that what had once been a spider bite-looking thing had spread. I mentioned it in passing to the wife and a nurse pal, and they suggested hydrocortizone and a bandage. Mmkay.

By Thursday night it was worse, and the wife thought it looked like a poison ivy thing. But because I'm a moron, I didn't think long enough to realize that the damn things didn't itch. So we just dumped some Calamine lotion on it, and I tried to go to sleep in spite of the fact that the lotion burned like the fires of eighteen hells.

By Saturday, I was honestly worried. It burned and hurt and looked downright ugly. (Yes, it took me 36 hours after the Calamine Lotion Incident to get past my stubborn hatred of acknowledging my vulnerability to the medical mysteries that plague mere humans.) I decided I couldn't wait 'til Tuesday or Wednesday -- school started Monday, so there wasn't a snowball's chance I could go Monday -- so I decided to go to a Doc-In-The-Box.

At 1:40 p.m. on Saturday, I entered the CVS. At 1:48 I finally managed to find the damn Minute Clinic that's inside the CVS. I signed up and was third in line. At 3:17 I got called in. At this point, the Minute Clinic had sucked away 89 minutes.

Technically speaking, you shouldn't call your business the Minute Clinic if it takes a dude 90 of the damn things just to get in the door.

Also, technically speaking, this Minute Clinic wasn't a "doc in the box." It's a "nurse practitioner in the box." The NP at this particular Minute Clinic looked -- I shit you not -- like Famke Janssen with a pinch of Jennifer Garner.

At this point, I had this inevitable flashback to that Friends episode where Joey and Chandler spend too much time watching porn? And then they go out into the real world where normal people have normal non-sexual encounters? And they can't believe they're not getting jumped and humped by all these random women? (No, I've never been propositioned by, nor have I ever propositioned, anyone in any such situations. For the record. But that doesn't keep me from having random pop-culture references or acknowledging the Famke-ness of a hot NP.)

"So how can I help you today?" Famke asked. At which point I began to unbutton my pants.

Now let me explain. I was already mighty nervous about this rash thing. Sitting in the middle of a CV-f*#kin'-S and finding yourself so bored you actually read the ingredients of Axe Body Spray only makes the nerves more fragile. At one point I had these weird flashes where some Devil Mosquito had injected me with bubonic plague or gonorrhea, as if I were being tested like Job... or maybe I was bein' PUNK'D! Where are you, Ashton, you motherf*#ker?!?!

So by the time I got into her "office," which is roughly the size of a high school locker, I was practically shitting myself with all these wickedly irrational fears. I wanted to get out of there ASAP, and the best way to do that was to get right to the point by showing her my rash.

I hadn't even undone my belt all the way when she was, like, "Whoa whoa whoa there!"

And I was, like, "Oh. Um. I swear I wasn't dropping trou. My rash is right here." And I gesticulated with my hands in the area where my World Wrestling Federation belt buckle might be.

"So, I can see this without... you know..."

"Oh... Ohh! No! I mean, yeah! Of course! I would've warned you! Totally!"

Nurse Famke relaxed a little at that point but kept her distance. Which, in her office, was maybe four inches away from me. "OK, let's take a look."

I basically drop my shorts so that I look "hip hop" and gain "street cred," which is to say the shorts are clinging desperately to the last curve of my butt lest gravity pull them to the floor. Somehow she feels more at ease with this look -- maybe because I'm keepin' it real, yo -- so she bends down to inspect these strange mega-zits along my waistline.

We talk like this for a few minutes. She's staring down at my crotch and asking me all these detailed questions, and I'm looking around at the pretty fluorescent lights and pretty little ear scope thingies.

Finally, she says, "blah blah blah Folliculitis."

And, I'm sorry, really I am, but I had to ask her to repeat it because I thought she said something vulgar. Something along the lines of "I'd like to f*#k you like this."

So she repeats the word and says, "It's an infection of the hair follicles. Bacterial infection."

Of course that's what I have! "Um, how does, uh, someone get, um, Fuglyitis?"

"Full-LICK-u-LIE-tiss. It's pretty common, actually. It's not that big a deal, really. I'll prescribe you some antibiotics, and it should clear up in 48 hours give or take."

After 30 minutes of paperwork and a few calls, I'm out the door of the Minute Clinic $65 poorer and having lost far more than one minute of my life. One hundred thirty-two minutes, to be exact.

As I'm driving home with my diagnosis, I call my former roommate Don, who's a doctor of pharmacy in Atlanta. Don quickly calms me some more by saying a lot of what Nurse Famke said. Folliculitis is fairly common. Sweat and dirt and a small open cut or hair follicle is all you need. Yada yada.

But then, because he's my former roommate with a twisted sense of humor, he has to take it one step further. "Still, you need to take it seriously if it's anywhere near your crotch," he says.

Gulp. "Why?"

"Because if it spreads it can turn into Fournier Gangrene."

"Fornicate... wha?"

"Gangrene of the scrotum."

At this point I almost wrecked our minivan. It's saying shit like "gangrene of the scrotum" into the receiver that people simply can't afford to hear as they're driving at high speeds on public roads.

While I'm swerving and instinctively reaching for my junk, as if a single human palm covering it could protect it from words like "Fournier gangrene," Don's still talking. "The smell can be pretty unbearable, because it's basically dead flesh, and it smells like a corpse. You can smell it all the way down the hall in a hospital. And the surgery... well that's the kind of surgery doctors talk about all the time 'cuz it's so extreme. They have to remove the necrotic flesh on your ball sac, and if it's run up your shaft at all it just gets worse."

I didn't say anything. I was wondering whether a grisly wreck might not be a less painful fate than Fournier gangrene. I imagined having my balls forced to live inside some fake plastic scrotum (no, that's not a Radiohead song), like they were hamsters or something.

But Don wasn't through.

"By the way, I'd love it if you'd be one of my groomsmen."

"Don, if I'm still a man with a scrotum by the spring, I'd be totally honored."

The Brent Flood offered their song gratis for promotion, so please consider taking a listen to them! The Matthew Good Band -- now just Matthew Good -- is from Canada, so they have to rock.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tell Me About Yourself

This Life - Lion O'Brien (mp3)
Names in the Sand - Boh Runga (mp3)  [Link removed because the promotional company sent us Boh's album and asked us to link a song, and then the record company reported us for DRSM violation. Yeah, it's a wonderful world.]

"Well I hope they get my name right." -- Deathstalker, from the Oscar-winning film Deathstalker II

Nothing gets our attention and keeps it quite as well as the chance to talk about ourselves.

As someone who works in marketing and communications, it's my job to try and understand what people ignore. And people ignore a lot of shit. For every smidgen of information our brain actively processes, it flushes tons of other information down the mental crapper. If our brains were a Charlie Brown cartoon, 90% of the cartoon would be the adults talking in that waah waahhhh wahhhh muffled trumpet-speak, and maybe 10% is Lucy or Linus or Peppermint Patty saying something you comprehensible. If you're lucky.

When people attempt to communicate to a large group with a single message, we often wrongly assume just how few people give enough of a shit to pay it any heed. We don't look at most of the billboards we drive past, but when we make the billboard, or when we pay to have it placed in a certain spot, we just want to magically believe everyone's gonna look at ours because, well, it's OURS, dammit. It's a unique snowflake in a way the others are not.

When we stand up at a meeting or in a crowd, and we speak our minds and our hearts, we want to believe people will stop their snide and snarky under-the-breath commentary to listen to us, because we're not just hot airbags talking to hear ourselves talk. We're different than that. Our words should carry more weight.

And when we send an email out to a large group, we expect the large group to read it. Our email is special. It's not like those boring ol' emails we get from the technology office or that quack secretary everyone makes fun of. We don't send this shit all the time, so when we do, we've earned the right to be heeded!

Except that's not how it works. At all.

For example, our school communicates with parents almost exclusively through email and our web site. When we send out an important -- sometimes essential -- message to our entire parent community, we want to believe they all read it and heed it. Compared to other schools, we are very careful and mindful not to overload parents with so many emails that they're numbed or annoyed to our communications. Unfortunately, thanks to statistics and the tracking capability of push pages, I know for certain that this mindfulness is only marginally rewarding. Our best messages will reach and be read by under half of their intended audience within 24 hours. The average for our school is about 33 percent. The worst ones hover at 20-25 percent, or even a little lower.

With teachers, the percentages are worse than parents. Collective communications to our school employee list are deleted, misinterpreted, or mocked  by at least 60-70% of teachers and staff at a school.* The only emails they tend to read involve their paychecks or their vacation times. Anything else is completely unreliable.

Last Monday, I sent an email to my 170 or so coworkers asking them to review and update the brief autobiographies we publish on our school web site. Honestly, I would have been pleased as punch to get 50 responses within the week, so I practically shit a statue when I had received 90 responses by Wednesday afternoon. By the end of the week it had crept over 100.

This kind of response is truly without comparison in my area of work, which forces the question of WHY?

First, it doesn't hurt that I had to go through the work of sending each and every member of our workforce a separate, person-specific email with their own "old" write-up. Personal emails get a better response.

But the bigger factor, I'm convinced, is how much most of us cherish the opportunity to talk/write about ourselves.** We love reading our own biographies. We love making changes to our own stories, updating them, adding something new, tweaking our lives as only we can do.

Maybe writing those 10-20 sentence autobiographies are some kind of beautiful oasis, this rarefied and brief chance to control and create our histories as we see them, as we enjoy them, as we wish them. Maybe we all deserve moments such as these.

* -- Lest you think I'm putting myself above this, I'm very much an active part of two separate email lists whose sole purpose, it seems, is to seek out and mock the inevitable absurdity or moronitude that sprouts up in emails sent to the collective.

-- Please understand, I'm not throwing stones here. Hell, with Bob's help, I've got an entire blog dedicated to my own unhealthy degree of self-obsession.

Boh Runga and Lion O' Brien are both here thanks to promotional folks recommending the music to us. Having heard Ms. Runga's album Right Here and Lion O'Brien's EP Raincloud vs. Sunshine, I can confidently say if you like these songs, you'll like their albums. Artists are starving these days. Consider taking a few of your hard-earned dollars and feeding these artists.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Nap

Oasis w/ Stereophonics--"I'm Only Sleeping (live)" (mp3)
Warren Zevon--"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" (mp3)

Let's face it. We are a tired society. The ways that we spend our days are guaranteed to overwhelm us. I'm not talking about labor. The times we have to labor physically don't send us to the couch for a nap; they send us to bed early at night. What brings on the need for the nap is human contact--the barrage of questions, requests, second guesses, challenges, confessions, deadlines, presentations, etc.--which make up much of the time we spend working in service industries. And most of us, by now, are in service industries. For most of us, by a certain time during the day, we've had enough. And then we start thinking about the nap. If only we could have that nap.

There are few things more controversial than a nap. Think not? Napping is synonymous with being lazy, with being a slacker, with being unmotivated. Imagine yourself carving out the space for one in the middle of a work day because you know it would be the best thing for you at that moment. Would anyone else who saw you napping agree? Your co-workers? Your bosses? Nope. We live in a world where peer pressure tells us most of the time: You can't nap because no one else is napping. So what if everyone else's ass is dragging, too?

There are few things more irritating than knowing that someone else is sleeping while you are slaving away.

There are few things more blessed than a quick bit of shuteye.

Sometimes I walk around and the only clear knowledge in my head is that I'm spent. My wife will call and say, "I'm spent." I come home and see my children and verify that they, too, have had enough for one day. It is the world we have bought into, literally and figuratively.

If you have the gift of being able to fall asleep quickly and can take advantage of a quick half hour of free time, you have a good chance of waking up from the brief respite refreshed and renewed. I remember my grandfather, who came home for lunch every day, following up his lunch by stretching out on the living room couch and resting his eyes for about 30 minutes or so before heading back to work. Of course, he worked at a lumber company, a lumber company that he owned, so he could stretch that lunch out a bit.

I had an older colleague a few years ago who was much maligned for taking a nap in the afternoon. Maligned by the faculty, at least. I may have even done some of the deriding. He instructed his secretary to hold the phone calls, reschedule any appointments, prevent anyone from intruding. It wasn't a long nap. It was a quick nap, a power nap, as some like to call it. But he did it. I guess he had the balls to say he was doing it and no one was willing to tell him that he couldn't.

Me, I don't have a good office for napping. With a huge fishbowl window and a central location, if someone saw me leaned back in my chair with my eyes closed and my mouth open, they'd probably bust out the defibulator that hangs on the wall next door and call 911. No, for me to grab a little snooze in there, I'd have to lock my door, get down on the nasty carpet, curl up in a fetal position, and wedge myself into the little alcove in front of it. I can only imagine what story the maintenance guy coming in to change one of my overhead lights would tell after that encounter.

The other day I came home from work and, the main floor being full of my children and activity, went down to the cool of the basement and got into the bed for a nap. Bad call. I fell into a deep sleep, and only awakened because a neighborhood boy was delivering a watermelon from his family garden and I could hear his surprising voice and his footsteps above me. I must have fallen into the deepest levels of sleep, because I was disoriented for several hours after that and unmotivated to do much of anything at all. That isn't a nap.

A nap is a glorious thing, constrained by time and obligation. When I do take one, I figure out exactly how much time I need and set a timer, even set it where I can hear it ticking sometimes. The ticking doesn't bother me, nor does the knowledge that I might not be able to fall asleep, nor does the knowledge of what I have to do once the nap is over. If I didn't think I had time for a nap, I wouldn't be taking one. And it is the chance to take a nap as much as the nap itself that matters. Sometimes I just lie there with my eyes closed and do the kind of free-form thinking that we do before we fall asleep and something will catch my interest and I'll jump right up and get to it, or sometimes my body will know how long I needed to nap and I'll start to come out of it before the buzzer jolts me.

A nap is C3PO shutting himself down for quick repairs or an Ipod that just a needs a few minutes of being left in a wall undisturbed so that it can gain enough of a charge to keep going. We're not all that different.

A nap is, those of you with young children are thinking, what the hell is a nap?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Living In Oz: The Album (Part II)

Alyson - Rick Springfield (mp3)
Me + Johnny - Rick Springfield (mp3) -- SONGS REMOVED BY REQUEST

(Part 1 is here)

I don't think you can call someone your "first girlfriend" if you never had a date with her, never kissed her, and never really did anything more physical than one hand grazing another. But, by the strictest definitions, Amy W. was my first girlfriend, the first girl I went with. [NOTE: The girl on the left looks nothing like Amy W., but that's precisely the kind of ensemble Amy wore regularly.]

Amy W. might well be the shyest girl I ever knew. And she had some seriously buck teeth. [NOTE: Isn't it sad that initially describing someone with a negative trait -- say, "buck teeth" -- automatically makes you think they were unattractive? In truth, it was probably her most noticeable trait, yet she was also incredibly cute. When I think of her, I specifically recall the Olan Mills picture of herself she gave me. Soft-focus lighting. Soft fuzzy purple V-neck sweater over some teal Miami Vice type of shirt. Wavy, feathered-back dirty blonde hair. And a gold locket around her soft neck.]

Six weeks of going with someone when you're 11 is, like, a serious chunk of your life. As a percentage of your life, fifth-graders going together for a month and a half is like 25-year-olds who date for two years! Entire dynasties rise and fall in the elementary school universe in less time than Amy and I went together.

For those six weeks, what "going with Amy" really meant was we'd spend recesses sitting within arm's reach of one another and saying as little as absolutely possible. Although I was gregarious and downright silly with my guy pals, Amy's presence forced me down to her level of mute interaction. We'd just sit there, in relative proximity, usually on the same bench. We'd look around, our hands clasped in our laps, and coexist. It was both terribly awkward and monumentally exquisite. There was nothing I would have rather been doing than to sit there mute next to Amy W.

On Valentine's Day in 1983, I gave Amy a necklace which was pretty damn expensive for a 5th grader. It was, like, $20, which was, like, totally three weeks of lawn-mowing and housework. Gag me with a spoon! $20 in 1983 is approximately $450 today or something! It was real 14k gold or something! In the exchange, Amy gave me a cassette of Rick Springfield's Living in Oz. This was my very first significant gift from a girlfriend, which practically made it my own personal Ark of the Covenant. (Except, you know, without some dude's face melting off or angels of death swirling around me.)

I listened to that album so incessantly I'm somewhat shocked the tape didn't burn. As the added kicker, Platonic 5th-Grade Man Tom was a huge Rick Springfield fan. Whenever we would pretend we were in a band, Tom would always play his guitar way down practically on his thighs because Rick played it down that low. And Tom did what Rick did, right down to sweating profusely.

When I consider my love of -- borderline obsession with, really -- the musical genre known as "power pop," I'm pretty sure its genesis began on Valentine's Day 1983 when Amy gave me Rick.

While in prior albums Rick had clung to a more traditional rock sound, Living in Oz found Springfield colliding with the synthesized world of 80s pop rock. The result is an album where Springfield fights with what it means to be human and what it means to have "human touch." Everybody's dancing to a drum machine, he writes in the opening verse of the opening song. And later, I sit so snug and isolated alone in the modern world.

This song feels quite prescient in our social network modern day.

All the songs are about the ways we connect. Although I realize this isn't a particularly shocking topic for power pop, on this album it feels much more thematic than usual. Songs about two souls finding one another serendipitously ("Souls"), or about engaging in a very surreal extramarital affair with his actress co-star ("Alyson"), or about just shaggin' a slut ("Motel Eyes"), or about connecting with his best friend ("Me + Johnny") or struggling to connect with his father ("Like Father Like Son"). [NOTE: I'm not the only one who noticed this, as I discovered this evening by reading's review of the album.]

The two biggest hits off this album, "Human Touch" and "Affair of the Heart," perfectly described what Amy and I had together. We never touched, and we hardly ever talked, so what went on between us HAD to be soooo much deeper than just physical, since that was non-existent. Our hearts were communicating without us!

When people want to know why I'm an unapologetically stout Rick Springfield fan, "Valentine's Day 1983" is my Listen w/o Prejudice plea.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Back-To-School Blues

Conor Oberst--"Kodachrome (live) (mp3)

The feelings associated with going back to school never really change. Not even now, in this, my 45th year of schooling. You might believe that when going to school is your job, that the approach to it is different, but I assure you, it really isn't.

The same feelings of dread are there, as are the same feelings of anticipation. You might think that you would rather do anything in the world more than walk into that first class, that first assembly, that first after school obligation, but you also know that you want to know, in ways that are important to you, what all of those experiences will be like. No, you don't want to know. You have to know. You have to know if you can still connect, if your approach is somehow richer from experience and fresh, if your jokes are still funny, if the students look like they want to be there. Schools are about belonging, which is the source of the great pain they have caused for so many, and you have to know that you still belong. Only then can you try to help others.

Every year, after my first class, I walk into my friend John's office and say, "Well, the old magic is still there." Will it be there this year?

In a way that is unlike any other part of your life, each school year is completely distinct in both its beginning and its eventual ending. While a year structured in any other fashion is almost completely unpredictable, the year built around school immediately makes its potential highs and lows apparent. You know there are events and weeks and seasons that you will simply have to get through, you know that a particular book or school event or special day is something to look forward to. And regardless of what happened good or bad the year before, each year is a fresh start.

Which isn't to suggest that any school year isn't full of its own surprises as well. This year, we will take every student's temperature every day, our budgets have been cut substantially, our dining hall goes "trayless" and gets rid of sugar-based drinks. There's no telling what the impact of these major and minor decisions will be.

But on that first day, whatever you were doing the day before has no bearing on that first day. That was summer, this is school. That was family, this is schedules and classes. That was undisciplined, this is completely structured. That was what you didn't get finished, this is a completely different set of obligations. That was your priority, now this is. When you're young and putting in your years of schooling, it may not dawn on you what a strange, ordered life school is, but when you work it as a career, you know that your life runs according to rhythms that no one outside the profession can understand.

How do you explain to people not in education that at the end of the year, when they think you are excited to have the year wind down, you also feel a deep sense of loss for the students you have spent the year with who are now gone and whom you will never know in the same way again?

A day or so ago, when my daughter came into the house with bags of school supplies, I felt that same twinge of nervous anxiety that I have always felt. The smells, the classrooms, the memories of my own schooling all came back. As she unpacked her high-tech binders and gravitational writing implements, I thought of my own from back then--the notebooks with fresh, crisp pages and nothing written in them, the pack of pencils unsharpened, the crayons unbroken, the plastic ruler still shiny--the products of a society in a high gear of advancement still in their state of perfection. No longer able to arm myself against time with such things, I look forward instead to picking up a stack of as-yet-unread books and the possibilities that may wait inside.

Ultimately, going back to school isn't really a case of the blues. It isn't about feeling low, sorry as we are to see the summer end. Like the end of school, it is its own mixture of sadness and loss, of eagerness and excitement, of nostalgia and dreams. And until the distinct moment when we walk into that first class, the year could become anything, absolutely anything.

Conor Oberst's cover of "Kodachrome" is available at

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Living In Oz: The Album (Part 1)

or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Springfield"

Gloria - Laura Brannigan (mp3)
Always Something There to Remind Me - Naked Eyes (mp3)

In the spring of 1983, I was in the fifth grade.

My teacher was an intimidating black woman named Mamie. She pronounced "R" as "arr-uh." She adored me, which on occasion created some awkward playground moments where I was forced to defend myself against those Mrs. Hamler didn't like. Her preferred punishment for misbehavior was making students hand-copy dictionary words from Webster's, character for character. The standard punishment was 50, but I remember three occasions when she assigned 300. Everyone giggled when she assigned someone to "start with the arr-uhs."

One of our most beloved recess pastimes was Mad Libs. The entire goal of Mad Libs, by the spring of 1983, was to fill out the entire sheet using only cuss words. Fifth grade was when I truly began to learn just how versatile the word "fuck" and its derivatives could be. Ironically, even by completely destroying the innocuous spirit of the activity, the activity still honed my understanding of the parts of speech. So it wasn't all a   fucking   (adjective) loss.

The other favorite recess activity was Tetherball. Tetherball never had a chance at being an actual competitve sport; therefore, I was pretty good at it. In fact, if I wasn't the best Tetherball player in the school, I was in the running in spite of not being particularly tall. (And anyone who's played Tetherball can attest to the supreme value of height in that game.)

The ecstasy of Tetherball was that, in the most intense match-ups, a cool-under-fire attitude didn't really help. Some of the best Tetherball players were absolute spazzes. Like me. Once your opponent got the right angle on you, and that ball started sailing over your head and wrapping tighter around the pole, you could hope to perfectly time your jump to save your game, or you could flail and spaz and hope that your panicky desperation somehow stopped the momentum. It felt about like the odds of Luke Skywalker firing those torpedoes into that little toilet hole on the outside of the Death Star. But if you could make that one key jump, sometimes the entire tide of the game shifted.

Tom was my best friend at school. Although I would never have admitted it, Tom was my Platonic ideal of the Fifth-Grade Man. He was always smartly dressed and in touch with proper fashion, and his blonde hair was always expertly feathered back and perfectly split down the middle of his skull, but not, y'know, in a greasy icky way. In 1983, a certain demographic of mostly-heterosexual boys could use tons of hairspray and get away with it. That he was smart and confident with girls and had gone into the skating rink corner and swapped bubble gum with one of the hottest girls in our class elevated him to my superior in all ways.

I think he got away with wearing nice clothes and dress shoes to school because he also happened to be quite the athlete, and he could hold his own in a scrape. This was not true of me, so I was both a preppy and a pussy.

At that point in technological history, I got my music the hard way. I would sit and do homework or play within reach of our stereo for hours on end, listening to KZ 106, the local Top 40 station at the time, and a blank cassette would be sitting on Pause-Record. Anytime I heard the beginning of a song I liked, I would rush desperately over and un-pause, thus earning a copy of that glorious song. Unfortunately The Jammer didn't know how to STFU and would usually talk talk talk riiiight up to the first words of the song, and then the bastard would usually cut the song off before it was really over, but the imperfect science of the entire deal tended to make it all the more challenging to try and get the absolute best versions of the most beloved songs.

Mixtapes at that point in my life were based on the whim of luck and timing. I had no power over the ordering of the songs. I was a slave to The Jammer. Sometimes Laura Brannigan's "Gloria" and Naked Eyes' "Always Something There to Remind Me" had to go back-to-back regardless of how well they meshed sonically or thematically.

Between fifth and sixth grades, I "went" with four different girls. For reasons that don't quite make sense to me, I can't keep the chronological order of these "girlfriends" quite right, and I can't place them very accurately on a timeline. I don't even know how long I "went" with each of them. Two weeks? Three months? No idea.

Why did we call it that? Where were we going? Nowhere! We couldn't hardly even "go together" to the damn swingset, much less go anywhere else. (Sorry. A brief Seinfeldian moment. It has now passed.)

But I remember very specifically who I was "going with" in the spring of 1983. Her name was Amy Wall.

To Be Continued...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

E-mail, and other forms of cowardice

Led Zeppelin--"Communication Breakdown (live)" (mp3)

We are all emailers these days, and probably texters, maybe even twitterers. I don't know how far this road you've gone. But one thing is for certain. E-mail, texting, and the like are turning us into a bunch of cowards. How much easier it is to send an electronic message to get out of a social engagement, to confront a problem, to avoid another person, even to end a relationship. For most of us, we fall back on the safety of those non-personal contacts more and more, so much so that they are quickly becoming the norm.

It has probably reached the point where psychologists and sociologists will begin analyzing all of us based on our computer habits. And those habits are developing and solidifying quickly. I've taken the liberty below of trying to categorize some of those behaviors, at least where e-mail is involved.

Now, here's the good news. As you look through the list that follows, remind yourself that you can still get out of almost anything computer-related by claiming that a mistake was involved--I hit the wrong button, I got overwhelmed, I didn't know how to _______, I didn't mean to. So be brave, my friends, be technological--there's always a way out.

Which one(s) below are you?
a) The Constant Gardner--You check your email obsessively and compulsively, at all times of the day, from work, from home, last thing before you go to bed and first thing when you wake up. You pride yourself on knowing as much as possible, responding as quickly as you can. Sometimes you hit the "Check Mail" button before the persons you sent your last email could possibly have responded, even at today's cyber speed. Email owns you.

b) The Picky Eater--When the same person sends you a bunch of emails over the course of a day or week, you only respond to the ones that you "like," leaving the sender in a confused tizzy as to what happened to the others. It is the more challenging emails that you tend to avoid. When you do respond to those, it is when the sender least expects--either he's forgotten about it or when you can knock him off balance, because by the time you finally respond, he is completely paranoid about his standing with you and probably his job.

c) The Procrastinator--Even though it is 2009, you have yet to figure out that emails are time-sensitive, that you cannot read an email today and truly believe that you will not respond to it today or tomorrow, but will respond, with all good intentions, sometime in the near future. By that time, of course, newer, more immediate, more pressing emails have captured your attention, emails whose importance you recognize, and so you assure yourself that you will get to them as soon as you can. After you read the even newer batch of emails that are coming in even now.

d) The Caveman--You are the old person, the Luddite, the person in your group with principles who isn't going to get caught up in this whole computer thing. You're a face-to-face guy who does things the old-fashioned way, when personality mattered and a man's handshake was his bond. The problem is that every meeting you are supposed to attend, every change in policy, every new procedure, every important contact that everyone wants to have with you (because they think you're a dinosaur) is racing at you over the Internet on that newfangled thing that the powers that be have forced you to keep on your desk.

e) The Comet--Not as in a speedy thing racing across the sky, but as in a speedy thing racing across the sky that has a really, really long tail. It's the tail that I'm talking about here. You keep responding to and forwarding emails that capture an entire conversation so that when somebody gets it, they, too, can track the chronology. The problem is that way, way, way down there at the bottom is something that might have been sent "for your eyes only," but that you have since been sending all over the place. Oops.

f) Linkman--Like any other superhero, you have a gift that no one else has. You love to get and send emails. The ones you get inspire you to respond with something else that you've come across, your understanding of the connectedness of the universe, your ability to outdo whatever message comes your way. So you respond by inviting others to follow new links you send them. To communicate with you, they always have to go somewhere else, because when they see you in person, you'll say, "Hey, did you ever check out that link I sent you?" And then the burden and the guilt are on them. Because if they say, "No," there's always that implied "Why not? It was good. It was worth your time. I didn't send that link to just anyone. I'd appreciate it if next time, if it isn't too much trouble, you might take the time to go to my link." Linkman, you outlink all of us.

g) The Black Hole--You get them, you read them, but you don't respond to them. In your mind, you have responded simply by reading them. E-mail, to you, is not a two-way form of communication. You get informed, and that's where it stops. You ask someone for something and they send and you get it, so that should be the end of it. Forget that the person who sent it might like to know that you have received it. Forget that sometimes a person just likes to get a "Thanks" or a "Got it" or a "We'll talk soon" or something to keep the communication going.

h) The Triangulator--You like to involve many other people in a communication, so that you can cover your ass, so that you can involve higher-ups, so that you can build agreement for your position, so that you can keep everyone in the know. At your cleverest, you are a "blind copier," you love the bcc option where you can inform other people about how brave you are, without the person you're confronting even knowing about it.

NOTE: lest you think I am immune, I find myself falling at various times into at least the patterns of a), e), and h). I know there are more email patterns than I've suggested here. I'd love to see some of the ones you come up with.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Death Math

Headed for the Ditch - Bottle Rockets (mp3)
My Spirit Lives in Shadows - Rykarda Parasol (mp3)

The first time I grasped the depressing ramifications of life being worth a fixed dollar amount was watching Fight Club. Edward Norton's character in that film is a "risk assessor" whose job it is to survey accidents involving his company's cars and assess whether the potential lives lost cost more or less than the money required to fix a known problem.

I distinctly remember, three years or so later, reading about the controversy involving the victims of 9/11. Those charged with distributing funds had dared to place higher value on the lives of those whose lives were more lucrative, more revenue-generating. Why should the Wall Street investor's family receive millions when the janitor's family gets something in the small six figures? Death is death, and life is life, right?

In the present-day, some in the conservative corner are using the words "death panel." They're using it to suggest that the government has a maniacal plan to choose who lives and who dies, quite literally. A star chamber of sorts that would determine whether Grammy really needs that hip replacement or Grampy his fifth triple-bypass.

At some point between 1999 and 2009, I stopped being so bothered by human life having a price tag.

Maybe it was after my father demanded a DNR (do not resuscitate) arrangement.

His liver and his stomach and his entire body had lost so much as he fought cancer, and his brain was gradually giving way as well. And you could tell it aggravated the shit out of him, being incapable of expressing what he was thinking, sometimes being incapable of making sense of his own thoughts. At some point toward the end, I swallowed a very difficult belief: My father's life wasn't worth half of what it used to be, before he got so sick. My father's life had become more trouble than it was worth. Living, for him, had lost its economic balance.

The recent "death panel" demagoguery is intended to scare you with the image of some Janet Reno type and two of her pals sitting up in the emperor's box, giving their Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down signal to determine the fate of your loved one. It's a fictional image. Complete horse puckey.

Meanwhile, the Edward Norton job is fiction based on complete reality. People actually have jobs where they determine where traffic lights should go, what defects to recall, lots of scary and morbid and life v. death shit. Insurance companies have employees who act, basically, as "death panels of one." And it's very real. And their priority is certainly less about your sick grandmother than their company's profit margin. You don't believe it, start researching all the dire medical cases insurance companies have kicked to the curb with nary a blink (but you can start with a general link).

Or read this dialogue between Greta and Karl on FOXNews:

VAN SUSTEREN: But isn't that being done now? When you -- when you go to get a procedure or something, gets rejected by the insurance company -- I mean, isn't it, you know, unfortunately, sometimes your doctor can't make the decisions, but the insurance company, some non-medical person is?
ROVE: Sure, but you have an -- you have an ability to appeal that, and you have the ultimate ability to say, All right, you know what? I don't like my current carrier. I'd like to get a different insurance, which particularly in small businesses and when a small business owner's unhappy, he can shift his insurance.

Yes, after you have died because your insurance deep-sixed your claim, your former boss can change companies. But if you come down with a serious and deadly illness, I friggin' dare you to try and cavalierly switch insurance companies. Good luck finding one that will take you. Rove's argument is, literally and much like his heart, very cold comfort.

One way or another, people are out there putting a dollar amount to your life, to your arm, to your tongue, to your left cerebral hemisphere, to your pinky toe. This isn't a scare tactic. It's reality. Your life has a price tag whether you like it or not. The only real question here is who you find least trustworthy with a calculator in their hand and your life on the line.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Uh-Oh, I Might Be A Woman (Or Maybe I Just Love One)

Sound On Film--"Julia Was A Lady" (mp3)
Never Been Julia--"Love Will Come" (mp3)

I'm not going to admit to openly weeping during Julie and Julia, but I will say that I spent most of the movie with misty eyes. That's a tough confession to make, but it is true. That's the beauty of a movie theater; if your fingers don't go to your eyes too often, no one can tell that you've been getting veklempt.

For me, Julie and Julia created that perfect storm for my male emotions--food, writing, and blogging and the triumph of all three! While I'm not inclined to say that I thought it was a great movie, I will say that I enjoyed every second of it.

And why shouldn't I tear up? The journey of Julia Child from O.S.S. clerk to Queen of sophisticated American cooking represents one of the pinnacles of our democracy!

Much as I like Amy Adams, I didn't care much for her character, Julie Powell, though I was willing to get caught up in the various crises that arose from her somewhat random decision to cook all of Julia Child's first cookbook in a year and to blog about it. Frankly, she isn't much of a blogger (see her blog); her posts seem brief and trite and superficial compared to what you read on the best of these pages. But, I was perfectly willing to cheer internally for the growth of her readership, the opportunity to turn the blog entries into a book, etc. And I was willing to put up with her story, knowing that eventually we would get back to the good stuff.

Everyone seems to have recognized by now that the real gift of the movie is seeing Julia and Paul Child's marriage and experiences come to life. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci offer excellent portrayals, and the story itself is a compelling one, set as it is against the backdrop of McCarthyism.

Oddly, for me, the triumphant moment, the moment when I almost started to cry, involved no major characters. It happened when Julia Child's future editor went home and made Julia's Boeuf Bourginonne on her home stove, using the pages from the cookbook that had been submitted to Alfred Knopf Publishing, and when she put the first bite in her mouth, it was clearly a transcendent moment for her and you knew that the publishing house would accept the cookbook and our country would (eventually) be saved from the stale cooking of the early 1960's.

It is no stretch to say that most of the food that we enjoy today is the result of the success of that one cookbook, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, which took us as a country beyond our casseroles and canned goods and limited grocery store offerings and showed us that there was so much out there beyond us. I ate in America in the 1960's. Most of you didn't. It was atrocious.

Julia Child showed us that supposedly difficult cooking was simply (ok, not entirely) a matter of breaking down a complicated dish into manageable steps. She showed us how much precision matters. She "mastered" the willingness to try anything and embodied a joie de vivre that remains enviable today and that Streep captures perfectly.

And when the movie doesn't quite reach the conclusion you expect at the end because Julia Child was not impressed by Julie Powell's project of cooking all of Child's book in a year and blogging about it, that outcome, when you research Child's reaction, is not a matter of generational differences, as some would like to suggest. No, it's deeper than that. Julia Child lived and taught a paradox: treat French cooking with an absolute seriousness of purpose, but have fun with it. The mastery brings the joy, but so does the attempt to master. If things don't quite work out, you don't have a meltdown, you fix them the best you can or start over.

It doesn't seem that Julie Powell got that message. She followed the recipes, but not the ethos behind them, at least in the film version. I couldn't finish the book.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

People on the Felt

No Cheap Thrill - Suzanne Vega (mp3) link removed by request
Beat's So Lonely - Charlie Sexton (mp3)

Because one of my roommates was touched by the gods with the gift of The Earth-Shaking Snore, I found myself at a No Limit cash game in the GoldStrike's poker room at 4:45 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. Over the next seven hours of sitting at that table, the men (and one woman) I encountered gave me some of the best memories of my entire gambling weekend. The people always make the memories.*

If anyone enjoys books like Midnight at the Garden of Good and Evil, books that are as much about the odd and compelling characters that can populate a small area of shared space, then I highly recommend a poker room in a Mississippi casino. Although it's a little skewed toward the male perspective, you will otherwise find a greater diversity of background, ethnicity, money, disposition and alcohol tolerance than you could find almost anywhere else in the South outside of a Waffle House.

On my side of the table, three of the four guys had been in the poker room or in poker tournaments for at least 24 hours straight. They were all very good and regular hobbyists (as opposed to pros who hold no other job).

GRAY was this short and fairly tubby fella in his mid- to late 20s with a blonde burr haircut. He reminded me of someone I grew up with who had a developmental disorder. He didn't talk much, and he mostly seemed bored with the whole process, but maybe that's because he'd been in that poker room for 42 hours straight, with the exception of two free trips to the buffet.

He won his money, I think, because he looked stupid. And at a poker table, looking stupid but being halfway intelligent is an uncoachable gift. Woody Harrelson is stupendous at looking stupid, for example.

Anyway, he came to the GoldStrike at noon on Saturday with $400, and by the time he called it a day at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, he went to his room with $1,500. "Standard good weekend," he explained. He started talking with my side of the table at about 6:30 because he twice fell asleep at the table, and that was the only time he ever talked, he said. Besides, his plan was to grab a room at 7:30, sleep 'til 5 p.m. and then drive back to western Kentucky on a straight shot.

I have no idea if Gray was his real name. But that's what he said it was. Poker people are kinda tricky like that. It's like we wish we were in Top Gun, so everyone gets some kind of call sign. (Well, I didn't get a call sign, but I ain't got time to explain that.)

Here's one stereotype that rings pretty true at a poker table: the best women are tight and tough to crack. Bad women players rarely sit for more than an hour because they lose their money quickly. But the good ones, they play very few hands and just wait. The poker room is filled with an unspoken misogyny, full of men who absolutely can't stand losing a single chip to the fairer sex. So the smart women wait patiently -- very patiently -- to catch something good and then just call those big testosterone-fueled bets.

MORRIS was the most solid (read: best) player at the table. He was also a larger guy, but his buzz cut was gelled up and dark. He was on the final hours of his 28-hour run and was kind enough to give me his take on the players on the other half of the table.

One of the best things about being a talky and (mostly) friendly kind of guy is that, when you sit next to someone who knows their craft, they'll pass along crucial info. Especially if they're about to leave, because nice guys usually like to pass along their wisdom to someone else when they can't use it anymore. ("If that guy bets big on the flop, he's chasing. Just call and bet hard on the turn if nothing scary hits." "If Kevin has anything better than top pair he'll check-raise you.")

As a mere bear cub in the poker world, I'm delighted when an Obi-Wan wants to offer me advice, hints, tips. Unfortunately, when someone sitting next to you keeps giving you advice at a poker table, 80% of the time it's a donkey who doesn't know his ass from shinola but just won't shut up.

A donkey, for the uninitiated, is a poker buffoon. They don't mind giving their money away because they don't realize how bad they are. They tend to just think other people get lucky on them. They tend to think their bad bluffs almost worked. We had two of them at our table, and they combined to give the rest of us more than $1,000.

Both donks were in their 20s. The first was lanky and skinny and dressed in a satiny black shirt unbuttoned halfway, exposing a designer cross. Much like Morris, his hair was gelled, but it was a much fancier -- and metrosexual -- deal. The kid clearly came from money, and it clearly didn't mean much to him. He was just tickled to death to sit with eight other people who had no choice but to listen to him. When you're a donkey, people don't ask your name. Everyone just called him SLICK. Y'know, for the ironical glee of it.

The other donkey earned the moniker TWIN. He earned this name because he apparently looked like he could be my brother. And he was originally from Chattanooga. He was the worst kind of donkey. He was a Drama Donkey. Every decision required deep thought, and he would talk about it as if he had to fold AA when everyone at the table knew he was going to fold two seconds in. I made $150 off him in one hand because I knew he was bluffing and let him bet into me every time. He bet $100 on the river -- no small amount for me, mind you -- and I called instantly and showed the better hand.

"Would you have called me if I'd bet $200?" he asked, baffled that I called him with what wasn't all that impressive a hand.

"No way dude. I would have thought you really had it then," I lied. Because that's what you do at a poker table.

* -- Unless you win, like, a SHITload of money. Then the money makes the memory.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bob's Short List

Time magazine has a page near the end of each issue called the "Short List: Time's Picks For The Week." As one part of that page, they invite a celebrity to create his or her own individual short list of culture (pop or otherwise), literature, technology, and societal events that represents what is on the celebrity's radar right now, what he or she is really enjoying. Since I know no celebrities, and since we are all celebrities in our own minds, I take the liberty here of presenting my own "Short List:"

Short List

Bob has just returned from a 4-week National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Poetry, held at DePaul University in Chicago. Now back at work, his new school year begins on August 24th with Summer Reading sessions on Pat Conroy's The Great Santini and Arthur Miller's All My Sons. His portrayal of someone actually working this week has earned him knowing nods from both his headmaster and his upper school head and has generally allowed him to be left alone.

Jazzed About Jazz
I had never been to a real jazz club until I stepped into the Jazz Showcase in downtown Chicago. The posters and photographers of the greats who have played here is astounding, the setting is intimate and friendly, the drinks are generous and cheap, the waitresses are classy and attractive. But when Mulgrew Miller and his band left the bar and took the short walk to the stage, I finally understood, "Oh, so this is how you're supposed to listen to jazz, close enough to see how each member of the band plays each note, how they play off each other, how they find a groove and pull you into it."

Joshua Ferris' Then We Came To The End, a funny, oddly poignant account of office life in an advertising firm pulls off quite a few tricks for a first novel. The humorous approach and outrageous antics of disgruntled workers would seem to invite immediate comparisons to The Office and Office Space. The focus on advertising might call to mind Mad Men. And yet the book manages to be nothing like any of those, largely because of the broad, flawed humanity contained in its first person plural narrative approach (except for one significant break in the middle). The narrator, in effect, is everyone who works there except for the specific characters who have stepped out of that sea of employees onto the stage at any given moment. The resolution of the novel is one of the more beautiful pieces of writing I've encountered in years.

You Scream, I Scream

I had pretty much given up on dessert. Even at the finest restaurants, there is a sameness to the offerings. That is, until I stepped into Margie's Candies, an old-fashioned ice cream shop in Chicago. Oh, my sweet Jesus, the hot fudge sauce is perhaps the finest spoonful of anything that I have ever put in my mouth! The perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness. And that took me back to ice cream, which I never eat. And that took me back to making ice cream, which I haven't done in a long time. Oh, the pleasures of the real thing!

The Dark Side
My song of the summer has been Charlie Mars' "Listen To The Darkside," a sleek, slickly-produced little ditty that invites everyone having a bad day to come over to the narrator's house ("Come over and get high/We can listen to the Dark Side Of The Moon). Very catchy. Very convincing. I have played it a lot. But the song also pushes you back to the source, the Pink Floyd classic that has the pretty rare gift of not sounding old or tired out nearly 40 years later. If you've got it, put it on when you can turn all the lights out and let it take you someplace else, without the need for The Wizard of Oz tie-in or any artificial stimulants. Trust me, it can still do the job all by itself.

No Reservations
The Food Network has become very, very hot right now, but I'd suggest you go to a slightly different place on the dial--The Travel Network--for one simple reason. Because Anthony Bourdain is there. Bourdain, the renegade chef, writer, traveler may still have the ego of the jockeys on that other network, but he also has an irrepressible joie de vivre and a show that ultimately isn't about him. And an insatiable love of all things pork. If you've ever seen him, you know he has a no-nonsense, I'm-up-for-anything approach that makes him to perfect host to take you around the country, or around the world. There are many shows that want to take us to explore new worlds of food; I'd prefer to stow my gear and set sail with Captain Bourdain.

Charlie Mars is available at Itunes. By the way, should you want to cartoonize yourself, it's very easy to do at You don't need to join or download anything. And, by the by, if you'd like to try the wonderful world of blogging and write up your own Short List, we'd be happy to have you as a guest contributor. Just write it up and send it to our email, and we'll do the rest.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Godfather of Adolescence is Dead

Cry Like This - Blue Room (mp3)
If You Leave - OMD (mp3)

Michael Jackson created an image; John Hughes created a whole universe. I don't quite know how to explain my sense of loss here, but this isn't an exaggeration: my life would be significantly different -- and worse -- had John Hughes not existed.

Hughes, who died at 59, created so many of the indelible pop culture moments that cover the canvas of my adolescence, that were I to start spewing out all the memorable Hughes lines stored in my brain's C: drive -- without any cheating or help from Google, mind you -- it would take me a long time to get through it. Let's just do the first 25 that pop into my head, with the only requirement that I can't go with the same movie twice in a row.
  1. He's a righteous dude.
  2. Yeah. 220, 221, whatever it takes.
  3. It must be a hen house, because all I see is chickenshit.
  4. There's a tremendous white sale on.. at Towel World!
  5. This is crazy this is crazy this is crazy.
  6. In the family jewels?
  7. Any fool can get into college. Only a select few can say the same about Amanda Jones.
  8. Let's face it. You're a neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie. What would you be if you weren't out making yourself a better person?
  9. You called Dr. Stanky?
  10. Schooner Tuna: the tuna with a heart!
  11. If I woke up tomorrow morning with my head sewn to the carpet I wouldn't be more surprised.
  12. Chicks cannot hold de smoke. Dass what it is.
  13. How 'bout you bend over and I shove this straight up your ass?
  14. I don't want you to take me home!
  15. You're like a chatty cathy doll.
  16. You've got a big Yard King 410!
  17. Gimme the keys!
  18. Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?
  19. He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body.
  20. Keep the change, you filthy animal.
  21. Lisa was everything I wanted in a girl before I knew what I wanted.
  22. You ought to spend a little more time dealing with yourself, and a little less time worrying about what your brother does.
  23. She's small, but she's strong. Her first baby come out sideways. She didn't scream or nuthin'.
  24. It's my porcelain udder buddy.
  25. ...and an asshole on my front lawn, emptying his chemical toilet into our sewer.
(for those dying to know, the movies from which these quotes (or my inaccurate recollection of them) come are listed below)

These aren't the best ones. They're not the only ones I could work up. I'm just saying that I thought of the next one as soon as I'd typed the one before it, and I had to concentrate to keep others from coming into my head. I can already think of a dozen more that are better and more memorable than the ones I wrote above.

My point is, John Hughes helped me understand what I was going through as a teenager. He helped me know that being awkward and feeling outcast was miserable yet also worth laughing at. He made me want to kiss a girl. He told me it was admirable to want to be more than others think you can be. He told me money was sad and superficial and was used by shallow people as a singularly divisive attribute. He convinced me that parents loved us, even if they didn't quite understand us.

Hughes, particularly in The Breakfast Club, noted the cultural shift from the '60s and '70s -- when teens distrusted authority -- to the '80s -- when teens fought amongst themselves and paid too little heed to the conniving and selfish adults in charge of them. He simplified some of the complexities of teenage confusion without insulting us. He made an entire movie set inside a school library, a movie of just five kids talking to each other, and it was successful.

When I found out about his death yesterday afternoon, the weight of it didn't hit me right away. Then, last night at about 10 p.m., I found myself putting in one of my least favorite Hughes films, Pretty In Pink, and watching it and loving it even though it's not that great of a film. His movies weren't Kubrickian constructs of painstaking care. They were flawed, and sometimes highly. But they had enough heart to give life to a million tin men. Or, more accurately, to millions of tin teens.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1, 22)
Mr. Mom (2, 10)
Some Kind of Wonderful (3, 7)
Weird Science (4, 6, 13, 17, 21)
Vacation (5)
Breakfast Club (8, 12, 18)
She's Having a Baby (9, 16, 24)
Christmas Vacation (11, 25)
Pretty in Pink (14)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (15, 23)
Home Alone (20)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

No Good Deed

Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta - Geto Boys (mp3)
Don't Save Me (It's Alright) - Todd Thibaud (mp3)

In Texas, a guy working produce at a store heard a woman screaming that her purse had been stolen. He reacted instinctively, chased down the 15-year-old suspect, and held him for the cops. And he was fired for it.

Why? Because Randalls has a clause in its employee contract abjectly forbidding its employees to intervene in such criminal acts. Said their spokesperson, "We recognize Mr. Schafer’s good intentions, but our overriding focus must be the safety of all concerned."

Translation: You're a swell guy, but we'd rather hire that perp, 'cuz we can trust he won't screw with our liability concerns by rescuing old ladies' purses.

On nights (or OK, occasionally at work), I'll hop over to this site called It's basically a news aggregator that tries sparking discussion and commentary from its members, focusing mainly on stories or subjects that have a controversial bent. This topic got plenty of commentary, and a lot of it really bothered me. Plastic's readership leans fairly liberal and atheistic, and like any site that welcomes pseudo-debates, people tend to flow towards more extreme views. When it comes to extreme liberal views about crime and punishment, the reaction generally involves not trusting the police and not condoning people defending their measly and meaningless property with excess (read: any) force. So, a good bit of the responses on this story were of the "Sucks that the dude got fired, but there's a reason those clauses are in employment contracts, and if you let employees wail on someone everytime they steal some crackers, you'd have a screwed-up society" variety.

Maybe it's my Scottish heritage. Maybe it's my Southern heritage. Maybe I've watched too many Clint Eastwood movies. I dunno. But I struggle to pity someone who acts in a predatory manner on a weaker or more vulnerable human being. Be it a rapist, or a mugger, or a carjacker, or a burglar, or a child molester. Anyone who uses their position or size or knowledge to take gross and immoral advantage over a fellow human being who is weaker or smaller or dumber should not have the right to expect completely balanced justice.

When you're on the wrong side of right, under predatory circumstances, you've lost your right to believe you deserve complete fairness. You gave it up when you stepped into someone else's weakness and preyed upon it. I'm not saying muggers deserve to get shot to death by the Po-Po or have their firstborns burned on an altar or something. But they put themselves into a river that's out of their control. If the current drags them out, or if there's some vicious undertow, well they didn't have to put themselves in that river. They might not deserve to drown, but they damn well shoulda known it was possible the minute they stuck their toe into those chilly rapids.

Do we want a society where we are forced to choose between an instinctive desire to protect and defend a weaker person and the need to hold onto our livelihood? I guess there's people who say "It's just a purse" and people who say "It's just a predator," and rarely shall the twain meet.

All I know is it aggravates the hell outta me.