Monday, October 31, 2005

Remembering Egregious Moments

The past is camping out in my apartment, and it doesn’t want to budge.

I spent the bulk of the weekend with my family, which would have felt less sharply like time travel if my humble home’s floor wasn’t currently covered with detritus from my high school and college years. My mother recently moved back to Long Island from Dallas, 17 years (!) after my family relocated to Texas. She brought several boxes of my stuff with her – mostly lots of books and CDs, but also two or three shoeboxes of letters from friends over the years. (I’m showing my age; when I was in college, people sent letters to each other. In the mail!) Also, one or two larger boxes of college writings, letters to and from my high school girlfriend (whattup, SD?), and appraisals of my performances from judges at various debate tournaments (whattup, debate nerds?) (My rampant love of parentheses may soon render the blog almost unreadable, and I apologize in advance. I’ve kept myself in check to this point, but the floodgates are straining…) Also, lots (and I mean lots) of bad (and I mean bad) poetry. Much of which will be trashed, for the sake of the children. Not my children, necessarily, but really all future children of the world.

The point is this, if you don’t know it for yourself already, which you probably do: Run from the past. Screaming. I’ve always been more sentimental and nostalgic than is probably good for me, and that will inevitably continue, but this latest round of looking back has given me pause.

The most mystifying comment on a debate ballot was this: “Good, confident oration style. More style and charisma would be highly beneficial in close LD rounds.” (LD stands for Lincoln-Douglas, the kind of debate I…debated.) What exactly is this judge – John Murray from Garland High School – saying? Is the second sentence directed at me, even though he had just called my style “good” and “confident”? In context, it seems like this is the case, which means John Murray was sending me some seriously mixed signals. Or is it more of a general suggestion that the LD universe could use more charisma like mine? I like to imagine this is the case, in the spirit of walking up to a woman at a bar and saying, “You’re stunning. The world would be better off with more stunning women.” (Of course, that’s the lamest thing ever committed to paper or screen and is only for purposes of dramatization – never say that or anything remotely like it to anyone, in a bar or anywhere else.)

The debate stuff still reads respectably, if incredibly dweeby – lots of mentions of Locke and the social contract and individual rights, and feverishly scribbled notes of procedural wonkiness (“I DON’T SEE YOU COVERING YOUR CASE IN 1AR!”) The personal letters are a different story, some of them evidently penned by a mildly disabled robot that briefly inhabited my body and the bodies of several friends.

I don’t mean to impugn my entire history of correspondents. There’s some good stuff in these archives. My friend Laurie, in particular, wrote letters in college that still hold up for their general intelligence and confidence of composition. Luckily, there isn’t too much written by me to others, because what there is horrifies. (Perhaps, subconsciously, that’s why I’m posting this on Halloween.)

The strangest realization was that one particular girl who I got to know very briefly at college wrote me fairly lengthy, personal letters after transferring to a school in California. I remember this person, and can picture her. She was funny in a dry way, charmingly alienated, with remarkably long, straight hair, and I distinctly remember her expressing a desire for us to date. (I say this not to brag, since it was the only time that happened in four years on campus. Also, she had to come around to the idea, since I think she initially despised me. We often shared a dinner table with a group of common friends, and my blathering offended her at first, I think, before she eventually realized we shared a love of Woody Allen movies and an uninformed hatred of almost everything else.) But I didn’t remember this brief letter-writing phase we had, or how much of her interior life she was sharing with me. Reading her notes (it seems there were only three or four from her, and I imagine a similar number from me to her) changed the initial sensation inspired by combing through all this damning evidence – which was just the age-old, too-common alarm of having changed over the years – to a broader feeling of not trusting the completeness of my memory, something in which I’ve always taken a pointless pride.

One thing I do remember – and that everyone who knew me must, too, since I wouldn’t shut up about it – was my dorky level of love for R.E.M. My freshman roommates taped a sheet to a wall in our room, where anyone could write possible explanations of the band’s acronym. (We all knew what it stood for, but this was college, and time wasn’t going to waste itself.) I’ve come across that list, too. In fact, I think I’ve had it with me in New York all along. It runs to about 100 entries, and my favorites cover quite a bit of ground, from the hypochondriacal (Rapidly Evolving Malaria and Rheumatism! Emphysema! Meningitis!) to the cinematic (Rodan Engages Mothra) to the un-P.C.-but-oddly-prescient (Repent Evil Muslims) to the imperative (Read Emerson, Mister and Resist Egypt, Moses) to the collegiately existential (Realizing Everything’s Messed-up) to the truly bizarre and inspired (Reoccurring Elvis Mourning) to the Judaic (Rabbi Eli Mendoza). And, of course, that old chestnut, the Ray-inspired (Ray Eating Macaroni).

There are dozens more, many of which I spare you because they are so juvenile and vulgar, often suggesting the mistreatment of animals or clergymen. (It was a freshman dorm, what do you want?) Thus closes this window onto my astoundingly productive higher education.

Oh, crack that window for just another second – I should thank Jason, Eric, JB, and my roommate John for their contributions to the list back in ’92-’93. Well done, gentlemen. Two of you are married now, and your wives should be very proud.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go prepare for a fantasy basketball draft I have this week. (Oh, did I say something about being newly ashamed of my past?)


Horses V: The Autopsy

Well, the day was a blast, but I was a loser. Won two races, but came out down on the day. With a dozen or more quality horses in every race, it gets a bit difficult to handicap, especially when you're not that good at it to begin with.

Dad Williams fared better, as did Younger Sister Williams. And I'm the one who'd been babbling about it all week on a blog. Perfect.

Always enriching to see so many great animals, though. If only the weather gods had cooperated -- I was so tensed-up with shivering all day that my back hurt for the rest of the weekend. When Younger Sister and I started complaining about the cold very early in the day, Dad tried to make it better by saying, "Think of it as sitting through two straight football games." That didn't help.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Horses IV: Rocky vs. Jason vs. Freddy vs. Secretariat

No blogging tomorrow (the crowd moans), so this is the last chance for you sickos to get your Breeders' cup fix. Oh, and here are some Belmont track biases -- you know, for the truly depraved.

Books, You'll Be in the Movies Someday

In a way, book publishing is a glamour industry. I imagine it’s similar to working for a movie studio, only if most movie stars were camera-shy and self-loathing, and if no one ever went to the movies.

It’s easy to be saddened by the book industry wanting so baldly and desperately to mimic Hollywood’s production techniques and media blitzes, but of course, that’s only if you believe books are capable of serving a fundamentally different purpose than daytime talk shows or Sex and the City DVDs. If one doesn’t feel that way, then applying Hollywood techniques is just a guilt-free way to raise profits. It’s hard to argue with success.

The New York Times profiles one cutting-edge imprint today, Simon Spotlight Entertainment. The president that oversees the imprint is quoted in the piece saying of his staff, "They live and eat and breathe the demographic." Eating the demographic -– sounds just about right. Stultifying the demographic, bootlicking the demographic, and vitiating the demographic would also be accepted.

"The thing that impresses me most about our editors is that they understand that it’s not all about the book," the publisher boldly says. "It’s about the money you can make from that book."

Now, I’m hardly an anti-capitalist type, but this is pushing things.

"It is not exactly a formula," the publisher goes on to say. "But we usually know what we want to publish," she said. "It's then a matter of wrapping the right author and spokesperson around it."

Sounds like a formula to me. It’s the literary equivalent of a studio head saying, "I want to make a movie about a roller-derby star who cat-sits for an army general and falls in love with his video-game-addicted son. Together, they uncover a secret plot to nuke Australia. See if Angelina Jolie and Elijah Wood are available. Oh, and find a writer." (Note: If a movie with this plot is made, I want a healthy cut. No joke. And if Simon Spotlight "novelizes" said movie, I want a cut of that, too.)

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Salon Gives Shout Out to Texas Music Scene

I was happy to see Will Johnson's band South San Gabriel mentioned today in Salon's audiofile feature. Johnson's the prolific songwriter and lead singer for Centro-matic, a band that was based in Denton when I was based in Dallas. (Denton's about 45 minutes north of the Big D, and is home to the University of North Texas, which has a notable music program. Partly for that reason, I think, many aspiring bands live and work there, though Johnson has since relocated to Austin if memory serves.)

His output includes solo records, Centro-matic records, and South San Gabriel records, but they all sound like Will Johnson at slightly different tempos. If you ever get a chance to see him/them live, do it. He's got a strong and rich, if a bit adenoidal, voice and a quirky songwriting sensibility. ("They'll buckle up the new brigade, it's us they know about. / Their tanks and jeeps are on parade, I'm sure they'll find us out" -- That's a fairly typical lyric, which he somehow makes flow, though he's capable of much more direct, affecting lines. And yes, I'm a lyrics geek.)

The songs linked to on Salon come from SSG's latest, The Carlton Chronicles, which is allegedly a cycle of songs written from the perspective of Johnson's cat. I would have once doubted the possible effectiveness (or even sanity) of such a conceit until a couple of years ago, when I heard the song "Plea from a Cat Named Virtue" by the Weakerthans, a very good Canadian band. The song is actually moving in its way, as the narrator-cat discusses the lonely depression of its owner. But it also contains the kind of entertaining lines you might expect from such a project, like:

So, we should open up the house.
Invite the tabby two doors down.
You could ask your sister, if
she doesn't bring her Basset Hound.
Full lyrics here.

White Sox sweep

Call me Kreskin.

Astros in 6. Nice call, John.

If this had been a geography quiz, it's like you asked me to identify Africa and I pointed to China.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Horses III: The Revenge

Make it stop, you say. And I say -- it will stop soon, but when and where will be up to me. And the horses.

For now, more Oddjack analysis for the degenerates.

AP Mutual Gentrification Headline of the Day

Rolling Stones Team Up With Starbucks

The Village Idiot

The Village Voice is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. I don’t know if this has always been the case, but I’d like to thank the legendary NYC alternative paper for at least the last five years of borderline-incomprehensible music writing. My feelings about Robert Christgau and the rest of the paper’s critics would require a longer post and more time, so I’ll leave it to David Segal to paint the picture. He wrote the following during an online chat with Washington Post readers a couple of years ago:

Before we open the phones, has anyone read Robert Christgau’s essay for the Village Voice’s 2002 Pazz & Jop poll? If yes, did you understand it?

If yes again, can you pretty please explain it to me?

Here’s the second sentence of Christgau’s piece:

"The year was so bad it quashed a worthier worst one-two finish and continued on to a worst one-two-three, so bad that a worse finish yet could come in a worse year yet--namely the 2003 this worst year sets up."

I think I see a point here -- Christgau is disappointed by the top vote getters, Wilco’s "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and Beck’s "Sea Change." But where a simple stride would do, the guy always leaps for the triple sowcow, or just pirouettes into a 100 mph, grammar-hashing blur. You’ll assume I dropped a word from the following quote, but it’s verbatim:

"The producer as auteur is an idea whose time has come and then some; having gotten to where what are called beats sometimes reject, sometimes exploit, and sometimes just are what are called hooks, we need figureheads with more rebop than Jeff Tweedy."

What the hell is rebop? And where can Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s lead singer, get more of it?

"How I tell them apart," Christgau writes of the gold and silver finishers, "is that Wilco is the one I tried to hate and ended up respecting and Beck is the one I tried to like and ended up walking around the room until it could get home on its own."

Is he saying that the Beck album was drunk but then sobered up? Sure, friends don’t let albums drive drunk, but if Christgau really waited for "Sea Change" to dry out, does that mean that he ultimately enjoyed it? Or at least gave it cab fare?

Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe better. ... Pop writing should be distracting and illuminating and a little provocative and if possible it should make you laugh and maybe run out and buy an album. That’s about it.

None of this would be worth noting but for Mr. Christgau’s apparent spot at the head of the pop-scribe class. I fear there might be aspiring writers out there who read this P&J essay and assume that rock journalism is actually about pretense and convolution, rather than clarity and chuckles. He could be creating hordes of Little Roberts! Think of it!
I’d rather not.


Gonzo, You're Fired

This has to be the best news in a long time, and I mean that: America’s Next Muppet, a spoof of reality TV starring Jim Henson’s creations, is slated for sometime next year. I imagine it's going to mock the elimination format of Survivor, the cattiness of the contestants on America's Next Top Model, and maybe even the populism of American Idol. Do I watch Survivor? No. Do I watch Next Top Model? No. Do I watch American Idol? I plead the fifth. But I know they deserve to be mocked, and mercilessly.

I also know that the country, in these dire times, could use a new Muppet.

The Henson gang has always been a reliable source of fun. The Muppet Show was deliriously weird, and while I don't remember every nook and cranny of The Muppet Movie, it does feature one of my favorite lines, spoken by Fozzie: "Ah, a bear in his natural environment. A Studebaker." That just seems to apply a lot in life, I've found.

In short, the Muppets should make you happy, unless you’re my friend Ray, who once, after hearing me say that I enjoyed E.T. as a child, asked, "How could you care about that little raisin?" Where most of us have a heart, I suppose, Ray has a pile of soggy leaves -– not even the dry kind, which are fun to jump around in.

The one thing holding back my enthusiasm is that this does continue a troubling trend of using reality TV to choose public figures of importance. Pop stars, supermodels, and otherworldly comedic creatures made of felt are, I fear, the first steps on a slippery slope. I can easily see Presidential elections being similarly staged in the future -- twenty weeks of debates, with one candidate voted off at the end of each week (thanks for playing, Al Sharpton), and the ultimate winner sworn into office during sweeps week.

Come to think of it, that sounds easier for voters and fairer to candidates than our current set-up. I'll call Tyra Banks to see if she's free to moderate...

Astro-nomically Bad

Boy, did Oswalt fail me. That fifth inning was brutal.

The 'Stros had numerous chances to win it in the last few frames, they just didn't get it done. And this doesn't strike me as a series waiting to unleash a miracle on us. The Astros spent much of yesterday complaining about the league's decision to force them to keep the roof of the stadium open (thus lessening the roar of the crowd), which doesn't seem like the preoccupation of a group focused on getting back into a series. Oh, well. My goal tonight is to forget there's a game on, anyway. I can't be staying up until 2 a.m. to watch two teams I care nothing about. I'm going to go home, watch The Sting, maybe read a bit for work, and see if a good night's sleep will fight off this touch of illness I've been feeling.

(Oh, lord. I'm already writing about my minor maladies and sleeping habits. I promise this blog won't sink completely into navel-gazing for at least another couple of months or so. Stick with me, people.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sticking With My Stupidity

I'll stick to it: Astros in 6.

I'm heading home now to watch Game 3, and for now I'm not going to waver from my prediction -- though of course, 7 games might be a bit more realistic for Houstonians (Houstonites? Houstoniminiums?) at this point. I see Oswalt getting them back on track tonight. If it's 2-1 going into tomorrow's game, the Astros have momentum with a terrific home-field crowd (Chicago's fans have been great, too) and the relatively balmy weather. I also figure Lidge returns to form in that warm Texas air -- was it above the freezing point when Podsednik hit his Game-2-winning homer? Not sure.

Blogging this late at night (6:57 Eastern) means I may have been proven wrong by the time you read this, since I imagine no one reads this other than as a distraction from work. Oswalt, don't fail me now.

AP Headline That Was Bound to Happen of the Day

Poison Guitarist Gets 80 Days in Jail


AP Generic Scary Headline of the Day

Remote Control Device 'Controls' Humans


The Rest

One of the many detriments to spending time as a blogger on Blogger, in addition to the social stigma, the episodes of suddenly wilting self-esteem, and the vision problems, is that you occasionally linger on some of the thousands of blogs that scroll across its homepage all day. So that none of you have to do this, I'm going to post, from time to time, choice excerpts from some of these other sites. Whether I'm singling them out for praise or ridicule, I'll leave up to you to decide. (Hint: Mostly ridicule.) I think I'll stick to clumps of three, for uniformity's sake. No one's looking out for uniformity these days.

Here's the first installment of The Rest:

My name is Annie Minnesota. On the whole I love America or I wouldn't have moved here, but there is still plenty to complain about. I hate politics, people (mostly) and trees.
Believe it or not, Robert knows all the alphabet. Of course he doesn't know how to read, and your know what? He don't even know all the letter names... But he clearly associate every single letter with a word he knows.. How we did it? Actually my mom was the one who started teaching him...

I have recently realized that most of my friends over the past 18 years or so have been chosen as a result of my asking if they like something that is at least kind of popular—say, Ben Stiller movies, or dancing—and then embracing them as a kindred spirit when they say “no.” So when this guy that I’m supposed to meet (maybe) next weekend said that he’d like to meet me outside of the city so he can avoid Halloween celebrations, I got this warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Ah! My brother—high five!

Horses Redux

The good people at Oddjack remain on the Breeders' Cup case. More analysis today.

The Fake Old News

Con Edison, the local power provider in these parts, has an ad campaign in subways and elsewhere, that features the slogan "On It." This lets you know not to worry. If there's an outage somewhere, Con Ed is on it. If there’s a coffee break somewhere, Con Ed is on it. Good slogan.

I think the New York Times should steal it. In recent years, the Times has alerted us to the increasing presence of political blogs and the growing trend of graphic novels, in each case well after most of us already knew. Now today's double-shocker: Fake TV news is hot, and Saturday Night Live has lost its touch.

In this review of Stephen Colbert's new show on Comedy Central, one of the paper's TV critics, Alessandra Stanley, strangely and unconvincingly mashes together praise for Colbert with an astonishingly outdated attack on SNL. The piece is a showroom for paragraphs that sit on the page without context or relevance, antiques of comedy criticism:

"SNL’s" Darrell Hammond is still an amazingly gifted impersonator who can mimic anyone from Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney to Aaron Brown, but the writing is rarely as clever as his performance.
The review’s odd structure (and sense of timing) wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t part of a larger problem. At one point today, the paper’s web site was linking to the piece via this headline: "Absurdity of the News, Exposed." This is the larger problem: The New York Times seems to believe, quite earnestly, that exposing the absurdity of the news

Don't get me wrong. I think the Daily Show is frequently brilliant, and I'm sure Colbert's new venture is as well (I haven't seen it yet, but can't wait). But even in the run-up to the last election, I was already tired of the Times treating Jon Stewart and company as trailblazers in educating the masses about how they're being spoon-fed the news. Fake news is one of the first comedic conceits I remember ever seeing. Saturday Night Live started its Weekend Update segment in the mid-70s. In the mid-80s, I was a bit too young to be drawn to Not Necessarily the News on HBO, but it’s certainly part of the genre we’re talking about, and it proves that the liberal slant alone can’t justify the Times (and others, to be fair) acting like The Daily Show has invented the light bulb. As a reviewer of Not Necessarily the News writes here, "NNTN was probably the root of my aversion to the Republican party. For which I'm grateful."

And let’s not forget Kent Brockman, that ungodly combination of Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney, that admixture of reassuring avuncular anchorman and bloviating know-nothing created by the geniuses at the Simpsons. He’s been around since the early 1990s. Brockman, like most of the Simpsons in its prime, and like Stewart and anyone who’s good at mocking the news business, proves that the sharpest comedy comes when you attack all persuasions of nonsense and self-righteousness with equal fervor.

Of course, most comedy writers will tell you this. Colbert certainly will. Deborah Solomon, whose interviews with various celebrities and public figures run in the Times Magazine each Sunday, talked to Colbert in late September, and here are two excerpts from their exchange:

SOLOMON: Seriously, what do you have against gravity?
COLBERT: If we thought we added gravity to anything, we would feel that we had failed. We're just trying to ease the pain of people who feel the world is going insane and no one is noticing.

SOLOMON: I think you're underestimating the influence the show has had.
COLBERT: People might perceive it as substantive because the jokes happen to be political. But I guarantee you that it has no political objective. I think it's dangerous for a comedian to say, 'I have a political objective.' Because then they stop being a comedian and they start being a politician. Or a lobbyist.
The Times ignores Colbert’s convincing analysis, though, in most of its coverage of him and others, because the Times is partly in the business of finding and celebrating lobbyists. The Daily Show was quite funny during the Clinton administration, but making fun of a Democrat-run country doesn’t qualify as revolutionary or particularly praiseworthy at the Times. Granted, Bush provides a bounty of material, but those who cheer for Stewart and company out of a sense of loyalty during these dark days should remember that a team of comedy writers would be equally eager to skewer the opposite side if and when it held power. As Colbert implies, the joke is the thing.

And the jokes to be played at the expense of most television news have to do with the medium, not the message. The avalanche of brief, repetitive, vacant analysis about unessential or salacious stories often makes television inherently ridiculous (and so, often funny).

It’s an endgame long in the making. In his brilliant book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which focuses on television’s corrosive effects on the average viewer's political IQ, Neil Postman quotes something Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate..."
Postman took Thoreau’s analysis and updated it, bringing it to bear on television:

"As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. Coleridge’s famous line about water everywhere without a drop to drink may serve as a metaphor of a decontextualized information environment: In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use. A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into 'one neighborhood,' but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other."

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Here Come the Horseys

The crew over at Oddjack, a gambling blog, has begun handicapping this Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup. They’ll write about a couple of races per day leading up to the event, which some describe as the Super Bowl and World Series of horse racing combined. I like to think of it as the Stanley Cup, but with horses on dirt and turf instead of Eastern Europeans on ice skates. I’m excited about it for the usual horse-geek reasons, but more so this year because it’s at Belmont and I’ll be in attendance. That said, since almost none of you will understand or care about this, I’ll try to keep talk of it to a minimum. For those who are interested, follow the links.

Oddjack BC preview

AP Headline I Have Long Suspected of the Day

'No Pain No Gain' May Not Be Good Advice


Greenspan 2: Electric Boogaloo

President Bush announced today that Ben Bernanke is his nominee to replace Alan Greenspan as Overlord of the Known Gala... uh, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. I can't claim to know much about Mr. Bernanke, but this New York Times account is reassuring about his credentials:

A former Federal Reserve governor, Mr. Bernanke has long been considered the favorite for the post, according to political experts, Wall Street analysts and economists. Mr. Bush appointed Mr. Bernanke, a Republican and former professor at Princeton University, to head the White House Council of Economic Advisers earlier this year.
That’s a lot better than the introduction many of us feared Bush might make: "And now, the dude whose notes I copied in economics class..."

Friday, October 21, 2005

World Series (Defining World as the expanse of highway that connects Houston and Chicago)

I need to write more about baseball next week, but wanted to get my prediction down on paper before the series kicks off tomorrow, so that you can deal more specifically in making fun of me when I'm wrong:

Astros in 6.

I'm pulling for Houston, too. I have friends there, and these Astros -- like Biggio, Bagwell, Pettitte, and Lidge -- just seem easier to root for than these bland (Paul Konerko) to irritating (A.J. Pierzynski) White Sox.

AP Headline That, Yep, Sounds Just About Right of the Day

Bush Calls Recent Woes 'Background Noise'


AP Headline That Just Doesn't Seem Right of the Day

Most Puerto Ricans Deemed Obese


Paging All Numerologists

So I suppose if this experiment is going to be worthwhile on any level, it’s got to be honest. Meaning, you can get funny AP headlines and solemn baseball predictions any ol’ place – don’t get me wrong, I won’t stop providing those – but the inner workings of my noggin are more or less alien to most of you, making them more valuable. (Stretching the meaning of valuable to its utter limit here, I fully understand.)

Most of you know I’ve long been preoccupied with the number 117, which represents – among other things, but most pertinently – the date of my birth (Jan. 17, not Nov. 7, though come to think of it I have two good friends born on that day – remember to find that creepy later). I see this number everywhere. And yes, everywhere means places as banal as fast-food restaurant cash registers (the change due to the customer in front of me, say). And I know that it’s common for people to notice the digits of their birthday with uncommon frequency. I know this partly because it just makes sense, but mostly because several people with whom I’ve shared this preoccupation say things along the lines of, "Well, I think my birthday comes up often, too. It’s an egotistical illusion. So what?"

But I don’t overplay it, and I don’t seek it out. When I see the number listed multiple times in a racing form, for instance (117 being the number of pounds often carried by horses during a race), you don’t find me huddled in the grandstand trying to shape aluminum foil into an interstellar communication tool. I understand that it’s no big deal.

Still, though I don’t ordinarily go in for much magic with my realism, this one issue continues to capture my attention and hold my imagination for whatever reason. Really, the only time I feel like I’m living in some universe created by either Umberto Eco or Deepak Chopra is when I ponder the significance of this for too long. And in fact, I don’t generally ponder it for more than a minute or two at a time, and increasingly less often over the years, but I was reminded of it today while reading a customer review of Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel on Amazon. I’m a loyal fan of McCarthy’s (All the Pretty Horses is one of the few books I’ve read more than once and enjoyed equally – or even more – with each successive reading), but I haven’t read this new one. The customer writes, in part:

Even in the darkest parts, there are subtle literary clues (the times in the book sometimes correspond to Bible verses, (look for the King James BOOK OF REVELATIONS and JOHN 1:17 vs. JAMES 1:17, and Yeats' THE VISION; Moss is killed in room #117).
I assume Moss is a character in the book. And for the record, I’ve never associated my 117 fixation with anything Biblical, but just for kicks here are the two verses the reader mentions (taken from the King James version):

John 1:17
For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

James 1:17
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
I realize millions of people share my birthday, and that 117 can refer to any number of other personal signifiers – one’s weight, the street address of the house in which one grew up, the number of times one has viewed the original Star Wars trilogy – so I’ll reiterate my lack of interest in making this about me. I’m curious, though, does anyone know other instances where the number is of considerable import? Because it seems to come up an awful lot, and there are one or two people who have been willing to agree with me.

The creepiest instance of many was two years ago, when I read a wire report about a Sudanese plane crash. Eleven crew members and 105 passengers died, for a total of 116 fatalities. The 117th person was a two-year-old boy, who was the only survivor of the crash.

AP Bad-Idea Headline of the Day

Michael Jackson Summoned for Jury Duty


Thursday, October 20, 2005

Living in Fear Update

For the past several years now, New York conversations have often veered towards considerations of apocalyptic scenarios. Even before September 11, New Yorkers were a pessimistic breed. Then came the anthrax and the blackout and the London subway bombings, so now we’re essentially a city of eight million paranoid freaks. We’re all like the man muttering to himself about the FBI on the 6 train at three in the morning, we’re just better at hiding it.

Yesterday I had separate conversations, with friends Nick and Jon, about how many different things could happen that would send me immediately scurrying from NYC. Another major attack of a landmark might not do it, at least not for reasons of physical fear, but I mentioned that a subway bombing might do the trick, which led to this uniquely New York exchange:

Nick: Just one (subway bomb)?
Me: Probably.
Nick: What if it wasn’t on your line?
Me: I’m not sure that would make a difference. It might.

While we all remain wary of potential human enemies, though, it’s those pesky birds we need to look out for. I say that freedom must yield to caution during dangerous times, so I’m demanding that every third bird be searched before getting on mass transit systems. I know this will make me unpopular, but I’ll stand by it.

Last night, I pointed out to Jon that the 1918 influenza epidemic killed 14 billion people worldwide (I was exaggerating to get his attention), but he reassured me that any mega-killer flu, like the everyday variety, would mostly affect the old and infirm. But I read on the web today (and like most, I believe everything I read on the web) that: "The (1918) flu was most deadly for people ages 20 to 40. This pattern of morbidity was unusual for influenza which is usually a killer of the elderly and young children." Hmm. Never have I so wished to be elderly.

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Bill Veeck: Pinch-Hitting Midgets, Disco-Hating Riots, and Other Acts of Genius

The Chicago White Sox last won a World Series in 1917, one year before the Boston Red Sox, but you don’t hear much talk about curses or tortured generations of fans on the south side of the Windy City. The Cubs are the city’s – and much of the nation’s – doomed franchise of choice. The White Sox perhaps get a smaller share of attention (and sympathy) in part because of the infamous 1919 scandal in which several members of the "Black Sox" agreed to throw the World Series for gamblers. Fair enough. Tops on the list of reasons to love the White Sox, though, is the slightly less scandalous and infinitely more entertaining Bill Veeck, the eccentric owner of the team for most of the 1960s and 1970s who turned marketing into a mad science.

As the team prepares to host Game 1 of the World Series on Saturday night, the New York Times appropriately remembers Veeck today, though the article isn’t long enough to properly focus on each piece of weirdness, especially Disco Demolition Night, a 1979 promotion at Comiskey Park that almost ended up making Mrs. O’Leary’s cow look like a friend to the city. That night, disco-hating Chicagoans were invited to bring albums to the stadium and watch the offending tunes blown up in center field between games of a doubleheader. This link provides a good summary of what went wrong. One key paragraph among many:

Those fans who turned up late were surprised to find out that their records were no longer being taken for the demolition (quite enough had been collected), and throughout the opener those discs found their way onto the field frisbee-style, along with beer, golf balls with "disco sucks" written on them, and the occasional fireworks. Across one of the catwalks in the outfield, a banner hung with a pot leaf on it, and (allegedly) a cloud of smoke from the weed was hovering over the outfield bleachers. The bleachers, every seat taken and filled up even in the aisles, were shaking noticeably, to the point that some feared possible collapse. On top of it all, two fans attempted to climb the left field foul pole.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A One-Way Lovefest at Slate

Slate's running a dialogue this week between critic Stephen Metcalf and novelist Walter Kirn about Kirn's new book, Mission to America.

I point it out because Kirn is one of my favorite writers, though I'm much more familiar with his reviews and essays than his fiction. There's a strange dynamic at work here, too. Metcalf is over-the-top in his praise of the book, but Kirn essentially ignores it -- doesn't even acknowledge it with a "Oh, stop; I'm blushing." A bit strange in that regard, but it's piqued my interest in the novel, and Kirn is sharp as always.

Me and the Iraqis

This headline from the Times suggests that the Iraqi people feel about Saddam Hussein almost exactly how I feel about myself:

For Iraqis, Image of Ex-President Stirs Reverence and Hatred

AP Headline Runner-Up

Rumsfeld: China Sending 'Mixed Signals'

Yeah, c'mon, China -- do you want the Rumsfeld love or not?


AP Headline/Story of the Day

This one's really worth reprinting in whole, with my comments in bold:

130-Pound Buck Runs Amok in Supermarket

READING, Pa. (AP) This confirms my suspicion that Pennsylvania is a potentially intriguing, kind of crazy, and perhaps randomly deadly place to live -- A 130-pound deer crashed through the front window of a supermarket and ran amok for more than an hour before it was tranquilized by state game officials and removed. No one was hurt.

The eight-point buck emerged from a wooded area, struck a parked tow truck and then jumped through the window of a Weis supermarket in Exeter Township, Berks County, around 5:15 p.m. Monday. This deer is pissed.

It ran past a cash register to the rear of the store, crashed through the meat-counter display case and then headed toward the bread aisle at the other end of the store.

Two game officers and four Exeter police barricaded the deer with shopping carts, and shot it with tranquilizer darts. Is it just me, or does this whole incident seem like an outtake from the supermarket chase scene in Raising Arizona? Weis officials reopened the store Monday night.

Pennsylvania Game Commission Supervisor Jack Lincoln said the deer would be euthanized because of the chemicals used to tranquilize it.

"We can't take the chance of a hunter harvesting and eating that meat," he said. Yes, thinks the deer, Now more than ever, please look out for the hunters.

Deer become more active this time of the year because they are entering their mating season. This really speaks to how much more awful the entire thing could've been.

Cashier Kelsey Bracken said she was grateful she wasn't at her cash register at the time.

"I would have died," Bracken said. "It ran right through (register) five." I can't put my finger on it, but there's something about this quote that makes it seem like an effective country-music lyric.


Tribunal of the Century

In what has to be the hottest celebrity trial since that of O.J. Simpson, Saddam Hussein kicked off the proceedings with a predictable plea of not guilty.

The country’s president, Jalal Talabani, was quoted saying that Hussein should be “executed 20 times,” proving that Talabani has a finely tuned sense of brutal justice, though a far shakier grasp of redundancy.

The New York Times cites one legal organization dismissing the trial as “a display of ‘victor’s justice.’” Well, duh. The same Times report says that human rights groups are already protesting the tribunal, saying that Hussein’s not getting a fair shake and that the death penalty shouldn’t be a possible outcome. I don’t think I’ll lose much sleep over all this. What’s a fair shake for someone who’s killed at least 300,000 people by most estimates? And what’s an appropriate penalty – taking away his subscription to The Nation?

The much more pressing question, to my mind, is why are the participants sitting in a connected series of babies’ cribs?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

mix: Closing Time

To celebrate my imminent purchase of an iBook and iPod (a.k.a. my belated entry into the late 20th century), this is the first in an occasional series of track listings that will one day make their way onto an actual CD.

Along with my friend Ray, who will end up being mentioned in this space fairly often because it's really like he stepped right out of the pages of High Fidelity (in the best way possible), I recently drew up a list of the best closing songs from my music collection. I'll let Ray define the project in his own words: "I left off many favorite songs that ended records. They had to say, in some way, 'this is the end of the record,' they had to feel like a final song. They had to either reach a peak for the record, somehow (reflect) finality or act as a coda to the record."

(Ray, if you have a problem with being quoted here, let me know and I'll run it by you in the future.) In the meantime, here are my 15 picks (song-artist-record). Please send any of your own to I reserve the right to use those picks, and your arguments for them, to either praise or ridicule you on the blog in the future. (Soon I will begin referring to the blog as ASWOBA, much like the literati once took to listing Dave Eggers' debut book as AHWOSG. That will be a truly wonderful day.)

Cradle to the Angel – Richard Buckner – Bloomed
My Life – Iris Dement – My Life
Find the River – REM – Automatic for the People
MLK – U2 – The Unforgettable Fire
Empty Can – The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come for Free
The Road to Ensenada – Lyle Lovett – The Road to Ensenada
The Rollercoaster Ride – Belle & Sebastian – The Boy with the Arab Strap
Miracleland – East River Pipe – Shining Hours in a Can
Purple Rain – Prince – Purple Rain
Passing Afternoon – Iron & Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days
Christmas – Lori Carson – Where It Goes
Wendell Gee – REM – Fables of the Reconstruction
Closing Time – Lyle Lovett – Lyle Lovett
It’s All Over – David Gray – A Century Ends
Blind Hope – Son Volt – Wide Swing Tremolo


AP Headline of the Day

Woman Hit With Turkey Gives Teen 2nd Chance


Am I the last person to see...

...Badlands? I just rented it the other night. Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) wrote and directed it, and released it in 1973, shortly before pulling a Salinger-like disappearing act. He released Days of Heaven in 1978 and then fell off the map for 20 years.

Just like The Thin Red Line, Badlands depends heavily on a slowly gathered sense of dread and a liberal use of voice-over narration by one of its main characters. It's a much smaller, more modest story, though, and it's the better movie because of it. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play Kit (25) and Holly (15), a pair of disaffected South Dakotan youths (is there any other kind?) in the late '50s. It's not giving anything away to reveal that someone gets killed and the pair hits the road to outrun the fuzz and then several other people get killed and no one gets any less disaffected. It's sort of what Natural Born Killers might have looked like if Raymond Carver had written it -- What We Talk About When We Talk About Going on a Killing Spree.

I can't recommend it highly enough. Sheen is extraordinary, and though I've never been a big fan of Spacek, she does a terrific job with the voice-overs, which are often spare but poetic:
He needed me now more than ever, but something had come between us. I'd stopped even paying attention to him. Instead, I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth, where nobody could read them.
Despite its brilliance, the movie does have quite a silly tagline, according to imdb: "In 1959 a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people."

This is nothing, though, compared to my favorite tagline of all-time, which is from The Lift, a Dutch horror movie about a demented elevator: "Take the stairs! Take the stairs! For God's sake, take the stairs!"


If not me, who? If not now, when?

Well, if not me, then the eighteen million other bloggers wasting your time. And if not now, then later. Isn't that second question rhetorical? I mean, the answer can't be: If not now, then in the past. Unless you've perfected time travel.

It really is eighteen million blogs out there. I know this because I heard it a few weeks ago at the Conde Nast building in Times Square, where I watched a roundtable on blogging, moderated by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta and featuring, among others, Ana Marie Cox, known for her political blog, Wonkette. Everyone involved worked very hard – and often convincingly – to defend blogs as a legitimate journalistic practice, but I keep going back to something Cox said, which is that journalistic blogs would die without traditional media to link to, comment on, quarrel with, etc. In other words, blogs are like barnacles. And those are just the practical ones – I suppose the vast majority of blogs, which are proudly unpractical, are maintained by unconnected people who are intensely interested in some idiosyncratic subject like Armenian studies or dishware or their own brokenhearted loneliness.

I was thinking the other day that the entire enterprise is mainly a way to fend off a fear of death. The title of this blog comes from a Philip Larkin poem, “Aubade,” that alludes to this fear. Here’s the relevant verse:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear -- no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

The entire poem, some of it even better than the relevant verse, can be found here.

This theory of blog-as-metaphysical-salve made sense to me, because you often hear more traditional writing described as a sneaky way of keeping yourself around after you’re gone. Think of Dickens or Whitman or Tolstoy – they seem to have gotten the better of death, or at least pushed death to five sets, which most of us won’t do, let’s be frank. They became, in some real way – even if it’s just a real metaphorical way – immortal. I do think that this desire to live on underpins many a writer’s ambitions, hoary and obvious as the theory sounds, and so it would make sense to hear the web's chatter as a vast chorus of “Look at me before I die!”

The problem is this: I don’t think many bloggers, perhaps especially the political ones, expect their work to have more than a temporary relevance. So they seem to be inspired less by a fear of eternal silence than a fear of being ignored in the moment. Why do so many of us fear that? Aside from the strictest hermits or the most socially unacceptable among us, don’t we get some worthwhile attention every day? Why is the chorus shouting “Look at me before you leave work!”?

I’m not sure why, but I’m joining in. There’s something that feels paltry about it, no doubt. But I have a fair number of enthusiasms – books, music, sports (including those that almost no one my age cares about, like horse racing), my neuroses, reconciling my northern and southern experiences, and writing, which I do far too infrequently, even for someone who’s not very good at it. So I’ll use this space to recommend things, update the few of you I know personally, and basically create some new brocade to pretend I’ll never die.

Shall we?

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