Monday, March 31, 2008

Titlepage 3.0

I'm busier than I've been in a long time around here, so this will be today's only post. Luckily, it's something good -- the third episode of Titlepage. It just went up this morning, and it features four nonfiction authors on their new books -- David Hajdu, who writes about the censorship of comics in the 1940s and 50s; Mary Roach, whose smart, funny latest is about sexual research; Louis Masur, who discusses an iconic image of racial violence from the 1970s; and David Gilmour, who allowed his son to drop out of high school if he would watch three movies a week with his dad.

I loved our first two shows, but this might be our best episode yet -- just because, like anyone else embarking on a new project, we're learning. I hope you enjoy it:

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Final Four

A week from today, I'll be in Las Vegas, settled in at one sports book or another, watching North Carolina play in the Final Four. I just wanted to write that sentence.

After a weekend in Vegas, I'll be spending a few days in Texas. The blog will be operational from both places. But I'm getting ahead of myself. A few more days in Brooklyn (and a whole lot of work to do) first.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Two Laughs for the Weekend

I tried to paste this onto the blog, but no luck: It's a hilarious pie chart. And if you don't know what it refers to, shame on you. ... This is very funny (and sad), too. And yes, it accurately portrays something a friend and I call "The Vaccine," which I'll get into at greater length another time.

(Pie chart via Everything is fine, nothing is broken.)

Starts & Stops

And now, for a second straight post in which I solicit opinions:

Norm Geras points us to two posts from the American Book Review: One listing the 100 best opening lines of novels, the other featuring the best closing lines.

As much as I'd love to make a comprehensive collection of favorites from my own library, a) I don't have the time, and b) said library is so scattered and boxed-up that the effort would be Herculean. One day. One day.

For now, a few goodies that were close to hand.

He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful. --Underworld by Don DeLillo

I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man. --Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky

My father, unlike so many of the men he served with, knew just what he wanted to do when the war was over. --The Risk Pool by Richard Russo
Then there are those openings that are especially notable because they arrive from an unexpected narrative position:
We were fractious and overpaid. --Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. --Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
And a trio of endings I liked:
And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out. --Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

But that was just a story, something that people will tell themselves, something to pass the time it takes for the violence inside a man to wear him away, or to be consumed itself, depending on who is the candle and who is the light. --Angels by Denis Johnson

He told me what he was going to do when he won his money then I said it was time to go tracking in the mountains, so off we went, counting our footprints in the snow, him with his bony arse clicking and me with the tears streaming down my face. --The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
Anyone care to share their favorite beginnings and/or ends?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"The cultural equivalent of leprosy."

Several years ago, I flew from Dallas to Las Vegas with my dad. On the nighttime flight, Dad was reading a book by Joe Queenan -- I believe it was Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon. (I could call him to confirm this, but an aversion to hard labor -- like fact-checking -- is one of the things that led me to blogging.) Queenan's diatribe about popular American culture was making Dad laugh, hard. How hard? A couple of days later, in a casino, a guy walked up to him and said, "Hey, you're the guy who was laughing on my plane the other night. I have to ask, what were you reading?"

Last week, in The Guardian, Queenan wrote about the recent Paris Hilton vehicle (a Pinto, to be specific) The Hottie and the Nottie, using the movie's release as an excuse to ponder what makes a movie a candidate for The Worst of All Time.
Though it is a natural impulse to believe that the excruciating film one is watching today is on a par with the excruciating films of yesterday, this is a slight to those who have worked long and hard to make movies so moronic that the public will still be talking about them decades later. Anyone can make a bad movie; Kate Hudson and Adam Sandler make them by the fistful. Anyone can make a sickening movie; we are already up to Saw IV. Anyone can make an unwatchable movie; Jack Black and Martin Lawrence do it every week. And anyone can make a comedy that is not funny; Jack Black and Martin Lawrence do it every week. ... A generically appalling film like The Hottie and the Nottie is a scab that looks revolting while it is freshly coagulated; but once it festers, hardens and falls off the skin, it leaves no scar. By contrast, a truly bad movie, a bad movie for the ages, a bad movie made on an epic, lavish scale, is the cultural equivalent of leprosy: you can't stand looking at it, but at the same time you can't take your eyes off it.
For his king of the all-time stinkers, Queenan selects Heaven's Gate, "a movie in which Jeff Bridges pukes while mounted on roller skates."

I haven't seen Heaven's Gate (though its flaming collapse is detailed in a book I recently raved about). It's hard to come up with my worst ever off the top of my head, so I won't make any final pronouncements. I'll mention Titanic as an early contender, though, because in addition to all of its flaws (meaning, its first two and a half hours), many people think it's good. And as Queenan writes, "an authentically bad movie has to be famous; it can't simply be an obscure student film about a boy who eats live rodents to impress dead girls."

So, readers, leaving aside whatever rock-bottom cable atrocities you've happened across, what are your feelings about Worst. Movie. Ever.?

Archives as Far as the Sports Fan Can See

Sports Illustrated has made a truly astounding amount of material available on its web site. As far as I can tell, it's every issue in the magazine's history, searchable. Confronted with too many choices to handle, I settled on investigating Secretariat, and found two great pieces (for starters). First, there's Whitney Tower's report from Big Red's record-shattering Belmont Stakes:
Even in horse racing, where track records are a fairly common occurrence, an animal just does not go around beating an established mark by nearly three seconds. It would be as if Joe Namath threw 10 touchdown passes in a game or Jack Nicklaus shot a 55 in the Open.
Then, a more far-ranging article by George Plimpton about a lesser race run just a few weeks after the Belmont:
Such was the exhilaration at Belmont that even the jockeys on the losing horses were caught up in it. They joked and carried on after the race, intoxicated by what had happened, as if they were pleased, even though vanquished, to have been identified with Secretariat's historic triumph.
And this gem, from the same article:
For some people the fan letter is not enough. They must come to see him. When Secretariat arrived at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, an elderly couple, the Ray Klings from Glenview, Ill., were there to meet him. They had waited four hours. Apparently the Klings have a penchant for going to arrivals of this sort. They had seen Whirlaway unloaded at Midway Airport years before. "He was some ham, that Whirlaway," Mrs. Kling said, thinking back to that day. Secretariat was only in sight for 10 seconds or so as he came down the ramp from his Electra turboprop and disappeared into a van. Asked if the four-hour wait was worth it, Mrs. Kling replied, "Yes, heavens yes. This is much more exciting than Lindbergh's landing. And I was there," she added defiantly.

A Sad Song, Before I Get Too Carried Away With the Onset of Spring

OK, everyone bust out your black eyeliner. It's bad-hair/good-song Wednesday around here. This is The Cure doing "Pictures of You" at Wembley Arena in 1991.


It's crept over 50 degrees in New York this morning, and the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue is on the stands today.


Gallery 13

"View from Ella Watson's window" by Gordon Parks


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Sermon of My Own, I Suppose

Given the speed of current “news” cycles, I’m the equivalent of a year behind on this one. But my frequent and often lengthy posts in praise of Barack Obama make it impossible for me to avoid commenting on the fact that he’s been linked to a brashly outspoken African-American who sometimes sounds like he’s lost his mind.

No, I’m not talking about Tracy Morgan.

I’m disappointed. That’s the first thing to say. This isn’t going to be some paean to Barack Obama arguing that anyone disturbed by his relationship with Reverend Wright is overly partisan or hypersensitive or tacitly racist. Few have been bigger supporters of Obama than I have, and it disturbs me. I don’t think it troubles me the way it troubles the anchors at Fox, but then not much does.

I’ll start with my disappointment, and then I’ll try to describe why this won’t change the way I plan to vote in November, if I have the opportunity.

I have never thought Obama is superhuman. If my tone has sometimes led people to believe that, it might just be relativity. Throughout my lifetime, major politicians have so often seemed subhuman -- coming off as shady salesman, or obsequious climbers, or sitcom characters that have been focus-grouped seven too many times -- that I admit to being excited by Obama’s attempt to speak to voters as fellow adults. The fact that this is so refreshing says less about Obama than it does about our expectations and shortcomings as an electorate.

But while I was more than open to learning of Obama’s flaws, I honestly thought that being drawn to extreme personalities wasn’t one of them. Here, I’m not even talking about Wright’s beliefs being extremist (though some clearly are), but just his personality. Even when he’s speaking of more mundane things, Wright seems overheated in a way that’s diametrically opposed to the calm reasonableness that I consider one of Obama’s greatest strengths.

In his headline-generating speech last week, in which he addressed his relationship with Wright, Obama compared his feelings for the preacher to those for his white grandmother, who he loved dearly despite the fact that she occasionally made racist comments. To paraphrase Andrew Sullivan, as civics this was a necessary, useful comparison to make. But as politics, it seemed a bit disingenuous to me. You do not choose your grandparents. The allowances you make for your family, if you make them, are fundamentally different than those you make for people who start out as strangers to you. And while we all have complicated relationships with people, one commenter on this blog struck a chord in me when he wrote this:
I confess myself baffled by Obama supporters who can't fathom why the Reverend Wright is suddenly a big deal. The lunacy, the stupidity, and the poisonous conspiracy theory-mongering of his sermons should trouble anyone who hears them. The fact that Obama treats the man as his spiritual advisor and subjects his children to his rants calls his judgment into serious question.
That makes perfect sense to me. If Obama believes, and I think he does, that his own story proves how we’re capable of moving forward as a country, with effort, then why would he want his smart children -- who, as the next generation, have the potential to build on the progress that’s come before -- to listen to someone who’s entrenched in battles that Obama considers outdated and counterproductive? It’s a good question.

Likewise, if Obama believes, as he eloquently stated last week, that Wright’s sermons sometimes emphasize a “profound mistake” about the nature of American society, and its ability to change, then why did Obama title a book -- and his whole campaign, essentially -- after a line from one of Wright’s sermons?

I’m reminded here of a story my mother recently told me. At four years old, she insisted her family change churches because she didn’t like the preacher. Four years old, and she managed to make that choice. Of course, she didn’t have political aspirations at the time. I do think Obama needed the support of a community in Chicago that he didn’t naturally belong to, considering the level of his education and his diverse background. One commenter asked me to use this moment of revealed expediency to admit that “Obama is just another politician, not particularly different from Hillary.”

I’ll meet that commenter halfway. Obama is a politician. In a republic like ours, where there’s an amount of pandering inherent to the process, he is compromised. No one running for office (especially president) is pure. But to say that a relationship that’s been available for public scrutiny this whole time (this isn’t Watergate) suddenly makes him “just another politician” is ridiculous. To say that it doesn’t make him “particularly different from Hillary” is just to legitimate her race to the bottom, where the goal is to make everyone else look as corruptible as you are. I’m plenty cynical, and I’m not arguing for Obama’s infallibility. If there were to be a scandal that truly destroyed my belief in his integrity, I would be sad, but I wouldn’t rip up all my old baseball cards and weep for the death of heroism. But the Wright controversy is simply not that moment.

I keep coming back to the fact that there’s one best answer to all of these concerns: Barack Obama. In his hundreds of speeches in the past year, over the course of debates, town meetings, stumping, and all the rest, even those who don’t support him would be hard-pressed to hear anything but a moderate (in temperament), soft-but-powerfully spoken, inclusive vision of what America is. Forget the fact that now imagining Obama as somehow a Black Separatist candidate who wants to establish the United States of Watts is more ridiculous and conspiratorially minded than anything Wright has preached. Forget the fact that no one as intelligent as Obama could even imagine smuggling such an agenda into Washington. Forget that Obama was raised by the white women who he's always praised. Forget all that, and just listen to what he has said. Time after time, including in front of entirely African-American audiences, Obama has emphasized what Bill Richardson, in his endorsement speech the other day, called “the awesome potential residing in our own responsibility.”

That’s an idea both conservative and liberating it its core, and it flies in the face of Wright’s worst moments. (It also flies in the face of many of the Democrats' talking points in my lifetime, which is one reason, as an independent, that I'm a fan of Obama.) Norm Geras, who says he’s been “supporting Barack Obama in a quiet sort of way” (I’m sure many of you wish I would do the same) said that, in his speech addressing Wright, Obama “dodged nothing and rose to the demands of the occasion, rose above the standard concerns and tricks of the mere political competitor.” I think that’s true. And whatever flaws I might have found in the speech, they’re overwhelmed by the fact that I can’t imagine another politician matching either its substance or its style. If we assume that whoever leads us is going to be flawed -- which I certainly do -- I still think Obama is the most inspiring choice.

Lastly: It may be an oversimplification, but the idea that we shouldn’t be assumed to share all the beliefs of someone close to us is a deeply important one. That Wright holds certain beliefs that are silly and even noxious is hard to dispute. The notion that governments created AIDS as a means to commit genocide is wackiness of the highest order. But it’s also undeniably true that many of us, and our puddle-deep media, have turned Wright into a caricature based on sound bites. He’s a scholar, a military veteran, and many of his strong statements are not substantively different than things that have been said by more mainstream figures throughout history, including recent history. None of these things excuse his worst statements, but surely they shouldn't be ignored. The moment in which he said, “God damn America,” seemed to come during a speech about the country’s drug laws, which I think are absolutely wrongheaded and, yes, racist. To curse the country for them seems like anyone’s right, and understandable if that person lives in a community disproportionately affected by them. I think it would be fair to summarize at least one strand of David Simon’s The Wire as “God damn America.” It doesn’t mean Simon wants to violently overthrow the government.

In that instance and others, Wright speaks about race in a way that we must continue to confront, whether we like it or not. A friend of mine asked on his own blog, “how long must we loathe ourselves for the sins of our ancestors?” Well, the word ancestors implies that we’re talking about ancient history. The fact is, anti-black violence of the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws, and even lynchings were common just a few years before I was born, and I’m young. I'm also not sure why being willing to talk about something means you loathe yourself for it.

Like much of our political discourse, the Wright issue has been inflated for sensational purposes -- it’s a serious issue, worth discussion, but not scandalous. I feel the same way about almost everything that we “dig up” about candidates. I’m not even sure that Hillary Clinton’s gross exaggerations should disqualify her from the office, much less a relationship of Obama’s that has never been hidden. The fact that the media finally addressed this large, well-known church is fine, but I don’t see how it quite amounts to a “gotcha,” our favorite political tool.

Obama admits to being imperfect. What sane person wouldn't? And he exists, for better or worse, in a political landscape where we often vote for the person who has the least rubble strewn around them by the time election day arrives. It will take a lot more rubble for me to stop supporting him.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hi, Folks. We're Tenth in Line for Take-Off Here, We Should Be On Our Way Before Too Long.

I should know better, when juggling three other projects that are, you know, professional, than to promise certain blog posts at certain times. I'm hoping to have substantive things up tonight and tomorrow. But I'm done making promises.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Goodbye, Mr. Adams

I know what all of you are thinking: When's John going to get us another 1,500 or so words about Barack Obama? And how are we supposed to function in the meantime? Well, we're almost there. The post should go up late tonight or tomorrow morning.

In the meantime, I just thought I'd say a quick word about the HBO miniseries John Adams, and that word is: boooorring.

I'm pretty sure the moment of America's break from Britain was a dramatic one, but you wouldn't know it from watching this snoozefest. It's the visual equivalent of a high school textbook. It has stilted dialogue, unnecessarily tilted and annoying camera angles (presumably to make up for the lack of action otherwise), and a whole lot of uncomfortably faked British accents.

I watched the first two episodes with friends last night, and I think that's all I need. I'll probably pick up David McCullough's book, which inspired the series, soon. McCullough is sometimes criticized for making history too commercially appealing, but surely that's a lesser sin than presenting the Continental Congress in a way that makes four viewers yawn simultaneously.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Archive of the Day

From "How a Resurrection Really Feels" by The Hold Steady:

Her parents named her Hallelujah,
the kids they called her Holly.
And if she scared you then she's sorry.
She's been stranded at these parties.
These parties they start lovely
but they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody.
The priest just kinda laughed.
The deacon caught a draft.
She crashed into the Easter mass
with her hair done up in broken glass.
She was limping left on broken heels and she said,
"Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?"

Seeing Politics in Car Insurance Ads

What can I say, it's election season.

Liberals are often called progressives, and I just saw an ad for the car insurance company of the same name. The slogan at the end seems tailor-made to be fodder for conservative critics who rail against government intervention: "Taking care of everything for you. Now that's Progressive."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

When John Met Omar

This afternoon, a good friend and fellow Wire-phile joined me on an excursion to the HBO Shop in midtown. We stood outside, quite cold, for about an hour in order to meet three cast members of The Wire for about 30 seconds. It was totally worth it.

The three actors present were Seth Gilliam, Jamie Hector, and Michael K. Williams -- better known to fans as Carver, Marlo, and Omar.

That's right, I shook Omar's hand. Williams was the most outward and friendly of the three -- big smile (as you can kind of see in the blurry photo below), and appreciative of everyone's compliments. All three were tired. We got to them near the end of a two-hour signing session, which can't be fun.

I now own the DVD of season 4 with all their signatures on it, and I'm all geeky-excited about it. Do I feel morally superior to Trekkies? Sure, but less than I did when I woke up today.

They rushed us through, so my goal of getting great photos was unattainable. Here are the two I managed to get, the blurry one of Williams in his snappy cap, and one of all three actors. I believe I captured Hector while he was applying lip balm. It's possible he did this at his audition, and some casting director turned to another and said, "If this guy can look intimidating while applying lip balm, he's our Marlo."

AP Headline of the Day

Man Gets 30 Days' Jail for Taco Theft

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Baseball in 1908: Veriest Dubs, Rioting Ladies, and Gator-Wrestling Pitchers

Over at Loud, Please, the Titlepage books blog, I recently recommended Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy. The subtitle: "How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History." I was so entertained by the book, I figured I would double-post about it.

The primary focus is on the heated three-way race for the National League pennant that year, between the New York Giants, the Chicago Cubs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The first half of the book, before it turns mostly to the drama on the field, is packed with colorful detail about the game in the young century. Here are three examples I enjoyed:

1. As gloves improved, so did defense. Murphy writes:
This was the context for the suggestion by Sporting Life, which really should have known better, to take away outfielders' gloves and allow only small ones to the pitcher and infielders. "The big mitt has made the ballplayer," an editorial harrumphs in 1908. "We have no desire to revert to the glove-less game, but there is a wide margin between no gloves and the present huge mitts which enable the veriest dub to face a cannon shot."

The argument was ludicrous, even at the time. The "huge mitts" are webless slabs of leather little bigger than a man's hand. As for allowing the veriest dub to face a cannon shot, that was the point. It took an idiot, not a hero, to stick his hand in front of a hard-hit line drive, which is one of the reasons why games in the preglove era had scores like 103-14.
2. There was a bizarre rash of baseball suicides in that era, including George "Win" Mercer in 1903, who inhaled gas. Mercer "was so handsome and popular that his ejection from a game on Ladies' Day in 1897 sparked a riot by the disappointed females." He also left this sentiment in his suicide note: "Beware of women and a game of chance."

3. As you might imagine, the book is overflowing with outsize characters, including one Rube Waddell, who stars in this memorable paragraph:
In 1903, Waddell had a good season; once he finally bothered to show up in June, he won twenty-one games and led the league in strikeouts (with 302). It was a busy year in other ways, too: he also starred on vaudeville; led a marching band through Jacksonville; got engaged, married, and separated; rescued a log from drowning (he thought it was a woman); accidentally shot a friend; and was bitten by a lion. ... Among his more respectable hobbies were chasing fires (he adored fire engines) and wrestling alligators; he once taught geese to skip rope. Hughie Jennings, manager of the Tigers, used to try to distract him from the sidelines by waving children's toys.

Wednesday's Song

Martha Wainwright singing "Factory." Enjoy:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Rest of the Week...

A quiet day around here, as I was uptown to help with the taping of two future episodes of Titlepage. (They both turned out quite well; thanks for asking.)

The rest of the week should be busy -- longish posts about Obama/Wright, The Wire, and potentially (if I have the time and ambition) Jesse Ventura & Hillary Clinton & what their respective personalities say about the demands of the American electorate. How 'bout that? And of course, a song tomorrow -- a really good one that I hadn't even heard yet a week ago.

As you wait patiently for that onslaught of opinion, I urge you to watch the "Food Fight" video below a couple more times. It gets richer and more comprehensible every time. It's quite an achievement. (The soundtrack is the most impressive part. Brilliant.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Man Files Suit, Claims Lap Dance Injury

Don't Cross the Chicken Nuggets

This short (but I imagine labor-intensive) video is crazy. It's a stop-motion "abridged history of American-centric war, from World War II to present day, told through the foods of the countries in conflict." Um, yeah.

Very Short List, which is where I found it, describes it as "Like some bastard child of the History Channel and the Food Network raised by Comedy Central." That, believe it or not, is exactly right. It reminds me of something I posted to in September 2006 (I know, I've been blogging too long; thanks for the update), a much shorter film of explosions represented by Christmas decorations.

Enjoy the below, if "enjoy" is the right word for something that recreates the events of 9/11 with stacks of hamburgers and fleeing French fries. Normally, I'd find that kind of thing offensive, but the imagination on display here does a lot to overrule the complaint. The film actually ends up feeling profound. Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hiroshima -- it's all here. My favorite moment arrives 2:37 into the movie, when a pile of cheeseburgers and a mound of beef stroganoff dramatize the arms race of the Cold War. Trust me, it's great. (The cowardly croissant is a close second.)

And if you need a guide to what food represents what country, there is one. Even with the guide, it can be hard to keep up. Multiple viewings are recommended.

The Pursuit of Excellence

The other day, when I shared a comment made by Lewis Lapham about steroids in baseball, it seems a couple of people took him (and me) seriously. I don't think Lapham was advocating a complete surrender of rules, but merely mocking our society's double (and triple) standards about better living through chemistry. I believe the idea of just letting the drug culture take root in professional sports is a terrible one. In the latest issue of The New Republic, Leon R. Kass and Eric Cohen contribute a long essay about "the adulteration of American sports." It's too solemn by half, perhaps, but I think they're essentially right, and I thought I'd share two passages I liked:
In athletics, as in so many other human activities, superior performance is generally attained through training and practice. One gets to run faster by running; one builds up endurance by enduring; one increases one's strength by using it on ever-increasing burdens. Likewise with the complex specific skills of the game--hitting, fielding, and throwing the baseball. The capacity to be improved is improved by using it; the deed to be perfected is perfected by doing it. In many cases, of course, no amount of practice can overcome one's limited natural endowments: nature dispenses her unequal gifts with little regard for any abstract principle of "fairness." Yet however mysterious the source and the distribution of each person's natural potential, the individual's cultivation of his natural endowments is intelligible. As agents and as spectators, we can understand the connection between effort and improvement, between activity and experience, between work and result. We appreciate self-achieved excellence because it flows from and manifests the presence of an active, excellence-seeking self.
A game comprises more than competing moves calculated for, or justified solely, by the result. Consider the best human chess player playing against a chess-playing computer--an outstanding human being facing off against an outstanding human artifact. Are man and machine really "playing chess"? On one level, they are indeed playing the same game, making intelligible moves according to the same rules. Yet the computer "plays" the game rather differently--with no uncertainty, no nervousness, no sweaty palms, no active mind, and, most crucially, with no desires or hopes regarding future success. The computer's way of "playing" is really a kind of simulation--the product of genuine human achievement, to be sure, but not the real thing: playing chess. By building computers that "play" perfect chess, we change the meaning of the activity itself, reorienting the very character of our aspiration from becoming great chess players to producing the best-executed game of chess.

Episode 2 of Titlepage now up on the site! Head over and take a look when you've got a chance.

Friday, March 14, 2008

R.E.M. in Austin

R.E.M. played the SXSW festival in Austin on Thursday night, and you can stream the show at NPR. The New York Times said the band's new album made up "nearly their entire set," but I've only listened to the first third of the show and already heard four good oldies -- "Second Guessing," "Drive," "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" and "Fall On Me."

Fry and Laurie on Language

A funny sketch for your Friday afternoon. Enjoy:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Snow Angels

Over at Pajiba, I review Snow Angels:
At 32, David Gordon Green is five years younger than Paul Thomas Anderson and six years younger than Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. The fact is worth noting, not because Green has calcified an aesthetic and turned himself into a mini-industry like the other three, but because he hasn’t. He still has the room (and time) to become the best director of his generation.

AP Headline of the Day

Vegas Man Paints Car Like Police Cruiser

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

My First (and Probably Last) Post About Professional Wrestling

It’s been a while since I’ve undeniably embarrassed myself around here, and I feel that runs contrary to everything we know about blogs. So let’s rectify that:

With some accuracy, I can date the birth and death of my interest in professional wrestling. I know it was born sometime when I was 10 years old, because on January 23, 1984, Hulk Hogan beat The Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden to become WWF champ. I had turned 10 on the 17th of that month, and it was sometime soon after Hogan’s ascension that I discovered the “sport.” My fandom must have expired by the time I was 14, because when I moved to Texas in the summer of 1988, I wasn’t following wrestling at all.

I’m not sure what accounts for this freak show’s relatively rapid transit across my cultural radar. It wasn’t a sudden sophistication. I may have moved away from grappling once in Texas, but I was still, for instance, eagerly awaiting the world premiere of Bon Jovi’s video for “Bad Medicine.” No, as ashamed as I am to say it, given that I’m pretty sure I have friends who were reading Lionel Trilling at 14, it wasn’t a sudden sophistication.

I think I understand what drew me to wrestling. But before I go on, let me swallow any remaining pride and confirm the extent of my enthusiasm. This is a picture of a friend and I standing in my driveway -- artfully posed by my older sister, who was around 15 at the time:

Let’s close in for a look at that T-shirt, which says what you think it does:

That’s right: Hulk-A-Mania. And yes, that’s my family’s Buick LeSabre behind us. This post is brought to you by the year 1985.

(Along with the many other ways the photo is hilarious, there’s something great about that shirt on such a scrawny-ass kid. I would have that build, more or less, until sophomore year of college.)

At this point in its history, pro wrestling was taking a decided turn toward family-friendly entertainment. I would read about old matches from the ‘70s in which wrestlers -- who looked like normal guys -- were drenched in blood. The photos that accompanied these stories were fascinating and disgusting to me, and it felt illicit to see them. As was long the case (still the case?) with me, the truly illicit didn’t feel thrilling or liberating -- it felt dangerous and foreboding. So part of my interest was luck; the sport was getting a bit more cartoonish, which appealed to me more than its street-brawl past.

But as friendly a face as it was hoping to adopt, wrestling wasn’t exactly crawling with political correctness in the 1980s. (I doubt this has changed much.) One crowd favorite was Junkyard Dog, an African-American wrestler who wore a heavy chain trailing from a collar around his neck. But at least he was a good guy -- who would exit the ring after victories to a jubilant crowd and the strains of “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. Perhaps even less p.c., and on the “evil” side of the sport, was Kamala, “a Ugandan cannibal with a painted face and body who wrestled barefoot and in a loincloth.” (He actually still looks pretty scary to me -- this clip shows him entering the ring to wrestle Moondog Spot, who, along with his brother Moondog Rex, hailed from my favorite hometown of wrestlers: “parts unknown.” Actually, details like that make me remember that I also liked the ridiculous humor.)

In fairness to my parents, who were doing their damndest to raise me as a decent citizen, their feeling about this hobby of mine could be described as concerned-but-hopeful. They certainly didn’t want me to end up living in Greensboro, North Carolina, saving some portion of a meager paycheck to attend the local action once a month. My father would take me to the occasional night of matches at Nassau Coliseum, and I think (hope) it was clear to him that I didn’t believe what was happening had any legitimacy. I knew it was fake. But that might have been the biggest draw to me -- it was a fictional universe, attentively crafted by storytellers. The details might not have been worthy of Dickens, but the carnivalesque plots were. It was the idea of such a universe, one both imagined and real, that appealed most to me -- I think wrestling was an outlet for the normal fantastical energy that led other young boys to "Dungeons & Dragons" and Tolkien. I was just channeling that energy through my sports-geek self. (I was obsessively collecting baseball cards by age 6. I never really got into sci-fi and fantasy, though I was a devoted comic-book fan from about 4 to 10 or so. I never read Tolkien or Dune or wanted to be a wizard. This is not to impugn those who did, really.)

Just when you thought the self-incrimination was done, I have to admit to having subscribed to three wrestling magazines at one point. Pro Wrestling Illustrated, the best of them, arrived in a manila envelope each month, like porn. Looking back, I have a strange inclination to defend PWI. Given the subject matter, it wasn’t bad. Here’s a typical cover:

That’s Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. He doesn’t look particularly savage, or much like a genius, does he? My dad was on an airplane with Valentine once, and excitedly shared the news with me when he got home.

(Researching information about wrestlers on Wikipedia is endlessly entertaining. The Iron Sheik was once a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran’s family. Kamala was really a guy named James Harris who grew up in Mississippi. And then there’s this classic nugget about Sgt. Slaughter:
During the mid-1980s, Sgt. Slaughter released a full length LP, Sgt. Slaughter and Camouflage Rocks America. It featured a number of original songs, including "The Cobra Clutch," as well as a cover of Neil Diamond's "America.")
One more anecdote about my dad that I think is worth sharing, this one involving Slaughter himself:

When I was about 11, a big, colorful wrestling book came out, and one day Sgt. Slaughter was in midtown Manhattan to sign copies. Dad worked in the city, so he brought home a copy for me. Years later, I learned that the line for Slaughter’s appearance stretched around the block, and that Dad’s friend, Dave, who had accompanied him on the lunchtime errand, said “Here, give me that,” took the book, and scrawled Slaughter’s signature himself. I love that story. I can look back on it now -- like that picture above -- and laugh. Barely.

An Acquired Taste for Wednesday

I don't know what this says about me, but I sometimes find myself having a not-terribly-strong opinion about people, places, and things that others consider obviously polarizing. Take Joanna Newsom, for instance. Some people think the harp-playing singer and songwriter's baroque imagination and imperfect voice are gifts from God, while others think she's the screeching, talentless result of allowing hipsters to shape popular taste. I happen to think she's both. (Well, not talentless; she seems to know her way around that harp, and how many people can say that these days?) Anyway, her voice can be supremely irritating, but it can also be surprisingly beautiful and nuanced. Her lyrics can be touching meditations on everyday emotions or ridiculous, fevered fables about mythical creatures that sound like they didn't make the cut for the last Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Here she is performing "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie," which I like, for the line "there are some mornings when the sky looks like a road" and other reasons:

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Archive of the Day

From Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon:
Mildred: I had to park three blocks away. It started to rain, so I ran the last two blocks. Then my heel got caught in the subway grating. When I pulled my foot out, I stepped in a puddle. Then a cab went by and splashed my stockings. If the hardware store downstairs was open, I was going to buy a knife and kill myself.

Rawls on the Grand Game

In this letter from eminent philosopher John Rawls to Owen Fiss, Rawls recounts a conversation with legal scholar Harry Kalven about the reasons for baseball's superiority. They're familiar to any fan, but they're presented concisely and elegantly here, like this:
The physical layout of the game is perfectly adjusted to the human skills it is meant to display and to call into graceful exercise.
And this, which actually hadn't occurred to me in quite this way: is the only game where scoring is not done with the ball, and this has the remarkable effect of concentrating the excitement of plays at different points of the field at the same time. Will the runner cross the plate before the fielder gets to the ball and throws it to home plate, and so on.
Coincidentally, I was in the middle of drafting another post that briefly references Rawls when I came upon this. Should be up in the next day or two.

(Via Crooked Timber)

Monday, March 10, 2008


Brian Dettmer makes incredible sculptures by carving into books. Two examples below, and more here. (Via Hermenautic Circle Blog)


A very good friend of mine recently went somewhere I can never, ever, ever (ever) follow. . . . If you're up for a tough workout, go here and try to make Hillary Clinton do the right thing. . . . A while back, I posted a clip of Bruce Springsteen with a street busker. Similarly, here's Eddie Vedder joining some band for "All Along the Watchtower" and making the bassist's day. . . . If you haven't seen the last few episodes of The Wire, don't read this interview, for fear of spoilers. My favorite line: "I do happen to love Honey Nut Cheerios." (I'll have a longer post up about the end of the show in the next day or two.)

Lapham on 'Roids

I have to say, Lewis Lapham is not the first name that springs to mind when I seek baseball coverage, but his "Notebook" in last month's Harper's about the steroid scandal was entertaining (even if his fall-of-the-Roman-Empire tone wasn't perfectly suited to the subject). He claimed government’s threats of meddling in the game are "un-American and behind the times." The last line of this excerpt was my favorite:
What else is the American dream if not the theory and practice of self-invention? How otherwise define the American way of life if not as a ceaseless effort to boost performance, hype the message, enhance the product? Deny an aging outfielder the right to inject himself with human-growth hormone, and what does one say to the elderly philanthropist who steps out of an evening with a penile implant and a flower in his lapel?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Aphorism of the Week

"Some disguised deceits counterfeit truth so perfectly that not to be taken in by them would be an error of judgment."

-La Rochefoucauld


Will the Honest Memoirist Please Stand Up?

This week saw the unmasking of two more memoirists, making this officially -- if it wasn’t already -- a trend. My favorite was the less covered of the two, which led to this amazing correction: “The author was never trapped in the Warsaw ghetto. Neither was she adopted by wolves who protected her from the Nazis...”

If you’re going to lie, I think, lie big. I was raised by a family of bilingual chipmunks in the crawl space underneath the country estate of J.P. Morgan. That kind of thing.

The bullshit that generated more ink was found in a book called Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones. The author wrote that she had been a half-white, half-Native American child raised in a South Central foster home, where she ran drugs for a gang. It turned out that the author had worked with gang members, and used their experiences to create a "memoir" that might call attention to their lives.

Over at Paper Cuts, Rachel Donadio wrote, “Memoirs are seen as more authentic than novels. And we earnest Americans, raised to value hard work and plain talk, will always choose faux authenticity over real artifice.” Donadio has a point, but that choice -- faux authenticity vs. real artifice -- doesn’t seem the most relevant one here. After all, there is a certain kind of authenticity that a memoir not made from total fabrications can be said to have, and some readers might simply prefer such a thing without being overly earnest or gullible.

The larger issue that these scandals raise is fact-checking. Having spent several years in the den of editorial iniquity that is book publishing, here’s my take:

Some editors are publishing 20, 25 books a year. Needless to say, at something like two weeks per book -- and given the ridiculous number of non-editorial duties now handled, at least passingly, by editors -- that’s barely enough time to line edit, much less make useful broader changes or fact-check. In many cases, the lack of investigation is reasonable. At conscientious magazines, the fact-checking of a single essay can take several days. With their amount of text, book publishers just don't have that time. And what's at stake in journalistic outlets is the magazine's name, which needs more protecting than the name of a book imprint. If Harper's or The Atlantic published a series of articles packed with lies, many people would rightfully stop reading those magazines. Book publishers don't have that motivation. Lots of readers will surely look askance at the future work of frauds, if there is any, but no one's going to stop themselves from buying Nick Hornby's next novel just because Riverhead also published Jones' book.

Still, publishing as a whole would clearly benefit from a bit of image scrubbing. Sarah McGrath, the editor who acquired Jones’ memoir, can’t be faulted for ills that are embedded in the industry. But the problem is, everyone claims plausible deniability, other than the writer. The buck stops nowhere. What about the agent who takes on the writer? The author him- or herself is ultimately responsible, but it's hard to make their word the initial stamp of approval -- there’s an awful lot that happens between an author deciding to spin a tale and a consumer paying for the book at a cash register. Is our standard really going to be: Blame the pathological liar?

It seems, at the very least, that publishers could take a small but critical step to lessen the problem. Eye-opening memoirs, though they garner a lot of headlines, are still just a percentage of the books published. It doesn’t seem onerous to suggest that when a proposal for one comes across a publisher’s desk that they make a few phone calls to check the larger, most outrageous claims being made. This might not keep someone like James Frey from embellishing things, but it seems very likely it would turn up the fact that, rather than being raised in a foster home with gang members and an African-American head of household named Big Mom, the details of an author’s life are these:
Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Pictures at a Revolution

Over at Pajiba, I review Pictures at a Revolution, a book by Mark Harris about the five movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967. Overall, I liked it, but here's a slight criticism:
By focusing on these films, Harris has fleshed out a pivotal moment in cinematic (and American) history, but his fashionably portentous subtitle ignores the fact that the New Hollywood died very young. By the late ’70s, Jaws and Star Wars would set the template for everything that was to come — metastasizing sequels, screenplays inspired by action figures, a scorched-earth release schedule in which movies built to make or break in their first 48 hours simultaneously flooded thousands of screens across the country.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Muddled Creatures

Reading books about movies lately has done nothing to halt the growth of my Netflix queue, and now the blog i dream in super eight piles on with an enticing take on An Unmarried Woman. The blogger writes:
(Paul) Mazursky, here at least, is a director who likes people — both the characters in his movie and the audience watching it. He trusts them to be complex, intelligent creatures who can feel conflicting things and hold more than one idea in their heads at a time. He gives us a movie that’s adult in its comprehension of the world and its take on relationships, in the way it’s both light and serious, clear-eyed but still hopeful.
And she cites Roger Ebert, who in 1978 wrote this beauty:
An Unmarried Woman is such a good picture not because it states vast truths about men and women but because it finds that there are none; its heroine and, maybe the rest of us, are in a muddle most of the time, and depend more than we’d want to admit on old friendships, white wine, and quiet desperation to get us through.

Being Saved by the Bell Doesn't Equal Momentum

I'm sorry. Really, I am. I keep breaking my promises. But I'm a bit crazed today, as you might be able to tell. I really think this will pass by tomorrow. Really. One hopes.

But the New York Times (and others) keep using this word, "momentum," to describe Clinton's wins last night. I'm writing this post as an Obama supporter, yes, but please consider it more of a missive from a stickler for definitions. To borrow from Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, I don't think that word means what they think it means.

Momentum means "force or speed of movement; impetus." To lose 12 contests in a row and then win a critical contest by four points when you had been leading it by 20 very recently is not momentum in your favor. It's the opposite. But in this, as in all things, the Clintons can't cope with strict definitions. I get it -- she has to put the best possible face on things. I'd do the same in her place, I suppose. But claiming momentum at this point seems particularly Orwellian and absurd and, well, statistically untrue. Should this change, I like to think I'd be the first to admit it.

A Second-Chance Song for Wednesday

Last year, I downloaded The National's album Alligator from emusic. I listened once and was bored, so I never went back to it. I'm not usually crazy about Leonard Cohen-esque (non)singers, so I felt especially confident in my dislike. That didn't keep me from downloading the band's follow-up, Boxer. Wasn't crazy about it, either, but it recently popped up on my iTunes and I found myself warming to it. Now I kind of love it. This is the band performing "Fake Empire" on Letterman...

Favre Exits, My Traffic Rises

In the wake of Brett Favre's decision to retire from the NFL, it seems like many people are finding the blog today by coming across this post from a couple of months ago. I'll let that post stand as my thoughts on this most recent announcement. The sport will miss him.

Groan Redux

I'm sorry, but it just freshly strikes me how ludicrous it is for Hillary Clinton to have assumed the mantle of the working class. She won't disclose her tax returns. She has enough to loan herself five million dollars. Lord knows what her husband is capable of charging for opening his mouth in certain company. (Only the Lord knows because of the aforementioned tax-return secrecy.) And she has settled in Chappaqua, New York, one of the most exclusive enclaves in the country. I guess when your remaining support is heavily weighted to those in the lower-class or over 65 (or both), that's how you have to present yourself. At least she turned 60 in time to sympathize with the elderly with half a straight face.

I'm done now, I promise.


Texas didn't come through, and this thing is going to get ugly -- uglier, I mean. I'm sick to my stomach today at the memory of Clinton talking about "turning her campaign around" last night when she was ahead by 20 points in Texas not so long ago. She's delusional, along with everything else. Anyway, I'll avoid politics for a while (around here and in general) because nothing productive is likely to happen soon and the media is's unspeakable. For now, I'll post an exchange I had with someone in the comments section at another blog (yes, I'm that big a geek). "Joe" is a Hillary supporter who accuses the blog's readers of being latte-sipping elitists who denigrate lower-class and less-educated voters in the party at their future peril. "Me" is me. (His post below was not directed at me; it was directed at everyone on the blog.)

The coalition of either Clinton or Obama will fade in August. And then what? Reagan won the Democrats Clinton is winning for good reasons. If people want to boil it down to racism this time, that seems to be a little naive and not a very intellectual argument. How does Obama keep "those people" in the party? My point is the kinds of posts on this blogs is not the way.
Joe, I think you have a good point: "Reagan won the Democrats Clinton is winning for good reasons." I agree. That said, Obama is likewise winning many independents and Republicans for a reason. (My father and stepmother, lifelong Republicans, both voted for Obama yesterday in Dallas.) As an Obama supporter (and more tepid "Democrat-in-general" supporter), what I'm arguing is that Obama has the potential to beat McCain, say, 58-42, if everything breaks his way. I still don't see a scenario where Hillary beats him any better than 51-49 (remember, her husband never won a plurality), and I can easily imagine him beating her. The fact is, I haven't heard a lot of Clinton supporters saying there's "no way" they would vote for Obama in November, but you hear the opposite a lot, and I really don't think it has anything to do with latte.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A 3-D Portrait of NYC

Michiko Kakutani raves about Richard Price's new novel, Lush Life, in today's New York Times. This post also serves as a friendly reminder that you can see Price discussing the novel -- and other subjects -- on the debut episode of Titlepage. Here's a bit of the review:
In his latest novel, Mr. Price puts his myriad gifts together to create his most powerful and galvanic work yet, a novel that showcases his sympathy and his street cred and all his skills as a novelist and screenwriter: his gritty-lyrical prose, his cinematic sense of pacing, his uncanny knowledge of the nooks and crannies of his characters’ hearts. “Lush Life” is a novel that gives us a wide, 3-D Imax portrait of a small corner of New York City (the Lower East Side of a few years ago, at that hinge point in time, when young hipsters were beginning to push out the immigrants and the working poor), a novel that captures Manhattan’s magnetic appeal to dreamers and drifters, and its ability to crush the weak and unlucky and turn their dreams into disappointment and rage.

Welcome, Wisconsin Siblings

The Google searches that lead readers here continue to entertain me, so here are a few more, if you're interested:
“the joy of being spanked, in words and videos”

“opposite sex siblings in apartments in wisconsin”

“annoying things about protestant church services”

“car noise thesis”

“which direction would you head if you wanted to travel from Texas to South Dakota”
And my personal favorite, because it brushes against my world view:
“to live is to be afraid and continue even though”

Lucas on His Blockbuster "Disney Movie"

I'm just finished with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Yes, it's gossipy. Yes, it's prurient. Yes, it's built on talking to many people who have vendettas against one another. But it's also a lot of fun (partly for those very reasons I just listed, of course), and the larger story it tells is an epic one of artistic fools, foolish artists, and the brief period when Hollywood was devoted to a truly strange (and sometimes rewarding) process.

There are a thousand things to quote (no, more), but I'll just share a couple from George Lucas, about Star Wars. I already knew that Brian De Palma, after screening the movie, accused Lucas of "vaporizing the audience," and Biskind relates that rant. But I also thought Lucas' thoughts about what the movie would be, and how well it would succeed, are great:
“You can make this picture for teenagers, late teenagers, early twenties, or you play it for kids, and that’s what we’re going for, eight- and nine-year-olds. This is a Disney movie.”
And later, discussing the potential audience:
“Only kids -- I’ve made a Walt Disney movie, a cross between Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. It’s gonna do maybe eight, ten million.”
If, like me, you hadn't heard of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, here's a summary. (Even better, here's the tremendous opening credits sequence -- has there ever been a better title song for a movie?)

Anyway, back to Lucas. I think he was right about his movie. It is for nine- and ten-year-olds. I know how much I loved it at that age. His miscalculation was in not being able to see that my generation would be the one that would cling to its 10-year-old cultural tastes for life.

Monday, March 03, 2008

"Give 'em some breakfast... Come on."

If you haven't seen this video (via Andrew Sullivan, who else?), take a peek. It's amazing. From the three-minute mark on, the mood in the room is electric. Who else can lecture a crowd and then end the speech, legitimately, by saying "We're having too much fun"? A friend of mine (in Texas, appropriate enough) recently called Obama "one of a kind." She wasn't kidding.

In the second half of this clip, he's talking about something that gets even beloved people in trouble in this culture, but you wonder, as he speaks, why basic levels of personal responsibility could ever be turned into a "hot-button issue." (Never mind more ridiculous academic trends. My sister is currently studying for a degree in teaching, and some professors at her very respectable school are claiming that English teachers have to give up on teaching grammar. Huh?) Obama succeeds by mixing in humor, but he also couldn't seem more levelheaded, a word I keep returning to when I describe him. This is what I think he does so well: He restores our common sense.

Make Me Proud, Texas

Needless to say, I'm banking on my friends in the great state of Texas to put a nail in Hillary's coffin on Tuesday. I think it's true that the Clintons are "like zombies." If she wins both of the big states -- even by 50-49 -- she'll make a nuisance of herself, and her chance in Ohio seems much better than her chance in the Lone Star State. If Obama wins the popular vote in Texas, it will be the first time I think the nomination is his, period.

It makes perfect sense to me that some Republican voters in Ohio will be voting for Hillary to help McCain's chances. I'm actually surprised there hasn't been a lot more talk about that strategy. Of course, that could backfire, because after eight years of Bush, it's possible that Clinton could beat McCain. (I still think she'd lose, but it's possible.)

If you haven't yet seen Hillary's most recent silly ad about your sleeping children, and this hilarious response, take a look. What I want to know is, how does this (transparently false) campaign about experience play out for her in November, if she lasts that long? There are substantive reasons to vote for her over McCain, depending on your priorities, but arguments about the red phone at 3 a.m. and experience with the military, etc., would send me running to McCain. Like, hands-on-my-knees-to-catch-my-breath-afterwards running.

Titlepage Arrives!

Today marks the debut of a project I've been working on for a while now -- Titlepage, an online talk show about books. I think our first episode turned out really, really well. It features Richard Price (in addition to his terrific novels, he's also written for The Wire, the world's best TV show), Susan Choi, Colin Harrison, and Charles Bock. All four guests were ideal for the format -- talkative, insightful, and engaged with each other.

I'm also blogging on the site along with Daniel Menaker, the show's host. The blog is called Loud, Please, and you can find it here. This will not dilute my work at ASWOBA, since Titlepage does not (as of yet) share my intense interest in mascots, among other things.

So, if you have time today, please visit the site. We need all the enthusiastic fans we can get.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

My Views This Saturday