Friday, December 30, 2005

A Note Before the New Year

Work's a ghost town this week, and I haven't been blogging much because I figure no one's around to read it anyway. If you are reading, I just wanted to note that the last several posts might give you the idea that this site is primarily devoted to keeping tabs on comedic television and the Associated Press. That's not the case, so I hope you'll scroll through some of the archives, to learn that I'm obsessed with other useless things, too.

I started this blog with the intention of building up discipline and then transferring that discipline to continue writing larger projects; like, say, a novel. But novels are notoriously difficult to write -- thousands have died trying -- and I seriously doubt that maintaining a blog has even the slightest relation to an undertaking of that magnitude. But at the very least I hope to keep this a space for slightly meatier writing. As much as I love linking to pieces elsewhere and recommending music and just baldly stealing from the AP, and will continue to do all those things because they are in my blood (I come from a long line of wire-news thieves), I also want this to look more like the deranged notebook of a long-form writer than a typical blog. (The problem is, I've got the "deranged" covered, but not so much the "long-form.")

With that in mind, I'm hoping to write some longer posts in the new year, whether they're ruminations about Texas and New York or a series comparing North and South Dakota, though I've never lived -- or set foot in -- either place (I did fly over North Dakota once, and felt like I got a pretty good sense of it).

So there's my first resolution for 2006. In the meantime, I hope everyone has a blast ringing it in. See you in a few days.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

AP Long Island (Patchogue) Headline of the Day

Man Charged After Toddler Found Drunk

AP On Second Thought Headline of the Day

Woman May Not Have Meant to Swallow Phone

This comes to us from Missouri (by way of Leigh, sister of ASWOBA), and it's worth noting some of the story's details:
A woman who police thought deliberately tried to swallow her cell phone during an argument with her boyfriend was apparently the victim of an assault instead, authorities said. Police have a suspect in the bizarre incident that sent the 24-year-old woman to the hospital last week, Sgt. Allen Kintz said.

Early Friday, police responded to a call from a Blue Springs man who said his girlfriend was having trouble breathing. Police arrived to find a woman with a cell phone lodged in her throat. Police were initially told the boyfriend wanted the phone and the woman tried to swallow it so that he could not get it.
Nice police work. It seems like the force's training manual might want to add a line or two, like: It shouldn't take responding officers a week to determine that someone didn't voluntarily cram a communication device down their own windpipe.

I can just imagine other crime scenes:
Male: "Officer, I wanted to use my hunting knife, but she thought it was her turn, so she drove it deep into her thigh so I couldn’t have it."
Officer: "Is that true, ma’am?"
Female: (gurgle, wheeze)
Officer: "Real mature, ma'am."


Another Movie Club

Slate's annual movie club is normally a fun read, even if it always takes them a few rounds to clear their throats with way too much talk about "the role of the critic." It started yesterday, and will be updated throughout the week.

Despite the fact that they have to sit through hundreds of terrible movies every year, I still think film critics have one of the best gigs around. And in fact, David Edelstein is leaving his post at Slate very soon. Anyone know anybody over there who would be willing to take a chance on converting a young publishing type into a popcorn-butter-soaked scribe?

Ike Gets Busy

When I was in college, my friend Jason and I would dream (futilely, we thought) of the day when every episode of The Simpsons would be available on "video." If you had told me back then that the first seven seasons would be on the shelves and I'd only have the first two, I would have had Jason punch you in the face.

Proving that I've matured ever so slightly (I'm 31, but I consume pop culture at a 19-year-old level), my need to hoard the DVDs isn't quite as strong as I imagined it would be (partly because Jason and I watched many of these episodes upwards of 500 times in syndication, and I remember them more clearly than almost every moment in every class at...wherever it was I went to school).

My abstinence is going to be sorely tested, though, now that season seven is out, because it contains the episode titled "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming," which includes my all-time favorite Simpsons moment (that's saying something, I know, but I've thought about this and my decision is final). After Krusty the Clown is kicked off the air, he puts together a bare-bones broadcast "live from the civil defense shack in the remote Alkali Flats of the Springfield Badlands." (That phrase is funny enough.) In an attempt to cobble together a roster of guests, he picks up a gas can ("Professor Gas Can"), and a framed picture of "former President Ike Eisenhower!" He lifts the portrait up to the camera, where it occupies the whole frame, shakes it back and forth, and in a growling, soulful voice meant to represent Ike says, "Let's get bi-zay."

(You don't need to tell me that my recounting of it isn't funny; I know that. I'm hoping you've seen it and I'm just jogging your memory.) Krusty's probably my 20th favorite character on the show, but I've never laughed harder at a gag.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Breaking News: SNL Produces Something Funny

So I’ll probably be the last blog (meaning, the 80th million) to write about "Lazy Sunday," the Saturday Night Live sketch that everyone’s raving about. It was a filmed segment featuring Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg rapping in earnest gangsta fashion about eating cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery and getting psyched to see The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s hysterically funny, and you can see it here. (My favorite lines come towards the end, when they’re sitting in the theater waiting for Narnia to start -– "Now quiet in the theater, or it’s gonna get tragic / We’re about to get taken to a dream world of magic.")

What’s truly priceless, though, is the cultural reaction, like this piece in the New York Times today. There have been others like it, and they all marvel at this sketch. The Times does the dreaded analysis of why something's funny, writing, "It is (Parnell and Samberg’s) obliviousness to their total lack of menace –- or maybe the ostentatious way they pay for convenience-store candy with $10 bills..." Then Parnell says, "It's something the likes of which we haven't seen on 'SNL' anytime recently." Um, I think he means it’s funny. Isn’t that what they get paid to do over there, produce the funny? The skit is really, really good, and some stuff is always going to be the best of the bunch, but how sad it must be for the show –- which cranks out 20 or so skits a week all season –- to get national attention for...a funny bit. It feels like reporting on a kid whose dad just let him win a game of checkers.

Monday, December 26, 2005

AP Headline of the Day

Still on holiday from the blog, the job, and life in general, but thought I'd share this...

Oregon Surfer Punches Shark in the Nose

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Fleeting Thought About Songs

Just wanted to note that there are some songs that are good songs, often damn good songs. But they're not going to make any short list, and they're not going to pop into your head very often. You're not going to rattle them off when someone puts you on the spot about your "desert island" songs or whatever other nonsense your geeky friends are talking about. Yet, there are times when you're listening to these songs when you would swear they're the greatest song you've ever heard.

"Sitting Still" by R.E.M. is one of those songs. I'm just saying.


AP Headline and Analysis of the Day

Letterman Lawyers Fight Restraining Order

The headline's not that great, but the story below it is pretty fascinating. Turns out there's a woman in Santa Fe who believes Dave Letterman has "used code words to show he wanted to marry her and train her as his co-host."

The woman claimed that Letterman "forced her to go bankrupt and caused her 'mental cruelty' and 'sleep deprivation' since May 1994."

Astoundingly, a judge granted this woman a temporary restraining order against Letterman, mandating that he stay at least "three yards" away from her. That's nine feet, people. If someone is capable of causing you to lose sleep and go bankrupt from a television studio two thousand miles away, what's nine feet going to accomplish?

Letterman's lawyers claim the woman's request is "without merit," which gets them in just under the wire to run away with 2005's Understatement of the Year.

The woman "wrote that she began sending Letterman 'thoughts of love' after his 'Late Show' began in 1993, and that he responded in code words and gestures, asking her to come East."

That leads me to the real point of this post, which is something I've been meaning to say to Jennifer Aniston: Jen, I get it. You can stop now. It's not going to happen. Yes, I sent you thoughts of love -- strong thoughts of love -- in the early years of Friends, but things have changed. You lost all that weight, for one. You're too bony now, and it doesn't seem healthy. Plus, I can't just uproot my whole life in New York and move to L.A. So please, for both our sakes...truce. OK?


The Bright Side of the Strike

After walking about 30 blocks on my way to a holiday party after work tonight, I decided to grab a cab. I had about 30 blocks left to go, and it wasn't getting any warmer out. Nor was my head cold abating.

I was walking because New York City's public transportation workers are on strike, in case you didn't know. I'm not being sarcastic -- I imagine those of you in other cities have too much on your mind to worry about whether or not my transit needs are being handled with appropriate care.

Anyway, because of the strike, cab drivers are advised to pick up as many people as they can fit in their car -- ranging from three to sixteen depending on the dietary habits of the passengers. It's the kind of emergency measure that New Yorkers are urged to view as a charming opportunity to "bond," something we evidently don't get enough of when we're armpit-to-nostril in a rush-hour subway car. My cab driver didn't only seem to not understand the temporary rules (which benefit riders, several million of whom are suddenly competing for a few thousand cabs), I'm not sure he knew there was a strike going on. When I got in to the cab, which was empty at the time, he shook his head and said, "So much traffic. Too much traffic," as if wondering what could possibly explain it.

When two women loaded down with shopping bags wanted to get in just two blocks further south, he rolled down the window, deferentially pointed in my direction, and said, "Someone's already in here." Not to be dissuaded by the cabbie's ignorance of the city's current Mad Max situation and what it required of him, they hopped in the back, and their numerous bags made it a cozy fit. I didn't want to judge, but they seemed straight out of Sex and the City. When they started discussing the men in their office with phrases like "he wasn't cute before he had a girlfriend" and one of them said, "I feel like I'm in an episode of Sex and the City," any guilt I felt for judging exited the cab posthaste.

They told me they work in advertising, and I told them I'm a book editor. "Oh, we send things to editors all the time," the blonde said. "But not editors like you; editors of fashion magazines."

Later on (it took us about 25 minutes to travel 11 blocks, and if you're wondering why we bothered with the cab, join the club), I told them I was headed downtown to a party. "It's the Harper's Magazine holiday party," I said.

The brunette perked up.

"Not Harper's Bazaar," I said, "just Harper's."

"Oh," she said, visibly deflated.

The highlight came in the final moments, though, when the blonde was describing her 11-year-old daughter's newfound desire for independence, and how she couldn't help but think said desire would be more tolerable outside of New York City. "It makes me want to live somewhere else," she said, "where people play sports and things. Where sports doesn't mean getting a credit card."

And though I wasn't sure quite which planet these two women had recently arrived from, it was a blast to hear them talk to each other in my presence as if I was an old friend. New York does provide tableaus like this that would be inconceivable elsewhere, and they can be strangely enlivening as often as irritating. Earlier in the day, the last leg of a three-hour commute required me to walk about 25 blocks from Penn Station to my office, and I couldn't wipe a smile off my face the whole way. The day was brisk and bright, the tourists utterly undeterred by the transit strike, and my fellow residents were energetically griping about the transportation union's demands. ("Like a three or four percent raise a year isn't enough?") And maybe I knew that a few hours later, I'd be sharing a cab with people willing to entertain me like Sarah Jessica Parker without the cost of HBO. Hard to imagine living anywhere else if I'm honest...

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Here's Your Place to Comment

It just took me three hours to get to work, and then only slightly less than that to read all of Ray's comments about the best of '05. If you don't wish to follow his act (or if you just feel like your comments would be suffocated under all his text), please comment to THIS post with your succinct thoughts on the year now ending. Would love to hear from more of you, but as ever, participation is not a prerequisite to ASWOBA fellowship.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

16 Things I Liked in 2005

"I'm pretty tired of making lists/ It's just this emptiness I can't chase away."
--The Clientele

OK, deep breath, everyone.

I was going to post this in a few different sections over the course of the week, but why not just make it the longest post ever? You can all scroll, can't you?

And I was going to make it 15 entries, but why not be even more arbitrary? So, it's 16. And unlike lists I've exchanged with friends in the past, which were almost always about music, this is the whole kit and caboodle -- my favorite stuff from the past year, whether it's a book, a movie, a song, or a tennis match. I've also included a few sound files (on highlighted songs), as a holiday treat.

One last note: I'd love to hear some of your favorite 2005 moments and artifacts. But also, you are not at all obligated to read Ray's inevitable 10,000-word reply in the comments section, and Ray's views and opinions in no way express the views and opinions of A Special Way of Being Afraid. Thank you, and enjoy:

16. “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson

I think this was released in ‘04, but I only discovered it this year and others who are way hipper than me seem to be putting it on this year’s list as well. And if you’re going to cheat, number 16 is the place to do it.

Anyway, I’m really sorry about this – really, I am – but this is a great song.

16B. Other Songs

Hell, as long as we’re here, and as long as we’re cheating, here are 10 more songs I enjoyed from the past year, not including the two that get longer mentions further up the list, and also not including any that are on the full records that get mentioned later on. Got it?

Oh Well (Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine)
I Wanna Know Girls (Portastatic, Bright Ideas)
The Soft Rewind (Portastatic, Bright Ideas)
Your Heart is an Empty Room (Death Cab for Cutie, Plans)
Little Flowers (Denison Witmer, Are You a Dreamer?)
Station Approach (Elbow, Leaders of the Free World)
Sad Eyes (Josh Rouse, Nashville)
Black (Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy)
Nightclothes and Headphones (Jason Forrest, w/Laura Cantrell, Shamelessly Exciting)
Mr. Brightside (The Killers, Hot Fuss) -- Still more cheating; deal with it.

(And come to think of it, that whole Portastatic record maybe deserved a slot of its own; good stuff.)

15. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Important preface: I never read the book. (For someone who frequently refers to his geekiness, I’m actually remarkably unschooled and uninterested in nerd stuff, having never read Dune, sat down to play Dungeons & Dragons, or even seen Return of the Jedi in its entirety.) I know those who have read the book are loyal to it, and this movie adaptation is uneven, for sure. (If I’m being honest, it’s possible that the sole reason why this makes the list is the scene when Bill Nighy’s character is giving him a tour of the reconstructed universe near the end. His explication of being right vs. being happy was my favorite 30 seconds of any movie this year.)

14. The Wall to Wall Sessions – Chris Mills

I know my music collection pretty well, but the whole technological upgrade this year did produce a few rediscoveries, like Mills. I’ve had two older records of his for years, and hadn’t listened much until recently. They’re good. So I looked to see what he was up to these days, and this is it, ten songs recorded and mixed live in Chicago over five days (thus the title). He's traded in a fairly straightforward rustic rock sound for lots of orchestration and backing vocals. The whole thing starts on a stark note, though, with Mills singing a cappella: “Oh, I dreamed I was Richard Pryor / running on fire down the Sunset Strip.” The name of that song is “Chris Mills is Living the Dream,” and yes, this is an ambitious project.

13. Me and You and Everyone We Know

I already wrote about this movie (posted on November 9, if you care to find and read it), so I won’t go on and on. I’ll just say that it’s occasionally maddening and unsuccessful, but it’s unique above all else, and worth checking out for that reason alone -- and for the handful of truly great moments peppered throughout.

12. “Neverending Math Equation” -- Sun Kil Moon

Sun Kil Moon is Mark Kozelek, who also records under his own name and whose first band was Red House Painters. He once released a full CD of AC/DC covers (much weirder even than you think if you’ve never heard Kozelek, who arranges music and sings like he’s just smoked the purest weed on the planet). This latest record is entirely made up of Modest Mouse covers. I’m not a big MM fan -- their lyrics are clever but always frantically trying to outrun their melodies, and their singer’s voice is gratingly adenoidal, even for a hipster band.

Like that AC/DC effort, this one is only intermittently successful, but this song is maybe its peak moment, especially when Kozelek’s hazy voice slurs the opening lines: “I’m the same as I was when I was six years old/And oh my God I feel so old.”

11. Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line

I’ve always liked Reese well enough, but probably wouldn't have guessed she was capable of this. As June Carter Cash, she has to: a) play a legendary performer; b) play the role of everyone's sweetheart off-stage; c) play the steely real person underneath both a and b; d) hold her own with Joaquin Phoenix, who’s not chopped liver himself in this thing; and e) convince you that she deeply loves Phoenix’s Cash despite his constant self-destructive behavior. She pulls it all off, beautifully. Oscar, please.

10. “Out of Ohio” by Ian Frazier

I mentioned this essay (The New Yorker, 1/10/05) earlier on the blog, but it’s worth another nod. Here’s the final paragraph for those of you have either read it or don’t mind reading the end out of context. It picks up when Frazier is on the last leg of his hitchhiking journey to New York, and is sharing a car with a driver from Costa Rica:
It was a mild day in early March, just before rush hour. Lights had come on in some of the buildings, and dusk was beginning to gather in the spaces between them. We went through the Lincoln Tunnel and popped up on the city floor, with buildings and vehicles impending all around. Our windows were open; the city smelled like coffee, bus exhaust, and fingernail polish. The Costa Rican was going to stay with relatives in Queens, a place as exotic to me then as Costa Rica. I was going to Greenwich Village to meet my friend David, who had told me he could find me a place to stay. I got out at Thirty-fourth and Seventh, the southwest corner. When I pass by that corner occasionally today, I still think of it as the place where I landed. The Costa Rican and I wished each other good luck, without pretending to exchange phone numbers (we didn't have them, anyway) or saying we’d keep in touch. We were now each a little part of the other's past, and in New York the past was gone.
9. Julian Velard at The Living Room (March 18)

Julian Velard gets compared to Ben Folds and Billy Joel because he plays a mean piano and writes proudly melodic songs. That’s fine, because I love Ben and Billy, unfashionable as they may be. Velard’s jazzier than either, though, and I knew my friend Brad, up from Texas, would be a fan. I’ve seen Velard play before, but this was one of his better shows, partly due to serendipity: when his keyboard malfunctioned before the set started, he had to drag out the club’s upright piano. With several band members on a pretty small stage, its bulky presence was a bit awkward, but its sound much, much less so.

8. "The Trapeze Swinger"– Iron & Wine

It seems that every year, some preview tricks me into getting way too excited for a movie I would otherwise dismiss. For me, inexplicably, that movie in 2005 was In Good Company. (It turns out, much to my surprise, that combining Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, shots of New York, and Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” is all that’s needed. I feel like such a lab rat.) Unsurprisingly, the actual movie was mediocre through and through. The one clear highlight was discovering this song, which played over the closing credits and only appears on the movie’s soundtrack. It runs for more than nine minutes, but it’s not composed of the distinct sections that often accompany such length (there’s no change of mood, a la “November Rain” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though if you know Iron & Wine, that’s no shock; his mood change is usually from tranquil to slightly more tranquil). In fact, the song's lyrical structure is as repetitive as its melody, but luckily both are drop-dead gorgeous. A sample of the lyrics, two of the song's eight verses:
Please, remember me
I heard from someone you're still pretty
And then
They went on to say
That the pearly gates
Had some eloquent graffiti
Like 'We'll meet again'
And 'Fuck the man'
And 'Tell my mother not to worry'
And angels with their gray
Were always done in such a hurry

Please, remember me
At Halloween
Making fools of all the neighbors
Our faces painted white
By midnight
We'd forgotten one another
And when the morning came
I was ashamed
Only now it seems so silly
That season left the world
And then returned
And now you're lit up by the city
7. Junebug

Anytime you try to respectfully dramatize the emotional and intellectual standoffs between a family of semi-rural North Carolinians and a couple of self-conscious, urbane Chicagoans (one of whom comes from the aforementioned N.C. clan), you’re liable to screw something -- or lots of things -- up. Writer Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison manage not to, for the most part. I hope Amy Adams gets an Oscar nomination for her work in this, because she richly deserves it, but since Paul Giamatti wasn’t even nominated last year for Sideways, I’m not holding my breath.

6. Life in Slow Motion – David Gray

In 1994, my girlfriend at the time told me she had heard a great song on NPR the previous night called "The Light." (Yes, Dallas has an NPR station.) On that recommendation, I picked up the two records Gray had released at that point, and became an insufferable advocate, throwing him onto mix tapes for people with reckless abandon. One more record followed, almost killed by label troubles, and then a long silence. A few years later, he released White Ladder on his own dime in the UK, and I spent some silly amount of money to have it shipped to me in Texas. A year or so and a hit single later, it was a smash in the U.S., and I was in New York, where people were disdainful of another sensitive singer-songwriter ready for his Gap ad moment. Fair enough, but their loss.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of White Ladder, and I (along with the rest of the civilized world) thought its follow-up, A New Day at Midnight, was pretty lackluster. They both featured lots of blips and whirs that were completely absent from his earlier work, which was all acoustic guitar and earnestness. I’m happy with this new one, though -– the blips and whirs sound more committed to and deeper, like they were previously missing a few coats. (My “deeper” is another’s “overproduced,” and I respect that.) And we all have voices we react to for reasons that would be no fun at all to explain, even if we could – his is one of them for me, and it’s in fine form here.

5. Home Land by Sam Lipsyte

If you’re looking for plot, this novel isn’t the ideal choice. The story’s mechanics aren’t all that important, and start to rust a bit towards the end. But if you’re looking for voice, pull up a seat and get comfortable. Lipsyte’s narrator, Lewis “Teabag” Miner, writes increasingly caustic and self-loathing updates to his New Jersey high school’s alumni bulletin, updating his cheery classmates on the shameful downward spiral that is his adulthood. Needless to say, his often vulgar missives go unpublished in the bulletin, but we get the joy of reading them.

Even very funny writing doesn’t always elicit an audible laugh, but the first half of Home Land generates many of them. It’s crammed with compact, hilarious lines, like this one about Lewis’ visit to a strip club:
The dancers are all educated so there’s no exploitation and the DJ is a connoisseur of the moody tunes I favor in the company of nude women who despise me.
4. Andre Agassi vs. James Blake, Quarterfinals of the U.S. Open (September 6)

I debated whether to include sports on this list (for instance, I’m leaving off North Carolina’s winning the college basketball title), but this is too exceptional not to make it, mostly because I was there. New York’s superiority complex is often, well, justified, as in the case of hosting dramatic sporting events. The crowd at the U.S. Tennis Center that night knew it was there for something special: Blake, a young American, not far removed from being even younger and coming up short of lofty expectations, was harnessing his talent on the fly, and putting together his best-ever Grand Slam tournament. Plus, he’d overcome the kind of personal adversity in the past year or two that television producers salivate over. Andre Agassi, young-brat-turned-gracious-diplomat, was playing in maybe his last U.S. Open.

Blake won the first set with ease, the second with only slightly less ease, and it really seemed like the night was headed for anticlimactic disappointment. But it was all a set-up. When Agassi rallied to win the final three sets, he took a crowd that sounded reasonably split in the early stages and turned it into an airport-decibel mob of support. It was well past 1:00 a.m. when we left, marooned in the distant reaches of Queens, but the throng heading to the subway was very much awake. I’ve been lucky to attend more than my share of great sporting events, but the only one that clearly beats this was Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (the “Bill Buckner game”). Special thanks to Patty for making sure I was in attendance for this one.

3. Grizzly Man

This is Werner Herzog’s deeply weird and surprisingly entertaining documentary about Timothy Treadwell, an idiosyncratic (if by idiosyncratic, you mean mentally ill) animal lover who spent a part of each year “protecting” grizzlies in a wildlife reserve, before eventually being killed by one of the bears. Treadwell’s death is mentioned early on, and the rest of the movie focuses on Herzog’s conversations with those who knew him, as well as, most stunningly, lots and lots of film footage that Treadwell shot and left behind.

It doesn’t seem right to laugh at such a tragic story, but there are several moments in this that are riotously funny – not guiltily-chuckle-to-yourself funny, but the-audience-is-collectively-swaying-side-to-side-and-popcorn-is-flying-around-like-
the-theater-scene-in-The-Muppet-Movie funny. Take my word for it. An interview with one woman in particular is something Christopher Guest couldn't dream up with the aid of hallucinogens.

My favorite subplot is Herzog’s disdain for Treadwell’s optimistic worldview. He feels, rightly so, that nature is mostly vicious, and that Treadwell was a deeply misguided do-gooder whose fate was inevitable. But when Herzog gives full voice to his pitch-black view of nature and life towards the end of the movie, with his alarmingly Schwarzenegger-like accent, you realize that you’ve spent the past hour and a half in the company of not one but two true nut jobs.

2. The Best of Youth

This six-hour movie was made as a mini-series for Italian television in 2003, and this year Film Forum showed it in two three-hour blocks. It follows two Italian brothers, Nicola and Matteo, from 1966 to 2000. As satisfying in its sweep as a good novel, and packed with all the big themes -- family, love, politics, terrorism, hope, despair -- it’s played out by a very talented and ridiculously beautiful cast. I believe it’s available on Netflix, and since it was originally made for TV, it probably doesn’t lose much (if anything) on the small screen. Worth seeking out and spending the time required.

1. It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick

One of my favorite novels of any year. It’s a long one, related by its British Everyman narrator, Tom Ripple, over three decades of his life. It's wry and well crafted and it feels like life. In other words, you’ll need to start reading it immediately, so I’ll keep this short. Here’s some high praise from David Gates, who reviewed it in Newsweek:
No writer--no writer--has ever been more scrupulous in honoring his characters' complexity, in distinguishing who they sometimes appear to be from who they sometimes are.
And here’s one of my favorite passages from the book, when Ripple is recalling a visit to church with his parents when he was a boy, which is indicative of the beauty throughout:
My father used to sneak off to church sometimes, leaving his account books spread across the kitchen table as if to find something that added up for a change. So he knew the tunes even if he couldn’t sing them, or only in throaty snatches. My mother stared ahead of her, grimly silent, as if she knew them only too well. The last hymn was about fighting the good fight. I remember that because my father sang loudly then as if suddenly reminded that courage was something he’d forgotten to tell me about.

Stranded in Brooklyn

Well, the bad news is, at around 3:00 this morning the MTA decided to strike here in New York. So, no subways or buses. It was taking commuters about three hours to get to work this morning by carpool or various combinations of ferries and railroads other than the subway. I could walk, but that would be closer to four hours each way (I know, because I did it during the blackout in 2003) and it's about 20 degrees outside.

The good news is that we're all handling it with that unique New York spirit. I just received a mass e-mail from a friend of friends that starts like this: "I just got to work because the jackasses who push a button to make a train go choo choo think that they have the right to cripple NYC."

Good times.

So, I'm home today, and while I do have a manuscript here to edit, I'm also going to post at least part of my Best of '05 list. More on that very soon...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ignominious Obit Headline of the Day

I suppose there are a lot of bad headlines that could grace the article about one's passing, but this one from the New York Times covers a lot of bases in a pretty brief space:

Vincent Gigante, Mob Boss Who Feigned
Incompetence to Avoid Jail, Dies at 77

Archive of the Day

Here's a new feature, kids. I want to occasionally share a favorite sentence or paragraph of mine, preferably from things not too recently published. This first gem comes from The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (which I was re-reading portions of because it has some terrific lines about both Texas and New York that I hope to incorporate in a future post). But for now, this. It comes after Chuck Yeager has broken the sound barrier, and the beginning of what I share is for context; it's the last sentence in particular -- all 129 words of it -- that really knocks me out. It barrels along in that Wolfeian way that threatens to become too tornadic, but then absolutely sticks the landing with that final image.
"A top security lid was was being put on the morning's events. That the press was not to be informed went without saying. But neither was anyone else, anyone at all, to be told. Word of the flight was not to go beyond the flight line. And even among the people directly involved -- who were there and knew about it, anyway -- there was to be no celebrating. Just what was on the minds of the brass at Wright is hard to say. Much of it, no doubt, was a simple holdover from wartime, when every breakthrough of possible strategic importance was kept under wraps. ....

"In any case, by mid-afternoon Yeager's tremendous feat had become a piece of thunder with no reverberation. A strange and implausible stillness settled over the event. Well...there was not supposed to be any celebration, but come nightfall...Yeager and Ridley and some of the others ambled over to Pancho's. After all, it was the end of the day, and they were pilots. So they knocked back a few. And they had to let Pancho in on the secret, because Pancho had said she'd serve a free steak dinner to any pilot who could fly supersonic and walk in here to tell about it, and they had to see the look on her face. So Pancho served Yeager a big steak dinner and said they were a buncha miserable peckerwoods all the same, and the desert cooled off and the wind came up and the screen doors banged and they drank some more and bawled some songs over the cackling dry piano and the stars and the moon came out and Pancho screamed oaths no one had ever heard before and Yeager and Ridley roared and the old weatherbeaten bar boomed and the autographed pictures of a hundred dead pilots shook and clattered on the frame wires and the faces of the living fell apart in the reflections, and by and by they all left and stumbled and staggered and yelped and bayed for glory before the arthritic silhouettes of the Joshua trees."

Sports Finals From An Alternate Universe

On the New York Times web site yesterday, at 2:49 P.M., I saw the following sports blurb on the right-hand side of the screen:
With three games already finished on Saturday, the N.F.L. continues its Week 15 schedule today. The Colts continued their perfect streak with a win over the Chargers, 28-17.
At precisely that moment, the Colts, who had entered the game with a perfect 13-0 record, were losing to the Chargers by that same count -- 13-0 -- in the third quarter, and went on to lose the game, 26-17. Three minutes later, the sentence about a 28-17 Colts win had been taken off the site.

What the hell was that? Is the Times pre-writing sports stories with guessed final scores, the way they write obits for aging famous people before they die? If so, how utterly bizarre.

A Great New Tool for Self-Loathing

This story on the AP wire caught my attention. It reports on web sites that allow you to write e-mails to yourself in the future. You go to a site -- like -- draft a letter, tell them where and when to send it (for instance, send to on 12/19/2025), then sit back and wait to hear from you.

My first thought was: Isn't this a very Orwellian method of torturing yourself? I mean, what if you forget the date on which you told it to send the thing? We've all sat bathed in the computer's glow, anxiously clicking to refresh the in box every three minutes because we're desperately waiting on an e-mail from some girl or guy. Haven't we? Huh? (OK, right, I'm the only obsessive one. Sure.) Do we really want an onanistic version of that experience, hunched over a dimly lit desk, muttering, "C'mon self, write to me, dammit"?

(I think the best-case scenario, in terms of entertainment value, is that someone sends a highly detailed e-mail, with many specifics only they would know, and then literally forgets doing it. Twenty-five years later, they receive the message and start freaking out, triggering them to quit their job and embark on an extended, Matrix-like, ultimately misguided investigation into the nature of reality.)

And what do you say in these messages? I would barely know where to begin with myself today, much less years from now. But since I've drawn attention to this trend, it seems the only honorable thing to do is take a stab at it. So here's my draft to me, to be sent -- oh, I don't know -- twenty years from now.
Dear Me -- You?,

Well, this is the stupidest thing ever, huh?

How's the social life? As I write this, you're in New York. If you're somewhere else now, and feeling bad about it, don't: Remember how the subways drove you crazy, and everyone incessantly talked about their career, when they weren't pretending to have devoured the last few issues of the New York Review of Books? Remember how you felt obligated to have a fully formed, defensible opinion of even the most minor literary critics? Then again, if you're somewhere else and feeling good about it, are you crazy? New York is the best -- it's all downhill from here. Can people even read where you live now? Are your kids in some school district that offers an advanced-placement class on creationism? I mean, really, are you insane?

Just between you and me, whatever happened with that one girl? I'm dying to know. And on that note (with some hope thrown in): How are the wife and kids? That's assuming you have any or all of the above. Stranger things have happened, I suppose.

Are you still "writing" and editing, or did you finally go to law school at age 44? As I write this, you're maintaining a blog with some regularity, so I hope you eventually felt the proper amount of shame -- for hurting the office productivity of your dozen closest friends, if nothing else.

I hope you've either cut back on or severely ramped up the recreational drinking; nothing's worse than being noncommittal.

In short, I hope you've made me/us proud. My requirements are pretty skimpy -- if you've avoided any major indictments and if you haven't forced good friends to read through too many drafts of too many bad novels, then that's a start.

As for me, I was happy. People I care about have gone through rough times, you probably at least have completed drafts of bad novels, and the MTA is threatening to strike; but everyone's reasonably healthy, spring training starts in two months, and it's a sunny day in the city on the brink of winter proper -- the light is bright and cold, the way we've always liked it.

You (Me)


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Off the Radar, For Now

Speaking of Gawker and the New York media world -- but only briefly, I promise -- check out this post about the folding of Radar Magazine. Gawker manages to call the magazine "interesting and increasingly excellent" with a straight face. Now, I realize if you don't live within five square miles of Rockefeller Center, you've probably never heard of Radar, much less read the thing, so let me fill you in based on the few times I flipped through it on the newsstands: It makes Us Weekly look like The New Yorker. Good riddance. (It's died before, though, so, like the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we probably haven't seen the last of it.)

Saletan on Dogs

William Saletan is one of those writers who I had read in bits and pieces for a while before I really differentiated him from the crowd and made an effort to look for his byline. That transitional moment came on the first day of last year’s Republican convention, when he wrote on Slate, in part:
This will be an interesting convention for me. Five years ago, when I moved out of the District of Columbia—a one-party state, minus the statehood—I had to think seriously about which party to register with. I was sick of the liberal dogmatism of my college and post-college friends. I'd come to the conclusion, through personal and political experience, that while Democrats had the right values, Republicans had a better operating theory of human nature: People behave more virtuously and wisely when they bear the consequences of their actions. . . . I didn't agree with the conservative urge to legislate on abortion, homosexuality, or other moral issues. But in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, I found a Republican who shared my libertarian instincts on those questions: Rep. Connie Morella. On many spending issues, Morella was to my left. But I was happy to find a sensible representative who didn't have to follow the Democratic Party's line of bribing approved constituencies and equating virtue with spending.
Of course, that analysis was written before the second Bush administration started to authorize spending like a mature-looking 16-year-old who just found the credit card of someone who shares his name on the sidewalk. Still, I appreciated the way Saletan was wrestling with his political loyalty; something I’m almost alone in doing where I live and work. Being a fairly liberal person stuck in Texas for many years, I figured that New York residence would only expand my presumably left-leaning sensibility, but I underestimated just how deep a contrarian I am. Unless you’re working on Wall Street (I assume), Manhattan and Brooklyn -– news flash -– are patrolled by particularly aggressive thought police. On one level, this provides opportunity for great fun: When I suggest that I might support a John McCain nomination in 2008, friends look at me like I just asked for help naming my new street gang.

OK, you’re not going to believe this, but this post is really intended to discuss Saletan’s piece yesterday about dogs. (I guess I should be writing more about politics in general, so as not to occasionally hijack a perfectly innocent post like this.)

So, take off your GOP-hating or –loving (hi, Ray) hats for a minute, and focus on pooches. Ready?

I’m not a big pet person. I’m not even a small pet person. It’s not that I dislike animals. (I can just hear my vegetarian friends and family screaming now: “Says you!” So, OK, if eating them counts as dislike, there’s room for debate.) The point is I don’t like animals enough to feel that their immediate presence is worth the trouble of taking care of them. Fine: It’s impossible to qualify my feelings without sounding cold-hearted. I get that now.

Part of my cold-heartedness is Darwinian. I’ve long argued that the tiniest breeds -– the kind you often see skipping gaily ahead of freshly face-lifted septuagenarian socialites in upper Manhattan -– are an abomination. I’m not a might-makes-right kind of guy, but I think to qualify as a legitimate species you ought to be capable of surviving for at least three minutes should we suddenly revert to the state of nature. And it’s true that on the other side of the spectrum, dogs that could clearly kick some ass in the state of nature -- well, quite frankly, I fear them. That leaves a middle ground of decent-sized, reasonably tempered dogs with whom I can get along.

According to Saletan, dogs have us to thank for their very existence, but should simultaneously hate us, because we experiment on their genetic distinctiveness to find ways to help ourselves. The whole piece is worth reading (it’s brief; here’s the link again, lazybones), but I particularly loved this paragraph:
Dogs were just a loose category of wolves until around 15,000 years ago, when our ancestors tamed and began to manage them. We fed them, bred them, and spread them from continent to continent. While other wolf descendants died out, dogs grew into a new species. We invented the dog.
So next time a dog is giving you a hard time -- acting disobediently, digging up your garden, gnawing on you -- just put it in its place with a well-timed putdown: “I invented you.” That should help.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bill O'Reilly vs. My School District

When I saw the words "Plano, Texas" today on Gawker, a web site devoted to torturous daily analysis of the New York media world's navel, I was brought up short. It's difficult to think of two less congruous entities than Plano and Gawker. Turns out it was on there because Bill O'Reilly, who's lately been campaigning against establishments that substitute generic holiday greetings for "Merry Christmas," railed against a Plano school thusly:
In Plano, Texas, a school told students they couldn’t wear red and green because they are Christmas colors. That’s flat-out fascism. If I were a student in Plano, I’d be a walking Christmas tree after that order.
(I love defining anything as "fascism" that could be rightly corrected by becoming a "walking Christmas tree." I'm wearing tinsel -- take that, Mussolini!!)

You might be asking yourself: John, I know you're currently deep in the navel of the New York media industry, but why such interest in this particular story? Well, I'm a proud graduate of Plano Senior High School. (Just like one day, when I'm sanding a boat on a Mexican beach like Tim Robbins at the end of Shawshank, I'll be a proud graduate of the New York media industry.)

Though O'Reilly didn't specify which school he was talking about, the absurdity of the alleged crime unnerved me. Remembering Plano as a strip-mall-infested bore, but home to very good public schools, and certainly not a fascist state (I live in New York, so I know from the misuse of fascism accusations), I was glad to see that several people came forward to correct O'Reilly. In fact, the school had issued no such edict. And just when I was feeling a small swell of pride for the misunderstood South (of course we can wear red and green, y'all!), I came across a blog by a Plano mother who defended the school by sharing this anecdote:
False, false, false! Another Dan Rather blunder. When I picked up my daughter from a Plano ISD school last Friday, many kids were wearing Santa hats. If this statement were true, they would’ve never been able to leave the school wearing them.
Yes, just like Dan Rather. See, he was investigating the President of the United States and his wartime activities, or lack thereof. And Bill O'Reilly mistakenly thought that this woman's daughter, and "many" other kids, weren't wearing Santa hats to school.

AP Don't Ask -- Really, Don't Ask -- Headline of the Day

Peru's 'Mermaid' Baby Recovering Well


Frazier on Hogs

I'm not even a third of the way through it, but I have to direct your attention to Ian Frazier's piece in last week's New Yorker about the increasing and alarming spread of hogs in America. I just got done with his nine-paragraph breakdown of how Bush's vote totals in 2004 corresponded quite directly with an area's population of feral wild hogs. The whole piece promises to be a must-read, but that stretch in particular is brilliantly deductive and hysterically obsessive and highly recommended.

The essay also includes the sentence, "Oh, them damned hogs." If you're still waiting for reasons to read it, I can't help you.

Monday, December 12, 2005

mix 4: Songs for the Bar

I'm an uncle now, and I have standards to think about, so this list in no way reflects my endorsement of the intake of alcohol, whether for purposes of mirth, forgetting heartbreak, or remembering heartbreak.

OK, seriously: These are the drinkingest drinking songs out there, and you should make good use of them.

I've never been a big proponent of tippling while truly sad, and I've never drank alone. Real sadness, I've always found, is more appropriately met with the most disconsolate of exercises: watching late-night (deep late-night) television to the point of catatonia. But there's a lot of bittersweetness that edges awfully close to dejection without quite stepping over the boundary, and is all the (bitter)sweeter for its flirtation with the wrong side of things. For that feeling, when you have one ear finely tuned to the jukebox and the other to your conversation, this list is indispensable. If you think the blues are imminent, these songs will help you believe that the ensuing depths will be semi-tolerable, even if they won't be. More likely, if you're experiencing the kind of melancholy that you want to indulge -- and I don't imagine it's just me who often does this -- then these songs will fuel your counter-intuitive elation. How they manage to do that, I'm not wise enough to know. I can only say that the results have been lab-tested across large swaths of Texas and New York City.

I suppose a few themes pop up throughout -- a certain wistfulness, a vaguely expressed wanderlust, regret, lack of regret, and, appropriately enough, thoughts about drinking.

Yes, the list begins and ends with Van Morrison. If you have a problem with that, put down your glass and walk slowly away from the bar.

One track that's missing is "Forget Thinkin'" by a Texas songwriter named -- I know -- Beaver Nelson. It would be a good opener because of its first lines -- "Another beer before happy hour/To put me in the mood for drinkin'/Oh oh oh/Forget thinkin'." Actually, the rest of the song expresses similar sentiments, and it's pretty good, but these are heavyweights we're dealing with, so a few clever lines and "pretty good" don't get you past this velvet rope. Beaver has to wait until there's company for which he's better suited.

Instructions: These songs are best enjoyed in the company of a small group, in a relatively quiet public space, and not in any situation where some of those present will eventually complain about the lack of "dancing music."


And It Stoned Me -- Van Morrison
You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go -- Bob Dylan
The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter -- Laura Cantrell
Ain't No Way -- Aretha Franklin
San Diego Serenade -- Tom Waits
Black Star -- Radiohead
I've Been Loving You Too Long -- Otis Redding
Unsatisfied -- The Replacements
Loose String -- Son Volt
Baby Britain -- Elliott Smith
Sweetest Decline -- Beth Orton
That Lucky Old Sun -- Ray Charles
In My Life -- The Beatles
Two Star -- Everything But the Girl
Midnight Train to Georgia -- Gladys Knight & the Pips
Come Pick Me Up -- Ryan Adams
And the Healing Has Begun -- Van Morrison


Longtime Listener, First-Time Uncle

I spent most of the weekend on Long Island getting to know my brand-new (and first) nephew, Charlie. Well, as much as you can get to know someone who's sleeping. The guy sleeps a lot. But he's pretty new to the whole "being in the world" thing, so I can't blame him. He's also tiny, about as long as from the tips of my fingers to a couple of inches up my wrist, and I imagine you need to conserve a lot of energy when you're that small.

Can't wait to introduce him to some things (my friend Tim is already envisioning me with him at the track, "beat-up racing form" under my arm, spinning yarns about the greatness of long-retired horses). I'll do my best.

The only thing that already depresses me is the thought of being an old man pushing my musical tastes on the kid. I'm already on the verge of lapsing out of relevance, but when I'm 45, trying to convince a 14-year-old to give Built to Spill a chance, well, that will be an all-time low. Everything else should be lots of fun, though.

Did Someone Inquire About the State of Scotland?

I can't tell if this is a really cool idea, or a very, very silly one. Some high-profile Scottish bands are working with acclaimed writers to create a batch of songs that produce a "time capsule" image of where Scotland is at in 2005/2006. Hmm.

There's a lot of potential for lameness here, but there are also some great bands attached -- Idlewild, Teenage Fanclub, Belle and Sebastian, and Trash Can Sinatras (that last band has taken to spelling trash can as one word after having spelled it properly as two earlier in its career, but I refuse to participate in that madness).

My only question is whether Belle and Sebastian will insist that their assigned writing partner focus on the current tea-party habits of Scottish girls and the current imagined heartbreak of Scottish boys. Stay tuned...

Oliver Stone and Ground Zero

Is there anyone who thinks this can turn out well?

Friday, December 09, 2005

AP Headline of the Day

Streisand Cancels LA Times Subscription


Baseball Nomads

I'm still gathering my thoughts about Texas and New York, which will one day become a multi-part epic on this blog. I might even make a Ken Burns series out of it.

But for now, I'll just point out, for the thousandth time, that the northeast and southwest certainly provide distinct experiences of space-time. I'm starting to think about starting to plan a road trip in the spring with my friend Jon. Last June, we went on an eight-day journey visiting baseball stadiums from New York to Chicago, and back. We did our best to record the whole shebang -- which included lots of hillbilly jokes, Jon risking his life to find a restroom in Ohio, our suggestions for new state mottos, my potent rage directed at stupid fans, and both of us inexplicably falling in love with Pittsburgh -- and you can read all about it here, if you haven't already.

We're optimistic about making the trip a tradition, and hitting a different region of the country every year or two, as long as we can afford it, and as long as Jon's lovely wife doesn't threaten to file divorce papers. So, I figure we've got another trip or two in front of us, at least.

This spring we're hoping to get to Texas, where I can catch up with some friends and family while observing the sociological ramifications of a Jewish person spending a full week in the Lone Star State. As I look at the map, though, it's going to be a much tougher planning chore -- and here's where space-time comes in. On our first expedition, we were traveling through the midwest, where there's a minor league baseball stadium at nearly every rest stop. Conversely, there are two major-league and five minor-league teams in all of Texas, a state where there's often upwards of 4,500 miles between major cities. So, we've got our work cut out for us to find enough teams that are home at the right time to make the whole venture copacetic. With the right computer program, and lots of patience and caffeine, I think we can get it done.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Way We Live Now, and Have Been Living For a While

Simon Starling has been awarded the Turner Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious artistic honors. Here’s a description of one of the pieces for which he was noticed:
Starling, who is fascinated by the process of transforming one object or substance into another, decided to dismantle the shed and turn it into a boat, which he then loaded with the remains of the shed. The boat was paddled down the river Rhine to a museum in Basel. There, Starling dismantled the boat and turned the materials back into a shed. The final version is called Shedboatshed.
Catchy title, eh? I like to think of him as Auguste Rodin meets Bob Vila.

Starling had this to say about his work:
"I deliberately make things myself by hand and tend to take the long way around," he says. "So much of our contact with the way objects are manufactured is now so distant from us because things are manufactured in sort of multiple countries by kind of large corporations and you sort of lose a sense of connection with the things you are dealing with every day."
That sounds like the worldview of a lot of 20-year-olds who have read DeLillo, doesn’t it? And two "sort of"'s and a "kind of" within 13 words of each other – that’s an impressively qualified statement of artistic vision. ("You know how, like, when your parents kind of won’t let you do what you want, that sort of sucks? You know?")

I’m not denying there are many levels of alienation attached to modern living, but really, isn’t the type of manufacturing that Starling finds troublesome also due to the fact that we’re now busy doing other stuff? I mean, it’s all well and good to try your hand at building sheds and boats when you’re done hunting and gathering for the day, but is that the lifestyle to which we want to return in full? No one who wants to build a shed is being kept from that, are they? (If so, I agree that it's troubling. And awfully strange.)

I don’t mean to sound so flippant. (Just kind of flippant. Sort of flippant.) The shed looks pretty good, actually, and I’m not familiar enough with Starling’s work to judge it one way or another. It just seems like the shed is a nifty piece of architecture, and it's a bit disheartening to me that it has to be propped up with such a familiar (soon the word will be "tired") critique of the way we live now. I’m not saying he’s wrong. But if he’s right, and we’ve known it for a few decades, is that much better?

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Ill Fortune

Had Chinese food today with my recurrent lunch companion, Nick, and he rightly complained about fortune cookie messages that are declarations of fact, rather than actual fortunes, which are properly defined as "foretellings of one's destiny." For instance, "You have a magnetic personality." Not a fortune. Probably not even true, given most personalities.

Nick's today said, "You like Chinese food." What kind of a wise-ass cookie is that? He had just polished off a pound or two of MSG; of course he likes Chinese food. (Perhaps it's not a joke; perhaps it's meant to open the eyes of someone who has just been forced to eat Chinese food against his or her will.)

The real reason I bring this up -- I know, it hardly seems I need a reason, given how fascinating this is -- is that I've been meaning to share this particularly bizarre fortune, which I received a few months back:

Mend the first break, kill the first snake,
and conquer everything you undertake.

What an incredibly strange sequence of advice, and how not in keeping, tonally, with my makeup. I felt like someone had switched my fortune cookie with Genghis Kahn's, and he was somewhere reading this:

Worry a lot about things you can't control,
and let that worry keep you from getting much done.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Beware the Ocean

This is too funny not to share. And I know it’s terrible to find this funny, but I think we all secretly agree with Mel Brooks, who said, "Tragedy is when I have a hangnail. Comedy is when you fall into a sewer and die."

I was doing research for my wildly popular feature "The Rest," in which I do my loyal readers (hi, Leigh and Ray) the service of finding amusing or enlightening material from other blogs and printing it out of context, when I came across a blog with the heading of "My Jamaican Voyage." It consisted of these two posts, here in their entirety without any editing:
Day 1
Today We left for Jamaica from Queensland. I have been having a lot of fun, for the first time in my life I played shuffleboard. The food is divine here and our first stop will be South America.I'm having such a great time.I'm travelling with my best mates, ahhhh not a care in the world ... except when our next meal is. Bye

I t was really rough today I think I threw up 100 times today but it' s getting better I think.

Mel Gibson and the Jews: Maybe This Time He Won't Offend All of Them

This story online at the New York Times today has a lot to recommend it. First, it sports a headline that would easily qualify as a Headline of the Day if it came from the AP:
Mel Gibson Plans TV Miniseries on Holocaust
I know -- yikes.

The meat of the piece is pretty good, too, mostly thanks to Quinn Taylor, an ABC executive, whose five-word summary of public discourse should be put in a time capsule for its brevity and accuracy: "Controversy's publicity, and vice versa."

Someone call Bartlett's, I'm serious.

But the capper is this quote from Taylor, who might want to hire a Word-Choice Sherpa with all that money he's presumably getting from ABC:
Mr. Taylor . . . cautioned that Mr. Gibson's level of involvement would not be determined until the miniseries is completed -- which at this stage of any project is still a long shot -- and he has seen it. "If it happens to be produced by Mel's company, it doesn't mean he's going to be out there flogging it like he did 'Passion of the Christ,' " Mr. Taylor said.
Flogging. Jesus. Nice job, Quinn.

AP A Little Context, Please Headline of the Day

Lawyer Says Foxy Brown Is Deaf


Tuesday Buffet

Just a few quick thoughts today:

1. Watched In America the other night, which I’d been meaning to see for a while. Despite a few moments that were too sentimental even for a softy like me, I liked it quite a bit, and especially the very last scene, which was genuinely surprising (just in an emotional way, not in a Sixth Sense or Crying Game kind of way) and certainly heartbreaking. I cried like a little girl, I admit it.

2. At some point this week (or early next), I’m going to post the most important batch of songs yet (and maybe ever): my list of favorite drinking songs. I know that many of you have been waiting for such a definitive list from me for years, and so I’m happy to say that the day is nigh. (And no, I don't mean sea chanteys and the like; I mean a dependable soundtrack of tears-in-your-whiskey material. And yes, it will include Otis Redding.)

3. Last night, I discovered through iTunes (my new best friend –- sorry, all other contenders), that Matthew Sweet had recorded Kimi Ga Suki, a full-length CD of all-new material just for his Japanese fan club. Forget the several levels of oddity in that fact. Or try to, anyway. Rumor is that the result was pretty good, so it was released here last fall, and from the few clips I heard last night, the rumors might be true. Like most alternative-rock nerds in the early ‘90s, I loved (and still love) Girlfriend. And 100% Fun had several really good, insanely catchy songs on it. Since then (1995), Sweet hasn’t done much to crow about, but this first-for-fan-club-now-for-everybody record sounds like it has a few of the same great hooks on it. I’ll do some more investigating.

(Side note: From the photo on the cover of 100% Fun, and I mean all the details – from the décor to the enormous headphones to the clothes to the silly grin and the shiny blond hair – it seems that Matthew Sweet and I might have had identical childhoods. He turned his into grist for a successful rock career and comparisons to the Beatles. I’m a publishing hack. So, there you have the Unnerving Parallel and Depressing Fork in the Road of the Day, all in one.)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Oprah, Lance, and God

One last thought (so help me, this will not become an Oprah-centric blog): I used to cringe at Winfrey and the new-age platitudes I'd hear when I stumbled across her show. (Mostly it was the replays aired deep in the void between Friday night and Saturday morning; I've long been a melancholy creature.) Anyway, I'm more tolerant of her now; partly because I simply avoid her, sure, but also because I appreciate the fact that she doesn't overly imbue her humanitarianism with God. Yes, she calls her charitable helpers "angels" and things like that, but her spiritual vocabulary always seems fairly generic.

Nothing against God (well, OK, maybe a little something against God), but I think the world is too often divided between: a) do-gooders who tie their best intentions to their religious beliefs so directly that your sharing that belief becomes a kind of prerequisite for accepting their good work; and b) people who are concerned about things and want to do good, but don't quite gather the head of steam needed to engender meaningful change. Probably seasonal affective disorder.

(I left out c., those who aren't concerned and don't want to do good, because it's early Monday morning and that's depressing enough.)

So if Oprah is going to build schools for girls in Africa, and force thousands of casual readers to buy box sets (box sets!) of William Faulkner novels, without incessantly thanking heaven for her good fortune, like so many victorious athletes, then I'm all for it.

One athlete is a notable exception: Lance Armstrong. I saw him a few months ago on Charlie Rose -- I'm not particularly interested in Armstrong, but I had a hard time changing the channel for some reason -- and when I was considering the interview the next day, I realized that he spent the full hour talking about his somewhat miraculous story and work ethic without mentioning religion. I imagine Lance might be a religious guy, and I certainly don't mind if he is. But it's rare lately for someone to have an inspirational story and not use the lessons gleaned from their experience to stump for the guy upstairs. Armstrong did address issues of courage and inner strength, but also talked at length about inquisitive rigor and the importance for him of delving deep into the scientific aspects of his predicament.

If at some time during his medical ordeal, Armstrong turned to prayer (and it's hard to believe that even the staunchest atheist wouldn't be tempted), he didn't do it in public, as far as I can tell, and I think there's something dignified about that.

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Signs of Life in Chapel Hill

You know, I don't just spend my time maniacally thinking about, organizing, and proselytizing for my music collection. Yes, I've spent the last two weeks doing that. True. But I also pay too much attention to sports (I'm versatile in my worthlessness), and it looks like my beloved North Carolina Tar Heels (beloved for no real reason, but no less beloved for it) have more potential this year than was widely believed. They lost to Illinois last week, 68-64, in a rematch of last year's title game, but then beat Kentucky on the road over the weekend. (I'm talking about basketball here, folks.) So at 4-1, there are signs of hope for the Heels.

(It's not entirely true that there's no reason. I think there was an aesthetic pleasure that I found in both the team's look and style of play when I was about 10 years old. Given that the look was powder blue and the style of play was a clock-grinding, grown-up version of "keep away," I'm not sure what that says about my aesthetic sensibility at 10. Rather, I have some ideas, but I'm choosing to ignore them. I like to think I've grown less color-blind and less stingy over the years. But anyway, the initial affection for the team stuck, and grew.

I also had daydreams when younger of living in Chapel Hill, which I thought would be leafy and collegiate in all kinds of satisfying ways. But I have fantasies of living in many leafy and/or collegiate places -- a subject that will be explored at much greater length, I imagine, as we progress here. My god, you lucky people.)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Dave & Oprah Report Card

Seems like Dave's done with two of three segments with Oprah. I'm watching an ad for Lunesta right now, the hot new sleep aid. It's making bed sound pretty attractive, but must blog. I'm ill.

Now that I've returned to Cable Land, one of my new channels is Trio, and one night last week it was showing replays of Letterman's shows from around 1984 -- some of the very first episodes that ever aired. When I told my friend Nick, the next day, he asked, "You mean back when he was funny?" And of course, that sentiment is a common one, and not just about Letterman -- the conventional wisdom is that all shows get worse over time. How many people do you know who would argue that Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons are currently hitting their creative peak?

I wouldn't either, but I do think part of that critical tendency, in some cases, stems from solipsism. The most fervent fans of a project tend to get on board early, and later feel the need to define their own changing in relation to the show -- "If I liked the show then, and I've grown in my tastes since, then it must not be good anymore. (But of course, I have to defend its long-lost quality to preserve the integrity of my prior self and avoid some Back to the Future voodoo where I start disappearing from old photographs.)"

I'm not saying this is always the case. There are years when Saturday Night Live is just unwatchable, but I've always argued that its glory days are overrated. I sometimes stumble across a "classic" episode, with John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and the rest of the gang, and they're often unfunny in ways very similar to how the show is currently unfunny. Likewise, those early Letterman shows -- and granted, I'm talking the very, very early ones, before he hit his stride -- were a bit awkward and sophomoric, and not sophomoric in the purposeful way that made the show great once Chris Elliott started eating dog food on camera.

Where am I going with all this? Nowhere in particular, just to say that I think it's difficult to disregard your own history with a show (or a band, or a writer) and fairly judge its past and present. I think Letterman peaked in the late '80s and early '90s, when he was increasingly polished but still young(-ish) and rascally. But what he still has going for him that SNL, The Simpsons, and others don't is that he's the engine driving the show, and his personality -- or stage persona, anyway -- has remained the core of the watching experience for two decades. Part of the way I love Letterman is the way you might love an old favorite uncle. Sure, he might get a bit too tipsy at Thanksgiving and tell the same stories over and over again, but he's a comfortable presence, the majority of his habits are charming, and he'd impress someone meeting him for the first time -- something that you, for better and worse, can never do again.

Back to tonight, though. There's obviously nothing fascinating about Letterman interviewing Oprah, but they do emanate some serious combined star power. As pop culture gets more and more disposable, there's something satisfying about watching two people who have each been at it for 20 years.

Mostly, though, the interview is entertaining because it matches perhaps the world's most inveterate optimist, Oprah, with the self-loathing and cynicism of Letterman. Oprah keeps earnestly (and convincingly, to her credit) saying things like "Education is freedom," and imploring people to do what they can to help sick children in Africa, and Letterman less convincingly nods his head in agreement. It's a classic case of the irresistible force (Oprah's spirit) against the immovable object (Letterman's frown).

He's uncharacteristically obsequious ("Thank you for being so nice to me," Oprah says at one point, with genuine astonishment), but that can't obscure what I think is his triumph here -- he's spent more than a decade manufacturing a feud with Oprah that doesn't exist, and now he gets to reap the benefits of their "reconciliation." That's the late-phase Letterman's genius -- he can show much more respect to celebrities than he used to without nearly approaching the smarminess of Leno, because he's established his personality so well that the audience lets him play both sides of the con. He gives us the sense that he's both a multimillionaire powerhouse and one of us, and whether it's an illusion or not, it's no mean trick.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Something to Watch: Dave & Oprah

Just a friendly reminder:

Those who know me will tell you that I'm an unreconstructed worshipper of David Letterman. As such, I will be glued to the TV tonight when he welcomes Oprah to the show for the first time in 16 years. Television history in the making, and I hope to write something about it late tonight, because that's partly what blogs are for: immediately recording your useless impressions of meaningless events.

(Don't let my sarcasm mask my excitement, though; this is going to be good. And even though it's circumstantial and temporary, it's always nice when Letterman trounces Leno in the ratings to momentarily correct the universe's wayward course...)

America vs. South Africa in Steel Cage Match of Freedom

I was going to blog about this, but Andrew Sullivan beat me to it. I imagine that will happen a lot as I start turning to some political issues. So for now I'll let his post stand in for me. He's referring to this development, and his last sentence was the basic sentiment I wanted to get across:
NOW, SOUTH AFRICA: South Africa's post-apartheid Constitution explicitly granted gays and lesbians full rights as citizens. There is no valid citizenship without the right to marry the person you love; and so the global movement toward equality in marriage advances again. Who would have guessed twenty years ago that the land of apartheid would now be ahead of the United States in its support for civil rights and equal protection of laws?

AP Something Tells Me He Won't Be at the Finish Line Headline of the Day

Muhammad Ali to Be at Marathon Start


AP Slow News Day Headline of the Day

Colorful, Whimsical Teapots on Display


Spike Lee Looking Reasonable

Today on Slate, Lee Siegel interviews Spike Lee in a feature that the site calls Interrogation, but might just as well be named, in this instance, When Megalomaniacs Collide.

Spike comes out of it looking pretty sane, which is probably only possible with this particular interviewer. Here's the best point that Spike scores:
Slate: Do you think there's a difference between a black acting style and a white acting style?

Lee: No, I'm not gonna—no, no, no, no, no, no. I'm not. Nope.

Slate: Because I look at a great actor like Jeffrey Wright—-do you like his stuff?

SL: Yeah, I love Jeffrey.

Slate: And I see that he's not an actor in the mold of, say, Brando, or Sean Penn. Wright disappears into his characters like a British actor, and I see a lot of African-American actors doing that—-Cuba Gooding, I think, does that also.

SL: You're putting Cuba Gooding in the same league with Jeffrey Wright?

Slate: No.

SL: Oh, thank you.
Leaving aside whatever nonsense Siegel is trying to wrestle into coherence about Penn vs. Brando vs. British actors -- Cuba Gooding disappears into his characters? I recently got cable, and caught the first three minutes of Boat Trip the other night (the same way I might watch the first few frames of invasive surgery on the medical channel before my brain catches up to my eyeballs). Anyway, it didn't look like Cuba was disappearing into much, other than the vortex of his career.