Sunday, April 30, 2006

Mascots P.S.

The recent mascot post has roused the faithful, as mascot posts tend to do. PF e-mailed me this link featuring Wilma and Wilbur, the husband-and-wife Wildcats at the University of Arizona, PF's alma mater. The handsome couple will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary this November. It's nice to see two mascots who can make a relationship last in this crazy world.

Mood Swings/Archive of the Day

I'm highly averse to heat and humidity, so I'm not looking forward to another New York summer. My sister has graciously and enthusiastically suggested that I join her and hubby for the two months of their annual trip to Iowa City for the Shakespeare Festival (they’re actors in the production, they don’t go for two months just to hang around it), but this invitation is untenable; my apartment and job and worrying can’t be abandoned for eight weeks. Oh, but if they could... (in gravelly voice) what a wonderful world this would be.

The city always wears on you in some way, but during times of high stress it can seem especially vice-like. This is cyclical, of course, and I’ve recovered from similar funks in my relationship with Gotham in the past. It remains truest to say two things: that I'm prone to mood swings (though I've been told I hide them well), and that this place exacerbates both the good and bad times. And with that in mind, today's archive comes from The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace. In the novel, the following passage does not refer to New York:
I was always either so unreasonably and pointlessly happy that no one place could seem to contain me, or so melancholy, so sick and silly with sadness that there was no place I could stomach the thought of entering. I hated it here. And I have never been as happy as when I was here. And these two things together confront me with the beak and claws of the True.

Five Songs, Chapter Seven

“Safe Sound” by Trespassers William

I discovered this band the way I’ve discovered a few others since moving to New York -- drunkenly listening to a random sound display at the Union Square Virgin Records late one night. That was a while ago, and the song that I kept replaying as I swayed there (blogs lend themselves to sharing too much, n’est-ce pas?) was a gorgeous cover of Ride’s “Vapour Trail.” I eventually dragged my probably-sobering-up-by-that-point self to the cashier, along with the whole album, Different Stars, and it's strong. I recently downloaded their new one, Having, and haven’t listened to the whole thing enough to form an opinion. I have, however, listened to this first track a bunch, and here’s the opinion: Nice.

“No Time to Cry” by Iris Dement

I’ve heard this song many, many times. The first few listens, I kept waiting for it to feel cheesy. Never happened, and at this point it's safe to say it never will. Heartbreaking old-school stuff, pure and simple.

“Bad Reputation” by Freedy Johnston

I’m not a big fan of Johnston’s generally -- I like him, but his songs seem to be the tepid, too-well-constructed type that people praise for being similar to spare short stories, and if I wanted to read a short story, I’d pick up a book. Plus, his voice is not great. But this song earns that praise while still being dynamic and begging to be played again as soon as it’s done. I’d put it on a fairly short list of examples that an aspiring songwriter should study. Also, it ran over the closing credits of Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming, a very good movie that, as far as I can tell, is still unavailable on DVD even though they seem to be releasing entire box sets of outtakes from Diff’rent Strokes and the like on a daily basis. What the hell is going on out there in DVD Land, anyway?

“Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was” by Radiohead

There’s a moment in this song -- it comes at the 1:45 mark -- when Thom Yorke starts cooing the word “proof” and a beautiful electric guitar line suddenly joins the fray. (The same essential moment is repeated at 2:36.) And the point is this: Remember when Radiohead wanted to make us happy? Weren’t those just the best of days?

“Dynamite Walls” by Hayden

This is just a good song. Can’t a song just be good sometimes, without all this analysis? Jeez, people.


Colbert KO's Bush

The White House Correspondents Dinner, where politicians, journalists and entertainers safely mock themselves in front of...each other, has always seemed toothless to me. That is, until I read the transcript (and watched some video) of Stephen Colbert's performance this year. (Here's the transcript, which includes a link to the pretty long video; it's faster to just read it, and I didn't get much more out of seeing it.) I doubt Colbert thought that his fake on-air persona (patterned after Bill O'Reilly) would really allow him to pass off these criticisms as jokes, so this took some guts. The video and reports from those who were there suggest the powers that be weren't pleased. Good.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

And They Say Americans Are Decadent?

AP Another Reason to Sleep Late Headline of the Day

'The View' Brings Rosie O'Donnell Aboard

Friday, April 28, 2006

Brangelina Shrugged

At 17, being a stubborn atheist and loving to read and generally thinking I was right about everything, I found myself, like so many other teenagers who fit that description, nodding along to the works of Ayn Rand. I even subjected myself to reading every last line of Atlas Shrugged, her mammoth ideological novel. (This was partly a test of discipline, the same way I forced myself to read every footnote of Infinite Jest, something that required flipping to the back of the book each time, often for something that was purposefully difficult or completely unnecessary or both. But at least Wallace is funny and felicitous, two things you can't say about Rand.)

Now, to why I brought you here: Rumor has it that Atlas Shrugged is being turned into a film starring -- wait for it, wait for it; oh, damn, the headline tipped you off -- Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

At first, I found this casting comical and horrifying. Pondering it further, though, I decided it was comical and thrilling. After all, Rand's prose is considerably less than poetic, and without a screenwriter who doubles as a magician, odds are that the actors will have to deliver lines resembling the following, which come from the book's climactic speech (if climactic events can last for hundreds of life-sapping pages that describe a philosophy any bright middle-schooler could be made to understand in a few tidy paragraphs):
A morality that holds need as a claim, holds emptiness -- non-existence -- as its standard of value; it rewards an absence, a defect: weakness, inability, incompetence, suffering, disease, disaster, the lack, the fault, the flaw -- the zero. Who provides the account to pay these claims? Those who are cursed for being non-zeros, each to the extent of his distance from that ideal. Since all values are the product of virtues, the degree of your virtue is used as the measure of your penalty; the degree of your faults is used as the measure of your gain. Your code declares that the rational man must sacrifice himself to the irrational, the independent man to parasites, the honest man to the dishonest, the man of justice to the unjust, the productive man to thieving loafers, the man of integrity to compromising knaves, the man of self-esteem to sniveling neurotics. Do you wonder at the meanness of soul in those you see around you? The man who achieves these virtues will not accept your moral code; the man who accepts your moral code will not achieve these virtues.
Still with me? Hello?

I know, it's hard to believe anyone could withstand 1,168 pages of that, but people do, and only the Bible is held more dear as an influential read. ("Atlas Shrugged ... was rated the 'second most influential book for Americans today,' after the Bible, according to a joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club." That's from a site devoted to the book -- not The Book -- but I've seen it substantiated many times.) At least the Bible, for all the philosophical (and, sadly, political) problems it raises for us doubters, brims with beauty; it's unnerving as a language lover to think that some ideas -- Objectivism, Christianity, etc. -- can survive any vessel, and that the holy tome might have the same pull on people's hearts even if Rand had written it: "Whoever believes in him, and if they accept the moral code in their soul, and if they refuse to sacrifice noble men to sniveling neurotics, will live forever, will never die, will never stop breathing, will never close their eyes in a way that keeps them from ever opening them again, will have the ability to walk around and talk and see things and touch stuff every day even after the less noble men have died and gone into the ground and stopped doing all of those things."

AP Spiritual Brainpower Headline of the Day

Pope: Lack of Love Behind Failed Marriages

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Lot About Mascots. Buckle Up.

I'm just back from a Yankees game that felt like it lasted seven hours (not that it wasn't fun; it was, other than the fact that they lost to the lowly Devil Rays). But despite my heavy, heavy eyelids, I can't let the blog go blank tonight, and luckily I have a lot of material about one of my very favorite subjects, via the great Deadspin, which pointed me to this post about mascots that "need to die."

The list is entertaining enough, but where things get really fun is in the comments below it.

Some of the highlights, for those of you less obsessive than me:

One responder posts this photo of "Dinger," a mascot for the Colorado Rockies (for some reason):

Beneath it, he writes: "I was at the game when the Rockies supposedly discovered this giant dinosaur egg under Coors Field, and then was there again when the egg 'hatched' and Dinger was born. It's ridiculous."

That's awesome enough, of course, but here's some more...

Two commenters get into a war about which mascot was born first (presumably neither hatched out of an egg), Mr. Red or Mr. Met. They do look alarmingly similar, though Mr. Red's all-black eyes make him much, much scarier:

Not to be confused with Mr. Red is Big Red, the mascot for Western Kentucky University, whose inclusion on the list leads to one of his fans losing his or her cool:
Then there are those who don't want to defend their school's mascot, but rather to add it to death row, like this person:
I went to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, OK. Our name was the "Redmen", our colors were green and white, our letterhead had a chicken hawk on it, and our actual mascot was something that looked like a piss-soaked rag on a green Elmo. I can't remember its name, but it was something incredibly stupid.
This person then comes back on to the board having done some research:
As an update to my previous post, the goofy-assed Elmo guy is named ROWDY and apparently has his own website here.
Lastly(!), there is this disturbing message:
well hofstra has the hottest and best duo of mascots in sports, kate and willy, a female and male lion that ocassionaly (sic) look like they're about to have sex on the basketball court, they do crowd surfing and everything
Naturally, this led me to wonder just how "hot" a pair of mascot lions in heat could be. If you guessed, like me, "not very," congratulations:

I know it seems like I must have recapped the whole thing, but really, I didn't. Visit the page and see for yourself.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Something to Listen to This Sunny Wednesday

About halfway down this post, My Old Kentucky Blog links to Ray LaMontagne covering a song called "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. I've never listened to Barkley, but LaMontagne's Trouble was in my discman (pre-iPod days!) for about three months straight in fall 2004. Without word of a follow-up on the horizon, I'll take what I can get.

(Oh, nice. A check of LaMontagne's web site yielded this info: He's playing the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn on July 12.)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Lights. Camera. Snakes. Plane. Action!

I'm way behind on the cutting edge of campy movies, so though I'd heard vaguely about this summer's Snakes on a Plane, starring Samuel L. Jackson, an airplane, and... a bunch of snakes, an article in this week's Time magazine clued me in to just how great this movie might be. Some choice excerpts:
"I knew I was going to do the movie when I saw the title," says Samuel L. Jackson, who plays an FBI agent escorting a mob witness on a doomed flight to Los Angeles. "I think I have an audience member's sensibility, and the title just puts it all right out there. You either get it, or you don't." At various points, executives at New Line Cinema admit they did not get it. "They wanted to call it Pacific Air 121," says Jackson. "I told them that was the stupidest damn thing I ever heard."

Because the Internet allows moviegoers to learn about movies before they're in production, a vocal group of connoisseurs -- nerds, if you will -- were able to keep tabs on Snakes on a Plane. ... Not only did they demand that the title stay, they wanted violence, profane monologues from Jackson -- the Olivier of the F bomb -- and graphic snakebites. ... The triumph of that populist approach is the insertion of a line of dialogue from one of the fake trailers (created by fans)--"I'm tired of these motherf------ snakes on this motherf------ plane!"--directly into Jackson's mouth. "It's kind of difficult to watch me in a movie and not hear me say motherf----- once," he says.
In Dallas, some friends and I used to get together on a semi-regular basis to watch and ridicule a bad movie, basically ripping off the idea of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for our own amusement. We called ourselves, plainly, the Bad Movie Club. Needless to say, the first day Snakes is available on DVD, I may have to fly down there for an emergency meeting.

"How Many Words Does You Know?"

Ali G interviews Noam Chomsky here. Very funny.

(Via Norman Geras)

AP Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus Headline of the Day

Police Arrest Nude Man Stuck in Chimney

The first paragraph of the story:

HAYWARD, Calif. -- A man who spent five hours naked and stuck in the chimney of his stepmother's home was arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs, police said.

(Tip of the cap to Leigh for sending the story, and to Nick for the Yes, Virginia idea.)

Monday, April 24, 2006

Life-Saving Tip of the Day

If you see 27 wild chimpanzees approaching, and you're lucky enough to be in a car, hit the accelerator.

(Via Gene Expression)

Picture by Hubble

Remember all the jokes about what a failure the Hubble Telescope was? Well, now it's 16 years old, and I guess I remember that they fixed it at some point -- they must have, if it's taken shots like this one. Pretty cool. I'm hoping to buy a digital camera later in the week, and I can only hope for such high-quality results.

The Artists Formerly Known as Mookie Blaylock

Having already blogged about Counting Crows just days ago, I threaten to truly become musically irrelevant if I turn around so soon and write about Pearl Jam. But listen, it's not all Other Music staff picks in my household, no sir. So why not let you in on that reality? I'm not proud.

The fact is, I own nothing by Pearl Jam after Yield, and even that was just a flailing in the direction of raw youth, which youth was, at that very moment, boarding a train (or a supersonic jet). (Though I must say, "In Hiding," off that record, is one of my favorite songs by them.) Vitalogy -- and I imagine this is true of many of you -- was the last thing I bought with even a glimmer of hopefulness. (And of course, I could've taped the best two singles from that one off the radio and not been much worse off.)

These musings are inspired by the fact that the band's forthcoming album is being trumpeted as a "return to form," though I'm not eager to hear it.

Still, stumbling past the band's performance on Saturday Night Live two weeks ago, I was reminded of the goofy teenage enthusiasm I had for them. (I remember once -- honestly -- somberly recounting a portentous dream that involved Eddie Vedder to a high school confidant.) Vedder's voice is still powerful -- if sometimes melodramatic -- in my opinion, so it's a shame that the other band members seem so dull in their increasingly chugging, all-the-raggedy-of-punk-with-none-of-the-fun compositions. By all accounts, they're still something to see live. (I wouldn't know about any of that, since the one time I scored tickets -- for a show in Austin in 1994 -- they were in the midst of their war with Ticketmaster and ended up canceling the show for some ethical reason that remains lost on me. When they rescheduled, the date conflicted with tickets I had to see R.E.M. for the first time. No contest.)

Really, I only want to say two things, the first a critical judgment and the second just another in a long line of oh-dear-god-I'm-getting-old revelations:

1. Pearl Jam's best songs are still pretty good. Ten kind of sucked in retrospect, aside from maybe "Porch" and "Release," which makes it funny that much of Vs. still sounds enjoyable, since none of us initially listened to that record with anything but thoughts about how it stacked up to Ten. And I imagine there are decent songs studded throughout the past few albums, but I'll be damned if I'll be sent trawling for them. I found two covers they did online recently -- of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" and The Who's "Baba O'Riley" -- and they proved, to me anyway, that Pearl Jam has the chops and the voice to be a great interpretive band. Unfortunately, they're just not particularly good at writing their own stuff.

2. It's 2006. Ten came out in 1991. That means that, for a high school senior today, Ten is the equivalent of what Fleetwood Mac's Rumours was for me and my graduating class. Meaning: Cool on some level (maybe), but ancient. If you'll excuse me, I have to go check the mail for my AARP application.


Bottle Rocket, Version 1.0

Bottle Rocket will figure prominently on my favorite movies list, if and when I'm desperate for a list again. (Right, right. When.) The full-length movie, Wes Anderson's directorial debut, was based on a 13-minute film, and Pop Candy links to that original short today. Part of me is reluctant to post this, because the visual and sound quality is not very good (I couldn't even hear it on my work computer, but I can at home), but I'm too big a geek for the movie to restrain myself.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Archive of the Day

From The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester:
"What were the first signs of your brother's artistic interests, that you remember?"

"They tell me that there are certain specific moments which everybody in a generation can remember -- wars, sporting triumphs, unpopular assassinations, moon-landings. At the same time there are moments which are supposed to be commemorated in each individual's life: early sexual encounters, car accidents, bereavements; for a specific generation of people of a certain age, the first time one saw a color television. This brutal colonization of interior life has no interest for me nor, I suspect, for most true artists. I am more interested in the things I cannot remember, in absences, elisions, vacuities, negativities, voids, aporiae, nothingness. My own consciousness of my own artistic vocation came to me in one such moment, when I took a papier-mâché model my brother had made of an elephant, trunk erect and unconvincing mahout and all, and rode my tricycle backwards and forwards over it."

Cornell's Self-Esteem Issues

I don't need to be sold on Cornell. My dad and my younger sister are alumni, and when the latter was a student there, I must have visited her (from Texas) six or seven times. The first couple of trips revolved around seeing her in plays on campus, and I fell in love with the area. Ithaca is just the type of isolated, cold, green, bookish place where I fantasize about taking up residence. I liked going for a variety of reasons, not least to drive myself crazy about having decided to go to school in San Antonio, which is populous, hot, flat, and not particularly bookish. Mild regret is a favorite sensation of mine.

Anyway, some students and former students think the school needs a branding makeover, lest its reputation fall significantly below that of its fellow Ivies, so they've formed an "image committee." The article gets the silly, raging insecurity out of the way early:
"Because of when most people go to college, their identity becomes closely associated with the identity of their university," said Peter Cohl, a committee founder who graduated last spring and is now working on Madison Avenue.

Let the college's standing drop in publications that rank universities, he said, and "my value as a human being feels like it's dropping." (Cornell is now ranked 13th among national universities by U.S. News & World Report.)
There's no indication that Cohl is joking, but when you see the picture of him on the second page of the article, things become a bit clearer. He looks like one of those characters that Bob Odenkirk used to play on Mr. Show, the ones who are trying to be both corporate and completely cool at the same time, managing in the process to be neither at all.

Later in the article:
The committee's roots lie in a Cornell-Yale football game in Ithaca four years ago. Yale fans in the stadium were wearing hats and other neat gear unlike anything Cornell offered for sale, Mr. Cohl said. He talked about that with students sitting nearby, including leaders of the campus Republicans and Democrats.

All were in agreement, he said. "Nobody was wearing our stuff," he said. "We didn't have cool hats, we didn't have cool hoodies."
This caused me to chortle at Mr. Cohl again, of course, but in fairness, when I saw the hat he was holding in the aforementioned photo, I kind of wanted one. Damn marketers! I despise you and crave your wares simultaneously.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

AP Guess the Sport Headline of the Day

Kansas City Brigade Top Nashville Kats

AP Economics 101 Headline of the Day

Rising Gas Prices Hit Poor Hardest


AP Headline of the Day

White Supremacists Taunted in Michigan

Lane on Travel

Anthony Lane is one of my favorite writers, so I'm always thrilled when he stretches out from his usual role as film critic for The New Yorker and contributes a longer piece to the magazine. His entry in the most recent issue, about the increasing affordability of air travel in Europe, isn't one of his Hall of Fame efforts, but it's still hilarious and worth reading. Two of my favorite moments:
At the outset, Ryanair and easyJet faced derision and even -- from the established carriers -- outright hostility, but it soon became clear that this aggression was fuelled by fear. EasyJet, especially, seemed an unmissable target, with its billboards, crew uniforms, and fuselages decked out in a retina-scarring shade of orange; but (British Airways) stopped laughing when the newcomer ran a flight from London to Glasgow for twenty-nine pounds. It was not only cheaper than flying with B.A.; it was, unless you were a monk with a place to stay, cheaper than remaining in London for the weekend.

I have been a patron of British Airways for many years, and they have always pitied me enough to treat me with courtesy, but, as the flight attendant lays forth the breakfast tray, I sense an unspoken pact between provider and consumer, which neither party seems remotely willing to break.
The pact goes as follows: I will give you hundreds, or thousands, of dollars, and in return you will give me a small, tepid disk of animal muscle, the color of a water vole, at ten o'clock in the morning. I cannot begin to calibrate the extent to which I do not desire this, but I will accept it anyway, because I have nothing better to do and nowhere else to go. You and I are both aware that steak is uniquely unsuited to this occasion, being one of those foodstuffs that must be consumed either straight from the grill or not at all. Some chefs advocate that the meat should be left to rest for three minutes before serving; none would suggest that it be cooked hours or perhaps days in advance and then reheated at thirty thousand feet, an altitude at which the human taste bud appears to lose all powers of discernment.

Two From Kirn (In Case You're Not Going Where I Tell You To Go)

It's been all I can do this week not to link to Walter Kirn's pieces over at Andrew Sullivan's site. I already directed you there earlier, so I figured it would be bad form to remind you so forcefully. But bad form be damned. This piece about the child of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (if only their first names could be easily combined into a clever one-word moniker!) is oddly moving. And this piece about modern communication -- or the decay of same -- strikes a particular chord with me because I was very recently interviewed by someone writing an article about men who have never owned a cell phone. I think I was one of two in New York City who the reporter found; the other is on my floor at work. We're keeping it old-school in the publishing biz, conveying messages mostly by a two-step process involving Teletype and well-trained pigeons. Next step is to up the three-martini lunch to four.

Friday, April 21, 2006

More Eavesdropping Entertainment

Sometimes, I imitate Gawker. But more often, I'm going to do my impression of Overheard in New York, because I can't help myself. It's a great city for hearing bizarre and funny things, the one benefit of not being able to get away from people.

This was a conversation between two film nerds at a Brooklyn bar last night. The guy was getting prematurely gray, probably in his mid- to late-30s. The woman was a little younger and Asian, not that either of those descriptions matter.

Woman: I watched that movie you recommended with a friend the other day. It really grossed us out.
Man: Oh, sorry. I hope I didn’t ruin your friendship.
Woman: No, no.
Man: I saw this great, really creepy movie the other day.
Woman: What’s it called?
Man: It’s called Writhing Tongue.
Woman: Is it Japanese?
Man: Yeah, it’s about a girl who gets tetanus.

Cities: Pretty From a Distance, Less Pretty Up Close

Here are some beautiful (and contrasting) visuals for you on this sunny Friday, with apologies for not posting last night (I know you're all bereft).

First, there's this listing of the 15 best skylines in the world, accompanied by some stunning photos. (This comes to me via Norman Geras, who got it from someone named Emily.) Interesting to see Chicago ahead of New York -- but I'm OK with that; it was the birthplace of the skyscraper, after all, and it is a beautiful city. Nice to see Pittsburgh and Dallas make the cut for honorable mentions -- I really liked Pittsburgh the one time I went, and Dallas, well, as Jimmie Dale Gilmore sang:
Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?
Well Dallas is a jewel, oh yeah, Dallas is a beautiful sight.
And Dallas is a jungle but Dallas gives a beautiful light.
Secondly (via The Stranger), there are these photos of Hong Kong by Michael Wolf, starkly displaying the less picturesque realities of urban living. (Less picturesque only in terms of the reality; the photos themselves are quite attractive.)

If you follow the tab labeled "Editorial Work: Non-China" on Wolf's site, one of the projects is called "Subway Dreams," and the photos there remind me that the crowded underground experience can do a lot to kindle dreams of living in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Had To Be There: Favorite Concerts

You people seem to like sharing your opinions, so I'm hoping this post will send you scurrying to the comments section.

It's a simple list of the best concerts I've seen, with only the first one "ranked" and the rest all honorable mentions. Inspired by a discussion tonight with a lovely woman over a plate of about 3,000 French fries. (I love fries and can put them away, but the volume of them served at many restaurants and pubs is a subject worthy of study. It's shocking.)

OK, back to the concerts. First place, hands down:

Prince (Reunion Arena, Dallas, December 1998)

Despite the fact that I had always loved Prince in a radio-exposure kind of way, this show did benefit from moderate expectations. I figured it would be fun, but it wasn't like the indie-rock shows in cramped clubs that I spent months at a time anticipating. This was a Star -- one I assumed would be arrogant and a bit difficult -- playing a basketball arena. Our seats were in the upper deck.

What ensued was insanely entertaining. Prince stands at about three feet, five inches. He's tiny. To command an arena of that size the way he did must mean that he has more charisma per square inch than anyone in history (maybe even Napoleon; I believe Prince, if he had lived during that time, would have convinced people to help him conquer Russia in winter. But they would've won.) Most shockingly to me, at the time, his performance could only be called generous. He ripped up the guitar; he belted piano ballads; he playfully censored himself during "Darling Nikki"; he brought the house lights up near the end, then invited a large and random group of fans on stage to dance during an extended jam (during which time he shouted at one elderly woman who was getting down, "Dance, Grandma!") -- a grand finale if I've ever seen one; but no, then the lights vanished again and he launched into an extended medley of greatest hits. I remember the whole thing as being ridiculous in the best possible way.

Honorable mentions (dates might be blurry; I've tried)...

Lyle Lovett
(Majestic Theater, San Antonio, 1994?)

Joan Osborne
(Caravan of Dreams, Fort Worth, Spring 1995)

Radiohead (The Woodlands, Houston, September 1995, opening for R.E.M. in support of The Bends)

Centro-matic (I forget the name of the place. It was small. Dread Pirate, it was when they shared the bill with Mary Lou Lord. Oh, I think it was called The Galaxy Club, yes?, Dallas, 1998? 1999?)

Whiskeytown (Trees, Dallas, January 1998. Like viewing the aftermath of a car wreck with a few good songs occasionally floating over the scene.)

The Jayhawks
(Gypsy Tea Room, Dallas, May 2000)

Built to Spill
(Irving Plaza, New York, September 2001)

The Innocence Mission (Southpaw, Brooklyn, April 2004)

Ray Lamontagne (Bowery Ballroom, New York, January 2005)


To Blog or Not to Blog

Sarah Hepola has a piece of interest for many bloggers, I'm sure, on Slate today. In it, she writes of how she recently stopped blogging in order to focus on book-length projects she'd been hoping to write.

As someone who harbors increasingly dim dreams of his own book-length projects (and who, like Hepola, nurtured those dreams for a time in the unlikely milieu of Dallas, where the great majority of books contained diagrammed football plays), I figured I would strongly relate to her feelings about this online enterprise. But two of her thoughts kept me from it. The first is this:
At times, I started to feel that jokes and scenarios and turns of phrase were my capital, and that my capital was limited, and each blog entry was scattering more of it to the wind, pissing away precious dollars and cents in the form of punch lines I could never use again, not without feeling like a hack. You know: "How sad. She stole that line from her own blog."
Hepola also mentions that she published some fiction on her blog, so it's clear she was using the medium as a testing ground in a way that I'm not, unless I want to write a 400-page book about Counting Crows, which -- good news for absolutely everyone -- I don't. (The fact that I haven't attempted anything fictional on this site is something all of you owe me thanks for, much more than you can ever understand.)

Then, Hepola ends with this:
As much as I loved writing online, it's a relief writing offline: taking time to let a story unspool, to massage a sentence over an afternoon's walk, to stew for days—-weeks, even—-on a plot line. What a modern luxury. Now, if I could just turn off the TV, I think I could finally get started.
It's a funny line, but I'm sure there's more than a kernel of truth to it, and it's another reason I haven't been able to muster any feelings of guilt about blogging, despite expecting to have mustered them a long time ago: It's absurd for me to believe that it's keeping me from meatier projects until I start spending more time on said projects and less time watching Letterman and the ESPN channel that repeats the same half hour of highlights all night long.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Burning Eyes to be Soothed (One Hopes) by Somewhat Chick-ish Flick

There are nights aside from the usual Friday-Saturday respite, it has to be said, when blogging just isn't happening. More accurately, basic brain functions aren't happening. So rather than torture you with halfhearted posts (which, trust me, would be even more torturous than my fullhearted posts, if you can imagine), I'm sitting this one out. Over the past week or so, I've read -- no exaggeration -- about 2,000 pages for work, so I'm feeling more than ever that my job, as I once described it to a friend, is less "editor" than "woodchipper." Now, for an exclusive shot of me at my desk:

Given that state of affairs, and the resulting sensation that my eyeballs have been scoured with sandpaper, and given that I've had the same three movies from Netflix for the past six weeks -- also no exaggeration -- I think it's movie-time. Two of the three options are subtitled, and that's no good, subtitles having to be read and all. That leaves me with, I'm half-ashamed to admit, In Her Shoes. Ever since Curtis Hanson directed L.A. Confidential with such style, I figure his movies are worth a shot. I'm off to put that theory to the test. Wish me luck.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Archive of the Day

From Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler:
When she thought of them in their various stages -- first clinging to her, then separating and drifting off -- she thought of the hall lamp she used to leave on so they wouldn't be scared in the dark. Then later she'd left just the bathroom light on, further down the hall of whatever house they'd been living in; and later still just the downstairs light if one of them was out for the evening. Their growing up amounted, therefore, to a gradual dimming of the light at her bedroom door, as if they took some radiance with them as they moved away from her. She should have planned for it better, she sometimes thought. She should have made a few friends or joined a club. But she wasn't the type. It wouldn't have consoled her.

Meta-Link to Myself

Good ol' JW (that's me) over at the Olive Reader shares some thoughts on a tournament of books that recently ended. He links to it here because he won't be writing much tonight, and because he doesn't want to repeat himself. Both good reasons.

Thus endeth the portion of today's blogging in which I refer to myself in the third person.

Five Songs, Chapter Six

The younger sister pointed out that last week's post about Counting Crows came across pretty negative, given what she knows about me and the band. She was just keeping me in line, having lived through the Bon Jovi days and everything. So, here's a special installment of five songs, focusing on the Crows. I can't think of a single fashionable thing about them, now or when they first burst on the scene, but I think their music will hold up reasonably well over time. They're not always shy about fetishizing their influences -- Van Morrison, R.E.M., The Band -- and I think critics hate them for that. (Why they love Wilco for the same exact thing, that's for God to answer.) There's one moment late in the song "Tupelo Honey," in particular, when Morrison plays with the line about dropping all the tea in China into the sea, and it really sounds like he's retroactively aping Duritz. Weird.

"Sullivan Street"

Maria McKee adds backing vocals for warmth on this one. She and the Jayhawks contributed to a few songs on the band's debut, and this is one of my favorites from that record (a record I like quite a bit).

"The Ghost in You"

This is a cover of a Psychedelic Furs song that the band contributed to the Clueless soundtrack, and I include it because it's attached to an anecdote that I always remember as saying a lot about the band and hipsters both. There was a genuinely good alternative radio station in Dallas, before it was bought by a conglomerate and started incessantly playing Creed, Limp Bizkit, and the like. Every Sunday night, there was a show called The Adventure Club that played rarities, brand new stuff, etc. One week, the DJ introduced this song and made a big show of pointing out that it was "the only decent thing this band has done," or something along those lines. But not only is this song similar to something Duritz might write, the vocal performance is mewling and tortured even by his standards. Because of its association with the Furs, the DJ could safely endorse it, but it probably represents more of what he hates about Counting Crows than almost any other song. Putz.

"A Long December"

The thing I've always liked about this song -- though I'm sympathetic to arguments that it's schmaltzy, but that's true of a lot of the band's music, and of me generally -- is that it kind of sounds like the end of a year. (Speaking of putzes.) This second album, my criticisms of which are what spurred my sister to upbraid me, actually has several really good songs on it. There are two or three, though, that are tough to take, and those are the ones that deal with the difficulty of being a rock star. After one album.

"Friend of the Devil"

Cover of a Grateful Dead song (also beautifully done by Lyle Lovett, which I can't find anywhere). I always think it's a mark of a band's competence when they can cover something this well.

"If I Could Give All My Love"

A song off the most recent record that proves the band is keeping Duritz honest -- crafting full, sturdy foundations that keep him from getting too maudlin too often, and that cover for him when he does.


Thursday, April 13, 2006


This story (via Pop Candy) about change-counting machines offering to convert your money directly into iTunes gift cards is depressing news -- mostly because there's almost no question I'm going to take them up on it every time I cash out my change, which usually happens when I'm up to about $150 of it.

Really, why don't I just redirect the biweekly deposit from my corporate overlords away from my old-fashioned "bank" and straight into an iTunes account? Why don't I move away from New York, get a much cheaper apartment, and plop the difference down on iTunes? No, moving's too much trouble, and the $49.99 I would spend on a van can be spent on five full albums on iTunes. Why don't iTunes employees just break into my apartment every night and steal things (autographed books, household appliances, my few decent items of clothing) and auction them off on eBay, placing whatever profit they make into an iTunes account for me? Why?

A Guest Who Can't Outstay His Welcome

Andrew Sullivan is on a break, and so his blog is being kept up by Walter Kirn and Michelle Cottle. I'm not overly familiar with Cottle's work, though I've read her in The New Republic, and I don't mean to snub her by focusing on Kirn, but he's one of my favorite writers. Read this post for proof.
But long stories in prose have become confused with books, which is like confusing music with CDs or art with galleries. Books are merely shipping containers for stories. Unfortunately, the stories designed to fit in books are becoming, it seems to me, more and more like iceberg lettuce -- genetically manipulated to travel well and not to rot, turn colors or change in taste (which motivates growers to first remove their taste) during the roughly year-long interval between being finished and landing in the store. To switch images, such stories are studio albums, not concert recordings. Poses, not performances.

My Pale Imitation of Gawker

So, I was in line at Virgin in Union Square last night around 10:00, buying the new Built to Spill record, and who's in line right in front of me but Colin Farrell and a friend of his. The store wasn't that crowded, but he and the friend were still monitored pretty closely by a thick-necked fellow in their employ (who was really the one right in front of me). Honestly, I'd never bum rush any celebrity, much less Farrell, but it's a good thing I had no interest, because I wasn't getting past this dude.

Farrell was holding a stack of nine or ten DVD's, and the only ones I could see were Wolf Creek, Tootsie, and two old Pink Panther movies.

North Carolina: Easy on the Ears

Norm, over at the appropriately titled Normblog, is running the first poll I can remember him posting since I became a regular reader. This one asks you to name your five favorite state names in the U.S. From what I can tell, and it's what I think is great about this, he wants you to use only one standard: the way the name hits your ear.

To make the poll even more me-friendly, Norm asks that for just one of the states, you submit a song lyric you like that includes the name.

So, my five choices were: North Carolina (by far the prettiest state name, in my opinion; the rest were close calls), Tennessee, Iowa, Virginia, and Texas. I included the last not only because it's a decent name, which I think it is, but because it allowed me to send along this lyric from "This Old Porch" by Lyle Lovett:
And this old porch is the Palace walk-in
On the main street of Texas
That's never seen the day
Of G and R and Xs
With that '62 poster
That's almost faded down
And a screen without a picture
Since Giant came to town
Leave your own choices in the comments, but also let Norm know (there's a link to e-mail him found in the upper right corner of his site).

I Wanna Be Mike Skinner. Man, That's Just About As Funky As You Can Be.

Adam Duritz bonds with humble fan, considers writing decent song.

Duritz attends premiere with Mary Louise Parker, beautiful actress about whom he will soon write a cringe-inducing song.

UK rapper Mike Skinner has a pint while trying to figure out how to write about fame without turning into Duritz-like creature.

A bit Slate-heavy the last couple of days, forgive me, but the site also had a review of The Streets' forthcoming third record today. (For clarity moving ahead, The Streets is basically one guy named Mike Skinner, pictured above.)

Everything I've read mentions that the album focuses on the trials and tribulations of life post-fame, and I agree with Slate's Jody Rosen that this is usually a bad sign. I'll leave aside judgment on this particular record until I've heard it. (Rosen likes it; other assessments have been more mixed. Many critics raved more about Skinner's second album, A Grand Don't Come for Free, than his first, Original Pirate Material. I felt the follow-up was a slight disappointment, if only slight -- the lyrics, key to Skinner's appeal, seemed less inspired to me on Grand, but its best songs were more mature and fully realized than the best on the debut. Long story short: I'm bracing myself for a letdown.)

But about fame: What could be more boring? I remember when Counting Crows hit it big -- a band many of you probably despise. The reason I liked (and still like) "Mr. Jones" is because the song sympathetically but critically addresses its subjects, people desperate for stardom because of a craving that stardom could never fill. The song's power, if you think it has any apart from a pretty good hook, comes from the intersection of their striving and the meaninglessness of that striving. Even if you think the message is still too obvious, the song gets its point across by plainly expressing the dream of its characters. When Adam Duritz sings, "We're gonna be big stars," you're not supposed to think, "Yes, and then they'll be happy!"

Duh, right?

The rest of the first album was full of hand-wringing, depressive but pastoral/rustic, existential love songs. Then, the follow-up album was lousy with caterwauling about dating movie stars and life as a rock star, expressed in solipsistic blather like this:
I was out on the radio starting to change
somewhere out in America
it's starting to rain
could you tell me the things you remember about me?
Yes. I remember you were a decent songwriter.

(Luckily, Duritz recovered, within reason. He's still a self-dramatizing sad sack, and you have to like that to like him, but the band's last, Hard Candy, featured some really good songs alongside some mediocre ones.)

Anyway, the most irritating thing he did around the time of the second album was change the lyrics of "Mr. Jones" to reflect his own stardom. Toward the end of the song, instead of singing "When everybody loves you, that's just about as funky as you can be," he sang "When everybody loves you, that's just about as f---ed up as you can be." Nothing like a sledge hammer to drive home a point. Poor baby.

The point of all this rambling (and there was a lot more of it than I had planned, so: sorry, sorry, sorry) is that Mike Skinner has been appealing -- way more than Duritz, obviously -- precisely because he sings about everyday activities like playing video games and making out on the couch with your girlfriend and drinking pints with a few rowdy friends. I'm eager (anxious, rather, given how much I've enjoyed his work) to see if he can pull off this next move.

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Explicating McCain's Pandering

Slate's editor, Jacob Weisberg, has a compelling piece about John McCain today. Like me, Weisberg sounds like someone who really wants to believe what he's saying about McCain. I hope he's right. (I think he is.) If he is, the worst you can say about McCain is that he's hiding his true nature in order to move ahead on the political landscape, which is hardly a damning judgment unless you believe an unvarnished hall monitor like Ralph Nader is a viable candidate.

Here's an excerpt, but read the whole thing:
McCain began his political career in the 1980s as an untroubled Reagan Republican. His outlook changed drastically, however, after he nearly went down in the Keating Five scandal, for which he blamed both himself and the money-politics system. In the early 1990s, McCain caught the reform bug and became the Senate's foremost advocate of campaign finance reform, as well as an outspoken opponent of corporate welfare and pork-barrel spending. His reform zeal opened the door to other heresies and formed the basis for his presidential run. Part of what was compelling about McCain as a candidate in the 2000 primaries was that he was a politician in genuine flux. On the campaign trail, you could see him losing faith in conservative orthodoxy on issues like poverty, income inequality, health care, and global warming, spurred by encounters with humans in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Spring Feeling More Like Summer

The last few years, it seems like spring and fall are shrinking, gradually leaving only two seasons, even in a traditional four-seasons place like New York. Well, if that's true, I think I rang in summer today. Headed up to the Bronx for a 1:00 Yankees game (I wanted to think of it as playing hooky, in a Ferris-Bueller-at-Wrigley kind of way, but since I told my work I was taking the day off, I guess it doesn't count). The home team beat the Royals, 9-3, to complete a three-game sweep.

Three notes from the game, aside from the blazing sun that left my pale self with an April burn:

--There was a brawl in the upper deck towards the end of the game. Couldn't really make out what was happening (we were up there, too, but further down the line), but one shirtless participant seemed to insist on fighting even after the cops showed up, and I think he'll be spending at least the night in the slammer for his troubles. He was kind of resisting arrest, too, come to think of it. Maybe make that a few nights. It reminded me that I happily took a good friend from Oklahoma (a sports nut to end all sports nuts who had never been to Yankee Stadium) to a game a couple of years ago, and a drunken idiot was tossed from that game, too. The lesson, appropriate to all the talk of "places" the last few days, is this: New York has lots and lots of meathead goons. Just because they don't make the brochures doesn't mean they shouldn't be counted against the place.

--Bernie Williams is in for an odd season. He had three hits today, the first of which was an RBI single. It was a solid early contribution, but the Yankees crowd -- always sentimental about those it loves, and Bernie certainly qualifies -- treated it like a game-winning homer in October. The fans chanted his name until he had to acknowledge them with a tip of his helmet from first base. I'm glad Bernie's back, too, since that seemed highly unlikely at the end of last season, but I kind of feel for him -- if every hit is going to be greeted like he's a hero, he might start feeling like the kid who's being allowed to win. No one wants that.

--Johnny Damon hit a three-run home in the eighth, and the remaining crowd called him out for a curtain call. Seemed like a pivotal moment, the Bronx crowd's first outreaching embrace of the former Red Sox villain. I'm still very ambivalent about his presence here; today's homer, for instance -- off the bat, it looked sickeningly like the grand slam he hit in Game 7 of the ALCS. It was like a 'Nam flashback. Here's what I told my friend after the game, and I'll stick to it: If Damon plays hard all year, plays a large role in helping win a World Series, and then publicly says that it was more fun doing it in New York than in Boston, then I'm happy to have him. Anything less than that: Ambivalence.


Litter From Space

If you visited Slate today, it was hard to miss the featured slide show of photos, which documents a countryside where spacecrafts routinely fall from the sky. A pretty stunning set of shots.

Trying to Avoid a Cheesy Headline, Like "Timber!", and Failing

I can't believe I'm just finding this out now, but it seems that Trees, one of my favorite venues for live music in Dallas, closed a few months ago. I'd heard from friends there that Deep Ellum, the arts-driven neighborhood where most touring bands worth hearing perform, had been plagued (and essentially destroyed) by bizarre and extreme violence over the past couple of years, and this article confirms that. Very sad.

I saw some amazing shows at Trees, which was a very intimate space (if you're in New York, think of the Bowery Ballroom, but with a grungier vibe). It's a list that includes Ben Harper, Dave Matthews Band (I'm not really a fan anymore, but I was at the time, and their live reputation is well earned), the Lemonheads, Elliott Smith, and Whiskeytown. And a few local bands that, looking back, were pretty crappy.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

AP It Scarcely Seems Possible Headline of the Day

Madonna Marriage May Have Had Bumpy Period

Texas' Turn

(Dallas skyline, above)

My recent, seemingly innocent post about New York very quickly generated some defensiveness from Texans. Well, from Dezmond.

And before I (slightly) stand up for what I like about the big ol' state with delusions of nationhood grandeur, I thought it would be a lot of fun to further fan the flames. (And to use alliteration.) So, here are two writers on Texas. The first is Bill Simmons, ESPN's "Sports Guy," who covered several big events in Houston a few years back, and wrote this after the final one:
In the past four years, I made four separate trips to Houston and spent a total of 24 days here. And you know why I did it? For you, the reader. I covered the Bowl, the Super Bowl, baseball's All-Star Game, and now, the NBA All-Star Game. And you know what? That's too much freaking time to spend in Houston. My editors just bleeped me, I don't care. Maybe Houston doesn't suck any more or less than 20 other major cities, and maybe the people are friendly and likable, but the fact remains, you would never come here for any reason, other than these three:

(1) For work.
(2) To gain weight.
(3) To get shot.

You just wouldn't. And yet, dating back to the Super Bowl XXXVIII in February 2004, three of the last eight major sporting events were held in Houston. Does this make any sense? There are 30 to 35 American cities that could host the Super Bowl and/or either of the All-Star Games ... and yet Houston pulled off the Ultimate Pro Sports Trifecta in a 24-month span, despite the fact that it's a sprawling city with traffic and safety problems (the three intangibles you always want to avoid for major sporting events). Here's what really frightens me: I have spent so much time here, I actually know my way around. Can I have this information removed from my brain? Is there a pill I can take?
But that's nothing compared to Edward Abbey, famed author and environmentalist -- and hardly a Yankee sympathizer -- and what he had to say about the entire state:
Why does every American with any sensibility and wit despise Texas? Is it merely a joke, a national gag? Not at all -– there are good and sufficient reasons for this serious and widespread attitude. Why pick on Texas? Because it typifies, concentrates and exaggerates most everything that is rotten in America: it’s vulgar -– not only cultureless but anticultural; it’s rich in a brazen, vulgar, graceless way; it combines the bigotry and sheer animal ignorance of the Old South with the aggressive, ruthless, bustling dollar-crazy brutality of the Yankee East and then attempts to hide this ugliness under a façade of mock-western play clothes stolen from a way of life that was crushed by Texanism over half a century ago. The trouble with Texas: it’s ugly, noisy, mean-spirited, mediocre and false.
That sound you just heard was Dezmond's head popping off from the rest of his body. So now that he's properly apoplectic, here's my take:

As Simmons' feelings indicate, Texas cities aren't great at first impressions. They're basically giant suburbs, with few satisfying hubs for communal life. With the exception of the hill country north of Austin, they're fairly flat and ugly, not particularly green or inviting. Abbey's anticultural comment was made a long time ago, and it's no longer fair -- Fort Worth, in particular, is home to several world-class museums and the relatively new Bass Performance Hall, which is universally praised. That said, no one's going to confuse Dallas for a bookish city. There's a lack of pretension that comes with that, but also, in my opinion, a lack of inspiration.

In short, Texas is not a destination. Despite a popular bumper sticker down there that reads, "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could," people don't flock there on vacation and then decide to move, driving up real estate prices.

But in that way, it has the appeal (an appeal I find more significant with the passing of time) of a place that isn't descended upon by all stripes of hipsters and hangers-on, but manages to engender in its native population an abiding affection. (The irony of this affection, as illustrated by Dezmond, is that Texans are neck and neck with New Yorkers when it comes to hometown arrogance. I don't get the sense that Ohio or Minnesota is cranking out bumper stickers like the one mentioned above. New York might, though, if New Yorkers weren't so allergic to appearing to care about stuff.) Also, back to being nice, the flatness can provide incredible views at sunset, which views are also accompanied by a feeling of relief that it will get three... degrees... cooler when the damn fireball (it feels eerily more like an oven light on most days) finally falls past the horizon. What culture it does have values, among other things, live music and drinking beer on sunny weekend afternoons. Nothing wrong with that.

The thing I don't understand is Dezmond's (and others') insistence on disputing fairly objective facts. New York is different from Dallas and Houston in kind, not in degree, the same way those cities are different from Fargo. This is rooted in any number of historical and sociological factors that Dezmond, being a history buff, should revel in, not try to flatten.

Ultimately, though, Texas is like anywhere else that does its best to cobble together claims to fame, rather than gaudily and immediately seducing you like New York and only a handful of other places can. To a point my sister made in the comments, living somewhere long enough is a way of coming to love it. Unlike my siblings (one of whom spent almost no time there, and one of whom spent just enough to know she wanted out), and cheesy as it is to say, I pretty much became the person I am while living there. I fell in love for the first (and second) time; I befriended some of the funniest, smartest, most grounded people I've ever known (and am lucky to still know); I drove around the 635 loop in the wee hours of the morning listening to The Bends with the windows down and day(night?)dreaming about other places to live; I discussed Kant and Rawls with my high school debate friends until I could convincingly pretend I knew what I was talking about (a still-valuable skill, for sure); and I packed up and left after 12 years feeling much heavier of heart than I ever expected to.

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Klosterman on Bonds and His Freakish Head

Chuck Klosterman has an entertaining piece about Barry Bonds over on ESPN today, in which he writes of Bonds' impending vault over Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list: "His statistical destruction of Ruth is metaphoric, but not in a good way. It's an indictment of modernity, even for people who don't give a damn about the past or the present."

He also calls Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire "jovial manimals," and says that "Americans tend to be conspiracy theorists, but we're not particularly skeptical."

Monday, April 10, 2006

Richard Ford, Underlining, and Me

The Humorless Feminist recently posted a paragraph from one of my favorite novels, The Sportswriter by Richard Ford. Here is her selection.

I point you to it for two reasons. First, because it's a great choice from a great book. If you haven't read the whole thing, do.

But secondly, it inspired me to pull my copy from the shelf and look at what I had highlighted. Until I was about 25 or so, I pretty consistently marked up books, underlining sentences and bracketing paragraphs that I was sure I would want to revisit. When I wonder why I stopped this as a regular habit (I still do it on occasion), all I have to do is go back and look at the marked books. Good lord. The Sportswriter is a perfect example. The passage cited by the aforementioned feminist is beautifully written and certainly sad enough for the somewhat dreary college student I was when I originally read it. But no, the majority of my signposts were planted to guide me back to surpassingly lovelorn moments, moments that could lead a shrewd reader to guess probably 80% of my record collection at the time (OK, fine, 80% of my record collection now). Here are three such moments chosen not-quite-randomly:
She kisses my ear until my legs tingle, and I want to squeeze my eyes shut and give up control. This is enough to bring us back up to ground level, and send us to the airport with all my old hopes ascendant.
I am easily rescued, it's true.

Genuinely good conversations with your ex-wife are limited by the widening territories of intimacy from which you're restricted.
And lastly (good lord, good lord):
In some of the heart's business there is really no net gain.
Who the hell did I think I was, Werther?

Luckily, by the time I read the sequel a few years later (Independence Day, another great book, maybe even better; and not about Will Smith battling space aliens), I had started to shake off my wistfulness (at least the outer layer of it; in fact, yes, it was more like I was molting to make way for a new wistfulness), and perhaps Ford had started lightening up more as well. Even the dialogue between exes that I checked off was a bit snappier:
"Everything's in quotes with you, Frank. Nothing's really solid. Every time I talk to you I feel like everything's being written by you. Even my lines. That's awful. Isn't it? Or sad?"

"Not if you liked them."
And then there are many solid, witty paragraphs like this one, which I'll mercifully end on:
...I had been uneasily aware that I had never done very much in my life that was honestly good except for myself and my loved ones (and not all of them would agree even with that). Writing sports, as anyone can tell you who's ever done it or read it, is at best offering a harmless way to burn up a few unpromising brain cells while someone eats breakfast cereal, waits nervously in the doctor's office for CAT-scan results or mulls away dreamy, solitary minutes in the can. And as far as my own hometown was concerned, apart from transporting the occasional half-flattened squirrel to the vet, or calling the fire department once when my elderly neighbors the Deffeyes let their gas barbecue set their back porch on fire and threatened the neighborhood, or some other act of tepid suburban heroism, I'd probably contributed as little to the commonweal as it was possible for a busy man to contribute without being plain evil.


The Yin and Yang of New York (both photographs immediately below representing the yin, to keep things pretty)

(Apologies ahead of time for the awfully generic observations found below, but I made a promise.)

One of the funny things about spending significant time in the south is that you meet a lot of smart, well-traveled, interested people who ask for a defense (of sorts) of New York. I’ve been here almost six years now, and one of the deepest truths of the place is the fervent belief among young(ish) people who come here that it’s where they need to be. They complain about the more taxing aspects of the city on occasion, but you get the sense that they couldn’t live anywhere else (at least for a while). So the longer I stay, the odder it seems when someone -- especially someone who has a lot in common with my Yankee friends -- asks me to describe why I choose to live here. But I’m glad they do, because, probably more than the average place, New York causes you to take stock every now and again, and rededicate yourself to the project of hanging in here (or to the project of fleeing in some way that won’t feel like giving up).

As the humid season approaches, when I spend every other day wondering why I don't move to Saratoga Springs (aside from dearth of employment opportunities, lack of social options, and a better than even chance that I would become a degenerate horse gambler within a year or two), it's time to briefly answer a friend's recent question about just what's so great about living in the city. (Calling New York the city is a pretty surefire way to piss off people who live elsewhere. It's fun. Try it.)

First, if you love street living -- walking down the block for pretty much every practical need, and several highly impractical needs as well, at just about any hour -- then there's nowhere else in America for you. In this sense and others, the positive aspects of living here are so broad as to verge on cliche. Just think of the communal, continually adolescent group fun fetishized in shows like Seinfeld and Friends, but with real beauty around you instead of plastic L.A. sets, and with, you know, real people, too. (The beauty, of course, takes the form of the pristine -- Lincoln Center, the Chrysler Building, the bridges, the broader skyline (see above), residential streets (also see above) -- but also what one friend calls "picturesque urban decay." The perfect phrase.) Not excluding myself by any stretch, I've found that New York is an incredibly provincial place for a certain group of people in their 20s and 30s, where they can extend their college experience to its breaking point (which point, for many, doesn't seem to exist). This is enjoyable and incredibly annoying in all the ways you would expect, but you can wring a lot of the former feeling from it before you hit the latter.

Every day, there's something to seek out. My recommendation today (though it doesn't actually happen for another couple of weeks) is the opening of the redesigned Morgan Library and Museum. And every day, something seeks you out. Another friend recounted a cab ride last week, during which the Russian driver had a fender bender with a Chinese counterpart and ended up screaming at him, "I will kick you in your brain! In your brain!" If that doesn't sound like a good time, don't come here. It might come down to this: New York is perfect for people who need constant stimulation, regardless of the type, and probably ruinous for anyone else.

I walked along the east side of Central Park the other night for the first time in a long while, for the last hour or so of sunlight, and was giddy. That said, I needed the reprieve it gave me. Because here's the yang: yes, the place can drive you crazy.

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Archive of the Day

With a little more than four months until my annual restorative to Saratoga, I give you...

To One Who Has Been Long in City Pent by John Keats:

To one who has been long in city pent,
'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven,--to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart's content,
Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
Catching the notes of Philomel,--an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet's bright career,
He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E'en like the passage of an angel's tear
That falls through the clear ether silently.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Life-Changing Reads

My colleague EJ over at the Olive Reader, where we blog about bookish matters, recently linked to this piece in The Guardian about influential novels.

The piece leads with this:
The novel that means most to men is about indifference, alienation and lack of emotional responses. That which means most to women is about deeply held feelings, a struggle to overcome circumstances and passion, research by the University of London has found.
This might seem a bit obvious to those who know the genders, but it becomes even more so when it's revealed that the poll asked respondents -- many of them at least tangentially involved with literature on a professional level -- to name "novels that had changed their lives." It seems clear to me that this would bias the results toward books read at an impressionable age. I still love a lot of books upon reading them, but I'd say the bar for "changing my life" has been raised considerably since I was 22 or so.

Lisa Jardine, one of the project's leaders, said, "The men's list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading." Orwell can be summed up as puberty reading? Jeez. That's a bit tough, no? (Granted, they're talking about 1984 in particular, I think, but seeing Orwell dismissed alongside the entire category of "angst" smarted a little.)

The point is made that the men's list is full of male writers, while the females interviewed mentioned Jane Austen, George Eliot, and other great women writers. Again, the idea is that these books affected respondents at a young age, so of course men chose books of alienation (Catch 22) and rage against the machine (Slaughterhouse Five) and heartache (High Fidelity), because many young male readers are heartbroken, alienated dudes who are impotently raging against various machines, real and imagined.

Anyone care to share their most life-changing reads? The few that come to mind for me: Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, The Risk Pool by Richard Russo, and The Brothers K by David James Duncan, all of which, at the time I read them, not only moved me but gave me the inkling that writing fiction might be something I wanted to do. It's an inkling I'm still trying to shake, mostly by not doing anything about it.

Then there's this paragraph in the Guardian piece, as if I needed more reason to doubt the necessity or wisdom of my participation in the publishing industry:
"On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction. This should have some impact on the book trade. There was a moment when car manufacturers realised that it was women who bought the family car, and the whole industry changed. We need fiction publishers -- many of whom are women -- to go through the same kind of recognition," Prof Jardine said.


"Use Words. Shut Up."

I've heard about, but haven't seen, this MTV2 show called "Wonder Showzen." Salon (a while ago) linked to this video clip of an aggressively obnoxious puppet named Clarence interviewing people on the street about freedom of speech. Very funny. If you don't subscribe to Salon, I think you'll need to click on a sponsor first. Hopefully, you'll think it's worth it.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Frazier on Places

At work, I see a lot of magazines, some of which I never subscribed to but get sent to my attention anyway. If seeing random magazines was a perk, this would be a job perk.

One such magazine is called Stop Smiling, and this month it features an interview with Ian Frazier. If you've been paying attention -- like, here and here -- you know I'm a fan of his. Since I can't be the blogmaster I'd like to be this week, I thought I'd let Ian take up some space with two answers that tickled me. Here you go:
Stop Smiling: Your research seems to involve a lot of time on the road. What are the differences between living in a place and spending time there?

Ian Frazier: You don't know a place until you have been really deeply bored there -- the kind of boredom that you have in a Midwestern small town when you say, "I'll kill myself, it's so boring." When you're in Ohio in a small town and you're thinking, "I'm leaving this town," somehow, to me, that's the authentic experience for being in that place. For many people, getting really bored in it and vowing to leave is sort of a key experience. But there are places that are so heavily influenced by passing through that passing through itself is the experience of that place. New York is an obvious example, but I'm doing this book on Siberia, and I've passed through it a number of times and read many books by people who have passed through it, and it now strikes me that that's really what Siberia is about. There's a level of Siberia where that's all it is -- just an area of transit people pass through.

Stop Smiling: Is it possible to write about a physical location without writing about the people who live there, or the people who used to?

Ian Frazier: One thing that I noticed when I traveled the country is that places look the way people who see them feel. If you go to Reno, it looks like somebody who's gotten a quickie divorce. What goes on in the place just affects it. The Pine Ridge Reservation, you know -- people are bummed out. What you're seeing is an external expression of their frame of mind -- the frame of mind of the people. You can go to a monastery or a religious site of faith that you have no affinity with, or any understanding of, or you don't share, but still you can see that an intangible, indefinable religious frame of mind is being expressed in this place. That it looks like people pray here. Where I get off the bus -- the Port Authority bus -- it looks the way you feel in your brain when you have just gotten up in the morning and you're on your morning commute. There's a mundane tiredness to the Port Authority bus terminal that is exactly the mundane tiredness of the commuter internally.

It's On

I'm pleased to announce that from May 20-May 28, readers of this blog will be directed to a site chronicling the second annual baseball road trip embarked upon by myself and friend JF. We'll visit Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and points in between, as I reconnect with my second home and its attendant conflicted feelings and JF visits the Lone Star State for the first time. Should be a blast. (Texas friends, if you haven't heard from me yet about making plans, you will soon.)

For now, feel free to recommend some names for the blog. Last year, we chose The Butch Wynegar Project, so a former player should figure in the name if possible. This is Butch Wynegar:

This year, I've suggested The Mickey Rivers Experience. JF has yet to weigh in.

This is Mickey Rivers:

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Small Sample Platter

Light night tonight, because I have enough work this week to keep a medium-sized editorial department busy. So let's just take a quick tour of the old 'sphere, shall we?

--The original lineup of R.E.M. got together the other night to perform "Country Feedback," a great, great song. I wasn't there, because life's not fair. (Via Pop Candy)

--Maritime is a band that rose from the ashes of The Promise Ring, and I've been lucky enough to meet their drummer a few times through a common friend. He's a fine Wisconsin fellow, he is. I'm not being sarcastic. He's one of those creative people who exist outside of New York who are, you know, nice. And humble. My Old Kentucky Blog links to a couple of solid songs from the band's forthcoming album, We, The Vehicles.

--ARGH. I don't have the right media player for it, and I don't have time to download it right now, but NME has posted the new album from The Streets. (Also via Pop Candy.) Frustration, frustration. Enjoy it for me, if you can. OK, I have to leave the apartment to read now or I'm never going to get anything done. But one last thing before I go...

--The Stranger points us to this thought from Marguerite Duras:
Alcohol doesn’t console, it doesn’t fill up anyone’s psychological gaps, all it replaces is the lack of God. It doesn’t comfort man. On the contrary, it encourages him in his folly, it transports him to the supreme regions where he is master of his own destiny.
Is it a bad sign that reading that makes me thirsty?

AP Making an Honest Space Alien of Her Headline of the Day

Cruise Plans to Marry Holmes This Summer

Five Songs, Chapter Five

"Brickbat" by Billy Bragg

The same way I feel about almost every artist who traffics in both, I like Bragg's personal songs better than his political ones, and this is actually a nice mix of the two, very gently chronicling the domestic transformation of a former rabble-rouser. It has a great chorus:
I used to want to plant bombs at the Last Night of the Proms
but now you'll find me with the baby, in the bathroom,
with that big shell, listening for the sound of the sea,
the baby and me
When I first heard it years ago, it spurred me to investigate the Last Night of the Proms, which was unknown to me. Here's the answer.

"This Woman's Work" by Maxwell (version on MTV Unplugged)

A cover of a Kate Bush song, performed in a falsetto that caused a friend this weekend to ask, after I answered his question about who was singing, "Wait, this is a dude?"

"Nobody Knows Me" by Lyle Lovett

Because no one but Lovett could make the following lyrics quite so genuinely affecting:
And I like cream in my coffee
And I like to sleep late on Sunday
And nobody knows me like my baby
And I like eggs over easy
With flour tortillas
And nobody knows me like my baby
"Angel, Won't You Call Me?" by The Decemberists

Off of an early e.p., and known to me thanks to the recent suggestion of a friend. (Also great on the same record is "Oceanside," which shares its title with my hometown, though it's not about that place. Actually, the whole e.p. is pretty good.)

"Life In a Northern Town" by Dream Academy

Your '80s fix for the day. You're welcome.


Archive of the Day

Will try to limit the size of these as a general rule, but a good archive is a good archive. This one I just discovered the other day; it's a poem called When a Woman Loves a Man by David Lehman:

When she says Margarita she means Daiquiri.
When she says quixotic she means mercurial.
And when she says, "I'll never speak to you again,"
she means, "Put your arms around me from behind
as I stand disconsolate at the window."

He's supposed to know that.

When a man loves a woman he is in New York and she is in Virginia
or he is in Boston, writing, and she is in New York, reading,
or she is wearing a sweater and sunglasses in Balboa Park and he
is raking leaves in Ithaca
or he is driving to East Hampton and she is standing disconsolate
at the window overlooking the bay
where a regatta of many-colored sails is going on
while he is stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway.

When a woman loves a man it is one-ten in the morning,
she is asleep he is watching the ball scores and eating pretzels
drinking lemonade
and two hours later he wakes up and staggers into bed
where she remains asleep and very warm.

When she says tomorrow she means in three or four weeks.
When she says, "We're talking about me now,"
he stops talking. Her best friend comes over and says,
"Did somebody die?"

When a woman loves a man, they have gone
to swim naked in the stream
on a glorious July day
with the sound of the waterfall like a chuckle
of water rushing over smooth rocks,
and there is nothing alien in the universe.

Ripe apples fall about them.
What else can they do but eat?

When he says, "Ours is a transitional era."
"That's very original of you," she replies,
dry as the Martini he is sipping.

They fight all the time
It's fun
What do I owe you?
Let's start with an apology
Ok, I'm sorry, you dickhead.
A sign is held up saying "Laughter."
It's a silent picture.
"I've been fucked without a kiss," she says,
"and you can quote me on that,"
which sounds great in an English accent.

One year they broke up seven times and threatened to do it
another nine times.

When a woman loves a man, she wants him to meet her at the
airport in a foreign country with a jeep.
When a man loves a woman he's there. He doesn't complain that
she's two hours late
and there's nothing in the refrigerator.

When a woman loves a man, she wants to stay awake.
She's like a child crying
at nightfall because she didn't want the day to end.

When a man loves a woman, he watches her sleep, thinking:
as midnight to the moon is sleep to the beloved.
A thousand fireflies wink at him.
The frogs sound like the string section
of the orchestra warming up.
The stars dangle down like earrings the shape of grapes.

Opening Day

Or, as I like to call it, The First Real Day of the Year. The Yankees are well on their way to a decisive win on the west coast. The Mets looked solid in a win this afternoon. My fantasy team had a well-rounded day -- two homers, two wins, a save.

The weekend weather in New York was ridiculously beautiful, and now this. Breathe it in, people. Baseball.

The Robots Are Coming

During my storied time as an unpaid intern at a literary-political magazine in New York, my fellow interns and I spent some of our valuable time dreaming up names for a future rock band we would never form. (Random Ed. Note: My favorite line in The Life Aquatic: "Don't shoot him! He's an unpaid intern.") We settled on the name Global Robot Population. (For completists, our first three albums were going to be called, respectively, Who's Your Robo-Daddy?, Skillz With a Zed, and Third Prong.)

Now, South Korea is making noises about having robots in 100% of homes (presumably just the homes in South Korea) by 2020. Seems ambitious. And based on this picture, kind of creepy, too.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Back to Church (Literally, This Time)

My mother relocated to Long Island last fall and now lives just a few blocks from the church we attended until 1988, when Texas beckoned. (In fact, she lives much closer to the church now than we did then, but she doesn’t attend this time around, as its practices are no longer strict enough for her. Let it be said: seventeen years in Texas does things to people.)

Two weekends ago, I accompanied her to said house of worship for a memorial service for the bishop who had confirmed me when I was an impressionable lad of 12; though probably not quite as impressionable as the major players involved would have liked, as it turned out. One imagines they wanted me to be impressionable enough to remain in the church with something resembling fidelity past the age of 14. As it is, they have to console themselves with the fact that I was impressionable enough to be compulsively blogging about pseudo-religious issues 20 years later. Something tells me this is not much consolation at all. Or, rather, someone tells me: my mother. And I’m sure the bishop would, too, were he still around.

I thought he was. Under the mistaken impression that he was alive and visiting to catch up with the congregation, I got to the island with my younger sister to learn that he had passed a few months before (which I’m sure I’d been told at some point) and that the day's purpose was a belated celebration of his life. The point is, it’s a good thing I happened to be wearing a black suit.

Younger sister, whose antagonism toward all things god resembles a welder’s flame, harbored a different assumption, painfully deflated, which was that we were only going to the church’s refectory for snacks, coffee and conversation. Told there would be an actual service, she reacted in the composed, quiet, human version of how a dog reacts from the back seat when the vet’s clinic comes into view through the windshield. Not pleased.

Ironically, she should have been more worried about the eating and chatting that followed the service, as I think she’ll readily admit. First, there was the sheer nostalgic horror of the setting. It was odd enough to sit in the church where I had been a stage-frightened altar boy two decades before, but when we later descended into the Sunday school classrooms in the next building over, Leigh (calling her younger sister is getting really old, and I think all of you know her anyway) nearly shrank down to her nine-year-old size from the impact of the time travel.

Then it was up to the spread: sandwiches, cookies, coffee, wine and awkward meetings. This is not to denigrate the efforts of Mom, who in such settings is a valiant and tireless socializer the likes of which you probably haven’t seen, and who managed to steer us to a few people who were genuinely good to see after so many years. Still, like we all learned long ago, your parents’ wing span can only protect you up to a point, and eventually I found myself roaming the reception hall flanked by neither Mom nor Leigh, who had excused herself to make a phone call. That’s when I ran into two men who looked vaguely familiar (one of them had been a Sunday school teacher of mine), and had the following conversation:
Vague Man #1: So, what have you been up to? Where are you living?
Me: I’m in Brooklyn.
Vague Man #1: Huh, most people go from Brooklyn to Long Island, not the other way around. (Ed. Notes: 1. I have only a slight idea of what that means. 2. The twelve years in Texas between those two stops for me throws off whatever it does mean, I’m almost sure.)
Vague Man #2 (to Vague Man #1, as if I wasn’t there): Well, before long he’ll be looking for a house in Rockville Centre, somewhere to settle down.
Vague Man #1: That’s right.
Vague Man #2 (staring into the distance now, as if both myself and Vague Man #1 weren’t there): It’s the circle of life. (Quick, bitter laugh; still aimed into the distance.)
I’m not one to be visibly rude, even in social situations I’m not enjoying, but the shudder that passed through me at that moment possessed the force to literally turn my body from these two men. So repositioned, I quickly walked away. Having been, essentially, a creature of the suburbs until I was 26, I often defend them against the most ridiculous and paranoid portraits. Still, there was something about that 30-second exchange that chilled me to my core.

Then it was off to do a bit more wandering, and I was struck by something. I’ve realized for most of my adult life that church -- for most people, I think -- is first and foremost a place to get together. To mingle. (Granted, this is because Episcopalians are really good at that side of things. My father was raised Irish Catholic, and even though he's not particularly God-fearing himself, he would often bemoan our churchgoing experiences when I was a kid, saying things along the lines of, "I don't go to church to eat pancakes; I go to hear about how I'm going to burn in Hell if I don't shape up." Which always made me laugh, partly because it's closer to the truth to say he went to church as a down payment toward watching football later that afternoon in relative peace.) It’s not that the minglers don’t believe in God, obviously, but more that they don't seem outwardly invested in believing in God. When you go to a baseball game, you often hear fans on the concourse talking about statistics and injuries and impending match-ups. When you go to a reading, you hear people discussing the author’s work, or recommending books to each other. Even at highly rated restaurants, patrons surely talk about the food, the service, the decor. But after a church service, no one’s talking about God, or their spirit, or large questions of morality and mortality. Not in my experience, at least. And I think that’s the second reason I don’t like church. The first reason is that I don’t believe in the story its built to house, of course. But if I did, I think it might be even worse. I’d find myself shouting over the croissants and decaf: Where’s the engagement with our subject? Surely, your soul’s credit rating or God’s relationship with the universe or how to make earth a bit more heavenly is of slightly more import than whether Ken Griffey’s hamstring is going to heal before the All-Star break, so why can’t we talk about it? (Luckily, being a non-believer myself, I’m able to fervently discuss Griffey’s hamstring without such concerns. Whew.)

I also think this is why I love discussing religion with those who are no longer directly influenced by it but still wrestle with the one-time influence it had -- because unlike true believers and confident naysayers, the subject means something to them in a way that isn’t always obvious to them, and that makes for good conversation. And when talking about it, I prefer whiskey to coffee, and Radiohead to hymns.

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