Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Reading Map

Over at Omnivoracious, an Amazon blog, there’s a pretty great project going on through late November, inspired by a new book. Tom Nissley -- with the help of occasional guests -- is posting lists of books representing each state, with the number of books matching the number of delegates that state has in the Electoral College (eight for Georgia, 15 for South Carolina, 31 for New York, etc.) The rules are pretty loose. A book can be written by someone who was born in that state, moved to that state, got a flat tire in that state, died in that state -- or the book can just be about that state.

You can really get lost over there. Many of the chosen books are classics, but others -- like The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by humorist Will Cuppy (Indiana) -- might be new to you.

Nissley’s instincts seem admirable. For instance, not only does he list The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson under Ohio, he asks: “Is there any piece of American art about whose sheer awesomeness there is such unanimous agreement?” Indeed, no.

He also lists Andrew Beyer’s classic Picking Winners: A Horseplayer’s Guide under Maryland, proving that he’s after at least this reader's heart.

The project will probably inspire you to add several books to your wish list. Perhaps the one I’m most eager to read is The Death of Picasso, a collection of nonfiction by Guy Davenport. In the Kentucky entry, guest curator John Jeremiah Sullivan singles out this passage from one of Davenport’s essays:
The best display of manners on the part of a restaurant I have witnessed was at the Imperial Ramada Inn in Lexington, Kentucky, into the Middle Lawrence Welk Baroque dining room of which I once went with the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (disguised as a businessman), the Trappist Thomas Merton (in mufti, dressed as a tobacco farmer with a tonsure), and an editor of Fortune who had wrecked his Hertz car coming from the airport and was covered in spattered blood from head to toe. Hollywood is used to such things (Linda Darnell having a milk shake with Frankenstein's monster between takes), and Rome and New York, but not Lexington, Kentucky. Our meal was served with no comment whatever from the waitresses, despite Merton's downing six martinis and the Fortune editor stanching his wounds with all the napkins.
(via Maud Newton)

Labels: , , ,

The Rock

The funniest show on TV begins its third season tonight -- 9:30 Eastern, 8:30 Central. So, a medley to get everyone in the mood:

Philly Phlashback

Speaking of Jon (in the post below), the Phillies' win last night reminded me again of the first stop we made on a baseball trip almost three and a half years ago. During our time in Philadelphia, we appreciated the team's new stadium, enjoyed the work of a conspicuously displayed organist, figured out what exactly the Philly Phanatic is supposed to be, and came to respect the mascot even more after exposure to others around the league.

We also (as pictured) sat silently by as the Phanatic attempted to suck the brains out of a fan in our row.

Congrats to the Phillies, a very tough, likable team that beat an equally tough and likable opponent. Now, excuse me as I work on the first draft of my fantasy rankings for 2009...

A Well Deserved Plug

Today marks the release of my good friend Jon Fasman's second novel, The Unpossessed City. It concerns a young American with gambling debts who uses his Russian language skills to make money interviewing former political prisoners. What follows includes "murderous bureaucrats, Central Asian mobsters, and a conspiracy to sell Soviet bioweapons to the highest bidder."

Along with his thrilling plots, Jon always draws convincing, complex portraits of people and places. This time, the person is Jim Vilatzer, and the place is Moscow. Publishers Weekly wrote that Jon "takes a compassionate look at the hard truths of modern-day Russia in his absorbing second novel."

You can order the book online, of course, but it should also be on store shelves today.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Valuable Time

For Wednesday, The Smiths doing "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" in Madrid, 1985. Bonus: Two full minutes of the crowd getting fired up (including what sound like soccer chants) at the start. Live vicariously, people, and enjoy:

Quick Note On a Series On Hold

I don't know why Peter Gammons is already calling this the "worst World Series in memory." It's not over yet. What if the close of Game 5 leads to a great Game 6, and even Game 7? I also have no idea why he thinks that one way to avoid this week's delay would be "to figure a way to shorten the (regular season) schedule." Are severe rain storms impossible earlier in October?

To me, there's just one main lesson from the other night: Bud Selig is still the worst commissioner in the history of any major sport. Turns out (I'm a huge baseball fan, and I'm just learning this now, in preparing this post), it was decided ahead of time (by Selig) that Game 5 wouldn't end because of rain. On the one hand, that's smart -- if the Phillies had won it all after a six-inning game and a four-hour rain delay, that undoubtedly would be the worst World Series...ever. On the other hand, it seems kind of arbitrary that Selig decided this. It would be nice to have a much clearer rule on the books, for the future.

AP Headline of the Day

Cambodia's First Rock Opera Opens Next Month

Let the Right One In

Over at Pajiba, I review the contemplative Swedish vampire flick:
Let the Right One In is creepier, and more visually beautiful, than anything else you’re likely to see this year. Or next. Directed by Tomas Alfredson and adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel, it could be — and has been — called a horror movie, but it’s also an exceedingly unusual love story.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

NBA Preview

The NBA tips off its 2008-09 season tonight, so I thought I’d offer a preview -- just one post, in four parts:

1. The incredible Free Darko has a preview of every game in the imminent season. Being Free Darko, the previews range from the boldly specific (“Feb 04 Cleveland @ New York - The paparazzi spend all day trying to get shots of LeBron buying pizza-by-the-slice, but Zydrunas ends up dominating the game with 24 points on 10/14 shooting”) to the highly likely (“Feb 08 New Jersey @ Orlando - With the Nets down 15 four minutes into the third quarter, Vince Carter informs Lawrence Frank that his ankle hurts”) to the historically minded (“Mar 11 Dallas@Portland: Cuban realizes that he's facing yet another long, versatile PF from the Dallas metroplex, and begins lobbying Stern to bring back the territorial draft”) to the straight-up koan (“Mar 07 Philadelphia@Memphis: Tell me, who here is the skeptic, who the believer? And who among us knows which side to take?”).

Also, the Free Darko book comes out in a couple of weeks. I strongly suggest pre-ordering a copy, as it’s easily one of the most beautifully designed, proudly fanatical, and imaginatively...imagined books I’ve ever seen.

2. The New York Times looks at the process that led to a major sports franchise in Oklahoma City -- the former Seattle Sonics begin life there this year as the Thunder. (Interesting nugget: “For the fourth time since 1985, the NBA has traded down to a smaller market. That trend risks shrinking its television footprint and stunting the value of its other franchises.” But dear God, I really hate the “footprint” thing. This needs to stop now, before I’m legally required to refer to my traffic in terms of my “blogging footprint.”)

3. Bill Simmons offers his fantasy basketball pointers (his full-fledged league preview will appear on this week, and it’s always worth reading). He’s most entertaining when recommending against a player, like Vince Carter (“There's nothing worse than letting your guard down with Fantasy Vince, then inadvertently catching the ‘SportsCenter’ highlight of him rolling around under the basket as if he has been gunned down by an assassin. No thanks.”), Luke Ridnour (“it all sounds good until you remember that he sucks”), or Marcus Camby (“Stay away. Please. I'm begging you.”).

4. My predictions. Predictions on lightly read blogs are easy, because who the hell is paying attention, and who among those actually cares? Exactly. But obviously, if this turns out to be accurate, I’ll be carting it out at the end of the season and crowing about it. One of my favorite trends for any team is youth and sudden reason for confidence. So my sleeper team this year in the eastern conference is the Atlanta Hawks. They’ve increased their total wins over each of the past three seasons. They took the eventual-champ Celtics to seven games in the first round last year, and looked pretty good doing it. Two of their best players (Al Horford and Josh Smith) are just 22, and Smith’s entering his fifth season as a pro after showing improvement in each of the previous four. They have an experienced point guard (Mike Bibby), their best all-around player (Joe Johnson) is in his prime, and at least two players (Acie Law and Marvin Williams) have the potential to take significant steps forward. Granted, they have no bench. The only area in which they’re deep is their decadelong trend of being severe losers. But no one else is showing any confidence in them -- Sports Illustrated ranks them behind the rebuilding Pacers and the wait-what-city-do-they-play-in-again? Bobcats in the conference -- so I figure I'll stand behind them. Hawks to finish no worse than sixth in the east. You heard it here first (and probably last). On the flip side, as bad as I expect the Knicks to continue to be, it’s hard to imagine a worse team on paper than the Sacramento Kings. Take Kevin Martin off that roster and you could dump it straight into the developmental league.

Oh, and I like the New Orleans Hornets to win it all.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, October 27, 2008


If you still think atheists can’t be as big a censuring bummer as fundamentalists, think again. . . . Speaking of atheists, a worthy review of the new Bill Maher movie, Religulous. I can’t attend, as prolonged exposure to Maher’s smugness causes me to break out in hives. . . . I saw Oliver Stone’s W. recently. It kind of stunk, as I suspected it would. Slate recently gathered a roundtable (including Bob Woodward and Stone himself) to discuss the movie. . . . Crooked Timber has a post (and long comment thread) about “spreading the wealth.” Get your geek on. . . . Speaking of wealth, I still have no idea why a pouch of mackerel, no matter how close in value to a dollar, can stand in for money in prison when barely anyone wants to eat it. Besides that, though, I learned a lot from this article about prison economies.

The List Reaches the Far Turn: 20-16

20. Whiskeytown -- Strangers Almanac (1997)

Before Ryan Adams was the absurdly prolific, Gap-pitching, hipster pastiche that he is now, he was the absurdly young, drunk, petulant, and brilliant leader of Whiskeytown. The band’s three records -- Faithless Street, Strangers Almanac, and Pneumonia -- are better than anything Adams has done since, and he’s done some pretty good things. He was 22 when Almanac was released, which, along with his notoriously belligerent, immature stage presence at the time, makes the record’s mature, graceful sound all the more remarkable. Helped along by the support of violinist, vocalist, and sometime co-songwriter Caitlin Cary, Adams convincingly conveys a weariness beyond his years. Two of the gentler songs, “Avenues” and “Houses on the Hill” are efficient heartbreakers, each clocking in at just over two and a half minutes. Other, rowdier highlights include the Alejandro Escovedo-assisted “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight” and the blistering “Yesterday’s News.” The song that’s grown on me most over the years is “Dancing With the Women at the Bar,” which starts as a quiet lament about following in a father’s lonely footsteps and picks up a bit of pace with each verse.

19. Uncle Tupelo -- Still Feel Gone (1991)

Two songwriters as talented as Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, reared on country and punk music, don’t cross paths every day (they were high school classmates). The result was inimitable. Uncle Tupelo is credited with starting the alt-country movement, but a lot of that movement’s biggest names -- including Whiskeytown -- sound like they could exist without Tupelo’s influence. Whiskeytown, for instance, draws on country-rock like Gram Parsons and rock-rock like the Rolling Stones, but never really showcases in one song the alternately twangy and staccato sound of Tweedy and Farrar. Denying their level of influence is not to denigrate Uncle Tupelo but to properly praise them; they were sui generis. I think Still Feel Gone is the band’s most consistent and unique-sounding record. Songs like “Nothing” and (especially) “Postcard” are built on the band’s quick-change dynamic, “True to Life” might be my favorite song of theirs, and “Still Be Around” is certainly their prettiest, as Farrar sings, over a gentle strum, “when the Bible is a bottle / and the hardwood floor is home / when morning comes twice a day or not at all / if I break in two, will you be put me back together? When this puzzle’s figured out, will you still be around?”

18. Richard Buckner -- Bloomed (1995)

Continuing with the alt-country-heavy stretch of the list... Buckner has a loyal following, but I still think he’s one of the most underrated songwriters of the last 15 years or so. Over those years, his husky but pretty voice has been used in the service of songs with a slightly more experimental structure, but here on his debut things are mostly verse-chorus traditional. You can hear in his lyrics, though, the seeds of what would become a more poetic, fragmentary approach. There will be more on that approach to come. Buckner’s intelligence gives Bloomed a fresh feeling, but it’s his more comforting elements, like a consistent naming of people and places, that keep the record feeling familiar and rooted. On “Surprise, AZ,” which should be taught in songwriting seminars, he sings of the Arizona town in the title and also hopes to get “back to Oklahoma, where we belong.” And on “Cradle to the Angel,” after asking Austin and Atlanta if they’ve seen his “darling dear,” he sings, “once I wanted an explanation / now I’d settle for just a sound.” There’s the poetry. (I didn’t factor them into this ranking, since they didn’t appear on the original album, but today’s version includes five terrific extra songs that fit right in with the rest.)

17. The Smiths -- Best of, Vol. 1 (1992)

The Smiths, taken as a whole, deserve better than 17. I detract just a couple of points because it’s a compilation. But the band’s career was so singles-oriented that it’s impossible for me to include anything by them other than a compilation. This and the second best-of installment are what I listen to when I listen to The Smiths, and it’s hard to fault a collection as solid as this one, which shows off Johnny Marr’s glittering guitar work and slight variations on Morrissey’s clever lyrics and persona. Song titles like “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” and “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” reflect Morrissey’s mischief, but it’s the one-two closing punch of “Panic” and “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” that might best capture the band’s dual purpose of irreverent shimmying and unrepentant moping.

16. Teenage Fan Club -- Bandwagonesque (1991)

When I was in high school, my friends Jeff, Shannon, and I would often spend part of Monday’s lunch hour talking about what we’d seen and heard the night before on MTV’s 120 Minutes. The two conversations I vividly remember to this day were about Nirvana and Teenage Fan Club. (Spin rated Bandwagonesque over Nevermind as the best album of that year, which raised some eyebrows at the time, but it's a judgment that I obviously think holds up.) Having been shamefully undereducated on classic rock to that point in my life, it’s safe to say that I loved this album in its entirety even before I loved records by The Beatles and The Byrds, among others. “The Concept” is a great six-minute opening track, with a strong melody and a three-minute outro, that leaves the band a bit of work to do in living up to the album’s start. But what follows is a whole slate of strong material, including “Star Sign,” one of the all-time great songs by anybody.

Labels: , , , , ,

Stop Smiling

The other day, I linked to an interview I did with Ana Marie Cox for Stop Smiling, but I feel like I should give some more love to the magazine, and not only because I’ve started writing for it. I’ve been a fan since I was put on its media mailing list when I worked for a book publisher. (Jack Shafer of Slate, put on a similar list, declared it his favorite magazine.)

Each issue is organized around (but not stifled by) a theme. The new issue is centered on Washington, D.C., and it showcases the magazine’s eclecticism. In it, you’ll learn about a forgotten (but mega-seller at the time) comedy album about the Kennedy family, the city’s legendary music scene, and its food -- my friend Jon reviews the Florida Avenue Grill, which, as he writes, feels like “the diner that will make you breakfast every day in heaven, if you’ve been good enough.”

It also features interviews with humorist Christopher Buckley, political writer Thomas Frank, former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, and two people involved with the best dramatic TV show of all time, The Wire -- writer George Pelecanos and actor Anwan Glover, who played Slim Charles on the series:

SS: Let’s segue into The Wire. You’re responsible for probably my favorite scene in any episode, when a wasted McNulty drives his car twice into a bridge abutment. (ASWOBA Ed. Note: This might be my favorite scene in any episode, too.) Any personal inspiration for that story?

GP: He was just on a bender, and I can remember those nights, and I’ve had my nights involving cars, too. I got in trouble in my 20s. The last time I got in trouble, among the things I was charged with in one night are driving on the sidewalk, fleeing and eluding police, reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident. I had a whole laundry list that night.
SS: You were coming up during a very violent time in some parts of DC. Was it hard to avoid trouble back then?

AG: Yeah, very hard. Coming through the alley just getting to my school there were dope needles, dead rats, dead cats, dogs running in the alley. Then when I was living on Morton Street, we were going to school one day, and right by the trash can there was a dead body. There was yellow tape, and the kids were so excited to see it. It brought a chill through my body. I was like, “Why is everybody so excited to see a fucking dead body?” I never got that, and I was like, “This is not where I want to be.” I used to get away and go to the zoo, just to imagine different places. Ride my bike to the airport. I always wanted to get away.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Weekend Entertainment from Buckley

Christopher Buckley is everywhere these days. He's even going to appear in another post around here in the next couple of days. This weekend, he's interviewed by Deborah Solomon in the New York Times. Two entertaining bits:
Have you always voted Republican?

I cast my first vote on my father’s lap in 1960, for Richard Nixon, in the voting booth. I was 8.

Is that legal?

I suppose it was voter fraud, technically. It was very exciting.


As an only child, did you find one of your parents easier to talk to than the other?

My mother. She got it. He often didn’t get it.

What didn’t he get?


He was a practicing Catholic. What are you?

I am post-Catholic.

As opposed to a lapsed Catholic?

I am probably more of a collapsed Catholic.

Friday, October 24, 2008


My friend Nick sends along a great idea for the mascot of the minor league baseball team that I may own one day, if I can gather the scratch. I don't know about you, but I think the Saratoga Springs Piglet Squid has quite a ring to it. That team would be feared and adorable. If anyone wants to work on a logo, it would be much appreciated... Ladies and gentlemen, the piglet squid:

"My soul is empty." "Emptyyyyy!!!"

Apologies if I'm way behind on this, but Strindberg & Helium is a series of hilarious animated shorts. I found it through the invaluable Very Short List, which sums up the plot thus: "a talking bubble full of helium tries to cheer up the super-dour Swedish playwright August Strindberg." My favorite installment is probably "At Home With the Kids," below, and you can see all four by clicking here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Horse Race, 20 Years Ago

In the final weeks before this year’s election (a coincidence, I think), I’m on a bit of a political reading kick. I just started All the President’s Men, which is great, but also (strangely) narrated as if Bernstein and Woodward didn’t write it -- i.e., “Bernstein looked across the newsroom. There was a pillar between his desk and Woodward’s, about 25 feet away.” I suppose it would be even more awkward keeping track of two "I's" throughout, but it's weird.

This is on the heels of What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer’s massive book about the 1988 presidential primaries. The book is 1,050 pages long, but honestly reads more like 350. Part of the speed is Cramer’s style -- a Tom Wolfe-ish gonzoness heavily dependent on italics and exclamation points. And sentence fragments. And interior thoughts that . . . couldn’t possibly be known to the author!!! It’s a sloppy but breakneck style.

Cramer followed Bush and Dole on the Republican side, and Dukakis, Gephardt, Biden, and Hart on the Democratic side. I was 14 in 1988, so it was strange reading about a race that I knew but didn't know. As shocking as it is to me, Dukakis had as large as a 16-point lead over Bush in national polls that spring. The luster was off Reagan, post Iran-Contra, and he was considered a bit of a liability to Bush’s chances. But Bush, a fierce loyalist, wouldn’t distance himself from the president (even though, hilariously, Reagan would barely lift a finger to help his VP’s bid).

Biden, the only character still relevant (and how) in national politics, comes across as you might expect -- goofy. There’s nothing horribly unlikeable about him, but he’s a motor-mouth. The book actually captures him at a time of bright spotlight (leading the nomination proceedings of Robert Bork) and personal shame (dissembling, intentionally or not, about his personal biography on the campaign trail). Even against the likes of Dukakis, Gephardt, and Jesse Jackson, he gained almost no traction in the presidential race. (Even worse was Al Gore, who polled 3% in the Michigan primary for a distant fifth place. And one commentator described his strategy in the New York primary as turning into “a Jew for a week.” Oy.)

The funniest chapter (and there are lots of laughs in the book; this is not a somber study) is called “Bambi,” and it involves Gephardt’s attempt to finally get tough. I guess it shows a lack of empathy, but I found the initial meltdown of his campaign (from which he actually bounces back, only to melt again) absolutely hysterical. The book benefits from the fact that Cramer has candidates who exist in the mind as cartoonish to start with -- Gephardt’s Richie Cunningham mien, Dukakis’ hirsute brow and proudly bland, technocratic approach to government, and, as Cramer writes it again and again, Bob Dohhhll!!!!!

Dole was the big winner in the book, in my eyes. His fate after the war was gruesome, his resolve was extraordinary, and despite being known as a gleeful attack dog, he had friends on the other side of the aisle. His disdain for Bush (of the “what has he ever had to earn?” variety) rings pretty true based on the portrait of the VP in the book. Aside from one campaign in which Dole really and desperately smears the hell out of a fellow Kansan in order to retain his senate seat, even his reputation as a “hatchet man” seems more entertaining than serious. (Maybe that’s just retrospect.) And Elizabeth -- shame on me -- is far more accomplished than I ever gave her credit for. After reading the book, I think a time machine back to 1988 (and a bump in my age) might see me voting for, gulp, Bob Dohhhll! (Cramer’s liberties with Dole’s speech -- adding “Aaggh!”s before a lot of proclamations, etc. -- make him sound like Bill the Cat come to life, but I found it endearing.)

If the book has a lingering point -- and Cramer isn’t often explicit about “lessons,” content mostly to ride the roller coaster -- it’s the disgraceful role of the media. This is most vivid, of course, with regard to Gary Hart and his romancing. Hart only got what he deserved, but then kept getting it, even after most of the country (supporters and detractors) clearly no longer gave a damn. I forgot that he reentered the race, on a threadbare budget, after the Donna Rice scandal.

And then there’s the candidates and their use of media. Most notably Bush, who has to be pushed (mostly by plummeting poll numbers) to go negative on Dukakis. There’s a lot of hand-wringing on all sides about whether or not to “go negative” -- but you get the unsurprising sense that it was the handlers in the background who pushed hardest for it.

All in all, Cramer’s style requires a large grain of salt, though at least one reporter and fan of the book has said, “Over the years, I’ve had the chance to talk with dozens of people who worked on those campaigns and contributed to the book. Remarkably, I have never heard a single complaint about its accuracy.” (Of course, that same reporter starts his column saying that the book begins at a Texas Rangers game, when it’s a Houston Astros game, so who knows about him and accuracy.) (For another take, journalist Mark Halperin wrote about the book and the current campaign here.) All in all, I’d recommend it -- along with Michael Lewis’ Losers -- as an entertaining look at the death march to the White House.

High Noon on Cartoon Street

Here's a pretty great link, courtesy of my friend JW (not me, though I am a friend to myself). New Yorker cartoonist Farley Katz meets Randall Munroe, creator of XKCD, a favorite of mine, and they have a "cartoon-off" and then a brief interview, which starts:
Cartoon Lounge: Tell us a little bit about yourself and XKCD.

Randall Munroe: Well, I draw XKCD, a webcomic about stick figures who do math, play with staple guns, mess around on the Internet, and have lots of sex. It’s about three-fourths autobiographical.
I'd say my favorite part of the cartoon-off was Katz's representation of string theory:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Albert Camus famously wrote that the most important philosophical question, the one that must be answered before any others can even be asked, is whether or not to commit suicide. It’s a question that wouldn’t occur to Poppy, the playful, tittering center of Mike Leigh’s terrific new movie, Happy-Go-Lucky.

Happiness is something that philosophers and artists alike largely ignore as a subject of study. Torment, tumult, grief, unrequited love, and boredom are more common inspiration. And the ledger shows that this is a good thing. On the one side, you have Anna Karenina, Mozart’s Requiem, David’s The Death of Marat, hell, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. On the other, you have “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

To examine the causes of suffering, and how we react to them, tends to be both more interesting and more edifying than portraying how we surf along on times of joy. But sustained happiness is another thing, and it would be fascinating -- maybe even helpful -- to see it depicted more often.

Sally Hawkins is brilliant as Poppy, a schoolteacher in London who shares a flat with a longtime friend, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman). As the title suggests, she’s exceedingly spirited. She enjoys making faces, and childish noises, and generally deflecting uncalled-for somberness with acts of slapstick silliness. (At her most irritating, she recalls a nicer David Brent -- making wisecracks or bad puns when other adults in the room are trying to go about the business of being an adult.)

Leigh is notorious for building his careful scripts from long periods of improvisation. (I’m woefully unfamiliar with his movies, but that’s going to end immediately -- I’ve moved him up to the first four slots on my Netflix queue.) The benefits of this process are evident throughout, but never more than in a series of scenes involving Poppy and a driving instructor. (After her bike is stolen, the 30-year-old Poppy decides to finally give cars a try.) As that instructor, Scott, Eddie Marsan is phenomenal. Scott is his student's opposite -- a clenched, bitter, judgmental person -- and yet their (hilarious) scenes together have much more than just the humor of conflict to them. By the end, you -- or I, at least -- feel genuine sympathy for Scott, partly because Poppy does. One of the movie’s many achievements is how you learn to see the world through her eyes. Happy-Go-Lucky -- or rather, Poppy herself -- is not a fable, and that makes all the difference. She isn’t a Forrest Gump-like character, so naive and innocent that she becomes a blank or, worse, a symbol.

In fact, Poppy is really an absurdist, and in this she might have found common ground with Camus after all. She just embraces the absurd more easily than most of us could possibly imagine. The same way we all smile at some bad twist of fate from time to time, to keep from going crazy, Poppy does all the time. And this quality is most helpful when the chips are down, which they sometimes are for her -- she’s not floating through a dreamy, frictionless world. When she is victimized or in pain, she’s at her most unflappable. Her bike is stolen off a rack full of bikes, and she shakes her head at the odds; a doctor wrenches a disk in her back into place, and she giggles through her grimace. She allows the world’s pains to sneak up and surprise her anew every time, allows them to seem ridiculous, laughing at them the way you might laugh at getting a flat tire pulling out of your driveway. And if you’ve known the relief of those rare moments, the giddiness in being able to shrug something off even when it’s trouble, then you know we have a lot to learn from someone like Poppy.

Ask the Sky

For Wednesday, R.E.M. doing "Fall On Me," from their "MTV Unplugged" appearance in 1991. Enjoy:


In the new issue of Stop Smiling -- which has a Washington, D.C., theme -- I interview political journalist and novelist Ana Marie Cox. It's available online.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gas for Nothing

In New York Magazine, a brief but compelling look at the economic downturn's effect on cab drivers:
As we merge onto the FDR Drive, yet another vacant taxi speeds by on our right. Waraich almost shudders in empathy; he’s made the same defeated trip himself, two or three times a week. “It’s awful,” he says. “That means he got no fare and he decided to go to midtown. He’s burning gas for nothing.” Cabbies make their money north and south. They count on fares from downtown to midtown (or farther) and back again, in a continuous loop. But now their money flow has been broken; it’s the roadside version of a liquidity crunch. “You lose heart, and you go back to midtown,” Waraich says. “If you don’t get a fare there either, you get so upset. It can put you in depression.”

The Price of Being Common

I might post some brief thoughts about Joe Biden soon, and I'm certainly not going to post any more promises of no politics until nearer to the election. (Sue me -- the blog can't be exclusively devoted to albums I fell in love with at college, no matter how desperately you might want that.)

For now, a quick item on Sarah Palin:

Say what you will about the Alaskan governor, she doesn't need a lot of money to look good. But, hey, if the campaign wants to dump nearly $150,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus to give her that extra edge, fine. Really. Campaigns spend tons of money on all kinds of things. Tell you what, though -- if you're spending that much money on clothes (at Saks! in midtown Manhattan!), you're disqualified from constantly equating yourself with common folk. Deal?


A list of the best imaginary books never written. Just read it, you’ll understand. . . . And some smart thoughts on imaginary cities. . . . Two good recent posts from Ross Douthat -- one on why certain Republican supporters might want to tone down the cries of socialism; and one on the “conservative cocoon.” . . . A post about John McCain and education that I find more thought-provoking than inflammatory; don’t know if you’ll agree. . . . And lastly, I’ve been having private back-and-forths with a few people about the current state of the culture wars, and I really do like to stay above that stuff (on both sides), but these two clips are just too juicy not to share. First, an exclusive interview with the current mayor of Wasilla. Second, when this woman’s right to vote is taken away (and secured under a mountain in Nevada somewhere), give me a call, and maybe I’ll be willing to defend the theory of democracy again. I, too, will pray for her husband.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bad Music in Public

I don't know who does it, or what it's called, but this song that goes "you're on my heart just like a tattoo" . . . that's an awful lyric.

(This may become a regular series of brief complaints, so I'm tagging it below just in case. I hear a lot of bad music in public.)


A Book Survey

Norm Geras recently answered a series of questions about reading that he found on someone else's blog. Here's my go at it:

What was the last book you bought?

The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla. I tend to buy several books a month -- it’s an addiction -- so the last one bought tends to be pretty random, though I do intend on reading the Lilla soon.

Name a book you have read more than once.

I very rarely read a book more than once -- there’s so much to read, after all, and there’s always the chance that something will disappoint a second time around. But I’ve read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy three times, I believe.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

If the key word here is “fundamentally,” it might be tough to come up with one. But of course, many books have “slightly” changed the way I see life -- isn’t that one of the points of reading? Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, The Brothers K by David James Duncan, and The Undiscovered Mind by John Horgan are four that come to mind.

Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction?

As I get older, I find myself reading more nonfiction, but I don’t have a strong preference and still read a lot of fiction. It’s fair to say that fiction has to do more to impress me than it used to. Like most people, I suspect, the books I love the most are novels.

What's more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

Both, please. But if I had to choose, there’s no question I'd go with the writing, which alone can be gripping. But as Norm Geras said, this choice “leaves out something at least as important as either, namely, perceptiveness about human character and motive.”

Most loved/memorable character.

Loved: Everett Chance (The Brothers K), John Grady Cole (All the Pretty Horses), Ned Hall (The Risk Pool), Tom Ripple (It’s All Right Now)

Memorable: Frank Bascombe (Richard Ford’s “Bascombe trilogy”), Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces), Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment), Briony Tallis (Atonement), John Self (Money)

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

Have You Seen...? by David Thomson and Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

What was the last book you've read, and when was it?

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov. Finished it about a week ago. I’m now reading What it Takes by Richard Ben Cramer.

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

Sure. I almost gave up on Pnin -- it started and finished strong, but I found its middle an incredible bore. Luckily, it’s less than 200 pages, so I powered through. On the rare occasions I do abandon something, it’s usually well before I’m half way in. Can’t remember any I gave up on at the moment (I tend to vet things reasonably well before I start them), but it’s happened.

AP Headline of the Day

Pa. Woman Ordered Out of Chemical-Free 'Bubble'


One of the Google searches that brought people to this site in the last week or so was: “is it normal for young child to be afraid when watching sporting events.” How about, is it normal for young child to be afraid when performing in sporting events? If so, these Tampa Bay Rays are pretty abnormal. I knew this was a young team, but it sunk in, over the course of what turned into a pretty great series against the Red Sox: This is a group of babies. I can’t remember a team this good, this uniformly young, in any major sport. If you can, enlighten me.

Three players on the Rays' entire roster are older than 30, but even that doesn’t tell the story. Their very good starting pitchers -- and a sixth pitcher, who was the top overall pick in the draft and closed out last night’s game -- are 26, 25, 25, 24, 24, and 23. The catcher working with those pitchers is 24. Evan Longoria and B. J. Upton, arguably the team’s best two players, are 23 and 24, respectively. Carl Crawford, who’s been on the big-league team since 2002 and is an excellent player who battled injuries this year, is 27.

I would say “break up the Rays,” but I don’t need to -- they’ll be broken up when they can’t afford to pay all these guys. But with players this young, that still means a few years of the Rays as one of the best teams in baseball. And if their farm system is as good as everyone says, maybe longer... Now, can we knock down that monstrosity they play in and build them a proper baseball park?

Friday, October 17, 2008


Tomorrow marks the three-year anniversary of this blog. Many thanks to everyone who has made it a regular or even semi-regular stop during their online travels.

The List Heads Toward the Teens: 25-21

25. Ben Folds Five -- Ben Folds Five (1995)

I’m a big fan of Billy Joel, a fan of Elton John, and I was raised with an appreciation for theatrical music, a.k.a. “show tunes.” So my liking Ben Folds, a piano whiz who’s unafraid of showy, is one of the least surprising things about me -- and there’s almost nothing surprising about me at all. Just about every song on his band’s debut is, well, cheeky, and catchy and energetic as hell. On “Julianne,” he meets “this girl, she looked like Axl Rose”; on “Underground,” he sings, “we’ll be decked in all black / slamming the pit fantastic / Officer Friendly’s little boy has got a mohawk / and he knows just where we’re coming from”; and in the closing minute of “Philosophy,” he riffs twice on “Rhapsody in Blue.” This album, more than most on this list, is a good time. Even on a slower number like “Alice Childress,” there’s a bouncy, life-affirming quality. Music to turn a bad mood good, or a good mood better.

24. Michael Jackson -- Off the Wall (1979)

You know, life ain’t so bad when you’re livin’ off the wall. OK, so this album is also a good time. A reminder that Michael Jackson didn’t become interplanetary-famous just because it seems like he’s from another planet. The mega-hits -- “Rock With You,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” -- were mega for a reason, but the album is pretty great the whole way through. This and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (which got consideration for the list), are proof that the disco era wasn’t just a joke. When you hear the over-processed, mechanical, grinding horror of Britney et al., it’s awfully easy to pine for the Bee Gees and for Jackson’s smooth, soulful voice.

23. Trash Can Sinatras -- Cake (1990)

Over the years, the Sinatras’ songs have become more delicate and carefully produced. (Their last album, the very good Weightlifting, is evidence.) But for this, their debut, things were a bit more rambunctious. Nothing crazy is going on, but for guys so interested in melody and using acoustic instruments, they make a spirited racket.

As Wikipedia tells it, the band’s music “makes frequent use of wordplay and pop harmonies.” Fair enough. Opener “Obscurity Knocks,” the band’s biggest hit, such as it was, includes the line “Oh, I like your poetry but I hate your poems.” I’ve always liked that. And things get even wordplay...ier(?), as in: “And the itch to get rich quick has never been so hard to reach,” and “I know she doesn’t play the field / but she likes to know the strength of the team,” and “Hands of the clock give me a round of applause / for getting out of bed / and the scars of the night before / have turned into scabs.” But lead singer Francis Reader sings with a Scottish accent (and occasionally at a speed) that often make the words a bit of a blur. And the songs can be moving; this isn’t wordplay in a Weird Al way.

But do beware. As one stymied customer on Amazon wrote: “I purchased this CD, thinking I had stumbled upon something by the group Cake that I didn't already own. I was EXTREMELY disappointed -- this is NOT by the band Cake!”

No. No, it’s not.

22. Buffalo Tom -- Big Red Letter Day (1993)

Early in its career, Buffalo Tom had the pretty funny nickname of Dinosaur Jr. Jr. But this record marked a departure from the band’s earlier, noisier sound. Lead singer Bill Janovitz has rusty pipes in the tradition of Paul Westerberg (the band also got a lot of early comparisons to The Replacements, though The Replacements Jr. just doesn’t have the same zing), and the band still makes a loud sound for a trio, but these songs are more consistently melodic. To drag my parents into this, I'll put it this way: If I were playing the previous Buffalo Tom album that made the list in the same room as my mother, it would take about 12 seconds for her to ask me to stop it. With this, she might even make it through a song or two before asking.

Like R.E.M. at its best, the band benefits from strong additional vocals, in this case from bassist Chris Colbourn. He helps out on harmonies, and takes the lead on “My Responsibility” and “Late at Night,” two of the album’s gentler songs. Over the course of 11 tracks and about 40 minutes, there isn’t a misstep on Big Red Letter Day, which is just a reliable, well-produced batch of rock songs.

21. Matthew Sweet -- Girlfriend (1991)

This should probably be higher.

By ‘91, Sweet had released two records with really terrible production that turned his songs into synthed-out ‘80s garbage. On Girlfriend, with the help of guitarists Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd, he turned his career around very quickly. Written and recorded in the wake of a divorce, Girlfriend has often been called a concept album about the cycle of a relationship. It does cover a lot of bitter-and-confused ground, and you don’t even have to go past the song titles to see it -- “Thought I Knew You,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “I Wanted to Tell You,” “Don’t Go,” “Your Sweet Voice,” “Nothing Lasts.”

Getting the picture?

Girlfriend covers some other ground -- God (“Divine Intervention”), international conflict (“Holy War”) -- but yeah, this is about a dude getting his heart smashed. Luckily, Sweet’s harmonies and his debt to The Beatles and The Beach Boys, among others, mean that his smashed heart sounds better than most people’s wedding day. “I’ve Been Waiting”, one of the more optimistic offerings here, is a close-to-perfect pop creation, and every other song gives you something to cut the misery. Even the closing “Nothing Lasts,” which plays like the title would lead you to expect, real funeral-like, is somehow pretty enough to avoid morbidity. In fact, most of the album sounds like its message: people hurt each other, they cause suffering, but they also go out in the sun and play guitar.


Croc Spotted in Baghdad

This story about the resurgence of moviegoing in Iraq is heartening. Of course, it would be a lot more heartening if one of the current marquees didn't read (no joke) -- "Poltergeist," "Crocodile Dundee," and "The Untouchables." In any case, the world loves Hollywood:
American films are my favorite since my childhood. You know Americans are the greatest in show biz, their movies are magnificent. I like westerns, musicals, action, mob and historical movies. That diversity is what makes those guys awesome.
(Via my friend The Comish)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Choice

For my serious look at last night's debate, see the post below this one. For my far-from-serious look at debates in general, see two posts below this one.

Since I likely won't write much about politics again until much closer to the election, I'll leave it for now with this year's edition of "The Choice," the excellent program put together by PBS' Frontline. It's almost two hours long, but worth it. To those who worry about my previous claims to being a moderate, please know that one of my favorite parts is when Obama takes the top job at the Harvard Law Review and appoints a bunch of conservatives to the upper reaches of the masthead. It represents one of my reasons for supporting him. Enjoy:

That's a Wrap

Well, I’m glad that’s over. When I think about the three presidential debates now in the books, I have to agree strongly with Ross Douthat, who wrote:
When John McCain castigated Obama for declining his invitation to do town-hall debates, and remarked that “we could have had ten of them already,” I suddenly had an image of thousands of political junkies going mad from the repetition and Van Goghing their ears somewhere around debate number seven.
I thought the third debate was the best for a few reasons, but I’m also really grateful that extended back-and-forths about Joe the Plumber and special-needs families and hatchets vs. scalpels are done for this cycle. Whatever their differences in proposing policies, I feel pretty secure that Obama and McCain are both pro-plumber, sympathetic to special-needs families, and that neither, thankfully, will actually wield a hatchet or a scalpel in the halls of the White House.

Bob Schieffer was terrific. Let’s hear it for a moderator who displayed smarts, guts, and firmness. Brokaw had been an improvement on Lehrer and Ifill, but Schieffer showed how it should be done.

I thought both Obama and McCain answered the Supreme Court question well. McCain chose to speak out against litmus tests, and he emphasized that he had voted for the confirmation of Ginsburg and Breyer despite not agreeing with their ideology. For most of that answer, this was the McCain who can speak with authority about his lack of rabid partisanship. A few of his other answers also reminded me what I like about him, which is quite a bit.

To be unbiased about it, both candidates had their moments of distortion and lying. When Obama insisted that 100% of McCain’s ads have been negative, well, that’s just not true. And when McCain defended his more character-based ads by saying that Obama has been running negative ads about McCain’s healthcare plan, well, that’s not equivalent. Of course Obama is going to be negative about some of McCain’s plans, and vice versa.

But I thought Obama still held a considerable advantage in temperament and levelheadedness. I really believe McCain is trapped by his campaign at this point, and since it is his campaign, I can’t feel terribly sorry for him. When he said he didn’t care about a “washed-up terrorist,” I believed him. I don’t think that John McCain, under the influence of truth serum, would give a flip about Bill Ayers. The issue -- as it pertains to Obama -- is mostly absurd. Ayers, depending on your viewpoint, is some combination of contemptible and pathetic, but Obama’s dealings with him have been no more (and often less) than Ayers’ relationship with some prominent Republicans. In any case, I thought Obama’s answer last night was terrific:
Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, (Ayers) engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg.

Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois, the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican, the president of The Chicago Tribune, a Republican-leaning newspaper.

Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that's Mr. Ayers. . . .

Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. If I'm interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden, or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or General Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO.

Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House. And I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me.
This morning, I heard a discussion of last night’s debate between Brian Lehrer, a New York City radio host, and Ray Suarez of PBS. Lehrer asked Suarez if he felt that some of the McCain campaign’s rhetoric about ACORN and terrorism was really meant to serve as a racist implication. (The question wasn’t leading; Lehrer’s a good, balanced host.) Suarez’s answer was smart. He dismissed the idea that the average American has enough knowledge of ACORN to make any kind of strong association with it -- it’s too inside baseball. Then, more pertinently, he said the Ayers issue is less about associating Obama with terrorism as it is about trying to equate him to the 1960s and its culture wars. He said this was difficult because Obama seems “so far removed from that.”

And I think that’s what this election is coming down to, the fact that, to paraphrase myself, the best answer to some of the more extreme concerns about Obama is . . . Obama. Of course, you can never fully know someone through their public persona, but what about him hasn’t seemed rational and open-minded and presidential? This isn’t to say he’ll be a perfect representative of the people, but it makes it awfully hard to see him as a loon, which is how the more aggressive elements of McCain’s campaign are trying to portray him. And if he’s not a loon, and if the opposition is intent on convincing you he is, what does that say about the opposition? I think that’s one reason (along with increased exposure to Obama and the general, cyclical political-tide problem of being Republican these days) why voters seem to be moving in Obama’s direction.

Lord Jim

In honor of last night's final 2008 presidential debate, I went searching for an old piece that I wrote with my friend Jon Fasman. Jon is a terrific writer (and friend) whose new novel, The Unpossessed City, is out later this month.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Jon and I were interns together at Harper's Magazine. Inspired by the way moderator Jim Lehrer opened one of the debates that year, we wrote the piece below, which we called "Lord Jim." Although I remember us sending it back and forth to each other -- over the nine inches or so that separated us in the cramped office we shared with two other people -- rereading it, I'm fairly certain Jon did most of the work. He also told me that a recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch took off from a similar idea. Well, this was written almost exactly eight years ago. Enjoy:
“The questions and the subjects were chosen by me alone. I have told no one from the two campaigns or the commission or anyone else involved what they are.

There's a small audience in the hall tonight. They are not here to participate, only to listen ...”

-- Jim Lehrer, October 3, 2000
Good evening. I'm Jim Lehrer.

Welcome to the fourth presidential debate of the 2000 campaign.

We're coming to you from an undisclosed location tonight, chosen exclusively by me, in consultation with no one, and unknown to even the candidates. Four hours ago, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George Bush were kidnapped, blindfolded, hog-tied and dragged on stage. Might be Cleveland, might be Kazakhstan, might be my high school gym, where I founded, coached and starred on the shuffleboard team. I've got a few stories I could tell about those days.

In order to prepare tonight's questions, I have spent the last 18 months in the microfilm room of the Library of Congress, subsisting on dust and silverfish, carefully reviewing every American and foreign periodical published in the last 90 years.

The audience has agreed to remain silent throughout the evening, except in those moments immediately after I pose a particularly brilliant question, during which they will collectively whisper my first name like a horde of incantatory crickets.

Now for the specifics of our event's format, chosen, researched, tested, and approved by yours truly.

The debate will last ninety minutes, unless I decide otherwise. I may get bored five minutes in and shut the whole damn thing down. Or, I may think we need more time, in which case I have been granted permission by every television network, radio station, wire service, newspaper, communications conglomerate, short-wave radio operator, telephone company, satellite provider, and pair of kids with two cups and a string to extend the debate for up to six days.

In the event of such an extension, I alone will receive ample drink and food, which I have selected, cooked, and supervised the growth of, from seed to harvest. Beginning on the third day, I will be flanked by the Gore daughters, who will massage my temples and feed me the world's finest berries.

Should the venue become too warm, I will deploy the personal cooling system I have invented to surround my leathery body with vanilla-scented breezes, reducing my temperature by 2.3 degrees.

Candidates will have three minutes to answer each question. If they exceed this limit, I will administer a series of shocks through electrodes I surgically implanted in each man's body last night as he slept.

That's right, electrodes: I cut 'em myself, and I also melted the ingots to make the scalpels, which I sharpened myself. I used my own anesthesia, based on an old family recipe which Grandpappy Lehrer gave directly to me on his deathbed in 1967. And if those Archer Daniels Midland suits who believe they own me in all of my beady-eyed glory think they're going to get their corporate paws on that recipe, they've got another thing coming.

If a respondent wishes to use a vowel as part of his answer, he will deposit 50 cents in the Lehrer Jug, which sits atop my desk, and which I fired in a homemade kiln late last night.

Coins must be pitched directly into the jug from the lecterns. To avoid running out of change, candidates may write me a blank check before we begin in order to cover all vowel expenditures. Gentlemen, checks should be made out to "Jim Lehrer, Mayor of Lehropolis, Emperor of Lehronia."

I will refer to the Vice President as "Susan," and to the Governor as "Dorothy," except when discussing educational issues, when I will call both men "Cletus," and they will have to determine who I am addressing by the inflection in my voice.

All "If..." questions (as in "If the stock market were to crash, what would be your first act, after sending a box of heart-shaped chocolates and a high-priced escort to Alan Greenspan's office?") must be answered in the guise of a fictional character, and must include a positive reference to myself, so that an appropriate answer might sound something like this: "In the case of a stock market crash, I, Vernon Bailey, a humble pig farmer, would first declare Jim Lehrer a living saint." And so forth.

Now that I've laid the ground rules, let's get started. The first question is for Dorothy.

A Book Review

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Don't Be Afraid to Get Up In Front of Your Computers and Dance

For Wednesday, here's Stevie Wonder, in 1970, doing "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." Enjoy:


Bet you didn’t know that Butte, Montana, and Irish-Americans go together like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong. Read all about it over at Pacific Standard. . . . I know it’s not the most politically correct thing to say, but I really think that parenting licenses should be the wave of the future. . . . A 106-year-old nun living in Rome, who hasn’t voted since 1952, is going to cast a ballot for Obama. . . . These British public-service ads from the 1970s are hilariously scary. Especially the first. . . . According to a study, New York is the most courteous big city in the world. . . . I may have already set off a panic earlier this week, so apologies for doing it again -- but, it’s possible, just possible, that Jesus will come back as a shark.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gallery 19

40 West & 57th Street, NYC 2005,
part of Florian Böhm's "Wait for Walk" series


An Officer in Training and a Gentleman

Eighty percent of the time, the multitude of strangers is one of New York’s drawbacks. They get in your way. They jostle you. They line up for things -- buses, tickets, bagels -- in unmanageable, time-consuming droves. Sartre has said that the most widely accepted interpretation of his “hell is other people” is wrong, but I’m sticking with it.

Often enough, though, I witness entertainment from people that makes me glad I live among so many of them. Late last week, I was writing at Starbucks (I’m perched there an alarming amount of the time; their wireless is free, they never bug me to leave, and I enjoy cake products), just about to pack up and leave. It must have been about 5:00, just starting to get dusky outside. A short, wiry older man sat down at a chair near me. He was wearing a dark brown corduroy jacket, with a neatly folded New York Times in its left pocket. He had a cheap blue backpack secured over both shoulders, and a dark straw hat on his small head. He looked like Hume Cronyn, but with a long, scraggly beard and a very short gray ponytail.

He proceeded to scream (he was just talking, but talking for him was screaming; add more than a dash of Bobby Knight to the Cronyn) into his cell phone, telling someone how to manage their money. He wasn’t saying anything particularly crazy, but the fact that he was shouting it, divulging this person’s every last bit of financial information to everyone in the Starbucks (“So, what...that’s $1,600 a month from just that account! If your wife keeps teaching, you won’t even have to work!) made me think he was a loon.

At the same time, a very schlubby, squinty guy, maybe in his mid or late 20s but with the hairline of a 60-year-old and an air of defeat about him, was trying to plug his computer into a nearby outlet. From his brief interaction with me, regarding the plug, he seemed socially awkward, easily cowed. The old guy got off his cell phone, and the younger one must have caught something I didn’t, because he asked the man if he had attended some school or other. The old man said, “No, but I teach there.”

Thus introduced, the old man asked him whether he was in school, and what he wanted to do. “I’m studying to be a cop,” the schlub said.

“Then why aren’t you going to John Jay?” the man shouted from his seat, about five feet away.

“My grades,” the kid said, looking down with some trace of shame.

Ignoring that, the older man shrieked, “You do know that John Jay is one of the very best criminal justice programs, don’t you?!”

“Well, I’m going to try to transfer there.”

The man made his way to the kid’s table and I had a sense this would be fun. Before long, the kid was being grilled about some basic information for an upcoming test.

“What are the three branches of government?!” the man asked.

“Legislative...” The kid paused. No, he stopped, dry. “Um...”

The man slapped at the table impatiently. “One of them starts with a J, one with an E.”

"The judicial?"

"Yes, and what's the last one? Starts with an E..."


(Slap) “You deserve to fail!!”

A little later...

“Did you read chapter one?”


“Give me that book.” (The kid hands him a textbook.) “Doesn't chapter one say” (holding up the book and pointing to a page) “. . . executive, legislative, judicial. What have you learned? What have you been doing?? This is not Mickey Mouse, this is not junior high school. This is real. You've gotta put that stuff in your head! If you can't tell me that the president is the executive branch, then what the hell have you read?”

A little later:

“Ya ever heard of Franklin Roosevelt?”


“All right, why don't you go to the Internet and look up Franklin Roosevelt?” (He got up and stood over the kid’s shoulder while he looked it up.) “Gee, look at that -- there's the WPA! Tell me, did you ever hear the word infrastructure? Did you ever hear of roads? Did you ever hear of dams?”

Then, toward the end:

“Imagine if you were in my class what you would go through. Basically, we don't even do this -- we do this as a general outline. Do you see the way, in 10 minutes, I've already explained everything to you? This is what kids go through in my class. I scream at them, but they learn!!”

The kid genuinely thanked him, and a phone number was handed over, along with an offer for future help/screaming. The entire time, the man hadn’t the slightest compunction about upbraiding a total stranger in public, and the kid had no reservations about silently taking it. It was like a drill sergeant had met a self-loather and they lived happily ever after.

Reason for Hope

Reason for Fear

From today's New York Times:
“She’s intelligent, she’s adorable and she has the audacity to speak her mind,” said Ray Gilson of Corapeake, N.C., who attended the Virginia Beach rally. “I’ve never loved a politician like I love her. I want her to be president someday.”

Monday, October 13, 2008

AP Headline of the Day

Cops: Man Tries to Pay for Fast Food Meal With Pot

An Immature Intermission

Please allow me a childish rant. If baseball loyalty doesn't excuse childishness, I don't know what does:

I hate Dice-K and that stupid rocking motion he does before every pitch.

I hate Kevin Youkilis and his stupid goatee and his even stupider batting stance. He looks sooooo stupid.

I hate that my antipathy for the Red Sox has me rooting hard for a team that's younger than my youngest sibling, is also a rival of the Yankees, plays in the ugliest stadium on the planet, and draws to that stadium more fans for the other team than for itself. Yuck.

I like, though, that the Rays are up 5-0 early in Game 3.

This Post Brought To You By The List: 30-26

30. Smashing Pumpkins -- Siamese Dream (1993)

Between Jimmy Chamberlin’s drums and Billy Corgan’s guitar, Siamese Dream is all about well-produced noise. Only the whiny, droning “Disarm” hasn’t aged well. Most of the more aggressive guitar-fueled songs -- “Hummer,” “Rocket,” “Geek USA” -- sound remarkably healthy in 2008. And yes, Corgan’s general silliness is a drawback, but the band often makes enough of a pleasurable racket to distract from lyrics like “A crown of thorns / an image formed deformed / the mark I’ve borne / a mark of scorn to you.” Yeah, I’d better stop now before I drop this record about 45 places.

29. The Streets -- Original Pirate Material (2002)

With 22 one-star reviews on Amazon, it’s clear that Original Pirate Material isn’t for everyone. One reviewer calls it “amazingly bad,” but several others stretch for something more evocative: “insipidly bad and insultingly stupid” or “nothing more than a monotonous series of vapid and dull monologues” or “uniformly uninspired, sloppy, and irritating” or, quite simply, “this is the worst thing that has ever happened to music.” But my favorite is, “I am now dumber for having heard this album.”

I obviously agree with the (more numerous) positive reviews. American rap fans might find Mike Skinner’s cockney accent and goofy concerns (video games, soccer, a girl who doesn’t like him showing up late) off-putting. But it’s his sense of humor, the fact that he doesn’t take himself (or the genre) too seriously that makes him refreshing. (Or made him refreshing. This and the follow-up are very good -- the two Streets records since have been frequently embarrassing. He insists on singing more and more, which is just horrendous, and his lyrics are a shadow of their earlier sharp wit.)

There’s a sameness to several of the songs here, but three stand out for me -- the extra-propulsive “Same Old Thing,” the trippy and pretty “Weak Become Heroes,” and the hilarious “Irony Of It All,” which takes the form of an argument between a meat-headed beer drinker, Terry (backed up by a menacing beat) and a twenty-something pot smoker, Tim (“Now Terry, you’re repeating yourself / But that’s okay, drunk people can’t help that.”)

28. Radiohead -- OK Computer (1997)

I divide this album into two halves, and the first half does much more for me than the second. If the strength of the first six songs was maintained for OK Computer’s duration -- a tall order -- I wouldn’t be writing about it quite yet. But then, after the silly seventh song, “Fitter Happier,” in which a computer-coded voice lists life’s humiliations as presumably imagined by a disaffected middle-schooler, the songs sound more average and muddier to me. This is with the exception of “No Surprises,” a depressive’s lullaby that is one of the most beautiful things the band has done. In fact, the content of “No Surprises” is not radically different from “Fitter Happier” (disillusionment, routine, resignation, etc.), so I guess it’s all in the delivery.

27. Simon & Garfunkel -- Greatest Hits (1972)

I didn’t want to include too many compilations on the list, but this one was necessary. It would be disingenuous to list another album by this duo when the hits are what I listen to most often. Released in 1972, it was also right on that border when collections were still respectable summaries, rather than something put out after two albums for the sake of extra sales. The songs here speak for themselves -- “The Boxer,” “Homeward Bound,” “America.” I think Paul Simon is one of the best songwriters of all time, so this is a lay-up. He’ll be heard from again on the list, too.

26. Stevie Wonder -- Signed, Sealed, Delivered (1970)

This was Stevie Wonder’s 12th record. Upon its release, he was 20 years old. Yeah. Get off the couch.

I love Wonder’s earlier albums. The later records that are even more critically acclaimed -- Talking Book, Innervisions, etc. -- are terrific. I love them, too. It’s a love-fest. But even though less is going on musically here, there’s something about the simple soulfulness of the songs and Wonder’s delivery that I slightly prefer. On the opener, “Never Had a Dream Come True,” just the way he repeats the title is stirring. Both the social ballads (“Heaven Help Us All”) and the personal ones (“Don’t Wonder Why”) are top-shelf. His cover of “We Can Work It Out” is considered by some superior to the Beatles’ original (I think they’re both great). And “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” is one of my very favorite overplayed classics -- to listen to the whole thing, alone, away from an Obama rally or a greeting-card commercial or wherever it’s being played these days, and to hear him sing “I’ve done a lot of foolish things / that I really didn’t mean” is to take a great song back.


A Hidden Threat

I don't want to alarm you, but the known universe might be getting sucked into some bizarro rip in the space-time continuum that makes a black hole look like a clogged drain. Scientists have discovered entire galaxies that are "being pulled at 2 million mph toward a particular patch of sky." Put at slightly greater length, but just as terrifyingly (italics mine):
Patches of matter in the universe seem to be moving at very high speeds and in a uniform direction that can't be explained by any of the known gravitational forces in the observable universe. Astronomers are calling the phenomenon "dark flow."
You can download the technical NASA paper by going here, but be prepared for a lot of oversimplified stuff like this:
This quantity, the dipole of the cumulative CMB temperature field evaluated at cluster positions, is used in this investigation on the 3-year WMAP data in conjunction with a large sample of X-ray clusters of galaxies to set the strongest to-date limits on bulk flows out to scales ∼ 300h−1 Mpc.
Well, duh.

I'd like this to be addressed at the last presidential debate this week:

Moderator: Senators, I'd like to know what each of you plans to do about the giant vacuum perched outside of our observable universe that's about to suck up our planet and everything around it like a potato chip crumb on the living room floor.

Obama: I think Dr. Kissinger would agree with me that we can't treat this like business as usual. We have to...we've gotta talk to this vacuum. We can't think of sitting down to talk with this vacuum as a sign of weakness.

McCain: Senator Obama doesn't understand that talking to enormous unobservable vacuums is dangerous. My friends, I know the horrors of war. I'm not going to send America's most precious treasure into war with a giant vacuum. But I'm not going to sit down with it and legitimate it, either.

(Via VSL)

Friday, October 10, 2008


I've cleaned up the blogroll a little bit, and I just wanted to write a quick note to some personal friends: I, of course, continue to visit your blogs. I've removed those of you who, for various reasons -- most likely some kind of life more productive than my own -- haven't posted more than, say, five or so times in the past month. I look forward, along with the rest of America, to the time -- unless such a time is precipitated by a sudden lack of other productivity -- when you're posting more often.

McCain 2.0

Christopher Buckley, the son of a fairly notable American conservative, speaks out for Obama (and, more volubly, against McCain):
I have known John McCain personally since 1982. I wrote a well-received speech for him. Earlier this year, I wrote in The New York Times—I’m beginning to sound like Paul Krugman, who cannot begin a column without saying, “As I warned the world in my last column...”—a highly favorable Op-Ed about McCain, taking Rush Limbaugh and the others in the Right Wing Sanhedrin to task for going after McCain for being insufficiently conservative. I don’t—still—doubt that McCain’s instincts remain fundamentally conservative. But the problem is otherwise.

McCain rose to power on his personality and biography. He was authentic. He spoke truth to power. He told the media they were “jerks” (a sure sign of authenticity, to say nothing of good taste; we are jerks). He was real. He was unconventional. He embraced former anti-war leaders. He brought resolution to the awful missing-POW business. He brought about normalization with Vietnam—his former torturers! . . .

But that was—sigh—then. John McCain has changed. He said, famously, apropos the Republican debacle post-1994, “We came to Washington to change it, and Washington changed us.” This campaign has changed John McCain. . . . His ninth-inning attack ads are mean-spirited and pointless. And finally, not to belabor it, there was the Palin nomination. What on earth can he have been thinking?

All this is genuinely saddening, and for the country is perhaps even tragic, for America ought, really, to be governed by men like John McCain—who have spent their entire lives in its service, even willing to give the last full measure of their devotion to it. If he goes out losing ugly, it will be beyond tragic, graffiti on a marble bust.
If John McCain had been the Republican nominee in 2000, there's a pretty good chance I would have voted for him. So I'm no natural enemy of his. But it boggles my mind that people can speak of him as if the past two or three months hadn't happened. The Bill Ayers question is a legitimate one, as far as it goes, but that's not nearly as far as the McCain campaign is insinuating. I was speaking to a friend of my father's (and mine) on the phone this morning. He's someone who built his own business into a great success. He's been a fan of Obama from the beginning, but I would hardly say he's a raging liberal -- more of an intelligent contrarian, and someone with a bullshit detector that can pick up signals from other galaxies. He was worked up about McCain's tactics, and he said that in an ideal world, Obama would confront him at the next debate with something like this, which I'm paraphrasing: Look, I'm going to be the next president, so you don't have to worry about that. Just tell me, do you want to be on record, especially at this point in history, saying that the president of the U.S. has terrorist leanings? Is that what you're accusing me of? What are you doing?


Poor George

A few months ago, I bought Austerity Britain, David Kynaston's "people's history" of Britain in the years following World War II, on the strength of a very compelling review in The Atlantic. I haven't gotten around to it yet, but my girlfriend is currently reading it and I'm peeking over her shoulder from time to time. The book is full of firsthand accounts from the time -- people's diaries, letters, etc -- weaved into a narrative. At one point, Kynaston writes about a tour of the UK in fall 1945 by a championship football team (that's soccer to us Yanks) from Russia. I pick things up there, leading to a letter to the editor that I love:
The ill feeling that characterised at least two of the matches provoked George Orwell, writing just before Christmas in the left-wing magazine Tribune, to launch a full-frontal attack on professional football and its followers: 'People want to see one side on top and the other humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless.' In short, 'serious sport . . . is war minus the shooting.' This was too much for E. S. Fayers of Harrow, Middlesex. 'George Orwell is always interesting,' began his riposte. 'But he does write some bilge.' And after defending football as a game to play, he went on:
As to the spectators, with the greatest possible diffidence, I suggest that George is in danger of falling into the error of intellectual contempt for the 'mob'. These football crowds, if only he got among them, he would find are not great ignorant mobs of sadistic morons. They are a pretty good mixture of just ordinary men. A little puzzled, a little anxious, steady, sceptical, humorous, knowledgeable, having a little fun, hoping for a bit of excitement, and definitely getting quite a lot of enjoyment out of that glorious king of games -- football.
The good-natured rebuke finished unanswerably: 'I'm sorry for George. He's missed a lot of fun in life.'

Market Still Strong at $20 Per Song

I knew I should have been a lap dancer. It turns out that when the economy goes south, entertaining depressed Wall Streeters is still big business. And this has to be the sentence of the week:
But management, he assured, was going to reinforce the G-string distribution.

In Case of Financial Rupture, This Political Movement Will Be Unmanned

Timothy Egan writes about meeting evangelicals in Colorado who are leaning toward Obama. This doesn't shock me. I'm accused by some of my New York friends of understating the seriousness and the single-mindedness of the evangelical political movement. I don't think that's the case. I'm aware (and wary of) the strength of the religious-right movement in this country. It's just that I believe any group of 30 million or so people is big enough to be diverse, even if it's easier to turn them into one Borg-like entity.

Egan talks to Pastor Brady Boyd, the head of New Life Church, formerly led by Extremely Heterosexual Ted Haggard. Boyd says, "The financial crisis is point number one. . . . These attacks against the candidates are just irrelevant right now. Why are you all attacking one another when we're dying out here?"

Yes, how could a high-profile evangelical pastor ever understand why we're attacking each other? It's only the movement's modus operandi when the market is robust. This killed me:
Dobson is yesterday. Boyd is tomorrow, saying that the environment, the poor, and helping those in his church who've lost a job or a house are things that matter to his congregation.

Abortion? Homosexuals? Bill Ayers?

"To be focused on those things at a time when people are hurting would really be to the detriment of families," said Boyd.
It's nice to hear him say it, but how about taking out "at a time when people are hurting"? Because the logic of this would suggest that Boyd is admitting that exclusive focus on those issues is not good for people -- it's a divisive and useless luxury that the church indulges in when things are going well. Nice to have that cleared up.