Tuesday, March 31, 2009

AP Headlines of the Day

Don't Call It a Comeback

I've been here for years. I really have.

And I'm determined to get this blog rolling again, starting right now and for the rest of this week. See, I've been in Cleveland for the past few days, visiting my sister, who's in grad school there. I drove nine hours each way (with two delightful traveling companions), and as much as I love driving (that's not sarcastic), I'm happy to be home. I have a few things to say about the city affectionately known as The Cleve (and non-affectionately known, I assume, as The City of Burned-Out Buildings), and many other subjects.

For now, I point you to this article in the New York Times about the equally hilarious and depressing notion of celebrities getting people to Twitter for them. I've always liked Shaquille O'Neal's sense of the absurd (yes, you read that correctly), and here's more proof:
The basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, for example, is a prolific Twitterer on his account — The Real Shaq — where he shares personal news, jokes and occasional trash talking about opponents with nearly 430,000 followers.

“If I am going to speak, it will come from me,” he said, adding that the technology allows him to bypass the media to speak directly to the fans.

As for the temptation to rely on a team to supply his words, he said: “It’s 140 characters. It’s so few characters. If you need a ghostwriter for that, I feel sorry for you.”

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Future is Now


Click to enlarge.

(Via The Browser)

Gallery 30

Pee Wee Marquette and Count Basie,
New York City 1957
, by Lee Friedlander

(I also love this shot of the Count Basie Band.)


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Teenage Wasteland

It's a beautiful spring day here, the kind that's good for rocking. You remember rocking, don't you? Here's Pearl Jam tearing through The Who's "Baba O'Riley" in Chile. Enjoy:


Douthat's Negotiation

I think Ross Douthat was a wise choice as the new conservative voice on the New York Times' op-ed page. (He starts the job soon; I'm not sure when.) In this post, he does something I see him do pretty often, which is negotiate between the left and right, and wisely assume that there's more room for agreement than is often admitted. I'm not saying he does this all the time, but he does it. A taste:
Just because a criminal deserves punishment doesn't mean that he deserves any punishment. Indeed, if you want a legal system in which punishments are designed to fit crimes, then that's arguably all the more reason to want a prison system that metes out punishments as they're designed to be meted out, and that doesn't permit or practice cruelties above and beyond what legislators, judges and juries have asked for.
Douthat is responding to the latest piece by Atul Gawande, about solitary confinement. I haven't gotten around to it yet, but it's near the top of my list. Gawande is consistently brilliant and fun to read.

"You know, and we know, and you know that we know that it’s nonsense!”

Contentiousness done well:

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

We're Gonna Be OK

It's 1:07 and I'm just hopping on for a late-night/early-morning update. I have several things on my mind that will eventually make their way on to this blog, but I ask for your patience. This isn't quite Ike apologizing to Tina (or to Kevin Nealon; "Ike didn't mean it, Kevin Nealon"), but I do feel like a neglectful spouse. This means the blog has finally become a clinical psychological problem, yes? Something that would be better addressed by the good folks at Mayo?

The subjects occupying my thoughts in a way that would normally show up around here include: Jury duty, fantasy baseball, Billy Joel, and British reality TV stars. How are you living without this stuff?

The day this site becomes only an infomercial for other ventures, I promise I'll shut it down. But for now, a brief infomercial: Head over to The Second Pass to read Jon Fasman's take on a dystopian classic, Emily Bobrow's review of a novel about a 16-year-old schizophrenic roaming the New York subway system, a review by one of my favorite science writers, John Horgan, recommendations from the site's readers (if you are one, send a recommendation along!), and the latest on the blog -- the blog whose lipstick is on my collar when I come home to ASWOBA at night.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Walken Attempts to Salvage Twitter

Referring to Twitter, Andrew Sullivan writes, "Finally, it all makes sense," after being sent a link to Christopher Walken's....what? Twit-stream? Tweet-list? Tweeterings?

And yes, if everyone was Christopher Walken, this whole trend might really be something. Three recent postings:
There's a kid on a Pogo stick in front of my house. It's nearly midnight so let's assume he's been drinking. This should end well for him.

The Pope is in Africa "reaffirming the ban on condom use." His old stuff was funnier. I don't get this new material. Too edgy for my taste.

I claim to be frightened of horses but do so only to get out of attending parades. It's peculiar but has served me well. The horses get it.
Right. Well, I have to go now, Christopher, because I'm due back on the planet Earth.

Friday, March 20, 2009

7,812 Words About Songs

Now this, this is something. As a guide to the South by Southwest music festival, Paul Ford has written six-word reviews of 1,302 Mp3s submitted by bands. A couple of thoughts here:

In the age of Twitter (though I fear -- no, loathe -- Twitter), perhaps there’s room for this kind of criticism. Ford actually gets across a lot about these songs in six-word bursts (see below). It probably wouldn’t satisfy if applied to novels or movies, but pop songs lend themselves to these pithy reactions.

My other response is less complicated. It’s gratitude. As I get older and more detached from “the scene” -- in quotes not because the scene is a ridiculous term, though it is, but because I was never anywhere near it, even when I knew more about bands -- it’s remarkably helpful to have this primer. You can click on any of the songs that Ford reviews to hear the band.

For a band called Ear Pwr, and their song “I like waterslide,” Ford’s review is simply: “I hope this band is ten.” Still, he gave it four circles (out of a possible five; he also rates every song on this scale). So, I clicked and listened. It took less than a minute for the song to drain -- no, assault -- my will to live.

So, Ford’s ratings sometimes seem a little off, but that might be because he listened to 1,302 songs, and perhaps that’s not healthy. He is funny throughout. Here are a dozen more of his descriptions, along with the number of circles he gave the song under review:
“She misses him with jaunty remorse.” (Two circles.)
“I like, but don’t understand, her.” (Five.)
“Beats you to a blurry pulp.” (Two.)
“Should be about dogs. But isn’t.” (Three.)
“Lepers should be careful when clapping.” (Two.)
“Someone gave the engineer powerful uppers.” (One.)
“Dear drum fills, I’ve had my.” (Two.)
“The sound of garden gnomes weeping.” (One.)
“Fivefold Bens, folding over and over.” (Three.)
“Hang out; it eventually gets there.” (Four.)
“The Stray Cats, but noisier, Japanese.” (Three.)
“Please, please stop singing about feet.” (Four.)

The Inanimate Attitude

This article about what a real person would look like with a Barbie doll's dimensions is boilerplate what-are-we-doing-to-the-children? material, until it mentions someone named Sarah Burge, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on cosmetic surgery to look more like Barbie. I'll let Ms. Burge explain her motivations:
"I actually agree she would probably look a bit freaky if life size but as a doll she looks fantastic. There's nothing wrong in using her as a role model when it comes to looks, as well as attitude to life. . . . It's empowering for women to be who they want to be and not just live with the body and face they were born with."
This alone was pretty funny, but I really enjoyed when a commenter spelled out why:
I had to laugh at Sarah Burge's quote "There's nothing wrong in using her as a role model when it comes to looks, as well as attitude to life." Exactly what is Barbie's attitude to life? She is after all an inanimate bit of plastic. Does Sarah lay around until someone comes in and dresses her and moves her arms and legs?
(Via The Browser)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Best Opening to a Letter to the Editor. Ever.

From this week's New Yorker:
I am a radical lesbian and a separatist witch . . .

Presidential Prognosticating

Well, the Madness tips off in just a little while, and if you haven't seen President Obama filling out his bracket for ESPN, you should give it a look. (My favorite line: "Air Force One does have DirecTV.")

Three other things to enjoy about the clip:

1. Obama indulges Andy Katz (the ESPN representative) more in the beginning, and gets increasingly no-nonsense with his picks as time goes on. You can almost hear the voice in his head saying, "OK, less banter, ESPN, I've got a real job."

2. Obama chooses North Carolina to win it all, and gives the Heels a pep talk (well, he tells the team not to embarrass him).

3. I could swear that at the end I heard Katz say, "Thanks, man," and then recover to say, "Mr. President."

(Via Miles, whose blog is going to be all over this tournament.)

Not Sleepin'

For Wednesday (well, it's still Wednesday Central time, anyway), a song. One friend of mine is trying to convince me that the new U2 record is worthwhile, but I am, stubbornly, not believing it. The last thing the band did that I found even intermittently worthwhile was Zooropa, and that was -- I really hate to say this -- 16 years ago.

But before that, of course, there was U2, deservedly globe-conquering rock band. This is a performance from 1984 in Germany, of one of my favorite songs, of theirs or anybody's, "Bad." Enjoy:


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Today in Synergy

Your daily update about The Second Pass: A thoughtful review of a new biography of Flannery O'Connor, and a few O'Connor-related morsels on the blog.

Dance Party

The Australian band Youth Group traffics in catchy, inoffensive rock, and their lead singer's voice reminds me of a less powerful version of Tim Booth, the lead singer of the band James. I like them. Enough. Their new record comes out in the U.S. on April 7 (the day they also start a monthlong Tuesday-night residency at the New York club Pianos). I'm bringing them up because their new video, for "Two Sides," features the band spliced into what is either an authentic or a brilliantly recreated home video of a 1980s middle school house party. Around 1:55 is when it really picks up, party-wise. The song’s pretty infectious the whole way through.


Andrew Sullivan marks St. Patrick's Day with not one but two Simpsons clips, God bless him.

I'm all for the day, given that the largest identifiable part of my mutt self is Irish. But I laughed when a friend (and former coworker) wrote to me today. I used to (and she still does) work in a building right off of Fifth Avenue in midtown. The entirety of her e-mail to me this morning, during the parade:
OMG I am going to kill the effing bagpipers!!
Yes. Uninterrupted hours of bagpipes is a special kind of torture.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mascots Rumble, Sort Of

I first heard about this mascot fight over the weekend. I was excited to write about it, but then the video let me down. It's clear that this wasn't as thrilling as it first sounded. But still, one mascot was paid $100 by a fan (my kind of fan) to rip the mustache off another mascot, with just seven seconds left on the clock and the game hanging in the balance. That's not nothing.

I feel like the one mascot backs off before it can really amount to a brawl, because he came to and realized that he wasn't encased in foam like the other guy. A bit more embarrassing to be in clear view, just a dude wearing chaps, fighting a big blue bull.


New Reviews

I'll get the hang of double-blogging in a while, I promise. For now, head over to The Second Pass for new reviews by Daniel Menaker, myself, and the site's readers.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Where did you lose this interview? Where, where?"

As a friend of this blog put it: "You've probably seen this already seeing as it's posted on everyone else's blog, but, well. . . oh well. I guess I just want it on my blog, too."

Well. Me, too.

I could pretty much watch this on an endless loop. If you gave me water and just enough nutrients, yes, I could live out my days watching this on a loop. Gervais is funny, of course, but mostly this is yet another proof of the genius of the Muppets:

Eve's Hollywood

Over at The Second Pass, my new home away from home, Deborah Shapiro writes a terrifically entertaining essay extolling the virtues of a neglected Los Angeles memoir:
While so many writers have found material in L.A., frequently depicting the city as a land of corrosive sunshine or soul-draining sprawl, few have written with such authority and affection for so mythologized a place. Babitz not only understands but enjoys the nuances of L.A., and she doesn't get hung up on the fact, as she notes in Slow Days, that, "In Los Angeles, it's hard to tell if you're dealing with the real true illusion or the false one." She seems captivated rather than frustrated by the way the place resists reason. On a well-prostituted corner of Sunset near her home in Hollywood, she observes a tall, slender woman wearing barely-there cut-offs and a halter top, on roller skates, with a dog on a leash; Babitz wonders to what "prurient interest she was trying to appeal" and then figures, "Perhaps she was just out skating her dog."

AP Headline of the Day

Wonder If She's Gone to Stay

As promised, a song for this week, one day late: Bill Withers doing "Ain't No Sunshine" on the BBC in 1971. Enjoy this, particularly the bass player, who's about as chill as one can get without contracting hypothermia:


Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Today I’m very happy -- thrilled -- to introduce you to The Second Pass. It’s a site devoted to books, new and old, that I’ve just launched with the help of some fine contributors. My friend Strath designed the site, and whatever you think of the content, I think we can all agree that it looks fantastic. This is because Strath is an evil genius, without the evil part. I also have to thank Jennifer Maas, who's a new friend. She developed the site, which means she did the stuff that I couldn't do with a hundred years of training to actually make the thing.

Like I said before, A Special Way of Being Afraid will continue more or less as is (international sigh of relief). Among other reasons for this blog's continued existence, The Second Pass likely won't be home to AP headlines about people getting pepper-sprayed, mascots straining their groins, or -- last but most critically -- Hall & Oates. But, this week around here will be very light -- maybe just the usual song on Wednesday (or Thursday), and then another reminder, so it’s at the top, to go visit the new site.

If you enjoy this blog, it would mean a lot to me if you give The Second Pass a chance, and if you would pass it along to anyone you think might enjoy it. Unlike ASWOBA, this new project will come to require a certain amount of traffic to continue existing.

Quote of the Week

Andrew Ferguson, author and a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, on a series of public debates being held between Bill Maher and Ann Coulter:
It’s like the Battle of Stalingrad. Any sensible person would want both of them to lose.

Gallery 29

Roger Bresnahan catching for the New York Giants while a Pittsburgh Pirate player is at bat, by Bain News Service, Sept. 18, 1908.


Friday, March 06, 2009

Two Looks at Iceland

It's not often you get an honest chance to compare two writers in something like real time. Two critics might (often do) review the same book or movie, but they're at least somewhat constrained by the work under review. Last night, I read two travel pieces about the financial disaster in Iceland -- one by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair and the other by Ian Parker in The New Yorker. (Parker's is only available online to subscribers.) The comparison can't be a perfect one, because The New Yorker is famous for its thorough editing, which includes something approaching a "house voice." Still, it's interesting to see what two writers do with the same story.

Lewis, per usual, is very funny. He makes a piece about a country's financial demise about as entertaining as it can be. And he doesn't hold back his opinion of the absurdity of it all: "An entire nation without immediate experience or even distant memory of high finance had gazed upon the example of Wall Street and said, 'We can do that.' "

And he flashes his usual skill in picking anecdotes and personalities that bring the story vividly to life. In addition to his great paragraph about Björk, there's this:
Still, a society that has been ruined overnight doesn't look much different from how it did the day before, when it believed itself to be richer than ever. The Central Bank of Iceland is a case in point. Almost certainly Iceland will adopt the euro as its currency, and the krona will cease to exist. Without it there is no need for a central bank to maintain the stability of the local currency and control interest rates. Inside the place stews David Oddsson, the architect of Iceland's rise and fall. Back in the 1980s, Oddsson had fallen under the spell of Milton Friedman, the brilliant economist who was able to persuade even those who spent their lives working for the government that government was a waste of life. So Oddsson went on a quest to give Icelandic people their freedom — by which he meant freedom from government controls of any sort. As prime minister he lowered taxes, privatized industry, freed up trade, and, finally, in 2002, privatized the banks. At length, weary of prime-ministering, he got himself appointed governor of the Central Bank — even though he was a poet without banking experience.

After the collapse he holed up in his office inside the bank, declining all requests for interviews. Senior government officials tell me, seriously, that they assume he spends most of his time writing poetry. (In February he would be asked by a new government to leave.)
Parker is a bit less adamant in his judgment of the situation. For instance, he writes (italics mine), ". . . at the heart of Iceland's adventure was a small group of men and a fair amount of interconnectedness; and it's tempting, if not entirely just, to think of them as partners in a single giant national hedge fund."

Lewis is willing to cave in to the temptation. First thing in his piece, he quotes someone from the International Monetary Fund saying, "You have to understand. Iceland is no longer a country. It is a hedge fund."

Lewis paints the picture of an insular, inbred ("geneticists often use them for research") culture that suddenly decided, a few years ago, that after 1,100 years of successfully fishing they should become specialists in high finance. He quotes several people who say, more or less, what one says directly: "They had no idea what they were doing."

What's more, what they did learn they learned by watching an American system that was heading toward free fall.

Parker has room for fun, too, like the detail of a wealthy Icelandic businessman whose office is decorated with "a ten-foot Viking carrying a guitar." Or his writing about the anger that some people felt at foreign hedge-fund managers coming in to short the country's currency and brag about it at local bars, capping it with this quote from a "senior and unsentimental Icelandic financier": "If you're so vulnerable that five idiots from the East Coast, drunk in a bar, can destabilize the currency, then it's not a proper currency."

I recommend both pieces. Obviously.


In case you didn't catch this the other day, it's funny. And depressing.

Christian Talks Christianity (and Other Subjects)

A couple of years ago, I linked to an essay by Christian Wiman in The American Scholar. Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine, and his first name is an accurate description of him. Jessa Crispin recently interviewed him, and I enjoyed it. Much of it focuses on religion, but here are two bits, one about geography, one about Philip Roth:
JC: Do you like Chicago?

CW: I do like it, but it’s taken me a while. I really love the west coast. I’ve lived in San Francisco and Seattle and I love the openness of both places, and the way the natural environment so permeates the city. But Chicago’s an interesting place, with a lot of interesting people. It’s a city that doesn’t exactly reveal itself as immediately as a place like San Francisco, and it doesn’t impose its identity on you like New York. I would go crazy in New York.

JC: Would you ever go back to Texas?

CW: I would. Under the right circumstances. That landscape is just in my blood, and I find it so useful to my work to be there, it stirs things up in my consciousness. And talk about interesting people!

But there are certain things about Texas that drive me insane. The politics. The religiosity. I would probably be a militant atheist if I had stayed in Texas.
CW: The paradox is that you need a strong ego to make art, but too much of it and the work is corrupted. You can see whole careers stained with it. To my mind, Philip Roth is a pretty good example. He’s a wonderful writer, but his ego has just completely saturated his work; it’s all you feel when reading him. I’m put off by it.

JC: I’m very glad to hear you say that. I feel exactly the same way about Philip Roth.
I feel that way about Roth, too.

(Via Maud Newton)

A Recommended Review

I'm still searching (well, thinking of searching) for a semi-comprehensive list or guide to published collections of correspondence. The thought came back to me because Dwight Garner has a lively review in today's Times of the first volume of Samuel Beckett's letters. Worth a read.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

AP Headline of the Day

Man at Border Asks for Manners, Gets Pepper Spray

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Björk and Her Neighbors

I haven't yet read Michael Lewis' latest in Vanity Fair, about the financial collapse in Iceland, but I look forward to it. In the meantime, the excerpt that Andrew Sullivan posted is hilarious:
Because Iceland is really just one big family, it's simply annoying to go around asking Icelanders if they've met Björk. Of course they've met Björk; who hasn't met Björk? Who, for that matter, didn't know Björk when she was two? "Yes, I know Björk," a professor of finance at the University of Iceland says in reply to my question, in a weary tone. "She can't sing, and I know her mother from childhood, and they were both crazy. That she is so well known outside of Iceland tells me more about the world than it does about Björk."

Sobering Photos

A couple of weeks ago, I added The Big Picture to my blogroll, and I strongly suggest you regularly visit. This series of shots from DR Congo by one photographer, Finbarr O’Reilly, is stunning. All of them are heartbreaking in one way or another, but a particular warning that number 18 shows a malnourished infant seemingly on the verge of death.

Two examples from the series:

For Wednesday...

...Hall. Oates. "She's Gone." Enjoy:

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Dad and Damon

Responding to my post yesterday about Damon Runyon, my dad sent me an e-mail that included this bit:
My parents saw Broadway shows once or twice a year. My dad was always somewhat reluctant, but dutifully tagged along. Being a night owl even then, I was usually up when they arrived home and I can recall my shock one night when Dad returned ecstatic over the show and, of course, it was the original Broadway production of “Guys and Dolls.” I had forgotten that, but the memory was resurrected when the movie came out about five years later when I was a freshman in college. I was home for vacation and a buddy of mine from Hempstead and I took dates to see it. I had read the Runyon short stories by then and was mesmerized. When I returned to Ithaca and saw it was playing in one of the movie houses there, I firmly established my credentials as a movie nut case by seeing it seven times in three days. I only did that two other times, for The Court Jester and A Place in the Sun.



The entire Harper's Index is now searchable online. (A sample, from 1991: "Number of Ph.D.'s hired last year to 'develop' carrot sticks for McDonald's: 45.") . . . An atheist explains what he's gotten from years of closely studying the Bible. . . . A recent poll asked for the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. The person running the poll was shocked and disappointed to find people from "all over Cyberspace" discovering it, rather than just strict philosophy nerds. Duh. . . . I think when the story of America's over-consumption is definitively written, this release, out today, will get its own chapter. One reviewer on Amazon, "Anthony," said that news of this DVD "made his year," because he grew up on the show. "I just hope its [sic] a [sic] good as I remember, as its [sic] been about 20 years." I have one word for Anthony.

A Resurgence for Donald B.

Suddenly, a lot of talk about Donald Barthelme. The release of a new biography, Hiding Man, has led to a piece in The New Yorker by Louis Menand and a forthcoming piece in the New York Review of Books by Lorrie Moore.

In an audio piece that accompanies his review, Menand makes the point that Barthelme’s playful, rule-breaking work is maybe most potent when discovered at a relatively young age. (I excerpted one of my favorite stories here.)

It’s fitting that Barthelme is the focus of prolonged attention the same week as David Foster Wallace is, since I think Wallace’s work reflects Barthelme’s influence much more than that of writers like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer, who Menand mentions. Wallace once called Barthelme’s work one of the “stars [I] steer by,” and said that his story “The Balloon,” “is the first story I ever read that made me want to be a writer.”

As an accompaniment to James Wood’s list from the other day, you can go back and look at a list of 81 books that Barthelme recommended to his students.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Deconstructing Damon

In last week's New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote about Damon Runyon. The piece was smart enough, but I think deconstructing Runyon's voice is a bit like deconstructing a joke -- even if you do it well, you've only diminished the original pleasure.

Presumably, the magazine ran the article to coincide with the Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls." In the Times, Ben Brantley ripped into the show, and several readers added their derision to form a booing chorus. At the very least, Oliver Platt has to be the strangest casting of Nathan Detroit on record. The newspaper also printed some Runyon excerpts to mark the occasion.

Getting back to Gopnik, he states in his article that the movie version of the musical "still sounds like too much, and one aches all through" it. He's hardly the first to criticize the movie, but I think he's wrong. For my rebuttal, please take two minutes and 11 seconds, and go here.

Gallery 28

Boys playing football in Oldham, 1982, by Don McPhee

(Via Crooked Timber)


Slash's 16-Word Memoir

The Biographical Detail of the Month award goes to guitarist Slash. In the newest issue of GQ, he talks about his early experiences with drugs (at age 12 or 13), and uncorks this:
The first time I ever heard "Iron Man," I was on acid at Errol Flynn's estate.

"The Unfinished"

My issue of The New Yorker won't arrive until later in the week, but D. T. Max's article about David Foster Wallace, available online, is the first must-read piece of the week. The issue also includes an excerpt from an unfinished novel that Wallace had been working on at the time of his death.