Wednesday, April 29, 2009

That Is What We Are

I've been waiting to unleash this. I don't see any reason to wait longer. For Wednesday, enjoy:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An Impossible Country

If you read just one thing this week -- after you're done reading this blog, everything at The Second Pass, and any e-mails I may have sent you -- I strongly recommend making it Philip Gourevitch's long piece in The New Yorker about Rwanda. It's only available to subscribers online, but I imagine many of you subscribe; and for those of you who don't (you should), it's worth the cost of the issue.

Gourevitch wrote a great book about the country's 1994 genocide. Fifteen years later, he goes back to find out how the country could possibly be the safest and most orderly in Africa, especially given that "Rwanda is the only nation where hundreds of thousands of people who took part in mass murder live intermingled at every level of society with the families of their victims." As you can imagine, this is not a simple situation. Or a simple piece. But one worth reading.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Just Like a Mini-Mall

Last weekend, friends introduced me to the first clip below, which I've missed out on despite the fact that it's obviously a sensation at more than four million views. It's also spawned a large batch of remixes and other parodies. Below it, I'm posting my favorite, by a Christian singer named Shaun Groves. I actually find his version embarrassingly pleasurable and addictive.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Not-Cheap Seats

In my post about visiting Yankee Stadium, I mentioned lots of empty seats nearest the field. The Times reports that it's a problem for both New York teams:
After spending $2.3 billion on new stadiums packed with suites, restaurants and the latest technology, the Mets and the Yankees expected fans to embrace their new homes and pay top dollar for the privilege. Almost every team that has built a new stadium in the recent past has seen an immediate surge in attendance.

Instead, the Mets and the Yankees face a public relations nightmare and possibly millions of dollars in lost revenue after failing to sell about 5,000 tickets — including some of the priciest seats — to each of their first few games after last week’s openers.

The empty seats are a fresh sign that the teams might have miscalculated how much fans and corporations were willing to spend, particularly during a deep recession. Whatever the reason, the teams are scrambling to comb over their $295- to $2,625-a-seat bald spots.
I would try to comment on the disgusting absurdity of a $2,625 seat, but it comments on itself.

AP Headline of the Day

Exotic Dancer Blitzed by Rival With Stiletto

Britt Alone

For Wednesday, Britt Daniel of Spoon singing "Black Like Me" backstage. Enjoy:

Monday, April 20, 2009

Death Star 2.0

Thanks to my friend Kraig -- who I would now put in my will, if it meant bequeathing him anything more than piles of tattered paperbacks -- I fell into a prime seat for Sunday's game between the Yankees and the Indians at the new Yankee Stadium. (Kraig took me to my last game at the old stadium, too.)

I was impressed. (A full post of my photos can be found here.) At first, I have to admit that the whole thing seemed like too much. The comfortably cushioned seats are straight out of a new megaplex. The size and clarity of the video screen beyond the center-field wall is impossible to describe in words or even photos. You have to sit in the stadium to grasp how it dominates the field of vision, like a high-def spaceship hovering above the field, the aliens whistling and trying to look inconspicuous. That screen represents the general principle that the stadium is terrific but a lot. The concourses are very open-air, and reminded me of similar spaces in the new(ish) parks in Philadelphia and Houston, among other places. The areas surrounding the game are an enormous improvement from the old Y.S., where leaving your seat for food felt like traveling several miles from the stadium to a claustrophobic warehouse in need of industrial cleaning.

As always when I visit a new park, I passed up the fancier culinary options to test the traditional dog and fries. The dog was good and the fries were excellent. Full disclosure: I was tempted enough by the fancy to get garlic fries. They are not garlic-flavored; they are wet with garlic. And a large order is nine dollars. (The stadium inspires a lot of italics. They could have named it Italics Stadium. Or at least, officially, Yankee Stadium.) Luckily, a small order of those garlic fries is a slightly less insane six bucks, and certainly a large enough portion for anyone except those looking to cash in a life-insurance policy before the last pitch.

For such a heavily hyped palace, there were a lot of empty seats -- mostly behind home plate and other premium areas. I need to investigate, but I think this is simply because of outrageous pricing. Ugh. But the prices didn't keep away a certain brand of Yankee fan, like the guy a section over who started taunting a decent-looking father and pair of sons decked out in Indians garb -- ten minutes before the first pitch. He had to walk several rows down to scream, and even then he was a full section over. "I see you!" he shouted at the trio. "Oh, it's gonna be a loooong day for you! I'm right over here!!" He was actually a good-natured buffoon, not a real jerk, and the fact that he was taunting them the day after the Yankees surrendered 22 runs to their team was pretty comical.

That guy was a very familiar sight (and sound) from the old stadium. The most unnerving new part of the experience was the presence of a battalion of team employees roaming around the concourses holding up signs that read: "How may I help you?" And as we left, there was a woman standing at the turnstiles, smiling and thanking us for our attendance. I felt like I was in a Macaroni Grill in Dallas, not Yankee Stadium. I imagine that over time this rank civility will erode.

I can't wait to get back for a night game. And another afternoon game. And a . . .

Not Too Soon to Stink

The start of a baseball season is deceptive, but most certainly for players and teams who are doing well. Ian Kinsler will probably have a great year if he stays healthy, but he's not going to hit .460, as he is now. On the other hand, bad starts can turn into demotions for individuals or just long, long summers for teams and their fans.

First, take Kyle Farnsworth. (The Royals would no doubt add a Henny Youngman-esque “please.”) He's made five appearances for Kansas City out of the bullpen this year, three of them disasters. The first time he pitched when it counted, he inherited a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning, and gave up three runs. They lost. After two decent outings, he then entered a game that was tied, 2-2, and promptly gave up another three runs. Yesterday, he was called on in the ninth inning of a tie game and gave up a game-winning home run to the first batter he faced.

The only thing that keeps Farnsworth from being the biggest goat of the early season is the existence of what experts like to call the Washington Nationals. They're 1-10, and have achieved that mark -- especially recently -- with a real dramatic flair for incompetence. Over the weekend, the Nats actually played well against the best team in baseball thus far, the Marlins. The only thing that kept it from being a really successful weekend for D.C. was the sport's stubborn insistence that games last nine innings.

Friday night, the Nats were up 2-1. They gave up a run in the ninth, and lost 3-2 in 10 innings. That was a mere warm-up. Saturday, they were leading 6-3 in the ninth. They gave up three in the ninth and lost 9-6, again in extras. Sunday, the dark shadow of the ninth inning found them with a 4-3 lead. Which, for them, is something like being down 10 for an average team. Naturally, they gave up four runs and lost, 7-4.

The team can't even spell its name right.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Community News

I was hoping to break the relative silence around here today, but honestly, spring has been late in making its presence felt in NY, and it's 70 and sunny right now. So, the silence will continue. I'm hoping to work on some things over the weekend, so that next week might look a little more like things used to on ASWOBA. You know, irrelevant and silly, but more often.

In the meantime, I do hope you're a regular visitor of The Second Pass, where this week: Emily Bobrow reviewed Peter Singer's latest, readers recommended a few more intriguing titles on The Shelf, and I sang the praises of Wilfrid Sheed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Let Them Help

I watched Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park last weekend (more on that later, perhaps), and it introduced me to a song that many of you may have heard a million times -- Billy Swan's "I Can Help." It's been playing in my head on a more or less continuous loop since I watched the movie. Below, for Wednesday, are two versions. The first is Swan playing the song live, and the second is a montage of pretty great Elvis clips while his studio version plays in the background. Enjoy:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

AP Headline of the Day

Cash Stash in Bra Stops Bullet From Piercing Heart

Crystal Baseball

In the wake of my NBA bragging -- and before the season gets too far along -- I guess I should throw out some baseball predictions. I know it's still early enough to do this because the Blue Jays and Orioles are battling for first in the A.L. East. That means it's April. Here are some projections and thoughts in five installments:

1. The Yankees will finish above .500. I know this sounds like a very safe prediction, but you wouldn't know it from listening to the New York media, which treats the team's tepid start like a national crisis. That said, I think the Rays win that division again. The Yankees and/or Red Sox will make them earn it, of course, but in my opinion a cohesive group of good young players still beats a cobbled-together roster of high-priced (often over-priced) talent.

2. The Mets will keep their fans in bleeding ulcers. It seems likely that they will be good enough to be in the thick of it again in September. They have too much talent to fall out of it, and the division is too tough for them to run away with it. Where they go from there, who knows? Another late collapse, and the new stadium may as well be a shantytown for all the good feeling it will bring.

3. The Royals will have a decent season. Maybe that just means winning 81 games to go .500, a six-game improvement on last year. Maybe it means a little bit more than that, if they really surprise. There's no good reason to believe they'll do it, but Zack Greinke is poised to become a true ace, Joakim Soria is one of the very best closers in the game (when given things to close), and the lineup is full of scrappy, fast players (Coco Crisp, David DeJesus, Mike Aviles) and at least one guy (Alex Gordon) who could really break out (he's still only 25 years old). Of course, DeJesus and Aviles are hitting .192 and .160, respectively, as I write this, which I know because I have the bums on my fantasy team.

4. Some awards, A.L. and then N.L. in each case:
Cy Young: Greinke and Johan Santana
MVP: Evan Longoria and Albert Pujols
Rookie of the Year: David Price and Cameron Maybin
5. And the even more pointless playoff series predictions:
First round: Mets over Dodgers; Cubs over Phillies; Rays over Twins; Yankees over Angels
Second Round: Cubs over Mets; Rays over Yankees
World Series: Rays over Cubs

A Human Cuisinart

I'll have to make up for this with a really good Wednesday song this week. Surely, the phrase "it's so bad that it's good" was invented for something like what's below. Joe Queenan once saw John Tesh in concert (for research purposes), and wrote that, "With his shopworn, lounge-lizard stage gestures, eviscerated salsa compositions, and studied reveries, Tesh was a human Cuisinart of every hack musical stunt, effecting a strange synthesis of various mongrel styles..." He also noted that Tesh is "almost supernaturally vacant."

In this clip (sent to me by a friend), Tesh shares the story of how he wrote a sports theme for NBC, and then he plays it. Almost every nanosecond of this is funny, but the air dribble has to be my favorite part. Enjoy:

Monday, April 13, 2009

"They knew I was intelligent a little bit, but this is the way I had to live."

One of baseball's all-time great characters died today. Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was only 54, and seems to have died in a freak accident involving work on a truck.

The single year that made Fidrych's legend was his rookie season, 1976, when he won 19 games, led the league with a 2.34 ERA, and threw 24 complete games (also a league high, and a number unheard of today; no one's thrown 10 or more since 1999, and you have to go back to 1986 for 20 or more). But those numbers -- pretty gaudy for anybody, let alone a 21-year-old -- were only partly responsible for the intensity of his fame. Fidrych was a shaggy-haired, rail-thin nut who frequently talked to himself and moved dirt around on the mound, and he had a rubber-band delivery that was something to see.

I'm not sure if he was the only pitcher to ever grace the cover of Rolling Stone, but it's probably a good bet. There was also this classic cover of Sports Illustrated:

I was two years old during his brilliant season, so I can't say I remember it. He hurt his shoulder early in the 1977 season, and medical marvels not being what they are now, it slowly cost him his career. He pitched sparingly for three or four years, the tail end of which is when I became aware of him. He tried to fight back in the minor leagues for several years, but ultimately ended up on a farm in his home state of Massachusetts, where Gary Smith caught up with him for a 1985 profile in Sports Illustrated:
Some days Fidrych would leave his chain saw and splitting wedge behind, walk into the woods and scream. Just after the dream year, he had looked down at his hands and told a reporter, "I've got a trade now. These hands are vital. I can't pour cement with these hands." Since he left baseball, those hands have poured cement for swimming pools, cleared lots for new houses, fed pigs and chopped wood. He has sold a pig or cow now and then, or a piece of land that he had bought when he was playing ball. A few times a year, someone pays him to speak at a banquet. For six months last year he was a traveling liquor salesman, but the money and the necktie were no good, so he quit. He doesn't need much, just enough to pay the $6,000 in taxes on his mostly wooded farm, with a little left over for hamburger and beer money—and to have an answer for "What do you do?"
There aren't many clips of Fidrych available online, but this nine-minute piece (below) is a classic. First of all, I had no idea that he sounded like an extra from Good Will Hunting, but check out that accent. There's also a moment you have to catch. If you're not interested in watching the whole thing, the preface of the moment I mean starts around 5:25.

Mark Fidrych was, among other things, one reason why baseball is awesome. Rest in peace, Bird.


Not Last; First of Many

From my friend Manny comes this list of homages to "The Last Supper." The one with fast food mascots is pretty funny (The Noid is Judas, naturally). The most bizarre -- by a healthy margin -- has to be this version featuring James Woods as every character (one James Woods is creepy enough), with one sole exception: RoboCop.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pelosi and Reid May Be Hacks, But the Other Side is Getting Out of Hand

I think that Glenn Beck is clinically insane. If this clip was from some cable-access show of a guy in his basement, that would be fine with me. Grab a camcorder and just lose your last screw. Cool. But millions of people watch this? People with jobs and college degrees?

The list of Scary Things About This is long. But the list of Frustrating Things is even longer. For instance, near the end he says that all he wants is "common sense"?!?! WHAT? That we can disagree on policy, but let's not get all crazy?? Too late, Glenn. The horses left your crazy barn a long time ago, and I think they trampled you on the way out.

(Per the headline of this post, it's not like I'm thrilled with the Democrats. See here for a case study in unending ineffectiveness.)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Toot Toot

Hate to toot my own horn, but here is part of what I wrote back on October 28:
So my sleeper team this year in the Eastern Conference is the Atlanta Hawks. . . . 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).
The Eastern Conference standings with just three or four games left for each team:

1. Cleveland
2. Boston
3. Orlando
4. Atlanta

It looks likely that the Hawks will host a first-round playoff series.

But wait. I'm not done. Also from that October post:
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.
And the team with the worst record in the NBA as of tonight, at 16-61? The Sacramento Kings.

Now, did I also predict the New Orleans Hornets to win it all? Yes, I did. And is that likely to happen? No, it's not.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

AP Headline of the Day

Police: Man Cut and Stabbed After Flatulence Fight

The Crazies

I think at least one person got it right in discussing last week's gay marriage decision in Iowa: "There's no missing the midwestern tone to this decision. It reads very differently from the decisions granting marriage rights in Connecticut and California."

But of course, the high courts (and the voters) in Kentucky and Mississippi could decide along similar lines, and certain people -- like, oh, Michael Savage -- would still be warning us about the "gay puppet masters." Words fail.

Well, no, maybe they don't. Savage calls Obama a "Trojan horse" who's being used by "the gay mafia." (That group really needs its own Godfather trilogy.) Nice try. The Trojan horse is big enough to hold millions of Americans for whom this simply isn't a divisive issue. And millions more in each subsequent generation. Savage can keep pounding his drum, but he's lost the beat.

The infotainment elements of the right (emphasis on the "tainment") were getting pretty strident even when their party held the steering wheel. Now it seems that people like Savage and Glenn ("I don't understand how anyone watches him with a straight face") Beck are just more intent on playing to Crazytown.

Daydreams Galore

For Wednesday, this is Cy Coleman doing "Why Try to Change Me Now," a song he wrote for Frank Sinatra. (And here's a pretty great, longer version by Fiona Apple, who recorded it for a tribute to Coleman.) Enjoy:

(Via Stereogum)


Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Give a listen to these great vintage clips of Stevie Wonder playing live. (Via Miles.) . . . Pitchfork uses the release of a deluxe edition to reconsider Pearl Jam's debut, Ten. . . . If Son Volt's forthcoming album really does "see the group returning to the melodic simplicity of its debut album Trace," then I'm eager to hear it. . . . Finally, my friend Dez, perhaps the only married, more or less normally socialized person on the planet who earnestly cares about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, gives his account of this year's induction ceremonies.

Monday, April 06, 2009

LeBron the Consoler

Also while in Cleveland, I came across this photograph by Tracy Boulian in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It shows LeBron James and a student from his high school alma mater after a playoff loss. I was transfixed by this photo for a while. First, there's the fact of LeBron -- the world's greatest player -- being there and doing this. Then there's the fact of the kid, who's so distraught that he can't even pull himself together and be tough for LeBron James. I feel like it's something you could see hanging in a religious wing of the Met, with a title like Consolation of the Point Guard.

The Land Called Cleve

So, Cleveland.

I went to the city for the first time a couple of weeks ago to visit my sister, who’s an actor and getting a graduate degree there. Cleveland seems like it would be a really great place to live. In 1950. There are neighborhoods full of large, stately homes, presumably occupied now by people who inherited manufacturing wealth from last century. And then there are streets lined with abandoned factories and crumbling houses. It’s a city that’s been passed by, like many others in the midwest, and it wears sad signs of former glory.

I thought Brooklyn had a lot of churches. Cleveland has an astounding number, and almost each one looks like it could be a denomination’s national headquarters. Most of them appear to be in pretty good shape. We were on the trip with my mother, who’s Episcopalian, and we attended a service with her Sunday morning at Trinity Cathedral, which was just a block or two from our downtown hotel. (It’s pictured at right in 1910.)

On the positive side, the two schools we stayed near, Cleveland State and Case Western, seem to be thriving, with new construction all over the place. We also visited one of the very best bookstores I’ve ever seen, Loganberry. If you’re ever around there, I highly recommend it. (The "Literary Arts" room alone would be a great store.) And we had dinner one night in the city’s charming and easily walkable Little Italy section, which is packed with restaurants and, again, churches. We didn’t make it to a bar that a friend had suggested, but there will be a next time. I need to get back when the Indians are in town.

Posted in NY

Here is a "collection of street posters, mad scribblings, political screeds, religious rants, and paranoid raves . . . collected on the streets of New York City from 1985 to the present."

Very Short List, where I found this, warns that, "Some of these rants and effusions are political, many are NSFW, most are borderline insane."

I find this one strangely riveting:

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Girls, Girls, Girls (& Stuart)

Belle & Sebastian leader Stuart Murdoch has a side project coming out in June called God Help the Girl. To make it, he went on a search for female vocalists. Watching the promotional video below, I get the sense that: 1) The record's going to be worth hearing, and 2) Murdoch went on this search partly for vocal talent and partly to meet a parade of beautiful women. Celia Garcia: Wow.

(Via Stereogum)

The Spaghetti Weevil

OK, I know I’m a day late, but please indulge this third (and final) post about pranks. The same site where I learned about San Serriffe (below) has a list of its all-time top 100 April Fool’s hoaxes. Number One is 1957's "Swiss Spaghetti Harvest":
The respected BBC news show Panorama announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. It accompanied this announcement with footage of Swiss peasants pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees. Huge numbers of viewers were taken in. Many called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree.
Lucky for us -- unless this is its own April Fool’s joke -- the original footage exists on YouTube. Enjoy:

Discover Beautiful San Serriffe

Speaking of hoaxes, here's an elaborate one created by a British newspaper in 1977. On April 1 of that year, the Guardian published a seven-page special section about San Serriffe, a series of islands in the Indian Ocean that didn't exist. You can read all the details here. Perhaps because the islands sounded like an appealing vacation spot, the paper was deluged with calls and letters asking for more information.

My favorite detail is one worthy of Monty Python. The paper got several advertisers to go along with the prank -- four of the seven pages were taken up by ads. The Guardian made up its own:
The Guardian itself invented a fake ad, inviting applicants for the position of Reader in Lunar Spectroscopy at the University of San Serriffe. “Department of Lunar Studies: A vacancy will shortly exist for a Reader in Lunar Spectroscopy. With special emphasis on the extraction of energy from moonbeams. The post is tenable from October 1st, 1977, at a salary in the range SSCorona 5,650-7,100. (At present exchange rates C1—£4.30 sterling). Free housing and use of outrigger.” Many people sent in their CV. One applicant began his letter, “Although not a lunar spectroscopist...” and proceeded to ask if any other positions were available.
(Via The Morning News)

Sidd, 24 Years On

This week's Sports Illustrated (the annual baseball preview) includes a reminder of the legendary April Fool's joke that the magazine orchestrated 24 years ago, when George Plimpton published "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch." The article spoke of a mysterious, reclusive pitching prospect who had arrived at the Mets' spring training camp. He could throw the ball "about 150 mph," but he was being hidden from view behind "a large canvas enclosure."

To establish the curiosity of Finch, Plimpton quoted actual players and coaches, and the piece was accompanied only by the terrifically loony photo at left. (You can see the full photo here.) Plimpton's novelistic level of detail (and he later expanded the article into a full-length novel) is one reason readers may have been taken in, despite the date on the magazine's cover. You can read the full thing here. Here's a taste of those details:
The registrar's office at Harvard will release no information about Finch except that in the spring of 1976 he withdrew from the college in midterm. The alumni records in Harvard's Holyoke Center indicate slightly more. Finch spent his early childhood in an orphanage in Leicester, England and was adopted by a foster parent, the eminent archaeologist Francis Whyte-Finch, who was killed in an airplane crash while on an expedition in the Dhaulagiri mountain area of Nepal. At the time of the tragedy, Finch was in his last year at the Stowe School in Buckingham, England, from which he had been accepted into Harvard. Apparently, though, the boy decided to spend a year in the general area of the plane crash in the Himalayas (the plane was never actually found) before he returned to the West and entered Harvard in 1975, dropping for unknown reasons the "Whyte" from his name. Hayden Finch's picture is not in the freshman yearbook. Nor, of course, did he play baseball at Harvard, having departed before the start of the spring season.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Horror

Overheard at a local cafe, part of a conversation between one bearded guy in his mid-20s and three female friends:
Guy: You know what's weird, when we get older there will be, like, a remake of Sex and the City. You know how now there are...

One of the women: That would be horrible. They better not do that!

Guy: Yeah, but they probably will.

Ms. Warwick

For Wednesday, this is Dionne Warwick singing "I'll Never Love This Way Again." The only part of this that might qualify as an April Fool's joke is what she's wearing. Otherwise, this is presented earnestly. The talky opening of the song is a little cheesy, but when she starts singing, she starts singing. Enjoy: