Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Frederick in Winter

Frederick by Leo Lionni was (and still is) one of my favorite books as a child. The story is about a mouse who the rest of the mouse family thinks is lazy because as they're gathering food for the winter, Frederick seemingly sits there doing nothing.  When they get all German on his ass and inquire exactly what in the hell he's up to (paraphrasing here), he says he's gathering words and things for the cold winter days.
TLD: While fishing for the Frederick link, the (creepy) Amazon history/suggestion machine pulled this from a very old search of mine: Fly away home.   It's a wonderful little book that I got from a bargain bin in a grocery store for about $3 because it was just so damn pretty. It also rivals Goodnight Moon in casting the perfect spell for a little one to drift off for the night. It became my oldest's favorite bedtime story, but it has a fragile binding, so I looked back in the day for a replacement copy in case, thus its popping up in my (creepy) Amazon history/suggestion machine.  Had I known good copies are selling for $50 - $100 today, I'd have popped for the other 5 copies. Damnit.

Here are the words of I've been gathering for that rainy day when my own are slow in coming.  They have no cohesion unto each other, but each has something that struck a chord in me.  I hope you enjoy them.

Let's start with Tina Fey's prayer for her daughter, from Bossypants.



The Mother's  Prayer
for Its Daughter

First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol
for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo
stain her tender haunches.

May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it's the
Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach's eye, not
the Beauty.

When the Crystal Meth is offered,
May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half
And stick with Beer.

Guide her, protect her
When crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming
in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near
pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th
Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms,
getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads
while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in
parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log
flumes, or anything called "Hell Drop," "Tower of
Torture," or "The Death Spiral Rock 'N Zero G Roll
featuring Aerosmith," and standing on any kind of
balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to
Finance.
Something where she can make her own hours but still
feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes
And not have to wear high heels.

What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery?
Golf course design? I'm asking You, because if I knew,
I'd be doing it, Youdammit.

May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her
Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own
Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.

Grant her a Rough Patch from twelve to seventeen.
Let her draw horses and be interested in Barbies for
much too long.
For Childhood is short -- a Tiger Flower blooming
Magenta for one day --
And Adulthood is long and Dry-humping in Cars
will wait.

O Lord, break the Internet forever,
That she may be spared the misspelled invective of
her peers
And the online marketing campaign for Rape Hostel
V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed.

And when she one clay turns on me and calls me a
Bitch in front of Hollister,
Give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a
cab front of her friends,
For l will not have that Shit. I will not have it.

And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my
eyes, Lord,
That I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at
4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love
with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its
back.
"My mother did this for me once," she will realize as
she cleans feces off her baby's neck. "My mother did
this for me." And the delayed gratitude will wash over
her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental
Note to call me. And she will forget.
But I'll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.

Amen

Absolutely lovely.

 
Here are some snippets from Everyone Loves You When You're Dead: Journeys into Fame andMadness by Neil Strauss:

My favorite is the invention of Rock and Roll by Chuck Berry, which is put in a footnote!


[STRAUSS:] So maybe your audience invented rock and roll and you were the first one to listen to them and understand what they wanted and give it to them.*

BERRY: That's very good. I don't know if I know it, but I would try and get it to them. You're right there. Hm-mmm.

* In many of the theaters Berry played, be later explained, the whites were on one side and the blacks on the other. And the whites responded well to black music (the blues) while the blacks responded well to white music (country). So, in part by trying to please both audiences simultaneously, rock and roll came to be.
Beck misreads an audience.


Lounging in his tour bus, Beck tells the story of a concert he performed. It was the last show on what had been a disappointing tour, and he and his band were determined to get their final audience on its feet and dancing. Yet no matter how hard they tried, the people in the front rows remained seated. Before the encore, Beck and his band met backstage and said they weren't going home until the entire audience was dancing. They came back out and tried everything, even attempting to pull people in the front row out of their seats. When that failed, Beck did something very uncharacteristic: He yelled "fuck you" into the mic, spit at the audience, and stormed offstage.

It wasn't until after the show that Beck discovered the concert had been a benefit for the disabled, who were given free front row seats.

I love this little essay about the meaning, purpose, and the engine of fiction in the forward to Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King: 
The stories in this book are harsh. You may have found them hard to read in places. If so, be assured that I found them equally hard to write in places. When people ask me about my work, I have developed a habit of skirting the subject with jokes and humorous personal anecdotes (which you can't quite trust; never trust anything a fiction writer says about himself). It's a form of deflection, and a little more diplomatic than the way my Yankee forebears might have answered such questions: It's none of your business, chummy. But beneath the jokes, I take what I do very seriously, and have since I wrote my first novel, The Long Walk, at the age of eighteen.

I have little patience with writers who don't take the job seriously, and none at all with chose who see the art of story-fiction as essentially worn out. It's not worn out, and it's not a literary game. It's one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us. It's the way we answer the question, How can such things be? Stories suggest that sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- there's a reason.

From the start -- even before a young man I can now hardly comprehend started writing The Long Walk in his college dormitory room -- I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive.  It gets in your face.  Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I'm much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief). I can remember reading George Orwell's 1984 at the age of thirteen or so with growing dismay, anger, and outrage, charging through the pages and gobbling up the story as fast as l could, and what's wrong with that? Especially since I continue to think about it to this day when some politician (I'm thinking of Sarah Palin and her scurrilous "death-panel" remarks) has some success in convincing the public that white is really black, or vice-versa.


I have soap-boxed this exact sentiment for years, especially the final sentence, because I've met so many people and have read so many music critics that ascribe to the punk ethos that Grohl dismantles here.  From


Ironically, the inspiration behind There Is Nothing Left to Lose came not from the punk rock which had informed Nirvana's game-changing rage, but largely from the AM radio hits Grohl, Mendel and Hawkins first heard blasting from their parents' car stereos in the 1970s - the music of The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Wings and Peter Frampton, ironically the very music against which the original punks were so keen to rebel. This was a punk rock gesture in itself, and Grohl was wholly unrepentant.

'Having grown up in that punk rock scene, I've been so inspired by so many people, so many different bands and so many different experiences,' he told me in 2009, 'but one of the things I refuse to subscribe to, or buy into, is the guilt that most people are tortured by in that scene, the musical guilt.

'I think about it sometimes. I think about the reasons I fell in love with punk rock when I was 12 or 13: it was because of the music - the sound of what these people were doing was so fucking powerful that it moved me and totally changed my life. I didn't even need to know their intentions, I just loved the feeling that I got when I listened to the Bad Brains or when I listened to AC/DC, it was the same energy. But, along with that punk rock background or foundation comes this obligatory guilt. I guess when you state your intentions so clearly early on it becomes hard to negate that if you move in another direction.

'Personally, I don't feel like I've ever moved in another direction. I joined Freak Baby because I wanted to fucking jam, and we turned into Mission Impossible because if I played the drums it would sound better than Freak Baby. I joined Dain Bramage because I wanted to play more. I joined Scream because they were fucking amazing. I joined Nirvana because of Bleach and because there was no more Scream. But the guilt that a lot of those people from that scene still carry with them -- musical guilt, does that make any sense? Puck no! I should be able to do what the fuck I want to do! 

'And so the only thing from that whole experience that breaks my heart is that that musical guilt kept people from doing some of the things they could have done. I understand, like, the political boundaries that the punk rock scene had, but for me that was never the idea; maybe it was being from Virginia, and not being from Washington DC, but my motivation was much more musical than anything. And I feel like our band has always remained true to that ideal, just to do whatever satisfies us musically. If it feels right and instinctive at the time, then we should do that and not have anything keep us from it. Because that guilt, that fucking guilt, is what killed Kurt.'

All of Mary Roach's books are gloriously humorous romps through a particular topic like sex, death, living in outer space, or in this case, our digestive tract. From Gulp by Mary Roach:

A great sentence (about being swallowed by a whale):
While a seaman might survive the suction and swallow, his arrival in a sperm whale's stomach would seem to present a new set of problems.*

* I challenge you to find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman. And then call me up on the homophone and read it to me.
Laundry:
I put in a call to [Keith] Grime [detergent industry consultant - and his real name]. The answer is yes. Higher-end detergents contain at least three digestive enzymes: amylase to break down starchy stains, protease for proteins, and lipase for greasy stains (not just edible fats but body oils like sebum). Laundry detergent is essentially a digestive tract in a box. Ditto dishwashing detergent: protease and lipase eat the food your dinner guests didn't.

Grime told me about an enzyme found on the forest floor that breaks down the cellulose in dead, fallen trees. When he worked at Procter & Gamble, he tried it out as a fabric softener. (That's how softeners work. They ever so mildly digest the fibers.)





Finally, via Kottke.org, we have Time Out's best 100 best animated films.  As a life-long animation fan, of course I have to comment. 

Most of the list is cool, and it's cool to see no snobbery toward Anime.  Largely the list a great service to those who love animation, or cartoons, a term I still think is just fine.  A nice touch is the many categorizations offered via handy icons where you can hop to a list of movies that fit the category. 

My few quibbles are these:

Rango?  Really? Did they see this movie? I think adult critics liked it, but it's not a hit among kids.  At all.  It's always on the shelf on the library, and I bet the Netflix stats would show it's typically watched once, if at all.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox? I realize I just don't get the Wes Anderson aesthetic, which is "twee" incarnate, but this movie doesn't pass the basic test of a cartoon - that is, a movie directed primarily at kids, which some animations aren't, though this one seems to be - in that I've never met a kid who liked it. It doesn't really have much in it for adults, either.  And, it's just not that good.   

ParaNorman. I'm OK this is on the list; it's a good film. However, the climax of the film is over-the-top scary for a children's film. The list categorizes it as scary, but it should also be on the traumatic list as well, maybe even the grown-up list. Here's why, but it's a spoiler, so skip past "End Spoiler".  To read it easier, select the text.
Start Spoiler
When Norman finally finds the witch that was murdered, her spirit is so angry that it keeps splitting into many different aspects of the person, all of which are grimacing or screaming at some point.  It's scary as hell, and is reminiscent of some of the most frightening scenes from The Exorcist.  It gave me goosebumps and my little one nightmares for a while.
End Spoiler


No Wizards? This is arguably Ralph Bakshi's best.  Everyone I know who's a movie buff has seen it more than once.  It's not aged as well as I thought it would, but it's still a decent, affecting movie. This movie purposely nudges Lord of the Rings fans in the ribs throughout, and Bakshi even tried to tackle LOTR later. Other Bakshi movies are on the list, so they know of him.  This one is perhaps the most puzzling omission.
 
No Heavy Metal? It wasn't GREAT, but it's ground-breaking and still very entertaining. Yeah, some of Bakshi's movies had cartoon breasts in them, but this movie set the bar.  Everyone from a certain generation saw this.  It also has one of the top soundtracks ever. 

No The Emperor's New Groove?  It's one of the funniest movies ever made, and probably the funniest cartoon ever. My family and I laugh at this every time.  The jokes never get old. The ratings in IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, and Amazon are all very high. There's no reasonable explanation for Rango being on the list and not this one.

No The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh? Who do you know who can't quote entire scenes from this movie verbatim?  This figured as much into my generation's humor references as did Monty Python, Star Trek, and The Wizard of Oz (the movie). This is also the first time I believe the trope of using the printed words of the book as part of the action, so there's the innovation angle.

If you've not seen one or more of these last four, you have some great movies in your future.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Life...

"Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans." 
 - usually attributed to John Lennon, but actually first coined by Allen Saunders.  

That sure as hell has been true for me this year.

Here it is: my wife asked for a divorce July 1.  We are still working out the legal, financial and other stuff, but for all practical purposes, I'm suddenly single again.  Yay.

I've kept it as mum as possible, but a co-worker just outright asked when she noticed I don't wear a ring anymore.  The other day she remarked how it seems to her that this seems to be a current trend (anecdotally): wives divorcing husbands after several years, and not based on anything other than "I don't want to be married anymore."  Several of my buddies and a couple guys from work have been or are going through this, too, so having her confirm what I'd already been thinking was strangely comforting.  I'm considering forming a club, and of course we'll have to have t-shirts.  An informal poll has already ruled out "Kicked to the Curb," so the hunt for a pithy club motto continues for now.

In addition, around that time (July) I had a massive outbreak of psoriasis (the liver thing is "cirrhosis" and not related, to head off the oft-asked question), so I was covered in scary-looking red welts.  Children in the checkout line would stare and tug at their mom's clothing to point me out.  The dermatologist tried everything in her arsenal and finally recommended really hardcore drugs reserved for cancer patients and tried-everything-else arthritis patients, both which came with the dire warning that they essentially shut off your immune system, so if you catch something ...   I opted for remaining a rash rave. (A couple months later, she found a cream which did the job of making me mostly human again.)

Then, one of my best buddies ever died suddenly of a heart attack.  I talked about this in my last post, but let me tell you how I found out:

So, there I was, about a week after my wife's announcement, sitting out front of the house (as red as the devil from my psoriasis) watching my 8-year-old bomb around on her bike, sipping cold, frothy comfort.  My friends and neighbors from my social group all began to pour down the block, all of them stopping to ask if I was coming to the party. (Some also asking what the hell had happened with the red skin and all, one smart-ass inquiring if I had enough butter to handle the situation.) I said I hadn't heard of a party.  (Not everyone gets invited to all the parties as sometimes the host wants to keep it small, so I just assumed I'd not been invited to this one.)  Some of them said they'd seen me on the email.  So, I went inside to see if I'd missed a memo, as they say.  While hunting for the invite, I came across an email from a mutual friend that my buddy had died.  And sure enough, I'd been invited (though the original invite was to meet everyone in downtown Denver, which is over an hour away and an expensive pain in the ass, so I usually send my regrets - but they had changed it at the last minute to their house).  The guy throwing the party knocked on the door as I was reading the email about my buddy and gave me a kind rash of shit for not coming to his party and I'd better get my ass down there.

No one yet knew about the divorce, I was fresh in the shock of losing a close friend, many hadn't seen my lovely new crimson upholstering, and there I was getting me and my daughter ready for a party.  Luckily it was a beautiful day, everyone was in high spirits, and my cartoon-character appearance (or "mid-transition to super-hero" appearance, your pick) allowed for a great foil to not have to broach the other two sad topics.  Smokey Robinson songs bonging in my head helped get me through as well, with Bob Dylan taking a few turns.

The next day, I was doing my usual Saturday morning surfing (does anyone call it that anymore?), and I found this:


Laugh.  Thought I'd die.

This has been my personal motto thus far this year.


Well, enough of that shite.  Time to keep going.



My fiction consumption continues to trail non-fiction, but read a couple I enjoyed the hell out of.  

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King is the sequel to The Shining, though only in the sense that any episode of a TV show is the sequel to another.  It's not remotely scary, as The Shining was.  I had to stop reading that thing when I was alone after the sun was down, for crying out loud.  But King has addressed the totally not scary thing in many recent interviews with typical self-effacing aplomb. (Short version, and I paraphrase: it was easy to scare you when you were 15, but now you're a jaded old fart, what's a guy to do?) When you're past that it's just (some of) the characters from the first book and it's not scary, it's fun.  (It will not covert anyone who's not a King, fan, though.)

Another good one I read sometime this summer and really liked was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Get me with a good twist and you have me forever.  This book is so twisty you begin to feel like Dorothy moments before she squashes a witch with her house.  At least twice the perspective on the events change so drastically it's like discovering you're in the Matrix or Inception or both at the same time, and while someone less guileless than I might see the twists coming, I had the true joy of: holy shite I didn't expect that! And the ending; oh, the ending.  When you read the Amazon comments so many fret and fume over it.  Google will turn up large discussions over it.  Personally, it made me grin.  I didn't see it coming either because stories like this don't end this way. So good on Gillian Flynn. (They're already filming the flick starring Batman, er, Ben Affleck, so read it before it's in a theatre near you.)

Donald Fagen decided to shock the world again, but not with wondrous glossy instant classic tunes, but a quasi-autobiography! Not much of a surprise, but he's a funny, erudite writer!  Music fans will enjoy, and for Steely Dan and Donald fans, this is a must-read.

Jack Nicholson was the subject of a new bio by Marc Eliot (who has a spotty record in his chosen profession, fwiw).  Turns out Jack is a guy who struggles with being fat and bald.  In the meantime, he's made some great flicks.  This bio just reaffirmed what most of the bios I've read about artists (and most people): they never feel they are successful, that they're never where they want to be, and that they don't have what they want.  So, even Jack Nicholson has had many dark tea-times of the soul.  And scads of pussy.

Linda Ronstadt's autobiography was long on her thoughts about music and singing (and she makes it interesting), but not more than a sentence about her boyfriends and lovers.  So: fail.  In Jack's bio and Rod Stewart's autobio, while most of the time prurient details are left out, at least we get an occasional name.  And not even all of them, just the greatest hits (heh heh).  So, the woman who famously supposedly didn't marry George Lucas doesn't even use the name "George" in the entire book.  When I mentioned this to two of the female librarians when I returned the the book, they both gave me the WTF? reaction.  We'll have to leave it to someone else to provide this story.

Some other media brought Chuck Klosterman to my attention, and I discovered a new favorite writer.  I tried an older book of his and felt is was somewhat dated and filled with the musings of a young man adrift in the detritus of that stage of life (which all of us guys do, I'm not disparaging it; also, the journey of young men seems to differ enough from that of young women so I'm being specific to my gender in that judgement).

Then I got his latest, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), and found it much more to my liking. Best of all his writing has improved dramatically.  One of my singular joys in life is finding a writer who gets exponentially better.  His regular article "The Ethicist" is found here.

His premise is "The villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least." If that intrigues, check out the book.  I agree with most of his points, but it's still more of a philosophical exploration of the notion of evil.  I contend that The People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck grapples with the reality of evil in a more concrete fashion. 


I picked up The Girl With No Name: The Incredible True Story of a Child Raised by Monkeys by Lynne Barrett-Lee and Marina Chapman due to the title alone, thinking this had to be BS.  But Edgar Rice Burroughs was apparently prescient, because the story plays out like the beginning of Tarzan, down to the detail of her trying to use vines to move through the jungle (she was too heavy).  The first-person perspective of this story makes it so gripping, because she addresses what it was like to live without language, or even think in language, for much of her young life.  Her attempts to rescue herself are heartbreaking.  The part about "grandpa" monkey saving her from poisoning was the highlight for me.  And, of course, as a father, the thought of a 5-year-old fending for herself in the jungles of South America just breaks my heart.

This article, Chick Lit vs. Dude Lit, springs off the supposed snark-fest this year between chick and dude authors for a few smiles at everyone's expense.


 
You may have noticed I don't talk about sports much, and that's because I'm utterly lacking the sports gene.  Perhaps because of that, when my taxes go to sport franchises, I experience what wingnuts report feeling when they believe their taxes are going to "takers," as they call them in their tea-bagger, Ayn Randian (,deeply fucked up and cruel) view of the world (except mine re sports franchises is based on facts). This week as I've Christmas shopped, I've had to go to some stores that are included in the taxing area for the Denver's "Sports Authority Field at Mile High" stadium, so the sales taxes nearly double. (We had a perfectly good, and even famous, stadium called "Mile High Stadium" when I moved to Colorado, but the Broncos, like all the other football teams around the nation, hinted they would leave if we didn't build them a new stadium. Those who know about these things claimed the stadium was in great shape and would've lasted for decades to come, but the owner had sold all the private boxes and wanted to reap those dividends again, so presto a new sports stadium.)

Then I read this (via kottke.org).  Talk about pissed for days. Every time I think about this, my mind goes into a Lewis Black rant. 
TLD: Lewis Black hangs out a lot with one of the funniest comediennes around: Kathleen Madigan, who's Gone Madigan is not to be missed.  If you have Netflix streaming, it's on there.  Another gem on Netflix is Iliza Shlesinger: War Paint.  My daughter and I laughed and laughed.  She's made all of her friends watch it.  After reading the tax thing above, these should talk you back from the ledge.


In music my latest favorite discovery is an album from 2008: Carolina Liar Coming to Terms.  It's one of those rare, not-a-bad-song-on-it albums.  Click the Grooveshark link on the sidebar to the right and check it out yourself. 

I also dig this trance-tastic EP by Tei Shi, Saudade (which means this). The music and video site Gorilla vs. Bear is a great source of new tunes, for honest and true.  Their monthly mixes are free, awesome, and always come with a track listing so if you need to free up a song for a mix CD (with Audacity), you can find the track and extract.

Another great music site is portable.tv's music site. Their list of the best songs of 2013 is eclectic, snob-free, and pretty good.   NPR has a best album list, but I've not gotten through it myself as yet. I love how they have the recommender holding the album in the picture - strangely charming.

And here's your Christmas(/Hanukkah/Festivus) present (that I found on portable.tv's list above), the beautiful long jam: Kurt Vile's "Wakin on a Pretty Day". (Right-click on the link on the page to download.) Portable.tv's comment on the song is dead-on and hilarious: "There’s a 90% chance that every guy with Jesus hair and headphones is listening to this right now."  (I have Jesus hair at the moment. And headphones.)



The two movies that I will carry in memory from this year, and probably on my DVD rack, are Gravity and Frozen.  While I loved the two end of the world movies, and waded through the disappointment (and sheer boredom) of the long-awaited Ender's Game, Gravity and Frozen are the classics that will emerge from this year.

Gravity in particular was one of those movie experiences I jones for.  I don't think I took a deep breath throughout. The eyes got sweaty a couple times. My eldest said the same thing.  This movie blew my mind and touched my heart without my permission.  It's now in my personal top 10. 

Don't read this until you see Gravity, but here's some insight on how it was made. Also for viewing after, the other side of the distress call, directed by the director's son (who co-wrote the movie).

If you don't have kids as a reason to go see Frozen, borrow some, or just bring a bunch of buddies who will endure the slight embarrassment of grown-ups going by themselves.  When the Ice Queen belts her "I want" song (voiced by Idina Menzel of green Wicked fame), I got goosebumps on top of my chills (which you get when watching a movie set in deep winter). And, like most, I loved the twist. 



I don't watch a lot of broadcast TV anymore, and when I do, I skip over the 20 minute commercial breaks, therefore I missed this:

Which I was directed to after watching this: [which was removed, and the Jimmy Fallon show on NBC didn't post it as a highlight....the mind boggles]
Replacement link: Lip-Sync Off With Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Guitar friends and neighbors, this is awesome:
'Til next time.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!