Friday, April 29, 2005

Remembering Douglas Adams

Since Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has finally made it into movie form (after being in radio, TV, computer game and book form), the media is awash with stories about its originator, Douglas Adams. Friends and acquaintances hold forth with memories of him on this annoyingly designed web site, which would have given Adams a chuckle, I'm sure. (The web site design, that is, not the reminiscences.)

It reminded me of the time I got the privilege of seeing him speak in person.

My company sent me to a Microsoft conference on their initiative to finally acknowledge the popularity of the internet (their original stance was that it was merely a fad), and Douglas Adams was the keynote speaker on day three. Btw, Microsoft knows how to throw a party, and a conference for that matter, so if you ever have the opportunity to go - especially if your company is paying for it - go. One of the many fun discoveries is that Bill Gates is apparently photogenic. (...it'll come to you later.)

I can't recreate the speech Adams gave, because it was brilliant, and because something happened with the tape of the speech some of us paid for but none of us received. It centered around people's perceptions of computers and what they're useful for. It went something like this: "Well, in trying to understand what a computer is, what it does, people were puzzled until spreadsheets came out, and then they said, 'Oh! It's a calculator.' Later, when word processors came out, people said, 'Oh! It's a typewriter.' But then the internet was invented, and the people, finally understanding, said, 'Oh! It's a pamphlet!'" Of course, it was much funnier the way he put it.

Anyway, I got there early to get a good seat up front, and was disappointed that the whole first row was reserved, until I saw whom it was reserved for. All the seats in the front had a sign attached that read, "Reserved for the Visually Handicapped."

It was just too good. I even wondered if it was the setup for a joke later.

So I turned to the guy next to me and said, "What a hoot that they have the first row reserved for the visually handicapped! I mean, if you're blind, does it really help to put you closer to the stage? They should put them over by the speakers, really."

Of course I would make this remark to the ONE GUY who saw no humor in the situation - at a Douglas Adams talk, no less, which is like going to a Marcel Marceau show and sitting next to the one guy who doesn't like mimes. Perhaps it was because this was in San Francisco, the politically correct, eternally offended center of the prissyverse, or it was just God's way of ratcheting up the humor of the whole situation a couple notches for my sake. As Voltaire once famously said, "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."

"'Visually impaired' doesn't necessarily mean they can't see at all. Perhaps they can only see certain distances, or only close up," he snipped, his face getting all blotchy.

Unable to restrain myself, I said, "But putting them up front isn't going to help for those kinds of situations, either. That stage is still a good 50 feet away!"

At which point he twisted away huffily. I turned the other direction to see if I could evoke any empathy or support and the guy over there was studiously ignoring the whole thing. As could be guessed, I was the only guy in my row who laughed during the talk.

And not one person sat in the front row.

My guess is they couldn't find the seats. After all, how useful to the visually impaired are lettered signs placed at least half an acre from the entry doors?
Here we are now, entertain us!

One of the singular joys of my life is the Classic Album series on DVD. The artists and producers of the albums sit down with the master tape at the mixing console to illustrate how they achieved a sound, or to isolate a guitar solo. It's thrilling to hear these individual components of these towering achievements in music in the same way it's thrilling to open the hood of a really fast car to look at the engine. For music geeks like myself, it just doesn't get any better. My most recent voyage through, well, nirvana was Classic Albums - Nirvana: Nevermind.

For those of you who were trapped under something heavy when Nevermind came out, it was a jet engine blast of sheer rock genius. I have a "where were you/Kennedy" moment from the first time I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio. My wife-to-be and I were headed south on Colorado Boulevard in Denver, and were just off of this triangular park, near the KFC and Target complex, when that unmistakable opening riff jangled out of the radio. By the time it roared into life, I had already said, "Holy cow" right out loud and turned it up. When it finished, I looked over at my sweetie and said, "That was amazing." She said, "Yeah!" We stopped at the next CD store and picked it up. If CDs wore out like vinyl used to, I'd be on my 7th copy of that album by now. I know the song order so well that if I hear one song off of it, I have a Pavlovian need to hear the next song, and so on.

Without a doubt, Nevermind was, is and will remain one of the classic rock albums of all time.

So watching Classic Albums - Nirvana: Nevermind for me was like peering into the mind of Melville while he wrote Moby Dick or standing behind Leonardo da Vinci whilst he worked on the elusive smile of the Mona Lisa, having him explain the trick of shading he employed to make the smile disappear when you looked directly at it, but reappear when you view it obliquely.

Of all the magic moments in program, the best was when Dave Grohl uttered the truism I have found applies to all people who enjoy music throughout their lifetimes - as opposed to those who like it intensely during their young adulthood only to drift away when life keeps happening - and those artists who have that magic touch with great, hooky melodies: "With Kurt, the music always came first, lyrics second." Yes!

Another good one is when Butch Vig, of the group Garbage (fronted by the stunning Shirley Manson), who was the producer of Nevermind, described breaking into a sweat and having to pace off nervous energy the first time Nirvana played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for him, because it was obvious how good the song was.

Butch was instrumental to the powerhouse sound of the recording. Though still great, the albums on either side of Nevermind have a comparatively thin, inconsistent sound. Butch explains how he essentially got Kurt to do multi tracks of vocals and guitars by either saying that John Lennon did it, too, (one of Kurt's heroes), or by simply lying that he didn't get a good take and they'd have to do it again.

You'd expect that when Cobain would sing harmony with himself it'd sound good because he'd be trying to purposely get the sound right, but when he was under the impression that he was redoing a vocal because Butch said he needed a better one, you'd think it'd be all over the road - paced differently, a different emphasis, and so on. But, no, Kurt clearly had worked out exactly how he wanted the vocal to sound, and would do that take roughly the same way every time, so Butch got to double-track the vocals whenever he wanted to.

Maybe I should be ashamed of this, but once in a while I'm taken by surprise and amazed at the sheer amount talent some musicians have, particularly when the music they make sounds ragged or somehow so spontaneous that I'd assume it was a lucky take. There are enough artists like that out there. (For instance, Tom Scholz of Boston claims in liner notes that "Amanda" was once in a lifetime performance that was not recreatable, so when the master tape was discovered to have turned to glue, they had to invent a substance to allow the tape to go past the heads once to make a copy.) So I was shocked at how consistent and what a visionary Cobain was.

TLD: Another time I was completely blindsided was a one-time concert held by various groups on the Minneapolis music scene when it was the center of the hip music universe back in the 80s. I'd heard many of these bands individually, and the fashion at the time was a ragged, DIY vibe, which sometimes simply came off as though the band needed to rehearse more. Well, these guys got together to do a night of Eagles covers - yes, Eagles covers - and we went just to witness the travesty. To our surprise, all the musicians who made you doubt during their own shows if they even knew how to tune a guitar did pitch-perfect covers. It could have been the Eagles themselves up there. They even closed with the top single of the year, the Bangle's "Walk Like an Egyptian" and just nailed, down to the whistled bridge. It was hilarious.

I was also shocked and pleased to find out how much Nirvana leaned on Dave Grohl, their drummer, to fill in their sound. He was their background vocalist and second guitarist in addition to his phenomenal drumming. When he came out with his band Foo Fighters (one of my current and all-time faves), I wondered how come he sounded so accomplished already. Well, it comes to light that he was the other powerhouse within Nirvana.

So, if this is the kind of stuff that flips your skirt, do check out the Classic Album series. If you belong to Netflix, they have them all, and they're a nice change of pace to have ready and waiting on the shelf. Along with Nirvana, check out the ones on:
- Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life
- Paul Simons's Graceland
- Fleetwood Mac's Rumours
- Steely Dan's Aja
- U2's The Joshua Tree
- Phil Collins' Face Value
- The Who's Who's Next

You get to find out all sorts of neato factoids, such as: Fleetwood Mac wore out the master tape during the recording Rumours and had to start over (start over!!); Nevermind was recorded at Sound City, Van Nuys, where both Rumours and Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedoes were recorded, leaving one to wonder if that studio is somehow blessed; Stevie Wonder even plays the drums on most of Songs; and that the bass break at the end of Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" was cut in half, reversed, and pasted together in the middle to create the sound they wanted - go listen, you can hear it once you know that's what they did. Nifty, huh?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

...But it won't lie down!

I howl in pain rather regularly about the demise of rock on the radio (and thus my exposure to new stuff, leading to the downward spiral - no NIN pun intended).

But, even the New York Times has noticed. (Registration required, so see excerpts below.)

Excerpts from:
"Fade-Out: New Rock Is Passe on Radio"
April 28, 2005, NYT
By Jeff Leeds

Major radio companies are abandoning rock music so quickly lately that sometimes their own employees don't know it.

In the last four months, radio executives have switched the formats of four modern-rock, or alternative, stations in big media markets, including WHFS in Washington-Baltimore area, WPLY in Philadelphia and the year-old KRQI in Seattle. Earlier this month WXRK in New York discarded most newer songs in favor of a playlist laden with rock stars from the 80's and 90's.

Music executives say the lack of true stars today is partly the reason. Since rap-rock acts like Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit retreated from the scene, none of the heralded bands from recent rock movements, be it garage-rock (the Strokes, the Vines) or emo (Dashboard Confessional, Thursday), connected with radio listeners or CD buyers the way their predecessors did. [Yahmdallah comment: Because most of them suck as they are the kind of bands rock critics listen to, but not fans. Which just proves one of my saws, rock critics killed the radio star.]

Ratings for rock radio stations have been languishing for years. The share of the 18-to-34 age group that is tuning in to alternative stations has shrunk by more than 20 percent in the last five years, according to Arbitron, while stations playing rap and R&B or Spanish-language formats have enjoyed an expanding audience.

As a result, many rock programmers aren't sure what to play.

"The format in the last couple of years has gone through an identity crisis," said Kevin Weatherly, program director of KROQ, a closely watched alternative powerhouse in Los Angeles. "You have stations that are too cool, that move too quickly and are only playing the coolest music, which doesn't at the end of the day attract enough of the audience. Or you have the other extreme, dumb rock, red-state rock that the cool kids just flat out aren't into." [Yahmdallah comment: So mix it up like you used to, shitheads!]

"The people that are leading-edge technology consumers are not being embraced by terrestrial radio," said Jim McGuinn, who was program director of WPLY in Philadelphia, known as Y100, before its corporate parent, Radio One, flipped the station to rap and R&B in February. "The outsider image disappeared," Mr. McGuinn said.

Mr. McGuinn and a handful of other former WPLY employees have started an Internet radio station, y100rocks.com, to play music they say the terrestrial version had been missing, including songs by Interpol, Moby and Queens of the Stone Age. [Yahmdallah comment: Listened to the y100rocks web broadcast, and it's pretty good!]

But for now, Philadelphia has no terrestrial alternative-rock station. [Yahmdallah comment: I tried not to weep openly when I read that sentence.]

Some analysts fear that, when radio stations switch from alternative rock to programming aimed at older listeners, they may be making a sacrifice. "Radio has ceded the younger demographic to other media," said Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media, a radio consulting company in Southfield, Mich., specializing in rock. "I just don't know how we're going to get back people who didn't get into the radio habit in their teens," he said, adding, "It really becomes problematic down the road."

{Heavy sigh.}

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Under the Radar

There are those rock groups out there that the casual listener typically likes, but never really gloms onto who they are. These bands have reached the tipping point of fame, but they don't pass over to the tipping point of brand name recognition. A radio station (an imaginary one, of course, as no radio stations really do anything like this today) might play two or three different songs by the band in the space of a couple hours, and only the fans would know it was the same group.

Therefore, I, your humble music geek web servant, would like to imprint a trail of little glowing footprints, like those sung of in the Byrd's "Mr. Spaceman," to help the casual listener find their way to these worthy bands. I hope to invoke the response "Oh, those guys!" and to help fill out iPod playlists for maximum shuffling pleasure.

The first band may have enough brand recognition to not be included here, but just in case, I'll mention them. Collective Soul creates the exact kind of tunes that music snobs love to hate: festooned with riffage and guitar hooks, great melodies, compelling lyrics, and lush, top-shelf production values. No lone dude or dudette with a guitar and a harmonica belching and honking along nearly tunelessly, no DIY lo-fi garage punk band, no Velvet Underground wannabes, and no "street cred" whatsoever. Nope, just great, straight-ahead rock played by crack musicians who know what they're doing - eminently listenable.

Collective Soul has some sonic tics that might annoy some. Their favorite trick is to start a song with the recording compressed down so that it sounds as if it were squeaking out of a little plastic AM radio - a conceit first heard on Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here - and then blast into the full spectrum of sound after a couple bars. They usually do it well, though, so those of us who blissfully do not have the souls of music critics dig it.

The albums to check out are their hits collection and their first eponymous album, which is almost a hits compilation on its own. There's not a lot of overlap between the two, so you won't be wasting your money by buying both.

Specific songs to sample are :
Gel
Energy
When The Water Falls
December
The World I Know

I had a hard time culling that down to a small list, by the way.

Note: If the links to the samples don't work, just follow the album links and click on the song sample icons directly.


TLD: Before I go on (and on), one example of a band who I think DOESN'T fall into this "just missed" category is Everclear. They reached the tipping point when "Father of Mine" broke big. After that, they were anthologized on the American versions of the NOW CDs - CDs which combine the hits from top pop radio - in amongst Britney Spears, Rappers, and other rabble. (Full disclosure, I did like "Toxic," Lord help my immortal soul, because it reminded me of ELO on steroids - say an unreleased track from the Xanadu soundtrack.) I think Everclear is a fantastic group, and they would be included in this post as one of the many under the radar bands if not for their wide popularity.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming:
Another band that just didn't crest like it could've because the lead singer was fully invested in the rock and roll lifestyle was the Stone Temple Pilots. I hope I never bump into any of the members because of what I'm about to say, but they only created just enough good songs to have a greatest hits compilation, and maybe a couple tracks on it could qualify as filler. Yet, the songs that are good are very good.

Worth a listen:
Vaseline
Big empty
Plush
Interstate Love Song


And now the band that was the impetus of this post: Toad the Wet Sprocket. Of the many incongruities of this group, their name comes from a Monty Python skit, but their music is thoughtful, soulful rock. You'd expect all sorts of silliness, not the pretty tunes they actually offer. But then, these guys were all over the road in their sound and the hits they had, so maybe the name does fit. Their albums were kinda spotty, with one or two great tracks while the rest was forgettable, so the best thing to get is their hits compilation, named oddly so it's hard to identify it as such: P.S. (A Toad Retrospective).

Highlights include:
Walk on the Ocean
All I Want
Something's Always Wrong


This final band has no business being in this post because they are a one hit wonder, but I plug their first album whenever I can, because I think it's a minor classic. This is one of the handful of CDs I just never tire of. I laugh at the jokes every time (and there are a bunch), and I never fail to fully achieve Jimmy Buffet mode during "Mexico." Folks, if you haven't given the Refreshments and their minor classic Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy a try, why not start today?

Check out:
Banditos (the one bonafide hit)
Mexico
Down Together
Don't Wanna Know


Thanks for listening.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Computer Games

For a full goose bozo computer nerd, I have one glaring deficiency (well, I'm sure I have many, but just play along, k?): I don't like computer games really. I mean, I dug "DOOM" when it first came out, because it was fun to explore a completely made-up world, and because it was gratuitously violent (which, again, was fun at first but then became kinda gristly for my tastes). I was a big Dungeons and Dragons player as an adolescent, and that's what appeals to me: Poking around in imaginary, fictional worlds. Being able to shoot stuff was a quasi-bonus, but I wasn't so much into that aspect of it - they were just things that got in the way while I was looking around. I always played in "god mode" so I couldn't die for that reason.

"DESCENT" appealed to me even more, because you got to fly around in tunnels and look for stuff, even though you had to shoot stuff out of the way. At least it was less gory - they were just little spaceships and sparks rather than blood sprayed everywhere. And I still played in invincible mode because I just wanted to see how it ended, I didn't care to repeat each death lesson umpteen times over the course of months. "DESCENT" remains the only game that I enjoyed enough to actually see how it ended.

Even though it would seem like an obvious no-brainer, "MYST" didn't appeal to me because you didn't so much move around in a virtual world as move around in a sluggish slide show. It was like weird uncle Marv's acid trip to the 7-11 that he somehow managed to photograph and then subject the family to after a huge turkey meal and a couple glasses of wine on a sleepy holiday afternoon. "Yeah, Marv, that organ in the zeppelin is really trippy {yawn}, and there are a lot of trees, aren't there?" Oy.

I've probably played "TETRIS" five times in my life. I have never cleared my rows. I have never managed to care.

Like the rest of the planet, I've played the game of Solitaire that comes with MS Windows (when it's not been disabled by the installation guys when a company fears that hours will be wasted on it, thereby losing more money on working to disable the thing than was probably ever really wasted by bored employees playing it). Yet, the biggest bang I got out of that was the Easter egg where - in the original version anyway - one of the things in the picture on the back of the cards would move if you didn't touch anything for a while. Big happy fun time, you betcha.

I recently bought one of those $20 joysticks that contain five classic arcade games because I recall really liking "Galaga" where you shoot bugs who make a hilarious-and-pathetic-all-that-the-same-time sound when they fry (and because we have a "no video game consoles" rule in our house, so this is our tiny concession to that), but discovered that the fond memories were probably fueled more by huge slurpees and competing with the buddies rather than the joy of the game itself. (Though my pulse still elevates when the bat tries to beam me up.)

Therefore, I am mystified when I see advertisements for little packages of wonder like "Grand Theft Auto" where you get to pretend to be a car-stealing, drug-selling homie waiting for that rap record deal to come through, but in the meantime level L.A. just for grins. Even were I a teenager now, I'm not sure I would enjoy playing a game where the point was to be an evil, murdering thug. (But then I didn't like playing characters who were "chaotic evil" in D&D, either, so maybe it's just me. Some guys and gals I knew wouldn't play anything but bad guys.)

I'm even more mystified when I read that video games are a larger market than both movies and music. (Well, maybe not music so much anymore. Talk about an industry that slashed its own throat out of sheer stupidity, greed and stupidity.)

Anyway, if you're still reading, I prattled on about all of that merely to point out the ONE THING that I would find intriguing in a video game, but by circumstance will never experience...

One genre of video games is the movie tie-in, and more often than not, the stars of the movie submit to a full body scan so that their character can resemble them as much as possible. They might also provide any dialogue needed. Jada Pinkett Smith said that acting for the "Matrix" video game was much more work than doing the movie itself.

TLD: Wouldn't that be an odd career to have found oneself in? Scanning live, practically nude* major Hollywood stars covered in reflective marbles for your video game? Likely you would fit the uber-nerd profile (comme moi) and not have much experience with powerful, charismatic people, let alone having dated much, and there you are telling someone like Jada to hold still while you scan her quivering flesh. Those poor guys must practically pull it clean off when they get home. Most humble apologies to the more tender souls out there for that image.

*One aspect of the scanning process sometimes includes a nearly nude scan, according to Bruce Willis. I couldn't find examples of it on the web, natch, but do recall a few actors relating the joy of the experience.

So here's what I think would be a hoot:

If you were the child, sibling or spouse (or son/daughter-in-law! Yes!) of say, Bruce Willis, Jada Pinkett Smith, and all the other stars who've been, well, assimilated, you could buy the game they star in and make them do silly stuff, get them killed over and over again to work out that aggression, and so on and so forth. That would fun, I dare say.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Part II: Why Pope Benedict XVI is (Still) a Liberal - Guest Posting.
The continuation of Sharon's guest posting on the new Pope.

Part I is here.




Okay, not really. But he was and is a liberal in the old, genuinely Catholic sense, and may even surprise "liberals" in the new, ideological, scare-quotes sense.

So what is a liberal (notice no scare quotes now) in the context of Catholicism? Stepping into the wayback machine, let's go back to the bad old days of Catholic neoscholastic theology. Now I'm rapidly getting into areas too dense and foggy for me to navigate easily, so here's the back-of-the-baseball-card lowdown. Those who have more thorough knowledge of these things, please forgive the simplistic treatment. Deep breath:

In the 19th century, while casting around for ways to deal with Idealism (of the Kant and Hegel varieties), Liberalism (not of the Al Gore variety; this is a philosophical usage), Scepticism, and Empiricism, Catholic thinkers landed on good old reliable St. Thomas Aquinas, and launched neo-Thomism or neoscholasticism.

Bored yet? Just wait. By 1900, it looked like Thomism, as opposed to neo-Thomism/ neoscholasticism (don't ask what the difference was, it's not relevant to us and who remembers anyway?) seemed to be carrying the day. Yves Congar, Jacques Maritain, and Etienne Gilson were the big Thomists.

Then in 1938 a French theologian, Henri de Lubac, published a book called Catholicism. This book was revolutionary in its appeal to the Bible and patristics as the constant wellsprings of and touchstones for understanding the Catholic faith, and it was the opening salvo in a great theological revolution of modern times, one which most people haven't heard of.

Now don't get the idea that Catholic theology had ignored the Bible or the Church Fathers up until that time. But Catholic theology and philosophy had been long dependent on Thomistic thinking that began with reference to the natures of Man, God, and the universe. The new movement, called "ressourcement" ("back to the sources"), began unapologetically with Scripture and the early Christian writers. The appendix of Catholicism, which took up a good chunk of the book (find it here), is a wonderful collection of the best of patristic writings and still worth having a look through.

Now de Lubac and the other ressouccement theologians of the 1930's-1960's period weren't engaged in scholarship for the sake of scholarship, nor looking to correct or reinvent Catholic theology by a sort of primitivist privileging of an idealized uncorrupted Christian past.*

*I went to graduate school so I get to write like that occasionally.

They were interested in a revitalization of the faith which grounded the truths of sacred tradition in their genuine sources, and unified two thousand years of development of doctrine. They believed that rationalistic theology had driven out transcendent mystery, that spirituality and theology could not be separated and fragmented, and that a return to the sources was necessary to re-center the Catholic faith in the person of Christ, the source of the sources.

Hard as it is to believe today that this was revolutionary stuff, it's harder to believe that this group were considered dangerous. Dangerous liberals. The "L"-word. But their vision triumphed in the course of the Second Vatican Council. Who were they?

Hans Urs von Balthasar. Jean Daniélou. Henri de Lubac. Romano Guardini. Louis Boyer. Maurice Blondel. And Josef Ratzinger.

Not, please notice, Karol Wojtyla. And if you put his writings and Ratzinger's side-by-side, you see the difference. Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II*, grounds his thought in the experience and nature of the human person in relation to Christ; he was heir to the earlier currents of Catholic theology.

*However John Paul was a huge fan of von Balthasar, and the pope's personal patronage rehabilitated the theologian's career, which had been badly knocked out of orbit when he was conspicuously not invited to Vatican II. The pope was even going to make him a cardinal, but poor von B. died just a few days before the ceremony.

Go read Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and you'll see how he is very much a ressourcement theologian. It's this that makes his writing, though deeply and unapologetically Catholic, easier for Protestants to read and understand. *

*And if you want to read him in English--or von Balthasar, or de Lubac, you will have to visit Ignatius Press ( http://www.ignatius.com/) and pay for it. Father Joseph Fessio, the Jesuit founder of Ignatius Press, is a fervent ressourcement fan. Fessio's tireless translating and publishing of their works over the last quarter century, combined with John Paul's strong endorsement, brought ressourcement theology to mainstream American attention.

This is a long way to go to make the point that the new pope is a liberal, and the impatient among you (if you've slogged your way this far) may be asking, irritatedly, "Fine, so there's some technical theological sense in which he's a 'liberal'. But what I mean by calling him a conservative is that he was the Enforcer, the pope's watchdog, who's spent his life opposing change in the Catholic Church."

But this is exactly wrong. Putting aside the issue that being the pope's watchdog was his job (a job that he was quite unsuited for and openly, if quietly, bitter about, and which he had several times asked to retire from), what Ratzinger and his crew were all about was a sea change at the heart of the Church; a change that, while it had no apparent effect on the doctrines that win or lost political elections, unified and grounded theology and piety in a foundation universal to all Christians.

Some early signs of liberalism, and perhaps "liberalism":

--Cardinal Ratzinger organized and choreographed the pope's funeral. And the first person to receive the Holy Eucharist, from the hand of Ratzinger himself, was Brother Roger--the cardinal's old friend, the leader of the Taize community--and a Lutheran.

--Ratzinger was acknowledged to be the mastermind behind the historic rapprochement between Catholics and Jews during the last papacy. John Paul did the legwork; Ratzinger re-cast Catholic theology regarding the Jewish people in a way that still makes the ultra-traditionalists' teeth grind. Go read Many Religions--One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World. See what I mean.

--Cardinal Ratzinger's job as head of the CDF is reported to already be paying off in unexpected areas. Cardinal George of Chicago reports that Pope Benedict's first words to him were a reminder of a conversation they had had regarding the sex abuse scandals in the United States--which Ratzinger's position gave him comprehensive information on--a conversation in which Ratzinger apparently made it clear that decisive action, long-awaited by American Catholics, was on its way. In this regard, it's worth observing that Cardinal Schönborn of Austria, who dealt quickly, decisively, and effectively with sexual clerical scandals in Austria, is a disciple of Ratzingers and led the pro-Ratzinger bloc during the conclave. It wouldn't be surprising to see real action take within a very short time, of a sort to please frustrated American laity of both "liberal" and "conservative" factions.

Now in the interests of total honesty and come-cleanness, there is one area of Catholic life where Cardinal Ratzinger could only be described as a capital-C Conservative. His views on the liturgy, to the horror of some and the delight of others (like me), hold to at best a minimalist reading of the Vatican II reforms. He's a fan of Latin, mass Ad Orientem (i.e. priest facing the same way as the people), and generally speaking much nicer aesthetics. And in my Rad-Trad liturgical fantasies, Pope Benedict XVI the panzer-cardinal swoops down upon Dallas, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, dynamiting concrete-box churches, excommunicating liturgists,* and implementing an Index of Forbidden Hymnals, followed by mass burnings of the wretched Gather hymnal and any other "musical" publication to come out of Portland, Oregon. Churches will be filled with congregations singing the best of German Catholic and English Protestant foursquare hymns and simplified plainchant. Cheap decorations will be replaced by tasteful frescoes and statuary. **

*Old Catholic joke #1: Q: What's the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? A: You can negotiate with a terrorist.

**Old Catholic joke #2: No, we don't worship statues; since the 1960's, we worship felt banners.

Ah comrades, it will be truly glorious when the revolution comes and the liturgical wreckovators are the first against the wall. Te Deum laudamus, te Dominum confitemur....

Friday, April 22, 2005

Vomit Phobia

(Most humble apologies to all and especially Sharon for inserting this between her superb guest postings on the new Pope, but she needed some time to polish part II, and the muse just struck baby!)


I have a major puke phobia, and I don't really think it's my fault.

When I was a kid, my brother and I contracted this projectile vomit stomach flu. It was so bad that my mom eventually passed us off to the grandparents in order to clean up the house and just sit and vibrate for a while. I think we ralphed every 30 minutes or so. And not just little urps, either. No, we're talking Monty Python scale, as bad as it gets stuff. I still have a vivid memory of yarking so hard it shot in solid streams from both of my nostrils.

TLD: Ever noticed how many terms there are for the big Technicolor yawn? I imagine you've heard the urban myth that you can tell what a society deems important by how many words they invent to describe something, and the example trotted out is that Eskimos have twenty seven and half words for "snow." Well, I think the plethora of terms for talking to God on the big white telephone sorta puts that theory in the commode, if you will. Long ago, back at the dawn of the public internet when vanity web sites were all the rage, this fact amused me enough that I compiled a list of all the terms I could come across for the ole heave-ho. Warning: Don't go there while eating or if you feel on the edge of an impending hurl.

Every year in school, I was in direct proximity of the kid(s) who hauled off and puked in class. The more dramatic the event, the better view I had of it.

The first monumental spray was in kindergarten during the pledge of allegiance. This little stick of a girl in front of me punctuated "and justice for alllllllllll" by projecting a column of translucent orange hurl into the back legs of the victim in from of her. The teacher (named Mrs. Rehorse which set me up for truly appreciating the Cheech and Chong skit "Sister Mary Elephant") grabbed the girl and drug her to the classroom's bathroom (most kindergarten classrooms have a bathroom directly attached for the many obvious reasons). She emerged shaking, explaining that we should sit and color until she'd taken care of the girl. She went back into the bathroom for a long time, and then reemerged with the girl in tow, a stack of those ubiquitous brown paper towels in one hand, which proved to almost be a good thing. The girl retched and Mrs. Rehorse - I'll never forget this sight - slapped the stack of towels against the girl's mouth, which made her vomit spray in a dazzling circular pattern around it, resembling a liquid orange daisy blossom at the height of its trajectory. Of course, that covered the girl, Mrs. Rehorse, her desk, and about 7 square feet in every direction. Mrs. Rehorse, who was one of the calmer teachers I ever had, just freaked. "Oh my God!" she screamed while pulling the poor retching thing out of the room, abandoning the class. About five minute later the very pale principle of the school came and ushered us to another classroom so they could begin the cleanup. I swear that girl gushed more than half her body weight during that episode.

The next gloppy memory is actually a serial memory, because this one kept reoccurring like some sort of Groundhog's Day nightmare that revolved around spewage rather than constantly waking to Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe." At the end of every school year we marched in single file down to the park (yes, my hometown was so small that at that time, we had only one) to have a picnic. For some reason, this was the height of nerve-wracking torture to the boy who had to sit next to me due to the unforgiving rigors of name alphabetization. Every. Single. Freakin'. Year we would be halfway through our peanut butter sandwiches, and he would barf from nerves. To boot (har har - that's another puke term), he had this technique where he would hold his hands palms up, fingers splayed as though he were going to catch a football or a baby that Michael Jackson had dropped from a window, and yarf directly into them, creating sort of a sprinkler effect, maximizing coverage of the local area and definitely kicking the visual up a notch. For the cherry on top, he also made an extravagant vocalization each time, something like "huuuuurghwaaaahkkkalk!" When, a couple seasons later, it became clear to me this would be an annual event, I begged the teachers to let me sit elsewhere, but was told, no, there were too many kids to keep track of and if we weren't in order, chaos would surely ensue. I began questioning the guy himself if he felt OK this year during our march to the park, and he always said he did, but there we'd be, him with his eyes bulging in the act of the personal protein spill, me shuddering, lip acurl, trying to avoid the chunks from the sprinkler effect. I got to the point where I didn't even take my lunch out, I just waited for the human upchuck fountain to do his thang. Then I'd use that opportunity to get up, get away, and go tell the teach that ______ was doing it again. Oh such wonderful memories.

In sixth grade, we had a guy who just puked randomly all the time. He wasn't nervous, he was a pretty mellow guy, and claimed it was a mystery to him as well. But about every week or so, he'd go up to the teacher's desk and say he'd "done a woops" (used that phrase every time) on his homework. That was the other odd thing, he consistently laid down a neat little puddle in the middle of whatever we were working on. The teacher eventually compensated by always making an extra mimeograph or photocopy so when he'd "woops" she could immediately supply another one. I remember taking particular offense one time when we were coloring ducks for a spring class decoration theme and he "woopsed" on them - sugar corn pops I think it was - so he got to color a second sheet of ducks. Outside of movies and filmstrips, coloring/art projects were my favorite school activity, so I was incensed that he got to color more only because he puked all the time. Life can be so unfair.

The best one happened in Jr. High (what we called "middle school" back then). We had this math teacher who was universally loathed because he was very strict and kind of a stick in the mud. He also had a nasty habit of picking his nose and flicking the boogers towards the unsuspecting students when we were heads down doing equations. You learned to cock an eye for any incoming crust missiles. One morning, whilst we were scribbling away, the only sound being someone dodging a looger on occasion (you think I exaggerate, but no, dear friends, I do not), a kid in the back knocked over his desk in his effort to bolt out the door. The sound of his struggle covered the sound of the reason for his speedy egress, but the unbroken trail of barf from his overturned desk all the way past the sight line of the door cleared up the mystery. As if the river of ralph wasn't impressive enough, it was dotted with brightly colored chunks representing all the colors of the rainbow. To borrow Burt Reynold's description from The End, it looked like Walt Disney had puked.

We swiveled as one back to the teacher, who was standing, mouth agape. He had a comically long face anyway, and with his jaw on the floor, it was even funnier. Well, he composed himself, straitened his jacket, smoothed his hair, cleared his throat, and said, "Um. Well. I just want to commend that young man for his forgoing the expectation that one needs to ask permission before leaving the classroom. I once had a student who experienced the same circumstance who came up to my desk to request permission to leave when it would have been best just to apologize later. Ruined a week's worth of assignments, which, of course, made both the class and myself quite unhappy. So, let me assure you that if you feel the need to ... uh ... well ... you may leave without asking first." And he sat down. The thing is, I still don't know if he was trying to be funny or not.

If it didn't happen in school, it certainly occurred at our parties. One late night, one of the guys who had a rep for having a glass leg, after lying back on the couch for a while, eyes close, suddenly jolted up, pivoted around the end of the couch towards the bathroom down the hall, and shot a stream of yack the entire length of the couch. It was big couch, too. Had I not seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed it could shoot that far. I mean, the force of velocity required would seem to be beyond the abilities of our gastric systems, but the cohesion of the substance itself so that it does stay rather nicely columnar is impressive, and I'm wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being the topic of a doctoral thesis someday. (The research would be icky, though.)

Sadly, the most comical event I witnessed was really an audio event, and can't really be recreated in prose. Out in the darkness surrounding one of our outdoor parties, one of the guys finally succumbed to overindulgence, and the sound - oh my. Imagine the loudest, deepest, most ragged belch you can imagine, followed by someone dumping an entire bucket of minnows on a rock. If only iPods had existed back then. Movie sound guys would still be paying me for that one. I could've retired before college. Alas.

The last story I relate only because I got such chuckle from the punch line. For some reason, the fad of beer bongs swept our little group one auspicious summer. A beer bong is a funnel with a large plastic tube attached to the spout that will hold one entire beer. After the beer is poured in and the foam has settled, one puts the tube into one's mouth, and a combination of gravity and stupidity cause the whole beer to shoot down one's throat in approximately 3 to 5 seconds. Yes, the point is to get very drunk. One of our crew just loved beer bongs, but apparently he just wasn't built to be able to take that much liquid that quickly at once. 3 times out of 4 it would come back up as fast as it had gone down. We eventually bought the cheapest swill for his beer bongs just to cut back on the expense (either generic "beer" or "Billy's Beer" usually). Well, one time he'd barely gotten the tube away from his mouth when it predictably gushed back out. One of the comedians of the group walked over to the puddle, bent over, examined it, then announced, "Eeewww! It's still cold and foamy!" And it was, by all appearances.

So now, unless it's my kids (somehow my concern for them overwhelms my phobia), if anyone acts like they're gonna call for dinosaurs, I instinctively go into "flee" mode. For instance, one of my peers at work had a bad reaction to some vitamins during a morning meeting, and she, out of the blue, gagged, slapped her had over her mouth, pushed back from the table, turned towards me(!), and retched a couple more times. By the time her hand began the trip to her mouth, I transitioned into "bullet time" from the "Matrix" movies and in one smooth, speed-blurred motion I leapt from my chair, opened the door behind me and was out into the hall before I called back, with all of the bravado of Deputy Barney Fife digging his bullet out of his shirt pocket during a crisis, "Are you gonna be sick?!?!?" My one-and-a-half-backwards salto mortale without a spotter so distracted and impressed everyone that we almost forgot about our poor hurl bunny, who had recovered and managed not to deface the carpet. They're mostly letting me live it down.

Yes, I have the most well developed, hair triggered flight response of anyone I know, and sometimes I choose to be proud of it.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI - Guest Posting - Part I

So the Roman Catholic Church has a new Pope. As a Protestant, I really have no useful knowledge or history from which I could draw an accurate opinion. However, even I can tell that most of reporting by the mainstream media - right or left - has smacked of personal agendas and outright ignorance. To the faithful of any denomination, it's clear the vast majority of the press corps. has no clue on how to report religious news. Maybe journalism is one of those jobs that attract an inordinate number of agnostics just as intelligence agencies, with their bizarre purity in hiring requirements, tends to attract Mormons (you can never have done any illegal drugs, ever - which immediately disqualifies most college grads who didn't attend Brigham Young).

Anyway, it dawned on me that I know someone who is an intelligent, informed Catholic who does have the knowledge and historical perspective to have a good feel for Pope Benedict XVI and what is Papacy might mean for the church, so I asked her if she would do a guest posting. We go way back. We were on many of the same religion discussion boards together, and her posts never failed to be forthright, thoughtful, and so informed, once she chimed in the discussion was usually over, or at least shoved in a more productive direction.

So let me shut up and get the hell away from the podium here, and hand it over to Sharon:




Part I: The German Shepherd Attack Dog of the Vatican, and Why He Isn't a Conservative

Okay, here's your quick tutorial in Catholic liberalism, Catholic conservatism, what they aren't, what they are, and why mainstream media sources, well-meaning but clueless, are reduced to bizarre unexplained hand-waving assertions that, in his youth a liberal, something--something--(Vatican II? the European student rebellions? bad liturgy?) transmuted Joseph Ratzinger into a right-wing hard-line conservative.

Right off the bat, let me self-identify as a liberal Catholic, who is a great fan of the German Shepherd (ha ha, you heard it here first). I'll get to how that's possible later, like in Part II of this meandering post.

Let's get the red herrings out of the way first. I'm not even going to touch the current "But isn't he a **NAZI** nastiness that even the mainstream American press (take note, you who like to chant "liberal media bias!") disdained to touch, despite Ratzinger's front-runner status throughout the conclave. Go read the Jerusalem Post article debunking the accusation; go read the Anti-Defamation League's defense of the man; I'm not interested in rehashing it.

Just ask yourself this question: How heroically did a fourteen-year old boy living in Nazi Germany need to act in order to be forgiven, sixty years later, after a lifetime working to achieve a stunning pro-Jewish shift in the theology of the largest Christian body on earth? Please give a concrete answer, and then compare it to the facts of the adolescent Ratzinger's actions. Them come back to me with the "Nazi" charge.

Let's go for the second red herring, the one about whether the new pope is an ultra-conservative right-winger.

If he's a conservative Catholic, then presumably there were moderate and liberal cardinals to choose from. With all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the election of a "conservative" pope, who on earth were the "liberal" candidates envisioned? Ratzinger/Benedict's "ultra-conservatism" (I'll go into why the persistent scare quotes later) is often summarized as his opposition to (deep breath for litany) abortion contraception homosexuality female priests. Okay, so which of the cardinals in conclave was anyone expecting to support those things? No, seriously. Find me a name.

More fundamentally, let's look at the dull media pondering over what the new pope's "policies" were going to be. Maybe Cokie Roberts and Christiane Amanpour were just in U.S. election mode, but the pope doesn't have policies. His job description is basically "Don't change anything." The whole point of the much disputed charism of infallibility is a promise (whether you think there's really a promise or not) that the pope, no matter how much of a wretch, dullard, or personal heretic he might be, won't change anything.

Now, ask yourself: Which of the past popes had policies permitting any of the Hot Four listed above? When was it again that Catholics could, with ecclesial blessing, go on the pill, have abortions, ordain women, or have non-heterosexual sex? Wait, let me get my other hand to count.... okay, zero. So by that reckoning, they were all ultra-conservatives. Which may be the case, but it makes the sharp intake of breath at having a new pope who is going to--my stars!--keep doing what they've all been doing for two thousand years seem a little histrionic. If we're looking for a political word that means "just like the rest of the lot," I think what we're reaching for is "moderate."

The old charge by Jack Chick and Bob Jones types was always that the pope announces as binding edict whatever whims cross his mitred mind, and the romish masses fall timidly in line. It's a little weird to hear that particular canard being promoted by media commenters who really have nothing against Catholicism, they just don't know any better. Shall we, here, resolve to know better? Now you know better. If the Catholic Church were ever to become "liberal" in the way that Cardinal Ratzinger has always been described as "conservative," it would cease in a fundamental way to be the Catholic Church, inasmuch as its claim to catholicity (universality) is founded in great part of having the same teaching always and everywhere. One might argue that this is not in fact so; but if the Church itself were to renounce that claim, it would be renouncing the core of its identity.

So that's why Pope Benedict XVI is not "conservative" in the way that most people think; and why what most Americans define as "conservativism" is in fact definitive of the nature of the Catholic Church. But there are legitimate meanings to the words "liberal" and "conservative" in a Catholic context. And, pace the neo-con Catholics who increasingly would like to align those words with membership in American political parties, they have nothing to do with the hot-button issues on the political landscape. And taken in a true sense, Pope Benedict XVI is the first genuinely liberal pope the Catholic Church has had in the preceding century.

Part II: Why Pope Benedict XVI is a Liberal's Liberal.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Time I Got a Date Because I'm Blonde

One of our upperclassmen buddies summoned us to a hotel room one Saturday evening to meet some out of town friends of his. He made it clear this was not to be a party, but just stop by to say hi to be polite, then feel free to continue cruising for chicks (which was our typical scheduled appointment throughout or driving years in high school - it even worked a couple times).

So we filed in, sodas in hand, high on the beautiful night and all the kids circling the main drag that ran through town. His girlfriend was there, a stout woman with a highlighted, inverted shelf of hair and an inordinate amount of black moles. There, too, was a cute, petite blonde girl. We said "Hi," bantered a bit, then shot off into the evening, mildly puzzled as to what the point was.

Monday rolled around and Upperclassman, who was really a friend of a friend so I didn't talk to him much, strolled up and asked me if I wanted to go to the upcoming Sadie Hawkins dance (we had another name for them that I don't recall). I stood there wondering what to do when he grasped my dilemma and said, "Not with me you idiot, with that girl you met on Saturday. That was why you came by. My girlfriend wants her friend to go, but she needs a date. That's you." Apparently I was going to the dance.

Odd, but I have absolutely no memory of the dance itself. Not a jot.

What I do recall is we went out afterward to one of the premier makeout spots available in my hometown, so the dance must've gone well. This spot was about 20-something miles out of town on a high hill above the river, with a beautiful view for miles in all directions. We called it "The Mushroom" because there were picnic benches covered by a huge cement umbrella that was visible for miles around. It was a little unnerving to sit beneath, and you could often see some dad climb up and pat around the base of it to see if it moved while the rest of the clan stayed safely at a distance.

We faced the highway, put some music on and started to neck. When she'd had enough teenage boy pawing - Lord help us because we can't help ourselves at that age - she said it was time to be getting back. I went to start the car and not a single sound emerged from the beast save the jingle of the keys in the ignition.

I had a huge Buick Electra, a yacht of a car with a massive 455 V8 engine that was so powerful that when I stomped on the gas - another thing teenage boys are incapable of resisting - the whole front end of the car would raise a bit and then tip to one side from the torque of the engine. It got something like 12 miles to the gallon, but the bench seats could easily hold 8 of us at that age. It was our chariot of choice. It just had this really bad habit of occasionally simply not starting. Mechanics said it was a common thing for that make of car and they had no idea how to fix it. Usually, just a jump-start from another car fixed the situation, and where I grew up having jumper cables was as crucial as having a spare tire and a jack.

But out under the mushroom we were on our own. On rare occasion, opening the hood and futzing with the battery cables or the solenoid cover would bring the car back to life, so I tried that, only to once again hear naught but the sound of crickets and wind.

"We're stuck," I said.

"Great," she said, probably not thrilled about the prospect of being trapped for the night, and trapped with Handy Boy no less.

To attempt to put her at ease, I compressed myself as far as I could into the door on my side, crossed my arms, and asked her if she wanted a blanket or anything. She quizzed me about possibly walking down to the highway, a half-mile walk in the dark, and flagging a car down. I suggested that we watch the traffic levels and see if the trip was worth the effort, because it would be cold both ways, and who knew how long we would wait. I don't believe a single car went by all evening. After she exhausted any ideas for rescue, she curled up into a quiet funk for a while.

Boredom eventually primed the conversation pump, and we started talking about ourselves like teenagers do. What we wanted to do when we grew up. Songs we liked. Movies we liked. How far we had ever gone, wink wink nudge nudeg. Little episodes from our life. Etc.

At one point, I asked why she had picked me for the dance, pre-wincing in the dark in case it was something random, humiliating, or silly - or all of the above.

"Because you're blonde. I like blondes," she said.

"Oh," I said.

"Well, and because you seemed nice," she added, perhaps thinking I wasn't completely happy with the selection criteria being a fine, glossy swath of hair and nothing about me, but boys don't think that way. I was just glad it was something innocuous.

During the next couple hours, she crept closer and closer to me, eventually reaching out and slapping my leg for emphasis or placing a warm hand on my arm when confiding a secret. I don't know if I become more attractive through scintillating conversation or if she just grew tired of chatting - I'll go with the prior just to flatter myself - but she finally closed the distance, hoisted a leg over, sat in my lap and said, "Kiss me."

Well yeeehaaaw friends and neighbors. There's not much to tell that you probably can't guess for yourself concerning what happened next (except that we were too young to "go all the way" as was the phrase back then). Let's just pan over to the curtains wafting in the summer breeze and leave it at that. I will say, however, that's when I learned the glorious benefits of taking your time, since we had all the time in the world. For those of you who can forgive the greasiness of this analogy, men are more like dragsters, all squealing swollen tires and quick flameout to the finish line, while women are more like diesel engines; they may take a while to warm up, but once she's ready she'll run you to the edge of wherever you want to go, and you'd better be prepared for the voyage, my friend.

Oh, and she demanded that I give her a hickey. I have never understood the appeal of a hickey. Some seem to think they are passion badges of honor. To me they resemble a sea lamprey attack. They don't feel much different than kisses on the neck, which are nice, and as such I don't see the need to damage the upholstery. Nonetheless, she pointed at her jugular below her ear, "Right here. A big one." And so I obliged. She even inspected it in the mirror before signing off on it. Whateryagonnado?

We eventually slept comfortably because the seats in a Buick Electra are bigger and cushier than most double beds. We awoke about an hour before the sun crested the hills behind us, and I got out to decide how to get us home. Off in the distance to the east was the frame of a new house with a obligatory beatup pickup out front, and it was a short jaunt from the highway so if no one was there, the trip wouldn't exactly be wasted, so off I went.

After about a mile down a dirt road, I had to strike out cross-country through some pastures and across a shallow stream. The stream conveniently had walking stones across it, but I swim like a rock, so it was still harrowing over some of the deeper places. Immediately beyond that was a wire fence. An electrical fence, I discovered the hard way. Upon touching an electrical fence, it feels as though someone has smacked your hand with a baseball bat, not viciously, but with enough of a whack that you automatically recoil; your teeth clack together; and you do a full body grunt, usually making a quiet "uhngh" vocalization as your lungs convulse. You invariably think the word "fuck." - lowercase, no exclamation point. Your fingertips buzz or tickle for a moment afterwards and then it's over. I happened to flash on the memory of an unfortunate pal who inadvertently discovered an electrical fence by peeing on it. I imagine his doobies bobbed liked yoyos during the delivery of the current.

To cross an electrical fence, you need something that doesn't conduct current like a wooden stick or plastic pipe. I found a piece of driftwood and pushed the fence down to stride over it, all the while the neon image of electrified doobies dancing in my head. I headed across the field, not really thinking along the lines of why there was an electrical fence there - this also being a symptom of teenage years, as I was never up this early in the morning on purpose and so my already compromised reasoning powers didn't fire up to provide any deeper thoughts than, "Walk in that general direction."

Lost in thought and sweet memories of the previous night, nothing short of a large explosion or a naked girl would have caught my attention. But after twenty minutes, something just seemed ... odd. Like I was being watched. Also, there was more background noise than is normal out on the vast, flat plains of the Midwest, something just beyond the noise of the wind in the wheat. Yes, there was a very low rumble behind me, so I turned around to discover a HUGE heard of cows following me. I mean, practically horizon to horizon huge, all in a nice straight line in the front, at least twenty deep, hundreds of liquid bovine eyes trained on my person. They were just strolling along behind me, not trying to catch up, so it dawned on me they probably thought (as much as cows think, that is) that I was there to feed them, so they were following me to the cattle larder, as it were. I had heard enough about this kind of thing to know not to run, because then the cows would run too, which can lead to some nasty consequences. But I gotta tell ya, it takes a pretty significant act of willpower to walk at a casual pace when thousands of tons of cow muscle balanced on hard, sharp hooves is a mere car-length behind you, staring at your back, drooling. They started to low as we went along, probably because we were getting close to where they usually got fed. When we got to the fence on the other side of the pasture, I just hauled of and jumped that sucker, not caring if my foot caught or if I got another jolt, doobie damage be damned. I didn't intend to have to tell Jesus I'd died from being tangoed on by a heard of cows. He'd make me wait in the same place with Bill Cosby had he died from drifting backwards into the San Francisco Bay because he can't work a clutch.

But the house was close now, and like a cow closing in on feed, I hurried towards it. Still shaken from the bovodinal slow-motion chase and the surprise of the fence, I was paying less attention than usual, and I thought I could see a phone mounted on one of the framing boards! What're the odds?

A flying, frothing Doberman yanked short on a chain four inches from my face, spraying it with foul dog spittle. It landed, recovered, and pulled so far out on the taught chain that it stood on its hind legs. "Hap! Hap! Hap! Hap! {gag} HACK! Hap! Hap! Hap!" it barked in full berserker mode. It wanted me so badly it was nearly comical. I had managed not to wet myself, but I stayed planted and had a full goose bozo attack of the fantods until I could regain my composure, such as it was.

There was indeed a phone in the house, but the chain of the dog was long enough that it could reach me in there. Adrenalin had finally fired up a couple brain cells, and it dawned on me that this was a dog. A dog on a chain. Tied to a tree. I walked in a circle around the tree beyond his reach, and the dog followed, eventually getting wrapped completely around the trunk, at the end of about five feet, allowing me to get to the phone. It was working and I called my grandma to rescue us (I lived with my grandma during my last couple years in high school as my mom had taken a job out of the state and I wanted to graduate with my friends).

I unwrapped the dog from the tree by walking circles the other direction, thinking it would be cruel to leave him to try to figure it out for himself. I imagined that the owner of the house would be pissed enough that there was a surprise long distance call on his phone, but he would be livid if he discovered his dog dead from dehydration or starvation.

To my surprise, the upperclassman who'd arranged this date showed up with his dad to retrieve us. My grandma had called them to let them know where the girl was, and they'd offered to retrieve us. They weren't angry after they discovered my car was truly MIA, and even they couldn't start it. We piled into their van and headed home.

She sat in the front seat, me and upperclassman in the back. She turned her head to watch the rest of the sunrise on the horizon, which exposed the massive hickey she'd demanded. Even more spectacularly, the light from the sun bounced off one of the van's mirrors just so, and it lit it up as though it were the star in a vaudeville act. The second I noticed it, I glanced over to upperclassman just in time to see his eyebrows rise in surprise. He shot a look over to me, and at first I though he was gonna get all tense in my direction like upperclassman tend to do just because they can, but instead he grinned and gave be a secretive thumbs up.

I got a lot of macho mileage with the guys from that hickey, delivered on a raft of good-natured ribbing, of course. I never saw the girl again, though. C'est la vie.
The Bankruptcy Laws

Republicans are rewriting the bankruptcy laws of our nation at the moment to make it harder for individuals - well harder for poor individuals anyway - to declare and then recover from bankruptcy. Of course, they aren't touching the laws that have to do with the kinds of bankruptcy that businesses can use. For a good rundown of what has transpired and what it might mean, go here.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Sports

Rant alert: Possibly boring and tedious gassing on about why sports suck out loud to moi.

__________
I am utterly missing the sports gene. I understand why cats chase balls, but have no idea why people do. This makes me quite the oddball (nuh har har) to much of American society, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it.

This lead to a lot of angst on my part as I grew up. I'm not talking about being picked last in P.E. - I expected that, and it didn't matter one bit of course because other than the exercise I could care about the game we were divvying up for. I'm also not talking about an aversion to activity and just bombing around as a kid. I was an avid skateboarder (as my knees will attest these days), loved biking around, and dug hikes out to a cool island in the middle of the river in my hometown.

No, I'm specifically talking about getting some object in some pre-designated place so that my team will receive (imaginary) points, which if we end up with more than the other team, we will WIN! Wow!

Win what? Nothing but the joy of having won. Lotsa folks somehow translate this over into a feeling of superiority over the other team, as though we are somehow better than they. But so much of competitive sports, when the teams are balanced in ability as they usually are (and if they aren't the game is kinda moot), is about the luck of the bounce, the direction of the wind, and other uncontrollable and intangible things. Thus when the ball bounces one way rather than the other, makes the winning point, and the winning team screams at the other, "You suck! We are the champions!" I am mystified by the supposed alchemy that endows this seemingly random and meaningless superiority. It's like a neighbor and myself deciding that on cloudy days I win and on sunny days he wins. So, I walk outside on a sunny day, and my neighbor appears, smiles, and says, "You suck! I rule!" How much sense does that make?

Another aspect of sports is that some folks somehow enjoy having permission to kick the snot out of someone else. Maybe it's a character flaw, but I don't like hitting, kicking, or hurting anyone. I don't like getting hit either. I've noticed a lot of sportsniks really dig that kind of contact, though. Sometimes the rougher the better. Freaks.

My childhood is littered with events where I had to play a game of one sort or another, usually for P.E., and some clod just wiped the floor with me. For instance, once in a P.E. touch football game, no one was covering me because I was a late bloomer and pretty small at the time, and everyone knew I didn't enjoy sports, so I was essentially invisible. Well, I lined up right across from the quarterback and no one blocked me when the play started. I literally walked over and tore the flag off the quarterback as he was looking for an opening. He looked down with utter shock and said, "You little shit!" Of course, from that point on I had the three biggest buys dogpiling on me for the remainder of the game, with a punch or two thrown in. When I made some comment to the coach about the reaction being a little over the top, he more or less said that's the nature of the game and to cowboy up.

Only one P.E. teacher out the many I had throughout school seemed to understand that P.E. was supposed to be for keeping ALL the kids in shape and not just a time for the jocks to bash the smaller kids heads. The rest of the P.E. teachers I had the misfortune to encounter routinely seemed to enjoy seeing the little guys like me get knocked around. One of the more cretinous one's resulting smile would be in direction proportion to how badly a kid got hurt. This spitwad had me wrestle a kid (from the wrestling team, no less) 40 lbs. above my weight class. The guy put me out of commission for a month and a half by bruising the skeletal muscles on the left side of my rib cage (as the doctor later diagnosed) through an illegal move. As I lay there on the mat trying not to pass out from the pain, I heard the bastard coach even slap his knee as he yucked it up.

Those situations, however, didn't really play into my not understanding the point of and eventual dislike of competitive sports. Way before that stuff was tossed my way in school, the height of boredom would ensue when someone would say, "Let's play some ball!" That was usually my queue to hit my bike and look for fun elsewhere. Oh, I gave it a try, but would always get looks like I had an arm growing from my forehead when, after tossing a ball around for a while, would say, "Um, is this all there is? Just keep throwing this thing around?" No, the approved beatings in school were the just shit icing on what to me was already just a urinal cake.

After high school, I blissfully escaped the world of mandatory participation in any sport, and with the exception of temporarily losing part of the gang to the TV when the chosen team was GOING ALL THE WAY!, sports and I parted ways. We missed each other not at all.

Till recently.

Last season my daughter's soccer coach more or less drafted me to be a referee. I gave it a try because there was a need, and I was OK with helping given there wasn't much of an alternative. But, dear Lord, I loathe it. I just don't have the mind for it or the interest, so paying attention to the minutia of the ball crossing a boundary and who kicked it last, and then putting up with argumentative parents catcalling from the sidelines (and always only if their team is losing), is a regular trip through an outer circle of hell. I just wanna watch my kid enjoy herself from the sidelines. But, when it's for the kids, sometimes you just shut up and deal.

Oh, but sports had bigger plans. It wasn't done with me yet.

A week or so ago, there I was, enjoying one of our wonderful gatherings of friends and neighbors, having a cold one, shooting the breeze, and someone said, "Hey! Guess what! We're gonna form a softball team! Hey, [Yahmdallah], ya up for it?!?"

Pause.

"Um, no. But, hey, more for you!"

"Oh C'mon! It'll be great! Just get out your glove and show up. It'll be a blast!"

Thinks I: Yeah, like carving tribal tattoos into my own sober flesh with a Philips-head screwdriver would be a blast. But says I, "No, really, I'm not much of a sports guy."

"But it doesn't matter how well you play! This is just for fun!"

I've heard that promise in the dark before. Trust me, the second everyone has a couple beers in their system and a pop fly is missed, or someone strikes out easily, we will blow past the fun barrier with extreme ferocity accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Again, some folks kinda like this kind of fighting and yelling. It's how they relieve stress, maybe. Not I. So, here I am again, smack dab in a circle of folks looking at me like I'm just not quite right, virtually back in high school hell. Why can't I just get with the game?, they wonder.

Because I hate the game. Got it? Anything that thrashes between thunderously boring and snarlingly tense is just not my idea of getting the ya yas out, k? So what if we won? Or they did? Does this result in something useful or tangible like free beer or gratuitous nudity? A better parking space in the parking lot? Heads on spears for that extra Martha Stewart touch in the landscaping?

If I am stricken with the desire to throw a ball for fun, and so far this has occurred maybe one and a half times in my life, I'll go out back with the dog, because HE enjoys the hell out of it and could care less if I throw it right or left or if I can catch it at a crucial moment. Better yet, he won't throw that sucker back at me. You throw something at me, I duck. That's it. My fight-or-flight system offers no other alternatives. Best of all, my dog won't stroll up, drop the ball, and say, "I wish I could give you what you're missing by not playing sports," which someone once said to me, with all good intentions, of course. But I gnawed on that one for a long while and eventually came to the conclusion that I am so completely devoid of any desire or interest in competitive sports that I can't think of a single thing I would gain from them (outside of a bruise or two). It would be like an alien species saying to me, "Y'know, you humans just don't know what you're missing by not having a third arm protruding from your chest like we do. It just makes mealtimes so much less of a hassle." I grant from their perspective I have some sort of hole in my life, but from my side, it's just another day in paradise, damnit.

So, these days, I chuckle darkly when I think of that great quote of Michael Corleone's in Godfather III: "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in."

I wonder how I'm going to get out of this one.

(Apologies to those of you from my crew who read this blog, btw.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Sideways

As everyone and their pet turtle have opined, this is an enjoyable little movie. A truly compelling narrative that doesn't involve things going boom is a rare occurrence in American movies it seems. I'm not necessarily complaining about that because I like things that blow up real good.

No, more to my point, a compelling narrative about the little moments in a realistic depiction of everyday life is one of the hardest pieces of fiction to create, because it can easily collapse into a boring account of toenail trimmings and flatulence. For instance, I think that's what happened with Alexander Payne's previous movie, About Schmidt. Throughout About Schmidt, we follow a basic sad sack who's just retired only to discover that his major moment of breaking free from the chains that bind him is the ability to pee standing up after his wife dies (she forbade him due to the common male condition of "mystery stream" where the first shot of the morning can go anywhere - see Me, Myself & Irene for a hilarious depiction of said condition). The only fun, outstanding moment in that flick is when a very nekkid Kathy Bates hops into the hot tub with Schmidt, thinking she's going to get a little. Other than that, I wondered why Payne just keeps picking on this poor schlub until the credits roll. Sideways manages to achieve the correct ratio between revealing moments and pedestrian moments.

Two buddies go on a weeklong wine tasting road trip through California's wine country prior to the wedding of one of them, as a sort of last hurrah. For the guy about to be married, this last hurrah means boinking anything with a concave surface and a pulse (and you get the idea that a pulse might be optional). The other guy is recently gaping-wound divorced, is facing the possible final rejection of his latest failed novel (a 700-plus page opus to painful relationships, natch), and hides his alcoholism behind wine snobbery.

Neither of these guys are in a "good place," as it were. This setup scrapes up against a bias I've developed towards stories with nothing but flawed characters, so this movie walked a fine line with me. The big trend in postmodern writing seminars is filling the space between the bindings with mottled and broken characters utterly lacking noble motives because supposedly this makes them more organic and real, and avoids the traps of the supposed one-dimensional characters of commercial fiction (see Dean Koontz). Well, compost heaps are organic and real, but no one wants to spend a lot of time in their presence - a little factoid that our postmodern lit weenies would do well to become acquainted with. The primary success of Sideways is that it makes these human trainwrecks likeable (or at least entertaining), and thus we care about what happens to them and those they meet. In other words, their foibles do not define them (as in bad postmodern novels (*koff* DeLillo *koff*)), their foibles are just part of the mix. This movie is not afraid to be funny, and manages to be funny without betraying the characters or their situation.

As indicated by the Oscar nominations and critical praises, the bright candy shell of this movie is the stellar acting. Paul Giamatti's reaction when he discovers his (character's) ex-wife is pregnant is one of those moments movie buffs will carry in memory from that point on. My wife exclaimed out loud in response to it. I think a couple of the plants in the room behind me wilted in empathy. Somewhere out in the neighborhood a lonesome coyote howled.

The movie is a hard "R" for lotsa sexual situations that even young teens should probably be shielded from lest their little souls be scarred from the gestalt of adult woogiewoogie. A recent novel I read, The Stupidest Angel by Michael Moore, has a great warning in the intro pages to the effect that the book contains bad words that grandma wouldn't approve of and sex scenes between people over the age of 40. This same counsel would definitely apply to Sideways.
Oh Crap

Do I hear that REM song keening away in the distance? "That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane…"

This bug even got sent to the Middle East? Crikey.

_______
Update:

Uh oh, they're telling us not to panic. That's never good.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Corporation

Been looking forward to this documentary because the reviews were good, and while I think capitalism is pretty nifty and all that, I do think corporations hold and wield too much power these days. This documentary explains that and why, but...

Gad, I'm a lefty and this thing was so far left of me, I had to glance to the right to see if it was visible on the event horizon that way, too. They don't come right out and endorse socialism, per se, but they gesticulate at it like someone playing charades at gunpoint. Look, socialism just doesn't work as the primary solution engine of an economy or even a culture. No, a good mix of market/privately held concerns and some publicly held institutions is the healthiest possible situation.

The flick does a good job of explaining the problems of privatizing everything, to its credit. There are two mind-blowing examples of corporate overreach which can't be described as anything other than evil:

- The World Bank forced Bolivia to privatize their water system before allowing loans to improve the same. The company (based San Francisco - can't find the name easily and I don't take notes during movies, k?) that was contracted to do it had laws passed that claimed they owned ALL the water in the country, including any rainwater that fell from the sky. Then they pulled an Enron-like shortage scam and overcharged for the water. Well there was a revolt and things got fixed, but Jesus Christ Almighty. Two people lost their lives, and many were maimed for life during this revolt, by the way.

- RiceTek patented basmati rice, evidently a staple in India, and even altered the seeds they sold so the plants that grew were sterile and would not produce more seeds. You wonder which of Dante's circles of hell the bastards who thought that one up will spend eternity. Hopefully it involves George W. Bush reading poetry about choking on a cracker and cell walls festooned with nude photos of Karl Rove.

But, the film is so freakin' lefty, only lefties are gonna see it. Now they do include guys from both sides giving their point of view, but like Fox Pretend News, you have no doubt as to the agenda of the filmmakers. Had this been a bit more balanced, it would have been an important film. Well, it is an important film, but if you wrap fish guts in newspaper, no one's gonna wanna read the paper anymore. Alas.

The official site of the film is here if you just wanna poke around and not commit to two hours of talking heads splainin things atcha.

_______
Update:

The first commenter to this post pointed out that companies have been altering seeds to grow sterile crops for quite a while. My bad. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that maybe the farmers might want this as a feature. Lots of farmers like to rotate crops, and if the old crop always seeded, maybe they would be dealing with mixed crops all the time. I admit having almost no useful knowledge on farming, so these are just all wild guesses on my part. My point is these sterile crops might be what the majority of the customers want. I simply don't have enough info to offer, and I'm not interested enough to research it.

The commenter also said I was a loose canon, I presume based on the version of hell that I painted. Well, that would just be one of my versions of hell. I had originally worked in Noam Chomsky playing an out-of-tune banjo, just to throw in an unrepentant lefty with the unrepentant tighty-righties, but the line didn't have the same snap, so Noam got the ax. (Though to be a worse hell for me personally, there would be bagpipe music accompanied on pipe organ rather than a bad banjo.)

That aside…

What was not in this movie, but is my primary concern with American corporations, is all the quasi-monopolies that have sprung up. Fair competition is the lifeblood of capitalism and these monopolies interfere with that.

In the recent years, I've seen three examples of corporate consolidation into monopoly-like entities that have been to my detriment as a consumer - I get an inferior product, or the same product at a drastically ballooned price when the production of said product hasn't risen at the same rate.

When I first moved to my house, there were many small power companies that were competitive and offered electricity and natural gas at decent prices. For some reason that I've never been able to suss out, in one year they were all bought by the same monolithic national utility. I do know it had nothing to do with the financial viability of the little power companies; an article in the paper at the time showed they were all running nicely in the black. After this consolidation, the new big boy in town said prices had to rise so that they could stay in business, which was all bullshit of course, the profit margins weren't where the company wanted them, so we all got gouged. My utility bill has more than doubled in this time. This is unacceptable for something so crucial to our daily existence. These folks can make a profit, as far as I'm concerned, but gouging on necessities is immoral.

The other two examples are lesser issues, because they have to do with media, which is not a necessity of life.

My cable bill is twice what it used to be, and remember, deregulation of cable was supposed to lower prices. Ha. There has been no discernable change in quality and quantity in what I get over cable. And the physical network was in place, so what's the reason prices have doubled? There aren't any. There's just no competition to drive prices down.

The example that hits me hardest in the soft underside of my soul is the demise of radio. I was raised on a robust, rockin' radio scene where all sorts of great music was there at the turn of a dial. We all know about the lame, commercial-laden mush that we now have, in part due to radio quasi-monopolies, but also due to the music industry's accompanying consolidation into 5 companies, and the brain-dead bottom line approach to selling music, as if it were Cheetos or something. Back in the day, a song could break in one city's market or through one DJ's influence, and based on that popularity it might make it nationwide - effectively circumnavigating the omnipresent payola system the music companies use to push hits. But, now that we have just a couple companies homogenizing the whole nation, and everyone has the same basic radio stations, the system locks out any methods of hearing good songs outside the ones the music companies want to push. I imagine this situation will correct itself - market self-correction being one of the benefits of a capitalist system - and this correction time will allow the internet to get on its feet as a popularization and distribution system, which is a good thing. But I sure miss my music. The AM radio station I praised recently is already off the air. I am alone. Where are you Baba O'Riley? {Sigh}

Friday, April 08, 2005

In Praise of the Overplayed

Y'know how we all have abandoned artists who got played to death on the radio? We can't be blamed, though, because on the 4,327.5th hearing of "Billie Jean" (besides conjuring up unwanted thoughts on its true meaning since it's now obvious that Michael is a pretty serious pedophile who likes little boys and isn't Billie Jean kind of a masculine name?) we just can't stand that great bass groove any more damnit! It's ruined!

Still, I'd like to submit that in the same way that muscles that burn from a massive workout eventually feel better and stronger, so too can artists for whom radio wore out their welcome can seem all the more rich later on.

I'm here to make the case for folding these guys back into one's iPod playlist, mix-tapes, homebrew CDs, because they got overplayed for a reason: They were damn good. (And, yes, they're all guys, because the only female artist I'm aware of that got and still gets overplayed is Shania "Sha-nay-nay" Twain.)

John Denver was the first artist I can recall getting so overplayed that I have clear memories of people snapping off the radio in disgust when one of his songs came on. Monty Python even disposed of him (scroll down and select the sample of "Farewell to John Denver") in a hilarious, but rather nasty way (he sued them over it, even). Besides his ubiquitousness on the radio, TV specials and a movie (the still charming Oh, God!), people had other reasons for hating him. A good buddy of mine loathes him because he wrote all those earth-loving hippie anthems, but then wrote a song about flying home to his millionaire's estate "Starwood, in Aspen" where he hoarded gas during the fuel shortages of the 70s. A lot of folks hated him over the gas-hoarding thing, actually. Hunter S. Thompson hated him for many reasons beyond that and was known to walk out his front door and pop off some random shots in the direction of Starwood, which bordered Thompson's estate, in hopes of plugging John by accident. He was also despised for refusing to give autographs to fans, and tried to apologize for the same by naming one of his albums Autograph, but no one appreciated that anymore than his lame excuse for not giving autographs (though I don't recall what it was). A lot of his "I'm sorry" songs were written to Annie in hopes she would forgive him for fucking around with groupies on the road. Finally, though it's not remembered this way anymore, he was intent on getting a ride on the space shuttle, and was even in training at NASA for it, but then Ronnie got elected and said he wasn't going to let a pot smoking hippie on the shuttle, so he sent a teacher in his place, and we all recall how that went. Apparently John was destined to die in an aircraft accident.

All that shite aside (and considering that most of us have a laundry list of things we're not proud of in our own lives), the dude had some great songs. "Sunshine on my Shoulders" is still hauntingly beautiful, as are "Annie's Song" and "Rocky Mountain High." Not a single song on his last, and best, anthology will be a stranger to anyone who was forming memories in the 70s. (And, oddly, he's nude on the cover photo, perhaps an acknowledgement of his favorite state in which to mow his lawn. Was it the susurration of 2-stroke engine exhaust gently wafting across his scrotum the reason for this preference? The mind boggles.) Anyway, I dare anyone except my buddy with the grudge about "Starwood, in Aspen" (which does not appear on this disc!) to give this a listen. I'll bet you find yourself glad you did. I think you'll also be surprised how eclectic his songs were in both subject, performance, and arrangements. And - most of all - that voice. Wow.

For a while you couldn't get away from the Bee Gees' chipmunk disco invasion. At one point the Bee Gees had branched out on so many side projects with other artists that even when the radio wasn't playing a Bee Gees song, it was playing something they'd written and/or produced. You could go a solid hour on the radio and hear nothing but brothers Gibb products. By the time they released "Tragedy," it was one.

Besides the hailstorm of Bee Gees songs feeding the growing resentment against them, their music publishing company was notoriously cheap, and all the their album pressings and cassette tapes sounded like shit. Many who heard the songs on the radio and ran out to get their own copy probably wondered what the hell had happened in the transition. Even the first CD releases sounded like they'd been mastered by distilling the sound through a wall of cotton.

Their latest anthology and the megalith Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (that had been originally recorded as a straight Bee Gees album until the movie producers begged enough and tossed enough money at them to make it their soundtrack) are both beautifully remastered and sound great. If you can't bring yourself to buy Saturday Night Fever yet again (and don't try to pretend you didn't buy it at least once), there's a good chance your local library has a copy. Go have yourself another night on Disco Mountain. (Relish again the horror of "A fifth of Beethoven." Yeah, baby!)

Phil Collins. The mere mention of the name causes some music lovers who owned radios in the 80s to grow pale and get moist around the eyes. Their chin might even quiver a little. Phil probably has achieved the status of the most overplayed artist of all time, even though Barf Brooks tried his damndest to reach that goal. Like the Bee Gees, while his own projects were all over the air, both Genesis and his solo stuff, he was doing soundtracks AND side projects with Philip Bailey (Earth, Wind and Fire), Eric Clapton, Howard Jones, and Robert Plant(!!). And then he hit his power ballad phase. You could detect DJs actively suppressing gags while introing his songs, the door to the studio open so they could bolt to the employee lounge as soon as the needle hit the groove. The bitter taste so lingers with some that during the initial screenings of Disney's Tarzan (for those of you in the cheap seats, Phil did the songs), I could look back into the audience and see some parents straining Clockwork Orange-style to avoid lapsing into a seizure. To those of you that have gotten past the Phil overload, whose nervous systems are no longer flooded with Phil antibodies, I just gotta say that his first two solo albums - Face Value and Hello, I Must be Going - were in a league of their own. Nothing else sounded like them, then or now. They were unique blends of Phil's fantastic drumming, the fabulous horn section of "Earth, Wind and Fire" who were pushed way beyond what they did in their own band, and big, ambitious songs. Also, the two Genesis albums from that time are classics: Abacab and the eponymous Genesis. (Oh, and you Peter Gabriel fans are right, that the Phil's Genesis is incomparable with Peter's, but this is about Phil, so grab a beer and relax.)

For all of these, if you don't own them already and if you just don't wanna pop for the CDs on the basis of my advice alone (and I'm not very hurt by that), hit the library, go to a used CD store that'll let you preview them, or borrow them from a buddy. Someone you know will have them, but you have to be discreet about it and don't ask them in front of a crowd or all you'll get is denials. Even listing to the samples you'll find at the end of the links above may suffice. But, rediscover these guys. They rocked and you know it.