Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The Maroon Berets

I dreamed last night that the University of Chicago campus was the site of Vietnam War conflict. I'm not talking about domestic battles over policy, as when student protesters took over the U of C administration building in 1969. I mean actual military conflict: I was taking classes, and in moving from building to building I had to dodge sniper fire from Charlie.

You U of Cers who read this blog: be careful down there.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

The tape game

On my most recent trip home to Nashville I filled my truck with a dozen or so boxes of things from childhood. This was it, the last bit of stuff I still had stored in the old homestead. Ereck can confirm that I have been in a throwing-out phase of late, and though it may seem strange to cart items 600 miles only to throw many of them away, that's what I did. I wanted to go through them first.

This evening I dealt with one of the most evocative boxes: the tape box. And these weren't just any old tapes--well, actually, they were exactly that: the tapes I never could bring myself to carry along to the various places I have lived as an adult. That is, this was the music I deemed not worth bothering with when I left home in 1989, at age 18. And it is, in many respects, a grim collection indeed. There is Phil Collins here. In fact, it is the Phil Collins tape I nicked from a Nashville record store while on a shoplifting spree with a friend in 1983. Adieu, reckless youth.

One striking thing about this collection is that a lot of it is music I tried out because someone I knew and liked was into it. But I guess I didn't care for it, which explains the presence here of the Smithereens, the Fine Young Cannibals, and the Sugarcubes (sorry, Ereck).

Of course, there also are tapes here of music I liked a lot, and still do. There is Elvis Costello here, and Police, and Who, and Beatles. I think these tapes stayed in Nashville because I had extra copies.

Many of these tapes remind me of particular events or people. I have here a Midnight Oil tape I bought the night I attended an astonishing concert by the socially conscious Australian rockers at the Cannery nightclub. The show blew me away; the tape, if I recall correctly, did not.

I'm also reminded of a road trip three buddies and I took to Seagrove, Florida the summer after 11th grade. This Thomas Dolby tape, The Flat Earth, was important to that trip.

Sigh. As Yogi Berra should have said if he didn't, nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

There also are strange things here, things I'm certain I never listened to. I'm not even sure how I ended up with a lot of these: INXS, the Church, the new age artist Kitaro.

I'm also reminded of the archival and artistic possibilities inherent in the cassette tape. Back in the day, it seems like all my friends had a boombox with a microphone, and we spent hours making recordings: sometimes of candid moments, sometimes of more elaborately planned productions.

In a similar vein, one tape from this batch (actually one I liberated from Nashville a few years ago) is of songs recorded from a hits radio station in Nashville ca. 1984, and between songs the taper, who sounds like a boy of about ten, recorded himself impersonating a local radio DJ: he identifies songs, announces call-in promotions, and relentlessly plugs his favorite radio station in a thick Middle Tennessee drawl.

Funny. In a post-cassette era, do kids still do stuff like this? Is it all about the camcorder? I have an MP3 player that can record up to nine hours with its built-in microphone. Would some kid out there use a device like this to emulate a set by his favorite Clear Channel personality?

At any rate, out of a couple hundred tapes in the box, I gave some to the thrift store, discarded even more, and kept five titles. Four are comedy:

Cheech & Chong, Wedding Album
Monty Python's Meaning of Life (original soundtrack recording)
The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"
Eddie Murphy, Comedian

And there's one music tape, by the obscure British New Romanticists Haircut 100: Pelican West, which features the early MTV staple "Love Plus One."

Friday, December 26, 2003

The lockout

In the spirit of Robin's blog about locking herself out of her apartment, here's an e-mail I wrote eight years ago (OMG, can it really be eight years ago?) about a time I locked myself out of my apartment on the South Side of Chicago. And the e-mail is to Robin, no less! I'm adding clarifications in brackets.

Date: Thu, 5 Oct 95 11:56:50 CDT
From: Kenneth Burns
To: hunicke@cs.uchicago.edu
Subject: I did an unfortunate thing last night

Hey Robin,

In the middle of the night, I calmly got of bed (still sleeping), walked to the door of my apartment (still sleeping), opened the door (still sleeping), walked out and shut it behind me (still sleeping), and began running up the stairs [my apartment door opened onto the second floor of a three-story stairwell]. About halfway up the stairs I finally woke up, said "D'oh!" (oh sure, you say d'oh, they all say d'oh), and realized what I had done: I had sleepwalked my way out of my apartment and locked the door behind me, and now I stood in my hallway wearing only my boxers and T-shirt.

I was an almost naked man with a problem.

Several waves of emotion swept over me. First came disorientation, as I continued waking up and trying to understand what had happened. Next came panic, as I lunged for the door and tugged fruitlessly at the knob. Then came more disorientation, as I tried to determine whether this surreal scene could actually be happening. Then came anger at my unconscious for doing this to me. Next came lack of resolve as I tried to consider my options.

My first notion was to try to wait it out. I wasn't sure what time it was, but for some reason I had in mind that it was around 4:00. I figured that I would just go to work when the time came, change into the spare set of clothes I keep there [the software firm where I worked was less than a block away and had a casual dress code, but I kept a suit there for client visits] and then deal with the problem of getting into my apartment. I wasn't pleased with all the ramifications of this plan, however. First of all, it would require that I camp out in the stairwell all night, and it was cold out there, and I wasn't clothed. It also meant that someone inevitably would find me out there the next morning, and I didn't particularly feel like explaining to my neighbors what had happened. What made me most uncomfortable, I think, was the image of the crossing guard at 55th and Cornell--the protector of children--and what her reaction might be upon seeing a nearly-naked man cross the street with her young charges.

Nevertheless, initially this seemed the best of the options I had available to me. The other, better, plan that next occurred to me was to go to someone's apartment, have them put me up for the rest of the night, and borrow clothes from them for the next day. However, this would have involved walking somewhere in Hyde Park, and I was of course clad only in my underwear. But I gave this serious thought. Of the people available for me to turn to, I most favored you and Dave, but each of these possibilities had problems. Dave represented the best solution, because he was closest, but I knew that when I showed up the doorman would need to ring Dave before I could go in. I wasn't worried so much about facing the doorman in my underwear, because when circumstances require it, lack of shame is not a problem for me. What I was most worried about was that Dave would be sleeping and might either not hear the phone or ignore it, as I sometimes do when sleeping. If I could have phoned him first I would have . . . but the only pay phone I knew of nearby was at Morry's [Delicatessen], and it is in their foyer, which is locked at night. I also could have woken up my neighbors and asked to use their phone, but I found that prospect too embarrassing to contemplate.

The other possibility was you, and I knew that with you I would at least have the freedom to lean on your buzzer until you let me in. But I somehow didn't relish the notion of walking all the way over to your building in my skivvies, and I knew it would be futile to try to get a cab, much less pay for one. [Robin lived a good mile and a half away, as opposed to Dave, who lived about two blocks away.]

And as I weighed these excursion plans, underlying my deliberations was the knowledge that at least my stairwell was relatively warm and dry. If I ventured out, there was a strong possibility that I would not be able to get back into even this barely-adequate haven. I had fashioned a way to keep the foyer doors open by sticking my neighbors' mail in the locks, but someone might enter or leave while I was away, and then I would be stuck. Figuring that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, I tried to get comfortable and prepare to wait the night out.

My neighbor across the way had apparently fallen asleep with her television on, and the CBS late-night news show blared out into the hall. Do you know the one I mean? It's on from about 2:00 to 5:00, I guess, and its format repeats every half hour--news, weather, and so on. As I tried to sleep, the day's news kept wafting in and out of my slumber: O.J...Pope...hurricane...forest fires...

I'm not sure how long I slept, but it was probably no longer than about fifteen minutes. When I woke up, I realized that it was utterly futile to try to continue this way all night, and I resolved to do something. I thought of my car, which I knew had a blanket in the trunk. I figured that on the off chance that the garage door had not latched properly, as sometimes happens, and that I had left one of my car doors unlocked, as I sometimes do, I could lie down in the car for the rest of the night and at least keep warm and avoid confronting my neighbors. I fixed the foyer doors and padded down the alley on my bare feet. The garage door was firmly locked (of all times for that to work!), so I was quickly forced to scuttle that plan. I wasn't nuts about it anyway, since it would still require encoutering a disapproving crossing guard come morning.

I went back to my station in front of my door and brainstormed. I returned to the idea of phoning Dave to make sure he could let me in, and I tried to think what phone I could use. I thought of the white phones. [Every block or so in my neighborhood was a white emergency phone with a direct connection to the University of Chicago police.] Did this represent a police emergency? And did I really like the idea of my plight's being broadcast to squadcars all over Hyde Park? No. I decided to leave the white phone as a last resort.

At this point a strange sense of resolve came over me, and I said to myself, "Ken, you've just got to go down to Dave's and pray that he answers the phone when the doorman rings up. If he doesn't answer, you've got to insist that the doorman keep ringing until he does answer. You will have shown up wearing nothing but undergarments, and it is cold outside. If that doesn't make the doorman realize that this is an emergency, nothing will."

(You have to realize that although I am telling this story as a funny one, which in retrospect it is, I was terrified. I don't know when I have felt more alone, helpless, and vulnerable.)

Determined, I fixed the foyer doors one last time and headed out into the night. As I made my way down 55th Street, I tried to be discreet yet dignified when cars passed me. This was somewhat difficult to do, as my penis kept peeking out from the little flap on my boxers. Fortunately I didn't meet anyone on the sidewalk.

When I arrived at the Park Shore, the doorman looked startled, probably as a result of the combination of the hour, my attire (or lack thereof), and my demeanor, which was despairing. But he rang Dave when I asked him to, and I praised Allah when Dave answered: "Uh hi, good morning Dave. There's a Ken down here to see you. One moment. [He looked at me.] What's your last name? Burns. OK." He hung up and waved me in.

As I got on the elevator, I began laughing hysterically as relief now washed over me. I wondered what on earth Dave could be thinking. He greeted me at the door, also clad in boxers and T-shirt, and I tried incoherently to explain why I was there. He looked at me blankly and then, almost wordlessly, handed me a blanket and a pillow and motioned me toward the couch. I lay awake for some minutes, still feeling panicky, but I finally drifted off, thanking God and Dave.

The next morning Dave lent me some clothes and we headed for work. I was rather inefficient [at my work tasks] this morning, because I of course didn't have my glasses [this was in the pre-LASIK days]. Anyway, the main focus of my morning's activies was to get in touch with the janitor so he could let me in. I finally did, and he told me to meet him over there. He was as stunned as everyone has been when I told him how I got locked out, and he asked me the same question everyone--colleagues, boss, and clients--has asked me when I told them what happened: "Have you ever done this before?" (The answer is no, I haven't sleepwalked since I was little.) With great satisfaction I entered my apartment, got cleaned up, and headed back to work.

Later Dave told me that his greatest concern before he greeted at the door was, I hope Ken doesn't mind that I'm in my boxers and T-shirt.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The insider

In an amusing development, the mayor of Madison asked me to be his Friendster friend. At the moment I am one of four mayoral friends. Another one is our own Bob.

Friday, December 19, 2003


The life of the mind is all mixed up with the life of the body, of course. And there's nothing more intellectually stimulating than watching smart, scantily clad young men roll around on the floor together.

I'm talking, naturally, about University of Chicago wrestling.

My favorite Chicago wrestler of the moment is Nick Kehagias. Have I ever actually seen him wrestle? Well, no. But what a brain.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Wall of sound

Dear Santa,

It won't be Christmas until I hear the Ronettes sing "Frosty the Snowman."

Waiting patiently,

P.S. Don't make me use KaZaA.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Blurbin' cowboy

Since earlier this year, a small but always enjoyable part of my still-new freelancing lifestyle is writing two-sentence movie blurbs in Madison's Isthmus newspaper. (FYI, my first full-length review for the paper, of the documentary The Party's Over, ran last week and is up on the Isthmus web site.)

I'm still not sure what algorithm determines which movies I get assigned, but much of what I have seen for blurbing purposes is Z-grade American films, really terrible stuff like House of the Dead, The Order, and Boat Trip. (I would link to my blurbs, but Isthmus doesn't seem to post them.) That last one may be the worst movie I've ever seen--not only inept but also grotesquely offensive.

However, I've also blurbed films of surpassingly high quality, like The Magdalene Sisters and The Good Thief. And I've caught a few films that I assumed beforehand would be pleasant enough, and were--many of the kids' films I've seen fall into this category, like Piglet's Big Movie and The Lizzie Maguire Movie. I've seen quite a few foreign movies, like The Navigators, Unknown Pleasures, and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, and even middling foreign fare like those three always has a frisson associated with its foreignness.

Happily, a couple of times now I have been caught completely off guard and found myself captivated by a movie I almost certainly would never have sought out. One was The Rundown, the action comedy starring the Rock, Seann William Scott and Christopher Walken, which kept surprising me by how smart and funny it is.

And it happened again just now. I'm home from seeing Love Don't Cost a Thing, a remake, with a mostly African-American cast, of the 1980s Patrick Dempsey comedy Can't Buy Me Love. And hurrah! I showed up prepared not to particularly like the film (for this gig that's often the case), but I walked away smiling. It's a romantic comedy about a geeky teenage pool boy (Nick Cannon) who bribes the most popular girl in school (Christina Milian) into pretending to be his girlfriend for two weeks. I found that premise crass for a nanosecond, until I realized it seems like the kind of stunt I might have tried to pull in high school.

The cast is enormously attractive, and director Troy Beyer smartly gives her actors time just to be charming and goofy. TV comedian Steve Harvey, especially, kept me guessing with one eccentric turn after another as Cannon's dad.

It's refreshing to know movies can still surprise me by being good when I least expect it.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Blue woman grope

I started to blog about this story I saw on "Celebrity Justice" last week: it seems actor Tom Skerritt sued an herbal-supplements company for using his image in an ad for some sort of virility-enhancing concoction. Skerritt and the company, Body Basics, reached an agreement, and the ads will run no more. The short web search I did revealed that this story is, in fact, months old, so just when you thought it couldn't be more irrelevant, it is.

Except that I am obsessed with the ad in question, and I wanted to share it with you. But although "CJ" flashed it again and again, I can't find it on the web anywhere! It shows Skerritt's head clumsily stuck on top of a ripped man's body, and he has his arms around a creature that is female and humanoid in shape, and lithe, but also bald and bright blue. It's an alien, right, except not a horrifying reptile alien like the one that kills Skerritt in the film Alien, but more like the late Persis Khambatta in the first "Star Trek" movie. You know, a hot, bald alien chick. But blue.

The strange coda to the story is that, as "CJ" co-host Holly Herbert reported, Body Basics explained the gaffe by saying the designer of the ad doesn't speak English and didn't know who Skerritt is.

I can't stop thinking about the ad. It's one of the most absurd, hysterical things I've ever seen. Please find it for me.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Eenie meenie

If I recall correctly, I cast my first Democratic primary vote, in Illinois in 1992, for Paul Tsongas.

This time I have no idea.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

When they met it was moyda

Don't forget that the Junkers' "Murder for Christmas" makes a great stocking stuffer! Download, burn, stuff!
Introductions all around

Kiddies, may I present Robin. She's my college chum, confidante, traveling companion, muse, boss, teacher and soul sister. She's seen me at many of my best moments and many more of my worst. I'm not worthy, etc.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Longing to be up north

Apropos of Martin's post on Christmas music, here is a New York Times article from a few years back. It's by Michael Beckerman, and it's about Christmas music. I like to bust it out every yuletide.


Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

December 20, 1998, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 2; Page 35; Column 1; Arts and Leisure Desk

LENGTH: 1249 words

HEADLINE: California Dreaming, Christmas Wishful Thinking

BYLINE: By MICHAEL BECKERMAN; Michael Beckerman is a commentator on PBS's "Live From Lincoln Center."

IT is little short of astonishing that at a time when most people are obsessed with music of the last week, and classics may be no more than a year old, listeners still plug into several centuries of musical tradition every holiday season. Mall Muzak includes medieval, Renaissance and Baroque tunes ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "What Child Is This," "Joy to the World"), carols from the last century ("Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear") and hits from just about every decade through the 1960's ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bell Rock").

Most of these deal with themes of winter ("Jingle Bells"), jubilation ("Joy to the World"), awe ("Adeste Fidelis") or purity ("Silent Night"). But the most popular American yuletide offering, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," is about something altogether different.

This song, one of several numbers written for Bing Crosby to sing in the 1942 movie "Holiday Inn," has nestled so comfortably into the Christmas repertory that most people have probably stopped thinking about it. Yet there is far more here than generally meets the ear or the eye. The surprises begin at the real beginning, with the original verse, which is almost never included in recordings of the song:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,

The orange and palm trees sway.

There's never been such a day

In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it's December the 24th,

And I am longing to be up north.

The sensuous glories of the sunny south cannot be fully experienced, the text makes clear, because a more elusive state is obscuring them: the even more ideal image of a white Christmas. So the song is set up as a vision of Utopia through a scrim of longing: not the depiction but the dream of the thing. The otherworldy ambivalence is summed up in the rhyme of the last two lines. Because "it's December the 24th," the singer is "longing to be up north."

North of Beverly Hills, of course, lie the Yukon and the Donner Party; nobody really wants to be up there. But we understand this as Hollywood's cockeyed diagonal ache for the cozy wooded spaces north of New York: Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

The musical setting of the verse is tranquil, at first, with a slight Latin lilt on "There's never been such a day." An unexpected dissonance on "But it's" resolves almost immediately on "December the 24th," but the next line is even harsher and more unstable, as the piercing "And I am longing to be up north" leads to the famous chorus: "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/ Just like the ones I used to know."

Here the song becomes inscrutable. While the words "I'm dreaming of a" are given a rhapsodic turn, the ascent through the title words is wrenching. The phrase "white Christmas" is sung as surface tension pierced by an icicle. Yet this harshness dissolves instantly, and the music for the next snippet of text dips into the old tradition of idyllic sound used to depict both pastoral visions and Christmas. Indeed, the charming musical phrase "Just like the ones I used to know" might have come out of an 18th-century Christmas concerto.

The next lines, "Where the treetops glisten/ And children listen/ To hear sleigh bells in the snow," parallel the first two, since "glisten" and "listen" both have a darkly sentimental character but "sleigh bells in the snow" is lighthearted and sensuous. (At this point in the film, Crosby strikes the Christmas tree ornaments with his pipe.) This invocation of bells recalls the performance convention that adds a wisp of "Jingle Bells" as a kind of coda to certain Christmas songs. Such practice is especially apt in "White Christmas," for not only do the two pieces share a particular shape, but the harmony at "To hear sleigh bells in the snow" is identical to that at "In a one-horse open sleigh (hey!)," suggesting that "Jingle Bells" was a model for Berlin's song.

After a literal repetition of the chorus on the words "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas/ With every Christmas card I write," the most revealing moment occurs. "May your days be merry" builds up static energy, then there is that wonderful climactic leap to the word "bright," boldly extended. In Crosby's recording, the sound quality fulfills expectations of increased intensity and brightness, but there is an immediate move to a minor chord on the second half of the held note. Why should the word "bright" suddenly turn dark?

Something about this whole song is discomfiting. After all, the false paradise of Beverly Hills has been exposed, and the world of the white Christmas, which should be an authentic Eden, is also filled with dissonance and disturbing shadows.

Yet this may be the most successful popular song of all time. How does one account for the popularity of such a dark song?

HAS it been so successful because people do not notice these subtleties or because people are listening to them carefully? A common explanation for the triumph of "White Christmas" is that the song's sentimentality plugged into the fears and longings of Americans during the dark days of World War II, when the enticing image of Christmas stood in stark contrast to the harsh reports of losses and harrowing letters from the front. But that war has been over for a long time, and the song goes on.

Although great songs defy simple explanations, one might propose some reasons that "White Christmas" has become a kind of national treasure. It is curious to discover that the same harmonic darkening that infects the word "bright" also discolors the phrase "children listen." The singer is dreaming of, among other things, children listening for sleigh bells.

Does the dreamer ever hear that silvery tinkling? Do even the children in the dream hear it? Those unheard sounds may be a clue to the song's popularity, for what is "White Christmas" but a kind of holiday "Moby Dick," a distant image of things that can never be reclaimed: the past, childhood and innocence itself.

Much is made of the need for food, shelter and sex as a biological imperative, but one might consider another human activity almost as profound: the search for purity. There is no culture without purification rituals, and the huge role played by interlocking institutions like church and marriage reflects an attempt to mediate between the reality of our animal selves and our striving to place ourselves beyond them. Since music is a profound reflection of human consciousness, it should not be surprising to find both states represented. Yet while there are tens of thousands of musical moments devoted to suggesting states of purity, and a hundredfold more that can be associated with less pure images, only a few songs illustrate the pain of longing for the lost golden spaces of the imagination.

But at this season, many of us become one with Crosby, sitting among baubles, wishing for that unattainable and oxymoronic cold warmth of the holidays. The commercialization of Christmas is not the cause of our unease; the buying mania is but a symptom. As part of our humanity we long for a "bright" childhood that can never come again, and make ourselves neurotic and depressed searching for a perfect past, which in all probability never existed.

Because it preserves the ambiguity of the human condition in a reasonably truthful way, "White Christmas" is not only the great American holiday song but also one of the most enduring insights into the human imagination ever to come out of American popular culture.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Sung by Bing Crosby in "Holiday Inn" in 1942, "White Christmas" returned draped in kitsch in the 1954 movie of the same name with, standing from left, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Crosby and Vera-Ellen. (Photofest)

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Southern charm

It's true: Southerners are friendly people, at least in casual encounters at shops and restaurants. Whites, African-Americans, men, women, young people, old people, everyone had a smile and a friendly greeting for Kenny.

There is of course a case to be made that the remnants of Jim Crow make the South a profoundly unfriendly place, but what I'm talking about is social lubrication of the kind of which my fellow Wisconsinites could learn to use a little more. Maybe it's the weather.

One of the few people I met who was not brimming with charm was my sister-in-law's occupational therapist. He was affable enough, but there definitely was a reserve about him. Turns out he didn't grow up in Alabama, although he repeatedly mentioned, seemingly by way of establishing authenticity, the fact that his parents are from Alabama.

But you'll never guess where he did grow up: Kenosha.
Awful House

That's what we used to call Waffle House in high school, or maybe it was Offal House. No one ever spelled it, to my knowledge. The magic of homophones.

But this was a friendly insult. We actually loved the place. Driving back from Birmingham this morning I stopped at one, and it was about as I remembered. Scratch about: exactly as I remembered. And I wouldn't have it any other way. The chain seems not to have changed many design elements since the Ford administration. Let's just say that brown is the watchword. And orange.

I had eggs, toast, grits, bacon, and hashbrowns. Grits and hashbrowns was a little excessive, but hey, I'm on vacation. I mostly had grits just to confirm the fact that I don't really like them.

As for the spuds, you may know that a Waffle House trademark is to serve hashbrowns in many different varieties, all of which are listed on the menu as past participles: scattered (the classic), smothered (with onions), covered (with cheese), chunked (with tomatoes)--and the newest variation, capped (with mushrooms). So I ordered mine scattered and smothered, and the waitress said, "Huh?" I repeated my order, and she laughed and said, in a thick Alabama accent, "I thought you said 'spotted'!" But no: so far, no spotted hashbrowns at Waffle House, although you never know what will happen. They can put a man on the moon, you know.

If you're curious, I like waffles OK, but I'm not excited enough about them to order them at what may be my only visit this year to their namesake restaurant chain. Unless I stop at a Waffle House tomorrow. Then I promise I'll have a waffle.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003


Old favorites I have eaten on this trip to the South:

  • barbecue (three days in a row!--FYI, the place I went Saturday, Golden Rule barbecue in Birmingham, has barbecue salad)
  • sweet iced tea (or, as my brother pointed out, what is sometimes known simply as sweet)
  • Krispy Kreme doughnuts
  • fried chicken
  • turnip greens
  • fried okra
  • cornbread
  • Krystal hamburgers
  • Chick-fil-a (for lunch today--I started to seek it out on Sunday, then remembered Chick-fil-a is closed on Sunday, for church, natch)

    There's one last golden ring I hope I can grab before I leave Friday: Waffle House.
  • Friday, November 28, 2003

    The latest from Nashville

    My dad says he has a colleague with a patient who requested a prescription for 100 Viagra. The doctor told the man to be careful with so much Viagra, and the man said it wasn't for him--it was for his tomatoes. He explained that if you give your tomatoes Viagra, "You don't need to stake 'em."

    This is a joke, right? Sometimes with my dad it's hard to tell.

    Wednesday, November 26, 2003

    Gentle on my mind

    In case you haven't seen it yet: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/mugshots/campbellmug1.html
    Greetings from Nashville

    Proof my dad accepts my lifestyle: in conversation last night he repeatedly described Waylon Jennings as 'fabulous.'

    Saturday, November 22, 2003

    You can never look back

    I spotted this bumper sticker yesterday on the back of a sport utility vehicle: "FREE TIBET."

    I started to think about the colonial narratives sparring in that dense image, and I got a little dizzy. Remind me again why we're in Iraq? I also thought of that great line in the Don Henley song "The Boys of Summer:": "Saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac."

    Friday, November 21, 2003

    Yes but

    There is much consternation and amusement these days about Michael Jackson's mug shot.

    But have you seen Wynonna's?

    Wednesday, November 19, 2003

    Human jukebox

    Requests made at recent #1 Dad shows that were beyond reproach, and I was embarrassed not to be able to fulfill them: Jerry Jeff Walker, Chris LeDoux

    Request made at multiple recent #1 Dad shows that elicited groans but that I deem fair enough (even though I still was not able to fulfill it): Garth Brooks (say what you like, but "Friends in Low Places" is a great country song)

    Request made at recent #1 Dad show that came from nowhere, and I would have been the hottest shit on the East Side if I could have fulfilled it on the spot; but I couldn't: Lonnie Donnegan

    Monday, November 17, 2003

    Friday, November 14, 2003

    The Paris Review always needed more money

    A proud (?) Gen-Xer, I vaguely remember the flap described in the New York Times article below. It's silly.

    Lexis-Nexis is addictive.

    We were a Mattel household, FWIW. Though later we had a Coleco Adam with Atari adapter.


    Copyright 1981 The New York Times Company
    The New York Times

    December 14, 1981, Monday, Late City Final Edition
    Correction Appended

    SECTION: Section D; Page 4, Column 1; Financial Desk

    LENGTH: 691 words


    It has all the makings of a great video game. Atari, ruler of the games universe, is attacked from another galaxy. Atari zaps back, stunning the challenger, who asks the Lords of the Airwaves to intervene.

    But the Lords of the Airwaves, sitting in council as the CBS, NBC and ABC television networks, are themselves unable to agree on the merits of the complaint. The combatants agree to an uneasy, informal truce and return to their own marketing galaxies.

    Thus did the battle for sales in the lucrative video game market spill over into the arena of public television. To the contestants, however, it was anything but a game.

    Atari, a division of Warner Communications Inc., owns the television video game rights to many familiar arcade games that focus on outer space and intergalactic battle. The interloper, Intellivision, a unit of Mattel Inc., is trying to break into a market where Atari has been the leader.

    Charge and Countercharge

    Atari has complained to NBC, ABC, and CBS that a recent Intellivision commercial comparing the Intellivision product with Atari's is misrepresentative and misleading. Intellivision has countercharged that an Atari commercial is similarly unfair.

    The upshot is that NBC and ABC are no longer screening the Atari or the Intellivision commercials in question while CBS continues to broadcast the Intellivision commercial that was challenged. Atari says its commercial is no longer scheduled to appear.

    ''We went to the networks because the Intellivision commercial is misleading,'' said Raymond Kassar, Atari's president. ''NBC and ABC reviewed all the facts and decided that Intellivision was indeed misleading the facts.''

    Spencer Boise, vice president of corporate affairs for Mattel Inc., saw the situation differently. ''We have a pool of commercials,'' he said. ''That particular one was scheduled to run through Dec. 6, which it did on ABC. It had its full cycle on ABC. It is still running on CBS.''

    $6 Million Ad Campaign

    The dispute started with Intellivision's more than $6 million pre-Christmas advertising campaign for Intellivision. The Intellivision commercials feature George Plimpton, the professional dilettante and sports enthusiast. They show a television screen with an Atari video sports game on it and then a similar shot of an Intellivision sports game. Mr. Plimpton's narration, comparing the two games, concludes that Intellivision is more like the real thing.

    Atari countered this commercial with something of a spoof of Mr. Plimpton: a bookish child wearing glasses who speaks in adolescent high-brow tones. He stands behind two television sets, one with an Atari space game in progress and the other with a blank screen.

    ''As an intelligent consumer,'' the child says, he wanted to compare Atari Asteroids, Missile Command and Warlords with other companies' offerings, but, unfortunately, other companies do not make them. He glances at the blank screen and then intones, nobody compares to Atari.

    Your move, Intellivision. Intellivision countered the Atari commercial with its own spoof, a commercial featuring a child actor who looks just like the Atari child. Intellivision's child stands behind two sets and says ''When it comes to space games, nobody compares to Atari.'' An Atari game is in progress next to a blank television screen.

    Atari's Complaint

    All of a sudden, up pops George Plimpton, who tells the child about Intellivision's Space Battle, Space Armada and the soon-tocome Astrosmash games. ''Gee, I didn't know that,'' the child gushes, as the two screens show Atari and Intellivision space games in progress.

    It was after this commercial appeared that Atari complained to the broadcast standards departments of all three networks. NBC said that after Atari's challenge, it discontinued the Mattel commercial with the look-alike child. NBC also said that Mattel protested that Atari's commercial with the child was unfair, so it is no longer carried on NBC.

    ABC has declined to comment, although it did confirm that Intellivision's commercial with the child is no longer appearing. The commercial continues to appear on CBS.

    Wednesday, November 12, 2003

    All hail the Google toolbar

    Motherfucker, it has changed my life, not so much because it lets you do Google searches from the toolbar--yawn--as because it blocks popups. Holy Christ. It works. I hates popups.

    Monday, November 10, 2003

    It's beginning to look a lot like alt-country

    This is the first autumn in recent memory in which I have not been scrambling to learn holiday songs for some too-fast-approaching rockin' musical extravaganza. And that is a relief. This year, I will not stumble my way through Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas From the Family"! This year, I will not pretend I know all the words to "Santa Baby"! This year, I will not have to apologize for doing a John Denver song ("Please Daddy Don't Get Drunk This Christmas")! (Okay, I probably will do the Denver at my acoustic shows, but still.)

    Actually, I'm a little disappointed that I still have never learned the Vandals' "Oi To The World," which No Doubt covers fabulously, but maybe next year. This year I'm on vacation.

    Friday, November 07, 2003

    Drivel du jour

    Here's my latest from today's Isthmus:

    Rock the system
    Billy Bragg takes on the powers that be on the Tell Us the Truth Tour

    Billy Bragg wishes he could be home to protest when President Bush pays a state visit to Great Britain the week after next. "The balls of the man to come here!" says Bragg on the phone from London. "Sadly, I'll be in America, but I'll be able to watch it from your side."

    The folk-punk singer, he of the celebrated pique, arrives as part of the Tell Us the Truth Tour, and he thinks the worst dissembling these days comes from the White House. "The Tell Us the Truth Tour is trying to make a point of explaining why it is that 70% of Americans think that Saddam Hussein was responsible for Sept. 11," says Bragg.

    The tour kicks off at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 7, at the Orpheum Theatre, and joining Bragg there are the Chambers Brothers' Lester Chambers and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, who performs as the Nightwatchman. The Madison concert is part of the National Conference on Media Reform, whose organizers aim to challenge an increasingly monolithic American media. Says Bragg, "We feel that the lack of a diversity of views in the media � consolidation, particularly in the radio industry in the last few years, since the FCC changed the rules of media ownership � has led to a monopolization of views." The tour is scheduled to hit 13 cities and ends Nov. 24 in Washington, D.C.

    Steve Earle joins the tour Nov. 16 in Atlanta, and Nov. 19 brings the musicians to Miami, where trade ministers are gathering to discuss the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Globalization also angers Bragg, and he thinks it's linked to media consolidation. "The free-market agenda is the consolidation agenda," he says. "What globalization means is the breaking down of rights."

    Although lately Bragg has played with bands like Wilco, he made his name singing with only his electric guitar as accompaniment. That's what he'll be doing at the Orpheum, and Morello and Chambers also will play solo. "There'll be songs, there'll be comments, there'll be a bit of tabling," says Bragg. "If you want to participate in politics, that'll be there. If you want to have a beer and sing along, that'll be there, too."

    Bragg is excited to tour with Chambers, who with the Chambers Brothers charted 1960s hits like "Time Has Come Today." Asked about Chambers, Bragg croons a few bars of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," which the Chambers Brothers famously recorded, and adds, "I picked up my politics and my worldview from the American civil rights movement, and the work the Chambers Brothers did in that area puts me in deep respect of Lester and what he's done."

    The Tell Us the Truth Tour organizers approached Bragg after he had already planned a U.S. tour. "Someone said we could link this [Madison conference] up with the FTAA meeting in Miami and make an activist tour," he says. "I'm always up for a bit of that. I'm Billy Bragg" (24).

    Another celebrity dream

    I think I blogged earlier about how excited I am when celebrities appear in my dreams. Last night's sighting was very special, indeed: I showed up at Woody Allen's apartment in Manhattan because we were supposed to catch a movie together. On our way to the movie, he ditched me. Bet this won't show up in his memoir.

    Thursday, November 06, 2003

    Regrets, I may have had a few

    How I loathe what we should go ahead and call the Trent Lott formula of contrition. A classic of the genre was uttered yesterday by Howard Dean, who, you'll recall, caught hell for cultivating the votes of people who put Confederate flags on their vehicles. He said in reponse, "I deeply regret the pain that I may have caused."

    All he had to do was omit the words "may" and "have," and he would have sounded sincere rather than, well, like a politician.

    An editorial in today's New York Times wonders whether he'll be able to survive imbroglios the way Bill Clinton did. The very comparison makes me shudder. I feel a case of preemptive Dean fatigue coming on.

    Wednesday, November 05, 2003

    Honkytonkin' 'round this town

    I can't remember who I've shared it with, so if you haven't heard it, check out this rough mix of the Junkers playing my song "Custom Van" at their final Luther's appearance last spring. It's a prevue of our upcoming live album.
    Two kinds of ice cream

    I just want you to know, I feel happy and content about my life right now and where it seems to be going.

    That's bad for the songwriter in me, and good for the me in me.

    Saturday, November 01, 2003

    Viva TLC

    I've listened to TLC's "Waterfalls" a dozen times in the last few days. I've liked it from when I first heard it on the radio, almost ten years ago, but the other day I put it on my mp3 player, and I find myself listening to it again and again.

    It's weird how a song can be so dark and yet so groovy and tuneful at the same time. In case you don't know it, it's about feeling helpless when compulsive, addictive behavior kills people you love. This has happened to way too many people I care about, and that's probably why I find the song so moving and upsetting.

    The hook, "Don't go chasing waterfalls / Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to," used to bother me. I found this too clumsy a metaphor for addiction or anything else, and I'm still not exactly sure what it means. But all these years later, I find an honesty in the hook that appeals to me. It makes me think of when people say, "Words fail me." Sometimes we are so overcome that our feelings don't make sense to us, and that just might make us, yes, use a clumsy metaphor to try to describe them.

    I just looked up the words to the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes' rap near the end of the song. Lopes describes addiction as succinctly as I've heard anyone describe it, especially the qualities of addiction that make some people call it a family disease: "Who's to blame for tootin' 'caine into your own vein / What a shame, you shoot and aim for someone else's brain."

    Friday, October 31, 2003

    R is for writer

    As promised, here's my stuff from today's Isthmus--this time, two short movie reviews and a music preview:

    Once Upon a Time in the Midlands
    A twitchy Nottingham gas-station manager (Rhys Ifans) and his girlfriend (Shirley Henderson), a soft-spoken drugstore clerk, try to build a stable life together with her 12-year-old daughter (Finn Atkins) � until the girl's father, a violent thug (Robert Carlyle, the violent thug in Trainspotting), shows up. This family comedy is sweet and funny, if sad, but the large ensemble cast features perhaps two more cloyingly eccentric peripheral characters than it needs (24).

    Scary Movie 3
    The third edition of the Wayans brothers' horror-spoof franchise is helmed by Airplane! auteur David Zucker, whose patented gag recipe � keep them coming � again proves sturdy. Alas, Zucker's satire goes easier on targets like Eminem and M. Night Shyamalan than it might, but the actors are funny and game, especially Charlie Sheen, still deadpanning with the best of them, and an underutilized Queen Latifah, whose performance is a pleasantly mellow surprise (Ibid.).

    Mom-and-pop operation
    Meet the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players

    When you are inventing a new art form, it does not pay to be modest. Case in point: Jason Trachtenburg, who says of his band, the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players (appearing November 1 at Luther's Blues), "There has been nothing like it in the history of pop entertainment." And about the group's methodology, which has to do with writing and performing music to accompany slides recovered from thrift stores, he adds this: "We genuinely feel like it could change the world if applied correctly."

    Trachtenburg, 34, says people often compare the Trachtenburg Family to the Partridge Family. He does not mind. "They had some good songs," he says. "They changed the world in their way." There are indeed similarities, the most obvious of which is the presence of a child in the Trachtenburgs' lineup, Rachel Trachtenburg, 9. And their new CD, Vintage Slide Collections from Seattle, Vol. I, has a bouncy, keyboardy sheen that is not altogether un-Partridge-like.

    But Jason Trachtenburg is quick to distance his band from the Partridges. For starters, he says with just a hint of contempt, "We're a real family": at shows, he sings and plays guitar and piano while his wife, Tina Trachtenburg, operates the slide projector and Rachel, their daughter, drums.

    Then there are Jason Trachtenburg's songs. On their surface they are about things like vacations ("Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959") and industrial training ("What Will the Corporation Do?"). But the lyrics keep veering into dark, unsettling places, so where a Partridge might sing, "I think I love you, so what am I so afraid of?" Trachtenburg croons (on "Fondue Friends in Switzerland"), "Geese are held in isolation, execution awaits."

    It would seem to be the Trachtenburgs' moment, what with recent mentions in Entertainment Weekly and the New Yorker and, earlier this year, an appearance on Conan O'Brien's TV show. For Jason Trachtenburg, it's about time. As a singer-songwriter he plied Seattle's music scene for most of the 1990s, and he put out a solo album produced by the Presidents of the United States of America's Chris Ballew. But, Trachtenburg says, "In early 2000, my wife said correctly that my entertainment career was going nowhere."

    It was time to try something new. "She said maybe we should take some slides to correspond with songs I'd already written, songs about every day kind of stuff, like car insurance," Trachtenburg says. They bought a projector and an old box of slides to try out the idea. "I just became fascinated by these people's slides. It was voyeuristic. So for the sake of a concept I said, 'Let's write a song about them.' I never thought it would set the entertainment world on fire."

    Last year the family moved to New York City and began fighting the music-business hegemony of what Trachtenburg p�re calls "dudes playing dude-rock." Now, with the recent purchase of two stadium-scale slide projectors, the Trachtenburgs have committed themselves to trying their act out on America.

    Even so, Jason Trachtenburg seems almost at a loss to explain his family's success: "This is a goofy concept" (20).

    Silverfish are neither silver nor fish. I also have difficulty telling which way they're facing.

    I kilt one this mornin', Ponyboy.
    Ah, genocide humor

    Last night's "Will & Grace" had a Cambodia joke that made this one-time Cambodia scholar smile so broadly he wondered why he never thought of it himself:

    "She doesn't know anything about Cambodia! She thinks the Khmer Rouge is makeup!"

    Friday, October 24, 2003

    After all

    I've started reading Stephen Ambrose's biography of Eisenhower, an endeavor not without peril--Ambrose was of course a well-known plagiarist.

    But I figure, if it wasn't good he wouldn't have plagiarized it. Right? Right.

    I don't know how it happened, but at some point I became a rock journalist. This is pinch-me kind of stuff.

    Wednesday, October 22, 2003

    Clappers for dummies

    I wish everything I own had a Clapper so when I lost something, and I lose everything, I could clap and it would make its whereabouts known immediately. Of course, my possessions--counting books, records, socks and other things I own several of--number in the thousands, maybe the tens of thousands, so each possession would have to have a unique clapping pattern. I would have to keep a list of clapping patterns. And I'm sure I would lose the list.

    Tuesday, October 21, 2003

    Someone explain this

    It has happened twice now, first with our DVD player, now with a bookshelf stereo system: a piece of electronic equipment begins performing erratically, so we leave it alone for a period of time--months, years--and then turn it back on, and it works perfectly. It has fixed itself. The lesson seems to be, never discard electronic equipment. Bob, can I get a witness.

    Or is this how the Matrix got started?

    Monday, October 20, 2003

    Just so's you know

    The Junkers' web presence has been evolving at its wonted glacial speed, and something resembling a final word from the Junkers is now at www.thejunkers.com. In a nod to changing times, you can now leave a comment on the Junkers web site. So feel free to leave any well wishes, threats, last requests, or what have you.

    Friday, October 17, 2003

    Home Coming

    I'm at Memorial Library, where I'm resting from postering the new #1 Dad gig, which is every Tuesday at 8:00 at the Public House, 680 W. Washington Ave. in Madison, WI. You should really come. If you've never seen us, #1 Dad is the acoustic duo comprising guitarist Ed Larson and me. #1 Dad plays country music--classic country, and our own--and we fucking rock.

    Having gotten that out of the way, I just want to tell you that it's homecoming weekend here in Madison, lair of the University of Wisconsin Badgers (do badgers dwell in lairs?), and homecoming parade made its way down State Street as I postered. Let me tell you, it is one nutty scene down there, and the only thing keeping it from being completely out of control is that it's early Friday evening, so not everyone has had time to put down a case of Blatz yet. Give them time.

    But what I wanted to tell you about is the two snippets of conversation I overheard. Not conversations, even. Lines. I heard these from people walking in the opposite direction.

    The first one involves Jamba Juice, a local smoothie emporium. The line: "Jamba Juice is, like..."

    I guess you have to live in Madison to understand why that's funny.

    The other line: "I smoked pot earlier today." I think this line would be funny for anyone to overhear on a city street, but it's even funnier in Madison.

    But then I overheard something that depressed me a little. The UW marching band had finished parading and had sort of gathered in the middle of Langdon Street. They were getting a pep talk about the Big Game with Purdue tomorrow, and the kids in the band were yelping and chanting the way kids in marching bands do.

    Just then, a group of fratty looking dudes walked by, and one of them screamed, mockingly, "YEEAAAH!!!!"

    And his friend added: "GO WIND SECTION!!!!"

    And I was transported back to years ago, when I was in a school band--an 8th grade concert band, which was sort of the feeder to the prizewinning high-school marching band of the fundamentalist Christian K-12 I attended through 8th grade. And I remembered how supremely self-conscious I felt about the fact that marching band members at this school were routinely mocked and ridiculed by the more popular kids, especially the football players. And I remembered how I desperately tried to act "cool" in band. Someday I'll show you the yearbook picture so you can see what I mean: I really didn't want to be in that photo that day, or in the band, period. All because athletic lunks conspired to make musicians feel bad for being musicians.

    (At my high school, a crunchy prep school, these maddening class distinctions didn't exist: there was neither football team nor marching band.)

    As I walked by these musicians being ridiculed, I looked down at the stack of posters in my hand for my concert, and I felt enormous empathy for those kids. And I wanted to tell them, keep blowing your horns, kids. There's nothing finer than bringing a little music into the world.

    Thursday, October 16, 2003

    Hack is not a four-letter word. Okay, it is

    I can't think of a good reason not to, so I'm going to start posting the stuff I write for Isthmus newspaper, which doesn't put most of its stuff on the web. Here's a theater review and some short movie reviews I wrote for the edition (October 17, 2003) hitting the streets today. You may notice here and again that I review your Z-grade flicks.


    Toned-down Twain
    Big River takes the edge off Huckleberry Finn [p.24]

    By Kenneth Burns

    It is the nastiest joke in a nasty novel, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck tells Tom Sawyer's Aunt Sally about a steamboat accident, and she asks, "Good gracious! anybody hurt?" Huck responds, "No'm. Killed a nigger." Sally replies, "Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt."

    So you could expect to brace yourself when the moment arrives in Madison Family Theatre Company's production of Big River, the 1985 Broadway musical based on Huckleberry Finn. After all, no one likes to hear the n-word. But here is how Madison Family Theatre Company renders the exchange (which William Hauptman's book for some reason shifts to Huckleberry Finn and Tom's Uncle Silas):

    Silas: Anybody hurt?
    Huck: No, sir.
    Silas: Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.

    Artistic director Nancy Thurow cuts the word nigger here and elsewhere, even though it appears in Hauptman's book. This might unsettle anyone who admires Huckleberry Finn and loathes the fact that it is, according to the American Library Association, the fifth most censored book of the last decade. Madison Family Theatre Company seems not to trust that audiences can correctly process a word that Twain, no slouch when it came to esthetics, employed deliberately.

    Perhaps this is being excessively touchy. Certainly the word nigger may be inappropriate for children, and this is a family production. Yet the show preserves, thankfully, much about the novel that is family-unfriendly: four-letter words; drunken, murderous rages; grisly torture. Let's face it: Huckleberry Finn is not a children's book. It is a fairly anguished, very adult meditation on America's race problem and happens to have an adolescent for a hero. Maybe it is folly to base a musical on such a book, but at least the 1985 production did not shy, as Madison Family Theatre Company does, from preserving Twain's contentious, carefully chosen language.

    The bowdlerizing is a pity, because this Big River has a lot to recommend it, especially its Jim, Gregory Brumfield, who sings like an angel. Country-music aficionados will enjoy the songs by the legendary Roger Miller, and although no single number attains "King of the Road"-level greatness, fans of the tunesmith will recognize his subversive wordplay and unapologetic sentimentality throughout. The finest song is Tom Sawyer's "Hand for the Hog," which makes an absurd case for replacing the dog with the pig as man's best friend. This is the kind of perfectly executed non sequitur out of which Miller built a career.

    Now playing

    Good Boy!: In this gentle special-effects comedy, all dogs are colonialists from outer space whom the imperium calls home for botching the domination, and it's up to one apple-cheeked lad (Liam Aiken) to keep the pooches here on Earth, where they're loved. A surplus of scatalogical jokes suggests a writing team out of ideas, but Matthew Broderick, Brittany Murphy and Vanessa Redgrave turn in amiable performances as the voices of the space dogs.

    The House of the Dead: Some young people seek out a rave on an island, only to discover that the party has been gate-crashed by murderous, surprisingly athletic ghouls. The twist on the ancient naked-teenagers-devoured-by-zombies formula is action sequences staged to resemble the video game the film is based on, but watching these proves about as thrilling as watching someone play video games.

    The Navigators: The British government turns the train system over to private companies, and a group of Yorkshire rail workers is left to confront free-market ideology and its discontents: pay cuts, layoffs, and corporate corruption. Set in 1995, Ken Loach's film is a sad slice of life, though what was at stake in the privatization of British Rail may not resonate much with American audiences, minus the odd Keynesian.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2003

    Friendsters of the family

    In case you missed it, you'll want to check out Tenaya Darlington's recent Isthmus article about Friendster, which features a luscious color photo of our Bob tonguing our Amy's ear.
    Bumper sticker I conceived the other day


    Tuesday, October 14, 2003


    As I realized out loud the other day, if you know me you know I'm alt-country, I'm alt-weekly, I'm alt-everything.

    And as Ereck immediately pointed out, I don't seem very alt-anything.
    A man of science

    According to the Internet Movie Database, these are the words with which "Late Night With David Letterman" began back in 1982:

    Larry "Bud" Melman: Good evening. Certain NBC executives feel it would be a little unkind to present this show without just a word of friendly warning. We're about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman, a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image -- without reckoning upon God. It's one of the strangest tales ever told. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you don't care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance to...well, we've warned you.

    Friday, October 10, 2003

    Another amphotee
    Er, um, hmm

    I just got done watching the final episode of Vietnam: A Television History, the 13-part documentary series PBS aired in 1983. I watched the whole series over the last couple of weeks. (Thank you, Madison Public Library.)

    I had this idea--which occured to me after I saw the recent Weather Underground documentary--that watching this series would help me understand the war a little better, and I guess I do. But I still have trouble keeping it all straight and mostly am left with the image to which the filmmakers return again and again: weeping Vietnamese people.
    Up In Smoke

    Why is Tommy Chong serving nine months in prison for selling bongs on the Internet? To be sure, head retail is a grey area in law enforcement, but it seems clear that Chong is being made an example of because of his celebrity, and that's hardly fair.

    And the prosecutor's comment to the effect that Chong's films trivialize law enforcement suggests at least a hint of vindictiveness, don't you think? If every actor who trivialized law enforcement were made an example of, then Arnold Schwarzenegger and Reginald VelJohnson would be behind bars.

    Wednesday, October 08, 2003

    The E-man hits his stride

    Happy 30th birthday, Ereck! I'll 'whip' the world for you!

    Ma belle

    Okay, all I really know about Michelle Branch is that song she did with Carlos Santana last year, "The Game of Love." I haven't bothered to check out her own stuff, and may never. But I simply adore "The Game of Love," even though it violates some of the tenets of songwriting I hold most firmly: its hook is a clich�, for example, and its lyrics mix metaphors wildly in shifting back and forth between tropes of baseball and candy stores. The song also has the world's simplest chord progression (that would be 2-1-2-1-2-1 for all you Nashville chart playas).

    So why my love for this song? One part, probably the main part, is Branch's soaring voice, and another part is Santana's signature guitar riffing throughout, and another part is the production of Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals, whose hit single "You Get What You Give" sounds a lot like "The Game of Love." "You Get What You Give" is very good but sounds a bit antiseptic, a bit like a genre exercise, and it doesn't click for me the way "Game of Love" does.

    And "The Game of Love" also successfully recreates the grooviness and high spirits of the Rob Thomas-Santana collaboration a couple years back, "Smooth"--which to me is, in many ways, a perfect pop song. I may like "The Game of Love" even better--it's sunny where "Smooth" is sneering, and sunny works better for me these days.

    Again, I know little about Michelle Branch besides this song, and I find Rob Thomas' work with Matchbox 20 ho-hum at best. And while Santana, judging from his career, very likely is a genius, I haven't bothered to delve much into the two star-studded Santana albums that yielded these singles, Shaman (2002) and Supernatural (1999). If it's any indication, though, I don't care much for the other single off Supernatural, "Maria Maria."

    So all Santana, Rob Thomas and Michelle Branch did was come up with two effervescent, commercially successful, hugely appealing pop singles in three years. Which is exactly two more than I came up with in that period.

    I have a hunch that if you seek out "The Game of Love" on the basis of this recommendation, you may subsequently conclude I'm crazy. The song is, on some basic level, deeply banal. But it puts a big ole grin on my face.

    Saturday, October 04, 2003


    Sniglets were a mildly amusing "Saturday Night Live" feature about 20 years ago. This guy, Rich Hall, the sniglet guy, would utter a made-up word and then supply its definition, usually some situation or object that is easily recognizable but has no name. The frisson of sniglets was not so much in the words themselves--though their coining usually involved greater or lesser ingenuity--but rather in the thrill of recognition.

    I have made up two sniglets. One of them I came up with years ago:

    automolull, n. The brief conversational pause that occurs when the driver has gotten into the car but has not yet unlocked the passenger door

    The second one struck me altogether recently and is very much a product of the Internet age.

    amphotee, n. A photographic portrait posed in such a way, usually accidentally, that its subject appears to be missing a limb

    The coining of amphotee is a byproduct of my fondness for gay.com and its chat rooms. Chatters usually include pictures in their profiles, and often the pictures are profoundly unflattering, and once in a blue moon an amphotee turns up. Here's one I just encountered.

    Friday, October 03, 2003

    One more

    Those cup holders I say pish to
    Long as I got my four-armed Vishnu
    Starin' from the dash of my Corvair
    The holders would have extra cost me
    And he holds three Cokes and a Frosty
    Plus I can write notes on his derri�re

    Thursday, October 02, 2003

    Reach out and touch faith

    If you ever saw Cool Hand Luke, you know that one of the best parts of that terrific movie is when Paul Newman sings "Plastic Jesus," which goes:

    I don't care if it rains or freezes
    Long as I got my plastic Jesus
    Riding on the dashboard of my car
    Through my trials and tribulations
    And my travels through the nations
    With my plastic Jesus I'll go far

    Well, several years ago, at an extremely idle moment, I wrote some more verses. I thought I'd share them with you. Feel free to contribute your own.

    It don't matter how fast I goes-es
    Long as I got electric Moses
    Smilin' at me from the ol' rear view
    'Cause if the cop don't treat me nice
    Ol' Moe will plague him with frogs and lice
    And part the traffic so we can get through

    I don't care if the rain starts fallin'
    Long as I got my tiny Stalin
    On the dash of my convertible
    We'll purge the kulaks, seize the land
    Start a brand new five year plan
    And get wet, but at least our day is full

    The fuzz is helpless when I littler
    Long as I got my iron Hitler
    Scowlin' from the dashboard of my van
    I throw my trash onto the blacktop
    And if we're bugged by some jerk cop
    We'll just go annex Sudetanland

    I don't care if people ogle
    As I am performin' yoga-l
    Cruisin' down the highway toward my goal
    I grab the wheel with my two feet
    And stick my head beneath the seat
    And contemplate the Zen of cruise control

    Don't mind my leaky radiator
    Long as I know there's no creator
    And the universe is authorless and vast
    I drive around the belfry steeple
    Screamin' at the Jesus people:
    "Would a just God make us pay so much for gas?!"

    I don't need my road rage pistol
    Long as I got the New Age crystal
    That I got from my good friend the witch
    Cut me off, I'll take swift action
    And using the principle of refraction
    Blind you, so you swerve into a ditch
    Someone fax the Hague

    Excuse me, but isn't Toby Keith's naming his new CD after a vicious and illegal campaign of aerial bombardment a bit like if Shania Twain named an album after the firebombing of Dresden? And come to think of it, didn't she?

    Wednesday, October 01, 2003

    Gorby's in the Badger State

    Maybe he will bring Wisconsin some much-needed perestroika. He ought to visit the McCarthy exhibit while he's in the Fox Valley.

    Monday, September 29, 2003

    Tomorrow is too late

    If you're curious, here's the ad Elia Kazan (1909-2003) ran in the New York Times in 1952 explaining his decision to squeal to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

    Friday, September 26, 2003

    Looking for clues

    My first exposure to Robert Palmer (1949-2003) came, fittingly, on early MTV: his clip "Looking For Clues" (1980) was a staple of the fledgling network. The song is a funky romp about something or other and features some fine falsetto singing by Palmer. The video uses camera trickery to show Palmer leaping about on building blocks and toy pianos. Entertaining stuff, this clip, though hardly indicative of the panache he would bring to the video form only a few years later with "Addicted to Love" (1985), a clip I recall finding delicious at the time.

    If you can find the album "Looking for Clues" is on, Clues, I recommend it. Palmer does some freaky dystopic disco-synth shit with Gary "Cars" Numan.

    R.I.P. Robert Palmer. Edward Said, too, though I confess I never finished Orientalism. Bad grad student! Bad grad student!

    Monday, September 22, 2003

    My own private Patriot Act

    Can anyone recommend a way to record phone conversations? I know there are various devices and whatnot--wondering which is the best.
    Man in White

    I have dreamed about Johnny Cash three or four times since he died. The most striking time came a few days ago, when I was deeply involved in trying to memorize words to songs my new band, El Segundo, is playing. In my dream, I asked Johnny how he remembered the words to all those songs, and he replied, "I imagine that Jesus is singin' along with me."

    Thursday, September 18, 2003

    Ken Goodbody

    Yesterday I bought a domestic-partner membership to the Shell, a University of Wisconsin gym that sits next to the football stadium. Shell access comes pretty cheaply for DPs, and it's nice of the university to throw me this bone, though it would be even nicer if the university also extended health benefits to employees' domestic partners, as eight of the 11 Big Ten schools do. But I digress.

    The Shell is where I usually worked out when I was a UW grad student. That's mostly because there's a good indoor track, and I'm a runner. (The SERF is substantially cheaper for DPs than the Shell and has more sex appeal, but the SERF's indoor track is a disaster.)

    I worked out last night, and it was weird being back in a gym--I used to be a 4x weekly gym queen, but at least two and a half years have passed since I last set athletic-shod foot in one. (I bought new New Balances yesterday, too.) As I ran around and around the track I passed young women puffing on StairMasters, young men preening at the free weights, and professorial types doing ab work on the mats.

    Waves of nostalgia washed over me. I realized that virtually all my gym workouts have been at universities, and I flashed back to my earliest visits to the University of Chicago's Henry Crown Field House. What stirred the most vivid memory last night (did Proust ever Nautilus?) was a woman using a StairMaster and reading a book--possibly Bridget Jones's Diary, though I couldn't quite tell. I was reminded of an image that lingers from my workout days at the U of C--a line of people using StairMasters, all of them reading sweat-stained copies of The Economist. Ah, fitness.

    Tuesday, September 16, 2003

    No Arsenio

    Last night on Comedy Central's Daily Show, Senator John Edwards formally announced that he's running for president. Which didn't change anything: anyone who didn't know he's running obviously hadn't watched any of the Democratic hopefuls' debates--which, come to think of it, no one has watched.

    But it struck me as significant, a major announcement from a major (okay, minor) candidate on the The Daily Show. Has the show arrived? Or did it already? I confess it's something I rarely catch, living as I do in a cable-free household. But last night I trekked to the new band's practice space--which, oddly, has cable--to watch the show.

    Edwards' appearance felt strange amid the wasteland of advertising surrounding this late-night comedy staple: spots for "Girls Gone Wild" tapes and the nasty-looking video game Midnight Club II. Hell, Edwards' appearance felt strange juxtaposed with the appearance of the evening's other celebrity, Cuba Gooding, Jr. But that's showbiz. Or more precisely, that's politics which, as someone said, is showbiz for ugly people.

    Mostly I appreciated how host Jon Stewart reacted to Edwards' appearance. Stewart was gracious, humble and grateful, and if he mocked Edwards, he mocked gently. And self-effacingly: the most amusing thing about Edwards' appearance was the comedy routine that followed, a long harangue by correspondent Steven Colbert to the effect that Edwards' appearance spelled death for the candidate, given The Daily Show'sinsignificance. As Colbert said to Stewart, and I paraphrase, "Jon, you're no Arsenio."

    What do y'all think of The Daily Show?

    Monday, September 15, 2003

    The Look

    Last March my friend Robin used a digital camera to capture a rare moment: Ken Burns looking smug.

    Friday, September 12, 2003

    Regal beagle

    My favorite exchange from "Three's Company" involves Mr. and Mrs. Roper.

    She is leafing through the Sears catalog. We can't see what she is looking at, but she apparently happens on some sexy linger�e and, gesturing at the pages, purrs seductively, "Stanley, what would you think if I came to bed in that?"

    Mr. Roper glances at the famously variegated catalog and says, "What, a golf cart?"
    Worlds collide


    Check out the slideshow of Cash pictures on the Nashville Tennessean web site. They are great.

    The passing of John Ritter has prompted me to play my old Tex Ritter records. They are sad and wonderful.
    Paupers, punks and millionaires and me

    The death of Johnny Cash makes me sad, but it's gratifying that he leaves behind such an awesome, fully realized body of work. Many great artists don't get that chance.

    I saw Johnny perform twice, both times in Chicago: once with the Highwaymen at Rosemont Horizon, and once in a club show at the Cubby Bear. The latter was spectacular: it was October 30, and when the clock struck midnight he observed Halloween with a terrific version of "Ghost Riders in the Sky."

    I went to grammar school and junior high with Johnny's son, John Carter, and the Man in Black had a big presence at the school. In sixth grade it was, for some reason, my duty and privilege to ring the 8:00 bell in the principal's office, and I remember the morning Johnny walked in at about 7:58 for a word. There he was, inches from me and Mrs. Caruthers, the secretary. She and I both were awed. He was dressed in black.

    Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs, "Backstage Pass" from his extremely overlooked 1989 CD Boom Chicka Boom. And here is a letter I wrote to the Chicago Reader about the Man in Black in 1992.

    Thursday, September 11, 2003

    The Omen

    Choosing a mechanic is like choosing a doctor: you don't want to pick one at random. But I have been putting off getting some scheduled maintenance done on my truck, Red Boy, and finally decided just to go to Seversin's Citgo on Milwaukee at Fair Oaks, which recommends itself chiefly by the fact that it's close. Okay, not great reasoning.

    Imagine my delight, though, when I discovered the reception area is done all up in Corvair memorabilia, and their business card even has a wee Corvair on it. Turns out Mike Seversin is a Corvair nut. I have very, very good feelings about Seversin's now: my first car was a Corvair, and I know all too well that if they can fix Corvairs, they can fix anything.

    Wednesday, September 10, 2003

    Cute rads

    Saw The Weather Underground tonight. I have to say, some of those revolutionaries were kinda hot.
    Your humble scribe

    If you're interested, I just added links to the right there for several articles I wrote for Isthmus newspaper. Most of the articles are about musicians.

    I've written lots more for the paper, but for some reason only the music articles seem to end up on the web. Maybe some Isthmus insider (e.g. J.J.) can explain why that is. People ask me that a lot.

    Tuesday, September 09, 2003

    More from the health beat

    I was wrong, fooled by a carefully worded Associated Press story which reported that Warren Zevon had died from lung cancer, and noted also that he was a lifelong smoker, but did not actually propose a causal relationship between these facts. That's pretty sneaky and, editorially speaking, questionable, if you ask me. But I am again reminded of a Woody Allen line from Annie Hall to the effect that he's a bigot for the left, so it's okay--i.e., it's okay for the AP to stretch the truth if it's for a good cause. Or something. Hmm.

    So as Charles noted in his comment on my last, Zevon died of mesothelioma, a lung cancer associated with asbestos, not tobacco. (My stepmother's grandfather also died of lung cancer stemming from asbestosis.)

    For what it's worth, I became a regular smoker in eighth grade. I remember the pack of Marlboro reds I bought then, probably from a cigarette machine in a restaurant. I waited till one afternoon when no one else was home, and then I went outside and smoked a cowboy killer. It made me nauseous. But I was a diligent addict even then, and I knew that with perseverance I could overcome the nausea and attain that glittering title: Smoker. And so I did.

    Freshman year in high school was when my habit really kicked in. I started attending a prep school in downtown Nashville and took the city bus there, so for the first time I had whole afternoons of unsupervised time in parts of the city distant from my family. So I smoked a lot waiting for the bus. I had a friend at the time I admired a lot who smoked filterless brands--Luckies, Camels, Chesterfields, Pall Malls--so I picked up this habit, too. I was a pack-a-day Lucky smoker throughout high school. When I started driving I had a classic car, a 1964 Corvair, and I imagined that the filterless smokes and the old Chevy combined to give me an undeniable retro sex appeal. In high school I also enjoyed trying various esoteric brands, imported brands, and whatnot: Gitanes, Gauloises, Rothmans, Nat Shermans, English Ovals. One pleasure back then was to scan the cigarette racks of the tiniest, most out of the way drugstores and grocery stores I could find--often deep in rural Tennessee--to see what obscure American brands of filterless smokes I could turn up. This is how I got introduced to the Raleigh and Philip Morris brands.

    By the time I started college in Chicago I had switched brands permanently: Winston Lights, with occasional forays into the world of Marlboro Lights. The filterless squares had gotten to be too much, and I couldn't really even handle regular cowboy killers anymore. (What's the marketing term for those? Full flavor? Doesn't matter.) I still smoked a pack a day for the first couple of years of college and then stopped for about three years. I had a steady girlfriend at the time, and I think I stopped for her. (N.B.: Confirmed addicts like occasionally to curtail their habit "for" someone else--this brings a keen sense of martyrdom that is itself addictive.)

    At about age 24 I started back, though never again at a pack a day. By now my brand of choice was what is sometimes called OPs: other people's. I mooched for about seven years. At first, I was spending a lot of time with a very accomodating friend who bought rolling tobacco in giant tins, and he was always happy to share. But when I moved to Madison to start graduate school, my mooching habits endured. I continued bumming despite the fact that my new friends bought regular cigarettes, which were more and more costly, and my smoking chums conveyed to me--with words, with body language--that they resented the mooching. In this period I smoked probably five to ten cigarettes a week, sometimes as many as five a day.

    I tried quitting several times in this interval, but the problem was always the same: it was very difficult not to smoke when I was drinking, and I drank a lot. Even so, when I quit drinking in August 2001, my smoking increased a bit, and I even bought a pack or two before I reverted to OPs. But the cost of smokes continued to spiral upward, and as I worked on trying to become a better person I realized that my mooching was grotesquely unfair, especially inasmuch as the burden of it fell mostly on the one or two confirmed smokers I saw most regularly. When New York City banned most public smoking last year, I read an article the Times ran about New Yorkers who smoke OPs, and I remember thinking: These people are pathetic. And then I thought: So am I. So in August 2002, a year after I hopped on the wagon, I quit smoking. I read somewhere that one useful method is to pick a day, and so I did. That day I just quit, though admittedly I'd had something like a seven-year tapering off.

    And so I'm an ex-smoker again, this time for a little more than a year. I do inhale a lot of secondhand smoke, though: I play a weekly gig at a bar that at times is so smoky it looks as though the London fog has crept in. And I suspect this is taking a toll. I often feel just awful afterward, and sometimes the effects of the secondhand smoke linger well into the next day. I suspect this can't be good for my health in the long run. Something may have to give.

    Monday, September 08, 2003

    And from the health desk

    First a little news, and then a homily.

    Warren Zevon, Singer-Songwriter, Dies at 56

    LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Warren Zevon, who wrote and sang the rock hit "Werewolves of London" and was among the wittiest and most original of a broad circle of singer-songwriters to emerge from Los Angeles in the 1970s, died Sunday. He was 56.

    A lifelong smoker until quitting several years ago, Zevon announced in September 2002 that he had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and had only months to live. He spent much of that time visiting with his two grown children and working on a final album.

    Zevon died Sunday of lung cancer at his home, his manager Irving Azoff told the Los Angeles Times.

    Hey you smokers: stop. I did. You'll feel better. You'll all but eliminate the chances of dying of your habit at 56, the fate that befell the brilliant Zevon. (This is a really terrible and senseless loss.) You'll stop putting money in the pockets of corrupt, lying tobacco companies. And last but most definitely not least, you won't age as quickly. Young people who smoke look great; 20 or 30 years later, they look like Katherine Helmond in Brazil.

    Here endeth the lesson.

    Sunday, September 07, 2003

    Not that I'm sports-obsessed

    Because I'm not, really I'm not. But as a former Chicagoan, I was curious enough about this year's Bears to flip on today's season opener against the Niners. There was much (okay, a small amount) of preseason hype surrounding the Bears' new quarterback, Kordell Stewart, late of the Steelers (and reputedly gay--but then, what NFL quarterback isn't?).

    I watched the broadcast for about four seconds. This was enough time to see that the Bears were losing by 26 points in the second quarter, and it was enough time to watch Stewart throw an interception, whereupon one of the announcers yelled, "He did it again!"

    Looks like it's going to be a long fall for the Monsters of the Midway. But there's always next year.

    On the other hand, my Vols and my Badgers have won all their games so far.

    Thursday, August 28, 2003

    Circular reasoning

    I love this: "Blair Says Should Have Quit If Iraq Charges True."

    British Prime Minister Tony Blair is saying that the charges his government sexed up the Iraq WMD dossier are so serious that if they were true, he would have had to resign. He hasn't resigned, ergo, the charges aren't true. Q.E.D.

    The mind reels.

    Saturday, August 23, 2003

    So big

    Quick check: is anyone else still getting dozens of emails stemming from the Sobig.F virus outbreak? This is making me crazy. I don't even use screensavers, let alone wicked ones.
    (nearly) Free Radical

    I find the Kathy Boudin case just fascinating, sad and fascinating.

    Friday, August 22, 2003

    You don't say

    At the Co-op today I saw a flyer for the August meeting of the Madison Area Polyamory Society.

    It is, the flyer said without a trace of irony, an open meeting.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2003


    More than once this summer I've found myself saying, "When we move to Canada..." It's a joke, and it stems in large part from the legalization of gay marriage up there, and in small part from what I learned about Canada from Bowling For Columbine.

    Except it sort of doesn't feel like a joke. I'm not saying it's going to happen anytime soon, but it's starting to seem like an option. I'm sure the Canadians wouldn't appreciate a massive exodus, but wouldn't everyone be happier if us gays and fans of universal health care just moved to Canada and left the U.S. for the evangelicals and the gun nuts?

    Monday, August 18, 2003

    The nonjudgemental advice columnist

    I always wanted to be an advice columnist, but they usually seem so preachy and snide. So I will be the upbeat Nonjudgemental Advice Columnist.

    Here's my response to a question a reader posed recently to advice columnist Carolyn Hax. What do you think?

    I've got a 9-year-old daughter and am getting married to a woman who has no kids, is ambivalent about wanting any and has had virtually no experience with them. Still, she gets along beautifully with my daughter and (I think) will find being a stepparent rewarding. She has problems, though, with my ex-wife (finds her controlling, which she is to an extent) and wants me dealing with her as little as possible. My ex and I have been reasonably cooperative regarding decisions about our kid. Is this ex-wife aversion something I should be worried about, or is this to be expected early on?

    Single Dad

    I'm sure whatever you do, you will work it out. Go for it! Congratulations on your impending nuptials!

    Nonjudgemental Advice Columnist

    Sunday, August 17, 2003

    When the rain comes

    At the Isthmus block party last night the Junkers played their last show, a fun set cut short by one of the most dramatic rainstorms I've ever seen--right after we played "Whiskey River" ("I am drowning..."), natch.

    There were some concerned faces among us musicians: our equipment got wet, some of it quite wet. The stuff would have gotten wetter had it not been for the quick thinking of our friends (thanks, friends!), who stormed the stage and brought everything to safety. Ed said his gigantic bass cabinet might need to dry for a month, but as he said, he's not a bass player anymore. Substitute drummer Brian Howard also looked a little worried about his kick drum. I don't know much about drums, but it doesn't take Jim Keltner to see that torrential rain could be bad for those sculpted wooden beauties.

    After a moment or two to regroup, both Ed and Brian seemed much calmer. And they seemed to think everything would be fine.

    Which is to say, I suspect all the toys in Junkersland will be okay. I can't say quite the same for the equipment belonging to Sticha Bros., the company that did the sound: those mics and monitors ("wedges," as we say in the bidness) got rained on for a long time.

    It was a wonderful, exciting time! It's a tremendous honor to be voted Madison's favorite country band again!

    And I enjoyed singing "Psycho Killer" with the Hometown Sweethearts.

    Tuesday, August 12, 2003

    No Show

    I want to blog more about it, but meanwhile here is the set list from the George Jones concert Ereck and I caught up in Wausau Thursday before last, at the Wisconsin Valley Fair.

    He kicked ass! I'm so happy I finally saw the Possum.

    1. High-tech Redneck
    2. Once You've Had the Best
    3. The Race Is On
    4. Bartender's Blues
    5. Black Mountain Rag
    6. I Always Get Lucky With You
    7. Choices
    8. You Oughta be Here with Me
    9. Sinners & Saints
    10. I'll Give You Something to Drink About
    11. Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes
    12. Fire on the Mountain
    13. Same Old Me
    14. Mansion Over the Hilltop
    15. I Know a Man Who Can
    16. One Woman Man
    17. 50,000 Names
    18. The Corvette Song
    19. Medley: Window Up Above / The Grand Tour / Walk Through This World With Me / White Lightning / She Thinks I Still Care
    20. Happy Birthday to You
    21. Happy Birthday to You
    22. He Stopped Loving Her Today
    23. Golden Ring
    24. Rocking Chair
    25. God Bless the USA
    Spooky Tooth

    Just came from the dentist. Hadn't been in 18 months. Got a scolding about that. When I was filling out the intake sheet, it occurred to me to lie about this in order to avert the scolding. But I'm on this thing where I don't tell lies, even white lies, so I told the truth. And got a lecture. And needed it.

    The hygienist kept using this strange lingo when she was interviewing me about my teeth. "Do you get zingers?" she asked. Zinger, it turns out, means sharp pain. "Do you chew old maids?" she asked. Old maids are, I gather, unpopped popcorn kernels. I told her the word she was looking for was bachelors. No I didn't!

    Strange experience. I felt like I was in a speakeasy, but with soft rock. That new Jewel song is great!

    The good news: No Cavities! The dentist did note that #19 is a future crown, which sounded like it could be a country song.

    (The answer to the old-maid question is no: I don't like popcorn.)

    Monday, August 11, 2003

    Helter Skelter

    The guys who carry shotguns in their pants on the bus, they never look like Truman Capote.

    Saturday, August 09, 2003


    That blog a few days ago, when I told you I what I was looking at in Netscape four years ago? I was too embarrassed to tell you that I also was looking at the web Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. And not for the shirts.

    Wednesday, August 06, 2003


    It's the kind of weather that would make Nelly exhort us to take off all our clothes.

    Just you wait, Mr. Nelly. Maybe I will.

    I may be unusual in this: for as long as I've had computers, whenever I get a new one--which usually has a much larger hard drive than the old one--I copy all the files from the old system to the new one. What this means is that I never really know what, exactly, is on my hard drive. There's stuff on there from way back.

    I was looking around on my computer this evening and came across an old Netscape directory, so I checked out the cache folder and discovered a snapshot of what I was looking at on the web in November 1999. Apparently I had abiding (okay, fleeting) interests in: BIOS upgrades; the 1980s Swedish band Magnus Uggla; salon.com; the University of Wisconsin's political science department; the 1950s sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still; the Simpsons; Biblical exegesis; and the French rapper MC Solaar.

    And, oh yes--what made me cringe tonight: the naked male body. The reason I cringed is that in November 1999, I was still in the closet. Other than a few furtive encounters, I'd never told anybody about the appeal the naked male body held for me. So that fall I was, to judge from this archive, sitting in my rented room, looking at naked men with Netscape, and hoping my flatmates wouldn't walk in--probably taking pains to be sure they didn't.

    Looking back, it's hard to remember what it was like keeping this secret. How strange that there was this part of me I never, ever talked about. How strange that I was dating women at the time--including one, just a few months later, who I thought could be The One. (You'll be shocked to learn I never told her about the naked Netscape boys.)

    There's a lot more honesty in my life now. What a relief.

    P.S. The cache also contained this picture.

    Sunday, August 03, 2003

    Appearance versus reality

    Ever since the New York Times started running same-sex committment announcements, I've glanced over the listings every week to see who is family. I realize now that the Times wedding pages have been about sexual ambiguity longer than I knew.

    I mostly read the Times online, which lists the announcements as pairs of names, like this one that ran today: "Marvin Schofer, James Rosenthal." Clear enough: Messrs. Schofer and Rosenthal were married in Toronto last week.

    But the names sometimes remind me of a kind of androgyny that, I'm guessing, has long manifested itself in Times wedding pages. The basis of that androgyny: wealth.

    What I'm saying is, I sometimes have to click these links in order to determine whether the couple is, in fact, same sex. In a few cases, that's because the names are foreign to me--Asian or African names, for example.

    In other cases, though, the names are--well, foreign to me, because they originate in Waspy American wealth, and wealthy, Waspy Americans have the habit of giving their children what are called, I believe, family names. Family naming, as it were, often seems to involve giving a newborn a forename that is a significant family surname. For that reason, family names are cheerfully unisex, and it seems that the type of families that give their children family names are disproportionately represented in the New York Times wedding announcements.

    All of which is to say, I had to click to figure out whether this headline in today's paper represented a same-sex couple: "Brooks Orrick, Burney Dawkins."

    Turns out they're straight.

    As far as we know.

    Brooks is the woman.