Friday, December 30, 2005


The latest edition of coreweekly, the "faux alt" put out by the company that publishes Madison's daily papers, uses an entertainment listing to take a bold editorial stance against Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous:
Sunday January 01
LifeRing Secular Recovery Group
Wil-Mar Center
9 P.M.
The most important rule of New Year's resolutions is to start them right away -- every day that goes by reduces the chance you will take the first step. No resolution is more pressing than aiding your health and well-being. If you have decided to end a drug dependency, this is a fine venue, a meeting that convenes right away. Unlike Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, LifeRing doesn't affiliate itself with Christianity, focusing on actual salvation instead of a spiritual one. But, regardless of whose help you seek, realize that there is no reason to go it alone.
For the record, AA and NA do not affiliate themselves with Christianity, though they have been known, under certain circumstances, to help people not puke themselves or commit vehicular homicide. But what is responsible journalism for, if not to make false claims that could scare desperate people away from helpful organizations? Now that's "alt"!

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Hey Back With Interest readers: If you're a Madison blogger, or if there are Madison blogs you're keen on (or even not so keen on), tell me what they are. Someone has to keep track of these things.
What the

Hey, when did the Madison edition of The Onion stop running classified ads? Curious.
Sweet stuff

They're one of the unlikelier staples of the Yuletide season: Harry and David, the Medford, Ore.-based purveyors of mail-order fruit. We received boxes of Harry and David pears from two different sources this Christmas, and these are some discomfitingly wonderful pears. I just had one so juicy that I ate it over the kitchen sink.

But I confess that until lately, I found the concept odd. Mail-order fruit?

This year was different, though, because I was inundated as never before by holiday snacks, most of them unhealthy. Between work and home, this holidays I ate cookies, brownies, fudge, walnut clusters, fancy boxed candy and chocolate-covered pretzels, among other things, and that's not even counting what I ate at the parties.

And so it was amid this deluge of chocolate that the Harry and David gift boxes made all kinds of sense: sweet Jesus, fresh fruit! I think those pears are the only produce I ate between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Search for meaning

According to Back With Interest's statistics page on, someone found their way here by searching for the phrase "I farted in synagogue."

Bless you!
Mistaken identity

Based purely on the URL, at first I thought this Web site was about something else. Doesn't it seem like it should be? Something local?
I may or may not be ready for some football

I bid farewell to "Monday Night Football," which this week concluded its run on broadcast network television. Never a huge sports fan, I was briefly preoccupied with professional football in the mid-1990s, and I particularly liked "Monday Night Football," with its slick production and celebrity cameos. I admired the smooth delivery of play-by-play man Al Michaels, but more than that I enjoyed the theme song by Hank Williams, Jr., an inelegant rewrite of his 1984 hit "All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight." Week after week Williams sang the tune, always with a special lyric that summed up the night's match without saying very much ("The 'Boys and the Bears are lookin' mighty tough!").

As the years passed, the segments grew more and more bizarre -- I recall one season's particularly ill-advised theme that saw Williams paired with tap dancers a la Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. Wha?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Spiritual food

In what comes as sad news to fans of divinely inspired pastry, the Nun Bun has been stolen from Bongo Java, the Nashville, Tenn. coffee shop where the cinnamon roll in question first surfaced ten years ago. The Nun Bun of Nashville, my hometown, is so called because it strongly resembles Mother Teresa.

If you encounter any nun buns at your local pawnshop, call the cops.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Overheard at the UW-Madison bookstore

"Do you want it to say Bucky, or do you want Bucky?"

Doesn't Bucky always say Bucky?
Good word

"I'd never steal from Santa, 'cause that ain't right."

-- Run-D.M.C., "Christmas in Hollis"

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Honkytonk angels

Like my article "The South in his Mouth," which ran a few weeks ago, my cover story in this week's Isthmus is autobiographical. "I Saw the Light" is about how I came to be attending Episcopal church services, even though I grew up Presbyterian. Yes, it was a bold journey from the Scots Reformation to the English Reformation:
Actually, these days I am in church most Sunday mornings, although I am more likely to sing "A Mighty Fortress" there than "I Saw the Light." But it was not always so. I came to be a churchgoer again only after a long period away. And truth be told, churchgoing sometimes feels like just one more incongruous element of an identity I am still trying to piece together: gay, Madisonian, Southern, Pol Pot-studying, Hank Williams-singing alternative journalist -- and Protestant.
The piece is up on, which presents selected articles from various alternative newspapers.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Good word

"When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal."

-- Richard Milhous Nixon

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Tivo time

All I wanted for Christmas was a Tivo, and lo! Santa has blessed us with one. Pop some corn; we're going to watch television.

Tivo has been hailed as a breakthrough for consumers, a computing device so simple anyone can set it up. I'd buy that, with one important caveat: Tivo is easy to set up if you have a landline telephone. But as I noted at about this time last year, our home is landline-free. So now what?

For cases like ours, Tivo's technical-support Web site recommends depending on the kindness of strangers -- or anyone with a television and a telephone line they won't be using for eight hours. Fat chance, right? But a little Web sleuthing turned up a few more possibilities.

And so now I have Tivo up and running, courtesy of this monstrosity I cobbled together, which lets Tivo connect to the Internet via my PC. It's as unlikely as it looks, and I had to fiddle with obscure settings on the Tivo and the computer to make everything work. I also used a hacksaw at one point.

But work it does! And I only took the better part of two days to figure it all out. I am insane.

Monday, December 19, 2005


More here.

Know what's nice about biking to work when it's minus two degrees out? There are plenty of spaces in the bike racks.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Good word

"ASCII is where it's at anyway. We suffered as a society when font control was turned over to the masses."

-- Jason Joyce
Woop woop

Did you know that as of this fall, Ereck and I have been together five wonderful years?
Knock wood, but...

As my boyfriend Ereck reported on his blog, this week he had a routine colonoscopy at the UW hospital. Thankfully everything went well, but I got to wondering: if one of us was hospitalized, would the other one be able to visit him, to make decisions, and so forth? I suspect not. As I understand it, married couples have these rights simply by virtue of being married, so this is one of the issues informing the current debate over gay marriage in Wisconsin.

So outside of being married, what do we need to do to make this happen? The answer is obvious, I know: see a lawyer. But have any of you Back With Interest readers looked into this yourselves?
This week's paper

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the Original Pancake House, the really excellent chain of pancake restaurants. So I was excited to write a love letter to the chain in the form of a restaurant review in Isthmus newspaper, which is on the Web here.

Also in the new Isthmus is the latest installment of my column covering Madison's nightlife. There are items about beer pong, open mike night and the Pink Party. Peace!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Good word

"Stop telling jokes, Burns, and tell your fucking story."

-- Junkers producer Matt McNeil, on songwriting

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Still with the shushing

Not to beat a dead horse, but as I noted on the Isthmus Web site after I went to the movies a few weeks ago: I'm fed up with rude movie audiences. The most recent unpleasantness was tonight, again at Westgate, when my enjoyment of the excellent and moving comedy The Squid and the Whale was spoiled by the couple behind me, who talked for the first half hour. Just like the last time, I shushed them, and they stopped, mostly.

But it is stressful to have to keep shushing. I don't want to shush anymore. Is it normal to expect people not to talk at movies? Should I give up and stop going to movies?

I suspected we were in for it from the beginning when, at the sight of distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films' logo -- Samuel Goldwyn's signature -- the woman said loudly, "Now that's an interesting signature." Maybe so, lady, but we're not here to talk about it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Madison, Wis. = Satan's Lair

Look, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News says he expects Madisonians to be "communing with Satan." So get to it, everybody!

Wake me up when December ends.
Abort, retry, fail

Most aspects of modern living have been transformed by ubiquitous computing, generally for the better. As a writer I can't imagine not using a computer. People really typed on typewriters?

So how is it okay that PCs are still so unreliable? Even under the best of circumstances, people routinely lose valuable time because their computers are behaving strangely. Under worse circumstances, files mysteriously disappear, hardware malfunctions in ways that are flaky and inexplicable, and viruses and spyware grind computers to a halt. Personal computers have been around since at least the Ford adminstration, but for all the trouble they cause, you'd think the inventors were still working the kinks out -- which, I suppose, they are.

How do you respond when things go sour in computerland? Do you scream and pound tables? Speaking personally, I have, for better or worse, learned to be patient in the face of digital mayhem. After college, I worked for five years at a Chicago consulting firm where I was a sort of jack-of-all-PC-trades. I wrote software, installed computers and networks, and explained to customers how things worked. I also took the despairing phone calls when the inevitable meltdowns occurred.

Here is what I learned in five years: all software has flaws, all computer equipment fails (sometimes it literally bursts into flames), and the only healthy response to chaos is calm -- and, for the guy who is in charge of fixing stuff, a little curiosity: Now I wonder what could be causing that?

Do computer woes make you crazy?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Good word

"I think we are welcomed. But it was not a peaceful welcome."

-- George W. Bush, on the administration's claim that Iraqis would welcome the U.S. as liberators

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Good word

"Do you really think that if Jesus returns to Earth tomorrow, his priority is going to be organizing a boycott of Target stores?"

-- Nicholas D. Kristof
Blast from past

I've long kept a diary, off and on, and here's the first line of an entry dated April 6, 1995:

"It's unimaginable, I suppose, to suddenly learn you have a brother or sister you've never heard of, as Robert Wagner did in a recent 'Hart to Hart' reunion special."

Friday, December 09, 2005

Bloggers in the night

Look, I make a guest appearance today on another local blog, Madison's New Favorite Son.
Good word

"People are still turning to established news sites. In other words, they're looking at, not"

-- University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor James Baughman

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Speaking of comics

Is this funny? Just curious.
Lotsa larfs

Hey Madison readers: in case you hadn't noticed, Isthmus newspaper, my employer, has replaced Matt Groening's "Life In Hell" comic with "Lulu Eightball," by Emily Flake. I'm delighted with the cartoon. I hope Isthmus readers are, too.
Something to ponder

Here's an item from the TV listings in today's newspaper:

Highlights: 7 p.m. Al Roker Investigates (Court TV, Cable Ch. 56)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Far from Dairyland

I'm on the record as one who loves Southern food, but my trip to Birmingham, Ala. last weekend reminded me that the South doesn't get everything right, culinarily speaking.

I was eating breakfast at a restaurant called Chappy's Deli, and I wanted butter for my toast. To my dismay, the caddy on the table held not butter but, instead, small packets labeled "whipped spread." Now, I have only lived in the Dairy State for six years, but I do know butter from whipped spread.

So I asked the server for some butter. She pointed at the whipped spread. "The butter's right there," she said.

"Um," I began.

"Oh, you want real butter," she said. She disappeared, then returned with a small bowl full of butter.

Whipped spread and the like are standard at many Southern diners. At a Waffle House I visited in Kentucky last year, the server seemed genuinely surprised when I asked for real butter, and in that case was not able to produce any. (I didn't bother inquiring about real maple syrup.)

Am I a Wisconsin snob? Do Southerners really not care whether the butter is real?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


It pleases me that Elizabeth Vargas has gotten the nod, along with Bob Woodruff, to replace Peter Jennings as anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight." I've been a Vargas fan ever since she was reading the headlines on "Good Morning America" back in the early 1990s -- I once was a member of an Elizabeth Vargas fan club on the Internet. I'm glad to see a woman get the top spot, though these co-anchor arrangements can be tumultuous.

I'm glad, too, that ABC News is getting its house in order. "World News Tonight" is one of about three network television broadcasts I watch regularly, and I was genuinely devastated when Peter Jennings died last summer.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Hello again

Apologies for blog silence, but we were in Birmingham, Ala. for the wedding of my brother and the lovely Kathryn. I could talk for hours about Birmingham culture, about Southern culture, but just one observation for now:

Ashton Kutcher and others may have re-popularized the bulky men's haircut known as the shag, but in dear old Dixie it never went away. Shaggy locks were favored by a certain kind of affluent, Ralph Lauren-wearing boy when I was a lad in the South 20 years ago, and I have noticed on subsequent trips back, including this one, that the look remains popular with young Southern men.

But I veer headlong toward my very early mid-30s, so naturally I also pay attention to the choices of men my age. And yesterday morning -- Sunday morning -- I had a key insight about Southern men's hair. It came at a Starbucks in the tony Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook. As I was getting coffee, I noticed what was, apparently, a post-church coffee date. A woman in a dress and a man in a tan suit, both about my age, were sitting and talking amiably. Even on this side of 30 the man retained his Southern preppy boy shag, but as I looked it dawned on me: that is not a shag. That is helmet hair. (Helmet hair looks like this, in case you didn't know.)

And a realization came to me in a flash: unchecked, the young Southern man's shag becomes the older Southern man's helmet hair. This man was the proof. I nudged Ereck and, gesturing to the man with my eyes, reported my discovery. "You've found the missing link," observed my swain.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Everybody blog

In case you didn't know, Madison singer, songwriter and #1 dad extraordinaire Aaron Scholz is blogging. Check him out at

Praise the Lord.
"Hoot" 4-ever

As Rich Albertoni reports in the issue of Isthmus hitting the streets today, Madison radio hero Dr. Dave Zero is wrapping up the "Hootenanny," his long-running music show on the community radio station WORT 89.9 FM. Only a few broadcasts remain, and then Madison listeners will have to find a new weekly source of exciting rock 'n' roll, alt-country and everything else in local and national indie music.

Who am I kidding? Zero's irreplaceable, and I am forever in his debt for the many times he welcomed me on to the airwaves to shmooze and croon. For Madison musicians, doing real-live broadcast promotion has been as easy as calling Dave and asking, "Dave, can I be on the radio?" Every single time I asked -- a dozen? two dozen? -- the answer came back: "Sure." Whoever replaces Dave, I hope he or she is as committed to the local scene as our Dave.

But here's a nod to those who pine for podcasting on Back With Interest: a clip of the Junkers performing the classic Tex Ritter tune "High Noon" on Dr. Dave's "Hootenanny." That was back on Oct. 6, 2000. The inimitable Aaron Scholz engineered the session.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

No, Senator

Nothing warms the holiday cockles quite like the familiar sight of a lineup of gray-suited middle-aged corporate Caucasian fatcats seemingly lying to Congress through their teeth.
Just added

Hey music lovers -- some very exciting shows coming up, all of which are listed over there to the right.

Next Tuesday, Dec. 6, I'll join Blixie, Screamin' Cyn-Cyn and the Pons, the up-and-coming emcee Jon Henry, El Guante and the Gilbert Fifthers at Cafe Montmartre for a show benefiting the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma. Showtime is 8 pm, and the cost is just $5 to help this worthy cause.

And look for the World's Greatest Lovers to chase your winter blues away at the Shamrock Bar -- we're booked there Jan. 26, Feb. 16 and March 23. All shows are at 10 pm, and they're free. Come on down! You might meet someone interesting.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Fa la la

The winter holidays are a time of reflection, and after I received a big dose of Christmas music in a restaurant at lunch today, I reflected again on the fact that only Peggy Lee can sing "Deck the Halls" and make it sound sad.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Good word

"According to a new survey one out of five New Yorkers is obese. As a result New York is thinking of changing its name to Wisconsin."

-- Conan O'Brien

Saturday, November 26, 2005


I had another celebrity dream last night. This time my celebrity was a Kennedy: Maria Shriver. I asked her what it is like to be a Shriver, which is an odd question. Her husband Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was with her, but he did not say anything. Just as well.

I have Kennedys on the brain these days, thanks to the fact that I am reading Symptoms of Withdrawal, the new memoir by Christopher Kennedy Lawford. He is the son of Patricia Kennedy and Peter Lawford, and the nephew of JFK, RFK and the others. I will have more to say about this book.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Give it up, y'all, to literary scholar and Telecaster slinger Dr. Matthew G. Stratton, who yesterday successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in the English department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Junker guitarist has done his Junkers proud!

Tuesday night we stopped at Woodman's for some Krispy Kremes. Woodman's, in case you didn't know, is a Madison institution, an astonishingly huge and well-stocked supermarket.

The joint was jumping, as you might expect on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It was the first holiday bustle I've encountered this fall -- nothing compared to last night's, I'm sure -- and although the shoppers were harried and purposeful, I also saw something I rarely see in Madison: people making eye contact with me and smiling. Their sheepish expressions seemed to say, Here We Go Again. I'm sure this goodwill is going to wear off once the true holiday grind sets in, but it's fun while it lasts.

Amid the bustle there was one pocket of stillness, however. In the front of the store, in a tiny room with a tiny window, two unhappy young women in puffy jackets were being detained by three women police officers. It was a shoplifting bust. One officer was in charge. She interrogated the blonde suspect and then the brunette, perhaps trying to catch them in an inconsistency.

The other two officers watched expressionlessly. Or almost expressionlessly: at one point a young mother came by as, behind her, a child of perhaps four walked very slowly and wailed. Momentarily distracted, one of the gun-wielding policewomen allowed a grin of amusement and sympathy to flash across her face. Then, catching herself, she sobered and returned her gaze to the miscreants.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Deep fried

Hey y'all -- and I mean it when I say y'all -- be sure to pick up this week's Isthmus. The cover story, "The South in His Mouth," is by yours truly, and it's about my search for real live Southern cooking here in Dairyland. The Isthmus web site has the article here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Garfield weighs in

Look, on -- the blog-like Web feature of my employer, Isthmus newspaper -- you can read my complaint about my trip to the movies last weekend.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Good word

"News robots can't meet with a secret source in an underground garage or pull back the blankets on a third-rate burglary to reveal a conspiracy at the highest reaches of government. Tactical and ethical blunders aside, actual journalists come in handy on occasion."

-- David Carr, The New York Times

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Bon vivant

Recently I saw my doctor for a checkup, and he said everything looked good. That included my blood pressure, which I was convinced would be outrageously high.

And my cholesterol results came in the mail today. Normal, the sheet says. In particular: total cholesterol is 183 mg/dL, HDL 51, LDL 117, triclycerides 70. All these, if I understand correctly, are optimal or nearly so. (Pass the bratwurst!)

Mighty fine. Plus, I don't drink, I don't smoke, I meditate and I run four times a week. I just got my teeth cleaned (one cavity -- dang), and yesterday I had a flu shot.

I'm 34, and when I raise hell these days, I do it quietly.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The hearing

Longtime Back With Interest readers know that celebrities -- Woody Allen, Beyonce -- regularly appear in my dreams. But I never invited the guest from the night before last: failed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. I and two other people were quizzing her about her credentials. There was a brief tangent in which I asked her to recommend good Bible study materials. This made one of my fellow questioners harrumph.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Madame President

I'm really enjoying "Commander in Chief," ABC's hour-long drama starring Geena Davis as the first woman president, a left-leaning political independent. My short attention span generally has kept me from enjoying hour-long shows, so this is indeed a rarity. There have been some exceptions over the years: shows premised on unceasing celebrity cameos ("Love Boat," "Fantasy Island"), and also family dramas, which is why I've been a fan of "Little House on the Prairie," "Family," "Eight Is Enough," "Our House" and "Party of Five."

That brings me back to "Commander in Chief," which is very much a family drama about the president, her ambitious husband and their kids: teenage twins (the boy's liberal and the girl's conservative, though not much has been made of that since the pilot), and a tweener daughter. All this, plus your workaday Washington conniving.

In these troubled times, "Commander in Chief" is wish fulfillment for me and others like me. A woman president! Who cares about human rights! Who doesn't play political dirty tricks!

The show's criticisms of the Bush White House are muted, but pointed. In an amusing exchange last night, the teenage daughter complains to her mother about the boy who tried to use her for sex, then dumped her when she said she wasn't ready. With a mischievous grin the president asks (I paraphrase), "Should I have him arrested under the Patriot Act and sent to prison in Syria?" It's a sick joke, and it's only funny because it's true.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Quantifiably droll

I always enjoy a good joke, even when I don't understand it. (It's all in the timing.) And so I chuckled 3.14159 times over the pages of math jokes I turned up here and here.

My favorite math joke: Why did the chicken cross the Mobius strip? To get to the ... oh.
Yee haw

It pleases me endlessly to know that Little Jimmy Dickens sang "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose" when Carnegie Hall hosted the "Grand Ole Opry" Monday night. The "Opry" is one of my favorite things in the world, and Dickens, 79, is one of the best things about the "Opry." His act never varies much -- hasn't varied much in the dozen or so years that I've been a regular "Opry" listener -- but it's reliably funny and country as hell. Little Jimmy Dickens, of thee I sing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Good word

"Madison is also welcoming to the moderately hip."

-- Margaret Broeren
Man in black

Bernie asked me my thoughts about Walk the Line, the new Johnny Cash biopic, so here goes.

Will I go see it? Of course. Am I excited to see it? Hmm. Seems to me that biopics of popular musicians can be touch and go. Coal Miner's Daughter is pretty wonderful, but then there is Great Balls of Fire!, the 1989 film that starred Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash's stablemate at Sun Records. I didn't like the film very much.

But can we talk here? For some reason Cash's music always left me a little cold. Believe me, I know how much people love his songs, because many, many times I have seen "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Ring of Fire" drive people into states of religious ecstasy even when they were being sung by me, of all people. They are great songs, and there are lots more great Johnny Cash songs.

Still, Cash built a career on a tough-guy persona, and I seem to be in a minority in that I never respond particularly well to those. In musicians and songwriters I much favor gentleness and tunefulness over swagger, which is why I always vastly preferred the Beatles to the Rolling Stones. And why I was always a lot more interested in Willie Nelson than Johnny Cash.

Now I know perfectly well that Cash could be both gentle and tuneful, so don't go leaping all over me. I'm talking generalities here, y'all.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Good word

"And 'Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old,' 'Friends In Low Places,' and especially 'Two of a Kind' were -- forgive me! -- truly good country songs, with truly superior singing."

-- Robbie Fulks on Garth Brooks

Friday, November 11, 2005

Good word

"The thought of [Maureen] Dowd's girls' nights with fellow Times sirens Alessandra Stanley and Michiko Kakutani sounds about as soft and yielding as Macbeth's three witches on a club crawl."

-- Tina Brown
Good word

"College equalizes people from different economic backgrounds, and once you graduate, you're put back where you were."

-- Noah Baumbach

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Ah, the Junkers

Here's a rarity: a boombox recording of my late, lamented honkytonk band the Junkers performing "Crazy Arms" in an April 20, 2001 show at the late, lamented Rainbow Room gay bar. Be forewarned: this sounds like a boombox recording. But I think it captures much that was important about Junker shows circa 2001: the chaos, the yelling, etc. Crazy arms, indeed.
Idle question

What staff newspaper reporters in Madison, besides me, maintain personal, regularly updated, non-anonymous blogs? I'm at a loss to think of even one. Not that I've looked that hard.
Ring ring

My friend Alison, a college professor in Charleston, S.C., has been riding her bike to work. The other day she had a confrontation with some motorists. "I pedaled along in the road, a couple of feet from the gutter, just as bikers are supposed to do," she wrote on her blog. "I was obeying all the laws -- I was a legal vehicle in the road, but they didn't know it. They were really annoying. One person finally passed me, and as she passed, she yelled, 'Get on the sidewalk!'"

Stories like this make me glad for Madison's profound bike-friendliness. I can't imagine getting yelled at for not biking on the sidewalk here, though I certainly can imagine getting yelled at for biking on the sidewalk. (I have yelled at people for biking on the sidewalk.)

More than that, though, the motorists I encounter between here and work are almost always polite: where the bike path crosses streets, drivers generally stop and wave me through. At four-way stops, drivers nearly always wave me on. Waving and waving me on -- drivers, it seems, just want me to get where I'm going.

Life as a bike commuter in Madison is a very fine thing -- a revelation, even. When I started my new job in June I bought a cheap Schwinn at Target, and it has paid for itself many times over. The only problem: I'm a gadget freak, and I'm spending more on gadgets than I did on the bike. Example: dark comes early now, so I bought blinking lights to announce my existence. For the moment I've got just one fore and one aft, but I have noticed some bikers who bedeck themselves like Christmas trees. Something to ponder.

The only question: will I be on the bike path come February? Wisconsin certainly has winter bike commuters, but until I started biking in, I thought those people were insane. Now I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Things past

As regular Back With Interest readers know, I find old television commercials evocative. (I discussed them here, here, here and here.) So I'm always delighted to run across a trove of them like this one on the X-Entertainment web site. It's a sickness, I realize, but what's better than the old spot for the Clapper? Clap on!

I found that site in the course of Googling Henry "The Fonz" Winkler, who I heard the other day in a compelling interview on "Fresh Air." Like many children of the 1970s, I adored Winkler on "Happy Days," and it was fascinating to hear him discuss Fonziemania, in which I participated wholeheartedly. (I named a hamster Fonzie during that period.)

Winkler was on the radio to promote his new CBS sitcom, "Out of Practice," which I checked out last night. I didn't hate it, which for me is saying something. (When it comes to sitcoms, I have high expectations.)

It was strange seeing Winkler on TV again. Thirty years later, the sight of him on the boob tube prompted long-dormant stirrings of Fonziemania. These were intensified by the presence on the show of Stockard Channing, who starred in the movie version of the 1950s-inspired musical Grease. That came out at the same time as "Happy Days" and plowed much the same ground.

All that was missing was Bowzer.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Good word

"Even when the gigs are bad, it's better onstage than off it."

-- Nashville singer and songwriter David Olney

Saturday, November 05, 2005

That's entertainment

I was surprised, shocked and delighted to read this Wisconsin State Journal article reporting that Robert Redford's new Sundance Cinemas will open its first theater at Madison's Hilldale Mall. The six-screen multiplex will replace the Hilldale cinema, one of three commercial houses in town showing independent and foreign films.

This is great news for Madison moviegoers. The film scene here has long made me forlorn, because it thrives largely on the outskirts of town, at megaplexes that show unimaginative fare and are overrun with teenagers yakking on cell phones. Just the other day, a coworker and I were lamenting the impending demise of the University Square theater, which will go away when the mall it is in is demolished. That will be the end of mainstream, first-run movies downtown, and it will be another blow for movie fans in Madison, which has lost two theaters in recent years: downtown's Majestic (which, with its crooked screen, was an unwonderful place to see movies anyway), and the budget cinema at East Towne mall.

We still will lose Hilldale. But as recently as a few months ago, it seemed likely that the rehabbing of Hilldale Mall would mean that the Hilldale cinema would simply be gone, with nothing to replace it. I will miss the Hilldale cinema, which is a perfectly charming place to see a film. But a gleaming new independent house will be terrific, since both Hilldale and Madison's other chain art house, Westgate, are rather grungy compared to the megaplexes.

Hopefully the Redford imprimatur means that the new cinema will get good prints, and perhaps independent films will even open here at the same time that they do in big cities. It can take months for indie films to find their way here, after all, and the prints of independent films that come to Madison are sometimes less than pristine. (Back in my movie-reviewer days, I was blacklisted at Westgate because I pointed this out.)

I came to Madison from Chicago, which has a wonderful film scene. In addition to mainstream cinemas, the Windy City has a wealth of options for independent and foreign stuff, as well as revivals. So although there is much to like about living in Madison, I have been sad about having to change my moviegoing habits. But thanks to Robert Redford, things are looking up.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


The fauxhawk -- who saw that coming?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Good word

"I originally began to write about music quite simply to keep other people's nonsense off my record jackets."

--Charles Rosen

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


I love the custom of trick-or-treating. There's something positively weird about a ritual that has costumed children begging at doorsteps. Business was slow last night, as ever on our block: half a dozen calls, no more.

The cutest trick-or-treater was a lad of seven or eight who wore a dinosaur costume, complete with a fin on his head. His small-glasses-wearing hipster dad thanked us from the sidewalk.

The uncutest trick-or-treater: a 25-ish man, uncostumed except for an altogether menacing ski mask. He held open his pillowcase and said, "Trick or treat." He got a Kit Kat, just like everyone else.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Puckish pranks

Today's highlights on mention the ancient act of Halloween vandalism called TP'ing, which reminds me: where I grew up, back in Nashville, we referred to this not as TP'ing but rolling. As a lad I first heard the word TP'ing from stepsiblings who grew up in the Chicago suburbs.

It was years before I realized that TP is short for toilet paper. Till then I thought TP'ing referred, for reasons I developed theories about, to Native American housing. I shit you not.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Warp factor haaaaay!

George Takei, Mr. Sulu of "Star Trek" fame, has revealed that he is gay.

What, was he waiting for Sheryl Swoopes?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

High and outside

Nice work, White Sox. It's fun to live in Chicago when teams are winning championships. I should know; the NBA's Bulls won their six titles during my tenure in the Windy City.

Not counting a summer I spent in the South Loop, I lived on the South Side all ten years of my stay in Chicago, and part of me fancied myself a fan of the White Sox, one of the great South Side institutions. The Cubs always seemed so, well, bourgeois. So I occasionally hopped on the Dan Ryan El for nine innings at Comiskey Park, which is now named for a wireless telephone company.

But to tell you the truth, I don't really care about baseball.
Slow news day

So this is what it has come to: an interview with the guy who's going to interview Paul McCartney.

My eye lit on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer headline, "DJ is primed for Paul McCartney," because I thought it referred to one of the most intriguing aspects of the McCartney show: the opener, a DJ who spun remixes of McCartney tunes. Good stuff. Among other magic tricks, the DJ transformed the bouncy disco sheen of "Coming Up" into something altogether dark and ominous.

What's left when interviewers interview interviewers?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Can keyboards really talk?

Last night Ereck and I went to a performance by Jeffrey Siegel, he of Keyboard Conversations fame, and I wrote about the experience on Isthmus' site. Read my observations here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Fun with optics

I enjoyed the Paul McCartney concert all the more because of these little babies. Yes, I bought my first binoculars for the occasion, and Pentax's model UCF-X II was perfect: compact, inexpensive and well suited to the task of inspecting an aging rock star from the second balcony.

And because the Mars opposition is upon us (did you mark your calendar?), my new purchase is going to get more good use right away. Watch the skies!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Paul is live

It was just as I predicted: last night's Paul McCartney show in Milwaukee made me cry. However, the biggest waterworks were triggered not by "Yesterday," which was my hunch, but by "Blackbird." As Charles rightly observed after the show, every doofus with an acoustic guitar learns that song (include this doofus), but it was enormously moving to hear it performed by its composer.

Still, I could not have predicted the second-most moving moment for yours truly: the triumphant strumming of an acoustic guitar (played by sideman Brian Ray) that begins the bright, third mini-movement of "Band on the Run." It was a deliriously sunny moment in an evening full of them.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

True or faux

A local daily newspaper publishes a "faux" alternative weekly, coreweekly, and this week's edition has naked young people on the cover. That's guaranteed to help circulation. I heard last week's issue, the cover of which featured the cleavage of Essen Haus beer girls, went like hotcakes. But will Madison readers eventually get bored of these covers? There may be naked people up front, but inside is -- well, not naked people.
Music makes the people come together

Be sure to pick up today's Isthmus, which includes our annual Madison Music Project insert. You may recall that for last year's supplement I moderated a roundtable discussion of singers. The new edition finds me leading another roundtable; in this one rappers talk about the state of Madison hip-hop. Read it online here. (But do grab the paper edition, because in it is a big picture of my smiling face.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

For the record

If you've followed Plamegate, you already know about the revelation that New York Times reporter Judith Miller has a notebook in which -- tipped off by someone, but the Pulitzer-winning journalist supposedly can't recall who -- she wrote the name of the wife of Joe Wilson, the former diplomat whose criticism of the Bush administration started the whole ghastly affair. Except that for some reason, although the woman's name is Valerie Plame, Miller wrote Valerie Flame.

All I can say is, if a drag perfomer does not soon emerge with that stage name, I will be mighty disappointed.

Monday, October 17, 2005


A pall hangs over the daily newspaper business. Circulation is down, the cost of newsprint is up, and about the only thing everyone can agree on is that the demise of the daily printed newspaper is a matter of when, not if. And so at least one daily is doing some soul-searching: The Washington Post's Frank Ahrens recently hosted an online discussion about these problems and how to address them. The transcript is here, and it's a fine read for anyone who cares about newspapers.

I think the dailies' trouble is that they are edited to serve a general audience, so a newspaper like the Post has not only world-class political analysis but also "Barney Google." The trouble with this model is that increasingly, there is no such thing as a general audience, which is why there are a zillion cable channels to fit every entertainment fetish and ideological purview.

Interestingly, when a reader asks what the Post can do to survive the shakeout, Ahrens responds: "It seems to me that it might take on the character of what a newsweekly like Time is now -- longer pieces, more analysis, maybe projects, big displays of graphics and photos that wouldn't look as good on the Web."

Yes, that description sounds like Time -- but doesn't it also sounds like alternative newsweeklies? Did I just read in The Washington Post (OK, that to survive, daily newspapers need to be more like alternative weekly newspapers?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

I want my MTV

It seems that along with the new video iPod, Apple is selling television content from iTunes, the company's online music store. The small selection of ABC reruns doesn't interest me -- I'm not burning to get caught up on Lost -- but I'm intrigued by the music video offerings.

I remember the earliest days of MTV very fondly, and I still get a little giddy even at the idea of seeing an old Split Enz video. So I checked, and although Apple's selection of classic stuff is small, there is promise: I see that the video for Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You" (1984) is available, as is the clip for Cheap Trick's "If You Want My Love" (1982). Both of these loomed large in my early adolescent consciousness, and I can't wait to download them.

Which makes me think: I surely can't be the only nostalgia-wracked Gen-Xer who would love to revisit lots of music video hits (and not-hits) from circa 1981-1985 -- and more to the point, who would pay to do so. I hope Steve Jobs is reading.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Good word

"As far as I can gather, not many people at Defense liked [Judith Miller], and the sense I got was that she wasn't their problem anymore now that she was in Iraq. Maybe they were hoping that she'd step on a mine. I certainly was."

--Eugene Pomeroy, public affairs officer, the National Guard

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Good word

"But really, how many times a day can you masturbate?"

--CNN anchor Anderson Cooper

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Make 'em laugh

Last night I saw The Aristocrats. As with so many movies, I was late to this party, but I did arrive.

The subject of the documentary, as you doubtless have heard, is how professional comedians amuse one another by swapping versions of a joke about a family of entertainers who, in their act, engage in coprophilia, necrophila, incest, rape, devil worship, Republicanism and every other depravity under the sun. The name of the troupe, and the punchline of the joke: the Aristocrats. In the film, 200 or so comedians -- including Jon Stewart, Robin Williams and Phyllis Diller -- deliver the joke in arias so startlingly obscene that near me in the almost empty cinema, a trio of otherwise nonchalant men in their early 20s, feet propped up on the seats in front of them, kept gasping loudly.

To me, the most compelling performance of the joke is by Bob Saget, the comedian familiar from family-friendly television shows like "Full House" and "America's Funniest Home Videos." There is unhappiness in Saget's eyes as he delivers, seemingly against his will, what is arguably the film's most disturbing version of the joke.

The effect is jarring -- especially for me, because I have had Saget on the brain. That is thanks to my recent rediscovery of one of basic cable's simple pleasures: reruns of "America's Funniest Home Videos." I disdained the show when it was new, but now I laugh helplessly as, again and again, the pier collapses, the guy walks into the tree, the dog does something surprising.

But most mesmerizing is host Saget, who frequently registers that same unhappiness -- even exhaustion -- as he banters with the crowd, delivers lame but tame gags and introduces themed segments. It must be hard to be so wholesome for the cameras, and his version of the Aristocrats joke surely is some kind of catharsis. But perhaps he might more productively deliver it to a member of the clergy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Nicole Kidman and country singer (and fellow Aussie) Keith Urban were spotted getting cozy in a Nashville-area eatery. The Nashville Tennessean quoted the restaurant's owner thusly: "He was talking to her, rubbing on her, too. They was real close."

Ah, Nashville. My hometown. They really do talk that way. Read all about it here.
To thine own self, etc.

Happy National Coming Out Day, everybody. Coming Out Day 2000 proved fateful for me. I was grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time, and I recall wandering morosely around some Coming Out Day displays on Library Mall. Finally I said: what the hell am I waiting for? And that fall, I came out.

So I say to you, my gay brothers and sisters in your respective closets: if I can do it, so can you. Git out here!

Monday, October 10, 2005


On the isthmus bike path, someone has defaced the zebra crossings at the streets with a pro-bike slogan: "MORE BIKES / LESS CARS."

A few comments to the agitator: First, I agree with the sentiment, obviously, which is why I bike to work every day. But is vandalism necessary? Why should we pay to clean up your mess?

Secondly, it's dumb to make the scrawl readable from bikes on the path but not from cars on the streets, which cross the path at right angles. Hey genius: us on the bike path -- we're the bike people! We get it already! Moron.

Finally: The word you're searching for is fewer. Fewer cars.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Good word

According to our new arrival
Life is more than mere survival

We just might live the good life yet

-- Gary Portnoy, Judy Hart-Angelo

Thursday, October 06, 2005


As I was walking out of the record store yesterday, the phone rang. Not my phone, the wireless doohickey, but a real phone, somewhere, with a bell. Then I realized: it was the pay phone outside the shop.

When I was a child I leapt to answer any pay phone that rang, for the sheer unpredictability of it. Like the man used to sing, who can it be now? I also used to write down the numbers of pay phones and then, at home, call them. The reason was the same: something weird might happen. As I recall, what generally happened, no matter what end of the pay phone I was on, was a brief moment of shared confusion, sometimes followed by an even briefer moment of shared amusement. And that was about it.

Those memories raced through my mind in an instant when the phone rang yesterday. I dithered over whether I should pick it up, but it looked nasty, even by pay phone standards. So I kept moving. Pay phones aren't guaranteed to be clean.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Flip flip

Every several months I confront the gigantic pile of magazines. I subscribe to a few -- The New Yorker, Fortune, PC Magazine -- and I'm always mildly excited when one arrives: more reading material! But inevitably I leaf through it, set it aside and forget about it. What eventually results is the gigantic pile of magazines. Something like panic sets in, and for days I spend most of my leisure time plowing through them. Once the pile is gone, the cycle starts anew.

What is this about? Isn't reading magazines supposed to be a leisure activity? So why does it feel like graduate school? A while back I spent evening after evening at a UW-Madison library, simply so I could get caught up on magazines. But I'll be good: I hereby promise to be more discplined about reading magazines. So much for leisure.

And then, the Gibbon.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Therapy for all

Here's an interesting headline from yesterday's paper:

Payments Not Hush Money, UW Aide Says

In case you're just tuning in: the University of Wisconsin-Madison is again in hot water with the legislature. This time it's because a vice chancellor of student affairs, Paul Barrows, went job-hunting while on paid leave following a romantic affair with a graduate student -- an affair chancellor John Wiley has called inappropriate, but not in violation of university policy (?).

The newest wrinkle is that Casey Nagy, an executive assistant to Wiley, paid for the distraught student's therapy with money from a "crisis fund" in the Dean of Students office, then reimbursed the fund by dipping into "discretionary gift funds in the chancellor's office."

I have every sympathy for the grad student, of course. Barrows put her in a very difficult position. But what I want to know is, where is my free, government-funded therapy? I have a few things I'd like to get off my chest.

One other question: when a lackey claims that payouts from the discretionary gift fund aren't hush money, doesn't that automatically mean they are?

Monday, October 03, 2005

Why yes, I can

Sometimes I feel as though I've lived here in Madison an eternity. Biking home from the library just now, I seemed to recognize every third person. Look, there's Matt Sloan, the Wis-kino guy. Look, there's Kelli Kaalele, who books shows at Cafe Montmartre and elsewhere. When did I become a local?

At one point in my journey home, being a local was like to kill me. I was turning from King Street onto Wilson, downtown, and a woman leaned her head out of a car and yelled, "Can you tell me where the Hilton is?"

Reflexively, I braked to an abrubt halt. My tires skidded. Fortunately, no cars were behind me, or it could have been ugly. I paused a nanosecond, pointed and said, "It's just there on the left."

She thanked me. Then I spotted Shirley Manson. Kidding!

Friday, September 30, 2005

Keep it local

When I want a quick, healthy meal with minimal prep or fuss, I'm not out of luck. More and more I venture across the street to the Willy Street Co-op, the natural-foods emporium whose deli counter has hot dishes every night. These are generally tasty, and always wholesome. Last night I had tuna casserole and a squash gratin, and I bellied up to the salad bar. Delicious! The process feels a little like the cafeteria back in college, but more vegan.

I can't sing the praises of the Co-op enough, especially in light of a recent thread on Isthmus' Daily Page Forum. Someone wrote to complain of rudeness from a clerk, and others piled on. Now c'mon: I've certainly had a run-in or two there, but I chalked them up to the eccentric charm of the place and learned which lines to avoid. Dissing the Co-op seems unproductive. In the words of Sinead O'Connor: Fight the real enemy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Good word

Correction Appended

"Bad manners and bad breath will get you nowhere."

--Elvis Costello

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Seasons change, feelings change

The New York Times
began charging for access to some of its content, including the opinion columnists. This comes as a bit of a surprise after a long interval of free Times articles -- I believe I first registered with the Times online nearly ten years ago. But oh well.

I probably will bite the bullet and cough up the fifty bucks per annum. But I haven't decided yet. The day they started charging I signed up for the free two-week trial, which ends Monday. So I have till Monday.

But I'll probably pay.
The big city

Saw Jerry Seinfeld at Overture Center on Friday. Funny. I vow to avoid sitting in that top balcony again, though. I haven't had vertigo like that since the last White Sox home game I went to.

Across the street from Overture, the Icelandic rockers Sigur Ros was playing at the Orpheum, and the difference between the two crowds could not have been more amusing. The typical Sigur Ros fan had blue hair and sat on the sidewalk smoking a clove. The typical Seinfeld fan wore khakis.

Monday, September 26, 2005


So I'm in. I just bought, on eBay, a single ticket to the long-sold-out Paul McCartney show in Milwaukee Oct. 23. The seat seems reasonably good and the price not terribly extravagant, all things considered. But I have now spent the most I've ever spent on a concert ticket.

I've had Sir Paul on the brain lately, because his new CD, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, is getting the best critical notices for a McCartney release since at least 1982's Tug of War -- which was a favorite of mine in fifth grade. I still haven't heard the new one, though there's plenty of time. But thanks to the public library I have been delving deep into the McCartney catalog, and I'm surprised how much I've enjoyed tracks on records like 1979's Back to the Egg and 1978's London Town. And it has even been nice to revisit albums I already am familiar with, from cassette tapes bought long ago, and lost or destroyed long ago: albums like Tug of War and its 1983 follow-up Pipes of Peace (yes, Charles, I like that record, especially the title song).

But let's face it, Paul McCartney didn't become a forever kind of international pop icon on the strength of his solo career. Which brings up a conversation I had recently with Adam Davis, Madison pedal-steel player extraordinaire and, like me, a member of the honkytonk band the World's Greatest Lovers. On the drive back from a gig in Lake Mills, I asked him what album he had listened to the most times. His response: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, as unassailable a response to that question as I can imagine. He then posed the question to me, and I didn't even have to think before I replied: the Beatles' Abbey Road, to these ears a perfect record.

Yes, I am a Beatles freak of long standing, though I did most of my Beatle listening in high school, when my father gave me a pearl of great price: a box set of all the Fab Four's British releases, on vinyl -- this a couple of years before they came out on CD. I was hooked, and I've been hooked ever since. And although like any disaffected teenager, I identified strongly with John Lennon, I loved McCartney's songs, too, and his singing -- especially on sweetly melodic tunes like "Michelle," "Here, There and Everywhere," "Eleanor Rigby," "She's Leaving Home," "Yesterday," "Blackbird," "Mother Nature's Son," "Fool on the Hill" and so forth.

I once vowed to see musical legends when I get the chance, and I'm so grateful to have experienced performances by the likes of Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow and Waylon Jennings. I thought about that vow when I learned the Rolling Stones are mounting yet another tour, but can I tell you a secret? Although I like their music, they always left me a little cold. And so I think I will skip the Stones once again.

McCartney, on the other hand -- McCartney!

And so next month I will journey alone to the Brewtown to see the Cute Beatle and, in all likelihood, cry when he sings "Yesterday," just as I cried two years ago when I finally got to hear George Jones sing "She Thinks I Still Care," at the Wisconsin Valley Fair in Wausau.

I plan to scream a lot, too.

Friday, September 23, 2005

E pluribus unum

The Vatican is probably going to firm up its doctrine forbidding even celibate gay men to be ordained, and this New York Times article describes the anguish of gay priests and seminarians in response. "I always feel like I'm 'less than,'" says one gay priest. "I feel like a Jew in Berlin in the 1930's," says another.

I sympathize, but I must say that my reaction to gay Catholic priests and seminarians who feel betrayed and marginalized is much like my reaction to gay Republicans who feel betrayed and marginalized: in your heart of hearts, can you honestly say you're surprised?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Takes the edge off

The National Enquirer is reporting that President Bush is back on the booze.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Live music tomorrow

Hey kids, come on out to the Shamrock Bar tomorrow night, Sept. 22, for a performance by my honkytonk band, the World's Greatest Lovers. The show starts at 10 pm, and best of all: it's free. The Shamrock is at 117 W. Main St. in downtown Madison.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Little things

It's all about the simple gifts, and I received today's simple gift as I was out driving around: the Who's "My Generation" came on, and although I know the song very well -- I once was a Who fanatic -- I had not heard it in quite some time. It was bliss. I have always had my doubts about Who singer Roger Daltrey, but I found myself transfixed by his performance on the record, especially his famous stuttering: "Why don't you all f-f-f-fade away." It's an utterly original trick he's doing, and utterly mysterious and great.

I've heard various explanations: the recording studio was cold, he was imitating someone on amphetamines, he did it once by accident and it stuck. But it makes all kinds of sense in a song about defiant young people: sometimes young people do baffling things just because. Perfect.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Good word

As the snow flies on a cold and gray Chicago mornin'
A poor little baby child is born in the ghetto
And his mama cries, 'cause if there's one thing that she don't need
It's another hungry mouth to feed in the ghetto

People, don't you understand, the child needs a helping hand
Or he'll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me, are we too blind to see
Do we simply turn our heads and look the other way

Mac Davis, "In the Ghetto"

Sunday, September 18, 2005

My throbbing wrists

Should you ever undertake the unhappy task of transcribing an interview, as I am doing now, may I commend to you the software program Express Scribe, from the Australian company NCH Swift Sound.

Express Scribe plays audio files, as iTunes, Windows Media Player and Winamp do. But those applications are mostly for playing music, whereas the designers of Express Scribe had the transcriptionist in mind: the program assigns commands to function keys -- play, stop, rewind, and so forth -- and makes them available from any Windows program. So as I type and listen to a digital file of an interview, I can stop and start the playback without having to switch out of Word, or even move my fingers from the good old home row. That may not seem like a big deal, but transcribing is so dreadfully boring (I never do it unless I must) that I welcome anything to streamline the process.

Express Scribe is free for the downloading. That is the right price.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Look, the final resting place of Checkers, the dog Richard Nixon was going to keep regardless of what they said.

Did you know I have the same birthday as Nixon?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Life unfolds

I had a wistful moment earlier this week when I dropped off my old futon frame at the thrift store. That old frame was nothing nice by now -- it was dilapidated, in fact, with coffee rings on the armrests. But it was the first piece of furniture I ever bought new, and it furnished the first apartment I rented on my own, after college. Giving it away felt like giving away a piece of my youth.

Futons seemed like a miracle to me when I bought that one, in 1992: cheap, simple, comfortable. But when Ereck and I moved into this place three years ago, the miraculous futon went into the basement, and there it sat.

Recently we had a purge: we resolved to rid ourselves of both of our futons, simultaneously. Ereck theorized that we had hung on to them as a kind of relationship insurance -- if things didn't work out with us, at least we'd still have beds to sleep on. So giving the futons to St. Vinnie's was, in some strange way, a kind of commitment ceremony.

Except my futon frame got cold feet. At first I couldn't find the peculiar, tiny bits of metal that hold everything together, and without them the frame is just so much useless pine. But in a frenzy of tidying I finally turned up the goods, and the frame left the house a complete package. I hope someone can use it.
Good word

"Clapping is a spontaneous thing, and we don't encourage it -- I would never ever ask an audience to clap along -- but when the spirit moves people to do it, you feel charmed and buoyed by it."

--Garrison Keillor

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Brave Tennessee

Sometimes I'm so proud of my confreres back home in the Volunteer State, I could just cry.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

When Google was just another scrappy startup, its slogan, Don't Be Evil, seemed like a mere spoof: a nerdy, whimsical swipe at giant Microsoft, whose bloated software and predatory business practices are indeed disquieting (whether they are the devil's bidding is between Bill Gates and his god).

Now that Google is itself a giant, though, with a market capitalization of $86 billion, the slogan isn't so amusing. Instead, what I take from it is that the company is setting a extremely low standard of behavior for itself. If the only practices Google rules out are the ones that are truly evil, doesn't that leave all kinds of room for business strategies that are questionable, objectionable, downright reprehensible? Even predatory?

Wait, doesn't Google own this blog? Uh oh...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Good word

"If it's good enough to take to your psychiatrist, it's good enough to make a song of."

--Paul McCartney
Out of the past

Do you believe in ghosts? Since college I have lived in city apartments, most of them built in the early part of the 20th century. That means my homes have been home to scores of other people, and sometimes I think they're all still with me.

It's not that I have sighted any actual ghosts, like the Confederate soldier my stepmother periodically spots in my Tennessee home. But sometimes I feel quietly overwhelmed by the fact that I make my abode amid layers of memory and experience.

I got to thinking about this today as I pondered artifacts previous residents left in my apartment. (I believe the place was built in the 1920s.) Most striking are the small holes in the bedroom doors where locks and latches were installed. These holes disturb me, as they bespeak discord: sometimes housemates do not trust each other, and so they lock their bedrooms.

But what house doesn't have discord? Still, I'm glad Ereck thoroughly smudged our home when we moved in. Out, bad spirits!

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Sir yes sir

Here's a story from eWeek, a computer-industry trade publication, about directNIC, the Internet provider that sells me my mail service -- and that has been running on generators in downtown New Orleans since Katrina struck. As I have mentioned repeatedly, a former military man is running the business and writing about his experiences on a blog that reads like letters from 'Nam.

I don't mean to bore you with all these postings about my ISP, but the story is really quite remarkable. My e-mail is diesel-powered these days.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Overheard on the bike path

"He looks like a Mon Chi Chi."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A critic hits flyover country

Arts blogger Terry Teachout, theater critic for The Wall Street Journal, is posting this week from right here in Wisconsin. He's checking out Frank Lloyd Wright structures and seeing local theater -- American Players Theatre in Spring Green, and Madison Rep in the capital city. At least one local theater critic is holding his breath.
Good words?

Now that I am -- can this be happening? -- a full-time writer, I dwell too much on small, everyday writing tasks that most people probably don't give a second thought. Perhaps it's all those years of writing entertainment blurbs, but I find myself striving for grace and wit as I construct even the smallest bits of prose: thank-you notes, reminders to buy milk. It's paralyzing. But fun.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Good word

"Some people are such good musicians that even their mistakes are right."

--Sara Pace

Monday, September 05, 2005

From the archives

Just turned up a short article I wrote in December 2003 about New Orleans' Rebirth Brass Band. I asked bandleader Philip Frazier to name some good restaurants in his city. He suggested, among others, one called We Never Close.

That seems as good a battle cry for the Crescent City as any, these days. Keep being beautiful, New Orleans.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

What page was that on?

On NBC's hurricane relief broadcast, Kanye West goes off-script to lambaste George Bush.

I wondered what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd would say about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now she has spoken, in a column called "United States of Shame." Her wrath is unstinting.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Blame who? Oh yes, the victims

This is not helping perceptions either: according to CNN, Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown says refugees trapped in New Orleans are responsible for their plight.

Valid or not -- and by now it seems almost gratuitous to point out that not everyone in New Orleans had the means to evacuate with relative ease -- the observation is stunningly unhelpful.
Think real fast

President Bush is catching hell from some quarters for not responding quickly enough to the Gulf Coast catastrophe. Whether or not the criticism is fair, a chief executive as seasoned as Bush ought to know that in times like these, perception is everything. In 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic -- Mayor Richard J. Daley's hand-picked successor -- apparently got voted out because of the perception that he did not respond quickly enough to paralyzing January snowstorms.

And that was just some fucking snowstorms.

Note to Karl Rove: House Speaker Dennis Hastert's let's-bulldoze-New Orleans rhetoric is not helping perceptions.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


On Isthmus newspaper's web site, I have written more expansively about the blogger. Check it out here.

According to the blogger, utter chaos reigns supreme in New Orleans: the police themselves may be joining in the looting. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Private to looters

Looting in front of television cameras: unwise. If we learned nothing else from the L.A. riots, we learned that.

My e-mail provider,, is based in New Orleans. Mail has been down for the last hour or so, and when I logged in to directnic's site to log the problem, I learned that the servers have apparently been running on diesel generators. So if you can't get through to me at my personal address, that may be why.

Directnic has a blog about their woes. Check it out. Some sort of ex-military survivalist seems to be in charge at my ISP. What with the water and the looters, they could use one.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Musical youth

As Charles has noted, my show Friday night with Sleepy LaBeef got rained out. Memorial Union Terrace is one of the few venues in town that can move a show indoors when it rains, but that didn't happen due to circumstances too dull to describe. Dejected fans came and went, but most dejected of all was Sleepy LaBeef: the 70-year-old musical nonpareil seemed to sum up decades of playing live music when he gazed out at the drizzle and said to me, philosophically, "Sometimes it gets rained out."

Saturday's show at the Tyranena Brewing Company in Lake Mills was altogether more successful. The World's Greatest Lovers played an acoustic set on a lovely patio bedecked with flowers and ivy, and the small-town crowd was appreciative, if restrained. When we began playing it was broad daylight and families had spread blankets, so I was once again unnerved at the prospect of entertaining children with classic honkytonk songs about sex, drugs and the kicking of hippies' asses. But no one seemed to mind, least of all the young'uns.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Ain't no good life but

The cover story of this week's Isthmus is the latest installment in my ongoing series about Madison nightlife. Share and enjoy.
Good word

"It was always: 'Socrates, what is truth? Socrates, what is the nature of the good? Socrates, what should I order? Socrates, what are you having?' And not once did anyone ever say: 'Socrates, hemlock is poison!'"

--Steve Martin
Hack hacks

My summer cold notwithstanding it was, as you might guess from today's Isthmus, a busy week for me. I wrote the cover story, a highly arbitrary look at Madison nightlife options, and I filled in on the music column. For the latter, I previewed this weekend's Robbie Fulks concert and blues festival, and I bade adieu to fiddler extraordinaire Vassar Clements.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bring me no blues

A different way to go postal.
Big music tomorrow

Lest I forget: tomorrow night, Friday Aug. 26, rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef will be performing at the Memorial Union Terrace, 800 Langdon St. in Madison. And joining him, for a quick set beforehand and maybe other stuff, will be the White Mule Country Blues Band, a combo whose ever-shifting lineup includes yours truly, Low Rollin' Joe Nosek of the Cash Box Kings, Chris Boeger of the CBK and the World's Greatest Lovers, and others.

There is no damn cover, and music starts at 9:00.
"Closer to the dogs"

The Nashville Tennessean takes a comprehensive look back at how the 1970s streaking fad manifested itself in Music City. Streaking on the stage of the "Grand Ole Opry"!
Meet and greet

Say howdy, y'all, to my dear friends Walter and Alison. They just moved from Nashville to Charleston, and they started a blog for the occasion.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Le mot juste

I began my recent piece on the state fair with musings on an essay the Gen-X wunderkind novelist David Foster Wallace wrote about the Illinois State Fair. I enthusiastically commend to you his very funny article, which he wrote for Harper's and which is in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997).

But when I cited the title of Wallace's article, "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All," something didn't seem right. Would Harper's really run that title? So I looked at the copyright page of the book and found that, sure enough, in the magazine the story was called, simply, "Ticket to the Fair."

I checked the other titles and discovered a pattern: The piece "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" appeared in Harper's as "Shipping Out," and how did Esquire title the story that in the book is called "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness"?

"The String Theory."

I can't say that Wallace's titles improve on what the magazine editors did. But it's all in keeping with his writing philosophy: never use one word when 50 will do, plus eight footnotes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Good word

"While I'm a big Hugo Chavez supporter, I do agree with Pat Robertson on one thing: that feminism encourages women to 'kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.' But I also want to note that this is precisely why I'm a feminist."

--Matthew Stratton

Monday, August 22, 2005

One man's trash

I'm more excited about our city's new recycling bins than I really have any right to be. No more tying up cardboard with string! A big machine comes to your house and picks up the bin! We can recycle magazines now!

When I first came to Madison, I wasn't in the habit of recycling. I came from Chicago, where the recycling program seemed to be a big patronage boondoggle and was largely ignored. But these days I'm a green machine.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

I'm so sorry

On the web, it's harder than I thought to find up-to-the-minute lists of U.S. dead in Iraq. But here's a page on the Washington Post's web site that has pictures and brief biographies of every American who's gotten killed through the end of last month. Grim reading.

Friday, August 19, 2005


Remind me never to frolic in a sprayground. In fact, remind me never to come into contact with water again.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

That's just me

When Jane Fonda makes the black power fist in the famous mug shot, I think she looks pretty.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Good word

"To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message."

--Roger Ebert
Just added

Tomorrow night -- Thursday, Aug. 18 -- come see my honkytonk band the World's Greatest Lovers at the Shamrock Bar. The Shamrock is at 118 W. Main St. in downtown Madison. Showtime is 10 pm. No cover!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Elsewhere on the web

This is fun: Isthmus is expanding the blog stuff on, and I'll be contributing this and that. For starters, here's a little something I wrote about my visit to the Wisconsin State Fair last week.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Good word

"People call me rude, I wish we all were nude."

Delayed gratitude

One so rarely gets to say thank you to writers, which is why it was great, a moment ago, to shake Dan Savage's hand and say, "One so rarely gets to say thank you to writers, but thanks for helping me come out."

He had just given the last talk of a writing workshop put on by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. His speech was funny, spirited and obscene--and inspiring, like an even more gay Tony Robbins seminar.

After I thanked him, Savage looked surprised, congratulated me and shook my hand again. I started to say, "In the end, a bullying tone--"

He looked troubled and blurted out, "Yes, I get a lot of shit for that."

I said, "Well, it was just what I needed when you told a closeted reader, basically, 'Stop being afraid and live your life.'"

He now thanked me and, checking out my name tag (yes, even alternative journalism conferences have name tags), looked pleased to see that I'm from Madison, where he once lived--"Where all the gay bars burn down," he joked.

What I told him is true. His writing was, finally, what prompted me to come out as gay five years ago. I remember the day: I was lying on the floor of my rented Madison room, drunk and miserable. I was perusing the book Savage Love, a collection of his advice columns, and when I read where he told some closeted guy, "Get over yourself," something in me finally clicked. I was like: well, yes.

Next thing you know, I was gay. Thanks in no small part to Dan Savage. And goodness me, now he's a colleague.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Good word

"Last Days is dedicated to the suicide of Kurt Cobain, who led the band Nirvana, influential in the creation of grunge rock. Grunge as a style is a deliberate way of presenting the self as disposable."

--Roger Ebert

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Night before last I videotaped the broadcast of "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings," and I caught up with it yesterday evening. (Yes, the show is still called that. Wonder when it will change?) The show paid lengthy tribute to Jennings, and the very end was heartbreaking: a shot of his empty chair. But also heartbreaking was an earlier moment, when pictures were shown of his 25-year-old daughter and his son, who just graduated from Wesleyan University (my sweetheart Ereck's alma mater)--fatherless now, apparently thanks to cigarettes.

They must miss their dad terribly, and in a roundabout way this got me to thinking about the smoking ban the City of Madison implemented last month. Many people are angry about it, and foes of the ban talk about rights and liberties. And it definitely is anyone's legal right to smoke; this I of course believe.

But there is right, and then there is good. And when I think about the families of people who die from smoking, I have to ask: smoking is a right, but is it ethical? If I am a smoker, is it ethical for me to smoke, knowing that my habit likely will eventually hurt someone I love, because it will make me sick, or kill me?

The answer, obviously, is no. I wish the people putting so much effort into fighting the ban would put as much effort into quitting, and getting the tobacco companies out of the business. But then again, I am an ex-smoker, and every smoker knows that the only thing worse than the preaching of a nonsmoker is the preaching of an ex-smoker.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Good word

"If I was a bird, and you was a fish
What would we do, I guess we'd wish for reincarnation."

--Roger Miller
Tuned out

The encomiums for Peter Jennings invariably mention his marathon coverage of Sept. 11. It must have been something, but I missed it: I didn't have access to a TV at the time, so I'm one of the few Americans who experienced those events mostly via radio and the Internet. It was not until days later that I first saw the footage of the planes hitting the buildings.