Friday, March 25, 2005

Learning is fun, except when it's depressing

As I've mentioned, I am an editor and teacher at the Simpson Street Free Press, a nonprofit teaching newspaper for teens. For my main gig there, I take kids to museums and historical sites and then help them write feature articles about what they have seen.

My readers from Wausau may be interested to know that last weekend I took a group to the Marathon County Historical Society, which operates a museum and a house tour in a neighborhood of stately old homes in downtown Wausau. We first viewed the Yawkey house, a mansion built by a logging magnate in 1901. Much of the house is in disrepair, but a handful of rooms on the ground floor are exquisitely preserved, including a study with an oak theme: oak paneling, murals of oak forests, acorns carved into the mantelpiece. In the basement is, oddly enough, a massive electric train set made to resemble a timber railroad.

Across the street from the Yawkey house is the historical society proper, which is in a mansion that also once belonged to the Yawkey family, and later to a Baptist church. I have learned that touring historical societies in Wisconsin towns can be hit or miss, but I'm happy to report that the Marathon County Historical Society is very much a hit. Some historical societies show local artifacts willy nilly, without much organizing or explaining, but staffers at this one plan exhibits around interesting themes and carefully document everything they display. This year's exhibit is about the history of leisure in Marathon County and features a generous section on the county fair, known formally as the Wisconsin Valley Fair. (I have a soft spot for the Wisconsin Valley Fair, because I saw a transforming George Jones performance at it a couple of years ago.)

But the real treat came when the curator gave us a special tour of the archives, which are in the large sanctuary the Baptists added to the house in the 1950s. The room is full of shelves stacked floor to ceiling with farm implements, logging tools, baby carriages, clothes, toys and other donated items from Marathon County's past. It's a marvelous collection, and I could have spent the day looking at it all.

It was getting late, though, so we drove to our hotel in Stevens Point. The next morning we visited the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point's Schmeeckle Reserve. It's a nice facility with a small museum exhibit and, then, the hall of fame itself, whose inductees include John Muir and Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin senator who created Earth Day. The place made me a little sad: I looked at old photographs of Wisconsin's lush forests, now gone, and I couldn't stop thinking about the opulent Yawkey house, a timber baron's monument to himself and, implicitly, to the plunder of old-growth forests. With an oak-themed study, no less.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Thanks, Red

Terry Teachout wrote about music that helped him during difficult times. This brought to mind last spring, when my sister-in-law died, and I flew home from Alabama after the funeral and began listening, over and over, to "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" by Red Foley and the Jordanaires. The song comforted me a lot. I'm not particularly religious, but Foley's singing is very gentle and reassuring, and the song reminded me of Adrienne's faith, about which she talked a lot as her illness ran its course.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


A fleeting glimpse on basic cable of the insufferable Gen-X epic Reality Bites led to some web surfing, which led to being reminded that the big hit from the soundtrack was "Stay" by Lisa Loeb, which led to more web surfing, which led to discovering that Brown graduate Loeb in fact had a band, and that the band was in fact called Nine Stories, and that it was in fact named for the J.D. Salinger book.

I'm speechless.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Good word

"Classic country was a peculiar kind of art, a demotic expression of savage emotion, deep-grained and bold, written With Flaubertian precision and performed with reckless humor and a ticking-clock focus."

--Robbie Fulks
Let me get back to you on that

Arts criticism makes up a big chunk of my working life these days, and I couldn't be happier. It's very satisfying work.

Except that I keep stumbling over one aspect of the job: sometimes when people learn that film is among the topics I cover, they ask something like, "So what are your top five movies?" Inevitably I space out at first, particularly if they mean recent movies. Once I recover, I list films that have affected me powerfully, with the caveat that the effect a film has on me at a particular moment may not have a lot to do with how great the film is, and then I add another caveat about how greatness is difficult to recognize, much less define, and then I change my list, and then I say how excited I was about something I saw on cable the week before last. I occasionally mention that my all-time favorite film is Nashville, but this has, heartbreakingly, drawn so many blank looks in response that I just as often keep this information to myself. At any rate, these replies usually baffle inquirers, who probably were just seeking ideas for their next trip to the video store.

But I do take comfort in knowing that I'm not the only critic who wrestles with this question. When New Yorker film writer David Denby spoke at the University of Wisconsin the other day, someone asked it. After a long pause he answered, essentially: See me after class.

One reason I struggle is that the films I see professionally are a bizarre mix. The newspaper for which I do most of my writing, Isthmus, already has a film critic who reviews the bulk of new releases. So although I reviewed about 70 films over the last two years, not many were star vehicles. (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason was one exception, and The Village was another.) Instead I usually see horror films, children's films, foreign films, ultra-indy films, documentaries and various flicks you may never have heard of. When someone asks me for a ranking, they're probably not looking for a list made up of releases like Piglet's Big Movie and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. But these are indeed the kinds of movies I mostly see for work.

As for what I pay to see, I'm much more discriminating than I was during my 18th summer, when I saw virtually every film that appeared in Nashville movie theaters. This means that out of apathy and penury, I miss many films that lots and lots of moviegoers (and most full-time reviewers) see: I skipped The Passion of the Christ, for example, and waited until the last possible minute to see Fahrenheit 9/11 on the big screen. So if someone wants me to cite the best films of the last few months, I could mention that I sought out Spanglish and The Incredibles and enjoyed them very much, and that I have opinions about not much else. This is, of course, how most people talk about movies; but I find myself apologizing, just because my byline sometimes appears over movie reviews.

In short, it's a surprisingly tough question. Of course, critics have only themselves to blame for it: they're the ones who compile those best-of lists every December.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Plus and too

Also if you missed it, here's an eight-megabyte video file, three minutes in duration, of the World's Greatest Lovers, my country band, on WB-57's "Nine O'clock News" last Friday. We did my brand new song, "What Did Whiskey Ever Do to You."
Cough cough

In case you missed it, here's a 22-minute mp3, size about ten megabytes, of my March 9 appearance on "Mighty Real." That's Edward Edney's fine queer talk show on WSUM, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's student radio station. Hear all about what it's like to be gay, to be a country singer, and to be buying clothes off the rack.