Sunday, December 31, 2006

Good word

"Matt Salo, director of the health and human services committee of the National Governors Association, will never forget the resume he received several years ago from a recent college graduate. This person did not have much work experience, so he added a bulleted list of skills:

* Strong Work Ethic

* Attention to Detail

* Team Player

* Self Motivated

* Attention to Detail"

-- Amy Joyce

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Good word

"I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security."

-- Gerald R. Ford

Friday, December 29, 2006

Screaming headlines

Recent events prompted me to pull this old newspaper out of the file. My folks saw fit to stash it away in Nashville that fateful summer day (I was 3), and it was passed down to me. Did you know I share a birthday with Richard Milhous Nixon?

As it happens, Wednesday morning I learned of Gerald Ford's death from a newspaper, the Knoxville News Sentinel. Ereck and I were visiting his folks, who read the morning paper around the kitchen table, and so when I awoke that day I got the big news not from television, not from the Internets, but from dead trees. What a concept!

One of my earliest memories is of Gerald Ford, and in particular of the Ford-Dole sticker I stuck to my bedroom door, which was covered with stickers. Yes, ours was a Ford-Dole household, though if I had been eligible to vote in the fall of 1976, I probably would have voted for Mr. Rogers.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Good word

"[Nixon aide Stephen] Bull remembered an occasion when the President was working a large crowd at an airport. A little girl had waved to him vigorously, shouting, 'How is Smokey the Bear?' (Smokey resided at the Washington Zoo.) The President smiled at her and turned away, but she kept on waving and inquiring. Unable to make out what she was saying Nixon turned to Bull, who whispered, 'Smokey the Bear, Washington National Zoo.' The President walked over, took her hand and said, 'How do you do, Miss Bear?'"

-- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Final Days

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Moved, in spite of myself

Check out my first annual Christmas homily on the Daily Page, where I write:
But the strangest thing happened to me the other night, as I was making my way down North Baldwin Street, on the isthmus. I passed house after house bedecked with lights, and at first I thought my usual grumbling, sour thoughts about the holidays. Then unfamiliar feelings began to wash over me.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Big read

My loving partner Ereck just gave me an early birthday present: The Complete New Yorker, an archive of the storied magazine on eight DVDs. This package's quirks were amply documented when the collection came out last year, but let me say: I am delighted. I already have dug in to Jonathan Schell's six-part series on Richard Nixon, from 1975 (I'll have a full report in two months).

Times have changed, and so have the ways we read archived magazines. New Yorker editor David Remnick writes in the book accompanying the discs:
It's rare these days to see readers, save the most devoted medievalists, hunched over microfilm machines. Students who rely on Google as a turbo-charged Library of Alexandria feel no more eager to use microfilm than they do to pick up a protractor and a needle-nosed compass.
That may be true, but I for one love microfilm, and have been known to spend weekends at libraries perusing it recreationally. Had I space enough in my home I might install my own private microfilm reader, though Ereck would probably kill me. But suffice it to say, I dig magazine archives, whatever the format. So this product is right up my alley.

And the DVDs do have one great advantage over microfilm: the wonderful world of color. Look at this beautiful Chanel No. 5 ad from 1975, featuring Catherine Deneuve, on whom Nicole Kidman ain't got nothin'.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


What he said.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Let a thousand big boxes bloom

Here's the lead paragraph of an interesting article in today's Wall Street Journal:
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer, said employees have established a branch of the Communist Party at its headquarters in China.
Perhaps this points to what the Cultural Revolution was missing: Greeters.
Up and running

My e-mail account is working now, so you can again send all those stock tips and virility ads my way.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Mail woes

If you're trying to write me at kenneth(at)kennethburns(dot)com, you oughta know that I'm having some difficulty with my Internet service provider, and e-mails are getting bounced. Bear with me, and know that you also can write me at kburns(at)isthmus(dot)com.
Today's fun link

Behold, a Web page devoted entirely to photographs of Elvis Presley posing with other celebrities. My favorites are this one and this one.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Good word

He was a clean-cut kid
But they made a killer out of him,
That's what they did

They said, "Listen boy, you're just a pup"
They sent him to a napalm health spa to shape up
They gave him dope to smoke, drinks and pills,
A jeep to drive, blood to spill
They said "Congratulations, you got what it takes"
They sent him back into the rat race without any brakes

He was a clean-cut kid
But they made a killer out of him,
That's what they did

Bob Dylan, "Clean-Cut Kid"

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Media frenzy

By sheer happenstance, the new local music site More Cowbell also reported on Tim Whalen's show at Le Tigre Lounge on Thursday.

Friday, December 15, 2006


Dig if you will my latest Daily Page article, a report on the weekly performance at Le Tigre Lounge by Madison jazz pianist Tim Whalen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I have been mulling over how best to rename, in a nonpartisan spirit, the double-blind gift-swapping custom known to some believers as Secret Santa. A friend once reported that she worked at an office where the event was known as: Secret Holiday Elf. That seems cumbersome. More recently my loving partner Ereck told me that at his workplace they call it Secret Snowflake, which frankly is a little eerie.

So what's a better option? My first idea was to strip away all pretense of secularism and call it: Secret Jesus. You must admit that has a ring to it. My coworker Mike suggested the anagram route in coming up with: Secret Satan. Which also has a ring to it.

But Ereck came up with the best solution of all: Secret Santana.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Comedy is not pretty

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Gone but not forgotten

Adieu to the blogs What a Faggot! and You Call That a Sentence?, which I have finally removed from my blogroll, ages after they went dark. Martin, Mr. C., I hope you come back to blogland someday.

Check out my latest contribution to the Daily Page, some thoughts on the new indoor miniature golf course at Vitense Golfland.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Christmas bloody Christmas

Here's another Yuletide gift: Ozzy Osbourne and Jessica Simpson singing "Winter Wonderland." The sonic effect of Ozzy sinking his teeth into the old chestnut is both exhilirating and terrifying. He should consider doing an album of standards.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Good word

"Hanging around with entertainment publicists can be sordid, but they offer several kinds of mineral water."

-- Cary Tennis ($)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

'Tis the season

Feast your eyes on the clip for my very favorite Christmas song, No Doubt's cover of the Vandals' "Oi to the World." It makes me cry a little.

I liked Gwen Stefani so much more when she was a rocker.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Was anyone ever truly glad, on an ongoing basis, about a Magnetic Poetry Kit? In my experience, it's fun for a very brief time, and then not so much. But up it stays on the refrigerator, because it is a hassle to take down.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Ansel Adams I ain't

Look, my photograph of this morning's public-transit meltdown on Jenifer Street is featured atop the Daily Page!

Also, check out my Daily Page article for today, an autobiographical response to Madison Repertory Theatre's new play, Bad Dates.


Shame got the British out of India, and perhaps it also can help beautify Madison's east side, one eyesore at a time. The local news site has issued a very specific plea to some very specific Jenifer Street denizens: Remove the pile of trash that's in front of your house. Perhaps a call to the landlord also would help.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


There's one custom of the analog age I hope never makes it to the Internet: Scented perfume ads. I rip them out of magazines on sight -- or, more accurately, on smell -- but that doesn't keep them from contaminating my reading material. The new New Yorker has scented ads from both Versace and Polo, and the two are canceling each other out in a particularly rancid way. The magazine smells awful, and so do my hands where I touched it, and so, now, does this apartment. Someone, please help me wash off the stink of middlebrow culture.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Good word

"While every community has its quirks, every newspaper has its quirky people. Many of them are on the copy desk. We're the ones who scream 'pleaded!!!' at the TV when a newscaster talks about how someone has 'pled' guilty to a crime. We're the ones who would have boycotted the O.J. special not because it was an affront to taste and humanity, but because the title, 'If I Did It, Here's How It Happened,' was grammatically incorrect. We're the ones who know that Dr paired with Pepper has no period and that Bobby Knight was the coach at Indiana University, not the University of Indiana."

-- Jane Burns (no relation)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


After watching Sunday's match between da Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots, I have to conclude: This Bears team does not have it. I, and Bears fans much more fervent than I, hoped this would be a championship season, and there have indeed been spectacular moments. But great athletes -- Tiger Woods, say, or Brett Favre -- come through in the clutch, and in the clutch on Sunday, the Bears faltered. With just over a minute remaining, the Bears needed to score a touchdown to win. Instead, quarterback Rex Grossman threw long for an interception. And that was it.

Still, I continue to enjoy my Bears-watching this fall. The Bears may not quite be champions, but they don't suck.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Don't you forget

I just had a great idea, inspired by all the hoopla surrounding Emilio Estevez and his new Robert Kennedy biopic: a Breakfast Club reunion movie. Gather up Estevez, Ally Sheedy and all the others (except Paul Gleason, who played the mean principal and died earlier this year) and conceive of some set of circumstances that would bring them all together again. The obvious one is a class reunion, assuming they're all in the same class. Then just get them stuck for eight hours in an airport lounge somewhere, and you've got your movie.

I don't think The Breakfast Club holds up all that well in retrospect, but when it came out in 1985, I found it genuinely exciting. I was a lad of 14 and, like the teenage characters in the film, I lived in a permanently baffled state and tried my best not to let it show. I especially enjoyed the smug Judd Nelson character, and to this day favor dark overcoats like the one he wore, though it's been years since I had a Marlboro habit.

The year 2010 will be the 25th anniversary of the release of The Breakfast Club. This project is a no-brainer (why do I suspect I'm not the first to think of it?). Have your people call my people.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Good word

"Meryl Streep knows everything. At least she made me think she does."

-- Garrison Keillor

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Today's weeper

Damn you, Linda Ronstadt.

"Long Long Time"
Thanks, kids

As a writer and singer of honkytonk music, I'm always a little uncomfortable when I play for children. The best country music is grown-up music, and the songs I sing touch on bedrock country themes: infidelity, despair, substance abuse. If I'm performing at a minor-league baseball game or a baby shower, and I have played both, I always wonder whether the kids in the audience later ask their parents, "What did that man mean when he sang, 'Jack Daniels, if you please, knock me to my knees'?"

But a few weeks ago I sang at an afternoon open house held by a potter friend, and I was struck by something. Watching the folks who came in (you may not know it, but musicians are always attentively watching the audience), I realized that the adults may not have even observed right away that the music was live. They looked at the pottery, the food, each other and then, maybe, me. Which is fine, of course! I wasn't the main attraction.

When young kids came in, though, the first thing they looked at was me. Their eyes got big at the sight of me and my guitar, and they appeared awestruck at the mere fact that I was making music. Many of them started dancing the moment they heard me, and some of them were so fascinated that had to be pulled out of the room by their parents.

It's nice to be noticed, and more and more I realize that kids just get music, on some basic level. They don't really care what kind it is, either, and they don't care that a song like -- to choose one I perform a lot -- Waylon Jennings' "Good Ol' Boys" has specific pop-culture associations, mostly kitschy, for many adults who hear it. Kids simply like it, and this is instructive. It's okay to simply like stuff, just because.

I'm reminded of another show, one I played last summer at a beach volleyball event out in Lake Mills. Turnout was poor because all day it threatened to rain, and most of the people who did come were playing volleyball far from the picnic shelter where my trio had set up. But at one point, a group of seven or eight children filled a picnic table right in front of us, and they listened in a very focused way, danced a bit, and cheered every song. During a break one of the kids, a boy of about 6, came up and said, "You know what? You're my favorite group." That meant a lot more to me than he probably realized.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Save big money

Check out my Black Friday shopping dispatch on

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Know when to hold 'em

When Ereck and I threw a dinner party last weekend, we contemplated getting a card game going. That didn't happen -- at the party, it was late by the time someone brought up the idea -- but beforehand I did indeed do a little preparation for the only card game I know how to play in a group of seven or so, poker. I made sure I had enough chips, and I reviewed the rules of a few variants.

Among the variants I reviewed was Texas hold 'em, the game that, as anyone with basic cable television knows, is an ongoing fad. But let it be said: I have never played Texas hold 'em. Back when I was a regular poker player, ten or so years ago, it had not become a national obsession. So when a group of us got together for a nickel-ante game once or twice a month, we mostly played the fancifully named stud variations familiar to generations of living-room gamblers, like baseball, Kankakee and -- my personal favorite -- follow the queen. The matches were fun and had far more to do with enjoying the company of friends than they did competitiveness (with the exception of one particularly memorable round of guts).

My question is, now that Texas hold 'em has so thoroughly permeated poker consciousness, is it considered gauche, even at a friendly living-room game, to play anything except Texas hold 'em? Can a dealer still call follow the queen and not be razzed mercilessly? What if said dealer really, really likes follow the queen?

My other question is, what aside from poker is a good card game for a group of seven or so?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Requiesat in pace, Robert Altman. He directed my favorite film, Nashville.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Pass it on

Friday, November 17, 2006

Blow ye winds

Check out my review on the Daily Page of the marvelous show by Mucca Pazza, Chicago's circus punk marching band.

There's a new catchphrase that has swept our household, all two members of it. We utter it -- okay, mostly I utter it -- when we are perusing the Now Playing list of our digital video recorder, and we see that it has, unbidden, recorded an episode of a sitcom starring a certain redheaded country singer.

The catchphrase: "TiVo taped a 'Reba.'"

Monday, November 13, 2006

Twice as much

It's amazing what a great interpreter can do with a great song. The other night I was overcome as I listened to Patsy Cline's recording of the great Hank Williams ditty "Half As Much." It's a wonderful tune, an exemplar of a particular kind of wittily forlorn country song. (Willie Nelson also specializes in writing these.) The subject, it would seem, is fourth-grade arithmetic, fractions in particular: "If you loved me half as much as I loved you, you wouldn't worry me half as much as you do." But there, embedded in that deceptively simple couplet, is the agonizing plight of (what Hank Williams almost certainly never called) codependence.

While I love the original recording by Williams, and there is no denying that he was one of the great singers, his bouncy arrangement and twangy belting emphasize the wryness of the lyrics at the expense of their pathos. Cline, on the other hand, slows things down and wrings every bit of sadness out of those words. She still conveys warmth and humor, however, in a way that, say, Marlene Dietrich probably would not.

Tony Bennett found many of the same notes in his memorable take, but Cline's version is the definitive one, to my way of thinking. Perhaps I could do without the harmonica.

Hank Williams, "Half As Much"
Patsy Cline, "Half As Much"

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Hey, who's that

This afternoon I noticed on MySpace that there is a group called Dragon Park. On the off chance that you weren't an adolescent in Nashville from about 1985 to 1989, that is the informal name of Fannie Mae Dees Park, a lovely spot near Vanderbilt University that for some reason is where the alternakids hung out, back in the day. I whiled away many an hour at Dragon Park. (It is called Dragon Park because there is a giant dragon sculpture.)

I was having lots of fun reading the group's posts and looking at the pictures, and then I was surprised to stumble across this snapshot. Yes, that is yours truly on the upper right, age 16 or so and looking tanner than I ever have since. This would have been about 1987. That is my lovely school chum Leigh Anne in the middle, wearing black. The other people I don't recognize, including the dazed looking guy in front of me.

As I recall, that was a rock 'n' roll show that my enterprising promoter friend booked in a conference room at some downtown hotel. More pics from that night are here.

It's weird to run across my teenage self on the Web. Good, but weird.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

O, it was a painful year

So why do I revisit this clip? Because I can't look away. It's just funny. To hear George Allen defend the "macaca" incident, you'd think he was one of the original Freedom Riders. Happily, Allen paid for his bigotry. The opponents of Harold Ford, down in my native Tennessee, did not pay for theirs.

Neither did the promoters of Wisconsin's hateful same-sex marriage ban. Now that a little time has passed, I find myself feeling more angry about it, not less. Except when I feel simply hurt and humiliated.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Funny lady

Read my review on the Daily Page of last night's performance by Margaret Cho.
Good word

"Republicans should feel relieved: Considering that in November 1942, 11 months after war was thrust upon America, President Franklin Roosevelt's party lost 45 House and nine Senate seats (there were then just 96 senators), Tuesday's losses were not excessive punishment for the party that has presided over what is arguably the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history."

-- George Will

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Good word

"While once all the best gay men were closeted, now the only adults you find in the closet are the fearful, the pathetic and the hypocritical."

-- Dan Savage
Well, that was close

Or not. Look at how Wisconsinites voted on the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Thanks for the love, Wisconsinites!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Love the Rockettes


Sweet tunes

As I have noted before, dining at the local outlet of the Cracker Barrel fills me with guilt and dread. But we were in the neighborhood last night, and it was suppertime, and salt-cured country ham is, well, it's really good. So in we went.

And I wanted to mention: One thing I didn't note in that previous blog entry is that the house music at Cracker Barrel is excellent, if old-school country is your thing. Over our biscuits and gravy we heard: Bill Monroe, "Uncle Pen"; Jim Reeves, "He'll Have to Go"; Faron Young, "Occasional Wife"; Patsy Cline, "San Antonio Rose"; and many others I am forgetting.

We also heard Martina McBride's 1995 hit "Wild Angels," about which I was less excited.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Geek on board

I have long been intrigued by Linux, the open-source operating system that is, in some circles, a totem of faith. My curiosity never carried me very far, though. Over the years I have used boot CDs to briefly start Linux on various computers, at which point I have gazed at the graphical interface, which looks much like Microsoft Windows; clicked around a bit; shrugged; and then gotten back to playing Minesweeper.

Recently, however, I unearthed an ancient computer of mine, a Hewlett-Packard that seemed miraculously speedy when I bought it in 1995. Ereck and I had been in need of another computer, and I wanted to see if this one was, by any definition, fast enough to suit our purposes. It wasn't, but fooling around with Windows on the old HP reminded me that Linux is designed to run on even the slowest computers. Perhaps I could use this one to start educating myself about Linux, just because.

So I installed a copy of Debian, the highly touted version of Linux that is available for free on the Web. And it worked, but slowly. Still, getting substantively acquainted with Linux in this way was exhilirating, and doing so reminded me that some of my earliest computing experiences were with Unix, the commercial operating system that is closely related to Linux. When I was in college, in the early 1990s, my university provided e-mail and other network services via Unix accounts, which we accessed using dumb terminals in the library.

I already had some facility, then, with the relevant commands and directory structures and so forth, and running Linux on even that desperately slow HP whetted my appetite. So last week I responded to a classified ad and paid $35 for a somewhat newer Dell machine. I performed a bit of maintenance on it (the power button was sticky and needed WD-40) and plugged in an Ethernet cable, and soon I was happily installing Linux all over again. This computer is actually usable, however -- I'm blogging from it now -- and I am having lots of fun getting programs to work on it, Firefox and Java and AOL Instant Messenger. Yes, I am going to no small amount of trouble to do what I already can do with ease on my Windows computer.

Next month, I'm told, the newest version of Debian Linux will be released. (Did you know versions of Debian Linux are named for characters in the animated Toy Story films? You do now. The current release is named Sarge, and the next one will be called Etch.) And when that happens, I suspect I will spend days reinstalling everything one more time. And I will have lots of fun doing so. Really, I will.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Special guest

On Tuesday Blues Traveler's John Popper sat in with the Hometown Sweethearts, everyone's favorite cover band. I wrote about it on the Daily Page.
What the

For musicians, MySpace just might be the greatest promotional tool to come along since the staple gun. But songsters should take note of something I recently learned the hard way: Any business-related e-mailing really shouldn't be done with MySpace's messaging feature. E-mails in a MySpace inbox don't necessarily stick around very long, partly because when people delete their profiles -- as is known to happen in the highly volatile universe of social-networking Web sites -- any messages they sent go with them.

Who cares, right? But as I was preparing to play a private gig last Saturday afternoon, I realized to my dismay that my messages to and from the client were gone from MySpace because, yes, his profile had gone away. These were messages that contained such information as: Where the gig was, and when I was supposed to be there.

Fortunately I had made a few notes, and on the basis of them I somehow managed to show up at the right place, at the right time. And if the worst had happened, I suppose I could have -- ulp -- called him. That would have inspired confidence! Anyway, it's good to have stuff in writing. I normally save and archive my electronic messages as meticulously as any congressional page would, so it was unsettling when the MySpace messages went poof.

My advice to musicans: Be grateful that MySpace makes fielding gig inquiries so effortless, but once you've gotten a query, switch to traditional e-mail for everything else.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

That boy's got talent

I commend to you the musical creations of my oldest friend and earliest musical collaborator Walter Biffle, who has set up shop on MySpace as Snuffy. Especially, be sure to take note of the song "Stuff." Good stuff.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Good word

"Beware of people who misquote themselves while purporting to display candor."

-- George Will
The gang was all there

Strange what sparks a memory. This election season, and especially its echoes of the election season of 1994, take me back to that storied autumn a dozen years ago. It was a noteworthy fall for me, because it was one of about two times in my life when I belonged to a gang, a clique, a group of a dozen or more people who socialize mostly together. I have otherwise been inclined, at any given moment, to have just a handful of close friends, sometimes just one.

I was about a year out of college, and I was still living in Hyde Park, my old college neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. I had settled into work I liked well enough, and I had settled down in another way -- several months after breaking up with the woman I dated through most of college, much of that time unhappily, I was starting to feel normal and sociable again.

(I had to think carefully just now about when it was that we broke up. Was it really 1994? Or was it 1993? They are fading, these dates and events that were once so important to me they seemed seared permanently into my being. But yes, it has to have been 1994 when we broke up, because that happened after I went to Seattle for Thanksgiving in 1993. Yes. That's right.)

That fall my friend Robin, a college student at the University of Chicago, moved into a Hyde Park apartment with two other women, also students. The three of them brought separate groups of friends together, I among them, and soon a great many of us were spending a great deal of time together, drinking and flirting and generally making merry. From weekend to weekend the party moved from apartment to apartment, and we were, as often, at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, the classic University of Chicago tavern.

Usually we dressed up for our parties. We looked pretty in jackets and cocktail dresses. We smoked cigarettes and sipped Manhattans and Rob Roys. I felt surrounded by glamour, by cultured people who made scintillating conversation.

But it couldn't last. As you might imagine, gossip began to corrode the esprit de corps. There were strong personalities. There were arguments. Sides were taken. The gang began to collapse, and then it was all over. Everyone moved on. Alas.

I associate that time so strongly with the 1994 elections because I remember election night so vividly. A small group of us had gathered in the home of, oddly enough, Sara Paretksy, the famous crime novelist for whom one of our number was housesitting. In our jackets and cocktail dresses we were shooting pool in a basement room that featured a life-size oil portrait of Paretsky, and we were listening to the election coverage on National Public Radio. I recall that as race after race went to Republicans, the NPR announcers sounded more and more like they were covering a wake. It was unsettling to know an era was ending.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Consumer reports

After two uneventful years with the wireless phone service US Cellular, our contract is about to expire, and it is time to contemplate a switch. So I put to you, loyal Back With Interest readers: Which is your cell phone carrier, and are you happy with it?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Also from the pages

I forgot to mention that for Isthmus' yearly Madison Music Project supplement, which ran the week before last, I put together a roundtable discussion of local musicians who earn a living at their craft. Check it out here.

Friday, October 27, 2006

One more thing

Check out my special comment on the Daily Page about the Antigo, Wis. boy who got trapped in a vending machine.
In the pages

Other stuff of mine that's up on Isthmus' Web site: Items in my latest Nightlife column about Madison's annual Halloween riot, Piano Fondue, and First Friday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Vox pop

This week's Isthmus has letters written in response to my cover story about Wisconsin's same-sex marriage amendment. Thought-provoking stuff.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Another crutch

My other favorite word to overuse lately is lacuna -- or, better still, lacunae.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Hail the conquering hero

I was not paying attention when this happened, but the ailing Roger Ebert has begun to write film reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times again. This comes as a great relief -- I love the Roger Ebert. Read his recent remarks about what happened to him here.

I suspect I am not the only writer who overuses certain words and phrases. One of those is locution, appropriately enough, and another is discomfitingly. And I just noticed that twice in recent months I have, in the pages of Isthmus, described someone's garment as being not merely red but vivid red -- as though that actually means anything, which it doesn't.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Yum yum

Now that my employer, Isthmus newspaper, has redesigned its Web site, my monthly column of food news has begun to appear on the Web. Check out the latest installment here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

All debts

A recent Explainer column on Slate examines whether private businesses are obligated to accept cash. Evidently they're not, but what gave me pause was the link to the article on Slate's main page. It reads, "Why stores don't have to take your dirty cash," and I thought that meant the article was about whether private businesses are obligated to accept dollars that are filthy, tattered or otherwise mutilated.

That question made me recall my trip to Cambodia a few years ago. American dollars are widely accepted in Cambodia, and some businesses that cater to tourists (restaurants, firing ranges) even refuse to take the local currency, the riel. I was surprised to encounter our familiar greenbacks in the kingdom, and even more surprised when I closely examined what looked like a crisp, new dollar bill, because it bore the signature of W. Michael Blumenthal. He was Jimmy Carter's treasury secretary, you'll recall.

Yes, Cambodians regularly handle American bills that here would have disintegrated into microbes ages ago. The bills look new because Cambodians are very careful with their sawbucks, and merchants there indeed do not accept dollars that are filthy, tattered or otherwise mutiliated. I learned that when I had a torn dollar handed back to me with a polite shake of the head.

I later gave that torn dollar, and other dollars, to a Phnom Penh policeman who randomly shook me down on the street one evening. I guess members of a debased constabulary don't have to be so choosy.

As any traveler would, I brought home riel notes as souvenirs. But had I been thinking, I would have brought back some of those disco-era dollars, too.

Friday, October 20, 2006

School daze

Today for the third year running I journeyed to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to speak at the the fall conference of the Kettle Moraine Press Association. That's a group for journalistically inclined high school students, hordes of whom converged on the small campus to hear presentations by the likes of me. I talked in one session about food writing, and in another about feature writing.

On the whole the talks were fine, but the kids seemed more unruly than in previous years. Things never reached this point, happily.

On a completely unrelated note, check out my writeup on the Daily Page of David Maraniss' appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival yesterday.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Good word

"The moment Mr. Foley's e-mails became known, we saw that brand of fearmongering and bigotry at full tilt: Bush administration allies exploited the former Congressman's predatory history to spread the grotesque canard that homosexuality is a direct path to pedophilia. It's the kind of blood libel that in another era was spread about Jews."

-- Frank Rich ($)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Yes, I'll hold

Yesterday on CNN's "Reliable Sources," Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette fame (and now of said this:
Bloggers really are kind of parasitic on the actual reporting that many mainstream media outlets do. Let's face it, reporting is very expensive, it's very time consuming. It's not something that has immediate rewards. And blogging for all the good things that it can do, the kind of collective intelligence can bring to analysis, isn't -- isn't the kind of medium that really sustains any kind of thoughtful investigation.
Bloggers indeed are not known for doing original reporting, and instead commonly link to mainstream news outlets as their sources -- and, as commonly, to other bloggers.

Why is this? Does anything prevent bloggers from, to paraphrase Nicholas Lemann, calling powerful people on the phone and asking them blunt and impertinent questions, then reporting the responses? And would we all benefit if bloggers habitually did? Probably, though the change would come at the expense of newspaper journalists like yours truly.

But the fact is, it's not particularly fun to call powerful people and ask them blunt and impertinent questions. It can be downright uncomfortable, actually, though it gets easier with practice. It's a skill, really, and it helps make journalists journalists.

Friday, October 13, 2006


When I can't think of anything to write about on the Web, I can always write about something I wrote for the Web on another Web site.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

You had to be there

To you pop culture mavens I commend this Nashville Scene article, from last August, about the Music City's rock milieu in the 1980s. I was a youth there in those days, and it was a heady time, when the alternative-country genre known as cowpunk seemed on the verge of breaking through in a big way. That was thanks especially to the musical pyrotechnics of Jason and the Scorchers, a truly marvelous '80s Nashville band.

The breakthrough didn't quite happen -- quick, how many other cowpunk bands can you name? -- but there was a kind of fervor going around in that small network of clubs and bands. And then, suddenly, it was all over. Mainstream country's commercial triumph under Garth Brooks was about to get underway, and there was not much room left in Nashville for quirky alternative types.

After the Scorchers, my favorite group in the scene was Raging Fire, which combined the twangy urgency of cowpunk and the psychedelic swirl of another '80s musical subgenre, the paisley underground. Check out Raging Fire's magnum opus, "A Family Thing."

Monday, October 09, 2006


The Grand Old Party must have wished upon a star, since really, no news development could knock a pederastic congressman and an accompanying swirl of corruption out of the headlines four weeks before an election. Absolutely no news development. Well, maybe one news development.


I read with interest this article about gossip columnist Lloyd Grove, who after a three-year stint has left his job with the New York Daily News. If you watched the reality television series "Tabloid Wars," which aired on Bravo last August, you'll recall the moment in the debut episode when Grove reveals that he does not know who Sheryl Crow is. Yes, a New York gossip columnist who does not know who Sheryl Crow is.

But surely that's not why he left his job.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

In the paper

Check out my cover story in the latest Isthmus, about how religious groups are organizing for and against Wisconsin's proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Good (bad?) word

"Usually, the MSM use the term 'alternative weekly' as code for 'a paper that readers should not take seriously.'"

-- Thomas Francis, New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Thursday, October 05, 2006

It's a puzzle

The Chicago Sun-Times' conservative, scandal-plagued columnist Robert Novak today writes this about l'affaire Foley and the Republican leadership:
Dealing with Foley was complicated because he was a known, though never a self-proclaimed, homosexual. A desire not to be accused of gay-bashing may have influenced party leaders to set aside the e-mail that the former page described as "sick, sick, sick."
Since when are Republican leaders squeamish about gay-bashing?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Lend me your ears, and assorted body parts

Saturday night we trucked out to Spring Green for one last dose of American Players Theatre. The play was Julius Caesar -- it was closing night -- and we had great fun watching the bloodbath, including the moment when the poet Cinna is torn to pieces by members of an enraged mob, who then run off brandishing his limbs and various gory bits. Better than Atari!

It was a new experience for me: APT in weather that was cool, downright cold. (I've only ever been at the height of summer.) On Saturday the skies were clear, but the temperature was forecast to be in the low 40s. So we bundled up in hats, gloves and scarves for the first time this fall, and were perfectly comfortable.

What it was, was football weather, and football fans know better than anyone that three hours on a crisp autumn evening pass all too quickly, as long as there is carnage to look at.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

My gift is my song

I enjoy playing music for charity. Musicians can't give away all their time, of course, but it's nice once in a while to perform for this or that worthy cause. Good for the soul.

But do you know what the best thing is about playing charitable events, as opposed to paying gigs? You don't have to wait around to get your money.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Good word

"Squeaky Fromme isn't the only one who can shave her head and make something of it."

-- Robert Christgau, on Sinead O'Connor

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Moonlighting strangers

Okay, I promise not to make a writing habit of the interspersed periods, but tell me this notice in today's Rhythm section is not the Greatest. Ad. Ever.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Speaking out

For many days recently there were demonstrations at the Blair Street facility of Madison Gas and Electric Company. The protestors opposed MGE's plan to reduce pension benefits.

I biked through the demonstrations each day on my way home from work, and as I did I tried to make out what their placards said. One said, spelling MGE, "Money Greedy Executives." Another said, "MGE: Your Neighborhood Enron."

There was another sign that eventually I realized said "Future 4 Sale." But do you know what I thought it said at first?

"Futon 4 Sale."

Hey, when you've gotta move the merch, you've gotta move the merch.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Fun with the Internet

Here's a curiosity for you rock-fans: The dissertation abstract of Sterling Morrison, the founding Velvet Underground guitarist who died eleven years ago last month. He earned a doctorate in medieval English literature from the University of Texas-Austin in 1986. The dissertation is called Historiographical Perspectives in the Signed Poems of Cynewulf. Did you know he was also a tugboat captain? Not Cynewulf, Sterling Morrison.

Hagiography: It's my life, and it's my wife.
The modern appreciation of Cynewulf's four signed hagiographical poems--Fates of the Apostles, Juliana, Elene, and Christ II--benefits considerably from an awareness of medieval historiographical ideas (classical and Christian) in addition to a familiarity with the unique characteristics of hagiography. Unlike the modern view that hagiography is to be rigorously differentiated from historiography, the medieval conception of both treats hagiography as a species of historiography. The historiographical ideas expressed in the signed poems derive from the classical tradition which begins with Herodotus and ends with Tacitus, and which provides literary forms, emphasizes style and moral purpose in historiography, and supplants entirely the undeveloped Anglo-Saxon conception of history (as exemplified in Beowulf). The Christian tradition then subsumes these classical concepts, and the apparent incongruity of historical 'fact' on the one hand and hagiographical marvel on the other is eliminated in the four levels of medieval exegesis. In most respects, Cynewulf's signed poems are clearly the work of a traditional Anglo-Saxon poet. Cynewulf departs significantly from tradition, however, when he manipulates the hagiographical forms within which he is writing in accordance with Christian historiographical theories. Consequently, one finds that the Fates is so intensely anagogical in its orientation that it steps beyond the temporal confines of the historical Martyrology: this preoccupation with the Hereafter thus explains Cynewulf's supposed 'double ending' to the poem. In Juliana an Augustinian view of history prevails, and the schematized events depicted illustrate the conflict between the City of God and the City of Man. Elene, on the other hand, exhibits the Eusebian/Orosian view that God's governance of history is manifest in the rise of Rome and in the conversion of Constantine: the poem illustrates God's direct intrusions into history--in this case, through human agents (Constantine, Helena, and Judas Cyriacus) in search of the True Cross. And finally, Christ II reveals the tight knitting of the Christian historiographical scheme whose principal events are the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Day of Judgment: in describing the Ascension Cynewulf is thus led to consider the other parts of the structure as well (which results in a non-linear presentation of events in the poem).

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Tin can

I know it started life as a propaganda tool, and it still is that (though it is a weirdly ambiguous propaganda tool). I know it costs taxpayers zillions of dollars that could be spent on -- well, you name it.

But I still am awed and captivated by human spaceflight in general, and by the space shuttle in particular. I would go up in that thing in a heartbeat.

Welcome home, sailors.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

They don't bake

I pass this on without comment.

American idol

Here's the latest amusing Google search that brought someone to this Web site:

kelly clarkson thorough biography

Isn't that what we're all searching for?
No one said musicians aren't petty

Having blogged moments ago about the musicians' curse that is the mocking request for "Free Bird," I just thought of what will be, for me, the perfect response: To play Little Jimmy Dickens' 1965 smash hit "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose." It's a wonderful, strange song, eminently recognizable, and it will fit well in my oeuvre. How is it that I've never made a habit of playing at least one Little Jimmy Dickens song per appearance? Sorry, Jimmy.

Best of all, the tune will be, in its cheerfully hostile way, an enjoyable, passive-aggressive Fuck You to whoever yelled "'Free Bird.'" I know my bandmates will appreciate it, if no one else does -- and the best in-jokes for musicians on stage are the ones that only the musicians even notice.
And often the food is good

My friend Walter -- with whom I played in my first band, 20 years ago -- recently lamented that sometimes, playing music, he feels like so much furniture.
As a friend of mine advised me a long time ago: "Play pretty." That's what i wanna do these days. It seems the result of "playing pretty," however, is not only becoming a seamless part of the music, but also of becoming a seamless part of whatever is behind you--like a wall. You don't get noticed.

And that's been okay. I've adjusted accordingly and started enjoing being in the background. Like i said, I really hadn't thought all that much about it...until the other night...

I had finished a gig with a friend of mine (who actually is entertaining and interesting and stuff) and we were loading the gear out. As i was carrying my guitar case toward the door , this rather attractive and charmingly intoxicated chick put her arm out on the wall and cut me off. She looked at me as she swayed every so slightly and cooed:

"sooooo....i was wondering what musicians like to do after they finish playing at night..."
For me, part of being a working musician is accepting that I must on occasion blend into the walls. The consolation, in my recent experience at least, is that the more in the background I am, the better the gig pays. I've played a lot of weddings, for example, and weddings guests generally don't care who I am or how seriously I take the music. They just want to dance to "Mustang Sally" -- or, more likely, to talk while over yonder someone is singing "Mustang Sally." If they pay any attention to me, it often is in the form of a mocking request for "Free Bird," which is worse than no attention, period, but never mind.

Anyway, all this is fine, because wedding gigs are lucrative -- as opposed to club gigs, which generally don't pay well (though they pay much better in Madison than in music capitals like New York or Nashville). But club gigs have their own rewards: I generally am playing my own songs at them, and if people come, they are there -- hopefully -- to listen.

And perhaps, later, to flirt with me. I don't discourage this. It's good for my self-esteem.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The frequency

Sorry to be a laggard blogger! I am working on a story that has taken me far and wide. It will run in Isthmus soon.

Have in your thoughts Dawud Bracey, who struggled with addiction and was killed Saturday in a shootout with the police. I knew Dawud and liked him, and I was sad and surprised to see his picture on the front page of this morning's paper. It is a terrible waste. What makes someone shoot at cops?

Here's to clean living.

Friday, September 15, 2006

This just in

Like many, I watched Katie Couric's debut last week on the "CBS Evening News," and I enjoyed it. I even took a bold step: I programmed the TiVo to record the "Evening News" every night instead of ABC's "World News." The latter has long been my evening newscast of choice, but my enthusiasm for it waned after Peter Jennings died last year, and waned still more through the Elizabeth Vargas interregnum and into the era of Charlie Gibson.

Guess what: I switched back to ABC. The Couric show is too -- how you say? -- squishy. And so far, at least, it is too little about hard news, too much about Katie Couric.

What's more, I found myself missing my old friends, the ABC correspondents: Betsy Stark, Brian Ross, Dan Harris, Jeffrey Kofman -- and, especially, the marvelous White House correspondent Martha Raddatz, whom I would marry if she weren't married and I weren't gay.

But what can I say? A year and more after his passing, I miss Peter Jennings. Fortunately, he lives on, thanks to the magic of television. Here is a "Daily Show" segment that starred a wonderfully game Peter Jennings.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Good word

"(And as an editor, I don't have to actually report or write the story, only to be tormented by demanding editors. It's easier being the tormenter!)"

-- Richard L. Berke, assistant managing editor for news, the New York Times

Monday, September 11, 2006

Mi so la

Can someone please help me understand what it is that is so very satisfying about the Nairobi Trio?

I notice that a YouTube commenter asks a very similar question on that page: "Why is this SO funny?" There's something mysterious and ineffable going on here. Or perhaps I overstate the case. When is a guy in a gorilla mask just a guy in a gorilla mask? (And a trenchcoat.) (And a derby.)

Okay, just one more question: Why, at one point, does the baton seemingly transform itself into a banana?

Sunday, September 10, 2006


It pleases me that the Chicago Bears blanked the Green Bay Packers today, 26-0, in Green Bay. I'm a Bear fan from way back, and I intensely dislike the Packers. Why? Mostly it's that very unflattering color scheme of theirs. If today's outcome keeps even one person from wearing a Packers jersey to the opera here in Madison, we will all be better off.

So bear down, Chicago Bears. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and maestro Georg Solti bore down. But did they wear Bears jerseys as they were in the process of bearing down?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Good word

"I've been a little concerned about the WWIII but not as much as I thought I would be."

-- Adam Benedetto
What's old is new

Private to the Madison Symphony Orchestra: When you perform Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra this weekend, consider doing not the tired old symphonic version but the deliriously funky remake by Brazilian jazz artist Eumir Deodato.
Good word

On Elvis Costello: "Like his predecessor, Bob Dylan, this ambitious tunesmith offers more as a phrasemaker than as an analyst or a poet, more as a public image than as a thinking, feeling person."

Robert Christgau

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Space oddity

I notice the Madison Symphony Orchestra begins its season this weekend with Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra.

Do you suppose Elvis will make an appearance?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Water-colored memories?

A few weeks ago, I became convinced I was in the throes of some disastrous brain malady. The symptom: I couldn't remember words. I kept having tip-of-the-tongue moments -- eight, ten, twelve times a day. The problem grew alarming, and embarrassing. Anyone who witnessed the World's Greatest Lovers' set at Atwood Summerfest saw me blank on the opening line of my magnum opus "Too Drunk For Church." Not good.

I had all but resigned myself to bringing my brief career as a singer to a close. If I can't remember lyrics, I'm sunk, not least because TelePrompTers are expensive, and I'm not yet ready to simply clip lyrics to the microphone stand, as I saw 82-year-old Hank Snow do at the "Grand Ole Opry" shortly before he passed away.

As Maximilian Schell memorably said in The Black Hole, something caused this, but what caused that cause? At about the same time that my affliction took hold, Isthmus ran an article about high manganese levels in Madison's drinking water. Excess manganese can cause neurological problems, I read, and fear began to grip me. Was the city water robbing me of my ability to sing "El Paso"? I started drinking only bottled water.

Time passed, I took a vacation, I stopped worrying, and lo and behold: The memory difficulties have largely subsided. I now can conjure up the opening line of "Too Drunk For Church," though I don't think I'm quite ready to tackle "El Paso" just yet.

But we're out of bottled water here at the house, and I just drank a glass of tap water. I hope that...what was I saying?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


For a look at another Corvair, check out this public service announcement that anyone who was a Tennessean in the 1970s can never forget. What I want to know is, why did they have to bring class into it? Gramsci scholars answer first.

Good word

I cried when I wrote this song
Sue me if I play too long

-- Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, "Deacon Blues"

Monday, September 04, 2006

At any speed

Apropos of nothing, here's a picture of my first car, a 1964 Chevrolet Corvair, outside my favorite high school eatery, ca. 1987.

Friday, September 01, 2006


Wednesday evening, I was startled by MSNBC newsman Keith Olbermann's blistering response to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "appeasement" speech on Tuesday. Two days later, I'm still startled.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Movin' on up

Great news to share: As of last week, I am Isthmus newspaper's Features Editor.

Quick, someone tell me what features are. I've been faking it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Good word

"What symmetrical digits!"

-- W.C. Fields, of Mae West's fingers

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Way up north

A word, at last, about our vacation a couple of weeks ago. We spent a week in Bayfield, Wis., an old Lake Superior fishing village that has elegantly transformed itself into an attractive and peaceful vacation spot. Many resort towns -- Wisconsin Dells, for example, and Gatlinburg, Tenn. -- sprout tacky diversions that distract visitors from the natural splendor all around, but in Bayfield the focus is still the Great Lake and the grand Apostle Islands. Sailboats fill the harbors of the tiny town, and seemingly every other car that drives through has kayaks attached.

Bayfield had its heyday around the turn of the last century, and much Victoriana remains. Among the pretty old buildings are the Carnegie Library, where yours truly availed himself of the wireless Internet (even during off hours -- which is why, below, you see me hanging out on the porch), and Christ Episcopal Church, a quietly magnificent "carpenter Gothic" structure where we attended a lovely Mass and, a few days later, heard the Madison soprano Kathy Otterson sing Schumann's Op. 39 Liederkreis, as part of the church's annual (Mostly) Schubert Festival.

For the most part, though, we spent our time outdoors, including a couple of days on wondrous Madeline Island, the only Apostle Island that is not part of the National Lakeshore. The beach on Madeline Island is a stunner. This shady picture doesn't quite do it justice, except that you can see how the beach seems to recede endlessly into the distance.

On Madeline Island we spent an afternoon hiking in Big Bay State Park, where trails run near the beautiful sandstone outcroppings. On our hike we got startlingly close to some deer (perhaps too close for comfort -- yes to pretty deer; no to Lyme disease).

One afternoon on Madeline Island saw the near-total collapse of my David Letterman backpack. Wonderful, resourceful Ereck found a sewing kit at the local commissary, though, and set things right. (As an insurance policy, he reinforced the seam with safety pins.) The day was saved, and off we biked.

We did not visit any of the other Apostle Islands, but one day we saw much of the National Lakeshore over the course of a three-hour boat tour. The views were spectacular.

The weather was mostly great. The one rainy afternoon we spent at the Bayfield Maritime Museum, where I learned more about shipwrecks and fishnet strategy than I can ever hope to use.

We ate lavishly, thanks in part to the very good restaurants in Bayfield and LaPoint, the town on Madeline Island (there are, I'm glad to report, no chain restaurants in either burg), but thanks mostly to wonderful, resourceful Ereck, who prepared many of our meals. At his wise urging we sampled, among other local treats, the tasty whitefish spread sold at Newago's.

We spent an evening in nearby Ashland, whose charms are rather more prosaic than Bayfield's. One of them is the Bay movie theater, where we saw Miami Vice, a film about an altogether different kind of maritime culture. The Bay has a beautiful marquee, and a surprise: In some of the auditoriums are splendid murals that, theater employees told us, date to the 1930s.

Would we go back up north? In a heartbeat. Next time, though, we may skip the gaudy delights of Bayfield and Ashland and instead hole up in a cabin on Madeline Island.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

One country, two systems

Here's another highlight, a picture my friend took in Beijing. All the chairman is missing is a trucker cap.

Competing with Fotomat when competing with Fotomat wasn't cool

I'm going through a shoebox of old photographs, and so far the most interesting thing I've found is not a picture at all -- or, at least, not a picture I took. Feast your eyes on this primo artifact of Music City living, circa 1984. Nashvillians in the know knew where to bring their snaps.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Good word

"You can't rebel against Roy Orbison with music."

-- Roy Orbison, Jr.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Baked goods

The novelist Douglas Coupland blogs on the Web site of the New York Times, and in a recent entry he recalled the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It turns out he was marooned here in Madison after all the flights were grounded:
By the fifth day in Madison, I was beginning to think, Hmmm ... maybe if I'm stuck here for the rest of my life I could make a go of it. It's a pretty little town -- like TV's "Happy Days" -- nice houses and Mrs. Cunninghams all over the place making endless batches of cookies and cooling them on the ledges of Dutch doors.
His impressions of our fair city seem accurate, up to a point. What he probably didn't realize is that there was pot in those cookies.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Okay, this is funny

Why stop at merely bullying a teenage kidnapping victim on national television? When you can also patronize her.
Good word

"Reporting -- meaning the tradition by which a member of a distinct occupational category gets to cross the usual bounds of geography and class, to go where important things are happening, to ask powerful people blunt and impertinent questions, and to report back, reliably and in plain language, to a general audience -- is a distinctive, fairly recent invention."

-- Nicholas Lemann

Monday, August 21, 2006

Brush with greatness

In Bayfield we stayed at Gruenke's First Street Inn, a place that is noteworthy in part because whitefish livers, a signature Bayfield delicacy, reportedly were first served there.

But Gruenke's has another claim to fame: John F. Kennedy, Jr. was once a guest. In a modern twist on George Washington Slept Here, the late scion is immortalized in a shrine that takes up much of one wall in the dining room. The arrangement includes his bill from the restaurant, and his registration form. The latter is signed, simply, "John Kennedy," and I confess that seeing his signature gave me shivers.

There also is a photograph of a light aircraft. Whether it's that light aircraft, I don't want to know.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Hallo again

We just got back from a week in Bayfield, Wis., way up on Lake Superior. Achingly beautiful up there. Lots more to tell.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Am I old-fashioned? I'm not old, but I remember a time when people whispered at libraries, or didn't talk at all. Nowadays people in libraries speak at a regular volume, or even louder than that.

I'm thinking, in particular, of the two people standing in front of me as I type this. And looking at them, I am struck by something: One is a librarian. Yes -- and no offense to my librarian readers; I cherish you -- sometimes the librarians are talking the loudest of all.

What's to be done?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Good word

"I pulled out a line that has long served me well as a journalist: 'I'm sorry, I know I should have understood that, but I didn't. Could you please explain that once more?'"

Carol J. Loomis

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Meanwhile, back in the metropole

Today Bookish Barbara triumphs with another brilliant entry about life in Great Britain. Thank you, Bookish Barbara.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Good word

"They took my Blistex."

-- Bill Hunstein, 39

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Hand me a tissue

Lately I've been using the miracle of DVD technology to catch up with one of my guiltiest pleasures of the 1990s, the Fox series "Party of Five." That, you may recall, was the deliciously overwrought family drama about five San Francisco siblings orphaned when their folks die in a car crash.

Then as now, my appreciation for "Party of Five" is part camp, part not. The dramatic lighting and folky incidental music are self-parodic, but the characters -- flawed, desperate, grieving -- are memorable. So is the writing: in the episode we watched last night, a minor character had a line that was perfectly lovely, something like, "You make love with your fingers crossed behind your back." That's an image that is absurd and crazy and informed by the kind of bitterness that, indeed, finds its purest expression in the evening soap operas. Lines like that make "Party of Five" a treat.

For some reason, I never could abide most hour-long television dramas. Cop shows, lawyer shows, doctor shows, politician shows -- all are suffocatingly dull to me. But one genre is the exception: Hour-long family dramas, like "Family," "Eight Is Enough," "Little House on the Prairie," "Our House." Endlessly fascinating to yours truly. I was a big fan of Geena Davis' ill-starred political drama "Commander in Chief," mostly because it had strong family-drama elements.

And I'm also a fan of "Party of Five." A++++++++

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


"A little Andy Dick goes a long way."

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Rock lobster

Sorry for blog silence. I just returned from Maine, where the Junkers played their final, last-ever, farewell, we-really-mean-it reunion show for a second time this year. It was a wedding reception for my friend Mel's sister, who married her fiancee in Montreal last April. Yes, two e's at the end of fiancee: It was a same-sex wedding reception, and the happy couple cutting their cake together was one of the most inspiring sights I've ever beheld.

The other inspiring sight was Maine's craggy coast itself. The party was on a tiny peninsula 50 or so miles up the coast from Portland, and it was one breathtaking setting for a country music show. To capture a sense of what I'm talking about, I stitched together some photographs of the inlet that was our backdrop. Check them out here. Late Friday night an orange moon set over the water, and I could have just wept.

I also should disclose that I ate lobster at three consecutive meals. Dare I say it? Best gig ever.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Before the next teardrop falls

Pray for Freddy Fender.
Reporting live

Did I ever show you the picture of me and the roller derby girls in our underwear? I love journalism.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Good word

"Feet can give a lot away: they are the transvestite's Kryptonite."

-- Lauren Collins

Monday, July 31, 2006

Good word

"If you don't have a subscription to Salon Premium (and, really, why would you?), you've probably had the experience of being forced to sit through a boring ad before finally read a piece that, when you think about it, wasn't worth the time you lost in the first place."

-- Gawker

The "Hee Haw" marathon proved captivating. But would you believe I did not like the show much when I was a kid? The performances by musical guests I found dull, and I did not understand the comedy routines about poor, white Southerners. Although I am only a few generations removed from East Tennessee subsistence farmers, my childhood in suburban Nashville was comfortable, and my childish taste in pop culture ran more to "Happy Days" than Skillet Lickers. I had to get a little older before I could appreciate that there is no richer mine of comic material than the class system.

But I evidently was a faithful "Hee Haw" viewer anyway, because I learned this weekend that those performers and routines were etched permanently into my being. In particular I remember the songs cast members sang every week, like the "gloom, despair" number sung by a quartet of forlorn hillbillies. I had forgotten about one of the regular tunes, but it came rushing back to me in an instant: the one sung by four Hee Haw Honeys that begins, "Well, we're not ones to go around spreadin' rumors."

What's appealing about the show's comedy is its relaxed amiability. Even as they tell the jokes, the comedians regularly acknowledge to the camera that their material is hopelessly corny. And still they laugh and laugh.

The best musical performance I saw this weekend was a 1974 turn by George Jones, who sported a massive hair helmet and did a stunning rendition of the tearjerker "The Door." What struck me about this, as well as some very somber performances by Tammy Wynette and Hank Williams, Jr., is how disconcertingly the music of "Hee Haw" sometimes contrasted with its hokum. Country is grown-up music -- perhaps more so in 1974 than now -- and the best sad country songs are sophisticated, artfully crafted mini-operas of distress. As performed by masterful interpreters like Jones, they're devastating.

Under other circumstances, George Jones singing "The Door" would send people to bed for a week. Yet the "Hee Haw" cast merrily rolls on with more cornfield shtick. The effect is jarring, and delicious.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

It's a beautiful day

In another example of my creeping infantilism (I'm an emotional 8-year-old these days, but my goal is 3), I have begun TiVoing episodes of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." This is partly because of the great music, but mostly because Mr. Rogers is such a reassuring presence. He gazes steadily into the camera and encourages his young viewers, even flatters them, but never condescends.

Recently I witnessed one of the most moving sights ever to appear on my television, when Mr. Rogers visited Koko. That's the famous 300-pound gorilla who either does or does not communicate with American Sign Language, depending on who you ask. Whatever is going on in Koko's head, she certainly can do elaborate things with her beautiful hands. But her communication, such as it was, looked random and impulsive. Although some of her logical inferences were remarkable, even uncanny, I don't think it would be much fun to discuss Descartes with her.

She is mesmerizing, though. I got goosebumps at one point as she very delicately untied Mr. Rogers' shoes, then removed them. This was so striking, I think, because Mr. Rogers' shoes are an important part of his shtick: He unties and removes them at the beginning of every episode, then dons a pair of sneakers. There presumably is a bit of child psychology in that ritual (little children like routines, as do most of us), and it was weirdly exhilirating to watch Koko reprise it.

The most moving parts were when Koko held Mr. Rogers in steadfast embrace and stared at him with what looked for all the world like fondness. Mr. Rogers appeared uncomfortable wrapped in Koko's arms -- you would be, too -- but there came a moment near the end of the visit when, as she held him, he silently studied her face and then said to her, "There are so many things to think about, aren't there?"

She indeed looked thoughtful, and I marveled at Mr. Rogers' gift for quiet empathy. Kids love him because he looks right at their faces and tells them: You are human, and everything is okay.

I never knew this also worked on gorillas.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Gig alert

Check out my honktonk ensemble the World's Greatest Lovers at Atwood Summerfest this Saturday, July 29. We are on the Harmony Bar stage, across Atwood from the United Way (2059 Atwood Ave.), at 2:10 p.m.
Old news, but

For some reason I never tire of this.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

All singing, all dancing

All kidding aside, kudos to *NSYNC's Lance Bass for coming out as a gay man. Any time is the right time.

But he is not the first boy band performer to come out of the closet. In the modern era of boy bands, that tradition goes back at least as far as Stephen Gately, of Ireland's Boyzone. He came out around the same time I did. I recall that this seemed significant at the time.
Boy band boy gay

The mind reels.