Friday, December 31, 2010

That's a wrap!

Is it just me, or has it been a strange year? Of course it has. Most years are strange when you look back on them, because we live in a weird world. Maybe I'm just getting more attuned to the oddity of it all.

For us, the big news for the year was the BP oil spill, which now seems to have faded from the collective consciousness. Not quite as big of a bust as the last visit of Halley's comet, but I got the distinct impression that newspeople and environmentalists* were really hoping for more oil-covered birds and blackened beaches. Given our national addiction to oil, they will have to content themselves with unknown long-term environmental damage, and the chance for a repeat as we continue to push aggressively into deeper water. Maybe we will eventually awaken Godzilla.

Only slightly less believable than the twists and turns of the BP story was the New Orleans Saints winning Super Bowl XXIV. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is still a shadow of its former self, and the character of the (non French Quarter) city has probably changed forever, but that silly football game was probably more significant for the residents than any sporting event since the Miracle on Ice in 1980,

Politics seemed to get even stranger, if that's possible. The nation's ability to believe things for which there is considerable counter-evidence continues to increase, as evidenced by the fact that our most influential politician is a belligerently ignorant housewife/governor/reality star who two-thirds of the population believes to be either dangerously unqualified or some sort of sinister media mastermind. Delaware came very close to electing a witch to congress. Okay, not a witch (I saw the commercial), but I'm sure Christine O'Donnell was one of those crazy drama majors in the dorm who burned incense all the time, held seances, and probably wore a cape.

I'm currently reading a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and it has taught me two things. First, the issues in politics haven't changed at all in a hundred years. In 1910, the big issues of the day were Arab nationalists blowing things up, and giant corporations taking over the government. But if the issues haven't changed, the people in politics certainly have.  Roosevelt wrote around eighteen books (most in several volumes), not just about himself. He was an avid naturalist, historian, and pursuer of "the strenuous life." He led a cavalry charge and earned a brown belt in judo after he detached a retina and had to give up boxing. He was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt and still gave the speech he was scheduled to deliver. He had beliefs, and didn't care who knew them. He would never get elected today.

But I digress. Biscuit and I had a pretty good year overall. We managed to stay hurricane-free, and actually made up some ground on our home improvement project backlog. I am very close to finishing the never-ending bathroom remodel. The cats stayed healthy, I finally finished Moby Dick, we saw Buddy Guy in concert, and we got to see a shuttle launch.

We did lose an old and dear family friend a week before Christmas, but that seems to be part of my life now. My parents' generation is on the far side of the current expected lifespan, and very few months go by without another one passing on to what my grandfather termed "whatever is next."

Oh, I totally spaced on Movie Sunday last week. My excuse is that I was driving all day, traveling from the wine-fueled chaos that is my family Christmas to a more sedate late holiday celebration at the in-laws. I'll be back at it this week, but in the meantime you can enjoy Amy's review of True Grit. It's better than anything I could have written, anyway.

Anyway, it's been a good year, is the point. And I hope you have at least as good a year in 2011 as I had in 2010.

Happy New Year, everybody!

* I'm a huge advocate of preserving nature, the importance of biodiversity, etc., and probably maintain more extreme views of the importance of environment vs. economic development than many Sierra Club members. But I am wary of organized movements. It seems the successful ones always end up with money as their primary goal, and the rest usually fall under the control of a small group of zealots.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas wish

So maybe it hasn't been our most festive Christmas season ever. It's the second year in row we've had a Christmas week funeral, and we have both had quite a bit of stress from various quarters. We have managed almost no decorations, or shopping, or baking, or any of the other things that tend to put one in the spirit.

But sometimes the hard years are just what it takes to remind us of how delicate and fleeting it all is, and how special this time of year. The nadir of the year, the time when it is always darkest, brings with it the promise of the dawn. There is nothing that encourages us in quite the same way as singing in the graveyard. The Joy that can be had from being with family (no matter how aggravating), exchanging gifts that no one wants, eating and drinking way too much, and reflecting on the turning of the years and the promise of Christmas, just cannot be had at any other time of the year.

So on this holiest of days for Christians and retailers, we wanted to let our favorite holiday decoration deliver our message for the season. I'm not sure where young Frostie was programmed, but I suspect it's a country where English is not commonly spoken. I'm not sure what a coin top pipe is, but I'm sure they are nice.

Watch the video. You know you want to.

So from Biscuit, the cats, and me, here's wishing you a very lively I don't know. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Movie Sunday: Pirate Radio

Image from here

If you like sixties rock, you have GOT to see Pirate Radio (originally released in Britain as The Boat That Rocked). For one thing, practically everyone in it has a British accent, and says things like "bollocks," "cheers," "posh tosser," and "fortnight." And of the couple of people who aren't British, probably half of them are Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Seriously, you wouldn't believe the cast in this thing. It's a true ensemble, full of people you will probably recognize and can't name. Several are minor characters from the Harry Potter movies that make you say, "I know that dude." Or woman. Like Emma Thompson (Sybil Trelawney) and Bill Nighy (Rufus Scrimgeour). It's also got that woman from Doc Martin. The receptionist. Not the first one, the second one. Pauline, I think. What? You haven't watched Doc Martin? Do so immediately.

It's also a fun movie to watch. It's not quite what I would call a light-hearted romp, but it's definitely fun, and not too heavy. Sort of a blueberry scone of a movie. Sweet and light, but it stays with you pretty well. And did I mention the music is spectacular?

The music is spectacular. I can't even start to list all the great songs that were played during this thing. It was so good it kicked off an episode of YouTube Night at our house. You've never played YouTube night? What do you do at your house?

So here's the rules to YouTube Night.* First you need two computers. We take turns queueing up songs on YouTube, and the other one has to guess either the artist or title. Then there is often a story concerning the significance of the song. I didn't say it was a hard game, and we don't keep score or anything. But it's more fun than you might think, especially since the differences in our ages and childhood locations make it a little more interesting.

So here's a partial transcript of our latest YouTube night. See if you see anything you know.

Tower of Power: What is Hip?
Supertramp: Breakfast in America
Foreigner: Jukebox Hero
Curtis Mayfield: Superfly
Isaac Hayes (aka Chef): Shaft
Coven: One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack)
Bobby Gentry: Ode to Billy Joe
Paul Revere and the Raiders: Indian Reservation
Jimmy Dean (yes, the sausage guy): Big Bad John
Kansas: Dust in the Wind
Herman's Hermits: Henry the Eighth
Tennessee Ernie Ford: Sixteen Tons
Gerry and the Pacemakers: You'll Never Walk Alone
Jeannie C. Riley: Harper Valley PTA
The Kinks: You Really Got Me
Bobby Bare: Marie Laveau
The Zombies: Time of the Season
Mungo Jerry: In the Summertime
Waylon Jennings: Luchenbach, TX
Jefferson Airplane: White Rabbit
The Monkees: Last Train to Clarksville
Bread: Baby I'm a Want You
Bread: I Want to Make It With You
David Dundess: Old Blue Jeans
Starland Vocal Band: Afternoon Delight
Sammy Johns: Chevy Van
Helen Reddy: Angie Baby
Lobo:  Me and You and a Dog Named Boo
Bobby Gentry: Fancy
Michael Murphy: Wildfire
Dean Friedman: Ariel
Kenny Rogers and the First Edition: Ruby
Dr. Hook: Sylvia's Mother
Looking Glass: Brandy (you're a fine girl)
Jimmy Buffett: Come Monday
Mac Davis: Baby, Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me
.38 Special: Hold on Loosely
Dave Loggins: Please Come to Boston
Eagles: Lyin' Eyes
Gerry Rafferty: Baker Street
Sam Sham and the Pharoahs: Little Red Riding Hood
The Animals: House of the Rising Sun
Sinead O'Connor: Nothing Compares to You
Don Mclean: Vincent
Linda Ronstadt: Desperado

I'm totally loading all of this crap into Pandora and seeing what happens.

*Biscuit just reminded me of another important rule: You will need wine.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Quid Pro Quo

Johnny Virgil has written a book, apparently because he has less to do at work than I do. Or possibly he's one of those people who doesn't watch television fourteen hours a day. I wouldn't know. I haven't read it yet because I'm still catching up on the Twilight books, but I bet it's good. He's a talented writer and a funny guy, so you should probably buy it. Think of it as The Wonder Years, but with real kids.

Johnny Virgil

You can click right on the picture and go straight to Amazon. The Internet is like magic.

I don't usually pimp other people's stuff,* but Johnny bears a good deal of the blame for me starting a blog. Also, I don't want to wade through his old posts trying to remember what sort of hiking boots he bought, and I'm hoping he will tell me. Of course, I just know he's got regular feet, so it won't even matter. Do they make boots for hobbits? Because that's probably what I need.

* No one ever really asks me.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wax on, wax off

Most of my life I have been known as a "visionary type," or "abstract thinker." Generally, these have not been compliments. My graduate school advisor called me his "philosopher student" one time, which I still insist on interpreting as a good thing. A few years ago, one of the directors at our company asked me to come into a software requirements meeting he was holding and "do some of that crazy-talking you do."

I realize now that I am a rank amateur. My boss is internationally famous for visionary thinking, and uses  words like "aspirational," "transformational," and "entangle," often in the same sentence. We've been working on a grant proposal for the past few weeks, but he's been busy with other things, so I've been doing most of the writing. Reading through it this morning, I realized it sounds awfully pedestrian. I was very tempted to send a message asking him to run through it and add some of that crazy-talking.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Movie Sunday: Cabin Boy

Image from here

I said last week that I had been planning to do a stupid one, and they don't get much stupider than Cabin Boy. Let me start by saying that I'm not a fan of Chris Elliot. I hated him on David Letterman, and pretty much everything else I've ever seen him in, which is as little as possible. But I loved this movie. I still have no idea why.

The film was produced by Tim Burton, who was originally supposed to direct it.  Chris Elliot plays the lead, an idiotic boarding school graduate who we first meet at the waterfront, looking for his father's yacht. It features David Letterman as a fancy-lad-hating sock monkey salesman, in a cameo appearance that was an instant classic.

Instead of the yacht, Elliot ends up on a filthy fishing boat with some filthy fisherman. The ensuing odyssey is ridiculous, and strangely sweet. Somehow, the combination is perfectly tuned to Elliot's particular brand of obnoxiousness, and the result is a very funny movie.

At least some people think it's funny. I know several people who hate this movie. A lot. But if you liked The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, you will love Cabin Boy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Movie Sunday: Airplane!

Image from here

I was originally going to do a different stupid movie this week, but two things happened to change my plan. First, Leslie Nielson died, and I heard him say, I am serious ... and don't call me Shirley, about a hundred times.  But what really did it was that one of my former students dropped by while Airplane! was playing on AMC, and I realized that he had actually never seen it. In fact, while he said he had heard of it, he really had no idea what it was about. And this is one of the cooler kids, who knows a lot about old music, vintage TV, and delivers Holy Grail quotes on a regular basis.*

I tried to explain it as "an old movie full of stupid jokes, but that's not important right now," which cracked me up, but didn't really seem to help him at all.

Airplane! is like an encyclopedia of comedy. From slapstick to satire, it has examples of practically everything, though it admittedly tends toward the lower forms. But while explaining it to my friend, I was reminded of the time it was made, and the string of disaster movies that made Airplane! the Scary Movie of its time. I guess Leslie Nielson owed the revival of his career to Irwin Allen, at least indirectly.

That was another small irony of this movie. Airport, Towering Inferno, Airport 75, Earthquake, Airport 77, and all the rest, gave washed up old actors -- the kind who today would show up on Dancing with the Stars -- one more role to pay the rent for another couple of years. But Airplane! gave several washed up old dramatic actors, most notably Nielson and Lloyd Bridges, new careers in comedy, at least for a while. As dumb as it was, it really was a phenomenon. This is the sort of thing that's hard to explain to a 22 year-old.

So if you haven't seen it in a while -- or God forbid, ever -- indulge your drinking problem and watch it. You may be amazed at how many of the old jokes you know came from this movie.

* Your idea of what constitutes a cool kid may vary. But we are talking about computer science majors, here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Movie Sunday: Wilder Napalm

This is one of my favorite movies, and I doubt you've ever heard of it. The few people I know who have seen it -- usually at my recommendation -- either love it, or tend to think that the casting is interesting, and the rest is ... okay. A few have seen it as a total waste of time. Part of this difference of opinion may be because the offbeat romantic comedy on the surface acts mostly as a substrate for a form of art that I can't really describe, but that I find very appealing.

The cast is definitely interesting. It stars the guy (Arliss Howard) who reminds me of that guy (Scott Glenn) who I used to confuse with David Carradine. Howard and Dennis Quaid are cast as two estranged brothers who can start fires with their minds. Debra Winger plays Howard's wife, a budding pyromaniac under house arrest. Her husband is a firefighter, so when she gets bored, she starts small fires to get hubby and his co-workers to come for a visit.

The story, while quirky, is fairly predictable, but the story is not really the thing. I think what I like about Wilder Napalm is similar to what I like about Coen brothers films. It's the characters, and the golden moments, and some hard to define subtext that are the most memorable.  And there's singing, but only a little. It's a movie that you need to really watch, and listen to, and experience.

So if your Netflix recommendations tend towards "quirky indie films" you may want to try this one. At least now that Netflix carries it. If you prefer your fare more conventional, you should probably give it a miss.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Travel and terror

There is an excellent opinion piece by Roger Cohen in the New York Times this morning that mirrors many of my recent thoughts on the growth of Homeland Security and the TSA. If you are like 80% of Americans, then your attitude probably echoes most of my friends, somewhere along the lines of, "I'm willing to be scanned, and patted down, and all the rest, if it will keep terrorists off my plane." To some extent, I would agree.

There are only two problems with this attitude. First, it probably won't keep terrorists off your airplane. Mostly because there probably aren't going to be any terrorists on your plane. But also because each new layer of security is a response to the latest threat, and it's just added to all of the previous layers. At the same time, our enemies have already moved on to a new plan. They may be evil and/or crazy, but they are generally not stupid.

It is telling that security officials in Britain and Israel, arguably two of the best countries at securing transportation resources, have been critical of the TSA's approach. The idea that technology and procedures can be 100% effective against a suicidal human enemy is dangerously flawed, and creates a money pit into which billions upon billions of dollars will inevitably flow.

The second problem is more fundamental to the nature of the conflict. Life is 100% fatal. We can't choose whether to die, but we can choose how we live. And the United States was built on the idea that individual liberty is an "inalienable right" worth spending lives to defend.

Surrendering our liberties to protect our freedoms makes about as much sense as it sounds like it does. This is exactly what terrorists want. That's why they call them that. If they can disrupt our lives and make us afraid, then they have succeeded. It was never about how many people they could kill.

As Cohen writes, "America is a nation of openness, boldness and risk-taking. Close this nation, cow it, constrict it and you unravel its magic." Moreover, I personally believe that allowing a few wackos on the other side of the world to disrupt our lives and commerce in order to achieve some impossible guarantee of personal safety disrespects the sacrifices being made by our soldiers every day. The best way to support our troops is to be prepared to absorb a tiny bit of the risk they face. Have we really become so timid?

And is this really the best use of our shared resources? Terrorists on airplanes have killed around 3000 Americans in the past decade, depending on how one wants to count. About twice that many American soldiers have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that same period, around one hundred and fifty thousand people in the U.S. were victims of homicide. Should we expand our security procedures to the rest of our society? Would you be willing to submit to current TSA security procedures at the mall, your church, the local stadium, or your child's school?

I spent a good part of my career working with Federal bureaucracies, and I can see where this TSA thing is headed. I doubt if there is a silver bullet solution to this problem, but I know the way we're going will result mostly in more expense, more inconvenience, and very little increase in protection. And it's past time we started the conversation.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Movie Sunday: Cool Hand Luke

Picture from here

What we have here is failure ... to communicate.

This is undoubtedly the most famous line in this movie, delivered by one of the more memorable characters in movie history, but it is far from the best moment in this wonderful film. Cool Hand Luke has been one of my favorites since I first saw it as a teenager, and is still a great joy for me to watch, despite having seen it probably a dozen times.

First of all, we have a young Paul Newman playing an impossibly engaging anti-hero. If you've ever wondered why a whole generation of people have a thing for Paul Newman, watch this movie. Luke's confidence, humor, and indomitable spirit make this an unlikely feel-good movie, and sometimes makes women's pants fall down.

Also, the character actors do a wonderful job, especially George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Dragline. And of course, Strother Martin as the sadistic Captain. The memorable scenes are too numerous to, umm, remember them all. The fifty-egg bet and the one-day road project are probably my favorites.

Except for the sexiest car wash ever, that is. What Joy Harmon can do with a sponge and a bucket of soapy water is enough to make a young boy wish he were in prison. And the prisoners' reactions to it are priceless.

Picture from here

Cool Hand Luke is not all wet t-shirts and eating eggs, though. The film deals a lot with the darker side of humanity: brutality, sadism, and injustice, though most of the violence is pretty tame by today's standards. And in the end, it's a film about hope and the human spirit. At least that's what I get from it.

So if you haven't seen this one, stick it your queue or watch for it on TV. It's on every now and then. And if you have seen it, but it's been a while, watch it again. It's a treasure.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Movie Sunday: Meet Me in St. Louis

Image from here

I figured I had better do something light-hearted before Amy stops reading this altogether, so we're doing MGM's 1944 classic musical, Eat Meet Me in St. Louis. Actually, we can probably throw in Singin' in the Rain while we're at it, since I will probably never do this again.

I'm not really a big fan of musicals in general. My mother was all about them when I was a child, and many of the LP's that she played on our big console record player were soundtracks. It got worse when she got an Electra 225 with a cassette player. I thought if I heard about how the wind comes sweepin' down the plain in Oklahoma one more time, or how unsinkable Molly Brown was, I was going to pull out my hair.* My hatred of musicals peaked when I had to sit through my older brother's junior high school production of H.M.S. Pinafore, which I know is technically an opera, but whatever. Such distinctions were lost on me in fourth grade.

But high school boys will follow high school girls almost anywhere, so when Meet Me in St. Louis played on Sunday night at the Arts Center, I was there. And I have to confess that I was pleasantly surprised. It was a nice little family comedy, centered around a group of children and their misadventures. And the singing and dancing aren't quite so ridiculous as I had feared. Think Sound of Music, but with the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair instead of Nazis.

The most memorable part of the film today is probably Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Apparently, the song was originally supposed to be about the soldiers fighting in WWII or something. The fact that this movie was supposed to occur in 1904 really didn't enter into the decision to change the lyrics, such was the fantasy-land that was 1940's musicals. They decided to rewrite the lyrics because the original seemed too sad to sing to a little girl.

Singin' In the Rain came out almost a decade later, but is another opportunity to see the old people in laxative commercials when they were young and hot, sporting pointed breasts and pencil-thin mustaches.** The plot is more zany but just as predictable as Meet Me in St. Louis, and is really no different than a bomb shelter full of other musical comedies of the 1950's. This one is special because of the dancing.

If you're a fan of Dancing with the Stars -- which I definitely am not -- you owe it to yourself to see some of these old movies starring people who really knew how to dance. And before it became a competitive sport. Gene Kelly is almost unbelievable, and the cast is packed with first-rate dancers. The notable exception is Debbie Reynolds, who was apparently a gymnast with very little dance experience. Kelly was quite mean to her, and was surprised she would talk to him after the film. This led to Fred Astaire famously finding her "crying beneath a piano," and agreeing to help her with her dancing.

Of course, it's the title song dance sequence that has gotten most of the attention, but the whole movie is fun to watch. Especially with other people. Drunk. Maybe playing a game, or doing a puzzle or something at the same time.

*  I had hair then.

**Though hardly ever on the same person.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

And then this happened

So, Biscuit took the week off to paint the outside of our house this week. Because life is a constant party at our place. Normally, she's in the house when I leave for work, and I lock her in. Yesterday she was outside the house when I left, and -- you guessed it -- I locked her out. I'm really only about two percent conscious anymore, I think. Everything else I do happens without any real participation on my part.

Luckily, our neighbor was home, so at about lunchtime, when she realized that she was shut out of the house without keys or phone, she was able to call from his house. I was in meetings both times she called, and couldn't answer. And since it's a number I don't recognize, I wasn't going to just call it back. That's not a problem, of course, since she left messages both times she called. So, another thing I learned yesterday is that my phone hasn't been getting voicemail for ... well, I don't know how long. Thanks, [name of phone company withheld because I would like for my wife to continue working there.]

So, long story short, we realized we don't talk much during a normal day. I did e-mail her once to tell her that I would be late getting home, since my boss has this persistent belief that it's okay to schedule meetings at 4:30 in the afternoon. And I called on my way home to find out how the wine was holding out. I was on the verge of getting annoyed with her for ignoring me.

If anyone needs any further proof that this is the person I was destined to share my life with, look no further than the fact that, after a shower and a glass of wine, she was not really even mad. Or maybe she's just biding her time. Either way, this is a woman you have to respect.

Oh, and I'm taking suggestions on a good place to hide a key.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Movie Sunday: Boxing Helena is the sexiest movie you will ever want to turn off

Image from here

My last post reminded me of one of the most brilliantly disturbing movies I have ever seen: Boxing Helena. Not to say everyone will love this movie. I've had people get very angry with me for recommending it to them. It makes 9 1/2 Weeks look like Sleepless in Seattle, and can be extremely uncomfortable to watch. It also introduced me to the music of Enigma, which Biscuit has really never forgiven.

I don't want to say too much about it, because it would be easy to ruin. But it was the first film written and directed by Jennifer Lynch, David Lynch's daughter, which probably tells you something. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in the same year it won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Director.

Oh, and if you decide to try it, watch the whole thing. Quitting in the middle will just make it worse.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Can you see the real me?

Image from here

We've started watching this British TV series on DVD called Being Human.  It's about a vampire and a werewolf that live with a ghost. Sounds like the opening line of a joke, right? So far, we really like it. Perhaps even more than most stories of supernatural beings, the focus here is very much on the monster within.

I've had enough long drunken nights with enough different types of people to know that we all have a monster inside of us. Or at least people that will drink with me seem to have one. No matter how much we show to those around us, we hide a creature that we believe to be so vile that we cannot afford for even those closest to us to catch a glimpse of it. Or maybe the point is that we especially can't afford for those closest to us to see it.

I wonder about those perpetually perky types that hide their monsters beneath mountains of bunnies and flowers, or (somewhat ironically) the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Are they truly unaware of this primitive presence within themselves? Or are they ones working hardest to conceal it, lest someone catch wind of how the sight of a full moon makes them want to tear off their clothes and run howling into the forest, eviscerating those same bunnies that decorate their kitchens?

Or maybe it's not monsters for all of us. Perhaps, in what Arianna Huffington calls our "lee-zard brains," some of us are prey rather than predators, secretly longing for the fangs in our throats, and the sweet release from perpetual fear that only comes as we bleed out onto the snow. I suspect we all have a little of both. This is a theme that may get explored in this series, though it's too early to tell.

How did we get this way? Do chimpanzees hide their true motivations from their community?* Did secrets somehow evolve alongside language? I guess the ability to tell goes hand in hand with the option not to tell. But do we really need to believe that others lack the same primitive motivations as ourselves?

I suppose the answer to the last question is "yes." It is probably much easier to build civilization when we can believe that our wife has never had the urge to cuckold us with our boss, or that our children have never considered killing us in our sleep. And isn't that the whole point of civilization, after all? To allow us all to believe we live in a world of order and fairness and safety? Instead of the one we really inhabit, where a looming shadow could be the last thing we see, and the only thing keeping that moment in the future is our wits, and a great deal of luck.

*This is not to imply that I believe we are related in any way to chimpanzees.**

**But I do.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Movie Sunday: The Fifth Element is better than Citizen Kane

And before anyone starts, yes I've seen Citizen Kane, and I thought it was incredible. That's how much I like The Fifth Element.

If you haven't seen Citizen Kane, I highly recommend that you do. Then you can make up your own mind.  Not only is it probably the most beautiful film ever made in black and white, I don't know that there has ever been a more eloquent or poignant character study on film. It's a movie with the depth of a book, and just writing this makes me want to see it again.

Having said all that, it is a black and white story about a rich guy. Let's review what's in The Fifth Element:
  • space travel, pyramids, and Mangalores
  • ultimate evil
  • the perfect being*
  • a descendant of David Lee Roth (I'm pretty sure that's who that is)
  • a descendant of Prince (just guessing on this one)
  • a blue chick that can sing
  • so much shit blows up
It is almost the perfect blend of romantic comedy, action movie, and morality play. Milla Jovovich is yummy,  and as far as I can tell, not enhanced, injected, or overly pilate'd. The effects are no longer cutting edge, but it all still holds up pretty well.

I know it has Bruce Willis as the lead, but it's as much Moonlighting Bruce Willis as "yippi ki-yay motherfucker" Bruce Willis. It just works. Actually, it's just about perfect casting all around.

So let's review. Citizen Kane is widely regarded as the best film ever made. The Fifth Element is even better. See them both. Then tell me you don't want to visit Fhloston Paradise.

I'm pretty sure if I say "leeloodallasmultipass" one more time, Biscuit is going to brain me with a skillet. And I wouldn't blame her.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How to build a perfect day

I've had a lot of great days with wives, lovers and good friends. Some even by myself. But like a particularly shiny rhinestone on Dolly Parton, they may have a hard time standing out from the rest of the great days. I think to have a really perfect day, it has to stand alone, unexpected and unencumbered by context.

Image from here

And I'm not talking about perfect moments, like the birth of your child, or the time the guy in your school who looked like Ashton Kutcher kissed you in the closet at your older sister's party. Because the birth was preceded by twenty-seven hours of screaming and threats, and the Ashton look-alike never called again, even though you let him go under the shirt in the closet. See where I'm going here? Minimum six hours, all pleasant. No complications before or after. These are the rules.

I've had exactly three of these wonderful days, and after careful analysis, I have a hypothesis about how one could go about building one for oneself. Because that's what I do. Show me three unrelated food items and I will develop an hypothesis about how they would taste together in a pie. Also, I invoke really old-fashioned spelling and punctuation rules intermittently, and with no perceivable pattern. Anyway, here's my (I'll count when I'm done) rules for building a perfect day.

1. Be in high school. I can't stress this enough. Perfect days require a particular blend of energy, ignorance, and foolishness that should only be found in high school kids. If you are a grownup and still doing/believing/imagining this stuff, move out of your mom's basement and get a job. Or maybe enroll in community college. Either way, the important thing is to take off the cape, put down the bong, and join the rest of us in the real world. Oh, and if you're younger than high school age, you are really not old enough to participate in, or appreciate, the PG-13 type activities required, so you're disqualified. Sorry.

2. Go someplace unusual. Preferably someplace exotic. It doesn't have to be Phuket or Xanadu, but Six Flags or Colorado will work, for instance.

3. Ditch your parents, chaperones, or any boring or ugly friends. You're allowed no more than one wingman (or lady). I really shouldn't have to include that one, but some people just need everything spelled out for them.

4. Meet someone of the opposite sex who is probably out of your league, but just barely. It helps if they are a little bored. It can be someone of the same sex if that's how you prefer to roll. I guess. Never tried it, because it's not how I roll. Not that there's anything wrong with it. And now that I think of it, a perfect gay day may be completely different than what I'm thinking. If anyone has one of those, let me know how it goes, and I will try to develop a hypothesis.

5. Play. Shop in the straw market, ride roller coasters, or explore a frontier town together. Smile. Laugh. Hold hands. You know, the crap they stuff into montages in romantic comedies, accompanied by Beach Boys music, or upbeat indie love songs.

6. Make a fool of yourself. Sing to them, draw their picture, buy them a straw hat and pull it down on their head, or something equally ridiculous. If they don't push you down and laugh at you, this is how you know that you have left reality behind, and it's safe to go on to the next phase.

7. Unexpected deliciousness. Something that indicates you've both lost all common sense and inhibitions. None of my days involved sex, at least not by Presidential standards. But at least two involved things I never expected to do with girls I just met, especially without buying them dinner first. And all three were at least partly in semi-public. In fact, I think we probably need a corollary, or a lemma, or something.

7b. Inappropriate deliciousness in semi-public. Examples include behind the smokestack of the Carnival Mardi Gras, standing on the platform between two cars of the Durango-Silverton railroad, and behind the Spindletop at Six Flags Over Texas. This is just the right degree of naughtiness to ensure that there will be a little (but not too much) shame tossed in, which seems to be important for Americans to feel like they've enjoyed themselves.

8. Leave everyone wanting more. You're going to want a hard deadline. Let's face it, most of us lose our luster pretty quickly, and if someone is going to populate my fantasies, we need to hit it and quit it before they start telling me I would look better with long hair, or how I remind them of somebody famous but they can't think of who and it's going to drive them crazy all day.* Or how their college selection process is going, or what sort of car they hope they get for graduation. The park needs to close, ship dock, or train arrive while we both still think it's going great.

9. Never see them again.  This is really an extension of the last one, but I'm starting to feel like I can stretch this to ten rules, so I'm going for it. It's okay to write for a while, if you must, and you can stalk them on Facebook when you're older, but don't try to parlay this into any sort of relationship. First of all, it's never going to work, and you're just going to end up ruining a perfectly good memory. And no one wants to have to explain to their steady girlfriend or boyfriend why this person from Stone Mountain, Georgia, keeps calling their house.

10. Don't go back there. It's good not to return to the scene for at least twenty years, after everything has changed and you're not 100% sure you can recognize the place where all the fun happened. If you go back too soon, you're either going to put ridiculous expectations on yourself and whomever you're with for how much fun it's going to be, or you will see your original experience in the harsh light of reality, and realize that what actually happened is a mutual sexual assault between two underage strangers who were overcome by boredom and an unexpected blast of hormones. Great memories are like great wines. They definitely benefit from aging. And there is always some crap in the bottom of the bottle that you don't want to examine too closely.

*It's either Jeff Bridges or William Hurt. Let's move on.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Movie Sunday: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the best buddy movie ever

Picture from here

To be fair, one of the reasons I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as much as I do is that it came out when I was the right age, so my best friend and I got to run around for about two years calling each other Butch and Sundance. Which was a little confusing, because half the other kids in my school were doing the same thing.

But what really makes this movie awesome is two things: Paul Newman and Robert Redford. In their primes. Late primes perhaps, by current Hollywood standards, but primes nonetheless. The chemistry between these two guys is unbelievable, and you've never seen four bluer eyes on a movie screen.* They may have put Katherine Ross in the movie just so we would know they were straight.

Like many other famous Hollywood duos, this pairing almost didn't happen. Newman was a big star by this point, and Redford was, well, no one's first choice. The original plan was for Steve McQueen to play Butch, and Newman would play Sundance. They were unable to come to terms about top billing, and McQueen dropped out. Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando were all considered, but the director lobbied for Redford over the studio's objections, and eventually prevailed. Otherwise, none of us would probably know who Robert Redford is today, and there would certainly not be a Sundance Film Festival.

The movie itself is light-hearted, and slick, and a little sentimental, like good buddy stories should be. It wasn't exactly ground-breaking, but was well-placed in its time. The cinematography is amazing for the sixties, and still really good by today's standards. It won a bunch of awards, and made a big bucket of money.

The film has a great cast from top to bottom,  a few really golden moments, a couple of taglines, and somebody gets kicked in the nuts. You've gotta love a movie where a big guy takes it in the jewels. Also, Redford grew what may very well be the best mustache of all time for the role. It's almost certainly why I grew one as early as I was able.

Some critics of the day were disappointed that George Roy Hill, the director, didn't make a more serious film, like The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde. I think the criticism is justified from one point of view. There are -- as Vincent Canby put it -- signs of another, better movie hidden behind this one. But it was 1969. Everyone was probably really stoned all the time, and they are lucky they managed to get the film in the camera the right way. And making a more serious movie probably would have required reining in the characters a little, like in The Sting.

Most of all, it's hard to argue with success. This film is still one of the best-loved westerns ever. The movie, and the relationship between its protagonists, has influenced hundreds of stories and characters over the years.  And even forty years later, it's still really enjoyable to watch, which is not something we can say for most movies made in the sixties. Or last year, for that matter. It's a great way to spend two hours with a buddy.

* These days anyone can have blue(ish) eyes. If you wanted blue eyes in 1969 you had to be born with them. And while Redford's eyes were certainly blue, Paul Newman's eyes were remarkable. They were a not insignificant part of his appeal.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Movie Sunday: Bullitt

Image from here.

If you've watched more than two movies with me, you have probably heard me complain about what I consider self-indulgent directors creating films that are much longer than they need to be. One or two people have probably heard it many more times than they should have to.*  I heard a rumor somewhere that it started with studios wanting to fill videotapes or something, but whatever. The end result is action scenes that go on far longer than they should, and stories that meander off and sometimes never return.

If you want to see a great example of old school cop drama movie-making, watch Bullitt. It's the movie that sealed Steve McQueen's reputation as a badass, and contains what is still one of the best movie car chases I've ever seen. No music. No explosions or driving on the sidewalk. Just two cars hauling ass through San Francisco. It made enough of an impact at the time that a number of urban myths grew up around the scene, and the movie.

You will probably be surprised at how simple the story and effects are, and how quickly it seems to be over. I was, when I watched it again recently.

* Sorry, Biscuit.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Black Cats and Black Crowes

When I was a kid, my family had a fireworks stand. And when I say my family, I mostly mean me and my older brother, though the other two kids spent some time there, too. My parents' were the owners of the operaton, but neither of them ever spent a minute in the stand. Their end was being able to tell us that they weren't buying us [insert name of thing we wanted] because we had the fireworks money. Also, my father took as much product as he could carry to put together the fireworks display that ended our big 4th of July party. Which I never got to attend. Because I was working in the fireworks stand. But I'm not bitter. Anyway...

Image from here

We had quite a racket going. Fireworks were illegal to sell within the city limits, but our property and our neighbor's had been surrounded by the city and never annexed. We were on a busy street with good parking and about two miles closer than the next stand. We made several thousand dollars every year during the three week season. Which is not bad for a couple of teenagers during the seventies. Not that I ever got half. Even though I spent the most time in the heat, selling firecrackers to little kids that were raiding their parents' coin collections after spending all of their allowance. My brother got a bigger percentage because he was older. But I'm still not bitter.

The point of all of this is that there were little mom and pop stands like this all over the country, and you don't make that kind of money without attracting some attention from people with more money. So by the time we grew up and got out of the business, the big operations were starting to appear with their buy one, get one free promotions and air conditioning. The easy money disappeared pretty quickly, and the independents along with it.

This is exactly what's wrong with the music industry today. Well, actually what's wrong is that it's the music "industry," which is my actual point. There is so much money in music that the big studios have become music factories, and just like fast food, the secret is to make it just good enough that people will eat it. There is no reason to take a risk, or make anything different, when they have a formula that works. And since they own the distribution channels, there is no way for anyone with an independent voice to compete.

You can see the impact everywhere, though nowhere more apparent than American Idol. I mean, Kelly Clarkson? Really? They can pick an average person with a slightly above average voice, stick them in the machine and a pop star comes out.

I had a show on the college radio station at the second college I attended.*  We programmed our own shows, and typically brought a lot of it from our dorm rooms. I'm sure it was terrible, but we enjoyed ourselves, and with a listenership that numbered in the dozens, who cared, really? I was horrified to learn the other day that there is a format called "college radio" now, and that it's just another channel for big factories to market a slightly different version of mechanically separated music.

There is still good, independent music around, if you have the means and motivation to find it. Like food, local is probably best. Personally, it seems I get busier all the time, and hipness is much less important to me than it used to be, so I find myself relying more and more on old stuff. I'm fortunate to still have friends in music who turn me on to new sounds on occasion. Like Bottle Rockets. If you haven't heard them, and you like an unpolished southern rock sound (think Presidents of the United States of America meets Georgia Satellites), spin up some "Welfare Music" and see what you think.

(See how I did that thing with "Bottle Rockets," bringing us back to fireworks? That's literary, is what that  is. My English composition teacher would be proud.)

* There were four altogehter.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Movie Sunday: The Lovely Bones

Image from here.

Hey, two weeks in a row! I'm amazing.

The Lovely Bones is a Peter Jackson movie about a young girl who gets murdered by a neighbor, and probably could have been a great movie. Unfortunately, it suffers from two of my pet movie peeves. First, it was marketed as some supernatural detective story, which is not really the point at all. I can forgive that to a degree. Like most really good stories, it is hard to categorize.

The second problem is more serious, and less forgivable. The movie is longer than it needs to be, and partially because of this, has significant loose ends. (This is the part where I get to talk about how things were better in my day.) Movies used to last an hour and a half, and anything that tried to keep moviegoers in their seats for two hours or more had better be the freaking Lord of the Rings.

Lovely Bones would have been a great ninety minute story. But in order to kill two hours and a half, they were forced to introduce extra complications, which made the middle drag, and in turn created plot elements that couldn't be properly resolved.

Still, it was in interesting story, and a fresh perspective. And the cast was very strong. Even Marky Mark was good. We definitely thought it was worth the time investment.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Looking for a One Man Dog


I received a comment on a post a while back, from someone I respect, questioning my taste for a specific music artist. It didn't particularly bother me in the "oh, no, she doesn't like my music" sense. My tastes in music are all over the place, and I have never really met anyone who likes exactly the same things I do. But it did leave me pondering how I might convey the impact that some of these artists had on the period of my youth, which I think we can (mostly) all agree produced a lot of amazing music. I have struggled somewhat to find a foothold, because most of these people have long been relegated to the genre of "music old squares listen to," while many of their contemporaries have been credited with helping to change the world. But at the time, it was all one tapestry of far out groovy heavy sound.

One possible stroke of fortune in my search for common ground is that my wonder years bore some striking similarities to the present time. There were contentious racial, economic, and political divisions in the country and the world. Common people were struggling. It seemed then, as it does to many now, that global industrialization and unbounded capitalist greed would put an end to the American middle class once and for all, and that our country was being divided cleanly between the "haves" and the "trickled down upon." The country was suffering through a long, increasingly unpopular war, and optimism for the future was at an all time low.

The media narrative of the time was almost universally grim. Body counts from the meat grinder that was Viet Nam topped the news nightly. Ghettos burned in cities across America. Churches were bombed. Banks were bombed. The Manson Family unleashed their special brand of helter skelter. American college students were shot dead by the National Guard. One political figure after another found the wrong end of a gunsight. Stories like the Son of Sam killings that would dominate the national media for months in today's climate, struggled to stay on the front page. The Apollo missions were virtually the only national bright spot in this violent, troubled landscape.

They say great art is born in suffering, and the young and rapidly expanding genre of rock produced some lasting and powerful music during these years. You've heard some of it, if only in movies. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, CSN (and sometimes Y), CCR, Richie Havens, Edwin Starr, Steppenwolf, and dozens of others produced music that was fresh, relevant, and powerful. They are the soundtrack to the pain, confusion, fear and hope of a generation of Americans. Their message was simple and compelling. Get yours now; the country is burning.

In the midst of all of this, a different movement emerged. Unlike today, this was not a movement of angry and frightened old people. Those were the people in charge. These grass roots were mostly young,   overwhelmingly white, and decidedly middle class. Their fathers fought in WWII, or Korea, and went to college on the G.I. Bill. Their mothers were housewives. Their grandparents had struggled through the Great Depression. These people believed in the innate goodness of America and its citizens, but could not delude themselves that what they saw in front of them was the American Dream. Instead of taking to the streets, they turned to each other.

The soundtrack for these people was written and performed by Simon and Garfunkel, Harry Nilsson, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Jimmy Buffett, and John Denver. That's right, I said John Denver. I dare you not to think of a John Denver song right now. And almost everyone my age liked his music, whether they will admit it or not. I knew people who had his albums right next to their Iron Butterfly. 

The music did not usually focus on the burning of America, but it also wasn't about surfing, or sock hops, or fast cars. It was music of the land, the seasons, and the road. Songs about love, and growing up, reflection, and loss. These songs reminded us that every story is a personal story, and that the only way to really make the world a better place is to be kinder to the people around us. It was about the things we valued most about our country and our lives, back then. These were the songs that people would play -- and sing -- at this time of year, outside around a fire, sometimes with a goat on a spit, or a pig roasting in a hole, but always with beer, and wine in skins or screw-top bottles. They were songs you could sing while holding your breath, which was very handy in those days.

Okay, maybe I can't explain it after all. That time is long gone, and no matter how similar this time feels to old farts like me, the world is a much different place now. Wood smoke adds to our carbon footprint, and I wouldn't even begin to know where to find a goat these days. Whole Foods, maybe? Young people have more serious things to worry about than "finding themselves," like whether the corporate recruiters are going to find the toga party pictures that their friend posted on her Facebook page.  Taking to the road is something only homeless people and illegal immigrants do.*** 

I guess I will have to be content to know that the people who didn't live it will someday struggle to explain Wilco, or Coldplay, or whatever music touched their heart when it was still tender. And every time I hear Everybody's Talkin'Moondance,  Bridge Over Troubled Water, or  You've Got a Friend, I will unabashedly sing along. Singing makes us feel better, right?

* The stuff in the picture is a mixture of basil, oregano, and mint. Seriously. I grow it myself.  I wouldn't even know where to look for that name brand weed the kids smoke these days.**

** Okay, so that's not precisely 100% true. I do work at a college.  But it may as well be true. The last thing I need is to be even more confused, forgetful, lethargic, and hungry than I am already.

*** Isn't this really what the Tea Party is up in arms about? The world got more complicated without their permission? After all, these are many of the same people. They are just old, sober, and frightened now.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Movie Sunday: To Have and Have Not

I guess it's natural for us not to fully appreciate the places where we grow up. This was certainly true when I was growing up in Little Rock, a city probably best known as the location of a fairly ugly episode in the history of school desegregation and civil rights. In those days, Little Rock was a small, relatively pretty, capital city in one of the poorest states in the nation. One of the more surprising jewels of the city was the Arkansas Arts Center, featuring a theater, sculpture garden, a nice gallery, and all sorts of studios for classes and artists in residence. I took numerous classes there, confirming to all that I have no artistic talent in any medium.

When I was in high school, the Arts Center used to show classic movies on Sunday nights. We would watch a Buck Rogers serial and then be treated to one of the best films of the black and white years, featuring a lot of people that our parents would never shut up about. A group of us went almost every Sunday, and gained a real appreciation for some of these old screen gems.

I hear the Arts Center has fallen on hard times, but I still watch a lot of movies. Since my friends are tired of hearing me talk about them, I thought maybe I would write about one a week. Some will be oldies. Some will be late models that make it to the top of my queue. Some will be just plain strange, I guarantee.  We will see how long I can keep it up.

I will kick it off with one of the first shows I remember seeing at the Arts Center, and one of my favorites, To Have and Have Not.

If you're not familiar with it, this was Lauren Bacall's first film, and she and Humphrey Bogart fell in love on the set, eventually ending his marriage. The chemistry between them is more than apparent. The story is loosely based on Hemingway's novel, but the story was changed extensively, early on with the help of Hemingway himself, and later by William Faulkner, among others.

Plot-wise, it's not that much different from a number of wartime romance dramas that were typical in the mid-1940's. But you won't be watching it for the plot. Watch it for Bogie and Bacall. Few of the movie stars were really very good actors back then, at least by today's standards, but this really didn't require much acting from the two of them.

To Have and Have Not also produced one of my favorite movie lines, in one of the most memorable scenes in early film history. Bacall tells Bogart to whistle if he needs anything, and then follows with, "You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together, and ... blow."

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Happy Anniversary, Biscuit!

Biscuit and I met in the early mid-90's, when bangs were tall, boots were short, and all the cool girls drove Miatas.  I made pizza for a group of people on one of the first nights we met. This apparently made a positive impact on her opinion of me.* The pizza, and a good base of friendship, helped us get through some up and down times when we started dating a couple of years later.

After five years together, we decided that we were probably not going to be able to be rid of each other, so we got married like it was 1999. Since neither of us was interested in a big production, we snuck off to Barbados on a cruise to make an honest man of me. We lied right in the face of friends and family who said we were running off to get married. We're still denying it to a few people.

James the limo driver. Quite possibly the coolest person I have ever met.

The day itself could not have been nicer. A limo ride to the government building to fill out the paperwork, a quick stop at the florist for a bouquet, and we were off to the church on the beach.

No matter what anyone tells you, this is all it takes to get married.

The wedding coordinator served as Biscuit's maid of honor, and the limo driver was my best man. He even shot a roll of film with our camera, since we had opted to skip the photographer. Also because it was 1999, and cameras had film.

You are so jealous right now.

Some vows, a little smooching, champagne toast, a quick walk on the beach, and we were back napping in our cabin by noon.

What were you doing five minutes after your wedding?

We woke up a couple of hours later to the sound of the drunkards returning from the pirate party ship. We knew that they had been pirating it up, because we heard several people "haaaarrrrghhh" into the water below. And they definitely looked like they had been at sea for some time.

Never have so many been so drunk so early in the day. 
Except for every other day this thing sails, I suspect.

That was 11 years ago. Tonight, to commemorate the event, I will make a pizza, she will open a nice chianti, we will eat and drink entirely too much, dessert on a fistful of Tums, and fall asleep before getting around to the stuff you young people do on your anniversaries. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? Thought so.


I can't believe it's been 11 years. While on the one hand it seems like Biscuit and I have been together as long as I can remember, it feels way shorter than my first marriage, which seemed to go on for-ever. I wouldn't trade it for the world. Happy Anniversary, Biscuit!

* Biscuit is all about good food. That's why I'm always trying to learn to cook new things. When I met her, all I could make were pizza, chili, and cheese toast.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Road Stories: Ridin' the storm out, Part 2

This is one of the few artifacts to survive the ex-wife's great purge of 1984, 
when she threw away anything that meant anything to me, in retaliation 
for making her stay behind and sell the house when I got transferred.

So when we left our intrepid hero, I was screwing up the climax of REO Speedwagon's concerts and getting reamed for it every other day. I called the office after almost every show, begging them to ship me the real special effects board. But they were on some sort of cost-cutting kick, and decided that I should let Flash Gordon rewire the controller they had given me, because at least that would shut him up. I was positive this was a bad idea, but was given no choice.

Now, in their defense, the bomb cues were not coming off as planned. In my defense, this wasn't my fault. Each band member was playing to a different beat, the lighting director seemed to have no sense of timing, and the equipment was faulty. I ended up doing this sort of thing for many of the biggest acts of the day, including work for the late Kirby Wyatt, SHOWCO's own lighting director, a man whose fastidious attention to detail and standards of perfection make Tim Gunn look like a Squidbilly by comparison. This tour was the first and only time I ever had a complaint about cues.

The rewiring happened on a day off we had before REO headlined the Rockford Jam, an outdoor show at the Rockford Speedway in Rockford, IL. If you've never been to Rockford, don't sweat it. Life Magazine once said it was "as nearly typical as any city can be." It's probably best known in the rock and roll context as the home of Cheap Trick. The Rockford Jam that year featured Head East ("Never Been Any Reason"), The Cars, REO, and someone I can't remember. Since Bob was traveling on a different bus, there was no time for testing his work, but Flash wasn't concerned.

The Rockford Jam was remarkable, mostly for its lack of planning and nightmare logistics. Whoever produced this piece of shit knew nothing about outdoor shows. We had no alternate way in, so we sat in traffic for almost two hours before arriving backstage, where there was no place to park the trucks or buses. We rolled or carried the equipment piece by piece through the mud, and by the time we got the gear onstage and plugged in, it was time for the first act to start. There were no walkways cordoned off in the crowd, so every time one of us needed to go from the stage to the lighting and sound consoles at the center of the infield, we were required to walk over the crowd, trying not to step on the people, or their growing collection of fluids and other leavings. This also meant we had to run all of our cables over or around people*, and hope that no one unplugged anything. The whole day was a come-from-behind clusterfuck of epic proportions.

To make matters worse, the music was horrible. You don't take a job like this if you don't love live music, but Holy Hell this was bad. I knew by then that REO would be bad, but I assumed some of the other groups would make up for it. The first band, whose name escapes me, reminded me of the band that played my junior high dances. Head East sounded like they had all been born deaf. Worst of all, I had really been looking forward to seeing The Cars, but they were bored, wasted, off-key, and thoroughly unimpressive. Eventually, it was time for the main event.

Unfortunately, Flash Gordon wasn't even smart enough to realize that a fog curtain would be worse than useless outdoors, so I got to drag all of that crap through the mud, knowing that we would be lucky if any fog made it to the stage at all. And also knowing that it would put the band in a foul mood once again. I finally got the pyrotechnics prepped during what should have been dinner, plugged in my newly rewired pyro box, and waited for my cue.

This is the part where I have to teach you more than you ever wanted to know about concert pyrotechnics. A flashpot is generally some sort of metal container, wired with an electrical cord. The ones that are sold commercially are a couple of inches on a side, and are recommended to use up to a half teaspoon of flash powder. We used roasting pans and washtubs, and loaded between a half an ounce and a quarter pound of powder in each. An electric match or squib would be connected to the terminals on the pan, and placed in contact with the powder. When current is applied to the circuit, that's rock and roll.

Image from here.

There are any number of ways to close the circuit, from foot switches to plungers to just touching bare wires to a battery. Our board used 12 volts direct current generated by a 110 volt transformer, and had military-grade safety switches, like the setup shown in the professional grade artwork below.

Artists misconception: this isn't even right. There were
twelve switches, a push button for each, and one key 
to arm the whole system. Just work with me on this.

Each flashpot had it's own circuit, with an LED, a safety switch, and a little red button. When the key was turned, the LED's for correctly wired circuits would glow green. When the rocker cover was raised and the switch was thrown, the circuit was armed, and the light changed to red. After that, pushing the button would set off the explosion. Or at least that was the plan.

Mis-wired circuits didn't light, and I always liked to turn the key a minute or two early, so that I would have time to run around and fix any connections that may have come loose during the show. This time when I turned the key, one of the pots exploded. Hmm, that was weird. The band members turned to me as one, and gave me a look that was, by now, all too familiar. All the lights were green except for the one that had just gone off, so I waited. A half minute later, when I threw the first switch to arm the first flashpot, the one at the front right corner of the stage went off. This was right in the middle of Gary Richrath's big guitar solo, so Kevin Cronin just happened to be dancing around on the right front corner of the stage, and the explosion was about three feet from him. If I close my eyes I can still see the fury in his face, his bro-fro blowing in the breeze from the big wind machines onstage, as he dropped any pretense of being involved in the music and pointed at me in the expression that universally means, "You are dead!" He remembered where he was after a second or two, and turned back to the crowd.

Flash was thoroughly panicked by now, and was yelling into the headsets, "Turn it off! Turn it off!" I flipped down the rocker switches to disarm the rest of the pots, and another bomb went off. When I turned off the key, one of the washtubs exploded. By now, the band barely knew where they were in the song, and everyone backstage was looking at me. The real bomb cues were approaching, and the best way to disarm one is to set it off, so in the end I just randomly turned things on and flipped switches until  all of the remaining pots were expended. A couple were even on the beat. To this day, I can't tell you what the problem was, but it seemed like everything I touched was connected directly to some common firing circuit.

As soon as the show was over,** Kevin Cronin stormed over and gave me a cursing such as I have never heard. And I've worked retail. He cursed me, my company, my ancestry, and pretty much anything else he could think of, for probably two minutes. He was actually clenching his fists and stomping his little feet, he was so angry. It was like Richard Simmons impersonating Yosemite Sam. I may not have helped when I responded to this tirade with a cheerful-sounding, "Thanks for your feedback!" as he walked away. He turned and gave me another round, and I think he would have jumped on me if I hadn't been about twice his size.

I assumed I was fired, which was going to be the only thing that saved the day. Unfortunately, once people calmed down and things were explained, the band sent one of their minions to apologize for Kevin's outburst, and I think they even sent me a beer. Of course, not one of them was man enough to come himself, and Kevin always managed to be somewhere other than where I was after that.

By now, even the shop was convinced, and they shipped out my effects board the next day. One of our sound guys rewired the control box to bypass all of the safety circuits and interlocks to get us through the next couple of shows. I threw it in the dumpster behind whatever arena we were playing when the real board arrived.

I stayed on the tour for a few more weeks, when I was saved by Paul McCartney's tour to Japan. He was scheduled to use every special effect we owned, including bubble machines, so I was needed back in Dallas to get all that together and put it on a boat to Japan. That ended up being a fiasco of a different color, but that's a story for another time.

I'm only now getting to the point where I'm able to listen to a few REO songs all the way through. The onstage sound mixer for the tour, who has remained a good friend of mine, still can't make it past the opening synthesizer blast from "Ridin' the Storm Out" without suffering a minor panic attack.

* Typically, the control cables were run along the edges of arena floors, or along the side of the cordoned walkways for outdoor shows. This also tended to be the most convenient place for people who overindulged, or maybe suffered from hairballs, to relieve themselves of their gustatory burdens. You did not want to be the person whose job it was to roll up these cables at the end of the night, especially for a band like REO. And you could find the box those cables traveled in by smell alone.

** And I mean as soon as the show was over. He didn't even leave the stage after the song. The people in the front row were treated to an encore they did not expect.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Road Stories: Ridin' the storm out

So I've really been avoiding telling this story, but after Johnny Virgil wrote about taking his wife to see REO Speedwagon, I started having flashbacks of the tour that was largely responsible for me leaving the road. I still remember standing backstage in some arena in California, talking to the future ex on the phone, with Kevin Cronin in the background singing, "Golden country, your face is so red-uh," and hearing myself say, "I have GOT to find something different to do for a living."

REO had already been around for what seemed like forever when the 9 Lives tour kicked off. During my high school years, they rolled through town every three months or so, with Deep Purple, BTO, or Brownsville Station. One would headline a tour, and one of the others would open for them. When I heard that we had landed them as a client, and that I would be doing special effects for the tour, I discovered that I was drawing a blank on their music, so I asked one of the guys in the shop what songs they did. He said, "Oh, you know REO. They do ... uh ... umm ... let's go ask Garvey." I got exactly the same reaction from about a dozen other people over the next couple of days.* Finally, someone came up with Ridin' the Storm Out, which broke the memory block for all of us, and everyone started blurting out the names of REO songs: Golden Country, Roll With the Changes, Keep on Loving You, 157 Riverside Avenue, etc. I felt better. I knew and liked all of those songs, and midwestern rockers generally knew how to throw a tour.

The good feeling started to change as soon as we got to rehearsal. REO was nearing the height of their popularity, but they were also coming apart as a group. They suffered from the occupational hazard of terminal self-importance, facilitated by sycophants and douchebags, and intensified by impressive amounts of chemicals -- even by rock and roll standards. There were at least three gigantic egos onstage, and several more in the wings.

Gary Richrath, the lead guitarist, was undoubtedly the most talented, but he was fighting some pretty serious demons. We calculated that he was probably losing money while on the road. He tended to huff when he played (think Lamaze breathing), and by the end of the night there was a white crust encasing his microphone cover. I'm sure we could have scraped that off and gotten quite a buzz, but no one ever got that desperate. At least, not that I know of.

Kevin Cronin, the lead singer, was sure that he was the most talented, and suffered from major Napoleon syndrome. He insisted on playing guitar when he wasn't too busy prancing around in his little turquoise spandex pants, despite the fact that it sounded like someone sawing a guitar in half with a hacksaw. The sound man kept his guitar turned off in the house, so the audience couldn't really hear it, but it was loud and proud onstage, and contributed mightily to the cacophony that we endured nightly. Kevin was an amateur pharmacologist, and partially as a result, his mood swings were dramatic. One day we ran up on him sitting in the floor of a hotel lobby, pulling laundry from one bag and putting it in another, muttering to himself. We just kept walking.

The other members of the band were generally no more egotistical than your average rock star, but the environment was so toxic that they were always being pulled into one dispute or another. The road managers liked to play the band members off of each other to get whatever they wanted. The result was band members who barely spoke to each other, and a road staff that was not exactly the elite of the business. "Motor," their drum roadie was good, although he got a little weird when he went on the all-fruit diet. Most of the rest ... not so much. Oh, and the band sounded like crap most every night.

Without mentioning names, the biggest pain in my particular ass was Bob "Flash" Gordon, the lighting director. I will spare you my critique of his lighting style, which wasn't really my biggest problem with him. The real issue was that he was sure he knew everything important, and most of everything else. I've worked successfully with a lot of people like him since -- mostly Army generals -- but I was younger then, and I considered his existence and success a personal affront to all that was fair and decent.** I hated him a lot.

I forget exactly what effects I had to manage for the tour, but it wasn't a whole lot by my standards. We've already talked about the Spinal Tap quality fog curtain that opened the show. The other major effect was a series of fiery explosions during the last song, Ridin' the Storm Out. One of the reasons I was on the tour was that we had recently invented some giant flashpots built from #2 washtubs, and I was the only one at the time who knew how to load them, or that could be trusted not to blow up something important. We had developed them for use in the Superdome, and they created a flash and concussion in a regular arena that was hard to believe. Or justify. We had four of these that exploded together at the climax of the song (sort of a Star Wars Deathstar effect), and followed eight smaller explosions that built up to it.

Picture from here.

The effect was really rather cool, except for two problems. The first had to do with my control board. We had two dedicated special effects boards, but one was in the shop for repairs, and the other was out with Nazareth, or Genesis or somebody. So the biggest burnout in the electronics shop soldered together a little box specifically for the first leg of this tour, until we could get back to Dallas and pick up the other board. The box was crap, and for various, mostly boring reasons, it tended to take half a beat between the time I pushed the button and the time the explosion happened. But only sometimes. While this would probably be fine in a mining operation, it was definitely not close enough for rock and roll. Bob was constantly trying to convince me that he could fix it "in a matter of minutes."

The other problem was that Bob wanted the sound of the explosion, not the flash, to match the music. Like lightning and thunder, the boomy part tends to lag behind the flashy part, especially if you are sitting a few hundred feet away. So he would call the cue a split second before the beat. I don't think he realized that the timing would be different at different points in the hall. I don't think Bob took a lot of science in school.

You know who wasn't sitting a few hundred feet away? The band. From their point of view, the bombs were going off early. Or late. Or both. And since they were already pissed about the fog curtain, and each other, and their lives, and everything else, and since this particular effect closed the show, it was the last thing they had a chance to be pissed about. So one or another of them would come over and yell at me and call me names every couple of nights. They even threatened to replace me a couple of times. I don't think they liked it when I begged them to go through with it.

So after about a month of this, we arrived at the day that would bring the worst concert I have ever seen, and convince me once and for all that this would not be my life's work. But that will have to wait for Part 2. This post is already getting very long, and I'm starting to feel like there are spiders on me. I'm going to need a whiskey float and a couple of hours of Bob Dylan before I can continue.

Updated: Part 2 is finished.

* I swear to Baby Jesus that this part is true. I never saw anything like it. We were all really familiar with the band. It was just that no one could come up with a song. And these people knew music better than any hipster you ever met.

** I grew up watching way too many westerns and WW II movies, and reading about people like Don Quixote and Robin Hood.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Window world

I know. I've been busy.

Anyway, I promised a conclusion to the story of our latest home improvement project. It was really kind of anticlimactic, which is one reason I haven't been more motivated to write about it. I was sure that our adventure replacing the 40 year old windows was going to lead* to a hilarious post, including Monte Python-like shots of huge chunks of glass embedded in one of us, and arterial blood spurting all over the patio. Or at least some disgusting animal carcasses that we would find in the wall when we pulled out the old, rotten frames.

Alas, the whole thing went like clockwork. At least maybe if we're talking about an old wooden clock that has been left outside for a long time.

For those just joining us, our house was designed and built forty years ago by an engineering professor at the university where I work. She had very definite ideas about what she wanted. Most everything in the house is nonstandard, and much of it was built onsite. Our living room -- dining room combination** is paneled in native cypress, and features three large picture windows with cypress frames. Unfortunately, the water splashing on the patio had rotted the outsides of the frames, like so:

They didn't look quite this bad until we pulled off the paint and trim. 

Funny story. A few years ago, when we first noticed this problem because of gaps under the windows that lizards were crawling through, I temporarily filled the holes with Super Foam, the duck tape of the twenty-first century.  This was going to last the few weeks it took to make new frames. It was lovely, and Biscuit was thrilled with the look.

No, the tape is not left over from hurricane season.  We were 
at least attempting not to kill ourselves removing this glass.

Enter a couple of job changes, a hurricane, and the absolute impossibility of buying clear cypress lumber that is ten inches wide and two inches thick, and we lived with the foam longer than I care to admit. And since some of these boards cost more than the glass we put in the windows, I was being very careful.

Also, I removed the inside trim from the frames when this whole thing started, so that I could get exact dimensions and see exactly how the boxes were constructed. The trim laid on the floor of the dining room for the duration of the project, just to add to the overall trashy effect.

Cats love home improvement. 

But all good things must end, and eventually even I was able to finish the window frames. Biscuit applied the paint (outside), stain and polyurethane (inside), since she has just the right amount of OCD for wood finishing. All we had to do was wait for the hottest weekend of the summer, and we were ready to go.

The work itself went surprisingly smoothly, and there was only one brief episode of loud cursing and minor bleeding. Once we escalated to the 2 lb. hammer, and after a few minutes of planing, things slid more or less smoothly into place.***

For some reason, it never occurred to me to take pictures of the frames before installing them. 
Combination of wine and obliviousness, I think. 

We lived with plywood in the frames for a couple weeks, until we were able to get the glass people out.

You have no idea how happy I am to finally have this done.

Just in time for the annual hummingbird migration. So now all we have to do is paint the rest of the house. And I can get back to finishing the bathroom remodel I was working on when this whole window thing started. Seriously, it's been going on for a long time.

P.S. In other news, I spent a week at a super-nerd computer graphics conference in Los Angeles. I learned how to create a virtual water droplet that is up to 40% more watery than the current state of the art, as well as many, many other things equally as interesting. I considered writing about it, but couldn't think of a single person who reads this that would not want to poke their eyes out after one paragraph. It's already happening, isn't it?

* I found out while reviewing academic papers this past weekend that an increasing number of people have stopped using "led" as the past tense of "lead," and just treat it like "read." WTF, people!? Is us just give up on word forms and spelling completedly?

** I said it was the sixties, right?

*** That's what she said. ****

**** With the impending departure of Steve Carell from The Office, I'm afraid I'm going to have to retire twss, as well. The wife is devastated.