Saturday, December 31, 2011


"Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever."

~Mark Twain

“I want to give a really BAD party. I mean it. I want to give a party where there’s a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passed out in the cabinet de toilette. You wait and see.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

"Beer is the cause and solution to all of life's problems."

~Homer Simpson

'The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.'

~G.K. Chesterton

Friday, December 30, 2011


Just finished Marry Karr's memoir, "Lit," a scrappy, hilarious, excruciating journey through literature, hard drinking, madness and the meaning of life. Boy howdy, that's a big portion, you might say. That's a chicken fried steak smothered with gravy. And it is. You may remember Karr from the piss-poor West Texas childhood she chronicled with wicked wit in "Liar's Club," the bestselling book in the nineties that started off this memoir craze (forgive her for that maudlin trend). A bright, wounded kid, she survived poverty, rape, alcoholism and a crazy mother who set fire to her toys and tried to kill her. In "Lit," she strips and kneels and begs for mercy. She stares into the darkness. At the same time, she offers no sepia-toned homilies, no easy answers, no simple 12-step program for redemption. Just life in all its infuriating complexity. Boy, howdy. A great book.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I love this little girl. Smarter than plenty of adults, she rails against gender stereotypes. Revolution is brewing in a million pink bedrooms. Right on, lil sister!

Some people just don't get it. Adults, I mean. I just read an entire string of conversation on FB between a couple people who keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Like goldfish, they grow to the size of their fishbowl and never even imagine they're shaped by the bowl, or that there is a bowl to begin with.

This kid is wise beyond her years. Some people never develop such an awareness.


Now you tell me! After writing 105,000 words the hard way, this chump comes along and suggests the money is in short paragraphs. Okay.

There is plenty of advice out there for writers, from the man on the street with a great story idea to the professional novelist running a workshop. Some of the best advice can be found in John Gardner's books on writing (Gardner, a novelist, taught for many years) and Oakley Hall's book is also quite good. Nothing, however, beats writing itself. Like playing the piano or driving a car, reading about it just isn't enough. One must practice it, on a daily basis if possible, until it becomes second nature. Imagine thinking you can drive a car simply because you've read the driver's manual!

All agree that clarity is vital, as well as a love of language (without going overboard into flowery, distracting purple prose), and that, essentially, something must happen to someone who wants something. That's simplifying it, but that's the nut. Oh, and read a lot. Don't waste your time reinventing the wheel when familiarity with good writing will place you further along your creative path.

Advice comes from a variety of places. Playwright and TV writer David Mamet had some advice for his writers in an infamous, leaked memo. Mamet shouts in caps, EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE. Of course, he's right.

Interviews with writers can be helpful, and the Paris Review collections are the very best. They date back to the 1950s and are all conveniently online. From Mailer to Franzen, these chats are indispensable.

Now write.

Friday, December 23, 2011


A rare holiday treat: Bob Dylan's "Renaldo & Clara" in its entirety. You may not like it. It's pretty strange, after all, being somewhat chaotic and hard to define. It's an avant-garde art film, a mythical hero's journey, part poetic puzzle, part Commedia del-Arte, interwoven with excellent concert performances, all filmed during the Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975. Maybe you had to be there.

Bob Dylan dreamed up the Rolling Thunder Revue after "Blood on the Tracks." He'd just finished a king hell tour backed by The Band in 1974, but this would be different. He was working on a new album, what would become "Desire," and all summer long he'd been showing up in the old folk clubs in the Village, unannounced, to play a few songs just like in the old days. He wanted to bring back some of that spirit. Why not bring this on the road? Just gather up some old friends and play a string of small venues? If the '74 tour was a supersonic jetliner, Rolling Thunder would be a ramshackle gypsy wagon, part Commedia del'Arte and part sixties last hurrah, a raggedy collection of troubadours in masks and facepaint who magically appeared, played, and then disappeared like thieves in the night. Why not? Expect the impossible! So they painted an old-fashioned circus banner and made some phone calls. Dylan asked Joan Baez to come along, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, poet Allen Ginsberg, playwright Sam Shepard and Mick Ronson from Bowie's band. At one point or another Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen tagged along.

It was different from the big stadium rock tours of the day, and Dylan's enthusiasm was contagious. For the first time in years, lucky crowds heard songs that hadn't been released, strange new songs. So far, the only song that had been heard from the upcoming album was "Hurricane," which was rush-released to help raise awareness of Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, a black boxer unjustly imprisoned. Live, the song was red hot and featured the wild gypsy violin playing of Scarlet Rivera. There was passion and poetry and wild new music. Spirits were high.

As luck would have it, I caught the Rolling Thunder Revue in Providence. During a cross-country road trip in a van, we picked up a longhaired hitcher outside Boston who was wild-eyed with excitement. "You going to see Dylan?" He frantically explained Dylan was playing in a few hours in Providence--it had just been announced on the radio--and since we were outside Boston we had to skedaddle. At that point, we only had two playable eight-tracks (yes, eight tracks), one of Clapton live, and the other Dylan's latest record, "Blood on the Tracks." We made it somehow. The place was jammed. Met David Blue, who was milling around inside chatting up some girls. Allen Ginsberg was there, too, old graybeard in a brown suit and sneakers looking like Whitman in the supermarket, a lonely old grubber eying the grocery boys. Which way did his beard point tonight? I shook his hand and muttered something about "Howl," and he wanted to explain, but I got out of there and found my seat, high in the bleachers, a last minute perch. We didn't stay there long, but drifted down to the floor, where someone saw me snapping pictures and let me sit in his third row seat for a few songs. The old circus curtain came up on Dylan and Baez singing a duet. Dylan was wearing that old hat that would later show up on his next album, "Desire," and its hatband was stuck with flowers and autumn leaves.

In this free, chaotic spirit, "Renaldo & Clara" was filmed. It came out a couple years later and puzzled theater-goers but delighted Dylan fans. By 1978, when the film was released, the world had already moved on, but it's all captured here, a ramshackle dream, an unlikely mosquito set in prehistoric amber. Tell the grandkids about this bygone era. Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Mario Batali explains the Italian tradition of having seven fish on Christmas Eve. Like Batali, I grew up in an Italian-American home on the west coast--no, not all Italians live in New York City--and interwoven with typical American Christmas festivities were ancient traditions going back to the Old Country, such as the Feast of Seven Fishes. The night before Christmas, we lit the tree and sang carols and gathered at the dining room table for la festa dei sette pesci, which generally took the form of a hearty cioppino, a stew of fish, crab, shrimp, clams, squid and more--a total of seven varieties of seafood in a delicious tomato-based broth. We'd dip crusty garlic bread into the stew and count the fish. Seven, always seven. The number is ancient and derived from some Southern Italian numerology that is biblical and symbolic and--for me, that kid waiting for Santa Claus--shrouded in Old Country mystery. Don't ask questions. Although my parents are learned, progressive people (Dad has a PhD and Mom is extremely well-read) we held on to this tradition. We were raised to appreciate our history and ethnicity and wanted to keep the old traditions alive. As far as we were concerned, there was no need to lose these colorful customs and assimilate completely into the homogenized mainstream culture. Of course, we were full-fledged Americans and saw no disconnect between the two (even if some people believed "American" meant WASP, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), and even if in some quarters retaining any ethnicity whatsoever made one a lesser, hyphenated American. Not us. Food was a wonderful way to enjoy our background, and why should we give up this delicious seafood for green bean casserole out of a Campbell's soup can? No thanks.

Nowadays the average American is more sophisticated about food. Farmers' markets and specialty stores provide easy access to fresh vegetables and fruit and good bread, but back in those days of bland Betty Crocker preparations, canned peas and fish sticks and Wonder Bread, keeping ethnic traditions alive was more than mere affection for the past, it was a matter of survival. And taste. Maybe the mainstream is finally catching up. Nowadays people consider themselves foodies, and everyone knows Italian food is more than just spaghetti and meatballs. Some even make brave attempts to pronounce the names of dishes correctly, including these commonly mispronounced ones: gnocchi (nyoh-kee), bruschetta (broo-sket-ah), ricotta (ree-koh-tah) , scampi (skahm-pee, not scamp-ee). (Eventually, after a few glasses of chianti (kyawn-tee) classico, they might attempt schiacciatina and cicerchia decorticata or the word for chickpeas, which was once used to ferret out foreign spies who simply could not pronounce it correctly).

For some people, bruschetta is tough enough. A reader wrote in to Steve Barnes in the Times Union:

I thought bruschetta was pronounced with a hard “ch,” yet servers persist in pronouncing it “sh.” Maybe I should just accept it like the local propensity for saying “fazool” instead of fagiole.

To which Barnes replied, "It seems fairly well settled that the word is pronounced 'broo-SKET-ah,' because in Italian, with the exception of perhaps a few regional/local dialects, “ch” is pronounced like 'k.' Anyone who lives in the Capital Region shouldn’t have difficulty with this even if their ignorance of Italian is absolute — just look at the word Schenectady."

In the meantime, start collecting your seven varieties of seafood for your cioppino (cho-pee-no) and get the rest of your Christmas shopping done! Bon natale!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


"This it the official OWS video to thank our supporters. This video was passed by consensus through the New York City GA on Tuesday, December 20." It was directed by David Sauvage.

Spirit, heart, idealism, courage.


The data* is in, and the scientists at Science Friday have given us another good reason to spike the egg nog. We've always known that nothing livens up a frothy nog like a splash of spirits (we've conducted our own independent experiments), but now the scientific community backs us up. And who are we to argue? If you're one of those people concerned about the raw eggs in homemade egg nog, you want to watch this video.

Egg nog is a traditional Christmas drink. People have been spiking it with their favorite alcohol for ages. How long exactly?

"By the mid-1760s patrons were drinking eggnog, juleps, sling and sanger in addition to the punch and toddy already available."
---"Taverns and Tavern Culture in the Southern Colonial Frontier: Rowan County, North Carolina, 1753-1776"

Egg nog is first mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1825 as "A drink in which the white and yolk of eggs are stirred up with hot beer, wine, or spirits."

That's the one. Some like to add bourbon, some prefer run or brandy. Some will drink a virgin nog, and that's fine, too. Some like it goopy yellow and storebought, and some prefer it homemade. A little grated nutmeg adds to the flavor, and, some claim, also acts as a mild hallucinogen but you would probably have to ingest a kilo or two to get the sugarplums really dancing. Here, as in all things, moderation is key.

*By the way, according to Grammarist, "data" was originally the plural form of datum, a Latin noun meaning a thing given. "Both words were relatively rare in English until modern times, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that English-speakers, especially scientists, began using data in the sense in which it’s used today.For as long as data/datum has been used in this sense, there have been some writers who use data as a plural count noun, and some who use it as a mass noun. In general, fighting to preserve proper Latin grammar in modern English is a lost cause. There will always be exceptions, but data is one of those words that is clearly changing to conform to modern English conventions."

So which is proper?

The Grammarist says: "It comes down to preference, and you can’t be faulted for using the one that sounds better to you. In general, data is still treated as plural in scientific and academic contexts, while it’s usually treated as singular in nonscientific contexts. In fact, using data as a plural (or using the word datum at all) can come across as pretentious in informal writing."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


A couple weeks ago, Bruce Springsteen rocked Asbury Park with some Jersey upstarts, the Gaslight Anthem. December 9, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011


To hell with Bing Crosby--this is the best version of "White Christmas." Performed by the Drifters, it features Bill Pinkney on lead bass and Clyde McPhatter on tenor. The Drifters were a doo-wop and R&B vocal group in the 1950s that had many hits. They were "the least stable vocal group" of the era, according to Rolling Stone, due to being low-paid, hired musicians. In other words, some people got very rich off the Drifters, but not the Drifters. Typical capitalist crap, you might say. Those money men are now long forgotten, yet we still have this wonderful version of "White Christmas," and many other vocal classics. This cartoon by Joshua Held is pretty cool, too. Added trivia: this song was included in the Special Features section of "A Christmas Carol," a short film I directed many years ago starring the Hoyt Street Players.

The Drifters

Sunday, December 18, 2011


The lavish spreads of some Christmas parties can be overwhelming, with food and drink and sufficient holiday cheer to win over the most misanthropic Scrooge, yet in spite of such abundance and apparent bonhomie there are troubles to be avoided the way mariners might navigate treacherous waters, those dark patches on the map that once warned sailors "there will be monsters."

The most treacherous passage runs between Scylla and Charybdis, otherwise known as "booze and food," a particularly narrow squeeze between two points that sinks many a sailor. There are dire straits of mulled port--a wine-dark sea in which clove-studded oranges float like mines--and here one might become awash in drink or dashed upon the rocks. Even experienced mariners have capsized here and the shore is strewn with shipwrecks. One might become misty-eyed after a few good glasses, feel a warm glow and love for all mankind, but it will pass. To the untrained eye, after this port the sea seems calm, but things will take a turn. More cups, this time bourbon, beer, red wine, or some nog of egg, and storms brew on the horizon. Sirens sing carols on the rocks, and colored lights--blinking, blinking, always blinking--lure the unwary deeper into the drink. The wheel spins freely, the rudder has broken free, ballast sloshes dangerously in the belly, and masts snap like pipestems.

Some make it through this passage only to be driven mad by the experience, and one finds them dancing a jig or succumbing to nonsense and glossolalia, speaking in tongues, gibbering like mad hatters as gulls wheel overhead like whirlybirds. Emboldened by drink, they flirt or flatter, sing loudly and off-key, or cleverly extoll their own virtues--cleverly, they think--and the poor, trapped party-goer is assailed with tales of their abundant fortune, their exceedingly good taste, their commendable charity work, their morally superior exercise routine, their finely-tuned knowledge of wine, say, or coffee, or the political sphere, or the state of the union. With a dull head and the excuse of drink, they never show the least bit of curiosity about anyone else, unless, of course, they have pegged that person as somehow important, well-set in the hierarchy, and then they will flatter to beat the band, batting eyelashes like silent movie actresses. Don't blame them; they're lost. They have become simple. They will extend their hand as they squeeze past you to buttonhole their intended social conquest. You may feel sad to block their route, but it's nothing personal, for they carry a detailed system of stratification as elaborate as their mum's Social Register.

Recently I watched a minor celebrity at a party peppered with pointed questions, softball questions, much in the same way, at the same party, some clueless millennials competed for the attention of a young lady in a velour tracksuit with the subtlety of ranch dogs. Despite a lot of enlightenment talk, the pecking order is alive and well. Snob are snobs, and we will always have them, but drunk they are more insufferable, so expect to encounter this breed during the holidays when drinks are flowing.

Karaoke. If singing is involved, watch out. The most inhibited people in the world--who have every reason in the world to be inhibited--lose all decency after a couple hot toddies and start thinking they're Michael Buble. God forbid. Suddenly freed by John Barleycorn, they start warbling. It never fails. As we all know, the only thing worse than an extrovert is an introvert playing an extrovert after a couple drinks. We may sympathize with these unfortunates living quiet lives of desperation, folks who quake in their boots on a daily basis, but can't they just shut up?

Some simply drink up all the liquor and move on to more booze somewhere else, leaving your house in shambles as they bar-hop across town like egrets hopping from island to island in an alcoholic archipelago. They imagine themselves soaring like eagles but they are flightless birds at heart and they barely get off the ground, and what glitters at the next stop is mostly likely guano.

There are common sense rules to partying, but--to paraphrase Voltaire--common sense ain't too common. Here are a couple: Bring something to the party. I don't mean just food and drink--though the millennials who seem to know everything, don't seem to know this. Bring something of yourself. Bring a willingness to talk and listen, or a general curiosity about others. Shut up about yourself. Nobody wants to hear you prattle on endlessly about anything and everything, so be generous with airspace. Don't drink up all the liquor and leave without thanking the host. Don't just talk to those you think are important, the celebrity you made a beeline for, the chick you want to seduce, the bartender. This looks skeezy. Be filled with holiday cheer but not so filled you blow chips on the front lawn on the way to your car. Leave with who "brung" you. If someone should give you a gift, reciprocate at some point. Don't scoop up the cookies you brought. If that's all you brought--and the host provided plentiful food and booze--it looks cheap. No, it is cheap. Leave your meager contribution, for Godsakes. Don't be an asshole. This may be your default position, the stance you fall into easily like a snowman statue weighted on the bottom. Try to be a better person than you are. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is actually good tactical advice, since you wouldn't want to stuck at a party next to a carbon copy of your worst self. Shut up and listen. Watch your weight, but don't talk about it incessantly--especially not while making excuses for all the Christmas cookies you're wolfing down. Be kind. And have a Merry Goddamn Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Time Magazine's Person of the Year: The Protester. This has been quite a busy year for the Protester, with uprisings all over the world. The cover mentions the game-changing movements of Arab spring, the demonstrations in Greece and the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has nurtured opposition offspring across the USA and even the world. Not that it takes Time Magazine to legitimize such a revolution, but it sure beats the hell out of last year's Person of the Year, Facebook CEO and billionaire Marc Zuckerberg. Still, it's undeniable that these movements for social and economic justice have spread like a prairie fire. Even Time gets it:

It's remarkable how much the protest vanguards share. Everywhere they are disproportionately young, middle class and educated. Almost all the protests this year began as independent affairs, without much encouragement from or endorsement by existing political parties or opposition bigwigs. All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries' political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt — sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change. They are fervent small-d democrats.

-from Time's cover story, by Kurt Andersen

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Lupe Fiasco has written and recorded the unofficial anthem of the Occupy Wall Street movement, "The End of the World." Fiasco is an outspoken American rapper, and one of the pioneers of the conscious hip hop movement focusing on social issues. He made his first splash in 2006 with the award-winning Food & Liquor.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Where were you? I was painting a big blue canvas when a cousin called to say they'd interrupted the football game to announce that John Lennon had been shot and killed. I immediately called a radio station to confirm the news and spoke with the equally distraught deejay. It was true. We spoke for a while and I suggested he play some happier Beatles, and maybe a Christmas message from the old fan club flexi-discs--which he didn't have. I ended up coming down to the station with some rare vinyl and recording tape carts to use on the air. The phones were ringing. My sister Bekki was with me, and we sat listening to their happy voices in the dim studio. We grew up with those boys, and this would take a while to sink in. This wasn't like some old musician dying of old age in a retirement home. We'd had music heroes die before, but this was different from losing Jim Morrison, Jim Hendrix and Janis Joplin. This was murder. John was gunned down in the streets of New York. And this was John Lennon. Nobody had shown us as much, from rock and roll to peace activism, from catchy radio tunes to avant garde art projects. He'd spoken out against the war, he'd fought with Nixon, he'd taken heat for being too far-out for even some Beatles fans. And now he was dead. On the way home from the radio station, the park blocks were already filled with people holding candles, listening to Beatles and singing along, some in tears. We stopped and sang along. It was thirty one years ago today.

From the fan club flexi-disc

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Manu Chao sings in French, Spanish, English, Italian, Galician, and Portuguese. He is one of the most influential and politically active musicians in the world today, the Woody Guthrie of his time, and you probably never heard of him. Too bad. Here he sings "Clandestino" at a protest in Arizona. The song tells of the plight of immigrants crossing the border searching for work. Manu Chao was drawn to participate in this protest by the human rights and migrant issues raised by the backward laws of Arizona (specifically Senate Bill 1070) and the tent cities created to house all the prisoners those laws have created.

You've heard of Bruce Springsteen. He sings in English. He, too, can be a political songwriter. Here he sings about the plight of migrants in "The Ghost of Tom Joad," a character you may remember from The Grapes of Wrath. In the book, and in the movie (where he is played by Henry Fonda), Tom Joad and his family are uprooted Okies hounded by poverty, injustice, rigged laws, crooked employers, company goons and violent cops. Some things never change.

These songs are more timely than ever. Unless you're Native American, your people came from somewhere else. Don't let all that Mayflower pilgrim jazz fool you, people have been escaping hunger and oppression to find America since the first "Indian" said "There goes the old neighborhood." Think about that next time you hear the word immigrant--or next time some Republican asshole tries to drum up votes by stirring up hate against the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the illegal, the clandestino.


Writers Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith discuss fact and fiction The New Yorker Festival in 2010.

From the press release:
Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and a Hugo Award for his novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." His other books include the novel "Wonder Boys," the story collections "A Model World" and "Werewolves in Their Youth," and the essay collection "Manhood for Amateurs." His stories have appeared in The New Yorker since 1987.

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels "White Teeth," which won the 2000 Whitbread First Novel Award; "The Autograph Man," which won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize; and "On Beauty," which won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction. Last year, she published "Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays," parts of which first appeared in The New Yorker. She has been contributing to the magazine since 1999.

Monday, December 5, 2011


The average American watches six hours of television a day. Of course, the average American fosters the illusion that he or she is somehow immune to its senseless churn, that he or she is somehow above it, too intelligent to fall for its gambits, well aware of its insidious ability to promote passivity and turn the viewer into a receptive ogler, an empty vessel for advertisers and the lowest common denominator. The viewers know better, and snicker to themselves as they surrender, and--according to David Foster Wallace, novelist, media observer, TV watcher, suicide--television has learned to absorb this ironic distance, to co-opt it, and present it to the viewer with a wink and a nudge. The couch potato is now a rebel, through some circuitous logic kindly provided by the medium to which we've surrendered, and "we get it." With this license, the viewer is free to partake in an embarrassing amount of TV while remaining satisfied in the conceit that he or she is in on the joke, while a hundred clones of David Letterman mock the viewer and the medium and anything earnest with a sly irony that somehow includes the couch potato. This is TV about TV, a "meta-television" whose solipsism is hermetically sealed, an airtight Moebius strip McLuhan understood instinctively many years ago that has moved beyond his classroom musings. This is an addictive drug that contains its own antidote, but just enough to keep you sufficiently healthy to take more of the drug.

The thing is, we know this. Of course we do. Television is dumb as a bag of chips, and just as enticing and "bad" for us, and you can't just eat one chip without struggling with the entire bag. We can only blame ourselves, and TV will wag it's finger at us about monitoring our intake and making good choices, all the while offering us another chip.

This is old news. What is new is how completely our reality has been distorted by television, how this piece of furniture affects our social world, our wind-down from work, our passive expectation to be entertained, our simplified view of people, ethics, politics, life itself. TV presents life as simple stories, with attractive people playing simple archetypes: the angry chef, the angry judge, the angry detective, and so on. It offers a clarity and simplicity real life is lacking, and while one feels "plugged in" to the culture at large, it prepares us for nothing--nothing, that is, but watching more TV. You know that. So does TV. Like any good narcotic, television runs the show while the addict believes he can quit any time he wants to. Don't get me wrong. I don 't recommend people quit TV any more than I recommend people quit eating potato chips. As the advertisers say, you have a choice.

I do recommend people supplement their "televisual reality" with real life, and challenge its hegemony with a walk outside, a good book, an actual conversation free from the hysterical emphasis of the sit-com rhythm w/laugh track. Wow--real people in real situations are unpredictable, illogical, needy, and not nearly as attractive as TV actors and news anchors--and if that doesn't have you running for the comfort of your remote, try adding real human problems, the kind that can't always be neatly solved by the last commercial break. Now you want your bottle and your blanket, now you want your TV world, that comfy place where you know exactly what is happening at all times, and you know good will prevail, and you know the killer will be caught, and you know the comedian will get a laugh, and you know the sometimes funny, sometimes scary real world will be kept at bay at least until the drug wears off.

What's the cure? Well, we left the comfy entertainment center and saw a play yesterday. An actual play. There were strangers to contend with. People rustling in their jackets, an old lady yawning, an uncomfortable chair. With the umbilical cord stretched this far, there is a mild unease, a tremulous feeling in the muscles that might preclude full-on panic, but one learns to adjust. The house lights dim. The actors begin their trickery, but the exit light is still lit, the chair is still...then something magical happens, an emotion, light as a mote of dust whirling in a beam of light is coaxed to the stage. The actor has studied hard, and he might forget his lines (an embarrassing moment that never occurs on television), and he may miss his cue. He holds a candle and it flickers, but what if the candle goes out? How will he continue his many, many memorized lines and relight the candle? The other actor is good, too, but he's not nearly as handsome as Pierce Brosnan...and the actress is pretty, certainly, but the actors do their job and one is willing to suspend disbelief and ignore the loud-breathing woman sitting directly behind ones chair, then this experience of drama in a dark, half-empty theater becomes absolutely magical as a shaman's spell and something that has gone on since the ancient Greeks at the very least comes alive in this small, dark room. The character is crying, ringing his hands, and the actor is crying, ringing his hands, so exposed to the gods and demons and embarrassments of a public experience, and we glimpse something the slick, polished, over-produced, dumbed down mini-dramas and comedies and dramedies of television can't even come close to presenting, but you would miss it if you didn't avail yourself to it. Of course, it's a great inconvenience. One can't control its elements as one can in the living room--changing the channel, raising the volume, controlling this tiny approximation of reality like an armchair god, even turning it off to go make a sandwich. There are strangers here. There is a risk. This hasn't been tested on some target demographic. This hasn't been concocted in a lab, filmed on some studio lot, approved by some advertiser selling his products. This is real, too real for most of us, and I recommend it highly.

Friday, December 2, 2011


If you've been paying any attention at all, you know we have a not-so-secret love/hate relationship going with the cheesy and ironic televisual reality that sparkles before our eyes and holds us passive and docile before our screens. At the same time, nothing tickles our ganglia like a trip down memory lane to revisit the broadcasts we were weaned upon. Christmastime on TV evokes both the treacly nostalgia of Christmas candy and the singular nausea of having eaten too much of it. These holiday specials are cloying and commercial, manipulative and sickeningly sweet, yet they can often pluck a string deep in our hearts though we'd be loathe to admit it. Surrender to the feeling, you old grinch. This first clip is from a Christmas special before my time, and it features Frank and Bing bumbling through a few carols like a couple drunken uncles home for the holidays. Hope you can enjoy this earnestly, and if not, well, here's a winking toast of vintage nog to make you chuckle in a post-ironic way, you cold-hearted bastard.

TV Christmastime was a very special time of year. And of course, the television Christmas season didn't officially begin until Santa Claus came floating over the hill on his triple-header Norelco electric shaver. This was a wonderful advertisement, a classic that played for decades, and with the smooth, clean shave Santa provided nobody would ever call him St. "Nick" again.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Thanksgiving Day is when Macy's has their parade, and this vintage photograph gives a rare glimpse of the Jimmy Durante balloon floating over midtown Manhattan. Everybody wants to get into the act.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Whatever you may think of the Occupy protests--that they're an inconvenience with no clear goals, an unnecessary traffic jam, or a new social movement expressing justifiable anger over an inequitable economic system--you've got to be amazed by this video from UC Davis. It starts with riot police viciously pepper-spraying peaceful, seated protesters who posed no threat to anyone. That's not the part of the video that will amaze you. In fact, that's fairly commonplace in these days of quelling insurrections. The amazing thing is that these peaceful protesters shame the cops away.

After the usual chaos, in which students were handcuffed and arrested, a few tried something new. The remaining students encircled the police and shouted "Shame on you!" They didn't strike back (which the police understand, and would deal with swiftly and severely) and they didn't exactly turn the other cheek. They "mic-checked" the cops. "Mic-checking" is when one lone voice leads a chant and the crowd repeats, a simple method of communication practiced in these Occupy protests. The lone voice of reason starts it out:

Voice: "Mic check."
Crowd: "Mic check!"

Voice: "We are willing..."
Crowd: "We are willing..."

Voice: "To give you a brief moment..."
Crowd: "To give you a brief moment..."

Voice: "Of peace..."
Crowd: "Of peace..."

Voice: "In order to take your weapons..."
Crowd: "In order to take your weapons..."

Voice: "And your friends..."
Crowd: "And your friends..."

Voice: "And go."
Crowd: "And go."

Please watch the video till the end. Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear. There's a man with a gun over there. Telling me I've got to beware. I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound? Everybody looks what's going 'round.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Tuesday night, Seattle police pepper-sprayed 84-year-old Dorli Rainey in the face in an obvious act of unnecessary police brutality. This striking image has gone viral. It has become the face of the national Occupy Wall Street movement at the time of a nationwide police crackdown. The photograph has been picked up by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times. More important, this image may give pause to centrists applauding the crackdown.

Some pictures seem beyond spin. Sadly, they are not. While most reasonable people will see what is really there, some observers (newspeople, included) will shrug this incident off as mere collateral damage, a fluke in an otherwise spotless police crackdown. Some particularly agile pundits might even justify spraying the defenseless old woman, blaming the victim for being in the wrong place at the wrong time--then cite the bravery and courage of police confronted with difficult situations. Anyone who has ever been involved in a protest, who has stood with a flimsy sign facing a phalanx of riot police, knows that intimidation is a tactic, and this sort of "overreaction" is part and parcel of clearing an area. No, it shouldn't be. Will you find this tactic in a law enforcement manual? Probably not.

Sure, cops have a tough job, but don't mention their bravery and courage, not this time. The real bravery and courage in this case is embodied by a woman in her eighties who stood up for what she believed, despite the obvious risks. It may sound counter intuitive, but this little old lady might be braver than all those tough guys on the riot squad decked out like Darth Vader with machine guns and nightsticks and teargas and pepper spray. Today, we applaud the courage of Dorli Rainey.

(click to play)

In this clip, eighty-four-year-old activist Dorli Rainey tells Keith Olbermann about her experience getting pepper-sprayed by the police during an Occupy Seattle demonstration and the need to take action and spread the word of the Occupy movement. She cites the advice of the late Catholic nun and activist Jackie Hudson to “take one more step out of your comfort zone” as an inspiration, saying, “It would be so easy to say, ‘Well I’m going to retire, I’m going to sit around, watch television or eat bonbons,’ but somebody’s got to keep ’em awake and let ’em know what is really going on in this world.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Jimmy Fallon does an uncanny Jim Morrison impersonation. The clothes and camera angles are spot on copies of the Doors on The Sullivan Show when they performed "Light My Fire" in 1967.

Butterfly in the sky...I can get twice as high...

Just so you know (I didn't) they are performing the theme song from Reading Rainbow, an American children's TV show that aired on PBS from 1983 to 2006. I must have missed that, but I remember the Doors.

The real Jim Morrison on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1967


Teargas and bulldozers. The news cycle moves on, the camp is destroyed. Coverage of Occupy Wall Street passes from initial ignoring of the protests, to reluctant coverage and disapproval based on the protesters' methods, to disapproval based on their mess and potential security problems. Police can now erase the protest with minimum guilt. You've been played, America.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


(1950) is a classic film noir that covers the last hours of doomed Frank Bigelow (Edmund O'Brien) as he fights for his life and scrambles to find his "murderer." Dark, yes, and essential if you like crime movies. The mood is saturated with darkness, a claustrophobic nightmare portrayed with expressionistic vigor. It all starts in a "jive" San Francisco nightclub called "The Fisherman," when a stranger swaps drinks with Bigelow. The house band goes wild in this scene, mirroring Bigelow's chaos and confusion in one of the earliest depictions of the Beat subculture on film. The next morning, Bigelow is sick with more than just a hangover and he visits a doctor. Tests reveal he has unknowingly swallowed a "luminous toxin," whatever that is. There is no antidote. In situations like this, it's good to get a second opinion. A second doctor agrees (Yep, luminous toxin, all right) and implies that the poisoning must have been deliberate. Bigelow remembers his drink tasted strange. He retraces his steps...

This time of year, with wet streets and brooding, overcast skies, film noir is a natural. So is music--especially lively music to pull you out of your doldrums. Enjoy this crazy jumpin' jive, and rent this classic (avoid the remake). Oh, and keep an eye on your drink.

Thanks to Billy Hagen for this clip.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


My Aunt Irene passed away October 22 at the age of 93. She was a spirited, warmhearted woman who treated people with kindness and generosity, something I recognized even as a child when many adults believed that "children should be seen and not heard." She always took time to talk with us, and treated us fairly. She told funny stories and always had some little yipper dog tagging along with her, and the last time we saw her she was with Taffy--as well as my cousins Diane, Tony and his wife Donna. We sat in their beautiful backyard, where a statue of the Virgin Mary squared off with the Buddha, and Aunt Irene told us stories about the time they attended a Flamenco dance and someone accidentally spilled wine so they secretly sopped it up with what appeared to be a napkin. Only when the dance began, and a Flamenco dancer stooped to pick up the cloth, did they realize the cloth--now soiled with wine--was part of the act. She told stories about Uncle Joe, who passed away in 1998, and how he asked for bread in a Chinese restaurant. "It's the staff of life!" he said.

Irene was born December 26, 1917 in San Francisco, to George and Lilian Brown Gibson. She graduated from St. Mary's Academy in Winslow, Washington, and Gray's Harbor Junior College in Aberdeen. She married my Uncle Joe in 1938, and had four children, my cousins Johnny, Diane, Cecelia and Tony. Irene was a dancer and she opened her own studio in 1949 where she taught tap and ballet for 35 years. When she retired, she formed a dance group, the Happy Hoofers, and performed throughout the region. We will miss you, Aunt Irene.

Friday, November 4, 2011


Attendees at an expensive breakfast were served some food for thought, thanks to Stand Up! Chicago. Union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was the keynote speaker at Chicago's Union League Club the morning of Nov 3rd, but some unexpected guests did a "mic check" and reminded him the rich and powerful are outnumbered 99 to 1.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Michele Bachmann speaking gibberish? So what's new about that? Nothing. This is a riot.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Today and tomorrow, Mexico celebrates "Dia de los Muertos," the Day of the Dead. Coming fast on the heels of Halloween, North Americans (yes, Mexicans are Americans, too) should appreciate the infinitude of colorful skulls and skeletons on these festival days, also known as All Saint's Day and All Souls' Day. The skull, or calavera, is a symbol of the festival and sugar or chocolate skulls will be seen during the celebrations, which date back to Aztec times. The holiday centers around the remembrance of the dearly departed and may include the building of shrines, parties with food and drink, and even graveside visits to share snacks or a bottle of tequila with the deceased.

Locarno play to a packed CBC house to celebrate Mexico's 'Day of the Dead'. "Locarno," according to their promotional materials, "is the Latin project of Juno award winning musician and Paperboys frontman, Tom Landa. The music, like him, is part Mexican but with strong doses of Cuban Son, Folk Music, Pop and Funk. There are threads of Son Jarocho and Salsa but the songs are more edgy and contemporary than that. The music could be compared to Manu Chao, Ozomatli or Rodrigo and Gabriela but although there are similarities it is truly original and a new flavour in the Latin music genre."

Muy sabrosa!

Friday, October 28, 2011


I took this picture of Vernazza while hiking in the Cinque Terre, and it must be one of the most beautiful views in the world. We were climbing on the celebrated trail that connects the "five lands," and we had just cleared the mountain from Monterosso and were heading down the narrow path to Vernazza. This magical town has lasted centuries clinging to the cliffs, surviving attacks from pirates and Saracens, wind storms and earthquakes. You would think it could last forever.

I was shocked to read that the Cinque Terre, especially Monterosso and Vernazza (pictured above), were nearly destroyed by flooding and mudslides. According to news reports, at least two of the five World Heritage-listed coastal villages have been all but wiped out. If you have never seen this magical spot it may be too late.

From today's Washington Post:

Flash floods and mudslides triggered by heavy rains earlier this week barreled through picturesque towns along the northwest coast, burying streets under mud, damaging homes, stores, churches and overturning vehicles.

At least nine people died. Among hard-hit towns are Monterosso and Vernazza, along the Cinque Terre hiking trail popular for its breathtaking views.

From The Telegraph (UK):

The worst affected region was Liguria, with at least two of the five World Heritage-listed 'Cinque Terre' coastal villages cut off as a result of roads being washed away.

The walking trails and picturesque fishing villages of the Cinque Terre attract hundreds of thousands of international tourists, but two of them – Vernazza and Monterosso – were severely affected as rivers of mud poured down from the hills behind them.

The mayor of Monterosso said the fishing village had all but been wiped out.

"Monterosso no longer exists," Angelo Betta told an Italian news agency.

Huge amounts of mud had swept through the tiny settlement, causing an "unimaginable disaster." The neighbouring village of Vernazza had to be evacuated by sea, with the Coast Guard rescuing stranded foreign tourists and locals.

A tourist filmed the devastation


Getting scared is good for you. A good horror movie offers catharsis, an experience of fear without risk, a way to confront ones innermost demons. Some people have nightmares, others quake in fear every waking moment, always imagining the worst, continually bracing for impact. Every creak of the old house is a monster coming to get them, every wrong number is a serial killer planning his moves, every black cat the embodiment of evil. You can't avoid fear, so why not face it head on and have some fun watching an old scary movie this Halloween?

Dr. Martin Grotjahn, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, suggests that a good horror flick--I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Blood of Dracula, etc.--can provide a means of "self-administered psychiatric therapy for America's adolescents." And not only adolescents. Dr. Grotjahn says horror films can provide a healthy catharsis for adults as well.

This Halloween, pick something scary from the video shelves or the Netflix queue. Go for an old classic or something cheesy like Kiss of the Vampire (the 1962 original, which scared the bejesus out of me one Saturday afternoon, eons ago) or watch a high quality, well made film like The Exorcist, Jaws, Alien, or The Shining. Make some popcorn and have a thrill. It's just what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


During Olbermann’s Monday appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, the two discussed the “Occupy Wall Street" movement.

“I love this,” Letterman said. “I love people causing trouble. I love it when stuff doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to go. And largely, this is the only way we get change anymore in this country. As I’ve said a billion times now… some of the great cultural social issues in this country in the last 60, 70 years have begun via protest.”

All true, of course. Have we reached a crossroads? When a smarmy, sarcastic, millionaire talk show host famous for his ironic asides comes out in favor of street protest? Maybe so. Meanwhile, the Oakland police busted the OWS protest with tear gas, rubber bullets and nightsticks, cutting through the legal, peaceful protest like a chainsaw. Police harassment is a nationwide tactic, and we've seen official force visited upon citizens exercising their right to assemble peaceably, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances--rights guaranteed by the apparently out of fashion US Constitution. But people keep showing up. Here is a report on the Oakland hassle:

Letterman can be seen from the comfort of your cozy home, and so can Keith Olbermann, who is now on Current TV. (You can also watch him via the Nowhere Man channel on your Roku player.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The Food Network's Rahm Fama heads to Pok Pok in Portland for the sticky, sweet, spicy Vietnamese chicken wings on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. I agree. I live in Seattle, but every time I drop down to Portland I'll head to Pok Pok for some spicy wings. Last weekend, for example, I was on a whirlwind tour of PDX to visit my parents, and we went directly from the train station. I agree with Rahm. The wings are sublime. I've rhapsodized about this popular little place before, and will continue to extoll its virtues. You can't talk about politics and art all the time, after all, so when I'm not making art or fomenting class war I'm eating delicious food and enjoying life. Won't you join me?


Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges shares his feelings on the Occupy movement.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Halloween is coming! I love Halloween. It's a magical scary night where ghouls and goblins rise from the mist and you eat way too much candy. The worst is candy corn, which is basically corn syrup mixed with wax. That will start backing up in your system until you need to call Roto Rooter. I knew a kid that happened to. Anyway, avoid the candy corn. Back when I was a kid Halloween was even more fun then it is today. Back then, before the Great Lockdown, kids were actually allowed to leave the house and go trick-or-treating without adult supervision. If you were born after 1990, let me explain: kids had dinner, dressed in flammable costumes with zero visibility, and hiked for miles in the darkness and rain to fill sacks with candy. Yes, you rang a total stranger's doorbell, and he would bring you some candy. I swear it's true! You could really rake it in. It might be one or two in the morning before you finally gave up and sat on some deserted street corner to swap bad candy (Smarties, Neccos, Lemonheads) for good candy (Snickers, Baby Ruths, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups) and then you proceeded to eat it until you got sick. The next day at school we were wired like crackheads (here I should mention the need to pay teachers a decent wage) and our lunchboxes were overflowing with candy booty. People got into Halloween back then, the whole society, not just the kids, and windows were full of glowing Jack-o-lanterns and black cats. People put some effort into it. Sometimes adults dressed up and met you at the door, which was kind of weird but okay if they had good candy (see above) and didn't try to touch you. There were just as many weirdos back then, I'm sure, and we were all warned with the apocryphal story of apples stuffed with razor blades, but we never saw that. Okay, one time we had trouble. My cousin Laura got a black crayon she thought was a piece of licorice, but she was always confusing one thing with another so that could have been just a simple misunderstanding. At any rate, we hobos and pirates prowled the mean streets on All Hallow's Eve, risking life and limb for the good candy and a good tale to tell. I hope I've succeeded. At any rate, stretch your feeble imaginations and have a great and scary Halloween this year. If you feel like scaring yourself a little, you can start the week by watching something scary like "The Thing" (the remake), "The Exorcist," "Alien," "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (the remake), or one of the Republican debates. You'll feel your skin scrawl and the hair rise on the back of your neck--especially when you think one of these monsters could be running the country! (reposted from last year, with minor revisions)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011



"Right Here All Over," a short film by Alex Mallis and Lily Henderson, documents the day-to-day reality of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Far from the superficial snap judgments of disinterested anchor men and armchair critics, this inside view of the occupation reveals the organizing behind this massive, ongoing demonstration--the General Assemblies, the Working Groups, the Comfort Station, and the logistics of running the Zucotti Park community. The film also shows the protesters as individuals, something rarely seen in the oversimplified mainstream news bytes which tend to focus on "newsworthy" conflict.

The official coverage has been disappointing--starting late and refusing to dig deeply. Corporate news could take a cue from these ground-level filmmakers and give the public more than the poorly researched stories that take the standard dismissive tone they use for anything outside their orderly world view. They should stop harping on the "lack of unity" among protesters, the weirdness of it all, and stop complimenting the police on exhibiting such remarkable restraint dealing with such a difficult situation. This last shopworn sentiment is supposed to show the even-handedness of the media, but it's a knee-jerk end to a story and another example of lazy news coverage. What about the remarkable restraint of the demonstrators, some of whom have been teargassed and pepper-sprayed? Paired with the restraint of the police, that would really be even-handed, but trained within the parameters of corporate news we can't even imagine such an unlikely perspective.

Don't get me wrong. Corporate news media might get it right, eventually, but only after they have exhausted the lazy, conventional coverage that springs from the default position of pandering to the public. News is a business, after all, and the newslingers want you to watch since that's how they sell ads and make their money; they take the cozy middle of the road position because they don't want to disturb you with unconventional views or opinions you might disagree with, lest you switch the channel. They want to be your pal, and you can hardly blame them, but sometimes--when something important is at stake, say, the future of the Republic--taking the default position is tantamount to cowardice. Remember the flaccid news coverage during the build-up to George W. Bush's invasion of the Middle East? The media later admitted they should have provided better coverage of the anti-war position, and later on they lamented loudly in print but of course their mea culpa was too little and too late. The damage had been done, and by the time their weak retractions were in circulation we were already entrenched in a bloody war that had begun under false pretenses, ineptitude, and quite possibly outright lies. Of course, they were sorry, and the alligator tears flowed, but attentive newshounds know they will make that mistake again and again, siding with this imagined Middle America and making retractions later, if necessary. The great newsmen and muckrakers and investigative journalists of the past are gone, it seems, and the watchdogs have become lapdogs.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


This rotten old ward heeler obviously used his history books to crack walnuts--he sure didn't read them. Social movements change things, all right; they brought us the forty hour work week and the right to vote for women and blacks, they ensured environmental safeguards, civil liberties, workers' rights, and yes, they "shaped policy" and hastened the end of the war in Vietnam, a morally reprehensible quagmire that cost money and lives while good old boys like you played politics in smoke-filled rooms. The will of the people has it's place, Congressman--in fact, it's the cornerstone of democracy. At least pretend you understand that, since you're working for The People. And another thing. The right to peaceably assemble and redress grievances is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, an extremely important document you should probably familiarize yourself with. I'm sure one of your aides could run out and find you a copy.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


The mainstream media can ignore the Wall Street occupation, just as they ignored the anti-war demonstrations that filled the streets on the eve of the George W. Bush invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but fortunately the blackout is easily bypassed by the social media and the internet. Let the mainstream ignore the uprising, let them downplay the numbers, or question the sincerity and unity of the protesters. What would you expect? Totalitarian states simply pull the plug on the internet in such times of crisis (witness the recent uprisings in the middle east) but in a "democracy" there is too much paperwork. Besides, we have the ACLU.

For a political overview of the Wall Street occupation, check out "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938). In this class warfare classic, Errol Flynn stars as the rebel leader who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. It's all there, in lurid Technicolor--the insensitive aristocracy, the exploited poor, a rigged system that favors the greedy rich and ravages the rest. This is political science, pure and simple, and a veritable how-to book for the would-be occupier. We can learn a lot from Robin!

If the modern mainstream media had been there, Robin and his Merry Men would have been roundly ignored until it became impossible to do so--then their numbers would be minimized, their motives questioned, their eagerness to abandon the system in favor of civil disobedience would be criticized, and the gist of lazy journos throughout Nottingham would be faux sympathy on the surface while the subtext would lament a lack of unity among the naive rebels. "They don't seem to know why they're out there," might be the lead in the Loxley Times, bolstered with a few random pull quotes. "Unruly Mobs," might read the Sherwood Forest Evening Star, "Domestic Lawbreaking Continues." The newspapers and public criers, which survive on advertising from the feudal corporations and guilds, would continually manage to mangle the rebel message criticizing the greed and rapacity of feudal corporations and guilds.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


George Saunders writes short stories, essays, novellas and children's books. He is the author of an essay collection The Braindead Megaphone, and the short collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia and In Persusasion Nation. He teaches Creative Writing at Syracuse University.

He may be off the cultural main path, but serious readers and writers pass his books back and forth and talk about his work the way some people talk about "Everybody Loves Raymond." And I mean the people that like the show. His weirdly surreal "Pastoralia" was the first Saunders I read, and would serve as a good introduction to any new reader curious about his magical abilities. In a world of blowhards and gladhanders and loudmouths vying for our attention, George is a quiet, thoughtful man who uses his head. He doesn't write potboilers or pop fiction or books with embossed covers, doorstop novels sold at airports, historical sagas or romances or mysteries. Yet his work is truly mysterious--more mysterious than any formulaic whodunit--and he keeps the reader on her toes. You could do worse than read George Saunders.

"Home" by George Saunders.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Today is October 1st. This illustration by Arthur Rackham (19 September 1867 – 6 September 1939) captures the autumnal magic outside my window. No, even after all that Rye last night I don't see actual faeries chasing falling leaves but this is the general feeling this Saturday morning. This is October, no doubt about it, and there will be no more Indian Summer. The sky is the color of rice pudding. The weatherman predicts rain. Just over the fence, the pumpkins are bright orange. We haven't kicked on the furnace yet this season, but last night's chill has lingered and will require hot coffee immediately and perhaps more Rye by evening. Cheers!

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Some folks don't dig music. They hear it, as background noise if nothing else, but they don't feel it, and they sure don't lose themselves in the musical experience. You won't catch them tapping their feet to the beat. They're too busy. Music is frivolous, and they have more important business to attend to. Too bad. Even Einstein--who had plenty of important business--took time out to play the violin. Think you're smarter than Einstein? Maybe some people are just afraid of their emotions, because musicians play emotions as much as they play instruments. Maybe these squares are afraid of losing control, because you have to be loose to swing.

Here are some tunes selected for maximum joy, guaranteed to loosen up even the stuffiest shirts. It's Friday, and the weekend is here, so get loose.

Let's start with some cool jazz, "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. That's Paul Desmond, his long-time musical partner, playing sax, who also wrote the tune. It's like an abstract painting put to music.

Dion DiMucci joined The Belmonts - Carlo Mastrangelo, Freddie Milano, and Angelo D'Aleo - in late 1957 - and brought the streetcorner to the party in a string of rocking hits. These guys probably played their share of Italian weddings, but for some reason this chilly scene takes a while to warm up.

When you're talking soul, maybe Ed Sullivan doesn't come to mind, but here old Mr. Rigor Mortis introduces the Godfather of Soul, James Brown and his amazing band the Flames. Here James manages to get Ed feeling good. "Papa's in the swing," JB says, but "he ain't too hip about that new breed thing." Even so, he ain't no drag. Papa's got a brand new bag.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


You know how much we love local commercials. These low-budget, self-produced gems are sweet relief from the glossy, Hollywood-slick national ad campaigns orchestrated by Madison Avenue to break up our TV shows and seep into our brains with multi-million dollar production values and catchy jingles. These local commercials have none of that. They're far from stylish. They won't make you feel smarter, sexier, or more confident. They won't make your mouth minty fresh. They don't come out of think tanks or test groups or research committees or massive sound stages. They don't use sophisticated subliminal messages or demographics or affable actors or clever ironies to stick in your mind. Nope, they just show you the damn product. They don't allow you to forget you're getting hustled, first and foremost, for your consumer dollars, and there is a certain integrity to that. It's honest. Take the Red House Furniture Store. They don't sell lifestyles, they sell furniture. It's simple. They sell it to black people or white people. They sell it to anyone. End of story.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Today is the autumnal equinox, signaling the beginning of fall. Today the night is of equal length to the day, but as you know the days are getting shorter. The full moon that occurs closest to the autumnal equinox is called a Harvest Moon, and this one came September 12th.

"The warm color of the Moon shortly after it rises is caused by light from the Moon passing through a greater amount of atmospheric particles than when the moon is overhead. The atmosphere scatters the bluish component of moonlight which is really reflected white light from the sun, but allows the reddish component of the light to travel a straighter path to one's eyes." So sayeth the Wiki.

"Shine On Harvest Moon," is a Tin Pan Alley standard from 1908 credited to the married vaudeville team of Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. Another comedy team, Laurel and Hardy, performs it in the following clip. Their sweet rendition puts me in the fall spirit, a time of golden leaves and whiskey and football, autumn sweaters and candy corn. For some reason this rendition also reminds me of my years with the French Foreign Legion.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Elizabeth Warren counters the Republican charge of "class warfare" with some basic economics in a clip currently in heavy rotation on the Internet. The 62-year-old Harvard law professor, and former White House financial reform adviser, is running for Senate in Massachusetts and, if she survives the primaries, will challenge Scott Brown, the Tea Party-supported Senator who won the vacated seat of Ted Kennedy. Republicans will portray Warren as an elitist (Harvard, etc.) promoting class warfare (anyone who would dare suggest the rich get fairly taxed is slapped with this charge) but she seems to be an articulate populist defending the Middle Class, hardly a radical position, and perhaps not all that different from Obama's liberal/centrist point of view. Maybe she can connect to the necessary blue collar voters needed to win Massachusetts, maybe not. Currently, she's running behind Brown in the polls.

And speaking of class war: in a related story, forwarded by my dad, amused Wall Streeters watch protests from their balconies while sipping champagne. Just so you know, demonstrations began September 17 protesting the bias of a financial system that favors the rich over other Americans. "Chanting, 'We are 99 percent,' thousands of protesters gathered near Zucotti Park, close to Wall Street and began their march. Around 5 pm, while attempting to enter the financial district at 55 Wall Street, they were met by curious onlookers from the balconies who were leisurely watching the protesters and drinking champagne." (Information Clearinghouse)

Well, I guess you need something to wash down all that cake.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Tony Bennett tells it like he sees it. That makes a lot of people mad. Recently, the celebrated singer told a story on the Howard Stern Show (to be clear: Howard Stern is a knucklehead) about meeting George W. Bush at an awards ceremony. Bennett says Bush admitted to him that the Iraq War was a mistake. “He told me personally that night, he says, ‘I think I made a mistake."

Now, understandably, Bennett is under fire. Conservatives are in an uproar. Not surprisingly, a spokesman for Bush denies the claim. Many are accusing Bennett of being unpatriotic.

Bennett, who fought in Germany during World War II but considers himself a pacifist, believes America’s foreign policy led directly to the attacks on 9/11.

“But who are the terrorists?" Bennett asks. "Are we the terrorists or are they the terrorists? Two wrongs don’t make a right." After Stern questions him, Bennett says, “They flew the plane in, but we caused it. Because we were bombing them and they told us to stop.”

In response to the uproar following his remarks, Bennett issued this statement on Facebook:

“I am so grateful to be an American and as a World War II veteran. I was proud to fight to protect our values, which have made America the greatest country on the planet. There is simply no excuse for terrorism and the murder of the nearly 3,000 innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks on our country. My life experiences — ranging from the Battle of the Bulge to marching with Martin Luther King — made me a life-long humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior. I am sorry if my statements suggested anything other than an expression of my love for my country, my hope for humanity and my desire for peace throughout the world.”

Tony Bennett's new album, Duets II, features a song with the late Amy Winehouse. Bennett spoke to The Daily Mail about his drug use early in his career. "Back then everybody was rampant with drugs, everyone was doing it … I was the Amy Winehouse of my day," Bennett said.

Whatever you may think of his views, you've got to admire his honesty.

Music video by Tony Bennett & Amy Winehouse performing Body And Soul. (C) 2011 Sony Music Entertainment

Monday, September 19, 2011


A behind the scenes look at the making of "All We Are Saying," a tribute to John Lennon by guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell. From Beatles to his solo work, John's music is rendered instrumentally by two guitars, violin, bass and drums. I was lucky enough to hear a sneak preview of the album and was amazed by these interpretations.

The album will be released September 27th on Savoy Jazz.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Maybe these guys are trying a little TOO hard, but you have to admit the prices are good. Next time you're visiting New York City--in a Time Machine--be sure to check out the Hotel Seville in the 1970s.

Remember the Seventies in New York? In case you don't, the city was flat broke and gritty and dirty, and Times Square was still a seedy playground of porn and drugs and prostitution. Truth be told, some would prefer that dark, dangerous world to the bright, plastic, Disneyland left after the Giuliani clean-up. To get the feel of the gritty old days, watch a good seventies New York film like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon or Across 110th Street. Or watch this commercial, where the hotel staff is begging for money.

The Seventies were tough. These days we're used to federal bail-outs, but back then when New York asked the federal government for relief it got a big goose egg. Nada, niente, bupkis. Remember this headline?

Just for old time's sake, here's the opening sequence of Across 110th Street from 1972.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


A roundtable discussion with three (post-(post-))modern novelists, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Mark Leyner, begins around the thirty-six minute mark.

In a stunning example of "blame the dead guy," the New York Times Magazine ran a riff ("Another Sort of Thing to Pin on David Foster Wallace," Aug. 19, 2011) that admitted that "[DFW] was inarguably one of the most interesting thinkers and distinctive stylists of the generation raised on Jacques Derrida, Strunk and White and Scooby-Doo, and his nonfiction writings, on subjects as diverse as cruises, porn, tennis and eating lobster, are a compelling, often dizzying mix of arguments and asides, of reportage and personal anecdotes, of high diction ('pleonasm'), childlike speech ('plus, worse'), slacker lingo ('totally hosed') and legalese ('what this article hereby terms a ‘Democratic Spirit’ '), often within the course of a single paragraph."

The essay goes on to blame DFW for all that is slack in the world of post-post-modern writers of novels and blogs (imagine! that!). "Wallace isn’t responsible for his imitators, much less for the stylized mess that is Gen-X-and-Y Internet syntax." His followers (Eggers, et al) "borrowed not only Wallace’s tics but also his championing of post-ironic sincerity and his attempts to ward off criticism by embedding all possible criticisms within the writing itself."

That's a post-modern trick, a device, a rhetorical tactic: anticipating the opposing argument and deflating it ahead of time.

"The ur-text of this movement, though, is Wallace’s essay 'E Unibis Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,' written in 1993. It’s a call for writing that transcends irony and detachment but, itself, comes drenched in both. The essay bemoans what Wallace saw as the near-impossibility of writing inventive, self-aware fiction in a television culture. He concludes by imagining some future group of 'literary ‘rebels’ ' who would be 'willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs . . . [and] accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.'"

But hey. That's kind of, er, interesting, um, and I mean that.

Perhaps the most interesting post-suicide DFW essay appeared the the New Yorker ("The Unfinished," March 9, 2009). In the piece, D. T. Max commented on that meta-style most evident in "Infinite Jest," remarking that "such techniques originally had been his way of reclaiming language from banality, while at the same time representing all the caveats, micro-thoughts, meta-moments, and other flickers of his hyperactive mind. Wallace’s approach reminded the reader that what he was reading was invented."

The style may have spawned a million imitators, but after Jest, DFW wanted to move on. Jonathan Franzen, fellow writer and friend, is quoted in the New Yorker piece. “There was a certain kind of effulgent writing that he just wasn’t interested in doing anymore.” In the next novel, the unfinished work published as "The Pale King," a character comments, “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain, because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from.”

Wallace was trying to write differently, to change his style and, in effect, abandon his imitators, while wrestling with mental illness and a reliance on Nardil, an antidepressant he'd been taking for two decades. He left his life, as well as his next big work, unfinished.

Wallace may have become famous for his freewheeling, self-referential, footnote-laden, post-ironic, slacker-infused extravaganzas, but toward the end he was after a more straightforward, less experimental prose. He wanted to write passionately moral fiction that showed readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. That was a tall order, and he may have fallen short of the mark in his eyes. Couldn't he just write cool stories, that wild, finger-popping, clever work his fans and imitators gobbled like Mint Milanos? Couldn't he play more textual games, meta-fictions, post-ironic ironies with a wink and a nudge and a built-in critique? No, he wasn't playing those games anymore. As he said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being."