Previous month:
January 2009
Next month:
March 2009

showing up

Carrie Brownstein has some interesting things to say about the state of music in her latest blog post, "Touched and Gone?"

Something is wrong. We are careening toward a paucity of experience and a paucity of means with which to evaluate music. I mean, can we really engage with art on a Web site and in a vacuum, without ever bothering to contextualize it or make it coherent with our lives or form a community around the work? If we never move beyond the ephemeral and facile nature of music Web sites -- and let's not lie to ourselves, that's where it ends for a lot of us these days -- then that makes us worse than blind consumers; it makes us dabblers. We have become musical tourists. And tourism is the laziest form of experience, because it is spoonfed and sold to us. Tourism cannot and should not replace the physical energy, the critical thinking and the tiresome but ultimately edifying road of adventure, and thus also of life.

As for places like MySpace, they're not the enemy, they're not anathema to art, and they're places I peruse frequently. I mean, MySpace is democratic and ceaselessly available, but it is ugly -- and it's a crumb being treated like the whole wedding cake we can't stop gorging on. Are we no longer seekers of the real? Or do we only seek for ourselves without any sense that a tactile discovery is mutually beneficial? Being found is as splendid as the finding. Stumbling upon an MP3 or a blog or a Web site is only half the search. We seem to have forfeited our duties and become half-participants -- and at the cost of the creators. But we have to realize ... that in order for there to be anything left in which to participate, we have to show up. We have to show up with not just our half-selves, our virtual selves, our broke-ass selves, but with our whole selves, and in the spirit of giving. Mock participation is more than just an absence of real engagement; it is a falsehood that has allowed us to justify our apathy. When, exactly, did we stop showing up? And how long until there's not much left worth showing up for?

My knee-jerk reaction is to note that I'm 55 years old, and it's simply not as easy to show up as it was when I was 27. When I was 27, we saw Bruce Springsteen five times in three cities in two states in seven days ... now I'm just glad we've got the energy to go see him once on a work night in San Jose. Carrie's right, though ... there's more to being a fan than just downloading tunes. I admit I was a better fan when I was younger ... I don't know what else I can say ... to the extent that she is also describing the 20-somethings out there, something is wrong. (I don't know whether she's right about them ... she's in her mid-30s now, herself).

But I will say that it's not quite as simple as she suggests. It's not just age that gets in the way ... sometimes, life gets in the way. There are a lot of reasons why we don't always "show up."

Plus ... and I say this with the full knowledge that I have no inside information on the whys and wherefores, and with the understanding that I do not begrudge people the opportunity to seek their own paths ... but I can tell you the exact date that I had one less reason for showing up: May 3, 2006 (or perhaps more accurately, August 12 of that same year). There used to be a rock and roll band ... they were really, really good. They made seven albums, and Robert Christgau gave them five A grades and two A- grades. They were famously named America's best rock band in Time in 2001. I saw them in concert 12 times, the last on May 3 of 2006. Three months later, they played their last concert ever. They've been "on hiatus" ever since.

So you've got a group where I bought all seven of their albums ... didn't just download them, I bought them in hardcopy ... I attended twelve of their concerts ... if there was ever an act not named Bruce Springsteen that was guaranteed to get me to "show up," it was them. Their name was Sleater-Kinney, of course. Like I say, the reasons for their hiatus are their own, and all respect to them for their decision. But I don't show up as often as I used to.

And their guitar player was a woman named Carrie Brownstein.

weird facebook stuff

You know that thing on Facebook where they suggest people you might know? On occasion they are correct, but that's not what I find interesting. What I like is the part where the prospective FB friends are already friends with friends of mine ... "mutual friends." Usually, this is just someone from a similar group of people, like if a friend of my daughter shows up, our mutual friends consist of other friends of my daughter. But once in awhile, I find out that people I know, know the same people ... their degrees of separation are minimal. For some reason, I find this intriguing.

So, for instance, Facebook suggests that I might know someone named Melissa from the East Bay. The reason they think this, I assume, is because she is already friends with two of my friends, so there's a possible connection. Well, one of those two friends, Matt, is someone I've known for 20 years or so, an old Bad Subjects buddy who is currently a professor in Philly. The other mutual friend, Logan, is someone who grew up with my kids ... I've known him since the day he was born. He has a master's in architecture from Harvard, and I believe he is currently involved in solar energy.

The usual way we find out that there is some unexpected connection between the people in our lives is when we discover that two of our friends know each other. In the example above, my friend from grad school would turn out to know the guy who grew up with my kids. Facebook adds another level to this, though. It's not that Matt and Logan know each other ... it's that someone I may or may not know (in this case, I think it's "don't know") is friends with both Matt and Logan. OK, I'm just procrastinating when I should be grading papers, but this interests me.

(Largely unrelated anecdote I've told before, but I'm going to add it here anyway. Logan's father was a professor at Cal who, among other things, mentored a few undergrads through individual majors. These students had their graduation ceremony alongside several other "marginal" programs, like the ones I was involved with, American Studies and Mass Communications. The day after I participated in my own doctoral graduation, I was asked to participate as a faculty member in the "marginal" ceremony. I was quite excited ... I remember the speaker was the Rev. Cecil Williams, and I was starstruck as usual, sitting beside him on the stage. Anyway, over the years, Logan's father and I had lost touch, and he likely had no idea what I'd been up to recently. So I'm standing in line, getting ready for the processional into the auditorium, with my fancy doctor robes on, and ... did I mention Logan's dad had a wonderful Trinidadian accent? a real joy to hear ... we start to walk into the auditorium, and suddenly I hear this deep, booming, very recognizable voice: "Steven! What are you doing here?" I guess if we'd have had Facebook then, he wouldn't have needed to ask.)

best shows on tv? no

Robert Blanco thinks he knows which are the two best shows on TV. They are both shows that have garnered praise from critics and fans in the past, shows that have fallen on bad times, and shows which, according to Blanco, have bounced back big time. The shows in question? Lost and 24. Which interests me, because I find myself seriously considering not watching them any more.

Blanco praises 24 for stripping down to basics, and it is true, it's a leaner 24, with no sign of mountain lions on the horizon. But it's still the same old thing ... what Blanco considers a return to the show's prime is really just a rehash with different characters, just like all of the other good seasons of 24 after the first one. At some point, most viewers will decide they've already seen it, and they'll give up. I'm about to that point right now. In the day of DVD box sets, you have to ask yourself, why watch the current season of 24 when you could watch an earlier season over the course of a few days on DVD? I mean, the Ramones kept going for longer than most bands, but in the end, you could devote all of your Ramones listening to their first four albums and not miss much at all.

Lost gets props from Blanco for trying something different, and he's right ... you'd never catch me making the comparison, but there's an element of truth when he says "you can think of Lost now as the network equivalent of The Wire, a challenging show telling its story in its own way, and brilliantly." I'm with him until the last two words of that sentence. Lost is challenging, more than ever in fact, and they most certainly are telling their story in their own way. But the level of agreement you'll have with the word "brilliantly" depends on how much you value unencumbered "own way" art. If you think a television series where the show runners do whatever they want is by definition brilliant, you'll love the new season of Lost. If you don't feel like spending an hour a week watching creative people masturbate in public, you might think about turning the channel. Does it matter if (and that's a big if, I don't know this is the case) the show runners know what they're doing, compared to previous seasons when they seemed to be making it up as they went along? Knowing how it all ends, the creators can work backwards ... it all makes sense to them, and if it doesn't make sense to us, well, isn't that what's fun about Lost? In the past, I've thought so myself. But now, what Blanco sees as the freedom to be creative, I see as the freedom to ignore the audience. As Blanco notes, they know how many seasons are left, so ratings are largely irrelevant. He thinks this means they can "tell it their own way" ... I think this means they can become insular, and I don't mean that in a good way. I, at least, have reached the point where I don't care what it all means. This isn't a show about anything other than itself, and that was fine when the audience got to come along for the ride, but we're no longer relevant, and what's left is a circle jerk.

It's possible that Blanco is limiting himself to broadcast network shows when he places these two at the top. Maybe he actually prefers Battlestar Galactica or Mad Men or Weeds, but doesn't think it fair to compare those programs to ones on Fox or ABC. Maybe he really thinks 24 is a better show than 30 Rock ... I don't agree, but I do appreciate that if you limit yourself solely to broadcast networks, the wild challenges of Lost seem pretty impressive. But mostly I'm just grasping at straws ... my own take is so different from Blanco's, I'm inspired to write this rambling post.

house rides again

I don't know which I find more appealing ... that there is a lead character on a popular network television series who is an unabashed atheist, that he got off a great line this week, or that a quick look at Google tells us that 1) more people than just me enjoyed that line and 2) it's an old line that can be found all over the Internet.

Oh yeah, what did House say? "Religion is not the opiate of the masses. Religion is the placebo of the masses."

back by popular demand: house update pix

OK, OK, here ya go. First, a picture of the entryway into the attic room:

attic entryway

As you can see, there is an actual door, now. Next, a look at what they're calling the "master bathroom" ... this is Robin's pride and joy, folks, and it's getting closer, as you'll see here:

tiling mud

That's the tub on the left, the walk-in shower beyond that. Of course, to do the bathroom floor, they've had to remove all of the old plumbing. We have a new toilet, but it's not in yet, and they haven't really got a place to put the old one. Meanwhile, the bedroom was emptied so it could be sheet-rocked. Which means it can now be used for storage:

bedroom after sheet rock

Yes, that's our bedroom, and no, the toilet isn't hooked up. Because of this, we are now sleeping in the basement, and it's not as bad as it sounds. Here's one view, with Starbuck looking particularly interesting:

basement bedroom

Yes, Robin can knit anywhere, and yes, the cats love her more than they love me. Her fabulous LCD HDTV is down there to keep her company ... it may be smaller than my computer monitor, but as you can see in the above picture, she doesn't actually look at the screen:

basement bedroom 2

The bookshelf is kinda interesting, too ... the worker guys must have thought we needed something to keep us company during our stay in the basement, so they put a bookshelf in the bedroom and threw whatever old books they could find on it. So there are baseball annuals from 1999, and books from grad school, and some of Robin's mother's notebooks ... a little of everything. In a timely fashion, they even put my old copy of Watchmen on there.

i have the wrong job

I got a nice discount from eReader for taking a survey, so I grabbed a few books, and as I was filling my cart, I realized once again that I am not really suited for the job I currently hold (this being a recession, it's not clear that I will even hold that job past this semester). I teach English, and it's true, all four of the books I chose are written in English, but they are all non-fiction, and none of them deal specifically with literature.

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead by David Shields is about our physical condition from birth to death. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America is by Steven Johnson, who I have come to trust will write books I want to read, no matter the subject. Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood uses the five Best Picture Oscar nominees for 1967 as a starting point for a look at the beginning of the golden age of Hollywood films. And Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are by Rob Walker is about marketing. Pretty much the only thing they have in common with each other is that they got good reviews from Salon.

That's not quite true. One other thing they have in common is that they probably wouldn't belong on a syllabus for an English class. And I'm an English teacher. And I never even bothered to see if there was any fiction that might catch my attention,

what i watched last week

Frozen River. Many times, people write about some text that they find too dark and depressing. The joke is that I agree with them, but they conclude that the text is bad while I end up liking it. Frozen River is so relentlessly downbeat that it even got to me. It almost works like a horror movie, in terms of the amount of dread it inspires ... you just know something bad is about to happen. As many have noted, this is largely because while Frozen River is a slice-of-life film, rather like a 21st-century rural version of kitchen sink realism, it also has a plot that moves forward. The characters may be stuck, but that doesn't mean "nothing happens." So you have people leading dismal lives, and you have events conspiring to make the continuance of those lives at least as dismal in the future. Nominated for two Oscars (best screenplay and best actress Melissa Leo), and I suppose it could conceivably win the writing nod (Leo is excellent, but she's up against Streep and Winslet), which will impress those who prefer their movies to be low-budget (this one cost about $1 million). 7/10.

Zodiac. If I needed any reminders why I'm not very excited about that Benjamin Button movie, Zodiac is one. I am not a big fan of David Fincher. I've seen four of his movies now, and haven't really liked any of them. His Alien movie wasn't much good, I really really hated Se7en, and found Fight Club watchable without ever wanting to watch it again, despite the possibility of revisiting it after knowing the "secret." Now along comes Zodiac, which was about as watchable as Fight Club, but after sitting through all 2 hours and 37 minutes, I'm not sure why I bothered. The police procedural was good enough to keep my attention, even though we all know how it ends, and Robert Downey Jr. and Chloe Sevigny are good as always. But the primary theme of the movie is obsession, with the central obsession of the film being that of cartoonist Robert Graysmith, played with appropriate oddball intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal. Yet the film never bothers to explain to us exactly why Graysmith is obsessed with the case. He's on the peripheral of the events that take place in the Chronicle, he likes to solve puzzles, and then suddenly the identity of the Zodiac killer is all he cares about. But nothing in the film convincingly shows how that obsessive leap takes place. His wife (Sevigny) calls him on it late in the movie, and he gives some lame speech that does nothing to suggest the depths of his obsessions ... she says "that's not enough," and soon afterwards, she leaves him, taking their kids along with her. She's right ... it's not enough, nor is this movie. (I'm reminded that Graysmith also wrote the book Auto Focus, which was turned into another movie with fine acting where I found myself wondering at the end why the movie was made in the first place ... claiming that you've exposed the real killer of Bob Crane is not enough.) #29 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the best films of the 21st century. 6/10.

Bullet in the Head. Arguably John Woo's most ambitious film, at least until Red Cliff. Long before I had a blog, I had an obsession with Hong Kong films, and John Woo was my favorite. I put up with some of his more problematic idiosyncrasies because they fit in the with whole exotic foreign-film aspect of the movies. Almost two decades later, I have a bit more distance, and I can see that the schmaltzy beginning of this movie and the overblown ending are a bit much. It's still a terrific film, excruciating to watch as it progresses and the various characters are driven further over the edge. There is some great acting here ... Tony Leung may be incapable of a bad performance, and he looks v.young here, Simon Yam is, well, Simon Yam, and I think Jacky Cheung is impressive as the guy with the bullet in his head. There are other Woo films that are more pleasurable to watch, but this is as good as any of them. 9/10.

what remodeling is like

Our bedroom is mostly empty ... it's been demolished and dry walled, all the furniture is strewn around the rest of the house. In the middle of the otherwise bare room is a toilet, which came from the bathroom, which is in disarray and unusable. The bed has been moved to the basement, which is where we now sleep. We're in the middle of a lengthy storm which brings much-needed water but which is also starting to flood the basement. Where we are sleeping. Meanwhile, the scrawny three-legged cat is outside somewhere in the rain and cold, because the doors get left open during the day and she escapes.

friday random ten, 1964 edition

1. The Beatles, "I'm a Loser." This is Beatlemania: the four moptops at the height of their popularity, girls screaming, boys rocking, and John singing about how he's a loser.

2. The Temptations, "The Way You Do the Things You Do." You could have been anything that you wanted to.

3. Buffy Sainte-Marie, "Cod'ine." She wasn't perfect, but she'd try anything, even Sesame Street. Not many people could turn an ode to cough syrup into something so enticingly scary, certainly not many folkies.

4. The Four Tops, "Baby I Need Your Lovin'." Their first Motown single.

5. Martha & the Vandellas, "Dancing in the Street." If Levi Stubbs and Martha Reeves appeared on American Idol, who'd win?

6. Mose Allison, "New Parchman." Idiosyncratic Allison takes a dirty prison blues and turns it into something jazzy and even fun. The video link shows what happened to Mose's take ... Blue Cheer was a San Francisco band named after LSD, which elicits visions of After Bathing at Baxter's, but their music was prototypical metal sludge, played at an excruciatingly high volume. Grand Funk Railroad could have been playing simultaneously with Blue Cheer and you wouldn't hear a single one of their notes. The video is from 2008, and shows that Blue Cheer still plays really loud and really sludgy. Sleater-Kinney's last album would have sounded a lot different if they hadn't had Blue Cheer as an inspiration.

7. The Shangri-Las, "Leader of the Pack." The video features evil fucker from hell Steve Allen.

8. Bessie Banks, "Go Now." This song was a hit for the Moody Blues before they discovered the cosmic plane, but before they did it, the little-known Bessie Banks recorded it ... it was, in fact, written for her.

9. The Sonics, "The Witch." There are a LOT of videos of this song on YouTube ... people making their own videos with "The Witch" as a soundtrack, along with plenty of videos of more recent vintage Sonics playing their greatest song. The link I chose includes "Louie Louie" as well, and it's not the best version of that timeless classic, but fast-forward about halfway through and you'll get to hear the truly amazing "The Witch." They still play they hell out of it.

10. Bob Dylan, "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)." Video from the rarely-shown Eat the Document:

a different kind of rivalry

My friend Charlie takes a much more refined view of sports rivalries than I do. He is just as rabid as anyone about his team winning against their rivals, but once that game is over, Charlie can look at the big picture, figure out what is best in the long run for his team, and then, if it comes down to it, he has little problem with rooting for the rivals when he thinks it is necessary. Me, I never root for the Dodgers or the Raiders or Stanfurd.

When it comes to international soccer, the great rival of the USA is Mexico. It is, at times, a pretty ugly rivalry, and I take great pleasure in watching the U.S. beat the pants off of the Mexicans, as they did tonight in a World Cup qualifier. There is no one I'd rather see the U.S. beat than Mexico.

But once the match is over, I root for Mexico more often than not. I mean, I don't root for them if their success would be damaging to the USA, but otherwise, I think of Mexico as my second-favorite team in the region. Nothing wrong with that, but it's odd, in my "system" of partisanship at least, because they are both my second-favorites and my #1 rival. The old joke about my favorite team being the Giants and my second-favrorite team being whoever is playing the Dodgers doesn't really hold in this case.

I don't know why this is true, but I wonder if the whole club/country thing has something to do with it. Soccer always exists on at least two levels, the club level and the international level. On the club level, I root for everyone who plays on my favorite team ... if the Earthquakes had a Mexican player, I would cheer him on. This would get confusing once the USA played Mexico on the international stage. To take a slightly different angle, both Landon Donovan and Brian Ching are hated by Earthquake fans. But when the two of them put on the U.S. jersey to play against Mexico, we rooted for them. You don't really get this in the other major American sports ... all that matters in baseball and football and basketball is the team, international play is largely irrelevant. So I can hate all Dodgers without fear that they'll play for the U.S. in something I care about.

Meanwhile, the important thing is, tomorrow I can walk into Juan's Place with pride. I predicted a 2-0 win for the U.S., and that's exactly what the final score read. My tamales are going to taste good.