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November 2012
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smith-rubio family xmas update, 11th annual edition

With a holiday tip of the cap to all of my family and friends, and to the folks out there who take good care of me and mine, but there’s really only one thing I’m going to mention here, even if it means I don’t get all cranky like I usually do at this time of year. But first:


Some things never change. Spot has had to share the spot-light (ha ha I made a joke, get it?) the second half of the year, but as you can see, he barely noticed, since, as in years past, he spent most of his time with his nose buried in a bowl of food.

So, what special thing happened with our family this year?

One day old

With the grandmas

Neal félix

Sara félix rivercats august 2012

Félix in san diego

Félix homemade 11-5-12

Thanksgiving 2012 with steven

Félix ray

Sara Félix Shyrrl

Iver sara félix

teevee 2012

Here is my annual television wrap-up. I don’t make a Top Ten list, I just look back and some of the things I wrote since the last time I did one of these (December 20 of last year). (See if you can find this year’s Karen Sisco Award winner in what follows. If you remember what the Karen Sisco Award is. If it helps, previous winners were Terriers and Lights Out.)

Downton Abbey. “Hopes for Season Three: A. Expectations for Season Three: B-.”

Luck. “Get powerful creators like Michael Mann and David Milch, sign up big names like Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, and Michael Gambon (not to mention Dennis Farina), get Steven Rubio hooked on the show, and then, just like that, cancel it after one season.”

Portlandia. “At the start of the season, I wrote, “I rarely laugh at Portlandia. But I enjoy watching it.” At the end, only the first half of that sentence remains true.”

Shameless. “Last season, I gave the series a B+, and Emmy Rossum an A+. In Season Two, the series started to catch up with its radiant star.”

Justified. “It’s just a joy to watch well-drawn and acted characters on a weekly basis, and Justified rarely falters. At some point, every series hits a wall, gets to a point where it’s time to quit. Justified has such a casual, yet deep, feel to it that I can imagine it running for years.”

Game of Thrones. “The fascinating characters mean I eagerly watch each episode, just to see what they are experiencing. The plot could enter a black hole, and I’d still tune in so I could see Tyrion, Dany, and the rest.”

Longmire. “Katee Sackhoff in a supporting role is the only reason I watched it.”

House. “Hugh Laurie was never less than excellent, and I’m happy to note (spoiler warning) that House leaves the series just as much an atheist as he was when it started. But it was time for that show to be over with.”

Mad Men. “If I gave Season Four an A, and Season Five only an A-, well, there aren’t many shows that ever get that high. I look forward to Seasons Six and Seven.”

Girls. “The nice thing about Girls is that it doesn’t bother to convince us that the characters are fundamentally ‘right’. They are fucked up in some unhealthy ways. But they are also deeper, more complete characters than the norm, because they are given the chance to be good and bad, to succeed and to fuck up, to be self-absorbed and a good friend. They are, in short, a lot like most of us.”

The Newsroom. “Aaron Sorkin dialogue without the speechifying is a joy to hear; with the speechifying, what you get is mostly sanctimonious.”

True Blood. “It will always have lots of beautiful men and women getting nekkid and having sex, and it will always have lots of vampire gore, and thus, it will always be worth watching, even or perhaps especially because in the end, it’s not worth watching.”

Boardwalk Empire. “I look forward to it every week, and I am never disappointed. Yet something keeps it from achieving the heights of the greatest series, and I’m not sure why that’s the case.”

Treme. “I find it quite joyous on a regular basis. That it manages to convey that joy in the midst of a portrait of post-Katrina New Orleans that doesn’t shy away from harsh realities lifts Treme to a level most shows never reach.”

Last Resort. “Braugher is so good, he could carry the series by himself.” [Note: this one’s been cancelled, with a few episodes to finish it up in January.]

The Walking Dead. “Paradoxically, by limiting the amount of time the characters sit around and talk about their lives, we learn more about them. At least, that’s how it seems to me, who has always liked the adage that by your actions you are known.”

Sons of Anarchy. “Most of the awfulest happenings involve Otto, a jailed club member who, over the course of five seasons, has a mop handle jammed into his only good eye, gets revenge by twisting a screw driver into the neck of his assailant, kills a mobster with a scalpel, murders a nurse by stabbing her with a crucifix … you get the picture. What I haven’t mentioned is that Otto is played by … yep, Kurt Sutter.”

Homeland. “I found myself less interested in Brody, and no amount of chemistry was going to save it. I wanted Brody gone by the end of the season, and didn’t really care anymore how they got rid of him.”

homeland, season two finale

I gave the season premiere of Homeland an A grade. I thought it was that good, and since the first season had also been excellent, I looked forward to what I was sure would be a strong second season.

The rest of the season rarely hit the heights of the premiere, though, and by season’s end I was feeling disappointed. The three main actors (Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin) were wonderful once again, but Lewis’ character Brody was not as wonderful the second time around. The chemistry between Danes and Lewis was sizzling in Season One, and some of that remained this season, but I found myself less interested in Brody, and no amount of chemistry was going to save it. I wanted Brody gone by the end of the season, and didn’t really care anymore how they got rid of him. Season One was character driven, but the plot was tense and engaging. This season, the plot was silly too often, and I no longer anticipated each episode with excitement.

Which still left plenty to admire. Danes and Patinkin had fine seasons, and “Q&A”, the fifth episode of the season, had moments as good as anything Homeland has given us, as Carrie interrogated Brody and the electricity between the two actors finally matched up with a scene worthy of their presence. But even “Q&A” had a ridiculous subplot involving teenagers and a hit-and-run that was only marginally less laughable than Kim Bauer getting caught in a cougar trap.

Ultimately, Season Two was erratic, with reminders that Homeland often seemed like the best show on TV in Season One alongside reminders that the people behind Homeland were also behind 24, another show that got increasingly farcical over the years. Grade for Season Finale: B+. Grade for Season Two: B.

adventures in customer service

I occasionally post here regarding poor customer service experiences. Fair is fair, though, and I had a good experience today, so I’ll mention it.

Yesterday, the glass on my cellphone cracked. Today, I contacted Sprint via web chat to see what my options were. I got a very helpful service agent, Natalie B, who understood the problem, answered each of my questions as they arose, and took the initiative to act where I didn’t even know actions were possible.

Basically, the problem lies in our insurance. Sprint has something called Total Equipment Protection. We pay $8 per phone for this … to be honest, I’ve never been quite sure why, except that ever since our son started working in retail, I’ve found myself adding extra warranties and the like, as much because it helps the workers as anything. I never have to use this stuff … except now I have a phone, less than six months old, that needs the insurance. If I understand correctly, there’s a pretty big deductible, but since I’ll probably have to replace the phone, the deductible will be a lot cheaper than a new Galaxy S3. (There is another option: replacing the cracked screen myself. Ray is encouraging me to do this, but he doesn’t realize how crappy I am at such things, and when I explained the procedure to Robin, who usually takes care of our fix-it stuff, I think even she got thrown off.)

Here’s the problem: we have insurance on three of our four phones. One guess which phone doesn’t have the insurance. I haven’t the slightest idea why we didn’t get it. I don’t want to rely on memory, so I’ll just note that I don’t recall saying “don’t give us that insurance” when we bought the phone, and it doesn’t make sense to only have it on some phones (not getting it at all I understand, but not getting it on the newest and fanciest phone is odd).

Well, Natalie B told me she would forward all of the information to the insurance company, “for correction”. They will contact me within 72 hours, letting me know what’s up. She couldn’t say if the “correction” would be backdated … the insurance company decides that … but it’s at least possible an error was made, we should have had the insurance, and we’ll save a few bucks.

So I don’t actually know how this will turn out, and I’m without a phone for a few days. My problem basically has yet to be resolved. Despite that, I felt that I got good service from Natalie B, who went above and beyond.

music friday: run-d.m.c, "rock box"

Tomás Summers Sandoval had a blog post the other day about the 20th anniversary of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. He wrote:

I remember it as an album that moved the entire world of hip hop firmly into the mainstream. I’m sure this is an overstatement that has a lot to do with where I was in my life at the time (in a “white” college struggling to find my place in the world). But I remember feeling that “The Chronic” made rap part of “American music.”

Tomás and I exchanged a few emails. In those emails, I wrote, “I’d say ‘Walk This Way’ was the song that moved hip hop into the mainstream, except I realize that ‘Walk This Way’ (and ‘Rock Box’, for that matter) brought rock to hip hop. Dre just made his sound, without making such an explicit connection to the mainstream, and his success meant G-Funk WAS mainstream, just as you describe. The earlier songs connected with a wider audience without really asking anyone to move outside their comfort zone (i.e., lotsa hot-shit geetar). The Chronic convinced us to just climb in.”

Well, I ended up watching the old “Rock Box” video, which was the first rap video to be played on MTV. It sounds as good as ever, and Eddie Martinez adds the hot-shit geetar. What I had forgotten was that the legendary Professor Irwin Corey appears in the video. Corey was 70 years old at the time … he’s still alive, 98 years old now, still funny, still full of radical politics. I wondered how Run-D.M.C. came across the Professor, but then I remembered he was in Car Wash. I’ll bet that’s where they first discovered him. Anyway, “Rock Box”:

And here’s a very lo-fi clip of The World’s Foremost Authority in 1966, answering a two-part question:

Finally, for further evidence of Prof. Corey’s influence on African-American culture:

how i wrote in 1987

Continuing from this post, here is the second paragraph of my honors thesis for my American Studies B.A.:

Evil is what we hoped to escape when our forefathers first came to America. (The Puritans’ European persecutors, according to William Bradford, were antichristian, lordly, and tyrannous.) But the great escape of Europeans to America, and the escape into the wilderness that followed, was always that, an escape from old ties, not a genesis, not a brand new world. We have always carried our evil bloodlines with us as we escaped, and we have therefore always been a nation on intimate terms with evil. In a complex way it is evil, rather than good, that governs how mainstream American culture is formed, because of the fear that we are in reality an evil people, and also because it is through the definition of evil that we can recognize what is good.

fifteen albums

On Facebook, Charlie Bertsch linked to "Ana Marie Cox gave us a list of her favorite records".

Charlie thought that Insound, who are the ones who asked for the list, should ask other Bad Subjects contributors besides Ana for similar lists. I couldn’t resist trying to reduce the entirety of recorded music down to fifteen albums (which is how many were on her original list). It can’t be done … I could only get it down to 15 albums plus one DVD box set. Here goes, in rough chronological order.

Elvis Presley: The ‘68 Comeback Special Deluxe Edition DVD. There are a couple of CDs that take care of the music I most care about from this greatest of all rock and roll nights, but this set overwhelms them all, so I’ll cheat, get it over with, and move from here to fifteen actual albums.

The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night. Because early Beatles are at least as good as late Beatles.
The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground and Nico. If I could remove one track from either White Light White Heat (“The Gift”) or The Velvet Underground (“The Murder Mystery”), one of them would be my choice here.
Otis Redding: Live in Europe. I could pick a greatest hits package for Otis, but this is the album I played over and over as a teenager.
Van Morrison: Astral Weeks. In the running for my favorite album of all time.
Derek and the Dominos: Layla. Even better than whatever Led Zep album I might have picked.
Aretha Franklin: 30 Greatest Hits. At what point do these become self-explanatory?
Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run. Since Bruce is my favorite, and this is my favorite of his albums, I guess this is my favorite album ever.
Patti Smith: Easter. It says something about an artist when more than one album is a contender. On a different day, I might have chosen Horses.
The Clash: London Calling. Hey, they were the only band that mattered.
Prince: Sign 'O' the Times. Or Dirty Mind. Or Purple Rain.
Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions. I guess I like Paul’s Boutique even more than this one, but PE sounds better with the volume turned way up.
Hüsker Dü: New Day Rising. Speaking of sounding good with the volume turned way up.
Sleater-Kinney: The Woods. Talk about going out on top. They made seven albums, not a dud among them, with a couple that could easily make this list. And I chose the last album they ever made, because they were still getting better when they went on “hiatus”.
Pink: Funhouse. We’ll finally know if she’s underrated when she does/doesn’t make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in her first year of eligibility.

(Number of the above artists I’ve seen live: nine, if I count Eric Clapton as Derek and the Dominos, which I shouldn’t. I mean, I didn’t count Lou Reed as the Velvets, and I saw him lots of times.)

what i watched last week

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 2012). I’m enough out of the loop that I had never heard of the 1999 novel on which this film is based, despite it being a bestseller and touchstone for a generation of teenagers. So I knew nothing going in, other than my most-trusted AI system said I’d like it. I’m not usually a fan of movies about rich kids, although these kids were more upper-middle class. But since it was about outsiders, I didn’t spend all my time thinking they should quit whining. There are several winning performances, and the film felt true to the feelings of anguished youth. It didn’t come close to what Anna Paquin gave us in Margaret … on the other hand, that movie was a mess, while Wallflower knows what it is doing and gets it done. The insights aren’t much more than what you’d get from a good episode of My So-Called Life, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d like to say that someone asked me to see this and I was pleasantly surprised, except it was me who suggested it, so I take the credit or blame. Since our entire group liked it, I guess they’ll let me pick again sometime. 7/10.

how i wrote in 1987

A couple of weeks ago, I offered three quotes that led off my honors thesis for my B.A. in American Studies at Cal, which my daughter dug up. Here is the first actual paragraph, written in 1987:

Since the time of the Puritans, Americans have seen themselves as God’s chosen people. In John Winthrop’s words, we are “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” In this view, America, the “greatest country in the world”, shines like a beacon to all free-thinking people across the globe. But there is a darker side to this Promised Land, a side that deals as seriously in evil as in good. The darker vision of America acknowledges the evil and utilizes it to separate proper behavior from socially destructive behavior. Americans can’t seem to recognize themselves except in opposition to supposed enemies. Therefore America needs evil, for without it, the vision of America’s greatness would have no landmark, nothing to set off its brilliance.

Just to date this work, it was printed with a dot-matrix printer.

music friday: otis redding, "(sittin' on) the dock of the bay"

For many, this is Otis Redding’s signature song. I’ve always liked it, but I can think of several I’d place above it on my Otis Pantheon (and he’s one of the great artists whose pantheon is really, really big). I’ve been thinking about “Dock of the Bay” recently as I learned a few things about it, basic stuff that I’d somehow missed over the decades.

For instance, Otis was in Sausalito when he wrote the first verse of the song, and '”the Bay” is thus in my neck of the woods. I’ve always thought of Otis as a Southern man, never as a Bay Arean, and in truth, he was only visiting Sausalito when he began writing “Dock of the Bay”. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe I never understood what bay he was singing about … there is a line in the song, “I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay”, that kinda gives it away. (Wikipedia offers an interesting addendum from Steve Cropper, who co-wrote the song, talking on NPR: “If you listen to the songs I wrote with Otis, most of the lyrics are about him. He didn't usually write about himself, but I did. ‘Mr. Pitiful,’ ‘Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)’; they were about Otis' life. ‘Dock Of The Bay’ was exactly that”.)

I do know the basics of the song’s release. Otis recorded it just before he died in a plane crash; the single was released posthumously and hit #1 on the charts. I was 14 at the time, and it was always good to hear it on the radio. (Plus, its status as a refreshing #1 on the Billboard charts was bookended by two pieces of dreck, Paul Mauriat’s easy-listening instrumental “Love Is Blue” just before Otis, and Bobby Goldsboro’s perennial entry on Worst Song Ever lists, “Honey”, which replaced Otis at the top.)

He never played it live, of course, so the only YouTube videos are audio-with-pictures.

I mentioned I’d been thinking about the song lately. That’s due to its appearance in a book by Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Solnit’s book takes various aspects of San Francisco history and culture, connects them to maps drawn by various contributors, and supplements her own writing with a series of collaborators. One chapter, “Shipyards and Sounds”, features a map by Shizue Seigel that highlights “The Black Bay Area Since World War II” alongside an essay, “High Tide, Low Ebb” by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. The map and text tell the story of the migration of Southern African Americans to the Bay Area during World War II to fill the explosion of jobs in the ship-building industry. When the jobs left, many of the families remained. Jelly-Schapiro explains how “Dock of the Bay” fits into this tale:

Even Redding’s own perch [where he began writing “Dock of the Bay”], on a houseboat moored on mudflats at Sausalito’s north end, had been the site of a major wartime shipyard … [which] was dismantled as soon as the war was over – but it left behind, just across Highway 101, the housing projects that had been built for the wartime work force. Many of the now unemployed African American shipyard workers were unable to find other housing, and the projects became an island of impoverished blackness is the sea of white affluence that is Marin County. That community, Marin City, is best known today as the teenage home of rapped Tupac Shakur.