Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Universe man, universe man/Size of the entire universe man/Usually kind to smaller man/Universe man."

The Song: "Particle Man," They Might Be Giants. Words and music by John Flansburgh and John Linnell. Track 7 of Flood, 1990.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 1990.
Listen/watch here.

I woke up this morning with this song in my head for no reason, then logged onto Twitter to discover that it is TMBG Awareness Day. So well played, gentlemen, and now that I've downloaded your new MP3s, will you turn the mind control ray off, please?

We don't listen to enough polka music in modern life, and the accordion is a seriously underrated instrument. Flood is one of my favorite albums, and since it never fails to cheer me up, it's in heavy rotation in my iTunes playlist. It too was one of the CDs the smasher/grabber stole in Montreal, so maybe those lost CDs will be this week's theme.

Anyway, you should take two minutes from your day and watch the independent "Particle Man" cartoon I've linked to above. I have no idea what the lyrics of "Particle Man" are supposed to be about, but they inspire me with a random existential cheer. Triangle Man hates Particle Man, for no reason, but Universe Man is generally kinder. Also, he has a watch with a minute hand, a millennium hand, and an eon hand. Those blown deadlines look pretty insignificant against the power of the millennium hand, don't they?

Monday, April 25, 2011

"London calling, yes I was there too/An' you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!"

The Song: "London Calling," The Clash. Words & music by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. Track 1 of London Calling, 1979.
When/how acquired: Bootleg cassette, c. 1981; purchased CD, c. 1990
Listen/watch here.

On any given day, London Calling is the one album I'd need on a desert island. It's so thoroughly interwoven into my life that I don't remember the first time I heard it, but I suspect it was in Norfolk Academy's art classroom, which doubled as a dressing room for school theater productions. A copy of the CD was one of several stolen from my car in Montreal in 2005, and it's the only CD I actually replaced, even though I'd uploaded it to my iTunes.

You're not going to get any snark about the royal wedding from me, although I doubt I'll wake up early to watch. (I'm supposed to be in New York on Friday. I do plan to be in New York on Friday, but it will depend on what my eye looks like on Wednesday morning. No, I've already explained too much.)

Anyway, I believe in marriage, I love weddings, and I have no objections to the Windsors. They work hard, and I don't envy their lives for a moment. I'm glad Americans don't have royalty, but I see its value, especially as the historical artifact it's become. Modern-day royalty are like ghosts among us, reminders of both the good and bad of how things used to be. I love that Kate Middleton's parents used to be flight attendants, and that the future heirs to the throne of England will have that as part of their heritage as well as the first Duke of Marlborough. And no one can deny that the wedding's been great for the global economy, from tourism to magazine publishing to whatever factories (probably in central America) make those tea towels.

It's been much too long since I traveled to England. It's been much too long since I took any kind of real trip. Invitations are welcome, especially if they come with plane tickets.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Five Random Questions with BRETT BATTLES

I'm sorry I haven't been around this week. As usual, I'm desperately behind on several projects, and crippled by allergies. Had to cancel plans to spend Easter in Washington, and now I have a full-blown case of allergic pinkeye — I am 45 years old and have never had pinkeye, so this is mortifying as well as painful. Working with one eye open slows me down even more than I would have expected.

Fortunately, my pal Brett Battles has released a new book this week. SICK has the distinction of being my first true e-book; that is, the first book I've ever read to be published exclusively in electronic format. It's very different from his Jonathan Quinn novels, about an international hit man (although those are great, and you should read them). SICK is an apocalyptic thriller set in the near future.

Army officer Daniel Ash wakes up one morning to find his wife dead and his daughter critically ill, victims of a mysterious sudden sickness that has overtaken his whole small installation. Ash, inexplicably, seems immune. These things aren't accidents. SICK is a breathless, nonstop chase-and-race thriller that reminded me of the opening chapters of Stephen King's THE STAND. Its subtitle is "A Project Eden Thriller," and without giving anything away, its ending makes clear that Ash's fight is just starting. It's available from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Brett agreed to answer Five Random Questions for the blog.

1. Disneyland or Disney World, and what's your favorite ride?

Disneyland, since I’ve been going there regularly since I was five. And favorite ride? When I was young my favorite wasn’t actually a ride, it was the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. I LOVED exploring that, but it’s gone now, or rather redone and renamed Tarzan’s Treehouse. UGH! These days? Anything but A Small World. I hate that ride!

2. What was the first record you ever bought?


3. What was your first paying job? ("Paying" as in "got a check," not cash for mowing lawns.)


4. Who's your favorite James Bond?

I’ve always been partial to Sean Connery, but I gotta say Daniel Craig has become my new favorite.

5. Do you know any poems by heart?

How much wood can an woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood...wait, that’s not a poem, is it?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Five Random Questions with LISA LUTZ and DAVID HAYWARD

I've gotten very bad about posting my reading lists here, partly because I'm having a terrible time keeping track of what I'm allowed to admit I've read. I get very early copies of books, read books in manuscript, read for clients under confidentiality agreements, read candidates for awards nominations that are obviously confidential, and — well, you get the idea.

But one of my happiest reading adventures this winter was an early copy of HEADS YOU LOSE, a collaborative mystery that becomes a piece of performance art with the addition of emails exchanged between the authors as they wrote the book. This kind of meta-fiction is hard to pull off without becoming annoying, but HEADS YOU LOSE walks that line beautifully. The underlying mystery works — a brother and sister who grow pot in Northern California find a headless body on their land, and decide to hide it rather than call the police — but the emails between chapters are both hilarious and educational, almost a tutorial in novel-writing.

Lisa is the award-winning author of the marvelous Spellman detective novels. David is a recovering poet. They used to date. I am delighted that they agreed to answer Five Random Questions for the blog.

1. What can you cook without a recipe?

Lisa: Eggs.

Dave: Tea.

2. Please describe the circumstances of your worst-ever haircut.

Lisa: Thanks for asking. It was 1997, I think. I asked Dave to take a little off the bottom and he just hacked off several chunks of hair without any clear aesthetic point of view. I should note he was rather drunk at the time. But still, it seemed deliberate to me.

Dave: I tend to steer clear of drunk barbers, so I can’t recall a particularly terrible haircut. But my worst phase was probably a modern rock look in the early ’90s.

3. What's your favorite season, and why?

Lisa: Winter. I’ll take precipitation in any form I can get it and as often as possible.

Dave: Spring and fall (tie) because I’m noncommittal.

4. What's the last nonfiction book you read?

Lisa: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. Educational and hilarious. If she wrote my science textbooks in high school, I might actually remember something.

Dave: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. Sad and irresistible.

5. Which house would you belong to at Hogwarts?

Lisa: I think I’m a mix of Gryffindor and Slytherin. I’ve got the loyalty part of Gryffindor, and I think I have a bit of the cunning and resourcefulness of a Slytherin. But my blood is not pure. Dave hasn’t read the books, so I’ll answer for him. He’s 100 percent Ravenclaw — intelligence, creativity, learning, and wit. Although, I’m not saying he has all of those qualities, but at least 25%.

Dave: This has to be a trap. I’m keeping my mouth shut.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"That there were sorrows to be healed/And mercy, mercy in this world."

The Song: "Song of Bernadette," Jennifer Warnes. Words & music by Leonard Cohen. Track 7 of Famous Blue Raincoat, 1987.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1987.
Listen/watch here.

I have written about this album before. It is one I would need on a desert island, and it's not an exaggeration to say it might have saved my life. Certainly it helped me live with myself at a time when that was very, very hard. This song, in particular, still makes me cry, and if you don't mist up a little at it, how do we know each other?

Today is the feast day of St. Bernadette, unlikeliest of saints. She was a desperately poor, uneducated 14-year-old girl when she saw a dazzling light and a "small young lady" at a grotto outside her small town. Her own parents didn't believe her. The police threatened to arrest her. Her fellow townspeople thought she was insane, but were amazed when a spring flowed clear from a place that had been nothing but mud. Bernadette said that the lady asked for penance, and said that a chapel should be built on the site, and that people should come.

Now that site is the shrine of Lourdes, where 67 people with fatal or crippling illnesses have experienced cures certified by the Catholic Church as miracles. Countless more people give Lourdes credit for miraculous cures of their own, although unconfirmed by doctors or scientists. The water, tested over a period of 150 years, is perfectly ordinary mineral water. Bernadette herself said that the healing came from prayer, not from the water itself.

Bernadette died at the age of 35. Paradoxically, she was sick for most of her life, with cholera, asthma, and finally the tuberculosis that killed her. But she believed that her life was touched by miracles, and was canonized in 1933, 54 years after her death.

A friend once told me that I had lived a magic life, and I agreed that it was true. But I think that magic lives are as much about what you notice as about what actually happens to you. It's about what you keep track of, and how you keep score. Bernadette, poor and sickly, felt blessed. Whether or not you believe she saw the Virgin Mary, her ability to feel loved in the midst of doubt makes her a role model — for Leonard Cohen, and for me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Every mother's son's romantic/Every mother's son is frantic."

The Song: "Faron Young," Prefab Sprout. Words & music by Paddy McAloon. Track 1 of Steve McQueen, 1985.
When/how acquired: Gift CD, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

Is it just me, or is everyone a little nuts this week? Not saying we don't all have reason, although I suspect that franticness is contagious. I'm just not sure whether it started with me, or whether I caught it from someone and am passing it along. At this point, it doesn't matter.

This album was a Christmas present from a friend, and new to me, although it had been released more than 20 years earlier. It was released in the U.S. as Two Wheels Good, because Steve McQueen's estate objected to the use of his name as a title.

Faron Young was still alive when this album came out, though he hadn't recorded anything since 1980, and was fighting a losing battle with alcohol, emphysema and mental illness. He recorded three more albums in the late 1980s-early 1990s, but as a kid growing up in Tidewater Virginia, I knew him mainly as the spokesman for BC Powder (which, by the way, is still the best hangover remedy I know, though almost impossible to find north of Virginia). He killed himself in 1996, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.

Click here to see his duet with Willie Nelson on "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away." It's a beautiful voice, and nice to see the real affection between these two old friends. Faron Young was his own worst enemy, but aren't we all?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"But falling over you/Is the news of the day."

The Song: "The Ghost in You," The Psychedelic Furs. Words & music by Richard Butler and Tim Butler. Track 11 of All of This and Nothing, 1988 (originally Track 1 of Mirror Moves, 1984, but I never owned that).
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1990; purchased CD, c. 1998.
Listen/watch here.

The Psychedelic Furs rank high among my favorite bands of the 1980s, perhaps second only to The Replacements. On any given day this might be my favorite Furs song (although my favorite of their albums is Forever Now, no contest).

Anyway, it's been a tricky week. Many tasks to be juggled, and I'm distracted and sad for no real reason, or at least no reason I care to look at.

I tripped over Dizzy last night. It was bound to happen; my night vision is pretty much gone, to the point that it takes a fair amount of light for me even to distinguish shadows anymore. The narrowing of my field of vision acts as a sort of letterbox, showing me only a kidney-shaped strip of what normal people see.

Most of the time, that's plenty. I see what I'm looking at, and always will, barring some terrible accident. It actually comes in handy sometimes. I swear it's improved both my bowling and my putting, and I'm a decent shot with a rifle because nothing peripheral distracts me.

I don't know what I don't see, but the brain is marvelous at filling in information when I know what's there. It lets me believe I see more than I do, in familiar settings - which is why I tripped over Dizzy last night. He wasn't in his usual place, and I just didn't see him.

He wasn't hurt, and neither was I. He forgot it almost immediately, but I won't.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Their walls are built of cannon balls/Their motto is don't tread on me."

The Song: "Uncle John's Band," The Grateful Dead. Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia. Track 1 of Workingman's Dead, 1970.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1991.
Listen/watch here.

My friend Scott, a Charleston native, told me once that he'd heard these lines referred to Fort Moultrie, which has cannonballs in its walls. Kathy and I climbed on those walls as children, during summers in Charleston with our grandparents. They probably don't let you do that any more.

Fort Moultrie is now part of Fort Sumter National Monument, which is getting a lot of attention today as it's the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired in the Civil War. I suspect that not as many tourists visit Fort Moultrie, which is a shame, because I always thought it was even more interesting than its counterpart in the harbor. It was the official federal garrison in Charleston before South Carolina seceded in December 1860; after secession, the federal troops moved to Fort Sumter, surrounded by water, with the idea that it would be easier to defend.

After the Civil War, Fort Moultrie was a working Army installation through the Second World War. My mother remembered seeing German prisoners of war sunbathing there, when she and her family spent summers on Sullivan Island. She was a tiny child then, and her lasting memory was of envying the prisoners because they had chocolate bars, which were rationed.

Fort Moultrie is one of a handful of places I've visited that I would say, beyond question, is haunted. The Seminole leader Osceola died of malaria there, three months after being lured to Fort Payton under false promises of a peace negotiation. He's buried at Fort Moultrie, despite a bizarre scheme to steal his bones as recently as 1966. I don't know whether he haunts Fort Moultrie, but it wouldn't surprise me.

This song is probably my single favorite Grateful Dead tune, and an infallible mood lifter. It's the first track on my "Music for a Bad Mood" playlist, which I created as a mix tape at least 15 years ago, and have updated only slightly in the conversion to MP3s.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"The world was moving/She was right there with it, and she was."

The Song: "And She Was," Talking Heads. Words & music by David Byrne. Track 1 of Little Creatures, 1985.
When/how acquired: Bootleg cassette copy, 1986; downloaded MP3, 2005.
Listen/watch here.

Once upon a time on a sunny Thursday afternoon, a baby girl was born in a military hospital in Washington, DC. Her parents named her Hope, because that was what was left at the bottom of the box of troubles.

Twenty-five years later, that baby girl is the amazing Claire Bea, who is everything her parents hoped for and more. Happy birthday, baby girl.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

"Waving goodbye with tears in my eyes/Well sure I made it but you know it was a hell of a trip."

The Song: "Flashback Blues," John Prine. Words & music by John Prine. Track 13 of John Prine, 1971.
When/how acquired: Purchased LP, c. 1980.
Sorry, couldn't find a version of this online. You should own this album, anyway.

Almost exactly seven years ago, I sat at my desk in Los Angeles and said, "I gotta get out of here."

The phone rang. It was my friend Anna, who had recently married the man of her dreams, and I repeated this to her.

She said, "You should move to Maine."

I scoffed. I had never lived north of the Mason-Dixon line, except for the accident of my birth (in New Rochelle, NY) and the three months my family spent with Dad's parents in the Bronx, before my brother Ed was born. I didn't do winter. I couldn't stand the cold, and Anna knew this perfectly well.

Still, something clicked in my brain, and a series of odd coincidences over the next few months all repeated Anna's invitation: Maine, Maine, Maine. Within a weirdly short period of time, the idea of moving to Maine went from ridiculous to something that seemed like the obvious next step.

Longtime readers of this blog know it took me a while to get there. I'm not going to go back over it; if you want the story, read the first three months of this blog's archives. But get here I did, eventually, and it was Anna who welcomed me and found me a place to live and showed me the ropes of life in Maine. It was Anna who introduced me to Gaslight Theater and Literacy Volunteers, and to my first new friends here.

And now Anna and her growing family are leaving Maine, and leaving me behind. The news was official yesterday afternoon: they're moving to Florida next month.

I am not moving to Florida.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

"I believe the angels listen, God hears us pray"

The Song: "I Believe," Chris Isaak. Words & music by Chris Isaak. Track 12 of Forever Blue, 1995.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, 1995.
Listen/watch here.

I listened to this record almost constantly for about three months after I bought it, but realized this morning (and iTunes confirmed) that I haven't played it in two years. Chris Isaak is like an old boyfriend: I don't miss him when he's gone, but am always glad to see him again, and then ask myself, "Now why did we break up, again?" Sometimes, as this song points out, things just don't work out, and no one can explain it.

But I do believe that the angels listen and God hears us pray, and this morning's prayers are for my aunt Patricia, who's having some surgery today. I am ashamed that it took a hospital stay for me to call her -- I only have two living blood-relation aunts, plus three by marriage -- but very glad that I did, whatever the reason. My extended family is scattered across the United States, and while this may be good strategy for our long-term plans for world domination, I wish we all saw each other more often.

Monday, April 04, 2011

"What more in the name of love?"

The Song: "Pride," Nouvelle Vague. Words & music by Adam Clayton, Paul Hewson, Larry Mullen, & David Evans (U2). Track 11, Disk 2 of Best of Nouvelle Vague (Limited Edition), 2010.
When/how acquired: Gift CD, 2010.
Listen here.

"Nouvelle Vague" means "New Wave," and this French group specializes in bossa nova ("new wave" in Portuguese) arrangements of 1980s classics. A little precious? Maybe, but I love them, and was delighted to get this CD last Christmas from the friend who'd originally turned me on to them.

It's the only version of this song I own, because — and this might surprise even people who know me well — I am not a particular fan of U2. I've seen them live (once), and The Joshua Tree will always be part of my personal soundtrack of 1987, but I never loved them as much as I felt I was supposed to.

That said, this is a great song. It commemorates the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 43 years ago today. My twin sister Kathy and I were not even two and a half when Dr. King was assassinated, but my earliest memories come from that time. I just don't know what I actually remember, and what are confabulations from stories I heard later.

Easter 1968 fell on April 14, ten days after Dr. King's assassination. I know I remember that Easter: my new blue coat, which I loved; my hat, which was not as pretty as Kathy's; and my shiny patent leather shoes, which pinched.

The big event of that Easter, though, was that we got a puppy, a German Shepherd/Alaskan husky mix. My mother called him Boyfriend, because he would be her company while our father was at sea. She was two months pregnant with what would turn out to be my sisters Peggy and Susan.

I wish so hard that Mom was still alive — for so many reasons, but I wish I had asked her more about that time. Did she know she was pregnant when Dr. King was assassinated? Was she afraid, alone in a working-class neighborhood in Norfolk? Was that why Daddy bought the puppy?

It would be good to think that the world is a better place, 43 years after Dr. King's assassination. But this weekend brought news of Americans killed in retaliation for an American cult's burning of the Koran, and of the murder of a Catholic police officer in Northern Ireland. People are still killing each other in the name of love, and the thought of that makes me feel very sick, and very tired.

Dr. King would be 82 if he were alive today.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

"Baby it's sad,/But baby it's a fact/People have torches/For people like that."

The Song: "Pride of Frankenstein," Too Much Joy. Words & music by Too Much Joy (Jay Blumenfeld, Tim Quirk, Sandy Smallens & Tommy Vinton). Track 8 of Cereal Killers, 1991.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1991; purchased CD, c. 2000.
Listen/read about it here.

People are pack animals, which should scare anyone who stops to think about it. Management and Organizational Behavior was a required course in the Business school when I was an undergraduate, but since I was in the School of Foreign Service, I missed it, and now I'm sorry. It would come in handy. I have, however, read Charles Mackay's classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which is as timely and interesting today as it was when first published in 1841.

As with everything else in modern life, the Internet speeds up and facilitates pack behavior. I've done a lot of thinking this week about the time I spend online and its unintended consequences on the rest of my life. Haven't come to any conclusions yet, but a subscription to Mac Freedom may be in my future.

This song is one of the highlights of an album that ranks among my all-time favorites. Too Much Joy probably still stands as the band I've seen most often live, even though officially they broke up about ten years ago. (My brother Ed and I were both at the concert recorded for their live album, Live at Least, and I think you can hear us singing along with the Theme Song at the end of the show.) Anyway, it felt appropriate, especially because I've just watched the original Frankenstein again on Turner Classic Movies.

Friday, April 01, 2011

"Guess you must be/Runnin' out of fools"

The Song: "Runnin' Out of Fools," Neko Case. Words & music by Richard Ahlert and Kay Rogers. Track 12 of Blacklisted, 2002.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 2004.
Listen/watch here.

Neko Case sounds like Dusty Springfield on this cover, which is not to say she isn't amazing in her own right. As far as I'm concerned, she can do no wrong. She's on a short list of artists I can't believe I haven't seen live.

Most April Fools' jokes are mean, and I'm far too susceptible to them, for reasons explained in the last post. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. This morning's email brought the traditional ThinkGeek April Fools' newsletter, and all I could think was, "Man, I wish this was true." Especially the Playmobil Apple Store Playset. I would totally buy that.

I am much too busy, but hope to finish several things today. In triage mode, hoping today's snowstorm doesn't crash the powerlines, and anxiously waiting for 10:00 a.m., when tickets go on sale for Elvis Costello at the State Theatre this summer. Dizzy was up most of the night, sick after eating a whole rib bone; now he's passed out on the floor, and I need to get my work done.