Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Holidays

I'm off to air some grievances with family members this week, so here's wishing all of you a safe, happy, alcohol-cushioned holiday.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Christmas Story, CJSD Style

I have to play my brother Tickle in our fantasy football playoffs this week. (Wow, that sentence sounds like a want ad from Craigslist.) The league we play in is full of shenanigans, with teams changing their team names weekly to make fun of the person they are playing and engaging in other jokes. A couple weeks ago, I was playing my brother’s friend Veets. That same week, The Lovely Becky had to log into my Yahoo account for me.

“Why is your Yahoo profile picture a photo of Veetz?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s just this stupid fantasy football thing we do,” I replied, a sentence that was like adding a toxic asset to my wife’s sexual interest portfolio.

In naming my team this week, I went to a deep well, which is a Christmas story we delight in retelling each year. About 20 years ago, on Christmas Eve, Tickle, my sister E, and I were playing Monopoly. My sister was the banker. At one point, Tickle accused E of cheating by stealing money out of the bank. E denied it. I hadn’t seen her stealing money, but at the time, I also wouldn’t have put it past my little sister. The argument intensified and my sister shoved or hit Tickle. Tickle hit back. He was two years older and bigger, so he shouldn’t have done that. However, he most certainly did not hit my sister hard enough to force the blood-curdling scream she let out.

Bill Cosby had a famous bit about parenting that said parents didn’t care about justice. They cared about quiet. That was my father. That scream shot up the hallway, wrapped around his head, and pulled him out of his chair to the room where we were playing. He walked in asking what the hell was going on, and E blurted out, “TICKLE HIT ME!”

Justice requires context. Retribution does not. My father, roused from what was probably a peaceful state, had been pulled into an altercation where his only daughter was crying like my brother had taken a folding chair and smacked her over the head with it. Beyond the noise issue, Tickle made the crucial mistake of hitting my sister. That was a cardinal rule: don’t hit your sister. Granted, we weren’t supposed to hit each other at all, but the boys hitting E tended to be like the difference between getting in a bar fight where you wind up in the drunk tank and assaulting a police officer. You just didn’t do the latter, no matter the circumstances.

My father was also old school when it came to retribution. Corporal punishment was not meted out fairly rarely, but it did show up, and the mere idea of it was often enough to keep us in line. When we stepped on the proverbial last straw, out came the belt and on went the spanking.

Tickle was about 12 at the time, near the cutoff for spanking. I think my last one happened when I was 11. As we got older, it actually became less effective, because our parents could take things away that would punish us far longer than a temporarily sore bottom would. Plus, it gets a little ridiculous to spank an older child.

When my father told E and I to clear out and went to get his belt, I was shocked, because I thought Tickle was over the spanking plateau. Still, despite being about 19, even I wasn’t going to deny a direct order to vamoose, so E and scooted into the hallway.

Giving a 12-year-old a spanking—on Christmas Eve or otherwise—may seem cruel to some. Now that I’m a father, I don’t think I could ever spank Libby. In retrospect, though, I can understand it. My father was under a lot of pressure when we were kids. We weren’t poor, but we had the struggles of the lower middle class. My dad was an enlisted Navy man, and even with my mom working part time, making ends meet wasn’t always easy, especially in expensive California. Dad wanted a little peace and quiet, especially on Christmas Eve, and our Milton-Bradley-sponsored fracas had thrown some monkey feces at his Norman Rockwell evening. Add one of the male children hitting the one female child, and somebody was going to get it.

Also, one cannot judge my father without judging his two evil offspring who left that bedroom only to camp outside the door and laugh as Tickle got spanked. Why were we laughing, aside from our evilness? Because Tickle let out the most pathetic pleas I had ever heard. We heard the crack of the belt on his behind, followed by his crying and the comment, No, Daddy, I’ll be good. I’m laughing as I write that, and I know it’s wrong, but damn it, it was funny. My sister, previously mortally wounded by my brother’s glancing blow, now giggled with each of the several belt hits. Finally, the door opened and out came Tickle—poor pathetic Tickle—doing the sniffling shuffle of the recently spanked, headed to his room. My father came out and glared at us, warning that anyone laughing would get it too. I got out of there before the giggles came back.

On the surface, Tickle’s spanking was unremarkable. We all usually got at least one or two spankings a year until we were too old to spank, and frankly, we deserved them in just about every instance. After all, we were kids who laughed at our siblings getting spanked on Christmas Eve. Lil’ angels we were not.

Tickle’s spanking, however, grew into legendary status. The combination of it being Christmas Eve, of our laughing, and of his pleas for mercy (the only time I ever heard Tickle say “Daddy”) led to the story becoming one we retell every holiday season.

My mother hates when we tell the story. It is an admittedly terrible story. However, no matter how many times the members of our family hear it, they crack up, including Tickle. When E or I retell it, the roomful of relatives loses it when we get to No, Daddy, I’ll be good. Even my mother and grandmother can’t help but smile a little as they shake their heads in disapproval.

This week, as I squared off against Tickle in fantasy football, I knew what I would name my team.

Christmas Spanking.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top Ten Thursdays: What are we doing to stay warm this winter?

10) Cutting open our pet tauntaun.

9) Using homemade foil balloon to float to a prison sentence in a warmer climate.

8) Enjoying Coffeemate’s new Antifreeze Creamer.

7) Rubbing Propecia on our backhair to grow a nice, warm pelt.

6) Never taking off our Snuggie.

5) Opening the Ark of the Lost Covenant in the presence of Nazis.

4) Making a homemade parka out of leftover attic insulation (may require not breathing).

3) Crawling into our mancaves until the spring with chips, salsa, beer, and a remote control.

2) Strapping the kitty to our heads (may require Bactine).

1) Doing some heart-pumping calisthenics with the Copenhagen PD.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Favorite 11 (+2): The Favoritist of the Aughts

It’s three more favorite than 10!

It was the best of decades for music, it was the worst of decades for music.

The Aughts, which the Grandpa Simpson in me loves much more than “The 2000s,” was a great decade for music fans. Perhaps the greatest decade, because it was easier than ever to find music that you loved. Hot funk, cool punk, old junk…if you had an Internet connection, you could go out and get just about anything.

I gorged myself like Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. I had always been a pretty active CD purchaser, but my music habit swelled to hard-drive busting proportions. I did my share of file sharing, both online as well as offline with friends who had huge tracts of tracks on their external hard drives. I bought a lot, too, adding iTunes and eMusic downloads purchased along with my ol’ reliable CDs. And that doesn’t even include trolling YouTube for a treasure trove of live performances, exploring the undiscovered streaming musical country of Pandora, or checking out the plethora of music podcasts. Practically anything I want to hear is right at my fingertips.

Yet I’m a little sad. Just ten years ago, John Cusack starred in Hi Fidelity as a grumpy owner of an indie record store. Today, the idea of going into a store dedicated to selling music seems almost as quaint as ordering from the Sears Catalog. Over Thanksgiving, while in a place that resembled civilization, I was at Best Buy, a place that despite its big box capitalism usually carries a pretty good selection of music. I was shocked at how much the music section had shrunk. It was maybe a quarter of what it used to be, with only slightly more floor space than that for the Casio keyboards and other miscellaneous electronic junk that doesn’t fit into an easy category.

It’s all Apple’s fault. The beauty of having your entire music collection on something the size of a cell phone has led to the physical demise of music. Don’t get me wrong—I love my iPod and being able to tap into my entire collection of music from my PC. But I miss that physicality of music collecting: visiting the shops, browsing the racks, perusing the album art and liner notes, and placing those new purchases into the shelves lined with my previous purchases. Now those rows and rows of discs seem like a musical fossil record.

Another double-edged sword has been the conversation about music. In the Age of Social Networking, there are more conversations about music than ever: more reviews to read, more ways to connect with fans, and even more ways to talk to bands directly. All of that has made it so easy to discover great new music. In fact, at the ripe age of 39, I feel like I have a better handle on music than I did at 19 simply because it’s so easy to find out about new bands who are creating great stuff.

At the same time, though, everything has gone niche. Sure, the Pop Music Beast still lumbers through our pop culture, with the beastmasters simply switching over to American Idol, satellite radio, and auto DJs on Clear Channel-owned stations. For rock fans, though, we’re losing those universal connections we used to have, where we would have a common bond over bands we knew and either loved or hated. Now I can run into a huge music fan and, despite being obsessive about this stuff, we both stand a decent chance of not knowing much about our favorite music. A post about .38 Special would generate far more conversation than a post about any of the following bands, simply because we’ve all heard .38 Special’s music. Just like the physicality of music, I miss that universality, even if it was a common bond of making fun of something awful. (In that regard, I’m grateful for Nickelback and Creed.)

Still, bad news aside, it was a hell of a decade for my ears. I started out with about 200 songs to consider, and even getting that down to 100 was hard. When I got to 50, it got painful. And the top 20 seemed almost impossible to whittle down. So I asked myself: If I could only have one CD with my favorite music from 2000-2009, what would be on it? One by one, some great bands fell to the wayside (Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Wilco, U2, Los Campesinos!, Japandroids, even my beloved Rush). I reached 13 and I couldn’t cut any more, but I also knew I could fit all of these on one CD.

So here are my favorite (lucky) 13 songs of The Aughts. It’s interesting that nothing from 2009 and only one song that’s kinda from 2008 made it on here. I think the later stuff is at a disadvantage because I haven’t had as long to live with it. The songs here are ones I return to over and over, that are old friends I keep in constant contact with. The last two years have been full of good tunes, but the older stuff and I go farther back. Call it new drummer syndrome: the new guy may play just as well if not better, but we haven't trashed as many hotels with him.

13) “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone,” Ted Leo and Pharmacists. The phrase “old school” gets thrown a lot, but Ted Leo is old school. In an era where a lot of bands (strip) mine the 80s for ideas, Ted builds on that old punk/new wave foundation. He brings a Clash attitude to an Elvis Costello sensibility for writing songs, and despite being fairly conventional in his arrangements, he’s created his own unique sound.

It’s possible I played “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone” more than any other song on this list, and yet I never grow tired of it. It hooks me with a great riff, gets me going with Ted’s vocals that are rough and soft at the same time, and keeps me around by keeping things interesting during the middle. It’s of the 80s but also timeless, and nothing would soothe my desert island nerves quite like hearing this song first.

12) “Goddamned Lonely Love,” Drive-By Truckers. I am a very lucky man in that I found true love very early in life. That’s not just mushy sentimentality, it’s just a simple fact. The Lovely Becky and I are made for each other. We both know it, and everyone that knows us knows it.

Yet, despite that happiness, I still like having a song for crying into my beer, because even when I don’t have blues, it’s cathartic to hear someone else’s blues. We all need those songs, and this was by far the best crying into your beer song I heard in the last ten years. Jason Isbelle’s vocals have a pack-and-a-half of regret in them, while the music has the sadness of a last call that’s going to end in a night alone. Ironic that Isbelle and the Truckers parted after making the amazing The Dirty South. That’s something to cry into your beer about.

11) “Ageless Beauty,” Stars. No song hooked me so immediately the way this did. I rarely buy an album after hearing one song one time, but the first time I heard this, I was online and ordering Set Yourself on Fire. Amy Milan’s voice is so pristine, clear and shimmering like an unspoiled lake at sunrise, that her vocals stay refreshing no matter how many times I play this. Match that with a great guitar riff that takes off like a sprinter from the first note and I’m not only hooked, I want to be pulled into the boat.

10) “Mr. Brightside,” The Killers. Back when we lived in Iowa City, TLB and I used to go with our friend MSF to a casino to play poker. The casino was about 45 minutes away, so we had a lot of time to talk and play tunes. Shortly after I bought The Killers Hot Fuss, I popped it into the stereo on one of our trips. From the back seat, MSF said, in a small voice that was both timid and exhilarated, “I love this song.”

There’s nothing as guiltily enjoyable as a guilty pleasure in the making, but that’s what “Mr. Brightside” is for me. As I whittled the list down, I couldn’t believe who I was removing while The Killers stayed on. In the end, though, I can’t deny how happy this song makes me. It’s big, it’s audacious, it’s kind of ridiculous, but it charms me every single time I hear it. When that break hits at the three-minute mark, just before the big finale, damn if I’m not waiting to sing, “I NEEEEVEEER!!!” So fuck credibility, because this is the “Don’t Stop Believing” of the new millennium.

9) “Maps,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This is here because of Rock Band. I bought Fever to Tell and immediately liked this song, but then set it aside for a couple of years. When it showed up in Rock Band, it completely changed my appreciation for it. I love playing the drums, pounding out the fat tom-tom beat that gives an otherwise delicate song a big, booming edge. I also got TLB to sing it with me, and she did such a remarkable job with Karen O’s vocals that I felt like we were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (Yes, I’m a nerd.)

Beyond the game, it’s just a beautiful song, the best love song I’ve heard in the last ten years. Just like we all need a song for crying into our beer, we need a go-to love song as well.

8) “Hounds of Love,” The Futureheads. The best cover of the decade. Justin Townes Earle had better source material with his cover of The Replacements “Can’t Hardly Wait,” but The Futureheads take the best Kate Bush song and blow it up into the best fireworks show ever. The punky energy, the driving guitars, the clever background oh-oh-ohs, the way that it shoots out of a canon and keeps building until the very end…It’s just about perfect.

7) “Been There All the Time,” Dinosaur Jr. I thought at least U2’s “Beautiful Day” or Rush’s “Vapor Trails” would make this list, because both of those were huge returns to form for two bands I have spent my life loving. I had to give the nod to Dinosaur Jr., however, because they did much more than return to form. Here’s a band I kind of liked but never loved, but whose last two albums have been in heavy, heavy rotation. They didn’t just return to form, they went past the pretty high mark they had set. Beyond and Farm rock harder, sound better, and do more than even their classic 80s and 90s albums, without losing the crazy youthful chaos that made them so interesting in the first place.

“Been There All the Time” encapsulates what’s made their resurgence so entertaining. Crazy drums that still keep the beat, a fat guitar sound that J. Mascis should have had years ago, a breakneck pace that never loses control, and of course a pair of Mascis solos that cement his status as a guitar god, and one of the good guitar gods at that.

6) “The Swish,” The Hold Steady. Still the band I’d front if I fronted a band, and this song shows why. The music is practically a primer for classic rock. When the bass drum kicks in after the opening riff, I can see the stage lights popping on in time, illuminating an arena full of kids pumping their fists in the air in time. The pick it up and slow it down, keeping pace like a great roller coaster, but always rocking out.

What elevates this above most of the classic rock of my youth is Craig Finn’s lyrics. There’s so much smart amid the brawny riffs and thudding drums. How can I not love a line like, “She said my name’s Neil Schon but people call me Nina Simone/some people call me Andre Cymone/I’ve survived the 80s once already/and I don’t recall them all that fondly.” They’re like Cheap Trick, only smarter, and I mean that as a big, big compliment.

5) “Far Away,” Sleater-Kinney. A song that pretty much summed up my feelings about 9/11: the horror of watching it happen, the anger over what happened, and the hatred for how that anger was co-opted into discount superstore patriotism by the Bush Administration.

Mostly, though, it’s a lament for what happened that day, with the shouted, “Why can’t I get along with you?” getting into my bones. The “you” is universal here: what the fuck makes us do things like fly planes into buildings and bomb the shit out of people? Does ideology always have to trump humanity? I think the answer is unfortunately “usually,” which just makes the anger and sadness worse, but at least this song provides a cathartic release through its wailing ferociousness.

4) “The Bleeding Heart Picture Show,” The New Pornographers. Pop music that fits me like a tailor-made suit, and a good tailor-made suit, not some Project Runway challenge made out of twigs and newspaper. I had a half-dozen New Pornographers songs I considered. I picked this one because it sums up what makes them such a great group: taking a winning pop formula and turning it on its head. The formula is the hey-lah, hey-lah of the climactic ending, the crowd-pleasing finale that gets us all singing along. It’s the journey there—the slow build, the mid-tempo middle, before the bridge that ignites that ending, as Neko Case’s voice becomes more prominent with every verse until she shines on her own at the end—that makes this such a stand-out track for me. It manages to be catchy and epic, all in the span of a few minutes. That will always score highly with me.

3) “Skinny Love,” Bon Iver. Winter sucks. Yeah, white Christmas is nice and all that, but there’s a reason that when most of us fantasize about getting away from it all, it’s not about heading north to an Arctic research station for some much needed isolation and frostbite.

Still, the best art tends to come from painful experiences, and Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is the kind of record that could only be forged in a frozen wasteland (northern Wisconsin, specifically). The fact that he recorded this in a winter cabin is obvious, because this album is winter: sparse, chilly, painful, yet capturing the beauty of new fallen snow that covers up all that pain, if just for a little while. The minimal arrangements highlight what makes Bon Iver so amazing to listen to: his voice, one of the best male vocals I’ve ever heard. He takes the quiet folksiness of Nick Drake and amplifies it into something powerful, with occasional howling that makes the quiet that much more meaningful. I loved the whole album immediately, but it was this song that I played over and over and over again. I give “Skinny Love” a big fat hug.

2) “Svefn-G-Englar,” Sigur Ros. I am admittedly a pretty conventional music fan. I’m not one of those guys who listens to jazz and classical and old-tymey music and whatnot. I mostly rock out, with forays into folksiness and electronica, peppered with an occasional dip in hip-hop. I don’t get very adventurous with my music very often, which TLB would say reflects on my overall personality. Quite true, and a big reason why me and Animal Collective don’t mix.

Every once in a while, though, something comes at me from left field that completely blows me away, even though it’s not in my usual field of listen. DJ Shadow’s trip-hoppy Endtroducing did that in the 90s, and Sigur Ros did that to me in The Aughts. (Technically, this came out in 1999 in Iceland, but wasn’t released in the US until 2001. Pitchfork included it on their 2000 albums list, so that’s good enough for me.)

I had never heard anything like this, which made it all the more remarkable that I immediately loved it. It’s whale songs played by a rock band, with big, sweeping guitars reverbed all the way to the bottom of the ocean, while falsetto Icelandic gibberish lights up the surface. This is so beautiful, I can’t help but dig deep into the well of rock review clich├ęs and call it a transcendent tour de force that reaffirms the uplifting power of music, and mean every single stupid overwrought word, because a decade after living with this song, I’m still mesmerized by it.

1) “Happy,” The Wrens. My favorite song from my favorite album of the decade, The Meadowlands. I’ve written before why this album is meaningful to me: because it’s about that period when you’re old enough to see some of your dreams slipping away but not old enough to turn them into a haunting elegy about lost youth. You’re just sort of stuck in a house in New Jersey, spending seven years on an album that probably your friends will only hear. (If that’s not an allegory for blogging, I don’t know what is.) For most of the 2000s, that negativity fit me pretty well.

In the last year and a half, though, my attitude has changed, as has my feeling about this album. I finally got over myself enough to start doing what I really loved, to put in the sweat and effort that it takes to turn a good idea into something that other people may want to enjoy. I got over caring how many people would enjoy it or how long it would take or worrying about all the stupid baggage that just weighed me down and kept me from moving forward. I threw myself into the joy of creation.

I think that’s what The Meadowlands is really about. Four guys putting aside everything else because they love making music. They didn’t get rich, they didn’t get famous, and they haven’t made an album since this came out in 2003. Yet none of that matters because they stuck to their guns and in the process made one of the great albums of the decade, an album that would be on my desert island list for any decade.

“Happy” sums all that up. It’s an angry, sad elegy to a relationship, but once all that negativity is expended in the first 75% of the song, it kicks into a soaring conclusion that sounds downright relieved and happy. And relieved and happy is a great place to be.

Hope you enjoyed the list, and thanks to everyone who comes by and reads the Random 11 and the blog every week. For a while I wondered when I would end this blog. Now I just want to keep it going, no matter how much or how little I can post.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Republicans Declare Carbon Dioxide “Delicious”

GOP Congressmen believe CO2 should be labeled “nutrient” instead of “pollutant”; Vow to add it to the food pyramid.

WASHINGTON – After the Environmental Protection Agency labeled carbon dioxide a “dangerous pollutant,” a ruling that would allow the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions more closely, House and Senate Republicans lined up to condemn the ruling.

“I am tired of CO2 getting a bad name,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. “Carbon dioxide helps sustain life on this planet, the same way that oxygen, Jesus, and tax cuts do. That means, just like those three elements, we could all use a little more carbon dioxide in our lives, not less.”

Representative Joe Barton of Texas agreed with his colleague. “Carbon emissions are an essential part of our economic growth, in the same way that they are essential to plant growth. Is the EPA going to tell us plants are bad? Are they going to tell all the liberals that when they hug a tree, they are really hugging a big, bark-covered, eco-terrorist?” Barton then offered a high-five to Sensenbrenner.

Both representatives took special umbrage to the EPA’s ruling in light of the leaked e-mails from the Climactic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia—a scandal dubbed “Climategate” by conservatives.

“These e-mails show scientists doing the unthinkable—expressing their opinions and making fun of people who disagree with them,” Sensenbrenner said. “This small sample of correspondence not only disproves the mountains of data supporting the theory of global warming, but it also shows that scientists are far less trustworthy than preachers, business executives, and lobbyists.”

“And e-mails never lie the way numbers do,” Barton added.

In the Senate, the reaction was equally stern. Senator James Inhofe, (R-19th Century), said that the EPA was “dead wrong” about carbon dioxide. “Do you know what I do every day? I wake up, go in my garage, and start my car. I sit there soaking up the delicious fumes, and in five minutes, I’ve had my full day’s supply of CO2. That little dose of CO2 gives me the nutrients I need to think so clearly on the issues.” Inhofe said he would be presenting a bill to add CO2 to the food pyramid, “so that everyone can have the same brain benefits that I do.”

Inhofe added that he would be traveling to Copenhagen to address the international climate conference and tell them the Senate considered global warming to be “a big myth, like female orgasm.”

When asked how he would get his daily supply of CO2, Inhofe said that would just suck off some tailpipes in the parking lot. “It’s nice to get some international CO2 for a change of pace,” the Senator said. “I especially like getting a little Jaguar exhaust, maybe a Fiat for a snack, although anything from a French car gives me gas.”

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Top Ten Tuesdays: What are we doing about global warming?

10) Whoah, slow down, Chicken Little.

9) Didn’t you hear? Global warming is over.

8) See, there’s all these facts that supposedably says that the Earth is getting warmer, even though it still snows.

7) And now we found out that some climate scientists have opinions.

6) Well, you can’t have facts and opinions together, buddy.

5) That means, if these scientists have opinions, they can’t possibly have facts.

4) And if they don’t have facts, then how can they support the theory of global warming?

3) Plus, Al Gore.

2) To sum up: if global warming is not real, then we don’t have to care about the environment, because New York won’t be under water, unless God decides to punish it. Therefore, we don’t have to recycle or breathe clean air.

1) And that’s a fact.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The NFL can't keep my dick jokes down

As part of my Officially-NFL-Sanctioned® Bears Blogging, I sat down yesterday to watch the 4-7 Bears take on the 1-10 St. Louis Rams. I turned on my satellite receiver, tuned to the proper NFL Sunday Ticket channel, and was told I was not authorized to view this program.

Nothing says, "ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOT-BALLLLL???!!!" like a call to DirecTV's customer support. I talked to a very friendly customer-service person, who told me that I was indeed signed up for Sunday Ticket and paid in full, except that I'd had Sunday Ticket removed from my account (don't ask me how all three of those things could be true). "I'm really sorry, but because your account is bundled with Qwest, you'll need to call them to have your service re-activated," she informed me.

Sigh. Apparently we live in an age where you can download porn to your iPhone in the Badlands of South Dakota, while simultaneously listening to a song called, "Porn on my iPhone" and updating your Facebook page to say, "Im in teh BAdlands lookin @ p0rn on my Iphone!!!!," but two giant faceless corporations that have an official programming partnership can't activate a programming package that I have paid for and didn't ask to be deactivated. But I digress.

I went downstairs and dug out a Qwest statement for my account number. On the statement, there was number listed for DTV problems. How customer-friendly and befitting of Qwest's old slogan, "The Spirit of Service." I called the number and played the usual game with the auto-operator, saying, "yes," my account number, and "me no have football on TV, need football!" A pleasant voice informed me that "The Spirit of Service" only works Monday through Friday, and that they were closed on the weekends.

The voice started to say something else, but I said, "Are you fucking kidding me?" into the phone, which triggered the "Are you fucking kidding me?" subroutine, which started talking to me about bundles or long distance or if I wanted to become prison pen pals with Qwest CEOs convicted of insider trading. I couldn't figure out how to go back to the previous message, so I had to call back and retrace my steps. Skipping the profanity this time, the voice told me I could speak to tech support. I said, "hell yeah" and was connected...to DirecTV.

Luckily the DTV rep from the previous call had written a novella about my service situation, so the new guy knew what my problem was. He told me I could talk to someone in the Bundles department and he should be able to help me. Away I went on a transfer call...wheeee!

Bundle Man assured me he could fix the problem, and after a pause, he asked, "Is it working now?"

"No, it still says I'm not authorized."

"Okay, give me a moment and I'll try something else."

Thus began our 35-minute dance (after my 20-minute dance with my original calls), with us repeating these steps over and over, as if we were rehearsing for Customer Service With the Stars. We reset the receiver, we took the card out of the receiver, I think he made a blood sacrifice to Odin...no dice.

"You know," I told him, "the irony is I'm going through all this trouble to watch the Rams play the Bears."

"Oh, are you a Bears fan?" he asked.

"Unfortunately, yes."

"Well, at least you have Jay Cutler," he said cheerily, which is like telling someone "Well, at least you have your penis" after having both testicles removed.

Bundle Man was a champ, however, and he kept doing whatever Great and Powerful Oz mojo he was doing. Finally, up popped the Rams/Bears game. Mercifully, the first quarter was over, although I apparently missed the part of the game where the Bears displayed something called, "offensive production."

I thanked Bundle Man and proceeded to watch a terrible, error-prone, boring game that made me hate being a football fan.

However, comedy comes from pain, and as I watched the Bears outplay the hapless Rams, I at least got to bask in the smoggy glow of an ugly win. Chicago actually blocked people and ran the football and put pressure on the quarterback. It was like they were a young, randy team again, as if a magic pill had cured their limp production this season. Which made me realize they had taken something:


Yes, I have managed to bring the high-brown, subtle, sophisticated humor you have all come to love tolerate to an Officially-NFL-Sanctioned® Bears Blog. Hopefully I won't get called into the commissioner's office and forced to do community service, telling kids around the country about the perils of excessive dick joking.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday Favorite 11: The Favoritist of 2009

It’s one* more favorite than 10!

I have been working from home now for more than two years. I have a great space to go to, a finished attic with a view of Lake Superior and, starting this past August, a view of a nice new plasma TV courtesy of The Lovely Becky. (We’ve established a pattern where I get a new TV every time she sells a book. That’s called a win-win.)

Monday through Friday, I walk up the stairs to my office, plop at my desk, and start being alone. Granted, I’m not alone all the time. My daughter is just downstairs, and TLB has the lovely schedule of an academic, so she is often home in the morning or the afternoon. I also am on the phone and especially on e-mail with work, so it’s not as if I’m a hermit taking a vow of silence in my man-cave, the only voices I hear coming from overly animated sports analysts on ESPN.

However, it’s not always easy, especially when the cold hand of winter starts to wrap itself around my house and I’m even less likely to leave than normal. Some days that feeling of solitude (good and productive) turns to feeling alone with a 50% chance of stir crazy. I can get up and leave for a bit, sure, but this is my home office, and it’s where I have to work. I have to deal with it.

More than anything, music helps me deal with it. I’ve always listened to music at work, slapping my headphones on whenever I needed to escape the distractions of cubicle life and get creative.

(I tended to turn my headphones up because, as Ted Nugent once said, if it’s too loud, you’re too old, and I didn’t want to get called out by The Nuge. This led to my friend and cubicle neighbor Michelle getting exasperated when she would ask me for something and I couldn’t hear her over Geddy Lee, so she would throw a rubber ball into my cubicle like some kind of white-collar catapult. Nothing pulls you out of a twenty-minute, seven-part, science fiction dystopian rock fantasy like getting bopped in the noggin with a ball during the sixth guitar solo.)

These days, music has gone from a musical shield and pleasant background soundtrack to an essential companion. My computer comes on and my iTunes comes up, ready to rock my day. Music used to help me work. Now music makes me work. My feet tap as I tap out e-mails, my fingers sometimes keeping time with the music (although I’ve had to explain to some confused colleagues that qwer ghjk vbnm is just my version of an e-mail drum fill). It’s my co-worker, throwing a rubber ball of rock at me all day long.

That’s what makes this more than just a list of my favorite songs from the year. These were tunes that got me through the year, that kept me entertained and focused and feeling like I wasn’t in an attic working by myself. There were many, many other tunes—new and old (I’m looking at you, Outfield)—that blared out of my desktop speakers. These, however, were the new ones that were on constant repeat throughout the year.

*Not-at-all-hidden-bonus track 1: “Ships With Holes Will Sink,” We Were Promised Jetpacks. I had this list at 40 songs at one point before whittling it down to 13. I really wanted to cut it to 11, because I hate when you read a “Best XX songs of the year” list and some cobag reviewer has added X-XX additional songs to the list, usually under the wuss category of honorable mention. But I couldn’t cut these next two songs, so consider me a wussy cobag.

“Ships With Holes Will Sink” comes from a Scottish group with one of the most annoying names in recent annoying name history. I’ll admit to often being biased against a band if I find their name annoying, so it’s a testament to We Were Promised Jetpacks that I played this song a lot. In American hands, this would be earnest, overwrought emo: loud, fast, screamed out, and hopelessly serious. Tarted up with a thick Scottish accent and a delivery that says, “Cut the snide comments and listen up, ya fookin bastard,” however, and this becomes a yearning, churning piece of rock that gets cranked in my headphones at the gym. Music like this keeps me feeling young, and that’s enough to overcome any stupid band name.

Not-at-all-hidden-bonus track 2: “The Mountain,” Heartless Bastards. I owe a certain zombie a heartfelt thanks for alerting me to the Heatless Bastards. What makes this is the vocals from Ericka Wennerstrom—who has a delightfully Midwestern name, which endears me the way a bad band name turns me off. She has a bluesy howl that sounds as if it is coming down from a mountain, washing over me in a sonic avalanche. The music is a great mix of slow-churned, Zeppelin-esque thump mixed with some guitars that sound like they are from a lost Built to Spill song. Really, these two tracks could have easily been in the proper 11, and that’s why I had to include them.

11) “Over It,” Dinosaur Jr. Speaking of Built to Spill, there were three major disappointments from major-label bands that I have major crushes on. In my original list, I had tunes from the new Built to Spill, U2, and Green Day records. I wanted to like these records, really, and the new Built to Spill still has some promise. U2 and Green Day, though, fizzled out. Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown sounded like American Idiot with different lyrics, and as much as I liked the latter, I’d heard it enough in the last five years. U2 was the real clunker, with only one song on No Line on the Horizon—the terrific “Moment of Surrender”—standing out. The rest of the album was like the cover: bland and gray.

That makes me sad because I like following a band’s career, seeing them succeed or, if they have a few missteps, seeing them come back. Well, no one has stormed back like Dinosaur Jr. For the second album in a row, they have sounded tighter, harder, and better than ever. Farm has all the youthful energy and manic playing that made them great in the first place, but with an added focus and confidence you only get when you get older and see a few things. They know their place in music—a band that will forever be indie heroes but never one of those major bands—and they’ve accepted it. “Over It” is an anthem for the shoulda-been-bigger-but-still-did-pretty-well artist, the sound of a band saying fuck it, let’s just play. I think that’s pretty damn good advice for all of us. (Plus, a Triple Lindy bonus for making a great video.)

10) “1901,” Phoenix. Record stores are dying everywhere, but for the first time in my life, I live someplace that doesn’t have a record store. In fact, the best place for me to buy CDs is Target. Not Target Music, not Target Tunes, not Target Records. Tar-jey. There are at least three tattoo parlors here but not one goddamned record store.

However, Target has actually served up some good CDs for me. They have an end display where they put out a dozen hipster discs, and one day they had this record from Phoenix. The reason I bought it was because I read a rave review in Entertainment Weekly. I rarely do that anymore—buy a new album based solely on a review—but I like to do it because it’s always a terrific surprise when you find something great you didn’t expect.

Phoenix didn’t disappoint, and “1901” was my summer song in the way Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” was last summer. It’s a sunny bit of synthpop that mixes things up a bit with some tom-tom beats and a plinky guitar that give it a human, rock band feel. It wins big with a pre-chorus that makes a mini-crescendo to the soaring chorus. A great song to listen to with the windows open on a warm summer day.

9) “Bear,” The Antlers. Who’s ready to rock out to a concept album about cancer treatment?

The Antlers Hospice is a downer, no doubt, a haunting cycle of songs about the diagnosis, treatment, and death of a cancer patient. It’s one of those albums you appreciate immediately, but find hard to like immediately because it’s so gut-wrenching. At the same time, I kept coming back, because rock music is rarely this dramatically intimate, unfolding a taught, weeping, touching story before my very ears. “Bear” is the best entry into this album, a bouncing tune that doesn’t lose any of that punch despite the catchy melody.

Also, as an aside: I realize physical albums may eventually go away, but I hope album art never does. Hospice is one of the best album covers in recent memory and tells you everything you need to know about this record.

8) “Anonanimal,” Andrew Bird. The most ambitious and complex song on this list, “Anonanimal” does more in five minutes than most albums do in fifty. I like it for the same reason I like Sufjan Stevens: it’s baroque without being pretentious, complex while still being accessible, and catchy while being unconventional, with Bird’s vocal holding it all together. It’s also the first album I ever bought because of Facebook, and I have to give a shout out to Trevor Jackson for posting it.

7) “People Got a Lot of Nerve,” Neko Case. Who’s ready to rock out to a song about being devoured by animals?

This is the catchiest song I heard this year, and it goes to prove that Neko Case can really sing about anything and make it sound awesome. Here she sings about how a killer whale “took half your leg and both your lungs,” which is so metal, yet she wraps it up in an infectious pop package, so that I’m la-la-la-ing along while some poor schmuck is bleeding to death at Sea World in front of dozens of horrified and permanently scarred children. That takes talent.

6) “Blood Bank,” Bon Iver. Pitchfork.com—your one-stop shopping source for music review cobaggery—loves to put songs from EPs in its top songs of the year. That’s annoying, because EPs are often not worth the effort to find and buy. Really, they should often be called TSPSOS, which stands for The Single Plus Some Other Shit. That is definitely the case with the Blood Bank EP. However, the title track is every bit as powerful as Bon Iver’s work on last year’s phenomonable (sic) For Emma Long Ago. His voice again takes center stage, plaintive yet commanding. This time, however, the music is more muscular, building with every verse until there’s a powerful tide that drags me along at the end. And thanks to this digital age we live in, you can skip over The Shit and get The Single.

5) “Moth’s Wings,” Passion Pit. Some of us like to dance, perhaps with our hands over our heads in our kitchens when our kids are away or on tables when we’re away in Vegas. Passion Pit made an album for dancing with your hands over your head, and I haven’t been so inclined to do so since Franz Ferdinand took me out. Most of the songs on Manners sweep you off your feet with their instantly memorable rhythms, bopping synths, and falsetto vocals that demand club lighting.

“Moth’s Wings” stands out, however, because it takes a break from all that dancing. It’s has a lot of the elements of the upbeat songs, but those elements are slowed down and diverted into a delicate, beautiful little song. Like “1901,” it’s a perfect summer song, but suited for sitting on the deck at dusk, watching fireflies dance in the air and seeing the stars starting to peek out from the darkening sky.

4) “Misery,” Brendan Benson. (apologies for the idiot intro in the vid.) Best known as that other guy in The Raconteurs, which is too bad, because Benson’s My Old, Familiar Friend is the kind of well-crafted power pop that should be filling the airwaves and/or Internets.

I dedicate this song to Blue Girl, because it reminds me of reading a Blue Girl post. See, BG does this thing where she writes a post about something that’s pulling her down, making her crazy/sad/angry and leading to her sitting on the couch, drinking wine and watching Mad Men deep in the halls of Blue Girl Manor. But despite writing about her misery, she can’t help but make it sound kind of happy. There’s an innate cheerfulness to her writing that always surfaces, and that’s what makes reading her so worthwhile: the negative never extinguishes the positive.

“Misery” does just that. Here’s Brendan Benson singing about how miserable he is, yet he’s doing so in a shimmery, power-pop package, complete with do-dododo-do-dos. The song is also a good theme song for me, too, because it’s really about how all that misery is self-inflicted. I’ve come to realize that’s so true in my case, and this year I’ve had a way to sing about it.

3) “I and Love and You,” The Avett Brothers. I moved to Brooklyn in 1994, diving headfirst into the Big Apple with a mixture of fear, excitement, trepidation, and hope. When The Avett Brothers sing “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in,” it takes me back to that time, feeling New York’s unique pulse, soaking in the vibe, but also being a little remorseful about what I left behind to come there. Eventually I felt I had to leave, because as amazing as New York was, it wasn’t home. The experience was well worth it, though, because I left not just a changed person, but a better person.

I don’t think that’s what The Avett Brothers are really singing about—there’s much more regret in this song. The beauty of music, though, is that we get to take songs and craft our own personal narratives around them. What I hear amid the soft piano and soulful vocals is a love letter to a city I loved and left, but that’s still a part of me today, even as I sit alone in my North Pole office. It’s a beautiful song to accompany those memories.

2) “Can’t Hardly Wait,” Justin Townes Earle. Covers are tricky business, and covering a signature song from a band like The Replacements sets an artist up for failure. How can you take something that so clearly belonged to Paul Westerberg, one of his best odes to youthful love and longing, and make it your own?

By transforming it from a horn-soaked bit of late-80s pop/rock into a warm, chicken-fried bit of country, complete with the delicious homemade gravy of Earle’s voice. He pulls off the trickiest move in tricky covers, taking a great song and making a unique, equally great version. As much as I’ve played The Replacements version, I forget that Earle’s version is cover because he owns the song.

1) “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” Japandroids. I think I’ve broadened my musical horizons in the last few years. I’ve branched out a little from my guitar-rock base, listening to country, dance music, even some rap. At the same time, I know what butters my bread, and that’s loud guitars, pounding drums, and wailing vocals. I am a rock guy at heart.

Japandroids rocked me more than any band this year, in part because they are just loud guitars, pounding drums, and wailing vocals. There’s no room for bass or keyboards or horns or strings, just eight driving songs about girls and life and growing up. In the way that We Were Promised Jetpacks makes me feel young, Japandroids make me feel good about growing old. There’s plenty of youthful vigor in their songs, but also a knowing nod to thinking about dying and all that other grown-up stuff we all have to deal with. Those young vs. old waves come crashing together in this song, creating a loud, awesome splash that says, We could worry about this shit or we could just rock. So fuck it, let’s rock. Once again, damn good advice, and damn good advice I have sorely needed.

* * *
Holy guacamole, I didn’t think this would be that long. Just wait until next week, when I do my Favorite 11 of The Aughts! I’ve got 200 candidates to whittle down to 11 songs—and I’m sticking to only 11. Unless I just can’t cut them down.

I hope you find a tune or two or 13 that you like here. Even if you don’t, I hope the radio plays a song that makes you demand the dial not be touched. Have a good weekend.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Santa’s Workshop Seeks Congressional Bailout

North Pole Business Melting Rapidly Amid Competition, Skepticism of Existence

WASHINGTON - Kristopher Kringle, known throughout the world as Santa Claus, arrived in Washington to deliver a lump of coal to Congress: a request for a $140 billion bailout.

The request was so stunning, not a creature was stirring, until Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked Santa why he needed such a huge sum in his stocking.

With a wink of his eye and a twist of his head, Mr. Kringle stated that the 2008 Christmas was the worst since 1946 and that his business has been ravaged by factors beyond his control: the deregulation of the Santa market that resulted in the proliferation of unlicensed department store Santas and untraceable “Secret Santas”; the devaluation of Christmas through “Christmas in July” sales; and, most importantly, the growing disbelief in Santa’s existence.

“On the one hand, it’s hard to get the elves to believe in what they’re doing when people don’t believe in them,” Mr. Kringle said. “Then there’s also the practical matter: when I show up in people’s living rooms, they don’t believe it’s really me. Instead of milk and cookies, I get gunfire and calls to the police. My insurance premiums are through the roof.”

The request put Democrats in a quandary. Some more conservative members appeared uneasy with the idea of bailing out yet another business. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas,” said Senator Jim Webb, (D-Va.). “But Uncle Sam’s credit cards are maxed out right now, and frankly, the kids already have too many damn toys they don’t even play with.”

Others were wary of attacking one of the most beloved figures in history, sharing their Christmas memories and urging colleagues to find the money to save Santa. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nv.) spoke wistfully of the time Santa gave him a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order. Congressman John Kerry (D-Mass.) recalled with vivid detail how Santa delivered a carton of cigarettes to Kerry when the Senator was patrolling the waters of Cambodia.

Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold summed it up: “Do we want this Congress to be the one to vote for a year without a Santa Claus?”

Some senators, however, didn’t have such qualms. They grilled Mr. Kringle on his delivery methods, saying he was trying to compete in a 21st Century world with 15th Century technology. Senator Joseph Lieberman (WTF-Conn.) commented on the insistence on delivering all toys in one night. “With all due respect, Santa, have you considered spreading out the presents over a week or so, and perhaps making the gifts more modest?”

Others criticized his labor practices. Senator Orrin Hatch (R.-Ut.) said that Santa’s Workshop was “a closed shop, open only to elves” and that the American people should not be supporting their generous benefit package such as their exceptional dental plan. Senator James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) vowed to not give Mr. Kringle “not one singe farthing of assistance” unless he agreed to increase the Christian content of Christmas. “Christmas needs to focus more on the original Santa, Jesus Christ,” said Senator Inhofe.

Finally, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) raised the question of whether the Congress should be giving money to a foreign national such as Mr. Kringle. “Why send our money to the North Pole when there are perfectly good American Santas in every mall in the United States?” the Senator asked.

Mr. Kringle addressed the criticisms by responding that the bailout would help him retool his business to be more competitive. Specifically, the money would be used to upgrade the reindeer and sleigh to a fleet of B-2 stealth bombers. The bombers could deliver surgical toy strikes down chimneys while remaining hidden from children. The fleet would also open up an arsenal of new punishment options for children on the “naughty” list. “This money would be used to purchase American-made equipment, which means a very black Christmas for good shareholders, ho ho ho,” Mr. Kringle said. He also promised to include more Bibles, Jesus-themed figurines, and Kirk Cameron DVDs in the gifts.

Despite the sometimes heated questioning, each senator posed for a picture with Mr. Kringle after the hearings, many of them seen slipping Christmas lists to him as well. Mr. Kringle is expected to meet with the Senate Committee for Holiday Cheer over a working milk-and-coookies lunch tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Apparently I'm a bit of a radical Black man

I took The Book Quiz II and this is what my result was...

You're The Autobiography of Malcolm X!

by Alex Haley & Malcolm X

Radical and sometimes violent, you have a lot to say about the future of human conduct. You believe in religion, freedom, equality, justice, and, well, violence. Ultimately you feel that everything has a higher purpose and that there are many things worth dying for. You have always wanted to visit Saudi Arabia. A visit to prison may actually do you more good than harm, though the same cannot be said of interaction with firearms.

Keep in mind that, while taking this quiz, I was listening to REO Speedwagon.

Take the Book Quiz II
at the Blue Pyramid.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Top 10 Tuesdays: How are we getting into the holiday spirit?

10) Sending a combination Christmas/get well card to the guy we trampled on Black Friday.

9) Filling little Johnny’s iPod with illegal copies of all the albums on his Christmas list.

8) Crucifying anyone who says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

7) Waiting for the Gentiles to get out of the way so the Chosen People can have some fun.

6) Putting on our holiday camouflage as we deploy to Afghanistan.

5) Filling the Advent Calendar with Xanax.

4) Looking for like-minded furries who are into reindeer games.

3) Giving our whole block the gift of seizures.

2) Making sure our cold sores are gone before getting under mistletoe.

1) Watching the new Christmas special, The Year Without a Santa Claus But With an Assload of Zombies.