Monday, October 29, 2007

I Hate Conventional Wisdom

So I'm sitting in a coffee shop trying to get some work done, and this guy comes up to the counter and orders a coffee. In a loud voice, so everyone can hear, he says to the barista, "I don't know why everyone cares about global warming! It's a good thing! Look, it's a beautiful day! You're getting more business because normally everyone would be in the skyways!"

I glance over, hoping this guy is being ironic. No such luck. He's a 50-something serious crank eager to impress.

After the barista says something thoughtful-sounding that I can't quite make out, the guy retorts, "I don't know about that. I'm just saying, I don't think we need to be making such a big deal about it. But that's just probably due to my natural contrarian instincts."

Wonderful. Well played. If there's one thing that's uniquely American, it's the idea of being ignorant and proud of it. You're a "contrarian." Good for you. That makes you the intellectual equivalent of my four-year-old son. Go form the "anti-intellect" party... which, you might be surprised to learn, would have a lot in common with Communism.

* * *

An addendum to this item. One of the most insidiously anti-intellectual argument made among global warming deniers is this:

"Hey, I can't predict the weather tomorrow. How can I know what's going to happen 10, 20, 50 years from now?"

As a friend of mine pointed out (a friend who, by the way, is a Catholic, pro-life, pro-business Target Corp. director with a University of Chicago MBA), this argument has it exactly backwards. It's actually easier to predict things like weather, Target revenues and the Dow Jones Industrial average 10 or 20 years from now than it is to predict what they will be tomorrow.

The Best Movie No One Has Seen

It's called "The Big Picture." It came out in 1989. It was Christopher Guest's directorial debut. And I just found this scene on YouTube, which is maybe Martin Short's greatest performance and a classic example of the funny man/straight man technique. (Kevin Bacon's reactions are every bit as good... as as important... as Martin Short's quirkiness.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Paranoia the Destroyer

No, this is not another post on The Kinks. It's a post enabled by The Kinks.

- Bill Maher threw out a stat last week I hadn't heard yet: 23 percent of the North Pole has melted in just the last two years. I haven't had that independently verified, but I did find this: “There will probably be about two-thirds as much sea ice this September as there was 25 years ago, a good indication that something significant is happening with the climate.”

- Did that last fact sink in, so to speak?

- Today someone in my office collapsed into the most violent fit of wretching I've ever seen. He's stable, but had to be removed by ambulance. He's a triathlete with known ulcer, liver and neck issues. But one of the likely culprits: viral meningitis, which is currently keeping another co-worker on the sidelines.

- My son stayed home from day care today complaining of a headache.

- A superbug has killed thousands of people and is showing in kids' ear infections--and there's no antibiotic for kids that kills it.

- Are you still thinking about that North Pole stat? You should be.

- The number of people now having to evacuate Southern California is over half a million.

- If climate change has contributed to the dryness that has made these fires so extreme, the massive burning of wood due to the fires is one of those great "feedback loops" that only accelerates the problem.

- I watched BBC News last night, and (shock!) CO2 emissions are growing far greater than we even thought they wood, er... would.

- I finally had that basement cinderblock issue checked out. Guess what? We have a mold problem! Awesome!

- Atlanta is about to run out of water. Repeat: Atlanta is about to run out of water.

- We don't have anything to worry about. Anderson Cooper is doing his series "Our Planet in Peril" in an awesomely minimalist blue T-shirt. (And it's sponsored by ConocoPhillips.)

- I'm serious. They really are a sponsor. You should see the web ad with the beautiful flowers.

- I fell asleep, then I woke feeling kind of queer. Lola looked at me and said,"Ew, you look so weird." And she said, "Man, there's really something wrong with you. One day you're gonna self-destruct."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Instant (Un)(Dis)(Non)Gratification?

Last Tuesday night, while waiting for some copies at the Kinko's on Grand and Snelling, I wandered into their new book section and picked up Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. A week later, I'm about 15 pages from finishing it. My snap judgment on a book about snap judgments: I don't know if it's genius or horse hockey.

All I had previously read from Gladwell was a New Yorker piece on dependency ratios that caught my eye because it ran counter to the conventional wisdom on Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" economic miracle. Liberals credited it to government subsidizing of higher education. Conservatives pointed to the slashing of corporate taxes. All could agree that a massive influx of European Union capital had a, uh... profound effect. But Gladwell argued that the true reason lay behind the legalization of birth control, which created a larger ratio of working-age people to the old and the young (dependents)... and this is always the real formula for economic growth. He made a convincing case.

Blink is similarly convincing... addictive even. I found it hard to put down from the moment I saw it in Kinko's. But that's precisely the problem. I've become more and more skeptical about anything that is instantly riveting.

It started with music: how many songs or albums that were great on the very first listen actually pass the test of time... and how many that seem average at first turn out to be genius? I couldn't stand Bob Dylan until I was about 25, but I stayed up nights reading Dan Brown's Angels & Demons. Sugar is instantly gratifying. I hated my first coffee.

As for Blink, as of right now it's one of the more fascinating books I've ever come across. Gladwell is an incredible storyteller, writer and organizer of information. And this is exactly why I'm suspicious. Anyone with those three gifts has the ability to make compelling arguments regardless of whether or not they actually hold any truth. Just look at Karl Rove.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Talking S***

I'm sick of this shit.

Anne and I went to a Dudley Riggs show a couple of weeks ago. I love sketch comedy. I admire improv artists. Every year I have at least one dream that I'm a cast member of Saturday Night Live... only to realize that I haven't actually been used in over a year. Call it Tim Meadows Syndrome.

But this night at the Brave New Workshop, when the troupe was doing its traditional Friday night improv after the main show, I noticed something. One of the improvisers dealt with every uncomfortable improv moment by making a shit joke. It's no wonder. He got laughs every time.

It made me realize that the entire evolution of comedy is really kind of a poovolution. I mean, I don't want to sound like a prude here. There's a lot of bathroom humor that I'm powerless to.

But just how long can shit be funny? Seriously, did you know that humans defecate? Really, they do. Isn't that hilarious? Babies do it. Teenagers to it. Adults do it. Hey, grandma does it.

Note: This rant does not target the SNL fauxmercial, "Oops, I Crapped My Pants!" which was hilarious.

Comedy scholars will say that all comedy is based on either tragedy or embarrassment. So I guess as long as bowel movements are embarrassing, we'll continue to get poo jokes. Because hey, that shit is funny.

But after we've covered everything there is to cover about sex, voiding, pinching loaves and masturbating... where do we go from there? I think it's a legitimate scatological, er, eschatological comedic question.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Feel the Love

Approximately 48 hours ago, Anne and I were taking in the salty air on a sailboat ride on the Atlantic Ocean, just outside Nantucket Bay. Today, I came back to work and found my entire office shrinkwrapped.

This was no ordinary Saran Wrap job, mind you. This was careful, thorough and creative. The door, yes. The entire desk, of course. But also each lamp, the phone, the little thingy my laptop sits on, my keyboard, the cord coming from my keyboard.

Plus, my New Yorker calendar, the multiplug on the floor, the light switches... that's right... SWITCHES. My guitar, my racquetball racket, the heating duct above my desk, each and every family photo on my window sills, and even parts of the tree growing in my office.

All of this was so impressive that I didn't even touch it for several hours, choosing to work on the floor rather than disrupt this piece of art. Then I finally realized that I at least had to unwrap my phone. I tore the plastic up, wadded it into a ball and threw it in my trash can. Only to see it bounce off.

Yup, they got that, too.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Keep Off My Grass

When I was growing up at 1235 Longfellow Avenue in South Bend, Indiana, we had the nice neighbor to the right and the cranky neighbor to the left. The nice neighbor was Clara Haller, a former secretary at Studebaker who lived alone with her dog, Michael, had an amazing collection of antique lighters, chained smoked cigarettes and taught me how to read, spell and play gin rummy. The mean neighbor was Estel Brockus, a man who seemed to do nothing but yell at his wife, yell at his dog and yell at the neighborhood kids to keep off his grass.

I'm turning into Estel.

It's not that I give a rip about the grass. Despite my intense training mowing Estel's lawn in his later years (a time when I actually heard the words, "You missed a blade"), I've never developed that romantic attachment to tiny vertical shafts of greenocity so endemic to others in my species.

I'm more a crank about the pathological self-absorption of most people under 30 years of age. "Making fun of self-absorption when you're writing in your stupid blog?" you might say. Fair play to you. But seriously, there is something to this "Real World" generation thing. I accept informational interviews with people who presumably want jobs but don't ask any questions. It's as if they're waiting for me to ask about them. "So how are you feeling today? Still a little depressed from that thing that happened on the way home yesterday? Yeah, it's hard, isn't it?"

Then I realize something: It's a fact of life that each generation thinks the next is lazy, ignorant and self-possessed. And there's good reason for that perception. It's true. I've noticed that my parents (and my friends' parents) spend significant parts of their retirements actually serving the community. They join associations. They volunteer. I imagine my retirement as a time for traveling to every continent, reading every book, seeing every movie and learning every instrument on the planet. I don't see running for the city council. I see building a music studio in my basement.

The next generation? They'll be too in debt to ever retire. But if they ever do, they'll probably spend it all writing their autobiographies.

Note: BBS will be on vacation for the next week... unless I can find a nice Internet coffee shop on Nantucket Island.

Friday, October 5, 2007

God Save the Kinks

Flipping through channels last night, I came across a commercial for the new Wes Anderson flick, "The Darjeerling Limited." This movie will get a lot of press for the wrong reason. Sure, it seems to foreshadow Owen Wilson's suicide attempt; but more important, it features two wonderfully obscure songs by The Kinks: "Strangers" and "This Time Tomorrow."

A quickly written blog post is no way to honor my favorite band. Yet, I must try.

The Kinks are not the greatest band of all time. Truth be told, they're probably not even that close. I don't know if it's even fair to say that they're "underrated." To be mentioned as part of the British invasion in the same breath as The Beatles is an honor they (and no other band, frankly) deserves. But The Kinks are my favorite band, and that's a different measure. They're my favorite band precisely because they're so frustrating, so hard to measure, so hard to figure out, so impossible to label as either geniuses or pretenders.

Move beyond any controversy about whether The Kinks invented distortion or gave birth to hard rock through Dave Davies' unique amp saturation in "You Really Got Me." What has always attracted me to this band is the fact that no songwriter has better expressed two feelings close to my heart than Ray Davies--feelings that I can only describe as "intimate removal" and "lonely contentment." (By the way, no director has expressed these two feelings better than Wes Anderson, and never better than in "Rushmore," so it's no surprise that The Kinks tend to be his preferred soundtrack.)

My attraction to The Kinks started when they appeared on Saturday Night Live in the early 80s and cranked out the two most disparate tunes ever played on that stage: the frenetic, self-referential "Destroyer" followed by the soft and pastoral "Art Lover." One song about the destructive force of paranoia; the other about a guy sitting in a park who loves watching kids and is terrified of being perceived as a pervert.

But my true love of The Kinks started when I popped in my brother's vinyl copy of "Celluloid Heroes" in the 7th Grade. As I eased into the blue beanbag chair and strapped on the 20-pound Pioneer headphones, two songs hit my ears in a way that none ever had: "Holiday" and "Sitting in my Hotel."

"Holiday" is a humid, melancholy jazz tune that transports you to the beach.

Holiday, oh what a lovely day today. I'm oh so glad they sent me away to have a little holiday.

The whole time you listen, you wonder if the singer is simply talking about a vacation; if he's truly mad and has been "sent away" without realizing it; if he's mad but knows it and is enjoying his solitude anyway; or if he's imagining the whole thing. When the song concludes:

Lying on the beach, my back burned rare. Salt gets in my blisters and sand gets in my hair. The sea's an open sewer, but I really couldn't care. I'm breathing through my mouth so I don't have to sniff the air.

I don't really care if the singer is crazy or not. I just like him.

"Sitting in my Hotel" clued me into one of the frustrations with the Kinks: It sounds like the Beatles, just not as good. The engineer even drowned Ray Davies' voice in a reverb designed to conjure John Lennon. The song is sung from the perspective of a person gazing out a hotel window and thinking, "If my friends could see me now" in a way that makes you wonder if he's talking about success, isolation or both. It's a great song, but it ain't The Beatles.

And so it goes as a Kinks fan. You find gems like "This Time Tomorrow" and "She's Got Everything" only after sifting through much of the mediocre. You search for The Kinks' definitive album, and you can't find one that blows your mind from beginning to end. "The Village Green Preservation Society"? It's great, it inspired Pete Townsend to write "Tommy," but it's still uneven. "Arthur"? Cool concept, but not quite. "Sleepwalker"? A sleeper (fittingly), but no.

Stop looking. It doesn't exist. The Beatles will always take you where you want to be. The Kinks are there to remind you who you really are: uneven, imperfect, occasionally touching greatness, or at least getting close enough to smell it, but always falling firmly back down to earth--sitting on a beach or staring through a window. Lonely but content, intimately removed.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Participatory Post

As a rule, I hate quotes. Quotes on calendars. Quotes on posters. Quotes on applications for MFA programs. They're the worst kind of shallow, because they pretend to be deep. (The exception to this, of course, is anything ever uttered by Mark Twain.)

But I'm here today to, in a way, give the quote its due. I've been trying to think of the things that friends, family and co-workers have said to me that have really cut through and left a mark. They might be meaningful. They might be true. Or they might be just plain odd. So far, the list includes:

"Your entire job is to get beat up by smart people." - Pat Rosenstiel (co-worker)

"If you eat one meal a day and don't get rained on at night, you're doing fine." (my sister)

"Every married man knows that at some point, he's going to find a woman he thinks is better for him." (my father, said cryptically after I shared the story of my best friend's parents divorcing because his father fell in love with someone else... strange thing to tell your son... I let it go)

"You can't really dust for vomit." (Nigel Tufnel)

Okay, scratch that last one. I don't want this to turn into "My Favorite Movie Quotes." I'm looking for anything anyone has heard in his or her lifetime (from a real person) that actually provided either a "mentor moment" or an enigmatic scratch of the head. In the meantime, I'm going to keep thinking.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Stop Pretending You Know Me

So I'm on Netflix, because everyone keeps telling how good the Ken Burns "War" documentary is. I'm thinking I'll just get it on DVD when the time comes, but before I do, I really want to finally see that Spike Lee documentary on Hurricane Katrina. In fact, it might be interesting to compare the two.

(It's already interesting to me that one is getting such good buzz, while the other, also highly acclaimed, never really did.)

(It's also interesting that we don't have a definitive number from Hurricane Katrina that sticks in the national consciousness like "9/11." Can anyone tell me how many people died in Hurricane Katrina? Anyway...)

So I find the Spike Lee series, "When the Levees Broke." I add it to my Queue. Then I get one of those, "You might also enjoy" thingies. Hey, "Who Killed the Electric Car"! A work colleague has told me that's a must see. Okay, I'll add it.


Now what? Ten other documentaries I might enjoy? Okay, I'm annoyed.

Maybe I'm in the one percent of people who feel this way, but how dare you. How dare you assume to know my tastes. How dare you take one decision I make and try to shove me into a demographic set. You think I'm that simple, that predicable, that one-dimensional? I'm going to order some vampire flick just to f*** you up, you arrogant piece of code!

You find this kind of marketing everywhere for a good reason. It works. Still, I wonder if in our quest to so perfectly tag people as consumers, they will one day purposely reject those efforts as a way of enforcing (or even creating) their individuality. Frankly, I hope so.

As an experiment while I was still on Netflix, I found the movie, "Hell House" and added it to my Queue. A screen popped up: Would I like to see "Secrets of the Serpent" or "Dawn of the Dead?"

Hah! The system is flawed. "Hell House" is a documentary about a church near Dallas that offers "a multimedia fire-and-brimstone performance designed to give its audiences a glimpse of what awaits those who stray from the path of a strict Christian life." In other words, a haunted house designed to show what hell is like and scare people into joining a church.

Now THAT's marketing.

P.S. It should have asked me if I wanted to see "Jesus Camp" or "Marjoe."