Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Did Comedy Bang! Bang! lose its mojo near the end of its fifth TV season?

Tegan and Sara visit the set.
Comedy Bang! Bang! contunues on as a podcast but ran in TV form on IFC from 2012 to 2016 and it was perhaps my favorite comedy TV show of those years. 

It was offbeat and frequently cryingly hilarious. I was always a Reggie Watts guy, and when Weird Al Yankovic replaced him for the fifth and final season (Kid Cudi was the bandleader at the end of Season 4), I was no longer as interested. I decided to go back and re-watch some of those fifth season episodes to give it another try.

Season 5 Episode 4, in which one of my favorite wave-pop groups Tegan and Sara visit. They are adorable and funny, being interviewed while host Scott Auckerman, looking like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, is distracted and convinced one of his weird crew members has killed another crew member. SNL’s Bobby Moynihan is nuts as a little orphan boy offering tips on making it in Hollywood. There are other plays on Alfred Hitchcock films through the episode, which is as good as Season 5 gets. 4.5 out of 5 stars

Season 5 Episode 9 is dominated by Weird Al’s soap-opera-acting brother, played by Al, swooping in with his soapy music, romantic ways, and clips from his Handsome Harbor show. I usually love guest Kristen Schaal but she never really seems too comfortable in her interview, which descends into her longing to return to her childhood sheep farm. Paul Rust, of the great Netflix show Love, also stops by for an intense, uncomfortable, and nonsensical bit called “New No Nos.” 3.5 out of 5 stars

Season 5 Episode 10 starts with glimpses of Haley Joel Osment before Scott announces that it’s the 100th and final episode and that he is getting married to a woman named Vanna to celebrate it. But then it turns into a skit show - not something that usually happens - and Scott gets amnesia, failing to remember major events in his life like when he was a doo-wop star and when he gave up a role he won to Zack Galifianakis because Scott was a bigger star and generous. The episode does not end up actually being the last. It's one of my least favorite Comedy Bang! Bang! episodes of all time. 2.5 out of 5 stars

Season 5 Episode 11 really starts to show the petering out of the show. Despite Kaley Cuoco’s cute interview, featuring her paranoia that the cameramen are really paparazzi, the group of early-history figures like Paul Bunyan that Scott attempts to employ to make America great again is a bit that really doesn’t work well. Guest Karen selling her Karen Water is off-the-wall and helps save the episode from the ruins. 3 out of 5 stars

Season 5 Episode 13 features Gillian Jacobs dressed as Pee Wee Herman in an episode that truly goes nowhere, overtaking the afore-mentioned Episode 10 as the worst Comedy Bang! Bang! episode I’ve ever seen. 2 out of 5 stars

It’s unfortunate to say bad things about such a great show. I highly recommend you check out Seasons 1 through 4 but skip Season 5 altogether, except for the episode with Tegan and Sara.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Aperol doesn't have to be all about the wildly popular Aperol Spritz

Paper Plane, a key Aperol cocktail
When I was in Italy last summer, I mostly refused the safe choice of wine (I’m a beer and cocktail person) and made it into a challenge to find good drinks. I was mostly unsuccessful but did have lots of good conversations with waiters who seemed mostly open to my newfound mixology enthusiasm.

People kept telling me I should have an Aperol Spritz, which I finally succumbed to on our last night there. I hated it.

But recently I was intrigued to find out what all the Aperol hype is about and bought a bottle. The spirit was actually created in 1919 with a concept that having an aperitif with only 11 percent alcohol content was considered revolutionary, according to Difford's. Made from roots and herbs mostly found in Northern Italy, Aperol has hints of orange and rhubarb and a light red color.

The very first drink I tried making turned out to be excellent, and the handful of people I’ve made it for agree. It’s just the right mix of a little heavy and quite breezy and it’s called Paper Plane. Here’s how, in a martini glass, you make it: 

  • .75 parts bourbon
  • .75 parts Aperol
  • .75 pt Amaro Nonino Quintessentia (or easily replicable with angostura bitters and sweet vermouth)
  • .75 parts fresh squeezed lemon

Others on my list to make include:

Amarita is a fairly bitter drink served in a martini glass and with a long strand of lime zest as a garnish:

  • 1.5 parts reposado tequila
  • .75 parts Aperol
  • .5 parts fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 3 parts grapefruit bitters (optional)
Bitter Grapefruit is served in a martini glass with grapefruit zest for garnish:
  • 1.5 parts vodka
  • .5 parts Aperol
  • 1 part sweet vermouth
  • .5 parts fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
Bluegrass is served in a martini glass with cucumber muddled in the base of the shaker. It’s a Northern Irish invention that tastes like cucumber, bourbon, and bitter sweet orange. Upon first blush, I like it, even though I had to, in a pinch, use jalapeƱo simple syrup instead of regular simple syrup, and it really zings with the flavor of an orange crush soda:
  • 2 inches of cucumber muddled
  • 1.5 parts Bulleit bourbon
  • .75 parts Aperol
  • .20 parts simple syrup
  • 1 dash angostura bitters
  • 1 dash orange bitters
Facundo’s Flare is a smooth, almost creamy drink with strong hints of vanilla and rum, served in a martini glass:
  • 1.5 parts white rum
  • .5 parts Aperol
  • 1 part fresh squeezed orange juice
  • .5 parts vanilla simple syrup
  • 2 dashes of peach bitters
  • .5 an egg white

Pre Siesta is a relatively recent drink created in London and is served in a martini glass with an orange zest garnish. I would recommend either staying away from this one entirely (unless you like a veeery Cointreau-heavy taste) or at least add copious amounts of ice and water or fizzy water:

  • 2 parts reposado tequila
  • .5 parts Aperol
  • .75 parts Cointreau
  • 3 dashes orange bitters
Two-One-Two was created in 2008 in New York City (get it, same area code?) and is served in a Collins glass with grapefruit or grapefruit zest for garnish. It presents as earthy with freshness:
  • 2 parts fresh squeezed grapefruit
  • 1 part Aperol
  • 2 parts reposado tequila
So, by all means, go out and get yourself a bottle of Aperol, but make these drinks (Paper Plane and Bluegrass are my two favorites) instead of an Aperol Spritz.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

The Guest doesn’t disappoint after Emma Cline’s excellent debut novel The Girls

I read Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls in 2016 about a group of girls who get swept away in a fictionalized version of the Manson Family. Evie Boyd is the lead character as a 14-year-old girl growing up in California during the late 1960s. 

Having gobbled up that suspenseful psychological study, I’ve been anticipating Cline’s next move. While I have thus far bypassed her collection of short stories titled Daddy, her second novel is now out and is called The Guest. Cline, born in 1989 in California, returns to her familiar themes of adolescence, identity, and the darker aspects of human nature.

In The Guest, 22-year-old Alex has left New York City for the summer because she owes her ex-boyfriend Dom a lot of money. She begins living with an older, wealthy man named Simon on Long Island and all is going swimmingly (literally, she spends most days lazing at the beach or pool) until she commits a social error at a dinner party and Simon sends her packing back to the city. 

Alex skips getting on the train and begins bouncing around from home to home in the rich beach community, first with a young group of partiers who she tricks into thinking they know her, then with a young and unhappy girl named Margaret who badly wants to be Alex’s friend, and finally into the arms of a boy named Jack whom she manipulates (or is it vice versa). All this happens while she tries to avoid Dom’s increasingly threatening messages and as she anticipates that Simon will take her back at his Labor Day party happening in several days.

Alex is a highly memorable character and the novel never leaves her side. That said, we don’t necessarily know much more about her outside of the week or so that the novel takes place. I had a lot of questions unanswered, which clearly must have been Cline’s intention … to leave Alex as a mystery. Her character is absolutely worthy of further study. The Guest could actually be a great candidate for a strong sequel exploring the questions of what happens between Alex and Simon and Dom and what all happened in Alex’s life leading up to this week that left her in such a dire series of situations.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 26, 2023

RIP Bob Barker

I loved game shows as a kid. Jeopardy. Press Your Luck. Wheel of Fortune. But perhaps none was better than The Price is Right. I remember coming in from playing outside in and around Dunlap Lake in the summertime to watch Bob Barker give away cars and vacations and kitchen sets. He solidified his legend by appearing in Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore. Barker has died at age 99 of Alzheimer’s, but he will live on forever as the guy who told us all to “come on down, you’re the next contestant …”

Friday, August 25, 2023

Normal People was one of the best books I read during the pandemic

Not a lot happens in Normal People (the book; I haven’t yet watched the Hulu series) but then again, every little thing is meticulously and enjoyably described in the lives of the two central characters. It’s an odd mix that makes for a page turner by Ireland’s Sally Rooney. 

4 out of 5 stars

Here is a summary I wrote and never published a couple of years ago when I read the novel during the pandemic (with lots of spoilers included):

Connell Waldron and Marianne, who have a relationship that is unknown to their classmates and happens because Connell’s mom Lorraine is the housekeeper for Marianne’s rich family.

She doesn’t participate in any school activities but is mandated one day to go watch the soccer game, during which Connell scores a big goal and she finds herself becoming attracted to him. One day in her room, he gives her her first kiss. Another day, she asks if he’ll take off her clothes but he declines because his mother is cleaning downstairs.

They have sex for the first time, she as a virgin, at his house. His mom returns, finds him washing his sheets, and talks openly about how she knows what he’s up to and that she “must be the most permissive mother” and that he should at least be wearing protection. As they continue to experiment with sex, Connell wonders why he is with her, considering that she is not particularly attractive.

Marianne decides to drink for a change at the town’s nightclub. Karen and Connell are nice to her but Rachel is mean and a guy named Pat squeezes and hurts her boob. Marianne goes back to Connell’s house and she says her dad used to hit her and her mom, and Connell confesses that he loves her. His friends begin to act like they know Connell has slept with Marianne and it forces him to go into cold sweats and puke one morning at school. He eventually tells her he’s taking Rachel to the Debs, which causes her to be infuriated and quit school.

When Connell returns home in the fall from college in Dublin, he and Marianne see each other at a party. He tells her he broke up with Rachel in the summer. He had not enjoyed their relationship. 

In the spring, the two of them go to a party even though Connell is now dating Theresa. Marianne indulges in coke, weed, and alcohol with her wild friend Peggy and successful friend Joanna. She tries to get Connell to have sex with her but he won’t do it. But days later they do. A few months later, they admit their relationship to Peggy, who tries to get them to have a threesome, but they are both uncomfortable with the idea. 

Connell moves home for the summer while Marianne stays in Dublin. He tells her he wants to see other people.  She actually does get another boyfriend, one more of her wealth class. She later tells Connell that she has asked this new boyfriend to be rough with her during sex. One of his high school teachers, Paula Neary, tries to seduce him when he is very drunk and he runs away. He tells Marianne later and she suddenly wants to harm Ms. Neary. 

On Christmas Day, Marianne’s brother Alan told her people in town were talking about her and spit in her face. Her mom Denise also admonished her for thinking she’s special. After Connell gets mugged, he calls Marianne to borrow money for a taxi, arrives at her house, and stays after her boyfriend Jamie leaves. He tells her he’s had a girlfriend for a while which is a first in all the time they’ve been friends. They both earn scholarships. They have been writing letters to each other over these long periods apart and will continue to do so when Marianne studies abroad in Sweden in the fall. 

Connell and Helen run into Marianne one day and Helen realizes those two had a past. She then becomes determined to get to know her and finds Marianne to be self-centered and slutty. Jaimie and Marianne have a fight and Connell breaks it up. She sleeps in his room and tells him about how abusive her family is and he doesn’t understand why she’s never told him before. He tries to make out with her but she declines. 

Months later, living in Sweden, she is dating an artist named Lukas who takes her photo a lot and plays a game denigrating her after they have sex, which she likes but it depresses her. Peggy had suggested she was mentally unwell after Marianne’s breakup with Jaimie. Joanna is the only one of those friends who sticks with her. Marianne breaks up with Lukas after he tries to take nude photos of her and ties her up.

Connell sees the school psychologist and she determines he might be suicidal. (This part of the story kind of comes out of nowhere, an odd transition which must be intended to show that being apart from Marianne, when the two are clearly meant for each other, is starting to affect him. They attend their old friend Rob’s funeral (he committed suicide) and Helen is annoyed at Connell’s interactions there with Marianne, leading to their breakup two weeks later. Connell continues seeing his psychologist. He attends a reading and has an interesting conversation with the author, kickstarted by the fact that Connell says he doesn’t really see the point of readings.

Marianne moves back home and Lorraine no longer cleans her house and it’s dirty. Connell and Marianne start to make love for the first time in years but quit in the middle, she leaves, and when she gets home, her brother Alan hits her and makes her nose bleed badly. Lorraine probes Connell a little more about his relationship with Marianne, then he turns in a story he wrote to the college literary journal and they want to publish it right away. He agrees if they publish it anonymously, which they do, unedited. There were errors in the story, and he found it more distressing than pleasurable.

After Marianne leaves his house, she calls and needs help. Connell arrives at her house to find that Alan has punched her in the nose. Connell tells Alan he’ll kill him if he ever touches his sister again. Alan looks terrified. They stay at Connell’s mom’s over Christmas and kiss in front of all their old friends on New Year’s. 

Connell gets accepted to a creative writing program in New York and Marianne says she’ll wait at home for him. The end.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Ramy offers a much-needed funny and serious perspective of Muslim Americans

Ramy is a critically acclaimed dramedy that I had been meaning to check out since its launch in 2019. Having finished Season 1 on Hulu, I'm definitely looking forward to getting back to Seasons 2 and 3. The show offers the U.S. a much needed perspective of Muslim Americans.

This has been needed since before September 11, but especially since then, as Muslim Americans have rarely been presented culturally in a positive or even human light. And that topic is not avoided. In one poignant example, Ramy, lovably and somewhat slackerly played by The Daily Show's Ramy Youssef, deals with awful kneejerk and groupthink racism from his friends in a flashback to right after 9/11.

Throughout Season 1, Ramy struggles with his Egyptian roots as a first-generation Egyptian-American navigating his mid 20s in New York City. The central theme of the show deals with how he is torn between his religious faith and his desire to live a modern life.

Ramy dates the granddaughter of an orthodox rabbi, hangs with his wheelchair-bound buddy, his mom struggles with a midlife crisis while driving for Lyft, his 25-year-old sister just wants to be let out of the house (and when she does, she hooks up with an creepy white dude), and Ramy eventually makes a pilgrimage to Cairo. 

Really great stuff, and I actually didn't expect the show to be as entertaining as it is. I wrongly assumed it would be a little too heavy. Youssef, who created the show, is able to find humor in the most difficult situations, which makes for some enjoyable watching.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

An appreciation of the underrated and still-rocking XTC

Back in junior high, my friends and I really had an XTC phase. We mostly stuck to the band’s greatest hits, an awesome blend of very 1980s dance-y post-punk-pop. And I still don’t go very deep on the band, but its best songs are still so, so good. Total and underrated classics, I’d say. 

First, I offer my 17 essential XTC songs and second is a handful of things I learned about leader Andy Partridge (second from right in the photo) and his gang in a feature in the September 2023 issue of Uncut Magazine (a great zine that I subscribed to just recently, by the way):

  1. Senses Working Overtime
  2. Making Plans for Nigel
  3. Generals and Majors
  4. Science Friction
  5. Statue of Liberty
  6. The Mayor of Simpleton
  7. Are You Receiving Me?
  8. Ball and Chain
  9. Dear God
  10. This is Pop
  11. Earn Enough for Us
  12. The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
  13. Wait Till Your Boat Goes Down
  14. Life Begins At the Hop
  15. King for a Day
  16. Towers of London
  17. Sgt. Rock

  • Partridge recently had a stroke and a heart problem and has since slimmed up and been on a health kick.
  • Brian Eno is a fan of the band and once almost produced a record but didn’t.
  • Partridge says, “If The Rolling Stones had more balls,” they would have gone in the direction of The New York Dolls.
  • He was more influenced by bands like The Stooges and Richard Hell and The Voidoids than older rock bands like the Stones and Sweet.
  • After five years straight of touring, Partridge, in 1982, didn’t want to do it anymore. 
  • He also quit a 14-year addiction to Valium at that same time.
  • He started writing better songs when he was off drugs and says colors and characterizations started popping out for him.
  • Partridge doesn’t like crowds and never had a desire to be “part of the scene,” reasons he never moved to London from his hometown of Swindon, which is located straight west of London.
  • XTC got kicked off Top of the Pops for goofing around and the band's subsequent lack of appearances on the TV show probably contributed to its  still-underrated (mainly because of being under-known) status.
  • Great quote on why he is just email friends with all his old bandmates: “All artists are fucked up – that’s why they have to be artists, to get out the fucked-up-ery.”
Partridge notes that he’s a little sad XTC never reached Beatles levels of fame, but he is also very proud of the music and thinks it will “last a long time.” So far so good.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

New York's Adirondacks provide an extensive playground

Great Sacandaga Lake
During our usual summertime visits to the Great Sacandaga Lake in the sourthern tip of the Adirondacks (about 50 miles west of Albany, New York), it's often difficult to want to leave the lakehouse compound and go explore the rest of the amazing mountain range. Sitting and staring at the lake or lounging on the boat is just too appetizing to want to leave.

But at the same time, it's often great and recharging to go see new things. Yesterday, we checked out some different mountain-bike trails than the usual ones we ride near Gloversville. These are near Caroga Lake and the trail builders did a pretty phenomenal job, with multiple pump tracks that are extra fun for the kids and some pretty technical trails laced with rocks that lead to a beautiful pond.

But even Caroga Lake, a town you could blink and miss, is not far from our place in Mayfield. In fact, you could probably spend weeks or months just traveling around Fulton County, which contains a whopping 44 lakes, and still find many ways to enjoy yourself.

That said, here are some other items that I either have done and highly recommend or have heard that I really need to do in the Adirondacks: 

I'm told the Enchanted Forest Water Safari as well as the rest of the attractions in the town of Old Forge are can't-miss, especially for families with kids. How we've never been to that yet, I'm not sure, but it's now high on the list. There are also apparently great mountain biking, skiing, and forest hiking in the area.

Adirondack Experience Museum: Everyone says this is a must-see. On Blue Mountain Lake, it offers interactive exhibits, outdoor activities, and stunning lake views.

I love little towns like Northville, which is also close to our compound on Sacandaga. The candy selection at the five-and-dime always makes the trip worthwhile, and I reported back in 2016 on the town's link to The X-Files.

The Saratoga Perfoming Arts Center (SPAC) in Saratoga Springs can be a magical place to see a concert. The last show I saw there and reviewed was the Drive-by Truckers/Tedeschi Trucks Band in 2018. I had tickets, but the Dead and Company concert got cancelled at the last minute a couple of years ago because John Mayer's father fell ill.

Mountain biking near Caroga Lake
Lake Placid is more than halfway up to Montreal, and therein lies a little bit of the problem. Even when it seems things aren't that far away, in the Adirondacks roads are curvy and nothing is quite as near as it seems. Of course the town is most known for having hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics, with its legendary hockey storyline for the U.S. team. For what it's worth, singer Lana Del Rey and abolishinist John Brown are from Placid. Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake add to the possibilities in the area. And at Saranac Lake, the cure cottages, which were used to treat tuberculosis patients, can be explored.

Slightly closer back towards Sacandaga is Great Camp Sagamore, an historic retreat where the Vanderbilts and other wealthy families spent summers.

Fort Ticonderoga is up on the Vermont border and allows visitors to step back in time to explore the fort, known, according to Wikipedia, for its 

"strategic importance during the 18th-century colonial conflicts between Great Britain and France, and again played an important role during the Revolutionary War. It was strategically placed for the competition over trade routes between the British-controlled Hudson River Valley and the French-controlled Saint Lawrence River Valley. During the Revolutionary War, when the British controlled the fort, it was attacked on May 10, 1775, in the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga by the Green Mountain Boys and other state militia under the command of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, who captured it in the surprise attack."

Finally, although the East Coast isn't particularly known for skiing, I would still like to get to Gore Mountain one of these days for a day of runs.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Evan Dando and Keith Richards and Kate Moss and Johnny Depp and Enya and ...

In my book, Evan Dando of Lemonheads fame only has one mark against him - his terrible It's A Shame About Ray 30th Anniversary show with Juliana Hatfield at Washington D.C.'s 9:30 Club earlier this year.

Otherwise, he is one of my all-time favorite singers and songwriters. I stumbled upon a brilliant 2019 New York Times feature by Alex Williams about him that is loaded with nuggets that all Lemonheads fans will want to read if they missed it. Check out these highlights:
  • "He partied with Keith Richards and Johnny Depp and mugged in paparazzi shots with Kate Moss."
  • In a 1993 profile, Dando "perched poolside in Hollywood, mired in a depressive bout “as black as it is bottomless,” ... "Unable to speak, on doctor’s orders, he was only able to scrawl 'sorry, substance abuse' on a yellow notepad."
  • He toured with "New Age chanteuse Enya, but it ended badly when he called her out for growing a beard."
  • Speaking of his Varshons and Varshons 2 albums, Dando said, "I felt like it was sort of funny to wait 10 years and do another cover album, like I’m the biggest slacker of all time."
  • "The former prep school student who managed four Fs and one D- in his one semester at Skidmore College."
  • "With his surfer-ish looks, whimsical attitude and taste for LSD, which he said he began experimenting with in early high school, he seemed more like a hippie-era troubadour than a Generation X nihilist."
  • Dando became a teen idol and said, "I was actually celibate for eight months, at the height of it. It just got to the point where, this isn’t fun, different chicks every night."
  • "Angelina Jolie appeared in the Lemonheads’ 'It’s About Time' video." 
  • "Courtney Love popped up in tabloid shots kissing Mr. Dando, not long after her husband, Kurt Cobain, committed suicide, although both denied they were romantically involved."
  • "He joined the hard-partying members of Oasis on tour during their mid-’90s peak."
  • He "was tight with Johnny Depp, who appeared in the 'It’s a Shame About Ray' video. "We hung out together for like six months, just at his house,' Mr. Dando said of the actor. 'We would lie together. We called it 'sidewinding.' We’d take Xanax and, like 5-year-olds in the same bed, talk all night. We were really good buds until I slept with his girl.'"
  • After stints in a mental hospital and multiple rehabs, Dando "is aware that the Evan Dando death watch started decades ago, as with his friend Keith Richards. Both are still here."
  • But, he added, "I have some crazy luck and all my friends will tell you that. I caught a thousand-pound black marlin the first five hours. People say they go five years without seeing a fish that big. I got a hole-in-one once at golf. I’ve played golf three times."
  • "Whenever he feels desperate, a royalty check seems to arrive, like when Martin Scorsese used the Lemonheads cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s 'Mrs. Robinson' in The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013. 'It’s like every time I’m about to hit the skids, some 80 grand check comes in from Nowheresville.'"
So along with his music, there are endless reasons to like this riches to riches to rags/riches character.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

A former flight attendant brings her experience to a gripping novel

I just finished former flight attendant T.J. Newman’s debut novel Falling, from 2021. It’s a thriller that she is able to bake her professional experience into making more of the technical aspects of flying a plane part of the story.

Falling tells the story of Bill, a pilot who is called to work unexpectedly and his family is then kidnapped. He is given the choice of crashing the plane with about 200 people or his family being killed. It turns out another kidnapper is on board and they are seeking revenge for people in the U.S. not caring about the constant misery their Middle Eastern country has endured. The side story is that Theo is a renegade FBI agent who is the nephew of Jo, the endangered plane’s lead flight attendant.

It’s a gripping page turner, much of which I somehow read on planes. It’s also far from intellectual, but if you like action-adventure, this has lots of twists and turns and is a fun choice for you.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Paul Theroux lets the everyday folks tell the story of the Deep South

Years ago I read Dark Star Safari, the excellent book in which Paul Theroux drives from the top of Africa to the bottom. His style of sociological storytelling I find to be the most compelling way to write and read about travel.

Deep South is Theroux’s take on what James Agee and Walker Evans’s first contributed back in 1941 to what we masses know about the Southern life when they published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a major commercial failure that contributed to Agee’s alcoholism and early death before it went on to be deemed a classic. Theroux’s version sends him from his home in Cape Cod down to the poorest stretches of America, which he had always wanted to experience. 

Thereaux's style is to interview as many random folks as possible and tell the larger stories through their cumulative eyes. Here are some of the many great tidbits from the first quarter of the book:

  • He starts off pontificating about how much better car travel is than airplane travel, since you can just get in the car and go rather than being striped down and made to feel guilty and interrogated. This all began being possible in the U.S. when the Lincoln Highway was built in 1913, with private money invested in the production and buying of car headlights, and stretched from New York to San Francisco. The first north-south route was built around the same time, connecting Connecticut to Alabama, and incidentally written about by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the short story “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.”
  • Other great writers of the open road mentioned by Theroux include Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, as well as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways.
  • Locals are often suspicious, distrustful, hostile, or indifferent to visitors when traveling in the U.S., whereas across the rest of the world locals tend to be dramatically welcoming when strangers arrive in private, isolated areas. 
  • The road out of Front Royal, Virginia, into the Shenandoah reminds him of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, which he says looks small in comparison to Shenandoah.
  • So many towns down south feature doctors from India because of the National Interest Waiver introduced many years ago that allowed them to get to the U.S. and stay in geographically “underserved” areas.
  • One thing that he says remains about the south is that white people mostly live in hilly mountainous areas and Blacks are segregated to flat agricultural areas.
  • Ronald Reagan followed some of the same out-of-the-way paths as Theroux back when he was starting out his presidential campaign. While he got many Black people to side with him in winning, Reagan was a disaster for civil rights progress during his eight years in office. To name some of his ills, he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation.
  • Reagan, in fact, launched his campaign in the little town of Philadelphia, the home of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, Theroux describes, actually originated in the mid-1800s by the planter class that wanted Blacks to stay in the fields and keep the South’s plantation running business as usual. The group was inactive for many years until it was revived by poor whites at the end of WWI and spread north to Illinois and Iowa because of new immigrants such as Italians and Jews, who these people hated.

This is a pretty long book so I've already learned a lot just by reading the first quarter of it. I may start reading it again at some point, but for now, a portion gave me the major gist. Theroux has so many great travel books that I'm ready, for now, to jump to one of his other geographies.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Cocaine Bear goes after a Stranger Things style but fails to become a horror or comedy classic

I think my expectations might have - believe it or not - been a little too high for Cocaine Bear, which is now on Amazon Prime. 

The story itself is pretty compelling, that cocaine is dropped from a sputtering plane by a drug smuggler in rural Georgia in 1985. All the elements of character are in place for a horror comedy, with a young-in-love couple, park rangers, cops, drug smugglers, young kids, a terrified but strong mom, and troubled teens all meeting up in a crescendo in the woods for a major standoff against the titular bear.

Director Elizabeth Banks seems to be riding on a very Stranger Things style of filmmaking that may already be running its course in terms of inpired creativity. Keri Russell doesn't seem to be used particularly well as the mom; O'Shea Jackson Jr., provides the comedic relief as one of the smugglers and of course always wins major points just for being Ice Cube's son; Isiah Whitlock Jr., is also funny as the dog-loving cop; Margo Martindale is typically wacky as the lead ranger but maybe not as funny as she usually is; and drug kingpin Ray Liotta probably deserved better for his final role.

All in all, I think Cocaine Bear is watchable but could have been better cutting some of its 100-minute runtime. It's also a bit of a letdown after all the pre-release hype, and I'm glad I waited to watch it for free on streaming.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 17, 2023

RIP Gary “Plant Man” Young

Pavement is one of my three favorite bands of all-time. So it comes as quite a shock that original drummer Gary Young has passed away at age 70.

He was the drummer on early recordings (at his Louder Than You Think studio in Stockton, California) as well as Pavement classics Slanted and Enchanted and Watery, Domestic.

He found a little fame post-Pavement with his hippy-punker persona, appearing in his “Plant Man” video on Beavis and Butthead. 

I never got to see him perform because I didn’t see Pavement until their Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain album, but I appreciate all the groundwork Young performed for eventual drummer Steve West.

RIP Jerry Moss

Record-label execs are often thought of as faceless rich guys. But dig a little deeper and someone like Jerry Moss, who was the "M" in A&M Records is not that stereotype. He helped make and nurture the careers of so many artists that rock n' roll wouldn't be what it is today without him. 

He initially started as a champion of the likes of Herb Alpert, but then he saw Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and was embarrassed that he hadn't signed any of the new generation. Soon followed the signings of the Carpenters, Cat Stevens, the Police, Bryan Adams, Styx, Peter Frampton, Soundgarden, and Janet Jackson.

Even better, he recognized that rock was evolving and went out more on a limb with the likes of, partially aided by IRS being folded into A&M, the Go-Gos, the Flying Burrito Brothers, R.E.M., the English Beat, and Squeeze. Read more at the L.A. Times.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

The Blue Jean Committee leads the "soft rock" way on Documentary Now - Season 1

The Blue Jean Committee album cover tells you most of what you need to know about Season 1 of Documentary Now! I had watched a sporadic handful of these episodes when they were released back in 2015, but it was fun to go back and revisit them in order. While Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers' mockumentary take on the VH1 style rock documentary are the last two episodes in Season 1, they are the only true must-see parts of the season.

I'm not saying the other episodes aren't worth watching. “Sandy Passage,” a takeoff of Grey Gardens, is my second favorite, with Hader playing the dancing daughter of a singing elderly woman played by Armisen. The first episode of the season spoofs the strange, hushed, and procedural way documentaries have unfolded as a genre over the years. It's hilarious in the first 20 minutes as it builds this odd relationship and living situation between the mom and daughter, but then gets a little overly silly in the last five minutes as the story descends into a horror tale. 4.5 out of 5 stars

Next up, Jack Black plays a TV-show host who sends Hader and Armisen as reporters to cover the Mexican drug trade in “DRONZES: The Hunt for El Chignon.” It's highly watchable while somehow also being an inessential takeoff of Vice-style, hard-hitting journalism. 3.5 out of 5 stars

“Kunuk Uncovered” is the least essential episode in the season, taking a look at a fictional Inuit hunter who is remembered fondly in this strange spoof of Nanook of the North. 3 out of 5 stars

“The Eyes Don’t Lie” is a send-up of crime procedural docs, with a bunch of silly southern characters increasingly leading the finger in the Sign Spinner Murder Case towards Hader and Armisen’s doofy characters. It gets funnier and funnier as the trial crescendos. 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sandy Passage
“A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” documents an Al Capone Festival that takes place every year in a small rural community in Iceland. But then change happens. Another village in Iceland introduces a Jimi Hendrix Festival to appeal to a more youthful audience. Nevermind, because the power of groupthink keeps this Capone-obsessed town on track for believing its festival is still a great idea. 4 out of 5 stars

“Gentle and Soft: The Blue Jean Committee” is the season-ending two-parter. From Hader and Armisen's characters growing up in sausage school in Chicago to their transformation from blues band to California superstars and back to retirement in the Chicago sausage factory and a Malibu ocean pad, respectively, this yacht-rock band’s arc includes testimonials from legends like Daryl Hall, Kenny Loggins, Chuck Klosterman, Cameron Crowe, and others. Hader’s falsetto on the hit “Catalina Breeze” seals their hall-of-fame pedigree, even though the entire hit-filled album was recorded over the course of just 72 hours. The meat tradition in the guys’ upbringing is threatened when they discover they’re booked at the Hollywood Bowl for an animal rights benefit. But they refuse to “turn their backs on the sausage community.” The way things end up is really pretty deep and touching. This is the heart of Documentary Now!’s first season. (And for a little more, see the band's completely different "Massachusetts Afternoon" origin story on Saturday Night Live - thanks for the head's up Jeff Young!) 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Should you stay or should you go with Comedian Tim Robinson? I'm staying

If you are in need of some absurdist comedy, look no further than Season 1 of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson on Netflix. Better yet is that each episode in the six-episode arc is only about 15 minutes. So if you hate it, which some will, it is almost no investment of time.

If you're on the fence for trying out this material, I recommend you start with these even shorter bits (pretty much everything is also on YouTube): 

If you aren't inspired to watch the entire season after seeing those shorts, then I can't help you, but I give it ...

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 14, 2023

Packing a bit of Yellowstone, Montana, and Wyoming into a day

The best things about early Friday morning were that we woke early and it was easy to latch down our car-roof tent (rather than tearing down a normal tent) and get quickly to the south gate of Yellowstone National Park. At 7 a.m., we were the only ones in line!

Heading up the Grand Loop on the west side, our first stop was the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which I highly recommend early in the morning when nobody else is around. Because of the stillness and early-morning quiet, this series of geysers that we viewed from a boardwalk were almost as great as our next stop, Old Faithful. I didn’t recall such an extensive series of boardwalks, but the amount of geysers surrounding Old Faithful, which blew about 30 minutes after we arrived and typically goes off about every 70 minutes, is pretty awesome.

The can’t-miss part of our relatively short swing through Yellowstone was maybe not even Old Faithful. Just a little further north of there is the Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin. Somehow my dad and I missed this one back in 1995 when I was last in Yellowstone. We parked on the main road and walked past a long line of cars waiting to enter the small lot. Once past the lot, we made our way through the tourists, not expecting a whole lot. But while on the boardwalk, we witnessed an unbelievable pool of scorching water steaming up at us in brilliant blues and greens and yellows and oranges.

We were out of there in under 45 minutes and shortly thereafter I spotted a prehistoric male bison in the distance. I got out and watched it come out of the forest and graze on grass in the field. Eventually it started walking towards us and cars started lining up on the road. By the time the bison crossed the pavement, dozens of cars and tons of people had pulled up and were cheering it on.

We veered west at Madison out of the park, into the town of West Yellowstone for coffee and t-shirt purchases, and then north up 191 to the Montana-Wyoming border. Rachel was set on doing a hike in bear country from the Fawn Pass Trailhead, where many years ago she led a conservation crew in building a bridge. She thought the bridge was only a few miles out, but we ended up walking further and never finding the it. No matter, the hike ended up being really cool, through a narrow backcountry trail, as we sang and whistles and clapped to keep bears from potentially appearing over the many crests of high brush.

We were a little leery of what our campground would be like on the last night of the trip, because we knew it was going to be really close to the busy and loud traffic of 191. But it ended up being a stunning place. Yes, it was close to the road, but there was a huge cliff face on the other side of the road and a rushing stream mere feet from where we pitched the tent (where we watched a bald eagle fly all the way up the river and right past us). There were only a few other sites and the guys next to us were really nice and getting set to run some rivers in rafts and canoes in the coming days. We put in some earplugs and slept like babies and the next morning we woke up early to get breakfast at an excellent coffee shop on Main Street in Bozeman before our uneventful flights back through Denver and on to Baltimore.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

A Grand Teton boulder hike for the ages

On Thursday, it was time to get serious for our most epic hike of our week out west. Leaving Gros Vendre Campground after three nights there, the cloudless skies parted as we neared the mouth-dropping Grand Tetons.

We parked at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, which is a gorgeous walk up through the woods that continuously climbs on long switchbacks for about three miles before our turn off the trail to an epic nearly mile-long climb through steep boulder fields. The boulders were definitely not for the faint of heart, but I think it was my favorite part of any of our hikes. It’s such a challenge to figure out the puzzle of which rock to step on, while avoiding the ones which may be wobbly.

Many people had recommended this climb to Delta Lake as one of the region’s best. And it was true. These photos don’t even tell half of the story. A few people were jumping into the glacial waters. But none of them stayed in for long. We ate our lunch on a rock in the lake, with Grand Teton looming overhead.

On the way back, I got my only minor injury in four days of hiking. We followed a boulder field that overshot the path we needed to get back down the 8-mile round tripper. We battled back uphill through tall grass and steep rocks, and I slipped on a sharp log hopping back onto the main trail, leaving a bloody but minor cut on my shin.

We rewarded ourselves by sneaking a beer along with some chips tailgating at our car at the bottom. And before we pulled out, we noticed a good-sized and mangy fox sitting under the tree no more than 10 feet from where we had been sitting out in the open. It then hopped up, circling our car and clearly scrounging for any scraps we may have left.

Finally, we ended the day by staying in a small and cute cabin in the Headwaters at Flagg Ranch campground. It was nice to get a change of scenery from our car tent. Plus it was the only site we could find online at the last minute. Not to mention it was strategically located near the South Gate of Yellowstone National Park, which we would be entering the next morning.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

How to spend a pretty great day in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

On Wednesday, we headed south from our campsite at Gros Vendre to spend the day in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the fancy western spot I hadn’t visited in 28 years. It’s about the same as then: ritzy and country and western.

We grabbed breakfast then headed straight for the Crystal Butte Trail on the edge of town, which ended up being a pretty exhausting 6+-mile out-and-back climb. It started with switchbacks and led to an open, steep hill with beautiful views of the whole town, the Snow King Mountain Ski Resort, and even the Grand Tetons in the distance. It ended up possibly being the second-most difficult of our four significant hikes.

For the afternoon, it was what qualifies as western downtime fun when we headed to Jackson Hole Whitewater for a 7.5-mile raft ride down the Snake River with our guide Roslyn and a nice family from Texas. As we navigated Class 4 rapids, we also enjoyed some calmer waters, nice conversations, four eagles, and some egrets too.

We finished off the day by devouring some excellent BBQ and Roadhouse Brewing Co. beers, making some purchases for the kids, and heading back to crash hard at camp.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

RIP William Friedkin

Being a graduate of Georgetown University, I of course must salute William Friedkin, who shot several scenes of his most famous movie, The Exorcist, in the Washington D.C neighborhood. When I started school there, one of my first stops had to be to the famous long, steep, concrete staircase, the "Exorcist Steps," located at the corner of Prospect and 36th Street NW, right behind The Car Barn, where most of my media-studies classes were held.

RIP Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson’s famed country-rock group The Band never really swayed towards my taste much. But my love of latter-day days bands that were surely influenced by them - bands like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and Drive-by Truckers - helps make me forever appreciate of his pioneering sounds.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Hiking high above Jenny Lake in the Tetons is the start of the adventurous part of our trip

On Tuesday, we waited out a short rain storm before heading out to cross famed Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. The short ferry ride arrives right at the start of the iconic Cascade Canyon Trail, which is a hike I did back in 1995 with my dad.

Jenny Lake is a glacier-fed natural lake that freezes in the winter and is about 60 degrees in the summer. It reaches a whopping 250-feet deep.

Once across, our chosen trail for the day (so many trails to choose from in Teton/Yellowstone) starts out as a crowded route for the first mile up to Inspiration Point. Once past that, the crowds thin out and the trail opens up to breathtaking scenery and abundant wildlife as it winds through the canyon surrounded by majestic mountains and ending 5 miles in where we had lunch on rocks above a beautiful waterfall.

We saw a momma moose and her baby. Then later, Rachel stopped to go to the bathroom behind a high rock. She looked not far down the hillside and there was a huge male moose with massive antlers chowing down on the plants. We also saw a badger and plenty of pika and birds, but no bears on this hike.

The hike was definitely challenging, especially the higher up we went and since it had been a while since my legs had endured a significant western hike. But it was well worth the effort, and it made the night’s beer, Manhattan, bison burger, and shrimp and grits at The Mangy Moose in Teton Village all the more rewarding.

Trying a new way to get around the Tetons and Yellowstone

I picked up our wild rental vehicle steps away from the baggage claim at Bozeman’s fancy log-cabin themed airport.

It was really easy to reserve the Subaru Forester (same car we have back home) through Outdoorsy. The main differences in ours and this one - the pop-up roof on top and the camping supplies in the back.

It was great not having to worry about hotels, sleeping at the Gros Vendre Campground under the Grand Tetons mountain range, and packing up to leave and unpacking when we return very quickly. It’s also been easy to head out and then tailgate once we’ve secured an all-valuable parking spot wherever we go and then tailgate breakfast once we arrive.

Monday, August 7, 2023

I didn’t expect to watch a Judy Blume movie on my trip to Montana

Well, my last post about Bozeman took a little detour the rest of the day Sunday. My St. Louis to Denver flight on Southwest was delayed just long enough for me to barely miss my Denver to Bozeman one. 

“Sleeping” in the Denver airport seemed it would be possible. There are lots of couches and there were hundreds of travelers splayed out on them, but it was impossible to sleep with endless loudspeaker announcements and the drilling and hammering of construction. I slept in a row of my own on a reroute from Denver to Las Vegas at 6 a.m. Monday morning, then squeezed in for the final leg to Bozeman, arriving at noon. After reaching Rachel at Gran Vendre Campground in Jackson Hole, I had been officially traveling for 33 hours.

Missing parts of vacations seems to be a running theme through most of my recent flights on my tenuously favorite U.S. airline. To look at the bright side, I got to finish Are You There God?, It’s Me Margaret, on my unexpected Monday flights. I only made it halfway through on my Sunday night flight.

Back in 2013, I read the book and reviewed it:

When we had our baby girl three-and-a-half months ago, I figured I better finally get off the snide and learn a thing or two about what it's like to grow up as a girl. After all, it won't be too long before Zoey will be confronting these issues. I shouldn't be clueless.

Are You There God? It's Me Margaret is essential reading for any pre-teen girl. It should help them recognize that the way they will soon be acting is laughable but serious as well.

Another review of this material is handy now, as my daughter Zoey has grown up and just turned 10 last month. The movie is enjoyable and the acting is pretty good. Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret is worth the price of admission alone and could be a star in the making. 

The film is certainly a worthwhile use of time for an entertaining and touching guide to parenting. And it’s pretty hard to believe it’s one of the most banned books in the country, being both sweet and educational. For parents not to talk to their kids about what to expect as their bodies change is really irresponsible. And to not give kids any say in their religious beliefs may be even worse. This movie addresses those issues in a bold way.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 6, 2023

A few things to know about Bozeman, Montana

I’m going to need to shift gears pretty quickly. After a long weekend of no physical activity with my oldest friends at our annual Ozarks getaway, I had a seven-hour wait for my plane in St. Louis to then get through Denver and on to today’s final destination of Bozeman, Montana.

Bozeman, after I get in at my scheduled time of around midnight local time (2 a.m. Eastern on Monday), is where I’m going to get our rental vehicle for the week - a Subaru Forester with a tent on the top and kitchen supplies in the back. Then I’ll sleep for a handful of hours in a hotel before heading out on a 4 1/2-hour drive south to meet Rachel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Since I’m going to head right out of Bozeman, a city I’ve never seen, here’s a little bit of what I should see if I ever have more time to go back.

Montana State University is apparently pretty nice to take a look at. But the real draw is the recreational activities that surround the city of nearly 60,000 in population, including stunning mountains ideal for hiking, skiing, fly fishing, and mountain biking.

Bozeman’s nickname is the "Silicon Valley of the Rockies,” and that tech and entrepreneur scene has provided strong economic growth. Its other nickname is “Boz Angeles,” due to an influx of Californians and celebrities.

Bozeman’s surrounding region has been a hotspot for dinosaur discoveries, with several paleontological sites and museums throughout the area for fossil lovers. Much of that area is called the Gallatin Valley, which was named by Lewis and Clark after Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin.

Hilarious comedy/history writer Sarah Vowell is one of its most famous residents, and she wrote in 2021 in The New York Times that the town is simply booming and that median single family homes have blasted up from $485,000 to $704,000 in almost no time. Those numbers are also pricing out many of the people working to ensure excellent outdoor recreational activities can continue.

Also of note are a few other Bozeman celebrities:

  • John Mayer, whose last album was a yacht-rock masterpiece, is also pretty darn great in Dead and Company.
  • Actor Bill Pullman, who was in Independence Day and Spaceballs.
  • Actor J.K. Simmons spent part of his childhood in the city and is known for Whiplash and Spider-Man.