Thursday, November 30, 2023

RIP Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger advised 12 - yes, 12! - presidents on foreign policy and has passed away at the age of 100. I’m not sure whether he helped Calvin Coolidge as a baby, but he got to just about every other U.S. leader since then.

Hard working literally until the end (he recently co-authored a book on AI), Kissinger is regarded as the most powerful Secretary of State since World War I, having been a top negotiator in deals with China, the former Soviet Union, and Vietnam. Even the current Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, admits to being advised by Kissinger within the past month.

Kissinger was one of the very top - if not top - advisor to Richard Nixon, and he said he would have “excruciatingly long conversations” that would go over and over the same material again and again. Much of the time they would land back on the strategy that the U.S. had to stand up to aggression from all corners of the world or it would lose credibility. This of course extended the awful results in Vietnam, contributing to a long losing and mostly pointless war effort for the U.S.

If you were to ask me, a peace-seeking liberal, I would tell you my opinion is that Kissinger really screwed up this country, making it more war-loving and helping us get to today’s more dangerously isolationist place. But, at the same time, he's always been a bit of a mystery to me (maybe I'm too young) and his legacy remains enigmatic - leaning towards brilliant with a touch of evil.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Remembering 9/11 all these years later

9/11: One Day in America was sitting on my DVR for a long time. The 2021 six-part National Geographic documentary (that they show at the 9/11 Memorial museum and that’s also available on Disney + and Hulu) is still something that is painful to sit through. But it is important to watch and remember one of the darkest days in this country’s history.

I was living with my girlfriend, soon to be wife, at 12th and N Streets NW near Logan Circle in Washington D.C. She had already gone to work in Rosslyn and I was getting ready to leave for my job at the World Resources Institute. I had the TV on and started following the news, never to leave for work that day. Meanwhile she would exit work and, with a plane crashing in sight from her office into the Pentagon, the Metro closed and she had no choice but to walk home from Virginia. We would go out to somberly meet friends that night at the Townhouse Tavern, making our way through silent streets reminiscent of what a nuclear zone must be like.

The show follows events in a generally chronological order, with emotional interviews of key people from that day. There’s the TV crew that were lucky enough to get turned away by first responders, almost surely in turn saving their lives. There are people who were saved from being trapped in offices and under rubble. There is a woman who survived after a piece of one of the plane’s landing gear sheared off her back as it fell from the sky. There’s the woman whose son was one of the small group that attempted to fight the terrorists on the plane that landed in Pennsylvania, which was later suspected of heading towards the U.S. Capitol Building.

The footage, shown from seemingly as many angles as exist, of the planes again and again hitting the two World Trade Towers is - there are hardly words for it - extremely powerful and still so sad.

The series doesn’t go into other types of details, such as where President George W. Bush was that day (reading to school children in Florida) or the political and military hunt and war that was about to be launched in the fight against the Al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the attacks. You’ll have to go elsewhere for all that. But what you get here is more than enough.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Liz Phair revisits her classic debut album at D.C.’s Anthem

When it comes to female indie rockers of the 1990s, I put Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield, and Kim Deal at the very top. So it was awesome to finally see Phair live last night at The Anthem in Washington D.C.

After a really enjoyable opening set by Blondshell (which, at the moment, has my 21st favorite album of 2023), Phair entered with her crack band and launched right into playing 1993’s Exile in Guyville in its entirety. Even the lesser songs on that release translated really well to the live setting, but I still would have preferred more inclusions from my two favorite Phair albums: 1994’s Whip-Smart and 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg.

The sound at The Anthem impressively matches D.C.’s other perfect-sound-always venue The 9:30 Club. The night’s clear highlight, Fuck and Run, really popped and put on full display how wonderful the sound operators and acoustics are there.

Another clear highlight was the first song of the encore, Supernova, off of Whip-smart, which got the crowd dancing and having a great time. We had actually moved back from our 13th-row seats by that point and had a much better view than the one we started with jammed in tight on tiny chairs up front.

Johnny Feelgood and Polyester Bride were next, both from Whitechocolatespaceegg. Spanish Doors off her excellent 2021 album Soberish and Why Can’t I? from her 2003 self-titled release rounded out the encore. See the setlist.

4.5 out of 5

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Midsommar and Florence Pugh give me cultish nightmares

It's been a long time since I had nightmares after watching a film, but it happened last night after I watched 2019's Midsommar. 

Florence Pugh starred in what I recently said was the worst movie I've seen in the past year, and in some ways Don't Worry Darling has some of the same overly suspenseful vibes as Midsommar. But where that one was boring and not profound, this psychological horrorfest is just the opposite.

Pugh stars as a young woman trying to recover from a monumental family tragedy. Her boyfriend, played by Jack Reynor, is a jerk and not much help on her path towards psychological recovery. That is when a friend invites them and four other friends to a Swedish nine-day festival that only happens once every 90 years. That is one of many pieces of the plot that have been nagging on me; how could these people at the festival seem so deeply entwined with their activities if this is something that essentially only happens once in a lifetime? I'm not sure if it's nonsensical or whether that just makes the movie even more eerily compelling.

Midsommar could almost be called something other than a horror movie. There aren't really monsters per se. The scenery is beautiful, usually bright and sunny. But the imagery and rituals along the way and the audience's questions as to why the characters do what they do are deep, puzzling, and often very unsettling.

I love studies of cults and the ways some people take advantage over others who are vulnerable, which the Midsommar cult does with Pugh's character. She ties the movie together and proves why she is a real movie star. Her ending moment is classic and makes you wonder if she has found a way to erase her pain, no matter how awful that path may be. It definitely makes me want to see some of her other recent vehicles, including Oppenheimer, Little Women, and A Good Person.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 24, 2023

Beach and resort culture have a fascinating history

I’ve been reading The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach. The author, Sarah Stodola, after years as a travel journalist spouting endless positivity at beach resorts, wanted to take a more critical look, to try to determine where resorts and their industry are headed in light of things like climate change and the increase in natural disasters. 

I was probably influenced to read this based on my love of the TV show The White Lotus (she references it right away), which combined the long-held tourist Bob Marley/Jimmy Buffett perspective with the behind-the-scenes dark side of the lives of resort employees.

She concludes that paradise for humans is nature conquered, not actual nature. An infinity pool overlooking the ocean is much better than contending with the sand and waves and unknowns underneath in the sea.

Stodola looks back to the history of human infatuation with the coast. 

  • In the 1500s, the British upper class would retreat to spa towns with a focus on the healing power of water. In 1660, a doctor there founded a mineral spring spa which just happened to be near the ocean, so he got the idea to begin marketing the health benefits of ocean water, a resource he had in great supply. By 1736, entire towns were starting to understand the game. Brighthelmstone changed its name to Brighton, easier to pronounce and seemingly sounding like a coastal town worth a visit. “The resort concept took hold.”
  • In northern Africa, southern Europe, and Polynesia, people have been surfing since the 1700s, maybe even before in some places.
  • Although “paradise” used to be an Iranian word referring to walled gardens, “paradise’s relocation to the shore is a twentieth-century phenomenon.”
  • Monte Carlo used to be called Vininaia and changed its name to encourage people to visit, which they did, and the city in Morocco became one of the first major resorting destinations. At first the beach was the thing there, but the realization over time has been to get rid of that and build a marina for the exorbitant yachts and create massive homes all the way up the mountains overlooking the water.
  • The Jersey Shore became big time throughout the 1800s for people in New York and Philadelphia wanting to escape the summer heat. Their reasons for visiting rapidly changed from caring for their health to more along the lines of entertainment. It became known as the “American Monte Carlo” and still today has a pretty good claim to being America’s first beach resort.
  • With his follow up to The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald helped “immortalize the international beach culture” with his book Tender is the Night. Between him and Picasso, their depictions of tanned skin and “getting sun became something you have the leisure to do instead of something that happens to you while you’re out toiling in the fields.”
  • Mark Twain, while working for a Sacramento newspaper, got to be one of the lucky few to steamboat to the Sandwich Islands in the mid-1800s. He loved it and spread the word that what we now know as Waikiki in Hawaii would soon become a hot destination. Hawaii would become a U.S. state in 1900 and, ironically, Waikiki never actually had much of a beach. It was constructed and even today still shows stretches that look more like an industrial port than a world-class resort strip. But sea-level rise is occurring there more rapidly than most places on Earth, and pretty much all experts agree that Waikiki will not exist anywhere close to what it looks like today in a mere 100 years.
  • Waikiki was largely able to enter the pop-culture psyche because silent-film superstars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (and much later the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Dean Martin) vacationed there. Then, after World War II, a strong economy and the advent of paid vacations for the white-collar working masses allowed for more creativity and leeway in their vacation ambitions, even at a time before air travel became affordable.
  • I love this quote from the author on the eternal struggle for the beach resort or really any coastal development: “The issue is not that the sand is moving - that’s what nature intended, in fact - but that we insist it stay in one place.”
  • Hawaii, taking this insight into account, can be credited with taking some of the most action on climate change in the world - a low bar, but still. It became the first U.S. state to create a law to follow the Paris Climate Agreement and, in 2021, banned the sale of sunscreen to protect coral reefs from bleaching.
  • Much of the beach resort culture now seen throughout the world originated in Hawaii, including beach umbrellas in cocktails, colorful shirts, and surfboards. Actions started in Korolevu and Denarau in Fiji that have taken hold most other places include the layout of individual bungalows extended longways down the beachfront, with bamboo walls and thatched roofs, and also the idea (paid for by massive Japanese investment) of moving tons of dirt from a nearby mountain to the coastline and to fill in mangrove swamps to raise the elevation of the island.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

CODA will no doubt sing its way into your heart

The whole time I was watching CODA, I was trying to figure out what the title meant. Since the story is largely about music, I figured that could be it. Or that it was the end of the way of life the family in the film knew or that possibly there was a death coming soon in the story.

I wasn’t right about any of that. CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and that’s exactly what it’s about, as the Apple award-winning film is all about the coming-of-age of a girl in a small Massachusetts fishing community whose mom, dad, and brother are all deaf and rely heavily on her to help them translate and navigate life.

Emilia Jones plays the girl, Ruby Rossi, and she, like the entire cast, is phenomenal, having learned American Sign Language for the part.

Eugenio Derbez plays her music teacher at high school and discovers Ruby has a talent for much more than fishing and translating. She has a great singing voice and he works to hopefully get her into Berklee’s music school.

Marlee Matlin plays Ruby’s mom and can’t understand why she would want to be a singer when the rest of the family can’t hear it. 

But along with Jones, it is Troy Kotsur as the goofy and loving dad who adds the comic relief to what is actually kind of a sad, but still uplifting, story. He won the Academy Award for best actor and the movie itself won Best Picture.

I can’t believe it took me a couple of years to get around to watching CODA. It might just be the best thing on Apple. 

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Great Magazine Reads: MOJO offers a teaser to the new Thurston Moore book

Legendary Sonic Youth singer/guitarist Thurston Moore just released his first book, Sonic Life, which is a mix of autobiography and music history. MOJO’s December issue has a great interview about it, a nice appetizer for when I get to the book. He will have an uphill battle to make it as awesome as that of his ex-bandmate and ex-wife Kim Gordon. I place Girl in a Band in my pantheon of true classic rock books. 

Here are some of the most interesting tidbits from the interview:
  • Moore essentially knew he wanted to be a rock star when he saw Kiss live in 1974.
  • The book delves into a lot of discovery in his teen years of the downtown New York punk scene that he explored from his Connecticut home base with his gay friend Harold Paris, who died in 1990.
  • A lot of Moore’s Sonic Youth writing was inspired by elements of American iconography. He was reading books about Charles Manson and his “attack battalion of dune buggies” and, at the same time, hearing Ronald Reagan talking about bringing back the good old days. Moore thought, “bring back those old good days?”
  • Even though the band’s final album was called The Eternal, nobody in the band knew it would be their final record.
  • There is a chapter devoted to his relationship with Nirvana. 
  • In 2003, Paul McCartney approached Moore after a Sonic Youth gig to ask him about his unique approach to guitar tuning. In turn, Thurston asked Sir Paul about his brother Mike’s 1974 album McGear. Paul said, “Nobody ever asks me about Mike” and Moore responded that he knew way more about that than he did about The Beatles! (If you haven’t heard that album - and you haven’t - you should. Plus, it was produced and co-written by Paul.)
  • Neil Young’s crew called Sonic Youth “smarty-pants noise rock” when they opened for him in 1991. Perhaps feeling bad because of his team’s mistreatment of Sonic Youth, Neil invites them again to play an acoustic set later in the year and it ended in Gordon smashing her guitar to crowd boos.
  • Yoko One was seemingly the only audience member - Evan Dando, Liz Taylor, Lou Reed, and many other celebrities were also there - to not hate a 1998 synth-noise performance by Moore and Don Fleming as the band FOOT. They ended the performance at the New York Roxy after five minutes.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Learning some simple facts about the very misunderstood country of Israel

Noa Tishby grew up in the suburbs of Tel Aviv and became a child actor. After she got out of the mandatory Israeli military, she moved to Los Angeles and found herself having more success as a producer. 

She started realizing that very few people in the U.S. had any idea about the history of Israel. They would ask her severely misinformed questions like “how do your parents feel about you being modern and not wearing any head gear (also known as the Muslim hijab).” She eventually realized she was spending lots of time telling stories about her homeland and what Israel was and is all about.

Some basic facts:

  • Israel is a very “freaking modern” country. It is not, say, Afghanistan.
  • There is huge difference between a kibbutz and a settlement.
  • It’s the only country in the Middle East that “has been an uninterrupted democracy since its founding in 1948, after the United Nations granted the Jews a state after the horrors of the Holocaust. The Arabs were also granted a state at the time, but they chose to refuse it and start a war.”
  • Israel is not a colonialist state. It’s a refugee state that was decolonized from British rule. Sounds a lot like another country we’ve all heard about.
    • It’s not really an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s more like Israeli-Arab, which makes Israel a serious underdog, with its population of 9 million compared to the 21 Arab nations surrounding it with 423 million people.
Tishby's new book, Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, is a fascinating read at a time when we all need to be reminded that we should all be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and anti-Hamas, a terrorist organization that has the sole aim of wiping out Israel and uses international aid funding to build attack tunnels instead of schools and hospitals. Further, it uses that funding to build these tunnels under schools and hospitals, as a way to use innocent and usually vulnerable Palestinians in Gaza, where Hamas is based, as human shields for themselves.

There have been a lot of slogans thrown around social media and at protests recently that contain a lot of half truths at best. I like Tishby’s slogan best. “Free Gaza from Hamas” says it most humanely.

She also reminds us of the many beautiful things about the very existence of a Jewish state, which is maybe a little like if Washington D.C., a tiny liberal enclave, were dropped into the deepest rural reddest parts of the U.S. South. Here are just a few examples:
  • There is a “built-in liberalism in Judaism and Zionism”
  • Debate and dissent are a key component of a “highly Jew-y culture”
  • “The Jewish holidays are connected to the moon.” That's pretty cool
  • It’s a place you can be super secular and still carry a Bible in your bag because being a little weird is cool
  • But to leave God and religion out of it for a second, Jewish people - despite what a lot of people not relying on archeological or written records often claim - are indigenous to the land of Israel not just since 1948 but rather for about 2,500 years, even back before the time that one dude was wandering around there in his hippy hair and sandals and spreading messages about peace and humbleness. That’s all very different than the state of Palestine, which, oh yeah, has never been a state. Not that it shouldn’t be a state, but just that is has yet to ever be - in case you hear folks in their antisemitism using a lot of talking points about indigenousness and how Israel needs to “give that land back.”

And, by the way, my above D.C./Deep South analogy isn’t entirely accurate. Israel is in fact about the size of New Jersey. But hopefully my sloppy comparison makes a point. It takes about six hours to drive the whole way north to south and about an hour to get west to east. So it’s small and you could say it’s a “rough neighborhood” with the likes of Syria, Lebanon, and Iran surrounding it. 

One of the truly odd things about Israel is why such a place - with almost no natural resources and a very limited supply of fresh water - is the origin of Judaism and Christianity as well as the home of the third-most holy place for Islam.

These are some of the details from the very start of Tishby's book, so as you can see, it's very interesting and she is a great and funny storyteller. I'm excited to keep reading it.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

RIP Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Smith was young Jimmy Carter's sister Ruth's best friend back in 1945 when he asked his sister to set them up. It was practically settled from the start that Jimmy and Rosalynn would work hard to make the world - beyond just Plains, Georgia - a better place.

Rosalynn Carter would go on to become one of the most politically active first wives in history, right up there with Eleanor Roosevelt. She has died at age 96 in Plains from dementia. 

While they served in the Oval Office from 1976 to 1980, they arguably went on to have much more influence in their post-presidential years. They focused largely on human rights and democracy and did a lot of Habitat for Humanity house building. She focused on mental health and, under her watch, the office of first lady became a federal position for the first time.

Jimmy is still alive at age 99 and their marriage is now the longest ever for a presidential couple at more than 77 years.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

RIP Roger Kastel

I have a sweet hardback copy of Jaws by Peter Benchley on my bookshelf. I've never read it. I don't know why I cherish it so much. I love the artwork though. I ought to turn it around so I can always see the cover instead of the spine.

The art may be why I have it. I surely have it because Jaws is one of my favorite movies. It's my favorite Steven Spielberg movie. And it's my third-favorite movie of all time period.

The art is truly awesome, but wait, the book I have is the version with the black cover, which is much less cool than the art that evenatually came around for the paperback version. That is the art that is legendary and legendarily terrifying and what would go on to be the movie poster, created by Roger Kastel, who has died at age 92. 

Kastel also created the movie poster art for The Empire Strikes Back, which places Han Solo and Princess Leia in the same pose as the leads in the poster for Gone With the Wind. Kastel also created paperback artwork for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Judy Blume.

I really should still read that book. Or amybe I should grab the paperback and read that.

RIPs also go out to George Brown (the drummer of Kool & the Gang. I can't tell you how many times I spun my 45 of "Celebration" when I was a kid) and Dana Carvey's 32-year-old son Dex Carvey (who I don't know anything about but I sure appreciate his dad's comedy over the years, including the excellent podcast he currently does, Fly on the Wall, with David Spade).

Friday, November 17, 2023

Relaxed, non-self-judgemental concentration will help you find your "Inner Game of Tennis"

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by Timothy Gallwey is a somewhat legendary tome in tennis circles. First published in 1974, I'm finally reading it for the first time and I'm taking away lots of helpful tips.

I long grew up as a John McEnroe-inspired tennis hothead, quick to throw my racket or belt out loud questions to myself asking why I hit a ball a certain way when I knew I should have hit it another, better way. In other words, I'm the perfect audience for this book. At least I used to be. I'm a lot calmer now on the court, but I'm hoping the Inner Game philosophy will get me even closer to tennis zen.

The book, in the most simple of terms, is all about focusing on the present moment, quieting the mind to enhance performance, and letting go of self-judgment. It introduces the concept of Self 1 (the conscious mind, which must be quieted) and Self 2 (the unconscious mind, which must be trusted) and how that inner battle affects the level of success for tennis players.

The book starts with a quote I love from Maharaji: "If I’m entertaining myself in the game, I will win."

And Gallwey writes that the secret to winning any game is in not trying too hard, adding:

  • Players must perform spontaneously and with a calm mind. 
  • The will to win unlocks energy and is never discouraged by losing. 
  • This is similar to a natural process, the one we used when we were learning to walk and talk.

When coaching or learning tennis, it’s important to remember that images are more effective than words, showing is better than telling, and too much instruction is worse than none. In fact, trying too hard at either often produces negative results!

Talking to yourself and coaching yourself - almost like you are two separate people - can make you more tense and worse on the court. Self judging will typically grow and grow until the ego turns it into self-fulfilling prophecies, or generalizations like “my game is trash” or “I’m a poor server.”

However, making your inner instructor nonjudgemental - seeing what is happening rather than how good or how bad it is happening - will help keep you from trying too hard and will help achieve a relaxed kind of concentration.

What does all that mumbo jumbo mean in practice, you may now be asking? Well, here are some tennis tips that I'm hoping to have taken away from reading this book:

  • I'm thinking that the way I may be able to process all of it - in both practice and in the heat of battle - will be to bring out the old sports journalist in myself and report my practices and matches in my head from a neutral perspective, without overly criticizing or overly congratulating myself
  • The author makes the point that there is no problem with assessing your serve and noting that your first serve, for example, was in 50 percent of the time in a match. It’s ok to assess that and try to make improvements. But judging that your first serve was bad will likely lead to tightness, trying too hard, condemnation, and other results that will not be helpful while playing. Blocking out the judgemental will allow you to pick up on details that you might have otherwise passed by while you were either admiring yourself or criticizing your shots and form.
  • In order to return Pete Sampras’ serve, you would have about a half second to make an incredible array of movements and decisions. Even with just returning the serve of an average player, there is about one second for all this. It is “a mind-boggling achievement … yet it is not uncommon.” Keeping in mind all this silent intelligence can allow us to “dissolve the unnecessary self-instructions” and over-control. Here's an experiment: tighten your muscles in your hand and wrist and you will find that the snap of the wrist that generates much of the power of your serve will not snap nearly as fast as if your wrist is not tightened. Similarly, if you’re constantly telling yourself what you did wrong on the last point, your cheeks and other parts of your body will tense and tighten and your game will suffer even more.
  • Players are usually aware of how they hit the ball but not as aware of where they want the ball to go. Don’t try to hit the ball deep or the serve over the net. Just ask Self 2 to let it happen. Step back and envision the arc needed for the shot. If it doesn’t go where you intended, don’t make a conscious effort to correct it, just let go and see what happens next time. One way I'll practice this will be to set a tennis-ball can somewhere on the other side of the court so I can tell myself that that’s where I'm going to aim. Then I'll try watching my improvements with detachment and not by attempting to get it correct.
  • Try role playing as a different type of player than you normally might be. Some players play defensively, some offensively, some play with a “formal” style in which they care more about looking good and stylish than winning, and some will do anything to win and hit the ball in a way that their opponents seem to find most bothersome. Try role playing and being different than your normal type of playing. It will be fun and could extend your range.
I'm going to work on these tips for a while before coming back to read the last two-thirds of this book.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Unstable Season 1 is a very funny quick watch from Rob Lowe

I’ve been a big fan of Rob Lowe’s podcast Literally! for a while now. He's a funny and likeable actor who has lots of famous friends and his discussions with them are always insightful. 

So I figured his new show on Netflix, Unstable, had to be great as well. And it is.

Lowe plays the CEO of a sustainable plastics company also working on trying to capture carbon pollution into cement and his wife of 30 years has recently died, putting him and his son in fragile mindsets. He successfully gets his son to give up the music lessons he’s teaching in New York City and move back to L.A. to work as one his scientists.

The father-son relationship takes center stage, but there are several other funny interactions taking place throughout the quick-to-watch, eight-episode first season. Anna (Sian Clifford) tries to keep Lowe's company, called Dragon (his character's name is Ellis Dragon), together while its owner falls apart with a litany of eccentricities. One of my favorites is when he attempts to become a chainsaw-wielding tree trimmer. Ruby (Emma Ferreira) and Luna (Rachel Marsh) are hilarious working in the lab. And John Owen Lowe is pretty much the epitomy of his dad and is caught in the middle of everyone. Oh, and of course Fred Armisen keeps showing up in possibly even-more-bizarre-than-usual fashion.

I recommend Unstable for a wide audience demographic. For one, these episodes are barely 20 minutes each, which makes for a thankfully brief commitment compared to much of today's must-see-TV. And for another, it's one of the best comedies available on Netflix.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Great Magazine Reads: Giving some thought to Barbra Streisand for the first time in decades

Sure, I’ve always known the song “The Way We Were.” And I dug “Guilty” and “Woman in Love” since they were from her album of duets with Barry Gibb back in my wild-about-the-Bee-Gees days. But I’ve never really dug into Barbra Streisand’s musical catalog. Not something a self-respecting indie rocker would do, right?

But now that I’m older and presumably wiser - with the occasion of the 81-year-old, Malibu resident, and mass icon having just published her autobiography, My Name is Barbra - now seems like a good time to assess what all the hype has been about.

On the surface, going over old photos, Babs is undeniably gorgeous and completely mesmerizing. While I can’t confess to having read the nearly-1,000-page book, here is what I’ve learned about her in the November cover story of Vanity Fair:

  • Streisand turned down Jackie Onassis’s request for her to write her biography for Doubleday in 1984 (Onassis worked at the publishing house then). But that’s when she slowly started taking notes that would turn into her 2023 book. 
  • Babs’ mother wanted her to become a school administrator!
  • In 1966, Marlon Brando propositioned her at a party, with his wife in the next room. She declined but they remained friends and talked frequently on the phone. He told her she was great in Funny Girl but that she runs funny.
  • She dropped the middle "a" in her name at age 13 to make it more unique.
  • She has crossed many types with the men she has dated over the years, including former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Ryan O’Neal, Elliott Gould, Don Johnson, her longtime current husband James Brolin, and possibly even tennis legend Andre Agassi
Vanity Fair offers an excerpt from Streisand’s book on her work making the movie The Way We Were with Robert Redford:
  • Behind those blue eyes, “Bob” was such a great actor because nobody could ever tell what he was thinking, which gave him an unusual complexity. The two stars found each other to be pretty exotic, with Redford wondering what it must have been like growing up in Brooklyn and she thought the same about him and sunny California.
  • He inspired her to learn how to ski and she rode with him on his motorcycle.
  • But some of her favorite scenes were cut from the final edit of the movie. She has been working on updating it, possibly to release soon, with the crucial scenes back in place.
Bottom line: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen The Way We Were, but I’m definitely planning to go back and revisit it, now that I’ve done a deeper dive on Babs and realized she’s a pretty great artist. After all, the American Film Institute has called it the sixth best romance movie. 

Pro tip: Along with the other songs mentioned above, you can't go wrong with these other Streisand tunes: "Memory," "Evergreen," "No More Tears," "What Kind of Fool (again with Gibb)," "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," "People," and "It Had to Be You."

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Explaining U.S. infrastructure and how now is the time for a new New Deal

In my day job, I communicate about flashy topics like driverless vehicles, supply chains, e-bikes and e-scooters, and the psychology of how people think (or don't) about how they get around.

I also spend time trying to understand things like how culverts impact geology, more sustainable pavements, and how "accessible floating bus stops" can be safer for blind people or others with disabilities. These are parts of our highly complicated infrastructure network that allow us to get from point A to point B without batting an eyelid. But should anyone else want to try to figure out how this highly complex puzzle fits together, Deb Chachra's new book - How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World - is as good of a place to start as any.

In fact, many people should want to understand infrastructure better, whether it's transportation-related or how we get our water or electricity, because President Joe Biden's Inflation Reduction Act is starting to funnel more money into the industry than has been done at any time since FDR's New Deal to combat the Great Depression nearly 100 years ago. Much of the future of the U.S. workforce will depend on how much a wider net of people knows how the system works.

Chachra is a materials science professor at Olin College in Massachusetts and is a great communicator about tough topics. She details how we drive or take transit on a highly integrated system, turn on lights from a complex grid, cook dinner with gas, and drink water from separate grids that might be bringing the materials from somewhere close but more likely quite far away.

The Washington Post's book review notes, "As Chachra explains, you are living in the lap of luxury without realizing it. The great gift of our infrastructure is that it gives us agency over our lives, liberating us from everyday drudgery."

This luxury, on the other hand, turns into a political liability in that we don't honor or consider "essential" our utility workers in the same ways that we do our firefighters and police officers, which leads us to forget and neglect these systems in ways that can result in catostrophic events like bridge collapses and river breaches.

Chachra says we need to think big, like they have done in Wales with a place called Electric Mountain, where, inside a beautiful, seemingly unperturbed mountain water flows down inside and is then sucked back up in a perpetual renewable energy turbine system generating power to nearby communities. She argues that these kinds of projects can be done both sustainably and humanely, unlike her example of Niagra Falls, which saw the U.S. governement using eminent domain to flood the land of the Tuscarora Nation.

She writes that this system of displacing apparently less powerful people in the name of progress for those living in higher and varying degrees of luxury has got to stop. Part of this could be accomplished by making electric grids much more local and not tied to the national grid, and also using the source (water, wind, solar, geothermal) that makes the most sense for their own situations.

The other major change needed that she writes about is the need to take profit motives out of the infrastructure equation. The systems need to be resilient to the many growing threats presented by increasingly regular natural disasters. That, over profits, needs to be the focus of the massive investment about to hopefully create a whole new revised infrastructure system for the country.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Emma Cline’s stories are at their best when telling coming-of-age tales

Two of my favorite recent novels are The Guest and The Girls, both by Emma Cline, who is also accumulating quite a few short stories. I’ve started to dig into those and, like her novels, it seems Cline’s specialty is to present everyday typical happenings - nothing too astounding - that tend to illuminate larger truths about people and their relationships. 

“Upstate” appeared in the October 30, 2023 issue of The New Yorker. In it, Paul is a recently divorced man in his 50s dating a younger woman named Kate. They are leaving the city for a short vacation “upstate.” The fact that they aren’t right for each other is pretty clear from the start. He gets annoyed by her suggestion that his 17-year-old daughter is too young for her planned nose job.  She secretly thinks he’s lost and adrift in life. The things they agree on are drinking a lot of alcohol together and that the owner of the house they are staying in is creepy. By the end, a lot of this may be in their heads rather than actual reality, but it doesn’t much matter because Paul has fallen out of the hammock and faces a surprisingly long road to recovery. She, it appears, is stuck with him, whether they like it or not. 3.5 out of 5 stars

The other Cline short stories I’ve read are from her 2020 collection entitled Daddy.

In “What Can You Do With a General,” kids come back home to visit their parents at Christmas to a town in California. Nothing much happens except the small little pricks of pain that slowly tear families apart as kids grow older. It’s pretty touching if not profound. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

The second offering in the collection is my favorite Cline short story. It paints a picture with a similar vibe to her novels. “Los Angeles” is about two girls, Alice and Oona, who work at a trendy clothing shop while trying to live the L.A. dream. They enjoy experiencing somewhat risky sexual situations mainly so they can tell each other their wild stories afterwards. Selling the underwear they have on at work is one of their side gigs, and it may just get aspiring actress Alice in serious trouble by the story’s conclusion. 5 out of 5 stars

In “Menlo Park,” a man in the publishing world suffers a series of setbacks, from getting fired to relationship struggles to a scary airplane moment to an incident with the contact in one of his eyes. He hopes he can catch a break at some point, which seems unlikely. The story is readable but inessential, a little outside of Cline's most winning formula of spinning yarns about girls coming of age. 3 out of 5 stars

Friday, November 10, 2023

How to road trip with family from San Francisco to Los Angeles

It's always been a bucket-list travel item for me to journey down the coast of California between San Francisco and Los Angeles. (I once went from San Fran to Monterey for a beach wedding, but that's only a sliver of the Highway 1/Pacific Coast Highway journey.) Well, the full trip - as a family vacation - is coming up soon. And after a pretty decent amount of research (this blog article is one of many good resources), here's the draft itinerary.

The good thing about flying east to west is that you can still pack a lot into Day 1 after landing. The plan will be to stay at Hotel Caza in Fisherman's Wharf, which should allow us enough time to stroll through Golden Gate Park and get some always-mouth-watering west-coast sushi for dinner.

Day 2 will focus on waking up to see the seals lounging and taking a tour of Alcatraz, which is high on my son's list after he saw Clint Eastwood's classic Escape from Alcatraz.

Day 3 will begin the journey south, with some of the things high on the list south of San Francisco including:

  • Stop to gaze out for a while at the famous surfing waves at Half Moon Bay and then grab some lunch at Sam's Chowder House
  • Año Nuevo is probably the logical state park to stop at (out of many possible ones along this stretch)
  • Maybe we'll stop at the Santa Cruz boardwalk and ride a few rides
  • Finish the day with dinner in Monterey and stay there for the night, possibly at the Portola Hotel & Spa or in Big Sur at the River Inn

Day 4 I'm really thinking ambitiously:

  • Everyone says we must stop at the quaint village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Eastwood, incidentally, once served as mayor
  • Just south of Carmel is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which is said to have can't-miss nature ideal for families. We'll try to hit the Cypress Grove Trail
  • Next, the famous 90 miles of coastline known as Big Sur unfolds, with potential stops at Garrapata State Park's two-mile beach hike, Nepenthe restaurant, the oft-photographed Bixby Bridge (there’s a pull-off with parking on Old Coast Road at the northeastern corner of the bridge), and the easy out-and-back or loop hikes at the Pfeiffer Falls Trail
  • At the Piedras Blancas State Marine Preserve/Elephant Seal Vista Point, the seals can usually be viewed right from the turnoff 
  • I have always wanted to tour the Hearst Castle, looming high above San Simeon, but it probably won't happen on this trip
  • Much more likely and very awesome sounding would be if we can sandsurf at the Oceano and Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. Eighteen miles south of Pismo, they are the largest intact coastal dune ecosystems on the planet. Some of the dunes stretch to higher than 500 feet and appeared in The Ten Commandments and many other movies

Next is the one spot where it's alright to leave Highway 1, heading inland by cutting east on 166 into Santa Maria, then catching the 101 South through Los Alamos and back out to the coast. Then we'll aim to sleep in Santa Barbara, a gorgeous coastal town known as the American Riviera.

Day 5 we'll wake to a straight shot into Los Angeles. Heading south from Santas Barbara, Highway 1 officially becomes the PCH, and the beaches are wider and longer, no longer wild and rugged, and the surf culture really picks up.

  • Malibu's Zuma Beach and Point Dume will be must stops. L.A.’s rich and famous live in the town's bluff-top houses. Part of Point Dume is a nature preserve where we'll get amazing views of Santa Monica Bay, the north Malibu Coast, the Santa Monica Mountains, and Catalina Island in the distance. A quick stop in the Malibu Country Mart may be our best chance to see a celebrity
  • Even though my skateboarding son has already been there, we'll certainly have to stop for a bit for him to hit the world-famous park on the beach in Venice
  • Then my plan is to head back up where we came from and cut up San Vincente Boulevard through Brentwood. The O.J. Simpson murder house at 879 S. Bundy Drive there in Brentwood is just south of San Vincente. If the family indulges my L.A. noir obsessions, maybe we'll even get a little further east to see 10066 Cielo Drive, where the Charles Manson gang killed Sharon Tate
  • Then we'll try to be on the 405 for as little time as possible in order to get up to Mulholland Drive, perhaps my favorite road in the U.S. It follows the ridgeline of the eastern Santa Monica Mountains and the Hollywood Hills and has outstanding views of the Los Angeles Basin, the San Fernando Valley, Downtown Los Angeles, and even the Hollywood Sign. Jack Nicholson is among the many celebrities who live there and Runyan Canyon has a famed hike starting at 2000 N. Fuller Avenue at the east end of Mulholland. This whole time we will probably have a homebase at our cousin's place due west of Hollywood in Topanga Canyon (incidentally on the same street where the Manson Family began their murder spree by killing music teacher Gary Hinman)

Day 6 was going to be a tour of Universal, but now we're rethinking that such a plan could be a major pain in the ass, so renting bikes along the beach and eating at Mel's Drive In (think American Graffiti) may be more along the lines what we'll all enjoy. We should be able to drive through Laurel Canyon and have dinner in Hollywood (my daughter can't wait to see the Hollywood Walk of Fame)

Day 7 - Whew. If we get to somehow grab one last hike, maybe for another view of the Hollywood Sign, before flying out of Burbank, I'll be pretty happy. Regardless, this is going to be an action-packed trip.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Wilson is a must-read graphic novel about a pathetic, yet perceptive, anti-hero

Wilson is a balding, bespectacled little man who walks his dog around Oakland, making observations about jerks with their ridiculously over-sized trucks, his confusion about why his parents used to often stare at the ocean for long periods of time, and jerks who don’t tell him his dog is cute.

He’s pathetic as can be, but somehow he’s relatable and funny. Definitely observant from his own perspective. I love it when he calls bullshit on equity managers and I.T. dudes who can’t seem to speak clearly about how they see and fit into the world.

Although the panels of this 2010 graphic-novel collection, beautifully illustrated with colors popping from Ghost World author Daniel Clowes, appear at first to not tell a running storyline, we learn a little ways in that they are indeed. Wilson heads by airplane and shuttle to see his dad, dying of cancer in a hospital as he is condescended to by a nurse who can’t believe he won’t eat his ice cream while Wilson informs the nurse his dad was a lit professor at Columbia.

Wilson regrets his life. He didn’t know enough about his parents. His wife left him years ago. He misses how good he had it as a child. His regrets lead him back to find his now “hooker” ex-wife Pippi. He also hires an investigator named Boggie - not Bogey - to find his given-up-for-adoption daughter.

For lovers of graphic novels, this is a must read. (It was also turned into a 2017 film with Woody Harrelson as Wilson. I don't know if that's any good but it's available on streaming services.)

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Best Magazine Reads: Ordinary people, like the Nazi evil secretary, could commit genocide in the future if we fail to understand the past

One of the most gripping magazine articles I've read this year was in the October issue of GQ. Called "The Race to Catch the Last Nazis," it's about a German government bureau that is still tracking down people who were complicit in Nazi crimes during World War II.

Those few-remaining and surely haunted souls are all in the 100-year-old range. Can you imagine living that long knowing how you could have made such terrible life decisions all those many years ago? Even more amazing is that almost none of these people have ever admitted to just plain fucking up. They had a job to do and they did it - in their sad little minds, at least.

I usually try to highlight the most interesting points from articles in my "Best Magazine Reads" series. But this one you really should read for yourself. That said, much of the article centers on an evil secretary and is more jolting than any horror movies I can recall. Here's a teaser:

Investigators [at the bureau] have sought to define and clarify the scale of the crime that was the Holocaust. Where did responsibility for the killings end? Here (one inch) with Hitler and his generals? Here (two inches) with camp commandants, doctors, executioners? Here (three inches) with military functionaries such as guards? Or here (four inches) with non-military functionaries, the secretaries, telephone operators, and so on?

The question is a live and urgent one in Germany because at this point it is really only the functionaries, the guards and secretaries, juvenile Nazis barely out of their teens when the regime collapsed, who may remain alive. Having lived this long, into an era of elevated national regret about the past, they are being fingered to bear what guilt there is that remains.

Recently, for the first time in Germany’s history, a civilian employee of a Nazi camp was brought to trial as an accessory to mass murder. “The typist" is a woman that [Germans] knew either as Irmgard Furchner or as die Sekretärin des Bösen, the secretary of evil. 

When she worked for the Nazis she was in her teens [and worked at a concentration camp] called Stutthof ... a remote blue dot in the northeastern corner of Nazi territory, close to the Baltic Sea and what is now the Polish city of Gdańsk. Neither the largest nor the deadliest of the camps, Stutthof was described by one survivor who’d also lived through Auschwitz as the cruelest. It was built in 1939, and by 1942 it held tens of thousands of captive European Jews.

[She started working there] in 1943—the year that a section of Stutthof’s fence was electrified, the year the grounds were enlarged to accommodate a crematorium. Of the 64,000 people who would ultimately lose their lives in Stutthof, some were tricked to their deaths, ushered aboard a plausible-looking train and then gassed, or ordered to stand still to be measured before they were shot from behind. Most perished from malnourishment or disease in the barracks. Furchner was 18 when she got there. She had already worked in a bank in her home village, nearby, and she could type. A photograph from this period shows a pale young woman wearing a dark dress, smiling as she posed in front of the brick-walled administration building that was now her daily place of work.

Furchner’s job was to take dictation from the camp commandant, Paul-Werner Hoppe, a figure who routinely wrote execution orders and arranged killings on-site. Sometimes he dictated memorandums to his employees that combined the terrible and the mundane. There would be a cheerful announcement of someone’s promotion and on the same piece of typed paper (just another bullet point on an agenda) advice about the sorts of wagons that would be needed for a transport of prisoners to Auschwitz.

“This genocide wasn’t effcient because of the crazy people at the top,” [said one of the investigators interviewed for the article]. “It was efficient because every day, thousands of Germans like Frau Furchner showed up at an offce and did their jobs. This is why they got so far. This genocide. It was so…so ordinary.” He hoped her case would lay a new inscription on the past: that ordinary people did this too. He hoped it would send a different sort of message to the future: that ordinary people could do this too.

Monday, November 6, 2023

"Image is Everything" was never what Andre Agassi was about

This is part 2 of my series on Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography, which, at least through the first half, is the best tennis book I've ever read. Part 1 covered his epic 5-setter at the 2006 U.S. Open against Marcos Baghdatis, his upbringing by a violent father, an incident in Washington D.C.'s Rock Creek Park, and his rise in the junior ranks.

At age 17, Andre Agassi won his first pro tournament, in Brazil, where, as soon as the final ended, he held his $90,000 check on one hand and kissed Brazilian girls in thongs in the other.

Agassi said he was never what the press wrote about him because when he explained himself to them, he never understood himself in the first place. One example: they wrote that he was punk rock, but he loved listening to “cheesy pop like Barry Manilow and Richard Marx.” Also, people thought he wore his hair in a long Mohawk because he wanted to stand out but it was really because he was losing it quickly and wanted as much of it as possible while he had the chance. Eventually, a friend in business school at Georgetown, during a meal at The Tombs (where, incidentally, I was recruited by professors before becoming a Hoya myself), convinced Agassi that all he had to do was start winning and the press would back off and maybe even start praising him.

Even though he had met Jimmy Conners several times growing up, when Agassi tried to talk to the legend before their first pro match, in the 1988 U.S. Open, Conners was “an asshole, rude, condescending, egomaniac prick” who said he didn’t remember him. Agassi destroyed Conners but lost in the next round once again to Ivan Lendl.

Cool tennis tip: If you identify someone’s weakness, for example a backhand, it might not always be best to hit to that backhand with pace. If you hit there without pace, the player will have to generate their own and it could increase their vulnerability.

Other than a match when Agassi was 10 and Pete Sampras from California was 9, the two played in Rome for the first time as pros and Andre won 6-2, 6-1, thinking Pete was so bad he’d never see him on tour again.

At the 1989 French Open, Jim Courier beat Agassi in the third round and rubbed it in by glaring at Andre in the locker room afterwards and going for a post-match run to show that Agassi didn’t provide enough of a cardio workout for him. Agassi was also disgusted that Michael Chang won the tournament and hence a Slam before him, as Chang thanked god “for making the ball go over the net.”

Agassi with Gil Reyes
Agassi started training with a coach at UNLV, Gil Reyes, a real character who taught him that he had been training his body all wrong and it was a miracle he hadn’t already suffered a career-ending injury. 

Cool tennis tip: For example, Reyes told Andre to stop running five miles a day because when do you ever do that in a tennis match? He said Andre didn’t need to be training his long-distance muscles but rather his start-and-stop muscles. Which makes a ton of sense especially to me, since I hate running for running’s sake.

Gil eventually quit work at the university and began working full time with Andre, In a scene straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the two took Andre's Corvette from Vegas to Scottsdale for a celebrity tournament and they get two speeding tickets. The policeman took them 45 minutes to court in the town of Kingman, where the judge proceeded to fawn over Andre and get many autographs from him. Turns out the judge was a huge tennis fan and, instead of sentencing Andre, told him to go give ‘em hell in the tourney, but to have Gil drive the rest of the way.

Gil didn’t try to change Andre because if he could have done that, he said he would have changed himself. But he did believe he could give Andre structure and a blueprint for achieving his goals. He said they were going to be fighters together and that it was “on.”

The night before Agassi’s first final of a Grand Slam, the 1990 French Open, having already disposed of Jim Courier and Michael Chang, his hairpiece fell apart and his brother has to run all over Paris to find bobby pins to keep it in place during the match. Agassi lost to Ecuador’s Andrés Gómez, but at least he didn’t lose his hairpiece.
Agassi skipped Wimbledon but added 10 pounds of muscle working with Gil over the summer and showed up lean and mean for the U.S. Open. He licked his lips when he got to the final, knowing he was about to play that guy who looked so bad just a year ago. Pete Sampras, who had just beaten John McEnroe in the previous round, disposed of Andre 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

He lost his third Slam title in a row to Jim Courier at the 1991 French Open. He said he had a strong will to lose - lose, not win - at 4-4 in the fifth set.

One thing that’s amazing to me is how many Slams Agassi just skipped. Throughout his early years, he completely avoided the Australian Open. You don’t find that with today’s pros much, unless they are injured. I wonder how many more Slams Agassi could have accrued.

After a night in Argentina at the Davis Cup, Andre went out and drank too much with McEnroe and his wife Tatum O’Neal. The next day he played hungover but plated well, wearing Oakley sunglasses to cover up his red eyes. Soon, the founder of Oakley sent him a red Dodge Viper.

At age 22, Agassi, after beating Boris Becker and McEnroe along the path, finally got his first Grand Slam title, at the 1992 Wimbledon, in five sets over Goran Ivanisevic, who would later go on to become Novak Djokovic’s coach. Perhaps most of all, he couldn’t wait to attend that night’s famed Wimbledon Ball, where the men’s winner got to dance with the women’s champ. Andre had a crush on Steffi Graf since he’s first seen her. Andre was then informed by the stuffy attendees that they don’t have that dance tradition anymore, but he did get to meet Steffi briefly and told her he would love to get together and talk with her sometime.

Then, Agassi fired up a friendship with Barbra Streisand and learned that she too had a powerful talent - singing - that she hated to use, like him with tennis. He actually dated her, despite the 28-year difference and she told reporters he was a “Zen master.” I find his love of soft-rock legends like Streisand, Manilow, Marx, Celine Dion, Kenny G, and Michael Bolton hilarious and one of the most endearing things about Agassi - very much in contrast to his bad boy (and unwanted by him) “Image is Everything” persona.

As he recovered from a fairly serious wrist surgery, Kenny G’s wife Lyndie set him up with Brooke Shields. She was in the African bush making a movie and the only way they could begin contacting each other was via fax machine. The faxes soon became intimate and Andre soon stopped calling Barbra.

Agassi met with the quirky player/coach Brad Gilbert, author of Winning Ugly, and Brad said Andre appeared to have lost the fire he had at age 16, when he used to take the ball early and aggressively. He said Andre’s problem was his perfectionism, which messed with his head when he inevitably fell short. He said, with the talent Andre had, he didn’t need to go for the winners every time, but rather to be solid and remember the other guy has weaknesses to be attacked. 

Cool tennis tip: Gilbert said to think about how many sets it will take to win a tournament (21 in the Slams) and count backwards from there - simplify and focus on that number. 

After Brad talked at him for a while and then convinced him which pasta to order, it was clear that Brad Gilbert needed to join Andre’s team and become his coach. Andre then prceeded to go on a terrible losing streak, but Gilbert kept telling him good things were about the start happening.

Coach was right. Andre beat Michael Stich to win the 1994 U.S Open. He finally realized that he had the team around him that he wanted, once Brooke and Brad rounded it out. (And weirdly enough, Brooke’s grandfather Frank Shields was the last unseeded player, in 1966, until Andre in 1994, to win the Open.)

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Hitting baseballs and beer at DC Beer Fest

I attended my first DC Beer Fest at Nationals Park this weekend and the coolest things might not have even had to do with beer.

We got to go down on the field and into the first-base dugout. I never knew there are batting cages under the seats behind the dugout and, with my friend Jason and some his friends, we went in and hit some balls. I rocked every pitch, not bad considered we were already about an hour into the fest.

But back to the real reason we were there, the first stop we made was at the Silver Branch booth, which is a beer from Silver Spring that I drink often and is one of my favorites. 

Supposedly my other Washington D.C. regional favorites were there as well. But I never did see the Aslin, City State, or Other Half booths.

Samplings I had never had before but enjoyed included:

  • 450 North (slushy beers from Columbus, Indiana)
  • Magnify (the New Jersey brewery’s watermelon jolly rancher beer was my favorite of theirs)
  • Tucked Away (Manassas, Virginia)
  • Trouvaille (the Annexation of Puerto Rico IPA was probably my favorite of the whole evening)
  • Redbeard (Staunton, Virginia)

Saturday, November 4, 2023

Shiva Baby entertainingly breaks down a breakdown at a funeral

Shiva Baby, released in 2021 and now streaming on MAX and Hulu, brings us into the spiralling downward mindset of a college student over the course of one day.

The 77-minute movie begins in the morning with Danielle (an excellent Rachel Sennott, whose minor but intense psychological break that we get to witness and who is also in a couple other movies high on my list to watch - Bottoms and Bodies Bodies Bodies) finishing up her business in the condo of an older man who pays her for sex and companionship.

Later that day, she is headed to a funeral with her wacky parents (Polly Draper and Fred Malamed), who add much-needed comic relief. Danielle is clearly distracted and doesn't even know, once there, whose funeral they are attending. She gets even more distracted when she realizes her ex Maya is there. Maya is played by The Bear's Molly Gordon and was the main reason I wanted to see Shiva Baby. She doesn't disappoint as she deals with the relatively cruel ways Danielle interacts with her.

Things get really uncomfortable when Danielle's sugar daddy unexpectedly arrives, and he's got a beautiful blonde wife who is one of the few if not the only non-Jewish people at the funeral. And their crying, screaming baby is with them as well.

It's a minor film but handles queer and Jewish issues in refreshingly subtle and nuanced ways, bringing us into those worlds and, in turn, showing us those worlds are no different than anyone else's.

3.5 out of 5 stars  

Friday, November 3, 2023

The Beatles merge the now with the then for their final song

It's definitely not every day we get a "new" Beatles song. "Now and Then" is being billed as just that, along with being marketed as "the last Beatles song." All the hype aside, it, being the Beatles, lives up to it.

Here is the video, which is a cool mashup of the old Beatles and their recent sessions to finish the song.

Now and Then could easily be dropped into the band's late-era psychedelic-pop catalog. In fact, it will be when their classic blue double album compilation is re-released soon.

John Lennon wrote and recorded the lyrics and piano draft sometime in the last year's before his 1980 murder. It was left on the drawing-room floor several years later when the remaining former Beatles put together The Beatles Anthology with new songs "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love.” Luckily George Harrison’s overdubbed guitar demos remained from those mid-90s sessions, although he supposedly didn’t like the song. 

Nevertheless, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr recently finished it up, adding bass, drums, and harmony vocals, with the help of some AI provided by Peter Jackson, who used the technology some for his recent Beatles Get Back epic documentary.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

RIP Bobby Knight

I've got a lot of ties to Coach Bobby Knight, who has passed away at age 83. For starters, I was born in southern Indiana and feel that kinship. My dad went to Indiana University in Bloomington. My wife went there too. 

The only time I've ever set foot in Assembly Hall, Knight's classroom of basketball, was not to see a Hoosiers game but was rather to sneak up near the stage to see John Cougar Mellencamp's dozens of guitars spread across the stage hours before that local boy performed there. 

I was shooed off by security when they spotted me. No biggie, my real task on that trip was to determine whether I wanted to attend grad school at IU, which had offered me a full scholarship to the journalism program. But even in that short time standing in that hallowed ground of college hoops, I truly could feel Coach Knight's presence.

His accomplishments are mouth dropping: mainly his four national championships (one at Ohio State as a player and three as IU's coach). He retired in 2008 with 902 NCAA coaching wins, which was the most in history at the time and is now sixth most. Perhaps even more impressive were the ways he focused on not cheating, making kids actually go to class, his ultimate game preparation, his wit in interviews, and his frequent charitableness and kindness. 

Of course, many people didn't like him, and Knight gave them good reason, with his tirades bordering on serious abuse at his players and the famed chair throw across Assembly's floor.

Michael Jordan shocked by Coach Knight and IU
But I still loved Knight and the drama he brought to every game he coached. I had started following college basketball around 1982 and North Carolina was and still is my team, and my first memories of Knight began with his Hoosiers winning one of the sport's biggest upsets ever in the 1984 championship over UNC. That Tarheels team had an absolutely sick confluence of future NBA stars: Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith, and Joe Wolf. In fact, that's probably my favorite team ever.

But, as can sometimes be the lack of logic in the ways we express our sports fandom, I still don't hold it against Bobby Knight.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

What Lou Reed was like before he was The King of New York

Author Will Hermes and his new book
I was hooked into reading Lou Reed: The King of New York, by Will Hermes, a few pages in when he wrote that Reed’s best music is “a perfect balance between rock 'n’ roll’s unhinged id and its intellectual super-ego.” That just felt very right, in line with the mindset I seem to have always had about what I like most in pop culture. Add in his bisexuality - “I have such a heavy resentment thing because of all the prejudices against me being gay … How can anybody gay keep their sanity?” - and we have a fascinating subject to explore, with this book being perhaps the most I’ve ever looked forward to of all the Lou Reed stuff I’ve read over the years. 

Hermes says he wrote it as a way to re-engage with Reed’s body of solo work. And I’m doing the same as I read the book, listening to an expansive collection that reminds me why I put the artist in the very top echelon of my favorite rockers. The music is so intelligent, with poetic storytelling, raunchy sounds clearly capturing the New York City of those decades, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes rocking. It’s got it all. 

Here is what I learned in the opening of the book:

  • Reed never liked writers and journalists writing about his life. But ironically, he took journalism and creative writing classes as an undergrad at Syracuse University, led a literary zine, and shopped a poetry book deal while trying to figure out what to do after his Velvet Underground broke up in the early 1970s and he was considering career options.
  • Don Fleming, who curated Reed’s archives for the New York Public Library, is, incidentally, a rock hero of mine. You should check out his band Gumball’s albums.
  • Of course much of Reed’s music was political in nature, but he actually performed at the Clinton White House when Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, a huge fan, visited. Playing “Dirty Blvd.” - off possibly Reed’s very best album New York - with its lyrics about the “statue of bigotry” pissing on the hungry, sick, and poor. It could have been nastier. He could have played “Sick of You,” off that release, which roasts mayoral hopeful Rudy Giuliani and imagines a sick world that worships the Trumps.
  • But back to the beginning, Reed was born on Long Island, just past the tip of Brooklyn. His family had changed its name from Rabinowitz to Reed after arriving from Eastern Europe in order to avoid anti-Semitism.
  • Growing up in Freeport, music was really the thing that caught young Lou’s attention, and the first record he purchased was by Fats Domino. He was recruited by the high school marching band but “he would never have been involved in an organized group like that.” He loved sports also, but not in a team setting.
  • Lou was picked on and bullied a little through middle school, but he also won a few fights. He had panic attacks and would hide in his room sometimes when guests came to the house. And his dyslexia made it tough for him to read anything with long paragraphs. These shortcomings may have contributed to his lifelong temper and frequent withdrawal.
  • One of his biggest early influences was watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which had a musical segment at the end with a guy named James Burton doing guitar solos that Lou would try to emulate. And he actually went into the recording studio at age 16 with his first band, the Jades, which played a sort of Ink Spots-like doo-wop. They had glitter jackets and would do shows opening places like shopping centers and supermarkets.
  • Reed was known to be reckless in high school and he once drove the family car into a tollbooth and fought with his parents about his habit of carousing throughout New York City all hours of the night, but he also had good witty discussions with his father over dinner and voraciously read, especially Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.
  • Lou at Syracuse
    Lou visited Syracuse University with his dad and a friend during the fall of his senior year. He and the friend hooked up with some girls who were also visiting and they decided that being so far away from parents was going to be the way to go. But then his anxiety may have gotten the better of him and he decided instead to start at NYU in 1959, where he soon started a radio show on WNYU, spinning his own records. But he was apparently dealing with personal demons his freshman year and, after an awful required military reserve training class, in which he apparently joked about threatening to shoot an officer, he had an emotional breakdown and was kicked out.
  • Doctors claimed Lou’s condition was partly because of a lack of emotional warmth from his family and they started him on electrotherapy. It may have damaged his short-term memory and given him lifelong recall problems.
  • He did end up transferring to Syracuse for his sophomore year, but had to actually start over as a freshman. It was not a great fit because of the party, fraternity culture. Reed wrote to a friend that most of the kids were “patriotic” and “not generally bright.” Syracuse, bitter rivals to my beloved Georgetown, was known as “The Jewish Harvard” and many Jewish students from downstate attended there because of anti-Semitic admission policies at the Ivy League schools.
  • Lou excelled in religion, filmmaking, and literature classes. He basically took the influence of Beats like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and even J.D. Salinger and claimed that if you put their kind of writing on paper and added music to it, you would have perfect art. He didn’t do so well in his journalism class, got fired from the radio station, and showed up at a fraternity belligerent and dressed like a dirty slob. He did however get accepted into the creative writing program and created an alternative journal to the official program one that he thought was too slick. 
  • That summer, back in Long Island, he got his first real girlfriend, Shelley Albin, whom he would date for a year-and-a-half. 
  • The author Delmore Schwartz came to teach at Syracuse while Lou was there and the two, although decades apart in age, became drinking buddies. He took several of Schwartz’s classes, which often consisted of the professor beautifully reading James Joyce out loud and coming up with assignments such as having the students walk around the campus to observe the details and make art that “combined lived experiences with the fabricated.”
  • In November 1963, Reed saw Bob Dylan for the first time. The folk star hit Syracuse on his tour. And John F. Kennedy was also assassinated, sending Lou and his friends into a tailspin, as they all thought JFK was a bright shining light for the nation’s future. Two months later, at a local bar, Reed would hear The Beatles for the first time and he kept putting money in the jukebox to hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” over and over again. Even Schwartz - “the pop hater” - couldn’t get enough of the band.
  • Nobody really knows why Lou, already a few years’ in as a weed dealer, apparently started using heroin during his senior year at Syracuse. Some think maybe the 1962 release of Burrough’s Naked Lunch, which dissected the use of heroin, was a likely inspiration. He contracted hepatitis from a needle. He somewhat improbably ended up graduating that spring, and even more improbably making the dean’s list, all while supposedly skipping graduation because the police were on his trail in the small town.
Syracuse couldn’t hold Lou Reed, and it was time now for the big city.