Sunday, December 31, 2023

Santa Barbara to Malibu to Los Angles for a beach driving vacation

Santa Barbara
The last day of our coastal car trip arrived and it literally turned into sunny Southern California for us. We woke up in beautiful Santa Barbara, with those rain showers of Northern California in our rear view, and took the 101 (there are very few slivers of the Pacific Coast Highway - aka Highway 1 - at this point) on our route through Malibu and into Santa Monica in Los Angeles.

It’s always kind of eye opening, like it was for us in Santa Barbara, when you arrive to a new place in the dark and wake to see part of what you missed upon arrival. It rained again through the night in Santa Barbara, but the sun peeked out as we began our morning walk from the Mason Beach Inn to get açaí bowls at Backyard Bowls. Jackson was happy that the skatepark dried before we left town, so we hung out there, alongside the bustling beach, played a bit in the surf, and did some window

From there, we weaved in and out, back and forth on both the 101 inland and roads along the coast - passing through byways in Ventura still suffering from the remnants of flooding that injured several people in recent days - on the way to Malibu. The highlight there was spur-of-the moment stop at the Malibu Bluffs Park, where there happened to be another skate park to keep Jackson happy and a beautiful short hike down through rattlesnake territory and brush-covered ocean overlooks. 

Jackson/Santa Barbara Skatepark

We then made a quick stop to check out the ritzy Malibu Country Market, where the guidebooks say makes for a good place to spot celebrities coming down from the hills. I pictured it as a kitschy convenience store, but it’s actually a bunch of high-end shops, so we got out of there quickly since it was less unique and interesting than we thought it would be.

It was on to our final destination of the trip. Upon arrival, our AirBnB about a mile from the beach in Santa Monica was still being cleaned. It smelled like beer, and when we returned after dinner hoping to give the cleaning crew enough time to scrub it clean, it reeked of cheap cleaning solution. Luckily, dinner at Cassia on 7th and Arizona was a Vietnamese taste treasure. It’s off the beaten path of the cheesy beach and upscale shopping areas. 

The stinky garden condo and the bad smells of what must have been a recent frat party remained. The owner’s initial communications were very kind, but he hadn’t yet returned our messages by the time we were exhausted from the day, and we were already falling asleep when he messaged us to say he would fully refund us. We’ll look for an acceptable place in the morning. Hopefully one with a pool where we can lounge and watch the fireworks for New Year’s Eve.

Zoey/Chasing Santa Barbara waves

Jackson/Malibu Skatepark

Me/Malibu Bluffs

Santa Monica sunset

Saturday, December 30, 2023

A race to the sandsurfing dunes in California

The dunes appear bright, even though it was dark
The most ambitious day of our California coastal journey took true ambition to get to our final, most anticipated, and favorite stop. Seemingly a bit of a secret, we found the Oceano Dunes Non Vehicular Area by parking in the Pacific Dunes Ranch Campground (also known as an RV campground). 

These are among the greatest sand dunes in the United States. We had aimed to arrive before sunset but it had been dark for a good half hour by the time we arrived. We still, stubbornly, parked and headed out with boxes - for sledding - firmly in hand. Our eyes adjusted quickly and our cameras were still able to take amazing night photos. And even though visibility was limited, we leaped, sledded, and skied barefoot accordingly down the slopes. It was so much fun and will either demand a trip back or a separate one to the other best dunes in the country.

Rachel on the dunes 
We drove the rest of Friday night in darkness to get from the dunes to the Mason Beach Inn in Santa Barbara, first stopping at a cool little dinner place on State Street, the main drag in ritzy Santa Barbara.

Back to the start of the day, we woke up in Monterey and, with the streets still wet from an overnight rain, we had to skip Jackson’s skatepark, but he remained his usual upbeat self, as we quickly got involved in other adventures. We drove past the John Steinbeck statues along the cute area of Cannery Row near the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Then we spent quite a bit of time at Lover’s Point, where the sea otters played in the water at the end of a high rock outcropping. From there, we were able to hit the 17-mile private drive along the shore through Monterey courtesy of one of my brother’s great friends who lives there. Our first stop was the spot where John Denver, in 1997, lost control of his little plane off the coast and now has a plaque on a rock to commemorate his musical legacy. 

The massive waves from the day before continued to pound the coast, and we stared in awe at almost every scenic overlook we stopped at along the way. Point Joe (where many early mariners crashed because of the rocks under the waves) and the iconic views at Cypress Point, where waves can be viewed sparkling in the sunshine off into the distance for many miles away, were my two favorite spots in this part of the drive. Golf aficionados will also want to stop at - at the very least - the 18th hole of the Pebble Beach Gold Course, but we had no time for it.

We stopped for a coffee and some reminiscing with long-time friends at their place at the Robert Louis Stevenson School before making our way to the also iconic Bixby Bridge on the way down to Big Sur. Because of coastal erosion, we needed to double back, but that didn’t keep us from stopping and hiking a bit at several very scenic overlooks high above the crashing waves. Although we had planned to take Highway 1 the whole way, it was not to be on this trip, so we headed back inland for a lengthy portion of the 101.

Big Sur needs to remain on our travel bucket list for now, but the dunes at Oceano made the day overall wildly successful.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Driving south on Highway 1 from San Francisco to Monterey

After grabbing the rental car from near our hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf, we again ate breakfast (açaí bowls and breakfast sandwiches) from Café de Casa and hit the road pretty early. The highlight of the day arrived right away, when we decided to pull over at Pacifica, just south of the city, because of the massive waves breaking down below Highway 1.

We followed other cars down a street that was closed due to flooding but got through and ended up in a perfect spot where we pulled over out of harm’s way. Then we walked a half block over to the water. I had never seen such big waves before, not even in Brazil. They were breaking higher than the top of a nearby pier. And they were crashing against the wall in front of us and even occasionally blasting water all the way across the street onto the houses unlucky enough to be situated there. We later started to get emergency warnings on our phones advising people to stay away from coastal areas.

We actually were lucky enough to speak with some San Francisco locals a couple of days before at breakfast who advised us that we may not be able to get through Highway 1 about half the way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in Big Sur, because of an eroded part of the road in one small stretch. That means our California coastal dream vacation takes a little bit of a hit since we will have to take a bigger stretch inland on the 101 than we had planned.

Anyway, the waves continued to be pretty huge all the way down to our next stop, which was a beautiful short hike along the beach at Half Moon Bay. The flowers and steep overlooks down to the beach in this spot make it a definite must-see of the California coast. We had also hoped to stop a little further down at Ano Nuevos State Park to see the seals, but it was high season and, without tickets to those tours, it wasn’t worth the simple non-tour hike.

We opted to keep going and ended up getting to meet our cousins from Potomac, Maryland in Santa Cruz. They were on their way back from Monterey to San Francisco where their immediate family is, and so it was a perfect collision for lunch near the boardwalk and pier. The beaches there looked a little like they had been through the wringer overnight, with kelp and seaweed everywhere, and the remnants of an angry sea at high tide pocking the landscape. Somewhat lucky for the parents, the amusement park rides were closed because of the high and dangerous tides, so we just hung out on the beach a bit then ate a lunch (clam chowder in a bread bowl) at the Ideal Bar and Grill on the waterfront.

Next we hightailed it down the coast, stopping only once, at a farm stand in artichoke country, to the Monterey Bay Lodge, a funky little motel chosen mainly for its proximity to a nice skatepark for my son. We took in our luggage then went to meet a friend of my brother’s who lives nearby and who offered to hand off free passes to the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, located along John Steinbeck’s equally storied Cannery Row. We had about an hour to race through the building, which ended up being ideal because the crowds had thinned out right before closing time. The jellyfish and tuna were definite highlights.

By the time we finished with the aquarium, we were out of steam and opted to skip dining out and instead picked up some understated but excellent sushi from Ocean Sushi Deli and some much-needed food from Trader Joe’s, which appears to be cheaper in California than back home - which is saying a lot for California, where we’re no doubt spending a fortune, especially on food. Then, despite thinking our motel might be a little bit of a dump, Zoey and I headed to the pool and had a great time playing football catch, the crusher game, and getting pruned in the hot tub and warmed outdoor pool, both of which were saltwater. The other folks in the pool area we talked to agreed that this place is a little bit of a gem and definitely does the pool more right than a lot of the big boys like Marriott and Hilton sometimes do.

Hopefully it will be a good night’s sleep because tomorrow might be the most action-packed day we’ll have on this trip.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Alcatraz, Lombard, dim sum and the beauties of San Francisco

We recovered from our long journey west with a good full night of sleep and packed plenty into our second and final day in San Francisco. The morning was cloudy but not bad at all for our trip to Alcatraz, and a rainy afternoon and evening didn’t keep us from seeing the seals at the touristy Pier 39, walking around Nob Hill and sampling coffees and pastries and tacos, and walking all the way back to our hotel with a detour down Lombard Street.

We started the morning across the street from our Hotel Caza at Fisherman’s Wharf with Brazilian crepes (made with tapioca flour) and an açaí bowl at Casa de Cava. Then it was straight to the short ferry ride to Alcatraz. Jackson and I definitely think Rachel and Zoey should see Escape From Alcatraz after this must-do experience. The tour almost makes you feel like you are there with Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly and Frank Morris and the creepy wardens and all the other iconographic elements of the federal prison, which operated from 1934 to 1963 in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

 It started to rain on the ferry back and proceeded to continue throughout our long afternoon of walking. But it was fine and the whole family stayed in good spirits. First we checked out the sea lions at Pier 39, as they woofed and barked and slipped around together on the marina boat docks. We opted not to eat lunch with the crowds and instead took a taxi up to Nob Hill, getting dropped off at the corner of Polk and Jackson. There are tons of restaurants in that area so we walked along in the direction back towards our hotel and stopped along the way for bites of food and drink at whichever places we desired.

I had never actually walked down Lombard, one of the world’s curviest streets, when previously visiting the city. I had always traveled down it by car, like the endless string doing so this afternoon. But walking was a really fun, new thing to do. It’s amazing thinking about how the people in the houses along the way live there. And then it was just a short walk back to the hotel to rest up for dinner.

We were determined to get good Chinese food, so we went with dim sum at the Palette Tea House in nearby Ghirardelli Square. We ordered various dumplings, smacked cucumber salad, fire wings, and tasty cocktails and mocktails. And afterwards, we ended our San Francisco experience gorging on sundaes from Ghirardelli.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Family biking in San Francisco in December? Who would have thought it would be so pleasant?

Our California vacation started today in as-expected style, with a Lyft arriving in Edwardsville, Illinois at 4 a.m. Lines at the St. Louis airport for our 6 a.m. flight were very long but fast moving, so we embarked on our Southwest flight to Los Angeles, then a 2.5-hour layover, and finally into San Francisco.

We’re staying at Hotel Caza at Fisherman’s Wharf one block off the main drag. Since we got in too early to check in, we left our bags, grabbed a complimentary bike from the hotel, and rented three others from Bay Area Rentals two blocks away and proceeded to bike through the main part of the Wharf, past Ghirardelli Chocolates, past the gorgeous houses on Marina Boulevard, Crissy Field (a former Army airfield that is now a major recreational hub), and to our furthest destination of the ride - the Warming Hut on the Bay Trail. That’s a great place to stare in amazement at the Golden Gate Bridge and the surfers below, especially if you have a kid who won’t make it up the climb to bike across the bridge, and double especially if it’s a little chilly. Even 58 degrees can seem a little chilly along the San Francisco waterfront.

We were glad to get the decent weather we got today as tomorrow is supposed to be pretty rainy and windy.

Zoey is an amazing kid. If I slept as little as her and ate the bird-like amount she had today, I would be very grumpy. 

But we rallied after a few moments resting in the hotel (while Zoey rampaged around the cool array of games like pool and shuffleboard in the lobby bar) to Lyft it to The Stinking Rose, one of my old favorite restaurants, we started with the must-have Bagna Calda, which is butter and olive oil with garlic cloves and anchovy. Perfect with bread. I got the creamy fondue crab pasta, the kids for pizza, and Rachel had a salad. Then we got genuine Italian gelatos across the street in the Italian neighborhood.

A 20-minute walk back to the hotel straight down Columbus was the perfect ending to walk off some of the garlic and crawl into bed before 8 p.m. local time.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Seeing it first-hand, scootering is becoming a big-time sport

Jackson at the Troy skatepark
It’s been a bit of a journey in my mind to fully appreciate my son Jackson’s commitment to the sport of scootering. I played non-stop as a kid at team sports, especially soccer and baseball, and while Jackson did make the JV baseball team last year, he decided not to play because his heart was not into six practices for many, many hours per week. He needed time for his true love of scootering.

On our winter trip, everywhere we’re staying is based on proximity to skate parks. At least that’s the case when we’ll be traveling nearly the length of California. Visiting my parents first in Edwardsville, in southern Illinois, there is a great park in nearby Troy. But today we’re at Ramp Riders, in Soulard, just south of the St. Louis Arch. It’s a cool cavernous old warehouse (a lot like Charm City in Baltimore) that helps display how far this individual sport has moved to legitimacy. There’s even a strong push to get it into the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Jackson at Ramp Riders
Skateboarding, which Jackson also enjoys, was essentially the only choice for skate kids until about the turn of the century. But then the Razor came along from Micro Mobility Solutions, creating a generation of interested kids. Now it’s progressed to big business, with trick scooters being made by many companies and diverse investments and sponsorships for many scooter riders. Jackson has been to the famed Woodward skate and scooter camp in Pennsylvania Amish country for the past three summers, and storied pros regularly visit to teach and mentor the campers.

Those early razor scooters were prone to breaking and really were only best used for transportation. But the trick and kick scooters of today can take a royal beating, even if Jackson is constantly replacing pricey parts. Fenders, wider wheels, bigger bearings, and better grips are among the many recent advances.

Back in 2005, the first scooter competition was held, in Switzerland. Since 2012, scootering world championships have been happening each year (other than the 2020 Covid year) and there are three categories: men’s park, men’s street, and women’s park. Lucas DiMeglio of France was named the rider of the year in 2022 and 2023.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Great Magazine Reads: Rush gets the memoir treatment in new Geddy Lee book

Rush bassist and singer Geddy Lee’s memoir My ‘Effing Life is out, and while I can’t commit to reading the whole thing, MOJO Magazine published (in the December issue) an interesting interview with him promoting the book. 

Here are some things I learned about Lee, who I was lucky enough to see on Rush’s awesome Hold Your Fire tour at The Arena in St. Louis on March 1, 1988 (opener was Tommy Shaw) and on their slightly less great Presto tour at the same place on March 5, 1990 (opener was Mr. Big):

  • His real name is Gershon Eliezer Weinrib, “named after his maternal grandfather, a Polish Jew murdered in the Holocaust. Having survived Auschwitz, Dachau andBergen-Belsen, his parents Moshe and Malka emigrated to Canada, where Lee was born in 1953.”
  • He resented drummer Neil Peart for backing out of the band so he could spend more time with his family, but that was before he knew that Peart was actually dying of brain cancer, which he did in 2020. Lee eventually felt like a “heel” about all that.
  • After Rush’s third album, Caress of Steel, bombed, the trio had no idea that their next one, 2112, was going to be so career defining. It’s my favorite one, although, believe it or not, a close second is their self-titled debut, which didn’t even have Peart on it.
  • Lee admits most of the band’s peers didn’t like Rush much, but notes that bands like Primus and the whole Seattle grunge scene were heavily influenced by them.
  • Rush was no Led Zeppelin in the drug-taking department, but Lee says he took acid in the 1960s and cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s. With so many shows, he says the coke was fun and even useful at some points, and that he would go backstage while Peart did solos on drums to snort it with buddies.
  • Aimee Mann from ‘Til Tuesday sang on “Time Stand Still” off of Hold Your Fire.
  • Over the three years when Peart was dying, he would have Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson over to his place where they would drink Macallan and hang out and make music, but never talk about his illness. Other friends like Stewart Copeland of The Police would sometimes hang out there with them.
  • Lee apparently got briefly kicked out of the band in 1968 and he and Lifeson have still not really discussed why that happened, despite the fact they have always been exceptionally close friends.
  • 2024 will mark 50 years since Rush’s first album. It’s still unknown whether Lee and Lifeson will ever play music again publicly.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Britney Spears rose to the top despite a ton of roadblocks

I've been threatening to read Britney Spears' new autobiography, The Woman in Me, since its release. What finally got me over the hump to go ahead and dive in - believe it or not - was Lou Barlow (of the bands Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh) talking about how great it is on his podcast Raw Impressions, in which he also played a lo-fi cover of "Baby One More Time."

Anyway, here's what I learned from the book about the princess of pop, who has had a career impressive enough to actually be considered one of the queens of pop.

  • As a kid, she would walk around the woods behind her house in Louisiana, which generated a lifetime love of nature, to escape her awful homelife of fighting parents and an alcoholic father. Her town of Kentwood was near a Confederate training base founded by Jefferson Davis where there are still regular Civil War reenactments and everyone in her little community knew how to shoot a gun.
  • She comes from a long line of tragedy, with her grandmother on her dad’s side having shot herself to death on her infant son’s grave in 1966. But her grandmother on her mom’s side was apparently lovely, from Britain, and played instruments along with everyone else in the family.
  • Despite early signs of her dad’s alcoholism, he worked hard to open a gym in town that became successful. But while Britney always felt in control as she constantly entered talent contests and even tried out for the Mickey Mouse Club in Atlanta (she and Christina Aguilera didn’t make the cut at first because they were too young), she always felt like her family was the one thing she couldn’t control at all.
  • You might stereotypically think of high-school Britney as a cheerleader, but she was actually a tiny guard on the basketball team who loved to sneak around the opponent, steal the ball, and charge ahead for a layup.
  • Soon enough she was back performing, having made the Mickey Mouse Club alongside Aguilera, Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling, and Justin Timberlake.
  • Although she had a “beautiful normal” time through high school - she started smoking and drinking at 13 and became promiscuous with the boys starting as a freshman.
  • She signed to Jive Records at age 15 and spent the next year in singing booths in New Jersey and Sweden. She was also a bit of a klutz in her short skirts and high heels, once bouncing off a screen door at a bigwig party and watching her table catch on fire at a fancy restaurant the first time she met producer Max Martin.
  • The night before recording "Baby One More Time," Britney stayed up late listening to Soft Cell’s "Tainted Love" and hoping being tired would make her voice gravelly and more mature and sexy sounding. It worked. In late 1999, she became the first woman to debut with a #1 single and #1 album at the same time. 
  • As she started to be a massive star, she also started to get a massive backlash for supposedly setting a bad example for kids with her sexy look. She said, what was I supposed to be doing, “a Bob Dylan impression?” She says she just wanted to dance and have fun and be cute. She was gaining a dumb blonde reputation, even if the true color of her hair was black. She was also starting to take Prozac.
  • 2001 was a massive year for Britney, leading up to September 11. She was on Forbes Most Powerful Women list, she went deep into her character in the movie Crossroads and decided she never wanted to act again (except she still does regret not taking a part in Chicago), she performed at the Super Bowl, she had the legendary snake performance at the MTV Awards, and she dueted with Michael Jackson at Madison Square Garden.
  • The passage in the book that has gotten so much attention is: after Britney and (especially) Timberlake began to cheat on each other, they stayed together and she thought they would be together forever. She then got pregnant and Justin insisted she have an abortion. It wouldn’t have really been that big of a deal but they (mainly Justin) decided it had to remain completely private. She took the pills at home and laid out on the bathroom floor for hours in pain - complicating what could have been a simple procedure at the hospital. That was the beginning of the end of their love affair. He broke up with her over text. Over that time, she had grown close to Justin’s family and far from her own. When she returned to Louisiana, she found her parents had divorced and her little sister Jamie Lynn had gone from the cutest thing ever to a very bad spoiled brat.
  • After Justin, she didn’t date for a while, until actor Colin Ferrell came along. She describes their two-week relationship as a “brawl,” because that’s basically what their bodies did with each other the whole time.
  • She moved to New York and lived in a penthouse with a view of the Empire State Building. One night she smoked pot for the first time at a club them came home to look at the stars off her terrace for hours. That’s when she started loving the city. Another time Madonna stopped by and said Britney had a nice view. They became friends and performed together at an awards show where they infamously kissed each other.
  • Feeling alone out on tour and having lost Justin and basically her whole family, Britney married an old friend she slept with in Vegas. Her family forced her to get it annulled after 55 hours. Next she met Kevin Federline, who she loved instantly because he was so good at holding her, which was all she wanted or needed. It wasn’t long before she discovered he had two children, one of which was a tiny baby. But that didn’t keep the couple from quickly getting married and having two kids of their own, at which point Britney determined she would take control of her life and duck (despite the still incessant paparazzi) out of public life for the next many months.
  • Federline became obsessed with becoming a rap star in his own right. He completely abandoned Britney and their two baby sons so he could smoke weed at the studio all the time. It was like a slow-motion divorce. 
The first half of this book is about as easy to read as anything above middle-school level, but it’s touching and very interesting to see the making of a pop star. In the new year, I plan to finish it up - what I imagine will be a second kind of book: one about the unraveling and eventual redemption - maybe - of a pop star.

4 out of 5 stars so far

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

RIP Ryan O’Neal, influential romantic lead touchstone from Love Story

I mostly remembered hearing about Ryan O’Neal because I’m a lifelong tennis fan and his daughter, Tatum O’Neal, was married to John McEnroe. It always sounded like the O’Neal household was a hot mess. And it mostly was, but I then realized I didn't actually have a very educated opinion on the matter because I had never even seen any of Ryan O’Neal's movies So I dove in last night and watched 1970’s top-grossing movie Love Story.

The film is somewhat slow-moving by today’s standards, but it still is powerfully sad (as well as powerfully sentimental), with several innovative elements. Aly MacGraw was certainly a mesmerizing presence. And O’Neal, who was 29 at the time and was finally about to become a next-level movie star after a decade dwelling on various TV shows, is a suitable equal to her. If not for MacGraw’s urging, the part would have surely gone to others in the running like Jon Voigt and Beau Bridges. But the part really helped define the story of O’Neal, who died this month at age 82.

O’Neal would go on to have a son with Farrah Fawcett, and later got busted for drugs with that son and for assaulting another son. Tatum, who would herself become a massive star with The Bad News Bears series of movies, later said her dad physically abused her as a child.

All that aside, Love Story remains worth a watch for a variety of reasons. The non-linear storytelling works well in showing how deep their characters are falling in love, and remaining in love, through some pretty bleak challenges.

The music, by Francis Lai, is unforgettable and often emotionally swells while it seems like almost nothing is happening, creating what seems like the sounds and thoughts in MacGraw and O'Neal's heads.

Perhaps the most famous line in the movie was "Love means never having to say you're sorry" and was taken to heart by millions as a relationship motto in the 1970s and beyond.

Social topics were explored throughout Love Story in ways that never really had been in movies, with O'Neal (his character's name is Oliver) and MacGraw (Jenny) coming from the wealthy class and the working class respectively. Oliver's relationship with his father is an interesting study on formal coldness as well. And how to deal with illness is touchingly and somewhat - for the time - unusually explored.

Of course, the chemistry of the two leads - not to mention the picturesque backgrounds and highly influential fashion of MacGraw - is the most memorable element and was trendsetting for how romances would play out going forward in movie history.

Love Story: 4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

RIP Eric Montross

The years 1993 to 1997 were my most sports-crazed years as an adult. I worked as the sports editor at The Alestle, the student newspaper of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I also was a frequent guest on my buddy Wayne Frazer’s local-cable TV college basketball and baseball shows. Then I went on to be a sports reporter for two years at the daily newspaper the Centralia (Illinois) Morning Sentinel.

I couldn’t get enough of sports, and I couldn’t really get away from sports either. I eventually decided I couldn’t be a sports reporter if I was going to continue loving following sports. Since I was about 12, I had loved college basketball, namely the North Carolina Tarheels. So when center Eric Montross led them to the national championship in 1993, I was deep into my sports love affair, so those Heels will always hold a special place for me. It’s really sad that Montross had recently been diagnosed with cancer and died this week at the age of 52.

His Tarheels team is among my all-time favorites, led by Coach Dean Smith, forward George Lynch, and sharp-shooting guard Donald Williams. North Carolina knocked off #3 Michigan 77-71 in the NCAA championship in part due to a timeout called by Michigan’s Chris Webber when his team didn’t have any timeouts. 

Another memorable game (pictured above) was when Montross played Duke with blood streaming down his face, leading to his nickname Bloody Montross. That made sense because he really did fight tooth and nail for his team at all times. The 7-footer went on to be drafted by the Boston Celtics and played eight years in the NBA.

Bonus basketball RIP also goes to former Philadelphia 76er George McGinnis, who died this week at 73 and helped usher in a trend of big men being able to handle the ball throughout the rest of the court.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Chain-Gang All-Stars hits important social topics but drags

Chain-Gang All-Stars, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, has gotten endless hype since its release earlier this year. Named one of the New York Times best novels of 2023, it certainly takes us into a dystopian potential near future in which the industrial prison complex has spiraled out-of-control into a horrifying combination of reality TV, Squid Games, 1984, Hunger Games, and NFL football with weapons instead of balls, helmets, and pads.

If none of those things had already happened, this book would blow my mind. People, especially those of us in the U.S., are largely numb to a world so screwed up that the one in Adjeh-Brenyah’s book borders on rote at this point. The author uses all those pop-culture references and tops them with major doses of social commentary on the state of racism and a broken prison system (that punishes rather than rehabs inmates) in the excellent non-fiction footnotes sprinkled throughout the epic story.

Another problem I have with All-Stars is that that story is a little overcooked, opting for 350 pages or so in what drags often and could easily be 100 pages shorter to make its considerable and important points.

Thurwall and Staxxx are the female lead characters who are on the same chain gang and fall in love as the world’s greatest warriors. Much of the story’s suspense arises from the inevitable national-TV death match that will occurs between the two.

This is not your book if you need a breezy beach read. If you are looking for poetic social statements, with a compelling plot, this could be for you.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 15, 2023

Silver Spring's Lumina proves you really can get kids to like Shakespeare

The theater industry has fallen onto some pretty hard times since the pandemic. And looking back through my blog, I can't believe my last "theater" entry was when I saw Hamilton in New York in 2018. I used to frequently post reviews from shows around Washington D.C., especially ones I used to like so much at the Woolly Mammoth.

But a lot of shows have not really caught my eye at the Woolly or other prime venues lately. Plus my actor buddy who was always in great shows around the city has moved to Oregon. And sometimes it's those connections that really help push people (at least me) over the edge towards getting out the door and into the seats. I wasn't expecting much when headed out tonight to see a reimagining of Shakespeare's As You Like It set in hippy times and featuring lots of local kids who my kids know. Not only was the band in the show led by one of my former bandmates in The Sprogs (so obviously the music was great, right?), but the show was really funny and I truly enjoyed it. 

Early into the play at Lumina Studio Theater in Silver Spring, I couldn't believe the script could have been written essentially by a bunch of elementary and high-school kids. Children are definitely not Shakespeare's key demographic and they certainly don't write and perform with such excellent comic timing in ther Bard's works, not even in Bard spoofs.

And when I looked at the program a little later, this As You Like It - actually titled As You Dig It - was indeed written back in 2002 by David Minton. But the cast and band worked really hard to put on a knock-out performance that had me laughing out loud constantly. 

Some of the highlight songs performed, as the characters set about trying to perform a play within the play ("all the world's a stage") and deal with themes of love, envy, gender, and more, include Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco," "Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies, "Reflections" by Diana Ross, and "Light My Fire" by The Doors. 

The stage was packed with the players most of the time, and there are actually two separate casts that have been performing different showtimes. Just about everyone in the cast gets their moments to shine and several have very promising thesbian careers ahead of them if they take that path.

That makes the future of the stage quite bit more promising than I had been giving it credit for lately.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Dark Knight is my favorite superhero movie

I’ve mostly stopped watching new superhero movies. They’ve lost their way. They have no heart. They are a coagulated mix of what initially sounded awesome - having as many characters as possible jam packed into the story - into just plain confused and confusing. 

The Dark Knight, however, from 2008, has heart and people and a storyline that makes it a classic, even without all the special effects, endless fighting and chase scenes, and layers of superheroes from who knows what DC or Marvel or Archie Comics or - who cares - universe. 

Seeing this movie for the first time - it's the one that everyone has always talked about mainly because of Heath Ledger's compelling performance as The Joker - amongst all the overdone latest superhero releases perhaps makes this one stand out even more.

The philosophical touches director Christopher Nolan brought to films like Memento and Inception are all over The Dark Knight. He and Ledger make The Joker more human than ever, as a somewhat and somehow ordinary dude - other than his desire to reap chaos. Ledger, you may recall, died of an accidental prescription overdose early in 2008 before the film was released and later that year posthumously won best supporting actor at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, making it the first superhero movie ever to win those trophies. He had said he was influenced by A Clockwork Orange and The Sex Pistols in his portrayal, which I can see in hindsight.

Ledger got all the love, and his performance is no doubt legendarily great, but I - controversially - may still think Joaquin Phoenix was the greatest Joker of all time. But enough about the main villian; how about the rest of that cast? Christian Bale and Michael Caine are the perfect Batman and Alfred Pennyworth respectively. Aaron Eckhart as district attorney Harvey Dent/Two-Face, Gary Oldman as police lieutenant Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Batman's tech chief, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as an assistant district attorney torn between Batman and Dent - you just can't get enough of any of their characters.

If you are one of the last people on the planet after me to have somehow missed this film, do yourself a favor and go to MAX right now to stream it.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 11, 2023

This Fool strikes comedy gold in South Central L.A.

Everyone is rightfully talking about The Bear (including me). But they should also be talking about Hulu’s amazingly hilarious This Fool, about a kid who grows up on the straight and narrow in South Central L.A., then as a grownup still lives at home helping operate an unorthodox rehab center calls Hugs Not Thugs for ex-cons.

With a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it truly is surprising that not enough people seem to watch or even know about This Fool. I have yet to watch the 10 episodes of Season 2, but the 10-episode first season is as close to perfect as TV gets. Chris Estrada is the mastermind. Working at a warehouse and as a stand-up comic, he developed the show (mainly about how we love our family and friends but also how they drive us nuts) and Hulu bought it, with Fred Armisen later recognizing the brilliance and executive producing the series and starring in some episodes as a rich freak who might help fund Hugs Not Thugs.

Estrada, as Julio, begins the show going to prison to pick up the just-released cousin who bullied him as a kid. The cousin is wacky Luis, played lovingly by Frankie Quiñones, a comedian who previously gained some acclaim for his Jane-Fonda-for-gang-members web series Cholofit.

Some of Season 1's highlights include episode 2 when Luis gathers a group of ex gangsters to (try to) get in a fight, episode 4 in which Julio tries to avoid his birthday and can't shake his feelings for ex-girlfirend Maggie (also played excellently by Michelle Ortiz), and episode 9 when the head of Hugs Not Thugs - Minister Payne (in a cult-leader-like offbeat performance from Michael Imperioli of Sopranos and The White Lotus fame) - is caught up in some awkward situations with the potential rich funders of his non profit.

Do yourself a big favor and get on board with This Fool.

Season 1: 5 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 8, 2023

My reflections from Jeff Tweedy’s musical reflections

The first thing Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy ever learned on guitar was the big dumb riff from Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” which he’s a little embarrassed about but also a little in awe of a song that played a big part in building his love of music.

While I too have a love/hate feel for “Smoke,” I feel the inner wimp that heavily overrides my tough-guy side can identify a little more closely with the second song Tweedy discusses in his new book World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music. When the yacht-rock catchy cheese of Leo Sayer’s “Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance)” was played, Tweedy’s father, on many, many - too many - weeknights would get up and dance at the moment the somewhat hokey song would announce “I can dance!” The song was simply imprinted on young Jeff’s mind, and the world will really never know how much Leo Sayer altered his entire musical psyche. He knew he would never want to do the kind of thing his father did when that song played, but when he occasionally hears it these days, it oddly makes his father so vivid in his mind that Jeff can almost smell him. Pretty impressive power of music on display.

Jeff writes about a time when he would buy everything on SST Records, which led him to essentially buy music blindly without every hearing it beforehand or knowing anything about the artist. One such purchase was a band called Slovenly’s album Riposte, which includes a song “As If It Always Happens” that is awesome in its artistry of bringing a bunch of friends together to create something that they refused to be embarrassed about sharing with each other. It’s a great tune that I had never heard before and it does illuminate what seems like average dudes making something great together. Wilco very much seems to have followed that formula.

He notes that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is the best-written song ever and that it reminds him of the happiest times with his mother, watching Judy Garland movies at night.

Tweedy tells a funny little memory of going to bars to try to get gigs, being told to provide a demo tape, going back to the garage and recording the best four or five songs, and then taking the tape back to the bar to try to get a gig. It never occurred to him and his bandmates to make a bunch of copies of the same performance to give out to bars.

He details what a shame it is that disco bands like ABBA and The Bee Gees were discounted so heavily by rockers when those songs seem to have stood the test of time and are undeniably great, no matter how cool you want to appear to be. If you’re looking at how to get better at forgiveness, as a person, Tweedy recommends taking one single song you used to hate - maybe it’s a disco one - and listening to it to see if you might have unfairly maligned it.

Interestingly, Tweety notes that Suicide was the first band to ever reference itself as punk. This was in 1970. But then he turns right around to write about “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc. That’s one of things I love so much about Tweedy in both his writing and in his music: he shifts around in his musical genres and isn’t afraid to note that, while he might not have liked that yacht-rock song back in the days when he was into Suicide, at a later point in his life he recognized the brilliance within it.

I’m excited that Tweedy’s favorite Rolling Stones song is “Connection.” That might be my favorite as well, perhaps because I work in the transportation field and I feel like it might be the most perfect song ever about transportation. He loves it so much because it’s on a Rolling Stones album he happened to be able to afford from the cutout bin as a kid.

Tweety stumbled in to seeing The Replacements when he went to a St. Louis club to watch X. He didn’t have any expectations because that’s not what you ever had for opening acts. But the band came out and played “Goddamn Job” and he knew, with their effortless fashion, that he had found his place in the world.

Early in his music career, his band got a prized gig at the Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri opening for Warren Zevon. Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles was the bassist for Zevon and when Tweedy asked if he could use the eventual-legend’s amp, Schmit held up his finger to get Tweedy to stop talking and he told his gear guy to not let this other guy touch his amp. As Jeff notes, a simple “sorry, I can’t let you” would have been the decent thing.

The book is mostly a series of short musings, including one about how dumb anyone who yells out “Freebird” at a concert is, as Jeff laments how poor Lynyrd Skynyrd has had their classic and truly great song turned into one of the world’s worst and never-ending jokes, a meme.

I love that he suggests getting Stevie Wonder to write us a new national anthem that isn’t so war mongering as our long existing one.

He asks, how is every last one of the Ramones gone?

It was a major revelation when the Beatles released their anthology in the 1990s. It allowed a young Tweedy to realize that they weren’t perfect. He had space to be terrible before he could get really good, he thought at that point.

Probably about half the time he doesn’t really enjoy singing “Happy Birthday.” Tweedy also has a nephew who vehemently despises the song and doesn’t understand why people would want to ruin a perfectly good cake experience.

This book is not as good - it’s got elements of a little too much aimlessness in it - as Tweedy’s other two modern classic books on rock. But he is a truly talented writer and storyteller and, even when he’s not at his best, he has found himself a pretty good background career.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 7, 2023

RIP Norman Lear

When little Norman Lear was a kid growing up in Connecticut, his dad Herman would say “stifle!” to his mom Jeanette when he didn’t like what she was trying to say to him. But her advice, in reality, had usually been wise and he, in turn, had ended up going off to jail for the things she had tried to dissuade him from doing. No longer would Norman’s dad be sitting in his “throne” chair controlling the radio, much as Archie Bunker would do with his own chair and TV some 40 years later.

These are some of the opening anecdotes from Even This I Get to Experience, the 2014 autobiography from Norman Lear, who died this week at the age of 101 as perhaps my favorite producer in TV history. He was able to turn these seemingly minor slices of everyday life into monumental TV moments and brought TV comedy sitcoms to a whole new level of societal importance throughout the 1970s and 80s.

All in the Family is my fourth favorite show of all time. And while The Jeffersons, Maude, One Day at a Time, and Good Times, didn't make my top-TV list (but Sanford and Son did - at #59), they paint a portrait of a legendary, storied career of amazing work. Using his dad as an inspiration for Archie, Lear was able to somehow find lovability and occasional redeeming qualities in a massive bigot. I somehow never really saw his other major sitcom Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, possibly because I grew up in a market (St. Louis) that might not have wanted to air the controversial show. It was shown more prominently in some places bcause Lear personally footed the expenses to run it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

RIP Denny Laine

When I was a little kid, my older brothers had killer albums across the spectrum of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who all the way over to The Police, The Jam, and Elvis Costello. But the one I drove the most repetitive grooves into (sometimes behind my brothers' backs) very well might have been Wings Greatest.

Denny Laine essentially played, if not exactly John Lennon, Paul McCartney's right-hand man in that great band that existed longer than The Beatles, from 1971 to 1981. Arguably the best stuff appeared on Band on the Run and London Town, and those songs were almost entirely the work of McCartney, his wife Linda, and Laine, who has passed away in Florida at the age of 79 from a lung disease. Perhaps his greatest song co-writing credits with Paul were “Mull of Kintyre” and “London Town.”

On playing alongside McCartney, Laine recently told Guitar World, "Me and him had this kind of feel together musically. We slotted in well together. We could read each other, and that came from growing up on the same musical influences. Paul’s got a good sense of rhythm, and he doesn’t overplay, which I like."

Laine finally left Wings mainly because Paul no longer wanted to tour in the wake of Lennon's murder. But that was not the end of the relationship, as he came back to play on two of McCartney's best albums of the 1980s: Pipes of Peace and Tug of War. Of course, Laine's work as a founding member of The Moody Blues must be mentioned as well, and he is in fact a member of the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame for his work in that band. He was the lead singer on the group's first hit single, "Go Now," which somewhat foresaw the deeply psychedelic direction to come. That said, he left the group before what I would call their finest moments, 1968's In Search of the Lost Chord and 1969's On the Threshold of a Dream.

After a case of COVID in 2022, Laine had a series of lung issues, including a collapsed lung, leading up to his death.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

RIP Myles Goodwyn of April Wine and Sandra Day O'Connor

1980s Canadian pseudo metallers April Wine may seem like an odd subject to cover at Pop Culture Lunch Box. Even odder to bill it above the passing of the legendary Sandra Day O'Connor. But man, I have always loved a handful of tunes from the band's 1981 album The Nature of the Beast.

I don't know if I need to begin discovering April Wine's extensive catalog prior to that album - who knew it formed way back in 1969? - but most notably "Just Between You and Me" and "Sign of the Gypsy Queen" are remarkable numbers written, sung, and performed on guitar by the band's leader Myles Goodwyn, who has passed away at 75 apparently from multiple health issues.

A couple of good anecdotes from the New York Times obituary:

The band attracted attention in 1977 when it was performing at the El Mocambo Club in Toronto. Before the show, April Wine was asked to pose as the headliner for a charity event with a group called the Cockroaches as the opening act, but the Cockroaches turned out to be the Rolling Stones.

In 2016, Mr. Goodwyn released a memoir, “Just Between You and Me,” which became a best seller in Canada. “Elvis and Tiger,” his novel, was published in 2018.

In a rough week for pop-culture deaths, the passing of Sandra Day O'Connor - at age 93 from dementia - must be mentioned. She was the first woman on the Supreme Court, appointed in 1991 by Ronald Reagan as a moderate conservative from Arizona. She retired in 2006 and looked pretty liberal by that time compared to the increasingly conservative bent of the Court.

She played a major role in shaping the directions of the country with her more nuanced views of how abortions and affirmative action, among many other important issues, should be handled. She was also passionate about the importance of civics education.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Velocity Girl takes me back to college at D.C. reunion show

Some bands always feel like they are yours alone. Not enough people ever got into them despite how much they strike a chord personally. In college I rode in the back of a camper truck (highly illegal now) all the way from Southern Illinois to Breckenridge, Colorado for a ski trip. And one of the main things I remember about that trip was listening to Copacetic and Simpatico, the first two Velocity Girl albums, over and over.

I still love hearing those songs and apparently, over the years, quite a few others have kept them close to heart because I got to see the first of two sold-out shows at Black Cat in Washington D.C. on Friday night amongst an enthusiastic crowd.

And, in reality, Velocity Girl was never mine alone. The band’s label, Sub Pop, gave the debut a publicity push that it really only matched with Nirvana’s debut Bleach.

On Friday, VG played excellently, even though it hasn’t played more than a few shows in the past 25 or so years and the last album showed up in 1996. (While information in music mags has been tough to find in terms of what the band members have been up to over the years, guitarist Archie Moore has been working as a recording engineer and is attempting to make Copacetic sound better for a future re-release and singer Sarah Shannon released two solo albums and has a bunch of releases with her kid band in Seattle called The Not-Its!).

The problem with the show was Black Cat’s sound. Shannon’s voice was buried in the mix and then the overall sound suddenly improved halfway through the set, which made it clear the sound people realized after many songs that something was wrong and, oh well, they were finally going to get around to doing something about it. 

I’ve really scaled back my attendance at Black Cat in recent years, and I was writing about what bad sound the club (which I would love to love) sometimes has even way back in 2011 at the Yuck show. Perhaps that’s also because we’ve been spoiled in this town by the consistent excellence of sound quality at other venues like the 9:30 Club and The Anthem.

But back to Velocity Girl: the band played excellently and is surprisingly loud on stage. Apparently that’s always been the case, it’s just that I had never gotten to see them live until now. The highlights from debut Copacetic included “Audrey’s Eyes,” “Crazy Town,” and “Pop Loser.” The best moments from second album Simpatico were “Drug Girls,” “Sorry Again,” and the Pixies-like “I Can’t Stop Smiling.”

Velocity Girl was 5 out of 5 stars, but Black Cat’s sound was 3 out of 5 stars (at best), making the overall show 4 out of 5 stars

Side notes:
  • D.C.’s Tuscadero opened and we’re pretty enjoyable. Love the Happy Days reference in the band name!
  • Ate at Moi Doi across the street before the show. Very tasty Vietnamese. Go with the beef jerky, drunken noodles, and pear salad.
  • Attended the show with my wife and ran into friends Angie and Linda at the show.