Monday, April 29, 2024

Anyone But You offers the rare opportunity to watch a worthy rom-com

I must be getting warmed up for Challengers (a tennis rom-com with Zendaya that I'm very excited about) because - on the plane from Washington, D.C. to St. Louis - I had just enough time to watch Anyone But You. The flick does the genre relatively proud in a day and age when rom-coms have been stumbling along to find any footing. 

Bea, played by Sydney Sweeney with slapstick body language, is a law student who bumps into debonaire Ben (Top Gun: Maverick's Glen Powell) at a Boston coffee shop. The two hit it off and have a magical night together, which goes wrong when some pedestrian (it would have been better to be outrageous Three's Company-style) miscommunication occurs the next morning. This sets them on a course to despising each other, even after they randomly meet again months later and are forced into spending time together at a wedding in Sydney, Australia. 

The whole thing is like a ridiculous beach-read novel that you can't put down even though you know you probably should. It's also painfully far-fetched, but that's another reason to enjoy it some time when you have 90 minutes to put your brain on autopilot.

Here are a few interesting things about Anyone But You (not spoilers):
  • Sweeney was excellent in the first season of The White Lotus and has been one of the hottest actors since then.
  • The story is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Darren Barnet from Never Have I Ever plays one of Bea's love interests.
  • Dermot Mulroney stars as Bea’s father and Director Will Gluck made the cast watch Mulroney's 1997 rom-com classic My Best Friend’s Wedding before filming.
  • Este Haim of the band Haim was in charge of music.
  • Production had some tribulations, including a spider biting Sweeney and a helicopter having to make an emergency landing.
  • Anyone But You caught word-of-mouth fire and made more money at the box office in week 2 of its release than it did in week 1 and more in week 3 than in week 2.
  • Part of the reason for the film's popularity was that Powell and Sweeney hung out together in real life and leaned into selling their chemistry as a reason for the masses to check them out on the big screen.
  • It has become huge overseas, with nearly $220 million in global box-office gross.
In the end, Sweeny and Powell truly do sell what would have been an average movie into a highly watchable one.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Teenage Fanclub returns for another great appearance at the 9:30 Club

Friday night marked the fourth time I’ve seen the band from Glasgow that I'm sure I would rank among my top 15 bands of all time. Teenage Fanclub played a tight 90-minute set that was - as to be expected from such harmonious songsmiths, who have never been capable of writing a band tune - as glorious as any self-respecting indie-rocker who came of age in the 1990s would expect.

One-third of the classic songwriting trio, Gerard Love, has retired, so his songs such as “Star Sign” were sadly missing from the setlist. But Stephen Black from Wales filled in ably on bass and also opened the night with a solo performance under the name Sweet Baboo. (I'm not sure why he was the bassist, as I thought the regular band member was still Dave McGowan, who doubles on bass for Belle and Sebastian.) Euros Childs is also an excellent addition to the band, as I've been a fan of his weirdo band Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci for a long time and his harmonies and keyboard work adds plenty to the Fanclub.

Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley are in a severly underrated league of their own as the band's now-primary songwriters and guitarists.

The show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. was loaded with numbers from their latest release, 2023's Nothing Lasts Forever, which wasn't such a bad thing since I ranked that my 18th favorite album of 2023. Classic 1990s-era highlights included "Alcoholiday," "The Concept," "What You Do to Me," and "Metal Baby" from 1991's Bandwagonesque; "Your Love is the Place Where I Come From" off 1997's Songs From Northern Britain; and of course the closer and highlight, "Everything Flows" from 1990's A Catholic Education.

My only minor complaint was the lack of any songs from 1993's Thirteen or 1995's Grand Prix, but getting a 20-song set means there really wasn't much wrong on this night. It was also a blast getting to hang out with my neighbor buddies Brian and Brian (not Bryan, as we reiterated throughout the night), Scott, and Linda and eating delicious pizza-by-the-slice at Andy's Pizza across the street.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Earth's hot spots can blow just about anytime and anyplace

Nebraska used to be like the Serengeti plains in Africa, which is now where much of the world goes when they want to have the very best safaris. Starting in 1971, animal bones such as those found in Africa were discovered there buried under volcanic ash, which was odd, since volcanoes have never been in Nebraska. Through more scientific discovery, the source of the ash that killed all the animals in the state was present-day Yellowstone National Park, about 1,600 miles away. 

The park is the source of such a cataclysmic hot spot on earth that the ash in Nebraska was about 10 feet deep. And those massive volcanoes at Yellowstone happen every six hundred thousand years. Oh, and by the way, it’s been six hundred thousand years since Yellowstone blew hard.

If that’s not bleak enough for you, then consider that we know lots more about the sun’s core than we do the middle of the Earth. “If the planet were an apple, we wouldn’t yet have broken through the skin,” via our various mining operations, writes Bill Bryson in his classic A Short History of Nearly Everything. (I also wrote about the geology section of the book back in 2022.)

We hear a lot about the Richter scale, which is less an actual scale and more an idea about the power of individual earthquakes. It’s named after Charles Richter who was at Caltech the 1930s. Since that time, the two largest quakes measured were both in the low 9s, centered in Alaska in 1964 and in the ocean near Chile in 1960. Just a little less powerful was the one in 1755 that destroyed Lisbon, Portugal. Sixty-thousand people died and virtually all the buildings there crumbled.

Tokyo could consider a new marketing slogan as “the city waiting to die” because it sits on three tectonic plates. It suffered a big quake in 1923 that killed 200,000 people. If that happened today, the economic cost would exceed $7 trillion, which, give or take, is about one-tenth of all the money that exists in the world.

Less understood are earthquakes called intraplate quakes, which aren’t close to plate boundaries, come from much deeper underground, and are completely unpredictable. The three worst of this kind all happened in the winter of 1811-1812 in New Madrid, Missouri (yes, the place Uncle Tupelo sang about). These quakes caused chimneys to fall in Cincinnati, wrecked boats docked on the East Coast, and toppled scaffolding on the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Such quakes “are as random as lightning” and “have never been known to happen in the same place twice.”

Moving deeper down to the Earth’s core, scientists - basically - don’t know much:

  • They know that there is liquid that causes magnetism (unlike the Moon and Mars, which don’t have magnetic fields). 
  • They know that the magnetic field changes and was three times more powerful during the time of the dinosaurs than it is now. 
  • They know the field reverses itself about every 500,000 years. We don’t really want to be around during one of these reversals because cosmic rays from space will do a serious number on us at that point. For now, the field protects us. I guess you could say we are one with the Force. 

In 1980, the world was captivated for two months while it appeared Mount St. Helens in Washington state was going to erupt. Finally it did and “it was the biggest landslide in human history and carried enough material to bury the whole of Manhattan” in about 400 feet of ash. Fifty-seven people died, which was lucky because it was a Sunday and many timber workers were not in the death zone. About 80 miles away, in the town of Yakima, Washington, ash turned the streets to dark in a place that had no emergency plan or emergency broadcast system because the Sunday-morning staff didn’t know how to work the equipment. Yakima was completely shut down for three days, and it had received less than an inch of ash. 

“Now bear that in mind, please," Bryson writes, "as we consider what a Yellowstone blast would do.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Bob Pollard and Guided By Voices get the biographical treatment in Closer You Are, part 1

Considering that Guided By Voices ranks as my second-favorite band of all-time behind The Beatles, it's a quirk of life that I haven't yet read Matthew Cutter's 2018 GBV and Robert Pollard biography Closer You Are.

Here is Part 1 of a series on my favorite nuggets from the book:
  • When young Bobby discovered vinyl records around 4th grade, his dad got him a Columbia House membership and he made his choices based on how cool the covers were, after noting that "in rock, you can judge a book by the cover."
  • Also at that age, his teacher let him and three classmates perform in class (as I similarly did with a friend in 6th grade). The other three made the sounds of the instruments with their voices while Bobby sang the tunes. After that, girls chased them through the playground like The Beatles in A Hard Days Night.
  • Bob still lived at home in Dayton, Ohio when he started at Wright State University as “a townie almost invisible amid throngs of imported East and West Coast brats.” He detected an air of “sameness.” Everyone wanted to get a job and get married and grow up. 
  • He was a great three-sport athlete in high school. Now in college, he still didn’t even have to try that hard at baseball to be a standout and threw a no-hitter in 1978 for the university. He would later call baseball “a nine-man stand around” and thought he better focus on school as a backup plan. His major in elementary education and minor in physical education were harder than they would seem and made him work hard. His writing teacher encouraged his work and opened his mind further to the possibility of creativity. He had long been creating album artwork but now, not finding anyone who could play guitar, he started playing the instrument himself and had a credo of “fuck lessons.”
  • Bob dabbled in some bands but nothing really stuck. Then some guys called him out of the blue to see if he would be their frontman because they had heard him singing walking through the college hallways. Future GBV legend Mitch Mitchell, who Bob had known from high-school football, would also join this band, called the Clones, on bass. The first show, in front of about 200 people, went well and Bob was instantly a dynamic performer. They soon were renamed Anacrusis. The band would try to slip a few originals into its sets but it was tricky because fans and bar owners wanted rock covers. When Bob and Mitch started getting into post-punk like Wire and XTC, the writing was on the wall that this classic-rock group was near its end. 
  • Mitch and Bob kept imagining that they would soon have a new group to launch. They still couldn’t actually play music very well, but they would bang on guitars, go shirtless, jump around, and make up rules for their non-existent rock band. They were preparing themselves to look good so that whenever the other pieces would eventually fall into place, they would be ready to rock the world. 
  • But first, Bob was about to embark on a 14-year career as a fourth-grade teacher.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Serving in tennis is tough, but it can at least be a little easier with good advice

It's downright strange that serving is so difficult in tennis. I mean, I almost never miss a serve in volleyball and I almost never play volleyball. But I play tennis all the time and the serve remains at least a partial mystery and I view it as a lifetime goal to improve it.

I can rocket my first serve but it often has a low percentage, so it’s not great. I used to dink my second serve instead of swinging hard through from the 7 o’clock to the 2 o’clock positions to get good spin and action. At least I'm doing that now and realize that swinging slow is a recipe for a double fault. 

I’ve been getting coached and watching and reading a lot about serving in recent years and I think my serve is finally becoming a weapon, which is an ultimate goal for someone at the 4.0 level like myself.

Returning your opponent’s serve is also part of this equation. I tend to think I'm fairly decent at reading my opponent's body language to anticipate where the serve is going to go. But I don't think I've ever consciously watched the toss to get clued into where it will go. This article online at Feel Tennis has some good pointers along those lines. The advice is also helpful in showing where I should be tossing the ball myself depending on whether I'm serving flat, with a slice, or with a kick/topspin (see image above).

For match play, the serve begins right at the coin toss. It’s been assumed forever that if you win the toss, you elect to serve. But Ian Westermann, in his, well, essential book (and website) Essential Tennis, says electing serve is the right choice “for about 20 percent of the tennis-playing population. If your serve is a weapon and you can consistently get it in, then by all means, serve!”

He says that if you are a skill level of 3.5 or below, always let your opponent serve. Even at 4.0 and higher, let your opponent serve unless: 
  • your serve is a weapon
  • you’ve had a chance to fully warm up your serve, and 
  • you’re “on” and feeling great before the match starts.
Also, if you lose the toss and your opponent elects to serve, choose the side for yourself that will have your opponent serving into the sun to start things off. 

In a recent scenario, I played a guy who only took six warmup serves and I had gotten there before him and taken a couple dozen warmups, so I knew he didn’t need much warmup and would just get his serve in no matter what, plus I was warmed up, so I made the easy call to serve first.

On the actual serve itself, Westermann recommends stopping trying to serve your brains out on the first serve, which, as mentioned, I’ve done most of my life. He logically says to find the serve that gives your opponent the most trouble, which will be different from player to player, but that a kick serve that the returner has to try to hit at head level may be a good option for many servers. 

For a second serve, he preaches “up and away,” meaning to keep a quickness in your motion and a slice spin (moving your racket from 7 to 2 o'clock). Slowing down your motion, even though it seems like the right thing to do, is never the answer. I’ve been working on that a lot over the past year, trying to eliminate my tendency to dink my second serve, and I can vouch that this is absolutely the right advice. It just takes a little getting used to after a lifetime of having a bad habit.

Westermann says players are only as strong as their weakest link, which is often the second serve. His recommendations for getting rid of the dink - what he calls the pattycake - second serve are:
  • to practice rolling the tennis ball on your palm with your racket up above your head where you would be hitting the serve (see the photo to the right), which will in turn give you a sense of feel for how you'll be putting spin on the ball
  • then nice and casually flip the ball off your hand and turn your racket so the side that was rubbing the ball is flipped to facing the wall or fence behind you and the court, and
  • then continue further on and have the racket go down around in front of your legs, so that your motion has completed almost a full circle.
Westermann says that after getting comfortable with all those individual parts of the full motion in his "curve the serve" technique, try performing an actual serve with that motion. The full swing should be mostly parallel to the baseline rather than towards the opponent and that you should hear an aggressive "clicking" or "brushing" sound rather than a flat "thud" sound. Once you see that your second serve is clearing the net by 4 or 5 feet, then you can start getting more aggressive with it since you know you have so much room to work with.

Westermann also recommends playing a set with an opponent and making it a rule that you both only get one serve each time. This will help both of you to make your serves tougher to return and more accurate at the same time.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Great Magazine Reads: Flying cars are the hottest trend in future transportation, just like they were on The Jetsons

Always thinking back to The Jetsons, we keep asking whatever happened to the flying cars we were promised. I was quoted about this alongside several other transportation experts in 2016 in USA Today and wrote about flying cars in 2017 for Mobility Lab.

The question lingers, but what exactly is a flying car? One definition given in "A Reporter Aloft: Flight of Fancy," by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, in the latest issue of The New Yorker, is "the 'perfect aircraft' — something 'that didn’t require a pilot’s license, and could take off or land anywhere.'"

The flying car has been part of our collective imagination for a good 100 years. Long ago, the article notes:

The aviation company Cessna ran magazine advertisements for the Family Car of the Air, a sensible little plane that you could park in your garage, with copy like “Remember, Mrs. America likes to go places and see things. And when she finds out that she can cover 600 miles in a morning, to shop or visit in any one of a dozen cities, she’s going to fly.”

By the mid-fifties, it was almost a given that some future sedans would come with wings. If we were going to live in mile-high space needles, how else would we move about? The title sequence of “The Jetsons,” which premièred in 1962, doesn’t show the ground once; George takes his wife and children to their respective floating platforms in his domed airship, and then heads to his offce at Spacely Space Sprockets, Inc. Some of this imagery was the standard-issue utopianism of the bright-eyed mid-century, but it really wasn’t that farfetched. After all, many of the era’s predictions came to pass: portable radios, televisions with screens “the size of a pocket handkerchief,” air-conditioning, plastics.

There is no doubt that those predictions by The Jetsons and others were inspiring and have, after decades of stagnancy, taken hold again of entrepreneuers in the business startup world: 

Today, there are more than four hundred startups in what is called the “advanced air mobility” industry. The term covers everything from actual flying-carish contraptions to more traditional-looking airplanes, but it generally refers to eVTOLs (pronounced “ee-vee-tall”). For the most part, these crafts bear a greater resemblance to helicopterplane hybrids than to automobiles, and they can’t be driven on the road; they might better be described as electric aerial vehicles with the ability to hover and the no-fuss point-to-point flexibility of a car.

Those interviewed in the article make a strong and logical case that flying cars could have already been mainstream if the U.S. wasn't so hostile to innovation:

Flying cars were another victim of our unwillingness to bear the costs of progress. American society allows about forty thousand road fatalities a year but refuses to tolerate even one aviation death. “Why can’t [the Federal Aviation Administration] say, ‘If you want to develop a flying machine, go out in the desert and do whatever you want’? I remember when Amazon was trying to test drone delivery they had to do experiments in Canada.” In the sixties, a heliport was built atop New York City’s Pan Am Building. After a period of inactivity, it was put back into use in 1977, with as many as sixty-four scheduled departures each day to local airports. That May, there was a landing-gear failure. Four people were killed by spinning rotor blades; a fifth was killed by a blade that careened to the street below. The heliport was permanently closed.

Of course, heliports and eVTOLs aren't the only option. We could choose to build our transportation in other ways that actually move masses of people efficiently and effectively.

Then there’s the sheer number that would be needed. Before the pandemic, about four hundred thousand people a day crossed the Hudson River into Manhattan. Aerial commuting would require tens of thousands of drone taxis operating on regular, reliable schedules, with flawless safety records. So all of a sudden you’re into the realm of, "Why didn’t we just build a train?"

It's a good thing nobody is asking us to hold our breath for aerial mobility. I'm happy to have my e-bike for my ever-reliable 20-minute work commute across Maryland and Washington D.C. That obviously isn't the solution for everyone. But at least we all have old episodes of the Jetsons we can watch.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Killers of the Flower Moon tells the true tale of whites against the Osage tribe

The fact that Killers of the Flower Moon is probably the best movie ever about the genocide by whites of Native Americans says a lot about how we as a civilization have buried this horror story. It’s a really great film that also puts on display how far Hollywood still has to go to truly tell the story of Native Americans.

This one is not really it. Probably eighty percent focuses on the gang of rich white oilmen, led menacingly by Robert DeNiro, and their systemic plan to wipe out the entire Osage tribe. Leo DiCaprio turns in his usual perfect performance as one of DeNiro’s main puppets.

I don’t want to hold it against this 2023 production that it’s more white-centric than Osage-centric because it really is an epic tale with phenomenal acting and, besides, it’s just really entertaining. That said, there are a lot of other relevant perspectives remaining for Hollywood to explore in the future.

Although Killers was nominated for just about every major category at the Academy Awards, it failed to win a single one of them. Martin Scorsese's film is based on David Grann's 2017 book. The true story places De Niro as a corrupt political operative who wrangles the oil rights out of the hands of the Oklahoma tribe in the 1920s. His nephew Ernest, played by DiCaprio, returns from World War I. Ernest genuinely falls in love with Mollie, an Osage whose family has lots of claim to the oil. DiNiro sees opportunities for much personal gain if he can get Ernest on board with killing lots of Mollie's family members. The Osage community begins to think the riots against Black people that happened in 1921 in Tulsa could very well be happening to them. 

Lily Gladstone as Mollie proves to be a breakout star. She is the first Native-American woman to win a Golden Globe for best actress.

The story is wrapped up at the end by a radio-show performance that lays out what became of all the main characters. A nice ending touch.

5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Great Magazine Reads: Squeeze aren't The Beatles but they're really good

In 1981, Rolling Stone proclaimed Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook as the next John Lennon and Paul McCartney. That definitely did not happen, but I love at least a dozen of Squeeze's songs and got to see the band's excellent live show when they opened for Hall and Oates in 2001

Classic Pop Magazine explores the legacy of Squeeze as the band officially turns 50 this year. Here are some things I learned or found interesting in the article:

  • They formed in 1974 "after a 16-year-old Tilbrook answered an advert in a tobacconist’s window for a band into The Kinks, Lou Reed, and Glenn Miller."
  • Difford and Tilbrook both grew up in the Blackheath neighborhood east of downtown London.
  • John Cage of Velvet Underground was brought in to produce the band's first album, but they say he didn't want to focus on pop songs and so those tunes don't really sound much like Squeeze. They added in "Take Me I'm Yours" at the end after Cage's duties were completed.
  • It was proposed that "Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, and Paul McCartney would all work on what became [1981 album] East Side Story. In the end, the double album plan was scrapped and only Costello would end up working on it."
  • Up until 1982, Squeeze was virtually a supergroup of sorts that also included keyboardists Jools Holland and Paul Carrack. Including Difford and Tilbrook, it's estimated there have been 31 different members of Squeeze over the years.
  • During one of the two periods that Squeeze had broken up, Difford and Tilbrook created 1984's "Difford and Tillbrook" album that is a bit of a hidden gem.
  • The band has two albums planned for release in the next year.
My favorite 12 Squeeze songs ranked:

12. "Take Me I'm Yours"

11. "If I Didn't Love You"

10. "Goodbye Girl"

09. "Annie Get Your Gun"

08. "Cool for Cats"

07. "Hope Fell Down" (Difford and Tilbrook)

06. "Is That Love?"

05. "Tempted"

04. "Black Coffee in Bed"

03. "Up the Junction" 

02. "Another Nail in My Heart"

01. "Pulling Muscles (From the Shell)"

Friday, April 19, 2024

RIP Dickey Betts and Pooch Tavares and welcome to more Taylor Swift music

I don't go super deep with Southern Rock. Sure, I love Lynyrd Skynyrd, Drive-by Truckers, The Black Crowes, and Jason Isbell. And I can't even remember which Allman Brothers show I saw way back when. The band played each year in 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992 at the Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis.

I was definitely at one of those shows and it was definitely awesome. One of the best parts was the lead-guitar mastery of Dickey Betts, who passed away this week at age 80 in Florida from cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Beyond his head-shredding guitar licks, Betts wrote the masterpieces "Ramblin' Man," "Blue Sky," "Revival," and "Jessica."  

Arguably not nearly as monumental of a performer but still important in musical history is Arthur “Pooch” Tavares, who also passed away this week. He was the lead singer of the Tavares and that song on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack - oh my gosh, that song! - was "More Than a Woman" and it's one of my favorite disco songs. I'm not quite sure why there is a version by the Bee Gees and Tavares on the album, and the Bee Gees' rendition is frankly better, but Taveres and his smooth voice also makes it a magical tune. Pooch was 81 years old.

And of course, things always happen in threes, so I would be remiss not to mention that Taylor Swift's new album was released today. It's her eleventh studio release, it's called The Dead Poets Department, and it includes a whopping 31 songs. Looks like my weekend is booked!

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Chuck Palahniuk's writing must destroy us before it can save us

Chuck Palahniuk may be our most beautiful, terrifyingly ugly fiction writer. I read Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, and Choke and, although they didn’t make my list of 60 favorite novels, they aren’t far behind. I felt it was time to revisit the Portland native’s work.

I started with an excerpt of Fight Club that appears in The Outlaw Bible of American Literature. It hails from the moment when Tyler Durden decides that fighting in a bar when away from his white-collar job isn’t enough; he needs to create Project Mayhem. This leads to a demon mask being painted and torched into a city high rise, a Jauguar being driven straight into a fountain, paint balls shot into an art museum's ceiling, and much more. Durden's aim is to destroy civilization so that the Earth can have time to repair itself. Kill the pandas and the highways. It’s not extinction; it’s downsizing. This excerpt, like the rest of the book and the David Fincher/Brad Pitt/Edward Norton movie (which had to be postponed for several months because Columbine has just ocurred), are all the places to start with Palahniuk: 5 out of 5 stars 

Next I headed from the three stories that begin his collection Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread:

“Knock-Knock” is about a little boy whose father loves to tell him heavily sexualized and racist jokes and whose mother has left the two of them for good. The boy doesn’t understand any of the jokes but knows enough that he needs to learn to laugh at them. Many years later, when his dad is dying of cancer, he tries to tell his dad the same jokes and his dad doesn’t laugh one bit. The boy (now a man) realizes that jokes are all about power. You tell a joke so you can make the other person laugh and show that you are the powerful one, the one in charge and exerting the control. It’s an offensive but pretty poignant short read. 4 out of 5 stars

“Eleanor” is a wacky little tale told from the perspective of someone who utters lots of big words that are almost all used improperly. Even so, it’s still highly readable, although I’m not entirely sure where Palahniuk was trying to go with it. Eleanor is a fast pit bull who likes to gnaw on a rubber bloody hand. His owner moves from Oregon into a house that had been used as a porno movie setting. The new owner sets up a shrine to one of the more-known porn actresses who performed some of her roles at the house, but the neighbors don’t like this and run the owner and his dog out. Perhaps it’s a sad statement on how we try to monetize anything cultural that has come into contact with even minor celebrities. 3.5 out of 5 stars

“How Monkey Got Married, Bought a House, and Found Happiness in Orlando” is a brilliant little tale about the communications profession. Monkey has a communications degree and is adept at selling anything to anyone. She gets a job that has her offering food samples in an Orlando supermarket and she gets a cheese product that begins turning all the customers away with its unbearable stench.  Getting desperate, she finally samples the cheese and realizes the taste is the best thing ever. She becomes a zealot with the first product she’s ever truly believed in. Her company is set to dispose of the cheese but she keeps trying to get someone to sample it. While being removed forcibly by her boss, Gorilla, Monkey jams a piece of cheese into his mouth and he realizes she is right. The cheese is delicious. It’s a weird tale that features only animals and doesn't appear to have anything to do with the title other than the allusions to how products help sell the American Dream. 5 out of 5 stars

Finally, I ended my Palahniuk cram session with Fight Club 2, the graphic novel telling the story of the narrator 10 years after the time of the original book/movie. He's a burned out dad married to Marla with a kid when Tyler Durden returns into his life. They need to figure out a way to destroy much of the world so that humanity can save itself from itself. The book is all over the place, which Palahniuk clearly knows and which is why he goes super-meta with some scenes portraying him and his fellow writers discussing which directions to take the plot. In Palahniuk's case, it's ok to overuse the word "brilliant." 5 out of 5 stars 

As a postscript, I ripped through the quick-read Fight Club 3 graphic novel. This 2019 release is apparently the conclusion, although it sets up Tyler to return with a new narrative to inhabit in a decade or so, if that's what Palahniuk chooses to do. The story has Tyler and his minions making sure civilization nearly wipes itself out with just enough humanity left to carry on and forward. This is a lot of fun but less essential compared to Fight Clubs 1 and 2. 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

RIP Whitey Herzog

If you grew up in the St. Louis area in the 1980s like I did, then chances are you'll never have a more favorite Major League Baseball team than those St. Louis Cardinals ones from the early to the middle part of the decade. Likewise, you probably don't have a more cherished manager than Whitey Herzog.

"The White Rat" took the "Runnin' Redbirds" to three World Series over a span of six years and while he only one won of them, he was the perfect mix of old-school militant leader - with a perfectly square head and buzzcut - and innovative playcaller of "Whiteyball" who valued offensive speed and defensive craftiness over brute home-run power. 

Whitey Herzog has passed away at age 92. 

His Cardinals won the World Series in 1982 and those were some thrilling games. Even though they weren't champions, the 1985 and 1987 teams may have been my favorite teams. I don't think I ever watched more baseball that I did in 1985 with Jack Clark, Tommy Herr, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton, Ozzie Smith, Andy Van Slyke, Joaquín Andújar, John Tudor, Bob Forsch, and Todd Worrell. Meanwhile, the 1987 team with many of the same players went back-and-forth until the very end in losing to the Minnesota Twins in seven games.

Whitey always felt like one of Cardinal Nation's own, which may have helped because he grew up near St. Louis in New Athens, Illinois.

Some interesting facts about Herzog:

  • His real name was Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog.
  • A broadcaster covering his games in the minor leagues nicknamed him "Whitey" because of his light blond hair. 
  • He was in the Army Corps of Engineers for two years.
  • Herzog was mentored by iconic New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel as a Yankee minor leaguer and said, "Instead of thinking about girls, I would be thinking about what the hell he talked about all day. Casey broke it down into the hundred little things that would make the difference. Once I began coaching and managing, I kept passing them along to my own players. In Casey, I had an Einstein."
  • He played eight seasons in the majors, with the Washington Senators, Kansas City Athletics, Baltimore Orioles, and Detroit Tigers.
  • He didn't last a full season in his first MLB managerial stint with the Texas Rangers in 1973.
  • Before joining the Cards, he was hired to manage the Kansas City Royals and lost to the New York Yankees three years in a row in the AL Championship Series.
  • Royals fans are not likely to forget Whitey either. He surpringly called his 1977 team the best he ever coached, and they finished 102-60 in the regular season and featured Darrell Porter, Frank White, Amos Otis, George Brett, and Dennis Leonard.
  • Bruce Sutter, the Hall of Fame closer on that 1982 Cardinals team, told The New York Times, "How many managers can you blow a game for and go out fishing with him the next morning?"
  • He was the second-oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame behind Willie Mays.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Great Magazine Reads: Adam and the Ants were savage in their pop-punk glory days

Adam Ant was one of the first MTV music stars who I remember melding with my pre-teen worldview of wanting to like popular music combined with something a little weirder, a little more alternative, and a little more of what at the time was called "college rock" because it was mostly only heard on those low-wave types of radio stations.

He and his band were always on music TV with his classic "Goody Two Shoes." The song and video had it all: super catchy, glammy, an upbeat and pulsing horn section, beautiful women in crazy makeup, and swashbuckling Adam in full rock-star gorgeousness.

The March/April 2024 issue of Classic Pop Magazine tells the story, starting with the release of 1980's Kings Of The Wild Frontier: it's "less an album, and more a call to arms. And an extremely compelling one at that. For something so inherently bizarre, it’s shamelessly self-assured, so brimming with confidence and laden with swagger that it’s literally drunk on its own hype." The album "shifted the paradigm from punk to New Romantic."

Some of the most interesting information from the article includes:
  • "Early reviews were scathing, and the band suffered much hostility from the music press. To cap it off, their new manager, Malcolm McClaren – who had been brought in to revive their fortunes – delivered the ultimate stab in the back by dumping Ant and poaching his bandmates to form Bow Wow Wow."
  • "McClaren’s mutiny proved to be the key turning point. Rather than ceding defeat, Ant quickly assembled a new band [and was] ready to do battle, flanked on either side by his new secret weapons: Marco Pirroni on guitar and producer Chris Hughes on drums. Pirroni introduced a distinctive twangy guitar style, combining 1950s rockabilly with influences from Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone. What’s more, Pirroni became Adam’s writing partner, a relationship that extended well into Ant’s solo years. Meanwhile, Hughes [brought] the whole chaotic mess together. Hughes’ ear for pop hooks is attested by his later work with Tears For Fears, co-writing their worldwide smash, 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World,' which Roland Orzabal had previously cast aside."
  • "Their sound totally bucks the commercial trends of the era. The Ants avoid the temptations of synth-pop, with neither synthesizer nor drum machine in sight. While nothing else really sounds anything like them, they form part of a niche that included Siouxsie And The Banshees, and (yes) Bow Wow Wow – blending post-punk with tribal rhythms and layers of complexity. Their two-drummer line-up was integral to the sound."
  • "Ant went from obscure punk to Michael Jackson’s fashion advisor. Compared to the fanfare in Britain, Ant didn’t quite conquer America in the way he deserved to."
  • "Demonstrating the breadth of influence, there are echoes in phenomena as varied as Disney’s Captain Jack Sparrow through to the rubber-masked nu-metal band, Slipknot (that may sound a stretch, but check out their uniform dress code, gang mentality, parent-baiting and primal dual drumming)."
  • "Some today might class Adam’s fixation with Native Americans as cultural appropriation, but arguably he was extremely progressive in his support of indigenous cultures when it wasn’t in fashion, highlighting their plight at the hands of the white man. He ... apparently declared during one live performance: 'They are human beings, and we are the savages.'"
  • Oh, and Ant's real name is Stuart Goddard. He is alive and well, living in London at age 69, and still touring.
Adam Ant's discography does not go super deep for me; however, even much of what I would consider inessential is pretty interesting to revist today. Of his essentials, here are my absolute 7 favorites:

7. "Deutscher Girls"
6. "Antmusic"
5. "Stand and Deliver"
4. "Picasso Vista El Planeta De Los Simios"
3. "Wonderful"
2. "Strip"
1. "Goody Two Shoes"

Sunday, April 14, 2024

My Night Shift re-read kicks off with vampires at "Jerusalem's Lot"

It's difficult to believe that Stephen King was so refined by the time his first short-story collection arrived. This was 1978 and Night Shift is still among my very favorite of any King releases. Of course, Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, and Rage (with The Stand appearing later in the year) had already been unleashed, making it clear that "being too raw" was never part of the Stephen King legacy.

Most of the stories in the collection had, in fact, been published much earlier in magazines like Penthouse, Cosmopolitan, Cavalier, and Maine between 1968 and 1977 and may in fact be a bit more raw than his many other releases, but that also gives them a lot of their appeal. "Jerusalem's Lot" follows a foreword about what fear means to King, it's the longest story in Night Shift, it's one of four previously unpublished stories, and it beginning the collection. 

Tied to the story King laid out in Salem's Lot, "Jerusalem's Lot" has a ton going on, presented in letters back and forth that describe a descendant of the Boone family as he discovers his ancestors have left a sickening incestual trail of horror in "Chapelwaite," which is the name of a haunted house where much of the story is set as well as a 2021 one-season TV adaptation (which I haven't seen; it stars Adrien Brody). I probably most love the mystery King presents; nothing is laid out in black-and-white and while he sometimes adds uneccesary details and over-the-top old-timey language, all the pieces are in place to make this yet another one of his must-reads.

Pieces of that puzzle (without spoilers) include:

  • The vampires that haunt Jerusalem's Lot, making it a deserted and entirely unsettling setting
  • An eerie sense of foreboding throughout, as if King has mastered the stylings of the previously-untouchable Edgar Allen Poe
  • The mystery and horror of the Marsten House/Chapelwaite that hangs over the tale
  • The completely isolated feel any people have when surrounded by total evil, and
  • The religious imagery in the church of the lead vampire makes everything even scarier.
"Jerusalem's Lot" isn't as perfect as the full novel of Salem's Lot (which I recently gave 5 out of 5 stars and proclaimed possibly the best vampire novel ever), but it is an essential addition to that story and is a promising kick off to the rest of Night Shift, which I'm excited to re-read for the first time in more that 30 years.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Road ecology is a relatively new science, but it could shape wildlife and highways

Cliff swallows are a bird species that live all over the United States, but nearly all of them live on bridges. Scientists have found that, over recent years, their wings have grown smaller to adapt to being able to fly in tighter spaces and to be able to maneuver quickly in spaces where human vehicles are speeding along. “They have been shaped, subtlety, by the road,” writes Ben Goldfarb in Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet.

His thesis is that about "40 million miles of road encircle the Earth" and that "when alien archaeologists exhume the rubble of human civilization, they may conclude that our raison d’être was building roads." Said another way by writer E.B. White: "Everything in life is somewhere else ... and you get there in a car."

Surprisingly, the study of "road ecology" was not even considered until a Harvard ecology professor wondered, in 1993, why researchers knew so much about Amazon rainforest ecology but nobody had ever thought to study the ecology of the roads running through the Amazon. The professor was initially laughed at but then the study of how roads were affecting plants and wildlife quickly took off and became a popular subject of study. 

Goldfarb notes:

"Constructed bridges for bears, tunnels for turtles, rope webs that allow howler monkeys to swing over highways without descending to the forest floor. On Christmas Island, red crabs clamber over a steel span during their beachward migrations; in Kenya, elephants lumber beneath highways and railroads via passages as tall as two-story houses. And road ecology has yielded more than crossings: we’ve also learned to map and protect the migrations of cryptic animals, to design roadsides that nourish bees and butterflies, and to deconstruct the derelict logging tracks that lace our forests."

One could actually claim that road ecology began back in 1924 when a young married couple of Iowa scientists started a game of counting roadkill as they travelled along the roads in what was likely a Model T. (That still sounds like a fun game with little kids, assuming they can stomach it.) One of their research papers noted: "America’s burgeoning need for speed had become one of the important checks upon the natural increase of many forms of life."

Ironically, many of our first roads were carved by wildlife who had used the pathways for many years. Native American footpaths and later Europeans with their "Good Roads" (for bikes!) activism cntinued the job of preparing for the as-yet-not-envisioned cars. By the 1920s, road building, with the likes of concretes and sealants and asphalt, was becoming serious business. Before then, roads were perceived as part of the natural environment, but now they were shaping the environment and conquering nature.

Daisy Buchanan ran over Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby and that was about par for the course, as there were 23,600 car-related deaths in 1924 - a form of checking out that has always remained more prevalent than we seem to like to know about. But while road deaths for humans have nominally improved with better roads, deaths for animals have become worse with better roads. 

Speed was a major factor in the danger of roads to animals. As early as the 1930s, research pointed out that "below 35 miles per hour, cars seldom struck animals. Accelerate to 45, though, and they kill rapidly. Exceed 60 miles per hour, and you can figure on scoring a kill every 10 miles or less on most of the improved roads."

That early knowledge - almost prehistoric, at least in the sense of road ecology - fell away as those scientists died off, but the topic popped up again in the 1960s when deer populations began to explode in the nation’s suburbs. Now everyone knows how prominent the deer-vehicle collision problem is. We’ve all seen Tommy Boy, Get Out, and the episode of the Simpsons when the family hits a statue of a deer. There are nearly 60,000 people injured and more than 400 killed each year from collisions with deer. But deer were oddly never among the roadkill in those long-ago studies. That’s because suburbs created the perfect "edge" habitats that grew their numbers. The problem was that the suburbs had a very dangerous predator - speeding vehicles. Car interiors were especially dangerous places back then for coming into contact with deer, and after Ralph Nader wrote his book Unsafe at Any Speed, Congress made seat belts mandatory in 1966.

Long before suburbs, deer had formed a mental map and learned exactly which patterns to follow in their migration. That was never considered by engineers who blazed paths right across their territory, creating a situation that will likely never go away. The practice of using GPS collars to better understand the movements of migrating species didn’t begin until after the explosion of suburbia. As deer and other migrating animals began to be tracked better by scientists, it was discovered that only a small portion were becoming roadkill. Most starved because they couldn't get past interstates and barriers alongside them. They couldn’t get to their food sources and they starved en masse. 

Species don’t just rush from point A to point B when they migrate, they "surf the green wave," meaning they seek to find spots along the way where the snow has recently melted and plentiful fresh and colorful salads have sprouted. They will go from one of these zones to the next, often spending weeks in a single location along the way and attempting to migrate to spots where it is eternally early spring-like. 

In 2016, a biology study split animals into four groups: nonresponders like leopard frogs ignore roads and hop across no matter what’s happening on them, pausers like skunks get out onto roads and then hunker down on them, intelligent avoiders like grizzly bears stay away from any roads as much as possible, and speeders like deer evolved to outrun predators and that’s essential what they are doing trying to zip through cars on a roadway. When cars get going into the 70 and 80 mph range, deer finally give up and realize they don’t want to try to run through that, so rural country roads will usually have easily as much death for deer as interstates do. 

Another famous example of habitat destruction by road is Ventura Highway’s dissection of the Santa Monica Mountains - which are essentially the country’s largest urban park. Mountain lions need huge territories to survive and they are trapped there by the freeways. If they don’t get killed trying to cross, they tend to die at the hands of their parents. Young mountain lions leave their parents but the roads often keep them bouncing back in the their journey for independence, often leading to them to unnaturally return home and get killed by their parents. The area’s most famous lion, P-22, was recently hit by a car and succumbed to his injuries, but his celebrity is helping raise private (much of it celebrity) funding for an animal crossing above Ventura Highway. 

We always hear that 40,000 vehicle fatalities happen each year in the U.S., but that fatality number is even more stunningly around 3,600 around the world each day! The interstates, under the guise of helping spur "urban renewal," especially wiped out minority communities: Rondo in St. Paul, Overtown in Miami, Treme in New Orleans, and countless others. But now, cities like Syracuse, Oakland, Milwaukee, and Seattle are tearing down the viaducts that soar over cities and directing some traffic down to ground level or redirected away from cutting through the heart of places filled with people. "Creating a world that’s amenable to feet" is the dual goal of urban advocates and road ecologists. 

When COVID-19 hit, road-ecology scientists captured some startling data. California, Idaho, and Maine are states that have strong roadkill data, and the numbers dropped precipitously, with the researchers estimating a year of reduced travel "would save 27,000 large animals in those states alone." With traffic noise down, sparrows were found to sing more and actually sing better! 

Goldfarb concludes that we need to remake our roads as a massive public-works project. Some good news came along with the November 2021 infrastructure bill that included $350 million for wildlife crossings - the largest such investment of its kind in U.S. history. As the story progresses, this book will remain a valuable and surprisingly entertaining resource.

Friday, April 12, 2024

RIP Hall and Oates (and my favorite 14 H2O albums ranked)

It was 41 years ago - on March 2, 1983 - that I saw my first real rock n' roll concert. My dad and his girlfriend took me and my new junior-high friend Mark to see Daryl Hall and John Oates on the H2O tour at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. Mark and I were in the second row and it was epic.

I was already a huge music lover thanks to my older brothers' Beatles, Stones, Who, Jam, Cars, and many other albums in the house. But they weren't Hall and Oates people. This was all mine. This felt like my area in which I could excel, be an expert in, and mostly just love.

I don't remember what was played that night. There are no setlists online. Surely there was "Kiss on My List," "You Make My Dreams," "Maneater," "Rich Girl," "Sarah Smile," "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," "Family Man," and the list goes on.

I still love Hall and Oates and it was sad to wake up this morning and realize that something that's been around my whole life if apparently around no more. The writing has been on the wall for many months, as the two have been bickering over business matters, but Oates has now told Rolling Stone that the musical relationship is kaput.

I understand why people come and want to hear the big hits. Those songs are going to live forever. But I wanted to relegate them to the classic file that they’re in. And I wanted them to be heard in the best possible light, the way they were when the spark was on fire in the ’70s and ’80. That’s when those songs really resonated. To keep playing them, for me, was no longer interesting. I just wanted to do something else.

We have a different strategy for our lives, and we have a different strategy for our business lives as well as our personal lives. And that’s that, so be it. We’re old guys. We deserve to be allowed to do whatever we want to do.

I mention Hall and Oates quite a bit here at the Lunch Box, and they remain one of my favorites, but the three times I've seen them since have been far inferior performances. The show at Wolftrap in Virginia in 2009 was really good but the show just a few years ago at the Capitol One Center in Washington D.C. was kind of a stinker (with Tears for Fears opening and being, I thought, the best band of the night, and Squeeze may have been better as an separate opener as well).

One thing I haven't touched on yet: everyone knows about H2O's 1980s content, but should you decide to dig deeper, they had amazing music in the 1970s before their Beatlemania-like MTV era. These are my 14 favorite Hall and Oates albums ranked, all of which I consider valuable parts of my overall record collection:

14. Do It for Love (2003)

13. War Babies (1974)

12. Whole Oats (1972)

11. Along the Red Ledge (1978)

10. Beauty on a Back Street (1977)

09. Sacred Songs (Daryl Hall solo) (1977)

08. X-Static (1979)

07. Bigger Than Both of Us (1976)

06. Daryl Hall and John Oates (1975)

05. Abandoned Luncheonette (1973)

04. Big Bam Boom (1984)

03. Private Eyes (1981)

02. Voices (1980)

01. H2O (1982)

Listen to especially those top 10 albums on the list and try to tell me these two musicians weren't masters of creating perfect power pop.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

RIP (sorta) O.J. Simpson

I was just a little too young to watch O.J. Simpson during his prime Buffalo Bills era, although I still have some cards from when he was on that team. But from a very early age - while I might not have seen him running wild in his white, blue, and red uniform - I distinctly recall Simpson in his fancy suits flying through the airport walkways in his Hertz rental-car ads.

I did eventually see plenty of football highlights of "The Juice" and, wow, was he great. He also had an infectious personality later on as an NBC Sports game-time announcer and the detective who flies out of his wheelchair from the upper deck of a stadium in the first of three Naked Gun films in which he appeared.

But those were just the bright-side warmup to O.J.'s approaching dark-side pop-culture legacy. I can still remember being on vacation near the beach in Alabama when my eyes were glued to the TV on June 17, 1994 as that white Ford Bronco led the police on a chase across Los Angeles. It would be the beginning of the entire nation getting more O.J. than they had ever wanted. It took me a long time to finally see him as the cold-blooded murderer of his wife rather than the friendly-eyed TV personality I had grown to love.The drama took us all the way to the innocent verdict date of October 3, 1995 and way beyond. In fact, I can't believe the car chase and the trial took less than a year-and-a-half. It seemed like forever. Of course, Simpson was found liable in civil court in 1997 for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. 

O.J. Simpson has died of prostate cancer at the age of 76.

Some other interesting Simpson nuggets of note:

  • He was born in a housing project in San Francisco.
  • He blamed a lot of his later troubles on having an absent father after his parents separated when he was 5.
  • When he was little, he had rickets and bowed legs that caused other kids to make fun of him.
  • He won the Heisman trophy as college football's top player while at USC.
  • Simpson was the first NFL player to surpass 2,000 yards rushing, which he did in 1973.
  • He met Nicole Brown way back in 1977 at a Beverly Hills nightclub.
  • He spent nine years in prison for trying in 2007 to steal O.J. Simpson memorabilia.
  • He had clearly started to lose his mind in his last years with his rambling video posts on X but to his credit at least he mostly stuck to football commentary.
What a run he had!

Monday, April 8, 2024

This Fool gets cancelled after a less-perfect Season 2

Just five months ago, I called Hulu’s This Fool "amazingly hilarious," TIME Magazine has called it "one of TV's funniest shows," and The New Yorker called it "summer's best comedy." So then how did The A.V. Club recently have this headline? "Those fools at Hulu cancel This Fool."

Perhaps those fools saw things winding down. Season 2's focus on the gang trying to get a South Central L.A. coffee shop operated by ex-cons up and running was definitely not as funny and endearing as Season 1's setting at an unorthodox rehab center calls Hugs Not Thugs for ex-cons. The cancellation is still a little surprising, as high-water marks continued to sometimes pop up. 

Episode 1 of Season 2 about the neighborhood rooster keeping everyone up at night is a TV classic. The same can be said about Episode 4, in which Julio and Luis convince chef Percy and Minister Payne to join in on the coffee journey. But too many of these episodes didn't really quite hit the mark. There are still lots of humorous moments, but the diversions of the two-episode supermarket robbery, Julio acting as a dad for his girlfriend's daughter, and the episode focused on Julio's mother just don't live up to the perfection of Season 1.

Even when This Fool had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, there didn't seem to be enough people watching. Almost everyone I've told about the show hasn't even heard of it. Chris Estrada, who plays Julio, is the mastermind, so it will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Y: The Last Man is my favorite graphic novel of all time

It's been 10 years since I first read Y: The Last Man and it's such an absolute epic classic (I proclaim it my favorite graphic novel) that I decided to re-read it on my iPad in the library app Hoopla, which incidentally has an impressive graphic-novel collection and all of it can be borrowed in an instant.

The collection is available in five volumes (about 1,500 pages total) and it has it all: a monkey-infused plotline, lots of love triangles, globe hopping, political intrigue, examinations of major social issues, humor, and, of course, the apocalypse.

Or, rather, half an apocalypse? As the title implies, A 22-year-old man named Yorick Brown is the last man on Earth, and much of the books attempt to find out why this wiping out of all mammals with the “Y” chromosome has happened. Actually, Y’s travelling companion, Ampersand, is also a male, albeit of the monkey variety.

Yorick must travel secretly or risk the wrath of the many packs of women who are grappling with the loss of all males and, hence eventually, the end of the entire human race. Needless to say, many of these women are dangerous.

First Yorick leaves New York to get to his mother, a Congresswoman, in Washington D.C. He also meets with the new president, who assigns a beautiful dreadlocked agent, Agent 355, to protect him at all times. She takes him to Boston to meet Dr. Allison Mann, who will attempt to clone the last man. Meanwhile, his mother also tells an Israeli agent named Alter about Yorick, who continuously attempts to take him from 355’s clutches to use as leverage with her nation’s opponents.

Dr. Mann’s lab is destroyed in Boston and the three have to make their way to California to reach the backup lab. Their cross-country struggles take up a major portion of this epic.

The story goes international when a ninja named Toyota steals Ampersand and takes the monkey to Japan. Yorick, Dr. Mann, and 355 go there to retrieve him and stop along the way in Australia to look for Yorick’s beloved fiancée Beth. After many misses, they finally locate Beth in Paris and the two lovers try to get back to where they left off before the plague hit. But things are complicated when Yorick finally realizes he is deeply in love with 355.

The story unfortunately doesn’t end with quite the bang I had hoped for, but Dr. Mann’s experiments have worked, as we see in a flash-forward to 60 years in the future, when many clones of Yorick have been developed by the deceased Dr. Mann and the many clones she had successfully created of herself.

5 out of 5 stars

Because I might just make a tradition of revisiting it each decade, I’m laying out the array of main characters so I have them mapped out and don’t forget who’s who. There are spoilers, but if you've already read the series, you may want to use this as a refresher as well, because there are a healthy amount of important characters.

Yorick - The son of an Ohio politician mom, he’s never amounted to anything except being pretty good at magic tricks and making a lot of funny jokes with political and pop-culture references. 

Ampersand - His monkey. The only other male of any species still alive.

Beth - Y’s girlfriend traveling in Australia. She gets captured by an aborigine tribe. 

Hero - Y’s sister, a paramedic in Boston who cuts off a breast as part of joining in with the Amazons. She signs up to lead the search for the last man, not knowing it’s Yorick.

Dr. Mann - Boston bioengineer who studies asexual reproduction. She much later kills her father, who survived the plague and was also working on cloning, in competition with his daughter.

355 - The U.S president’s agent in Jordan trying to get an amulet necklace as part of her job in the government's secret "culper ring." Her family died in a car wreck when she was 8. She shoots the terrorists who block I-40, which allows food shipments to resume for the country.

Alter - An Israeli military woman, she is also on the trail of the last man and shows up in Boston at Dr. Mann’s lab. It later turns out the person giving her team from Tel Aviv instructions is somehow none other than Yorick’s mom, but Alter doesn’t actually plan to hand Yorick off to his mom, who she considers a terrorist. She wants to take Y back to Israel and have the U.S. start a war with her country otherwise she thinks the two countries will turn on themselves and destroy themselves. She was militarized and hates other nations from when her sister was accidentally killed by an Israeli tank when she was protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes. 

Representative Jennifer Brown - Yorick’s mom. She recruits Israel because she used to work with Alter’s predecessor who always spoke highly of her. Plus the U.S. military is still in disarray and she wanted the best to find her son. She suspects 355 is part of the culper ring, a dirty-tricks pseudo agency of the government and Brown placed a tracking device in Ampersand. Alter enters her office right after she sees the naked newspaper photo of her son and shoots her dead.

Margaret Valentine - Former agriculture secretary named as the new president by the chain of succession. She arrives at the White House to interrupt a militia of Republican congressmen’s wives who are coming in guns ablaze to demand they get their husband’s seats. But the first act of the president (who was herself a Republican) is to arrest them instead. 

Victoria - Evil red-headed leader of the Daughters of the Amazon. She is killed by Hero when Hero decides she is no longer an evil Amazon and that Y is not the enemy.

Sonia - Convicted junkie in Marrisville who falls for Yorick and shares a kiss with him while chopping wood. She kills Victoria with an ax to the head right as Victoria was about to execute Yorick. Then Hero shoots an arrow straight into her heart. 

Natalya - Blonde stowaway on Yorick’s westbound train who has come from Russia to retrieve the one Russian male left, who is on the space station. She also tells the group of a nuclear reactor in Kazakhstan that has killed tons of people and will further spread the plague.

Ciba - A femail astronaut who make it back to Earth. She has been impregnated and she doesn’t know which of the two male astronauts is the father. Both males die upon earth landing. Ciba has a baby boy, Vladimir, right as a Hero is arriving nearby in the Plains to find her brother.

Heather and Heidi Hartle - Run the top-secret government hideout in Kansas that no male politicians ever made it to. Natalya and Dr. Mann will stay with them to monitor astronaut Ciba’s pregnancy.

Cayce, Edie, and Henrietta - Actors in a touring with a theatrical troupe passing through Nebraska who write a play about women who find the last man on earth. Meta.

711 - 355’s culper ring colleague who has retired since her husband died. She lives in a cabin outside Denver and watches Yorick while Dr. Mann and 355 go to the hospital to treat Ampersand. She uses unusual methods to help Y better understand his pseudo death wish.

Leah - A 16-year-old in Arizona who swears to protect her state even if the rest of the U.S. must go down.

P.J. - A bald mechanic and former ska bassist who runs into the gang in the desert and notifies them I-40 has been cut off by a terrorist gang. She is shot while protecting Yorick. Y then shot her killer with the gun 355 let him borrow; but he told 355 and Dr. Mann that P.J. shot her.

Beth - Not Yorick’s fiancée, but another Beth he meets upon arriving in California. She’s at a church and is a former flight attendant who brought the plane she was on down during the moment all the men died. She’s the first woman Y finally sleeps with. Later on she has his baby, a girl. 

Anna Strong - Red-haired leader of the Setauket Ring, a breakaway group from the government Culper Ring. She takes Yorick’s silver and gold engagement ring, which Dr. Mann is starting to suspect has something to do with Y’s magical powers of survival. They are looking for 355’s Amulet of Helene, which they destroy at Candlestick Park the moment 355 hands it over, without exchanging Yorick’s engagement ring. 355 turns the table and breaks Anna’s neck but leaves her alive.

Toyota - Ninja who steals Ampersand and knives 355 badly. She escapes via San Diego to Yokogata, where Dr. Mann’s mother lives. We discover that Amp has been mixed up with another monkey which is why he’s been kidnapped, but he escapes upon docking.

Lieutenant Rose Copen - Mistaken as a pirate on the ship to Japan who informs Dr. Mann that the boat is smuggling tons of heroin and she wants to stop it. Turns out she’s with the Royal Australian Navy. She sleeps with Dr. Mann and they start to fall in love, then Dr. Mann’s mom stabs her. While she’s unconscious she admits she is actually a spy.

Kilina - Captain of the heroin smuggling ship and fools around with Yorick before he realizes the truth about her.

Red headed journalist who falls over a balcony with 355. Both live and then she escapes. 

Sister Lucia Ober - Kidnaps pregnant Beth and Hero. She is the highest ranking woman in the Catholic Church, from Vatican City. She wants the baby to become the Pope so he can declare women can be ordained as the church’s leaders. Turns out the baby is a girl.

The old 355 - Recruited 355 to the Culper Ring after she had killed two racist bullies as a 15-year-old.

You - Former cop and private investigator who created a male robot in Tokyo. Bartered Ampersand for a woman to spend a month with the robot.

Dr. Mann’s mom - Stabs Rose when she arrives with her daughter in Japan. Turns out she had met President Valentine before the plague and become her advisor, having set the whole thing up to get the man and the monkey to her daughter in Boston. Later, we find that Dr. Mann’s dad has also survived and has been making clones of Dr. Mann.

Key Settings

Washington D.C. is the scene of much of the action. The Washington Monument has been turned into a memorial for all the men. Women sing in worship/memory there all the time. Yorick reveals himself to a group of Amazons and 355 has to save him. 

Marrisville, Ohio is where Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann have to leap from a train car. They end up there with an entire town of women who were let out of prison so they wouldn’t starve in their cells.

Kansas government bunker, near where spaceship returns to Earth.

Queensbrook, Arizona is where a group of women are nationalists for their, um, state. The gang was going to go through Utah but the whole state is on fire. And a group of 8 descending from Timothy McVeigh’s ideology have shut down I-40 through Arizona and cut off food and supplies to everyone out west.

San Francisco - The gang makes it here so Dr. Mann can set up her backup lab and work on her cloning project. She discovers Yorick survived the plague because he was with Ampersand and the monkey’s poop somehow shielded him.

Australia is now home to tons of heroin addicts and Japan might be next if the pirate boat shipment arrives there. 

Cooksfield, California - This is where Hero is looking for Yorick’s Beth but instead finds the former flight attendant Beth, very pregnant with Y’s baby. But then the Swiss Guard private army of Vatican City captures and takes Hero and Beth hostage. 

And that's just a little bit of the story ...

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Concentration, breathing, and thinking differently about competition are some keys to tennis improvement

I summarized some of the helpful hints from the first half of the classic tennis self-help book, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, by Timothy Gallwey. It begins to repeat itself quite a bit as it enters its second half. There is lots of interesting but repetitive mumbo jumbo about the Self 1 and Self 2 (conscious and unconscious). 

That said, there really might be something to not worrying so much about the “external” score of your tennis matches or how far you make it in the tournament but rather focusing on what’s important to you in your “inner mind.” These may be things like overcoming anxiety or nervousness before a match, achieving a fun time on the court, or any number of other inner accomplishments. Here are some of the more interesting tennis tips I gleaned: 
  • Play around with your grip style to see if you are holding the racket the right way for you. I’ve never been able to keep track of the different ways many teachers have instructed me to grip the racket. For many years, the Eastern grip dominated, and it’s still the United States Tennis Association’s approved style. It’s when you basically hold the racket as if you were shaking someone’s hand. But a lot of competitive players are nowadays using the “semi-Western grip,” in which a right-handed player will turn the racket a quarter turn back so that the wrist is bent up in the direction of the elbow a bit. I tried that for a while but I’ve basically gone back to a pretty Eastern grip style, which is not to say I shouldn't still always experiment.
  • Go out and videotape yourself in a match. Then analyze the tape to see where your feet, your hips, your shoulders are on good shots and on bad ones. Observe where your backswing is. Where is the ball on your racket at the time of impact, and what is the angle of your racket at the point of impact? Is there any hesitancy in the follow-through? How is weight distributed from the start to the end of the follow-through?
  • Counterintuitively, tightening the muscles of the arm and the wrist on the serve reduces power, so it’s important to find the right level of muscle tension. There is no one right way, which is obvious when noting that no pros' serves look the same.
  • Whenever you discover you have a bad habit, don’t work to break it but rather try new habits and see how they go. See if you can get in the groove. The thing with tennis is that you don’t need to try to do everything like your favorite pro player because everyone is different and things work differently for different people.
Pretty much every stroke and improvement follows the same process:

  • Criticize or judge past behavior
  • Tell yourself to change, instructing with words
  • Try hard and make yourself do it right
  • Observe existing behavior non-judgmentally
  • Picture desired outcome
  • Let it happen
  • Continue to observe and learn
For better concentration, try focusing on the seams of the ball. Not just the ball. Not just watching the ball. Really get engrossed in how the ball spins, and watch it this way from the time it bounced off the opponent’s racket. I am suspicious of this hint, but I will try it nonetheless. To help, try saying "bounce" out loud when the ball bounces and "hit" when your racket hits the ball. Likewise, listening to the sound of the ball off your racket can be illuminating, perhaps even more than watching the ball. Once you hit the ball right in the sweet spot of the strings, you might find great satisfaction in often trying to replicate that sound. Flat, slice, and kick serves will each produce different sounds. And there may be no more satisfying sound than that of a volley performed perfectly. 

Relaxed concentration is another tactic Gallwey uses. He will often cheat forward to return a serve soon after its first bounce then attack the net. It not only confuses an opponent but it builds quicker and more accurate reactions over time. “Concentration seems to slow time down.” In order to stay focused between points, “focus on breathing … observing breath going in, going out out, going in, going out in its natural rhythm.” 

Competition is another part of the equation in the book - and Gallwey makes the point that tennis can be both competition and cooperation between the two opponents. For example: 
  • Instead of hoping the other player double faults, you can hope it lands in the service court so you can have a better mind state for the return shot. 
  • If your opponent has a weak backhand, hitting it to his backhand will be a nice thing to do in helping him improve that shot. 
This book gets a 4.5 out 5 stars. After I try many of the tactics, I'll have a better sense of whether it should be 5 out of 5 or something less.

Friday, April 5, 2024

I've finally found my church: The church of The Righteous Gemstones

Megachurchs are a little bit of a small obsession for me. They seem so weird and culty and foreign. I guess I just wasn't brought up in a way to think that religion could somehow be entertainment and that I would want to go and invest a lot of my time and money into helping one operate. I'm sure they're helpful to a lot of people and provide a strong community where there might not otherwise be one.

Maybe if they didn't have to base everything around one book that, speaking as a former literature major, is such a major snooze. Bible 101 in undergrad at Southern Illinois had a very nice professor but the content was by far the most boring of all my classes. The little made-up story is pretty nonsensiscal and just basically fails at storytelling, characterization, plot, and every other key element of writing.

Bible 101 aside, I just finished season 3 of The Righteous Gemstones (on Max), which is thank-the-Lord coming back for another season soon.

Here's what I wrote about season 1: Led by the masterful patriarch John Goodman, this ensemble cast gives us a look at what life must be like - albeit taking it to ridiculous and hilarious heights - to be megachurch leaders. I especially like the performances of Danny McBride as the oldest and seediest son, Edi Patterson as wacko sister Judy, and Walton Goggins as Baby Billy, a low-budget pastor stereotype. The gang needs to cover up all kinds of misdeeds. 4 out of 5 stars

I liked season 2 even more: A lot of Danny McBride-watching can never be bad. He’s got to be my favorite comedic actor at this point, up with the likes of Bill Burr and Mike Myers (still). The family continues to show its mega-church evil, wackily obliterating anyone who dares to threaten the empire. 4.5 out of 5 stars

I'm not going to jump to giving season 3 5 out of 5 stars, but it is still every bit as great as season 2. 

  • Dealing with infidelity by using marriage therapy in a box. 
  • Celebratory family gathers while watching each other take turns driving the family monster truck. 
  • Baby Billy's Bible Bonkers TV game show is just absolutely bonkers. 
These televangelist and megachurch pastors are a hoot, totally out of control, and quite possibly uncomfortably realistic. The family has dealt with rivals from other local smaller churches, investigative journalists, nonsensical but fun motorcycle assassins, and now needy and estranged family members. Oh the poor lives of megachurch leaders.

Some evangelicals haven't appreciated the show (such as the "media organization" The Gospel Coalition, which wrote, "This show ... feels built on cheap shots and easy caricatures rather than empathy and incisive observation. Created from a mood board that draws inspiration from Falwells, Bakkers, Benny Hinn, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Bieber-looking hypepriests, and PreachersNSneakers, the Gemstones are essentially the Ewings of holy-roller evangelicalism"), but surprisingly there hasn't been much real backlash.

Interesting things about real megachurches (which I'm pretty convinced includes the church of The Righteous Gemstones; heck, I would actually pay good money to see Danny McBride preach every Sunday morning, even if I knew he was doing an 8-ball of coke backstage before each sermon):

  • A megachurch is defined as "any Protestant Christian church which at least 2,000 attend in a weekend."
  • The first megachurch was established in London in 1861. 
  • The first megachurch in the U.S. was the Angelus Temple, founded in 1923 by Aimee Semple McPherson (fascinating story) in Los Angeles.
  • By the 2000s, as they had slowly grown in popularity, they eventually started to become more untraditional, with stadium seating, especially in places like the U.S., Africa, Asia, and Australia.
  • With more than 1,300 megachurches in the U.S., most are in Florida, Texas, California, and Georgia.
  • Many megachurches focus on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage and forego important issue like social justice and the immorality of war. Megachurch pastors, like the Gemstones, frequently appear to encourage their poor flocks to give money to the church that often goes right into their pockets for fancy clothes and vehicles.
Re: monster truck.

Can't wait for season 4. As for season 3, it gets 4.5 out of 5 stars.